last of the unjust

The Last of the Unjust (2014)

I had a provocative moment during my viewing of Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, his portrait of Benjamin Murmelstein, former elder of the Jews at the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1944-45. Early on in the film, Murmelstein tells Lanzmann: “you have convinced me our conversation is important.” For decades, Murmelstein had been reluctant to speak about the past, due, no doubt in part, to the pain it brought as well as the controversy his own role raised. At the moment just after Murmelstein uttered the above quotation, the disc in my DVD player simply froze without explanation. I couldn’t turn off the player. I couldn’t eject the disc. The image of Murmelstein’s frozen face—before he could really tell his story—lit up my living room. Maybe, this pregnant pause seemed to ask, the past is better left in the past?

Once I got the film restarted, I carried that question with me throughout Lanzmann’s extensive, more-than-three-hour interview with Murmelstein. Seeing as Lanzmann recorded the interview in 1975, the film seemed to pose the same question at a formal level as well. Numerous times throughout the film, Lanzmann’s camera or even Lanzmann himself introduces or interrupts the historical interview, instead wandering through the clean streets, emptied rooms, and beautiful synagogues that once bore witness to innumerable terrors. These places now carry largely unnoticed markers of remembrance, if anything at all.

The film shifts between old footage and new—most directly in the old footage of Lanzmann compared with the recent footage of Lanzmann—visually and formally mark history itself as a character. Indeed, as we try and suss out an honest response to Murmelstein’s admittedly fascinating stories of working for Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann and running the Theresienstadt ghetto, Lanzmann’s film foregrounds the question of historical perspective.

The film does this by taking this controversial “middle man” of the Holocaust era and giving him the dominant voice in the film. Lanzmann doesn’t seek to set up “gotcha” moments, but generally sits quietly as Murmelstein meanders through his tale. Indeed, Murmelstein’s gift of gab is apparent, even as he tends to, at times, drift far from his original point with asides and contextualizing. Lanzmann occasionally questions him, but those questions usually mean to clarify rather than challenge or debate.

The resulting film is masterful as the singular voice of Murmelstein plays off of the contrasting shots of past and present. Time passes. History accumulates. And Murmelstein’s voice resonates through it all. This combination suggests a question: How does time change the impact or estimation of that unchanging footage of a man from forty years ago? Hearing Murmelstein’s words—spoken in 1975—for the first time today reminds us of our distance from the past, as well as our difficulty of assessing the past in the present.

The specific reality of Murmelstein’s story is stark: He was the only surviving elder at Theresienstadt. The others suffered execution at the hands of their Nazi captors. Does his survival indicate a failure to protect his people or honor his identity? On its own his survival indicates no such thing. However, when we learn that Murmelstein followed Nazi orders to clean up the ghetto in order to make a show for the outside world that life in the ghettos was acceptable, skepticism about his explanations and reasoning takes root. Is this a man who would defend his personal interests at all costs?

Or maybe it’s more complicated than that . . . does Murmelstein’s personal interest align to a significant degree with the interests of the people, as he argues? The film is compelling precisely because Murmelstein’s claims cannot be easily cast aside. In this way, the film takes us into an issue, a time, and a character, giving us the opportunity to debate and wrestle with the claims we hear.

And it is that recognition that helps to answer my original question. Is the past better left in the past? Is history better left to history? My answer is unequivocal: no. We need history precisely for the purpose of entering into conversation about the whos, whats, and whens of our world. For it is in that debate that real community is forged and stabilized. Without important monuments and acts of remembrance that inspire conversation and debate—monuments and acts such as The Last of the Unjust—we will be left to powerful people wielding shadowy “truths” in the “service” of the people; we will find ourselves building and living and dying in modern-day Theresienstadts.

boyhood

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater has been making films for more than 25 years. And while his isn’t exactly a household name—despite his more popular collaborations with Jack Black (School of Rock and Bernie)—he has carved out a niche for himself in the world of American independent cinema with the seminal Slacker, the innovative Waking Life, and his affecting Before trilogy. Linklater’s most recent film, Boyhood, fits well into the ethos of those latter films. Heavy on dialogue and light on plot, Linklater’s “smaller” films privilege character, atmosphere, and ideas over story, events, and flashy set pieces.

Linklater’s work connects with the world in often profound and surprising ways. His films have regularly explored “people in time.” The Before trilogy is probably the best example of this as he has tracked Jesse’s and Celine’s relationship over the course of nearly 20 years—though we might also add the drama-in-real-time of Tape, along with sections of Slacker and Waking Life. Indeed, the middle entry in the Before trilogy, Before Sunset, is a film that virtually plays out in real time—the characters spending about 90 minutes together. Thus, that Linklater has played with time in a different way in Boyhood is hardly surprising.

My own interest in Boyhood tangentially revolves around this notion of time’s passage. While the film’s form—a series of twelve segments filmed over twelve consecutive years—clearly projects this particular thematic concern, the film isn’t simply interested in charting time’s passage. No doubt, this formal conceit is remarkable, as we see a boy go from six to eighteen in a little over two hours. However, it’s what the film wants us to do with the passage of time in the life of Mason and those around him that I find most interesting.

Every one of the film’s segments features Mason. Therefore, the action in each segment usually happens to or at least around Mason. In other words, Boyhood’s boy doesn’t initiate a great deal of the action—he most often receives it from his older sister, his parents, or his friends. While this could be criticized as a misstep, leaving the film with something of a blank slate for its central character, I think it works in a couple of important ways.

First, it feels realistic. Kids end up receiving far more than dictating the action of their lives. Parents take children places. Older siblings tell younger siblings what to do. Kids often simply go along with whatever their friends want to do. That Mason models these behaviors makes him more authentic as a character, and helps the audience get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a child.

Second, and more significant, however, has to do with my view that the Mason’s character embodies the way the film operates. The film opens with the image of the sky, as Mason watches the clouds roll by after school one day. The film closes with another scene of Mason gazing at the sky, this time a sunset in Big Bend National Park. Mason carries with him both an attentiveness to and an appreciation of the world around him. He is always watching, always seeking understanding, all the while refusing to judge and dismiss those people and events around him that are outside his typical experience or beyond his comprehension.

While Mason experiences frustration (generally directed at his father or stepfather), he never rejects. Even in one of the more painful sections of the film, as Mason deals with a break-up from his girlfriend, he can’t just dismiss her. He still remembers the good times they had and believes her to be, at heart, a good person.

Mason’s refusal to judge and dismiss people from his life seems to mirror the way Linklater approaches the primary characters in this film (especially Mason, Mom, and Dad). The director affords us the opportunity to observe these characters without him pushing us to dislike them because of their foolish behaviors or poor choices. Indeed, the film is at its weakest in scenes with the stepfathers, men we’ve no real connection to or sympathy with. As a result, these scenes feel stacked against those characters. Maybe this is by design, to place us in the shoes of the stepson thrust into relationships with these men. Regardless, those scenes stand apart from what is otherwise a consistent approach to characterization that takes people at face value—the good with the bad.

The overall lack of judgment toward its characters, taken in the spirit of Mason appreciating the world around him, is, in my view, one of Boyhood’s great achievements. It points out the value of appreciating people, experiences, and moments, and does so through the eyes of a child. Such a childlike vision of the world prompts us to be open and vulnerable to the world around us. It recognizes that such an approach will certainly yield pain, but not just pain. In the character of Mason, Boyhood gives us the eyes to see the beauty around us, to relish those moments of overwhelming grace or exciting opportunity that seize us and will not let us go. It is because of that spirit that I am most grateful for Boyhood.

God's Not Dead

God’s Not Dead (2014)

God’s Not Dead tells a familiar story (the lone hero delivers salvation to the community by defeating the forces of evil) filtered through a modern Evangelical mindset that seeks victory in its war with an out-of-control culture. Here are the story details: a freshman student (the too-aptly named Josh Wheaton) at a major university won’t compromise his Christian faith by fulfilling a course requirement of his atheist professor, namely to sign a statement affirming that God is dead. The professor then requires the student to give three twenty-minute lectures—one in each of the next three class meetings—to prove his point that God is not dead, with the class serving as the jury. If the student fails in his task, he will fail that section of the course—and possibly the course overall, while also apparently putting at risk his hopes of getting into law school.

An Unconvincing Approach

While I certainly believe that students of faith will sometimes have troubles in classrooms led by non-believing professors, the way in which this movie presents its story leaves the final product completely unconvincing. A couple of quick examples will have to suffice:

  • No atheist would recognize him or herself in the atheistic characters in the movie. I mean, who responds to news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis with, “Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?” If a Christian writer or filmmaker can’t portray an atheist that’s recognizable to other atheists, it’s best to go back to the drawing board until you get it right. Otherwise, your movie will alienate and infuriate the very people you claim to be concerned about. Furthermore, the way the atheist characters are written opens up the filmmakers to claims of hypocrisy: just as the “bad guys” in the movie openly mock the Christians, so too do the filmmakers create mocking caricatures for their bad guys. We Christians need to be better than this.
  • No freshman student is going to be able to put together presentations like those we see in the film on his own and in such a short period of time. The fact that Josh is completely alone on the campus, with no one to help him or even to bounce ideas off of further compounds the problem. Either this is the only college campus in America that doesn’t have Christians on it, or Josh isn’t bright enough to seek out those Christians for some assistance. Either way, it makes the fact that he comes up with those presentations all the more unbelievable.

I could critique any number of other things in the film from the way characters are mere mouthpieces for ideas rather than anything resembling human beings or the way the villains are shown to be both non-Christians and terrible people (as if the former was not enough for these filmmakers). However, I want to focus on two particular points that reveal a dangerous strand of thinking in Evangelicalism today.

Celebrating Death?

This film handles death in despicable fashion. As the wicked, atheist professor sees his godless fiefdom crumbling, he steps off a curb in the middle of a raging thunderstorm and gets hit by a car. That the storm came up right before that moment is the first indication that this death is an act of God. Further, notice the God’s-eye view of the camera in the moment after the car hits the Professor. This indicates even more strongly some kind of sovereign act, a meting out of eschatological judgment on someone who hasn’t once in this film experienced the love of Christ through God’s people. Harsh. What are we left with? God kills this man in a car accident in order to convince him to convert moments before expiring. At least in the Bible God announced His judgment before it came. The resulting conversion is no victory when God has blood on His hands.

But if that wasn’t enough, the two “mature” Christians in the film extend this despicable view of death. The final line of the movie comes from the African missionary friend of the pastor (both of whom just so happened to be at the scene of the accident). With police and ambulance sirens still flashing in his eyes at the scene of the death, the missionary calls the moment a cause for celebration. While he acknowledges the pain involved in death, he also expresses his pleasure that the dead professor is joyful now that he’s with God. Apparently, we can celebrate the death of one of God’s image-bearers, but only because he has just converted from atheism to Christianity.

That this line is the final moment in an ostensibly Christian film shows a deep misunderstanding of the Christian teaching about death. Death is always a tragedy. It should be treated be as such. The Bible calls death our enemy. It should be treated as such. Our enemy certainly did not originate with our Creator. That Christians are celebrating the man’s death at all, not to mention while the sirens are still flashing, is one of the most calloused moments I’ve seen at the movies in some time.

A New Kind of Martyr Story

I believe God’s Not Dead to be a uniquely American Evangelical take on the ancient Christian martyr story tradition. In those ancient tales from the first centuries after Christ, the martyr suffered imprisonment, harsh questioning, torture, and ultimately death. The popularity of the stories involved the opportunity for hearers to appreciate the perseverance and faithfulness of the martyrs, but also the opportunity to identify with Christ in His suffering.

God’s Not Dead turns that ancient story form on its head in important ways. Although the situation is set up to reveal persecution, the protagonist suffers little outside the indignity of a few snide remarks and vague threats. But most importantly, God’s Not Dead doesn’t end with the Christian dying in identification with Christ as the ancient martyr story would have prescribed. Rather, the American Evangelical spin sees not the persecuted but the persecutor die, while victorious Christians stand over him in triumph and receive praise before thousands.

Popular American cinema has long had a fascination with the lone hero destroying the wicked. That this has nothing to do with the role of Christians in the world seems not to have occurred to the Evangelical filmmakers in charge of this project. This film is so fascinated with the triumph of Christians in their carefully constructed culture war that it completely casts aside the fundamental Christian values of suffering and self-sacrifice. Josh sacrificed virtually nothing and received the accolades of thousands for it. If Jesus had followed Josh’s pattern, he would have been threatened, told non-believers why they were wrong (He only ever challenged His own religious community), and then been praised for winning the argument. That kind of Jesus would require him taking a rhetoric class, not offering Himself as a sacrifice.

God’s Not Dead is a dangerous film because it rips the self-sacrificial heart out of Christianity’s chest. I hope non-Christians never see it (that they might not have one more reason to hate/dismiss Christians). And I hope that the Christians who see it will not simply look to have some pre-conceived notions or fears affirmed. Rather, I hope they will see through the movie’s errors about image-bearing human beings, death, and winning the “war” between Christians and non-Christians. As Christians, we need to be better at reaching out to people, not destroying them; at serving them, not standing against them; and at loving them, not hating them.

like someone in love

Like Someone in Love (2012)

Abbas Kiarostami has long been exploring the line between fact and fiction. His 1990 film Close-Up follows a man posing as Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf to a well-off family. Twenty years later, Kiarostami came back around to the fact/fiction line in his masterful Certified Copy. There, two strangers tour an Italian village together and then they inexplicably begin to take on the characteristics of a married couple.

These two films explore ideas around representation and the filmic image. How much of reality does the “copy” or the “image” actually represent? What is merely an image in Close-Up, and what reflects the reality of the characters (who play themselves)? Are the couple in Certified Copy merely acting out an elaborate scene due to mutual attraction, or do they have a real and remembered past together? Kiarostami provides no definitive answers to these questions in the films. This ambiguity seems to give a vibrancy and immediacy to film (and art, more broadly) by suggesting that the image of something has a real and particular connection to that which it images. Seen in that light, these films from Kiarostami read as apologies for art, beautifully fashioned visual statements that show us that art matters in whatever form it comes, for art’s fictions cannot help but break into reality.

These thoughts were in my mind at the conclusion of Kiarostami’s most recent feature, Like Someone in Love (2012). Here too the old master explores issues around identity, representation, and image. This is no more clearly seen than in the sequence that stands at the film’s center, a conversation between Akiko (a call girl) and Watanabe (an aged, widowed professor) about a painting—Yazaki’s Training a Parrot—hanging in his home. Akiko reminisces about receiving a print of the painting as a teenager, naively believing her uncle’s assertion that he had painted it with her image in mind. As she describes this memory, she also sets herself in the pose of the woman in the painting, demonstrating the resemblance.

The layers of image are several in this single moment. Moving backwards from most immediate layer to the original, we have the film image itself, Akiko’s pose, uncle’s claim of her being the inspiration for the painting, the copy of the original painting hanging in Watanabe’s home, the original painting that hangs in a Tokyo museum, and finally the moment itself (which may have been posed or simply imagined in the mind of the painter). Each of the moments leading back to the original more or less resemble the original painting, if not the actual inspiration itself, which remains unknown to us. And yet, despite the resemblances from one layer to the next, what we also have here are a series of deceptions. In my view, the film’s story leads us to believe that the deceptions carry the greatest weight.

We don’t see these negative results until these two characters spend some time together, allowing Kiarostami to introduce Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki into the mix. He believes his girlfriend to be chaste and faithful to him (though he has had that questioned recently), and comes to believe that the old man is her grandfather. In both cases, Noriaki’s relationships with the two principals—while in one sense connected to reality—are fundamentally based on deceptions. It is those deceptions, rather than any resemblance to reality, that comes to define the narrative.

This leaves the film with a much darker tone than we find in the ambiguities of Close-Up and Certified Copy. Here Kiarostami seems to be wrestling specifically with the way that images deceive, and the tragedies that result. Such misunderstandings introduce a sense of betrayal over what seemed to be real but was in fact merely an image.

However, these deceptions also point us to the posture of Noriaki, whose insistence on nailing down the identities of both Akiko (he wants to marry her to alleviate any falseness he senses in her) and Watanabe (Noriaki merely assumes that Watanabe is her grandfather), leads him to increasing levels of frustration and rage. Rather than simply interacting with them as they present themselves to him, Noriaki seeks to force the issue, and in doing so, creates circumstances where deception thrives.

What we see then is that all are party to the deception, none are without responsibility, and all have some immediate connection to the results. Image or representation in this context takes on something of a complicated character. On the one hand its essential deceptions could lead to tragedy. On the other, if those deceptions are engaged the right way, one might indeed find a path toward unparalleled beauty.

Camera Buff

Camera Buff (1979)

The central paradox of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff portrays an aspiring filmmaker, Filip, unable to balance his love of his family with his love of his art.

Kieslowski first raises this paradox with a strong ambiguity placed upon Filip’s pursuit of filmmaking in the film’s first act. The reticence over the place of the family in Filip’s life comes primarily from Filip’s wife, who sees all along that he has been blinded by a growing obsession. Kieslowski regularly punctuates her dialogue with some negative commentary on Filip’s filming.

However, even Filip initially has a limited understanding—or at least a sense—of the way his obsession might undermine his family. When Filip’s boss first enlists him to film the company’s anniversary celebrations, the boss cites an axiom of sorts, that cinema is the first great art. Filip responds that the quote came from Lenin, along with a decidedly confused, even disapproving look on his face. Filip wasn’t interested in making the film. And while some of that might have been the pressure of performing for regional bosses, the discomforting idea of moving away from family, already placed there by his wife, would have likely been in his mind. If Filip did indeed understand that tantalizing lure of obsession, he also had some choice in the matter. Kieslowski’s Filip is not some helpless mass of flesh prevailed upon by outside forces, but a willful man who chooses art over family.

Furthermore, Kieslowski carries an irony through the film that builds off of this notion of Filip’s vision or lack thereof: In his films, Filip seeks to present the world as it is, in a completely natural fashion. He even claims to want to see everything. Initially, this filmic desire was pointed at his family—Filip bought his first camera to film his newborn daughter. But as Filip turns the camera away from his family, he stops seeing them clearly. He gives in to the obsession. So we have a moment after a dispute with his wife: Filip should seek her out, but instead merely watches her walk away. Seeing the back of her head in the street as she walks home is enough for Filip.

Kieslowski could easily demonize this move from family to art, but he holds the tension by revealing the praiseworthy aspects of Filip’s work: the way his friend Piotr praises the film of his mother, or how the handicapped worker is moved by Filip’s television special about him. As the conflict with his wife grows, Filip is a man divided between good things. And yet, he leaves behind the greater good (his family)? Or does he? That is the question, I suppose.

Filip’s pursuit of his art to the neglect of his family ends tragically, but also with the promise that from his pain, a more acute sense of self will emerge. Kieslowski doesn’t provide Filip an easy way out of his predicament, instead leading him to point the lens at himself as he searches for answers. This final act by Filip seems to be a recognition of his situatedness. All seeing occurs within a context. Though some like Filip have tried to ignore their own context in order to present an “objective” view of their world, none have succeeded at such “lofty” expectations. When Filip filmed the deceitful way that his town had spruced itself up for a regional event, he felt that his “objective” vision of the truth had to be seen, despite his boss’ direction to keep the film under wraps. The “truth” of Filip’s film, he believed, was the most important thing. However, Filip discovered that his own position was not nearly as objective as he had thought. This is the final straw for Filip, who destroys his next film, another similarly-themed exposé. Without recognizing his own subjectivity and context, he could never make honest, truthful art.

anatolia

Favorites of 2012

With the Oscars right around the corner, I’d like to take the opportunity to post my twenty favorite films of 2012. Enjoy.

  1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Ceylan): As is often the case in the best films, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan does remarkable things with a simple story, effectively combining his penchant for glorious cinematography with a masterfully written screenplay. The film tracks a group of police officers taking a confessed murderer around the countryside trying to find the exact place he buried the body (he was drunk when he killed). The visuals give the film something of an ethereal quality, which works well for the “fairy tale” aspect of the narrative. The layers to the narrative seem endless, touching on life, death, the nature of truth, the role of science/logic in the world, and compassion. The final act at the hospital takes the film to a level of complexity and beauty unmatched by most anything I’ve seen.
  2. The Kid with a Bike (2011, Dardenne): A masterpiece from the Dardenne brothers, the film follows 11 year-old Cyril as he seeks connection upon being sent to an orphanage by his father. A Bressonian meditation on the mystery of grace, the film benefits from a strong lead performance, an empathetic camera, and a refusal to sentimentalize a story about a child. The use of music seems a direct reference to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, while the use of red brings Lamorisse’s beautiful The Red Balloon to mind. And yet, the final product is all their own.
  3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson): Sam abandons his summer camp to meet Suzy. These twelve year-olds are seeking to start something of their own, apart from the failures of the world they have known. Anderson’s wide-angeled world is on full display here, as characters wander at frame’s edge searching for connection. With Christian and native American imagery, Anderson’s direct interaction with the spiritual realm expands the film to a more mythic scale. The “once upon a time” nature of the story, and a sometimes fairy tale score also point in this direction. Combined with the typical eccentricities of Anderson’s films, these elements create one of the director’s most significant films.
  4. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2012, Freidrichs): This wonderfully complex portrait of a St. Louis housing project offers no easy answers about the failure of the government initiative, alternately implicating the idea, the maintenance, and the criminal element that made the projects their home. While examining the ins and outs of public policy and sociology, the film enters into territory few have entered–it adds real heart and humanity to the discussion, reminding us that public policy is always ultimately about people.
  5. The Turin Horse (2011, Tarr): Horse. Father. Daughter. Home. Wind. Gypsies. That about sums up the elements of this apocalyptic film. Béla Tarr’s “final” film transitions from movement to stasis, from open to closed, and from light to darkness–a true de-creation. And yet, it ends with a pause, one that seems more question than statement, “Now what?” The film’s intense focus on action over statement is its strength, as it includes only a single scene of extended dialogue. As the light flickers out near the end of the film, one wonders about the future of the dad/daughter, the future of our world, and the future of cinema. Will the light return?
  6. Elena (2011, Zvyagintsev): Exquisite visual style imbues this thriller with frustration, dread, and a set of questions that linger long after its conclusion. Zvyagintsev seems to have a knack for composition, tracking shots, and editing to a certain rhythm, as the film quietly and formally gains momentum during its run time. Also, the director is once again drawn to material dealing with family strife—a mother seeking to provide for her grown son, a father’s tendentious relationship with his daughter, and a married couple’s disagreements about how to spend their money—though this time the family shares the space with a hard and incisive look at blended families and social class in the new Russia.
  7. Damsels in Distress (2011, Stillman): Four collegiate women run a suicide prevention center as a way to serve their campus. The damsels of Stillman’s film spend most of their time trying to help others in their strange, off-kilter way. And yet, their distress arises because of their commitment to a kind of life in the world which their peers seem to have given up on. That Stillman makes his heroines so strange serves to underline the way the modern world has given up on their values. Stillman’s comedy is typically droll, and Gerwig’s line readings are especially effective. Great comedy.
  8. Looper (2012, Johnson): So Levitt’s face make-up doesn’t really work, but otherwise this is a largely satisfying time travel adventure about breaking generational cycles of violence and wrong-doing. The story involves Joe, a “looper” who has been hired to execute people sent from thirty years in the future. When Joe encounters his older self, everything changes. Johnson manages to keep the audience guessing on where the film will ultimately go, and the noirish sensibility offers plenty of intriguing visuals. The conclusion presents a somewhat troubling solution to the problem, but I can partly forgive that because the ending actually inspires further thought about how to break the cycle.
  9. Bernie (2012, Linklater): Bernie is based on the true story of an East Texas funeral parlor worker/worship leader who befriends the meanest (and richest) woman in town. When she turns up dead, suspicion—and sympathy—falls on Bernie. The comedy here, much of which is very effective (the division of Texas was right on), serves as a counterpoint to the more dramatic, even horrific elements of the film. The inclusion of real townspeople among the “interviewees” underscores the horror as they illustrate, with their own words, the power of mass delusion. Through the use of laughter and local color, the film’s darker sensibility sneaks up on us, and those final real-life photos and footage slam home cold facts of the case.
  10. The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Davies): Beautifully rendered by Davies and his cast, this tragic tale of misdirected love succeeds especially because of its exquisite writing and direction. The best scenes involve Weisz and Beale, whose cautious, (re)strained relationship elicits an aching beauty. The film is a bit uneven when it involves Hiddleston, but still largely succeeds due to the careful observation and humanistic perspective that characterizes the direction. There are no easy answers or villains here–just the difficulties of life and love.
  11. I Wish (2011, Koreeda): Two brothers separate to live with their separated parents. The children eventually hatch a plan to get mom and dad back together, one that involves making a wish at a special spot. Gentle and light for most of its run time, the film shifts to something weightier during its final quarter. I Wish effectively captures the innocence and the straightforward (albeit often profound) hopes of children. A sequence when the children meet an elderly couple might be my single favorite bit in a film all year. While some sense of resolution occurs, Koreeda rightly keeps a major loose end dangling, bringing a sense of the real loss these kids have experienced.
  12. The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield): This documentary tells the story of the couple who set out to build the largest home in America. However, when the economy drops out, everything changes. The film reveals the void in these people’s lives, utilizing the unfinished home as a poignant symbol of the lives they’ve created for themselves. Further, and maybe more importantly, the film reveals the often predatory nature of the US economy, where consumers, business leaders, and banks are all trying to get the best of each other. In the end, everyone loses. The absence of cooperation in the lives of these people both personally and professionally is a story with genuine relevance today.
  13. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, Trevorrow): Sent on a trip to investigate a mysterious want-ad for a time travel companion, a young reporter (Aubrey Plaza) ends up increasingly intertwined with Kenneth—a man who seems to walk a fine line between passion and insanity. There’s no reason why this science-fiction/romantic comedy mash up should be good—obvious plotting, cheap effects, and a general goofiness to the whole thing. However, in light of its impossible-to-guess conclusion as the end point in a sequence of relationship stories, the critique of common sexual practice outside of committed relationships resonates. That, and Aubrey Plaza’s excellent turn in a pretty difficult role: having to convince an audience that she really did fall for Duplass’ committed nonconformist.
  14. The Master (2012, P. T. Anderson): Two men (master and student) become acquainted through a religious cult similar to Scientology. Anderson’s bold visual language is unparalleled in American cinema today. His use of space, his attentiveness to the physicality of his subjects, and his desire to make the personal epic are all on display here. Phoenix’s excellent performance (esp. the use of his body and face) stands out in a film full of them. However, the emotional and moral distance of the film is off-putting, particularly since the solution to deep-seated problems amounts to: ‘___ ___.’ (Don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it)
  15. A Burning Hot Summer (2011, Garrel): A quietly remarkable film from Garrel, A Burning Hot Summer revels in the beauty of true love by way of illustrating the lack thereof. The younger Garrel and Bellucci are appropriately beautiful and passionate, and the film plays against these qualities quite nicely, turning in the last quarter of the run time to examine a tenderness borne out of commitment that the lead couple could never approach. The editing is often inspired, creating fascinating conjunctions between scenes.
  16. The Grey (2012, Carnahan): Liam Neeson leads a group of plane-crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness, trying to reach safety before the wolves track them down. Visually, the film exudes the essence of its title. The men walk through a world with limited vision. Overcast skies, forest trees, blizzard conditions, and darkness all manage to keep them only in the moment of their experience. That leaves the focus of the film on staying alive and especially on dealing with the prospect of death. Neeson seems made for the role, and Carnahan’s choice to make the wolves barely visible effectively ratchets up the tension.
  17. Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): The plot is simple: a covert operative seeks revenge after a former colleague makes an attempt on her life. The film ends up as an amazingly good piece of entertaining fun. The real treats here are the formal choices Soderbergh makes, elevating a mildly interesting script to something much more engaging. I could watch the chase in Barcelona or the escape in Dublin over and over again–great visual film-making, with an inventive camera and editing that matches the pace of the moment. And the ending is just right, punctuating the conviction of the movie that Kane is more than a handful to deal with.
  18. Marley (2012, Macdonald): Solid documentary that underscores the most positive aspects of Bob Marley’s short life. The film walks a fine line between honest depiction and hagiography, crossing over into the latter on occasion. That said, there is some fantastic performance footage here, as well as interviews with the key figures in Bob’s life. While the film may not get too far into the darker side of Bob, it clearly portrays his hope and work for a better world, a place where everything’s gonna be all right.
  19. Searching for Sugar Man (2012, Bendjelloul): This film tells its “so-strange-it-must-be-true” story in two distinct halves: the first explores the South African myth that grew up around a mysterious folk singer from the 70s. The second offers a striking contrast–the story of a man in touch with both the harshness and the beauty of reality. These two halves together form a fascinating film that manages to be both thought-provoking and inspiring.
  20. The Forgiveness of Blood (2012, Marston): While the languid pacing certainly elicits something akin to the stir-crazy feeling of the main character on a formal level, I’m not sure Marston’s imagery is strong enough on its own to carry the film. The overarching story is simple but substantive, as the film seems to be asking significant questions about the practice of Albanian blood feuds and its effects on, especially, the next generation. I appreciate Marston’s willingness to shoot in foreign languages as he tells his international stories (see also, Maria Full of Grace).

Need to see: This is Not a Film, The Loneliest Planet, How to Survive a Plague, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Argo

 Favorite First-Time Films Shown Theatrically Before 2012: Love Affair (1939); Equinox Flower (1958); The Crimson Kimono (1959); The Devil, Probably (1977); Lourdes (2009); The Trip (2010); Le Havre (2011); Hugo (2011); Margaret (2011); The Swell Season (2011)

Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel, The House of the Dead, chronicles life inside a Siberian prison. In this remote place, Dostoevsky writes of the prisoners, “Here all were dreamers, and this was apparent at once. What gave poignancy to this feeling was the fact that this dreaminess gave the greater of the prisoners a gloomy and sullen, almost abnormal, expression.” This account of 19th- Century Russian prisoners, people carrying a hope for freedom buried under faces drawn with lines of concern, serves as an apt description for the lead characters, Joseph and Hannah, in writer-director Paddy Considine’s first film, Tyrannosaur.

The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship that blossoms between two people fighting for freedom. Joseph lives in a prison of his own making, his simmering rage ready to explode without a moment’s notice. Hannah lives in another kind of prison, one created by her domineering and abusive husband. As the film goes on though, Considine gives us signs that neither Joseph nor Hannah is content to let their lives run their current course. Both have made a point to reach out in kindness—Joseph to a young neighbor boy with an unideal home situation, Hannah by working in a charity clothing shop, and eventually to each other in friendship. This desire to look outside themselves and provide something better—even if only a pleasant conversation or a cheap blouse—mirrors their desire to find something better for their own situations as well.

Joseph appears more aware of this desire in himself, even as his outward behavior vacillates between morose and terrifying. In Mullan’s performance, Joseph possesses moments of clarity, and while impulsive, his impulses are not always directed toward anger and destruction. Hannah also expresses clarity, at times through her Christian faith and also in those moments when her prison closes in on her. In contrast to Joseph, Hannah internalizes her anger, seeking through her faith to take the high road in her relationship with her husband. Though they cope in different ways, Joseph and Hannah each struggle to control their rage. These unlikely friends—they meet when Joseph comes into her shop—work through the same struggle, one that, at times, yields terrifying results.

Tyrannosaur is a visceral, difficult film. Considine makes ample use of close-ups, bringing the audience into the closest contact with his subjects. And the darker the situation, the closer we seem to be. Even as we enter this dark world, Considine makes the journey worthwhile by helping us to see the terrifying consequences of rage and the transformative grace we can find in true friendship.