David Gordon Green's Snow Angels strikes me as the best new fiction film of 2008, as well as the filmmaker's most accomplished work to date. I wish those judgments reflected a broad consensus, but they don't. Reviews of the movie have been all over the map, which no doubt says something not only about the film's unusual ambitions and strategies but also critics' continuing disagreement about Green.
There's a certain view, aptly represented by A.O. Scott's pan of Snow Angels in The New York Times, which says that Green's best work came in his Winston-Salem-set first feature, George Washington, which catapulted the young Texas-born director out of the N.C. School of the Arts School of Film onto the national stage. Of the three films Green has made since then, Scott bluntly says, "Each one is less special than the one before."
If that's the straight-downhill view of Green's career, perhaps my own could be called the even-numbered-triumphs view. I found George Washington precious and inchoate, despite the huge number of raves hurled at it, while Undertow, his third feature, still looks like an erratic and misguided detour into Southern gothic. If those two movies comprised his whole catalogue, I would no doubt consider Green an artistic nonentity whose debut had been vastly and mystifyingly overrated.
But Green's second film, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels, his fourth, convince me he's a major talent. These movies combine a lyrical sense of life's perplexing vagaries with a keenly observed vision of human interaction.
From a cultural/ geographic standpoint, Green's films have traced an interesting itinerary. The first two were set in North Carolina, the third in Georgia; given that for a while he was slated to direct A Confederacy of Dunces, there was an understandable sense early on that he was consciously defining himself as a Southern artist.
Yet Snow Angels, which Green scripted from a novel by Stewart O'Nan, takes place in a wintry, nondescript town in Pennsylvania (the film was shot in Nova Scotia). Is there a logic here, in terms of the films' achievements? To me there is, yet it has to do not with geography but class. George Washington was set among lower-class blacks, Undertow among low-class whites, and part of the problem I had with both films was I didn't believe the characters; they seemed like fanciful constructs rather than actual people.
All the Real Girls and Snow Angels, on the other hand, take place among middle-class folks who feel like they might be familiar to the director. It's not that I can identify with the characters; it's that Green convinces me that he understands them.
Snow Angels has evoked comparisons to the fictional realm of Russell Banks, which has received admirable screen treatment in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter and Paul Schrader's Affliction. In all of these films, people in small towns live intertwined lives in which a host of ordinary problems—infidelity, alcoholism, illness—verge toward sudden eruptions of tragedy. In Snow Angels, the difference is that this tragic impetus is surprisingly balanced by a countervailing force, one that asserts the claims of life and even happiness against despair and death.
If that suggests a rather tricky combination of dramatic tones, it also points toward one of the most fascinating and subtle achievements of Green's film. During the first hour of Snow Angels, I would have described the film as a comedy, a quirky and droll view of intersecting lives not unlike those found in many Robert Altman movies. By its conclusion, the tale takes a much darker turn, yet this occurs without any abrupt or jarring tonal shift—understated proof that the film's compassionate, studied gaze can embrace extremes of fortune and behavior.
If Green's films show that he is a poet not of isolated individuals but of families, lovers and small groups, the small-towners of Snow Angels comprise his richest collective portrait yet. Of the tale's many characters, two at its center are connected by both past and present circumstances. When teenager Arthur (Michael Angarano) was a kid, he was babysat by Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who currently works alongside him in a Chinese restaurant. Though he may still harbor a bit of a crush on her, Arthur mainly serves as a witness to the increasing disarray of his attractive co-worker's life.
Annie lives with her young daughter Tara (Gracie Hudson) and is carrying on a desultory affair with a local lothario named Nate (Nicky Katt), who's married to her friend and co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris). But the real messiness in Annie's life centers on her ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a desperate, addled guy who keeps trying to get a grip on his life's loose ends, only to fumble them more drastically with each new attempt. Every time he visits Tara or makes a new stab at patching things up with Annie, the walls seem to tremble with the precariousness of his insupportable hopes.
Though Arthur catches occasional glimpses of the challenges Annie faces outside the restaurant, he has his own concerns to deal with. His parents are divorcing, and this seems to have propelled him into brooding over the honesty and viability of romantic relationships. That question takes on a new importance when he starts hanging out with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), an arty schoolmate who has decided that shy, slightly goofy Arthur would make a dandy boyfriend.
The slowly dawning emotional attraction between Arthur and Lila—set amid her amateur photography and his marching band practice—has the same lyrical appreciation of youthful awkwardness found in Green's other films, and it forms a counter-arc to the inexorably deteriorating relationship of Annie and Glenn. Some critics who dislike the film complain that the two story strands don't mesh well, and that the account of young love is the more original and compelling element. This may, however, be another way of saying that romantic comedy is more appealing than stark tragedy, or that Green should only do what he's already proved he can do exceedingly well.
To me, though, Snow Angels is his best film because he reaches far beyond what he's achieved before. Moment by moment, scene by scene, it has a confidence and a precision that never falter. Coaxing brilliantly imagined performances from his large cast, Green manages the tricky task of describing this suburban world of malls, factories, high schools and middle-class homes in a way that exactingly examines its incriminating fissures yet is never glib or condescending.
As for combining the comic and the tragic, that's not just an adroitly managed artistic coup. It also strikes me as something of a philosophical sally, one that might be more easily recognized as such if the film hailed from France or Iran. In America we like even our art films to stay within neat genre boundaries. But life has a funny way of refusing to remain so compartmentalized, and in contrasting two very different outcomes of the common impulse to couple, Green creates a film that upsets artificially neat categories, offering us a disturbing glimpse of the constant proximity of horror and felicity.
Snow Angels opens Friday in select theaters.
As usual, the 2008 Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film category was scored for including the nominations of apparent nonentities while ignoring such acclaimed films as Romania's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. And when the trophy went to Stefan Ruzowitzsky's The Counterfeiters, victory seemed to go to a cliché—the Austrian film, after all, is yet another drama of the Holocaust, the only subject the Academy's geriatric voters favor above films about old folks and kids.
But don't hold The Counterfeiters' Oscar or its setting against it because Ruzowitzky's film turns out to be a gripping, sharply mounted drama that illuminates an obscure historical episode of extraordinary fascinations.
Its story concerns Operation Bernhard, a secret operation in which the Nazis used concentration camp inmates to forge Bank of England currency that was intended to flood and destabilize the British economy. The film's protagonist, Jewish forger Salomon Sorowitsch (excellent Karl Markovics), first attracts his Nazi captors' attention for his drawing skills, then finds himself put in charge of a motley crew of artists and artisans charged with creating undetectable copies of foreign banknotes.
If this sounds like the recipe for a film of pulse-quickening suspense, it is. Alfred Hitchcock would have delighted in the tale's omnipresent mood of menace and suspicion.
But Ruzowitsky's script, adapted from a memoir by one of the forgers, also boasts expertly realized moral, psychological and political dimensions that all hinge on a wrenching dilemma: Do the forgers save their own lives by aiding the Nazi war effort or sabotage the plan and join other Jews in the gas chambers?
No austere art film, The Counterfeiters is full of deft plot twists and adroit directorial flourishes. Like another recent foreign-language Oscar winner, the German drama The Lives of Others, it manages to be historically incisive, dramatically complex and unashamedly entertaining all at once.
The Counterfeiters opens Friday in select theaters.