Immersive. Obeying internal logic. Eschewing exposition. Exuding fumes, steeped in their own essence, owning a distinct reality. Au jus.
The movies I thought best of last year were War of the Worlds and Last Days. The former is like a true nightmare. Most people hated this movie for some reason, but I loved it. It contains no explanations, no exposition, no scientist, no motive... some people are sitting in their house and aliens attack their planet and there are two hours of terror, and then it's just over. Along the way there are moments of extraordinary dream-horror imagery that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with mood: a train on fire rushing through a station, bodies floating down a river, and worst of all, the unforgettable moment when the father played by Tom Cruise comes over the crest of a hill and looks out on an entire landscape covered in blood - in lakes of blood. It's one of the eeriest, most disturbing things I've ever seen in a movie (and at this point in my life, I recently realized, I've probably seen almost six or seven thousand movies). Incidentally, War of the Worlds is also a much better movie about terrorism than Spielberg's own Munich, which came out only six months later.
Last Days, too, was like a dream - one of those dreams where you wander and mumble and nothing seems to happen, but the air is suffused with melancholy and everything seems poignant and slumped. Michael Pitt's performance was awesome.
For some reason I often seem to love movies that others just despise. When I told a friend that I thought Miami Vice was great, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, "It was garbage. Worst movie of the year." There were a couple lines of stupid dialogue ("His day will come," and "I'm a fiend for mojitos" come to mind), fair enough. But damn it, my friend didn't get what the movie was about... he didn't want to go into its world. This isn't a regular cop movie. It isn't even Heat, the gold-standard crime drama which like Miami Vice was directed by Michael Mann and which is arguably a better film than Vice, but which I don't quite love as much. Vice doesn't really give a shit about the normal concerns of cop/criminal movies... concerns like discovering the double agents... or bringing the villains to justice. Miami Vice is a purely sensual and experiential thing. It doesn't care about where the characters have been or who they are - it's about what they're feeling and doing right now. It begins without credits or titles, without any explanation of where the characters are or why...and that doesn't matter because after ten or fifteen minutes, you feel like you're living inside this world...
Sex, sweat, fear, heat, sudden violence, the terrible red skies of the city at night - that's what Miami Vice is about. In one scene, the undercover cops played by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are negotiating a crucial drug deal with some fearsome drug producers, and suddenly Farrell asks the criminal businesswoman played by gorgeous Gong Li to go get a drink with him - and then the movie takes a radical detour for about ten minutes as they zoom off to Cuba and have steamy sex all over the place. The film didn't really give a shit about that drug deal... it's a lot more interested in the lust that takes these two characters by surprise. I liked that. This isn't a movie made for suburban teenagers, it's for adults, and the sex seems real and consequential and convincing and, for once in Hollywood, actually sensual.
The cinematography seems like something from a fever dream - it's all shot on video, and the night scenes look like the night really looks at 3 a.m. when you're exhausted and on the road and you have strange lights in your eyes... everything smeared, disorienting, eerie.Then, earlier this year, there was United 93, in my opinion by far the best movie of the year to date. This film too is like a dream, or rather a nightmare. Again we are denied helpful exposition. We don't know the characters' names. We don't know where they've been, whether they're kind people, cruel people, whatever. All we know is where they are and what they do now. The terror as they have to decide in literally minutes how to deal with the hijacking of their flight is perhaps the most intense emotion I've felt created by a film since I saw Requiem for a Dream or Irreversible.
What is also perfect and nearly unique about United 93 is its un-movie-like refusal to give the audience cues. Moments that in any other film would be emphasized with musical cues, close-ups, and powerful stares in the camera pass by in United 93 as they would in life - barely remarked upon, their power growing only retrospect. When a plane crashes into the WTC, we don't see it happen. We see a blip on a rader screen, and then the blip disappears, and the air traffic controllers say: "Huh. Weird. I don't see the plane anymore." And in the audience your heart is in your mouth.
I'm at work and now it's time to leave.
Those were some thoughts about films I liked.