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