TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2010
(Films not released or shown in
Not sure there’s ever been two Top Ten films released the same year by the same director, so this is a first for 21-year old Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan. Anyone reading this might ask yourselves what had you accomplished by the age of 21?
The case could be made for either film, as both are exquisite. The first has the best ending, but is also the easiest to find fault with, while Dolan himself is actually cuter and much better in the second, as he's smarter and funnier, and that wit, as opposed to that raw angst, really won me over.
Of interest, Dolan is a first and second time filmmaker who writes, directs, stars, does the costumes, art direction, and edits his own films, while Australian Warwick Thornton also writes, directs, operates the camera, plays guitar and wrote the music for his first feature-length film. This kind of personalized imprint seems to have made a huge difference in the quality of their films, which uncompromisingly stays within the artist's vision.
Female directors remain at the forefront again this year as well, which is a nice trend, as they are certainly responsible for bringing a different sense of humanity into some of the more beautifully sketched characters seen in films today.
10 of the Top Thirty films of the year were seen at the Chicago Film Fest, perhaps a fluke or a return to form, almost all relatively new filmmakers, which certainly suggests the future is positive.
Great to see some uniquely inventive Australian films, also of interest is the return to prominence of Bruno Dumont with another head scratcher, a film that actually sheds light on his earlier work L'humanité, as both films utilize a similar structure that features the possibility of multiple endings. Of special fascination this year was the discovery of actress Noomi Rapace, whose punkish character in the Danish Dragon Tattoo trilogy was one of the most memorable in years, while Vincent Cassel rocked the Casbah in the two-part Mesrine gangster film.
1.) 35 SHOTS OF RUM A
We could stay like this forever. —Joséphine (Mati Diop)
An affectionate and affirming work. Most great works of literature and cinema seem to be tragedies that continually explore a dark edge of the human soul. What’s so unique about this film is the life affirming warmth expressed from the outset and the positive feeling of optimism, where love is explored with an amazing tenderness and poetic grace. The daughter of a civil servant, Denis spent much of her childhood in different African countries before returning to France where she assisted other directors such as Dušan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch before directing her first feature at the age of 40, so like Toni Morrison in literature, she brings an unconventional maturity into her works. She's one of the unsung filmmakers of our era, a director who moves between an experimental, avant garde style with slight to nonexisting narratives to more conventional narratives fairly easily, usually focusing on the personal lives of marginalized working class characters whose very ordinariness separates them from mainstream movie viewing. This film is a wonderful expository essay on the nature of living, shown from the outset as a series of passing trains, sometimes meeting, sometimes simply traveling in opposite directions, but always running on the same track. In what appears to be an Ozu homage of life in transition, the train montage in the opening is a clear sign of moving from one place to another, where nothing remains static, where lives are in constant motion. Alex Descas is Lionel (as in the model trains), a train conductor whose vantage point from the lead car we follow from time to time, a man of few words, but always serious and direct, even as he wordlessly steers his train. He and his fellow workers meet to celebrate the retirement of one of Lionel’s old friends, Réne (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a man who plainly feels uncomfortable about his impending future and the loss of his working friendships. The easygoing nature of this mostly black working class environment is conveyed in the sharing of drinks, where it’s customary at retirements to swig down shots of rum.
Without revealing any background story, Lionel is a widower living in close quarters with his beautiful daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a student who also works nights in a record store, where one of their special moments together is her dad picking her up on his motorbike after work, or enjoying a home cooked meal together where their intimacy is beautifully expressed in their eyes as well as their accustomed routines. Added to this triangle are two neighbors, Noé (Grégoire Colin), who openly shows his affection for Joséphine, and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), equally enthralled with her father, an old flame of Lionel’s who still carries a torch while assuming the surrogate role of step-mother. Without ever actually telling the story, instead it unravels in lyrical images detailing the rhythms of life, beautifully shot by Agnès Godard who captures gestures, facial expressions, body language, or silent actions showing the distances between people, but rarely in speech. The film evolves through various vignettes beautifully edited together and in the near perfect music selections by Tindersticks, which includes Basehead’s “Home,” which plays in the music store (http://www.baseheadmusic.com/fr_index.cfm), or Sophia George’s “Can’t Live Without You,” a reggae song that plays in the car on the way to a concert (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5gd4Ish7OM). But the scene of the film is after their car breaks down in the rain and they ask the proprietor of a small restaurant and bar to stay open after closing hours, where we hear the smooth refrains from the Commodores “Nightshift” (Commodores - Nightshift), where a nice soulful groove takes a wrong turn somewhere, prompted by the music and the open expression of intimacy, where jealousy and body language reveal it all, leaving feelings abandoned and hurt, turning the night sour. The subtleties of this scene typify the fragility of relationships, which seem so solid at one moment, only to discover the moment lasts just an instant.
Despite the various stops along the way, this is really a different kind of love story and is largely a father and daughter journey, as they take a camper to Germany to visit Joséphine’s aunt, who is none other than Ingrid Caven, a scene stealer from Fassbinder films of old, like MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (1975), where they had to tag on three different endings to that film, but she’s in fine form here as well, allowed to wallow in her eccentricities in an extended scene much like Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BLVD. (1950). But this visit also reveals some of the most tender images in the film as well, the two of them visiting her mother’s grave, sleeping under the stars overlooking the sea, observing a strange procession of children carrying lanterns at night, all understated expressions of various stages of life poetically rendered with the most detached reverence. But the ultimate gift a loving father can give his daughter is setting her free, allowing her to move on with her life, which includes a moment unlike any other in their lifetimes, which is shown with exquisite grace and an economy of means, as the film just briefly touches on what the future holds. Denis really gets inside the lives of her characters and is one of the more distinctive filmmakers on the planet. She is a constant reminder that cinema is still an art form, a contemplative study of humanity observing the way we treat one another through rhythm and texture, music, image, and tone. The film couldn’t be more effortless, yet it paints a contemporary face on the modern world by simply focusing on the lives of a few people living in it, all done with an undeniable love and lyrical charm.
2.) A SCREAMING MAN (Un homme qui crie) A
Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator,
for life is not a spectacle,
a sea of miseries is not a proscenium,
a screaming man is not a dancing bear….
—Aimé Césaire from Return to My
All of Haroun’s films
touch on father and son relationships and the traumatic repercussions of war,
his last three forming what amounts to a War Trilogy, showing children who are
abandoned by their fathers in ABOUNA (2002) to a child seeking his dead
father’s revenge in DRY SEASON (2006), which features an adult father figure
(his father’s alleged killer) who is a shell of his former self, haunted and
scarred by his role in war and by what he’s been forced to witness. Africa is a continent that knows continual
strife from the everpresent eruptions of violent and
bloody civil wars, where Chad itself has had 4 different Civil Wars in the past
40 years and is linked to the ongoing conflict in Darfur, where the worst
African scenario usually involves the conscription of young children who are
kidnapped by warlords or local militias and sent off to the front, usually
hopped up on drugs carrying AK-47 assault rifles, oftentimes never seeing their
families again, whose villages may have been burned during the many
massacres. One of the more controversial
books written on the subject centers on the fighting in Sierre
Leone, written by a child soldier who was abducted at age 13 and is called A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, though many have questioned the historical accuracy
of his recollections. Haroun, on the
other hand, never provides the specifics of these bloody events, relying on the
viewer’s familiarity with African atrocities, but instead is more interested in
the psychological ramifications of the survivors. Both A SCREAMING MAN and DRY SEASON were shot
From the cheerful
opening scene in a hotel swimming pool, the brightness of the clear blue pool
water contrasts heavily against the final somber images of the film, where a
peaceful river flows into the dark of night.
Youssouf Djaoro as Adam is the
centerpiece of the film, a quiet, mild-mannered father whose relaxed face
describes his even temperament. He’s a
Listening to the radio is another common Haroun theme, where a grandfather and his grandson listen to the Truth Committee Investigation hearings in DRY SEASON, where war murderers were offered amnesty, and here Adam listens to the daily reports of rebel forces attacking cities across the country but being repelled by the Army, where TV reports show shots of rebel children killed laying dead in the streets. Local authorities demand money from families for the “war effort,” but as few have any money to offer, the Army takes their able bodied sons instead. Adam doesn’t raise a hand in protest when they basically kidnap his son and send him off to the front. Despite reclaiming his former position at the pool, he is wracked with guilt, but rather than cry out and scream, he suffers in silence while devastated by the news reports of escalating violence, while the continual sounds of helicopters flying overhead drown out the natural street sounds. When Abdel’s pregnant girlfriend shows up, Djénéba Koné, who comes from a family of artists, she stays in Abdel’s room and can occasionally be heard singing softly.
The entire tone of the film shifts from daylight to darkness, as the bright African colors so pronounced in the sunlight are drowned out by the darkness, turning this into a mournfully sad film, where in a haunting image Adam drives his motorcycle down a narrow alley engulfed in darkness, as his headlights become smaller and smaller before disappearing in the total blackness of the night. Djénéba receives an audio tape from Abdel that describes a living hell around him where friends are quickly dying around him, where reports of rebels advancing is followed by a swarm of people exiting the city in a mass exodus, where chaos reigns even as the police are making unheeded loudspeaker announcements that everything is under control. In what is perhaps Haroun’s final offering in his War Trilogy, the overriding theme is that “”war is perpetuated by man…war is a history, knowledge and experience that is handed down from father to son.” Adam’s emotional devastation leads him to question the presence of God, where his scream is not so much against the war and its ravaging effects but against the silence of God. The film is poetic and restrained, highly personal, quiet, transcendent, and beautifully understated, gorgeously shot almost entirely outdoors on location in ‘Scope by Laurent Brunet (who also shot two recent Christophe Honoré films), and has a transfixing finale, an offering of quiet peace against an unending assault of perpetual violence.
“He didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, and finally did.” —Teardrop (John Hawkes)
An outstanding film, certainly one of the films of the
year, a performance driven work that digs deeper into the protectivist,
individualistic spirit of America than anything else seen in recent memory,
certainly matching the mood of the nation at the moment which may feel the
government is overextending into the lives of private citizens. Not sure there’s another film out there where
visiting your family represents such a life-threatening risk, as the backwoods
rural view of government and authority is so low here that they’ll do anything
to keep it out of their life, even risk death in various confrontations with
the police, as people in this neck of the woods believe that individual freedom
comes with the right to exclude any and all persons from their property,
including their own kin. Of course, if
they’re manufacturing crank in crystal meth labs, that might have something to
do with it, much like
It’s extremely well-written and closely observed, without an ounce of condescension or moral pretense, carefully outlining the landscape, people, and regional habits, featuring unforgettable performances that blindside the audience with the innate force of a shipwreck, as the viewer is plunged directly into the heart of an underground culture where some archaic unwritten code seems to thrive in the form of intensely driven desperation that remains out of sight, under the surface, where one set of standards exists for men, another for women. “Ain't you got no men that can do this?” opens the door into women’s business, where they ruthlessly protect the criminal business interests of their men, even from family. But to those living there who have a realistic sense of just who and what they’re dealing with, these are some eerily frightening players to go up against, as they’d just as soon hurt you or even kill you than have to talk to you, as every little bit of understanding, if word gets out, can only hurt their operations. “Talking just causes witnesses.” Trying to make her way through this world is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, a determined and single-minded 17-year old who has been left by her father to raise her mentally incapacitated mother and two young siblings on her own in their ramshackle house with only hand-outs from neighbors and an occasional squirrel to shoot. Ree’s father is on the run from the law, charged with cooking crystal meth, but he put the house and land up to remain out on bail, and his whereabouts are a mystery she quickly needs to solve. If he misses his scheduled court appearance, within a week she could lose the house, leaving them all out in the cold. In desperation, she searches for him, trying to find the truth about where he is, dead or alive, but runs into brick walls from highly resistant family members who warn her that she’s stirring up trouble. Turning to her dad’s brother, the skeletal Teardrop (John Hawkes), he’s a fierce man with an attitude, as he understands the lay of the land, but he can’t help Ree, as if her dad has dropped out of sight, it’s for a reason. He nearly breaks her neck to prove the point, and then takes it out on his wife. Men rule the roost in these parts and there’s little women can do about it. It’s a drug-infested world where there’s a lucrative pipeline of money to be made, yet people live in broken-down shacks and subside on next to nothing to reveal nothing out of the ordinary, offering no signs to the police. Whatever happens takes place on the privacy of their land and it’s nobody else’s business to come sniffing around asking questions. This is the way, followed with near Biblical enforcement.
Like The Odyssey
or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,
there’s a lot more going on here under the surface as Ree
moves deeper into the stealthful operations of her
family, each character is carefully drawn, filled with the wretched lack of
humanity that defines many of them, yet they also offer small doses of kindness
and make an effort to respect her family name.
Dale Dickey as Merab is positively superb as
the crusty wife of Ree’s grandfather, a Vietnam vet
wearing a “Stray Dog” biker jacket known as Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), a man
she fears more than any who runs the more difficult side of the family
operations which is kept completely off limits, so Ree
is quickly shown the door, along with a parting cup of coffee and a reminder
that they won’t be so hospitable next time.
As the intensity mounts and Ree’s desperation
grows, the atmosphere borders on horror suspense, as the promise of a wrath of
violence continually lurks under the surface with a looming ferocity. When her dad’s court date comes and he never
shows, Ree coldly awaits eviction but soon faces her
grandfather’s punishment instead and is hauled off into the barn for a brutal (offscreen) ass-kicking from Merab
and the other women, where the camera doesn’t linger on the physical
infliction, only the painful consequences for the sins of her father where the
thought of death is close at hand and held in judgment by a vengeful clan of
societal rejects, people who answer to no law but their own. Who should show up, but Teardrop of all
people? He knows what he needs to know
and offers his say, in so many words, which has the poetic sound of grace to
it. It’s an exquisite moment, like a miracle
or an answered prayer, but one that has the ring of truth, as there’s no doubt
every ear is listening. But there’s a
hellish underside to this eloquence, something Ree
suspects, calling it family intuition.
When she later reveals to Teardrop, “You have always scared me,” he
promptly points out “That’s ‘cause you’re smart.” But there is still more hell to pay. What is left borders on the surreal, as if
existing only in the imagination, as it couldn’t possibly be real. But throughout this entire ordeal, one fact
never wavers, and that is Ree’s steely resolve to
answer for her father’s sins, to face them head on with no illusions or false
hope. Thrust into the middle of a
turbulent nightmare, you get the sense she will find the right balance and weather
all storms. So far,
4.) HEARTBEATS (Les Amours Imaginaires) A
When they devised Audience Choice Awards, this is the kind of film they must have had in mind, as this is a brilliantly inventive film, hilarious beyond anyone’s expectations, the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in ages, infectiously smart, wonderfully acted, devising the most inventive camera movements, original color schemes, and the absolute best use of music of any film seen in years, sensing the urgency, naivety, complexity and depth of passion of the characters. The savagely funny Xavier Dolan writes, directs, edits, provides the art direction, and stars in this comedy of observations, where a host of people speak directly to the camera revealing their own personal insight into relationships, what thrills them about being in a relationship, but also how bummed they are when people don’t meet their expectations, which is shown in that ANNIE HALL (1977) rapid fire style, one closeup face after another. Reminiscent of the colorful and early playful style of Jean-Luc Godard in the early 60’s with Anna Karina, Dolan uses the wacky energy and clever combination of personalities from Truffaut’s delightfully inventive threesome movie, JULES AND JIM (1962), featuring a dazzling display of wit and comic invention. Dolan himself plays Francis, gorgeous, bright, and gay, whose best friend, the acid tongued Marie (Monia Chokri) is straight, but provides a high fashion statement in every shot, always featuring a kaleidoscope of bright colors, while her stylish approach to smoking cigarettes, including the development of an individual philosophy around cigarette smoking, is unparalleled. The two of them fall for the same guy, Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a curly haired blond whose pouty lips and effeminate features seem to swing both ways, so they end up in the same bed together—for awhile, where their love theme seems to be Dalida’s multi-lingual version of “Bang Bang.”
