TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2015  

(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2015)

 

Xavier Dolan is back with yet another brilliant picture, where he continues to challenge himself and in turn the audience with such socially relevant material, this time backed up by the most extraordinary acting performances that largely go unrecognized.  Jia Zhang-ke has created a heartbreaker where the influence of wealth exiles a new generation from their own cultural history, while Christian Petzold has made the film of his life, featuring one of the most priceless final shot sequences in cinema history.  Wim Wenders has literally drawn inspiration from a fellow artist, Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado and created a fusion documentary film, easily the best doc of the year, while Andrei Zvyagintsev has crafted another bleak Russian parable in the manner of Dostoyevky.  Todd Haynes has made the finest film of his career, a glowing tribute to all the gay romance stories that were never told during the golden era of Hollywood, while Arnaud Desplechin discovers two first-time actors in one of the more enjoyable coming-of-age movies that the French seem to specialize in.  Two of the most extraordinarily beautiful films seen all year (or any year) include parallel black and white journeys into the Amazonian rain forest in different time periods by Crio Guerra and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s utterly spectacular martial arts spectacle that minimizes the genre choreography while leaving viewers stunned at the sheer beauty of the film.  Asghar Farhadi never got his due for what is arguably his best film due to rights issues, so the release (six years delayed) comes “after” his heralded success with A Separation (2011), still the most financially successful Iranian film in U.S. history.

 

Honorable mention films are more of a mixed bag, where all are smaller films, veering off the beaten track containing a much bigger message, where perhaps the biggest surprises are two small gems from Iceland that probably few have seen or even heard about.

 

Happy New Year to one and all!!!!!!!

 

Robert 

 

 

           

 

 

 

Top Ten Films

 

1.)  Mommy – Xavier Dolan, Canada  

2.)  Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren)  – Jia Zhang-ke, China

3.)  Phoenix – Christian Petzold, Germany 

4.)  The Salt of the Earth – Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Germany and Brazil

5.)  Leviathan (Leviafan)Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia  

6.)  Carol – Todd Haynes, USA

7.)  My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse) – Arnaud Desplechin, France      

8.)  Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)   – Crio Guerra, Colombia  

9.)  The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) – Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan             

10.)  About Elly (Darbareye Elly) – Asghar Farhadi, Iran 

 

Honorable Mention

Heart of a Dog – Laurie Anderson, USA 

Metalhead (Málmhaus)Ragnar Bragason, Iceland 

Red Army – Gabe Polsky, USA

The Homecoming (Blóðberg) – Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Iceland 

Mustang – Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey 

 

 

 

1.)  MOMMY     Mommy           A                

Canada  (139 mi)  2014  d:  Xavier Dolan      Official site

 

Hey, I wanna crawl out of my skin
Apologize for all my sins
All the things I should have said to you
Hey, I can’t make it go away
Over and over in my brain again
All the things I should have said to you

Counting stars wishing I was okay
Crashing down was my biggest mistake
I never ever ever meant to hurt you
I only did what I had to
Counting stars again

Hey, I’ll take this day by day by day
Under the covers I’m okay I guess
Life’s too short and i feel small

Counting stars again

 

Sugarcult - Counting Stars - YouTube (3:31), 2004

Once again, 25-year old Xavier Dolan remains one of the most relevant directors working today, assailing a whole host of social issues as he’s written his most explosive drama yet.  Certainly among his most ambitious efforts, even with what may arguably be a few unnecessary moments of melodramatic overkill, but Dolan continues to make some of the finest films being made today, pushing the barriers of dramatic acceptability, where this won the 3rd place Jury Prize at Cannes, shared with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu au langage)  (2014), interestingly and perhaps appropriately the oldest and youngest directors in competition, both offering radically differing views on what the future holds.  Written, directed, edited, produced, and costume design by Dolan, perhaps the most haunting aspect about the film is how it compellingly lingers through several different possible outcomes, one a rival to that brilliant and unparalleled ending to Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002), where a lead character goes through a scintillating stream-of-conscious montage (where the screen actually widens) imagining a future that might have been (where her son morphs into an uncredited male model Steven Chevrin), before the dust clears and the gripping power of the present retains its suffocating hold on reality. Certainly one of the unique aspects is the film is presented in a highly unusual 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect box, more reflective of still photography than cinema, creating a claustrophobic and highly congested box as the center of activity, with both edges of the screen unused, where the characters are continually moving in and out of each other’s cramped physical space, where Dolan’s challenge is creating a choreography of colliding images that match the highly volatile emotional world that is often spinning out of control.  As always, Dolan’s actors shine, perhaps more showcased here than any of his earlier efforts, especially fifteen year old Steve Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) in one of the more ferocious performances of recent memory, an often violent and out-of-control kid with a severe case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in combination with Intermittent explosive disorder (IED), much of it spent institutionalized, aggravated by the death of his father, spending the last three years in a juvenile residential treatment facility.  Similar to Destin Cretton’s unsparing look at damaged teenage youth in Short Term 12 (2013), Dolan’s focus hones in on the teenager’s point of view, bringing the audience front and center into the daily turmoil of his existence, where it’s extremely rare for a film to feature such a socially isolated and combative teenager without a friend in the world, locked up behind bars, kept out of school, so completely dependent upon adult authority, eventually kicked out of the only kind of institutionalized setting he knows, inexplicably leaving him to fend for himself at home with his equally unrestrained mother, Diane, Anne Dorval, who gives another scorching performance, once having played Dolan’s mother in his highly acclaimed first film I Killed My Mother (J’ai Tué Ma Mère) (2009).    

The opening sequence adds a bit of science fiction allure, setting the film in the very near future when a new Canadian law makes it legal for parents to institutionalize their children for any sort of behavioral issue.  This is like a warning shot across the bow, addressing the unanswered ramifications of a lax society that simply doesn’t want to have to deal with aberrant social behavior, preferring to hide their problems behind the walls of prisons or psychiatric institutions.  Due to increasing pressure for schools and principals to measure success through statistical measurement, many of these borderline kids are being pushed out, where the schools don’t want them.  Nearly half (approximately 47 percent) of the youth in juvenile detention have a diagnosis of ADHD, where 32% of students living with ADHD drop out of high school, while 50% are suspended.  A recent series of articles investigating the harsh and often violent conditions of juvenile residential treatment facilities was written by The Chicago Tribune, Harsh Treatment - Chicago Tribune, revealing a common response to disruptive behavior is for attendants to administer “emergency” doses of powerful psychotropic drugs, with some facilities administering much higher doses than others, suggesting rules and procedures that are not uniform where we’re still at an early stage in understanding the societal impact. The article suggests there are some facilities where these kids come out more violent than when they went in, where the ADHD kids are at higher risk for incarceration, school failure, substance abuse and suicide.  Dolan’s alarmist view of adolescent institutionalization is reminiscent to the highly experimental electric shock treatments received in the 40’s by adult actress Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) in FRANCES (1982), the involuntary lobotomy forced upon Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), and Kubrick’s futuristic horror film A Clockwork Orange (1971), where it’s the government implementing a highly experimental brainwashing technique, supposedly eradicating the condition of societal violence through Pavlovian behavior conditioning, all films that depict a brash sense of fiercely defiant independence stuck in the hands of overcontrolling institutions that are designed to tame the wild and exuberant instincts out of humanity through psychotropic, sedative-like medications, making patients more manageable in an institutional setting. 

 

Diane Després (Dorval) has been widowed for three years, where her husband’s sudden death led to increasingly unmanageable behavior from her son Steve, causing her to send him to a residential treatment facility, but he’s been accused of setting fire to the cafeteria, where another young boy was seriously burned.  While the facility recommends sending him to a more restrictive juvenile detention center, Diane refuses to comply, believing his behavior would only grow worse under a harsher, prison-like environment and instead decides to bring him home.  This blisteringly intense drama is fueled by Pilon’s powerhouse performance (which can’t even be imagined in an era prior to Brando or James Dean), enhanced by what are arguably the two strongest female roles Dolan has ever written, where Dorval is an extension of her role in Dolan’s first film, but perhaps more confident and self-assured, where she has a sexual swagger about her, where she’s as audaciously aggressive and bold as her son, both hurling profane-laden invectives at one another in the dysfunctional family manner of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), yet she’s also able to reel back the intensity when he grows overly violent, where her calmness is often due to sheer fright.  It’s during one of these overly combative episodes that she hides behind a locked door waiting for him to calm down, when suddenly it grows quiet on the other side of the door.  When she comes out, she’s surprised to find her son’s bleeding wounds being attended to by the neighbor’s wife across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément, equally superb), a shy and mousy figure with a noticeable stutter, a former high school teacher on a sabbatical, living quietly with her husband and young daughter, where her hesitant speech is reflective of an interior catastrophe that has left her emotionally traumatized, where her hypersensitivity is a perfect counter to Diana’s unhesitating brazenness.  Somehow the three click, where they bring out of each other a more perfect balance, where the sheer vitality of Steve’s manic energy seems to fill them all with a needed surge of uninhibited inner release.  Dolan expresses these cathartic moments with beautifully choreographed musical selections, including a 3-way dance to Céline Dion - On ne change pas - YouTube (3:45), becoming a ballet of interconnecting emotional spontaneity that literally captivates the viewer with spectacular cinematic force, like explosions of irrepressible joy that come out of nowhere and just as quickly dissipate into something else altogether.     

 

The indefinable and continuously shifting mental state of Steve is in a constant state of flux, unpredictable from moment to moment, yet what is undeniable is the unconstrained brashness of his emerging masculinity, where he has no sexual outlet, so his flirtatious manner is inappropriately expressed with his mother and Kyla, often crossing the line, but it’s also clear they both absolutely adore this kid and want the best for him, where love exists in a minefield of unanticipated accidents and even further setbacks, where he can frighten the hell out of them, sending them into a distressed panic, followed by moments of unsurpassed joy and exhilaration.  The audacity of the film, with its slo-mo shots, operatic use of 90’s music, and the sheer range of emotions, the tragedy, the hope and heartbreak, the shattering experiences that comprise the narrative storyline, where despite the bombastic melodrama that is like adrenaline racing through the veins, there are also more subtle, nuanced clues that exist in a quiet reverie of their own, fleeting images that have the capacity to affect the viewer, like Steve riding his skateboard wearing headphones as we hear Counting Crows “Colorblind,” Mommy Movie CLIP - Colorblind (2015) - Xavier Dolan Movie HD YouTube (1:25), where the music exudes a distinct feeling of alienated disconnection in this depiction of living in a world all his own, or a more euphoric sequence set to Oasis - Wonderwall - Official Video - YouTube (4:40) that opens with Steve literally opening the frame with his hands to widescreen, where he skateboards through the streets alongside Diane and Kyla on their bikes in a rush of momentary elation, or a dim, unlit moment standing in the middle of the road when Steve tries to pour out his heart to Kyla while she’s being called inside to dinner, both existing as if in another dimension, pulled from different directions, or a photograph in Kyla’s bedroom of herself and her son, who is never mentioned or referred to, but who is obviously the source of insurmountable loss in her life.  Defined by her selflessness and vulnerability, Kyla is the near-mute reincarnation of Giuletta Masina’s Chaplinesque Gelsomina in LA STRADA (1954), who bares her soul each and every day, somehow finding herself back at ground zero in another human catastrophe, where by putting out the fires they are only postponing the inevitable, as Steve is literally an accident waiting to explode—it’s only a matter of time.  A passion play of volatile emotions and combustible energy, the futuristic implications extending to society-at-large pervade throughout the entire film, casting a lengthening shadow over the whole glorious affair, creating an underlying layer of moral incertitude that will continually plague our contemporary existence.  The allure of Dolan’s film is the free-spirited message of tolerance and openness, where nothing is hid in the closet to fester and grow ugly, as political incorrectness exists throughout this film, as if intentionally placed, where human flaws are exposed as the bread and butter of life, as everyone is not dealt an even hand, but you live with what you’ve got.  This confounding and often messy affair is a throwback to the Cassavetes view of art, a modernistic and completely ahead-of-it’s-time credo that thrives on the beauty of individual expression, where dealing creatively with the complexities of life’s problems is accompanied by a liberating feeling of giddy exhilaration.  The torch has been passed. 

 

2.)  MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (Shan he gu ren)     Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren)             A                       
China  France  Japan   (131 mi)  2015  d:  Jia Zhang-ke        

Life does repeat itself.  That’s why it feels… familiar.             —Dollar (Dong Zijian)

 

The ambitious nature of this filmmaker just continues to keep growing, where he already ranks as one of the top filmmakers in the world today, but he also carries the mantle of being a Chinese spokesperson during a rapidly developing period of change in China, which is precisely what this film is about.  While the Communist Party continues to hold the reigns of political power in China since driving Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party off the mainland to Taiwan in 1949, the repressive effects of single party rule have dominated the history of both nations since World War II.  While a pro-democracy movement effectively ended in a massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, snuffing out any thoughts of freedom, it also coincided with an admission that all efforts to save socialism had failed, requiring a new approach, symbolized by Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, where China has been trending to a capitalist market economy since the end of the 90’s, even joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.  While the Party has distanced itself from radical ideology, there are fewer charismatic leaders, but the government has not come to terms with or prepared itself for a new political reality.  The past 30 years have brought enormous changes to China, shifting from an agriculture driven to an industrialized society, causing widespread soil contamination, along with the toxic effects of electronic waste, water and air pollution.  Rapid economic advancement with unchanged politics offers the perception of a State-led market economy while continuing to maintain authoritarian rule, leaving one to wonder whether this model is sustainable.  While China has become a highly successful international trading partner, where a thoroughly modernized showcase city like Shanghai is the largest free-trade zone in mainland China, the nation as a whole still lacks free market ideas, yet China is on the verge of becoming or has already surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest economy.  With this comes additional responsibilities, where a prominent international artist like Jia Zhang-ke becomes a visionary spokesperson not just for China, but for the world.  While his previous film 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) offered scathing criticism, angrily charting the effects of dehumanization associated with economic prosperity, this is a more intimate and sympathetic film, showing the haunting effects of lost culture and heritage on a single family, sacrificed in the name of economic success, for what is perceived as a greater good.  However, like something seen in Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) or Rithy Panh’s 2013 Top Ten List #1 The Missing Picture (L'image manquante) , the connection to not only one’s history and culture, but even one’s family can be wiped out in a single generation (like the current flood of refugees escaping into Europe at the moment), leaving in its wake a lost generation of rootless and exiled people, estranged from their own identity.   


There was a certain amount of apprehension reported when a Chinese Film Bureau censorship logo was tagged onto the opening at the Cannes premiere, but the emotional depth exhibited throughout is breathtaking, given a novelesque narrative structure that thrives on well written and well defined characters.  Much like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THREE TIMES (2005), the film is divided into three historical sections, 1999, 2014, and 2025, which has a way of examining the downside of economic prosperity, revealing how time wreaks havoc on a single family.  The centerpiece of the film is the remarkable performance by actress Zhao Tao, arguably the greatest in her entire career, as she literally dominates this film from the opening shot.  Brimming with the nationalistic optimism and confidence of the new millennium in 1999, much like the opening scenes in the 80’s from Jia’s PLATFORM (2000), a theatrical dance troupe performs an exhilarating anthem-like Chinese dance routine to the buoyant sounds of “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, Pet Shop Boys - Go West [HD] - YouTube (4:53), where front and center is Zhao Tao as a youthful Tao, a dance instructor in the small town of Fenyang (the filmmaker’s hometown), looking to the future exhibiting an infectious happiness.  While the color red has not been captured with this degree of rapturous beauty since the May Day parade in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977), it’s also shot in a boxed, TV sized 4:3 ratio, cramming plenty of colorful spectacle into a smaller space, expanding ever wider with each different historical period.  The lush colors on display, however, captured by cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai, are simply amazing, literally leaping off the screen.  Surrounded by two suitors constantly at her side, coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a longtime childhood friend and business entrepreneur Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a burgeoning capitalist, it grows into a standoff between the egos of the two men, who eventually come to despise one another, leaving Tao crushed with disappointment.  But it’s fun while it lasts, evidenced by a few carefree moments, but also a scene that targets the mindset of each character, where Tao is impressed by the romantic melody of an old 1990 Hong Kong pop ballad a customer plays in her corner store, 珍重 Take Care by Sally Yeh (beautifully contrasted with the Pet Shop Boys), in between sharing noodles with Liangzi, while just to impress her, Zhang buys the disc off the customer once they’ve left the store, returning it to Tao as a token of his affection.  The problem with Zhang is he’s always much more interested in promoting himself, continually using money to impress others, or in this case buy happiness, as Tao eventually picks Zhang.  Liangzi leaves town on the spot, vowing never to return. 

