#235. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Kechiche)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. The 3-hour runtime flew by for me because the film is largely free of narrative commitment, and is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. The camera is incapable of tearing away from Adele Exarchopoulos and it does so only to attach itself momentarily to Lea Seydoux. There is a ruthless commitment to the vigorous lifeblood of a young woman which is embedded in everything from the extratextual unpleasant filming experiences to the naturalistic self-discovery and epic fumbles of Adele’s character. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of life and living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self. This goes beyond the depiction of a lesbian romance, existing on a broader level; a lot of the film is of Adele in her various environments, without any additional narrative motivation, almost feeling like a documentary at times. A scene of Adele at a rally early on is absolutely captivating. Environment is established, she is established within it and the film flies free that way. The scene, like most of them, goes on for quite some time and it could have gone on for much longer without any complaints from the peanut gallery.
Time is handled interestingly; quite a bit of it passes, with only one really direct clue at the very end as to just how much. And so time flies by, but the scenes given focus contain a great deal of real-time patience and unfold naturally. Yes, that includes the sex scenes. I think a lot can be said for their problematic claims and yet there’s an audacity and animalism to them that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to their relationship that the idea of them, nature of the content and the actors experience aside, is important. It’s the kind of stark eroticism and explicitly frank depiction of sex I think we need more of. We stay with them to the point where, for better or worse, it feels like we enter another realm and it fits with the film he is making, exploitative or not (to which I say both yes and no).
The unwillingness to tear away from the face at times hurts the film. We are introduced to some potentially compelling aspects to the dynamic of the relationship which are not explored enough. It’s more interested in the lead-up to and aftermath of rather than getting into the nuts-and-bolts of an actual relationship between two women outside of a physical level. And there are other little nitpicks; some on-the-nose dialogue and those completely horrible and unrealistic group of high school girls.
I am especially taken with how meaninglessly Adele fucks up. It’s so spot-on to actual experience. We never see her trying to communicate to Emma how she feels, and her all-too human fuck-up is driven by inexperience with relationships and how to handle their downs, and a general restlessness. We see the moment she realizes the irrevocable damage she has done; those moments when it all slips out of her fingers (in the blink of an eye by the way, in direct contrast to how everything else unfolds) before she’s even begun to process anything is heartbreaking and almost unbearably palpable.
Also almost unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. A contender for my favorite scene of the year. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling.
Lea Seydoux became a favorite of mine last year with Sister and Farewell My Queen. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-blown crush/been this attracted to someone in a film. But there you go. I really can’t handle her in this. It’s simply too much for my libido.
This takes an all-too familiar trajectory and at once goes into it on both an extreme micro and macro level. Held together by the astonishing lead performances it’s resonating with a hell of a lot of people and for good reason. It’s told with a patience, fascination and an innate regard to the uniqueness of first experiences and the gift of youth.
#236. Frozen (2013, Lee & Buck)
Such a delight from start to finish (but with an asterisk attached). Ultimately about the bond between sisters, a pretty-much-never-broached subject for Disney, charting the paths of the two very different siblings. Two! As in more than one female protagonist! How exciting! And though most of the film sadly hinges on their separation, it all comes back to the Anna and Elsa relationship, which still counts for something. It plays around with expectations quite a bit, effectively promoting the concept of getting to know your ‘soulmate’ and developing a connection and dynamic with them over the traditional ‘princess narratives’ that almost uniformly favor the ‘love at first sight’ sentiment. There’s some direct commentary on this as well as other little subversions along the way.
The voicework is really strong; obviously Idina Menzel stands out through her singing abilities and Kristen Bell infuses a really personable and relatable brand of clumsy naive spunk into Anna.
What strikes me about Frozen is that it feels in the ballpark of greatness, which make its shortcoming that much more irksome. One is that it moves at a too-brisk pace. It felt like there were opportunities for a fleshed-out breather that were missed. I’m also not crazy about several of the songs. Sue me, but I tend to be picky in this regard. Even though we get the showstopper “Let It Go”, something critical like “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” grates on me even as it comes around to a poignant end. Taken as a whole, the songs are just decent; not exemplary. And Olaf? Well, part of me loved the character and part of me would have paid extra money to make him melt. Such is the way of Disney sidekicks.
Lastly, while some of the CGI is beautiful, my nostalgia for hand-drawn animation kicked in and I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d love this particular film if it weren’t CGI. There’s some stunningly magical imagery, but on the other end of the spectrum some of the animation felt weirdly flat at times, the characters would awkwardly mesh with their environments, and it depicts an world with backgrounds that often felt bland and without dimension or character.
So yes, I do think there are some things holding Frozen back from greatness but this is a film I can see myself watching every so often for sure. I also should probably see Tangled.
#237. At Berkeley (2013, Wiseman)
Don’t be surprised if this ends up as my #1 of the year. Right now we’re headed in that direction. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal kind of documentary and he continues to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.
As always, he acts as a guide, not a documentarian with an overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, the order which it is put in, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing this film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. To say it’s engrossing is an understatement. This is a fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system. We are given highly special access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.
It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students. I can assure you from my own experience it often was not. But then there are moments when the admin feel truly dismissive and disconnected. But there’s passion and determination in the students, even though at times they don’t know what the fuck they are doing (see: aforementioned protest). And then there’s that horribly depressing moment when a student breaks down because of what financial loans are doing to her parents and her own life, with the financial adviser having essentially nothing to reassure raw emotion. So a lot about this film struck close to home for me, I gotta say. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad. You just kind of feel everything.
#238. Byzantium (2013, Jordan)
Tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Centers around Saoirse Ronan but it’s Gemma Arterton who captivated me most. You feel the weight of time and the world on her shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I like quite a lot at this point, concocts a vampiric story of women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. Lush imagery supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. Caleb Landry Jones confirms that he is this generation’s Crispin Glover, and this is a great thing.
#239. Much Ado About Nothing (2013, Whedon)
Sounds like a dream project. One of my favorite Shakespeare plays? Whedon? Populated by Whedon regulars? Check, check, check. But while this playful low-budget adaptation has some delightful highs, I could never shake the whole Whedon-and-his-pals-amuse-and-indulge-themselves-by-performing-Shakespeare thing. Basically taking the Shakespeare parties they’d have and kicking it up a notch. I think that’s what made it charming for so many but it distracted me about 50% of the time. I had a hard time losing myself in it. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable the other half of the time. So there’s that. Acker, Fillion, and Maher are standouts. But ever-so-critically, Alexis Denisof makes a wooden and uninspiring Benedick, which the film never recovers from, to the point where a large part of that 50% comes from his screen-time.