There hasn’t been a more candy-colored movie since THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964), which, by the way, was devastatingly sad and did not end up happy. Here the colors really do reflect the internal moods of the characters, which for the most part is youthfully upbeat. The film is constantly exploring the idea of relationships, where various observations cut into the movie at improbable moments, giving the film a feeling of community, as if everyone commenting is somehow personally involved in the making of this film. Rarely are characters ever seen alone, as almost always they’re seen in groups vying for one another’s affections, where Francis and Marie grow a bit jealous when someone else has Nicolas’s undivided attention, and then step over themselves with embarrassingly awkward talk when it becomes their turn, where being foolishly in love is certainly demonstrated repeatedly with this threesome, especially as the two friends are in competition with one another, each attempting to have him all to themselves. Dolan reveals shots from each other’s imagination, perspectives that show substantially different versions of how they envision Nicolas in love. There’s a hilarious dance sequence where Nicolas is dancing at a party with his mother, Anne Dorval in a marvelously brief appearance, a professional dancer who shows up the next morning with her son’s monthly stipend, where she has occasion to chat with Francis instead, calling him a gorgeously attractive “twinkie,” recalling how she used to bring her young son to the dance sessions and all the other dancers would fall over themselves to swarm him with kisses and adoring affection, so affection is something that he’s used to. Despite their best efforts, which includes a trip to the country where Nicolas describes for Francis the proper technique of eating a roasted marshmallow, neither one seems capable of holding his attention for long.
When they inevitably both get dumped, Nicolas is as cold and cruel as they get, where the theme music changes to Fever Ray’s hauntingly atmospheric “Keep the Streets Empty for Me.” The color sequences grow darker and more somber and the mood of introspection is more prevalent. Dolan uses slow motion sequences, where especially effective is a pulsating strobe light segment that shows faces in closeup, including a subtle changing look of the eyes, a technique that was memorable in FLASHDANCE (1983) but may have had its roots in Clouzot's ill-fated yet dizzily experimental L'ENFER (1964), which was never completed. Much of the film’s appeal is the way the actors relish their roles, especially Monia Chokri who seems to wrap her tongue around some of the dialogue, exuding a witty sarcasm through invented pronunciations. She’s incredibly smart, but she also sticks her foot in her mouth when she gets nervous. Chokri and Dolan are two of the more delightful characters seen onscreen in awhile, and the screenplay gives them a full range of expression while Dolan behind the camera seems to be experimenting with a kind of ecstatic, uninhibited glee. The stylishly impressionistic mood of comic originality continues unabated throughout the entire film, where the energy never sags, and where the finale is drop dead hilarious. While Dolan’s initial film is more personal and is perhaps the more audaciously accomplished effort, rarer still is one lured into an intelligently written comedy that offers both funny and heartbreakingly meaningful drama, from the superficiality of hip clubs to the despair of self-deception, where this is a free-spirited take on the absence and exuberance of love that is given enormous energy and appeal from both the writer and the performers. While Dolan will appeal primarily to the gay community, because his wit and humor reflect themes of gay tolerance and love, but it should be noted that Dolan may be the only filmmaker on the planet who can make a straight person identify with an appreciation for being gay, and not in any tragic sense, like MILK (2008) or BOYS DON’T CRY (1999), but in the euphoric brilliance of his art.
5.) HADEWIJCH A-
The best-laid plans of mice and men
Go oft awry
—Robert Burns, To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest, with the Plough (1785)
I see there is all kinds of misinformation being circulated
about this film, as unlike the current IMDb listings, this is the first Dumont
film not to be shot in ‘Scope, shot instead with a 1:66 aspect ratio by the
same cinematographer (Yves Cape) who shot FLANDRES (2006), yet it retains a
luscious 35 mm color palette, also the length of the film varies from 120 mi
(IMDb), 100 mi (Toronto), to the correct 105 mi (London, Hong Kong and Pyramide Films).
According to the IMDb message boards (Aspect ratio),
We soon realize Céline comes from a highly privileged background, that her emotionally distant father is a government minister, but her life with him shows a cavernous emptiness, quite a contrast to Yassine (Yassine Salime), one of the boys from the projects outside Paris that takes an interest in Céline, where she’s often seen joy riding on the back of his motorcycle through the streets of Paris, a far cry from the director’s beloved Bailleul, the setting of his earlier films. Yassine is a guy that would just as easily steal a bike as run red lights simply because the urge hits him, curious yet a little dejected that she clearly states upfront that she is a virgin with no interest in sexual relationships with men, as she’s only interested in the love of Christ, so Yassine introduces her to his brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), a devout Islamist teacher who invites her to one of his religious discussion sessions. But when she does appear, the stares of men make her feel uncomfortable. However, these two have extended conversations throughout the rest of the film that interestingly lay out philosophic principles that challenge the audience’s own humanity to embrace and love the differences in others as easily as they accept themselves. Céline has a harder time feeling God’s love in the real world away from the convent, and she misses that intimacy, while Nassir expresses to her that God is never absent, but is everywhere, that humans are never separated from his love. But he also believes God is more than love, that religion is the means to obtain social justice in an unjust world, even if that leads to violence, understanding that throughout human history, violence begets more violence. What’s intriguing here is the allure Islam has to Céline, and their interest in her, drawing a fascinating parallel between the extremism of an austere, cloistered life and a similarly devout Muslim believer who is willing to die for a cause, seen here as an awakening, especially after she gives a daunting speech about her readiness to Nassir, expressed while illuminated by a brief passage of sunlight, as if she is suddenly willing to accept God as action where humans are soldiers in the army of God, vessels transmitting God’s love in order to bring about justice. It’s an amazing moment, as the audience doesn’t know if she’s in full complicity or if she’s being duped by the malicious interests of others. While she walks with an air of innocence and purity, Céline seems to have a pretty good understanding of how the world works and the people in it, though it is in her nature to be trusting of others, as she sees in herself an open vessel for others.
Without any explanation, Céline is whisked away outside
Postscript Thoughts [To be read only after seeing the film!!!]
The most cynical reading I've discovered so far is that the
construction worker/jailbird went to jail for what likely happened immediately
following that rescue and hug in the lake, raping her ("at least you
didn't kill anybody"), which possibly led to the kind of extremist anger
leading to Islamic martyrdom and her choice to become a suicide bomber, which
is the chronological end. If so, like the first use of soundtrack music
This reading is aided by the use of music over the end credits which does come to an abrupt halt, like a death, which is certainly a significant clue, because if the film was shown in sequence, she was alive at the end.