Tao’s shortsightedness comes back to haunt her, though she made what felt like the best choice, an indication of how one decision can change the rest of your life, becoming an allegory about China and its future, as by the next segment the happy couple (who we never see together) is already divorced, where she remains in Fenyang, while Zhang is living with another woman in the opulence of Shanghai, having gained custody of their only son, who he’s ironically named “Dollar.”  This mid-section may be the most poignant, especially the toll it takes on Tao, as she believes in her heart that her son will be better off with Zhang simply because he’ll have more opportunities, where the film borders on melodrama, but remains too well written, where she is a woman in constant search of herself, becoming an epic love story that is defined by the absence of love.  The centerpiece of this section is the death of Tao’s aging father, which has a huge impact in her life.  Sending for her son, who’s only about seven, he doesn’t really even recognize her, and is confused what to call her, but dutifully carries out his instructions, which his other Mom provides during their daily skype sessions, also sending photos of a home they are planning to move to in Australia.  Infuriated by this unwanted intervention, Tao tries to share a few moments with her son, including a traumatizing but supremely colorful funeral service, where religious rituals are a source of cultural heritage, yet when displayed so reverently through cinema, they become time capsules of a specific era.  Afterwards, taking the slow train (Dollar is used to the fast train) so they’ll have more time together, Tao tries to instill a sense of motherly devotion, handing him the keys to their home, but this kid has everything given to him, who seemingly lacks for nothing, where this entire trip is barely a blip on the radar.  Simultaneous to these events, Liangzi has wandered around like a nomad, still working in the mines, where he eventually marries and has a son, but his years in the mines have damaged his lungs, where death appears imminent without expensive medical treatment.  Like a returning ghost, they arrive at his old doorstep, still locked and left as it was from the day he left.  Unable to reach out for help himself, it’s his wife that turns to Tao for money, which she willingly provides, surprised to see her old friend.  The prominent theme of death in this section announces the end of the old, while the new generation faces an uncertain future.  Amusingly, as if to suggest not everything changes, there are recurring shots of a small child carrying a traditional spear (Guangdong Broadsword), seen again having aged in each subsequent section carrying that same spear.  This is reminiscent of a similar image in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89) where a silent character is seen carrying a kayak on his back and continually reappears in most segments, always remaining wordless, where he bears witness to how people are living their lives, like a reflection of moral conscience. 

 

The final segment is easily the most strange, an unexpected leap into the future, becoming an awkward experience for many viewers, especially the Chinese, as the language spoken is mostly English.  A similar experience occurred with Edward Yang’s MAHJONG (1996), which also mixes global languages of English, French, and Chinese, where the English-speaking and noticeably poor acting from the English language actors was significantly off-putting, as it initially feels here, where Dollar (Dong Zijian) is a young university student in Australia who speaks exclusively English, who has to take Chinese classes to learn about his own heritage.  Legendary Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang, last seen five years ago in Buddha Mountain (Guan yin shan) (2011), appears as the Chinese college instructor named Mia, providing plenty of worldly character in the role.  Dollar is trying to exert his own independence from his jaded father while Mia, an exile of Hong Kong by way of Toronto, is navigating her way through a particularly nasty divorce.  What stands out in this section is Dollar has completely forgotten how to speak Mandarin Chinese, where he requires the translation services of Mia to have a conversation with his own father.  Making matters worse, he’s lost all connections with his mother, where the luxury of his lifestyle has created a mindset that allows him to live only in the present, with no need to revisit the past, even for family occasions.  Lost in all this futuristic speculation is the presence of Tao, who is the backbone of this film.  Her absence explains the awkwardness of the future, which accentuates the feeling of displacement.  Having no one else to turn to, Mia and Dollar are drawn to each other for emotional support, which presents its own problems, as he’s easily mistaken for her own son.  Throughout it all, however, Tao’s looming presence in the Australia sequence remains of critical importance, showing the significance of distance not only as geography, but an emotional upheaval, becoming an internalized trauma that expresses itself in unfamiliar ways.  Equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking, with recurring musical refrains from Yoshihiro Hanno that return like the changing of the seasons, the music adds poetic resonance to the emotional weight of the film.  The real triumph, however, is the fullness of Tao’s character, where it’s no accident that she gets the final shot, where her indomitable spirit continues to soar.  Jia remains the most astute chronicler of changing times in Chinese society, where despite whatever critical qualms one has with his multitude of choices, he remains an artist at the top of his game, a superb master craftsman, resorting to almost literary measures to explore the ramifications of the past on the present, cautioning us not to be so quick to tear down the relics of the past in our zeal to build something new, but to recognize the inherent value of cultural heritage (the exact opposite of ISIL’s intentions in the Middle East, which is to completely wipe out the past), adding a somber note on the theme of historical forgetfulness, carefully revealing how economic and cultural forces continue to impact upon our lives, whether we realize it or not. 

 

 

3.)  PHOENIX     Phoenix                  A                    

Germany  Poland  (98 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Christian Petzold         Official site

 

Speak low when you speak, love,
Our summer day withers away
Too soon, too soon.


Speak low when you speak, love,
Our moment is swift, like ships adrift,
We’re swept apart too soon.

Speak low, darling speak low,
Love is a spark lost in the dark,
Too soon, too soon,
I feel wherever I go
That tomorrow is near, tomorrow is here
And always too soon.

Time is so old and love so brief,
Love is pure gold and time a thief.


We’re late darling, we’re late,
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
Too soon, too soon,
I wait darling, I wait


Will you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon.

 

—“Speak Low,” by Kurt Weill (written while in exile in America) and Ogden Nash, 1943, Billie Holiday Speak Low YouTube (4:26)              

 

Like the surprise hit of last year, 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida, Christian Petzold returns to form with this tense, brutally moving Holocaust drama that was inexplicably rejected by both Cannes and Venice, displaying another level of newfound maturity in his still evolving career with what is arguably his best film yet.  Like his others, it’s meticulously directed, but contains the most complexly intriguing story he’s ever worked with, another showcase for actress Nina Hoss, who is onscreen in nearly every shot in what is essentially an intensely personal search for a newly constructed post-war German identity, adapted by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki in his last screenplay, who worked with Petzold on and off since his very first feature THE STATE I AM IN (2000).  Loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 detective novel Le Retour des Vendres (The Return of the Ashes), the film is accentuated by a beautifully understated and low key jazz score that both begins and ends the film, enticing the audience from the opening frame while also creating what is the most haunting ending of any film seen this year.  For a story that explores human identity, you won’t find a more symmetrically perfect screenplay from start to finish, where the formalism of its construction is marked by an economy of intricate precision, but this is a throwback to a Fassbinder style story where Germany is trying to come to terms with the evils of its own troubled past, with shades of THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) and LILI MARLENE (1981), or an improvement on DESPAIR (1978), once more embellishing upon a film noir theme, the third time Petzold has used this device, where Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) were impressionistic reconstructions of earlier films CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), where this one utilizes Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960), as both use surgical reconstruction to evoke the medical atrocities of Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele’s fanatical quest for Aryan purity by performing deadly genetic experiments on Auschwitz concentration camp victims.  Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a survivor of Auschwitz who is shot in the face in the waning days of the war, having to undergo painful facial reconstruction, introduced to the audience with her entire head covered with protective bandages, where her surgeon suggests after the war “a new face is an advantage,” as it allows one a fresh start in life.  Nelly, however, continues to dwell on her former life, which is unknown to the viewer and only comes together in bits and pieces, where her intentions remain shrouded in mystery for a good deal of the film, only really revealing herself in the magnificence of the final shot.     

 

Described as a Trümmerfilm (literally “rubble film”), narratively, the film has an interesting structure to it, continually shifting the perspective through the eyes of various characters while Nelly is forced to retreat into the background, lost inside her head, unable to recognize herself or even speak after the operation, where she’s painfully forced to admit that for all practical purposes, she no longer exists, Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014 YouTube (4:47).  Not only a war casualty, rescued after spending two years in Auschwitz, her essential humanity has been stripped from her as well, seen early on wandering through the bombed out ruins of postwar Berlin searching for any semblance of her former life.  With the help of a loyal friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records who painstakingly goes through the files attempting to identify Nazi’s and reconstruct the lives of the missing, Nelly returns to Berlin for plastic surgery and a chance for rest and recovery, and while she’s not at all pleased with the results, finding it difficult to live with herself, it does allow her the opportunity to rebuild her shattered confidence.  Lene’s generosity and kindness are expressed in every frame, as she goes to great measures to protect Nelly and insure she is as comfortable as possible, consolidating her family assets, while it’s her fervent desire they may both move to a new Zionist homeland currently envisioned as Palestine, a safe refuge for Jews displaced by the war.  What better place to start a new life?  A staunch Nazi hater, Lene can’t continue to live among them or even bear listening to German songs anymore, though for Nelly, she continues to find rapturous delight in the Germany she once knew.  When shown pictures of Haifa, where they could live overlooking the sea, there is a suggestion of sexual undertone when Nelly almost contemptuously replies “I am not a Jew,” raising questions not only about her identity but her state of mind, a stranger to the changing world around her as she insists upon finding her lost husband Johnny, where thoughts of him were the only thing that kept her alive in the dark days of the camps where she lost her entire family. 

 

As much about individual destinies as an emphasis on social conditions, in their former lives Nelly was a cabaret singer to his piano playing, so she searches the bars for any trace of him, finally discovering him working as an impoverished busboy in a decadent Berlin night club appropriately named Phoenix, a music hall beer drinking establishment for soldiers featuring showgirls and musical entertainment, where we see a tawdry German rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”  While she is petrified at what he will think, Johnny, Ronald Zehrfeld from Barbara (2012), doesn’t recognize her (described by the director in Cinema Scope [Adam Neyman] as two ghosts that can’t recognize each other), too busy scraping by at the bottom end of the wage scale.  Undeterred, she tries again, introducing herself as Esther (the name of her dead sister), to which he replies, “There aren’t many of those left,” where her persistence gets her thrown out of the club, but Johnny has other ideas, concocting an idea where he can use her resemblance to impersonate his dead wife who stands to inherit the family fortune locked away in a Swiss bank, becoming a mad homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), both men haunted by the tragic loss of their dead wives, literally trying to reinvent them with another woman, training them to look, act, and talk the same, wearing the same clothes and hair style, as if resurrecting a ghost.  Despite the wickedness of Johnny’s harebrained scheme, Nelly allows herself to be used, literally playing the part of herself, clinging to the beleaguered hopes that her husband would recognize her for who she is, at one point feverishly waking up Lene in the middle of the night to excitedly reveal, “I know he loves her” (referring to herself), but Johnny is equally certain of her death.  Lene has no interest in Johnny and in fact despises him, warning Nelly that it was Johnny who betrayed her to the Gestapo, where according to records she uncovered he was arrested two days before and was released on the same day as her arrest.  Lene’s profound influence over this film is remarkable, noted by her clear, unambiguous archival revelations and her measured assurance, as she comes to represent the Jewish reaction “after” the war, a voice of unwavering authority that some have chosen to ignore to this very day.   Refusing to believe the man she loves is a Nazi collaborator, having spent months during wartime hiding in a hole, Nelly has her own doubts, where her shattered interior world struggles to heal, but she willingly plays along with his tortuous game, and in doing so the audience delves even deeper into Johnny’s dubious personality.  

 

Delving into realms of moral duplicity, Petzold builds suspense by continually allowing unanswered questions to linger, where the audience remains in doubt whether Johnny ever loved her or could actually expose her to the Nazi’s, and is he just pretending not to know her real identity?  All the characters come under a broader cloud of suspicion in the immediate aftermath of the war, as who among them was not a willing participant?  What friends and neighbors were also collaborators and betrayers?  How many ordinary citizens simply looked the other way?  The setting itself is fraught with fear and suspicion, where the tantalizing mood is drenched in a suffocating atmosphere of dread.  The deeper one gets into the psychological plight of each character, the more the world around them is stained by the toxic lead-in to war.  Perhaps most revealing is a family photograph that Nelly discovers taken before the war, where circles have been placed around the heads of those identified as Nazi’s while crosses are placed above those that are now dead.  It’s a horrifying notion to think that one’s fondest memories have been defiled and contaminated by the despicable acts of one’s own country.  Brilliantly conceived and masterfully crafted, Petzold reaches elevated territory in this impressionistic psychological mosaic that becomes a literal postwar reawakening to the reality of the world around them.  Joining the ranks of essential postwar films, Petzold shows how delusion becomes a coping mechanism for an enveloping madness, like Johnny, whose refusal to recognize his wife (or the role he played in her capture) is not by accident, as he comes to signify those ordinary citizens blinded by their own willful collusion, refusing to see their own complicity in the crimes taking place around them, which may start out as fear or a defense mechanism, but saving themselves at any cost ends up becoming a way of life that eventually leads to the Holocaust.  Many more lives are lost to suicide even after the war is over as a result of “collateral damage,” a descent into a moral disillusionment that evokes a special note of sadness.  But this is ultimately a film about Nelly, a lone survivor whose longing to claw her way back into a reconstructed German society represents the need of an entire nation, where the agonizing doubts and concerns are reflected in the marvelously subtle performance by Nina Hoss, who is the real star of the show in a remarkable portrait of a devastated society suffering the impact of enormous historic crimes, where the postwar debacle is revealed in the broken wreckage of fallen debris and ruined lives.  Shot in the Brandenburg region in Germany by Hans Fromm’s dark cinematography, with a few shots in Wroclaw, Poland, the jazz score by Stefan Will is particularly expressive, setting the tone of eloquent, emotional restraint.  If this film does anything, however, it delivers enormously with a huge payoff in the virtuosic final scene, where everything in the entire film leads to this moment, and Petzold delivers with one of the great cinematic endings that resonates so powerfully that it will become one of the most discussed shots in the annals of cinema history, Speak Low performed by Nina Hoss @ Phoenix YouTube (3:01, recommend not to be watched until “after” seeing the film), where part of its power is its unexpectedness, yet according to the director, TIFF Review: Petzold's “Phoenix” Soars – City By Heart, the ending plays out quite differently in front of German audiences.  By itself, it’s hardly spectacular, but seen in context with everything that has come before, the composite effect is simply stunning, an indictment of Johnny, and the nation’s, collective forgetfulness, where the specter of the past seeps into the uncertain present and all lingering questions and concerns are finally put to rest.  

 

An excerpt from Jeffrey Fleishman’s interview with the director from The LA Times, July 29, 2015, World Cinema: Christian Petzold's 'Phoenix' haunted by ...

 

The eerie mood and questions raised by “Phoenix” have intrigued Petzold.  He said his next film will be set in the 1940’s in the French town of Marseille as refugees hide and hurry to catch boats to Mexico as the German army closes in.  Part of him, he said, wants to capture the aura and verve of German filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls, who fled to America to escape Hitler.

 

“The light from Germany went to the U.S.A. in the 1930s,” he said.  “We have to bring the light and style back to Germany, especially the noir which was created by Austrian and German refugees.”

 

 

4.) THE SALT OF THE EARTH     The Salt of the Earth                A-       

France  Brazil  Italy  (110 mi)  2014  d:  Wim Wenders         co-director:  Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

 

For German director Wim Wenders, it all came down to a photograph that he kept in his office for years, a black and white portrait from the mid 1980’s of a blind woman from Mali conveying a feeling of such profound depth and supreme sadness that it served as a constant reminder of the kind of power and impact that art can have on the human soul.  Shot by Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, this distinctive artistic voice becomes the focus of the film, much like Wenders’ earlier Oscar nominated documentaries BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999) and Pina in 3D (2011), where Salgado literally narrates his life story in a film that examines his life and his work.  The project originated with his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, one of the principal cinematographers attempting to make a documentary on the life of his father, eventually bringing in Wenders to offer perspective and help shape his overall vision.  The outcome is a work of maturity and profound significance, where the subtle influence of Wenders in helping to choose the photographs by Salgado that moved him the most adds a surprising depth, basically allowing the pictures to tell the story.  Born in the lush hills of Brazil where the rain forest connects to farmland, Salgado earned a master’s degree in economics and began to work for the International Coffee Organization, often traveling overseas for the World Bank, where it was his wife Lélia that introduced him to a camera, forming a working partnership, as she now edits and produces his work.  Developing an interest in photography while working in Africa in the early 70’s, most notably pictures he took in Niger, Salgado studied photography while living in Paris, initially working on news assignments before developing an interest in photojournalism, specializing in social documentary photography of workers in impoverished third world nations.  One of his first assignments was photographing as many as a hundred thousand mud-covered workers, in lines stretching as far as the eye can see, onto rickety ladders plunging into the depths of deep pits in a mammoth Brazilian gold mine called Serra Pelada in the 1980’s, a bleak metaphor for the brutal history of a Dante Inferno human hell on earth, where the unforgettable images resemble the opening Biblical era slave sequences in Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), showing the backbreaking efforts of workers slaving under the hot sun pressed in such close proximity to one another that they resemble ants in an anthill carrying packs of dirt on their backs, climbing up and down the precarious wooden ladders all day.  Because of the use of mercury in the gold extraction, the area is now contaminated and the mines abandoned, leaving a giant open pit filled with polluted water. 

 

Working on long-term, self-assigned projects that are eventually published as books, Salgado has witnessed some of the most extreme horrors of human experience—war, poverty, greed, famine, genocide, and disasters.  The film is largely a series of photographs shown in what is essentially a slide show narrated by Salgado speaking about the circumstances under which they were taken, reliving a certain autobiographical period of his life, like a film within a film, where the viewer gets the impression Wenders is examining a fellow documentarian reflecting upon his own work.  While there are lovely, poetic touches throughout, the film is a painstakingly meticulous Robert Flaherty style documentation of the bleakness of the human condition as seen through photographs that couldn’t e more sorrowful and mesmerizing, and while the voiceover narration provides perspective, it hardly matches the power of the images.  In the decades of the 80’s and 90’s, Salgado immersed himself into the middle of some of the most brutally terrible and disastrous events of our age, genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, relentless wars, famine, the pitiful human existence in overrun and medically plagued refugee camps, and large-scale environmental disasters like the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait.  Perhaps based on his economic background, he concentrates on how it is always the poor who are the most vulnerable and the worst effected, showing how easily the privileged class remains aloof and a safe distance removed from these catastrophes, where the weakness and ineffectiveness of the world’s response is equally calamitous, as people continue to go about their lives completely unaffected.  While Salgado and Wenders are obviously personally driven, self-motivated, and wildly passionate about their work, it remains an open question what effect, if any, their work has in influencing the rapidly changing world around them.  The global economy has had a remarkable effect internationally, where land and jobs that were once plentiful have dried up and all but disappeared, leaving behind a blighted stain of toxic pollution and personal horrors.  One can’t help but be dumbfounded by the gut-wrenching experiences Salgado continued to seek out, each one more devastatingly bleak and gruesome than the last, where he witnessed one African genocide after another, watching uncountable numbers of people dying right before his eyes, where despite his deep personal commitment to document these images, one of the few who did, the rest of the world inexplicably preferred to look away.  It’s hard to think of another film that makes such a compelling case for making the most out of one’s life, where one man puts himself on the line repeatedly, risking death and deprivation over an extensive period of time, immersing himself in the most horrible war ravaged regions on earth, using only a camera as his voice. 

 

While it’s hard to know just what drives the man or inspires his work, by documenting Salgado’s efforts with this degree of intense scrutiny, Wenders is immortalizing the power of his art, elevating his own artistic relevance in the process, as if making the case before the world of public opinion.  How can one choose to look away?  Perhaps more than presidents or political leaders, Sebastião Salgado has had an amazing influence on his fellow man, as there are few cameras around to witness human atrocities, few have gone through what he voluntarily witnessed and experienced, adding untold emotional layers of depth through the artistry of his pictures.  One assumes there is a moral imperative behind this work, that the camera has the power to offer a voice to the voiceless, that there is an unmitigated force of good behind every image, as each is so carefully composed in such a distinct social setting.  Who are the disadvantaged that still roam the earth?  Largely invisible in reality wherever they go, so far removed from the mainstream, they resemble the dinosaurs we read about in science books, all but eradicated and extinct in our mind’s eyes, where we’ve lost any personal connection to their “living” lives.  When did their lives start to lose meaning?  It was the documentaries of Robert Flaherty and others that brought these exotic images of people in such faraway places to life, where images we could never conjure up in our limited education and collective imaginations suddenly burst into life onscreen, adding depth and extension to our knowledge, perhaps questioning the playfulness of the filmmaker’s methods, but leaving no doubt as to the cultural accuracy of an ethnically different way of life.  Flaherty’s approach, like Salgado, was to live within an existing community, become familiar with their way of life, and understand their story, so to speak, “before” shooting the pictures.  Who knows what drove Salgado to some of the most extreme places on Earth, spending years on each individual project, like visiting a remote Amazon tribe, having a unique ability to befriend total strangers, becoming embedded within the culture depicted in each individual photograph, where decades later he still warmly remembers not just the context of the photo but the individuals he spent time with.  After three decades, Salgado returns to his native Brazil, retiring to his family farm, united with an adult son he barely knew while globetrotting around the planet, where he undergoes a regenerative rebirth of the spirit, transforming the drought-ridden, dried out lands around him through a major restoration project of building a new rainforest ecosystem, replanting specifically indigenous species native to the region, literally creating new plant life that had died and disappeared, a victim of global climate change, calling it his Genesis project, conceived as a potential path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature.  While he may take solace in finding some degree of natural balance, where he can once again walk along the lush grounds, it’s the harrowing images of his life’s work that will remain imprinted in our collective subconscious, where seeing such large masses of war refugees is particularly disturbing, ghostly images of starving children, displaced people trekking across the Sahara, and they are the lucky ones that survived, where Salgado himself was moved to despair, expressing his outrage, “We humans are terrible animals.”  “Everyone should see these images,” he reminds us, “to see how terrible our species is.”  Somber and profoundly meditative, few films leave such a definitive cinematic impact afterwards.

 

 

5.)  LEVIATHAN (Leviafan)     Leviathan (Leviafan)               A-              
Russia  (140 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Andrei Zvyagintsev 

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?

     or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

     Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?

Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

     Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?

     Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?

Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.

     Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?

None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?

 

—Job 41:1 – 10 

 

The first Russian film to win a  Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film (Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev Takes Golden Globe and FIPRESCI Prize) since Sergei Bondarchuk’s WAR AND PEACE in 1969, which went on to win an Academy Award in the same category, while Nikita Mikhalkov’s BURNT BY THE SUN (1994) was the last Russian film to win an Academy Award.  Continuing in a series of bold and audacious Russian films that attempt to authenticate the abysmal conditions there, where the remnants of Stalinist brutality are everywhere to be seen, especially the way ordinary citizens continually pay the price for rampant government corruption that continues unabated.  Human lives are seen as disposable, murder and lies are condoned, so long as it protects the good standing of those currently in power.  While this is a particularly bleak worldview, it’s consistent with the equally distressing themes from other films coming out of Russia, where the most gruesome are Alexei Balabanov’s CARGO 200 (2007) and Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schastye moe) (2010), but also Aleksei Popogrebsky’s spare and beautiful 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #6 How I Ended This Summer, Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn) (2013), both featuring the ruggedness of a barren location, and Yuri Bykov’s equally memorable The Major (Mayor)  (2013) and 2014 Top Ten List #9 The Fool (Durak), which prominently feature Dostoyevskian themes of dubious morality on display.  In each of these films, Russia is depicted much like a western in the days of the Wild West frontier where there was scant evidence of any civilized rule of law, where men had to stand up for themselves and only the strongest survived, usually through bloodshed.  LEVIATHAN, however, is not just a good movie in a similar vein, but it’s particularly well-made, where the acting is superb, the cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is simply astonishing, while the editing and sound design are exceptional, with music from Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, Philip Glass - Akhnaten HQ [Prelude; Refrain, Verse 1 ... YouTube (10:46), with that throbbing church organ blasting into the stratosphere at about the four and a half minute mark, where this particular attention to craftsmanship and meticulous detail is rare in cinema today, especially in an era of scarce funding.  One of the most important filmmakers working today, Zvyagintsev continues to make relevant films, where his starkly austere and emotionally spare first film THE RETURN (2003) won first prize at the Venice Film Festival and remains his most mystifyingly unique, while THE BANISHMENT (2007) and Elena (2011) are both reflective of his mastery over the medium.   

 

Partly inspired by the real-life incident of Marvin Heemeyer who in 2004 went on a violent rampage demolishing the town hall and the mayor’s property in the small town of Granby, Colorado, supposedly outraged over the outcome of a zoning dispute.  Loosely reshaping what happened to resemble an updated version of the Biblical story of Job, Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, where the story is set on Russia’s far northern coast above the Arctic circle on the Kola Peninsula near the Finnish border, in a small fishing village overlooking the Barents Sea.  With the breathtaking beauty of the opening cinematography, what’s immediately striking is the awesome force of nature, where civilization exists on the edge of a wild and uncontrollable sea, where waves are seen crashing against the rocks, and left behind on the shore is an age-old whale carcass that’s likely been there longer than anyone can remember, where its skeletal remains are a reminder of the mortality of human existence.  While the outdoor shooting took place in the town of Teriberka, the protagonist is an angry young Russian mechanic named Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) whose family has been rooted to the same location for generations, living in a decaying and unpretentious wood frame house with windows overlooking the sea.  Kolya is as rugged as the land itself, a supremely individualistic man who drinks vodka relentlessly while swearing about the devious nature of the town mayor who for years has been trying to get his hands on their property.  A former soldier, Kolya is living with his beautiful wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) along with a distant and delinquent teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from an earlier marriage.  Their best friends and frequent visitors to their home are another married couple, Pacha (Aleksei Rozin), a police officer and fellow drinking buddy, and his outspoken wife Angela (Anna Ukolova).  What’s immediately apparent is the familiarity they have with one another, especially after several rounds of drinking, where no judgments are made as they seemingly embrace one other, flaws and all, like an extended part of the family.  But whatever stability exists comes to a crashing end as the scene shifts to the inside of a courtroom where a female judge speed reads his sentence in a thoroughly detached monotone, ultimately deciding to take his land away.  Kolya’s response is typical, to drown his sorrows in vodka, while later the equally drunk Mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), in a much more celebratory mood pulls up to his house in a mammoth SUV along with several armed henchmen and screams between the curses, “You don’t have any rights, you never had any rights, and you will never have any rights!”

 

A new face arrives on the scene, an old army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), Kolya’s former senior officer, now a hot-shot attorney in Moscow who has to acknowledge that on the face of it things don’t look good, that the cards are stacked in the Mayor’s favor, instituting a plan to dig up the dirt on the Mayor and confront him with publicizing his misdeeds, which may pressure him to change his mind.  While he has some initial success, as Vadim is flabbergasted that some slick Moscow attorney has such high level contacts to expose him, where in desperate straights, Vadim calls in his advisors to double check his options, but despite his pattern of cronyism, they remind him not to get so worked up, that things will work out, while also scheduling a personal appointment with the Orthodox priest, which turns out to be a most curious visit.  It’s important to understand that after the fall of the Soviet regime, the Russian Orthodox Church moved in and merged with the State, quickly reclaiming valuable real estate not only from factories and bureaucratic institutions but also from schools and hospitals, where a new church was being constructed seemingly on every street corner.  These construction projects were funded by entrepreneurs aligned with the government and more often than not involved bribing local officials, where overnight studying The Bible became a mandatory subject in schools while the head of the Church was wearing a forty thousand dollar wristwatch.  This sudden spurt of economic growth as a byproduct of rampant corruption is right out of Fassbinder’s LOLA (1981), where attempts at ethical reform and following the letter of the law are set aside for the sake of expedience.  Dmitri is so sure of himself, using the power of the law to empower a David over a Goliath, that he reaps the benefits of an overly grateful friend by sleeping with his wife, something that comes as a shock to the audience, but Kolya has lost all rational comprehension and has veered into delirium and near incapacity from excessive drinking, so he’s oblivious to what’s going on.  Dmitri, however, has already asked Lilya to return to Moscow with him, something on the face of it that would sound unthinkable.    

 

While the film is a critique of abuse of power, exposing how capitalism makes for strange bedfellows, while also drawing a larger picture of moral authority, actually bringing in the word of God in order to grasp the profound depths of the situation.  Job continually found himself at the mercy of the Lord, who tested his faith by a seeming limitless capacity to endure whatever obstacle God placed in his path.  But the parable of the entitled Leviathan taken from The Bible suggests there are powers greater than any man can endure, where death is but one of them.  The looming portrait of Putin hanging on the walls of the State offices is impossible to miss.  What elevates this particular film from others about corruption is how it connects the Russian Orthodox Church to the power of the Russian State, where their common interests are not for the benefit of people needing their services, but instead becomes an undaunted power grab, much like Henry VIII declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, where absolute power can do whatever it wants, steal, lie, kidnap, murder, inflict harm, declare war, or act irrationally and still continue to get away with it.  While Dmitri will soon discover he lacks this ultimate authority, he was nonetheless deluded enough to believe for a moment that he did through the power of law.  The fatalism of Roma and his friends, resigned to forever being outsiders, is the fate of the next generation knowing their future is doomed under the same unquestioned authority.  Lilya is perhaps the most anguished soul of them all, largely because she has the capacity to envision a better life, as Russia toyed with the idea of a democracy, but also watched that vision go down in defeat at the hands of absolute power, where she is similarly forced to accept a world with no future while capitulating to those who would take everything away from her in the process.  Kolya, on the other hand, has fended off every disaster with a sorrow rooted deeply within his Russian soul, but all that’s left is an instilled blindness, a brutal punishment with no chance of spiritual ascension, where drunken excess numbing the pain is the only way to endure the present, where there are simply no more thoughts about tomorrow.  In dramatic fashion, Zvyagintsev stages a drunken shooting party like The Last Supper, a vodka-fueled picnic where Kolya and his brethren of friends display spectacular humor at the Kafkaesque absurdity of their lives living in a Russian “shithole,” which is a mere fantasy or prelude of freedom, allowing their exaggerated, out of control behavior to grow to grotesque levels of excess, while the real events that matter will soon follow afterwards, where their lives are about to unravel, twisted into unrecognizable pieces of their former selves, beleaguered characters broken by an indomitable wind that blows over the land.

 

 

6.)  CAROL     Carol              A-                    94

USA Great Britain  (118 mi)  2015                Official site

 

What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space!        —Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett)

 

Todd Haynes has made the finest film of his career, a glowing tribute to all the gay romance stories that were never told during the golden era of Hollywood, a different kind of love story told with such eloquent restraint, yet it’s a story that’s been waiting perhaps a hundred years to be told, charged with extraordinary cinematography by Ed Lachman, shot on Super 16 mm with subdued tones and ultra-saturated colors that stand out brilliantly, where the suppressed emotion is the engine that drives the film throughout.  Described by John Waters in Artforum magazine (John Waters - artforum.com / in print), “Maybe the only way to be transgressive these days is to be shockingly tasteful.  This Lana Turner–meets–Audrey Hepburn lipstick-lesbian melodrama is so old-fashioned I felt like I was one year old after watching it.  That’s almost reborn.”  The film is without question an adult drama, where it never overreaches, as little to nothing is explained in political terms to the audience, yet the dramatic emotions are shockingly clear, while the two lead performances are among the best and most enduring of the year.  Adapted from the 1952 Patricia Highsmith lesbian-themed novel The Price of Salt, when the aftereffects of McCarthyism and 50’s conservatism are still in full swing, a period of vicious national anti-gay bias and continual witch-hunts, where according to Highsmith in a postscript to the novel many years later, “Those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they were suspected of being homosexual.”  The compact nature of the story and the sheer intimacy makes it feel more like an extended short story, as what’s so delicious to enjoy cinematically are the exquisite depth of characters, a luminous look, and tiny details where the subtleties make all the difference, with Carter Burwell’s musical score adding a quiet, prodding sense of urgency.  When this film is over, it’s as if we’ve known these two women all our lives.   

 

Haynes has worked his entire career to achieve what no other American director has ever accomplished, to bring a cinema of transgression into the mainstream, where this prim and proper and all too conventional film clearly reflects the influence of women’s films of the 40’s and 50’s that were often derided at the time, yet today are viewed completely differently, as if they incorporate subversive commentary, becoming psychological studies of complex female characters, much like his first extended television mini-series of MILDRED PIERCE (2011) was a remake of a 1945 Michael Curtiz film and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (2002) was a reworking of a 1955 Douglas Sirk film.  Each focuses on what’s going on under the surface, as in that era it was the only place that gays and lesbians were allowed to express themselves, as what could be viewed on the surface could be used against them, as simply being gay was sufficient grounds to deny work, housing, and social opportunities, not to mention the unleashing of punitive legal restrictions when it came to love.  Even the novel upon which the film is based was published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan and under a different title, as the author always wanted the title to be Carol (retitled in 1990 only after publishing it in her own name) according to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy who was friends with Highsmith, with the contents reflecting the obstacles any lesbian couple would likely encounter in the mid-20th century, adding to the confusion of many coming-of-age women, as any expression of gay and lesbian desires was not only frowned upon but outlawed.  According to Highsmith, at the time, homosexuals in fiction “had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality… or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.”  As the only novel written by Highsmith that is outside the crime genre, Haynes points out “it is completely consistent with the rest of her work.  But in this case, the crime is love, and the love is illegal,” where the defiant optimism of the book has always been viewed as radical social content, as it’s one of the rare lesbian love stories of its time that remains guardedly hopeful and optimistic.

 

Interesting that the origin of the story has real-life roots, as Highsmith used to work part-time at Macy’s in New York in the doll department, where she was so struck by the elegance of a particular woman, Kathleen Senn, a “blondish woman in a fur coat,” who came in looking for a doll for her child that she wrote down her address in Park Ridge, New Jersey from the sale’s slip, taking a train and cab out to her house on her day’s off just to spy on her, though they never met again.  But that night, after seeing the woman in the store, Highsmith went home and wrote out the plot for the novel.  “All my life work will be an undedicated monument to a woman,” Highsmith wrote in her diary in 1942, ten years before the novel was published.  “I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her… Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her.”  Only afterwards did she learn the woman was a troubled alcoholic who killed herself in the garage from the exhaust fumes of a running car, but this was the original inspiration for The Price of Salt.  In addition, Highsmith recalls the personal circumstances of one of her former lovers, Virginia Kent Catherwood, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite she first met in New York in 1944, whose debutante ball in December 1933 was reportedly the most lavish party in Philadelphia since the Depression, who lost custody of her child in a particularly scandalous divorce that was the subject of gossip columns in the 1940’s, where a tape recording of her and one of her lovers in a hotel bedroom was used against her in court.  Written from the perspective of a young Manhattan shopgirl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the book is ostensibly “an interior monologue of her thoughts,” according to Nagy, using an experimental, stream-of-conscious point of view, where “Therese is (Highsmith’s) alter ego, so she isn’t a character — she’s the voice of an author.”  Nagy, who wrote her first draft of the script a decade ago, had to rework the ghostly presence of the author in Therese’s character, reconstructing a new personality through the incandescent subtlety of Mara’s performance, instilling in her the shy and naïve qualities of a younger woman in her twenties (only 19 in the book) still discovering herself while yearning for a wealthier woman considerably older and more confident in Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who just happens to stroll into her department store counter one day over the Christmas holiday leaving a lasting impression that won’t let go. 

 

While Carol, in effect, represents the object of Patricia Highsmith’s own desire, bearing an odd similarity to the Hitchcock blonde, she is immediately seen as a glamorous, charismatic, and self-assured woman pursuing her own interests, though we quickly realize her personal relationship with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is on the rocks.  While they live separately, he continues to dominate her life by making threats and demands, and while his alcoholic behavior tends towards abusive when things aren’t going his way, that doesn’t stop him in his perpetual quest to control her, which includes their shared 4-year old daughter Rindy (played by two child actresses, Sadie and Kk Heim) that Carol pampers with constant affection.  While they represent the icy coolness of upper class wealth, with well-established emotional distance and reserve, Therese is plagued by the incessant attention from her well-intentioned boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who reminds her at every opportunity that their summer will be spent voyaging to Europe in hopes that they will marry.  It’s hard not to forget that perfectly well-intentioned husbands routinely confined their wives to housework and to the kitchen in this time period.  While he’s obviously smitten by her beauty, she’s under no such spell, remaining indifferent to his advances, but appreciating his friendship.  When Carol asks to meet for lunch, it’s a cautious meeting, with so much going on under the surface, ending prematurely with the interruption of a friend, which leads to a subsequent invite to Carol’s lavish home.  The first time they’re alone is expressed in a car ride leading out of the city into the scenic countryside, with Therese taking pictures of Carol buying a Christmas tree, where the impressionistic mosaic seen from the reflection in the window is utterly intoxicating, where despite few words being spoken, it’s an enthralling moment, beautifully capturing the initial signs of being in love, so perfectly integrated into the rest of the film, which couldn’t be more understated.  Instead of an idyllic afternoon alone in her home, playing the piano or listening the LP records of jazz recordings, their interlude is broken up by the intrusion of Harge, who grows increasingly upset by the presence of Therese, leading to a full-fledged rant about her lifestyle, where Carol had an affair years earlier with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), and he’s obviously alarmed and suspicious of more of the same.  Fuming out of the house with Rindy in tow, Harge spends the holiday in Florida with his parents, while Carol, visibly upset, abruptly drives Therese to the train station. 

 

Despite the obvious hysterics, more is yet to come, as Harge petitions a judge for full custody of Rindy, claiming Carol’s pattern of attraction to other women violates a Morals clause, sending her into a depressive swoon of emotional turmoil, becoming a Sirkian melodrama where her rights are being subjected to the narrow views of a husband and ultimately a judge, both male, which has the effect of tightening the noose around her lifestyle.  With limited options, Carol decides to take a lengthy road trip to alleviate the stress, inviting Therese along, where Richard, seeing her pack, feels just as suspicious as Harge, both men feeling the effects of losing their controlling interests, where mistrust leads to an untidy break up.  The road trip is deceptively subdued, filled with small moments, where everything is strange and ambiguous, including roadside encounters that make it clear Haynes is a fan of Edward Hopper, with little to note except the tenderness that builds between them, where they are literally reconstructing their lives in a vacuum, standing outside all intruding conventions of society, taking their time, feeling like a kind of slowly paced, wish fulfillment coming out party, where politeness and manner enter into the equation, yet most of all there is a developing need to be needed, while continually hanging over any buildup of erotic tension is the lingering custody of a young girl.  It’s not until Waterloo, Iowa, ironically, that they consummate their desires, where it’s more suggested than revealed, expressed with inordinate taste and refinement.  By the time they get to Chicago, however, staying in the swank elegance of the Drake Hotel, their momentary bliss comes to a crashing halt when Carol learns they’ve been secretly tape recorded by an unsavory detective hired by her husband working undercover.  While it hardly feels like forbidden love, as in Haynes’ hands it’s positively ordinary, yet it has taken until June 26, 2013 for same-sex marriage to become the law of the land in the United States, so the film itself, set in a flashback structure, where we see the same scene from utterly different perspectives both at the beginning and near the end, is a historical flashback into our own discriminatory pasts when the dominant ideology forbid it and lives were ruined because of it.  Haynes’ protagonists couldn’t be less subversive, yet at the time they were viewed as abnormal, disrupting social order, setting a dangerous precedent for our children.  It’s the all-consuming tenderness of the protagonists that sets this film apart, where rarely have we ever seen intelligent characters be so quietly civil and display such well-construed politeness, yet their romantic affairs are continually interrupted in the harshest manner possible, with their lives upended by society’s dominant interests, showing little regard for the emotional upheaval it caused, all protected by the enormous power of the law.  To think all this wisdom eluded us for so many years.  The final, silent encounter is nothing short of stunning, a rare glimpse of poetry in motion, where the smallest moments are the most miraculous.        

 

7.)  MY GOLDEN DAYS (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)      My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)          A-                  
France  (120 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Arnaud Desplechin 

While not exactly a prequel, but a reimagining of an original story used in an earlier film, MY SEX LIFE…OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT (1996), which was a sprawling three-hour French relationship talkathon, while in this film Desplechin has resurrected the central character of Paul Dédalus, played nineteen years apart in both films by Mathieu Amalric, who opens the film as a present day character remembering events occurring in the late 80’s and early 90’s, where a more accurate French title translates to Three Remembrances of My Youth.  Winner of the SACD Prize (Best Screenplay) in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, the director (along with Julie Peyr) has written a memory play that explores the Proustian autobiographical memories of the Dédalus character from childhood through adolescence, told in three segments, where the first two, Childhood and Russia, preface a larger story entitled Esther that blends into the early periods of MY SEX LIFE, a film that falls within a great tradition of French coming-of age-films, having made some of the best, including Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages) (1994), and Assayas’s Cold Water (L’eau Froide) (1994).  The brief opening sequences are actually the weakest in the entire film, as the viewer doesn’t have a handle yet on Paul Dédalus, or even a connection to the earlier film.  Instead he’s seen as a middle-aged man leaving his lover, returning to Paris for a government post in Foreign Affairs after spending a decade working as a scholar and anthropologist in Tajikistan.  It’s only at the airport where he’s stopped and questioned, interrogated by a French official, dutifully performed by Resnais regular André Dussollier, with questions about his passport, which shifts the film into a lengthy flashback sequence, often expressed through a round (iris) frame, a holdover technique from the Silent era, suggesting memories of long ago, recounting three seminal moments from his past.  Like Truffaut’s young ruffian alter-ego character Antoine Doinel, a petrified 11-year old Paul Dédalus (Antoine Bui) also ran away from his home in Roubaix escaping from his deranged mother, depicted in a panicked German Expressionist horror scene where he holds her off with a knife (shadows appearing on a staircase), warning her not to come any closer, before running away to his kindly great-aunt Rose, Françoise Lebrun, who played Veronika in The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), looking better than ever, observed by a curious young Paul as the affectionate recipient of a sweet lesbian kiss.  While he’s sad to learn of his mother’s suicide shortly thereafter (claiming he never loved her), it has a permanent effect on his emotionally depressed father (Olivier Rabourdin), whose mind is elsewhere and is unable to look after his children, where Paul along with his sister and younger brother share their formative teenage years raising themselves. 

 

However, this does not account for why there is another Paul Dédalus living in Australia with a registered passport using the same birthdate and birthplace.  For that, the scene shifts to Russia, where Paul takes an eventful student high school trip to Minsk in the USSR as an idealistic 16-year old, now played by Quentin Dolmaire, turning into an amateur spy thriller when he along with his Jewish friend Marc (Elyot Milshtein) agree to help the Refuseniks (Refuseniks - Jewish Virtual Library), sneaking away from a student tour of the National Arts Museum to help a group of Russian Jews denied permission to leave the country, providing secret packages filled with money, while Paul goes so far as to offer his passport, allowing someone else to assume his identity.  To cover for his own lost passport, he gives himself a black eye and claims he was mugged and his passport stolen.  Filled with plenty of Cold War tension, including bribing a suspicious police officer that stops them with a pack of American cigarettes, the young boys actually pull it off, blending into his teenage years where he’s with his sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) and brother Ivan (Raphaël Cohen) watching television footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which Paul finds sad as “I can see my childhood ending.”  But most of all he remembers Esther, played by Lou Roy-Lecollinet, an absolute delight as the girl of his dreams, the beauty of his eye, and his soulmate, something he realizes from the moment he sets eyes on her, as she’s “the one,” a dazzling beauty who is mature beyond her years, amusingly aware of the effect she has on men, and couldn’t care less what others think of her, an earlier version of the same character played by Emmanuelle Devos in MY SEX LIFE.  Inviting her to come to a party at their father’s house (believing he is away), Desplechin perfectly frames her entrance, shifting to slow motion with her initial appearance, where celestial music honors her as the Goddess of Love and Beauty.  The same device is used several times, each time more amusing than the next, as this is exactly how high school boys envision their first love.  They’re not just “in love,” but the moon and the stars orbit around her very presence.  Paul has a clever way of showing his interest, especially when she shows up with somebody else, which is to ignore her while she dances with all the other guys, staring ponderously at her throughout, waiting until the guy she came with decides to leave, expecting to take her home, but she insists upon staying, rudely telling him to scram.  Thus begins the long journey of a tumultuous decade-long love affair, but that night, all he does is walk her home, romantically walking through the city streets just before daybreak, awkwardly trying to make clever conversation, confessing whatever comes out of his mouth, which she finds amusing, ending the night with the cinematic perfection of a gentle kiss, conveying in our eyes exactly how he feels and just what she means to him. 


These two, Roy-Lecollinet and Dolmaire, both first time actors, literally light up the screen, where their ecstatic combustible energy is something to savor, as Esther is viewed as royalty, where every male in the vicinity is attracted to her, so she quickly learns to fend them off and has become a master in the art of the put-down, showing an instant disdain for people that get on her nerves, believing life is too short for people to waste her time, but she has the whole world beckoning her, wanting to be with her.  Initially Paul appears to have little chance, spending his time traveling back and forth between Roubaix and Paris, where it turns out absence makes the heart grow fonder.  In an era before social media, where now kids routinely send hundreds of text messages every day, the preferred technique back in the day was writing letters, pouring out one’s heart and soul in confessional outpourings of love (which are read directly into the camera), where every spare moment is dedicated to an idyllic “her,” keeping her foremost on his mind even as he pursues his Parisian studies and a life as an academic, where their exchanges are electric, literally flowing with excitement and energy when they meet, exhibiting all the signs of a sweetness of youth, becoming passionate lovers before long, where they can’t live without each other.  The beauty of this film is really the playfulness of Desplechin’s cinematic presentation, the way he mixes it up, showing plenty of offbeat humor, tenderness, moments of despair, crude awakenings, and a world where nothing makes sense except each other, but where their journey together is anything but smooth as she fights to maintain her fiery independence, often shown facing straight into the camera with a cigarette in her hand, where she’s literally posing for the audience, becoming a snapshot in time.  On again, off again, she’s put off by the extent of his absences, and freely acknowledges she sleeps with other guys, where they go through a series of breakups and reconciliations, but Paul has a way of charming the pants off her (which happens literally with another woman in the film), where she loves the way he’ll poetically describe a work of art, like one of his favorite paintings, putting her somewhere in the center of its majestic beauty, a sacred, unreachable perfection, while he sees himself as some lonely figure off to the side, but perhaps the only thing in the frame alert enough to notice the power of her staggering presence.  It’s a fascinating free-wheeling style that matches the furious pace of his earlier film, literally painting a window into their damaged souls where they have such a special chemistry together that is rare in films today.  With a throbbing soundtrack that matches the elevated emotional reach of the film, there’s something bewitching and enchanting about it, where Desplechin’s masterful direction breathes life into an age-old Romeo and Juliet love story, becoming intensely personal, fiercely sincere, especially a scene late in the film, with tinges of sadness when looked back upon because it never lasted, but the thoughtfulness and thorough detail of the remembrances are a brilliant ode to youth, as illuminating as they are intoxicating.

 

 

8.)  EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El abrazo de la serpiente)     Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)              A-              

Colombia  Venezuela  Argentina  (125 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Crio Guerra               Official site    

 

Winner of the CICAE award at Cannes, which promotes art cinema, this surprisingly haunting period film, shot in black and white, with a brief expanse into color near the end, is not nearly as inventive or fantastical as Miguel Gomes’s 2013 Top Ten List #4 Tabu (2012), though it exists in an entirely different universe, offering a unique vantage point of those historically connected to Amazon rain forests and the indigenous population residing there.  The film is a road map for a journey into the past, exposing the brutal effects of colonialism imposed upon an indigenous population in Colombia, including the aftereffects of centuries of barbaric atrocities, slave labor, forced religious conversions, an elimination of their native languages, all highlighting the mammoth differences in cultural perspective between whites and local natives, as whites have plundered the rain forests in search of rubber and annihilated all but the last traces of an indigenous population, where the surviving native tribes no longer trust white people, having learned from personal experience that scheming whites are the lowest scourge of the earth.  The idea of profiting off the natural treasures found growing in the rain forest seems preposterous to the native people, who have for centuries developed a reverence for the sacred and curative powers of natural plants, such as the prized yakruna flower with alleged healing powers that whites wish to harvest in order to extract the purest rubber, where all whites see in the flower are dollar signs.  Even as these explorers hide their real intentions of what they plan to do with this plant if they find it, their writings about their expeditions provide the only window into this lost world.  What distinguishes this film is its ability to frame so much of the narrative around a non-white cultural perspective, holding a mirror up to Western civilization’s pattern of abuses in the region, offering a scintillatingly refreshing viewpoint that artistically evokes a curative solution for the hubris and arrogance that has perpetually guided outsiders into the region. 

 

Blending fact and fiction, the interconnected narrative follows a dual track thirty years apart, based upon the diaries of German ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg in 1909, played by Jan Bijvoet from Borgman (2013), and another expedition that followed in his footsteps by American biologist and plant enthusiast Richard Evans Schultes in the 1940’s, played by Brionne Davis from AVENGED (2013), who had read Theo’s book, where each journey into the Amazon rain forest was in search of an elusive flower with amazing medicinal properties, where both men come in contact with the same medicine man or shaman, Karamakate, Niblio Torres in his youth and Antonio Bolivar as the older man, the last surviving member of his tribe in a region overrun by colonialists.  The blending of time adds a surreal quality to the film, where the slower pace of life along the river traversing by canoe through spectacular jungle foliage is already depicted in a lush, dreamlike atmosphere, beautifully shot by David Gallego, with an extraordinary sound design by Carlos García, enriched by the vivid sounds and sights of the flora and fauna, where as many as nine different languages are spoken along with native songs and ceremonial chants.  Wasting little time, the film gets right into the heart of the story, where a young Karamakate waits on a riverbank with a painted face in ceremonial attire, spear in hand, wearing only a loin cloth as a canoe approaches carrying a deathly-ill German scientist and a native companion Maduca (Yauenkü Migue) dressed in clothing worn by whites.  Asking if he would save his friend’s life, the shaman refuses, claiming it was the white man that destroyed his village and wiped out his entire tribe, where he’s all that’s left, showing an equal amount of contempt for both of them, telling them to go look elsewhere.  When Theo suggests there are survivors from his tribe and he knows where to find them, the irritated Karamakate reluctantly agrees to help, so long as they disturb nothing, while refusing to eat meat or fish and leaving the jungle intact.  Blowing a substance (likely a mixture of coca leaves) directly into his nose, Theo soon recovers, readily abiding by a new set of guidelines established by Karamakate, who must continually inject him with this curative medicine to avoid a relapse, as only the yakruna flower can provide a permanent cure. 

 

As they begin their Odysseus-like journey, the film possesses a near mythical quality as they encounter a series of unfortunate circumstances, deliberately entering Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the making of the film itself recalls the impossible encounters of Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO (1982), or the madness of AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), continually mixing the future with the past, where the filmmaker literally alters any concept of time, as it’s all part of the same “experience,” where Karamakate informs them “Listen to what the river can tell you.  Every tree, every flower brings wisdom.”  For the shaman, this is also a journey of rediscovery, as his powers have grown rusty from disuse, identifying as a chullachaqui (an empty shell of a human being), allowing himself to be a part of the world again where he once again lives in harmony with all things.  He ridicules the useless pile of suitcases that Theo lugs along at every step, suggesting “they’re just things” weighing them down, throwing them overboard at one point, while Theo claims he is a man of science, where he has to provide evidence of where he’s been or no one back in Germany would believe him, showing him notebooks of drawings he has made, or specimens he has collected along the way, which includes taking Karamakate’s photograph standing proudly as the master of his domain.  This same photograph is used to guide Richard back into the same region decades later, as they retrace the same steps traveled on the earlier journey still in search of the elusive plant.  In a way, the narrative structure resembles Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), where an Indian leads a white man on a protracted journey of awakening just before the hour of his death, retracing their steps as they cross between several spiritual realms leading up to the “final crossing.”  As we see Theo socializing with a group of natives in their own language, where there is plenty of singing and dancing, he demonstrates the advanced power of a compass, which one of the natives takes to immediately, offering a handmade craft for its possession, which angers Theo, as it’s one of his most prized navigational tools, suggesting technology will alter their natural evolution, but Karamakate reminds him that blind ignorance is not some pure romanticized notion, “You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men.”

 

While there are many horrors seen along the way, perhaps the worst are the crimes perpetrated by the rubber industry, as they come across a grove of bleeding rubber trees, a reflection of the white presence in the Amazon, where Maduca angrily spills all the cups collecting the white sticky liquid released from gashes in the trunks of the trees, fuming over the Effects on indigenous population where the rubber barons viciously rounded up the local Indians by force, placed them in chains, killed them on the spot or cut off the arms of those that disobeyed, while ordering them to tap rubber out of the trees, where on one plantation alone that began with 50,000 Indians, only 8,000 remained after the harvest.  In some areas 90% of the Indian population was wiped out.  A distraught one-armed man they encounter is beside himself in grief at what they’ve done, knowing he will be held responsible, asking them to kill him right there on the spot, as he will surely not live to see another day.  Further down river they run into a deranged Spanish priest running a Catholic mission filled with orphaned native children who lost their parents to the rubber plantations, all dressed in white robes, where they are forbidden to speak in their native, or “pagan” language, including ancestral fables and stories, as any cultural reminders of where they came from is subject to brutal punishment, where the absurdity of the situation is so dire that the priest prefers to inflict the wrath of a public whipping even as the Colombian army approaches on a rampage through the countryside where in all likelihood they will eventually be slaughtered.  Besides a need to unburden themselves of material possessions, to explore the mystery of existence through consciousness alone, Karamakate reminds both scientists that they carry psychological baggage and cannot be cured of their illness because the white man has forgotten how to dream.  In spite of the sinister undercurrent, there’s a meditative quality to Guerra’s direction that culminates in a transformative final scene that transcends into a near-religious mystical experience, where the only way to heal is by learning how to dream, all emerging from their journeys as different men, as they are finally allowed to “experience” what they came in search of, literally exploding out of the subconscious like the final scenes of Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), becoming a montage of brilliant, swirling colors, a hallucinogenic, dream-like vision revealing the magnificence of the cosmos, complete with animal gods and heavenly constellations, where the universe exists in all its abstract manifestations, pushing the boundaries of what is real and imagined, offering a poignant closing dedication to those “peoples whose song we will never know.”   

 

 

9.)  THE ASSASSIN (Nie Yinniang)      The Assassin (Nie Yinniang)          A-                  

Taiwan  China  Hong Kong  France  (107 mi)  2015  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien                Official site [Japan]

 

Winner of the Best Director at Cannes, shot on 35 mm by longtime cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, this is undoubtedly one of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever seen, thought of during the screening as a cross between Wong Kar-wai’s ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008, from 1994 version) and Kurosawa in 3D.  From the outset one can’t help but be impressed by the luxuriousness of the images and the multiple layers of form that exist like wavy tree branches swaying in the breeze, with someone seen stirring in the shadows, moving slowly between the various fields of visions, as rocky crevices seemingly protrude off the screen, where movement is expressed by changes of focus within the frame of the same shot, continually altering the depth perception of the viewer, offering an experience like no other.  While this is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s rendering of a Wuxia film, slow and hypnotically mesmerizing, thoughtfully accentuating the historical period detail in a film drenched in a painterly opulence that supersedes any consideration for action sequences, credit must be given to costumes and production designer Huang Wen-ying that so illustriously recreates the meticulous look of the 9th century, including paintings on the set that were drawn by students from the academy of fine arts in Taipei, while also featuring the captivatingly percussive music by Lim Giong, as there isn’t a single frame that doesn’t appear in synch with the director’s artistic vision.  The problem, as there is for most all martial arts films, is there’s simply not much of a story, and what little there is feels overshadowed by the luminous dreamlike quality of the film.  His first costume drama since the hypnotic allure of Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua) (1998), and his first feature in 8 years since THE FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (2007), this is an almost equally financed Taiwan-China production (also a first for this director) costing ten times more than any of his previous works, adapted from a 9th century short story from the Tang Dynasty scribe Pei Xing, known as chuanqi, freely reimagined by the director who has had this film in mind for the past 25 years, initially written in very precise, classical Chinese language, simplified in the English subtitles for easier comprehension, yet also pared down again by the director who refuses to reveal too much, eliminating all extraneous material, leaving behind only a minimalist, barebones outline of a story.  

 

Set in a time when the Imperial Court and the Weibo province (the largest and strongest of the many provinces) co-exist in an uneasy alliance when various military factions are still vying for power and control in China, the film is named after the lead character, Nie Yinniang, Shu Qi from THREE TMES (2005), exiled by her family at the age of ten where she was raised by Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), a princess turned Taoist nun, a near mythological creature that trains her to become a lethal assassin charged with the task of targeting a tyranny of governors that avoid the authority of the Emperor in the Imperial Court.  In the opening prologue, filmed in black and white, condensed into a boxed 1:37 aspect ratio, we see Yinniang (which means Hidden Woman) dressed entirely in black, waiting patiently lurking in the shadows before springing into action, literally flying across the screen, striking a lethal blow, slitting the throat of a man on horseback, all happening in the blink of an eye, seemingly faster than the eye can see.  When it becomes apparent what’s happened, the stunned guards react angrily, but all we see are flashes of swords chasing through the foliage of a dense forest that fades into darkness.   Moving on to the house of her next prey, she is once again a near invisible presence, but decides not to strike her intended victim, preferring not to kill him in front of his young son seen innocently chasing after a butterfly.  This sentiment clearly angers her teacher, believing the art of killing is coldblooded efficiency, with all emotions held in check.  As a test of her resolve, Jiaxin sends her on a mission to murder the governor of Weibo, the place where Yinniang was born.  Upon returning to the familiar grounds of her family home after the passage of who knows how many years, a place she no longer has any connection to, the frame expands to widescreen along with bursts of color, as the opening title greets the audience set against the crimson colors of a stunning landscape shot at sunset.  What follows is a stream of confusion, as Hou introduces a flurry of new characters each with differing motives, including a new palace aflutter with rumors and political turmoil in an expanding interior architectural design featuring stunning ornamental decors, blending the lavish elegance and color of the silk robes illuminated by candlelight with the curtains blowing in the breeze.  Once again, the camera pans around the corners of existing layers that exist within the frame of each composition, where Yinniang lurks in hidden places only the audience sees. 

 

Chang Chen, previously paired with Shu Qi in THREE TIMES (2005), having evolved from the young 14-year old nonprofessional lead in Edward Yang’s masterwork A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), plays the targeted governor Lord Tian Ji’an, the most powerful leader in the Weibo province, who just happens to be Yinniang’s cousin, where once they were young lovers slated to be married, but we learn his mother betrayed her, so she was sent away instead, and a political marriage was arranged between two powerful families in order to help maintain the peace between Weibo and the Imperial Court.  One of the more poignant aspects of the film is revealed when Lord Tian explains the significance of two matching jade pieces that he and Yinniang were given as children.  All of this adds an element of intrigue surrounding her mission, as she’s ordered to kill a man she once loved.  In the flurry of activity inside the palace, Lord Tian has problems of his own, where the supposed peace appears to be crumbling, angrily banishing a young lord for speaking unwisely, sending soldiers after him to bury him alive, leading to a confrontation with Yinniang in a gorgeously realized ambush in the birch trees, while his wife Lady Tian (Zhou Yun) is growing more increasingly hostile towards his favorite concubine, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying), who is concealing her pregnancy.  Making matters worse, Lord Tian is regularly approached by a seemingly dark presence that appears out of the shadows, always arriving unexpectedly, none more amusing than when Yinniang reveals herself to the Lord by falling from the roof and coming face-to-face to announce Huji’s pregnancy, then disappearing just as quickly into the night.  One of the more bizarre scenes features Yinniang having to dual a literal mirror image of herself, another female adversary in a gold mask, which suggests she’s from a wealthy house, in contrast to the black outfit worn by Yinniang.  While this scene is never explained and is more of a puzzle than anything else, with some suggesting she’s fighting her own inner demons, the lady in the gold mask is none other than Lady Tian, apparently unhappy with the way Yinniang has returned to meddle in her husband’s affairs, also showing she’s willing to fight any perceived threat to her own family’s position in Weibo, playing a more complex, Lady Macbeth role (even more devious later), which gives Yinniang reason to pause.  Of interest, the lady in the gold mask and Lady Tian were two different characters in the original script, but were merged into one by the final shooting.    

 

One of the more sinister characters behind the scenes is a bald wizard with huge eyebrows and an overflowing beard, viewed as a martial arts master with magic powers (perhaps the teacher of Lady Tian), who makes paper dolls carrying demonic spells.  In the one supernatural sequence of the film, the doll produces a poisonous fog that seems to disintegrate the unsuspecting Huji, only to be thwarted by the intervention of Yinniang who discovers the murderous plot.  When the soldiers find the old wizard, they shoot him with a volley of arrows.  In Hou’s original conception, however, the old man magically escapes by disappearing in front of the soldiers, leaving the arrows to find only his clothes that remain without a human body.  But Hou never found a way to make this look convincing, so the old man perished.  Certainly one of the most gorgeous scenes is a rhapsodic ceremonial sequence that is literally drenched in the visual extravagance of Oriental fantasies, which is an astonishing physical reconstruction of 9th century Weibo.  Populating the landscape with remarkably dense forests from Inner Mongolia and China’s Hubei province, the martial arts sequences are themselves conceived as short bursts of energy, viewed as a perfect economy of the spirit, practicing humility, while always maintaining harmonious balance according to the teachings of the I Ching.  According to interviews, Hou has indicated viewers may need to see this film as many as three times in order to fully understand the intricacies involved, first to get a rough idea of the artistic presentation, second to understand the story buried so deeply within the rich textures of the film, and third to fully appreciate just how extraordinary this film is.  It does pose a Shakespearean dilemma posed in Hamlet, but in this film, which audaciously features an assassin as the protagonist, it asks the question:  to kill or not to kill?  Spending most of the movie waiting and ponderously observing, the character could serve as an alter ego or stand-in for the filmmaker himself, as Yinniang is torn between the teachings of her Taoist master to carry out her assignment, while also having to contend with her own family, as her father is an advisor to Lord Tian, to whom she may still have an unspoken connection of her own, becoming something of a prolonged battle of wills.  While it’s extremely unusual for a lead character to only have about nine speaking lines, her opaque, gravely toned down performance matches the severity of her mission, which allows the audience to interpret what she’s experiencing while continuously looming behind the scenes.  While she’s curiously indecisive, playing to the strength of her mental resolve to evaluate in its entirety just how things are playing out in the Weibo palace before she acts, only intervening from time to time, as she allows the natural order of things to unfold while assailing the unpredictable fluctuations of history and time.  When all is said and done, she emerges as the master of her own destiny, much like the director who has made yet another film unlike anyone else, redefining the well-traveled genre as an art form that can literally transport an audience back into another mystical time and place in breathtaking fashion.

 

 

10.)   ABOUT ELLY  (Darbareye Elly)     About Elly (Darbareye Elly)         A-                 

Iran  France  (119 mi)  2009  d:  Asghar Farhadi                  

 

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few major Iranian directors that still makes films in Iran, a nation where literally dozens of filmmakers have been arrested and released under the Ahmadinejad regime, as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, along with filmmaker and actress Mahnaz Mohammadi, remain imprisoned for political differences, their passports revoked, banned from making future movies, while legendary Iranian New Wave directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf work in exile.  It’s a significant paradox that Farhadi has been free to serve on juries for major international film festivals, and even win major prizes himself, including his highly acclaimed A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (2011), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay), becoming the highest grossing Iranian film ever made (listed as #40 foreign language movie of all-time, Foreign Language Movies at the Box Office - Box Office Mojo) and the first Iranian to win an Academy Award in any competitive category, while his compatriots languish in prison.  We are reminded that in September 2010 during the making of A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), which due to past film successes was made without any governmental support, Farhadi was banned from making the film by the Iranian Ministry of Culture, as during earlier acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, he expressed support for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled Iranian filmmaker living at the time in Afghanistan, and imprisoned political filmmaker Jafar Panahi, both of whom are linked to the Iranian Green Movement that questioned the validity of the 2009 Iranian Presidential election, demanding the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.  The ban was lifted a month later after Farhadi apologized for his remarks and claimed to be inaccurately perceived.  While certainly considered one of the most important directors of the 90’s, the Iranian government has long refused to permit the screening of any Kiarostami film for well over a decade, causing him to remark, “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past 10 years... I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.  They tend to support films that are stylistically very different from mine – melodramas” ("Abbas Kiarostami – Not A Martyr", Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian, April 26, 2005), which begs the question, why is Farhadi still visibly working in Iran while others have disappeared or been silenced?  The Past (Le Passé) (2013) was even partially financed by Iran.  Perhaps it’s a matter of economics, as his films continue to make money, seemingly at odds with arthouse filmmakers who have other priorities.  That being said, ABOUT ELLY is only belatedly having an international release six years after it premiered to considerable acclaim at the Berlin Festival in 2009 where Farhadi won a Silver Bear for Best Director, winning dozens of other awards as well, but it was mysteriously shelved afterwards, as an earlier distributor that acquired the film apparently went out of business.  It’s curious that this film’s public introduction comes “after” his two earlier films drew such heavy international praise, where one of them surprisingly became the most successful film in Iranian film history. 

 

When seen in this context, how ironic that the film with the least amount of accompanying accolades is arguably this director’s best film.  This may be the closest Farhadi has come to emulating Jafar Panahi, where Western elements creep into an Iranian film, whose CRIMSON GOLD (2003) mixes the stylization of Iranian social realism with a European art film, actually paying tribute to Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957).  In similar fashion, ABOUT ELLY borrows liberally from Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), a film where Italian neo-realism comes face to face with contemporary modern society, a brooding interior film that expresses extreme emotional alienation through slow pacing, narrative ambiguity, and extraordinary visual stylization.  In each, a large degree of the film’s success can be attributed to the brilliance of the character development, where multiple figures literally come to life onscreen, becoming familiar to us all by the end of the picture.  While Antonioni creates spaces between characters through silences or long wordless sequences, Farhadi takes a more collective approach, creating a group dynamic that is reflective of a casual self-interest mindset when one member of a group of friends goes mysteriously missing during a weekend trip to the Caspian Sea.  Intent on examining the fractured and hypocritical culture of the middle-class, Farhadi conceals their underlying motives throughout most of the film before allowing them to erupt in emotional fireworks during an explosive finale.  An essay-like comment on contemporary times, ABOUT ELLY also accentuates the extreme degree of alienation from rapidly changing cultural norms, exposing utter indifference to the social injustice of women, whose powerlessness leaves them even further isolated from the mainstream, their lives dominated and completely controlled by the arrogance and paternalistic whims of selfishly deluded men, revealing just how completely out of touch they are with their wives and female counterparts who are all but invisible to them.  The stark divide is a breathtaking surprise, a social critique beautifully revealed through unraveling layers of seemingly innocuous conversations that become dramatically intensified, ultimately a distinctively evolving passion play that reaches heights of hysteria, dramatically expressed with a great deal of clarity, though this only becomes evident by the end.  Farhadi’s true strength is his writing, and while there are nearly a dozen featured characters, the naturalism of their performances really serves the overall outcome.  Much like a stage play, though expressed with utter simplicity, the speed and rhythm of the conversational interplay between characters must reflect the overall mood changes of a very complicated social dynamic, where it’s essential they be viewed as believable and authentic.  The success of this film is that all the movable parts contribute to the whole, where what’s lurking under the surface, seemingly benign and of little consequence, has a powerful impact that in the end provides a stunning societal exposé. 

 

The film begins innocently enough, as a group of middle-class friends, old classmates from the university, set out for a relaxing weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea, three married couples and their young children, including Sepideh, Golshifteh Farahani from My Sweet Pepper Land (2013), who organized the trip, who brings along Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, while also inviting a male friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who recently separated from his wife and is visiting from Germany.  While the boisterous mood remains upbeat, with plenty of music and chatter, the overriding feeling is one of exuberance, expressing the joy of being young and happy, shot in a cinéma vérité style, where the audience is exposed to wave after wave of overlapping conversations.  Not to be deterred, despite being full for the holidays, the group is offered a seaside villa with broken windows and no beds that hasn’t been fixed up yet, but the charm of the nearby sea is inviting.  Playing charades, singing songs, or spontaneously breaking out into dance, it’s a celebratory atmosphere with plenty of food brought in for the occasion.  While Elly is admittedly shy and reluctantly hesitant, there’s a bit of matchmaking going on behind the scenes, which is all in good fun, where they’re playfully introduced as young newlyweds to the rental owners to avoid any hint of scandal.  Nonetheless, with things seemingly going well, Elly is admittedly uncomfortable and seeks to leave early, spoiling the fun for Sepideh who encourages her to stay.  While the women are out buying food and the men are having a strenuous volleyball match on the beach, Elly is watching the kids, seen in a state of ecstasy while flying a kite, but then Sepideh’s daughter frantically cries out for help as one of the other children has gone out too far and is being carried out to sea, creating an panic-stricken moment of hysteria where all the adults run and jump into the water without a clue where he is.  Fortunately, after a delirious search, the child is safely rescued, but then they notice Elly has disappeared, where no one knows what happened to her.  Unsure whether she drowned or returned home on her own, suddenly the film takes on a more sinister mood, where they have to get their stories straight before calling the police, as they don’t wish to be implicated.  Self-preservation overrides any sense of honor in the face of tragedy, as each begins looking out for themselves, pointing their fingers at others, trying any way they can to escape blame.  It’s a sad and pathetic situation when they literally turn on one another, like sharks with blood in the water, with husbands blaming wives, claiming they should have been watching the kids, not some stranger whose last name they don’t even know, fearing how this might ruin their reputations and good social standing.  A carefree vacation of best friends turns into a desperate moment of panic, fear, and outright suspicion.  In no time it grows even more complicated, like a house of cards imploding on itself, where a protracted series of lies meant to spare someone emotional grief only escalates, reaching a level of emotional hysteria previously unseen in Iranian films.  Relying heavily on suspense, Farhadi unspools this extraordinary drama in sophisticated fashion, first creating the unsettled, murky waters of suspicion and distrust, then critiquing the morality of patronizing, overzealous social conventions while also exploring the male/female dynamic in modern Iran.  It’s a masterful effort that moves from the sunny comforts of Èric Rohmer territory to the dark psychological realms of Hitchcockian suspense. 

 

 

 

 

Honorable Mention

 

 

HEART OF A DOG     Heart of a Dog                                 A-                   
USA  (75 mi)  2015 d:  Laurie Anderson  

 

I walk accompanied by ghosts.
I walk accompanied by ghosts.

My father with his diamond eyes
His voice life size.
He says follow me. Follow me.

And I come sliding where I've been hiding
Out of the heart of a child.

Meet me by the lake. Meet me by the lake.
I'll be there. I'll be there.

If only I had the time. To tell you how I climbed
Out of the darkness. Out of my mind.
And I come sliding where I've been hiding

Out of the heart of a child.

Sunrise comes across the mountains.
Sunrise comes across the day.
Sunsets sit across the lakeside.
Sunsets across the Pyrenees.

Out of the heart of a child.
Out of the heart of a child.
Out of the heart of a child.

Meet me by the lake. Meet me by the lake.
I walk accompanied by ghosts.

 

The Lake, by Laurie Anderson, The Lake - YouTube (5:39), 2010

 

Laurie Anderson covers a lot of territory in this personal meditation on life and death, initially commissioned by Swiss Arte TV as a “philosophy of life” project, beautifully exploring the process of grief through intimate experiences that she shares.  And while initially conceived as a short film eulogy in memory of her beloved rat terrier dog Lolabelle, who died in 2011, this is essentially a poetic visual essay expanded to include the death of her mother, fellow artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and husband Lou Reed who also died while she was making the film, who is never mentioned, and only seen in a fleeting shot near the end, where their constant presence has a way of turning this into a story inhabited by ghosts that provides continuous illumination into our existing world, citing David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that suggests “Every love story is a ghost story,” becoming a feature-length film delivered several years late and at four times the length that it was originally supposed to be.  What’s distinctive about this effort is the often inventive and amusing way Anderson chooses to do this, where it is as much about the art of storytelling and the joy of living.  Unlike other attempts on similar themes, like Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID (2009), this material isn’t bogged down by conventions or form, but remains elevated throughout by an artist’s often euphoric sensibility, where the director conjures up the spirit of film essayist Chris Marker or Agnès Varda with her own Midwestern sounding narration that quite honestly recalls the voice of Gena Rowlands, who was born in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Interestingly, Rowlands is her mother’s maiden name.)  An honest, autobiographical appraisal of her own life, one of the guiding inspirations of the film is attributed to a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

 

While only 75-minutes long, it’s an extremely dense and impactive experience filled with childhood memories, video diaries, reflections on the post 9/11 surveillance culture, and reincarnation, sprinkled throughout by quotes from Anderson’s personal Zen Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, along with tributes to various artists who have inspired her.  Anderson grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, attending Glenbard West High School, majoring in art history at Barnard College while earning her master’s in sculpture from Columbia University, becoming a composer and musician, mostly playing violin and keyboards, and once worked as an art critic for Artforum magazine (also McDonald’s and on an Amish farm) before embarking on a career in the 60’s as an avant-garde performance artist, quickly finding her place in the experimental art scene of SoHo in the 1970’s, becoming a pioneer in electronic music.  Composing the musical soundtracks to Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD (1986) and Spalding Gray films SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (1987) and MONSTER IN A BOX (1992), while also adding additional music to BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2000), Anderson has only directed one other feature-length movie, HOME OF THE BRAVE (1986), a filmed performance of one of her musical tours.  While her audio/visual work has appeared in major museums in America and Europe, where she is considered a groundbreaking leader in the use of technology in the arts, she has released a half dozen albums and also written six books.  In 2002, in something of an oddity, she was announced as NASA’s first artist in residence, out of which developed a solo performance entitled “The End of the Moon,” Laurie Anderson - The end of the moon ... - YouTube (8:31), that toured internationally through 2006, which suggests Anderson’s art reaches for the mysteries of the cosmos.     


Except for a trip to California, all of this film was shot within a few blocks of Anderson’s artist and musician’s studio in southern SoHo on the far western reaches of Canal Street overlooking the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, bleak building facades and empty streets as seen through surveillance footage after the 9/11 attack, while today there are Trump Tower skyscrapers on each side of her low-lying building with plenty of trees nearby.  The film opens with a dream about giving birth to a dog, where the bond between them is profoundly intimate, displaying an almost maternalistic attachment, beautifully expressed by Anderson’s own monochrome ink drawings, followed shortly thereafter by the death of her mother, where she remembers in great detail her last words, as she was literally saying goodbye to animals that she imagined seeing on the ceiling, which may as well have been her eight children huddled by the side of her hospital bed.  According to Anderson, her mother, on some level, was trying to give a speech, like going up to a microphone and saying “Thank you, all of you, thanks for coming.”  One of the most extraordinary revelations is the acknowledgment how difficult this was for Anderson, as she never loved her mother, so she wasn’t sure what to say in the final moments.  But she didn’t have to worry about it, as her mother spoke for everyone in the room, literally creating a new language to fit the occasion.  Similarly, in order to prepare her for this moment, her Buddhist teacher Rinpoche suggested she try to think of a moment when she was truly loved by her mother, and isolate that moment, becoming a memory frozen in time that will live forever. 

 

Lolabelle is the featured character, returned to throughout the film, as Anderson took her everywhere, and can be seen in a 2003 Charlie Rose interview with the artist and her husband, Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed Interviewed by Charlie Rose ... Pt. 1 YouTube (13:40).  Leading a remarkable life, recounting how her pet mastered the ability to feel empathy, a unique quality that many humans lack, unfortunately, while Anderson has also taught her various skills, like how to finger-paint with her paws, make sculptures with the help of a trainer, or play the electric piano.  Not only could she play piano on cue in front of a camera, but Anderson brought her to various public fundraisers where she amazingly performed in front of large audiences, developing a kind of free-form, Thelonious Monk style of percussive riffs.  When her pet started going blind not long before her death, she decided to move her to a more comfortable environment,  Green Gulch | San Francisco Zen Center, a Buddhist retreat located near Muir Beach hugging the shoreline 16 miles north of San Francisco, where it was Anderson’s idea to test Lolabelle’s ability to comprehend as many as 50 vocabulary words.  While walking her along the beach every day, often extended to all day events, Anderson describes herself as a “sky-worshipper,” where looking to the vastness of the sky tends to have a calming influence, but on this occasion she discovered a circling hawk that dive-bombed her dog, turning away at the last minute when it apparently realized Lolabelle was not a rabbit.  This brought to mind the similar idea of airborne predators that struck on 9/11, a thought that is never far from the mind of such a quintessentially New York artist, recalling the presence of so many armed troops suddenly stationed just outside her home throughout Lower Manhattan, where Lolabelle comes from the same breed of dogs that Homeland Security trains.  

 

One of the more unique sections is Anderson’s rendering of the Bardo, a transitionary state between death and rebirth, according to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, shown in expressionist paintings, near abstract imagery, and Anderson’s own remarkable score.  This epitomizes what Anderson is trying to do, expressing her own ruminations on the afterlife, describing the fragility of every moment, inviting the viewers into an imaginative use of variously textured visual effects, employing animation, 8mm home movie clips, distorted or altered imagery, text on the screen, newly shot footage, and such an inventive use of music, like the Kronos Quartet, Kronos Quartet — Flow (Laurie Anderson) [LIVE] - YouTube (3:18), all given shape by the weight of her own personal narration, developing such a stimulating and fluid work, as if conjured up from the depths of her own consciousness.  “You should try to practice how to feel sad without actually being sad,” suggests her teacher Rinpoche as we see snow fall gently in the woods and ice-skaters moving in slow motion on a frozen lake, as Anderson remembers her days skating on that lake in Glen Ellyn, recalling a haunting childhood memory, shown in faded and cracked photographs, when she was pushing two younger identical twin brothers in a stroller across the ice when suddenly the weight of the stroller fell through a cracked opening, where both children were instantly underwater.  All she could think about was the trouble she’d be in with her mother if she lost her brothers, so she dove into the frozen water, searching through the muck to retrieve one, placing him safely on the ice before diving after the other brother as well, running home with both of them tucked under each arm, where her mother’s response was “I didn’t know you were such an exceptional diver.”  The death of her mother awoke these strange and conflicted feelings of fear, a sense of urgency, and regret, but also that one moment when she was truly loved by her mother.  It’s an amazing incident, remarkably portrayed, and beautifully incorporated into an impressionistic film collage that delves into the depths of the human spirit.  With a flicker of his lost soul, Lou Reed’s “Turning Time Around” Lou Reed - Turning time around (2000) - YouTube (5:48) plays fittingly over the end credits. 

 

 

METALHEAD (Málmhaus)     Metalhead (Málmhaus)                       A-                 

Iceland  (97 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Ragnar Bragason             Official Facebook

 

Flesh and blood

into the ground returned

Destroyer born 

Everything will burn

 

Scorched earth

Swallows the best of us

Scorched earth

annihilates the rest of us

 

Agony in pained defeat

A toast of sand so dark and sweet

As far as the eye can reach

Snow engulfs the fields

As far as the eye can reach

The snow will never yield

 

Pétur Ben - Svarthamar - YouTube (4:33)

 

A small gem of a film from Iceland, one that resonates on far deeper levels than one might presume, and raising eyebrows in the process.  While the title and movie poster suggest some kind of homage to a 70’s music group like Kiss, the film itself moves in a completely different direction, becoming a portrait of youthful alienation in an isolated rural setting of a smalltown family farm.  Opening with a tragic farming accident, 12-year old Hera witnesses the startling death of her older brother Baldur, leaving behind an inexplicable void that haunts every frame of the rest of the picture.  But rather than dwell on typical stages of grief and loss, this well-written film uses deadpan humor to great effect, becoming an absurdist road movie about a rebellious teenager Hera (Thorbjὃrg Helga Thorgilsdόttir) who always dreams of leaving home and heading for the city, spending the better part of her life talking about it, but somehow never goes through with it, despite multiple attempts, where one of the lingering images of the film is seeing her sitting alone at a bus stop, a lone outpost in the vast emptiness of the region, often remaining there even after the bus passes, remaining stuck in the claustrophobic confines of a conservative smalltown family and community that embraces her, even as she utterly rejects them.  In a wordless sequence that jumps forward a few years, Hera burns all her old clothes and instead grabs a few metal T-shirts like Slayer and Megadeth from Baldur’s room, that remains exactly as it was throughout, like a shrine to his existence.  Leaving her own identity behind, she instead immerses herself in Baldur’s black leather jacket and his electric guitar, playing his favorite metal music at disturbingly high volumes, expressing her thoughts on the matter, “They say time heals all wounds.  That’s utter bullshit.”  Reverberating with defiance and dissatisfaction, the film is an expression of her refusal to conform, a headstrong character continually seen butting heads with her parents and neighbors, who are often seen bringing her home, passed out in a state of intoxication, usually with one of their tractors missing which she appropriated for one of her midnight joy rides.  As much a comment on the uniqueness of the region as her own state of mind, the secondary characters are all equally well sketched out, especially her own parents, the quietly stoic and mild-mannered milk farmer Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and his devoted wife Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), both of whom suffer in silence with a kind of muted dysfunction. 

 

Seemingly on the road to nowhere, Hera remains emotionally trapped and conflicted, caught between the life that took her brother and her own inability to strike out on her own for fear of losing whatever connection still exists between them.  But more than any character, the true subject and most outstanding feature of the film is Iceland itself, beautifully shot by August Jakobsson, particularly wide-angled shots that extend to distant horizons, revealing a mountainous, snow-filled landscape that couldn’t express more natural beauty.  Interesting, then, that much of this was achieved through special effects, as seen here, Metalhead Visual Effects YouTube (3:21).  As improbable as it may seem to many, filling the endless expanse with Judas Priest and Dio blasting away from her tape deck, while composing a raw version of her own song, featuring blood-curdling screams to the startled cows while amped up at full blast in the barn for a truly primitive sounding recording, Svarthamar Demo OST - YouTube (5:42), it works better than expected, as it’s a tribute to the glory days of metal bands like Riot, Teaze, Savatage, Lizzy Borden, Judas Priest, and Megadeth, whose anguish perfectly expresses Hera’s own silent rage.  In a Scandinavian nod to Ingmar Bergman, it seems every scene shot in the cold stillness of frozen farmlands is beautifully juxtaposed against the inner grief tormenting Hera and her family.  Winner of eight Icelandic Film Awards (nominated for 17 awards), including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Editing, and Original Score, the film was at least partially inspired by the Norwegian black metal church burnings in the 1990’s, where a wave of arson attacks against Christian churches resulted in at least 50 church burnings by 1996, nearly all attributed to followers of black metal who bitterly opposed Christianity and organized religion as a whole.  Without delving into any historical reference, the film incorporates this sentiment into the much simpler times of a country town in Iceland in the late 80’s and early 1990’s, starting quite slowly, but eventually picking up the pace, allowing the viewers to identify with the characters.  Thorgilsdόttir as Hera is especially outstanding, particularly the way she earns the audience’s sympathies despite behaving despicably throughout, regularly playing mean-spirited juvenile pranks, continually ostracizing her parents, making their lives a living hell, where we feel her pain and don’t-give-a-fuck ambivalence while relying upon the friendship and kind support of her somewhat devoted childhood best friend Knutur (Hannes Oli Agustsson), a fellow metal aficionado, though in utter exasperation he finally confesses near the end that he has always hated Dio.    

 

With characters damaged by the remoteness of their surroundings, Hera is at odds with the people and the place where they live, where everything feels too ordinary and small for her.  While essentially a film of Hera’s personal struggles, the film also adds insightful details to her parent’s issues with intimacy, where their son’s death has become an unspoken wedge between them, eventually finding a way to turn the page, which may come as something of a surprise considering their daughter’s continued recalcitrance.  They continually remain a part of the town through regular church visits and community social functions, where the presence of a new young priest, Janus (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarson), acts to help facilitate this change.  For Hera, however, she feels betrayed, especially after he opens up to her and acknowledges his own metal past, suggesting “God can also be found in the dark,” displaying a particular affection for Iron Maiden, Venom, and Celtic Frost.  She proceeds to see him differently, however, misunderstanding his helpfulness for something more personal, precipitating a full-scale rage against God that has deep-seeded ramifications, including a church burning.  Alone against the world, carrying the burden of her brother’s soul along with her, she goes on an existential quest for meaning, a surprising odyssey into the mystifying elements of ice and snow that takes on surreal implications, where she seems to hit a wall of resistance, realizing she can simply go no further, as if to surmise rebellion isn’t enough.  In an awkward and uncomfortable moment, she does the unthinkable, failing to move on to the city, as everyone suspects, as this would be the opportune time, instead retreating back home to the hushed stares of everyone.  This is a particularly telling moment, as she is who she is, troubled and defiantly aggressive, a problem child that belongs to the entire community at large, where no one knows what to do with her, especially her family, though there is an unspoken feeling of forgiveness and reconciliation.  What does transpire is completely unexpected, where out of the blue some adoring Norwegian metalheads arrive on her family’s doorstep after hearing a tape of her music, something they describe as “wickedly evil,” but meant in the best possible light.  Their genuine interest revives her own sagging spirit, helping to rebuild a community that Hera herself has broken, and in what is perhaps the scene of the film joins Hera in playing a concert before the entire town, where the faces of all the musicians are painted except Hera, who stands before everyone in a confessional moment of rage, with piercing screams and cries of agony, before toning it down into Björk-like poetry, malmhaus scene YouTube (4:16), a dark revelatory moment where mood says it all, that brilliantly brings together all the feelings of pain, anguish and insurmountable loss, where music becomes an outlet for healing.  For all the gloominess and sad melancholy that pervades throughout this picture, like an incessant stormcloud hanging overhead, there’s also an equal amount of gentle wit and wry humor, and while plunging into the inexplicable depths of how people react when dealing with grief and tragic loss, it’s a unique, beautifully told coming-of-age story that provides a personalized, firsthand glimpse into rebellious and ostracized youth. 

 

 

RED ARMY     Red Army                 A-                   

USA  Russia  (85 mi)  2014  d:  Gabe Polsky                        Official site

 

Hockey players are not cowards!

 

This is about as much fun as you can have in the documentary format, where it has the feel of the madly inspired Guy Maddin on a mission, whose obsession with hockey, having been born and raised in Winnipeg, is nothing less than an ecstatic lifelong passion.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the degree of poignancy registered by a sports story.  The brilliance of the young director is not only the accumulation of such amazing archival material, but framing the subject matter as the examination of a historical event as seen through the eyes of a sports figure, where the transformation of an entire nation was happening simultaneous to events happening in his own life, creating an extraordinary look at how history can effect us all.  Perhaps what’s most unique is the degree of access into a period of Soviet history that is otherwise secretive and not easily revealed, where the filmmaker’s background, born and raised in the United States by Soviet immigrants might help explain the filmmaker’s inquisitive drive to uncover the mysteries of his own past, where his curiosity was bent on discovering how and why this Soviet hockey team of the 70’s and 80’s was so good.  Most are familiar with the Miracle on Ice, when a group of amateur and collegiate kids from America, barely together for a few months, played the hockey game of their lives and won the gold medal at Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympic Games, beating one of the greatest Soviet hockey teams of all time 4-3, gold medal winners in six of the previous seven Olympics, an event so improbable that Sports Illustrated called it the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century.  Few, however, have taken an insightful look at just how good that Soviet team was that dominated the sport of hockey during the Cold War, where successful sports teams and players, much like the Space Race, were used as propaganda tools to demonstrate supposed ideological superiority.  Traditionally the Soviets didn’t even have a hockey team, as historically they played Bandy, an outdoor winter game that resembles field hockey on ice.  Since that game was never recognized at the Olympics (hockey was introduced in 1920), after World War II, the Red Army assigned Anatoli Tarasov to found a Moscow hockey club at the army sport’s club, CSKA Moscow, which represented the Red Army, while he served as the original coach of the Soviet national team for thirty years beginning in 1946, becoming the “father of Russian hockey,” developing a passion for the game, equally influenced by the mental dominance of chess masters and the athletic grace of ballet, where the Soviet style of hockey has an emphasis on skating skills, offense and passing, an amazingly creative and improvisational style where they move fluidly on the ice, working collectively as a team, turning the game into an art form.  

 

While Tarasov was the dynamic builder of the team which started to have some success in the 50’s, winning their first World Championship in 1954 and first Olympic gold in 1956, he was beloved by his players, seen as a paternal father figure, as he embraced each of them as young men full of potential, “You’ll become great hockey players…and great men,” where his job was to unleash that potential with inspired play on the ice. One of his young protégé’s, Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, was only 12-years old when he was chosen for the Dynamo youth hockey team, the oldest sports and physical training society of the Soviet Union.  Born in Moscow, he is one of the most decorated* hockey players that ever lived, the greatest defenseman the Soviets ever produced, where the list of his accolades amusingly overflow off the screen, like medals on the chest of a heavily decorated army officer.  To our amazement, Fetisov opens up like he’s never done before, literally befriending this young American director with a heavy mix of deadpan humor and Russian sarcasm, but also providing enlightening and sometimes eye-opening information about his storied life, where today his name is literally synonymous with hockey.  When he is introduced in front of the camera today at age 55 in a face-to-face interview with the director, he waves the camera away, as he’s busy taking a call on his cellphone, claiming it’s business, joking that Americans don’t know the meaning of work.  While his good-natured wit is appreciated today, it was not always the case, even in his home country, where he was a kid that grew up only blocks away from the rink, always the first to arrive, the last to leave, where so long as he was playing hockey he was happy.  As we are introduced to several former players, journalists, sports commentators, and even a retired KGB officer sitting in front of an immense statue of Lenin, they are each initially identified in the Russian language of Cyrillic and then in English, where there’s a constant interplay between Soviet and American, as the two nations were so much at odds during the Cold War.  Feeling personally connected to both worlds, Polsky, with a great deal of visual style, creates an often funny and always enjoyable film that is quick, witty, and fast moving, almost always with lively Russian music playing in the background, where there’s a joyous and festive spirit as we take a spin through Fetisov’s childhood, filled with strange and unusual training techniques, all designed to build teamwork and bring players closer together, to have each other’s backs, to look after one other, where players on the same lines stayed together off-ice as well as on-ice, becoming best friends in life, where the intensity of the experience is also connected to winning and being proud to represent your country. 

 

Interweaving plenty of archival footage from the 70’s and 80’s along with amusing and insightful contemporary interviews, the Soviets were extremely successful in the sport, winning gold in 7 out of 9 Olympic Games (Olympic record 62–6–2), winning the World Championships 19 times, where the players were honored with flowers and medal ceremonies each time they returned home to Moscow and treated like national heroes.  Even though they eventually lost the series, the Soviets surprised the world in the 1972 Summit Series, finally going face-to-face with the best NHL Canadian players and initially making it look easy, as the Canadian goalies had never seen the kind of choreographed movement on the ice before, where the puck could come from all directions.  To slow them down, the Canadians began engaging in a more physical style of North American play, resulting in disputes over officiating, roughhouse tactics and finally dirty play, where Philadelphia Flyer center Bobby Clarke deliberately injured the star Soviet forward, Valeri Kharlamov, intentionally slashing his skates, fracturing a bone in his ankle, where the Soviets were winning the series 3–1–1 when the injury occurred, figuring prominently in the Canadians winning the last 3 games.  Kharlamov was the most popular Soviet player at the time and his injury in front of a Moscow crowd had a chilling effect, only adding to the already existing East-West drama.  The Soviets returned to form for the 1974 Summit Series and won 4 games to one, where the Canadians wouldn’t win another head to head competition until 1989.  The interest generated by the international stage led to the next generation of Soviets, headed by new team captain Slava Fetisov and the Russian Five who helped win three consecutive World Junior Championships from 1976—78 as well as the 1981 Canada Cup, despite being led by Canadian phenom Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in history.  Despite the improbable loss to the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, the 70’s and 80’s were the period of greatest Soviet domination, where the International Ice Hockey Federation conducted a poll in 2008 asking a group of 56 experts from 16 countries to vote on the greatest team of the century, IIHF Centennial All-Star Team, which included four Soviet players on a team of six, with Fetisov and Gretzky the two leading vote getters at one and two respectively, including two Soviet forwards, Valeri Kharlamov and Sergei Makarov, legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, and Swedish defensiveman Börje Salming. 

 

Despite the honors, there was trouble brewing behind the scenes, where in the late 70’s Tarasov was suddenly replaced by a more dictatorial style of coach beholden to the KGB, Viktor Tikhonov, as the Soviet leadership feared defections, so they needed him to keep a close eye on all the players.  Housed in a prisonlike barracks 11 months out of the year, Tikhonov trained them relentlessly, refusing to let one player leave even for the impending death of his father, where according to Fetisov, the players won despite their coach, as they unanimously hated his approach, calling him an accountant due to the fastidious notes he was always taking, believing he suffocated their creative style and instead instituted a strict regimen and the threat of discipline, instilling fear instead of any love for the game.  Fetisov holds Tikhonov responsible for the Soviet loss to the Americans in the Miracle on Ice, claiming he favored the Moscow Dynamo players, who represented the KGB over the more skilled Russian Five CSKA Moscow players who represented the Red Army, which explains why he pulled the Soviet’s greatest goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, after the first period, pulling him for Moscow Dynamo goalie Vladimir Myshkin, suggesting it was the KGB players that allowed three of the four American goals.  But rather than being sent to some Siberian gulag after the loss, as people in the West might think, Tikhonov was actually honored and rewarded.  One of the curious side effects of the international exposure of the Soviet skill players was the interest by the NHL, as they wanted these players in the North American league, tempting them with big money contracts, but the Russian government wouldn’t let them go, though they initially tempted Fetisov with a contract similar to basketball player Yao Ming from Communist China, where they earn a huge million dollar contract, but 50% or more, depending on the terms, belongs to the government.  Fetisov, on the other hand, combining business and political sense, insisted on receiving every penny he earned.  So he stayed put.     

 

Drafted by the New Jersey Devils, Fetisov was initially promised by Tikhonov that he would be released to play in the NHL if they won another gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, which they did, but he refused to let him leave the country, even after a visit to Moscow, contract in hand, from the Devil’s President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who was even prepared to help him defect, if necessary, but Fetisov was a proud Russian that refused to leave under those conditions, never able to return home.  Fetisov’s wife Lada recounts a story of what happened in Kiev after Fetisov publicly refused to play any more for Tikhonov, where he was arrested, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until 4 am, with the police eventually calling Tikhonov who informed them they could lock him up or do whatever they wanted, but he was not allowed to leave the country.  Finally he was called into the office of the Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, second only to the Soviet President (ironically dismissed from his post after a failed 1991 coup d'état attempt), who screamed and cussed him out for wanting to play for “the enemy,” but Fetisov instead offered to resign his position in the Red Army, where in 1989 he became the first Soviet citizen granted a work visa that allowed him to play hockey in the west, paving the way for literally thousands that followed.  At age 31, he began his second career in the NHL, which was hardly an easy transition, as he was forced to endure red-baiting hostility when the American fans initially hated him for not becoming an instant star and winner for their team, where he had difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style.  He played nine seasons in the NHL, the final three in Detroit where he reunited with yet another Russian Five to win two Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998, once again retiring a champion.  According to the director, “Soviets play hockey the way Brazilians play soccer.  It’s improvisational, it’s fluid, it’s beautiful.  It’s extremely difficult, but looks effortless.”  Legendary Hall of Fame Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman was so impressed by their play at the time that he acknowledged, “I don’t know who taught you to play this way, but whatever you do, don’t change a thing.”  Transforming his life where he went from a national hero to a political enemy, Slava Fetisov eventually returned home to Moscow a Stanley Cup champion, chosen by Putin to be the Minister of Sport for Russia from 2002 to 2008, where his story reads like something out of a Tom Clancy novel.   

       

*Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov Notable Achievements and Awards:

Member of the Organizing Committee for 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee

IIHF Hall of Fame

USSR Hall of Fame

14 Soviet Hockey Championships

9 Time Soviet League All-Star

9-time IIHF All-Star

5-time IIHF best defenseman

7 Hockey World Championship Gold Medals

1 World Championship Silver

2 Olympic Gold Medals

1 Olympic Silver Medal

1 Canada Cup Championship

3 World Junior Championships

2 World Championship Bronze Medals

2 Time CCCP Player of the Year

2-time Soviet MVP

9 Years Soviet National Team Captain

3 Golden Stick Awards

Order of the Red Banner of Labour

Soviet Order of Honor

Soviet Order of Friendship

Silver Olympic Order

Order of Service to the Fatherland 4th Class

Order of Service to the Fatherland 3rd Class

2 Orders of the Badge of Honor

IIHF International Centennial All-Star

Honored Master of Sports

UNESCO Champion for Sport

Russian Diamond Award

Order of Lenin Award

2-time Stanley Cup Champion as a player

3-time Stanley Cup Finalist as a player

Stanley Cup champion as an assistant coach

2-time NHL all-star

Asteroid 8806 was renamed “Fetisov”

 

 

THE HOMECOMING (Blóðberg)     The Homecoming (Blóðberg)             A-                   
Iceland  (100 mi)  2015  d:  Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

 

Some people are insane.        —Dísa (Harpa Arnardóttir), opening line of the film

 

Another highly entertaining and terrific film from Iceland by a first-time actor, writer, and director Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who is considered Iceland’s top actor, graduating from the Icelandic Drama Academy in 2001 while co-founding Vesturport, Iceland’s most innovative theater and film company, expanding his own first play Dubbeldusch to a feature-length film.  That being said, this is a complex, exceedingly well-written, near Shakespearian, Scandinavian dark comedy that defies expectations and will have audiences howling with delight in a Bergman-like story about hidden secrets and family relations that operates on multiple levels, exposing the boundaries of a seemingly successful marriage, showing the fragility of established trust, as often what you know and depend upon in a relationship is little more than an illusion, perhaps created with the best of intentions, but their exposure can be devastating.  Gunnar (Hilmar Jónsson) and his wife Dísa (Harpa Arnardóttir) are seen sipping their morning coffee while reading the Sunday papers in their luxurious, glass-windowed summer house in the countryside where mountains can be seen off in the distance, but they seem to have invented their own language to communicate with each other, beginning sentences without ever completing them, starting a thought without finishing it, where to them this all seems perfectly normal.  A sociologist in his mid-fifties, he’s written several successful self-help books that have allowed him a comfortable lifestyle, tinkering with the house on weekends, which is always a work in progress, while Dísa works as a nurse at a nearby hospital.  But even reading the gossip columns, it’s pretty clear that after 30-years of marriage, having been together since their teens, there’s plenty of distance between them.  On the spur of the moment, the couple is visited by their 25-year old son David (Hilmir Jensson), who is kind of a young Icelandic Ben Affleck (who can act!), and with him is his attractive new fiancée Sunna (Þórunn Arna Kristjánsdóttir) that he’s only just met in Denmark while backpacking through Europe, but she’s adorable and both are obviously madly in love.  This announcement comes as a huge surprise, as it’s the first time the family has heard about her, but Sunna is smart, polite, and ambitious, where she seems like the ideal girl to bring home to the parents. 

 

But all is not sweetness and nice, as Sunna mentions the name of her mother, growing more uncomfortable mentioning she’s never known anything about her absent father, which makes Gunnar slink down in his chair as if he’s been hit with a haymaker, suddenly unable to speak, offering a forced smile of discomfort, but never utters a word afterwards.  Terrified and desperate, despite being a so-called expert in solving other people’s problems, he hasn’t a clue what to do next, unable to face his darkest secret, as he hasn’t the heart to tell his overwhelmingly elated son the truth, thinking he’d be crushed and would never forgive him.  The only person he speaks to is his brother Gestur (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) who has recently survived the fifth surgery of his head only to get news from his doctor that he needs another one, as there are still traces left of cancer.  Constantly fed a strange Icelandic mixture of Arctic thyme called blóðberg in Icelandic (the original title), his girlfriend Guðný (María Heba Þorkelsdóttir) swears it’s the only thing keeping him alive.  With time running out on his own life, Gestur advises Gunnar to do what is right before it’s too late, suggesting all may be forgiven if he tells the truth, but he has to give them that chance, explaining “There is nothing more difficult than asking for forgiveness.”  Of course, Gunnar can’t follow his brother’s advice and instead starts acting strangely and becomes headstrong “against” the marriage, becoming a constant irritant, trying to sabotage their relationship, hoping they’ll simply fall apart on their own.  But these two lovebirds have never been happier, and are literally ecstatic to announce Sunna is pregnant.  Gunnar is griefstruck and in sheer agony, unable to fathom the extent of the damage he has caused.  Dísa finds his outrageous behavior utterly reprehensible, claiming she doesn’t even recognize him anymore.

 

Caught up in this dilemma, where ugly traces of his long forgotten past are being pushed back to the surface, things are only going to get worse, and Gunnar simply can’t allow this to happen.  Just when you think you’ve got this film figured out, something else comes along and changes everything, as Gunnar will soon have to face the meeting with Sunna’s mother, Þórunn (Jóhanna Jónas), who just happens to be invited over for dinner to celebrate the announcement of the baby.  Literally tearing his hair out with fear, Gunnar is forced to face the inevitable, becoming one of the more agonizingly awkward dinner parties on record, where everything that can possibly go wrong does, leaving everyone aghast in silence until all hell breaks loose.  What separates this film from other dramatic powerhouses like Thomas Vinterberg’s THE CELEBRATION (1998) or Susan Bier’s AFTER THE WEDDING (2006) is the hellacious amount of humor involved, where according to the director, people from Iceland will think this is a comedy and be more influenced by the devious nature of the wickedly dark humor, while other parts of the world may be drawn purely to the tragic elements.  The beauty of the film is that it works both ways, as it’s a superbly written theater piece, casting the same two actors as the older couple that appeared in the original play.  The acting is extraordinary, completely in synch with the changing dynamic required and constant emotional upheaval, where this small, unheralded film coming from a tiny country of 300,000, producing 15 feature films in 2014, with only 40 screens nationwide (according to Icelandic Film Centre - European Film Promotion), turns out to be one of the better films seen all year.  To think that Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead (Málmhaus) (2013) and Benedikt Erlingsson’s OF HORSES AND MEN (2013) were only released in the USA this year, along with the stunning success of Grímur Hákonarson’s RAMS (2015), which won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes this year, these films are a remarkable indication of the quality of films coming out of Iceland today.  Perhaps we should pack our bags and plan an immediate visit, as these cultural offerings are simply outstanding.   

 

 

MUSTANG     Mustang                     A-                   

Turkey  France  Germany  Qatar  (94 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Deniz Gamze Ergüven

 

Everything changed in the blink of an eye.  First there was comfort, and then suddenly everything turned to shit.

—Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy)

 

For film festivals other than Sundance, the stories and slotted in-competition directors appear to be dominantly male-oriented—at Cannes, 16 competition films by men and only 2 by women, and at the Chicago Film Festival, there are 13 male competition films to only 3 by women—making it a rare occurrence when viewers come upon a film written and directed by women, where within the overall history of cinema this still remains relatively unexplored territory.  Winner of the Europa Cinemas prize at Cannes for best European film in the Directors’ Fortnight, this film immediately stands out by conscientiously altering the viewing patterns among the largely male-dominated efforts of contemporary cinema, turning the tables and focusing on the treatment of women, particularly younger adolescent girls who live under extremely repressive social conditions.  Co-written (with Alice Winocour, the 2012 director of Augustine) and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, she was born in Ankara, Turkey while studying literature and African history in Johannesburg, South Africa, eventually learning to direct at La Fémis in Paris, where her first feature film is France’s submission to the Academy Award Foreign Film category.  Set in a small Turkish village by the Black Sea, hundreds of miles away from the more populous city of Istanbul, the film opens innocently enough after the last day of school, where instead of riding the bus, 12-year old Lale and her four older sisters Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) decide to walk home instead, as it’s a beautiful sunny day, where they decide to play in the shallow water with some boys in their class, mostly splashing around, but also playing a game where girls sit on the shoulders of boys and try to knock the other sister into the water.  By the time they get home, however, one by one they are beaten by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldaş), proclaiming their behavior immoral and scandalous, as the girls are the subject of malicious gossip spread around town by their neighbor who claims she saw them “pleasuring themselves” on the necks of the boys.  As their parents died a decade earlier, the grandmother has been raising them, but in this instance their domineering uncle takes over, Erol, Ayberk Pekcan, the driver from Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (2014), sending the oldest girls for a virginity test while removing their computers and phones, forcing all girls to wear plain brown dresses while placing iron bars on the windows locking them all indoors in order to “protect” them. 

 

Essentially believing they have to save the girls from themselves, the film isn’t a comment against Islam, which is the primary religion in Turkey, but against a patriarchal society where men, especially those coming from a poorer educational background, expect women to protect their purity and remain virgins until marriage, believing otherwise their marital chances will be ruined, along with the honor and reputation of the family.  Narrated by the youngest sister Lale, who offers a kind of outspoken Linda Manz sensibility from DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), the closeness of the girls is evident throughout, as the film pits the expectations of the girls against that of their family, who immediately go about the business of indoctrinating the girls how to be loyal and subservient wives, turning the home into a “wife factory.”  Informed that their school education is over, older women are brought in to teach them how to cook traditional dishes and sew clothes while the uncle goes about the business of arranging marriages for the oldest two sisters, including a stream of inspections from potential suitors, where the goal is to have all the girls, ages ranging from 12 to 16, to be married off by the end of summer.  While the title is a reference to the wild horses indigenous to the area, the symbolism of taming the wildness out of the horses is not lost on the viewers, as much of the film plays out as a clever battle of wills, where an unbridled, free spiritedness is pitted against an entrenched conservatism that condemns their behavior.  This is as much a battle of the West versus the East, where the ideals of freedom and democracy conflict with the more authoritarian, patriarchal governments of the Middle East that are more inclined to impose a strict order upon a society rather than leave them to their own inclinations, where the rights of women have traditionally been stifled for centuries.  Nonetheless, the grandmother is equally conflicted, as she loves the girls, even indulges them from time to time, and in the most hilarious scene of the film is willing to go to outrageous methods to protect them from the wrath of the men after they sneak off to see a local soccer game and can be seen on television cheering them on, literally cutting off the power of the entire village to avoid detection, yet she is also fully complicit in their subjugation.   

 

The timing of the film uncannily follows in the aftermath of the horrific murder of Özgecan Aslan, a young Turkish university student that was brutally murdered during an attempted rape, her body burned beyond recognition and her hands cut off to avoid detection, an event that sparked outrage across the country leading to massive protests demonstrating against unacceptable violence to women, the first mass movement in support of Turkish women, where Aslan’s father was quoted after her death, “We grew up with fairy tales.  Once upon a time… Once upon a time there was an Özge.  And then there wasn’t any.”  The film is interestingly presented like a fable with Lale’s innocence and fierce independence at its center, with a focus on faces and bodies, often intermingled together, heightening the tension between freedom and repression.  Bathed in the radiant pastel-colored cinematography of David Chizallet and Ersin Gok which beautifully captures the carefree innocence of the young girls, but also how freely they move their bodies as an extension of their inner spirit, the performances have a wonderfully naturalistic feel, where the sisters are often framed in close proximity to one another, almost as if they are an extension of one body and one soul.  What’s so effective about the film is how each of the young girls is portrayed, smart, overly clever, and mischievous, with healthy desires and a burgeoning curiosity, perhaps overly Westernized, but from the outset that’s the way they’ve been taught.  Adding to an interior psychological context is moody, introspective music by Warren Ellis, some of which can be heard here:  Robes De Couleur Merde in Mustang (Warren Ellis), including several with Nick Cave, the duo that masterminded the glorious soundtrack of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007).  The haunting music suggests an element of fragility, a contrast to the defiance and open rebellion they feel in response to their tyrannical treatment.  One by one, as each sister is delivered to the groom’s family like custom bought merchandise delivered to order, the results are mixed, as only the oldest is married to the boyfriend of choice, while all the others are forced to resist in their own ways, often with staggering consequences.  While the youngest is the most independent and outspoken, she is literally the anchor of the film, where the film is largely seen through her eyes, with a narrative slowly evolving from light-hearted comedy to tragedy, where much of this plays out in the realm of horror, though to the director’s credit, even the most tragic sequences are delicately handled.  While there is a window of hopeful optimism, the film offers a beautifully observant exposé on childhood ending all too soon, where an idyllic innocence hits a brick wall of male-enforced societal rigidity that becomes fixated on adolescent women, all but imprisoning them for the rest of their lives. 

 

 

 

BEST ACTOR

Zaza Urushadze – Tangerines 

Michael Fassbender – Slow West (2) + Steve Jobs (1)

Viggo Mortenson – Jauja

*Jason Segel – The End of the Tour

Jacob Tremblay – Room

Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight   

BEST ACTRESS

Anne Dorval – Mommy 

Nina Hoss – Phoenix 

*Zhao Tao – Mountains May Depart

Lou Roy-Lecollinet – My Golden Days

Teyonah Parris – Chi-Raq 

Rooney Mara – Carol 

BEST SUPP ACTOR

Roman Madyanov – Leviathan 

*Benicio del Toro – Sicario 

Vincent Rottiers – Dheepan 

Jules Gauzelin – A Childhood

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight 

Emory Cohen – Brooklyn 

BEST SUPP ACTRESS

Suzanne Clément – Mommy 

Elena Lyadova – Leviathan 

Pauline Etienne – Eden 

Nina Kunzendorf – Phoenix 

Tatja Seibt – Homesick 

*Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs  

BEST DIRECTOR

Arnaud Desplechin                 France                                                                                                                         My Golden Days

*Xavier Dolan                         Canada                                                                                                                        Mommy 

Hou Hsiao-hsien                     Taiwan  China  Hong Kong  France                                                                           The Assassin

Lisandro Alonso                     Argentina  Denmark  France  Mexico  Germany  Brazil  Netherlands  USA              Jauja

Christain Petzold                    Germany                                                                                                                     Phoenix 

Todd Haynes                          USA                                                                                                                            Carol              

 

BEST SCREENPLAY

Asghar Farhadi – About Elly   

Jia Zhang-ke – Mountains May Depart

*Julie Peyr and Arnaud Desplechin – My Golden Days 

Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Spotlight 

Nick Hornby, adapted from Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn 

Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Mikhail Krichman – Leviathan 

Mátyás Erdély – Son of Saul

*Mark Lee Ping Bing – The Assassin 

Serhiy Mykhalchuk and Yevgeni Privin – Under Electric Clouds 

Benjamin Kasulke and Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron – The Forbidden Room

Ed Lachman – Carol 

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

About Elly

A Childhood

The Homecoming

My Golden Days

*Spotlight 

Brooklyn 

 

BEST ART DIRECTION

Ex Machina

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence

Son of Saul

The Assassin 

Under Electric Clouds   

*The Forbidden Room 

BEST EDITING

Mommy

Leviathan

*Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Phoenix 

600 Miles

My Golden Days

 

BEST COSTUMES

Far From the Madding Crowd

Coming Home

Mustang

The Assassin

Brooklyn

*Carol 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow – Ex Machina

Niaz Diasamidze – Tangerines 

Stefan Will – Phoenix 

*Warren Ellis – Mustang 

Lim Giong – The Assassin

Carter Burwell – Carol   

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY

*The Salt of the Earth

Heart of a Dog

Red Army

The Look of Silence

Amy

We Come As Friends