When I posted my Best Movies of 2008 lists, I had a little rant about release schedules, and how making a list before seeing some potentially great movies got released made a mockery of the whole thing. Canyon argued very persuasively that we wait for a little while longer, but the thought of posting a Best Of list at the end of March (the earliest we could see Synecdoche, New York, which is released on Region 1 DVD two months before it gets a UK release) was anathema to me. I love lists like Picard loves Earl Grey, so there was no way I could put off blurting out my picks.
To be honest, I thought that the final few big contenders might not get on the list. Synecdoche was the big hope, praised by some whose opinion means a lot to me but dissed by some hardcore Kaufman fans, so I couldn't be sure. Doubt looks promising, especially if you're a fan of Viola Davis, guilt, ACK-TING, and/or Joe Vs. The Volcano. The Reader could appeal to the Winslet enthusiast in me, even if it sounds like a potentially mind-shredding mixture of worthy ingredients and themes baked into Seriousness Souffle.
Other than that, there was Rachel Getting Married, which Canyon had been excited about since The AV Club went a bit mental about it. Even though it was great to hear that Jonathan Demme, a director I had once been crazy about, was back on form after some dodgy efforts, I was less enthused than Canyon, thinking I would like it well enough, but surely not more than I had liked the perfect crowd-pleasingness of Iron Man, or the complex power struggles and martial arts mastery of Red Cliff: Part One, or Colin Farrell's eloquent profanity and existential misery in In Bruges.
And yet I did like it. More than Iron Man. More than The Wrestler. More than In Bruges. More, even, than Kung Fu Panda, a film that makes me cry when watching just because I love it so much. We went to see it last night (finally released in the UK months after its initial US release), and I was floored by it. The only film of 2008 that I liked more was The Dark Knight, though Rachel Getting Married gives it a run for its money. Sadly for Demme and his amazing cast and crew, their excellent film still lacks Ledger and Eckhart, the Batpod, and the boat dilemma, so it could never be top of my list.
I cannot overstate how happy I am that Demme has made a movie that feels so much like his earlier work, even if the shooting style (handheld cameras and a home movie feel) is so different from anything he has ever done before. Demme was renowned for making movies that feel like they're full to the brim with life and unpredictability even though, formally, his movies were often very stylised and structured. Even something as potentially uncinematic as a Spalding Gray monologue was rendered visually lively in his movie Swimming to Cambodia, and yet all he was doing was filming Gray at a desk.
His post-Corman movies all felt like parties with plotlines, bristling with energy and quirkiness, and even if they weren't all perfect, they were still a lot of fun. Something Wild is possibly the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie, generating so much goodwill in the audience that even the much-discussed third-act detour into thriller territory doesn't derail the good times. Married To The Mob is possibly the oddest and most lovable gangster movie yet made, with Dean Stockwell doing a great job of being funny and threatening at the same time. Stop Making Sense is the classic concert movie, a playful celebration of not only the music of Talking Heads but the idea of live music as theatre. Melvin and Howard, coming across like a lost Hal Ashby movie or the brother of Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, is in dire need of reappraisal. Even something as compromised as Swing Shift had the spark of something made outside the restrictive studio system despite the interference of people who just didn't understand what he was aiming for.
The only other filmmakers from that period who managed to fill their films with such energy (at least that I can think of) were Jim McBride and Martin Scorsese. McBride regrettably disappeared after the failure of Great Balls of Fire (one of the most infectiously anarchic mainstream movies ever to fail miserably at the box office), and Scorsese has been chasing Oscars with some uninspiring prestige movies for a while now, cranking out shadows of his former great work. That said, I totally don't begrudge him winning, and even shed a tear when it happened. Look at him! I want to give that man a hug.
(An aside: There is also former Demme collaborator George Armitage, responsible for the gleefully unorthodox Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank, but sadly he too came unstuck with The Big Bounce, a deeply frustrating project that hinted at, if not greatness, then at least some light-hearted and good-natured fun.)
That ossification of their exuberant style is similar to what happened to Demme. In a complete left-turn that still baffles me to this day, he made Silence of the Lambs, his biggest hit and an award magnet even though it is wilfully peculiar, bleak, and filled with idiosyncracies. It was a strange triumph for his brand of unorthodox and imaginative storytelling. However, for the longest time it was his last great hurrah. Philadelphia did a great job of raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, but it's not a particularly good movie. It's the first Big Theme movie of his career, and signalled that awful time in an Oscar-winning director's career when they lose whatever it was that made them interesting in the first place. It doesn't happen all of the time. Spielberg made Minority Report and Munich after winning two Oscars, and Bob Zemeckis followed his Forrest Gump win with performance-capture experiments of varying quality that were, however, still bold and fascinating on a technical level. However, how many interesting films has Barry Levinson made since Rain Man? Or Bernardo Bertolucci?