The shot in sequence scenario is obviously a more hopeful
and optimistic view, one that suggests what we're searching for in God and
religion can certainly be found within ourselves, that humans are our own
salvation. The use of Bresson may only be the
Nonetheless, what's truly unique is that
6.) HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER A-
In John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), it’s the Norwegians who are the first to go bat shit crazy from an attack, as The Thing can assume human shape and turn into the body of your best friend, only to turn on you when you least suspect it, a film that shifts the pervading sense of fear from the outside, as expressed by a grotesque excess of blood and gore, to the inside, where a gloomy sense of dread hangs in the air like being engulfed in a cloud of fog. In this film, it’s the Russians who take a stab at the remote isolation of a polar science station in the Arctic region. Inspired by the diaries of Nikolai Pinegin, a painter, journalist, and the filmmaker who made the first documentary films about the Arctic, who also accompanied Arctic explorer Georgy Sedov on his fatal attempt to reach the North Pole in 1912, writing a book “In Icy Expanses,” which the filmmaker read as a teenager, fascinated by polar explorers and “their ability to come to terms with the monstrous vastness of time and space,” eventually moving the actors and film crew to live for three months at the science station in Chukotka at Russia’s northeastern most tip. This film grabbed the attention of the jury at the Chicago Film Festival, taking the top prize, perhaps not because it’s the best film, but because it tells its story so completely different than any of the other films shown. The space is inhabited by only two men, veteran meteorologist Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) and a recent college graduate Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who brought his computer and is writing an essay on his summer experience. What’s immediately striking is the vibrancy of the underlying music by Dmitriy Katkhanov, most of it quiet and barely audible, yet striking in its electronic sound design, perfectly matching the superb imagery provided by Pavel Kostomarov, somewhat reminiscent of the breathtaking musical score from Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN (2003), another starkly austere and emotionally spare film.
Much like the region itself, the film moves at a glacial
pace where not much ever happens except the slow, plodding rhythm of taking
scientific measurements and sending the results by radio communiqués. Sergei has a vast knowledge of the region and
a history of those who lost their lives working there, some ended up shooting
one another, others were killed by a polar bear, where the rigors of the
routines become endlessly monotonous, where Sergei records all entries by hand
while Pavel uses his computer, occasionally playing video games which puts a
charge into the slow pace of the film.
The location itself is set on the
At this point, the director ratchets up the tension and suspense, poisoning the atmosphere with dread, all happening within Pavel’s anxiously unsettled mind, as a helicopter is sent out to find them, where Pavel has 24 hours to find Sergei’s fishing location and send up flairs, where he walks through a vast wilderness of snow, ultimately finding himself on a mountainside engulfed in a patch of fog, where he hears the thunderous sound of the helicopter flying overhead and he lights up a flair, waving it in his arms, yelling and screaming, but it’s useless, as he’s invisible from the air, but the director holds the shot as Pavel walks away in disgust, eventually throwing his flare to the ground, which sends up a cloud of smoke that he walks through, but the shot is held as the smoke clears and a distinct outline of his surroundings can be seen, still holding the shot until the entire composition is perfectly clear, but the sound of the helicopter is long gone. This is a transfixing shot that in its execution recalls the compositions of Tarkovsky, many of which required a lengthy choreography of perfect timing. The unfathomable mental paralysis only grows more serious, as Pavel is bordering on the deranged, unable to face Sergei without running away, even as he has no place to go, hiding in dilapidated, ramshackle huts that haven’t been used for years, starving or freezing to death or both, where the mood of the film veers into the horror genre, a mental deterioration shown with meticulous precision, an eerie descent into a place where only nightmarish catastrophes can happen, where all that exists is the unthinkable, where the director uses time-lapse photography to speed things up to a fevered pitch, before carefully slowing things back down again and once more, holding the shot longer than what we’re anticipating, changing the configuration before our astonished eyes.
7.) I KILLED MY MOTHER (J’ai Tue Ma Mere) A-
Using $150,000 that he earned as a child actor, another $200,000 from Quebec’s cultural funding agency SODEC for post-production costs, and shooting for free in the homes of family and friends, the first thing that should be said about this startlingly inventive youth in revolt film is its resemblance to Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical TARNATION (2003) [a resounding thump on the forehead to all you cinemasters who downplayed and whiffed on this film], an eye-opening revelatory film that documents his troubled adolescence growing up gay while attempting to develop a more personal relationship with his brain damaged schizophrenic mother. Xavier Dolan wrote the script at age 16, initially called The Matricide, much of it autobiographical about his love/hate relationship with his mother, prompting the director himself into the leading role (Who better?), while directing and producing the film at age 19, receiving an eight-minute standing ovation at its premiere at Cannes in 2009, but it was only shown in 12 theaters in Quebec, the director’s hometown, and rarely screened elsewhere, finally shown in Chicago nearly two years later at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Like Caouette, Dolan brilliantly intersperses various film styles, from slow motion to fast motion, confessional video diaries, wish fulfillment reveries, dream sequences, snapshots, home movies, all playing a part in expressing the full range of Dolan’s rebellious 16-year old character, 11th grader Hubert, who from the outset is in full battle mode with his exasperated single mother, Anne Dorval, who is nothing short of brilliant. In Hubert’s mind, his mother is the black plague of his life, as if she was born to irritate him, as she matches his narcissistic, self-centered behavior stride for stride, where for each personality, the world revolves around themselves. Since they both can’t be the center of the universe, they continually butt heads with one another, at times wailing away at each another in full-scale assault mode, oftentimes both screaming at the same time. This might sound monotonously shrill and one-dimensional, but Dolan adds humorous asides, expressing Hubert’s loathsome hatred as a kind of growing personal obsession.
The camerawork by Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron is impressive, expressing the changing moods by constantly altering methods of expression, from close ups to medium shots to his reverential shots of the back of the head, which continue in HEARTBEATS (2010), using Black and White natural realism with hypersaturated color, where Hubert is the picture of a whining, self-centered youth who feels entitled to be heard, never comfortable in his own skin, showing artistic tendencies but also a disturbing inability to empathize with others, continually dwelling in his own universe with a dissatisfaction of the world around him. One of the other brilliant musical pieces is a drug induced party sequence at boarding school with a new friend Niels Schneider, also from HEARTBEATS, where to the sounds of Crystal Castles - 16 - Tell me what to swallow (YouTube 2:14), his emotions are ecstatically pulled back and forth by all the new changes and developments in his life, including a love scene with Antonin as they are splatter painting the walls of his mother’s office before making love on the drop cloth, a sequence edited by Dolan. One never quite knows where this film is heading, but it must be said Dolan writes a killer ending, giving Anne Dorval perhaps the scene of the year in one of the more outrageous moments in recent memory, where it’s not just for show, it matters. What follows is an exquisite, amazingly tender finale that is heart provoking and real, that makes everything that comes before essential and necessary in order to truly comprehend the gorgeous understated complexity that we are privileged to witness. I can’t think of anyone else who has had two films initially screened the same year in the same city that were both potentially Top Ten films. It’s impossible not to like this guy who at the moment is a tender 21-years of age, as his stand-out humor and intelligence mixed with his reverence for what makes cinema vibrant and alive makes his films among the most extraordinary viewing experiences of the year.
8.) SAMSON AND DELILAH A-
Above all else, this is basically a road picture which follows the exploits of two young Aboriginal teenagers from their daily routines in their tiny desert village to the moment they are both ostracized from that community and feel forced to flee, hoping for a better life, but only find more horrors that await them. This is as downbeat a film as I’ve seen in years, but also displays an uncompromising vision as it accurately reflects the poverty, lack of education, boredom, substance abuse, homelessness, social dysfunction, and the lack of any hope that something better awaits any of them, leaving them in a gigantic hole of futility, where their only friend in the world is utter hardship and despair. It’s as if they are both doomed to spend the rest of their lives impoverished, friendless and alone, which is what draws them together, not because they actually like or are attracted to one another, but they are kindred spirits that share the same dim future. Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) are both victims of their harsh environment, where their elders can be the cruelest examples of the hopelessness that pervades their world. The depiction of the Aboriginal world is so uniquely barren and empty that it feels unworldly, as if there’s no place for it in this world, which by its desolation and devastatingly sad bleakness feels all the more real.
Samson, who utters a single word throughout the entire film, is already a petrol sniffer, where he’s constantly seen inhaling this monstrously addictive substance that literally destroys brain cells on contact. He has violent mood swings where he tends to grow irritable, destroying whatever he sees with a giant stick, just an example of his highly combustible nature. Delilah, on the other hand, makes Aboriginal paintings with her grandmother and otherwise leads a quiet life looking after her. But when her grandmother dies suddenly, all the elders erroneously blame her, as if she wasn’t providing proper care, actually beating her with a stick, brutal acts that make little sense, especially since she was the only one looking after her. Samson, meanwhile, awakens each day to his brothers sitting on the front porch playing fairly rudimentary electric ska music, where they play the same song all day long in an endless session of monotony, so he attacks his brother with a stick one day to get him to stop. But this only leads to retaliation, hostility, and greater community outrage. On something of a whim, Samson grabs the wounded Delilah and heads out of town in the first vehicle he can break into, which happens to be the only village automobile. His problem, however, is that he needs the petrol more to sniff than to run the car, so by nightfall they are stranded in the middle of nowhere, which of course, is where they’ve always been.
The scenes in the city of Alice Springs are even more hauntingly bleak, as what money they have is spent on the first day, leaving them stranded and even more ostracized in an all-white environment based on their racial attributes, which immediately identifies them as a couple that does not belong. Only a partially sane and eccentric homeless man, the director’s real-life alcoholic brother Scott, prone to singing nonsensical songs while living under an overpass bridge, offers them anything resembling friendship, where he shares whatever food he has while serenading them with his latest soliloquy, at one point singing bits of Tom Waits’s alcoholic-tinged “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” Delilah at least attempts to mingle with the white crowds, also an art store proprietor that sells Aboriginal art for $22,000 a painting, but is only scoffed at and ridiculed, leaving her as devastated as Samson, quickly joining in his addiction of sniffing petrol full-time, leaving them both abandoned and oblivious to the world around them. Because the film is etched with such vivid realism, the audience gets a highly personalized view of their plight, one of the better films at showing the cultural impact of racism which is so casually embedded in the indifference of the majority white culture, where an unbridgeable chasm exists between the two cultures, where whites shoo them away with the same annoying effort as swatting a fly. But like any good road movie, this one has multiple possibilities, and the film could take any number of different directions, where one of its rare qualities is leading us in one direction while actually taking us somewhere else altogether. This kind of misdirection is highly appealing, as the audience begins to wonder whether the real world has been transformed into a netherworld, where what’s happening onscreen plays out in multiple dimensions, adding to the intrigue about where this is all leading.
Etched in country ballads, simplicity and a near wordless relationship between the couple, played by two non-actors, yet their tenderness towards one another only increases due to the difficulty of their travails, where all they have in this world quite literally is each other. The hostile world around them never softens or even bends, but somehow they manage to survive against all odds, where even their survival may only be in some metaphorical state, where from their vantage point the world of the whites begins to look dreamlike and surrealistic. The hardcore truths depicted in this picture are drop dead amazing, yet the story unravels with such a naturalistic and effortless grace. There’s a kind of Bressonian BALTHAZAR (1966) at play here, where everywhere this couple goes, they are treated as less than human, yet somehow, they transcend their earthly surroundings, from the boredom of the dead-end village where they were raised to the entrenched hatred of the nation that has no use for them and would rather confine them to undesirable and remote tribal land where they remain out of sight and out of mind. Thornton, who wrote, directed, filmed, played guitar and wrote the music for his first feature-length film, which won the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 2009 for the best first feature, brings this couple from behind closed doors out into the world, like a modern day Mary and Joseph, where despite the passage of thousands of years in a Biblical sense, there is still no room at the inn.
The ultimate break-up film, shown here in a deliciously slow burn of insecurities, everything that the highly acclaimed, warm and nostalgia-tinged Olivier Assayas SUMMER HOURS (2008) pretended to be but was “not,” a scathing exposé of social convention, showing the hypocrisy and emptiness of a couple that, like the Wheeler’s in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008), want to be unconventional, that doesn’t want to be like “everyone else.” An extremely provocative film, well-written and intelligently directed by Ade, choosing unusually ordinary or uninteresting lead characters as her subject, a mirror image for the audience to identify with, a self-centered and bored German middle class couple, yet they are onscreen the entire length of the film together, rarely more than arms length away from one another. With six years between films, plenty of time has passed, yet the distinctive finale of Ade’s last film is still fresh in the viewer’s minds, as the disturbing ambiguity remains unsettling to this day. In THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (2003), all signs indicate a perfectly ordinary middle class setting, but as the director gets inside the head of a well-meaning teacher who can’t control her class, signs point to a psychological breakdown which the director meticulously details, where one might call Ade an on-the–fringe miserablist, though not full-fledged like Austrian Ulrich Seidl. Both show a fondness for documentary realism, then embellishing the prevailing social order with remarkably downbeat unpleasantries. As French director Claude Chabrol passed away this week, I’d like to point out the similarities with his style early in his career, especially the amazingly realistic LES BONNES FEMMES (1960), which for all practical purposes was a breezy lightweight comedy until the final reel which completely re-contextualized everything that came before. That film was half a century ago, targeting the boredom of lower class working girls all at the same dead end job, an appliance store with few if any customers, while this film sets its sights on the economically successful, well-to-do German middle class, where they encounter so few hardships in their lifetimes that they lose the ability to express dissatisfaction, as they’re always expected to be happy doing whatever they choose, yet freedom becomes a weight they carry on their shoulders. What’s compelling about the film is the evaporation of the supposed happiness that exists between this couple that hops in the sack at one moment and then has next to nothing to say afterwards or even well into the next day, where their specialty becomes cutting each other to shreds, where they fall under a blistering attack of acid-tinged criticisms hurled with the precision and accuracy of heat-seeking missiles.
Lars Eidinger is Chris, who is
the picture of proper rearing, as he’s intelligent, well-mannered, reserved,
polite, soft-spoken, self-aware, yet distant, vacuous, aloof, and unreachable,
the kind of guy who always has a book in his hand but has a hard time
expressing his ideas. He fancies himself
as an architect, but he hasn’t really broken into the field just yet and has
few job offers, so he’s likely still supported by his parents, who are unseen,
but their presence is everywhere, as the couple is vacationing at his parent’s
villa on the
It’s interesting the way Ade chooses to test this couple,
as it’s with a stereotypical boorish German male, Hans, actually named Hans-Jochen Wagner, an established architect who’s loud,
obnoxious, opinionated and totally condescending, yet he’s continually seeking
out Chris as if they’re old school friends.
Chris, on the other hand, has a near phobic desire not to be seen by
Hans and is successful for half the film, but once they meet, it’s clear Hans
is handing them the apple, as Chris immediately defers to Han’s smug
masculinity and sucks the toxic fumes of his pig-headed and overbearing nature,
accepting without return a volley of insults directed at himself and Gitta, all with a patronizing air of superiority, where Gitta rises to his defense, but is then abandoned by Chris
who thinks her unconventional and outspoken honesty is out of line. Hans calls her a Brünnhilde
defending her man, a reference to the sword carrying, war-like maiden in
Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which is nothing more than insulting name-calling, one
German stereotyping another with an unflattering Nazi-tinged label. But Chris seems to think it’s OK for Hans to
joke around with demeaning insults all told with a smile, but not for Gitta to call him on his noxious contempt for others. In other words, it’s socially acceptable to
insult and disparage others so long as it’s only words, where the manner in
which it’s spoken trumps the meaning behind it.
Chris then falls in line with the odious and egotistic behavior of Hans
and leaves Gitta dangling on her own. In perhaps the scene of the film, Chris
invites Hans and his more shallow pregnant girlfriend Sana (Nicole Marischka) over for dinner, a social makeup for Gitta’s previous overly blunt outspokenness, where after
dinner they show the couple his parent’s villa, carrying drinks up into his
mother’s room where Hans immediately disparages his mother’s taste as well, but
she’s got a “cool” stereo, which plays the German version of Barry Manilow or
Neil Diamond, a live version of Grönemeyer singing a
typically popular mainstream love song, “Ich hab dich lieb.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VlmB3YWnc8)
Audiard has created a gripping prison drama that is unflinching in its near documentary portrait of prison life, following for an entire film a single prisoner, Malik (Tahar Rahim), who straddles the racial divide inside the prison, as he’s immediately pounced upon by the Corsican crime boss on the inside, Niels Arestrup as Luciani, to either kill another Arab prisoner to keep him from testifying or be killed himself. This effectively keeps him hated by both groups, Muslims and Corsicans, but Luciani, despite detesting his ethnicity, will keep him alive for small favors and as an errand boy, believing he is a valuable commodity because of his ability to operate in both worlds. The intense violence of the picture is immediate and wrenching, drawing us into the impossible choices awaiting prison inmates, where life or death choices hit them in the face before they have a chance to breathe and there is no easy out, where the actual hit is remarkably suspenseful in the lead up to the actual event, where Malik has to learn how to conceal a razor blade in his mouth, rehearsing endlessly as he spits blood into a sink, but he’s not prepared for the gentle calm and quiet that precedes the horror, which is shown with no embellishments. It’s a bloody and horrific ordeal, kill or die, where Malik is visited by the ghost of the deceased throughout the remainder of the picture, at times, his only remaining friend. With scars on his back as the only reference to his past, this young 19-year old is serving a 6-year sentence in an adult facility for unspecified crimes, with grim corridors and a sense of fear awaiting his every step.
The choice of character is unusual, as audiences are not used to seeing Arab gangsters, but as everyone else in prison is seen in an equally deplorable light, Malik’s quiet appeal is somewhat idealized, as he’s portrayed as a young innocent, unable to read or write, seen as a victim of circumstances precisely because we don’t know his past and have never seen any victims from his alleged crimes. Instead, what’s startling is that he’s a kid in a man’s world, used as a servant boy for the Corsicans who openly despise all Arabs, but they tolerate him because he did what they asked. Silently, he serves his time. But the audience grows curious about his dual ethnicity, an Arab despised by his fellow Arabs because he’s protected by and receives favors from the Corsicans, who are ethnic Italians born on what’s considered French soil. When a large group of Corsicans are freed, Luciani has fewer bodyguards, leaving him largely outnumbered by Arab inmates. What may seem puzzling to viewers is the degree to which prisoners continue to have full access to the premises, where smuggling drugs into the facility is routine, as is walking the grounds whenever they please, or running operations outside the prison, and where some prison cells are rarely even locked. This is what gives Luciani power over his competitors, as he owns the guards, but over time, the balance of power shifts, changes that Malik is keen to observe. The subtle interplay between these two characters gives the film depth, as Luciani was wise to choose Malik initially, but continues to bully and deride him, even as he matures, underestimating what attracted him in the first place, his ability to expand the limits of Corsican movement both inside and outside the prison.
The length of the film gives this a
near epic stature, as much like a novel, it continually builds and expands into
new territory while maintaining the meticulous attention to detail offered from
the outset, keeping the focus on how Malik sees the world, as despite his
criminal connections, it’s essential for the audience to view him
sympathetically. That’s the beauty of
the film. Despite being immersed inside
the intensely grim and brutal world of prison, the last place an audience would
choose to be, viewers will be captivated by Malik’s understated performance and
his ability to adapt to the circumstances, sometimes on the spur of the moment
when things could easily turn badly, but especially after he’s served more than
half his time and Luciani arranges 12-hour leaves for him to conduct business
on the outside. Just like in prison when
he’s asked to perform Corsican dirty work, people are surprised to see an Arab
kid, where he seems to have a guardian angel protecting him as he miraculously
escapes from some tight spots with guns pointed at his head, but here as well,
he’s expected to prove himself worthy, which is the heart of the film. Audiard does an excellent job altering the
rhythms and style of his filmmaking, adding slow motion, dream sequences, a
touch of surrealism, or contemporary music, continually keeping the audience
off balance, never knowing what to expect, but never for a moment sacrificing
the authenticity of the gritty material.
The director and Thomas Bidegain adapted a screenplay initiated by Abdel
Raouf Dafri and Nicholas Peufaillit, deciding to set the entire film inside the
confines of a prison, with only brief flourishes outside, as in much the same
way we’re locked inside the mind of Malik, intimately connected to his
innermost thoughts as he evolves along a journey from being a kid to a
man. Though it’s set in a prison, the
cultural reach of this film far surpasses our expectations, as it reveals a
multi-ethnic side of
A bit like Audiard’s A PROPHET (2009), only this one’s told from the perspective of life on the outside instead of life on the inside of prison. Using a spare narration from a dull, socially inept, oversized teenaged kid, James Frecheville as Joshua, who in the opening sequence waits for the paramedics to arrive too late to help his overdosed mother. This begins his journey with his new family, career bank robbers seen in a crime spree captured in black and white surveillance photos over the opening credits, who happen to be his uncles all living under the care of their notorious mother, Grandma Cody (Jacki Weaver), otherwise known as Mother Smurf, who has a face like a ventriloquist’s dummy with a constant smile etched on her face, a woman who just wants to be around “the boys” wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. She is hilarious every time she instructs these cold-blooded criminals to give her a hug, as she feels she’s the emotional backbone of the family, keeping their volatile tempers under control. Joshua is more an observer or innocent bystander who just happens to be there, as he could just as easily be anywhere, so nothing seems out of the ordinary to him as these are his relatives. When he gets his first taste of what a gun can do, it’s more amusing than anything else, as no one gets hurt, but the gun certainly makes other hardened outlaws back off, which for his uncles is mere child’s play. Without ever saying much, his quiet nature soon begins to arouse the suspicion of his uncles, exacerbated by their own insane paranoia that comes from excessive cocaine use, where they wonder who he might be talking to. As the family is under 24-hour police surveillance, these nagging suspicions only grow more irritable over time. When the police bring the whole family in for questioning, their paranoia goes overboard, thinking he’s just a kid, but he may be a weak link. Interesting that this is another hair-raising story about a teenager who through no fault of their own becomes unwillingly initiated into the nightmarish adult world of their criminal families, which is the exact same subject of the other Sundance film, Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE. Each play out, however, as differently as possible. Both are unflinching portraits of a criminal underworld rarely seen, this is tough and hard-edged, while Granik’s rural, outsider approach is more poetic and character-driven.
The foreboding opening narration is wise beyond Joshua’s years, as he remarks “Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another,” which may as well be the intro to Kubrick’s meticulously unraveling perfect heist movie THE KILLING (1956). He soon realizes why his mother kept him away from her family. What we witness is a slow changing of the mood, where the arrogant confidence of the boys is replaced by the foul play of revengeful police work, where the police don’t play by the rules any more than the criminals do, which leads to small cracks in the armor, the first evidence of tiny quirks or idiosyncrasies, as behavior slowly becomes more erratic until eventually, for some, the blood begins to boil. Innocently enough, Joshua finds a high school girl friend, Nicole (Laura Wheelwright), whose family provides him a safe haven and a meal from time to time. Bringing her home to the boys starts one of the best sequences in the film, as they’re simply sitting around on the couch to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” (Air Supply - All Out Of Love) playing on the television, which perfectly describes the world spinning out of control around them, especially when Nicole is under the constant gaze of Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the most sociopathic of the uncles, a man in hiding from the cops whose grasp of reality demands that the world must submit to him. Next to him, the rest of the family could be considered ideal neighbors, as they keep their illicit drug activity strictly indoors. But boys will be boys, and like a pack of wild dogs, eventually they turn on each other. This film is about how it’s impossible to remain out of their grasp, despite Joshua’s best efforts to remain neutral, as evidenced by the use of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” (Jimmy Cliff - Sitting In Limbo), as throughout, inert and silent, always under watchful eyes, he appears to be just a kid. But one of the police captains (Guy Pearce) takes a special interest in Joshua, trying to become a father figure, trying to build his trust, all of which just pisses off his intemperate uncles even more.
While it’s an unusual story about an unforgiving world, a pup growing up raised by a pack of wolves, Michôd’s ballsy and stylishly inventive way of telling the story adds a remarkable intensity throughout, as from the very start he pulls you into this world where it appears there’s no way out, slowly becoming more psychologically brutal, edited with a near perfect precision, using an exquisitely eerie sound design from Sam Petty, ominous electronic music from Antony Partos, slow-motion montages and a constantly moving camera from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw that seems to creep around the interior rooms wherever it goes, sometimes appearing as if out of nowhere, building up an extremely taut atmosphere of suspense, never knowing what monster will jump out of the dark. It’s a disturbing film where everything we see falls under a cloud of dread and anxiety, where we can feel the nightmarish tension in the air, even as we are witness to moments of extreme horror. They are not played out for graphic display, but are shown as it is, human beings capable of the most coldly calculated behavior, where the tension is ratcheted up to a fever pitch. The deglamorized portrayal of Joshua’s family is nothing less than bone chilling, but it’s Joshua’s mood that needs to find a balance, that teeter totters between the protection of the police, as represented by Pearce, who ignores or is in denial over the murderous provocation within his own department, or the protection of his family, which is like sending a lamb into the lion’s den. Either way, nothing appears safe. But this is a keenly observant film that allows the initially apathetic Joshua the ability to show good instincts and make smart decisions, so as we follow his every move, we get into the constantly probing mindset of a teenage kid in desperate trouble. Briskly paced, until the final moments, the audience never has a clear idea what’s going to happen other than it likely won’t be good. There’s an everpresent dour tone, but also random moments of absurdity and humor, which when added to the menacing atmosphere of suspense make this an intensely appealing, yet utterly creepy film experience.
RABBIT HOLE A-
Any movie featuring Dianne Wiest these days is definitely worth seeing, as she makes rare screen appearances and has simply become one of the more open-hearted actresses whose captivating warmth is unlike anyone else, as opposed to Nicole Kidman who has taken on empty-hearted, angry and hateful roles, characters that retreat into the comfort zone of grief and self-centeredness so they no longer give a damn about anyone else, where tragedy is her excuse to behave so badly. Based on a Tony Award and Pulitzer prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, there is already a structure in place here, where a married couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) find themselves in the throes of grief after losing their 4-year old son in an unfortunate car accident when he chased the family dog into the middle of the street. By the time we meet them, the characters have retreated into a disturbing sense of isolation and feelings are already compartmentalized, where characters are under extreme emotional duress expressed by their failed attempts at self control, where occasionally extremely hurtful and inappropriate comments would blurt out, usually in the presence of their family, including Becca’s kind-hearted mother (Dianne Wiest) and hard-edged sister (Tammy Blanchard) who announces she’s pregnant. So life goes on, with or without them.
While they live on an idealized lakefront home with plenty of glass windows, this is an emotionally austere drama filled with gaping silences, where the couple is so over-defensive that every word and thought is misunderstood or somehow a reference to their lost son, where there’s no chance whatsoever that they could talk about it. When they go to a grieving family support group, Becca mocks how ridiculous it all is, offering ingratiatingly phony comfort when there’s simply none to be had, the exact view she takes with her mother who sympathizes with Becca, as she lost a 30-year old son to drug addiction. But Becca wants no sympathy or support, as she has no quick fix solutions, but finds it’s better to grieve and be unhappy, irrespective how others feel about it. Howie, for instance, feels ready to try to move on, not to plummet to some undefined abyss of despair where there’s no way out, but Becca will have none of it. Her grief is her life, and she’ll allow no one to stand in her way. In this manner, she’s become another fiercely contemptible character that Kidman associates herself with these days, older and more hurtful roles, where she becomes monstrous. Her mother and sister take refuge in each other, as they build a line of defense against Becca, who is constantly in attack mode. Every time her mother attempts to soften the blows and provide a mother’s nurturing love, Becca hurls abusive invectives with the ease of a sailor’s profanity.
There is a wonderful twist in the story that becomes the best part of the film, where something finally captures Becca’s interest and she’s not so unsurly all the time, where we finally see a softer side that is remarkably poignant and sensitive. It’s as if she’s discovered her own support group that she’s forced to keep secret from her husband. At the same time, Howie has discovered other women are interested in him, providing comfort in areas Becca is just not yet ready to deal with yet, remaining sexually frozen in time, afraid to ever feel again. Their emotional flight from one another becomes a personal road of salvation for each, which is a very fragile and delicate thing, as both continue to avoid one another while secretly seeking comfort in their own ways. It’s here that the delicate music by Anton Sanko plays such a key role, as there’s finally something brewing underneath the emotional fireworks that continue to gnaw at their lives. The film is restrained and movingly directed, shot unfortunately on digital, but also superbly edited, with segments cut into small fragments of life, ordinary moments that resemble our own lives, never overreaching or creating a distance between the audience. Instead, this is a film of inclusion, where after repeatedly being kept out by the incendiary emotional trauma, the audience is finally allowed back into the center of the picture, where this family is no different from our own, and it’s the human condition that finally brings us all back together again inhabiting the same space. This is an edgy and painful journey of redemption exposing shattered pieces of the human soul, perhaps reminiscent of the transcending sadness in Atom Egoyan’s THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997), where by the end no one feels quite the same as when they began the journey.
TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS A-
After the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in December 1989, the Romanian Communist Party fell right along with him, largely responsible for the iron clad rule of a one party system that led to political repression and starvation which resulted from nationwide food shortages, but also rationed power and electricity on a daily basis. At the time, there was no Romanian middle class. What Muntean does with this film is create a scathing exposé not just on marital infidelity but on the new Romanian middle class, which is free to make choices that simply weren’t available twenty years ago.
Scenes From a Marriage in Discord
Before the audience has a chance to get comfortable in
their seats, the bare skin of a naked couple jumps off the screen as they’re
engaged in the most intimate language imaginable, the post coital conversation,
which has smirks and smiles and a great deal of teasing, but also kisses and
heaps of adoring affection. Only
afterwards do we learn he’s married to somebody else, as the married couple is
then seen shopping together, picking out Christmas presents for their all-too
spoiled daughter. So immediately the
audience is in on the big lie. All of
this is set in the typically glum world of
The entire film is shot in insufferable long takes so that episodes of the story unfold in real time, almost exactly the same style as other Romanian films such as Cristi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005), which felt like a documentary of real life, though it was entirely scripted, or Cristian Mungiu’s intensely blunt abortion exposé in 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (2007). The story here is as old as mud, adultery, a man breaks the bonds of marriage and falls for a much younger woman, often called the midlife crisis, but the unglamorized portrait by three top notch actors is expressed without a hint of artifice, creating a hardcore, barebones depiction of a marriage falling off the rails, where the focus is on a husband and his two women, Raluca (Maria Popistasu), the younger more “in love” woman on the side and Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), his long since settled wife. A visit to Raluca’s home, where she is living with her mother, reveals volumes, as her mother forces an icy greeting for Paul, showing him contrived hospitality, but also an underlying contempt that is unspoken, as she knows he’s married. No one wants to see their daughter used and taken advantage of in this manner, especially by an older man, as this scenario is so stereotypical. Where this all leads, understandably, is to the confessional moment of truth between the husband and wife, where cheating on a marriage is the ultimate betrayal for which there is no defense. All the lies and protective layers of phoniness are stripped bare, which is the worst of all possible feelings, where this surprise news leaves one naked and defenseless, replaced by a stream of outrage and disgust, ultimately leading to hatred.
Much of the film’s early dialogue in the family sequences feels excessive and indistinguishable, told in quick spurts, which is exactly what the director was looking for, as the first half of the film shows the rapid pace of habitual and routine behavior, where one never stops to question what they’re doing. The confessional sequence, by contrast, slows immeasurably to a chamber drama of personal horrors, where time literally stops and the tone of the dialogue becomes toxic, and where those breezy conversations heard early in the film simply come to an end. The film is unsparing in its complete dissection, where the dissolution of marriage is also an exposé of the supposed middle class economic success story, where children are smothered with presents, where the cost of things matters and becomes everybody else’s business, where price gossip turns into derogatory sarcastic remarks made behind people’s backs, and where the literal price of success becomes a subject for public discussion, while the emotional cost of marriage, on the other hand, especially when it’s being pulled apart at the seams, is considerably more than anyone could possibly imagine, leading to a staggering private hell felt only by the participants, with reverberations to the extended families. There is nothing in the film that suggests a new life with the girlfriend will be better or any different than the old life, another parallel to the questionable benefits of economic success, where Romania has been a member of the selected EU nations since 2007, which supposedly works to the nation’s advantage, but prosperity may not lead to any greater happiness.
Where the road ends is where the Taliban begins. —Captain Dan Kearney
This appears to be a film that picks up right where THE HURT LOCKER (2009), a work of fiction, left off, opening with giggly and extremely confident soldiers ready for combat on a flight over into Eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, which may as well be another world altogether, as their assignment is into a base camp in the Korengal Valley, which is surrounded on all sides by higher mountains, making them easy targets, where one of them says it’s like “sitting ducks.” This one region is responsible for 70 % of all the ammunition ordinance used in the entire Afghan war, so soldiers here get their money’s worth. As anticipation sets in, soldiers express their thoughts directly to the hand held cameras of photojournalist Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger who were embedded with the troops in a 15-month deployment by Battle Company’s Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade beginning in 2007, which is pushed to the limit of a safety zone, as everything on the other side for as far as you can see is unchartered, enemy territory. This immediately brings to mind Valerio Zurlini’s film THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976) about the relentless psychological torment from an outpost on the edge of nowhere where an isolated platoon sits awaiting the threat of attack from an unseen enemy. But here the compound itself is already under relentless attack, as from the outset, they have to face the reality of 6 to 8 firefights per day, with bullets raining down on them potentially from all sides, where one soldier on an adrenaline high screams out that he loves to get shot at, that it’s “better than crack.” One of the eerie aspects of war is that you rarely if ever see the face of the enemy, and only on rare occurrences are you aware of what you hit. Most often you’re firing in the direction of incoming rounds hoping to put a quick stop to the threat. Within the opening minutes of the film, soldiers are hit and killed. We don’t see it, but we hear the exasperated reaction of their fellow troops who are devastated by the loss. To a man, their thoughts are that they will most likely never get out of there alive, that this is the end of the line for them.
Under cover of darkness, they send a helicopter into one of
the high grounds that has been causing the most damage, where a small group of
soldiers dig in a temporary fortification, which is followed by a hail of
gunfire, but through persistence and hard work they hold their position,
eventually adding more provisions, but never more than about 15 men who remain
in a precarious position, as it is too far away from the compound to receive
any immediate assistance. They name this
new outpost after their fallen soldier,
In a peace building gesture, there are weekly meetings called shuras between the local Afghani village elders and the military brass, where the officers attempt to persuade the elders to cooperate by pointing out the enemy. In return, American military personnel are building roads that never existed before and are improving the quality of life in the region, including hospitals and needed jobs where none existed. But their attempts to establish credibility fails to make a dent with the centuries-old liaisons that already exist in the region, knowing the elders will live there permanently while the Americans are mere visitors. Nonetheless, these attempts sound shallow and a bit ridiculous, as the elders could care less, knowing to do what the Americans ask would cost them their lives. They’re more interested in receiving American dollars, which are off the bargaining table. Camp Restrepo seems to have turned the tide somewhat, as its elevated vantage point has minimized the damage of incoming fire, which leads to Operation Rock Avalance, a more adventurous and decidedly more dangerous mission, where they are dropped directly into enemy territory in an attempt to take the battle directly to the enemy, rooting out safe spots and discovering ammunition storage sites. But as soon as they engage in battle, which is described by the soldiers after they have safely returned, only innocent civilians, including small children, are caught in the line of fire. Even as the military is approaching a housing compound, there is no attempt to remove the civilians, so their venture backfires, as Americans will forever be blamed for their losses. Even worse, one is air-lifted out of there seriously wounded while they lose another one of the most battle hardened soldiers, the kind of guy they all look up to, which has tragic and demoralizing consequences. There is a shudder of emotion as they describe this moment, the most haunting in the film, as never were they more stripped bare and vulnerable than at that moment which exposes the fear and absolute dread of battle. One medic describes how he can never sleep anymore, even with sleeping pills, as he dreads the recurring nightmares that await him, reminding him of what he’d seen. This is truly another Burden of Dreams, where the horror of this moment is followed by a quick cut to a soldier dance-off, where the sensuous techno trash dance music of “Touch Me (I Want To Feel Your Body)” comes earth-shakingly alive under these harrowing circumstances, where it becomes impossible to understand how any of them could ever live in the real world again after this experience, suggesting the film, through its haunting, fragmented images, successfully captures the horror of war, even as it insanely proves how futile even the best efforts and intentions become.
*Alex Descas – 35 Shots of Rum
Tahar Rahim – A Prophet
Vincent Cassel – Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Part 1 + Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, Part 2
Youssouf Djaoro – A Screaming Man
Stellan Skarsgård – A Somewhat Gentle Man
*Noomi Rapace – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (1) + The Girl Who Played with Fire (3) + The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2)
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Monia Chokri – Heartbeats
Anne Dorval – I Killed My Mother
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
BEST SUPP ACTOR
Tom Waits – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
*John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone
Ben Mendelsohn – Animal Kingdom
Raúl Castillo – Cold Weather
Sam Shepard – Fair Game
BEST SUPP ACTRESS
Greta Gerwig – Greenberg
Dale Dickey – Winter’s Bone
*Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Dianne Wiest – Rabbit Hole
Lisandro Alonso Argentina Netherlands France Germany Spain Liverpool
*Claire Denis France Germany 35 Shots of Rum
Debra Granik USA Winter’s Bone
David Michôd Australia Animal Kingdom
Abbas Kiarostami Iran France Italy Certified Copy
Xavier Dolan Canada Heartbeats (1) + I Killed My Mother (2)
Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis – 35 Shots of Rum
Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, adapted from Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicholas Peufaillit – A Prophet
*Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini, adapted from Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone
David Michôd – Animal Kingdom
*Aaron Sorkin, adapted from Ben Mezrich – The Social Network
Abbas Kiarostami – Certified Copy
Christian Berger – The White Ribbon
Ebrahim Ghafouri – The White Meadows
Oleg Mutu – My Joy
Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron – Heartbeats (1) + I Killed My Mother (2)
*Pavel Kostomarov – How I Ended This Summer
Roger Deakins – True Grit
BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING
35 Shots of Rum
The Social Network
BEST ART DIRECTION
The White Ribbon
35 Shots of Rum
How I Ended This Summer
35 Shots of Rum
I Killed My Mother
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The White Ribbon
35 Shots of Rum
*The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC
*Tindersticks – 35 Shots of Rum (1) + White Material (2)
Dickon Hinchliffe – Winter’s Bone
Gavin Clark – Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee
Keegan DeWitt – Cold Weather
Dmitriy Katkhanov – How I Ended This Summer
Phoenix – Somewhere
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno