Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.
This time we’re covering “Cold Weather,” which has been suggested by more readers for inclusion in this column than any other film released in 2011. Are my readers brilliant cinephiles or nutjobs who have no idea what they’re talking about? Let’s find out.
Movie: “Cold Weather”
Director: Aaron Katz
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%
Plot Synopsis: A college dropout and Sherlock Holmes fan finds himself at the center of a mystery in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.
What the Critics Said: “Gorgeous, lyrical, leisurely,” Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies
“Good in so many subtle ways,” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Almost a textbook example of how to do more with less,” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor
Were They Right?The 74% of critics were, anyway. I’m surprised the Tomatometer score for this movie isn’t higher, given the passion of the film’s supporters. I suppose its pacing — which is, as Kenny notes, leisurely — and its charms — which are, as Ebert notes, subtle — are not necessarily for everyone.
Its structure reminded me a little bit of “Meek’s Cutoff,” the film I covered in this column last week. Both open with scenes of seeming inconsequence whose importance only becomes clearer later in the film. In the case of “Cold Weather,” it’s a sequence following Doug (Cris Lankenau) as he readjusts to life back in Portland. Doug dropped out of school where he was pursuing a degree in forensic science and moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Looking for any job that’ll have him, he finds one in an ice factory where he initiates a friendship with another guy on the graveyard shift named Carlos (Raúl Castillo). They have a lot of time for chit chat while they haul bags of ice; they spend most of it discussing pop culture. Carlos likes “Star Trek;” Doug prefers Sherlock Holmes novels. Carlos lives his “Star Trek” obsession by attending conventions but Doug is about to get an even more powerful opportunity to step into the role of his hero.
An ex-girlfriend of Doug’s named Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes for a visit and starts hanging out with Carlos. When she stands him up on a date, Carlos becomes convinced she’s gone missing. He drags a skeptical Doug to her motel room in the middle of the night. Rachel is nowhere to be found. While they search her room, Doug glances out the window and sees a pickup truck in the parking lot, watching them. As they head outside to see what the driver wants, he peels out into the night. Suddenly, Doug’s not so skeptical anymore.
Katz is previously known as the director of two “mumblecore” features about tentative romantic encounters between young men and women. He may have started this project from an experimental impulse: trying to marry his low-fi, naturalistic style with a genre that relies heavily on contrivance and formula. “Cold Weather”‘s early scenes feel as aimless as Doug’s life and as carefully observed yet carefully plotless as many other mumblecore films. But from the moment Doug sees that pickup truck and becomes convinced that Rachel is, in fact, involved in some kind of trouble, the pace tightens, aided immensely by a terrific, percussive score by Keegan DeWitt.
Rachel’s mystery is suitably realistic for the confines of Katz’s understated cinematography and drama, and the director pauses, cleverly I think, even after the detective story kicks into gear to remind you that these characters are living in “the real world.” Stumped, Doug decides to do what Sherlock Holmes would do: smoke a pipe. Only our hero doesn’t own a pipe, so he has to go buy one. The film dutifully follows him to a tobacconist for a hilarious scene where he tries to find a cool looking pipe that he can afford on his meager budget. There’s Katz’s project in a nutshell: “I want to make a detective movie. How do I make something that looks cool for no money?”
The cigar store scene isn’t an aberration; for a mystery story with no jokes, “Cold Weather” is a surprisingly funny movie. That’s because Katz is, in a very quiet way, a brilliant observer of human behavior. Sherlock Holmes is the most obvious antecedent for “Cold Weather” but there’s also a bit of “Seinfeld” in here as well. The scene in which Doug, Carlos, and Gail stake out a man’s apartment and kill the time with awkward conversations, reminded me of “The Sniffing Accountant,” a “Seinfeld” episode that featured a similar, albeit more overtly jokey, riff on the same premise.
I really enjoyed Katz’s last feature, “Quiet City” (also starring the ultra-laconic Lankenau), and I liked “Cold Weather” even more. The early moments of quiet slackerhood that look so superfluous really pay off as the mystery deepens. Because Doug, Carlos, and Gail seem like real people, there’s real tension in the film’s various chases, stakeouts, and break-ins. With a true sense of reality established, there’s no guarantee of a Hollywood ending and no certainty that Sherlock Doug will be right about his hunches or survive to solve another case even if he is. Add in some beautiful photography of the Pacific Northwest and that memorable score and you’ve got one of the best movies of 2011, and maybe the one I’d be most happy to see a sequel to at some point in the future.
Worthy of an Oscar Nomination For: Best Original Score (Keegan DeWitt)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Not a mortal lock, but definitely not a pipe dream either.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you’re a sucker for off-beat genre movies; you love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and hate Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes.”
Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Meek’s Cutoff,” directed by Kelly Reichardt
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright
Have a movie you wanted covered in a future installment of Countdown to Top Ten 2K11? Let me know on Twitter.