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A Christmas Tale

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Academy Double Dip. | My Trouble with Oscar.

“‘After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,’ said academy President Sid Ganis. ‘The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.’” Most likely realizing that a nod for The Dark Knight last year would’ve doubled their television ratings, the Academy Awards pads out to ten Best Picture nominees.

Ten, really? I know I pick 20 movies for my review round-up every year, but still: most years it’s hard to come up with five or six worthy nominees, much less ten. It’d be better if they went to a system where “up to” ten movies were chosen, but not necessarily that many if the pickings were slim that year. In any case, maybe Hollywood needed an “Oscar Stimulus Package,” but given that it’s still the same people voting for the winners, I tend to think the Academy will probably continue to get it wrong most years regardless. Just looking at the past decade:

1999: American Beauty wins. Not a particularly poor choice by Academy standards, I guess, but the other nominees include a sop to the box office (The Sixth Sense) and by-the-numbers drek like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. (Only other worthy nominee: The Insider.) Meanwhile, many of the best and most groundbreaking films of the year — Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix — are all overlooked.

2000: Gladiator. Terrible choice. The worthy nominees are Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and *possibly* Erin Brockovich. Chocolat makes the cut thanks to the Miramax machine. Left unnominated: Requiem for a Dream, Wonder Boys, O Brother Where Art Thou, and High Fidelity.

2001: A Beautiful Mind. A stunningly bad choice, and easily the worst of the five films nominated. The Oscar should probably have gone to In the Bedroom or Fellowship of the Ring, although Gosford Park and (tho’ I didn’t like it much) Moulin Rouge! are respectable picks. Left off the wheel: Mulholland Drive, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ghost World, Amelie, and Sexy Beast.

2002: Chicago — I never saw it, but not a particularly good year for film anyway. Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist all make sense as contenders. The Hours (another Miramax film)…not so much. Possible adds: The 25th Hour, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Far from Heaven, About a Boy.

2003: Return of the King runs away with everything, which is deserving but also feels somewhat dutiful after the previous two years. (FotR is easily the best film of the three, imho.) Most of the other nominees are well-chosen — Lost in Translation,
Master and Commander, Mystic River — with the possible exception of Seabiscuit. Other possibles include The Quiet American, Finding Nemo, Dirty Pretty Things, House of Sand and Fog, Monster, City of God, and L’Auberge Espagnole…but it’s probably more likely that extra nods would’ve gone to the heaps of middling Oscar bait that year, like Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, or 21 Grams.

2004: Million Dollar Baby. A certifiable stinker, and arguably Clint Eastwood’s least-deserving movie of the decade. (Mystic River or Letters from Iwo Jima are closer to caliber.) It beats out The Aviator and Sideways, as well as Finding Neverland (Miramax) and Ray (never saw it). Off the board: Hotel Rwanda, Before Sunset, Garden State, Kinsey, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Spiderman 2, In Good Company, The Incredibles, and — most egregiously — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If I had to guess, Closer and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Miramax) might’ve snagged undeserving nods in a field of ten.

2005: Crash. Another woeful pick, it won over a respectable field of contenders (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich.) That being said, Syriana and the best film of 2005, The New World, weren’t even nominated. Neither were Layer Cake, Ballets Russes, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, Cache, Match Point, The Constant Gardener, Grizzly Man, Batman Begins, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. All these — and many others — were better than Crash.

2006: Scorsese wins a charity Oscar with The Departed, beating out worthwhiles Letters from Iwo Jima (the best choice of the 5) and The Queen, as well as more dubious picks Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. The best film of the year, United 93, isn’t nominated. Nor is Children of Men, The Lives of Others, The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Inside Man. It’s reasonable to suspect that additional Oscar nods might’ve gone to the likes of The Last King of Scotland, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

2007: No Country for Old Men — A fine choice. I’d say this year Oscar almost got it right…but the other nominees are still somewhat suspect. Michael Clayton, ok, There Will Be Blood, sure. But Atonement and Juno? I’d rather have seen The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Zodiac, The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, In the Valley of Elah, The Assassination of Jesse James, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or my favorite film of the year, I’m Not There, get their due.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire (ugh) beats out Milk, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader. Of those, Milk and F/N are solid, and ideally would’ve been paired with The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Let the Right One In, and/or WALL-E. Other possibles include Man on Wire, Snow Angels, Waltz with Bashir, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Iron Man, and The Visitor…although it seems more likely Oscar would’ve gone with Gran Torino, A Christmas Tale, Doubt, Revolutionary Road, or Valkyrie.

So, to review, in only one of the past ten years (2003) did Oscar pick the movie i’d argue was actually the best that year, although even that one feels a bit de rigueur. (Admittedly, they came close in 2007 as well.) In six of those ten years (1999, 2004-2008), my best film of the year wasn’t even nominated. In four of those ten years (’01, ’04, ’05, ’08), a — to my mind, of course — certifiably lousy film won Best Picture. And in three other years — ’99, ’00, and ’06 — an at best middling movie won the top prize. Not exactly what you’d call a record of distinction.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007]


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.


2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.


3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.


4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.


5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.


6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.


7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.


8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)


9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”


10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.


11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.


12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.


13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.


14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.


15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.


16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.


17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.


18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.


19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.


20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,

Hrm.

Do They Know It’s Christmas Time at All?

A cancer-stricken mother. Three disgruntled siblings. A buried family tragedy. All together for the holidays. If Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, which I caught at the local Sunday morning Film Forum, were an American movie, it’s a safe bet to guess it’d be schmaltzy and cloying as all hell. (In fact, you could argue this premise has already been explored here several times, both decently well (The Royal Tenenbaums) and as exactly the sort of saccharine-infused claptrap one would expect (The Family Stone.)) But, no, A Christmas Tale is a French film through and through, and as such it veers far closer to the rambling and pretentious than it does to grade-USA Christmas schmaltz. This is the type of movie that introduces its acts with title cards (“Jubilation,” “Ghosts”), where any family scab worth picking at once is worth picking at three times, and where folks sometimes read timely Nietzsche quotations to each other…just like your house at Christmas, I’m sure.

I don’t mean to be hard on the film — In fact, I mostly enjoyed it. It’s textured and novelistic and relatively engaging, if a little long at two and a half hours. But it’s also very much the kind of story that moves a certain type of film snob — I’m looking at you, Andrew O’Hehir — to overpraise, usually exclaiming something along the lines of “Finally, a film about ‘real people’ rather than costumed superfreaks!” (See also David Edelstein on (the very good) Man on Wire for this tendency at its most innocuous, or David Denby on the last Matrix for it at its worst.)

Now, I don’t really see the two as mutually exclusive — there’re enough films to go around — and I’d like to think I enjoy both. (Would The Wrestler have been better with outer-space werewolves? I doubt it. Ok, well, maybe.) Nevertheless, while I was entertained by the film, Christmas set off my “Emperor’s New Clothes'” pretentiousness-detector relatively early in its run (It’s been finely honed over my time in grad school.) Call me a Berkman-style philistine if you will, but 140 minutes of watching the Vuillards — the clan of this particular christmas carol — wrestle with their family traumas over wine and jazz standards, often in not-quite-believable fashion, was just about enough for me.

After a father’s speech over a gravesite, A Christmas Tale begins with a sad fairy tale of sorts. (It’s told with puppet silhouettes, as per Henry Selick or Amelie.) Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon, marrying up) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve, still a beauty) had two children, Joseph and Elizabeth. But Joseph, it soon turns out, suffers from a disease of the bone marrow, and neither his parents nor Elizabeth are compatible with him. So, the couple has another child, Henri, but he too cannot save Joseph, and the Vuillards’ first-born perishes. A fourth child, Ivan, comes later, but the original sin of the family is set: Henri could not save his older brother’s life, and thus, for all intent and purposes, he was born a failure.

In the modern-day, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, the nurse of Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has grown into a melancholy playwright with a distant husband and a schizophrenic son (Emile Berline). Her brother Henri (Mathieu Almaric, also of Diving Bell) is basically a screw-up, living down to everyone’s expectations of him enough that Elizabeth eventually banishes him from her presence. Ivan, the youngest (Melvil Poupaud), is the charismatic peace-maker of the family, who hopes to bring his siblings together again. (But he has his own domestic problem, of which he is dimly aware: a potential love-triangle involving his wife (Chiara Mastroianni, looking frighteningly like her famous father and playing the daughter-in-law of her mother) and his cousin (Laurent Capelluto).) Into this fractured family dynamic, a bombshell is dropped — Junon, the matriarch, is diagnosed with the same fatal cancer that felled Joseph years earlier. And this time, irony of ironies, the only compatible relatives for a life-prolonging bone marrow transplant are Elizabeth’s son…and Henri the exile. Who’s got the hand now, big sister?

This story, along with several other strands of interaction, slowly develops over the Christmas week, as all the various wings of the Vuillards get cooped up together, back in the nest. To its credit, A Christmas Tale doesn’t push on these narratives, but lets them unfold organically over the course of the movie. In fact, the film isn’t really plot-driven at all — It moves languidly to the rhythm of conversation, and there are a number of clever or resonant ideas buried therein. The transplant on everyone’s mind works as a great metaphor for the whole enterprise — Junon’s body could very well reject Henri’s marrow, i.e. the gift of family could well kill her, which is very far from the notion of family as an unadulterated joy that you might find in your average holiday film. (Indeed, mother and son have a grand ole time continually expressing their (feigned) indifference toward one another, although that’s clearly mostly for show.)

Still, as the movie progresses, and the same underlying tensions simmer to near-boil over and over again, and the big issues (mortality, infidelity) get shrugged off while small ones turn into battles of bon mots or even fistfights, I began to feel quite a bit like Henri’s girlfriend-along-for-the-ride (Emmanuel Devos), who checks out of the proceedings well before the jig is up. That sure is a great family you have there, Msr. and Mme. Vuillard. Happy holidays, good luck with the transplant, and bon soir. I’m sure y’all will have a swell time with the ritualistic airing of grievances without me.

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