(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2012)


As John Waters noted in his ArtForum Top Ten list john waters - / in print, "Misery is really in this year." The subject of human brutality seems to be dominating many of the films this year, creating difficult experiences for viewers, including one of the best armed forces documentaries seen in awhile, a prevalence of sexual abuse of men, women, and boys, though that is counteracted by Wes Anderson’s marvelously inventive and perfectly innocent children’s fable.  Of note, several first time filmmakers have joined the ranks of more heralded directors in making some of the best films of the year.  Missing in Chicago by the end of the year are such heralded films as AMOUR, WEST OF MEMPHIS, TABU, and ZERO DARK THIRTY, all of which will be included in next year's lists.  


Small budgeted American indie films are having a harder time getting financed, as in a time of economic uncertainty, studios wish to invest in what they consider sure things, which are star-driven and marketable blockbusters.  So other than an exceptional few that actually reach the theaters, art films are largely being made overseas where certain filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, the Dardenne Brothers, or Michael Haneke are not restricted to films that must make a profit, so they can choose more challenging material.    


The Top Ten films will be added to this website (cranes are flying) which has provided over 330 film reviews this year, 18 new films from the annual European Union film festival which are screened and reviewed every March, thoughts on a summer trip to Stratford, and a Chicago Film Festival summary 2012 Chicago Film Fest Wrap Up where 32 films seen were reviewed.  All reviews continue to be added to a larger site, cranes are flying online film project which was recently updated and with the patient help of Eric C. Johnson may go through yet another major overhaul in an attempt to make it more accessible.

Best wishes to everyone for a fabulous new year.   





Top Ten Films of 2012


1.)    Beasts of the Southern Wild

2.)    Post Tenebras Lux

3.)    Moonrise Kingdom

4.)    Holy Motors

5.)    The Invisible War

6.)    Bullhead (Rundskop)

7.)    Something in the Air (Après mai)

8.)    A Simple Life (Tao jie)

9.)    King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy)

10.)  Sister (L'enfant d'en haut)


Honorable Mention


1.)   This Must Be the Place

2.)   In the Family

3.)   The Scapegoat

4.)   We Need to Talk About Kevin

5.)   House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la...   




1.)  BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD   Beasts of the Southern Wild             A                    

USA  (91 mi)  2012  d:  Benh Zeitlin                         Official site


I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.     —Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis)


A film that comes with accolades, having won awards at Cannes and Sundance, which may play into the audience’s preconceived expectations of what an acclaimed film is *supposed* to be, but if New York has its post 9/11 films, like 25th HOUR (2002), then this is among the most evocative post Katrina films from Louisiana, the most definitive, of course, being Spike Lee’s journalistic exposé WHEN THE LEVEEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS (2006).  One has to wonder what David Gordon Green thinks of this film, which is arguably as good or better than anything he’s ever done, as it’s an original composite of his indie style films (that he all but invented but doesn’t make anymore) like GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000) and the magnificent poetry of Julie Dash’s DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), which this most closely resembles, especially capturing the harshness and beauty of a remote island culture, using a child narrator throughout whose inner thoughts transcend the poverty-laden conditions of their world with an uncanny elegance and nobility.  Though the filmmaker happens to be Jewish from Queens, New York, studying with the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, he actually wrote this film with co-writer Lucy Alibar in summer camp when they were both teenagers, where the film is their adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious, changing the protagonist from a boy to a little girl, before he moved to Southern Louisiana where he’s lived for the past six years and made the short film GLORY AT SEA (2008), which can be seen here:  Watch Benh Zeitlin's incredible short GLORY AT SEA YouTube (25:48).  Interestingly, the film title, Beasts of the Southern Wild, comes from a 1973 collection of short stories by Doris Betts, also mentioned in the opening line of William Blake’s 1789 poem The Little Black Boy The Little Black Boy by William Blake : The Poetry Foundation.


Apparently dividing audiences along many of the same lines as Terrence Malick’s equally enthralling The Tree of Life (2011), both films couldn’t be more visually intoxicating, rich in atmospheric detail, touching the very soul of man through intensely personal journeys, where the key is developing a shared emotional understanding, like opening a new window to the world around you.  This is a fiercely independent feature, shot on Super 16mm by Ben Richardson, which intentionally takes much of the picturesque beauty out of the movie, leaving a naturalistic film that actually feels like the raw edge of the universe, a place where the last inhabitants of earth might dwell.  This apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario runs throughout the film, which prominently features the possibility of rising floods, toxic environmental conditions, and abandoned children.  The entire film is seen through the point of view of a 6-year old girl, Hushpuppy, the sensational Quvenzhané Wallis, just one in a cast entirely comprised of non-professionals, who lives with her drunk and perpetually angry father Wink (Dwight Henry, a local baker in real life) in the squalor of the Delta backwoods, where they live in hand-built corrugated tin structures that resemble dilapidated trailers on a tiny island in the flood plains south of New Orleans nicknamed the Bathtub (fictitiously modeled on a real place, The Island - Isle de Jean Charles), as once another storm hits, the levee was built to protect wealthier residents, while the Bathtub is destined to be submerged under water.  “They think we're all gonna drown down here, but we ain't going nowhere.”  With this in mind, her father teaches her to be strong, to survive, pretty much forcing her to fend for herself against the elements.


The unique touch here is the inventive use of the imagination, where heightened realism becomes fantasy, which is inherently part of a child’s view of the world, where strange prehistoric monsters called aurochs once ruled the earth that would just as soon eat people for breakfast, where Hushpuppy is driven to find her place in the universe and leave her mark, but she is constantly threatened by these giant creatures that still exist in her mind.  She internalizes their presence whenever life is threatened, where they become a symbol of death knocking at the door, and if this film does anything, it provides a rich, atmospheric blend of love and death, where both couldn’t feel more intensely real.  This extremely well developed inner realm is the real surprise of the film, where there’s a subtle complexity that just has a way of touching people, where it is the director’s choice to stray away from narrative, to allow the story to evolve without definition, where some may find the community where they live a band of drunken misfits and outcasts, where filth is strewn everywhere, hardly worth caring about, but others may understand it as protecting a nearly extinct way of life, living off the land much like the Indians did, where Wink makes a nearly unnoticed remark about not wanting to eat food from a supermarket, a concept that’s hard for most people to understand.  These isolated individuals have a zealously paranoiac view of government as completely untrustworthy, obtained from incidents like The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment — and centuries of lies and historical mistreatment in Louisiana, where in their view government serves and protects the wealthy and all but ignores the needs of the poor, where so many end up languishing in prison, as Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world (>: Louisiana's Incarceration Rate "Highest in the World") also (La.'s incarceration rate leads nation - Law Enforcement News).  So it’s no surprise those in the Bathtub, both black and white, relish living free in their own homes, outside the reach of government, seen as one of the last bastions of freedom and individuality.  


Part of the film’s innate strength is its unpredictability, which beautifully matches the journey of a young child who never knows what’s happening next in her life, where each day brings something new.  Rather than depict an idealized world, Hushpuppy’s mother “swam away” when she was young, and her father is extremely harsh, often brutal with her, forcing her to stand up to him or cower in defeat.  While these backward ways will not win any new converts, and may resemble uneducated Appalachian hill people who live largely outside the law, raising their own to survive in a hostile and unforgiving world around them, Hushpuppy is both angered and drawn to her father, developing one of the fiercest expressions of loyalty ever conceived on film, which is what makes this unlike other Sundance award winners or indie projects.  The subtlety of the writing and direction is remarkable, as this outsiderist community mindset is not immediately apparent, but comes to be understood over time, much like the carefully crafted, meticulously conceived backwoods Ozark community in Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone.  Both films are closely observed, without an ounce of condescension or moral pretense, carefully outlining the landscape, people, and regional habits.  One of the unique aspects of the film is demonstrating how huge the psychic divide is in dealing with the underclass, where even well meaning government officials can’t begin to understand what it means for this group to be separated from their homes.  Part of this is likely a self-inflicted trauma of the uneducated that is entirely based on fear of the unknown, but among the many strengths of the film are both the creation of such a startlingly strange and mysterious world of self-sufficiency and also the empathetic tone towards the people living in it, as the audience has no familiarity and knows virtually nothing about this island culture ahead of time, yet the world outside the theater may look altogether different afterwards when coming out of this film.          


While the mystically insightful narration, obviously wise beyond her years, cannot compete with the originality of Julie Dash’s film, where an unborn child is among the surrealistic swirl of narrators, this more closely resembles Terrence Malick’s spare yet brutally honest poetry from 12-year old Linda Manz in DAYS OF HEAVEN (1976), quite a standard to live up to, as that performance feels unparalleled.  While this is something different altogether, it’s significant that one is reaching into this rarified cinematic air for comparisons, as this film similarly grasps a child’s state of grace and wonder.  The music created by Dan Romer and the director is a perfect fit, blending quiet, solitary moments with rousing pieces of Americana that literally soar, like this incredibly uplifting 4th of July fireworks celebration, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: "Stay Right Here" YouTube (1:37).  At times, as they float down the river in a makeshift raft, the film recalls the enchantment of The Night of the Hunter (1955) where Lillian Gish reminds us of the resiliency of children, telling us “They abide.”  Consider a late scene in a dance club, aka brothel, appropriately enough called Elysian Fields, bathed in a dim light and a near wordless state where Fats Waller music plays in the background.  As the women quietly find a child partner to dance with, their bodies swaying with the music, it’s remarkable how much emotion is conveyed with so little effort, where Hushpuppy is mesmerizing to watch as a maternal life-sustaining force is literally breathed back into her tired body.  This endlessly provocative and hauntingly beautiful film exhibits a dazzling visual flair along with an unusual tenderness and sensitivity towards the characters, becoming one of the most believable yet impossibly involving dramatic works, literally stringing together seemingly random pieces of interconnected parts all blended together into a magical realist tale that summons the heroic journeys of Odysseus in his perilous, fraught-with-adventure search for home, but experienced here through the eyes of a child mostly knee-deep in mud in the backwoods of the Mississippi Bayou.  The film itself is a quest for discovery and a search for meaning, a challenge to our own cynical and condescending views, becoming nothing less than a mythical expression of joy and heartbreak, a ferocious portrait of the will to survive, where only by staring death in the face can you begin to discover the world around you, one of the best expressions of redemptive and transcendent filmmaking seen in the past decade. 



2.)  POST TENEBRAS LUX Post Tenebras Lux        A                 

Mexico  France  Germany  (120 mi)  d:  Carlos Reygadas 


Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.


—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, 1869, quoted at a dinner party by Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro)


Carlos Reygadas makes challenging art films that play in film festivals, where you can count on extreme visualization and an austerity of form, where in this film he nearly disregards narrative altogether, feeling very much like a Godless Bruno Dumont film, as he examines many of the same themes evoked from the title, “After the darkness, light.”  Impressively shot by Alexis Zabé, for the first time not on ‘Scope, strangely using a boxed 1:37 aspect ratio with refracted images on each side of the screen which has a dizzying way of expressing shadow images that suggest an everpresent duality of meaning.  Told out of sequence, as if that hardly matters, suggesting it’s the overall whole that matters, not each individually selected piece, the film does suggest a good and evil scenario, also God, the Devil, and redemption, class differences, also crime and punishment, where once again nature is viewed at its most thunderous best, literally overpowering the people that populate this film.  While there are likely moral and spiritual messages, they tend to get lost in the random order in which this film is told, where perhaps they are the hardest for each individual to discover in their own lives as well.  While this may be the most challenging film of the year, many are instead taking the easy route, suggesting it is so incomprehensible that the odor of pretentiousness defines this picture.  One must understand that similar charges were weighed against Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR (1975), for instance, yet many now think this may be one of Tarkovsky’s most hauntingly beautiful films.  There is a dramatic, Dumont-like scene near the end that takes place in an open field, where the aftermath of rainfall can only be attributed to Tarkovsky, offering a baptismal-like cleansing that evokes John the Baptist, as if this mythical undertaking might wipe away the sins of the world.     


