Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #90-94

wicked lady 1

#90. The Wicked Lady (1945, Arliss) (UK)
Once again, societal expectations of a bygone British era sets the stage for transgression. And once again Margaret Lockwood has her emerald eyes set to the limits of wealth and power, as in The Man in Grey. Unlike The Man in Grey, which saw Hester always in control without ever quite attaining her desires, Barbara acquires status, wealth, and a husband very quickly. She spends the majority of the film fulfilling her own need for excitement, danger, and adrenaline no matter the cost (and it is costly, I assure you). Her motives come from a valid place of stifling and boring expectations for women of the time, explored in a heightened thieving fashion, and through such a heartless character. It’s a win-win for the Gainsborough Pictures, allowing the audience to live vicariously through the Barbara’s deviancy, while doubling back to give her an appropriately nasty end. That she yearns for a traditional life at the end is almost too cruel to her, adding to the film’s ultimately very outdated gender treatment. Margaret Lockwood is wildly great, next-level Hester. James Mason and the rest of the cast apparently held contempt for the corny material and dialogue, but it only adds to the hateful energy, serving the film well.  Lots of cleavage and murder.


#91. Sanshiro Sugata (1943, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Akira Kurosawa shows some chops right off the bat, but I had a very difficult time engaging with this. Prototype for Red Beard,   following the same journey of young stubborn man learning humility from older wiser figure who is at first misrepresented to the audience. The blooming lotus and travels of a lost shoe stand out as soft visual touches.


#92. Blue Ruin (2014, Saulnier) (US)
I’ve seen so many descriptions of Dwight (Macon Blair) that cite him as an incompetent idiot. Hmmm, that’s just not what I saw when I watched Blue Ruin, the anticipated much-talked about pared-down revenge noir. We mistake reality-based average competence, and being led by emotions but unprepared for the follow through, as idiocy. This is what works best about the film; seeing soft-spoken beach bum Dwight determined, but entirely out of his element. Everything in the narrative revolves around guns; their easy access, their power, and the implications of using one. Revels in its minimal story, allowing for an on/off structure of interactions and encompassing solitude. Blair is something else. Painfully ordinary; awkward and inward. But I’m not sure the film adds up to all that much besides a really solid genre exercise. It arrives at its destination and then just throws its hands up in the air.

Innocent Blood

#93. Innocent Blood (1992, Landis) (US)
An atrocious start to my 1992 watchlist. Unequivocally one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It tries to be a never-before-seen genre hybrid; a self-conscious marriage between vampires and the mafia. Innocent Blood ends up botching both big time, wholly uncommitted with one toe half-heartedly on each side of the fence. Doesn’t attempt enough humor to be a comedy, nor scares to be horror, nor intimidation to be crime. Robert Loggia is aggressively over-the-top, and that’s before he rises from the dead. Anne Parillaud, in her first post-Nikita role, is woefully stilted. There’s a next-level category of bad films, and it’s the most offensive kind. When a film, somehow through its uselessness, manages to instill the impression of not even having watched anything when it ends. Innocent Blood is that kind of bad.


#94. Godzilla (2014, Edwards) (US)
Even though we are living in an age of unrelenting spectacle, most films of this ilk have no idea how to utilize the concept. Godzilla excels at spectacle, no small feat indeed. From the sense of build-up, and the consistently human perspective from which we see the monsters, it conveys the palpable feeling that the film’s events are bigger than ourselves. Instills a distinct awe punctuated with incredible visual moments, perhaps most memorably the red-streaked plane plummet. Now here’s the rub; the people. To put it mildly, people are clearly not the point; they are place-markers. But Godzilla still tries to hit story beats within its minimal approach, stopping the film dead in its tracks when its only meant to usher narrative along its merrily destructive way.

You’ve got Bryan Cranston (who is marvelous; the man brings instant gravitas), Ken Watanabe, Elisabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche in your film, and we get stuck with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, of all fucking people, for the majority of the running time? Whaaaaaa? Why are we stuck with young bland white males as audience surrogates every. damn. time. The way Watanabe and Hawkins are used works much better. They aren’t characters, and they aren’t supposed to be, but by casting compelling actors, their story-driven concern comes through effectively.

The monster-on-monster action is to-the-moon stellar; sprawling brawling. Things of beauty. Godzilla is far more engaging a being than anyone we see. The film starts small and goes big, a refreshing narrative trajectory lost on blockbuster films with setpiece-led structures. But in trying to blend humanity with the monstrous within the small-t0-big trajectory, it flatlines on the former. As impressive as Godzilla is on the spectacle front, and as much as I approve of how it sees the role of characters in theory, the screenplay insists on attempting to hit emotional beats that it can’t even begin to support. That it does this with a lead actor whose non-performance could put you to sleep is the tipping point.

– I just wanted to give Ken Watanabe a hug the entire time. Poor soul.
– A big fat kudos to the Taylor Nichols appearance


Review: Pietà (2013, Kim)


To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclomation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is an unfeeling loan shark who spends his days sadistically crippling his industrial citizens after they can’t pay up on unreasonable interest rates. He has no friends, he barely speaks and his life is generally soulless wasteland. One day, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) shows up claiming to be Kang-do’s mother who abandoned him at birth. He dismisses her claims, becoming more and more irate as she insists on coming into his apartment, washing his dishes and following him everywhere he goes. Kang-do finally concedes to acknowledge her presence, and humiliates her in various ways including slapping her, making her eat a part of his cut off thigh (seriously) and finally raping her. From there, the film veers into a lazy uncommitted land of revenge, redemption and dysfunctional familial bonding.

Reading interviews with Kim Ki-duk makes it clear that his idea of dealing with criminals isn’t necessarily to punish, but to remember compassion as a virtue and that redemption is within reach if one is willing to open themselves up to feeling and remorse. Kang-do is not so much seen as a monster, but as an unfeeling child-robot victim who is the way he is because his mother abandoned him. This kind of distorted naivete is everywhere in Pietà and the misplaced empathy that Kim so kindly and unjustifiably heaps onto his typical loner character Kang-do is nowhere to be found amongst his other characters.

