TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2014  

(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2014)


Hello all, 

 

An epic film examining the roots of youth; a return to Eastern European filmmaking from the 60’s in a Holocaust film asking about the existence of faith; a masterfully directed film within a film about the making of art; an impressionistic essay on massive, large-scale machinery that are reverently described as gods, as humans worship them on such a massive scale; an intoxicating view of Rome that captures the rapturous beauty of art, but also the callous emptiness of a human species that has lost the ability to appreciate its elegance and grandeur; a searing, yet unorthodox look at dire poverty in postindustrial England; Hitchcockian methods of horror expressing the remnants of a love affair as seen through a lens of homicidal homophobia; a love affair gone awry from the death of a child, leaving two people shattered in the aftermath; rampant corruption hiding a system of murder, bribery and indifference at the highest levels of government in Russia; and finally a stunning glimpse into the heart of outsiderism and mental impairment, yet viewed through an unconventional portrait of an underground music group—what do these films all have in common?  Only that they are superb examples of the filmmaking seen today, as ravishingly beautiful and as provocative as ever, still dealing with relevant social issues while also challenging the present generation to come to terms with its often conflicting and mysteriously haunting past.  Perhaps the majority of films released today appear mediocre, where one wonders if the golden age of cinema is behind us, yet there continues to be a small sampling of extraordinary films to be seen that are uniquely different from the rest, that maintain the high standards of artistry and social relevancy, which are, simply put, films that matter.  

 

This is a sampling of those recently released films. 

 

Happy New Year everyone!!!!!

 

Robert     

 

 

Top Ten Films of 2014

Criteria:  Films released or first shown in Chicago in 2014

 

 

1.)   Boyhood  Richard Linklater, USA

2.)   Ida  Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, Denmark

3.)   Clouds of Sils Maria  Olivier Assayas, France, Switzerland, Germany   

4.)   A Dream of Iron (Cheol-ae-kum)  Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, South Korea

5.)   The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)  Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, France 

6.)   The Selfish Giant  Clio Barnard, Great Britain 

7.)   Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme)  Xavier Dolan, Canada, France

8.)   The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them  Ned Benson, USA 

9.)   The Fool (Durak)  Yuri Bykov, Russia 

10.) Frank  Larry Abrahamson, Ireland, Great Britain 

 

 

 

1.)  BOYHOOD     Boyhood             A                    

USA  (166 mi)  2014  d:  Richard Linklater   Official site

 

This is the worst day of my life.  I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now?  First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college.  What's next?  My own fucking funeral?          …I just thought it would have been better.

 

—Olivia (Patricia Arquette), reflecting on the various stages of her life as her teen son is off to college

 

Arguably Linklater’s greatest film, a different kind of American Dream movie that works as a summation of his entire career in a single film, where the accent is not on big drama, but instead has a meandering spirit and a gentle curiosity, expressing autobiographical roots of having grown up in the state of Texas, where young boys are continually told what they need to do to become a man.  While the film doesn’t have the romantic scope of his Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), where the first two are among the best romantic love stories of the modern era, thriving on the spontaneity of the moment, yet the Trilogy, original as it is, doesn’t have the epic sweep of this film, which actually captures an entire childhood, following the same cast over the course of 12 years as we watch a boy and his family grow up before our eyes.  It’s an extraordinary work, beautifully written, where despite the length, nearly three hours, time flies by, where part of the film’s heartache is watching it fly by all too quickly, which is exactly the feeling parents get as their children grow up and are suddenly off on their own someplace.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is something of a shock to the system for most parents, as in a nanosecond they’re gone.  This film may be viewed by parents or young prospective parents, but it’s largely seen through the eyes of a young boy at various phases in his life, whose seemingly endless journey through childhood feels like a lifetime.  If anything, we don’t get to spend enough time with this kid and his family, because we’re drawn into the shifts and changes and subtle intricacies of his life like few other coming-of-age films, much like Truffaut’s wondrous The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), which remains the director’s most personal, an intensely touching portrait of young adolescence, or Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), a film that similarly investigates the filmmaker’s earliest childhood beginnings, his youngest film in sensibility, originally conceived as a 4-part TV movie that was just over 5-hours in length, just to name two films that may be at the pinnacle of cinema history.  To include this film in their company may seem like overreach to some, but the idea of following the same child through 12-years of real time in their life is quite simply revelatory, something that’s never been done before in a fiction film, as life literally passes before our eyes, where the experience is like no other.                     

 

Whenever one heaps accolades on a film, it leads to heightened expectations of viewers, where people often feel they don’t live up to those expectations.  In the case of Linklater, all of his films, even his very best, are small films made with modest budgets where the intelligence of the material, attention to detail, and overall artistry stand out, where they have enough commercial appeal to cross over into mainstream audiences, yet are wholeheartedly art films.  Gathering his stable of actors, a relatively small crew, and a $200,000-a-year budget, Linklater directed scenes for a few days in various Texas locations every October from 2002 to 2013, beginning two years prior to Before Sunset (2004) and a year after the first Harry Potter film opened in theaters, somehow directing nine other features while still working on this project, creating a film in time-lapse photography depicting the maturation of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a seven-year old first grader until an eighteen-year old young adult entering his first year of college.  With minimal plot or major dramatic moments, this novelesque film accentuates the importance of even minor secondary characters, becoming the best character study since Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011), winning Best Director at the Berlin Festival, where the viewer is fully invested in the major characters as they become known to us much like fictional characters from a book, as they are so fully developed in our imaginations.  In fact, much of the appeal of the film is how it crosses into literary territory, where it’s as fully realized as a major novel, but condensed into a much shorter time period that elapses in what feels like real time.  The reason for this is Linklater’s writing, which is nothing less than brilliant, writing such naturalistic dialogue that allows the characters to grow and expand while remaining such utterly authentic human beings, where flaws aren’t something to hide from or be ashamed of, but the major dramatic thrust of the film is trying to overcome them, often having as little success as the rest of us in our ordinary lives.  What continually captures our interest is just how honest and unpretentious Mason is, always a bit laid-back, kind of an easygoing and mellow kid with a vivid imagination, where throughout the film adults are continually reminding him what he “should” be doing, where rules are continually explained throughout every stage of his childhood, becoming amusingly absurd after awhile, especially the degree of importance this plays in the mind of the adults, whose lives are less than stellar examples themselves.  

 

For people who like films to be thoroughly explained with a clear and understandable narrative, this may be foreign territory, as there are no big dramatic scenes and little to no action, instead it simply flows effortlessly, much like life does, using a minimalist, understated style that allows the viewer to immerse themselves into these typically ordinary lives that could easily be our own story.  According to Michael Glover Smith, Now Playing: Boyhood | White City Cinema, “Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career.”  As was the case with his Before Trilogy, Linklater has discovered a newfound maturity in his work, where this film is far more ambitious in scope than any other American director working today, rivaling the intensely unique autobiographical family portion of Terrence Malick’s majestic 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life, where this entire film is similarly comprised of connecting pieces of small intimate moments.  Mason’s older sister Samantha, Lorelei Linklater, who is in real life the director’s own daughter, actually only 3-months older than Ellar Coltrane, makes a smashing performance entrance mimicking Britney Spears Britney Spears - Oops!...I Did It Again - YouTube (4:11) as she wakes up her brother with a pillow to the face, greeting the morning with a manic energy designed to annoy the hell out of him, likely mirrored by thousands of other 8-year old girls across America.  It’s easily her best scene in the entire film, shot with an authentic look of home videos (which were all the rage) while exquisitely capturing the year 2002.  The film actually opens on a black screen with the faint sound of guitar strums quickly growing louder and more emphatic, becoming the sumptuously optimistic lyrics from Coldplay’s “Yellow” Coldplay - Yellow - YouTube (4:32), a beautifully chosen anthem to childhood with its promise of such a bright future.

 

Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah, they were all yellow.

 

I came along,
I wrote a song for you,
And all the things you do,
And it was called "Yellow.”

 

While the song plays, young 7-year old Mason is lying in the grass gazing upwards into the sky, lost in thought with that dreamy look of wonder on his face that expresses the curiosity and interest that not only introduces the film, but establishes the tone of his early life as he takes us on his own personal odyssey through time.  After quickly meeting his mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette looking positively luminous in the early scenes, Mason heads off on his bike exploring what there is to do, where kids are spray-painting graffiti on dilapidated cement walls, before returning home later to watch TV or play video games.  Noticeably absent is their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), where the viewer is able to pick up some fragment of a conversation that suggests he’s been off working on a boat in Alaska somewhere having his own personal adventure, but he’s arriving back in Texas in a souped-up GTO, presents in hand, and enough energy to burn to make up for lost time with the kids.  In a poignant moment afterwards, the two kids run to the bedroom window upstairs overlooking the driveway to see (hopefully) if their Dad will be spending the night, but the flailing arms and body language says it all, as Olivia lays it all into him about his dereliction of responsibility, where he abdicated his role in parenthood long ago, making it quite clear that he has zero points in her eyes.  Even so, despite his boyish ways, a rocker at heart who still relies upon spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment impulse, it’s clear the kids hold an entirely different view of their father, missing him terribly while having lots of fun when he’s around, not wanting him to go anywhere.  So their Dad sticks around for awhile, works out a schedule with their Mom, and sees the kids every other weekend, keeping in contact and being a regular presence in their young developing lives.  Part of the beauty of the film is the ease of dialogue, seemingly effortless after awhile, where it all builds trust with the audience, who begin to connect with these characters, as their lives start to matter.  

 

The time shifts are so gradual we barely notice, as there are no screen titles indicating time has passed, instead there are subtle differences, like changes in hairstyles, music or cultural references, or there are major changes in their lives that weren’t there before.  The kids have moved to Houston to be close to their grandmother (Libby Vallari), while Olivia has gone back to college to get her Masters, having a fling with one of the professors who ends up her next husband, Marco Perella as Bill.  While he’s initially supportive, and has his own kids about the same age, the kids love the idea of a bigger family as there are more things to do.  Dad still takes them bowling, or to a baseball game in the Houston Astrodome, and even tries a camping trip to Big Bend National Park, all connected by quiet conversations.  But something is not right with Bill, who hides scotch bottles in the laundry room, making repeated trips to the liquor store, becoming an overly authoritarian control freak, eventually railing against the kids, forcing Mason to get a crew cut (“Now you won’t look like a girl!”), where Mom agrees to talk with him afterwards, but next time we see her, she’s seen by Mason lying on the floor through a half-opened garage door in a state of hysteria, claiming she accidentally fell, but she’s having difficulty getting up, as Bill stands over her with less than comforting words, becoming a mean and abusive alcoholic who terrorizes his own family.  This forces Olivia into an exit strategy, with the help of a friend, to quickly get her kids out of there as the man is dangerous.  Perhaps the most devastating moment of the film is once they’ve made it safely away, when her kids ask about Bill’s kids, what about them?  “Are we ever going to see them again?”  Sadly, we don’t, where they simply disappear from view, perhaps having a larger impact in these kid’s unsettled lives than their separated parents, as they were sharing their everyday experiences together, rebuilding a new family, and suddenly they’re gone.  One of the more amusing transitions is more time with the Texas grandparents, who lovingly give Mason his first Holy Bible on his 16th birthday, with the lines spoken by Jesus highlighted in red, while also handing down his first rifle, where guns and religion, not to mention law and order, seem to represent the Texas state of mind, where after the Pledge of Allegiance is recited to the American flag, the schoolchildren turn to face the Texas flag as they recite the Texas Pledge:  “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”  One can almost feel a surge of resistance to authority when Mason Sr. gives his son a mixtape entitled “The Black Album,” compiling songs of all four members of the Beatles after the group split up, suggesting there’s something earthshaking about listening to each member of the Beatles back to back.   

 

Despite this turn for the worse, life goes on, as they move again when Olivia gets her teaching certificate and becomes a professor at the local Community College offering lectures on the behavior psychology theories of B.F. Skinner and John Bowldy.  If you blink you’ll miss Olivia’s next marriage to Jim (Brad Hawkins), who’s as young as Bill was older, almost lost in the kid’s teenage years where their thoughts lie elsewhere, where Linklater almost cuts him out of the film, once a swaggering presence as a returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, but he loses his footing, attempting to make a stand with Mason one night on the porch after polishing off a six pack or two, demanding respect through intimidation tactics, but he has no authority, where his army uniform has been replaced with a Texas Department of Corrections uniform, eventually disappearing from view and is not missed by anyone, another of a long line of poor choices by Olivia.  Ironically, her initial choice was the right one, as Mason Sr. turns out to be the loving and responsible father she always wanted, even if it comes a decade or so too late, as he cleans up his act, gets married, sells his GTO for a minivan, trades in his musical dreams and his rebellious ways for a tie and a pair of slacks and a stable marriage.  Both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (in their early 30’s when shooting began) offer superlative performances throughout, with the film as much about them as it is their children, where Hawke has been in no fewer than eight Linklater films, where he’s a director that appears to bring out the best in him.  One must acknowledge Linklater’s brilliant work with actors, which includes the casting of non-professionals alongside the marvelously subtle and nuanced performances of his impressive leads.  But the real surprise is the degree of authenticity from Ellar Coltrane as the central character, a moody and dreamy kid who’s often seen as quiet and passive throughout, but he always finds a way to fit in even as he hangs around the outer fringes.  When his Dad gives him a camera for his birthday, he’s never seen without it, as it helps him document the changing world around him.  When he finds his first real girlfriend in high school, Sheena (Zoe Graham), he’s suddenly outwardly talkative, unleashing pent-up feelings held deep within for years, but over time he returns to his usual shy reserve, where she thinks he has a gloomy outlook.  Perhaps the key to the film, much as it is in literature, is experiencing people as they really are, flawed and complicated human beings continually making tough choices and not always succeeding.  “Humanistic, warmly optimistic, and still somehow unsentimental and melancholic, this is a film of such sincerity and honesty, that its collection of small observations accumulate as real wisdom,” writes Adam Cook in the Mubi Notebook.  “Linklater has made a ‘life is beautiful’ movie, but it’s one made of real nuance.  It’s hard not to be convinced by its conviction in the preciousness of passing moments, the gathering of memories, the opening of possibilities.”  One of the most ambitious and rewarding film projects of our time, the film ends much as it begins, with Mason lost within himself gazing out over the horizon at what may as well be his own bright future, his head filled with seemingly insurmountable thoughts, where the feeling conveyed is the joy of being alive, where the eloquent song playing over the finale is “Hero” Family of the Year - Hero (Official Music Video) - YouTube (3:17). 

    

Let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight with everyone else

 

Your masquerade
I don't wanna be a part of your parade
Everyone deserves a chance to
Walk with everyone else

 

While holding down
A job to keep my girl around
And maybe buy me some new strings
And her a night out on the weekend

 

And we can whisper things
Secrets from our American dreams
Baby needs some protection
But I'm a kid like everyone else

 

So let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight like everyone else

 

Oooooohh...

 

So let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight like everyone else

 

Your masquerade
I don't wanna be a part of your parade
Everyone deserves a chance to
Walk with everyone else

 

 

2.)  IDA     Ida                        A                    

Poland  Denmark  (80 mi)  2013  d:  Pawel Pawlikowski

 

Do you have carnal thoughts?  You should try, otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows for you?           

—Wanda (Agata Kulesza)

 

Unlike the literary hallucinations of The Woman in the Fifth (2011), where reality is so absorbed into the consciousness of the imagination where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred and indistinguishable, this eye-opening film harkens back into a different era of filmmaking and is the first film the director has made in his native Poland.  Spectacularly shot in Black and White, mostly by Lukasz Zal (after Ryszard Lenczewski dropped out) in his first feature film, the early 60’s postwar setting in Poland is brilliantly captured, becoming one of the more original Holocaust movies ever made, largely due to how history is so underplayed, where the subject is approached through a highly personalized character study of estranged relatives who don’t entirely like or even trust one another.  Agata Trzebuchowska is Anna, a non-professional spotted with her nose in a book at a Warsaw café (where a photo was sent on a smartphone to the director in Paris for approval), playing a shy teenager raised as an orphan in a convent.  Before she’s allowed to take her vows, however, the Mother Superior instructs her to visit her aunt, her only known relative, even though her aunt refused the church’s request to take Anna out of the orphanage.  The bleak look of the convent in the snow is not a welcoming sight, depicting a harsh rural life of sacrifice and deprivation, beautifully shown by Anna’s beaten up suitcase held together by a belt as she embarks into the world.  The director builds the story visually, using little to no dialogue, and a still photography 4:3 aspect ratio showing a self-contained world captured in the narrow confines of each shot, where the spare imagery adds to the developing mood of understated emotional resonance, as much of the film can be read through Anna’s eyes, a devout religious believer who has had no contact with the outside world, continually wearing her habit, completely unaware of her closeted sensuality, whose innocence exudes a kind of elevated tenderness, where the artful look and design of the film reflects her interior fragility.  Her aunt Wanda, on the other hand, is the polar opposite, a strong and fearless woman with a turbulent past, played by Agata Kulesza, one of the foremost Polish actresses in theater, television, and film, a world weary character in her 40’s, seen dressed in a bathrobe smoking a cigarette while a man in the bedroom is getting dressed when Anna arrives at her door suitcase in hand. 

 

While Wanda is a heavy drinker and smoker who enjoys the company of men, who’s possessed with a sharp critical tongue used to lashing out at others, it’s a stunning clash of moral values, but also personalities, as Wanda is as sharply direct and to the point as any man, a prosecuting judge known as “Red Wanda” for having prosecuted so many “enemies of the people” for the communist regime during Stalinist purges in Poland.  Wanda is used to comical effect, showing brilliant Kafkaesque wit, yet she’s also brutally honest, instantly cutting through any pretense (“So you’re a Jewish nun?”), where she’s a perfect fit for the dark edgy humor of a Bèla Tarr movie, where the intervention of the church, through Anna, only makes things more absurd.  Anna, it turns out in a startling revelation, was born Ida Lebenstein, a Polish Jew whose father was Jewish, who somehow survived the war by growing up in a Catholic convent, with no memory whatsoever of her family origins, but she’s curious what happened to them.  The two embark on a road movie to uncover a painful piece of history by searching through the rural farmlands outside Warsaw, where the locations are used to stunning effect, as each shot is dwarfed by a mysteriously threatening sky, given almost apocalyptic implications in this personal walk through history, where Wanda cautions Ida before they leave, “What if you go there and discover there is no God?”  Wanda’s character evokes pain and tragedy in every shot, while each shot of Ida reflects the meticulous balance and composition of Vermeer paintings, evoking the near mystical tranquility of Woman with a Water Jug or Girl with a Pearl Earring, where she is benevolent and completely non-judgmental, with both combining to create an incredibly intense effect.  Wanda is surprisingly informative about her childhood recollections, including photographs of Ida’s mother, recalling various childhood incidents, including her sister’s artistic talent in creating her own stained-glass window that she built for a barn when they were living on a farm.  Driving through the empty landscape, they come to a crossroads where they actually pick up a young hitchhiker (Dawid Ogrodnik) who is an alto sax jazz musician playing in the town where they are heading.  His friendly nature is a clue for Wanda to sarcastically advise Ida to lighten up, “You should try carnal love.”  Later that evening, with Wanda already drunk and passed out in bed, Ida wanders downstairs to listen from behind one of the large columns, where the eloquence of the music is hauntingly beautiful, as they’re playing John Coltrane’s “Naima” John Coltrane, "Naima" YouTube (4:25). 

 

Joana Kulig is seen briefly as the lead singer of the group, which earlier in the evening was playing more raucous rock ‘n’ roll dance numbers that recall the finale sequences of Buñuel’s classic satires on the Catholic church, VIRIDIANA (1961) or Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), where even here the sensuous nature of the music has a way of challenging Ida’s devotion to the church, as she’s hearing something she’s never experienced before, creating an avalanche of doubt that leads her to ponder what life outside of the monastery would be like, suggesting there’s a great deal more in the world to learn about, yet at the same time she’s discovering the crushing truth about her family.  Her parents died under mysterious circumstances, where in the small village of Piaski they visit the farmhouse of the neighboring Polish family that presumably protected Ida’s Jewish family from the Nazi’s during the war, but instead could easily have murdered them in order to gain their property, where at one point Wanda, displaying her prosecutorial bluntness, starts a painful argument with someone who may or may not have actually killed Ida’s parents, where the confrontational tone of belligerence and accusation sends Ida outside into the barn with the farm animals where she sees the stained-glass window.  It’s a haunting moment of quiet existential realization, a momentary crisis of faith, as the unvarnished truth is often too painful to hear.  History and the Holocaust are only a backdrop to this story, where Poland’s complicity is a key component, yet it quietly overshadows everything that takes place with an almost unbearable power.  The economical power of Pawlikowski’s direction is nothing less than superb, as are the musical choices that assume a haunting place in the character’s spiritual development, where early on we hear Wanda playing an old phonograph of the spirited final movement of Mozart’s 41st Symphony “Jupiter” Mozart Sinfonía nº 41 "Jupiter" - VPO Bohm (4 de 4) YouTube (6:26).  Later in the film we hear her listening to the more quietly sublime Andante movement Mozart - Symphony No. 41 in C major, "Jupiter" - II. Andante cantabile (Bohm)  YouTube (7:39), where there’s a beautiful musical transition that occurs between Wanda and Ida, where the music literally binds together their souls, assuming the awesome power of salvation and human forgiveness, where the unbelievable tenderness that is shared defies belief. 

 

The subtlety of the film speaks volumes as it delicately contrasts the present with the past.  While on the surface it’s a very simple film about good and evil, yet there are multiple layers of underlying examinations, not the least of which is a perceived absence of God in the Jewish extermination, or in the subsequent Stalinist purges, contrasted against a novitiate nun’s interest in experiencing “the world” before she takes her vows, where the music is positively extraordinary, matching the artistic reach of the cinematography, where the "worldly" music of John Coltrane may have never been put to more expressive use.  The film avoids any ounce of pretense or melodrama, but is starkly realistic and purposeful, recalling the extraordinarily spare and spiritually bleak films of Bresson or Dreyer that question the existence of faith, where art transcends the inevitability of human fallibility, suffering, and sorrow throughout time immemorial.  With the inventive use of a haunting visual scheme, creating a profoundly mysterious and tranquil atmosphere, Pawlikowski makes effective use of unbroken silences in unforgettable, underplayed performances, and a simply glorious use of music that touches on the divine, concluding with Alfred Brendel playing a Bach chorale, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I), chorale prelude for organ (Orgel-Büchlein No. 41), BWV 639 (BC K68) YouTube (3:31).  There are moments of sublime poetry in this film, and exquisite acting, where the implications at the end are left ambiguous.  At only 80-minutes, Pawlikowski’s approach to conventional material is revelatory, where the film is an homage to Eastern European filmmaking of the 60’s, literally rediscovering a lost art since the break up of the Soviet Union, while at the same time providing an elegiac requiem for all those lost during the war, where the slow pace and long static shots are woven into the fabric of this film, which is itself a slow and arduous journey of discovery into the painful realms of the past. 

 

 

3.)  CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA    Clouds of Sils Maria      A                                
France  Switzerland  Germany (123 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Olivier Assayas 

 

His best film in years, known only as SILS MARIA in France, Assayas stunningly returns to peak form in this modernized twist of his earlier film Irma Vep (1996), a film about the making of film, this time starring Juliette Binoche instead of Maggie Cheung, written by Assayas specifically for her in a project he describes as “A Juliette Binoche movie about Juliette Binoche with Juliette Binoche” in a film about an international theatrical star Maria Enders (Binoche) who is asked to perform in a film adaptation of the play that made her famous twenty years ago, but this time switching roles, no longer playing the beguiling 18-year old rising star actress in the part that made her famous, but the older leading lady, a tired, middle-aged business woman having an affair with the manipulative young female ingénue who eventually drives her weak-willed boss to suicide.  Partially financed by Chanel, which supplied the actresses with clothes, jewelry, accessories and makeup, this also allowed the director to shoot this sumptuously looking film on 35 mm.  Shot on location by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux in the mountainous Swiss Alps towns of Sils Maria as well as Zurich, Switzerland, Leipzig, Germany and South Tyrol, Italy, the locations are an integral part of the story, as Wilhelm Melchior, the author of the aforementioned play Maloja Snake, is a creature of those spectacular mountains, filled with their own secrets and mysteries and naturally occurring phenomenon which begin to take on human characteristics while also offering its own commentary on the changing nature of time passing, which is visibly seen in a fog-like cloud formation that drifts through the valley between the mountains in the form of a snake.  Melchior becomes an unseen central force in the film as Maria, at the height of her stardom but also in the middle of a contentious divorce, is accompanied by her more laid back American personal attendant Valentine, Kristen Stewart in Converse shoes, while traveling to Zurich by train to accept an award on behalf of Melchior, where on route they learn of his sudden death.  Assayas immediately shows us the back side of a famous artist, the side we never see, as Maria seems terribly dependent on the expert social media skills of Valentine, who meticulously plans everything out for her ahead of time, but also acts as a human receptacle for her more candid comments that the public never hears. 

 

While Maria is obviously shaken by the unexpected death, this doesn’t stop her from doing a planned Chanel dress photo shoot once she arrives at the hotel, where her immediate transformation from ordinary train passenger to international diva is a bit stunning.  Much to her chagrin, they have also invited actor Henryk Walk, Hanns Zischler, a self-centered, autocratic older man in the manner of Erich von Stroheim who took full sexual advantage of the young actress at the beginning of her career, which she has never forgiven, to provide his commentary about Melchior, as they were also close personal friends.  After the Awards ceremony, she meets an in vogue German movie director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), considered hot property due to his series of successful films, who offers her the older role of his adaptation of Melchior’s play.  While she initially expresses no interest, Val talks her into taking the role, suggesting she would reach an entirely new audience, and with this decision comes the title card announcing “Part 2,” which takes the audience completely by surprise, as there was never any “Part 1.”  This idea of an actress reaching a point in her career (Binoche is 50) when she is no longer considered young and desirable for leading roles, but becomes thought of only for less desirable parts as a character actor, is considered the death of their careers to some actresses, and has been explored before by John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands (in her late 40’s) in Opening Night (1977), one of the gutsiest films about theater ever made, right alongside Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952) and Desplechin’s ESTHER KHAN (2000).  All are dialogue-driven vehicles featuring extraordinary performances, where Rowlands (whose name Binoche amusingly appropriates when disguising her identity) was pathologically reticent to take the part, not yet ready to cross the threshold, while Binoche is clearly more comfortable as an aging actress, partly because she has continued to work with all the best directors and still receives scripts that are written with her in mind.  She couldn’t appear more natural in a film while still playing a role, always seen as warmhearted and charismatic, but the real surprise is Stewart, who matches her scene for scene throughout the entire film by completely underplaying Binoche’s theatrics.  What’s particularly interesting is how quietly reserved and contemplative Binoche is in English, as if always holding something back, while saving her more extroverted outbursts for French language scenes.  

 

Some of the best scenes in the film are reserved for Binoche and Stewart who work brilliantly together, retaining a hint of the sexual undercurrent expressed in Melchior’s play while also expressing their own unique feminine personalities quite differently, as they retreat to the Melchior estate in the mountains to prepare for the role, which the playwright’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) has graciously offered, as she needs to get away to avoid all the constant reminders of his presence.  As they read through the play’s scenes, offering fresh extemporaneous comments as they go, Assayas intelligently dissects the present through the past, with both women displaying strong-willed characters with probing intelligence and an acerbic wit, but also an affectionate side where they’re simply happy to be in each other’s company.  As they weave in and out of the play, while also preparing elaborate meals or taking long walks through the picturesque mountainside, it’s impossible to tell where the play ends and reality begins, as they seamlessly intersect with a surgical precision.  While both women have their own star power, which is beautifully utilized by Assayas, it’s curiously deferred to the ideas of the play, as if they are mere players in the world of art, expressed without an ounce of pretension.  This honesty is then contrasted with the director’s shrewdly calculating choice to play the ambitious young girl, Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann Ellis, an actress Maria has never heard of.  As Val thumbs through Google searches, hilarious YouTube videos, and even more demented celebrity interviews where Ellis comes off as a teenage prima donna and a full-time party animal whose center of the universe is never far from herself, Maria finds this ghastly while Val is impressed by her ability to hold the audience through each of these arrest records and real life disasters, where she remains exactly who she is without any hint of compromise.  The fact that she’s a walking disaster in real life means nothing, as she knows how to command the screen.  This contextualization couldn’t be more hilariously insightful about what Hollywood is today, while the scene of the film that takes one’s breath away is the appearance of the snake, which finally appears at a crucial stage in the film, expressed through the eloquence of Arnold Frank’s 1924 ten-minute silent short film CLOUD PHENOMENA OF MALOJA (Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja), which is an awesome declaration of the artistic significance of cinema in its purest form, literally dwarfing what we see today, given such a beautifully sophisticated articulation by Assayas who has made another truly exhilarating film.   

 

 

4.)  A DREAM OF IRON (Cheol-ae-kum)    A Dream of Iron (Cheol-ae-kum)       A                                

S. Korea  (100 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Kelvin Kyung Kun Park

 

Originally conceived as a three-channel museum video art instillation, where three large projections run simultaneously in 30-minute loops, where there is no beginning and no end, as the viewer is free to move around the room and leave at any time, which, according to the director, represents a style of film more liberating than a feature film.  But this Korean manufacturing film develops into an intoxicating and impressionistic essay on massive, large-scale machinery that become an extension of man’s reach, as he is able to create machines that are so much bigger and stronger than anything he is capable of himself, where the colossal machines are reverently described as gods, as humans worship them on such a massive scale, becoming dependent on them to survive.  While the machines come to represent the hopes and dreams of the future, ushering in a more modern era, it also comes at a price, suggesting the spiritual domain, the inner sanctity of man has been sacrificed at the foot of the giant machines, where Park’s somber film style documents on a grand scale the rituals of an industrial age, becoming an immaculately beautiful requiem for the remnants of a dying age.  Featuring some of the most extraordinary cinematography by the director himself that literally takes one’s breath away, where viewing this on as large a sceen as possible can reduce one to tears simply by the rapturous beauty of the film which takes on a sci-fi, post apocalyptic tone, as if humans once lived in gargantuan steel cities ruled by machines.  Unlike the Wiseman film National Gallery (2014) which surprisingly doesn’t allow moments of introspection due to the constant explanantions, this more wordless effort is fertile grounds for quiet contemplation.  The stunning power of the images has not been seen since the seemingly endless opening shot of Jennifer Baichwall’s MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006), a slow tracking shot down a side aisle of a huge Chinese iron assembly plant of 23,000 workers, revealing endless rows of bright yellow-shirted factory workers sitting at their work stations performing a synchronized monotony of repetitious motions, many of whom seem relieved to stop and stare at the camera’s obvious intrusion, where the accumulation of ever-expanding space defies all known concepts of rationality.  These technological wastelands drive the nation’s economy but leave the workers doomed to indifference and solitude.

 

What Park does, however, is strive for the profound by magnifying the extraordinary beauty of size, where cinema has rarely concentrated on filming objects of this immense magnitude before without being seen at some distance, like the lift-off sequence of a space craft into outer space, or resorting to fictional movie recreations, capturing commanding images through a choreography of slow pans, obtaining views never before seen, where the viewer is literally immersed in an industrial aura of seemingly endless time and space.  Shot in the port city of Ulsan along Mipo Bay, home of one of the world’s largest shipyards, the director shoots at POSCO (Pohang Steel Company) and the Hyundai Shipyard, both playing a key role in the postwar economic development and industrialization of South Korea, where the company name “Hyundai” means “modernity,” playing into a myth that corporate industrialization has been at the forefront of a modern social movement since the 60’s, but the film documents many of the accompanying protests, including strikes by workers both in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s protesting against the giant “Goliath crane,” where 78 workers actually occupied the crane, a prelude to many other “high altitude” battles to come, as these goliaths introduce new and unprecedented dangers into the work place, where welding at that altitude is particularly hazardous.  As a result, they try to build as much as they can on the ground and then hoist it to the elevated heights needed.  By photographing this amazing process, the director transforms this bleak industrial landscape into a poetic exploration of the sublime, where the power of the visual tableaux is awe-inspiring and ominous, creating an astonishing montage set to Mahler’s 1st Symphony, 3rd Movement, played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelík, A DREAM OF IRON Trailer | Festival 2014 YouTube (2:46), which is quite simply one of the most ravishingly beautiful sequences of cinema seen all year.  The slow precision of the camera movements are similar to Kubrick’s monumental outer space movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the human eye is simply captivated by what the future holds, while at the same time reveals a kind of unspoken mysticism from Tarkovsky’s messier, less sterile version of the future in SOLARIS (1972), where the symphonic imagery of steel in motion is also accompanied by age-old Buddhist monk spiritual chants, continually connecting the present to the past.

 

Originating with the silent film short Manhatta (1921), where the city of New York is reduced to an abstraction of images, which was followed by a similar treatment of Paris in Alberto Cavalcanti’s NOTHING BUT TIME (Rien que les heures, 1926), the 20’s was an era when experimental filmmakers began exploring the rapid growth in urban development, capturing the rhythm and motion in montage films known as “City Symphonies,” including Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), André Sauvage's ÉTUDES SUR PARIS (1928), and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929).  In Park’s mind, the metal ships under construction remind him of the awe that was once associated with giant whales, depicted in the Neolithic wall drawings of the nearby Bangudae Petroglyphs, where over 200 images of animals and people are drawn onto the side of the Bangudae Mountain, dated somewhere between 3500 and 7000 years ago.  It was only after whales were conquered by humans and began being hunted and captured for commercial use that they lost their sense of epic grandeur, where they were once seen as near mythological creatures.  When seen in the ocean, they remain a colossal figure of undisputed nobility, where the sounds they make can sound musical, adding a sense of artistry and co-existence when heard interacting with the industrial images, where the film retains a religious sense of divine glorification.  Briefly interjected into this observational documentary is a personal, diary-like narration that suggests the narrator’s former girlfriend has just left him to seek enlightenment as a shaman, where she wishes to pursue a relationship with God.  In response, the director goes on a similar quest to seek out the remnants of new earthly gods, which offer their own sense of undefinable wonder.  Using a mix of electronic and acoustic music from Paulo Vivacqua, the effect can be strangely hypnotic, offering its own sense of sacred insight by connecting with another medium, where film can turn the abstract into something poetically comprehensible, imparting euphoric feelings of joy and reverence.  A style in contrast to J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), where old-world iron horse style trains have been replaced by modernized bullet trains, this film examines every level of production, where we hear from one of the first female laborers as she puts on the various protective layers of uniform, covering every part of her body before she steps out to weld large metal pieces together, but we also see streams of workers arriving to work while another shift is leaving simultaneously, creating hordes of human congestion on the street as a traffic policeman stands on a pedestal directing traffic with a series if strange hand motions.  While individual workers are discretely isolated in their own space performing their assigned tasks, what’s most striking are the bold and terrifying images where constantly monitored computers are pouring enormous vats of hot, molten iron or lifting gigantic ship parts that only the massive “Goliath” cranes can hoist in the air, creating unforgettable, mind-boggling images that offer a sense of the sacred and the sublime.  

 

5.)  THE GREAT BEAUTY (La Grande Bellezza)    The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)           A-               
Italy  France  (142 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Paolo Sorrentino   Indigo Film [Italy] 

Our life is a journey

Through winter and night,

We look for our way

In a sky without light.

(Song of the Swiss Guards, 1793) 

 

Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is dis­appointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong. And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes. It’s on the other side of life.  


—Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, 1932, Preface to 1952 Gallimard Edition 

Like other Sorrentino films, his fifth consecutive to premiere at Cannes, all but one starring Toni Servillo (the other in English starred Sean Penn), this one did not cause much of a splash, where critics have been skeptical and loathe to extend much praise to this creatively gifted Italian director, though his films have been among the most challenging of the era, and certainly seems to be the one director most prepared to extend Fellini’s vision and reach well into the next century.  Driven by the extraordinary talent and lush cinematography by Luca Bigazzi, who has worked on every Sorrentino film, whose elegant tracking shots draw the viewer into Rome’s interiors, this may be his most breathtakingly beautiful effort yet, a film that reveals the ravishing splendors of Rome, accompanied by one of the most sublime musical soundtracks of the year from Lele Marchitelli, which includes Vladimir Martynov’s The Beatitudes - Kronos Quartet - La Grande Bell - YouTube (5:25).  Based on a story written by the director and Umberto Contarello, it’s far more reminiscent of Fellini than any other film in recent history, and recalls the creative challenges of dream, memory, and the crisis of inspiration in Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), or the sumptuous glory of extravagance and indulgence by the rich where this film is an updated, mirror image of LA DOLCE VITA (1960), a parade of the seemingly chaotic and disconnected events of the city of Rome in ROMA (1972), while also maintaining the unsurpassed classical beauty of Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975), and the elegant interior life and death struggle of Angelopoulos in ETERNITY AND A DAY (1998).  This sumptuous creation is a glorious and somewhat pompous film about the decadent party going of the idle rich as seen through the eyes of Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), who on his 65th birthday remains a central part of the lavish, all-night party nightlife of Rome as he has for decades, see The Great Beauty (La Grande bellezza) - Dancing Scene YouTube (7:53), unsubtitled.  Toni Servillo (at age 54) doesn’t have the flamboyance and sexual charm of a much younger Marcello Mastroianni, who was only 36 as the philandering journalist in LA DOLCE VITA, yet he may be the result of the same Fellini character who has spent the last twenty years in constant party mode, seen here as an eminent socialite who wrote a successful novel in his twenties, The Human Apparatus, but hasn’t written another since, claiming “I didn’t want to simply be a socialite, I wanted to become the king of socialites. I didn’t just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail,” taking us on a veritable travelogue of Rome, where the immense beauty of an angelic chorale I Lie - David Lang - YouTube (5:03) coming from the ruins is so overwhelming that a Japanese tourist taking pictures literally falls to the ground and dies in an opening segment.  Thus begins an elaborate journey with one eye on his own impending death, walking us through the various locations of his life, with reflections into the past while having passing encounters with various friends. 

While the film is somber, reflective, and visually magnificent, a blend of sublime visual beauty and enchantingly gorgeous music that couldn’t be more harmoniously perfect, one of the most beautiful films one could ever hope to see, worth the price of admission in itself, see a wordless montage to the enchanting choral music of Arvo Pärt’s “My Heart's in the Highlands” by Else Torp and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, La Grande Bellezza - The Great Beauty YouTube (8:24), unsubtitled.  The lack of any coherent storyline is a bit more problematic, as Jep, our jaded tour guide, observes the world with a poetic detachment and a somewhat nihilistic view of life, expressed through an almost unrelieved pessimism and cynical humor, very much in the manner of the Céline novel, which also utters, “As we grow older, we no longer know whom to awaken, the living or the dead,” while also contending “You can lose your way groping among the shadows of the past.”  Nonetheless, as an aging journalist writing a culture column, that’s exactly what he does, taking the viewer on a seemingly imaginary journey through the ancient relics of Rome, walking through the ruins, the magnificent fountains, and the city streets, reflecting on his life, his first love, and his own growing sense of unfulfillment and discontent, even as he lives in a simply stunning apartment overlooking the Colosseum.  Despite his intimate knowledge of the city’s secrets and the entire high society of Rome, it’s his own extravagant lifestyle that slowly begins to crumble before his eyes, bemoaning the lack of “true” beauty in a city spilling over in luxury, endless excess and indulgence, where he blatantly shares his disgust with a neverending stream of his so-called friends and associates, as his ultimate revulsion lies with himself.  And therein lies the film’s Achilles heel, as the bizarre charade of Felliniesque characters adds to a dazzling landscape of surreal spectacle, capturing the seductive, empty hedonism of the Berlusconi era where the upper income 1% revel unapologetically in the obscenity of their wealth, but Jep’s utterly aloof and deep melancholic detachment from it all is expressed through a dour and everpresent gloom, rarely appealing emotionally, where he proudly declares he’s “a misanthrope not a misogynist.”  As he explores the great questions and existential meaning of life, it’s difficult to find an entry point into this all-consuming surface reality of immense Italian mansions and luxurious wealth on display, as the city’s ancient beauty and poetry overwhelm, and can be euphoric, but any sign of humanity in any of these characters is non-existent.  There is one exception, however, a singular, stand alone moment in the film where Jep crosses paths on an outdoor staircase with an unidentified woman (Fanny Ardent), where both greet one another with an infectious smile, as if they’ve known each other for years, offering a brief window into warmth and humanity, before continuing on their separate paths.   

Something of a modern day version of Fellini’s fall of Rome, the story of a man who hasn’t a real problem in the world, who eventually owns up to his own superficiality, where we hear a pretentious party reveler proclaim “I only listen to Ethiopian jazz,” this is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, part character study, part impressionistic mood piece, where characters aren’t living their lives so much as they are constantly performing, as if all eyes are always upon them, where nearly every one of Jep’s pampered friends burns out or suffers a profound loss as they abandon themselves to one sin after another, where even the church is not exempted from this exhaustive display of fraudulent self-indulgence.  A saintly Mother Teresa figure who has taken a vow of poverty cannot speak of it, as words cannot adequately express even the poverty of the soul, where she can only perform seemingly meaningless acts of attrition, seen at age 104 crawling up an endless staircase, supposedly a redemptive act, but no more beneficial in the wide scheme of things than the endless all-night parties that are equally pointless, where Jep dances in a snake-like conga-line called a train, observing “You know what I like about the train?  It goes nowhere.”  Seen as a humorously satiric essay on nostalgia, where one of Jep’s oldest friends is another aging poet Romano (Carlo Verdone), who exclaims “What’s the matter with nostalgia?  It’s the only thing left for those of us who have no faith in the future.” While Fellini’s 60’s films expressed an unbridled enthusiasm, filled with excitement and a positive look to the future, today there is a spiritual void, as the world lacks positive energy and any deeper meaning.  Perhaps the only open door with a look to the past as well as the future is the world of artistic expression, which is the architectural foundation of this film, as art has a way of constantly getting under the surface, continually probing areas deeply connected to human feelings and emotions.  One of the best scenes in the film comes near the end when Jep visits a man whose home is a photo exhibition, displaying photos taken of him each and every day both as a boy and a young man, the accumulative effect of which is truly moving, where Jep is touched by what he sees, as the photographs have a way of evoking powerful emotions.  In much the same way, while he satirically outlines the proper rules of etiquette for a high class funeral, he violates his own rules when he’s genuinely moved to tears.  Without discovering any religious or philosophic revelations in his life, the film offers windows into Roman life that may only be understood by a fellow Roman, where perhaps the major discovery is art itself, as only then can we capture the aesthetic pleasures, deeper meanings, and true nature of beauty, an elusive quality seen here as la grande bellezza, taking us on a journey that continues right through the final moments of the end credits, La grande bellezza sigla finale YouTube (7:29).

 

 

6.)  THE SELFISH GIANT    The Selfish Giant       A-                   
Great Britain  (91 mi)  2013  d:  Clio Barnard

 

In Clio Barnard’s extraordinarily original first feature, 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #4 The Arbor (2011), a unique study of the life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died in 1990 at the age of 29, where the film extends the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, becoming a word play based upon actors lip-synching 90 hours of audio interviews Barnard conducted with Dunbar’s family and friends, a haunting and disorienting fusion of fact and fiction extending the artist’s tragic life into the lives of her own children, where Dunbar’s alcoholism gave way to the heroin and crack addiction of her daughter.  The director’s highly unorthodox technique accentuates the artifice of filmmaking, showing the camera and crew, exposing what the audience normally doesn’t see, using fictional methods to unravel the hidden inner truths of the artist.  Barnard grew up in the town of Otley in Yorkshire, just a half hour away from Dunbar’s home of Bradford, where she’d often go ice skating or see musical bands as a child, as her dad was a university lecturer teaching English, mostly the Romantic poets, while her mother was a jazz singer, with her parents separating at age 6, where she grew up with her dad, attending art school at Leeds, Newcastle, and then Scotland, eventually becoming a video artist with installations in art museums around the world with a healthy skepticism about the cinematic misrepresentation of realism.  Now a teacher of film studies at the University of Kent, in her second feature Barnard has embraced the same social realism she critiques so fervently in The Arbor, writing a script inspired by an Oscar Wilde children’s story about a bad-tempered giant that won’t let children play in his idyllic garden, turning it into a perpetual winter, becoming a searingly realistic piece about a young boy named Arbor, where he and his best friend have a falling out, both only age 13 but ruthlessly exploited by an unscrupulous scrap metal dealer, where they are introduced into the brutally harsh working conditions of adults, ostracized and excluded children pushed into the outer fringes of society where something has gone fundamentally wrong, victims of an ever widening gap of economic inequality, forced to endure the horrible dangers of child labor all over again due to an insatiable capitalistic greed that so willingly puts children at risk.

 

The story is loosely based upon a living reality, through an actual young boy named Matty that Barnard met while shooting The Arbor, as he kept getting into the shot while riding his horse, a scruffy kid wearing dirty clothes that exhibited a kind of “fuck you” attitude against others.  At times he would show up with his friend Michael, both outsiders who survived by any means necessary, where they spent their days scavenging for scrap metal in Bradford, which is one of the thriving businesses in the city, calling into question whether they were being exploited by the scrap merchant or getting an opportunity.   Barnard recalls meeting his mother who told her “What the hell else is he going to do around here?  At least he’s earning some money.”  His continual presence on the movie set eventually turned into the character of Arbor, named after the street where Dunbar lived, showing how life has a common stream–of-conscious thread that connects us all together.  Using two non-professional child actors who are onscreen in nearly every shot, the film is set in an oppressive Dickensian world of poverty, exploring the close friendship that develops between two boys who both come from dysfunctional families, with no working parents and no adult role models, whose families are barely getting by, who are teased and bullied by others who are less marginalized, but these two kids share a common bond of both being outsiders where they at least have each other.  Arbor (Conner Chapman) is the more impulsive of the two, smaller, louder, openly defiant of authority, and emotionally unpredictable, requiring medicine for his hyperactivity, while Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is more an easy going big brother, a kindhearted kid who seems to follow the lead of Arbor, remaining his most loyal friend and protector, even during troubled times.  Their relationship is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which was similarly set during the economically challenged times of the Great Depression, but here failed industrialism is a remnant of a once thriving past in Bradford, where the economically abandoned town is drained of any possibilities of hope.      

 

Arbor has violent temper issues, is prone to fighting, and is quickly expelled from school, Swifty, his sidekick, along with him, where Swifty’s parents insist he not be a layabout at home, so they send him to school, despite his expulsion, where he can only spend his days sitting in perpetual detention.  This perfectly expresses how society deals with troubled kids, as they make no attempt to deal with or treat their problems when it’s so much easier to simply rid themselves of the problem altogether, leaving kids on the margins to fend for themselves where they have no resources.  Abandoned by their schools and by their families, few good options await them, and society eventually pays a price.  The one place where they can receive money is the morally dubious scrap iron dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder), who runs a black market business on the side and becomes the only adult who actually seems to care about these boys, becoming their surrogate guardian, encouraging them to work harder, which is another way of exploiting them for cheap wages, showing them how they can burn away the traces of stolen copper wire, which puts them in ever more precarious situations of having to steal wire right under the noses of working electricians.  While Swifty has some notion of the hazards involved, Arbor is relentlessly fearless, developing a greedy and insatiable appetite for more, showing a daredevil streak that tends to get them both into trouble.  For that reason, Kitten seems to favor Swifty, allowing him to borrow a horse and cart to pick up and carry heavier items, where he doesn’t trust the more hot-headed Arbor, who flies off the handle at any given moment, driving a wedge between them.  One of the illicit activities is harness racing these animals down the auto roadways at dawn, where trucks and cars are driving right alongside the horses with drunken spectators leaning out the windows attempting to influence the outcome of the race, hoping their noise will be a distraction, turning the race into something of a thrilling spectacle.      

 

Unlike The Arbor, which was shown with subtitles, this film did not, so nearly half the dialogue, despite being spoken in English, is incomprehensible.  This may alter one’s appreciation for the film, as much of the written poetry is lost, but the audience has a feel for the spirit of the language, where illiterate youth and the profoundly uneducated from impoverished communities have a way of wrapping their regional dialogue in slang, gutter talk, and profanity, all of which further alienates them from the mainstream.  One of the most haunting recurring images is seeing how humanity from a dilapidated tenement housing project swells into close proximity to a cluster of five nuclear power smokestacks, as they did in THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009) which was also set in Yorkshire.  When Arbor and Swifty get away from it all, they wander into a pastoral green field containing an endless stream of giant electrical transmission towers, inhabitants of a veritable wasteland that extends into the horizon.  These toxic images have a life force all their own, seen as a monstrous looming presence hovering off in the distance, continually threatening to have a major impact.  While the film is about a boyhood friendship that rises out of the depths of poverty and despair, it’s also about loss, where to their mothers these boys are lost children pushed beyond their control, where that feeling of loss permeates over everything that happens by the wrenching finale, which expresses an all consuming despair not seen since the end of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), or the melancholic The Sweet Hereafter (1997), where the near wordless images beautifully comment on everything that came before, altering our view of their friendship and the connecting families in the community, providing additional meaning to what feels incomprehensible, where the bleak devastation of dire poverty has rarely been expressed with such poetic eloquence.  The film is about what happens when society ignores cries for help, where the inevitable tragedies that occur will haunt and literally redefine people’s scarred lives.  A remarkably intelligent work of rare insight and daring, shot with visual acuity from cinematographer Mike Eley, Barnard examines the effects of postindustrial England with stark realism, where with utter compassion, and never pity, Barnard literally shames a nation to rediscover its own rich heritage and humanity.    

 

Short Stories: The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde - East of the Web  complete text of the story

 

 

7.)  TOM AT THE FARM (Tom à la ferme)    Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme)         A-              

Canada  France  (105 mi)  2013  d: Xavier Dolan 

 

Round like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half-forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream


Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Keys that jingle in your pocket
Words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly?
Was it something that I said?
Lovers walk along a shore
And leave their footprints in the sand
Was the sound of distant drumming
Just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway
Or the fragment of a song
Half-remembered names and faces
But to whom do they belong?
When you knew that it was over
Were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning
To the color of her hair?

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

 

The Windmills of Your Mind (Dusty Springfield) - YouTube (3:52), by Michel Legrand, initially featured in Norman Jewison’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968), sung by Noel Harrison

 

Once more, Dolan continues to dazzle and impress, though here in an altogether different style than anything he’s ever done before, adapting someone else’s work for the first time, a play by Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard that he co-writes with the author for the screen, creating a much more accessible film experience, a Hitchcock suspense drama that is more conventionally restrained and not nearly as experimental as his others, yet it has still been equally ignored by American distributors which, along with his brilliant first two films, were simply never released, even on DVD, until many years afterwards.  Despite consistently winning awards at either Cannes or Venice for all but one of his five films, Dolan remains almost unheard of in America, and this for a director who has just turned 25.  All of his films are stylistically impressive, where they boldly kick a complacent movie audience out of their usual comfort zone with stunning cinematography, audacious camera movement, novelesque detail, naturalistic acting, and brilliant musical scores, where year after year his films stand out from the rest for his youthful energy, extraordinary artistry, and striking originality.  Nonetheless, despite being on the festival circuit last year, this film does not have a distributor in the United States, so when it was being shown at the Cinetopia International Film Festival 200 miles away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one had to jump at the opportunity, where it was screened as a non-Blu-Ray DVD in an old, run-down theater to a half-filled house as a midnight feature.  Every single one of Dolan’s four feature films released so far have been listed among the Top Ten films of the year on this site, and this film is no exception.    

 

The most understated of all the Dolan films, yet highly personalized, where the overriding power of the film all happened in the recent past, where the reverberations from a death play out onscreen, taken from someone else's play, with Dolan's imprint all over it.  It doesn't have the dazzle factor of his other films, as it's not nearly so visually expressive, yet it packs a punch, even if it's expressed with restraint in a kind of unfathomable situation.  Reminiscent of the altered psychological disorientation of German filmmaker Christian Petzold in films like Yella (2007), Jerichow (2008), and Barbara (2012), it's similar in the way it focuses on internalizations, yet uses visual cues to indicate an imbalance, where the world is not as it seems.  Both directors seem to thrive on psychological repression, though the German director is far more minimalist, while Dolan allows a bit of Sirkian melodrama to creep in.  Part of the film’s intrigue is how the backstory remains at a distance throughout, where bits and pieces surface, but most remains hidden from view, even by the end, where the downbeat tone feels like it’s picking up right where Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) left off, in a searingly despairing sequence where the surviving partner of a deceased gay lover goes to visit his partner’s family that he has never met for the funeral, where in this case the 25-year old son, Guillaume, never acknowledged he was gay, but instead made up a lie that he was seeing a girlfriend in Montreal.  While this eventually becomes known, it’s not at the outset, as instead the director uses a dual track narration in the opening sequence, where we hear a soaring, anthem-like, a cappela rendition by French-speaking Kathleen Fortin singing Michel Legrand’s  “The Windmills of Your Mind” Xavier Dolan -Tom à la ferme- "Les moulins de mon cœur" Michel Legrand. YouTube (2:22), which plays as Tom (Xavier Dolan) is driving from Montreal to a rather bleak part of Northern Quebec’s rural flatlands, while simultaneously, rapid thoughts are written on a napkin that lyrically describe his emotional devastation.    

 

With a murky opening set in a hovering fog, Tom arrives alone at a farmhouse, finding no one there, but lets himself inside where he sits asleep at the kitchen table, beautifully set up with interior shots, when suddenly someone is inside staring at him.  The starkness of the sudden appearance feels like an awakening, or an apparition, allowing the real story to begin.  Lise Roy is Agathe, Guillaume’s aging mother, who is obviously surprised by this intruder, but becomes hospitable once she learns he’s a friend of her son, remaining oblivious throughout about their true relationship, and ominously puts Tom in her son’s bedroom, seen sleeping with an article of Guillaume’s clothing next to his face.  But Tom is awoken with a fright, as he’s assaulted by someone’s hands around his throat, where this is Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the bullying older brother who actually runs the farm, who threateningly tells Tom how it’s going to be, that no secrets will be revealed, that they will play along with the fiction so as not to upset his mother.  For the rest of the film, Francis hovers over Tom like a dog that won’t release a bone, slapping him around at will, subjecting him to continual abuse, literally making his life as difficult as possible.  Agathe, however, couldn’t be happier by the visit, though she’s seething with anger when she learns the girlfriend is not showing up for the funeral.  She asks Tom to offer a few words about her son at the funeral service, the same thoughts that were narrated at the outset by his blurry notes scribbled on a napkin, but when the time arises, he’s so overwhelmed by the violent intimidations of Francis that he’s afraid to say anything.  He does choose a musical selection, however, which strangely begins in the middle of the song during a heightened crescendo, Mario Pelchat’s “Tears in the Rain,” Mario Pelchat --Pleurs dans la pluie - YouTube (5:32).  Due to his rude welcoming, Tom heads out of town after the funeral, happy to be rid of the “hick redneck farmer,” but has second thoughts, knowing he would hate himself for running away, as his lover’s thoughts remain foremost in his mind, believing he can endure anything, even this fiction that denies his own implicit part in his lover’s life.  Agathe expresses disappointment that Tom didn’t speak, but Dolan curiously allows Tom to express his own feelings through Sara, the fictional girlfriend, using a free flowing, stream-of-conscious emotional release that sounds more and more like himself, even expressing graphic X-rated sexual content, a stunning turn of events with Francis staring bullets right through him at the kitchen table ready to pounce at any moment, but Agathe is defiantly unashamed and breaks out laughing, “Sara’s quite the little whore, isn’t she?”

 

Francis is impressed with Tom’s dramatic revelations, how he kept to the guidelines of the established fiction, and actually introduces him to the chores of the farm, admittedly hard work, getting your feet muddy and your hands dirty, where Tom becomes quite the farmhand in no time, though delivering a calf brings back a rush of memories, where he’s assaulted by the vividness of his recollections in much the same way that Francis continues to inflict punishment.  There’s a particularly brutal scene in the middle of a cornfield that leaves him battered and bruised, where the devotion to his dead lover is a horrifyingly painful exhibition, much like the masochistic extremes that Emily Watson endures to please her paralyzed lover in BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), yet there is also tenderness reflected in a scene where Francis and Tom dance the tango in the barn, reflecting the repressed homosexuality of Francis, where a guy with sociopathic tendencies becomes almost human for a moment, where one can see that the torment he inflicts onto others is a mirror into his own broken soul, making him a man who can’t live with himself, who takes it out on others by dominating them physically and inflicting pain.  In a completely unexpected turn of events, Tom calls his friend Sara (Évelyne Brochu), the photocopy girl and real-life friend who is the subject of all the imaginary embellishments.  Dolan adds a curious element of suspicion and dread about what goes on at the farmhouse, as people in town make reference to this dysfunctional family as if they are concealing an ax-murderer, where no one wants to go near the house itself, as the cab driver leaves Sara a healthy walk away.  It’s interesting to see how she fits into her own fictionalized story, driven to tell the truth, but not willing to get pulverized by the psychopathic brother.  Agathe, of course, is thrilled by her appearance, but disappointed she doesn’t reflect more sorrow from the loss.  She is shocked to discover Tom has literally transformed into a world of make believe, subject to delirious ramblings, where he’s completely under the thumb of a delusional force, as if hypnotized.  Perhaps the strangest turn of events is the way Dolan uses Hitchcockian methods of horror to express the psychological shifts taking place, where in one scene Tom actually separates from his face and hair, where he’s literally coming apart and losing himself before our watchful eyes.  Dolan also changes the aspect ratio throughout the film, becoming narrowly constricted while also widening to super widescreen, perhaps reflecting the elasticity of the fluctuating emotional states.  The musical score by Gabriel Yared is equally hysterical, reflecting an emotional imbalance through dissonance and shrieking strings.  Because of the minimalist interpretation, leaving out pertinent details, the film is layered in ambiguities, where the motives never become clear, and where there is no real resolution, as the underlying horror lingers well after the film is over.  Of interest, both Lise Roy and Évelyne Brochu performed their respective roles in the theatrical version of the play. 

 

The overriding darkness of the film is quite unusual, reminiscent of Claire Denis’s equally gloomy portrait of a slow, poisoned, self-destruction in 2013 Top Ten List #6 Bastards (Les Salauds), yet also Alain Guiraudie’s gay-themed, sexually explicit Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013), another Hitchcock style thriller that examines a homoerotic attraction to danger, exhibiting a kind of precarious self-loathing where one surrenders body and soul, even potentially one’s life, for the dangerous chance at love with someone whose sexual charm is their unpredictability along with the criminal aspects of their personality, someone capable of murder, for instance, who feels no remorse, where loving them is accepting the conditions that you must live in a self-imposed blindness.  It is this illusory emotional void that Dolan taps into, where you literally lose yourself for a chance at love, but are then double crossed by the unexpected turn of events when your partner dies, and you’re left with an unfillable emptiness.  It’s not shocking that Tom would have a sexual attraction to the brutal behavior of Francis, but it becomes all the more intriguing as an extension of his overwhelming love and grief for his lost lover.  Brothers have similarities, their smell, the sound of their voice, their shared rooms, where the allure can be irresistible, despite the sadistic aspects that come with the territory.  This back and forth between fluctuating (sometimes invented) scenarios and conflicting emotions guides us through the film, where one has an unmistakable need for connection, irrespective of the consequences.  The arrival of Sara alters the landscape with Francis, where their base physical love/hate attraction to the opposite sex allows Tom some cover, a moment to himself, which plays out in what is arguably the best scene in the film, where Tom sits alone at a bar in town and hears, in descriptive detail from the bartender (Manuel Tadros), an event out of the brother’s obscure past that has chilling consequences on the present, a blisteringly intense moment that makes one wonder whether Tom could actually have been part of this living memory, where truth and fiction collide in establishing emotional truth, where everything that came before leads to a new understanding in the form of an unexpected revelation.  The film has a Sirkian thread of melodrama about it where the surface reality clouds a stronger, unseen force, where the murky waters of being gay is the underlying context throughout, especially the unmitigated violence that goes along with it, though this is never an acknowledged aspect of the storyline that deals more with issues of grief, anguish, death, deceit, and disillusionment.  The way Dolan creates a psychological horror thriller out of being gay is starkly unique and original, like Fassbinder’s epic BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980), where the presence of Guillaume hovers over every shot of the film, like a haunting specter, and Dolan, as he does in every film, takes us places we have never been before, where this is mostly under the surface, displaying a bit of incensed anger at the world (and particularly the United States in its violent anti-gay phobia) in Rufus Wainwright’s song over the end credits, Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town YouTube (4:06).  

 

 

8.)  THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY:  THEM    The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them         A-             

USA  (122 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Ned Benson  

 

All the lonely people…Where do they all come from?

Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles, 1966, The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby (Original Animated Video) (1966) (2:45)

 

It takes a certain audacity to name a lead character in a film Eleanor Rigby, a featured character in a Beatles song, since the song itself tells a story of heartbreak, death and loneliness, where the movie follows similar themes, imagining a couple very much in love who seemingly have it all ending up nose-diving into opposite wavelengths, ending up alone, grief-stricken and depressed.  While there is some controversy surrounding this film and the different versions being released, the important thing to do is to see it, as it is startlingly effective.  It’s a powerhouse film with a cast to die for, rather miraculous for a first time feature film director, with elevated performances from Jessica Chastain (also one of the producers) as Eleanor Rigby and James McAvoy as Conor, the romantic couple at the center of the film, both offering career-defining performances.  Secondary characters include William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s off-beat parents, Jess Weixler as her younger sister Katy, with Viola Davis playing earthy, no nonsense college Professor Friedman, also Ciarán Hinds as Conor’s distraught father, with Nina Arianda (Alex) and Bill Hader (Stuart) rounding out the cast as Conor’s friends.  Ned Benson grew up in New York City, attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, graduating from Columbia University in 2001 with a degree in English and Film.  His only previous directing experience was writing and directing four short films, each made on a shoestring budget of $500 dollars, while also writing a play entitled Remission.  This film was originally released at the Toronto Film Festival on 2013 in a 191-minute version that interestingly explored each of the lead characters one at a time, where scenes repeat, but with subtle variations in dialogue and dramatic emphasis, becoming an extended character study on a disintegrating marriage.  Bought by Miramax Films, Harvey Weinstein decided to shorten the film down to a more audience friendly 2-hour movie called THEM, cutting 68-minutes of running time, where instead of sharing significant time with each character, their stories are interwoven into the overall fabric of the film.  Weinstein’s plan was to follow up this release with two separate films entitled HIM and HER, told from two different perspectives, which seen together may resemble the initial film (released in New York, while neither was ever released in Chicago).  Since Chastain’s performance is so brilliant, it’s hard to imagine which version the Academy might consider when contemplating awards, as this marketing scheme may backfire, confusing the audience to such an extent that they don’t show up at all, perhaps thwarting her opportunity for greater acclaim.  As a producer of the film, however, it’s hard to believe she didn’t have a hand in this streamlining process.  This beautifully directed shorter version, however, rather than being the disaster one might suspect, turns out to be one of the more brilliant films of the year, a stunning portrait of shattered lives and emotional devastation.   

 

For viewers looking for an adult approach to movies exploring serious relationships, look no further, as this film provides what few others even attempt.  It’s really an offshoot of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), which explores how the mysterious disappearance of a friend changes the emotional landscape of those affected by the loss.  Similarly, Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #2 Margaret is another dramatic powerhouse dealing in loss, showing how a random death can alter the interior circuitry, resulting in inexplicable sorrow and confusion.  Benson is not the playwright Lonergan is, where he’s not able to capture the effortlessness of his language or the deep-seeded guilt and complexity of personal transformation, but he has conceived an extraordinary film that revels in the brilliance of the performances, where the eclectic musical choices beautifully highlight a changing emotional world, becoming a moody interior landscape of tormented lives consumed by unknowable anguish and despair from the inexplicable loss of a child, unable to find the right balance afterwards when their lives are destroyed by the loss, continually finding themselves in an uncontrollable state of flux.  John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010) explores similar territory, a married couple grieving over the loss of their son, or Nanni Moretti’s Palme d’Or winning film The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio) (2001), where the affected characters retreat into a disturbing sense of isolation, where the sublime beauty of these films is capturing emotional authenticity, often expressed in long, extended wordless sequences.  Due to the significance of the dialogue, capturing so many smaller, personal moments when two characters continually hold the screen, there’s an intensely theatrical feel, where this could easily have been adapted from a play.  The level of intimacy achieved throughout from both characters is stunning, which makes one think extended time with each person would add even more weight to the film experience.  This kind of thing has been done before, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder tried this with his television adaptation of BOLWIESER (1977), featuring a married couple on the rocks, starring the incomparable Elisabeth Trissenaar as the assertive wife who dominates and cheats on her husband with impunity, and Kurt Raab in his last Fassbinder performance as the masochistic near infantile husband whose sad descent into madness and utter despair is heartbreaking.  Fassbinder filmed a longer 3-hour version on 16 mm that accentuated the husband’s point of view (BOLWIESER), then re-edited the film down to less than 2-hours blown up on 35 mm from the wife’s perspective (THE STATIONMASTER’S WIFE), the only version available on DVD in America, which is essentially a showcase for Trissenaar.  Both of these films work due to the strength of the performances, but the longer version is among the more emotionally horrifying films he ever made. 

 

Without having seen the longer version, this shorter 2-hour film skips around quite a bit, opening with a happy couple in the thrall of love, seen through an overly sensuous vantage point, most notably a dance sequence to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - So In Love - YouTube  (3:32) shot in the dark illuminated by car headlights, a Terrence Malick technique used in BADLANDS (1973), but it’s highly effective here, creating a mood of lush romanticism.  Jumping ahead several years, this is quickly followed by Eleanor’s impulsive jump off the Manhattan Bridge, where the mood shifts to extended scenes of trauma and internalized anguish.  Retreating to the safety of her parent’s house in Westwood, Connecticut, the gravity of the situation is not lost to the viewers, further emphasized by the way her family completely avoids talking to her about her feelings or state of mind, where the mental confusion becomes the focal point of the film, as she’s fallen off the edge emotionally and struggles to retain her balance.  Meanwhile Conor has opened a bar in the Village that remains mostly empty, reflecting the downbeat turn in his own life, commiserating in his misery with his best friend Stuart, the cook, before taking more desperate measures, moving in with his father, Ciarán Hinds, who is supposedly at the pinnacle of his career, running a highly successful restaurant, yet his life is in shambles as well, perhaps the most troubled character in the film.  Woven into the pattern of these withdrawn lives is Conor’s discovery that Eleanor may be taking classes at NYU, resorting to stalking/surveillance measures to root her out, but she remains frightened and is in no mood to see him, angrily walking away from him on the street, leaving an even greater gulf between them.  The scenes with Viola Davis are priceless, a professor ironically teaching identity theory, as despite her gruff and hard-nosed exterior, she’s a devoutly loyal friend whose concern is genuine, making her a needed ally in the center of the storm.  Each marital partner continues to have thoughts about one another, but the mood of grief and depression is overwhelming, a seemingly unbridgeable gap, where the spaciousness of the film leaves plenty of room for interpretation, enhanced by the electric soundtrack of Son Lux, where their song “No Fate Awaits Me” is heard over the official trailer, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Official ... - YouTube (2:23), with snippets of dialogue interspersed throughout, but very little is ever explained, instead it’s expressed in long scenes where the internalized anguish of the performances are the real highlight of the film.  It’s rare to see a film this committed to the authenticity of the characters, where it’s fascinating to get under their skin, two people whose lives have been altered beyond comprehension, who can’t even look at each other any more, or be in the same room, as their presence is too painful a reminder of what they’ve lost.  While there are brief moments of shared connectivity that show a profound, deep-seeded understanding, the two dance around the issue throughout the entire film, resembling the utter interior devastation of Visconti’s White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957), a choreography of missed opportunities where what lies ahead may well resemble where they’ve been, as a part of them has been unalterably broken, suggesting grief and heartache may always lie between them.  The final shots add a lyrical grace note of screen poetry, and while there is a hint at hope, no clear picture is provided, remaining ambiguous, a couple left adrift, two shadows in the night that mirror one another, where we’re left to wonder if they will ever find their way.  

 

 

9.)  THE FOOL (Durak)    The Fool (Durak)     A-                           
Russia  (116 mi)  2014  d:  Yuri Bykov 

 

The views that brought Chernyshevsky (Chernyshevsky and the Crystal Palace, Rational egoism: the theory that man will always act according to his best interests) to this vision were close to utilitarianism, meaning that actions should be judged in terms of their expediency.  Naturally, utilitarians assumed that we can know the standard against which expediency can be measured: usually it was economic well-being.  In Chernyshevsky’s rational egotism, utlitarianism as a method coincided with socialism as a goal: in essence, it is in everyones individual self-interest that the whole of society flourish. 

Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky,1864, page X introduction by Robert Bird

 

My film represents most of Russian life.  Not the past, but the models of human relations that have existed for hundreds of years in Russia. 

—Yuri Bykov

 

The director reiterates similar themes that he began in The Major (Mayor)  (2013), a film that premiered at Critics Week in the Cannes Festival of 2012, exposing the rampant corruption that plagues Russian society, where remnants of the Stalinist bureaucracy are now seen at every level of government.  This is a searing exposé of Russia as a model of inefficiency that matches much of the indignant anger expressed in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, an ornery, bitter, and rambling piece of wicked satire that excoriates the prevailing philosophical wisdom of the era.  Bykov’s works come across as revolutionary acts, where one is surprised that under Putin he’s not locked up in the Siberian gulags, as after all Putin arrests female rock stars, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot) (2013) with the same relish as oil oligarchs, Vlast (Power) (2010), as Bykov is a lone voice of unfiltered realism set against a backdrop of an ancient tribal system that historically relies upon bribes and favors for services, the mathematical equivalent of no bribes, no services, where you have to pay to play, leaving the poor out of the picture where they are left to fend for themselves.  In this film it pits one honest man against an entire system of on-the-take bureaucrats, where everyone in a position of importance gets a piece of the action, feeling very much like a HIGH NOON (1952) western format, where a lone cowboy, usually with a wife or child to protect, has to take on a gang of outlaws that have been stealing the town blind.  Against all odds, these often feel like suicide missions.  Yet the world needs honest men.  In fact, they depend on them.  While voicing his feverish anxiety from a position he calls “a mousehole,” Dostoyevsky in his introduction explains that both the character and his “notes” are fictional, but that he represents a certain Russian type the public needs to know about.  For all practical purposes, Bykov is that public voice today.  In a devastatingly bleak opening that offers a doomed comment on the plight of the working poor, the film begins with a long choreographed take of an abusive alcoholic’s rage against his wife and daughter that escalates into physical violence, both brutally battered when he realizes they’ve run out of money.  By the time the police arrive, she decides not to press charges because if her husband misses work the next day he won’t receive a monthly bonus. 

 

While this problem is escalating, other residents in this dilapidated tenement building, a relic of public housing from an earlier era that’s been standing for nearly 40 years, as old as the town itself, complain of bursting water pipes, a commonplace occurrence that happens so frequently that repair units offer only minor fixes that might last a day or two before they’re back on the job again in a neverending cycle of futility.  On this occasion, the municipal repair chief for the neighborhood is unavailable, gone on a three-day drinking binge, so his alternate is called, another plumber, Dima Nikitin (Artyom Bystrov), who is studying to pass an exam that would help put him in a position to replace his boss, Federotov (Boris Nevzorov), the chief housing inspector.  But before he receives the call, a portrait of his family paints another harsh reality, where Dima and his father (Alexander Korshunov) are treated to a blistering tirade from his domineering mother, (Olga Samoshina), calling her husband a fool for not taking what’s offered to him, like everybody else on the take, instead pretending to be all high and mighty while shunned by the rest of the workers, forced to exist on next to nothing, where he continually makes repairs around the building out of his own pocket rather than bilking the city coffers, which seems like the sensible thing to do.  But the coffers have run dry with rumors flying that greedy city officials pocket more than their own personal share, with nothing trickling down to the actual residents in need of repairs.  While the lacerating speech is aimed at the father, it’s the son who emerges as the fool, an honest, would-be working-class hero, a man who dares to try to fight against an entrenched bureaucracy of insatiable self-interests and the hapless communal indifference of the town’s residents.   Not only is that a daunting task, but he actually cares what happens to people in these dilapidated housing projects that others would describe as lost causes, as they don’t give a damn about their own lives.  By the time he has a look at the building, however, a minor repair escalates to a problem of disastrous proportions, as behind the water leaks, the exterior wall of the building has cracked from the foundation all the way up to the 9th floor roof, where he suspects the building may split in half.  Realizing the enormity of the potential problem, he turns off the water in the building and vows to speak to city officials the next day. 

 

Though the building is not part of his official jurisdiction, Dima’s nagging suspicions get the better of him during the night, calculating that the building has already started to shift and may fall within 24-hours.  With over 800 residents in the building, this is a public disaster he knows he needs to try to prevent.  Bypassing the layers of bureaucracy that contributed to the many years of neglect, he calls the Mayor, Nina Galaganova (Nataliya Surkova), but she’s at a restaurant with all the other city officials celebrating her 50th birthday party.  This sets up the ultimate confrontation of an ordinary average Joe interrupting a drunken extravaganza of a party all honoring “Mama,” including speeches commemorating her bravery in standing up to incompetent officials, building a healthy environment for economic growth, and completely turning the city around during her administration.  In this atmosphere of drunken euphoria, Dima announces the Mayor must act immediately to stave off a human catastrophe.  Like a general ordering her troops into battle formation, all the heads of state gather in an adjoining conference room, hauling in some from their drunken stupors, including an angry Federotov who wants this young plumber’s head for bypassing his authority.  Ordering an immediate inspection to reject or confirm his allegations, Federotov and young Dima head off to the site in question.  What immediately strikes the viewer is the visual disparity between the poor unemployed dregs of society in the tenement building whose drunken belligerence is symptomatic of their fatalistic apathy, along with young kids in the hallway getting high on drugs in plain view of their parents and the city officials, showing absolute disdain for any authority, and the well-dressed officials at the party stumbling on the dance floor, many passed out on the tables, the rank and file bureaucrats drinking the finest liquor and French wine, with Nina wearing a fiery red dress with gaudy jewelry that is meant to impress, a woman who has accumulated riches at the expense of the lower class that she ironically rose out of that she now totally disdains.  What’s perhaps not surprising is the link between this decadent display of wealth and affluence and the Communist-era of doing business, a system entirely based upon monetary favors.  When Federotov returns confirming the kid’s suspicions, all out war develops in the verbal sparring back and forth at the table, each one accusing the other of pocketing money for personal gain, where it’s like sharks in the water during a feeding frenzy, all taking place while the party is in full swing, with the nonstop thumping of the bass heard from the adjacent room serving as a constant reminder of an endless carousal of drunken revelry.  It’s a surreal moment on a devastating magnitude confirming one’s worst suspicions, becoming a refresher course on how to shake down an entire population through unprecedented shortsightedness and greed, where one hears the phrase:  “A fish rots from the head down.”  The resolution is a remarkable piece of political theater, where the Stalinist policies of the past have never really gone away, but are resurrected for moments such as these where people are viewed as replaceable parts in a bigger picture that exists only for a significant few.   

 

 

10.)  FRANK    Frank             A-                   

Ireland  Great Britain  (95 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Larry Abrahamson                        Official Site

 

One of the more unconventional films dealing with outsider art, a social reality outside the comprehension of most viewers, where the character Frank, Michael Fassbender in a giant cartoon, papier-mâché head that he never takes off, is the leader of a small, almost exclusively unseen and unheard of rock band called the Soronprfbs, a name even the group itself can’t pronounce.  While they are the picture of dysfunction, playing a style of music that defies definition or form, perhaps noise to some, they are a band where the anti-social behavior habits are curiously intriguing, featuring Clara, the ever dour and always angry Maggie Gyllenhaal (outstanding, literally carrying the picture with her resolute defiance) in the Yoko Ono role as the outrageously extreme Theremin and synthesizer player, two French-speaking bohemians (François Civil and Carla Azar) on bass and drums that refuse to even speak most of the time, and the artistic master Frank as the lead singer, a man they all seem to worship, where the demented humor is so off-the-wall that it’s easily one of the funniest films of the year.  Jon Burroughs, Domhnall Gleeson, son of actor Brendon Gleason and one-half of the Weasley twins from HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS Pt’s I and II (2010, 11), is a more ordinary kid stuck in a small town in Ireland with ambitions to write songs and play in a rock band.  Purely by chance, Jon happens to be at the beach one day when the keyboard player for the band is seen knee deep in the water supposedly trying to commit suicide, with the police and paramedics on the scene fishing him out of the water.  When the band’s manager and guitar player Don (Scoot McNairy) expresses remorse that they’ve lost a keyboard player, Jon almost instinctively exclaims he’s a keyboard player.  Don walks to a nearby van and confers with the other members of the band before returning, asking, You play C, F, and G?”  Nodding happily, Don invites him to show up for a performance later that night.  The intersection of Jon’s mediocrity and the group’s outright weirdness becomes the focal point of the film, where Jon becomes our man-on-the-scene narrator offering insight into Frank and Soronprfbs, while also exploring hero worship through a somewhat surreal, musical groupie mindset of Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).  The film’s premise borrows from a similar cartoon-headed character of Frank Sidebottom, the stage persona of English musician and comedian Chris Sievey who appeared on British television throughout the 80’s and 90’s, passing away in 2010.  The film is dedicated to Sievey, using his image as Frank, so to speak, while taking off from there into unforeseen territory. 

 

A decade ago this director made his debut with ADAM & PAUL (2004), a likeable losers buddy movie following two down-and-out heroin addicts around the streets of Dublin as they drift aimlessly from fix to fix, suffering the humiliation of rejection wherever they go, yet told in a hilarious and heartbreakingly realistic manner, so Abrahamson is familiar with characters on the outer fringe of society.  The writing team of Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson deserve much of the credit for creating such a uniquely original look inside the world of outsider artists, where Ronson based the film on his own experiences playing keyboards for Chris Sievey’s Oh Blimey Big Band, using Gleeson as a stand-in for his own real life character, adding elements of Daniel Johnston, who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and also Captain Beefheart, whose own band eventually quit on him due to his abusive conditions, but who also suffered from multiple sclerosis during his career.  From the first show, however, it’s clear the band has hostility issues, (“Stay away from my fucking Theremin!”) so when they explode in a fury of anger onstage, with Clara breaking her instrument and throwing it at her other band mates, all leaving the stage in an explosion of rage and confusion, Jon is left appropriately stunned as they drive off in their van afterwards without a word.  But when Don invites him to join the band, telling him Frank thought he brought something “cherishable” to the group, Jon jumps at the chance, though what he apparently thought would be a weekend performance turns into an eighteen month long retreat into seclusion at a private estate in Scotland where they could work on recording an album.  To perhaps no one’s surprise, he’s immediately met with a wall of resistance, where the band members believe he’s unworthy of sharing the stage with Frank, Clara especially, as she feels an obsessive need to protect Frank, especially from the likes of someone as mainstream and conventionally normal as Jon, as like the rest of society, clearly he doesn’t “get it.”  For lack of anything better to do, Jon starts tweeting about the band, placing video clips on YouTube and sharing them with the world, where his social media entries become the narration of the film, perhaps centering more on Jon than we’d like, as the person we want to know more about is Frank.  While Jon is in a state of curious bewilderment over that fake head, he asks Don, “He never takes it off?  He sleeps in it?  What about eating?  How does he clean his teeth?”  Don’s toned down, deadpan response is simply, “Jon, you’re just gonna have to go with this.”

 

As it turns out, Frank is the heart and soul of the band, leading them all to their “farthest corners,” where everyone is in awe of him, refusing to record a single note until the entire album is ready, as instead he puts the group through rigorous exercises which always seem to evolve into fights, where “Chinchilla!” is their chosen safety word, though routinely ignored.  Don, we learn, has his own issues, as he has a history of doll fetishism, where the relationship that he prefers most is with mannequins, as otherwise women have to lie completely still.  Having met in a mental institution, Don thinks Frank is the sanest guy he’s ever met, believing they all want to emulate him, but there can only be one Frank.  When an irate German family arrives to their retreat, where Don acknowledges they’ve spent all the rent money and were supposed to be out a month ago, Frank goes out to speak to them in fluent German, not only calming them down, but as they leave voluntarily, one of them is thanking him for “this new truth in my soul.”  Jon’s dabbling on social media, however, eventually accumulates an audience with 23,000 hits on one of the videos he posted, so he secretly signs the group up for the SXSW music festival in Austin, informing Frank that they have an “audience.”  While Frank appears tempted by the idea of getting his music in front of an actual audience, composing what he calls his most “likeable” song, Frank 2014 - Frank's most likable song ever YouTube (30 sec), the rest of the band has no interest in money or fame, finding it a meaningless diversion which has nothing to due with their true calling—making art—seeing it more as a sell out, the worst kind of bourgeois capitulation.  Shooting the scenes in America in New Mexico and the mountainous plains of Kansas as a substitute for Austin, Texas, Jon leads the band to the Mecca and supposed promised land of indie music, where the film is an outrageous comedy of defied expectations, becoming something more than theater of the absurd, where Jon’s push for stardom and public interest has a detrimental effect on the others who want no part of this publicity stunt, as they could care less about pandering to an audience, eventually having some serious things to say about mental illness, where we find ourselves asking, “How crazy is Frank?”  Instead of this thunderous rush of SXSW Mardi Gras excitement, it’s a plunge into a downbeat, Lynchian netherworld reminiscent of BLUE VELVET (1986) with Maggie Gyllenhaal reprising the Isabella Rossellini role onstage, singing a moody, super slow-motion version of “On Top of Old Smoky” in some empty dive bar to drunks and derelicts that couldn’t be farther away from where Jon wanted to take them, while Frank, without the controlling help of Clara, veers totally out of control, and only then does Jon finally realize he doesn’t “get it.”  It’s a look behind and under the mask, told without any fanfare, quietly probing under the surface at the real anguish and pain that drives some of these troubled artists, who are overcome by an assault of mangled nerves and psychoses, where an audience finds entertainment in the performance of their inner turmoil, unleashed as it is in a stream-of-conscience barrage (“Screeching frequencies of pulsing infinity!”) of wounded psychedelic images that resemble the crazed inner ramblings of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, leaving the audience transfixed in a haunted state of bewilderment.   

 

 

Honorable Mention

 

THY WOMB (Sinapupunan)       Thy Womb (Sinapupunan)             A-                   
Philippines  (100 mi)  2012  d:  Brillante Mendoza 

 

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.  

—Roman Catholic prayer, Hail Mary

 

Cited as the singlemost important achievement in Philippine cinema for 2012, this is a visually expressive work set In Tawi-Tawi, one of the country’s five mainly Muslim provinces and one of the small southwestern islands of the Philippines, almost to Malaysia, where the director introduces us to a sea culture, an impoverished Muslim community that lives in wooden huts built on sticks literally out in the sea, also known as sea gypsies, where boats are a necessity for travel.   Throughout the film, we see a variety of motorized and hand-paddled canoes, often stacked to the brim with food for sale or other cargo as they frequently travel into more populated land towns, usually decorated in bright colors, where the overall impression is an immersion into an isolated community with a colorful culture and heritage, where ornate costumes are on display for festive occasions along with uniquely choreographed dance sequences.  As a reminder of the everpresent economic scarcity, alongside these dazzling images of splendor are repeated shots of young naked boys jumping into the water from the decks of their homes, which for them is like having an ocean for a front yard, where nearly everyone relies upon maintaining their fishing nets for survival.  Impressively shot by Odyssey Flores, who gorgeously captures the daily rhythms of life, where the sea is such an integral part of their lives, while the beauty of the region is undeniably a major attraction of the film.  Also of interest, Mendoza dedicated the film to the Bajau people, the more commonly recognized name for the Sama, speakers of the Sinama language from Tawi-Tawi and the entire Sulu Archipelago, where six languages are seamlessly woven into the film, an accurate reflection of the linguistic diversity of the region as well as the entire Philippines.  The film’s stars use Tagalog for almost all of their conversations, but the children in the background or local vendors heard throughout are speaking Sinama (actually two languages, one for the Tawi-Tawi southern region and another for the central).  Arabic is used for the Muslim prayers, while the women coming out of the mosque, as well as a few local families in town are speaking Tausug.  Also English is spoken at one point when counting money.  This diversity of ethnic language will be lost to viewers relying upon subtitles, but the attention to detail is what makes this film relevant. 

 

The title is a reference to the Virgin taken from the Roman Catholic prayer Hail Mary, where overall Christianity remains the overwhelmingly dominant religion in the Philippines, yet in this area its influence has diminished.  While the film opens and closes with childbirth, a defining moment in a woman’s life, the focus of the film is more upon Shalelah, Nora Aunor, a Philippine superstar in 170 films dating back to the 60’s, who acts as a midwife because she can’t have her own children, essentially altering the way she’s viewed by the world around her.  As she has done with so many other births, she requests the baby’s umbilical cord, bringing it home where it hangs alongside all the others she has collected through the years, a constant reminder of her inability to bear children.  Her culture offers a remedy, however, allowing a married couple to find another suitable wife for her husband so that she can fulfill the most essential part of their marriage.  Her husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) is a good-hearted man who adamantly wants a child, so while their relationship is a happy one, Shalelah spends much of the film searching for the right partner, confiding to a friend, “Instead of cheating on me, I’d rather pick a bride for him.”  Much of the film is set under a spectacular sky, where the sea offers a great expanse to the horizon, but this tranquility is often interrupted by the sinister presence of gun-toting pirates or soldiers, where anticipated violence is built into the human condition of people who are accustomed to a surrounding military presence that is largely ignored.  At one point a wedding is interrupted by gun shots, but pandemonium is avoided as the music continues to play, where the Muslim-Christian conflict in the region is a part of everyday life.  Mendoza’s film (where the director is the credited production designer) is hypnotically repetitive, as he takes us through various stages of authentic Muslim ceremonies and rituals like the endless flowing of waves, where the viewer is dazzled by a ceremony of colorfully decorated spirit boats released into the sea, celebratory dances in sumptuously designed costumes, and hauntingly beautiful music composed by Teresa Barroza.  The rhythm of the film recalls Tian Zhuangzhuang’s THE HORSE THIEF (1986), a film that seamlessly blends Buddhist ritual and color into the natural splendor of the landscape, where cultural traditions can be as overpowering as the daunting forces of nature. 

 

At the heart of the film is the bond of marriage, where this idyllic couple seems perfectly matched, both beloved within their tiny neighborhood on stilts where they are seen as pillars of the community, where the self-sacrificing Shalelah “would do anything” for her husband’s happiness, seemingly driven into a role of subservience by a culture that elevates motherhood to a woman’s highest ideal, leaving childless women to chafe in their second class status.  That Shalelah not only accepts her role but actively seeks a younger and more beautiful replacement may be the ultimate undoing of this marriage, as the desired child supersedes the interests of a barren mother, who is treated as an outcast, despite the irony that she is seen as a mother figure to most within her community, choosing her as the most respected midwife.  Initially the audience is sympathetic to her plight, thinking perhaps multiple wives is the custom, where the marriage may continue to thrive, but when we meet the prospective young bride, the lovely Mersila (Lovi Poe), it’s clear her intentions in no way include Shalelah, where her sacrifice may be her ultimate undoing.  The degree with which this couple attempts to raise money to pay for the wedding dowry (as each new bride has a price) is a chilling revelation, as they begin to sell a piece of themselves in order to create the possibilities of a new beginning, but one that does not include Shalelah.  One has to question this idea of marriage that proceeds without a divorce, where the interests of both women are subjugated to the interests of the husband, whose all-abiding desire for a child overrides any other concerns.  Much of the power of the film comes from such dramatically compelling performances and extended wordless sequences, where so much is expressed visually, where one’s idea of religion or marriage is never discussed or explained, as Mendoza instead floods the screen with endless images of religious ritual that goes back to antiquity, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful.  The director imprints his own stamp of artistic authority through a brilliantly devised film, which is highly ambitious in challenging existing social traditions, yet utterly simplistic in such a minimalist approach, where the spaciousness of what’s left unsaid remains at the core of the film experience, where each viewer will have to fill in what’s missing.  It’s a sad and haunting film, elevated to supreme heights by the audacity of the extraordinary visual design.   

 

 

UNDER THE SKIN     Under the Skin (2013)                     A-                                           

Great Britain  (108 mi)  2013  d:  Jonathan Glazer                 Official Site

 

Scarlett Johansson has finally learned to play roles that take advantage of how she’s perceived by a largely testosterone-laden male public, as a sex object where beauty is only skin deep, and they are infatuated by what they see.  In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (2013), she plays the voluptuous tease, believing she’s the ultimate in beauty and sex, as she’s molded herself to match the perfect fantasy image of what guys want, while in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), she lacks human and physical form and exists only as a voice of virtual reality perfection.  Jonathan Glazer’s film takes the same title from Carine Adler’s first and only feature film, the one that features a sizzling breakout performance from Samantha Morton, a largely unheralded yet small gem of a film.  Glazer resorts to the sci-fi genre to freely adapt the Dutch-born Michel Faber novel about an extraterrestrial who comes to earth, much like Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), though what plot there is plays out more along the lines of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), but with a different twist, where unlike the book, the film is far more ambiguous and less explanative, leaving the audience in the dark without many clues to figure out just what’s going on.  The opening credit sequence, in something of an homage to Kubrick, reveals intergalactic origins, including the abstract atonal symphonic composition by Mica Levi, aka Micachu, which is equally otherworldly, where in something of a wordless visual splendor, a speck of light in an enveloping darkness approaches the viewer, eventually becoming a blinding shot of light, where the connection to humanity is complete when after a few planetary transfigurations the light becomes a reflection of a human eye. Without a hint of backdrop, the extraterrestrials have arrived in the form of Scarlett Johansson in a black wig, who along with a motorcycle helper, retrieves a dead body, and in a remarkable white screen with no recognizable floor, we see her pull the clothes off the dead woman and place them on her own simulated body, where the transformation is complete, as she passes unrecognizably through the crowded streets of Scotland.      

 

Returning to filmmaking for the first time since BIRTH (2004), Glazer, in a screenplay co-authored with Walter Campbell, turns Faber’s extraterrestrial perspective into a feminist view of female objectification, where women are judged and valued through surface artificiality, and what’s inside hardly matters.  That’s the central premise of the film as an unnamed Scarlett Johansson trolls for unattached men whose absence won’t be missed by anyone, cruising the streets of Glasgow, initially asking innocent questions, asking for directions, eventually luring men into a white van.  Of interest, the director had hidden cameras installed in the van and only informed various male bystanders caught off guard afterwards that they were in a movie.  While she speaks a vague British accent, most of the men have thick Scottish accents that make what they have to say incomprehensible.  Wearing ankle boots, tight jeans, and a fur jacket, with a thick layer of red lipstick, Johansson has a Sirenesque sexual quality from her insinuations, asking if they’re alone, if they have a girlfriend, if they like what they see, etc.  In this way she lures men to a secret apartment that has a hypnotic effect upon them, set to an unsettling score, where they both undress as they enter and she lures them (and their erections) ahead into a black pit of doom, “Dreaming, dreaming,” one man murmurs, to which she answers, “Yes, yes we are.”  While she’s able to walk over it, they obviously have no idea even as they are quickly submerged in a sea of thick, oily black water, left to some strange Hellish fate where they’re done for.  In the book they’re fattened up and eventually harvested for food back on their planet, which is in need of food, but here, without a word of exposition, the intentions are more darkly obscure.   

 

While the film taps into cultural superficialities, what is clear is that Scarlett Johansson is undeniably beautiful, again representing herself as an ideal feminine object, seen in what resembles naked human form early on, where obtaining her sexually, from a male point of view, is ostensibly the epitome of cultural acquisition, where regardless of what might be under her skin, and here she is entirely alien, she is considered the ultimate prize or male achievement within the context of the film and modern day culture.  Despite any intuitive analysis, however, only a bare minimum is revealed, where the film is an eye-opening slap to the face with an impeccable look, nearly wordless and driven by such meticulous composition and visual stylization from cinematographer Daniel Landin.  What’s interesting is that the viewer is lured into this unexpectedly haunting and inexplicable world in much the same way as the men are lured to Scarlett, where for most of the picture we haven’t a clue where this is going, where we are as much in the dark as Scarlett appears to be, a stranger in a strange land, as she has a robotic assignment, but she begins to recognize something more beyond her mission.  The first sign of this is a peculiar change in the routine, where after a prolonged reflection of herself in a mirror, we realize she has released one of her victims, seen running away off in the distance, still naked.  Rather than preying on unsusceptible men, she herself becomes the prey, suddenly the target of her own accompanying motorcycle team who begin searching for her, as if she’s somehow malfunctioned.  After spending some time sheltered by a stranger who asks no questions and treats her with kindness and respect, but introduces her to earthly sex, she is somewhat stupefied and retreats deeper into the woods.  In a film about the artifice of surface realities, the natural beauty of the woods takes on darker hidden impulses, where the world is not as it seems, yet she is immersed, like her previous victims, in this primeval darkness that all but envelops her, exposing her for what she is.  One cannot ascribe human emotions and feelings to this non-human entity, who has her own peculiar eccentricities and curiosities about her, but it’s an interesting transformation from being all powerful to becoming powerless, subject to the baser elements of man.  It’s a mystifyingly beautiful and strangely puzzling little film that does wonders with an absolute minimum, much like the non-narrative, abstract idealizations in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012), where Glazer offers a similar philosophical quest for meaning.  

 

 

CALVARY     Calvary                       A-                   
Ireland  Great Britain  (100 mi)  2014  ‘Scope           d:  John Michael McDonagh   Official Facebook

 

Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.

 

—Second stanza, Under Ben Bulben by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), a poem addressing his own mortality, from Last Poems, 1939

 

I’ve always felt there's something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peace time, as far as I’m concerned people join the army to find out what its like to kill someone.  I hardly think that’s an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you?          —Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) 


This is a film unlike anything else seen in awhile, perhaps ever, as one needs to be psychically prepared for the metaphysical seriousness of tone, a modern morality play where despite the religious subject matter wrapped in Catholic doctrine, this plays out like a bleak existential western, a morbid take on HIGH NOON (1952), where one man alone takes on the forces of evil, unable to use the powers of the church or God to stop the inevitable doom from happening.  Named after the site where Christ was crucified, the film opens in the confession booth as a priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), hears a man threaten to kill him in one week’s time, naming the date and place of his murder.  The film then recounts the events of the week, day by day, leading up to that fateful hour.  This is as far from an action film as one gets, taking the audience completely off-guard, as the film relies instead upon the expository writing of the author, the writer/director of the hilariously offbeat The Guard (2011), also featuring a magnificent performance by Gleeson, but this is about as hushed and toned down as films can be, as the priest makes his usual rounds visiting various people in the community unannounced, where the entire film is a character study that consists of these intensely personal conversations, becoming a slowly unraveling philosophical treatise on man’s fate.  The Catholic church is as much the target as Father James, as the wounded parishioner was sexually abused by a priest from the ages of seven to twelve, recalling the horrendous pain he was forced to endure that has never left him, carrying the hurt and anguish around with him where his only consolation, since the offending priest is dead, is to target a good priest.  Father James, by all accounts, is well-liked and respected by all, where he has a worldly intelligence, as he came late to the calling, only after overcoming a drinking problem and ending in the death of his wife.  Adding to his own personal shame, his troubled daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) has been the victim of failed romances, the most recent resulting in a suicide attempt.  While the priest is the film’s centerpiece, she’s his able assistant, where the two make a remarkably astute pair, going on long walks together, recovering what they can from their own damaged lives.  

 

McDonagh, along with his brother Martin, one of the best known living Irish playwrights who wrote and directed In Bruges (2008), intends this to be the second installment of a Suicide Trilogy, all starring Brendon Gleeson, beginning with The Guard featuring Gleeson as a policeman schooling an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) on local Irish police procedures while tracking down a drug smuggling ring, while in the third, THE LAME SHALL ENTER FIRST, Gleeson will play a paraplegic ex-policeman attempting to solve the murder of a friend whose death has been overlooked by the carelessness of the police.  As an older, bearded man in a wheelchair, expect Gleeson’s character to spew vitriol at every “able-bodied” human being.  So while the first and third appear to be laced with acerbic black comedy, CALVARY is one of the more profoundly contemplative films of the year, yet also feels like a mournful death march, similar to the atmospheric mood of Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN (1995), complete with similar philosophical examinations.  The film is a full frontal attack on the Catholic church, who turned a blind eye to the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland, an epidemic of sexual abuse cases by Catholic priests in Ireland (Republic), where more than 35,000 Irish teenagers and children from Catholic-run orphanages or reformatories were abused by priests from the 1930’s until their discovery in the early 1990’s, not to mention priests from prominently renowned churches to the Magdalene asylum.  Despite thousands of witnesses coming forward, including a 9-year government commission to investigate the allegations, few offenders have been prosecuted, but this hasn’t in any way altered the Church’s practice of accepting money.  Because of the public notoriety of the church sex scandal around the world, it is almost universally accepted that no female nuns come from Ireland, Western Europe, or even North America anymore.  While the ramifications of this detestable scandal, almost invisible within the church itself, is a central theme of the film, where the suggestion seems to be life goes on, so let’s get on with our lives.  But some scars never heal, where they fester and only grow worse over time, with the act of revenge becoming the only viable response that matters, that gives meaning to every last breath, as all else has already died long ago.  It is in this anguishing spiritual abyss that CALVARY resides, a deeply introspective film that attempts to examine the meaning of faith in a faithless world, or find value in hope only after all hope is lost.    

 

As much as any Western country, Ireland has certainly had its faith tested in recent years, crawling out from under the absolutism of the Catholic Church, where money and modernity have been equally elusive.  Shot by Larry Smith, the film makes exquisite use of the rugged Irish coastline with seemingly endless rolling waves and the picturesque rural locale of County Sligo, including the looming omnipresence of Benbulben lurking off in the distance, a large rock formation in the Dartry Mountains, an area sometimes called “Yeats Country,” as the poet spent part of his youth there and is buried nearby.  The stunning beauty of these exterior geographical locations only heightens an interior examination of the characters, where this is a sin and redemption movie with Father James spending what could potentially be his final week making unannounced visits to any number of damaged individuals as he consoles a grief-stricken widow (Marie-Josée Croze) whose husband dies senselessly in a car crash while touring the region, an aging writer (M. Emmett Walsh) with a love for Hoagy Carmichael and American jazz of the 20’s and 30’s who begins to have contemplations about his impending death, an attractive butcher’s wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) who recently left her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) after sporting a black eye, though he blames it on an African boyfriend (Isaach de Bankolé) who takes offense to the priest’s prying insinuations.  Perhaps most pathetic is a retired stock trader Michael (Dylan Moran) who has earned a fortune, recently purchasing a fabulously expensive mansion without his wife and child who left him, leaving him to stew in his own self-imposed existential emptiness where life has lost all meaning, while the creepiest is a visit to the prison seeing a former student, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s own son Domhnall Gleeson), a convicted serial killer sentenced to life, as Ireland has no death penalty, who reminds the priest that he’s also one of God’s creations, wondering if God could understand him, to which Father James judiciously responds, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” 

 

Throughout these visits, he continues to interact with his daughter Fiona, who felt doubly betrayed both by the death of her mother and then the absence of her father when he left to join the priesthood, where this visit is an attempt to heal their wounds.  This is a dark and somber drama, thoughtful and quietly moving throughout, showcasing an acerbic wit and black humor, especially since an ugly nature permeates throughout this country town, with scorn and resentment filling the air, where any one of them could be guilty.  They are a sorry bunch filled with the devil’s mischief, deserving of the Father’s pity, yet they hold him in utter contempt, as nobody believes in anything anymore.  A brooding study of human nature where Father James is thwarted at every turn, the film slowly and deliberately moves towards that inevitable confrontation between the forces of good and evil, resulting in a vividly unsparing climax that leaves nothing to the imagination.  “I was one of the lucky ones!  There’s bodies buried back there,” where the tortuous pain of the afflicted parishioner bares its ugly soul with the volcanic fury of insufferable pain, as the film revisits the same places over the end credits without the presence of people, losing all sense of humanity, where the stark emptiness is a jolt to the system, especially accompanied by hauntingly transcendent Guaraní harp music from Paraguay, Los Chiriguanos - Subo - YouTube (“Subo” I Climb, 3:01), where Los Chiriguanos are two men from the tribe of Chirigua that have existed in central South America since long before the Spaniards came in 1527, who themselves have suffered their own indignities, yet produce such heavenly music.  The common thread throughout is carried by the good intentions of mortal men, much like the country priest in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) (1951), whose persistent effort to help build a better understanding in the world brings the eternal into ordinary day to day experiences, which may as well be the grace of God.  

 

 

LIFE ITSELF      Life Itself          A-            

USA  (115 mi)  2014  d:  Steve James                       Official site

 

Gatsby’s house was still empty when I left — the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine. One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident, and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own. I didn’t want to hear it and I avoided him when I got off the train.

 

I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.

 

On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.

 

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

 

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby finale, 1925, Ebert’s favorite literary passage

 

Arguably the most powerful documentary seen so far this year, as it’s like witnessing the passing of a close personal friend, adapted from Ebert’s 2011 autobiographical memoirs, written five years after thyroid cancer left him unable to speak, eat, or drink, but he “began to replace what I lost with what I remembered,” making a resurgence on the Internet with his interactive Ebert blog where he only became more prolific and influential as a writer, where his legacy is contained on his revamped website (www.rogerebert.com) that currently receives 110 million visits per year, where there are some 70 writers offering diverse opinions and views carrying on his name.  The only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and for almost 30 years he was the only film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975 for outstanding criticism.  Ebert was also an honorary member of the Director’s Guild of America, working as the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013, his reviews were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and Canada.  Ebert also appeared on television for four decades, including twenty-three years as cohost of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (1986–99), becoming the most popular and best known film critic of our time, eventually accepted as a familiar household name.  While the sadness of his death was a tragic loss, much of it expressed in an outpouring of affirmation at his public funeral service (Roger Ebert), much of this film captures behind-the-scenes glimpses of Roger and his wife Chaz while he was undergoing extensive rehabilitation treatment in the hospital, which includes the dramatic mood swings that come with the territory of reaching the end stage of one’s life, where this film doesn’t sugar coat it, showing the depths of exasperation and depression, where despite his overall positive attitude, there were times when he preferred to end it.  This is no movie version of death, but brings the viewer into the wrenching personal moments when he was simply overcome by the devastation of his illness.   As he is unable to speak, Chaz acts as the narrator of his thoughts, reading personal notes that he writes or recounting his innermost feelings that he shared.  His death serves as the backdrop to what is otherwise an exposé of his life. 

 

Born as a middle class kid from Urbana, a small Midwestern town in central Illinois, his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife, where they subscribed to three newspapers to accommodate Roger’s voracious interest.  While he hoped he could follow in the Kennedy’s footsteps to Harvard, his working class family could only afford the nearby University of Illinois where he became the editor of the school newspaper, spending late evening hours setting the type press, a notable experience to others who remember Roger as he already knew how to write in a distinctively mature style, as evidenced by an article he wrote after a Birmingham church bombing (16th Street Baptist Church bombing) killed four young black girls on September 15, 1963, beginning with a quote from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who told then white separatist Alabama Governor George Wallace “The blood of four little children…is on your hands.”  At only 21, Ebert took issue with King’s comments, suggesting in The Daily Illini that the blood was on the hands of not just one man, but many, as legislated white separatism must pass through the minds and thoughts of hundreds, then voted upon by hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions more voters before it is enacted into law, enforced by still more police, sheriffs, district attorneys, juries, and ultimately judges who sit upon the wisdom of such racially divisive practices.  While he moved to Chicago as a doctoral student in graduate school at the University of Chicago, the economic reality meant he also needed money, so while he intended to be a freelance reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times while still attending classes, he was actually hired as a reporter and feature writer.  In less than a year, without asking for the position and without so much as an interview he was offered the job as full-time movie critic when Eleanor Keane left the paper in April 1967, becoming the youngest film critic in the nation at age 24, a job he never relinquished until his death.  Enriched by old black and white archival photographs, narrated by a few old clips of Ebert himself, but mostly voice actor Stephen Stanton as Ebert, there are plenty of recollections from friends, colleagues, and drinking buddies, recounting tales from Ebert’s drinking days at O’Rourke’s Pub near Old Town where a bartender recalls, “Back in the old days, Roger had the worst taste in women of probably any man I’ve ever known.  They were either gold diggers, opportunists, or psychos.”

 

Improbably, or perhaps not, Roger developed a close association with schlock sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer, writing the screenplay for the cult film BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), which captured the thoughts of young director Martin Scorsese, who started amusingly with the title, claiming they meant it when they say it goes “Beyond…Far Beyond,” always remembering the editing sequence when the girl has sex in a luxury Bentley car, which edits the grill of the Bentley into the middle of the sex act.  Scorsese recalls the interest a young Ebert took in one of his earliest efforts, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), seen when it was entitled I CALL FIRST, already recognizing the talent behind the camera, which he recalls in his book here, Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert, an excerpt.  In one of the lowest periods of Scorsese’s life in the early 80’s, after several failed marriages, he acknowledges he was actually contemplating suicide, but before he had the chance to act, he received an invite from Siskel & Ebert to join them in a retrospective panel discussion about his works at the Toronto Film Festival, something he never forgot, as it literally saved his life.  Scorsese’s comments were particularly heartfelt, even as Ebert lambasted his film THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), which struck a nerve, but he insisted that even when writing a negative review, Ebert never lost his professionalism or went for the juggler, a trait that describes his innate humaneness.  Similarly, Errol Morris attributes much of his success to Ebert’s enthralling endorsement of his first documentary film GATES OF HEAVEN (1978), a small film about pet cemeteries that Roger championed throughout his life.  The same could be said about Werner Herzog, who calls Ebert a “soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade,” but it is Morris who acknowledges, “Here I had someone writing about my work who was a true enthusiast.  His enthusiasm has kept me going over the years, and the memory of his enthusiasm will keep me going for as long as I make movies.”  The director’s own association with Ebert dates back to 1994 when Siskel & Ebert used their television show as a platform to endorse his unheralded urban basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS (1994) as one of the best films of the year, where both listed it as their #1 Best Film.  All of this attests not only to his influence, but his personal generosity, reflected by countless others who recall how Ebert took the time to acknowledge their work when nobody else was, like Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) or Gregory Nava’s EL NORTE (1983), where kindness is a recognizable human attribute one never forgets. 

 

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee tried to lure him away with a big-money offer, but Ebert continually refused, replying, “I’m not gonna learn new streets.”  Much is made of Ebert’s professional legacy, specifically the thumbs up/thumbs down shorthand of film criticism, a technique that film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dismisses, claiming it is not film criticism, which Ebert is not ashamed to acknowledge, as television time restraints demand a simplistic rating system, a short cut style of divulging sufficient information for viewers to make an intelligent choice.  But other serious cinephiles were equally appalled by the system, including this erudite March/April 1990 Film Comment attack by Richard Corliss, All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism? that attacks the dumbing down, sound bite mentality of movie reviews as little more than television marketing.  In the next edition of the magazine, Ebert's reply may be as meticulously detailed, lengthy, and well-argued as the original piece, delivering a strong defense for the show.  This perfectly illustrates Ebert’s clear-headedness, as according to newspaper colleagues and friends, Ebert never spent more than a half hour writing a review, that he comes from a newspaper background where the secret is outlining the ideas in your head before you start to write.  Ebert had the ability to write, and speak, in whole paragraphs while retaining the ability to remain clear and concise, displaying old-fashioned Midwestern logic and common sense.  Even when writing about complex artists like Bergman, Dreyer, or Bresson, Ebert never wrote above the heads of the audience by describing often incomprehensible film theory (which he was known to do in classrooms, spending hours dissecting movies shot by shot), always aware that he was writing for the widest possible readership.  When paired with philosophy major and Yale graduate Gene Siskel, a man who never met one of his own opinions he didn’t prefer, Ebert was often stunned by his inability to convince his partner of the error of his thinking, where both stubbornly refused to acquiesce to the other, which provided the fireworks for the show.  As someone ingeniously acknowledged, “Gene was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.”  Of course there are film clips from the show, including inflammatory shouting matches objecting about the incredibly poor taste of their partner, over BENJI THE HUNTED (1987), of all films, where Ebert strains to yell over another Siskel snide remark, “I disagree particularly about the part you like!”  But the worst behavior occurs during a series of outtakes where both are seen continually trading personal insults, captured on camera as they dutifully flub line after line of promo shots, eventually walking off the set in a huff.  Eventually, perhaps because of the amount of time they spent in such close quarters together, they grew a special affection for one another.  

 

Among the many surprises of the film is not about Roger, but Gene Siskel, former playboy, who was part of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle of the early 70’s before he became a movie critic, seen jet setting around the country with a bevy of beautiful models on the Playboy private jet.  And who would have guessed that among Roger’s favorite literary works was a special affection for The Great Gatsby, often asking his lifelong friend Bill Nack to recite the final lines in the book from memory, which he proudly does onscreen, as he has done hundreds of times, where the overriding hope and optimism of a new and better world ahead seems to have been Roger’s guiding light.  At the beginning of the film he offers his description of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy,” which has an almost science-fiction feel to it, suggesting there is a healing power in cinema, which may have transformed his life.  He wasn’t particularly proud of his reckless behavior on display during the 70’s while working for The Chicago Sun-Times, describing himself as “tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat,” where he was also a preeminent storyteller that could hold a room, a womanizer, and an alcoholic, eventually joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he remained sober since 1979.  In his book, Ebert claims Ann Landers introduced him to his eventual wife Chaz at a restaurant in Chicago, but the film tells another story, that he met the love of his life at age 50 in an A.A. meeting.  A former chair of the Black Student Union at her college, and perhaps the least likely person to choose a white man for a husband, Chaz steadfastly remains at Roger’s side throughout his most difficult ordeals, often understanding the underlying anguish and despair even as Roger tends to remain optimistic.  Despite the graphically uncomfortable moments where Roger has to continually return to the rehab hospital five times, each time thinking it would be his last, that it would lead him on the road to recovery, where he was initially informed, “They got it all.  Every last speck,” only to realize the cancer had continued to spread elsewhere.  This stream of medical news is exhausting and demoralizing, none of which is hidden from view, where among Roger’s more acute observations was his wife’s inextinguishable support, “To visit a hospital is not pleasant.  To do it hundreds of times is heroic.”  In a startling revelation, Chaz describes the final moment when they finally decide to let go, easily the most heartbreaking moment in the entire film, where death has rarely felt more genuine.  Yet it is this heartfelt intimacy that carries us through this film that helps us understand the power of love, where it nearly has the capacity to raise the dead, perhaps best expressed by Kenneth Turan from The Los Angeles Times:

 

If you had asked me ahead of time what I would have found most interesting about Life Itself, I would have guessed that it would be the parts I knew least about, specifically Roger’s harum-scarum days as a young film critic about town in high-spirited Chicago.  Paradoxically, the opposite was true, (where perhaps most surprising are) the sections that enlarged my understanding of Roger’s relationship with his remarkable wife, Chaz, particularly as their vibrant marriage took on the cataclysmic series of illnesses that marked the final decade of Roger’s life.  The cascading surgeries that Roger went through would have toppled a less indomitable man, and it was difficult for me to watch the scenes that show Roger in obvious discomfort and pain.  But having a behind-the-scenes look at the truth of Roger’s remark that Chaz’s love was ‘like a wind pushing me back from the grave’ genuinely brought tears to my eyes.

 

Roger loves Chaz | Roger Ebert's Journal | Roger Ebert  July 17, 2012, a selection from Life Itself: A Memoir:

 

The greatest pleasure came from annual trips we made with our grandchildren Raven, Emil and Taylor, and their parents Sonia and Mark.  Josibiah and his son Joseph came on one of those trips, where we made our way from Budapest to Prague, Vienna and Venice.  We went with the Evans family to Hawaii, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Venice, and Stockholm.  We walked the ancient pathway from Cambridge to Grantchester.  Emil announced that for him there was no such thing as getting up too early, and every morning the two of us would meet in a hotel lobby and go out for long walks together.  I took my camera.  One morning in Budapest he asked me to take a photo of two people walking ahead of us and holding hands.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because they look happy.”

 

Ramin Setoodeh 5 of the Film’s Most Surprising Moments, from Variety at Sundance, January 19, 2014

 

Roger Ebert knew that he wouldn’t live to see “Life Itself,” the documentary based on his 2011 memoir. In one of the most touching scenes of the riveting film by director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Ebert learns that his cancer has metastasized to his spine. The doctors estimate he only has six to 16 months to live, although he doesn’t make it that long. Ebert died in April 2013 at 70.

 

“It is likely I will have passed when the film is ready,” Ebert calmly predicts on-camera.

 

At the Sunday premiere of “Life Itself,” James broke into tears as he introduced his film, which will air on CNN. The next two hours were a sobfest, as most of the audience cried — and often laughed, too. When the credits rolled, Ebert’s wife Chaz took the stage joined by Marlene Iglitzen, the wife of Ebert’s longtime movie sparring partner Gene Siskel.

 

Chaz talked about how people called her a saint for taking care of Roger as his health failed after a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2002. “What they didn’t know is how much my heart grew from having been with him for all those years, for loving him, for taking care of him, for having him take care of me,” Chaz said. During the Q&A, an audience member asked what Ebert would have thought of “Life Itself.” Chaz knew that “he would say two thumbs up.”

 

The stirring documentary, which was shot during what would be the last five months of Ebert’s life, includes interviews with Ebert’s director friends Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, as well as critics A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss. Here are five of the film’s most surprising moments.

 

1. Ebert never got to say good-bye to Gene Siskel. In the documentary, Marlene talks about how Gene hid his brain cancer diagnosis in 1998, out of fear that Disney would replace him on ABC’s “Siskel & Ebert.” Ebert had planned to visit Gene at the hospital, but he passed two days before the visit. Chaz said that Ebert was so heartbroken, he was determined to share the details of his own health after he got sick.

 

2. Ebert signed “a do not resuscitate.” In the final days of his life, he sent James emails like “i’m fading” and “i can’t.” He said his hands were so swollen, he wasn’t able to use a computer. He secretly signed a DNR at the hospital without telling Chaz, which she learned about on the day of his death. In the film, she described the moment of his passing as “a wind of peace” and “I knew it was time to accept it.”

 

3. Ebert met Chaz at Alcoholics Anonymous. In his memoir, Ebert claims to have first talked to her at a Chicago restaurant, after an introduction by Ann Landers. In the film, Chaz says she met Roger at AA, a fact that she had never publicly revealed. And until he started dating her, Ebert had a wild bachelor streak–according to one pal, he used to court “gold diggers, opportunists and psychos.” Another buddy recalls that Roger introduced him to a prostitute he was seeing.

 

4. Laura Dern once gave Ebert a present that belonged to Marilyn Monroe. After Ebert presented Dern with a Sundance tribute, Dern sent him a heartfelt letter with a special memento. It was a puzzle that Lee Strasberg had given her, a gift from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe. Ebert later gave the puzzle to director Ramin Bahrani, with the instructions that one day, “You have to give it to someone else who deserves it.”

 

5. Ebert loved “The Great Gatsby.”It was his favorite book. He had his journalist friend Bill Nack recite the final lines back to him hundreds of times. Here it is, Roger: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 

Ebert compiled "best of the year" movie lists beginning in 1967, thereby helping provide an overview of his critical preferences.  His top choices were:

 

1967: Bonnie and Clyde

1968: The Battle of Algiers

1969: Z

1970: Five Easy Pieces

1971: The Last Picture Show

1972: The Godfather

1973: Cries and Whispers

1974: Scenes from a Marriage

1975: Nashville

1976: Small Change

1977: 3 Women

1978: An Unmarried Woman

1979: Apocalypse Now

1980: The Black Stallion

1981: My Dinner with Andre

1982: Sophie's Choice

1983: The Right Stuff

1984: Amadeus

1985: The Color Purple

1986: Platoon

1987: House of Games

1988: Mississippi Burning

1989: Do the Right Thing

1990: Goodfellas

1991: JFK

1992: Malcolm X

1993: Schindler's List

1994: Hoop Dreams

1995: Leaving Las Vegas

1996: Fargo

1997: Eve's Bayou

1998: Dark City

1999: Being John Malkovich

2000: Almost Famous

2001: Monster's Ball

2002: Minority Report

2003: Monster

2004: Million Dollar Baby

2005: Crash

2006: Pan's Labyrinth

2007: Juno

2008: Synecdoche, New York

2009: The Hurt Locker

2010: The Social Network

2011: A Separation

2012: Argo

 

 

THESE BIRDS WALK     These Birds Walk                        A-                   
USA  Pakistan  (72 mi)  2013  d:  Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick  Official site

 

This film is an eye opening and transcendent experience, reminiscent of Kiarostami’s magnificent film LIFE, AND NOTHING MORE…(1992), part of his Kokar Earthquake Trilogy that was shot in the ruins of a deadly earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.  What attracted first time filmmaker Bassam Tariq and longtime photographer Omar Mullick to Pakistan was the benevolent work of Abdus Sattar Edhi, now in his mid 80’s, considered one of the great humanitarians of the world who is often mentioned when speaking of laudable candidates for the Nobel Prize.  In 1951, with 5000 rupees (about $81 dollars), he formed the Bilqis Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit social-welfare program named after his wife, dedicated to serving Pakistan's abandoned and abused women and children, mostly devoted to helping runaway youths, where today the foundation runs over 300 centers.  Edhi discovered that many Pakistani women were killing their babies at birth, often because they were born outside marriage, where one newborn child was stoned to death outside a mosque on the orders of religious leaders.  So he placed a little cradle outside every Edhi centre along with a sign that reads:  “Do not commit another sin:  leave your baby in our care.”  Edhi has so far saved 35,000 babies and found families for approximately half of them.  Regarded as a guardian of the poor, to this day he owns two pairs of clothes, has never taken a salary from his organization, and lives in a small apartment over an overcrowded Karachi clinic.  Notoriously private and dismissive of the idea of talking about himself or his humanitarian efforts, Edhi shuns the attention when the filmmakers point their cameras at him, assuming these people have read about him from thousands of miles away, where he tells them “You came here to film me, but if you really want to know me, then look at the work I'm doing…If you want to find me, you will find me among the people.  I come from ordinary people, and to find me look among ordinary people.”  With this simple proclamation, he alters the direction of the film, as over the course of three years, the filmmakers observe what transpires inside the Edhi center in Karachi, a city of 9 million where one-third of the population live in slums due to the rampant poverty, ethnic rivalries, and ensuing violence. 

 

What we see are hordes of young children, some beaten, neglected or outright abandoned, all mostly under 12, with a large group of half-starved babies that have been left on their doorstep, where Edhi himself sits on the floor and bathes each and every one of them, where every week in Karachi the Edhi center feeds over 10,000 people, rarely turning anyone away, providing a safety net for the country with an extensive network of orphanages, women's shelters, welfare assistance and hospitals.  Early on we hear the voice of twenty-year old Asad, with no knowledge of his own parents, whose dire situation living on the streets was so desperate that he was ready to take his own life, but he saw a “Help Wanted” sign when passing by the Edhi center and decided to work just for a few days caring for others.  Several years later, he’s been able to move beyond his original trauma by splitting his time between retrieving the dead bodies piled up by ethnic fighting, street crime, and gang warfare, and returning the runaways to their families, by now claiming he’s seen it all, murders on the street, suicides, and horrible accidents.  But lost children have become his teachers, where learning from their circumstances has helped distance him from his own pain, becoming one of the empathetic faces of the institution as he’s able to identify with each child.  Far from being an exclusively harrowing experience, however, the filmmakers do an excellent job of mixing raw footage with often poetic cinematography by Mullick, and a simply awe-inspiring electronic, violin-centered musical score by Todd Reynolds, which adds a touch of experimental films, where an exposé on the human condition becomes artfully presented, often illuminating the overriding feeling of loneliness with solitary images that have a painterly feel.  This juxtaposition of momentary beauty is interspersed throughout with Asad’s steam-of-conscious observations, offering a contrast to the rough edges of the story.   

 

Most of the subsequent footage focuses on a few of the older kids assigned to the Karachi home, as the center is overrun by kids and there’s little recreational activity for them to do, where the children are fed, with medical care provided, but they’re not comfortable with the idea of calling this place their home, as many remember their families, where most of the children feel abandoned, longing to return home, often seen praying for this salvation.  One of the more agitated kids is Omar, who couldn’t be any more than 10, but he’s often seen bullying others or showing a surprising degree of aggression, using in-your-face profanity, where he brags how his parents beat him (wearing the scars on his face), but he refused to shed more than a single tear.  When picking on others doesn’t work, as there are bigger and older kids at the center who intervene, he’s often left alone, seen crying afterwards, literally overcome by his own misery.  While the Edhi centers can protect these kids from the harsh reality of the outside world, many continue to have suicide tendencies or believe God has abandoned them as well.  One of the most heartbreaking moments is witnessing Asad returning one of these kids back to his family, where the boy is shivering in fright and in tears at the thought of having to be returned to the family that continuously beat him, where the family is not happy about his return either, uttering “I’d have been happier if you’d brought me his corpse,” where as impossible as it seems, home life may actually cause greater grief and sorrow than the solitary isolation of the shelter.  Here it appears there are 20 or 30 people to a one-roomed house in an overpopulated slum, obviously too many mouths to feed, where the boy running away was no accident, but something he was driven to do by an uncaring and hostile family, which, when confronted with Asad’s allegations of beatings and abuse, quickly denies before the cameras that they ever laid a hand on the boy. 

 

Asad’s final delivery is Omar, who lives deep into Taliban territory, offering a uniquely human and sympathetic face never before associated with that of “the enemy,” where the circuitous journey into the heart of darkness includes an elusive race by Omar disappearing into a massive crowd at the Mazar shrine, which he insists on visiting, eluding authorities to be able to pray next to a shrine before they continue their long and arduous journey through the night and into the next morning before arriving at one of the most desolate places on the planet, where there are no houses or standing structures, only the flattened, bombed-out ruins of a destroyed village, likely from a drone attack or a long forgotten battle scene, where one instantly mourns for any signs of humanity forced to live in these ghastly conditions.  Omar points out his home, where there is no water, gas, electricity, or even a roof, just half destroyed, ramble shack huts where his family suggests he’s actually safer and better off in the shelter than living here, acknowledging they have many more children who remain under the protection of other Edhi shelters, where the family has no intention of looking for them.  It’s only here that one gets the fuller picture of what these kids are running away from, where as painful as it is to admit, life in the overcrowded Edhi shelters may actually bring these children closer to God’s grace, where they are fed and clothed and protected from the appalling conditions of utter destruction, famine, and brutal poverty.  Deeply moving and void of any pretense, these are graphic depictions of a life unimaginable just about anyplace else in the world today, evidence of a kind of prehistoric dawn of man, even worse than the devastating, war ravaged rubble of Rossellini's GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), more reminiscent of Hiroshima, as everything is flattened, where no buildings survive.  Out of the calamitous ruins of destruction new life forms may thrive, where one can only hope and pray that one of them is human.  After driving in a car all night and much of the day just to find this place, it’s nearly unfathomable to imagine how Omar and his siblings are actually making the dangerous trek back across the country on foot to find their way back into the protection of the Ebhi shelters so many miles and miles away, where they may as well be lone survivors of the apocalypse, but as the film suggests, they must learn to walk before they can fly. 

 

 

BEST ACTOR

Conner Chapman – The Selfish Giant 

Tom Hardy – Locke (2) + The Drop (1)  

Brendan Gleeson – Calvary 

Fan Liao – Black Coal, Thin Ice

*J.K. Simmons – Whiplash 

Edie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything 

 

BEST ACTRESS

Juliette Binoche – Camille Claudel 1915 (2) + Clouds of Sils Maria (1)

Agata Trzebuchowska – Ida

Agata Kulesza – Ida

Nora Aunor – Thy Womb

*Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Beyond the Lights

 

BEST SUPP ACTOR

Sean Gilder – The Selfish Giant 

Marc-André Grondin – Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

*Ethan Hawke – Boyhood

Jeffrey C. Wray – The Evolution of Bert 

Edward Norton – Birdman 

Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher 

 

BEST SUPP ACTRESS

Romane Bohringer – Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood

Eileen Atkins – Magic in the Moonlight

*Maggie Gyllenhaal – Frank

Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria 

Nataliya Surkova – The Fool

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Xavier Dolan                           Canada  France           Tom at the Farm

Olivier Assayas         France  Switzerland  Germany  Clouds of Sils Maria 

Pawel Pawlikowski                 France  Denmark         Ida

*Richard Linklater                  USA                            Boyhood

Ruben Östlund                        Sweden                       Force Majeure

 

BEST SCREENPLAY

Clio Barnard – The Selfish Giant 

Richard Linklater – Boyhood

*Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson – Frank 

John Michael McDonagh – Calvary 

Yuri Bykov – The Fool 

Kim Fupz Aakeson – In Order of Disappearance

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

*Luca Bigazzi – The Great Beauty 

Lukasz Zal – Ida 

Odyssey Flores – Thy Womb

Larry Smith – Calvary  

Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Ali Olay GözkayaFuturo Beach 

 

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

The Selfish Giant

Ida

*Boyhood

Calvary 

Clouds of Sils Maria 

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them 

 

BEST ART DIRECTION

*The Great Beauty

Ida

Under the Skin 

Clouds of Sils Maria 

Futuro Beach

 

BEST EDITING 

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear 

Frank 

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

*Clouds of Sils Maria 

Futuro Beach

Force Majeure

 

BEST COSTUMES

The Great Beauty

*The Grand Budapest Hotel  

Magic in the Moonlight

Get On Up

Frank 

Thy Womb

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Mica Levi – Under the Skin 

Josef van Wissem and Sqürl – Only Lovers Left Alive

*Antony Partos – The Rover

Jean-Louis Aubert – Jealousy 

Teresa Barroza – Thy Womb  

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY

*A Dream of Iron 

Life Itself

These Birds Walk

Citizenfour

Jodorowsky’s Dune

School of Babel