The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – Anthony Minghella

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Tom Ripley didn’t go to Princeton.  The Princeton jacket he’s wearing was borrowed from a friend.  But when Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, assumes that Tom went to college with his son Dickie, Tom doesn’t miss a beat: “How is Dickie?”

On Mr. Greenleaf’s dollar, Tom (Matt Damon) finds himself on a voyage to Mongibello, Italy, to track down his supposed school friend and convince him to return to his parents in America.  All Tom knows about Dickie (Jude Law) is that he’s living with his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), spending hours on his sailboat, burning through his allowance, and listening to jazz, so Tom makes it his business to align himself with these interests — particularly by buying jazz records and memorizing everything he can about the genre.  After staging a chance encounter with Dickie and Marge on the beach, Tom is easily able to befriend the young couple and to convince Dickie that they share an alma mater.

Right from the start of this exquisite period thriller, Tom is obviously untrustworthy.  He admits (jokingly, Dickie believes) to having a talent for “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody,” and throughout the film he does just that — deceiving Mr. Greenleaf, Marge, and Dickie, and even introducing himself as Dickie to a wealthy socialite named Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett).  We know very little about his actual identity; he seems to try on whichever identity strikes his fancy.  Given this, it’s unsurprising that his friendship with Dickie never quite rings true; Tom’s every move is calculated to win Dickie over.

Homoerotic undertones — heck, let’s call them overtones — abound.  There’s an especially charged scene in which the two men are playing chess while Dickie is in the bath, and Tom asks if he can get into the tub.  “I didn’t mean with you in it,” he amends, seeing the repulsed look on Dickie’s face, but the true meaning of his question is clear.  Tom’s fixation on Dickie is more than just a straightforward crush, though; there’s an almost Black Swan–esque quality to it, an attraction comprised of both wanting someone and wanting to be them.  Dickie is gorgeous, reckless, charming — everything Tom is not — and he’s the very image of privilege, using his father’s money to travel around Italy and do whatever he pleases.  Tom, who makes a living cleaning up after musicians back in New York, has presumably never experienced such luxury before.  Now that he’s had a taste of Dickie’s lifestyle (which describes as “one big love affair”), he wants it for himself, and he’s willing to take it at any cost.

ripleyThe premise of this film is admittedly a little far-fetched (would Mr. Greenleaf really be so quick to pay a stranger one thousand dollars to take a trip to Italy?  Would Dickie and Marge really welcome Tom into their lives so readily, having no memory of him from college?), but it’s made believable by the all-around fantastic performances from the cast. Law as the handsome, petulant Dickie, with whom it’s difficult not to fall somewhat in love; Damon as the friendly, easygoing, and increasingly unsettling Tom; Paltrow as the pretty fiancée, paid little attention by the men but ultimately more lucid and perceptive than either of them.  Particularly strong supporting performances come (unsurprisingly) from Blanchett, chatty Meredith falling more and more in love with Tom — or rather “Dickie” — as they discuss the pleasures and burdens of great wealth; and the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie’s friend Freddie, slick and blasé and unimpressed by Tom from the start.

Supported by a jazz soundtrack that’s sometimes manic and sometimes unsettlingly saccharine, The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my personal favorite films, conceptually complex and beautifully told.  The story is terrifying both in its specificity and in its universality: because who hasn’t ever envied the beautiful, wealthy, and charismatic people of the world?  I think many of us would happily live that life if given the opportunity. The question is how far we’re willing to follow Tom Ripley in his determination to get it.

10 Best Films I Watched in 2012

10. Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

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I wrote a review of this a few months ago.  I’m starting to go a little crazy for Ben Whishaw; there’s something enigmatic about him, and although I’ve only seen him in a few films, he seems to have a real range.  Here he plays Romantic poet John Keats in a tragic love story that is, as New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott points out, surprisingly steamy considering no clothes are ever removed.  This movie falls somewhere between Pride & Prejudice and Shakespeare in Love.

9. Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh

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I also reviewed this one — saw it twice in theaters.  This film is cleverly metafictional, with a dash of absurdism and a little existentialism.  Hilarious, dark, and devilishly exhilarating.  Sam Rockwell really steals the show as Billy, a devoted friend with some psychopathic tendencies.

8. The Green Mile (1999) – Frank Darabont

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This is a gruesome story with some Tom Hanks levity and a little magical realism.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is the way it unfolds in chapters, smaller stories encapsulated in the larger one. Stupendous performances all around (including, again, Sam Rockwell in particular).

7. Rope (1948) – Alfred Hitchcock

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This is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it one of his best, but it’s a pretty fascinating experiment in both form and content.  Two young men strangle their classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and then host a dinner party.  The entire film takes place in the apartment, and the story is filmed exclusively in long takes, ten minutes at most (the length of a film camera magazine).  The experience is not unlike that of watching a play, with the added bonus of Hitchcock’s characteristic fluid camerawork. Even more interesting are the homoerotic undertones between the two killers.  This film is either incredibly progressive with its putatively homosexual leads, or condemning, with its rendering them murders.  I can never decide.  An unusual film, strangely mesmerizing to watch.

6. Laura (1944) – Otto Preminger

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In this hard-boiled detective film, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is hired to investigate the murder of the beautiful Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney).  Intrigue, romantic tension, and plot twists (multiple!) ensue, as well as some really interesting narrative paradoxes.  There are also moments of this movie that genuinely frighten me, which is unusual for a movie made so long ago.

5. Ratatouille (2007) – Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

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There were points when I had to pause this movie because I was laughing too hard.  It is hilarious, heartwarming, and a little bit bizarre.  I cannot get enough.

4. Vanilla Sky (2001) – Cameron Crowe

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This film opens with pretty formulaic setup — Tom Cruise plays David, a handsome and successful businessman, who meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and is immediately attracted to her — but warps unexpectedly into something closer to science fiction.  I won’t say too much because I think the less you know in advance, the more exciting the ride is.  The film is both emotionally and mentally stimulating, and I found myself thinking about it for days after I watched it.  (It also has a killer soundtrack.)

3. The Ides of March (2011) – George Clooney

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I am beginning to realize that Ryan Gosling is more than just the guy from The Notebook.  He is magnetic in this, holding his own against George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (be still my beating heart, I love that man).  In this political drama Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, junior campaign manager to Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) who finds himself entangled in political subterfuge.  This film is smart, dirty, and unsettlingly relevant.

2. Funny Games (2007) – Michael Haneke

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I am obsessed with Michael Pitt.  He is a dream.  He’s terrifying in this — cool, aloof, methodical, dressed in pristine white.  Funny Games could so easily be just another slasher film, but Haneke takes the clichéd premise (two young men come to a family’s house to torture and kill them) and twists it around, experimenting with both narrative structure and character.  This film is captivating not because of its gore — most of the violence actually occurs off screen — but because of the mesmerizing, anomalous world that Haneke creates.  Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules of the game, they change.

1. The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick

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Surprise, surprise. I wrote a sort of obsessive review of this movie when I watched it this summer.  Something about The Shining just facilitates obsession — there are so many patterns, dangling threads, layers of meaning.   You almost experience Jack’s madness yourself trying to figure everything out.

The end.  Suggestions for more movies to watch are always welcome!

The Master (2012) – Paul Thomas Anderson

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Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest and perhaps best feature film yet.  Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an idiosyncratic, alcoholic WWII Naval veteran who, in his drunken wanderings, stumbles onto a yacht about to set sail.  There, he is introduced to the yacht’s owners, the Dodds — Lancaster (Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Adams) — and their controversial, Scientology-like philosophy called The Cause: the idea that a person’s soul has moved from body to body through time for trillions of years.

Freddie Quell is a shocking character.  Within the first five minutes of being on screen, he describes to someone how to remove crabs from one’s testicles (his advice involves a razor, a lighter, and an ice pick) and pretends to have sex with a sand sculpture of a naked women (and then leaves to go masturbate into the ocean).  He is crass and utterly sex-crazed, trying to seduce almost every woman he meets.  He is also a severe alcoholic, willing to drink any liquid with an alcohol content, and he specializes in creating alcoholic concoctions so potent that they can kill a man.  Freddie lives in a state of volatility, constantly erupting into emotional, violent outbursts, willing to pick a fight in any context.

