Saturday, 4 January 2014

Best of 2013: Film Pt.2


(Check out Part One here)


Hors Satan

Forget hobbits, Bruno Dumont's mist-veiled meditation on good and evil is authentically magical cinema for those with the stomachs for it. Set in the austerely beautiful coastal regions of Northern France, it tells the deeply enigmatic story of a hermit-like man living amongst this wilderness who befriends a young woman and kills a series of people who attempt to harm or possess her. As the events gradually unfold, it becomes clear that this mysterious protector is invested with supernatural powers, although whether he is saint or devil remains teasingly and hypnotically ambiguous as his actions alternate between the tender and the shockingly violent.

Emulating the metaphysical dramas of Danish master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (particularly the tremendous Ordet), Dumont makes us confront the question of the spiritual latent in the material world head-on, challenging us to suspend our disbelief in a universe where divine and demonic influence can not only be spoken of, but keenly felt in everyday life. You don't have to be a believer to find his fiercely idiosyncratic style of cinema strangely captivating. (Nick Pierce)


In The Fog

As metaphors go, the 'fog of war' would seem as hackneyed as any. It's doubly to writer-director Sergei Loznitsa's credit then, that he should not only have crafted one of the finest and most incisive dramas in years about the condition of warfare, but that he should also have made its recurring visual motif of murky, misty landscapes seem vital and bold.

When the film begins, we're following two tight-lipped and grim guerilla fighters stalking through the barren woodland of Belarus during World War 2. Stopping at a remote cottage, they forcibly remove a third man from his family and march him out into the night, fully intent on murdering him, believing that he has betrayed some other locals to the Nazi occupiers. By the end of the trio's journey, we have learned a great deal about their personal histories, and the vagaries and contradictions of human nature as brought into relief by the inferno of war.

Favouring extremely long takes and telling his story through silences as much as through words, Loznitsa's work here is historical tragedy stripped down to its bare essentials, so that the universal truths emerge like bone through skin. (NP)


Only God Forgives

Whilst many expected Nicolas Winding Refn’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling’s mute face to merrily follow in Drive’s footsteps, what actually followed was – in spite of its lip-biting scenes of ultra-violence – far more indebted to Kubrick in its formal approach, tinged with something rather Lynchian in its slow-burning, dreamlike state. Offering a pitch-black take on both Freudian psychology and Old Testament judgement, this neon-soaked nightmare found its God and Devil in Vithaya Pansringarm and Kristin Scott Thomas, the latter in particularly loving every minute she spends bullying hapless son Julian (Gosling) into avenging the murder of his degenerate older brother. Refn himself has meanwhile acknowledged that Pansringarm’s figure of justice is a third interpretation of the red-blooded knight figure seen in both Drive and Valhalla Rising; a violent corrector in barbaric lands. (Tom Dunn)


The Place Beyond the Pines

A story of fathers, sons, and the lasting ramifications of the pursuit for male power and glory, Derek Cianfrance’s latest feature may have concerns far removed from those of Blue Valentine, but it’s just as critical of self delusion. Initially focusing on Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver Luke Glanton, who turns to bank robbing in order to support his newly discovered son, The Place Beyond the Pines soon opens up into a wider study of US society, both politically and morally. Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of the film’s central figure, Avery Cross, magnificently plays up the character’s tragic sense of self-preservation, with the film’s three distinct acts offering one epic piece of high drama, backed up by stunning shots of New York state’s oppressive, shadowy forests and a quivering score from art-rock maestro (and personal hero) Mike Patton. (TD)


Prisoners

Loaded with a sense of unshakeable dread throughout its length, this criminally neglected thriller, together with The Place Beyond the Pines, offered a scathing critique of masculinity in the dark heart of America, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive hunt for two missing girls clashing against the stubborn, violent quest for revenge conducted by grieving father Hugh Jackman. Casting Philadelphia as a barren hell hole, where blind faith – whether in a god, a lover, or even yourself - offers little but pain and regret, Prisoners in many ways felt like a spiritual successor to Gyllenhaal’s other great police procedural, Zodiac – and owes a fair debt to many of David Fincher’s prior works. Nevertheless, with its trio of scintillating central performances – rounded out by the ever engaging Paul Dano, claustrophobic cinematography from Roger Deakins, and Villeneuve’s assured hand, it’s a film that ultimately stands on its own two feet. (TD)