For those who have claimed ‘it’s more complicated than that’ in regards to Kim’s recurrent misogyny; if this isn’t misogyny, what is? When it comes to Pietà, the word complicated is as antithetical to its petty affectations. I generally call myself a fan of Kim Ki-duk’s, at least from the films of his I have seen and yes, that includes The Isle. 3-Iron in particular struck an indelible spiritual chord of offbeat human connectivity. But the women in his films are almost always relentlessly victimized, complete with crumbling upper lip and guttural anguish. They rarely register as actual characters and are usually punching-bag substitutes.

In Pietà, the absent mother is directly blamed for Kang-do’s lack of empathy or maturity. And it is only when she is punished via rape that reconciling is possible between them because the act is disgustingly seen as putting them on equal footing. Later narrative developments may put this causal argument into question, but at that point in the story all information points to this reasoning. Kim stated that he purposefully cuts away from violent acts in the film so the audience is left to fill in the blanks of cruelty. It says a lot about how he defines violence because rape apparently doesn’t qualify for him; that act gets the distinction of being shown unlike the cutaways to other kinds of physical harm.

There is also zero sympathy for the drowned-in-debt industrial workers. Kang-do consistently asks why they borrowed the money in the first place. Basically, the viewpoint is that they dug their own hole so now they deserve to lie in it. All of this oversimplified cause-and-effect not only makes the film rudimentary, but it makes non-entity of an antihero Kang-do a misguidedly sympathetic savior.

Kim Ki-duk’s films usually provoke extreme responses, but the prodding here is entirely superficial and not in service of any thought-provoking idea or layered whole. There is a line between challenging provocation with intent and empty provocation borne out of malignant rage. The ugliness of the film capsizes all, especially since it is unsupported by thoughtfulness or purpose. It all goes back to him using his reputation in the title credits as a carte blanche, a get-out-of-jail-free card where all offensive and brutal content is used as a false prompt to read into supposed depth. And it can conveniently be backed up with ignorant claims of ‘well it’s not supposed to be pleasant to watch’ and a misperceived truth that in the arthouse world, unpleasantness equates meaningful truth. With Pietà; look closer – there’s nothing there.

Most of its length consists of repetitive name-calling exchanges and abuse, with slapping every which way and suicide and crippling abound. Pietà comes out of Kim’s charred disappointment at how money and loan sharks have affected South Korea as a contributing factor of monetary obsession and a high suicide rate. The filming of the Cheonggyecheon’s area of industrial labyrinth certainly leaves an impression as does that final image. Kim Ki-duk’s raw inner turmoil at the world he observes are the material with which Pietà exists; he just forgot to mold those emotions into an actual film. The result is truly artless and repugnant with zero return value adding up to the oh-so-grand statement that, ya know, money is bad. Revelatory stuff Kim; truly.

Reintroduction #30: Oldboy (2003, Park)


#30. Oldboy (2003, Park)
First Seen in: 2006

I didn’t realize it had been so long since I had seen Oldboy, but that’s because the film sticks with you. I believe this was the first Korean film I had seen; actually I’m sure of it. Oldboy is a film where the mark of the overused violent revenge thriller pays off in new and exciting ways, even ten years later. It’s a film filled with delirious mania but it’s strangely funny and morbidly poetic at the same time.

Choi Min-sik, one of my favorite actors, is remarkable here. It’s a performance that moves across extremes. In one scene he can be stoic and hollow and in the next feral and feverishly physical. The scene where he begs is disturbing enough to begin with in context, but his performance pushes it to another level. I’ve never seen a character more desperate.

And that fight scene, my God that fight scene. I’ve revisited that particular scene many times but it’s just….it’s not just the ‘cool’ factor associated with pulling off a long take. It’s not just that it’s a fight scene. The one take here is doing something new. The distance and trajectory of it is like a performance art piece that showcases how far someone can push their body. This is perseverance, exhaustion, rage and bodily damage encapsulated, distilled. You feel the heaving, the sweat, and agony. It’s like a manga panel brought to bloody life. Ka-Pow.

Something I’ve noticed about Park Chan-wook is how obsessive he is with characters within frames, capturing them in poses, and using framing to further articulate characters in relation to the camera and each other. It can be used for humor, to accent a moment into our memory or to emphasize character. An example of this is the how Oh Dae-su adopts the face and motto of the painting in his prison room. When he smiles in pain several crucial times throughout the film, is becomes cemented for us and is also used to enhance character.

Park also has a tendency to expand time in the interest of moments but also condenses time through editing to create a slightly dreamlike sped-up linearity at all times. It’s not naturalistic; as Park says, he likes you to feel the ‘space between shots’. This de-emphaszies plot, putting a focus on the audience simply living in the film. I think it is this that allows the audience to easily go along with its more outlandish plot elements like the hypnotist.

Park and Chung Chung-hoon drown Oldboy in a sea of rusty grainy green, a world of grimy fluorescence with carefully placed splotches of red. It exists in nearly every shot, and Chung used bleach bypass to help get the seedy underground effect. It’s a very dark-looking film, and combined with the use of wide-angle lenses help make this a warped experience.

That final scene is just devastating, one of my favorite endings from any film. The ambiguous ending has become pretty overdone in recent years, often feeling like a cop-out. But this works because it’s a no-win and as an audience member you have to ask yourself which interpretation you prefer and it’s a tough one to answer. Like choosing between horrific and horrific.

One final thought; I forgot how much I love the score to Oldboy. It thumps and lulls and sways. It supports the ‘operatic’ quality of Park. “The Last Waltz” is a track I could listen to all day long. And have been.

List: Top 30 Fall Films to See (September-December)

We are two weeks into the Fall Movie Season; that lovely time of year when theaters are crowded with anticipated releases big and small. I have to admit that there are not a ton of films I’m dying to see these last several months of the year. My Top 30 is a strong group indeed, but this is the first year in a long time where I didn’t have about 45 films clamming for a spot on the Top 30. To put it simply, several of the bigger fall releases I’m feeling ambivalent towards. These include Flight, Promised Land, The Impossible, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Hyde Park on Hudson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m really looking forward to On the Road, Therese Raquin, Skyfall, Frankenweenie, Detropia, This is 40 and The Sessions but not enough to earn them a spot on the list.

If all of those highly anticipated films do not appear on this list, the question begs; what does? These are the 30 films I am most looking forward to. What are yours?

30. Barbara (Germany)
Synopsis: A doctor working in 1980s East Germany finds herself banished to a small country hospital.

Germany’s official submission for this year’s Oscars. I have yet to see a film directed by Christian Petzhold although I always meant to see Jerichow. I’m always going to be a sucker for films set in East Germany.

29. Lincoln
As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery.

The recently released trailer for Lincoln felt admittedly stuffy and anticlimactic. But I have faith in this film, despite the actors playing historical dress-up vibe and not caring about Spielberg’s 2011 one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. But look at this cast! Look at it! Daniel Day-Lewis appears in one film every few years, so any opportunity to see him on screen must be seized immediately. Especially since his last film role was the start-to-finish miscalculation known as Nine.

28. Dredd 3D
In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

Out of nowhere, Dredd 3D is getting really solid notices. Like, ridiculously solid review. In a world where the film industry deals in remakes and comic book adaptations as a daily ritual, I don’t think anyone had this on their radar. For the countless middling forgettable release and anticipatory disappointments, there aren’t as many ‘where did this come from’ surprises. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay, whose credits include Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Color me intrigued. But if the notices are to be believed, this is more than worth checking out.

Bonus: Olivia Thirlby sporting blonde hair while kicking ass and taking names.

27. Sister (France)
Synopsis: A drama set at a Swiss ski resort and centered on a boy who supports his sister by stealing from wealthy guests.

This sibling drama doesn’t seem to fit too comfortably into any easy box (outside of the aforementioned ‘sibling drama’) which is what draws me to it.  Lea Seydoux continues to stamp her presence as a French arthouse bombshell with her second release of the year after Farewell, My Queen.

26. Smashed
Synopsis: A married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of alcohol gets their relationship put to the test when the wife decides to get sober.

I have had my eye on Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a while now. Forget Scott Pilgrim. We’re talking the days of Final Destination 3, Death Proof and Black Christmas. Yes that’s right; Black Christmas. Last year she got a starring role in the remake of The Thing, walking away with all of her dignity in a film as forgettable and rote as they come. I think what most people are excited about in regards to Smashed, is Winstead finally gets a chance to show us what she’s got. And by all accounts, it was worth the wait.

Bonus: Aaron Paul, people. Aaron Paul. Aaron Paul: that is all.

25. How to Survive a Plague
Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

This documentary has the subject matter and the kind of upcoming exposure to really get some attention. It looks like the type of inspiring impassioned history lesson that I look for in this type of doc.

24. Killing Them Softly
Synopsis: Jackie Cogan is a professional enforcer who investigates a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game.

I have to admit that the trailer for this left me really underwhelmed and relatively uninterested in the story. However, the pairing of director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt has me salivating for this. Considering that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is in my top 10 of the 2000’s, you best believe this earned a spot.

23. Argo
Synopsis: As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist concocts a risky plan to free six Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Ben Affleck’s first two films managed to impress me enough without bowling me over. But it’s clear the man’s got a sure and efficient directorial hand. The cast, the based on a true story concept and 70’s period detail are all promising, not to mention its warm reception on the festival circuit.

22. Zero Dark Thirty
Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osams Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.

Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, chronicling the hunt and kill of Osama Bin Laden. I can’t wait to see how the film depicts its subject matter and how functionally rooted in factual reconstruction it is.

21. The Other Dream Team
Synopsis: The incredible story of the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team, whose athletes struggled under Soviet rule, became symbols of Lithuania’s independence movement, and – with help from the Grateful Dead – triumphed at the Barcelona Olympics.

Been hearing a lot about this documentary (one of only 3 on this list since the majority of documentaries come out during the Spring and Summer months). This is a truly fascinating subject, ripe for potential exploration, and it looks genuinely educational and uplifting to boot.

20. Sleep Tight (Spain)
Synopsis: An embittered concierge at a Barcelona apartment building plots to make one happy-go-lucky resident completely miserable in this psychological thriller from [REC] and [REC 2] co-screenwriter/co-director Jaume Balaguero.

I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a reliable, solid slice of horror. It looks like the kind of low-key, suspense ratcheting creepfest that focuses on its antagonist over other characters. And Spanish directors certainly know how to deliver the scares: The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone, REC, The Others and last year’s The Last Circus to name a few obvious examples.

19. V/H/S (seen)
Synopsis: When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.

I’ve already seen this one but this is where it would have been placed. Horror anthologies are always worth a watch and these directors take the stylistic experimentation that videotapes inherently offer, with its glitchy worn-down visuals and static white noise, and channel it through the possibilities of the genre. That alone makes this worth watching. For all the mediocrity of the stories themselves and the fevered gender-based discussion it has incited, V/H/S has a DIY aesthetic that makes its mark.

18. Keep the Lights On
Synopsis: In Manhattan, filmmaker Erik bonds with closeted lawyer Paul after a fling. As their relationship becomes one fueled by highs, lows, and dysfunctional patterns, Erik struggles to negotiate his own boundaries while being true to himself.

This looks emotional and moving with strong lead performances. It has been impressing audiences since Sundance.

17. Bachelorette (seen)
Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Another film on the list I have already seen, this is where Leslye Headland’s self-adapted mean streak of a comedy would have been placed.

16. Sinister
Synopsis: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.

Since premiering at SXSW in March, I have heard nothing but good things about this one. Good horror films that get wide releases are far and few between, but this looks like it will garner Insidious levels of attention with the buzz I’ve been hearing.

15. Silver Linings Playbook
Synopsis: After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

Winning the Audience Award at Toronto today is a huge signifier as to how this film will be received. The trailer didn’t do much to impress, looking too by-the-book with empty quirk thrown in. But all signs point to David O. Russell having a huge hit on his hands post-The Fighter. Russell is one of my favorite directors working today so I cannot wait to see him working in the comedic realm again.

14. Girl Model
Synopsis: A documentary on the modeling industry’s ‘supply chain’ between Siberia, Japan, and the U.S., told through the experiences of the scouts, agencies, and a 13-year-old model.

The second of two documentaries on this list, Girl Model looks like a chilling and illuminating look at the international modeling industry.

13. Seven Psychopaths
A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges reunites him with Colin Farrell as well as Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, both of whom starred in his play “A Beheading in Spokane”. McDonagh a master of the kind of dialogue that knows it’s clever, a Snatch-like trait that I usually veer towards not liking. Somehow he pulls this style off with aplomb and if it’s anywhere near as good as In Bruges, we are in for a treat. Oh, and Tom Waits people. Tom. Waits.

12. Wreck-It-Ralph
Summary: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.

This is the only children’s film I really can’t wait to see this Fall. The trailer had me full-on cracking up in a way no trailer has in ages and it has got a golden goose of a high concept. Add in the voice work of John C. Reilly at the helm and the smorgasbord of video game references and this looks like a guaranteed winner.

11. Looper
Synopsis: In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.

A brainy sci-fi headed by Rian Johnson? The amount of hype going into this one is considerable, but it looks like it will live up to expectations. I’m a huge fan of Brick and Johnson has directed two of the best “Breaking Bad” episodes in existence (“Fly” and “Fifty-One” respectively). So to see him get the opportunity to headline a considerably mounted genre film with its own world and rules is sure to impress. It is already well on its way to its own spot in the pantheon of great sci-fi flicks.

10. Wuthering Heights (Seen)
Synopsis: A poor boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte.

I got the opportunity to see this at the Independent Film Festival of Boston and this is where Andrea Arnold’s adaptation would have been placed had I not seen it. It would have been one of my favorite 2012 films had the last hour not been entirely unbearable. Here is my review:

9. Django Unchained
Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

I realize that it looks like Quentin Tarantino’s latest gets a pretty low spot. Surely this is Top 5 material, right? Well, while I’m sure this is going to be fantastic, I’m also feeling ready for the director to do something else besides revenge across different genres. But this promises memorable characters, references galore and the type of crackling two-person dialogue scenes we love from him. I think I’m most interested to see how Leonardo DiCaprio fares in one of the auteur’s films and as a villain at that. It’s a much-needed and refreshing step out of his comfort zone.

8. Perks of Being a Wallflower
Synopsis: An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.

I’ve had high hopes, really high hopes for this, for a long long time. A lot of us have been waiting forever to see if Stephen Chbosky seminal coming-of-age novel was ever going to be adapted, and lo and behold, the day is almost upon us. It has a remarkable trio of actors in the lead roles. I am particularly amped for Ezra Miller, who quickly climbed his way onto my list of favorite young actors. There hasn’t been a memorable high school flick in a while. And this soundtrack, which takes from the book, is to die for. To. Die. For. The fact that Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” is going to be in this film is a fact that single-handedly earns ‘Perks’ a spot on the list.

7. A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Synopsis: A young queen, who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with her physician – and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.

This is shaping up to be a great year for Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. He won Best Actor at Cannes for The Hunt (which will hopefully get a Spring release for 2013), he is set to star in a TV series as Hannibal Lecter and he received excellent notices in the very well-received historical drama A Royal Affair. This looks like an intriguing much better-than-average historical drama that is right up my alley. It also stars Alicia Vikander, a young actress to watch out for who also will appear in Anna Karenina.

6. Rust and Bone (France)
Synopsis: Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

This being the latest from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet and Read My Lips) with a reportedly stellar lead performance by Marion Cotillard gives this a very high anticipatory spot. Cotillard has been relegated to pretty thankless roles since catapulting to the Hollywood A-List. It’ll be nice to see her in a meaty lead once again.

5. Holy Motors (France)
Synopsis: From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man…

All I heard during this year’s Cannes coverage was Holy Motors, Holy Motors, Holy Motors (well, that and a certain other film to appear on this list shortly). By all accounts, this is a surreal whackadoo head trip in the best way possible. It seems well on its way to earning a cult status and I intend on checking it out the moment it comes near me.

4. Cloud Atlas
Synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

What will likely be the most divisive film to come out this season, I for one am counting down the days until this film gets released. The 6-minute trailer is a thing of beauty, bringing tears to my hypersensitive eyes. We can attribute a lot of this to the inspired use of M83’s brilliant “Outro”.  And I am over halfway through David Mitchell’s novel as we speak.

The way I see it, whether the film turns out to be a disaster or a triumph (or both at the same time), these filmmakers are going for it. The Wackowski’s and Tom Tykwer have together tackled what is widely thought to be an unadaptable novel (more so than most novels given the unadaptable label). It’s weaving six stories in one film, all in different time periods, with the same actors with the tired old theme of interconnectedness. No matter what the outcome, the film will be discussed for years to come. Without having seen it and going on gut instinct, it feels like the type of film that will possibly be reassessed for the positive as decades pass. As you can see, I’m preparing myself for the bashing to come. I can already see that Cloud Atlas is going to bring out the worst in the blogosphere, Prometheus-style. But no matter what the outcome, this is going to be an ambitious, epic and challenging work that nobody can fully write off. It may end up becoming a flop, but it sure as hell will go down swinging.

Ridiculous Bonus: Bae Doona, one of my very favorite actresses working today is going to get some serious international exposure here as Sonmi-451.

3. Amour (Austria)
Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

New Micheal Haneke. That not enough for you? It won the Palme D’Or. That still not enough for you? Haneke regular, and my favorite actress, Isabelle Huppert appears. Want more? This is Haneke doing a tearjerker about the elderly with two lead performances that supposedly devastate. My common sense tells me that Amour is going to stomp out my soul. Part of me has been mentally preparing myself for this film since this year’s Cannes.

2. Anna Karenina
Synopsis: Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.

Another film that is sure to divide. Joe Wright’s decision to set the Tolstoy adaptation on a stage and to use theatrical stylization is sure to distract some. But frankly, if all we are left with are the visuals evident in the trailer, this will still likely land a spot on my favorites for the year. The costumes, production design and overall look of the trailer is sickening. Joe Wright is one of my favorite directors working today. He pushes himself into challenging and creative directions that breathe new life into familiar tales. Wright reteaming with Keira Knightley, surely one of modern cinema’s most rewarding director/star collaborations, is always thrilling. The way his camera illuminates this woman (who is already stunning to begin with) is beyond my ability to comprehend. We’ve got a screenplay by the great Tom Stoppard, cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey, music by the great Dario Marianelli and costume design by the great Jacqueline Durran. So basically what it comes down to is that lots of great people are involved in this. I plan on reading this monster of a novel before the film comes out. Now that’s anticipation for you.

1. The Master
Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

I honestly feel like I don’t even need to put reasons here. It’s at the top of everyone’s list. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director. It’s been 5 years since his last film. This was very close to not getting financed. It’s a near miracle we even get to see this. His films engage me more than any other director. They make me feel things that are unrepeatable, unfamiliar and challenging. His films are dense, complex, elusive, pretentious and indefinably uncomfortable.  I live for his films. And on Friday I will finally be seeing his latest in 70mm. Oh, and welcome back to Joaquin Phoenix. It’s been too long. And if the trailers are any indication, this performance is one for the books.

Potential Double Feature #1: Kongo (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Welcome to a new summer feature. My biweekly plan is to come up with a suitable potential double feature. I will briefly talk about each film and then discuss why I paired them (i.e similarities and differences) and why I think they would work well back-to-back. I hope that more often than not I can actually carry out each double feature before writing about them. This one I had not, but I watched The Shanghai Gesture for the first time a couple of days ago and Kongo kept coming to my head.

First up is Kongo from 1932 and The Shanghai Gesture from 1941.

Kongo (1932):

IMDB Summary: From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.

A Pre-Code of epic debauchery, Kongo is a sweaty, grimy and dirty remake of West of Zanzibar. It goes about as far as I have ever seen Pre-Code go as far as subject matter and the frankness with which it displays its content. The entire thing reeks of the seething hatred that Walter Huston’s ‘Deadlegs’ Flint feels as he tries to exact revenge on the man who wronged him. It’s a stiff and stagy experience, but also a uniquely uncomfortable one. Everything can be found here; stereotypical superstitious natives, Flint’s greased-up lover with possibly the tightest costume in film history, a drug-addicted schizophrenic doctor who also happens to be the romantic lead, a flash of Virginia Bruce’s boob and oh so much more.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941):

IMDB Summary: A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by “Mother” Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year.

Josef von Sternberg’s last significant release is a reliably self-aware melodramatic gala packed with camp, crowds, celebration and of course, soft focus. Leisurely and meandering, it follows a group of top-to-bottom amoral persons who have found themselves in the anything-goes world of Shanghai, and even more specifically, in the grips of a big-time casino and its owner Mother Gin Sling. Gin Sling is played by non-Asian Ona Munson, decked out in nutty hair, makeup, and hints of Mae West-like delivery. The casino is art-deco hypnotism, a grandeur vision of decorative repetition. The last half hour is an over-the-top feast of twists and camp absurdity, which takes place during an elaborate Chinese dinner party.

Watching them together:

Neither film is among my favorites, but each demand to be seen as they are special oddities that time should not forget.

Both are based on plays; where Kongo was able to keep most of its risqué material, The Shanghai Gesture was neutered by censorship in many ways. The brothel of the play was changed to a gambling casino. Mother Goddamn was changed to Mother Gin Sling. Instead of Poppy becoming addicted to drugs, as the name suggests, she becomes addicted to gambling (though she still seems to be on drugs in the latter half of the film, but this could just be Tierney’s performance). Even though the latter was slashed and altered, it remains a surprisingly bleak filled with surprisingly provocative content. At least Kongo has a couple of half-decent human beings; in The Shanghai Gesture, everyone is grotesque in character.

Revenge is the primary motivator in each film. ‘Deadlegs’ Flint and Mother Gin Sling exact their revenge because of incidents that took place decades beforehand. Their method of revenge is exactly the same; to corrupt the wrongdoer’s daughter. In Kongo, Deadlegs has his enemy’s daughter, who he has custody of, brought to him after growing up in a convent. He proceeds to make her life such a living hell, in the form of implied forced prostitution, that she is a desperate alcoholic completely dependent on him for her fix. In The Shanghai Gesture, Mother Gin Sling carries out her revenge by loaning out massive amounts of money to Poppy, daughter of his enemy, so that she can reduce an adventure-seeking woman to a ruin via a gambling addiction, also completely dependent on her for her fix.

Both films jarringly depict the passage of time. Virginia Bruce’s Ann is in one scene a wholesome girl and in the next the complete opposite; a mere shadow of how we just saw her. Gene Tierney’s Poppy is in one scene a naïve but independent woman full of the desire for experience and in the next, a disheveled shrieking hussy, a dependent paranoiac who just wants more money and the grossly unappealing (both in looks and character) Victor Mature all to herself.

Virginia Bruce is unhinged, turning in one of the best ever Pre-Code performances. Gene Tierney is not quite successful; what starts out solid turns into a triumphantly ambitious failure. Poppy’s downfall is awesomely overplayed to the hilt in the weirdest of ways; but it is impossible to complain when it fits the film’s overall tone and adds to the viewing experience.

Did I mention Walter Huston stars in both films? In Kongo, he revives the role of ‘Deadlegs’ which he originated in the play’s original run. In The Shanghai Gesture, he plays Sir Guy, the fellow who did Madame Gin Sling wrong all those years ago.

Both films feature final-act twists of the same nature. They both take place in one exotic location. They both humanization the revenge go-getters. In Kongo it is entirely unearned and a real deal breaker because with that humanization it misguidedly seeks redemption. In The Shanghai Gesture it is more successful because it’s earned and is careful not to overstep its bounds.

