Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Best Films + Performances of 2013

Honorable Mentions: 

"The Selfish Giant," "You're Next," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "A Touch of Sin," "Stoker"

Omitted because I placed them last year (doesn't mean they aren't awesome): "No," "Leviathan," "Simon Killer"

Most Disappointing Films: "12 Years a Slave," "Trance," "All is Lost"

I Still Haven't Seen: "American Hustle" (hmmm....), "The Great Beauty" (possibly), "Gravity," "Mother of George," "The Counselor"

20. "Manakamana" (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)

19. "Crystal Fairy" (Sebastian Silva)

18. "Captain Phillips" (Paul Greengrass)

17. "A Hijacking" (Tobias Lindholm)

16. "Blue Jasmine" (Woody Allen)

15. "Prisoners" (Denis Villeneuve)

14. "John Dies at the End" (Don Coscarelli)

13. "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear" (Denis Cote)

12.  "Nebraska" (Alexander Payne)

11. "Inside Llewyn Davis" (Joel and Ethan Coen)

10. "Sightseers" (Ben Wheatley)

9. "Mud" (Jeff Nichols)

8. "Her" (Spike Jonze)

7. "The Spectacular Now" (James Ponstadt)

6. "Beyond the Hills" (Christian Mungiu)

5. "Blue is the Warmest Color" (Abdellatif Kechiche)

4. "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty" (Terence Nance)

3. "Fruitvale Station" (Ryan Coogler)

2. "The Act of Killing" (Joshua Oppenheimer)

1. "Before Midnight" (Richard Linklater)

Best Actor:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Hugh Jackman/Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners


Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Matthew McConaghey, Mud
Steve Oram, Sightseers
Bruce Dern/Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Actress:

Adele Exarchopoulous, Blue is the Warmest Color
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Cosima Stratan/Cristina Flutur, Beyond the Hills
Scarlett Johanson, Her


Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
Alice Lowe, Sightseers
Pierrette Robitaille/Romane Bohringer, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
Gaby Hoffman, Crystal Fairy

Best Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Silva Brothers, Crystal Fairy
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Rob Mayes, John Dies at the End
Michael Shannon, Mud


Marc-Andre Grondin, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Best Supporting Actress:

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Lupita N'guoyo, 12 Years a Slave
Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station


Amy Adams, Her
June Squibb, Nebraska
Melissa Leo, Prisoners

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Django Unchained" and "Rust and Bone" and "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Perks of Being A Wallflower"

A very linear picture for Quentin Tarantino after his diffuse "Inglourious Basterds," "Django Unchained" finds the esteemed director looking into provocative subjects such as racial dynamics and the limits of humanitarianism for what is his most sophisticated film yet. What seems to be a piece of getting-the-better-of-slavery fulfillment in the way that "Basterds" was a WWII redo turns out to be far more complicated. It's not his sturdiest ("Pulp Fiction") or most aesthetically pleasing ("Kill Bill: Volume 1"), but it should work to convince skeptics that Tarantino is working with more than simply dialogue and violence (which, with his consistent use of the "N-word," he perhaps purposefully intertwines).

"Unchained" works superbly in those areas as well. The ebb and flow between them is quite dramatic, as the film gives way from long periods of discussion to explosive action. Assisted by excellent performances by everyone in the cast (from the extraordinarily Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz to the cocky born action-hero Jamie Foxx to the maddeningly antagonistic Samuel L. Jackson to the callous and surprisingly well-cast Leonardo DiCaprio), who draw from meticulously-crafted and thorny characters, Tarantino is able to make his statements palatable and effective. The most devastating to me was how tricky morality is. Every man is essentially for himself in a system like this, and those who are saved from it are only able to look out for themselves and a couple others.

Something about the film, perhaps the length or  the way that the film at times seems to forget what it's trying to say in favor of badassery (which is, admittedly, striking), prevents it from going all the way and being a Tarantino masterwork for me. Maybe I'll need another viewing, which I'd be happy to grant it. For now, I can accept it as a flawed and bizarrely conceived film (in the way of "The Confessions of Nat Turner") that is also both exhilarating and hilarious. The audience I saw it with was totally into it, laughing and cheering as much as Tarantino could have intended. One even went as far as to say, in maybe the filmgoing quote of the year, that it was "better than Roots."

"Rust and Bone," by the great Jacques Audiard (known for "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "A Prophet"), is also a film that defies its appearances. I hate to break it to those expecting a movie about whale training, or a movie where Audiard softened up for once, but Marion Cotillard's character is shown in her workspace all of 5 minutes, and there are hallmarks of his muscular-cum-moving style everywhere. That whole world is brought into the action only to provide a subtext for the rest of this wrenching work. About the various powers that particular individuals wield over others, it follows a number of people who could do much better with their lives but who are on a current path for destruction.

As the movie winds its way towards a potentially saccharine ending, Audiard knows how to make things matter. Matthias Schoenaerts' brutal boxer/lothario/tough guy Alain should earn little to no sympathy for how he treats his accommodating sister and young son, but in his treatment of the disabled Stephanie (Cotillard), we come to see him as a man with a willingness to help. The last 20 minutes of the film are also incredibly potent, featuring the most powerful declarations of love I've seen on screen this year. There are moments when Audiard seems to be making a Dardennes film, but every time that happens, he makes it all his own (from the superb, Bon Iver heavy music selections to the dramatic frankness). The way he binds everything together, adding many layers and circling back to details from near the start of the film, shows all of the three years he put into since "A Prophet." Like that film, I wasn't entirely satisfied the first time, but I feel like my admiration of this stirring Audiard variation will continue to grow.

A film that's fallen in my opinion since I first saw it a week ago, Kathryn Bigelow's admirably ambitious "Zero Dark Thirty" feels like a case of reach exceeding grasp. Whereas "The Hurt Locker" was a remarkably cinematic allegory due to its focus more on people than events, "Zero" is pitched in the opposite direction. In Mark Boal's astoundingly deficient script, the characters never really convinced me that they were more than figures to move things along. Maybe that doesn't seem particularly relevant in a movie like this one, but I felt emotionally shut out and only on board when Bigelow let involving spectacle take over. When she does, it's extraordinary.

But when she lifts tropes wholesale from other movies (like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's segment from the "9/11" omnibus, and pretty much every behind-closed-doors film ever made), it doesn't work.
In these moments (essentially the middle hour and a half of the movie), "Zero Dark Thirty" is painfully weighed down and makes one wish they were reading about the proceedings instead.  (I don't really think Jessica Chastain carries these duller moments too well.)  Spiced throughout are various headline-making instances of terrorism that are carried off in a rushed, unmemorable way. If slightly sensational, Spielburg's "Munich" was much more gut-punching when moving through violent historical injustices.

In my dislike, I exclude the opening and the ending. The opening depicts the Abu Ghraib torture of a man named Ammar (Reda Kateb) by an essentially sociopathic, horrifically insensitive, buddy-buddy CIA man named Dan (Jason Clarke). It's fascinating to see how callous such people can be, and the casting of the genial Clarke is successful in show the divide between a person's "usual" personality and their unforgivable actions. This section is also shot with visual prowess by Greig Fraser, who uses many a wide shot that gives an interesting sense of space to the miserable room. The big qualm I have and share with others, though, is the veiled implication that these torture sessions did in some way help the operation along. What comes later somewhat downplays this, but I'm still not entirely satisfied with Bigelow's approach towards it.

The ending shows the killing of Osama bin Laden. Meticulously portrayed, with every single maneuver documented, this section rivals (in its fascination, candor, and craftsmanship) any historical representation in cinema (including the most shattering moments of "Munich"). It made the film for me, and convinced me to look more into the workings of the rest of it. Especially the ending, which isn't done particularly well, but has a lot of unsettling things to say that I missed until discussion brought me to them.

The most enjoyable movie of this group of four was definitely "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Very touching and compelling, it's also a film of effortless humor, and insight that seems truistic until you really look into it and find what depths it has. Why it truly succeeds, though, is due to the ensemble of Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and, in his strongest and least constrained performance to date, Ezra Miller. (Paul Rudd also appears in a small but comforting role.) Their chemistry feels so precious, and writer/director/original author Stephen Chbosky makes as much as he can of it.

