TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've got another best of the year list for you. My guest is our film critic David Edelstein, who is also film critic for New York Magazine. We're going to talk about his list and his thoughts about the year in film, and later he'll recommend some films to see over the holidays.
David Edelstein, good to talk with you again. Thank you for coming by with your 10-best list. And let's start with the big drama. Why don't you start with the reading of the list?
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Well, I just want to say that there's no best film this year. This is in alphabetical order, you know, because I just - I liked all these movies, I loved some of them, I just couldn't - I couldn't pick a best. It wasn't that kind of year. Some years, something just leaps out at you. Last year it was "Winter's Bone." This year, I don't know. I think Bianculli had a lot better this year.
GROSS: You mean you think TV was better than radio - than movies?
EDELSTEIN: There was nothing on the big screen with the intensity of the last four or five episodes of "Breaking Bad." I really feel like I was at the wrong medium this year. But I came up with a lot of films that I loved, and so here they are in alphabetical order. And then there's one at the end that I want to talk about specially.
EDELSTEIN: All right, "The Adventures of Tintin," Steven Spieberg's 3-D animated. "Beginners," I guess if I had to choose, this is the movie that I probably loved the most, Mike Mills' kind of melancholy and madcap romantic drama. "Coriolanus," that had a one-week run in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Academy Awards. It's Ralph Fiennes's adaptation of Shakespeare's play kind of by way of "The Hurt Locker."
Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is number four. "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life," the great inventive Serge Gainsbourg-inspired biopic. Then a documentary I saw at the very last minute called "Hell and Back Again" by a filmmaker named Danfung Dennis, which cuts back and forth between a sergeant in Afghanistan leading his men and at home when - after he's been very, very severely wounded.
Another documentary is next, "Into the Abyss," Werner Herzog's second documentary of the year and my favorite, which I think, you know, earns its comparisons to "In Cold Blood." "Margin Call" comes next, the view from among the one percent, a great business melodrama.
"Mysteries of Lisbon," Raoul Ruiz's final film. He died a week after its U.S. release, and in fact he died the very day that my review of this film aired on FRESH AIR. And finally, another Steven Spielberg film "War Horse," his World War I epic, which opens Christmas Day around the country.
GROSS: Now you said you wanted to save some time to talk about one film in particular.
EDELSTEIN: On this very show, I described Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" as a masterly film. I think I called it a hateful masterpiece. And I'm not somebody who throws around words like that and then doesn't follow up on my 10-best list.
I just couldn't - I put it down on my list, and I just couldn't do it. It is such a hateful film. It's a – it's the work of a nihilistic annihilist. For Lars von Trier, the world, when it ends, is, well-lost. Capitalism has poisoned it, and families are useless, and the heroine, the protagonist of the movie played by Kirsten Dunst, is so utterly hateful that she's really quite happy that everything is going to hell.
And I guess I - when one chooses, you know, the things that one loves and one wants to recommend, how - it's a very difficult question: Can you love a film, can you recommend a film that highly that peddles a worldview that you find so utterly hateful, even poisonous? I don't know the answer to that. I struggled with it. That's why it's my little asterisk.
GROSS: Yeah, it sounds like you actually spent a lot of time rethinking your thoughts about the film after you saw it.
EDELSTEIN: I saw it twice. It blew me away both times. But then when I tried to look at the individual relationships onscreen, not just, you know, how powerfully von Trier rendered them but really look at what was going on, I said I don't know this woman on the screen. She's just kind of a stand-in for Lars von Trier, and at the height of his depression.
I do think he is a brilliant filmmaker. He really succeeds in getting his inner world onscreen, and that's not a small thing. Can I vote for it in the year-end critics' awards? I don't think so. I am in the ads, though.
GROSS: Oh really? What does it quote you as saying?
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EDELSTEIN: I think something about like it or not, you have to surrender to "Melancholia," so - which I stand by. I stand by. I don't know if that's a selling point, but evidently they thought it was.
GROSS: Well, you can surrender - in war you can surrender to the enemy. I suppose it's not necessarily an endorsement.
