WHO GOT WHAT Javier Bardem, Best Actor, National Board of Review. He's also a Golden Globe nominee.
WHY THE CRITICS LOVE IT A sad-eyed gay man becomes a victim-hero as he endures the twin scourges of Castro and AIDS.
WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT Looking for a male weepie with art-house credentials? Julian Schnabel's sprawling biography of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas spans a half-century, two countries, two languages, two extremes of regimes. Batista's rapacious tyranny keeps most people poor; Castro's stern, homophobic communism keeps them miserable. Bardem, who was excellent as the crippled husband in Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh, plays a noble fellow suffering at the whip hand of a sadistic dreamboat like Johnny Depp, then wilting tragically from AIDS. It's a serious actor's dream role: to be a gay Jesus in a modern Passion Play.
THEN AGAIN...For all the dramatic incident and giddy camerawork (Schnabel, whose day job is painting, wants to keep this canvas moving, for any or no reason), the film is pretty logy, a trudging catalog of depredations and atrocities. Bardem hasn't the charisma to bring variety to Arenas or his plight. The only leavenings are guest turns by Depp (good in two roles, as the torturer and a drag queen) and Sean Penn, in gold tooth and brownface, as a skeptical peasant. Penn's twisted delivery of the line, "I won't join the rebels"--it comes out "I no yoin thee rebels"--is just one of this film's unintended comic highlights.
Yi Yi: a One and a Two
WHO GOT WHAT Edward Yang won the Best Director prize at Cannes; Yi Yi was named Best Foreign Language Film by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
WHY THE CRITICS LOVE IT This is elevated soap opera filmed with patience and subtlety. A Taipei family tiptoes individually and together to the precipice of crisis: a father whose business needs a new-media fix from a Japanese swami (the marvelous Issey Ogata), a mother who seeks emotional solace in a Buddhist retreat, plus other hearts breaking from romantic despair or breaking down from old age. Opening with a wedding fracas and closing with a funeral, Yi Yi puts the trials of three generations delicately on view.
WHY YOU MIGHT NOT Art films today are often slow films, and if Yi Yi's pulse were any slower it would merit not a review but an autopsy. At 2 hr. 53 min., it contains many scenes of silent staring into the middle distance--human disasters made statuesque and static.
THEN AGAIN...Not every movie has to shout. Yang's visual whispers have a cumulative impact. The viewer gets to know each member of the troubled family, to see what makes them unique--and universal. Yang is like the family's wise young son (Jonathan Chang) who takes pictures of the backs of people's heads. "You couldn't see it," he says, "so I showed you." Yang takes pictures of the pain in people's souls.
Shadow of the Vampire
WHO GOT WHAT Willem Dafoe, Golden Globe nominee, Best Supporting Actor.
WHY THE CRITICS LOVE IT A movie about the making of a legendary silent movie, E. Elias Merhige's atmospheric drama imagines that Max Schreck, the actor who played the Dracula-like Count Orlock in the 1922 classic Nosferatu, really was a vampire. John Malkovich parades in fine, fey style as German director F.W. Murnau, and Dafoe, unrecognizable in Schreck's rodentoid pallor, is a hoot and a horror as the ultimate Method actor.
WHY YOU MIGHT NOT The comic camping is too facile. Malkovich's Teutonic twittering soon palls; he was funnier, and eerier, when he was being John Malkovich. And Merhige has gone a bit mainstream for those of us who treasure his 1991 Begotten as a great phantasmagoric weirdie: black and white, no dialogue and plenty creepy--just like Nosferatu.
THEN AGAIN...We wouldn't want to keep a good director from making a living. Merhige and writer Steven Katz have fashioned a wicked homage to the dank nuttiness of filmmaking--and to the notion that movies can suck the life out of those who make them, even as they give life to those who see them. Besides, Dafoe is one fetid mesmerizer. When an actress recoils from doing a scene with Schreck, Murnau lightly advises, "Relax and let the vampire do all the work." Dafoe does that, brilliantly blending comedy with the melancholy of the damned.