The experience of viewing a film like this is certainly unlike that of seeing other movies, where in a similar manner of say Yasujirô Ozu, the director forces the viewer to alter their perception of what they’re seeing onscreen simply by the way he chooses to express it, where in Ozu’s case he uses a fixed point of reference where he’s simply observing life as it is, while with Tarkovsky or Dreyer, cinema is a means that transcends human limitations, like music, literature, or great art.  Even before the viewer sets foot inside the theater, they know a Reygadas film will be visually spectacular, where nature manifests itself in a glorious, Edenesque simplicity, while also exploring the pathetic interior failings of mankind, pitting spiritual themes against the existential crises of men.  Described as a semi-autobiographical film where reason barely intrudes, Reygadas has suggested this film is “like an expressionist painting where you try to express what you're feeling through the painting rather than depict what something looks like,” supposedly shot in Mexico, Spain, Belgium, and Britain, all places where Reygadas has lived, which might help explain the final shot of the film, which otherwise seems quite random, though the director played rugby for the Mexican national team.  With this in mind, it may be useful to view this as one might an experimental film, perhaps even a video installation, where you’re not so much interested in what’s going on at any given moment as the effect it’s having internally as you experience it.  All Reygadas films have premiered at Cannes, where his first film JAPÓN (2002) won the Caméra D’Or award for the best first feature, SILENT LIGHT (2007) won the Jury Prize (3rd place), while for POST TENEBRAS LUX, Reygadas was awarded the Best Director at Cannes in 2012.


The opening of this film is as powerful as anything seen this year, where a small girl (the director’s daughter Rut) is wandering around a waterlogged open soccer field pointing out various animals like dogs, cows, and horses, while thunder and lightning flash across the sky, as man and nature commingle, but the most prominent effect is the incessant sound of dogs barking.  A supernatural element follows, something along the lines of what we might come to expect in a Weerasethakul film, before a realist, more recognizable family scene reveals Rut is the younger sister to Eleazar (the director’s son), whose affluent parents are Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), living in what resembles an architecturally designed house in what is otherwise a poor rural area of Mexico.  The parent’s relationship revolves around old literary language, continually calling one another love, or my love, even though Juan has a vile temper, seen viciously beating one of his prized dogs (offscreen).  Sometime later, the parents are at a wealthy dinner party, where Juan proudly quotes Tolstoy, generating mocking sneers behind his back, finding him pretentiously arrogant and snobbish.  In stark contrast, the couple later enjoys themselves visiting a hip Paris sauna when trading partners was in vogue, where Natalia is a big hit literally offering herself to the somewhat lecherous clientele.  Each of these scenes is an example of the disharmony in man, a fall from grace, where there are eventual consequences, even when expressed as a random act.  In some mysterious way, man is ultimately punished, perhaps by God, perhaps by the Devil, but this film presents apocalyptical acts of damnation, followed by a Biblical cleansing.  Whatever one makes of this film, there is little to suggest it is an act of extreme provocation, or an empty exercise of self indulgence, as claimed by some, as there were a scattering of boos at Cannes as well, instead one might suggest it’s a profoundly influential modernist and narrative free work that simply operates in a different cinematic vernacular, existing in a dreamlike plateau where humans often play a secondary role.



3.)  MOONRISE KINGDOM    Moonrise Kingdom       A               

USA  (94 mi)  2012  d:  Wes Anderson                       Official site


A candidate for the most delightful and thoroughly enjoyable film of the year, much of which feels autobiographical and is curiously fascinating from the opening few shots, showing a doll’s house view of a comfortable old home (a converted lighthouse), with various inhabitants seemingly occupying each individual room, with kids keeping separate from the parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who are themselves seen in separate rooms, the camera quickly moving from room to room in an inquisitive fashion, where one can only marvel at the meticulous detail.  Each shot is perfectly composed and color coordinated, which continues throughout the entire picture, shot on 16 mm by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman in what is surely one of the most gorgeously composed films seen in awhile.  In addition, what is immediately noticeable is how perfectly edited each shot is, all in tempo with the music, which is the narrator’s version of Leonard Bernstein playing Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 01. The Young Person's Guide To .. YouTube (3:24).  This highly structured musical piece provides a leitmotif for the film, continually interjecting itself throughout, adding variations on a theme, which becomes the working narrative for the film, a simple children’s story accompanied by changing variations in music.  Set in 1965, supposedly simpler times, on the fictional New Penzance Island off the coast of New England, with blown up maps provided for the audience’s assistance, Anderson has really outdone himself here in providing such a layered texture, as his two 12-year old leads, escaped Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local girl Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together, becoming a child’s version of BADLANDS (1973) constantly seen and experienced through the eyes of the kids, featuring outlaw children on the run from their parents, a Scout Master, and the law.  The moral reverberations resound through the ears of the highly impressionable and active imaginations of other kids, most all of whom think Sam is so different he must be mentally deranged.


Accordingly, Sam leaves a note for his Scout Master (Edward Norton, wonderfully buttoned-down and straight-laced) resigning from the Khaki Scouts, claiming none of the other scouts liked him much anyway, placing a poster over the hole in his tent where he escapes, in an obvious nod to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994).  His escape is all part of an elaborate plan that has been carefully choreographed with Suzy ahead of time, mostly by correspondence through the U.S. Mail agreeing to meet at a designated spot and then hike into secret oblivion, hoping no one will ever find them.  What’s apparent is that both kids are viewed as troublesome because they’re the smartest kids around, immune to typical conformity measures used by authority figures to make kids act alike, making them both outcasts where they’re easily drawn to one another.  The two are a marvel of casting, as they’re probably smarter than the adults around them as well, making them undeniably appealing characters for their beguiling ingenuity, where Sam shows a surprising outdoorsman scouting aptitude for taking care of Suzy in the wild.  Interestingly, they meet backstage at the town church during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye's Fludde, Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 18. Noye's Fludde, Op.59 - Noye, take thy wife anone YouTube (2:13) which includes a children's chorus of colorfully costumed animals and birds, where Sam is immediately drawn to Suzy’s bird outfit, that and the fact she isn’t smiling gleefully like the others.  Actually all the children in the film exhibit plenty of individual flair and personality, adding a bit of theatrical showmanship and are in perfect synch with Anderson’s idealized child fable, made even more clever by Suzy’s habits of reading her favorite books at night out loud for Sam, amusingly putting him to sleep initially, but later sustaining his interest completely, where the stories within the story are always wonderfully inventive and near revelatory.  Elfish narrator Bob Balaban shows up intermittently in unexpected places, always absurdly dressed, reinforcing the element of a magical realism and whimsy. 


Adding a level of seriousness (and complete lack of sentimentality) is Sam’s back story where he’s an orphan, having lost his parents early on and grown up in an orphanage, pictured in flashbacks from the 50’s as all boys with wild hair in jeans and white tee-shirts standing around working on cars while Sam remains in his bed reading, the subject of constant humiliation and torment.  When the local police (Bruce Willis) contact his parents to report him missing, they don’t want him back, finding him too much trouble, thinking he’s a bad influence on their other children, whereupon social services is contacted, Tilda Swinton in her matching blue uniform and cap, exhibiting the pious and rigid attitude of the highly repressed, Christian women who founded the social work movement providing charity while administering the church's mission to the poor.  Listening to her, Sam’s chances for the future are doomed, as adding charges of a runaway to his record will only mandate intense psychological testing, perhaps even electric shock therapy.  While this may sound outrageous, and hearing it from the emotionally severe Swinton it most certainly is, what reverberates throughout the minds of all the kids is what an utterly barbaric experience that must be, and while none of them particularly like Sam much, they don’t hate him enough to wish that upon him. 


So this turns into an utterly enchanting children’s story about wild adventures in the woods, featuring the obligatory love song (in French, of course) Françoise Hardy - Le Temps de l'Amour - YouTube (2:26), and the dysfunctional and often irrelevant parents searching for them, lavishly decorated in Britten’s Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream subtext, Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 09. A Midsummer Night's Dream ... YouTube (3:05), thoroughly enhanced by the use of children’s songs and a children’s chorus, cleverly intermixed with a little playful Hank Williams, which beautifully accentuates the children’s fairy tale aspect of the film, heard here by Alexandre Desplat’s “A Veiled Mist” Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 06. The Heroic Weather-Conditions ... YouTube (3:18).  Life on this quiet island is not like anyplace else and couldn’t be more intimate, becoming a journey of isolated adolescence and first love teen romance given a strangely magisterial beauty all its own, where Anderson’s intoxicating artistry works its own magic.  Because the ages of the kids are so young, this film is unlike anything else in Anderson’s career, where the usual mocking, smart-assed tone is transcended by tenderness and the actual intelligence and compelling wit of the lead characters, where their chemistry is a refreshing portrait of understatement, suggesting the world must find a place for kids who are different, who due to no fault of their own just happen to be smarter (and perhaps geekier) than other kids and adults around them, where Anderson’s emotional deadpan and comic caricature finally have a purposeful release, becoming a wonderfully inventive children’s theater



4.)  HOLY MOTORS   Holy Motors              A                                

France  Germany  (115 mi)  2012  d:  Léos Carax


My guess is the more experience you have with cinema, the more you’ll like this film, which defies any narrative construction, yet continually exhilarates in its pure love and devotion to film language, much of it feeling like bits and pieces of old films all strewn together like broken parts to make something completely new.  Those with a need for rational explanation need not enter here, as to many this will simply not make sense, but certainly anyone who does give this a try can’t help but be blown away by the sheer originality and mad energy of the movie itself.  In other words you don’t even have to like it, but you can appreciate the unbridled joy with which this film was made, almost like a love letter to cinema itself.  Carax was once the boy wunderkind of cinema, where at 24 his first film BOY MEETS GIRL (1984), shot in black and white on location in Paris, won the Youth Award at Cannes, while his next MAUVAIS SANG (1986) was a post New Wave primary color extravaganza that won the Alfred Bauer Award at Berlin, an award given to a movie which opens new perspectives in film art.  Given a free reign over his next project, the boy wonder’s cost overruns created the most expensive French production in history, where production was halted several times before finally releasing the extravagant THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (1991), a sumptuous and romantic tribute to both Paris and lead actress Juliette Binoche, which was a colossal flop in Paris, not released internationally until 1999, thirteen years after his previous film.  When his next film POLA X (1999) was a huge flop as well, his career was all but finished, where we heard literally nothing about the man throughout the next decade, returning another thirteen years later to Cannes with this mammoth work that literally defies description, but is so ingeniously wacky that parts of the movie are simply off-the-charts hilarious, once again starring Denis Lavant as the director’s alter ego and stand-in for the creative force required to make an art film in the modern era. 