EDELSTEIN: I guess that's the thing. There's no point in trying to defend yourself against Lars von Trier. He's very good. So you kind of get beaten up by it, and then you go home, and you think about what your responses were and how they - I mean, I think that's all anybody can do.
We all see movies that blow us away, that - because movies - cinema is such a powerful medium, and it works on us on so many different levels. And I think it's really important to be able to go home and kind of explain your own responses to yourself.
That doesn't mean deny if you saw some ridiculously stupid black comedy like this year's "Your Highness," laugh all the way through it and then go home and say oh, that was stupid, and then say I hated it. No, you have to be true to your original responses.
But at the same time, you have to kind of, you know, go beyond them a little bit and maybe work a little harder to understand them.
GROSS: So David, what were some of your favorite performances of the year?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, you know, there were so many. I should say that I walked into the latest Meryl Streep tour-de-force, "The Iron Lady," with all my defenses up. I was not going to fall for another of her, you know, burbling, you know, fancy accent, amazing transformation performances. I was going to see through her virtuosity. No sirree, bub, you know, you weren't going to get me, Streep. Well, you know, it took about five minutes and then I was just on my knees. What she can do...
GROSS: She's playing Margaret Thatcher in this.
EDELSTEIN: Yes, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. See, there - it's really interesting because there's mimicry, and then there's a kind of mimicry that by perfectly replicating the voice and the rhythm of the speech, a really great actor can almost get into the mind of the character.
I felt once Streep - it's the same thing with her Julia Child - once she gets the music of a character, then she gets how the mind works. And once she gets how the mind works, she gets how the body works. And then she puts it all together. And so it's not - it's almost that she's a medium for the person rather than she's doing an imitation. It's such a riveting performance.
And the film is really not bad at all. It doesn't really take too much of a stand on whether Thatcher was right or wrong in her policies. But it certainly shows you, you know, where they came out, how they came out of her in the form that they did. It's a great, great performance.
Another performance that you'll hear a lot of talk about is Janet McTeer in this film "Albert Nobbs," which is by Rodrigo Garcia. It's having a brief run to qualify for the Academy Awards. She plays a woman who is - moves through the world in disguise as a man, which is in fact Albert Nobbs, the hero/heroine played by Glenn Close, who's also in the same position.
And it's this beautiful movie about women, you know, in a very hostile, male-dominated world having to kind of band together with - having to adopt these personae that on one level are very alien but on another level allow them to operate in society. And I think it's a very, very moving film.
I loved Amy Ryan in "Win Win" and Paul Giamatti. I loved this woman Olivia Coleman in this really kind of hideously depressing film called "Tyrannosaurus" with...
GROSS: You know, it's interesting, you're naming a lot of actresses, which is great because there are so many years where there aren't - there are hardly any good roles for actresses.
EDELSTEIN: It was much harder - it's much harder this year to think of actors' performances I'm very excited about. I loved Brad Pitt in "Moneyball" and in "Tree of Life," but, you know, it's not - you know, it's a delight - those are delightful star turns in which he goes a little bit further than he usually does. But is it the kind of role that - is it the kind of thing that turns me into this babbling stage-door Johnny, which is what I love when you see a performance that puts you over the moon? I don't think so, maybe.
But I did love Christopher Plummer in "Beginners." Plummer, you know, has been described as this saturnine, glowering actor, often plays villains, and playing a man who comes out of the closet at age 75, and even though he's dying from cancer in the film, it's the lightest performance, the least mysterious, the happiest. He seems to get younger on screen in front of your eyes, and it's wonderful to see an actor like Christopher Plummer, who's done so many things on, you know, in early television, in the theater, and in film, really come into his own, really get a pedestal like that. And it's a lovely movie too.
GROSS: Movies take a long time to make, so it's not easy for them to really capture the moment, to really like get the zeitgeist. How did they do this year in reflecting some of American culture preoccupations?
EDELSTEIN: Well, apocalypse is in the air, la, la.
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EDELSTEIN: There's just a vibe in the culture that our way of life is ending, and whether that's climate change, as suggested in the movie which I liked very much "Take Shelter," or world financial collapse, as suggested in "Margin Call" or a plague spread with the help of globalization in "Contagion."
By the way, I heard an expert talking about that on FRESH AIR, and I nearly went into bed and crawled under the covers and said: What's the use? I mean...
GROSS: That was not the goal of the interview, David.
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EDELSTEIN: Well - or chimpanzees taking over in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" or Lars von Trier blowing everything because he hates us all. It's - for whatever reason, you know, it's sort of like pick your reason why the world is going to end or the way of life is going to end.
I think one reason Occupy Wall Street, if I can play political pundit here, seemed so unexpected is that the culture has been telling us in all kinds of ways in the last few years that collective action is hopeless. And here, you know, I can't wait to see the mindset of Occupy Wall Street percolate down into movies because right now - I'm not saying that movies haven't always been fascinated with the idea of apocalypse, I'm just saying that not in so many bloody different ways.
GROSS: So I'm talking with David Edelstein, who's FRESH AIR's film critic, and we're looking back on the year in film. David, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the movies of 2011, OK?
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with David Edelstein, FRESH AIR's film critic, and we're reviewing the year in movies, or to put it more specifically, David is reviewing the year in movies. So I think it was just a couple of years ago that James Cameron's big 3-D film "Avatar" was released, and that was really, like, almost a demonstration 3-D film, like these are the cool effects you can get, you know, in a sci-fi, you know, futuristic 3-D film.
Do you think 3-D is coming into its own? Like this year alone, we have Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese making 3-D films.
EDELSTEIN: Well, my answer to that is very simple: I don't know. On one hand, a lot of the studios rushed to take films that had already been shot flat and turn them into 3-D, with the result that they kind of looked like puppet stages with various sort of paper levels. And the audience began to grumble.
I mean, the audience turned out for these 3-D superhero movies that seemed to be opening every week over the summer, but they by and large weren't thrilled. And in a lot of cases, they didn't pay the 3-D surcharge, they went just to see it screened flat.
And it really made me hope that 3-D was finally over, and I wouldn't need two Advil before every screening. But now Scorsese with "Hugo" and Spielberg with "Tintin" and Wim Wenders with his extraordinary documentary "Pina" about Pina Bausch, the choreographer, coming out have mad 3-D respectable again.
And, you know, I think that what these are, when you have a director like that, who has that many more variables to play with, it's going to be incredibly exciting. I don't know if it's the way - I don't know if 3-D television is going to be the wave of the future. There's still something so artificial. It's not true 3-D. It's kind of trying to fool the brain.
And for all I know, if I were David Cronenberg, I would suspect it was giving us all brain tumors, having to make all these very exhausting adjustments when we watch a 3-D movie. But I will say that seeing "Tintin," seeing "Hugo" and seeing what Wim Wenders did with dance in the Pina Bausch movie, just the levels of space, the layers of space he was able to create, you know, made the dancing, to me, as immediate, as vivid as if I were in a theater watching the dancers. It's an extraordinary piece of work.
GROSS: David, I want to ask you about Pauline Kael. I know you knew her well, and Pauline Kael is of course the film critic who wrote for The New Yorker for many years, who was, you know, very influential both among the moviegoers who read her and the film critics who read her.
And this was a big year in Pauline Kael's afterlife. She died 10 years ago, and this year, there was a new biography of her by Brian Kellow. There's a new collection of her writing. And in James Wolcott's memoir about living in New York in the '70s, he devotes a lot of time to talking about Pauline Kael. So I'd like to hear your reflections on Pauline Kael's impact on film criticism but also on her impact on you, as someone who knew her.
EDELSTEIN: Oh, well, she changed my life, and I miss her every day.
GROSS: How did she change your life?
EDELSTEIN: Well, the first thing, she introduced herself to me in a movie line because she said she liked my work, and I thought, (unintelligible), you know, what do you say? I mean, I - and then I met her for coffee in her New Yorker office a few weeks later, and the first thing she said to me was: Do you love it? Do you love the writing? And I said: Oh my God, no; it's really hard, it's grueling.
