People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.
The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.
This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.
Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.
The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.
It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.
The cold, empty void that follows prestige and Oscar picture overload — a season that typically ends at the end of January, when I’m usually caught up with whatever I haven’t seen already — brings a sort of lethargy. If it weren’t for the sheer level of art-house and independent theaters in NYC who open the year with a handful of new releases and smaller festivals — New York Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, and Film Comments Selects, to name three — there would be precious little for me to watch.
Fortunately, having friends who also watch foreign and indies on VOD or iTunes helps, and as of late I’ve been introduced to a plethora of Bollywood movies that I’d like to share with you.
The first of the trio is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), a film that is as near as perfect as a thriller as I’ve come across. To put it mildly, Hitchcock himself would be proud of this accomplished, fascinating, richly plotted movie. Kahaani opens with a masterful sequence pregnant with pure suspense that starts in a lab where a scientist employs a lethal gas to kill mice and cuts to a scene in a subway train in Kolkata where people meet the same fate in a terrorist attack that recalls the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995.
Kahaani fast-forwards to two years later. Vidya Bagchi, an IT consultant and wife of an IT Specialist, Arnab Bagchi, who was contracted by the National Data Center and of whom she has not heard of, has arrived from London with the intent to find him. Despite her inquiries, the Kolkata police seems rather inept or passive to help, but a rookie cop, Satyoshi Sinya (Parambrata Chatterjee), sympathizes with her situation and agrees to assist her. Soon enough, Vidya and Rana learn that no one has heard of Vidya’s husband at the NDC, nor the hotel where he claimed to stay via photos sent to her phone. In the meantime, the head of the HR department makes a discovery and informs Vidya that Arnab resembled Milan Damji, an NDC employee who now has a restricted file. Parallel to this, a shlubby man who works at a claims department gets a text to eliminate someone. That someone is the very head of the NDC HR department.
Hitchcock once (loosely, in a sequence of quotes) expressed that he didn’t care if his story didn’t exactly tie in perfectly but managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. Kahaani offers a riveting conspiracy story in which a pregnant woman is at the center, inside a circle of danger that draws closer and closer and in a key scene, leads to an intermission literally on a breathtaking cliffhanger that had me screaming. I can’t imagine any thriller as of late that has managed to cause this effect on me in since the shocking revelation of Gone Girl and then its blood drenched sex scene.
One of the many surprises I discovered in watching Kahaani was that it offered me the opportunity to witness the city as a living participant other than as a postcard. Ghosh clearly mapped his locations out well and used them and the city’s religious festivities to the story’s advantage: early in the movie Vidya admires some women in startling red and white saris. These saris are used for the Durga Puja celebration; later on, she will herself wear one in a nail-biting sequence filled with vivid red symbolism.
Vidya Balan acquits herself in the role of Hitchcock blonde/woman in peril, but who is also as astute as the men around her, able to hack computers and outsmart bandits. She’s given solid support by Parambrata Chatterjee as the young cop who has a crush on her, and especially by the compelling, super-creepy performance of Saswatta Chatterjee as a man no one should ever want to cross paths with. Again, I know I said it before, but this is a superb thriller with many twists and turns, and with a monster of a denouement that will make you think for days.
There comes a moment in many actors’ careers where they essentially stop reaching for that higher performance and basically go on autopilot, repeating down to the minimum gestures the One Character / Affectations that made them famous. Come to think of it, we can’t but not expect it from them. Dame Maggie Smith arches her eyebrow and give you a well delivered line; Tom Cruise bares his chest and attempts to recreate his invulnerability in every single film he’s in. With Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress not known for her depth of performances but for an HBO series where she played a shoe-loving sex columnist who also, let’s face it, was kind of a social climber, this has become her Everest. It seems that from then on, every movie Parker does she runs the gamut of Carrie Bradshaw and Carrie Bradshaw, and in a way, that’s okay. It works for her. We actually like it that way.
In All Roads Lead to Rome, a title that telegraphs the entire plot and hopes you’re in for the madcap ride like it’s the very first time, Parker, playing a single mother variation of Bradshaw, takes to Italy with her problematic, pink-haired daughter Summer (because, why not?) to show her the countryside. Also, to steer her clear out of doing time for her boyfriend who’s been caught with several kilos of pot and will face jail time, but wants Summer to take the fall for him. What-a-keeper.
