Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Ten Best Films of 2014: #3


Giuseppe Tornatore, who gave us the love letter to film "Cinema Paradiso" in 1990 (and also made my top-ten list with "Malena" in 2000), returns with what I think is an instant classic. It's called "The Best Offer," and it stars Geoffrey Rush, in another exceptional performance, as Virgil Oldman, who owns and presides as auctioneer at a high-end Vienna consignment house. Virgil's expertise is unimpeachable, his eye for beauty infallible. He's also germ-phobic and has rarely (or maybe never) known the feeling of a loving touch. His only friends are Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young restorer of mechanical objects, and Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), his longtime accomplice.

Virgil, you see, also knows when an artwork is undervalued, and over the years has amassed an immensely valuable collection of portraits - all of women - by intentionally misattributing them to lesser artists or setting artificially low estimates. In such cases - auctions in which Virgil announces the item will go to "the best offer" - Billy bids up to an agreed price and delivers the work back to Virgil, pocketing a few thousand euros in vigorish. Tornatore spends the first half hour of the film sumptuously limning Virgil's world of luxury - set to a lush and evocative score by the great Ennio Morricone - and for us in the audience it's an addictive vicarious thrill.

The plot kicks into motion with a series of phone calls on Virgil's 63rd birthday. They come from a Miss Clair Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), whose parents passed away a year earlier and who wishes to engage Virgil to inventory and appraise the furniture and objets d'art they left behind. For this, he must come to her villa, a home with so many rooms the longtime handyman says he stopped trying to count them. After she misses a few appointments, Virgil becomes suspicious. Finally, she confesses that she cannot meet him. She is agoraphobic and has not left the villa for over a decade. When he or anyone else is inside, she retreats to her room and will not come out for anything. He resigns several times - and she fires him just as often - but an unknown connection keeps them coming back to each other.

On each visit to the villa, Virgil finds one or more large round gears lying about, which he tucks into his briefcase and brings to Robert. Robert believes they may be part of an old-fashioned mechanical automaton, which he sets about attempting to piece together. As Virgil's feelings for Claire deepen from concern and paternal protectiveness to something more romantic, Robert, who has a steady girlfriend and a number of flings on the side, coaches him on the ways of womankind. At the bar across the street from Claire's villa, the publican's daughter - a dwarf and mathematical genius - sits by the windowsill, rattling off an endless string of numbers.

And here I will refrain from revealing any more about the plot, except to say that it is the most ingenious of the year. Tornatore has crafted it intricately and painstakingly. It has the rare and great quality of surprising you in the theater and blowing you away as you reflect on it over time and repeated viewings. You recall lines of dialogue, tiny details, and see how meticulously they fit. The ending is exquisite and shattering. "The Best Offer" was one of the first few films I saw this year, and it held up all the way as one of the best.

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