THE FALL (2006)

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So many of the movies released in a year are disposable, forgettable entertainments that seek to linger in the memory only until the threshold is passed beneath the EXIT sign, and the light of day, or a night of sleep, all but wipes them away. If we're lucky, a handful rise to the surface and stay with us longer. If really lucky, one or two of these will stay with us forever. These movies that we love, are the ones that thrill us, move us, make us laugh and cry and cheer and leave the theater excited not only for the possibilities of film but for life. Sometimes these are the movies that are recognized at the Oscars. Far too often, they go unacknowledged. As much as I adored There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, for me the best film of last year was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There was a film that boggled the mind with its vast beauty, but also stirred the soul with a deeper tremor than any oil derrick might the earth, or any cattle gun might one's brain. For me it became one of those defining films, one of a handful that changed my view on things, that only got better the more I watched it, that, like a great novel, became a personal love. A film I was almost afraid to talk about for fear of meeting someone who didn't feel for it what I did. There was such a film. In The Fall I have found another.

In 2000, its director, Tarsem Singh, gave us the serial killer filmThe Cell, which many dismissed as only so much visual style in place of story or drama or emotion. These reviews from critics and friends long persuaded me to avoid the movie. When I finally gave it a go, I was stunned. The movie was visually awesome, yes, but I couldn't help but wonder what movie these critics had watched who were so unmoved by the suspense and coolness of the story. I can only hope that in light of The Fall these critics are inspired to give The Cell a second chance. For after this new film, there is no denying that in Tarsem we have a genuine artist of cinema, one fully capable of not only presenting us with incredible images, but doing so in service of a story, and of directing his actors so naturally that one forgets he is watching pretend at all.

At a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a young girl with a broken arm, befriends heartbroken, suicidal Hollywood stunt man Roy (Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies). In an effort to persuade the girl to steal morphine from the dispensary, Roy begins to tell her a story, a rapturous, fantastic story, about five bandits on a quest for revenge against an evil governor who has each of them wronged. As in the film that seems at least to have been a subconscious inspiration here, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, reality begins to blend into the fantasy until what happens in the story is at last a mirror of the characters' real lives.

The film, of course, lends itself, often with what seems at first a non sequitur quality, to some of the most astonishing imagery ever seen on film, with an endless visual imagination that left me giddy (one of my favorites involving a camera obscura projection of a horse through a keyhole), but never at the expense of the emotional heart of the story. Achieved with no digital effects beyond occasional wire removal, each image and location seems to trump what came before, so that as the movie gallops along we are in as much awe and wonderment as our little heroine Alexandria.

I've heard it said that by the film's very nature it lacks any real stakes, any real sort of conflict or drama. Not true, as by the story's finale the stakes have never been higher for either of our two main characters. For Alexandria, Roy's choices in the telling of the story are essentially his choosing aloud whether to go on living or succumb to heartbreak. For Roy, then, his own choices of who lives, who dies, and which character is the father of another, says everything about either his hopelessness or the restoration of his hope by his friendship with this little girl.

For my money, Untaru is a revelation. So cute, so natural, hilarious and heartbreaking. Never having seen Pushing Daisies, this will forever be my image of Pace: heroic, badass, awesome. The film itself, completed two years ago and only now finding release in the States, was apparently shot over four years in nearly thirty different countries. The result is staggering in its scope and vision and beauty. Each sequence was more exciting than the last, and in that way this movie trounces the newest Indiana Jones(which I liked, despite its brain-crushingly long list of flaws). Each scene left me wanting more. I wanted to live inside this movie, never wanting it to end. I can't recommend it enough.

If you loved Baron Munchausen, Pan's Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, or The Princess Bride, you owe it yourself to see this movie in the best theater you can find. At this point, in early June, it's the best film I've seen this year.