Best of 2009 – A Different Vision of War

(*This will be my last Best of 2009 post before my Top Ten of the year)

It isn’t always that we see the war genre be taken anywhere new. For the most part, the aim for most war films is either to honor the war veterans who have fallen or have an anti-war agenda in mind. Few times do we see filmmakers set their sights on trying to break away from the many cliches that shackle most films from the genre from reaching an above mediocre status. So it’s almost uncanny we see a year where two vastly different films come to present a new look at the common war film.

First is Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful comeback film, the Hurt Locker, which sidesteps the obvious political implications that have brought about the military action in Iraq nor any senseless commentary about the dehumanization of young men into soldiers; instead director Bigelow and screen writer and former American journalist Mark Boal focus on exploring the psyche of 21st century solider as well as utilizing modern military technology and warfare that will surely remind audiences that are so used to watching war films about WWII or Vietnam how war has evolved. Seeing how the US army’s EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team disposes of bombs is something that really hasn’t been dealt with in many war films and makes for some phenomenal set pieces including a fantastic beginning scene as well as and another near the end that is just heart breaking.  But the film’s action sequences are secondary; The real focus are on the relationship of the three soldiers on the EOD team played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. We follow them together as they go through their tour in Bagdad and we see how each character is physically and emotionally affected by the war. A very interesting part of the film is how Bigelow and Boal explores the notion that some soldiers feel more comfortable at war then back home. This isn’t anything new since it’s been explored many times before from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to other films like Michael Cimino’s Oscar winning Deer Hunter. But the film manages to give us a fresh look at it that feels at more honest than other war films. It show this as we see the character of SSgt. William James takes pride and enjoyment of his work in as a bomb disposal expert. we see him experiencing the emotional high and excitement when threes little time to work with and the pressure is on him. The film begins with the quote: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” and for James that’s the truth. There’s a moment in the ending where we see James back home after his tour of duty is up,there’s almost a feeling that we aren’t seeing the same character. Because the film has such great writing and acting,  the characterization of  the Will James character come off as a recycled war hero cliche, but one of the most complex film protagonists the genre has ever seen.

Credit should also be given to casting, giving the lead roles to young unknown actors, while having big name veteran actors like Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in smaller roles. But the decision pays off with Jeremy Remmer giving one of the years best performances and Anthony Mackie also giving one of the mst understated and most underrated performances of the year. I suspect Remmer to get his share of award nominations, as well as Bigelow for directing her best film since her audacious debut, the vampire-western Near Dark back in ’87; but i hope Mackie isn’t forgotten during the award season because I truly believe his performance was as good as Remmers’.

But as Bigelow’s Hurt Locker showed a realistic depiction of a war that may still seem alien to us, Quentin Tarantino takes what may be the most famous war of the 20th century and rewrites the end. Tarantino’s revisionist pop art war film continues the director’s celebration and critique of the exploitation genres of the 60s and 70s (which started back in the early 90s when he reworked old pulp novel ideas in his critical hit Pulp Fiction to creating his own road slasher/Carsploitation feature, Death Proof). But here Tarantino sets his eyes on creating a spaghetti western disguised as a massive ensemble war epic (something along the lines of The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare). With enough obscure film references (from the using the name of Mexican B-film mexploitation actor Hugo Stiglitz, to name of the film itself taken from Enzo Castellari’s 1978 film), brilliantly written dialogue, fantastic characters, and enough stylistic violence, Inglourious Basterds is a fitting new installment to Tarantino’s film catalog.

The film follows various story lines leading up to the premiere of a new German propaganda feature called Stolz Der Nation (Nation’s Pride). With a vast amount of characters including the Basterds, a Dirty Dozen type of group comprised of Jewish solders that fight on the side of the Allies and led by the psychotic and charismatic Aldo Raine, or as the Nazi know him, “Aldo the Apache.” Their mission is to infiltrate the premiere and destroy all the high Nazi cammand attending (including the Führer himself). Other great characters include Shosanna Dreyfus, a French Jewish girl, whose cinema that will premiere Nation’s Pride, looking for revenge after watching her family be slaughtered by Nazi soldiers, and Standartenführer Hans Landa, a sinister Nazi soldier who’s been known by many by his  nickname, “The Jew Hunter.” The film is a sprawling epic that attempts to re-write the pages of history and get away it; The achievement of the film is that it does.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the film has faced it’s share of criticism for it’s cartoonish representation of the war, lack of Jewish content, and the idea of turning the tables and having the Jews terrorize Nazis. If you criticize the film because of that, then you’re overlooking the beauty of the film. To argue the historical accuracy of Tarantino’s film would be the equivalent of arguing the historical accuracy of an Indiana Jones film (which had it’s share of Nazi killing as well). This film is supposed to be an entertaining, not a history lesson. But the reason the film appeals to me is because, like many of Tarantion’s film, Inglourious Basterds is a celebration of cinema. From characters like the Film critic who’s enlisted to fight for Britain and the German spy who is also a popular German actress, to the endless references to Riefenstahl and G.W.Pabst, to the fact the film’s climax takes place in cinema, Tarantino has created a one of kind war film for cinephiles everywhere.

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