This devoutly uninhibited film has such an edgy, stream-of conscious style that it likely summons different thoughts and ideas inside every head that shares this film experience, which plays out more like performance art, where Lavant is an outrageous chameleon-like character who literally takes on various disguises and different theatrical personas as he injects himself into the streets of Paris causing mayhem wherever he goes.  What’s intriguing straightaway is the viewer questions whether this character is even real or whether it’s some form of visiting spirit from a world beyond.  While this may not make sense to some, but it was reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, a scarred or disfigured character hidden from the world due to some deep personal tragedy or loss, living instead in a subterranean or alternate universe, which seems to be a blend of the future mixing with the past, where the connecting thread is the pure unadulterated joy of cinema.  Lavant is known by a half a dozen different names, but he’s driven around the streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine, where Edith Scob, the aged star of a French horror film more than 50 years ago, Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960), is the driver, also dressed all in white, including the color of her hair.  She may as well be the driver of dead souls, as she transports Lavant around town where he sits in the back and receives 8 daily case assignments one at a time, literally transforming himself into character for each assignment, where the limo is largely a dressing room on wheels, where Lavant spends most of his time getting perfectly into disguise, becoming the manifestation of faded roles from cinema history which might die out altogether if he didn’t attempt to resuscitate them back into the modern world.  Much like the use of memories in Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienb... (1961), which may die if not remembered, Lavant seems to be the reincarnation of near dead movie roles, literally attempting to breathe new life into them, but taken completely out of context when set on modern streets, where he is literally out of place, out of time, where people on the street are aghast at what they see. 


The mix of fabulously designed set pieces and on-site locations are part of the brilliance of the film, as Carax does create an otherworldly impression throughout, where never for a single moment does anyone in the audience have any idea what’s happening next, where the built-up intrigue of these imaginary characters and what they’re doing returning back to earth is befuddling to say the least, where even the actors onscreen seem in complete bewilderment at Lavant.  In one assignment, like a creature from the silent era, Lavant turns into a little green Leprechaun with bright orange hair, a hideous creature that never utters a word but instead makes weird animal sounds.  When he crawls out of a sewer and leaps into a crowd on the street, people back away in disgust, where a high fashion photographer is taking photos of Eva Mendes as an haute-cuture fashion model, a statuesque figure of beauty, but this beastly creature instantly grabs the photographer’s attention, where he orders one of his underlings to immediately sign the creature up for a photo shoot.  When she attempts to communicate with the monster, she ridiculously attempts to relate by asking if he’s ever heard of Diane Arbus, famous for taking pictures of giants, dwarfs, and other freaks of nature.  Lavant simply grabs the model and carries her off into his lair in the sewers beneath the city that exists in stillness and in silence.  In such a short period of time, the marvel of invention that occurs in front of the camera in this one sequence is wildly imaginative and extremely cinematic, using rousing music in much the same way there are frequent cinema homages, as Carax is simply re-inventing cinema by reconnecting all the unused pieces, much like reassembling all the broken body parts of mannequins that we see strewn around the empty warehouse settings. 


Midway through his day, Lavant’s assignment book reads “Entracte,” or intermission, conjuring up quick images on early archival black and white film stock of a shirtless man peforming before a crowd, like a circus act, which quickly cuts to Lavant leading a march of accordion players "Let my Baby Ride" by Doctor L (RL Burnside Cover)- Holy Motors OST  YouTube (3:20), an utterly enthralling piece of music that literally comes out of nowhere adding a sense of exhilaration to the film.  Who knows where Carax comes up with these ideas, where Lavant enters a Tati-like modern glass designed skyscraper dressed in a glow in the dark outfit where he does outrageous MATRIX-like dances in a darkened room, where he receives instructions from an unseen voice, like Warren Beatty in MICKEY ONE (1965), becoming highly experimental using a dazzling strobe light effect, eventually joined by a shapely woman contortionist who can bend her body like a pretzel, with Lavant somewhere entwined.  Using two cinematographers, Yves Cape and Caroline Champetier, the streets of Paris often become hallucinogenic-tinged, or the shapes of buildings literally melt, creating phantasmagoric images of a reality unfolding into itself, where the world is seen in utter transformation.  Purely by chance, Lavant runs into an old flame, where he wanted to use Binoche, who apparently would not agree, so director Claire Denis suggested he use Kylie Minogue, where they have an extended sequence together that feels altogether unworldly on the rooftops of Paris, a direct reference to Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! (2001) that starred Minogue, literally bringing in film segments from every bit of the director’s own imagination.  This may be too much for some, who may wonder what in the hell is going on, but this is a quintessential dip into the collective subconscious history of cinema, where the entire movie is a subliminal flash in time, spliced together using bits of broken pieces, where the finale with Lavant finally safe at home, innocently looking out his window at night feels like he’s just a kid waiting for the arrival of Peter Pan.  



5.)  THE INVISIBLE WAR    The Invisible War           A                   

USA  (93 mi)  2012  d:  Kirby Dick         Official site


The knife wasn’t for the Iraqis. It was for the guys on my own side.   


This guy out there, he told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He said in Vietnam they had prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, but they don’t have those in Iraq. So they have women soldiers instead.


 —Spc. Mickiela Montoya, age 21


Perhaps the best war documentary since THE FOG OF WAR (2003).  Since the shameful debacle that was Vietnam, a war that divided the nation in the 60’s and 70’s, America has reversed course and applauded veterans, where patriotism and serving your country go hand in hand, where soldiers are publicly recognized as a noble profession, routinely recognized at sporting events and in human interest stories on the local news broadcasts, often showing sympathetic portrayals of the medical hardships so many damaged veterans suffer upon returning home.  One subject the newscasts routinely omit is the prevalence of rape in the military, where more than 20% of currently serving female veterans will be sexually assaulted, sometimes with a loaded weapon pointed at their heads and threatened to be killed if they talk, so more than 80% of those will never report the crime (to almost exclusively male commanders), as their careers are effectively tarnished or destroyed just for reporting the crime, where women who report rape are considered traitors, often reduced in rank, singled out by unsympathetic police and subjected to humiliating treatment, forced out of the military or charged for petty offenses themselves, where there are few legal provisions in place to actually charge the rapists or hold them accountable for their actions.  25% of women don’t report because their commander was their rapist, the same person responsible for investigating the charges and rendering an impartial decision, while another third don’t report as the rapist was one of his drinking buddies, where irrespective of the circumstances, if the victim was drinking the case is automatically thrown out.  Consequently, commanders often order their subordinates to drink, sometimes involuntarily, before they rape them.  With only 3% of the accused ever spending time behind bars, where the punishment is often only a matter of days, like 30 to 60 days of confinement for a felony crime that would receive years of civilian jail time, where the military likes to keep the confinement under a year so offenders never have to register with the National Sex Offender Registry, that’s a pretty hefty number that continue to get away scot free for committing such a heinous criminal act.  Astonishingly, the official position of the Armed Forces is to consider this an “occupational hazard,” where under U.S. law, veterans are not allowed to sue the military for potential damages, no matter the severity of the offense.


Similar to Kirby Dick’s insightful film TWIST OF FAITH (2005), revealing decaying moral aftereffects of generations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests ignored by the church hierarchy, the portrait in each case is an insular organization that is more interested in protecting their own, where this vile all-male behavior is allowed to toxically infect the faithful from within, offering no solace or relief, undermining the very values both the church and the military purportedly stand for.  Much of the information in this film was first reported in a March 7, 2007 article in Salon by Helen Benedict, seen here:  The private war of women soldiers -, one of the journalists seen in the film, along with a handful of women who were violently attacked by fellow soldiers, some drugged ahead of time, waking up with someone on top of her, one women with her jawbone permanently broken as a result (requiring reconstruction surgery that the VA refuses to pay for), another gang-raped simply walking down a hotel hallway, grabbed by several drunken aviators who were preying on women.  Perhaps the most egregious example of the lack of justice is a woman who is herself an investigator in the Criminal Justice division of the military, a woman who investigates accusations of rape, who was herself raped by her superior officer.  In each and every one of these cases the rapist was never charged or even arrested, and in some cases was actually promoted, one of many decorated officers still serving in the military, while the affected women on the other hand, remain physically and mentally traumatized with greater severity than soldiers wounded or scarred from battle, some with permanent, lifelong injuries that affect their quality of life.  All suffer severe post traumatic stress symptoms, mostly from a violation of trust, as these rapes have a deep-rooted incestual quality to them, as the military incorporates a psychological system of faith and trust in one another, brothers in arms, leave no man behind, supposedly looking out for one another, where the victims continue to have flashbacks and nightmares, and where sexual attention, even from the intimacy of a spouse, is often still seen, years later, as a threatening act.  The damage is visibly apparent just from spending a few moments with each victim, all of whom are smart and sympathetic figures, excellent soldiers, many coming from military families, where it was their dream to proudly serve their country.  This film documents how that dream is crushed, not by the intensity or harsh reality of war, but by a military that condones soldiers repeatedly raping and violently attacking fellow soldiers in their barracks without any repercussions to prevent it from happening again, so the problem becomes systemic, attracting a culture filled with repeat offenders.     


Amir Bar-Lev’s film The Tillman Story (2010) similarly documents how the Army lied and repeatedly covered up the truth about how pro football player Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, initially glorifying his death, making him a larger than life, mythical war hero, awarding him the Purple Heart, turning him into a poster boy to help recruit young soldiers, only reluctantly revealing afterwards that he was killed by his own group of Army Rangers from unfriendly fire, most likely the over-reactions of trigger-happy 19-year olds, shedding light on the systematic corruption, incompetence, and lack of accountability in the military and in government.  Dick’s film is a more harrowing interior journey into horror, given an intense Kafkaesque feel at just how random and unnecessary these nightmarish tragedies are, as they could happen to anyone, even the best soldiers, as there’s simply no concerted effort to eliminate rape once and for all from the military.  Part of the problem is the government’s bold public contention, often before Congress, that they have a “zero tolerance” policy in place, while in reality the current system protects the perpetrators, who remain serving in the military even more emboldened knowing they can get away with it in a system that allows them to become repeat offenders, while the victims leave in disgrace, depressed and humiliated, often affected for life.  The military has a history of this sort of thing happening before, the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal where 87 female recruits were forced to run a “gauntlet” of 100 drunken officers that amounted to a gang rape, the Army Aberdeen Scandal in 1996 where male officers were found raping 30 new female trainees, or the 142 allegations of rape uncovered in 2003 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  Statistics reveal the military is waiving criminal and violent records for more than one in 10 new Army recruits, that incoming Navy recruits already have a previous history of rape or sexual assault at twice the rate as the civilian population, suggesting the military is a recruiting grounds for potential serial rapists. 

All the rapists in the film happen to be heterosexual, some are married men, suggesting this is not a gay issue, but predators don’t discriminate the sex of their victims, as to them it’s all about exerting control and domination against males or females (because there’s significantly more men in the military, more men are raped than women, but the percentage of women is much higher), using their rank and position to force subordinates into sexual compliance, sounding very much like the repeated sexual assaults within the prison system.  In each, the system barely acknowledges the victims, claiming they don’t keep statistics on unlawful and uncontrolled human behavior.  Part of the argument criticizing the military’s effectiveness always points out collateral damage, how innocent civilians are killed with greater numbers than the targeted enemy, where much like inner city gangs, most of those killed are unintended victims killed in the crossfire. The unintended victims here are those women serving alongside male sexual predators that are allowed to hide their criminal activity behind a protected and shielded military chain of command.  Watching highly decorated female officers publicly defend this system of what amounts to tolerated rape within the military is simply mind-boggling, claiming rape victims who are unhappy with the results of the lackluster internal military investigations could write their congressmen, an outrageous acknowledgment of systematic incompetence, all but suggesting the only avenue to justice is outside the narrow confines of military culture.  The film cuts through the hypocrisy of high-level military personnel and government officials while conveying its message of misogyny through victims still living with the pain and trauma with a brilliantly assembled series of personally compelling testimony that collectively amasses in equal degrees both heartbreak and outrage, becoming a fierce indictment against a promising career that tolerates felonious sexual assault while advocating “Be all you can be.” Army Commercial - Be All You Can Be (1986) - YouTube (29 seconds), Army be all you can be (1994) - YouTube (31 seconds).



6.)  BULLHEAD (Rundskop)   Bullhead (Rundskop)          A-                 

Belgium  (124 mi)  2011  'Scope  d:  Michaël R. Roskam


A brutally dark and uncompromising film that encompasses many different styles, veering into film noir, but most often using the suspenseful manner of a thriller featuring a loner character on-the-edge who’s capable of doing anything, often coming very close to the cringe factor, as this film ventures into territory few would wish to explore.  Despite the exquisite direction, which is never showy or ever intended to draw attention to itself, it’s quite surprising this film, from a first time director, was chosen by Belgium over the nation’s patron saints of cinema, the Dardennes Brothers’ latest Cannes offering The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (2011) as the country’s selection for Best Foreign Film, and even more surprising that the American Academy Award Foreign Film Selection committee, which has had fits in this category in year’s past, overlooking what many felt were the best films, named this as one of the five finalists for 2012.  Because of the uncomfortable subject matter, which keeps the audience at an arm’s distance while simultaneously telling a riveting story, brilliantly using old-fashioned film techniques like storytelling through editing and camera movement, integrating the sound design or changing the film speed, it’s a daring and superb choice, one that chooses art over individual comfort.  If truth be told, there are literally hundreds of films that explore damaged women, who have been raped or abused in some manner, where the psychological implications become the narrative of the film.  Isabelle Huppert has made a living playing this kind of part.  It’s quite rare, however, to see such an accomplished examination of a brutally damaged man, especially one exhibiting this degree of skill behind the camera.  We saw glimpses of it with Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011), but this is something different altogether.  Written by the director, cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, there is an immediate connection to the screen from the opening shot, a superb rural landscape, where one doesn’t wish to look away to read the subtitles, as there’s also a brief opening narration which gives the audience a clue what to expect when there is an imbalance in nature.


Among the many things happening in this film is a playful dig at Belgium’s own split culture, the Dutch-speaking Flanders and the French-speaking Wallonia, where each side refuses to learn the language of the other, as they’ve basically grown up to despise the other half, where lifelong prejudices rule the day, which becomes somewhat comical in this film as the story plays into this built-in prejudice.  Heavily grounded in near documentary style realism, it’s also an examination of machismo, especially as defined in rural outbacks or in the criminal element that remains outside the bounds of mainstream society.  Matthias Schoenaerts plays Jaky, who gained 60 pounds of muscle to bulk up for this role, using bodybuilding techniques to become a hulking muscular mass, a kind of gentle giant walking among us who has the strength to tear any man apart, yet he works quietly on his family farm with his own parents raising cattle.  What separates them from other farmers is they inject illegal hormones into their beef in order to fatten them up prematurely, where bigger cattle means more money, also saving money in the long run as they don’t have to keep them as long.  This is as much a family way of life as cooking crystal meth is in the Ozarks, or bootlegging moonshine whisky in Kentucky.  It’s regional, becoming cultural through the years, and it’s outside the law.  Despite efforts to stop it, the practice continues as it’s become ingrained with organized crime.  As Jacky’s small group of outsiders attempts to extend their territory into crime-infested Wallonia, all hell breaks loose, including the killing of a policeman, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for business and sets the tone for a police investigation.  Through flashback sequences back to childhood, we learn the devastating origins of Jacky’s own personal trauma, one which remains a lifelong skeleton in his closet, and a clue to his behavior.    

The film is also something of a police procedural mixed together with bits and pieces of Jaky’s past which resurface with the police killing and the attempted entry into forbidden territory, where Jaky has to come to terms with what’s haunted him his entire life.  He’s such an imposing presence, bulking up by injecting the same drugs he uses on the animals, which affects his mental outlook, creating such an unstable force the audience recognizes a potential train wreck when they see one.  It’s significant to recall, however, just what little harm he’s caused others up to this point, as he largely keeps to himself and his small circle of friends.  It’s this unfortunate business on the other side that’s creating havoc, stirring up something inside, which plays out like long lost memories rising to the surface.  Once the external circumstances are revealed, the director changes focus and moves inward, becoming a hyper intense interior examination of personal tragedy, where Jaky is continually battling his internal demons.  Set largely in the rural outskirts away from the mainstream of life, they set their own laws out there and define their own cultural traditions, where this concept of macho strength and male personal fortitude has a different definition altogether, becoming an intense character study.  Schoenaerts truly offers an astonishing, testosterone-laden performance, chasing the boundaries of inner rage, where his behavior grows more erratic and unpredictable, becoming a human timebomb waiting to explode.  Darkly disturbing, but also internally complex, the audience may feel alienated from the brutality, but drawn to the impressive craftsmanship of the director who really pulls it all together in this psychologically probing and constantly inventive work that challenges our own preconceived notions of masculinity. 



7.)  SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Après mai)    Something in the Air (Après mai)  A-                               

France  (122 mi)  2012  d:  Olivier Assayas


With a love a madness for Shelley
Chatterton Rimbaud
and the needy-yap of my youth
has gone from ear to ear:
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:--I did those then
but that was then
that was then--
O I would quiet old men
say to them:--I am your friend
what you once were, thru me
you'll be again--
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems.


—“I  Am 25,” by Gregory Corso, from Gasoline, 1958


This is an elegiac and largely autobiographical account of Assayas’s own youth, a companion piece to his earlier work COLD WATER (1997), arguably his best film, where both beautifully capture the mood, atmosphere, and raw, unpretentious intensity of anxiety-ridden adolescents caught up in their own indecisions, the terrible choices they do make, how easy their emotions are sparked and then extinguished, and how eloquently, beyond their own words, the films describe their fatalistic viewpoint about their all-too-hopeless future.  The French title, After May, is much more apropos, as the film is a collection of leftover remembrances after May 1968, a historical moment in French history that nearly brought revolutionary change, a combined student and worker protest that involved nearly a quarter of the entire French population over a period of two continuous weeks, initiated as a student rebellion, but eventually spreading to workers across the nation who joined the students, ultimately quelled by the forcible actions of the police who literally clubbed and beat the protesters into submission.  The film won the Best Screenplay award at Venice, opening with blistering footage of these protests, as the streets are aflame with police in riot gear with clubs literally attacking the students, with the guys wearing jackets and ties, or sweaters, but also helmets, who are seen running for their lives through the tear gas, many of them hauled off to jail APRÈS MAI [SOMETHING IN THE AIR] OLIVER ASSAYAS - clip YouTube (1:03).  There is scant evidence of rebellious long hair, jeans, sandals or beards.  The Assayas film views this period as a rite of passage, an intensely personal account of developing political idealism through a radicalization process initiated in high school, where teachers, interestingly enough, were actually teaching students about Marx, how he challenged socialists as small thinking utopians, advocating instead a complete overhaul of the economic system.  In the high school segment, various factions are still arguing many of these same theories about how to best implement a radical change. 


Set in 1971, Clément Métayer as Gilles is a stand-in for the director, a somewhat moody kid who draws and paints and sells leftist newspapers on the street while getting instructions from older Trotskyites.  He and a small clan of students initiate a clandestine night raid spray painting activist political messages directly onto their school building, where the school ID of one of the activists is found on the scene, where the authorities unsuccessfully attempt to get him to name names.  Also in the clan is Gilles’ girlfriend Christine, Lola Créton (where interestingly Gilles and Christine were the names of the protagonists in COLD WATER), perhaps his best friend Alain (Felix Armand), a fellow artist, who has a visiting American girlfriend Leslie (India Menuez), the implicated student Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), who works at his father’s socialist printing press, while Gilles is also secretly seeing another woman on the side, Laure (Carole Combes), a free spirited soul with wealthy parents who’s about to leave the country for an extended summer excursion.  Her absence brings Gilles closer to Christine, where they also travel together to Italy during the summer, where Christine hooks up with a leftist film production, Gilles visits art museums where he continues to draw and paint, while Alain studies painting with an artist in India.  While they all undergo radical interior transformations, which includes rampant drug use, art, music, travel, experimental film, more open sexual relations and frequent displays of nudity, this group filters out in various directions around the world where their radical views evolve, with each developing a unique view of what they can contribute, while continuing their education and artistic development.  Gilles remains the central character, but becomes distressed at his need for individualized artistic expression, which goes against the grain of radical Marxist sentiment which accentuates the needs of the collective by submerging individualism. 


Much of this pays tribute to Bresson’s 60’s films, including the youthful impressionism of the budding painter in Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur... (1971) and the disenchantment with radical politics of The Devil, Probably (Le diable probablement) (1977).  The Grandaddy of post May 1968 films is Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), often viewed as the end of the French New Wave and the best expression of the end of the 1960’s hope and optimism.  Like COLD WATER, the defining scene of the film is a spectacular party sequence with music and dancing, beautifully shot by Eric Gautier, where Laure has become a drug addicted bohemian living at a palatial country estate, where bonfires are set and the musical choices are simply sublime, in perfect synch with the moment, expressing a kind of trippy psychedelia from Syd Barrett and the Soft Machine, Nick Drake, and the Incredible String Band.  Assayas integrates music into his films as well as anyone else alive, where the unspoken fluidity of this sequence speaks volumes, offering an elegiac poetry to the expression of the counterculture, which has since faded from view.  It should be noted that many of the wordless sequences from this film are among the best Assayas has ever done.  As Gilles tells his father, however, a television screenwriter (as was Assayas’s), he felt the writing on the show was “too strained.”  This aptly describes much of the forced political positions which are squeezed into this film, where there are more ideas than the film knows what to do with, where perhaps the weakest element of the film is a lack of development of the characters, none of whom, outside of Gilles, are sympathetic or really very memorable at all.  This unfortunately detracts from the overall impression of the film, which bears a similarity to Lou Ye’s SUMMER PALACE (2006), where the vitality of the youthful counterculture and freedom movements in each film are literally off the charts, expressed with dazzling camera virtuosity, where youth is like a bright flair burning in a sea of societal indifference, where once it burns out, all that’s left is the indifference. 