Spring Breakers

In Harmony Korine’s neon pastel wonderland, it’s Spring Break Forever. Notoriously casting former Disney teen stars into his gang of morally bankrupt pleasure seekers, Korine’s vision of this staple in US collegiate life somehow manages to at once condemn, applaud, and merely observe what is surely indicative of the 21st Century American Dream, as four destitute college girls hold up a fried chicken store in order to fund their pilgrimage to Florida’s tacky, sun-bleached streets. Guiding them ever deeper into this fantasy land, where any and all pleasures can be found, is the lecherous Alien. A far superior companion piece to Korine’s equally apocalyptic look at the American suburb, Trash Humpers, Spring Breakers successfully took this recent trend for garish, grindhouse-flecked genre cinema, and made it into something far more monstrous. (TD)


Upstream Color

If Primer was a 4D Rubik’s Cube, constantly growing more complex the more you tried to unravel it, Shane Carruth’s latest feature is a half-remembered dream, its logic becoming clear on a far more primal level. Hitting the ground running with some feverish body horror, the story of graphic artist Kris losing her life to an inventive identity thief quickly becomes something else entirely, being far less concerned with teasing out the details of its narrative than in looking at the very human need to connect, and how deep-felt, implicit understanding can be far more rewarding – and indeed necessary – than any surface knowledge. The unique relationship between Kris and Jeff is a fantastic metaphor for the steady dissolve into one that happens between any two people in love, with human interaction offering a gestalt-like approach in conquering life’s frequently unknowable trials. (TD)


V/H/S

Whilst its sequel threatened to undo much of the good work done by this inventive horror anthology, the sheer sense of visceral terror than ran throughout all of V/H/S’s six short films was – along with the similarly executed Maniac – a serious kick up the arse for a stagnating genre. Breathing new life into the ‘found footage’ genre along the way, this collection of terrible tales covered everything from alien abduction and pagan rituals to voyeuristic crimes of passion, each naturally incorporating the reason for it being filmed. Rather than relying on gloss and jump scares to keep things going, V/H/S did what many of the best horror films do, rooting in deep and playing on our sense of security rather than just seeking the next cheap thrill.


What Richard Did

Haneke comes to a sleepy Irish seaside town in this claustrophic tragedy from Lenny Abrahamson, which looks at just what happens when the local school’s golden child goes ahead and lets his possessive streak get the better of him. Nathan Nugent’s claustrophic editing, coupled with the film’s marked lack of a soundtrack, makes the story’s quiet revelations all the more harrowing, but its Jack Reynor as the eponymous Richard who steals the show, visibly struggling to keep a hold of his charismatic self-image as his world crumbles around him. With everyone looking to blame someone else for the murder of a troubled teenager during a house party brawl, What Richard Did is just as much a look at how far self-deception can run as it is a study of the middle class tendency to ameliorate or ignore events until “civilised” life can pick up as normal. (TD)


Zero Dark Thirty

Following up on her bomb-disposal B-movie The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow caught a lot of critical flack for her epic, excruciating depiction of the decade-long hunt for Bin Laden. The comparisons to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl were obtuse at best (this is more 'Failure of Reason' than Triumph of the Will), although right in one crucial detail: like that pioneering female moviemaker, Bigelow excels at muscular, visceral cinema.

But unlike her overrated Oscar winner, Thirty doesn't let gung-ho genre thrills get in the way of its unrelentingly ugly and desperate narrative. There are overtones of Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil in screenwriter Mark Boal's wide-ranging examination of USA government employees going about their daily business of torture and killing, seemingly without sparing a thought for the wider ethical quagmire of their actions. And giving a human face to a supra-human process, Jessica Chastain is excellent as CIA analyst Maya, our cipher for the entire United States, her face visibly transforming over its 2-hour-plus run-time from Mid-Western homecoming queen to haggard, hollowed-out death mask.

When the bullets finally do fly, in the masterfully-staged recreation of the siege on the Abottabad compound, the overwhelming sensation is not adrenaline but nausea. As in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips, also released this year, when the American military enters the fray there's no pussyfooting around their devastating, terrifying force.

This deeply disturbing rendition of recent history swells like a howl of anguish from an empire growing ever more aware of its tenuous, blood-slicked grip on the moral centre. (NP)


Honourable mentions: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Maniac, The Selfish Giant, To The Wonder, Post Tenebras Lux, Iron Man 3, Behind The Candelabra, Flight, Side Effects, In The House, Trance, Museum Hours, Lore, Captain Phillips, Blue Jasmine, The Gatekeepers, Silence, Paradise: Love

Friday, 3 January 2014

Best of 2013: Film Pt.1


Read on to find out what treats from the past year grabbed our attention and lingered in our minds long after viewing...


The Act Of Killing

Perhaps it's unfair to make other films compete against Joshua Oppenheimer's one-of-a-kind documentary; it's almost certainly an act of trivialisation to rank this monumental record of human evil and repression alongside the other releases this year, as great as many of them were. For all of 2013's cinematic innovations and emotional wringers, The Act Of Killing stands alone as a text with genuine historical import. It functions as a harrowing record of the too-little-known genocide in Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century as told from the point of view of its garlanded, disturbingly ordinary perpetrators.

But its exploration of an important event is not alone what makes it an important piece of cinema. Rather, it's Oppenheimer's twisty, treacherous approach, freighting the national trauma with reflections upon the mass media's role in constructing the past, received truth, and the modern psyche. The killers, drunk on their own celebrity, are invited by Oppenheimer to re-enact their crimes for the camera, and embark on an increasingly haunted journey into the heart of darkness. For anyone interested in the possibilities of film, its capacity to encode complex ideas about the nature and the nightmare of reality, this is an essential watch. Extraordinary. (Nick Pierce)


Beyond The Hills

Like his riveting abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Romanian Cristian Mungiu's latest is another merciless dissection of his home country's social malaise and economic privation. Using the real-life incident of the Tanacu exorcism as its starting point, in which a young member of a Moldavian monastery died during an exorcism ritual, Hills depicts the tragic fallout from the arrival of a headstrong, worldly woman, Voichita, into an isolated religious order. Having come to be reconciled with her childhood girlfriend, with whom it seems that she could be in love, Voichita finds herself at loggerheads with the fiercely conservative and quietly controlling male head of the community.

Mungiu keeps the camera distant at all times, letting the scenes play out in long takes, and refusing to pass judgment on the worldview of this very alien, antiquated order. Slowly, engrossingly, the story reveals Mungiu's preoccupation with his country's subjugation of women's freedom and bodies; a power that - as we learn here - is often bought at a terrible price. (NP)


Blancanieves

Does the world really need another retelling of the Snow White story? Yes, it seems. At least, it needed one as deliriously inventive, endlessly fun, and sensuously shot as this Spanish silent film. If there was any justice in the world, the far more deserving Blancanieves would've captured audiences' imaginations in the same way that The Artist managed two years ago. Unlike that Oscar-winner, which effectively treated the grammar of silent cinema as little more than a novelty for winning press attention, this update of the Brothers Grimm narrative hearkens back to the expressive, visually dynamic heyday of the form in the 1910s and 20s. References abound, to the frenetic crosscutting of Eisenstein, and the creepy surrealism of early Bunuel, but they never distract from the drama.

The revisions to the plot are inspired: setting the fairy tale in and around the world of bullfighting, and having Snow White herself become a celebrated matador, allows for several action scenes that border on the poetic. And the script restores some of the darkness of the original folklore, recasting the evil stepmother as a sadism-fuelled dominatrix, and totally disposing of the Disney version's insipid romance and reassuring ending. (NP)


Blue is the Warmest Colour

The hoohah surrounding the lesbian relationship at the centre of Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour romantic tour-de-force, and the accusations that the film is a male, heterosexual view of female, 'transgressive' sexuality, are a bit of a red herring: Blue is the Warmest Colour is just as much if not more of a drama about social class, and the way it shapes our conception of and expectations from life.

Called The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 & 2 in France (a third chapter is reportedly potentially on its way), it follows the eponymous heroine, a working-class teenager enrolled at her local college and studying to be a primary school teacher. Hard-headed, pragmatic, and schooled in the value of money by her frugal background, when she meets blue-haired middle-class artist Emma and embarks on a passionate love affair, she is introduced to a whole new world of intellectual and sexual liberation facilitated by affluence. Although Adèle is the younger of the two, and not as 'worldly' as her lover in some respects at first, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that she has an emotional maturity fostered by her upbringing alien to the flightiness and arguable shallowness of Emma. But aside from its digs at middle-class solipsism, Blue is also, despite its slightly self-indulgent length, just a very involving and visceral love story, brilliantly acted by its two leads. It would be a tremendous shame if the mudslinging it has generated in the press, much of which has nothing to do with the movie itself, was allowed to overshadow its obvious quality. (NP)


Computer Chess

Following its quiet release a decade ago, the DNA of Andrew Bujalski’s funny ha ha still lingers on in today’s current trend for depicting Generation Y as hopelessly adrift. Computer Chess sees the low-fi aesthetic of the Mumblecore movement Bujalski helped create reinterpreted as the visual language for the birth of the Information Age, Bujalski’s hand held cam perfectly complementing the film’s initial presentation of its cast as eccentrics and losers operating on the fringes of society though. What follows, however, soon shifts from a caricature of the 80s’ DIY ‘punk’ programming culture into a bizarre and unsettling debate on life versus automation, with a barely-together tournament ultimately becoming the unwitting background to a clandestine battle for the future. It’s easy to dismiss Computer Chess as a wry, nostalgic look at a time so close yet so far removed from our post-Internet world, but it has a hell of a lot to say about just where it is we’re all blindly heading towards. (Tom Dunn)


Django Unchained

Neither as blisteringly innovative as Pulp Fiction nor as deliriously unhinged as Inglourious Basterds, Django is perhaps primarily notable for being Tarantino's most heartfelt and soulful movie since 1997's Jackie Brown.

Racism has always been a thematic pressure-point in his pictures, but never so boldly and unflinchingly addressed as it is in this spaghetti Western set amongst the cotton fields and colonial mansions of 19th-century Mississippi, a Southern empire built on the bodies of African slaves. Tarantino has fashioned something akin to a photo-negative of Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, those epic apologias for institutionalised white supremacy: here we have a portrait of America whose Caucasian citizens are uniformly despicable and ridiculous, tainted one and all by their tacit complicity in, if not outright support of, this so-called 'flesh for cash' business.

Unlike his other recent offerings, where the characters seem to exist in isolation from one another, Django shows Tarantino anchoring his narrative in two loving relationships: that between freed slave Django and the wife, Broomhilda, from whom he has been cruelly separated by his former masters, and the burgeoning friendship Django experiences with his saviour and subsequent partner, Dr. King Schultz.

It might forego any measure of subtlety, but the fact that Tarantino can get such an excoriating satire made and released to huge commercial success is surely impressive enough. (NP)


A Field in England

British auteur Ben Wheatley is that rarest of beasts: a genre-movie director with a genuinely art-house sensibility, unapologetically relishing of the chance to splash gore and scatological humour across the screen, but equally unafraid to challenge his audience with unconventional narrative and stylistic choices. Both of these impulses find a demented, gleeful outlet in his fourth feature about a group of English civil war deserters coerced by a malevolent alchemist into helping him search for buried treasure. The result is something like a diabolic chemistry experiment in its own right, mixing equal parts League of Gentlemen gallows humour and Lynchian trippiness. It's great fun, supremely creepy, and one-of-a-kind. (NP)


Frances Ha

I love Lena Dunham and all, but she must have been taking a long, hard look at the latest script for Girls after watching this enchanting collaboration between indie super-couple Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. A world away from their previous cinematic portrayal of the ultimate wet weekend, Greenberg, this latest character study is full of life, eschewing weighty / self-serving commentaries on the plight of entitled twenty-somethings in favour of something that, in spite of its frequent allusions to Truffaut and Godard, feels far more true and warm. Gerwig’s take on Frances is fully aware of the character’s foibles without letting them define her, and in its more jubilant approach to life in New York, ironically offers some stark criticism toward many of its celebrated peers. (TD)


Gravity

Gravity must be this year's most flawed excellent movie, a truly daring and contradictory piece of work from director Alfonso Cuaron. For every focus on scientific realism (no explosion sounds in space) there was another entirely implausible aspect (an astronaut in space after 6 months training). To read too much into it, however, is to miss the point; this was a masterclass in roller coaster edge of the seat action that still managed to push boundaries. At times plot devices were obvious (case in point: the back story of Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone), but this was overridden by the genuine sense of peril created by the Spanish director, and one of the first intrinsic but gimickless uses of 3D. There may have been many smarter, more plausible movies this year, but I seriously doubt there were many nearly as exciting. (George Bate)


The Great Beauty

Depending on your point of view, either Paolo Sorrentino's picaresque panorama of life in present-day Rome transcends the limitations and formula of story, or simply forgets to include a proper one. What story there is concerns ageing playboy-cum-journalist Jep Gambardella. Having conquered high society early in life, Jep has spent the intervening years growing fat and lazy indulging in its intoxicating but frivolous pleasures. Now in his autumn years, he's still tumbling from bedroom to bedroom and nightclub to nightclub, but beginning to sense that once upon a time he might have traded in any possibility of genuine fulfilment.

It doesn't take a genius to recognise that Sorrentino is indebted to Fellini's kaleidoscopic late-60s masterworks like La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, which similarly attempted to encapsulate the entire pageantry of human life, the divine and the profane, in a city seemingly designed for such philosophical meanderings. So beholden is it to these classics, in fact, that Beauty never quite escapes from their shadow, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable, or the sudden ambushes of pathos any less painful. Plus, it looks ravishing: an orgy of luminous dancefloors and womb-red ruins, like a perfume advert with elephantiasis. (NP)

Ten more films for 2013 will be announced tomorrow, completing our look at last year's best in cinema and sounds. Until then!