Movies have no real boundaries, but they are too often limited by the lowest common denominator. Movies must appeal to a mass audience. When a true cinematic mind-bender breaks free of the rigid Hollywood standards it is cause for celebration, but last year offered three movie wonders that managed to shine through in a mediocre year for film.
Several weeks ago, I quipped that director David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings) may have committed career suicide with his latest release, I Heart Huckabees. Here’s why. Huckabees is the story of an activist (Jason Schwartzman) who hires a pair of “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin) to investigate an odd coincidence in his life by following him around. How can you sell that idea to the public? Apparently you can’t. Sure, existentialism is a hidden theme in some films, but I don’t recall its use as the primary storyline in any major American movie. Those who dared to see it walked away baffled, but I found it hilarious. Russell is one of the best comedy writer/directors working today.
Charlie Kaufman just won the Academy Award for his twisted relationship comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it is the best film he has penned to date. Joel (Jim Carrey) subjects himself to a radical treatment that will erase all memory of a bad relationship from his mind. Clementine (Kate Winslet) is the woman he is hoping to forget because she has already gone through the process herself. Much of the film takes place within Joel’s mind as he undergoes the process, but, halfway through, he changes his mind. Eternal is startlingly original, and former music-video director Michel Gondry perfectly visualizes Kaufman’s crazy ideas. I hope this treatment becomes a reality soon, because in January 2009 I’ll have an eight-year relationship that will need to be forgotten.
The Butterfly Effect may be the most unfairly maligned film of last year. I am convinced that people viewed this challenging and daring film about time travel in the wrong frame of mind. Perhaps the presence of Ashton Kutcher in the lead role created expectations of another Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Kutcher proves that he can handle a dramatic role. His character projects his mind into the past to alter terrible events, but his attempts to improve things cause others to go horribly wrong. Ignore the negative reviews, and see The Butterfly Effect with an open mind. It might even induce you to re-examine events in your own life.
Now that these movies are on DVD, they may expand their audiences considerably. People seem to be more daring in their home-video choices. There is nothing wrong with pure escapism, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect more from an art form.
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (March 29):Vera Drake, Closer, After the Sunset, and National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers.