I’m certain never to see as many films released in a single year as the one just past, since I plan to revert to a more retrospective and thematic approach to my viewing and reviewing. Once I’ve finished this round-up, I’ll post a listing of my hundred best films of 2015, in comparison to the Top100 Metacritic ratings. Here I’ll group films by oddly similar MC ratings, though I will discriminate by my own opinion.
There are films that arrive with a buzz or vibe -- or directorial track record -- that makes me avoid all reviews, so I can approach them with fresh and wondering eyes. This was the case with two quiet mindblowers that have finally arrived on
DVD, both of which
would definitely reward repeat viewings.
For both, I recommend an initial innocent screening, to find out for
yourself what is going on before the camera, behind the masks, beneath the
surface, beyond what you can see. Each
will leave you with more questions than answers, enlarging in your mind long
after the end credits roll. Unless
impervious to their respective appeals, you will find each achingly human,
discovering humor in misery and a glimpse of spirit in the mundane.
45 Years (MC-94, FC #23, MC #8, NFX) denotes the anniversary that a comfortable British couple living in rural
is about to celebrate. They are played by two old reliables,
Charlotte Rampling and Tim Courtenay, who’ve done a lot more than survived
since the Sixties, which period is evoked by music cues throughout. The two leads alone are worth the price of
admission, but that’s not all. Andrew
Haigh’s writing and direction is subtle but tight, everything is connected, and
you have to stay sharp to see anything happen at all. It takes an extraordinary gift to make the
ordinary profound, and to insert a sense of suspense into the everyday. Under a quiet surface secrets come to light,
obsessions are unleashed, that shake the marriage to its foundation. I am loathe to reveal any of what happens (or
doesn’t) since it unfolds to an ending that many will see differently, or even
find befuddling. It seemed clear to me,
but was not the end I wished for, which only made it seem more true to
life. Anyway – see it, and then we can
talk. And I mean that literally, since I
think this would be a terrific selection for the Cinema Salon film club,
supposing that screenings and discussions may resume with the reopening of the Norfolk Clark auditorium in November.
Anomalisa (MC-92, FC #12, MC #7, NFX) would also yield an animated discussion, if possibly less suited to the demographic of the film club. You really need some attraction to the depressive humor and twisted worldview of Charlie Kaufman to really get into the spirit of this film, which is even weirder than usual. The fascinating and explanatory backstory of the film is revealed in an exemplary DVD extra, but I advise you to find your way into its weirdnesses without a guide. I’ll go so far as to divulge that the story began as a three-person audio play with sound effects and music, but I won’t tell who the three voices were (and are), or how they’re embodied in puppet animation (with co-direction by Duke Johnson). Suffice to say that the character Lisa is an anomaly in several ways, making for a mordantly moving romantic tragicomedy, as well as a bizarre look at what it’s like “Being Charlie Kaufman.” This is another film that makes the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, to brilliant effect. (For more detail without giving away too much, see Dana Stevens.)
I was strangely resistant to watching Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (MC-91, FC #30, NFX), even though I am a longtime fan of Jafar Panahi. The first film he made after Iranian authorities put him under house arrest and forbade him from making any was This is Not a Film. To me it lived down to its title, and I thought the critical acclaim represented political rather than aesthetic judgment. So I expected this latest to be another dutiful exercise in support of free speech. Not at all -- Taxi is fantastic. Fascinating, thought-provoking, witty and winning, it could have been called Everything is a Film. Panahi is driving a cab around Teheran, with a camera mounted on the dashboard, and picking up characters for sequential vignettes. We’re never quite sure, and neither are some of the characters, who might be a real passenger and who might be playacting. Each is a telling episode, however, and somehow in 82 minutes the film adds up to a lot, from a genial portrait of Panahi himself to a miniature retrospective of his film career (and other Iranian Neorealist masterpieces), from a disquisition on the ubiquity of video recording devices to a sly satire on fundamentalist censorship. Characters range from a DVD bootlegger to a bleeding accident victim trying to record his last will and testament via cellphone camera on the way to the hospital; from two bickering old ladies carrying goldfish in a bowl to Panahi’s ten-year-old niece (or should that be “niece”?), cute as button and sharp as a tack, making a film herself and debating documentary with her uncle. It’s a hoot, as well as a mindbender, and courageous as hell .
Two very intimate films about a woman’s health issues received similar critical acclaim. In Blind (MC-83,
NFX), a Norwegian woman is losing her sight and maybe
her mind. In Eskil Vogt’s direction,
it’s not clear what we’re seeing, whether it’s her surroundings or inside her
head, what’s real or what’s imagined. In
her effort to keep her inner sight alive through memory, the woman writes her
husband and some neighbors into a series of sexual and romantic fantasies. Moody and mysterious in a Nordic vein, this
film engages both the eye and the intellect.
In James White (MC-83,
NFX), Cynthia Nixon plays the title character’s
mother, who is dying of cancer. She offers as strong a portrayal of a woman dying as Emma Thompson in Wit
(a role Nixon herself played on stage), but the
film bears the deep personal imprint of
writer-director Josh Mond. His eponymous
surrogate is played by Christopher Abbott, but you get the feeling he’s acting
out scenes directly from the filmmaker’s life, as he copes with the end of his
mother’s life and the deferred beginning of his own. The film offers no excuses
for his self-pity and bad behavior, as it captures a world of literati with immediacy of insight. Short, intense, and pitch-dark, the film
packs a wallop, though hard to watch. Manhattan
Two totally different indie takes on the horror genre wound up with identical Metacritic ratings but diametrically opposed reactions from me. The Witch (MC-83,
NFX) is officially a 2016 release though it won
acclaim at Sundance in 2015. Ultimately
marketed as a scarefest, this first film from writer-director Robert Eggers has
more than chills in mind, as signaled by its opening title card, “A New England
Folktale,” and its source material in the writings of Cotton Mather. At the opening, a stubbornly independent man
is being expelled with his family from Plymouth Plantation in 1630. The gates of the compound close behind them
as they set out into the wilderness, in search of a solitary homestead at the
edge of the woods. The film is effective
at establishing period and place, and the acting seems convincingly historical,
and histrionic as well. Scary creatures
live in the dark woods at the edge of civilization, and demonic forces
infiltrate the family. Eggers exploits
some genre shocks, but develops a disturbing mood and a folkloric sense of the
With It Follows (MC-83, FC #22, MC #14,
NFX), I couldn’t follow either the film or the
critical consensus. If you do choose to
watch this -- if the idea of a topical update on the neighborhood teen
scarefest of Halloween appeals to you -- then it won’t be because of
anything I have to say about this half-clever, totally-fake remake.
Another dissent to enter in passing. I’m not going to buck the critical consensus on Son of Saul (MC-89, FC #14, MC #12,
NFX), but simply register my own inability to watch
it. Maybe my worldview is too fragile to
face up to such an intimate portrayal of existence in a Nazi extermination
camp, or maybe my cinematic appreciation is too narrow to encompass this film’s
predetermined minimalist approach. There
are very few films I do not finish once I start, especially those that come
with raves from critics I trust, but there was no way I was making it to the
end of this one.
From around the world comes a quartet of well-regarded foreign films. Coming Home (MC-81, NFX) represents a homecoming for Zhang Yimou -- after his swerve into government-sponsored spectacle -- and a reunion with his muse, Gong Li. Rather than swordplay and martial arts, he delivers a family melodrama in historical context, in a vein similar to my favorite of his films, To Live. During the Cultural Revolution, a longtime prisoner escapes and tries to return home, where a daughter he barely knows betrays him to the authorities, to curry favor for her dance career. A few years later, he is finally released and returns home, but now his wife (Gong Li) no longer recognizes him. Undaunted, he does everything he can to restore her memory. Well-acted Sirkian melodrama with an overlay of political parable, Coming Home satisfies on several levels.
NFX) is rather like Lawrence of Arabia from an Arab
perspective. First-time Jordanian
writer-director Naji Abu Nowar centers his story on a Bedouin child who gets
caught up in the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule during WWI. His style echoes the spaghetti westerns of
Sergio Leone, but it is the performance of Jacir Eid in the title role that
really warrants attention for this folkloric tale, which visits four desert
water wells, symbolic sites of anarchistic conflict among tribes, rebels,
bandits, and imperial authorities. In
the rendering of landscapes as well as faces, Theeb warranted its Oscar
nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
As did the Turkish entry Mustang (MC-83,
NFX). Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s
debut is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, but highly
distinctive in its portrayal of five endearing teen sisters who are imprisoned
at home when their emerging sexuality threatens social norms. A minor indiscretion on the last day of
school lands the orphaned girls in lockdown, to be married off in short order
by their gruff uncle and kindly but old-fashioned grandmother. Lively and funny, despite the girls’
outrageous fate, this spirited film is as much a celebration of sisterhood as a
condemnation of patriarchy.
More teen girls in Breathe (MC-78, NFX), one shy, awkward, and asthmatic; one sexy, mean, and crazy; each beautiful in her own way. This French film is likewise directed by a young woman, Mélanie Laurent, and marked by extremely winning performances from young actresses. When the brash newcomer at school befriends the less social girl, their bond becomes too tight to survive. This depth of intimacy is risky all around, such suffocation is bound to end in betrayal and damage, in this inside view of the throes of teenage angst.