Phoenix’s performance is utterly compelling.  He seems to go beyond acting and simply becomes this character, right down to his physicality — thin, hunched over, his face lined.  He mumbles and slurs his words together.  He smiles childishly when he is proud, and he flails his skinny limbs at anyone who comes near when he is angry.  Phoenix is able to achieve a performance that is both overstated and subtle, both caricatural and believable.

Hoffman’s acting does not suffer by comparison.  Lancaster — or “The Master”, as he is called by the followers of The Cause — speaks formally and elegantly, a stark contrast to Freddie’s coarse vernacular.  He is a man who values his own intellect and who is passionate about his ideas.  He is charismatic and confident, and he takes himself extremely seriously (and is at times almost laughable for this reason).  But he is also sincere, and his moments of vulnerability make him both interesting and sympathetic.

The collision of these two characters is the collision of the animalistic and the cerebral.  Lancaster is recorded as saying that man is not an animal; man transcends the animal kingdom.  The entire philosophy of The Cause centers on the concept of the soul moving beyond its corporal limitations.  Freddie, on the other hand, is an utterly physical being.  He is sexual, emotional, violent.  There is a tension when these two forces come together, and also an attraction.  Lancaster frequently scolds Freddie for his unrefined behavior.  After Freddie picks a fight with a man who has insulted Lancaster, Lancaster calls Freddie “naughty” and compares him to an animal that eats its own feces when hungry.  At the same time, however, Lancaster also seems somehow moved by Freddie.  He enjoys Freddie’s toxic concoctions, and he begins writing his second book around the time of their introduction.  As his wife Peggy points out, Freddie seems to “inspire something in him”.

It is through Lancaster’s eyes that we begin to appreciate and like Freddie.  He assesses a real value to Freddie, which mystifies both his family and (at least at first) the viewer.  Lancaster invites Freddie to participate in some “casual processing”, which consists of a series of questions through which Freddie will become more in touch with his transcendent soul.  In this scene, an initial bond forms not only between Freddie and Lancaster, but also between Freddie and the audience, as we see a vulnerable side to him that up until this point has not been apparent.

As the film progresses, the bond between the two men grows stronger, and there are even hints of romantic tension between them.  Freddie picks a fight with a cop to defend Lancaster, and Lancaster desperately begs the cops “not to hurt him”.  When reunited after a night in the police station, Freddie and Lancaster’s embrace crumples into a rolling, tumbling, full-body hug.  Lancaster hires Freddie to take professional photographs of him, and Freddie pushes Lancaster’s hair out of his face in a motion that is almost a caress.  The homoerotic suggestions are there, but they seem to go deeper than sexuality.  There is a sense that the two men’s souls have found kinship in each other, and while that can be confused with romantic love, at least on Freddie’s end those feelings do not seem to be there.  Lancaster’s feelings are more ambiguous, and there is a question of whether he is too afraid to act — too afraid to engage with his animal side, his emotions and his physical urges.

Throughout the film Freddie seems to be searching for something, and it is unclear whether he will find it in The Cause.  The use of the word “master” is significant, applying not only to Lancaster’s position as the head of The Cause, but also to his position as Freddie’s master.  Lancaster feels an urge to “help” Freddie, and in the process of doing so he takes control over him, subjecting him to a series of tests and exercises.  Earlier, when both men find themselves in the police station — the screen split between Freddie thrashing about, handcuffed, kicking the toilet bowl until it shatters, pounding his head repeatedly against the upper bunk; and Lancaster standing stoically, leaning against the upper bunk in his own cell — Lancaster points out Freddie’s fear of being imprisoned.  He asserts that this fear of imprisonment is an essential part of Freddie’s immortal soul.  Ultimately, Freddie must decide whether The Cause is the answer to his searching, or just another form of imprisonment.  As Peggy Dodd tells him fiercely, The Cause is not something to be handled casually.  “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”

This is a compelling and original film.  The writing is smart, the acting is superb, and it all comes together in the end in a mysteriously satisfying way… even if you leave the theater not quite sure of what you just experienced.