And she gave me the saddest look I think I've ever seen in my life because for her, there was something so thrilling about the way she could get just jazzy. She could relive the movie in her mind. She could move in and out of it. She can argue about it. She could evoke it better than nobody else.
I mean, one of the reasons people hated her so much was they could love a movie, and she could hate it, but she could do so much better a job of evoking it, of what it was trying to do and how it made you feel than they could that they found it very difficult to argue with her.
The second way that she changed my life had to do when I left film criticism for a while, and I actually wrote a couple of plays. And the first play that I sent her, she was bugging me to send her, send her this play, send her this play. And I said, well, I only have a draft. She said send it to me. And I kept stalling, and she said send it to me.
So finally I sent it to her, and the morning she got it, I got this phone call, and she said, oh, honey, you shouldn't be sending that to anybody. That's not ready to show. And I said what do you mean? And she said well, you really, you hate all your characters.
I said, well, I don't hate my characters. I love these little people. And she said yes, that's really the problem. She said you have to make them smarter than you are, even the dumb ones. You have to make them smarter than you are, otherwise what's the point in writing about them?
And I think about that, that is - people have accused her of not articulating a grand aesthetic, but that's as close to - you know, that's a profound aesthetic that when somebody sits down, you shouldn't be Lars von Trier writing about the people that you hate. You should be finding something in them, even if they're Iago.
Even Shakespeare's Iago, you know, the most vicious, the most malevolent of all fictional characters, is somebody whose worldview you can inhabit, you can think through, that has - that, you know, this is a character with great stature, even though he's evil.
And I think Pauline constantly, when she went to film, wanted to be surprised by things like that. She didn't want the writer to know in advance what was going to happen to the character. She wanted the character to find his or her own voice and articulate something larger. Otherwise, what was the point?
GROSS: One of the criticisms that has been leveled against Pauline Kael is that she loved to have a coterie of followers, of film critics who hung on her opinion, who often, you know, like mimicked her opinion or tried to do their version of her style of writing. And, you know, being close to her, as you were, were you accused of being a, quote, "Paulette?" And if so, what has been your reaction to that over the years?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I'll tell you something. The first time I had coffee with her, a colleague of mine, actually two colleagues of mine, called me up and told me to keep my distance. One, they said she would eat me alive; and two, they said I would immediately be branded a Paulette, and I would never be taken - my opinions would never be taken seriously again.
I was not swallowed up by her, but I was branded and have been branded a Paulette, which is - it's very amusing to me. Certainly, she's hugely influential, and certainly, you know, try though I may, there are echoes of her style in what I do. Her style is so appealing, so intoxicating, and her sense of rhythm, and her sense of humor is very, very infectious. And it's hard, you know, I have to really force myself not to imitate her.
But she never, ever wanted to hear her lines or her opinions quoted back to her. That would be extremely boring. And so this idea that she was surrounded by sycophants or by yes-men has always been very puzzling to me. It's sort of - I mean, that's what we always hear about Ayn Rand with, you know, all her followers gathered around, and if you expressed some opinion, then you were banished from the group.
But it was never true of Pauline Kael. On the contrary, in fact, I think she would get very upset if she felt that people had ingested her style but, you know, did not have what she considered, you know, a sensibility to go with it.
GROSS: Our film critic David Edelstein will be back in the second half of the show to recommend films to see over the holidays. You can find his best of the year list on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our film critic David Edelstein, who's here with his end-of-year wrap-up.
So David, let's talk about holiday movies, and maybe you can single out a couple that you think are really worth seeing and a couple that you think should actually be avoided.
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EDELSTEIN: Well, "Tintin" and "War Horse," are both on my 10-best list. And "Tintin" is everything that you dreamed of seeing Spielberg do. He's liberated from the forces of gravity by animation, and so he's able to do everything he did in "Indiana Jones," but by a factor of 10. You've just never seen a sort of Rube Goldberg, slapstick poetry like you see this movie. It really is one, long chase. It was one of these situations where my face literally hurt from grinning at the end of those two hours.