8.)  A SIMPLE LIFE (Tao jie)   A Simple Life (Tao jie)           A-               

Hong Kong  China  (118 mi)  2011  d:  Ann Hui


One of the more thoughtful and lyrical films on the subject of aging, told without an ounce of condescension or pretense, where the director herself is about the exact same age as actress Deannie Ip, coming out of retirement, as she hasn’t made a movie in over a decade.  Much like Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010), where Korean actress Yun Jung-hee performed in over 300 films in her career, coming out of retirement after sixteen years of living in Paris to be in nearly every scene of the film.  While this doesn’t have the novelesque density of that movie, Ip dominates this film as well, though the writing is more quietly observant, paying attention to small details, where many sequences during the opening half hour are near wordless.  In an innertitle following the opening credits, the audience quickly learns about Ah Tao (Ip), whose father died during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, while her mother gave her away to a wealthy Chinese family in Hong Kong, making her an orphan, where she served that same family as the household maid through 4 generations for the next 60 years, where all but one have moved away, either to Mainland China or to the United States, where the seventyish Ah Tao remains the servant of Roger Leung (Andy Lau), a middle aged bachelor otherwise living alone, a successful movie producer with a knack for reading financial records.  The circular choreography of the elderly Ah Tao serving meals to the young Master is a sight to behold, as they needn’t utter a word to be on the same wavelength, where she serves the various courses of the meal exactly as he desires.  Earlier we see her shopping in the market, asking the price, checking each item for freshness until finding the very best vegetables in the marketplace, which are the only ones she’ll use.  Based on the real life of co-writer and producer Roger Lee, Ah Tao is a perfectionist in the kitchen, as is Roger, both extremely picky about what food they’ll eat.


The film takes a turn when Ah Tao suffers a stroke, losing muscle control on one side, relying heavily upon a cane to walk, announcing she’s retiring and intends to live out her years in an old folk’s home, insisting she pay her own way, nothing fancy, just something practical, as she refuses to be a burden.  Roger offers to pay but complies with her wishes, where despite his busy schedule which requires extensive travel throughout Asia, he discovers he misses her, as she may be his best friend, as the two have shared their lives together, perhaps never realizing how important they are to one another.  When he finds a place for her, it’s little more than a storefront operations, where it’s hard not to believe seniors are warehoused in the cheapest manner possible, fitting them into tiny cubicles with no ceilings, where it more likely resembles a prison, as at night it’s impossible not to hear the uncontrollable sleep noises of everyone else.  The initial experience is something dreadful, but over time, she comes to know each and every one of the residents and the staff, including their interests and their eccentricities, making no judgments, offering them what help she can, as initially she’s one of the more able bodied, where she soon has the run of the place.  All the other residents take an interest in her regular visits from Roger, calling him her godson (ironically mimicking their real life relationship), instead of her former employer, a mistake neither one ever attempts to correct, where he’s one of the few to make regular appearances.  Soon his mother shows up to visit as well, each time offering respectful gestures and a host of presents, more than Ah Tao can handle, so when her visitors leave, all the other residents are salivating over the sumptuous food dishes left behind, where her visitors have a way of improving the group morale.  One of the more delightfully amusing sequences is when Roger takes Ah Tao to a dress-up gala movie premiere, where cameo appearances by real life Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, tough guy actor Anthony Wong, martial arts producer Raymond Chow, and fight choreographer Sammo Hung only add to the enjoyment of the event, especially seeing Roger work a room filled with important dignitaries.  


Born in Manchuria, Ann Hui came from mixed parents, a Chinese father and a Japanese mother, first working with acclaimed director King Hu, but her films have taken a special interest in the role of Asian women in contemporary society.  With few embellishments, using a near documentary style, Hui establishes a precise rhythm of life which she sustains throughout, continually keeping her focus on Ah Tao’s daily routines and her generosity of spirit, where her relationship to the characters around her are allowed to evolve, developing into a clearer picture of their significance to one another over time.  Deannie Ip is remarkably appealing, literally inhabiting the role with complete understatement, always deflecting to others, never seeking out attention, never seeing herself as any better or worse than anybody else, where she understands her unique role in being a part of so many lives, where she knows better than them what kind of kids they were or how difficult they may have been.  The family always shared things with her they might not have expressed to their own parents as she was more accessible, less harsh or judgmental, and always supportive.  She was the one who made sure they got to eat their favorite meals, prepared exactly as they preferred, and when others tried to emulate her, they’d forget a key ingredient or lacked her sense of grace, getting teased by others afterwards as they couldn’t live up to her high standards.  But Andy Lau, one of Asia’s biggest stars, the distant romantic interest in Wong Kar-wai’s lushly impressionistic DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990) or the ever vigilant police inspector in the high powered action flick INTERNAL AFFAIRS (2002), tones down his performance here, becoming a highly intelligent, but somewhat loner character, who discovers after her stroke that Ah Tao, like him, both carefully guarding their secrets, may be the most directly plain speaking and honest person he knows, and probably had the most influence in his life, but never took any of the credit for it.  An extremely low key and humble woman in a world full of people who more often think only of themselves, she’s singularly unique.  For a director to paint such a complex and fully developed portrait through a series of what feels like very ordinary moments is no small task, but this is a meticulously drawn and deeply heartfelt testament to a woman who lost her family, yet ultimately made the lives of everyone around her feel greater appreciation. 



9.)  KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND (Kongen av Bastøy)   King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy)           A-             

Norway  Sweden  Poland  France  (120 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Marius Holst


A different side of Scandinavian films that we rarely see, one that is as brutally harsh as the bleak wintry landscape, where fortitude is built by learning how to survive in the worst circumstances, where in this part of the world surviving the elements is a continual test of character.  Based on a true story in 1915, set on the island of Bastøy on the North Sea inlet south of Oslo, they run an Alcatraz style prison for delinquent boys, where some may be orphans, some have mental health issues, others may have been caught for petty crimes, or may just be poor, but boys from 8 to 18 languish on this penal colony for years paying a kind of eternal penitence, where getting lost in the system is an understatement, as their release depends upon the discretion of the sadistic Governor in charge, Stellan Skarsgård, who firmly believes hard work and a firm stick will somehow transform these unruly boys into model citizens.  His job is to mold them into compliant citizens that obey rules and follow orders.  The truthful severity of the brutal acts against children make this kind of film off limits to American filmmakers, as this honestly exposes a kind of monstrous inhumanity within Norway’s own history that’s missing in American films.  Some of the best remembered prison films are A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), IF… (1968), ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), SHAWHANK REDEMPTION (1994), where each one raises the question of prisoner escape, seen by the other inmates as an act of heroics, yet not so the warden who must make an example to deter similar actions, resorting to ruthless measures if caught, making one think twice about ever doing it again.  Each of these movies suggests men can only endure so much torture and relentless oppression, resorting to wit and bravery to conjure up improbable acts of escape, but not so here, as someone instead irrationally refuses to escape when the door is left wide open, where this may have you on the edge of your seat.

Unraveling as a story within a story, where a young harpooner aboard a Moby Dick style whaling ship marvels at the endurance of a whale that has been shot 3 times, yet still manages to elude them throughout most of the day, a theme turned back upon the humans, as it is their own beastly behavior that takes centerstage in this film.  With the arrival of two new inmates, a burly young sailor Erling (Benjamin Helstad) immediately disrupts the balance of power by challenging the status quo, threatening escape almost immediately, which places the other boys in jeopardy, especially Olav (Trond Nilssen), who is given responsibility over his dormitory as he’s expecting his release soon, considered a model prisoner.  What’s especially interesting is the interplay between these two, as they are polar opposites with uniquely compelling viewpoints.  They immediately test one another with a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) psychological battle of wits, while at the same time the Governor is testing the rebellious nature of Erling, continually adding harsher work details which makes his workmates miserable, but he continually takes the brunt of it, routinely given added punishments where he’s mindlessly ordered to move a pile of rocks ten feet away into another pile, only to be instructed afterwards to move them all back again.  The viewer soon discovers the island is a child labor camp, where they perform farming and forestry work details, with society getting a special bonus out of their cheap labor.  Except for the leads, most of the kids are non-professionals, where with little dialogue the director subtly weaves into the fabric a sense of community from the boys point of view, as they’re all victims of the same inhumane living conditions, where what’s missing is the capacity to look out for one another.       


What’s especially effective is the gorgeous ‘Scope camerawork from John Andreas Andersen whose sweeping panoramas and wintry landscapes look brutally cold, where winter never looked harsher and more ominous, where these are boys, after all, continually punished and brutalized in the name of some utterly fictitious social good, the Governor’s goal of making them “honorable, humble, and useful Christian boys,” as if he could beat them into submission.  While the tense build up of the inevitable rebellion may be held back too long, as there’s little doubt the floodgates at some point will open, when they do it comes with a flurry, all precipitated by extreme abuse to the weakest among them, a boy violated by the housemaster, Kristoffer Joner, in a role reminiscent of Donald Sutherland’s sick portrayal of a fascist baby killer in Bertolucci’s 1900, especially when the peasants turn on him.  So it’s not heroics but abuse of power, a cowardly cover up, where contemptible lies are met with anger and disgust, which has an initial liberating effect, but a bit like Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997), the initial wave of hope is crushed with even harsher and more barbaric methods, making things seem hopeless before a sea change of communal emotion comes swiftly crashing through the gates like a raging flood, an apocalyptic response to the torrent of sins heaped upon them.  The chaos that follows is just that, a sprawling, sweeping flow of events that comes to resemble the image of that wounded whale ferociously fighting for its last gasp of freedom.  Holst is at his best in the extremely personal finale, pitch perfect and beautifully staged, thrilling to watch, where he judiciously takes his time allowing events to play out, becoming a poetic reverie of innocence lost.  Shot mostly in Estonia, the music by Johan Soderqvist is especially captivating, offering a somber lament at exactly the right moment, adding a layer of quiet intimacy to a beautifully accomplished film.



10.)  SISTER (L'enfant d'en haut)   Sister (L'enfant d'en haut)                     A-                   

France  Switzerland  (97 mi)  2012  d:  Ursula Meier                         Official site [Hungary]


This is another small and hauntingly beautiful film, set in Le Valais, a French-speaking part of Switzerland in the Swiss Alps where the gorgeous mountain scenery, luminously captured on 35 mm, is a perfect backdrop for this story which is largely an examination of class differences, where the wealthy live in a blissful affluence above the clouds, while the workers that serve them live in a more starkly real world of poverty below.  Kacey Mottet Klein is 12-year old Simon, an enterprising young kid who scrounges what he can from the abundance of unattended ski equipment and backpacks of visiting tourists, returning home down the mountain afterwards with a bag of goodies that he sells to the kids in town, a variation on Robin Hood spreading around the wealth, making Simon extremely popular with the locals, as he’s cornered the black market on high-end merchandise, where there’s some interesting similarities to the Polish film Yuma (2012), where the initial taste of Eastern bloc capitalism is seen as an open market free-for-all.  He lives in a high rise building with his older sister Louise, Léa Seydoux from Belle Épine (2012) and Christophe Honoré’s LA BELLE PERSONNE (2008) playing a very different kind of role, a girl with a harder edge, a reckless and largely indifferent influence in his life, as she’s usually off on her own spending time with flashy guys, returning broke, miserable, and alone, where Simon is actually  supporting her, which doesn’t seem to bother her at all, as she’s used to others taking care of her.  The squealing electric guitar score from P.J. Harvey producer John Parish offers a quirky sound design, while the superb cinematography is from Agnès Godard, who usually works with Claire Denis, but interestingly also worked with Erick Zonca in THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS (1998).  Actually it was hard not to think of Zonca and his exquisitely gritty depiction of social realism using a near documentary style, as he also made the short film LE PETIT VOLEUR (1999), which translates into The Little Thief, which may as well be the theme of this film, as that’s what people end up calling Simon.  Zonca’s slice-of-life technique is utilized here, as the seeing eye, hand-held camera literally follows Simon wherever he goes.

Written by the director and her co-writers Antoine Jaccoud and Gilles Taurand, reminiscent of the works by the Dardennes brothers, like ROSETTA (1999) and their more recent The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (2011), where initially there’s a certain amount of affection shown between the siblings, where they fight playfully over who gets the best stolen sandwiches, as all they have to eat is whatever Simon steals, but her long absences take a toll on both of them, but particularly Simon, as he has no real friends or adult influences in his life, so despite his thievery expertise, knowing the value of the merchandise, learning a ski culture that is otherwise foreign to him, he’s not a very good judge of when he’s gone too far.  When he inadvertently gets caught, the guy that catches him, Mike, Martin Compston from Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD (2006), decides to partner up with him rather than turn him into authorities, as the kid has talent as a ski thief, not to mention elusive qualities that prevent him from being noticed.  But he continually overextends his welcome at Mike’s job, where he keeps popping up when he shouldn’t, ignoring Mike’s pleas to keep away.  In much the same way, he latches onto a British mother (Gillian Anderson) who is on holiday with her kids, where his curiosity becomes more of an obsession, where he literally forces himself to be a part of her world, where she’s obviously the mother he’s never had.  So Simon straddles the line of social acceptability, having long ago crossed the line of moral accountability, but his desire to be near others continually pushes him farther and farther into the danger zone, perhaps taking on the reckless behavior of his sister.  Occasionally the kid goes too far, literally beaten to a pulp after stealing the wrong guy’s sunglasses, a scene that takes place in full view of a café terrace filled with tourists sipping on beer and latte’s, where the guy justifies his extreme hostility by calling the kid a thief.  Impassively, the snow-drenched mountain peaks stand guard, immovable, implacable, yet overseeing all, while the views from the ski lift tram cars are continually mesmerizing.


Simon makes his way up and down the hill daily, where his apartment begins to resemble a stolen goods warehouse, also burying equipment under the snow at the top of the hill, where he’s got operations going at both ends for the Christmas holidays.  Louise has a greater presence in the latter segments, becoming a more uncomfortable fit in Simon’s life, bringing a guy home with her, where it’s clear she thinks Simon is in the way, often subjecting him to a fury of scorn and resentment, as if he’s screwed up her life.  Most of the film is seen through the isolated prism of Simon’s daily routines, where he’s left alone to fend for himself, doing the best that he can, where we wonder what else is he supposed to do?  His sister’s selfish rants have a way of seeping through the protective armor he’s forced to wear, literally demeaning him in a personally hurtful way that’s obviously worse than the humiliation of getting caught stealing or being beaten up.  Curiously, their playful fighting takes on a harsher tone, where both are struggling to inflict painful and damaging blows, both obviously hurt by the other, where Simon is hurt by the continuing attention paid to Louise by guys who could care less about her, and Louise sometimes wishes that Simon had never been born, as he’s always been an unwelcome burden in her life.  Having grown up seeing kids like Simon at ski resorts, the director creates a bleak but tender coming-of-age story that literally teases the audience with possible outcomes, often lingering in pause mode allowing the full effects to sink in, where Simon could be destitute, an outcast lost on his own, or he could get arrested and thrown into some bureaucratic jungle of youth homes, or this could turn instantly tragic, with these ski lifts constantly hovering above these shimmering, snow-packed mountains.  There’s an interesting shot where Simon is lost, literally paralyzed in thought, sitting alone on the edge of the wooden terrace overlooking the spectacular panoramic landscape, where humans themselves barely register in the majestic enormity of it all, where a lone bird lands on the terrace and amusingly hops across, where every step taken feels as random and as inexplicable as whatever’s running through Simon’s mind.  Meier has crafted an unflinchingly honest and touching film that slowly intensifies the quiet devastation building within, featuring sympathetic performances that are achingly real, all told without an ounce of pretense, winner of a special Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.  




Special Mention


THIS MUST BE THE PLACE               This Must Be the Place      A-                   

Italy  France  Ireland  (118 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Paolo Sorrentino 


Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb - born with a weak heart
(So I) guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing

Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight

Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this where I'll be . . . where I'll be

Hi yo We drift in and out
Hi yo sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I'm just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I'm dead
Eyes that light up, eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head
Ah ooh


This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), by Talking Heads, 1983  Talking Heads - This must be the place (Naive ...  YouTube (5:20), live performance from Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)


From one of the most original visual stylists working today, this is a very clever take on the stranger in a strange land theme, starting with a mystifyingly weird portrait of the stranger himself, Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a reclusive Gothic rock star, now 50, who hasn’t performed in 20 years, something of a cross between the Cure’s Robert Smith and the stunted mental development of Ozzie Osborne, where the character is pathologically shy, continually speaks in the quietest voice register, and is perhaps understood only by his adoring wife Jane, Frances McDormand, who loves him unconditionally.  Cheyenne never travels, apparently, anywhere outside of walking distance of his home, an immense private estate in Dublin, Ireland where he pretty much remains locked inside, occasionally venturing out for groceries or trips to the mall, where he often meets Mary (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2’s Bono), perhaps his best friend, another Goth teenager or young twentysomething who has a room down the street with her mother, Olwen Fouéré, while also living much of the time with Cheyenne.  Cheyenne’s visits with her mother remain clouded in mystery, as she claims she hasn’t heard from her son Tony in years, that he simply disappeared without a word, leaving her in a perpetual state of mourning, lost in a fog, continually staring out the window.  In something of a parallel universe, his brain perhaps addled by drug and alcohol abuse, Cheyenne’s perpetual isolation and sadness leaves him on a similar emotional plane, both equally disconnected from the rest of the world.  It’s easy to see how anyone still looking that outrageous, wild hair, white pancake facial make up, and red lipstick, always dressed morbidly in black, is continually pointed at and made fun of by people in straight society who find him odd or different, often making fun of him behind his back.  This is another psychological barrier of social unacceptability that he’s used to, as the world has been taken over by over-produced, over-hyped musical acts where talent is barely even necessary.         


Co-written by the director with Umberto Contarello, who also co-writes the latest Bertolucci film ME AND YOU (2012), this is the first English-language Sorrentino film, which initially feels like a parody of a burnt out rock star, living off the extravagance of his royalties, but turning into a Michael Jackson recluse, complete with a clearly visible personality disorder.  What truly makes all Sorrentino films unique is the brilliant cinematography of Luca Bigazzi, where his camerawork is simply exceptional, often mixing exaggeratedly stylish Brian De Palma style crane shots with another look more reminiscent of the oversaturated colors of Lynne Ramsay, where he’s actively engaged in developing every shot.  The entire tone of the film shifts when Cheyenne’s father in New York City dies, where we learn he hasn’t spoken to him in 30 years, remaining convinced his father never loved him.  At the funeral, we learn his father was a Holocaust survivor who was obsessed with tracking down the Nazi prison guard from Auschwitz still living in America.  While in New York, in perhaps the scene of the film, Cheyenne runs into David Byrne who performs the title track, This Must Be The Place (live from movie 2011) - YouTube (4:27), an odd but lyrically poetic comment on home, where in a quiet discussion between the two of them afterwards we learn Cheyenne quit performing when two depressed kids took his morbid lyrics too seriously and committed suicide, an example of art resembling life, based on a real life incident in 1985 in Reno by two brothers that happened to be avid fans of Judas Priest.  Tortured ever since, he is seen earlier in the film visiting the Irish gravesite of one of the boys.  Suddenly inspired, obviously taking him completely by surprise, Cheyenne decides to search for this elusive Nazi figure, turning this into a road movie of America, as seen from an often amusing European vantage point.  Rather than outwardly impressing the viewer, this may be the most subtle of all Sorrentino films and perhaps the most artistically inspired, as the subjects that he visits are cautiously approached, where there are close to half a dozen different cover versions of the title song, each conceptually different offering a unique expression of home. 


Weirdly elusive and oddly intoxicating, as channeled through Cheyenne this is certainly one of the more unusual ways to approach the subject of the Holocaust, where Cheyenne is fond of saying “Something's wrong here. I don't know exactly what it is, but something's wrong here.”  As he goes in search of the perpetrator’s family members, staying at cheap, rundown, roadside motels, calling his befuddled wife from pay phones along the road, where these visits with strangers are astonishingly tender, as the introverted Cheyenne is just as soft-spoken, but what he has to say is more direct and to the point, where in contrast to his gloomy outward expression, his gentle nature reveals an amazingly attentive listener, where he actually displays curious insight into his so-called subjects.  Peppered with original musical selections throughout, much of them shot using a music video style, most written by Will Oldham and David Byrne and performed by a band named The Pieces of Shit, Sorrentino creates a highly impressionistic Americanized landscape, occasionally adding the poetic lyricism of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel - YouTube (5:32), initially heard here in an excerpt from Gus van Sant’s GERRY (2002) that beautifully parallels this film’s similar drive into the desert.  One of his visits is to the granddaughter of the Nazi war criminal, Rachel (Kerry Condon), who knows nothing of his Nazi past, whose somewhat shy son takes a peculiar fascination to Cheyenne, actually coercing him to play guitar while he enthusiastically sings (joyously off key) the title track as his mother proudly looks on, Sean Penn, Singing, movie, this must be the place ... YouTube (1:42).  Harry Dean Stanton has an amusing albeit brief cameo, additionally there is a skillful and poignant use of a probing inner narration from the journals of Cheyenne’s deceased father, but Sorrentino’s kinetically inspiring visualizations hold the key to the film, as it is in the desolate emptiness of a desert landscape encased in wintry snow that he finds his fugitive, a place that may as well be the end of the world.  Told with restraint, the audience is always backed into a different way of discovering each of these subjects, as Cheyenne is the least confrontational lead actor you could possibly imagine, suddenly transformed into Edward G. Robinson in the Nazi-hunter role chasing down war criminal Orson Welles in his film THE STRANGER (1946).  In preparation for this moment, Cheyenne actually walks into a gun shop and purchases a weapon, where the owner explains the psychological transformation that happens when you hold the right weapon in your hand, as it allows you to “kill with impunity.”  Thematically, this appears to parallel the monstrous Nazi mindset in exterminating the Jews, so perhaps not surprisingly, Cheyenne must seek an alternative path and rise above the frustratingly obsessive yet ineffective methods of his father in dealing with the past, finding his own revelatory road to redemption. 



IN THE FAMILY   In the Family             A-            

USA  (169 mi)  2011  d:  Patrick Wang                     Official site


Just because laws have limits doesn’t mean our lives do.       —Paul Hawks (Brian Murray)


This is ultimately one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, yet also one of the most understated, where so much of the dramatic impact is built on the accumulation of small details that bear an autobiographical stamp of authenticity.  While set in Tennessee, it explores the closeness of a small town Southern community without playing on any of the usual stereotypes or prejudices, showing a more generous side of the South that feels more close-knit.  Written, directed, acted and produced by newcomer Patrick Wang, a gay Asian-American who grew up in Texas, the film was initially rejected by as many as 30 major film festivals and distributors, perhaps due to the length, until he was obliged to distribute the film himself in true indie fashion, initially starting in just one theater in Manhattan where it generated excellent reviews before slowly building a wider audience.  Still, this is the kind of film likely seen by only twenty or so people in the audience, where the experience is dramatically moving, presenting the material in a more respectful manner than what we have become accustomed to seeing on television or in movie representations, where there are push button issues that often lead to explosive fireworks in the manner of KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), a film that doesn’t really hold up over time, but here it’s more intimate, where much of the carefully observed narrative is quietly ushered in with artfully designed silences that carry the full weight of the material, feeling more like a theatrical experience.  This shrewdly written film has a well-designed structure that slowly unleashes its power, much of it told in flashback, where its greatest strength comes from its characters, adding layer upon layer throughout until by the end the audience is fully engaged with everything that’s happening onscreen.  Wang’s acting is key, as he’s such a good-natured and level-headed guy, nothing flashy, not without his own faults, but basically the kind of person who defines the word friend, as he’ll be there unhesitatingly and instinctually, providing the calm during the storm, having the good sense not to overreact or take things out of proportion, which is how this subject matter is usually presented. 