Mother and daughter haven’t arrived when complications ensue, and the movie tries to milk language barriers for comedic effect in ways that not only don’t work, but backfire when things really take a turn. Somehow, Maggie finds herself walking back into the life of a former beau Luca (are all Italian men named Luca??), who lives in Tuscany with his perpetually grumpy mother (played by Claudia Cardinale — yes, that Claudia Cardinale). Now, you would think that the movie would stop to admire the sheer scenery and at least have one slow scene of Getting to Know You and establish character motivations, but the movie is on overdrive as it is, and in less than an eye-blink, while Luca and Maggie are off somewhere, Summer, who only wants to go back to the USA, takes off with Luca’s mother in tow. Slow down, people! You’re in the Italian countryside!
But why Luca’s mother? It seems she has a story-line too. She just wants to meet the love of her life who’s still in Rome, waiting for her. So off they go, and after them, Maggie and Luca, in an extended chase sequence that manages to up the ante in terms of miscommunications and screwball overtones. You can literally second-guess this one if you’ve seen any comedy of the likes of It Happened One Night and beyond. I’m not even going to describe it. All Roads Lead to Rome is a movie on autopilot wasting the talents of pretty much everyone in it (including Paz Vega who shows up as a news reporter aimed at also being something of a rival for Parker) that somehow, by the virtue of how light and inconsequential it is, manages not to flop. This is romance, ready-made, with prefabricated emotions, just for you.
Here is an ambitious movie that wishes to present unto you, the viewer, an overreaching, multi-leveled series of story-lines designed to present a cohesive, thematic whole not too dissimilar to the likes of greater ensembles of the likes Robert Altman and Woody Allen directed (i. e. Nashville, Gosford Park, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and almost succeeds. I say almost because when we’ve seen these pictures one too many times, the freshness of the material becomes a bit stale and staged. If anyone recalls a little movie called Crash that inexplicably won the Oscars in 2006, then that is the one that this movie seems to pay homage to. It didn’t work well (for the most part, except in some isolated circumstances), and it doesn’t quite deliver this time.
Anesthesia opens rather dramatically: on an Upper West Side corner, Walter (Sam Waterston) crosses the street to buy some flowers at a deli. Moments later a couple, Sam and Nicole (Corey Stoll and Mickey Sumner) get jolted out of their sleep and rush downstairs to find out that the man we just met has been brutally stabbed in what seems a random attack. Suddenly, Anesthesia goes back in time to about a week prior to its opening scene, and we’re introduced to Walter as a philosophy professor at Columbia, delivering his final classes before starting a life of retirement alongside his wife Marcia (Glenn Close). Everyone that he has met or will encounter within this space and time has some form of isolation in the form of escapism.
For instance, there is Sophie (Kristen Stewart, essaying another complex role). When we first meet her she’s sitting in the college cafeteria when she has a rather unpleasant encounter with a guy who wants her chair, to which she refuses. It turns ugly, and then we see that Sophie seems to be at odds with the world around her, a thing she copes with by injuring herself. Sam and Nicole, who encounter Walter at the opening of Anesthesia, are in the middle of an affair. Sam, allegedly, is in China, his wife (Gretchen Mol) in Northern New Jersey, drinking her pain away, suspicious that he is lying to her. Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Jessica Hecht) are coping with a lump on her breast while their kids get high to cope with their parents’ tension. And adding to this mix are two unrelated characters: Jeffrey (Michael Williams), a high-powered African-American lawyer who is trying to force his childhood friend Joe (K. Todd Freeman) out of his drug-addiction and back to sobriety.
So, as this stands, there are a lot of characters to cover in the barely 90 minutes of running time. For the most part, Tim Blake Nelson succeeds without making the entire premise look too affected. What bothered me a little was the fact that Anesthesia seemed to, yet again, be mostly a front to present White People’s Problems under the guise of racial tensions that happen rather unexpectedly late in the film. Everyone has a certain degree of self-absorption, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the characters that surround Walter, although the one character that does come through is the one who couldn’t be further from this circle of over-privileged White people living in the clouds of Upper West Side domesticity: Joe.
Beyond Joe’s addiction there are gears and cogs turning. There is a character — a real person — trying to come out. Sadly, Anesthesia relegates Joe to a hospital bed, yelling into thin air, completely dependent on the phone call from Jeffrey that fails to arrive (Jeffrey’s met a female lawyer of probably White, but ill-defined ethnicity, for a tryst). Joe’s biggest scene comes late, and is as mysterious as it is pregnant with possibilities. It’s again, inexplicable to me why it’s also left unexplored and instead goes for something that seems to be a necessary cop out that brings the story back to its opening scene.
Anesthesia is a story enamored of its own concept that has moments of humor, moments of pathos, but ultimately doesn’t know where to go once the moment that it — and we — go “Aha!” arrives. That n itself is a crying shame.
During the cold, dead slumber of January and February when the dreck that can only fit during this time (post Holidays) gets released, I sauntered into the AMC theatre with little expectations to catch what I thought would be a painless incursion into zombie horror mixed with genteel, 18th century sensibilities. Mind you, I was only drawn to this knowing I was probably not its target audience. The mere fact that this was in some way related to the original source, which has since been one of my favorite go-to novels to read even when desperation calls and not a book in sight, called to me.
So there I was, sitting in the rear as per custom — I can’t sit near people who chew, talk, check their cell phones, or even as much as breathe loudly and this is the place in the theater that is the least occupied even on opening night — prepared to see either a massive misfire or a grave mistake. Suddenly, I heard Lily James, fresh out of Downton Abbey, recite the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, with modifications to fit this new incarnation . . . and I was sold. Jane, you can requiescat in pace. Your book has been done in a much more modern style, and your characters and their story-lines remain pretty much uncorrupt and even when battling the rotting dead, reciting some of your lines makes this a much more livelier affair.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is as light as popcorn and as silly as the combination of the two elements looks like, but it falls under that nebulous area of date movie meets gore and delivers it in spades. As mentioned, Lily James brings a lot of her previous roles (Lady Rose from Downton and even Cinderella from Cinderella) to her Elizabeth Bennet, and is the standout sister (much like in the novel, despite their being five and one of them running off late in the novel). [Although one early scene where all five sisters defend a house from zombies had me cheering. These girls can kick ass!] Sam Riley is one of the more accurate Darcys I’ve seen, his face expressing precious little and his voice tending to sound cold and unfeeling, but progressively more human as his emotions slowly surface. Jack Huston walks away with the picture as Wickham, and while his role is expanded here, it fits the purpose.
And the zombies. There are lots of them, but frankly, other than an initial scare or two, they’re more fodder for being reduced to mincemeat once the action starts. All of this is handled quite well without any exaggerations — they don’t suddenly become superhuman, for once — but somewhat closer to the ones featured in 2013’s Warm Bodies. So, in essence, the movie gets it fairly right, it satisfies, and that’s all there is to it.
The Coen Brother’s newest film opens up with a man in a confession booth, disclosing his peccadilloes to a mostly unseen priest who then informs him that it’s been here a mere 24 hours since his last confession. That doesn’t seem to matter; the man lays out every single transgression as if his existence and peace of mind would depend on it. Once we realize who this man is, and what he does for a living, our perspective shifts, and it all becomes strangely clear.
He’s Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” working in Hollywood who’s job is keeping actors in line and out of transgressions that could tarnish the studio and result in a loss of profit. Back in the 50s, when Hail Caesar! takes place, there was such a thing as an actor losing his or her career as a direct result from unprofessional behavior, scandal, or being labeled a Communist, as opposed to today where no matter how badly an actor behaves, all he or she has to do is open up a Twitter account, go on reality TV, and they’re back on the spotlight, accruing millions of followers in the blink of an eye.
But not to digress: Mannix starts off his day by paying a visit to problematic, unmarried star Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen, sublime). When we see her, she’s a blonde revelation in an aquamarine swimsuit performing synchronized swimming in the style of Esther Williams. As she gets lifted into the air, the tension in her face and posture is barely visible, but one that could crack through at any moment (and finally does). The reason for this is revealed when Mannix questions her: she’s pregnant and has a vague idea of who the father could be. Her delivery is blowsy perfection and defines image before reality: Moran, while quite beautiful, is nothing more than a fantastically vulgar starlet with a thick New Yawk accent who sits with her legs spread apart. She’s got no sophistication, but is made to show off a package that the public clearly buys. And now Mannix has to find a way that her little secret never gets revealed.
Mannix has other problems as well: rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, playing twins!) are pursuing him relentlessly for dirt. They’ve got a vested interest in revealing the secret behind Baird Whitlock’s entry into films. Whitlock (George Clooney) is currently filming a version of King of Kings as a Roman centurion who, quite literally, finds Christ, but also finds something else: a group of intellectuals with Communist interests called “The Future”. The Future have an extra drug a goblet of prop wine Whitlock is supposed to drink in order to kidnap him and demand a ransom of 100,000 dollars, which Mannix considers a slight trade-off for Whitlock, who seems to be falling for The Future’s ideals. At the same time, Mannix is thrown into the task of expanding rising Western star Hobie Doyle’s appeal and place him in a comedy of manners directed by Laurence Laurentz. The catch is, Doyle has limited acting range, and Laurentz, much to his displeasure, has to coach the man into delivering his lines in upper crust English. Not a good match.
There are other plot threads sewing themselves into the fabric of this 1950s Ulysses and the Coens deliver each scene seamlessly. Having Mannix — a rather fictionalized and watered down version of the real man, who from accounts, could be rather ruthless — be the voice of reason surrounded by narcissists and clueless people gives Hail, Caesar! a center that otherwise it would lack. His dilemma — to leave the movie industry for a better offer in a company (Lockheed) which would allow him to be home by dinnertime is perhaps the most identifiable. While Whitlock finds Communism, and Doyle discovers more than he would like, and other players move within their self-centered universes, Mannix is here the most human of the bunch.
Hail, Caesar is a love letter to Hollywood: from the naming of a Latina starlet (cue an unseen yet pivotal character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo), a sequence straight out of On the Town (who knew Channing Tatum could dance like that?), to a short scene with Frances McDormand as a film editor. It looks and feels of the time and place with a speck of gloss. It’s also often funny, giving glimpses of the studio system and the artificiality that went into making the films that became classics. Even so, there’s just a slight hint of a darker picture just peeking through the day’s events, but it’s not something the Coens delve into, preferring a lighter tone with faint screwball touches, and an ending that perfectly brings Mannix full circle, ready for a moment of much needed peace. A fixer’s work is never done.
Stories about hardship in the days of old, where characters were forced into early adulthood and harsh destinies are the kind of stories that make great novels. Sunset Song, appropriately titled, refers to the time gone by, innocence lost, and the resilience of human nature. It should have been a much better picture, and perhaps with a much more assured screenwriter and a more dynamic and fluid representation, it might have been a truly wonderful epic. As it stands, Sunset Song is a gorgeously diluted account that is so restrained and modest in its approach to its somewhat dark subject matter that it mutes any impact it might have had, had the elements of family dysfunction been retained. Even so, it’s not a complete failure. There are moments of picturesque beauty reminiscent of Terence Malick, circa Days of Thunder, and to a lesser degree, The Book of Life.
I’m going to say that Davies opted to give his movie a softer touch because as he himself has stated, he prefers the movies of old. That in itself is okay, sensibilities are sensibilities, but in the days of BBC turning out powerful dramas that are unafraid to show the grit as well as the rolling meadows, it indicates perhaps a refusal to engage. Davies prefers a more impressionistic tone here and often resorts to off-screen narration, which instead of adding to the events, manages to take away, leaving us somewhat irritated. Chris Guthrie for the first part of the movie is merely a clean slate of a girl, which does little to reveal her later resourcefulness and capacity for confrontation at a moment of abuse. For the most, Sunset Song is dominated by her father who looms over the household with an iron fist, punishing his son Will ruthlessly (until he runs away to Aberdeen), punishing his wife by getting her pregnant more times than she can handle, and punishing Chris in the worst possible of ways in the only scene that made me squirm.
Once his character leaves the story, Chris takes charge, and perhaps it’s too much a character for newcomer Agyness Deyn to handle, or perhaps Davies wrote her with soft edges, but the story becomes so muted that one wonders if it will reach a point where it comes full stop and refuses to budge. The only high point at this part of the movie is when Kevin Guthrie enters the picture as Ewan as the man Chris marries. He brings a sense of joy and love sorely lacking in the picture, and watch his reaction when Chris goes into labor and all he can do is wait and wait and wait. His character arc, for this reason, becomes more incomprehensible for the hard left turn it takes. There is just no warning, no basis for us to relate to what he experiences during World War I and returns not just a broken man but the literal reincarnation of Chris’ father.
Sunset Song has an ancient Hollywood appeal to it, but aside from its staid, almost stilted presentation, and the thick of its characters’ accents that makes it almost necessary to justify subtitles, it’s a dispassionate affair that might only appeal to lovers of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
One of the most anticipated and talked about horror movies shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival finally gets its due release and boy, does it deliver chills in spades. First time director Robert Eggers clearly did his research. His picture is not just a frightening work of art, but also, a remarkably accurate period piece that opens up as a time-capsule and gives us a glimpse of the religious death-grip people were in.
Eggers’ setup is outrageously simple: because of a vague religious conflict, William, a man of fervent faith who desires to live closer to God’s will, gets banished from the English settlement and now must make do with his wife Katherine, and five sons. Off into the unknown they go, resettling at the edge of some thick woods, but you would believe life would be much better. As a farmer, William is a mess, and as a hunter, he’s completely useless. Katherine, even in stillness, seems to be on the border of some great hysteria. The younger twins haven’t a care in the world (and God, are they creepy!). Their older sons Thomasin and Caleb are close, and as an added dose of tension, Caleb has begun to notice his older sister’s entry into puberty.
The Witch takes off the moment the youngest child, William and Katherine’s newborn baby, disappears while Thomasin is watching him. The swiftness in which this occurs is disorienting indeed (as are Katherine’s painful cries of agony that begin a slow unraveling of her personality), but then the story reveals that it wasn’t an animal who took the baby from Thomasin’s care . . . but a woman.
It’s here where the first truly disturbing images start to bleed into the mostly gray picture. In chiaroscuro shots, we see a naked woman covered in blood, reducing something to liquid on a mortar and pestle. It doesn’t take long for us to realize what has happened, but the story has some rather nightmarish detours that creep into the fabric of this already fractured family — including a joke that Thomasin plays on her little sister where she calls herself a witch that will come to backfire on her, badly, after Caleb has a surreal encounter in the woods.
Eggers manages to create an almost unnerving sense of dread and suspense at every turn, and you don’t notice how deep you’re into the story until you start witnessing some truly horrific imagery, tainted and near-perverse. Because of the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch has an almost chronicled feel, and in a way, could serve as an allegory on what happens when society crumbles at the foot of chaos and anarchy and people quickly start turning on each other. One is never truly sure if Thomasin is or is not as innocent as she seems to be, but that’s the entire point of this engrossing picture. One could even state that there are no witches, and all this is just women on the verge yet rejecting their very natures.
Whatever one will make of it, The Witch is a slow-burn art-directed horror movie that is sure of itself and never gives into cheap scares, sudden, screeching violins, and the rest of the trappings of modern horror. This is a long days’ journey into the dark night of the soul, a love letter to stories like The Crucible and The Shining and even Cries and Whispers. This is what a horror movie should be about.
If you ask me how I spent the preceding year I would say that the bulk of it was siting in a dark room surrounded by strangers in total silence and various degrees of wonder, feasting on movies. I’d rather do that than go to the nearest bar and drink the night away; it’s also, much more fulfilling. Even then, at over 900 releases, it became impossible to see all of them. With the sheer volume of commercial and independent movies that get released week after week competing hand in hand (or eye to eye) for the audience’s and my attention alongside VOD releases, and adding to this the amount of film festivals taking place in New York it’s a wonder I haven’t gone blind. As such it’s inevitable that come December there were more than a handful that I haven’t gone around to see such as David O. Russell’s Joy, Ryan Coogler’s Creed, or Adam McKay’s The Big Short. And others. Heck, I haven’t even seen Diary of a Teenage Girl despite that it played for months on end at the Landmark Sunshine, and that again, is one of many quality films that got lost in the constant flood that comes out — and I only have a limited net. I only barely last week managed to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence, which chilled me to the bone and Alejandro Inarritu’s relentless revenge film The Revenant.
Choosing from the pile which ones I believe to be the most salient of them all is a difficult task — and also, very personal. I try not to give in to the pressures of prestige films that on their own demand a special recognition all their own. Sometimes I will differ greatly with others in regards to a certain film — I’m looking at you, The Assassin; sorry, you are very pretty but also, grotesquely overrated. If a movie struck my emotions in a specific way — positive or negative — then it lingered enough to resonate in my self at the time of this writing. This is what I think should constitute the basis for appreciate film: stories that grip us, that move us, that horrify us, and that stay long past the credits and the bee-line to the front door.
Before I start, let me commence with an alphabetical list of films that I just had to include, only because there were so many, and in a list of ten, it’s impossible and would be a crime to leave these out:
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Best of Enemies
Bridge of Spies
Clouds of Sils Maria
The Duke of Burgundy
The Forbidden Room
The Hateful Eight
Heaven Knows What
Hitchcock / Truffaut
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Measure of a Man*
Mountains May Depart**
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart*
The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Queen of Earth
What Happened, Miss Simone?
World of Tomorrow
*release date TBA / Film Festival only
**released in 2016
So on we go with the list:
10. THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia
Viewed by itself or as a companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling, surreal, and ultimately horrifying documentary The Act of Killing. The Look of Silence centers on a mild mannered optician, Adi, who, while conducting eye exams on the men who killed his brother Ramli during the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide of alleged Communists, realizes that not a single one demonstrates an iota of remorse for their actions, and in one chilling sequence, gleefully recount how they committed the murder.
This is a gut-wrenching documentary. To see Adi’s aged parents still living as if frozen in time, calling out to their dead son, and also capture the mixed emotions that surely dance underneath Adi’s glassy black eyes, I can’t but imagine what it’s like to live amongst your family’s killers who value nothing. This is a protracted cry of outrage, an open wound that will possibly only heal once the living dead are buried, and memory becomes a haze. The possibility of forgiveness comes in the form of the daughter of one of the killers, herself moved by these revelations, but this crushing movie offers no resolution whatsoever.
9. ROOM, Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland
Picture a woman, trapped inside a room with her son, counting the days and nights go by, aware only of the seasons by changes in the ambient temperature, or a stray leaf that lays tantalizingly on top of the room’s skylight — her only source of natural light. They’ve become a fierce little unit with her telling her son stories of how he came into the world, and occasionally, she ventures into glimpses of her own life Before.
Now, picture the man who comes visit them at night. She will not allow her son to face this man and hides him in a makeshift closet. The only way he can fall asleep is by the counting of the beats on the bed. Yes, that is as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Now, picture the moment when the mother realizes things are about to take a turn for the worse. It’s a dramatic switch into the unknown — after all, all her son has known is this tiny space. And now she has to do the unimaginable.
I’ll leave it there. You absolutely must view this picture.
8. JAFAR PANAHI’s TAXI, Jafar Panahi, Iran
Before you see this movie I’m going to direct you to please view Jafar Panahi’s 2011 documentary This is Not a Film. In that movie, filmed on both a hand-held camera and an iPhone 3GS, Panahi discusses his situation of a six-year house arrest at the hands of the Iranian government who also banned him to 20 years of self-censorship from making or writing or even being linked to film in any form. Panahi, who himself states that this is all he knows (He’s been directing films since the 80s), snuck this little documentary outside the country through a thumb-drive and it managed to play to a European audience who raved. It would wind up the recipient of several international awards and shortlisted for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Taxi, also known as Taxi Tehran, is cinema of the oppressed of the highest example. Already well into his ban, Panahi poses as a self-deprecating cab driver who simply drives people around Tehran and listens to their stories. At one point a debate between a female teacher and a male thief (who takes his time to reveal his occupation, mind you) becomes contentious as it exposes the injustices that occur in Iran. Another passenger, a man into video pirating, takes him into weird territory where Panahi lectures a young up and coming film enthusiast about movie-making. Then two women take Panahi on a very bizarre pilgrimage involving a fish in its bowl, and an injured man is thrown along his wife into the cab and Panahi’s universe. It’s the highlight of surreal absurdity — after Panahi drops the couple at the hospital, she calls him and asks for the footage in case her husband dies. Because, hey–you never know!
Yet another detour, and he’s picking up his very feisty daughter who can’t believe her father — her DIRECTOR father! — is showing up in a shabby cab car.
Panahi has a thing for directing children to act as natural on camera as they would behave off camera, and his spirited daughter almost walks away with the entire picture, engaging a boy thief into her own meta-film. However, nothing prepared me for a brief yet poignant interaction Panahi and a female lawyer also banned from practicing her profession, who leaves an object of pure beauty right on the camera.
This is a marvelous movie made by a man who loves movies and will not stoop to defeat and censorship.
7. MOMMY, Xavier Dolan, Canada
And now, we arrive at Xavier Dolan’s most accomplished work to date. Since his bold debut at the age of 20 with the remarkable, Almodovarian I Killed My Mother, Dolan has been on the rise, turning in impressive works with a bold stamp. He went a little overboard with 2012’s Laurence Anyways, but with Mommy, his fifth film, he found his voice.
Mommy recounts the story of Diane ‘Di’ Despres, a woman with scant education, loud, brash, perhaps even a floozy, who because of an incident at school where her volatile son Steve burned a classmate, now finds herself attempting to reconnect and raise her son at all costs. She gets offered an alternative, which is to hand Steve over to the government who would institutionalize him, but she will not accept that. Diane has hope.
Now, while in theory, raising Steve sounds like a good idea, in reality, it proves to be everything but peaceful. Right at the point where she’s cornered into a closet following an argument that spiraled out of control, a new person enters the picture.
That person is the neighbor across the street. Kyla used to teach but for reasons unknown (and the script doesn’t disclose why), she has a speech impediment. Even so, Diane invites her over, makes her an offer to teach/babysit for her son while she works, and a growing sense of familial order starts to emerge among the three.
Dolan’s story takes some interesting turns here and there, offering all three of his lead actors ample screen time to present complete characters that look lived in. The aspect ratio here (1:1) becomes a visual device — it frames the performances to their bare essentials eschewing backgrounds — but also serves as a symbol of how limited, how little both Steve and Diane have to work with. At two key points in the movie, the ratio widens, and for a brief moment, there is only freedom.
In the clip above, the first time this happens when Steve, under Kyla’s tutelage, has made great strides and even spies s future in Julliard. This is a wonderful, poetic moment, and Dolan directs the young actor, Antoine-Olivier Pilon as if he were flying on camera. When he literally opens the screen to its fullest (as Oasis’ Wonderwall plays) you feel he’s broken down the walls that confined and cursed him to a mediocre life, and you cheer, the same way he cheers “Liberte! Liberte!”
The second clip is a little different. Set to the somber, dramatic music of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience, it’s where the heart of the movie lies. During the sequence, you see the three of them are setting off to drive into the country, They’re seen laughing, telling jokes, feeling good . . . until you see Kyla turn her face away. The screen has opened to its maximum, and as Kyla and Steve run on the beach, you see Diane, smoking a cigarette, tiredly watching them. You then move to a magical sequence where Steve graduates, brings home a girlfriend, a baby, the echoes of him exclaiming “Liberte!” from the previous sequence lingers audibly, and then an older version of Steve dances with his new wife. The scene is vertiginous and escalating, bathed in gold. Diane and Kyla give each other a hug; after all, they’ve been through so much!
And then it’s over. Slowly, inexorably the screen shrinks back to its former frame, enclosing her, bringing her back to what follows.
Mommy is a film of furious energy carried by the three leads and is a powerful meditation on the power of hope even when that in itself may seem an impossible dream.
6. BOY AND THE WORLD, Ale Abreu, Brazil
In a world where animation follows mainly two paths: Studio Ghibli (anime) and clones of Pixar pictures, this little movie, alongside another much different — but no less potent — picture called World of Tomorrow, stand alone and distinguish themselves from the pile. The story of a family that gets torn apart when the father leaves to go work and the boy who sets out to find him, is in itself unusual, yet heartbreaking as it is also joyous. You may interpret it as you will, but I mainly see it as a loss of a that perfect, innocent time in a child’s life that will never return, and how one adapts to one’s own adulthood in a myriad of ways.
5. THE WALK, Robert Zemeckis, US
“My name is Philippe Petit, and I am a wire-walker!” That was the quote that made us stand and applaud when we viewed The Walk when it opened the 53rd New York Film at the Alice Tully Hall. Viewing it for the first time, Zemeckis’ film brings back not only the concept of the great, heroic deed, but also the archetype described in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Philippe Petit might be ingratiating and only reveal a hint of the mad genius that creeps into the film halfway through the night before he is to climb the World Trade Center, but he remains strictly in that canon of Campbellian heroes: this is a man in full command of his own prowess who is not just committing a act of boundless bravery — and possibly destroying the mythical dragon of one’s shadow existences — but also demonstrating the spectating world that life is a mountain worth climbing.
4. MAD MAX, FURY ROAD, George Miller, US
This film may as well discarded the character of Mad Max, since during the entire movie he is far from the center of the plot. Mad Max: Fury Road belongs to the women in the story — the five brides and Furiosa, played by a regal, gloriously masculine Charlize Theron who literally drives the entire story of escape and redemption against the hands of a tyrannical leader full circle. Perhaps George Miller will do a follow up to her character? I hope so.
3. SON OF SAUL, Laszlo Nemes, Hungary
On the surface, Laszlo Nemes’ story of a Sonderkommando going through the hellish motions at a concentration camp during the final days of World War II seems like yet another entry into the topic of the Holocaust. If you look closer — and this is an excruciating film to watch because while the horror takes place just off-screen, or behind Geza Rohrig’s steely frame — you will see an archetype of karma taking place. Saul Auslander, our Everyman of whom we know practically nothing about, seems to be attempting a balancing of debt in his intent to find a burial for a boy he symbolizes as his son. Every shot finds Saul in a relentless quest to fulfill this small act of kindness among the Boschian landscape, the terror reflected in his eyes. He does manage to crack a smile — and it arrives a crucial moment, one filled with rich symbolism, and that in itself elevates this war piece into something greater.
2. 45 YEARS, Andrew Haigh, UK
Other than her co-starring roles in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (for those with long memories), Charlotte Rampling must seem a stranger to even British cinema, preferring French and Italian art-house productions that seem to catch her attention. She was the muse for Francois Ozon for the beginning of the aughties, turning in a spellbinding, heartbreaking performance in Sous le Sable (Under the Sand), where she played a wife mourning the loss of her husband. In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years Rampling returns to a similar scenario.
The Mercers — Geoff and Anne — are soon to celebrate their anniversary when Geoff receives some tragic news. The body of Geoff’s former girlfriend from the 60s, Katya, has been spotted preserved in a glacier in the Swiss mountains where she fell while they were hiking. Geoff starts recollecting his time with her, and starts behaving rather strangely. Anne listens, sympathetic, until some doubt starts creeping in on her own status as a wife. And then she finds something Geoff kept hidden from her in the attic.
The question Haigh raises in this excellent movie is how much do we think we know of our loved ones? Worse, when they state their love, while a former lover’s memory still lingers, is it entirely possible they may be deluding themselves? Rampling’s slow realization that her life may have been a travesty this entire time is an actress at the peak of her abilities — restrained, yet aching, and ultimately, devastating.
CAROL, Todd Haynes, US
If 45 Years reflects on the simmering tragedy of a marriage that starts to question itself after nearly half a century, then Todd Haynes’ Carol reflects on a relationship built on a foundation of repressed emotion laced with fragility at the height of the Commie scare where one false move could signify its death before it even had a chance. Haynes already explored a similar relationship in 2002 when he directed Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven. In it, she played a woman married to a closeted man who falls for a black man (Dennis Haysbert) in the 50s, and in doing so, becomes the target for scrutiny.
In that film Haynes took a more Sirkian approach (and I’m surely not stating anything new here), with a visual and emotional delivery that felt manicured to perfection but telegraphing its artificiality at the same time. It was, in its own way, an ode to those over-wrought melodramas like Magnificent Obsession that peppered theaters in the late 40s and 50s. Carol, on the other hand, is as removed from sugar-coated manipulation and looks completely lived-in. You can almost savor the textures and color that dress up every scene and define it. Carol’s world, to name an example, is a series of browns and greys; she herself dresses in grey while with her family, but goes for a bolder use of red whenever she is around Therese. Therese on the other hand is defined in darker tones, perhaps as contrast to Carol’s chic sophistication, perhaps to give her a slow progression from the girl she is at the start of the movie to the woman she ends up being.
In a year of great lesbian movies — Appropriate Behavior, Grandma, Freeheld, and The Duke of Burgundy also rated highly — Carol is a remarkable standout because of the time in history its plot takes place. The seeds of Stonewall had been planted: The Mattachine Society was in full swing, and The Daughters of Bilitis would form in 1955. Even so, gay men and women had zero rights and could risk losing it all at the drop of a hat. Much of the women’s chemistry depends on body language and facial expressions only they could read. Carol’s and Therese’s attraction is clearly seen in their eyes — Carol’s smolder and burn intensely (while her body remains static in an upper-crust pose that she’s practiced, no doubt); Therese looks at her, quietly fascinated, but still an object out of reach. Carol remarks that for her Therese reminds her of a woman flung out of space; what she ignores is that this precisely is what Carol represents to Therese from the split second they meet at the toy store.
Carol, quite frankly, is one of the most romantic, most sensual movies I’ve witnessed in a long time. At a time when sex is flung full-force at the screen like a heated argument involving throw-able objects intended to leave a burning trail of carnage, Carol presents it naturally, yet with incredible tenderness and nascent love. It never goes overboard, and yet it is brimming. It is a haunting piece of work that will live long after the credits have rolled and will be studied as a capsule of a time gone by when people lived and loved in fear.