In the case of Demme, while I would be eager to see his early movies, I have little interest in seeing The Truth About Charlie (despite having Joong-Hoon Park, aka the Korean Marlon Brando, in the cast), and zero interest in Beloved, which looks like a deeply flawed interpretation of Toni Morrison's book. Plus, who wanted to see a remake of The Manchurian Candidate? It has all the elements of a potentially good movie, except that it serves no purpose. The updating of the story to satirise the nefarious motives of Big Business was potentially interesting, but garbled by horrible plotholes and inconsistencies. Flashes of Demme's quirky eye for detail or image broke through from time to time, and the performances were a joy to watch, but it was a dispiriting experience, seeing Demme making movies that were a world away from his earlier films, all of which looked and felt like they were made on Planet Demme. His earthbound projects just didn't inspire me at all. (N.B. I wrote this paragraph a couple of days ago, but a quick look at The AV Club's New Cult Canon feature on Married To The Mob features the phrase Demmeworld. He really does make movies unlike anyone else.)
In recent years his documentary work, such as Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, The Agronomist, and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, were critically praised, but their releases were so badly organised that, with my new apathy towards Demme, I couldn't muster the energy to chase them down. I never thought it would come to that. And now, that period has passed. Rachel Getting Married did many things to my brain and heart and soul, but first and foremost it's made me excited to watch his movies again. Those documentaries are definitely getting tracked down as soon as possible.
Rachel Getting Married has been described as being Altmanesque simply because it features a large ensemble cast that talks a lot, and the subject matters echoes that of Altman's A Wedding. Other than that the connection between Demme's work here and that of the great man is not as definitive as has been noted. The use of naturalistic speech patterns have more to do with the way the movie is filmed, with hand-held cameras and natural sound, than with some stylistic tic appropriated from elsewhere. Cleverly the movie is filmed in the same style as a wedding video, as if an invisible visitor to the ceremony was recording everything. At times the film cuts to the PoV of a guest who is recording everything, and other than the film stock you can barely tell the difference in style. Altman's overlapping dialogue was intentional and often overdone to the point of parody. In Rachel Getting Married, it's a natural consequence of Demme letting his actors loose without rehearsals, hence lines are stepped on and come at the wrong moments, much as with real conversations. Check out this press kit for more information about Demme's shooting style.
Saying the movie is realistically filmed is one thing, but it would still ring false if the performances and script were not up to scratch, but they are all nigh-on perfect. Jenny Lumet's debut script is an absolute marvel, superbly managing the tricky task of juggling tone and revelation and pace without giving away her structure. Love McKee though I do, it's hard to watch a lot of movies as learner writers show their act breaks too obviously, using McKee's work as a strict manual filled with compulsory rules instead of a guidebook of advice, which is how it should be treated. Lumet's script flows like real life flows, with unpredictability and awkwardness and accidents, but is structured perfectly. You just never notice until you pick it apart later. Of course, I shouldn't have to praise her for doing something that any writer worth their salt would do, but she does such an amazing job in a world where even this basic competence seems rare that I feel obligated to mention it.
That said, even an amazing script would suffer without a great cast to add life and natural flow to it, and Rachel Getting Married has a superb range of performers who seem to have been in rehearsal forever, so seamlessly is everything played. One memorable scene, which could easily have turned into a stagy shoutfest, is conducted almost entirely through calm, acidic asides and vicious accusations delivered in quiet but furious voices, the protagonists moving from room to room while Anna Deavere Smith hands out plates of melon. Seeing the incomparable Bill Irwin desperately trying to hold his family together as the tragedy in their past threatens to bring everything crashing down is one of the most affecting things I've seen in film for years, and would not have worked if we were watching big meltdown moments.
The only scene containing sustained histrionics, the climactic showdown between Kym and her feckless mother (played with odious brilliance by a perfectly cast Debra Winger), earns those screams. The fight we see has been in the offing for years, and when it comes it starts with almost no warning. I can't remember the last time a scene alarmed me more. Well, a scene that didn't involve a Batpod, exploding bodies, or some kind of monster on a rampage.
The music, something obviously very important to Demme, plays a huge part as well. He's done more to champion African music than any other US filmmaker, and without it his narrative work of the past few years has felt incomplete. As the movie's form demands no non-diegetic music be used for fear of breaking the semi-realist spell, Demme fills the wedding with musicians, used diegetically, throughout. Demme has said he was eager to present a wedding that reflects his life experiences and circle of friends, which is why Sister Carol East and Robyn Hitchcock turn up to perform (this is explained away by having Bill Irwin's patriarch conveniently working in the music industry). There is much African soul and funk in later scenes, and classical-ambient noodling throughout earlier scenes. We even get to hear Tunde Adebimpe, in the role of groom Sidney, sing to Rachel (an excellent performance by Rosemarie DeWitt), which was a lovely touch.