His other film, "War Horse," is based on a children's book, a very good one that follows a horse through what is still one of the most senseless wars ever fought, World War I. And the horse has many different masters, most of them - many of them die in very kind of random and hideous ways. The film has been accused of sentimentality, but, you know, the sentimentality is in the context of this horrible carnage and atrocity. I'm not saying that the film is like "Saving Private Ryan." It still is something that you could take a 12 or a 13-year-old to see.
The other movie "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," is the first live-action film by Brad Bird, who has - who it turns out is a filmmaker first and an animator second. It is so wildly, wonderfully kinetic. Finally, a "Mission Impossible" film that's actually about a team of people, as opposed to Tom Cruise as the lone-wolf, James Bond figure going out on his own.
GROSS: What should we avoid?
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EDELSTEIN: What should we avoid? Well, you know, actually, I'm very happy to say there is nothing out there right now that I would say steer clear of. I think "Sherlock Holmes" - the new Sherlock Holmes movie, "Game of Shadows," is very bad. It's not offensively bad. It's worth seeing for Jared Harris' Professor Moriarty...
GROSS: He's great.
EDELSTEIN: ...who is very - it's a very sour, bitter kind of chillingly small performance. I've always thought Jared Harris carried this kind of anger in him, because his father was such a bon vivant, was such a handsome, rakish leading man. And, you know, poor Jared...
GROSS: That would be Richard Harris.
EDELSTEIN: Yes. And Richard - Jared Harris was always sort of smaller in stature and kind of pockmarked and a wonderful actor, but a very, very different kind of actor. And I think I when he interacts with Robert Downey Jr., who is very much in the sort of capering, fruity Richard Harris-mode as Sherlock Holmes, I just saw this little glint that made me think: You know what? He sees his father in this fop. And that makes those scenes between Moriarty and Holmes actually very compelling. The rest of the movie is just a shambles. It's just - it's very inelegant and overbearing, and it's like Richard Lester's "Three Musketeers," but without the kind of prankish wit that Richard Lester brought to it. So I guess I would avoid that.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," very, very eagerly anticipated. I'm not a fan in particular of Steig Larsson or his English translator. But the film is very effective at what it does. If you believe, as Larsson genuinely did, that the world is full of neo-Nazi, rapist predators that are, you know, lurking around every corner, that are ready to do vile things to you and you want to identify with this extremely damaged, heavily pierced young woman as she takes grisly revenge on them through her computer-savvy and her wits, then the film is very gratifying. I mean, it's a very primitive fantasy, but I think it touches a lot of people. And the film by David Fincher, he's a very cruel director, and he does not flinch from any of the horrible things he's showing you. And I think the film, you know, it does pay off. It does deliver.
GROSS: Did you see the original film adaptation, the Swedish one?
EDELSTEIN: Yes, I did. And that seemed much more like what it was, which is a made-for-television movie, but it had this extraordinary performance by Noomi Rapace in it as Lisbeth Salander. It's very interesting to watch Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander versus Mara Rooney's Lisbeth Salander, because with Noomi Rapace, she just - the anger is pouring off her. I mean, there are times when she looks like a - she's all pierced and she has a Mohawk and she looks like some sort of savage warrior. She's so furious at what the world has done to her.
Whereas, Mara Rooney's approach is to play it very, very still, almost as if she's wearing a kind of mask, and then at certain key moments suddenly burst out into something angry and nail somebody and then kind of go back to being very, very still. It's very interesting. I didn't quite buy it in the way that I bought Noomi Rapace's performance. But it's certainly - you're certainly not seen the same thing over again.
And Daniel Craig is wonderful in the film, too. He's very likable, and he seems to relish the idea of playing someone who isn't James Bond and who actually feels an enormous amount of fear and is not particularly resourceful when faced with some, you know, malevolent threat.
GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you for talking about the year in film with us. I wish you Happy Holidays. It's always good to talk with you.
EDELSTEIN: Oh, I love it. Thank you so much, Terry. And thank you so much for this wonderful job and being on this wonderful program.
GROSS: Oh, thanks. It's great to have you.
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GROSS: Happy Holidays.
David Edelstein is film critic for FRESH AIR and New York magazine. You'll find his Best of the Year list on our website: freshair.npr.org.