Film Break: Philip Seymour Hoffman Round-Up
2008– the Year in Music– is winding to a halt. I celebrated my fifteen favorite recordings of the year earlier this week, concluding a series of year-end wrap-up features that have been popping up on The Hurst Review for several weeks. And I’ve already heard a handful of prominent releases that are set to drop in the early months of 2009; I’m working on a review of Buddy and Julie Miller’s new album for a magazine I write for, and, believe it or not, I’ve heard a couple of others records that already have me thinking 2009 is going to be a landmark year for music.
2008– the Year in Film– is, in many ways, just kicking into high gear. There are so many great movies that I’ve either seen recently or will be seeing very soon, plus so many others down the road, that I doubt I’ll post my final Favorite Films list until late January. But I do hope to be sharing some thoughts on these movies in the coming weeks; I’m catching Slumdog Millionaire and The Tale of Despereaux in the coming few days, and am eager to catch up with Milk, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Seven Pounds, and the season’s other big attractions later in the month.
For now, let me say two things. For one, even if all of those films turn out to be rubbish, 2008 is already a spectacular, historic year for film. It earned the honor long before the summer was even over; The Dark Knight is an American epic of mammoth proportions, Wall*E the best hard science fiction film in two decades, and the unfairly maligned Speed Racer the most stunning visual achievement in recent memory. And that’s to say nothing of the early Oscar flicks and arthouse fare.
Which brings me to the second point: More and more, I am becoming convinced that Philip Seymour Hoffman is among the very best actors working today. I’ve loved him for several years, thanks to his excellent supporting turns as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and the foul-mouthed slob in Punch-drunk Love, to say nothing of the impeccable Capote, but there are two new films released this year that confirm his greatness.
One of them, Synecdoche, New York, is the basis for one of the most radical emotional arcs in my personal moviegoing history. Upon initial viewing, the film left me bewildered, frustrated, and annoyed. Then I went home, couldn’t stop thinking about it, stayed up half the night reading reviews and interpretations of it, and was convinced by morning that I loved it. Which is not to say that it isn’t among the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen– it is– but Charlie Kaufman’s strangest and most ambitious film yet (and his debut as a director) is an endlessly complicated and imaginative exploration of the role of art, the nature of truth, the search for meaning, the frustrations of the creative life, and the power of story. I join Roger Ebert in his praise of the relentlessly metaphorical, metaphysical, and sometimes downright maddening genius of the film. Oh yeah, and Hoffman is really great in it.
He’s even better, though, in Doubt— in fact, his role as a big-hearted, compassionate priest might be his finest work yet, even better than Capote. A much easier movie to watch and to write about, Doubt is a big-screen parable about trust, secrets, lies, paranoia, power, and compassion, and it wears its own theatricality and on-stage roots on its sleeve: The story is painted in broad strokes, the camera angles are wide and larger-than-life, Meryl Streep is wonderfully over-the-top. Hoffman is more complex and subdued, though the best scenes are the ones in which the two actors spar, leading to some of the year’s most intense and intimate big-screen moments. That the film has sparked so much discussion– over the motivations of Streep’s character, over the rightness or wrongness of her allegations against Hoffman’s– only speaks to what a rich piece of storytelling it is. and in many ways, it’s the polar opposite of Kaufman’s film; there’s no cinematic trickery or subtle symbolism, simply a great story, told with amazing clarity but also great nuance and sophistication.
They’re both great, though only one of them is recommended for any but the most avid movie buffs. And they’ll probably both pop up on my Favorite Films list, whenever it emerges. But who knows? There’s a lot of moviegoing still to come. Stay tuned.