Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


So another Cork Film Festival has come and gone, and I have given my critical opinion of all the flicks that I managed to see. But one thing that struck me this year was how many of the movies elicited a visceral emotional reaction from me. Maybe I am just getting in more touch with my feelings. After all, that is what movies are supposed to do: affect us emotionally—as well as mentally. But when you have seen a lot of movies, it is hard not to see most of them with jaded objectivity.

But many of the movies I saw at Cork would not let me get by being aloof. They grabbed me and made me feel something. Sometimes it was something good, more often it was something bad. But just because a movie makes you feel bad doesn’t mean that you don’t like the movie. But sometimes it does. Is that confusing enough?

As film critics like to say, sometimes a movie can be completely depressing but the viewer (well, the film critic anyway) gets exhilarated by the sheer joy of seeing a wonderfully made film. That may be true sometimes, but for me, a movie—even if it wants to wallow in depressing stuff—needs to have something that the heart can grab on to. Sometimes the message of a movie cannot be redeemed by fine craftsmanship.

Anyway, this got me thinking about trying something different. I’ve already rated the movies I saw in terms of quality/appreciation, which is somewhat different from how they might be ranked in terms of how much I really, really liked them or how good they made me feel. So I have compiled a list of the films that I saw at the Cork festival, and I have ranked them in order (on a scale from wonderful to icky) of how they made me feel (as opposed to how much I liked them). Warning: spoilers will inevitably creep in. And I will plan to deal belatedly with the passing of screen legend Deborah Kerr, as well as Joey Bishop, next time.

  • In the Shadow of the Moon: This was far and away the feel-good movie of the festival. It allows us to relive a time that seems very distant now. A time when the entire world had its attention riveted on a major event that wasn’t a war or an atrocity, but a technical and exploratory achievement. A time when the world felt that America was acting on behalf of all humanity. The heroes of the movie are plain, uncomplicated, decent American men who, at once, exemplify what is corny about America and what is great about it.

  • Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly): Here is an example of a movie that should in no way come off as feel-good, but it does because of its life-affirming energy, which stays with you long after the tragic circumstances of the story have begun to recede into memory. The movie does not inspire pessimism so much as it helps us to appreciate how precious life is.

  • Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory): This story is ultimately a tragedy, but there is something exhilarating about seeing the indemonstrable human spirit struggle against injustice and the odds and, if even for a short time, prevail. The movie is cornier than the Hungarian people deserved, but it’s a stirring tribute nonetheless.

  • Indigènes (Days of Glory): Another film about glory. This treatment of the neglected history of the role played in World War II by recruits from France’s colonies has its share of feel-bad elements. But what comes through, despite the poisoned fruit of imperialism and racism, is the heroism of brave men who found courage and gave their all for, what was still after all, the right cause. One comment I read on a web site contended that the movie demonstrated that the French were no better than the Germans. The French, like everyone else, have a lot to answer for, but to say that in the 1940s they were morally equivalent to the murderers of 6 million people is the kind of flaky thinking that afflicts way too much so-called political discourse these days.

  • You Kill Me: Normally a movie about a guy who kills people for a living would be kind of a downer. But we are not to take the professional assassin thing seriously. We don’t actually see him kill anyone—except for one guy who deserves it, and then he gives it up anyway. In other words, redemption is possible. And, in this movie, so is love and friendship, no matter what your baggage is. How could you not feel good about that?

  • Prête-moi ta main (I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single): Just because a movie makes you feel good for a couple of hours doesn’t mean it has to make you feel good about yourself for feeling good while watching it. This flick’s artificial device is basically a deconstruction of the negotiation that goes on in every developing relationship. The miracle is that these negotiations are so often successful, in spite of the egos of the people involved. Anyway, how can you not feel good about a movie that, in the end, celebrates love and family and the ways family drives one crazy.

  • Chansons d’amour (Love Songs): Losing the one you love is a downer, but recovering from the loss and getting on with your life could be an upper. Overall, it should be a wash. But watching attractive young French people sing and, occasionally, couple tips the balance in favor of feeling all right.

  • 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days): Now this isn’t an obvious candidate for a feel-good movie, and it isn’t one. Indeed, it is a downright difficult movie to watch. But it does, unexpectedly, reveal something hopeful about the human spirit. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this harrowing tale is set during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. As young Otilia does her best to support her friend in her dilemma, and suffers for her trouble, she demonstrates that indominable human spirit that keeps people going, no matter what. It’s a slender reed of good feeling to grab onto, but there it is. There is also something oddly liberating about seeing the horror of an (illegal) abortion actually laid bare, complete with the trauma of the young prospective mother and the tiny being that is terminated. It provides a reality check for easy slogans like “pro-choice” and “pro-life.".

  • Boy A: This movie should be depressing as hell, and it kinda is. But it got a huge applause from the audience when it was over. Did they like being brought down? No, there is still something uplifting about the human spirit here. Despite its downer ending (hey, I warned you about spoilers) it still holds out the possibility that we can redeem ourselves and we shouldn’t have to be trapped by the past. Also, the main character, played by Andrew Garfield, is so engaging and full of hope that we cannot help but feel good watching him try.

  • Fade to Black: It’s hard to feel anything about the story because it has all the human empathy of an episode of Murder, She Wrote. But it makes a film fan feel somewhat good to see (a fictionalized version of) Orson Welles brought back to the screen for a bit of fun.

  • The Nines: This movie should actually feel better than it does. After all, it ends with a father and daughter making pancakes. But given the artifice of the movie’s conceit, it doesn’t really let us take anything that happens in the movie to heart. Watching this flick may do our mind some good, but it really doesn’t do much for our heart.

  • The Savages: Any movie that allows us to find humor in some of the most difficult times that practically all human beings go through (here the failing of an elderly parent) cannot help but lift our spirits a bit. And I did get pleasure from the shock of recognition of myself and others close to me in these characters. But underneath the wry, darkly funny tone of this movie, there is something profoundly sad, even beyond the death of a loved one. The sister and brother in this movie are depressingly unconnected. Sure, they weren’t dealt the best lot in terms of family and they manage the best they can with relationships, in their own inept ways. And, sure, it looks like there might have been some growth from their experience with their father. Having been myself with a parent when she died and found it an unexpectedly amazing and spiritual privilege, I (by contrast) felt that—when the father in the movie passes away and Laura Linney asks, somewhat disappointed, “Is that it?"—it was so incredibly sad.

  • The 11th Hour: This movie wants us to feel bad and then it wants us to feel hopeful. But mostly what it made me feel was annoyed that I had paid money to see an elaborate commercial. I know that makes me sound like a bad person. After all, the makers of this film have nothing but good and sincere intentions. But they are nothing but shameless when they revisit all manner of natural disasters and basically imply that none of them would be happening if the steam and combustion engines had not been invented. The fact is that many of the measures that most environmentalists favor can be argued and defended on their own merits—without threatening people with the apocalypse. That trick sounds better when coming from bona fide religious fundamentalists.

  • No Country for Old Men: The best movie of the festival also happens to be one of the most spiritually depressing. It’s view of the world, as seen through the eyes of the character played by Tommy Lee Jones, that makes human nature seem very bleak indeed. Javier Bardem rampages with eery and unsettling calm through the narrative like some insatiable angel of death. And there is nothing most (if not all) people can do about it. So, given the film’s bleak view of things, why is it so good? Because it’s so darn exciting! And visceral exhilaration counts for a lot when watching a movie.

  • Se, jie (Lust, Caution): There is not much here to lift one’s spirit. The view of the world we get here is one where people are locked into their physical lust or their murderous work or both. There is not even the consolation of an uplifting political message. The historical context is similar to that of Children of Glory, i.e. a country struggling against occupiers. But we get no sense of Chinese patriotism the way we do of Hungarian patriotism in Children.

  • Botched: This, of course, exists not to make us feel good but to make us laugh, even while we get grossed out. Only because it is a sick comedy and not taking itself seriously does it rate above the ones below.

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray: What’s to feel good about here? The filmmaker takes what was essentially a morality tale and makes it essentially an immorality tale. Dorian Gray was bad enough in his original incarnation, but at least his main problem was that he was vain. In this update, he is a psycho serial killer. The irony is that, if anything can make a person feel good, it is the wit of the brilliant Oscar Wilde. Some of his words are here, but his wit is painfully absent.

  • Zoo: Why should this movie make me feel so bad? After all, shouldn’t my generally libertarian philosophy tell me to shrug and let other people do their own thing, as long as it doesn’t involve me directly? Yeah, but the movie invites me to share the thoughts and feelings of this community of men who give the term “horse lovers” a whole new meaning. And I find them very tortured souls, even if they insist that they are not. You can argue the morality of bestiality, but I don’t think you can argue that its devotees have not cut themselves off from what defines us as human. Apparently, a lot of people agree with me. Some of these guys came to Washington state because there was no law there against bestiality. That quickly changed when these events came to light.

  • The Killing of John Lennon: This is the ultimate feel-bad movie of the festival. One can argue which would be worse: to become the unwelcome object of Mark Chapman’s attention or to actually be Mark Chapman himself. This movie allows us, vicariously, to experience both. Ecchh. Where’s the shower?

    -S.L., 25 October 2007

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