We are presented with many damaged people who look for something more in others. Charlie (Lerman)   is the most sought after, but he's searching too, still suffering from childhood trauma and heading into rough high school years where solid footing is absolutely necessary to keep from falling into sadness. He finds some stability in friendship with Patrick (Miller) and Sam (Watson), a droll step-brother and step-sister with a wild side and good taste. They've got issues of their own, though, and reasons to depend on Charlie as much he does on them.

The film shows the high school experience as a blur with moments of emotional salvation, which may seem like Chbosky is cutting corners but, with more consideration, this is probably the most accurate and interesting way the plot could have been portrayed. What's in focus is poignant, inventive, and spilling with awareness of the moment. Most importantly, there's an enduring quality to it that could make it something of a minor classic. I could watch this movie again right now, even though I just saw it for the first time two hours ago.

Django Unchained: B+, Rust and Bone: B+, Zero Dark Thirty: B-, The Perks of Being a Wallflower: B+

I have a feeling all of those ratings could rise with more study, though.

Django, Rust and Bone, and Perks would have all been in my top ten list had I seen them earlier. A revised edition of that list would be:

1. Queen of Versailles
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. Leviathan
4. Django Unchained
5. Rust and Bone
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
7. Alps
8. No
9. Damsels in Distress
10. Reality

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Top Ten Films and Albums of 2012

Here goes. I've seen a lot less movies this year than I have in previous years due to feelings that this site is not of a primary significance to my life or to the lives of readers. But anyways, out of tradition, here are my favorite films (and also albums, since I listened to some music this year, too) of a disappointing year. Keep in mind that I have not yet seen (for various reasons): "Argo," "Amour," "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," "The Silver Linings Playbook," "Rust and Bone," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Killer Joe," "Elena," and "Django Unchained." I just wanted to put this list out before it would be obsolete to do so.

Best Films

1. The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)

An incredibly in-depth study of the extremes of wealth, a great highlight of contemporary non-fiction cinema, and the only film this year that blew my mind completely.

2. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

A customary Andersonian vacuum, which is something I've usually been into, but, for the nonbelievers, "Moonrise Kingdom" is filled crucially with sweet tenderness and inspired insanity. The year's most enjoyable.

3. Leviathan (dir. Verena Paravel and Lucien Castiang-Taylor)

I saw this at the New York Film Festival, so it's technically not a 2012 release. But it left a sizable impact on me, showing how very (even sickeningly) effective pure cinema can be. Though it may be hard for some to take, here's a movie that can be viewed on the most basic level, sound and image.

4. Alps (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

As baffling and frustrating after seeing it as before, "Alps" is a film that contains worlds and that is utterly lost in itself. Brutal and harrowing, it's cut of the same cloth as "Dogtooth" but offers different (and equally satisfying) sorts of cerebral pleasures.

5. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)

A paean to the power of persuasion, and a point in history when advertising did more good than bad. This is one historical film where I was entirely invested in the conclusive victory, most likely due to the fact that it's incredibly fair in its view of all sides involved.

6. Damsels in Distress (dir. Whit Stillman)

Funny and silly in the way of Stillman, but with a totally unexpected and arresting undertone of true wonder and emotion that holds things together beautifully.

7. Reality (dir. Matteo Garrone)

I feel that with repeated viewings this audaciously conceptual movie (a deserved winner at Cannes) could reveal its shriller moments to be less of an issue. The ending, which many will despise, may be the finest this year had to offer. If the Oscars meant anything, Ariello Arena (in likely his only performance ever) would be decorated.

8. Neil Young Journeys (dir. Jonathan Demme)

I didn't see the first two films that Demme made with Young, but this one struck me, full of brilliant decisions in filming a Toronto concert and moments where Young to me sounds better than ever. I could take or leave the weird and inconsistent interjections, though.

9. The Color Wheel (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

This movie wore me down, sometimes badly and gratingly, but mostly in the way of working its way past my defenses and making me laugh. Then the unbearably tense climactic sequence came, and it became clear Ross had entire layers (cinematically and, of course, thematically) concealed.

10. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

I found myself defending this movie much more than I originally thought I would have. But I feel like a second viewing could really boost my opinion of this deeply flawed but extraordinarily ambitious technical masterpiece. Joaquin Phoenix is my man for every award in his line, as is Hoffman. It is about something, I can say that. 

Honorable mentions: This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino) was ultimately attempting too many different things to stick its landing, but it's still uproariously funny and random. It's easy to see why Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) threw people off, with its overtly abrasive lead performance by Abe Gelber and dejected mood, but there's a lot going on there (long held sadness and longing). Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow) was one of the year's most satisfying little movies (commanded by Mark Duplass' excellent work), despite its use of a basketload of Sundance tropes. Then there was Simon Killer (Antonio Campos), which I both loved and loathed, and which requires much more study, since Campos rightfully demands it. The scene with the miscommunication is one of the saddest I've ever seen. To round out 5, Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) seemed for a while to be heading for film-of-the-year status (with its piercing and complex human observation, and literary qualities), but it unfortunately peaked somewhere. Still worth a look, though. 

Deserving films I included last year: "Attenberg," "The Kid With a Bike," "The Turin Horse"

Best Albums of the Year (loosely ranked, I could go up and down with these albums all the time; I've only heard bits and pieces of some of these also, but I feel like their quality is deserving)

1. Centipede HZ (Animal Collective) < give this album more than one chance, people
2. The Money Store (Death Grips)
3. Lonerism (Tame Impala)
4. good kid m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar)
5. Shrines (Purity Ring)
6. channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean)
7. Swing Lo Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
8. The Idler Wheel... (Fiona Apple)
9. Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP (Daniel Rossen)
All of these could be 10: Attack  on Memory (Cloud Nothings), Bloom (Beach House), Luxury Problems (Andy Stott), Pink (Four Tet), Shields (Grizzly Bear), Duality (Captain Murphy), Until the Quiet Comes (Flying Lotus), Four (Bloc Party)

Comment with your faves if you want to discuss. Maybe I'll do performances if it seems like there's the need for that. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Roundup of Recent Movies I've Seen

The Color Wheel, dir. Alex Ross Perry (B)
Holy Motors, dir. Leos Carax (B)
Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes (B-)
Smashed, dir. James Ponstadt (C)

I'll elaborate more maybe later, but I haven't had time to formulate full reviews.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Loneliest Planet (and The Comedy)

Julia Loktev's favorite storytelling device is ambiguity, which was clear from her last effort, the disappointingly vague if at times gripping "Day Night Day Night," about a fledgling terrorist. "The Loneliest Planet" expands her visual palette exponentially, and, though she seems to still believe less is more thematically, Loktev works this idea much more smoothly into this narrative. Following a fateful hiking expedition in the country of Georgia, she explores how quickly trust can dissolve and how terrifying such a loss can be.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg (who bears strong resemblance to Julie Delpy) are cast well as the central couple, Alex and Nica, who seem to be happy, carefree, in love, and in sync. They acquire a guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), who's prone to rambling monologues but pretty knowledgeable. It seems like all is set for a couple fun days in the Caucasus Mountains, but it turns sour when Alex makes an alienating move. After that, everything feels undone, and the two have an entirely different relationship. It's debatable whether the event at the film's center is quite as significant as all make it out to be, but it's not that implausible, and the implications it arouses are thought-provoking.

But the primary reason this all works is the fascinating style that Loktev employs, which is heavy on depth-of-field experimentation and spatial awareness. Aside from a grating motif that pairs wide landscape shots with a heavy-handed cello track, the film achieves a striking look and feel, both laid-back and intense when it wishes to be. Pitching the dialogue down in the sound mix, this is a film that relies more on the noises of nature and the expanse of the terrain. These things make it well worth seeing, even if Loktev isn't quite as ambitious with where she takes her plot. B

And then there's Rick Alverson's abysmal "The Comedy." Which I couldn't find any discernable reason to watch more than 40 minutes of. It bears no resemblance to the "Tim and Eric" brand it seems from a glance to to be cut from, featuring Tim Heidecker in an incredibly unlikeable role. I tried in vain to find it funny, but the only original, not entirely abrasive element was the inspired use of William Basinski's "The Disintegration Loops" in a scene undeserving of its grandeur. But this movie is terrible, and made me unhappy. I would probably have headed for D-/F territory had I finished watching it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

After Lucia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Michel Franco's "After Lucia" is too insular for its own good, not bringing enough to the table thematically to attempt a small-scale analysis of bullying, or really anything in particular. The perpetrators seem pulled from a PSA. Alejandra, the victim of the harassment, is just as underwritten, and credit should go to Tessa Ia for gleaning any sort of emotional response from the audience. Everything is pared down to fit Franco's static style, which occasionally allows bits of tailored emotion, most of them courtesy of Hernan Mendoza as Alejandro's father Roberto ("a disgruntled chef," as the problem says, pretty hilariously). Mendoza gives the film some of the spark it needs, but all the same, even his characterization feels familiar. Franco goes for a mix of subdued and unhinged, but it all feels poured on, tired, and not really justified, including the apathetic and abrupt last scene. The film's aesthetic is predominantly trashy and repetitive, with a couple of nice compositions sprinkled in due to luck or motives unknown.  How this movie has gotten so much attention (the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, Mexico's cosign for Best Foreign Film) baffles me, and the more I think about it, the less sympathy I'm willing to give it. C-

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reality (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Having seen Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" will not prepare you for his new film, this year's Cannes Gran Prix winner "Reality." It's pretty much an 180* turn from that grounded, despairing work. Garrone her shifts to a much lighter and brasher tone and a flashier style, drawing from Fellini and Max Ophuls to craft a sendup of trivial ambition and religious devotion. His greatest asset comes in the form of Aniello Arena, apparently an imprisoned member of the Mafia (whom Garrone may have found while doing research for his previous film). This may be the only film he's ever in, and he surely gives the performance of a lifetime, playing his Luciano as vivacious and awed and out of his mind. Uniformly strong, he helps the film through its bland setup and patchier sections to help Garrone bring his emblematic story to good fruition.

We first see Luciano in his favored habitat, entertaining at a wedding. He hams it up as a drag queen alongside Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a vapid celebrity who got pretty far on "Big Brother." Much praised for his amusing antics, Luciano wants the stardom and admiration Enzo has. His current life as a seller of fish and cooking robots lacks those things, but it takes the incessant pressuring of his daughters and the support of his large family to get him to try and audition for the show. 

Now, obviously, men in their 30s and 40s are unlikely to compete against hot and fit people a decade or so younger than they are. Nor should they: at that point in one's life, the time for lazing around in pools and fucking everyone in sight is most likely diminishing. But, for whatever reason, Luciano gets incredibly into the idea of being on this empty show. Following an audition where he said he gave his all, he starts thinking his behavior is constantly monitored. Previously focused on making every dollar he could, Luciano starts being more charitable, to the delight of his Catholic assistant Michele (Nando Paone). At this point, the film begins making clearer analogies to the pursuit of salvation. It follows this trajectory all the way to the final sequence, which I thought was transcendent but which will annoy or turn many off. 

The last shot (rhyming with the first) is a work of genius. Throughout the film, Garrone shows his range, carefully composing certain shots and letting the camera run often for minutes on end. He lets himself loose, showing a side that was unseen in at least "Gomorrah" (though I know he's made crazier films in the past). The music, too, is also key in determining the mood, and though it cloys at the start, it helps things literally soar by the end. Maybe it's a little dated (though it's kinda beside the point), and maybe it won't leave a totally lasting imprint, but "Reality" is worth taking in. Arena's acting alone totally validates seeing it. B

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Caesar Must Die" and "Simon Killer" (Philadelphia Film Festival)

The Taviani Brothers' "Caesar Must Die" and Antonio Campos' "Simon Killer" are two films about bad communication, hopelessness, and predestination. However, in how they examine physical and mental prisons, the movies differ drastically. The Tavianis possess a sentimentality and belief in transformations that Campos almost completely veers away from. The Italians also maintain a distracting artifice that ultimately undermines their film's strengths, while the American largely strives for verisimilitude in depicting boredom, sexuality, violence, and heartache.

Berlin Golden Bear winner "Caesar" follows prisoners putting on "Julius Caesar" in Italian, which means that Shakespeare's language has been translated into a different tongue and (for our English-speaking benefit) back through the subtitles. This essentially turns the brilliant dialogue of this great play into bad, blunt screenwriting. Sure, certain sections are preserved, but for the most part it feels watered down. This diminishes the experience of watching the play, which is a shame, since the production itself is well-done and strongly acted. 

Another huge thorn in my side was the bothersome use of what appeared to be staged docudrama. A raw documentary style, though perhaps impossible, would have suited this film much better, as moments of transcendence are made trivial by their probable fabrication. The whole film would have felt like more of a revelation if it didn't feel scripted; this is especially true for the bits that are compelling nonetheless, such as Salvatore Striano's devotion to his role as Brutus and the grandeur of Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar. But unfortunately the Tavianis pour this artifice on, in hopes of hammering their thesis into place. The film peddles some interesting ideas and stunning images (courtesy of Simone  Zampagni's incredible B&W cinematography), but the whole is repetitive and scattershot, if enjoyable in certain moments. 

"Simon Killer," Campos' similarly cerebral follow-up to his haunting and successful "Afterschool," was a real handful while I was watching it, but after the final monologue ended, it came together to hit me, and hard. Simon (Brady Corbet), its main character (read: definitely not a hero, more of a total asshole), doesn't deserve any of what he stumbles upon, but due to his charms, he continues to end up in potentially worthwhile situations that he continues to squander. He's on a self-imposed exile outside of the US following the dissolution of a stable relationship. He starts out pathetically lonely, aimlessly wandering to Parisian museums, listening to the same few songs, writing notes to his ex, hitting on random French women, and videochatting with his mother. 

He ends up finding a beautiful and hopeful prostitute (Mati Diop) with whom he starts to spend his days. Though their first meetings seem full of good (intensely sexual) chemistry, one can sense a rift due to their disparity in terms of French. One scene, where "Victoria" (her real name isn't listed online) tries to share a horrible memory from her past and Simon (out of ignorance most likely) doesn't understand, is devastating, and kept me in the theater when I was close to walking out. The film often doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but on closer study it definitely is, and it eventually comes into the clear as a work of repetition. 

The setbacks are technical mostly, as Campos is too reliant on empty, common Dardennes-esque formalism when he's capable of much more (take the long take of the opening monologue, the stationary camera during the first sexual encounter between Simon and "Victoria," and the shooting of a disturbingly callous scene in a club set to "Dance Yrself Clean"). However, I really liked the "Enter the Void"-esque psychedelic transitions. The whole film feels pretty empty at points. But I give Campos credit ultimately, as he pushes all the way to a dispiriting, wrenching finish where a stuttering letter motif is repeated for a final time. I can see why this film has only played sparingly since its Sundance premiere, since it angers you, bores you, and eats at you in an uncommonly unsettling way. Yet I see those things as more valuable than most of what "Caesar" had to offer. 

"Simon Killer" is ingenious in its slow playing out of a previously doomed relationship in microcosms for all to see and gasp in horror at. Campos, in his provocative way, stresses how important good communication of various sorts is (stranger/stranger, lover/lover, mother/son, brain/eye), especially in this increasingly disjointed age. It's the kind of film that you might have to see again, even if you can't really muster up the courage to do that. 

Caesar Must Die: C+
Simon KillerB

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"No" and "Leviathan" (New York Film Festival)

I've never seen Pablo Larrain's dour-sounding "Tony Manero" or "Post Mortem," but it seems as if his new film "No" is something of a departure. Both of the other films, I read, were set in the 70's, in Pinochet's rule and at the transition into it, respectively. "No" tells of how Chile took up the dictator's offer to overthrow him and ended up doing so with the help of some well-thought-out advertising. It's a fascinating subject that offers Larrain the chance to examine both the creative process (especially under pressure) and the idea of how to sell something in a respectable way. But "No" would be a much weaker film if it allotted screen time only to the side opposing Pinochet. Its greatest strength is a willingness to look at all sides of situation, and to see that these advertising opponents were much more connected than one would've liked to believe.

Gael Garcia Bernal's Rene Saavedra, the man whose audience-friendly ideas ultimately fueled the NO campaign, is also valuably not portrayed as a beacon. He's a cool, careful, cynical man whose family life is a bit of a shambles and who is nervous about risking his job to work with "Communists," especially when his boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) is big-time Pinochet supporter. The relationship between these characters epitomizes the film's evenhandedness, and Bernal and Castro both deliver strong, complex performances. The film itself is an intricate venture, that looks honestly at motives (Saavedra wants to win this particular standoff, not necessary completely change Chile) and what it takes to appeal to everyone. Most importantly, this is a film that earns its celebratory close by looking at the pain that's been born and how much of a relief it is to try something different. Larrain's idiosyncratic choice to shoot the film on U-matic video (the same format as the ads Saavedra worked on) and edit as if he's directing one of those commercials is both inspired and a distraction, but it ends up feeling like a good move once the film settles in. B+

"Leviathan" by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (two highly-regarded young documentarians) is not a film you can describe easily. It's a movie that must be watched to be understood. That's not necessarily true of the talky and historic "No," or seemingly many of the other films at this festival ("Life of Pi" seems to be an exception, despite it being an adaptation). "Leviathan" is magnificent and monotonous, a focused work of sound and image that makes you aware of the fisherman, the fish, the boat, the bird, and the sea. It's so good, it may make you seasick. It contains some remarkable footage, both above and underwater, of the systematic catching, cutting, and disposing of various types of sea life off New Bedford, MA. There's also a focus on the wear that such a job puts on the fishermen, manifested in an unrelentingly long take of the captain slowly falling asleep. 

I can see why this film only was scheduled one time in the festival. It's more hardcore and stripped-down than even Frederick Wiseman would usually go (to be sure, he usually shot on land and in workspaces). The only audible speech is an ad played on the radio. As I mentioned before, it possibly could cause motion sickness. And it's as devoted to its style as Bela Tarr was on his similarly textured "Turin Horse." But I feel, even if it could have been slightly cut down from its sparing 87 minute runtime, that "Leviathan" is an example of true, pure cinema: an experience that can't be reproduced in any way other than actually going out on a boat. A-

Friday, October 12, 2012

Oslo, August 31st

There are two elements that elevate Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st" beyond the normal crop of well-made, faceless festival films in the grim style of the rightfully sainted Dardennes brothers. The first and most important is the exceptional lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, previously seen (by people other than me) in Trier's first film "Reprise." He plays a rehabbing drug addict named Anders, and though it's probably a coincidence in casting/naming, Lie burrows in and does everything he can to make us feel for a self-destructive man whose potentially fruitful life has been rewritten by abuse. We pick up certain details about the past along the way, but credit to Lie for radiating the burnt out and cautiously optimistic demeanor  such a character would. The second factor that distinguishes this film is the flawed but fitfully extraordinary screenplay by Trier, who works from a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The film's use of monologues/narration and observation of the random people around Anders shows its origins in the literary, but these techniques end up feeling wonderfully evocative instead of turgid and flat. However, these bursts of unlikely invention are ultimately unable to lift "Oslo" to a higher cinematic tier due to Trier's overall blank and restrained style that works extremely well in certain instances but leaves little imprint on the viewer when all's said and done.

My feelings about this film feel bizarre to me, considering how much I appreciated the way Trier told his story and how well I responded to the attention paid to the subtle dynamics between characters. The pinnacle of the film (outside of the aforementioned narration) is a 20 minute portion dedicated to a long conversation between Anders and his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, who reminds me a lot of Michael Shannon). Though Thomas cares deeply for Anders, he also seems to have been consistently hurt by him in the past. This is conveyed through Thomas' sporadic conversational arrogance and offering a recovering alcoholic and druggie a beer with his meal. It's a complicated relationship, and Trier steers it in interestingly conflicting directions. Outside of early scenes depicting a suicide attempt and a (close-up heavy) drug-abuse meeting, his style best suits this scenario. His oft-used slow dolly-ins build tension and beauty, drawing attention to his dialogue. And in this case it's devastating. I was somewhat disappointed with the rest of the film for never reaching the emotional clarity of this section. That's not to say it isn't depressing (read: it is). But it's not quite as heartrending, which is what I think is what's missing. B