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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#33: Birth
(USA, 2004; dir. Jonathan Glazer; cin. Harris Savides; with Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Anne Heche, Lauren Bacall, Peter Stormare, Arliss Howard, Alison Elliott, Ted Levine, Cara Seymour, Zoe Caldwell, Novella Nelson)
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A breathless, typical, and totally verbatim excerpt of a recent conversation I had with Nathaniel when he was my houseguest for a weekend: "Let's stay in, make some food, and watch movies where women lie to themselves!" Were Blockbuster or Hollywood Video ever under our jurisdiction, to say nothing of Hollywood itself, this is the kind of genre that would get major play. Maybe even the most play. Those under-employed actresses over 40 you keep hearing about? No more worries. Safes and Vera Drakes and Under the Sands and Autumn Sonatas for everyone!

At the time of this writing, Nicole Kidman isn't even 40 yet but she has already offered a peculiarly fascinating entry in this delicious tradition. One of many astonishing passages in Birth, preceding a coda as fragile and clear as a bell jar, involves her pleading monologue to a spurned lover, a thrumming fugue of stuttering self-delusion of a breed seldom heard since Safe's Carol White soliloquized about diseases and reading labels and going into buildings. Still, Kidman's Anna Morgan is a mess well before this. When we meet her, she is standing at the graveside of a husband already dead ten years, her breath visible as she stands shivering in a minidress, winter coat, and heavy boots. With her short, Rosemary's Baby haircut, Jonathan Glazer's procession of intimate close-ups, and Harris Savides' mother-of-pearl cinematography, there is no visual or cosmetic barrier between us and Kidman's tremulousness. Where so many of the actress' recent roles have disclosed her surprising steeliness—as Virginia Woolf, as Isabel Archer, as the mother in The Others and the sometime martyr in DogvilleBirth draws near to her cool lladro skin, her darting eyes, her trademark tic of blowing air through her nose in smiling agitation. Even as Anna makes heavy choices and adopts iron stances, daring to believe that a spooky 10-year-old interloper is the reincarnation of her immortal beloved, the probing camerawork won't corroborate her resolve. In an ice-cream parlor, under a bridge in Central Park, amid the sickly lime of the living-room wallpaper, in that exquisite, tumultuous, minute-long close-up at the Metropolitan Opera, we hover so close to Kidman that we're practically in her pores. From this vantage, the movie reverberates with foreshocks of her heart's collapse.

So how does a movie like Birth still get made? The auteurist formal control of the movie, awash with directorial signatures at every level and in every nook, feels anachronistic in itself, redolent of an emotional drift that hasn't been felt much in American movies since Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens. The film's absorption in Anna recalls Mabel Longhetti slipping under the influence, Evelyn Mulwray battening down the demons of patriarchy, both of them listing away inside the diametrically different styles of their films. (In the Mood for Love plumbs and lingers on Maggie Cheung in a very similar way, which goes far in explaining Kidman's recent, passionate courtship of Wong Kar-wai.) Alexandre Desplat's roiling, sonorous score, the most beautiful thing heard in years of movies, ebbs and rolls with a confidence to match its beauty, as if movies have been scored this way forever. Anne Heche, slicing through the imposture and helplessness of the other characters, is as sharp and forceful as Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus. And the script, which came to such grief among so many critics, resembles nothing so much as those gorgeously stuck, impacted stories of Henry James, like "The Beast in the Jungle" or "The Altar of the Dead." Does the film take itself too seriously? Does it admit too little about too much? Maybe, but such bold and gorgeous reticence is a rare gift. Birth was the most recent movie to rate on the first draft of this list, and after several rewatchings, it takes a giant step upward for this revised ranking, three years later. The movie has already staked a fierce claim on my imagination, and I don't anticipate it letting go very easily.

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