Sadly, that amazing soundtrack by Donald Harrison Jr. and Zafer Tawil's gets no Oscar nomination. Neither does Bill Irwin, or Jonathan Demme, or even (and this really disgusts me) Jenny Lumet. This despite it being widely admired, though I guess that means little when you have the moneyed likes of Harvey Weinstein running around strong-arming voters into praising illiterate Nazi movies. Much of our post-movie debate (conducted over amazing food at the West End branch of super-restaurant Tsunami, food fans!) was spent bemoaning Slumdog's recent SAG Awards win for Best Ensemble Cast. I can think of a number of movies more deserving of that award than the indifferently performed Slumdog, and none more so than Rachel Getting Married, which features a large and talented cast at the peak of their powers.
That cast is Demme's secret weapon. By casting friends and family, filming them constantly, and ensuring that a party atmosphere prevails, Rachel Getting Married, feels fresh and new and exciting, just like Demme's work from decades ago. No other film of recent years is as vibrant and life-affirming as this, even while it deals with tragedy and pain and some of the worst behavioural impulses imaginable. The sense of real celebration, real love and emotion bursting from the screen, is palpable, even though Lumet's script goes to extremely dark places and stares down pain and loss and grief without blinking, and even though Demme is not afraid to have scenes play out to uncomfortable or tedious length.
And yet it is almost totally ignored by the Academy, with numerous nominations given to less worthy movies instead. Of course, that includes my current bête noire, Slumdog Millionaire. Apologies for banging on about this yet again, but after seeing Rachel Getting Married, we were furious about the nominationariational state of play. Danny Boyle's movie purports to be an upbeat celebration of life and love, but at heart it's a hollow, ugly, fake trinket, a cubic zirconium blob of contrived uplift and phony sentimentalism. Rachel Getting Married is often painful to watch, but it feels real, and earns all of the emotions it generates in the audience. It serenades humanity in all its forms, whereas Slumdog is an inconsequential hymn to Hallmark-card simplicity. Despite all of its distracting flash it's little more than escapist Mogadon. As many fans have pointed out, it's not trying to be anything more than escapism, and that wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so ugly and boring and aggressively stupid. Rachel Getting Married is a thousand-times the movie Slumdog is, and seeing Boyle and his cohorts pulling in awards and rapturous praise while Demme's movie is treated as little more than a competent amuse-bouche is driving me into paroxysms of rage.
Of course, Rachel Getting Married did get one nomination. A Best Actress nod went to Anne Hathaway, whose phenomenal career-best performance earns her a prestigious Shades of Caruso free pass.
I don't care if she goes on to make The Devil Still Wears Prada, or a series of Bride Wars sequels that rival the Bond films for longevity. In Rachel Getting Married she is incredible, playing Kym, a messy neurotic bag of hostility and guilt, to perfection. I've heard some people say her tics annoyed them (including at least one loyal reader of this here blog), but I didn't notice that. Perhaps it's because I know Kym, or at least someone who went through some similar life experiences and, sadly, came out of it just as angry and unhappy as her. Hathaway reminded me of that period so much that it freaked me out for long stretches of the movie. But in a good way. For a start, it gave me an insight into why people try to help family or friends who are going through horrible internal strife. Obviously, it's because you love them no matter what. A no-brainer answer, really.
So yes, my lists (all four of them) are now all skewiff. The number two spot on my best films list goes to Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway does the incredible and knocks the Unstoppable Winslet Machine out of the Best Actress spot. Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin get on my supporting lists. Jenny Lumet gives Martin McDonagh a run for his money for the Best Screenplay spot (I watched In Bruges again this week and I think it remains number one, but only just). Christopher Nolan remains my favourite director of the year, but Jonathan Demme is right behind him.
Oh, Demme. Film buffs are still patiently waiting for the second coming of Woody Allen (or third, or fourth; I've lost count), and two weak-to-average movies have been treated like the equals of Crimes and Misdemeanours and Husbands and Wives, even though Match Point was a silly mess and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is kinda dull and obvious. We're not getting another Manhattan, or Hannah and her Sisters, or even Broadway Danny Rose ever again, and we should just accept that and treat his late career projects as mildly diverting exercises in mannerism and waffling. Demme, however, hasn't just made something better than The Manchurian Candidate. He's not just made his best film since Silence of the Lambs. He's made his best film since Melvin and Howard. Maybe even better than that. It's not a return to form, or the late-blooming of a failed but interesting director (his early movies are too good for that insulting appelation). It's vindication for his fans, proof that the man was an important and fiercely intelligent artist all along, and was just having a bad run that would end one day when the right project came along. In 2008, it finally did. I simply cannot praise it enough.