What starts out as a fairly uneventful and low-key family drama eventually becomes a starkly intense testimonial on the meaning of life itself, not in any grand philosophical terms, but in everyday language that’s impossible to misunderstand, a riveting confessional with profound impact in all of our lives.  Using a spare and unpretentious film technique, a no nonsense style where no particular thing stands out, initially the focus is on a wired, energetic 6-year old named Chip (Sebastian Banes), a captivating and endlessly curious kid with two Dads (Cody, Trevor St. John, his biological father and his partner Joey, Patrick Wang), who seems perfectly content with this living arrangement, where he’s smart and obviously thriving in his home life.  The routine of their lives is captured in all its simplicity, where the morning cereal ritual becomes so familiar to the audience that we feel like uninvited guests in their kitchen after awhile, where this setting could be just about anywhere, but it just happens to be Martin, Tennessee, where a slight drawl can be detected in the voice inflections.  Only after the audience gets comfortable with the “lack” of drama in their lives does the initial drama begin, where out of nowhere, like a clap of thunder on an otherwise perfectly clear day, a life-changing event occurs offscreen where Cody gets in a terrible auto accident, where in a flash we’re transported into Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a bare-bones, near documentary Romanian exposé on the atrocious hospital standards provided to severely ill patients and their families, where Joey is rather unceremoniously left out of the picture as he is not considered immediate family.  While the word gay is never heard, the unforgivable actions speak for themselves and are immediately offset by Joey’s own exemplary behavior, as he does a heartfelt job preparing Chip for what to expect seeing his Dad in intensive care.  Like Joey, we are denied admittance to Cody’s final hours, as he dies shortly afterwards.  With difficulty, Chip and Joey attempt to regain a balance in their lives, both reluctantly and unknowingly becoming the centerpieces of the film.  


As Joey is digging through all the paperwork of Cody’s bank accounts and personal statements, he shares what he finds with Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who shockingly reports that Cody left everything to his sister in a will written years before he met Joey.  When Eileen reports her intentions of raising Chip, using the will as her legal grounds, declaring her beliefs that these were Cody’s written intentions, Joey’s world literally changes, as everything he has come to know and rely upon are suddenly in jeopardy.  As the emotional bond between Joey and Chip has already been well established, Joey’s fierce insistence not to part with him does not seem unreasonable, so when Eileen literally kidnaps Chip, refusing to return him after a family overnight visit while serving an order of protection to keep Joey away from him, a multitude of harsh thoughts of retribution spring to mind as the audience is challenged to consider what they would do in similar circumstances.  Once more, Joey is locked out of the room, reinforced by his discovery that gay partners have no legal grounds, sending him into an emotional tailspin of despair, seen sitting alone in an empty kitchen.  While he is visited by various friends showing neighborly concern, some of whom bring food or drink or just sit around and commiserate with him, often shown in long takes, his solitary life is joyless and empty.  This void is interrupted by flashbacks of Joey and Cody together, like scenes of when they first met or shared family holidays, including one unforgettable sequence when they first kiss, a near 9-minute uninterrupted shot leading to the moment when Cody impulsively plays Chip Taylor’s song “Little Darts.”  Chip Taylor (Jon Voight’s brother, by the way) plays Cody’s father in the film.  But nothing is quite as haunting as having a friend secretly call him on a speaker phone so he can hear the sounds of Chip playing, where he sits transfixed, unable to utter a word, paralyzed in thought. 


Overheard by an elderly client whose old books he is rebinding, Joey is again speechless to discover this retired elderly lawyer (Brian Murray) will take his case, urging him to forget about the restrictions of the law, which can be so divisive, but consider how to reframe the issue in more humane terms, where he may not obtain a legal victory, but he might negotiate a better arrangement with Cody’s sister.  What follows is perhaps the most devastating and beautifully written sequence of the year, a thirty minute deposition scene taking place in real time, a soliloquy of emotional candor, using a generic setting like Conference Room B for such a confessional outpouring, a scene unlike anything else in recent recollection, easily the high point of the film.  Earlier in the film we continually see the back of Joey’s head during key dramatic moments, where it's only during the deposition that he actually faces the camera for the first time, literally exposing himself emotionally, removing the politics and the rancor, but explaining in real and heartfelt terms just what Chip and Cody mean to him, often sounding like what we might hear at a eulogy.  This might seem oddly unnecessary, having to humbly explain our feelings to precisely those people we supposedly love, but humans are fallible and often forget the deeper underlying meaning, where it helps to be reminded from time to time, much like the original practice of going to church, only removing the religious implications while retaining the moral lessons. While all drama needs conflict, this film removes much of the vitriol associated with gay political issues and instead integrates Joey into our collective understanding of what’s essential about any marriage and family. 



THE SCAPEGOAT – made for TV   The Scapegoat             A-                   

Great Britain  (108 mi)  2012  d:  Charles Sturridge 


Well aren’t you the country gentleman?          —Johnny Spence (Matthew Rhys)


This is a small gem of a film, a British made-for-TV production that only the British can make, that is arguably a smaller yet better film than the much more heralded, Academy Award Best Picture winning THE KING’S SPEECH (2010), which is a star driven, crowd pleasing vehicle that makes all the headlines and has tens of millions of dollars to spend on wide reaching advertising, eventually grossing more than $350 million dollars.  More in line with the late Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK (2001), an unexpected dip into Agatha Christie territory where everyone knows his or her place and social proprieties are strictly observed, this is adapted from a 1957 Daphne du Maurier novel and a director adapted remake of the 1959 film directed by Robert Hamer, starring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis.  From the opening shot, the production values are exquisite and the acting impeccable, with one of the best musical scores heard all year from Adrian Johnston, where this turns into a mysterious whodunit, where the clues are continually hidden from view, much like an opening shot from cinematographer Matt Gray of a mammoth country estate shrouded in fog.  As the director of Brideshead Revisited (1981), it’s clear Sturridge loves big houses.  A teacher is seen leaving a young boy’s academy, apparently due to a change in curriculum from Greek to conversational French, where John Standing (Matthew Rhys) walks into town where he plans on catching an evening train.  Stopping in a local pub, he’s about to leave when he receives someone else’s change, catching a glimpse of that other person who looks surprisingly like himself.  As it turns out they are exact doubles who share no family history, where the other person’s name is John Spence (played by the same actor in dual roles), as the two talk well into the night getting acquainted. 


Set in 1952, a time when Britain is preparing for a coronation, a ritual that has gone largely unchanged for the past thousand years, as Elizabeth II ascends to the throne the instant her father (the subject of King’s Speech) King George VI dies, but awaits the actual celebratory coronation before the public and the world.  When Spence (filthy rich with suffocating family obligations) and Standing (free as a bird) discuss their life differences, Spence suggests this void between ascension and coronation is a time ripe for anarchy.  Accordingly, Standing awakes in the morning with his wallet, Spence, and all his clothes gone, but George (Pip Torrens), a gentleman chauffeur, arrives with a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith to take him home.  Obviously there’s a mix up, but before he can be taken seriously, the wrong man is transported to an immense country manor that in real life is known as Knebworth House, located 30 miles north of London, the site of outdoor rock concerts (including The Who), THE KING’S SPEECH, Harry Potter and many other notable films. Instantly recognizable as the missing John Spence, Standing has little choice but to play along, as they attribute his protestations to the delirious effects of a hangover and urge him to attend to the serious matters at hand, namely the family glass business, which may be going under due to financial difficulties, where Spence was sent in a last ditch effort to negotiate a miracle save.  Standing, of course (and the audience), is surprised by each and every revelation, where the introduction to this new world is brilliantly realized literally one room and relative at a time, where we are never sure if he is going to pulled into a secret embrace or the object of disdain.  We immediately realize Spence was some kind of arrogant monster that literally infected everything he touched with a callous contempt for living. 


The curious narrative is a variation on The Prince and the Pauper or THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), where Standing has literally inherited a new upper class, aristocratic life where he continually has to play this game of filling in the empty spaces, like uncovering all the missing ghosts of the mansion, hoping he won’t disturb them and contribute to the literal undoing of the entire family.  He quickly discovers he’s having an affair with his sister in law, Sheridan Smith, and a French mistress, Sylvie Testud, while his sister Blanche, Jodhi May, hates him (“You disgust me!”) for some reason.  The lady of the manor, Eileen Atkins, deliciously haughty and superior, is a recluse with a morphine habit, while his own neglected wife, Alice Orr-Ewing, is nearly invisible, quick to blame herself first when things go wrong, but fortunately he has an adorable young daughter, Eloise Webb, that almost singlehandedly makes it all worthwhile.  Sorting out the mess that was left behind is quite an undertaking, as there’s a world of responsibilities that have been neglected, where the director has a field day unraveling the clues with an entertaining relish, building suspense and tension throughout, especially the secret return of the real Spence who has malicious designs, where he has set up a pawn in the game as an unsuspecting scapegoat.  But in this film, knowledge is everything, as is knowing how to use it, where Standing is a quick learner, an improvement in every respect from the real Spence, actually making a difference when all was thought to be lost.  A battle of good and evil where both are one and the same, Spence is literally amazed, “You’re almost as good at being me as I am.”  Rhys is excellent in the dual roles, where his scenes together with Jodhi May are exemplary stand outs.  Underneath it all, of course, we learn the real source of power is not held by either man, but exists in the stern and watchful eye of the housekeeper, Phoebe Nicholls from Brideshead, who understands the workings of the household better than anyone, where the secret of the film is that destiny often comes from unexpected places, as she’s the one with insights into the newly celebrated Queen, suggesting she wasn’t raised to wear the crown, yet her coronation was the first to be televised and is one of the longest reigning monarchs in British history.



WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN    We Need to Talk About Kevin            B+              

Great Britain  USA  (112 mi)  2011  ‘Scope d:  Lynne Ramsay


“Way worse than I imagined,” was the comment heard coming out of the theater, which perhaps unintentionally perfectly expresses the point of the film, where the words of the title suddenly take on greater magnitude.  A decidedly difficult film, told completely out of sequence, which has a jarring effect on the viewer, keeping them continually off balance, as the story has a fractured and impressionistic style, revealed only in pieces.  It’s simply impossible to get comfortable with this film due to the harsh and uncompromisingly bleak nature of the story, despite the beautifully chilly and austere production values that might resemble a Kubrick film, cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and once again a superlative musical track from Jonny Greenwood, but the downbeat mood, especially from Tilda Swinton’s continuously frustrated portrayal of the mother of a loathsome child Kevin, a son who hates her from birth, couldn’t be more oppressive.  Based on the best-selling novel by the same name from Lionel Shriver, adapted by the director and Rory Stewart Kinnear, the film hints all along of greater catastrophes lurking ahead.  Ramsay interestingly presents the town’s hateful reaction to Swinton before revealing what horrifying event they are responding to.  But all along, Kevin devises ways to express his contempt for his mother, while switching gears to become the supposedly happy and perfect son to his clueless father, John C. Reilly.  In another realm, this would be a child of the devil, told with horror subtext, where grotesque exaggerations would fill the screen along with impaled bodies, but here what damage Kevin does is almost always offscreen, where the audience is forced to draw their own conclusions.       


Originally trained as a photographer, Ramsay reworks the text into a highly stylized, contemporary visual world, including the perfect suburban home that becomes infested with dread, like a haunted house, where Kevin becomes the personification of evil.  Moving freely between the present and the past, Swinton experiences her own horrors from Kevin early on, where he simply refuses to do anything she asks, but she matches his vitriolic meanness directed at her with her own inappropriate behavior, growing more irritated over time, as the two develop their own language of avoiding one another.  In one of the strangest sequences of the film, Swinton is reading him a bedtime story, where in reality her eloquence with language is renowned, like listening to the voices of Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles, but this time Kevin grows so attached to the lurid description of bows and arrows in Robin Hood that he doesn’t want his mother to stop, actually curling up next to her in a sign of affection.  Afterwards, however, he remains his meanspirited and completely detached self, feeling nothing but contempt for his family members.  His father, however, buys him a bow and arrow set, becoming extremely proficient over time, which has the effect of introducing firearms to a mentally unstable kid.  Jumping ahead, while we never see any traces of Kevin with other students in high school, the audience is instead treated to the aftereffects of a horrendous, catastrophic event at the school which turns the entire town against Swinton, where interestingly Ramsay uses the lovely innocence of Buddy Holly’s song Buddy Holly - Everyday on YouTube (2:13) as a prelude to the event.     


While the film recounts shocking and astonishing events by connecting personal family tragedy with the public’s reaction to unspeakable horrors, one might wonder why there’s an absence of psychiatric intervention, as this kid is definitely a danger to himself and others, and while that may be true, he’s also likely a smart and gifted student and not exactly a willing participant for treatment, especially at an early age where he’s already learned to manipulate adults through his own behavior, so why would he want to change that?  Swinton grows so suspicious of him that she searches his room for any sign of something amiss, intriguingly set to the Beach Boys In My Room - The Beach Boys on YouTube (2:10), where it’s as if his room has been wiped clean of any and all forensic evidence, knowing this would be one of the first places people would look.  His entire life shows a cunning and willful emotional detachment, which Swinton tries to match in personal indifference by avoiding having her buttons pushed, but she’s hopelessly drowning in the turmoil of her own shortcomings, feeling completely powerless and inept at being able to reach this kid.  What’s evident, however, is that this is a story of communal judgment, where she’s been judged an incompetent mother by the entire town, subject to sneers and stares, even getting socked in the face, and worse, developing a witch hunt mentality where she’s judged responsible for the behavior of her sociopathic son.  Swinton herself may be her own worst critic, grown weary from continually blaming herself, expressed through her cold and severe manner, but what’s inevitable is every day having to face the horror, guilt, and shame of living with a world soiled and contaminated by your own offspring.  Nine years since her last film, the first to branch away from working class Scotland, Ramsay’s unflinching vision spares no one and offers no easy answers, and is in itself a horrifyingly bleak and brutal film. 



HOUSE OF TOLERANCE (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la maison close)    House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la...     B+

aka:  House of Pleasures

France  (125 mi)  2011  d:  Bertrand Bonello


Stylistically, this is one of the more remarkable films of the year, beautifully shot by Josée Deshaies (the director's wife), where the French title is more appropriate, as souvenirs is a French expression for a remembrance or a memory, where perhaps the most exact usage here is a cinematic reverie, where the film has a remarkably lush decorative bordello environment, as champagne flows freely, a perfect compliment for the open display of naked female bodies which are prominently featured throughout this film.  There’s nothing remotely pornographic about this movie, as it rarely shows male anatomy, never aroused, and there are scant few shots of couples actually engaging in sex, and no sex is ever graphically revealed.  Instead, Bonello is more interested in the down time, in the type of activity that normally occurs offstage when they’re not working.  His camera is all over documentary style repetition of banal detail in showing the ordinary, day-to-day routines that the women follow, cleaning themselves and rinsing their mouths regularly, lorded over by the house Madame, Noémie Lvovsky, usually seen in lighthearted, dialog-driven French comedies, and a writer/director in her own right, where the rarely seen LIFE DOESN’T SCARE ME (1999) was one of the best films of the year.  Lvovsky, however, is exceptional in the smart yet manipulative way she understands the business, where the secret is to keep the girls incurring more debt to the house in costumes, clothes, perfume, and other refinements so they can never move elsewhere or obtain their freedom.  In this way, they are literally owned, the property of the house, a flesh and blood commodity to be used in a business transaction.  Very much in the exotic mode of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua) (1998), both historical pieces and both nearly entirely studio shot, where the deep richness of the plush interior colors are illuminated by candlelight, giving these films a rarely seen sensual opulence that overshadows the more deeply disturbing side of forgotten and discarded souls. 


Bonello’s interest lies in the suffocating treatment of women, where despite the everpresent titillation of the flesh, nothing that we see is the least bit sexually arousing.  In fact the audience is numbed by the desensitization of their dreary working lives, much like the monotonous routine of real life prostitution highlighted by Godard’s VIVRE SA VIE (1962), as despite the frequent repeating customer that asks for you, what you’re expected to endure, because the customer is paying for it, is filled with sexual humiliation and degradation, which is seen as part of the tools of the trade, something women are supposed to get used to.  Set in the waning months of the 19th century, one should recall child labor was prevalent, there were few opportunities for women, as this was the era of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which portrays a woman in a loveless marriage as a caged animal where all the power and rights belong to the husband, as he has a source of employment, effectively owning his wife as his own exclusive property, under the law, free to do with as he wishes.  Here, as in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work, the filmmaker establishes the various character traits of the women, who and what they like, showing their habits and general tendencies so they become familiar to the audience. Bonello also accentuates the developing sisterhood between the women, who share the same harrowing fate, often seen lying listlessly and motionless in the precious few moments before they have to come to life for their customers.  One of the women of the house beautifully performs as a wind-up porcelain doll for her paying clientele.  In both films, the idea of a wealthy man buying their freedom and taking them out of prostitution for marriage is the ultimate dream, where many believe their beauty and dazzling sexual prowess will bring them what they desire, thinking they are more alluring than a continually deserted wife who doesn’t know how to fulfill her husband’s needs.  Perhaps the ultimate insult is the lie and continual betrayal of men who keep promising to leave their wives, but never do.  Left on their own without a wealthy benefactor, these women age and deteriorate quickly. 


While Bonello dwells on the demeaning internalized side effects of continually pretending to be something you’re not, constantly feigning happiness, he also shows the devastation once reality sets in, using a theme of a brutally treated woman who becomes horribly disfigured, but has noplace else to go, so works in the kitchen or as a maid, or helps dress and prepare the women.  In a rather macabre turn, her value as a grotesque object becomes a specialty item, a sexual novelty that interests the perverse and exotic interests of an aristocratic secret society, similar to Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), but as imagined by Diane Arbus.  What seems to set the wheels in motion for a steady downward descent is the mention by one of the regular house customers that recent scientific studies suggest prostitute’s brains, along with criminals, are decisively smaller than a normal brain, which accounts for their idiotic behavior.  Rather than the illusory beauty that opens the film with a rush of intoxication, naked flesh, and perfume, the filmmaker retraces the precious few moments before the brutal attack, adding a parallel story of shame from the deteriorating health by one of the women succumbing to syphilis, which at the time was incurable, accounting for the deaths of noted artists Franz Schubert and Édouard Manet.  The director shows no less than a thousand endings, and easily prolongs his movie, some may be a bit overdone, but each one adds another piece of the carefully constructed mosaic, becoming a lament for a forgotten era layered in the heartbreaking sadness of these women, perfectly expressed in one of the most haunting sequences set to the Moody Blues L'Apollonide Nights In White Satin - YouTube (2:59), a kind of vacuous last dance that eptimomizes their lost dreams slipping away.  Bonello reverses the brief whisp of hope offered by Nora’s freedom at the end of Ibsen’s play as an illusory phantom and leaves her stuck forever with no escape from A Doll’s House.  By the end, all the women characters inhabiting this film do look and feel a bit like glassy-eyed ghosts, lost and dispossessed souls with vacant looks emptied and disassociated from the real world. 


One should mention some of the featured actresses, all excellent, who let it all hang out for this film:  Samira, Hafsia Herzi from THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (2007), Julie, Jasmine Trinca, the daughter in THE SON’S ROOM (2001), Clotilde (Céline Sallette), Léa (Adele Haenel), Madeleine (Alice Barnole), and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), while two noted French directors are among the house regulars, Jacques Nolot as Maurice and Xavier Beauvois, who recently directed the acclaimed OF GODS AND MEN (2010).





Peyman Moadi – A Separation

*Matthias Schoenaerts – Bullhead 

Denis Lavant – Holy Motors 

Harry Lennix – Mr. Sophistication 

Kacey Mottet Klein – Sister




*Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin

Léa Seydoux –Sister (1) + Belle Épine (2)

Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Nadezhda Markina – Elena 

Deannie Ip – A Simple Life

Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook




Stellan Skarsgård – King of Devil’s Island

*Shahab Hosseini – A Separation

Lucas Pittway – Snowtown

Ezra Miller – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild 

James Gandolfini – Killing Them Softly (1) + Not Fade Away (2)




Pernell Walker – Pariah

Rinko Kikuchi – Norwegian Wood

Tehilla Blad – Beyond

Song Seon-mi – The Day He Arrives

*Elena Lyadova – Elena

Bella Heathcoat – Not Fade Away 




Wes Anderson                        USA                            Moonrise Kingdom

Kirby Dick                              USA                            The Invisible War

*Benh Zeitlin                          USA                            Beasts of the Southern Wild

Michaël R. Roskam                 Belgium                       Bullhead 

Andrei Zvyagintsev                Russia                          Elena

Carlos Reygadas                     Mexico                        Post Tenebras Lux




Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski – Carnage 

*Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola – Moonrise Kingdom 

Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, adapted from Lucy Alibar – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zdenĕk Juráský – Flower Buds 

Ursula Meier, Antoine Jaccoud and Gilles Taurand – Sister

David O. Russell, adapted from Matthew Quick – Silver Linings Playbook 




Lee Ping-bin – Norwegian Wood 

Josée Deshaies – House of Tolerance

Oleg Mutu – Beyond the Hills

*Alexis Zabé – Post Tenebras Lux

Luca Bigazzi – This Must Be the Place 

Robbie Ryan – Wuthering Heights 





King of Devil’s Island


Flower Buds

Silver Linings Playbook

Not Fade Away





Norwegian Wood

House of Tolerance 

Moonrise Kingdom

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Post Tenebras Lux




King of Devil’s Island

We Need to Talk About Kevin



Moonrise Kingdom

*Post Tenebras Lux 





King of Devil’s Island

Norwegian Wood

*House of Tolerance

The Deep Blue Sea

This Must Be the Place




Thom Hanreich – Pina

Johan Soderqvist – King of Devil’s Island 

*Jonny Greenwood – Norwegian Wood (1) + We Need to Talk About Kevin (2) + The Master (3)  

Adrian Johnston – The Scapegoat 

David Byrne and Will Oldham – This Must Be the Place




*The Invisible War


Pina in 3D

The Central Park Five

An Encounter With Simone Weil