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Category: Drive

2011 Film Wrap Up

Since I’ve been so behind on movies and generally only go out to see the more Hollywood crowd-pleasers, I’m going to work a year behind on Top 10 lists (or less!). Yes, Top 10 lists are pretentious, they don’t mean anything, and they are self-indulgent. But they are also fun and a helpful way to find new stuff to enjoy, especially if you already know you have similar tastes to the list-maker. Here’s the list of movies I wanted to see from 2011 and what I actually saw:

  • 30 Minutes of Less (Ruben Fleischer)
  • A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
  • A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Todd Strauss-Schulson)
  • Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
  • Captain America: the First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
  • Carnage (Roman Polanski)
  • Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  • Contagion (Steven Soderberh)
  • Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau)
  • Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
  • Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
  • Drive Angry (Patrick Lassier)
  • Hanna (Joe Wright)
  • Hawywire (Steven Soderbergh)
  • Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
  • J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
  • Limitless (Neil Burger)
  • Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene (T. Sean Darkin)
  • Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  • Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
  • Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
  • Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
  • Paul (Greg Mottola)
  • Rampart (Oren Moverman)
  • Rango (Gore Verbinski)
  • Restless (Gus Van Sant)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
  • Shame (Steve McQueen)
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie)
  • Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
  • Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  • The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi)
  • The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
  • The Ides of March (George Clooney)
  • The Interrupters (Steve James)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
  • The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
  • The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson)
  • The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
  • The Snowtown Murders (Justin Kurzel)
  • The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  • Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
  • Tabloid (Errol Morris)
  • Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  • Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

So that’s 26/52. Not a good return, but aside from a couple (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Melacholia), I pretty much saw the stuff I really wanted to see. Because a Top 10 seems like too much, how about 5?

5. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

David Fincher’s Zodiac is one of my favorite movies, so I’m ok if every genre gets Zodiaced, including disease outbreaks.

4. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

Charlize Theron deserved an Oscar for her role as Mavis Gary. It’s a shameless, horrifying portrait: darkly funny, depressing, and desperate.

3. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Beautiful and affecting. Watch it in a trance!

2. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)

Completely out of left field, this is the sleeper of the new decade. I wish more people would see it because it is amazing. If it wasn’t so long, I would build a section of my Comp II class around it, but I can’t figure out the logistics.

1. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)

Do I even need to explain myself on this one? A movie that hits almost all of my cinematic sweet spots.

I’ve also been developing a shorter list of 2012’s films for this time next year. Let me know if I’m missing something essential. Here’s the stuff I’ve already seen:

  • Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
  • Looper (Rian Johnson)
  • The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
  • The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
  • The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
  • The Campaign (Jay Roach)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
  • The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
  • The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

And here’s the stuff I’m playing on hoping to maybe actually see:

  • 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
  • Amour (Michael Haneke)
  • Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
  • Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki)
  • Argo (Ben Affleck)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  • Bernie (Richard Linklater)
  • Chronicle (Josh Trank)
  • Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
  • Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
  • Dredd (Pete Travis)
  • Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
  • Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
  • Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
  • Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie)
  • Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
  • Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
  • Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
  • Premium Rush (David Koepp)
  • Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
  • Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
  • Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)
  • Save the Date (Michael Mohan)
  • Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
  • Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia)
  • Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
  • Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
  • The Ambassador (Mads Brügger)
  • The Comedy (Rick Alverson)
  • The Hobbit (Peter Jackson)
  • The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  • The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr)
  • The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Grienfield)
  • This is 40 (Judd Apatow)
  • West of Memphis (Amy Berg)
  • Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

Boom, there’s a cool 40. That’s manageable. And, unlike last year, I don’t think I’ve seen what will end up being my favorite film. There are also way more movies from this year that I am anxious to see; last year was a bit of a reach. We will see how far I actually get.

Day 30 – Film #6: Drive

I’ve been raving about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive since I saw it in theaters last September. I have a lot to say about it even if I’m not exactly clear on what it is that will fill that “a lot”. For one, I have had a hard time actually verbalizing what I enjoy so much about the film. I first saw the film at the right time of day, in the right setting, after the right meal; it is a tone thing for me. I can remember so vividly the sensations of that evening. I was so affected by the film that I drove aimlessly around the city cranking the soundtrack from Refn’s previous film Bronson. Sure, it was probably clichéd, but who cares? That is the beauty of film, that you can be made to feel something that you might feel silly about later.

For my initial approach, I have responded point-by-point to a review by Leonard Maltin. Sometimes the best way to clarify what you think about something is to come into contact with someone who believes the exact opposite. That’s what I’ve done.

Drive arrives with its credentials of cool all set: a hot star (Ryan Gosling) in the lead, a smart supporting cast, a Best Director prize from the Cannes Film Festival, and a stylish retro-noir look. These assets may hoodwink some audiences who don’t stop—or want to stop—to explore the emptiness of the movie or its incoherency.

Maltin reveals his hand early here. Drive is a con, a ruse, a film designed to “hoodwink some audiences” into thinking it is a deep, philosophical piece. He argues that it is empty and incoherent. As we will see, his claims of incoherency are themselves incoherent and unfounded. The more interesting claim is that the film is empty. The problem is not necessarily that he claims the film is empty when it is not (although, what does a “full” film look like? How can a film be empty?), but rather that empty is a coded phrase for morally and thematically bankrupt. It is a value judgment on what the film says, as if it must say something in the first place.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has chosen style over substance.

Again, Maltin is indebted to the idea of substance. It is a loaded term that he assumes we understand so that he doesn’t have to explain it. What does he mean by substance? Presumably, he means that the film itself means something. We are supposed to get something from the film beyond pure entertainment. He also seems to imply that substance is some form of lesson. The film, in the end, should evaluate and judge the actions of the characters. It isn’t enough to simply present the Driver killing someone, we must be told how to interpret or judge his actions. Was he justified? Should he be punished? Should we be appalled?

The beauty of the film is that it never attempts to judge its characters or hand out a lesson. It is a film about inevitability, and things occur as if they couldn’t have been any other way. How are we to assign value or substance to the actions of the Driver when it is clear that he doesn’t make decisions? Once he has fallen in love (and it is key to break up the film pre- and post-contact with Irene), he acts and reacts on a primal, affective level. In fact, no one is operating on the level of rational thought because they are playing a rigged game. Once Gino decided to steal from the East coast mob, the rest of the film was destined to happen and it couldn’t have been any other way.

The screenplay (by Hossein Amini, from a novel by James Sallis) would have you believe that its main character is existential when it seems to me he’s —just not very bright. In an early, expository scene, Gosling explains to a customer on the phone how he works as a getaway driver and what he requires. After that, for reasons unexplained, he seems incapable of uttering a complete sentence.

This claim is puzzling for a number of reasons. First, we are given absolutely no indication that the Driver is stupid. If the first “chase” sequence is any indication, he is in fact quite brilliant. He has matched great skill as a driver with a tactition’s mind (I might break down this chase on its own in a future post) which enables him to elude the police through positioning, not speed. This on-the-spot tactical movement is intimately related to a more long-range plan he devised in advance of the caper. An idiot would have escaped the police through speed, daring, and force; the Driver does it in exactly the opposite way.

Second, Maltin links the Driver’s supposed stupidity with silence. What would we have gained by hearing the Driver speak more? For Maltin, it seems, more dialogue from the driver would have provided insight into the causes and motivations that underlie all of his actions. These explanations would do nothing to actually explain the violence we see on screen (which really seems to be Maltin’s motivation here. He can’t stand the violence because he doesn’t understand how the Driver is capable of it). If the Driver was abused as a child, it does nothing to explain the level of brutality we see in the elevator. The violence is violent, simple and plain. It is also important that the person we hear speaking the most, Shannon, is also the most clueless. Clearly, speaking has no relation to intelligence in the world of this film.

He is also presented as an innocent—after we see him ferrying a pair of burglars from the scene of their crime.

This is pure non-sense. Presumably Maltin thinks he is innocent because he didn’t directly commit the crime and he doesn’t carry a weapon. When have we ever equated this with innocence? It seems just as easy to argue that the Driver loves crime and simply enjoys driving more than the actual robbery. Perhaps he doesn’t carry a gun because he knows he will not be able to not use it.

Later, he displays a daunting, and also unexplained, skillset with a variety of deadly weapons. Don’t ask for logic when a movie looks good.

This is maddening. Apparently, Maltin normally watches films with the director and screewnwriter sitting directly next to him, holding his hand the entire time and whispering sweet nothings into his ear. Does every action film also need a training sequence so that we understand why the main dude is so good at using a gun? We never see John McLane being trained in how to kill evil Germans, but is it unclear to us how he is actually able to waste them in Die Hard? The Driver is a freaking criminal, end of explanation. But I can’t stop. “Variety of deadly weapons”? Really, Leonard Maltin? He beats one guy with a hammer, one with his foot, and one with a car. The only “weapons” he uses are a shotgun, from point blank range, and a knife, after he himself has been stabbed. He isn’t headshotting guys from 50 yards with ninja stars or building trip mines from used car parts. He’s an animal savagely using the tools he has lying around.

Even extreme, painfully graphic violence is OK, it would seem, if it’s done so operatically that it matches the film’s stylized approach. So be it.

This is so loaded with Maltin’s own misguided philosophy that it is almost worth skipping. First, he assumes that the film sees the violence as OK simply because it shows it to us. Second, he implies that if violence is to be shown, it must also be condemned. But does the film do this? The most important scene occurs in the elevator. The Driver is riding down with Irene and notices that the other passenger inside is carrying a gun. Recognizing the threat, he turns to Irene and gives her a long, passionate kiss and then quickly drops the other passenger to the floor and smashes his head to pieces with his foot. Yes, it is “painfully graphic violence”, but it also marks the end of any potential the Driver had with Irene. As Refn lingers on Irene’s shocked face, it is clear that the Driver has been punished for this action; he can’t be with her because she has seen his nature, which, it appears, is much darker than her convict husband’s. The reverse-shot of his face shows this recognition.

Where others see artistry, I see pretentiousness: in Gosling’s blank stares and the staging of scenes in appropriately seamy L.A. locations. The costarring cast is strong, including Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, and the always-welcome Albert Brooks as a well-spoken, well-heeled goon.

I don’t think the film aspires to be anything more than it is: a genre film with European sensibility. And this sensibility isn’t in terms of content or message, but style. As Refn and Gosling have explained, the film is supposed to be a fairy tale. Fairy tales are written for children, and as such, are simple in their construction. They deal in absolutes. The messages for this film are simple and basic: love leads us to do insane things and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect.

Vintage film noirs didn’t have to work so hard to get their points across, visually and verbally. For me, Drive is all attitude, punctuated by unpleasant bursts of violence. If that’s what passes for cutting-edge filmmaking, or storytelling, we’re in trouble.

It is unclear what “vintage film noirs” Maltin is referencing here. Does he even understand the genre? Film noirs are fantastic because the basic plot is a given and it provides a template to do interesting things both visually and sonically. The greatest noirs are highly stylized, almost painfully so, and that is what makes them so fun. Likewise, it is insane to, on the one hand, bemoan the lack of dialogue from the lead, and on the other, to accuse the film have working too hard verbally to get its point across. For me, the Driver’s silence is the reverse of Marlowe’s verbosity. Both create interesting and ultimately entertaining dynamics and neither is an example of filmmakers trying too hard.

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