In honor of Oscar weekend, NPI will be rerunning its reviews of the Best Picture nominees. Here, John S champions A Serious Man:
“[The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle] proves that we can’t ever know what’s going on….But even if you can’t figure anything out, you’re still responsible for this on the midterm.”
So Larry Gopnik, the physics professor at the heart of A Serious Man, tells his class about midway through the new film from the Coen brothers, basically summing up the entire movie.
Most of the Coen brothers’ films follow an Everyman caught up in morally questionable dealings, butA Serious Man deals with moral uncertainty more directly than films such as Fargo or even No Country For Old Men. Part of this comes from the fact that Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) may be the Coen brothers’ most innocent protagonist—unlike Jerry Lundegaard, Llewelyn Moss, or even the Dude, Gopnick doesn’t do anything (as he repeatedly insists throughout the movie) to bring on an onslaught of crises. Life merely seems to happen to him, and he spends most of the film trying to figure out why. Continue reading
I want to like this song more than I actually do. Of all the songs Dylan recorded on this album, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is one of the most notable and most recognizable. Listeners of today are most likely to recognize the Soggy Bottom Boys rendition from the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but there are dozens of other famous versions recorded since it was (allegedly) written by Dick Burnett in about 1913. It’s easy to understand why this song has been performed so many times—there is a playful poetry and malleability to its lyrics. Even the phrase “man of constant sorrow” is particularly lyrical, falling naturally into trochaic feet. And the story told by the song—about a man of humble origins venturing out into the cruel, cold world—is the kind of archetypal material that folk musicians flock to. Continue reading
Despite my general negativity about movies of the Aughts, there were still plenty of great films released this decade (although I think a Top Ten list of 90s movies would probably omit films that could be #1 on this list). I’ve already provided a list of the ten funniest films of the decade, and there were other great comedies that didn’t make the list. Today, though, we turn our attention to the dramatic category. As Josh has already declared, though, genre concerns can be distracting, so I will not be bound my technical genre classifications. Consider this a list of films I like for “dramatic” reasons:
Commercially speaking, the Aughts were an excellent decade for film. Even in poor economic conditions, box office records continued—and still continue as we speak—to be broken. Box Office Mojo’s list of highest grossing films is littered with movies from the Aughts. Much of this is due to inflation, of course, but even on an inflation-adjusted list of all films to pass $100 million in gross, 273 of 665 films—or 41%—come from this decade alone.
For those who make their living off of movies, then, there was plenty to be happy about in the Aughts. But for the audience, for those who like to watch daring and innovative films, the decade was surprisingly disappointing.
Of course, painting in such broad strokes is always a tricky game, particularly for something as ingrained and multi-faceted as film. Unlike television, cinema has been established as a medium for serious art since before I was even born, so the Aughts couldn’t really see a general creative leap of that sort. Unlike music, in which production costs are lower and output generally faster, film cannot experience the kind of rapid flourishing and integration of entire genres. Continue reading
In addition to our Aught-themed Sunday Book Review, which we began last week, NPI is presenting a more general look at fiction of the decade in which we look quickly and some of the most significant works of literature published during this decade. This is Part I of a two-part series.
2666 — Roberto Bolaño
The epic of the Aughts (so long as we’re not counting The Wire), 2666 affords Bolaño the posthumous chance to opine on death in all its forms: from the corporeal to the metaphysical. His characters are deep even when they are fleeting, and his style (in Natasha Wimmer’s translation) ranges from florid to hard-boiled. In contemplating his own legacy, Bolaño pretty much ensured it.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Michael Chabon
I’ve already expanded on my high opinion of Michael Chabon’s novel about the Golden Age of Comic Books; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay presents a compelling portrait of what it’s like to create fantasies in an era of global turmoil—a particularly resonant story of the Aughts, even if Chabon’s novel came out in 2000. While he deals with themes like evil and fantasy, however, Chabon is adept at depicting a rich setting of New York City in the 1930s.
– John S