Neither film is particularly great but each is more than worth its weight in excessive transgression. Where Kongo is dripping with jungle-set depravity, The Shanghai Gesture does the same with trademark Sternberg decadence.

List: Top 30 Films of 2011 #15-1

Here you are, at long last, the final 15. I realize that the pictures for the 30-16 entry were a bit wonky. Hopefully it will look better for this entry. Again, this is a ‘favorite’ list, not a ‘best’. What were your favorites of the year?

15.  A Separation  (Farhadi)

Disputes become complicated very quickly, especially when the self-deception of individuals comes into play. Asghar Farhadi, who wrote and directed this masterful work, looks at the complex inner workings of individual desperation and pride. These motivations are presented through characters that are not malicious but are just trying to get by. Furthermore, Farhadi casts no judgment onto the various imperfect players involved, seeming to understand that situations get complicated fast. The truth becomes muddled beyond the comprehension of the law officers, immediate family members and even the two characters directly involved with the incident.

Farhadi presents this as a fact-of-life, combining universality and the specificity of Iranian culture. Every character is complex as the central incident and its aftermath unfolds at the same time as the breakdown of a marriage. There are no easy answers, no saints and no malevolence for malevolence sake. A Separation is heated from start-to-finish and it is impossible not to get caught up in all its sprawling glory as our sympathies shift and hover, grow and lessen. Reveals are slowly doled out with the skill of a deft thriller without getting caught up in any genre trappings. A Separation captures life in all its messiness.

14. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

A film of halves; entirely based in conversation, simultaneously light and heavy. Certified Copy is about the burgeoning passion of a new love and companion, but also about the disintegration of a romance weighted down by history. It is a mysterious and ambiguous experience and the definition of transfixing. It is less about spending your time trying to decipher the exact nature of the central relationship and more about soaking in its essence, the conversation and the performances. It is about appreciating the ever-shifting but always simultaneous presence of the multiple phases of a dense relationship.

However one chooses to interpret or not interpret Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, it ensures that it can be experienced in a multitude of contexts, forming its own unique relationship with the viewer that is all their own. While this is something that always occurs with film and is something we often take for granted, Certified Copy seems to exist for this purpose, and what a gift it is.

13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Yates)

It is at this point where the numbers become even more arbitrary than they already are. Honestly, I love this film as much as my number 1. So think of these next 13 films as essentially being equal with each other in my mind.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 represented the end of an era for me and the countless others that grew up a Harry Potter fan. I grew with this series; the first film came out when I was fourteen. I may not have been a child as the franchise started (it was through the films that I became a fan of the books, not the other way around) but I threw myself whole-heartedly into the books and films, and my adolescence was positively littered with Potter-dom. I still believe it is somewhat taken for granted that we were able to experience a franchise that ran this long and that stayed this arguably consistent in quality. The Potter series means more than words to me, so to find that the final film met my expectations to the utmost was in certain regards more rewarding than anything else I saw this year.

Nothing impressed me more than Snape’s swan song; an appropriate tribute to the character, heartbreakingly played by Alan Rickman. The battles and buildup are as successfully epic as the seven films of buildup have sustained. The entire picture is wall-to-wall dazzling, enhancing Part 1 and striving boldly and confidently forth to its capstone conclusion. While nothing can quite match my first experience of it, it ranks in the top three of the franchise for me. This series will be a part of me the rest of my life and I cherish my ability to revisit it at any time I please.

12. Hugo (Scorsese)

I thought it wise to pair my two favorite ‘children’s’ films together. Even more than Harry Potter (where adults represent a large portion of its legions of fans), Hugo feels made more for adult appreciation than for kids. This is not to say that children will not enjoy it as it does contain more than enough of the magic and intrigue that comes with children’s fantasy. Indeed, it has the unmatchable splendor of its own contained world; a train station in 1920’s Paris. It has a central mystery, a mysterious key, automatons, a colorful cast of inhabitants and the rediscovery of a forgotten legend.

Martin Scorsese makes Hugo a singular film experience for several reasons, entirely making up for any uneven pacing or eventual anti-mystery. The first is the 3D; it will be interesting to see how the film fares without it. It functions almost as a physical argument for the form. It does not have to be a gimmick; when someone with legitimate drive to make use of the form, to mold it to support and enhance the world within, it can be unforgettable.

The second is the sense of wonder it contains which is infectious and addictive. Scorsese makes you want to stay in that station. Amidst the darker plot appendages, there is an exuberance, the uniqueness of fantastical discovery that brings one back to childhood. The third is the heart of Hugo, as it reveals itself to be a tribute to the magic of film through its love for central character George Melies.

There is an understanding of what we all see in film that makes us love it so, that brings about an instantly deep connection with Hugo. This aspect of it is what comes straight from the director’s heart, whose passionate work for film preservation is constant and incredibly important. Hugo left me in a drunken haze of film appreciation and an unparalleled respect for the origins of an art form.

11. The Tree of Life (Malick)

I suppose many think this should be much higher on this list. Love it though I do, there is a connection with certain films that I make that results in thinking of said film as ‘one of mine’. It is a relatable feeling to see something and to form a connection with it that allows it to be hoarded amongst a collection of personal favorites. I have this connection with The Thin Red Line and with Badlands and with large chunks of The Tree of Life. Most of the film, starting with the formation of the universe and leading almost through to the end is a transcendent voyage unlike any other. For some reason though, the Sean Penn bookends and the somewhat problematic portrayal of Jessica Chastain (the character, not the performance; she is wonderful) as an all-too angelic saintly mother struck a wrong chord for me. I also question the film’s depth, mainly because The Tree of Life seems more like a record of the memory and singular experience of childhood and a pondering drift through life’s big questions and origins as opposed to something that is particularly complicated in essence. It’s technical achievement, construction and execution is more complicated and ingenious than words can describe, but the finished product, to me at least, does not feel like it is meant to anything but a gloriously complex (in form) but ultimately abstract expression.

More than anything, I do not want this interpretation of abstraction to be taken as a knock; this is what I love about it. I feel lucky to have experienced something this beautiful, poetic, enchanting and moving. I felt brought back to childhood despite watching an individual depiction of it, and the strange and elemental feelings I experienced while watching is something I will never forget. And its drifting ponderous nature; this is also what I love about The Tree of Life. It considers the big and the small and asks us to glide along with it as it moves in and out of its many facets. Terrence Malick has so much skill that he is able to take us through his thoughts and Jack’s memories with the kind of ambition that results in something new and special. Parts of it feel like a continuation on what Walt Disney was getting at with his ‘Rite of Spring’ segment of Fantasia. Other parts feel like a journey of growing up, of the realization that parents expect things of you and that innocence can no longer be maintained. No film this year or in the past several years has been discussed and delved into more than The Tree of Life. While I feel that the film is more of an experience, something that to a degree defies analyzing, it is justifiably worshipped by many in the kind of passionate way that only Malick can incite.

10. I Saw the Devil (Kim)
Full Review Link: 

I Saw the Devil is an example of a film I hoard as ‘one of mine’. I perk up when I hear its name, I want to shove it into people’s eyes and praise it to the high heavens. Because I Saw the Devil does something extremely clever with the revenge genre; it sets out to be the end-all be-all, to distill its cliches into an essence of basic emotions, using repetition and pure brutality to really get at what this genre is all about.

What others may see as one-note is actually a very purposeful execution complete with uncomplicated character types and uncomplicated motivations. It uses what may be considered weaknesses in other films and turns them around, using it to an advantage. I Saw the Devil takes revenge as far as it can go, thereby making it automatically relevant. The film excels, because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.

The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process.

Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two examples where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display.

The pacing here is among the most accomplished of 2011. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.

I have seen this film twice and it strengthened for me the second time; it is and exhausting roller-coaster that is well worth the ride.

9. Hanna (Wright)
Full Review Link: 

I will be the first to admit that Hanna is not entirely strong. The father-daughter relationship falters, and Wright’s attempts to create a layered fairy tale do not pan out with quite the success he clearly wants it to. But for a multitude of reasons, Hanna is a stylized dream come true for me.

Joe Wright takes himself completely out of his comfort zone with an entirely new type of project. The resulting visual experimentation from Wright’s involvement is invigorating to the extreme; a feast on the eyes and ears that overcomes the script’s shortcomings. His use of tracking shots, extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, handheld camera work and much more all contribute to Hanna’s singularly high-powered style. He also keeps a lot of the action in camera, making the choreography stand out. Whether creating an engaging hyper-stylistic action set piece or subjectively aligning the audience with Hanna’s experiences, Wright always has motivations for his choices and it is a delight to work through them while watching the film.

Along with Wright and Ronan, the third irreplaceable element of Hanna is the score provided by The Chemical Brothers. As opposed to using music to manipulate the audience into certain emotions, Wright creates several different effects with the sound of hypnotic bass-heavy electronica. The score is first introduced at a very precisely chosen moment. Throughout, the music forms a cohesive relationship with the diegetic sound, with both influencing and informing each other. It is also used to crucially represent and accompany each of the action set-pieces. The music The Chemical Brothers have created here is addictive and is as important anything in Hanna.

When all is said and done, Hanna had me entirely at “I just missed your heart”.

8. Melancholia (von Trier)
Full Review Link:

It may seem contradictory to say that Lars von Trier’s end-of-the world opus is the director as his most peaceful and life-affirming; but it is. This isn’t to say that Melancholia is sunshine and rainbows; just look at the title and basic plot synopsis. But this is the Danish auteur reaching out and making a human connection with his audience as much as he likely ever will. It is a meditative exploration of the unexpectedly dichotomous nature (and the ways the two converge) between depression that renders one immobile in life, and having to face that which we will all eventually come to meet; death.

Dunst and von Trier, both having first-hand experience with depression, make painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. They are unwilling to cater to standard cause-and-effect rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit.  For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness. Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist was made as he went through a severe depression, and no matter what one thinks of that work, looking at Melancholia in the context of a follow-up to his previous film will make for worthwhile discourse someday. In fact, it seems like an entirely essential context to have going into the film.

Melancholia is one of those films that successfully fulfill their ambitions in dealing with profound and fundamental subject matter on a grand level of intellectually-based intuition. You come away with, yes lots to talk about, but just as importantly, a feeling that a filmmaker has come upon something almost indescribable that gets at how we experience life, death and what it all means (or ultimately doesn’t mean). Synecdoche, New York is one of these films (an example that goes about it in an infinitely complex fashion, whereas Melancholia and The Tree of Life is based in abstraction and how the writers’directors have experienced life.) The Tree of Life is another. Some might call these films pretentious but this is reductive and dismissive. Lars von Trier’s latest film is his most accessible, but is no less thought-provoking. In fact, if there is one film that will temporarily win over his detractors, it would be this one. It takes us through the cathartic process of grieving mankind with a scrutinizing look at depression, death, acceptance and world annihilation with an uncharacteristically humanistic eye.

7. The Arbor (Bernard)

Speaking of Synecdoche, New York, here is a film that gets at truth through conceptual reenactment and fiction. What could have been a disastrous execution (the film consists of interviews lip-synched by actors who address the camera) is just the opposite. The past comes to life, going beyond narrative and documentary films, achieving something that exists in between.

The actors become a vessel for the voices and the people behind them. The actors are literal messengers, and having them address the camera, and in turn the audience, creates an intimate connection between the documentaries subject and those who knew her, and us. We also get to know subject Andrea Dunbar through watching segments of her plays performed by actors in the actual slums of Bradford, West Yorkshire where she grew up and lived.

The Arbor is about as deeply depressing as it gets, and director Clio Bernard keeps the frames uncluttered, letting the format and interview material speak for itself by presenting it in a progressive but simple way.

6. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay)

Here we go with the word abstract again; I tend to love films presented in such a way. The visual representation of an emotional state and a literal materialization of the fearful apathy of motherhood are what We Need to Talk About Kevin is getting at. I may love this film partly because Lionel Shriver’s novel is one of my absolute favorites, and I was able to see Eva and immediately heap upon her 450 pages of the author’s anything but abstract contextualization. The symbolism may be is in-your-face with splattered reds everywhere (for a start), but it represents a state of being and a constant reminder of the guilt and loss Eva feels that cannot be expunged. Kevin exists as the embodiment of a worst-case scenario, a being whose chief understanding of the world is borne out of his instinctual knowledge of Eva’s motherly indifference.

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alfredson)

When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ended, I immediately wanted to revisit it, getting the sense that my love and appreciation for it would only grow over time. Above all other films from this past year, I became the most attached to Tinker’s feel and atmosphere above any other. Tomas Alfredson’s second feature (his first being Let the Right One In), is another adaptation. Everything from the cinematography to Alberto Iglesias’ fabulously wistful jazz score is in a lurking state of mourning.

The film mourns for an era fading before the characters eyes with its air of grey repression amidst the period world of Britain’s M-16 intelligence. It boils down the plot density of the novel into its essentials, without ever having narrative clarity as its priority. Reading the novel before seeing the film did allow me a basic understanding of what happens (which was a task in itself as I find myself easily lost within these types of stories), but the film is not about that. With the ensemble cast of the year, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a treasure trove of intrigue.

4. Drive (Refn)
Full Review Link:

It is an all too uncommon feeling when a film ends and you realize you are not yet ready to leave its world. This is the feeling I had when Drive ended. It is a slick retro ride, filled with homage and influence, operating as a nostalgic demonstration of American genre filmmaking and oozing European sensibilities, complete with existentialist sleaze and minimalist touches. It is a hybrid creature that dabbles in a number of genres that are all in harmony through Nicolas Winding Refn’s infectious appreciation for using cinema to create mood and atmosphere.

It is clear that Refn has been influenced at every turn. But it is not a hollow experience; far from it. Perhaps what impressed me the most about Drive is the smoothness with which Refn blends what is a clear unabashed love for both high and low art. He lets them bleed together in what can be succinctly described as effortless cool. There is a stable assuredness in every shot, every movement and every creative choice made here. One cannot help but want to revisit Drive and explore those choices, the motivations behind them and why they work as well as they do. This is confident filmmaking on display. The mere construction of it is something to behold.

The thankless female characters may be a slight misstep, but it is a minor quibble. With Drive, Refn represents cinema at its most assured, plowing directly into the heart of genre filmmaking.

3. Take Shelter (Nichols)
Full Review Link:

Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does, and to see the reality of the situation at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was, on some level, always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis, but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.

Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances.

Curtis’ psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us. Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening in its resonance. It may manifest itself openly, but Take Shelter works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one.

2. Project Nim (Marsh)
Full Review Link:

When discussing Project Nim, it becomes tempting to immediately spring into all-out praise mode. James Marsh approaches stories from different angles. 2008’s Man on Wire functions as a heist narrative. Project Nim is a chimpanzee biopic. Herb Terrace’s experiment was amateurish and botched from the start. By default, this allows Marsh to focus all his energies on telling Nim’s heartbreaking story, using archival footage and some very honest and candid interviews by the many people who came in and out of Nim’s life.

Project Nim is structured as a biopic that allows us to be acquainted with Nim as well as understand our incapacity to truly know a wild animal. All of the action is focused around the chimp, but the film says so much more through the story it tells. It is about humanity and our need to control and manipulate everything to be more like us. It is about the incompetence of man. It is about the well-meaning individuals like Joyce Butler, who care so deeply but are powerless in the bigger picture, and those like Bob Ingersol and Dr. James Mahoney, who never give up on making a difference.

Those who see Project Nim will be heartbroken. It works on many different levels, but people will remember first and foremost the story of Nim’s unstable life. James Marsh has told an unforgettable story and Project Nim is a true accomplishment.

1. Young Adult (Reitman)

Young Adult sadly did not connect with audiences based on box-office numbers and divided the people who did take the time to go see it. My number one was not clear this year; over the last few weeks, I have had about five different films in the top slot. So many character types have had countless films of their own, but to tread new ground and focus with someone like Mavis Gary offers something fresh and new; it took me in entirely. The film would not have succeeded if some did not walk away annoyed and frustrated; this only enhances how uncompromising and ugly its honesty can be.

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have created something that feels completely organic; effortless and seemingly simple when it is actually incredibly layered and intricate. Cody knows Mavis Gary in-and-out and pulls no punches when presenting her to us. She is delusional and ruthless; a total basket case who lives either in one extreme lazy sweats and reality TV consumption or another extreme of all-day primping as she presents herself to her old town with unrelenting purpose.

Theron fully inhabits Mavis as someone who cannot see past her own perspective or selfishness. She seems genuinely confused by the existence of certain emotions, and seeing her try to fake her way through them when she needs to is truly something else. This is also the first film I have seen to depict Trichotillomania and I have a special appreciation of the film for this reason. It is a compulsive disorder I have lived with since a young age, only with me the eyelashes are victimized and not the hair as with Mavis.

Young Adult turns expectations on its head with its kitchen scene that denies the audience the expected character turnaround, except that Cody dangles the possibility in front of our face first, making it all the more fascinating. Mavis’ relationship with Patton Oswalt’s Matt is one of the more distinctive interactions between two characters I have seen as he brings a self-aware sadness and longing to the proceedings. He is filled with the same emotions as Mavis but one is delusional while the other is not.

Young Adult is a film I felt an instant connection with; I laughed a lot, I cringed a lot, but mostly I admired the delicate craftsmanship at work from the spot-on writing and directing to the perfect acting. It is a blistering piece that is on the one hand an awkward comedy about emotionally stunted growth. On the other, it is a frighteningly candid character study about how sad it is to be so constricted by a superiority complex and perception of the world including where one places oneself within it.

Complete List of Films Seen in 201113 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou