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.

Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, Rashomon, opens in the middle of a torrential downpour.  Two men huddle beneath an abandoned and deteriorating city gate. The imposing height of the gate offers a sense of the power that created it . . . and that power’s absence that has left it in disrepair. The two men, a poor woodcutter and a poorer Buddhist priest, mutter about their lack of understanding. Their confusion could easily be aimed at the sorry state of the world immediately around them, but when a third man approaches, we soon learn of the specific cause of their bewilderment.

The bulk of the film recounts the story at the source of their confusion—the rape of a young woman and the murder of her husband by a bandit. But what could have been a standard crime story set in medieval Japan becomes something special as Kurosawa takes the viewer through the same crime story multiple times, each according to the perspective of one testifying at trial. This multiplicity of views creates indeterminacy about what really happened that day in the forest. The opening shot the first time through the story—from the woodcutter’s perspective, he being a secret witness to the whole crime—is a tracking shot looking upward through the canopy of trees. As the sun darts behind leaves and then back out again, the stage is set for the confusion to follow.

The varying stories play out in not entirely unexpected ways, as each version tends to fulfill the storyteller’s best vision of themselves, undercutting whatever baseness may have inspired certain of their actions. In this we discover a great deal more give and take between the bandit and his two victims, each of them with opportunities to act freely at certain moments. However one comes down on what actually “happened” during the incident, Kurosawa uses the three men at the city gate retelling this story as his way of commenting on the proceedings. When faced with the complex problems of the world and a lack of certainty about “what happened,” where do these three men—representative of society as a whole—go from here?

For the priest, the story has called his faith in humanity into question. Once a believer in the essential goodness of people, he begins to understand through the retelling of these stories that humans have a propensity to lie. This fundamental weakness in humanity brings disillusionment for the priest, possibly even calling into question his own mission as a servant of something beyond himself.

The visitor, hearing all the stories for the first time, is the most cynical of the three. He questions the very existence of goodness at all, and seems to live according to this philosophy himself. This visitor believes that the only way to survival is through embracing our own selfishness. Thus, when the three men hear the cries of an abandoned baby in another part of the gate, the visitor quickly runs over, not to give comfort to the child, but to take its blankets for himself.

Finally we have the woodcutter. He is the prime example of weak humanity, initially telling a false version of the story to protect himself. However, the very fact that he told a false story once even calls into question his “authoritative” version at the film’s end. Is that how it actually happened? Who knows? And Kurosawa seems uninterested in solving that problem for the viewer. Instead, Kurosawa creates tension: this woodcutter is a liar on the one hand, but on the other, he reproves the visitor for stealing the baby’s blankets, and in the end, takes the baby home himself, to care for alongside his other children.

Rashomon’s greatness comes in its frank portrayal of the human situation: we are weak and uncertain creatures. What will we do in light of such circumstances? Will we pull back from the world, like the priest? Will we take whatever we can get, like the visitor? Or will we try to overcome our weakness and care for others, like the woodcutter? When the rain finally stops and the woodcutter walks off, baby in hand, it’s clear that Kurosawa’s heart is with the woodcutter, even as he knows the very existence of people like the priest and the visitor will continue to tempt us toward some lesser life.

Being Elmo (2011)

I have a confession to make: I never liked Elmo. Lay aside for a moment the oddity of a grown man having any opinions whatsoever regarding furry little puppets (the inner nerd in me has consistently championed Bert). On the other hand, Elmo’s high pitched babble and intensely bright fur were always a turn off.

I have a second confession to make: I was wrong.

It only took one moment from Constance Marks’ new documentary, Being Elmo, to convince me. In it, Elmo, played by his creator, Kevin Clash, welcomed a four- or five-year old girl to the set as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Elmo greets the shy girl as her father holds her close. But Elmo shows no reservation whatsoever, talking to her and quickly moving in for a hug and kiss. The girl, her timidity keeping her from showing any affection in return, clung to her father and absorbed the puppet’s affection. But then Marks’ camera moved from puppet to creator, and the tears welling in Clash’s eyes said it all. His heart showed through in his art.

And this was the most fascinating element of the film for me. Sure its presentation of Clash’s story was interesting, and even inspiring in places. The details it gave about some of the luminaries that Clash worked with were worth the price of the rental. And the opportunity to get behind the scenes into the world of puppetry, to see a place where it had been practiced with such skill for so long—these all provided more than enough for an engaging film.

But it was that connection between an artist and his art, the way that a man’s soul is made tangible in his creation, that was so compelling for me. By all accounts, including his own, Clash is a bit timid himself. And yet, when he straps on that puppet, everything changes. The love and affection that Clash has for others becomes clear in his portrayal of Elmo. His art allows him to connect with people in deep and meaningful ways.

The film supports this idea with testimonies from fellow puppeteers and others around Clash. And when Marks includes footage of the day Clash’s wife gave birth to their daughter, with Clash narrating as the ride to the hospital as Elmo, we see that even in these most significant moments of the man’s life, he speaks not as himself, but as his creation. And while this leads to another whole set of interesting—and potentially controversial—questions about Clash’s identity and personal life, the film elides these in favor a more positive and affectionate portrayal of the creator behind this most popular of puppets. Even a life-long Elmo detractor can appreciate that.

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

In his autobiography, published near the end of his life, Charlie Chaplin addressed the issue of faith this way: “As I grow older I am becoming more preoccupied with faith. We live by it more than we think and achieve by it more than we realize. . . . My faith is in the unknown, in all that we do not understand by reason; I believe that what is beyond our comprehension is a simple fact in other dimensions, and that in the realm of the unknown there is an infinite power for good.”[1] Chaplin saw in life those things which were easily observable, and everything else that wasn’t. He understood that there was much he did not know, much that remained a mystery even to the keenest intellects. His faith was directed toward that mystery.

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike, incarnates some of that mystery in the encounter between two people. The films of the Dardenne brothers, from 1996’s La Promesse forward to this one, revolve around an encounter with an “other.” That “other” comes in the form of another human being, and yet, through that encounter, we the audience are treated not just to witnessing an encounter between two human beings, but ourselves being led to encounter that mysterious “infinite power for good” of which Chaplin speaks. The Dardenne brothers achieve these repeated encounters through a mastery of narrative storytelling, concise shot-making, striking performances, and attentiveness to the physicality of their subjects. Their work in The Kid with a Bike is no exception.

The film follows a short time in the life of a young boy, Cyril, who has been abandoned by his father. Living at the local boy’s home, Cyril has a chance encounter with a hairdresser, Samantha, a single woman who does the boy a single act of kindness. From there, the relationship develops, and while Cyril serves as the main character and the center around which all the drama turns, it is Samantha’s presence and goodness in his life that prompt such deep and abiding questions: Where does such kindness in a dark and confusing world come from? Why does the presence of kindness continue in Cyril’s life, even as he seems to reject it (or at least test it) time after time? The Dardenne brothers allow this relationship to play out with psychological and emotional complexity, refusing to offer easy answers. In fact, in one scene midway through the film when Cyril asks Samantha why she stays with him, she has no response. Her motives for her goodness are unknown even to her.

And it is this mysterious grace, breaking into Cyril’s world, played out in an intensely personal encounter over several days or weeks, that makes this film such a treasure. The Dardenne brothers have seen something in the world, even in the lives of people who seem to have nothing going for them. They have seen something beautiful and mysterious and good, something unknown and unexplainable, and yet at the same time, absolutely undeniable.

[1] Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (Penguin: New York, 2003), 287.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

One of the most well-known war adventures in cinematic history, David Lean’s epic has captivated audiences for more than fifty years. Much of the attention the film has received has no doubt been due to its high profile, studio backing, and well-known cast. But we’ve seen multiple examples of similarly constructed films sputter and fade away. Yet, Bridge endures. Why?

First, the film offers a compelling account of WWII prisoners of war. With a deft mix of adventure and even comedy, the film recounts a fundamentally tragic tale of the futility of war, particularly through the lens of failed leadership. Throughout the film, the leaders of the prison camp, Saito, and of the British prisoners, Nicholson, are described as mad.  Saito seeks to rule with an iron fist, but lacks the wherewithal (or retains some inkling of his humanity) to enforce his rule, even if it means blood. Nicholson, for his part, relies purely on military laws and standards to govern his behavior, eventually to the point of going out of his way to help his enemies build the best bridge possible. In this standoff, Lean effectively humanizes the “enemy” in Saito, even as the director critiques him, while playing up the oppositional pride of the “ally,” Nicholson.  This complexity, combined with the magnificent ending, creates a gripping tale of war’s futility.

Beyond the story, Lean’s directorial skills find him effectively walking a fine line between over-sentimentalized parody on the one hand, and an engaging albeit tragic drama on the other. While he occasionally loses the edge—I think of the shot of Saito sobbing after he has lost the battle of wills with Nicholson—more often he makes good choices that heighten the experience by drawing on the viewers’ imaginations, drawing us into the action through specifically formal means.

One example occurs early in the film, when the men have arrived and Nicholson will not allow he or his officers to engage in manual labor, the officers are left to wither in the heat while the men go off to work. At the end of the day, the officers—all except for Nicholson—are shuffled off to their punishment hut, while Nicholson is taken into the main house for a beating. Rather than show the beating, Lean communicates its force through an abrupt edit: as Nicholson disappears inside for his beating, the film cuts to a wide shot of the house in the evening light with the loud cries of the men in frustrated support of their leader. The effect here is jarring. We have not witnessed the beating, but we feel like we have, always an impressive feat for a director.

Moments like these take Bridge from a solid epic into something more special—maybe not quite a masterpiece, but an eminently watchable tragedy on a grand scale.

Hugo (2011)

Sometimes the greatest discoveries come not when we break new ground and venture off into unchartered territory. No, sometimes they come when we remember, when we venture back into those pathways long trodden underfoot by history.

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, celebrates this look backward. The titular character, a pre-teen, melancholic boy who lives in the Paris train station during the 1930s, spends his days winding the station’s clocks—a job he inherited from a drunken uncle—and focusing completely on recapturing a blissful past in close communion with his father, now dead. Also in the halls of the train station is Georges, an older, melancholic man who runs a toy shop. Early on, we know little of Georges’ past, but his bitterness is clear, even if we don’t know the cause.

For Hugo and Georges, the present has become a cruel burden, as their yearning for the joys of the past threatens to be (in the case of Hugo) or already has been (in the case of Georges) lost. These two people, man and child, are linked by their glorious pasts and painful presents. However, though they share this link, they initially repulse one another. Both downcast of spirit, Georges is content with his frustrated existence. Hugo, on the other hand, has a tangible reminder of the past, one that keeps his hope flickering, even as the odds are stacked against him.

Hugo has retained but one object of his father’s: a life-sized automaton that Hugo’s father believed, once repaired, would write something. They had been working on the repair when Hugo lost his dad, and the boy now dreams of receiving a message from his father if he could just get the machine working again. He lacks only a heart-shaped key to turn on the works.

When Hugo’s lone friend, Isabel, provides the key, not only is the automaton set into motion, but so too is a series of events that we hope will rekindle his, and Georges’ joy for life, despite their many losses. That Scorsese landed on a story—written by a distant relative of the famous producer of old, David O. Selznick—that roots those joys in the appreciation of cinematic history and the power of the image to bring life and happiness to so many should not be surprising. Scorsese’s efforts to preserve films in danger of being lost have done much to raise awareness and materially benefit the films we can now access. Hugo’s journey to receiving and then understanding the message of the automaton illustrate an unquestionable connection to these impulses in Scorsese.

Further, the tale’s unmistakably cinematic presentation shows a deep awareness of, and even reliance on the techniques and camera movements of the silent cinema. From the opening sequence of the film, the dialogue serves to compliment the image, but it is the image which remains primary. Scorsese tells much more with those images than anyone speaks in the film, this itself an achievement of the highest order in any film, much less a popular entertainment for all ages.

Hugo offers a compelling story, seasoned with eccentric characters, taking us on a journey from paradise, to burden, and ultimately to an otherworldly vision of joy and bliss. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

United Red Army (2007)

Films in the last decade, such as Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and the Green/Spiegel documentary The Weather Underground have tracked elements of the leftist movements of the 1960s and 70s. Another recent entry, United Red Army, follows the development of Japanese Marxist groups in the same period.

Kôji Wakamatsu’s film is primarily fictional, though in its dizzying opening half hour, it regularly mixes in found footage from a period of intense leftist uprisings. And while these scenes aim to bring context, for the uninitiated, the effect is more akin to an oncoming tidal wave than a deliberate accounting of the facts. In this, the film is quite effect at formally capturing the exhilarating spirit of these movements as they spread throughout Japan and the west.

As the film goes on, the settings become more focused, even insular. The film’s fictional dramatizations of events within two groups that join to form the titular URA take place primarily in mountain training centers, where talk about, rather than active, revolution dominates the proceedings. Where the early moments of the film were focused on marches, sit-ins, and even some bombings, as the early fervor wears off, the groups look forward to a long haul of effecting a revolution through planning and training.

Ironically, the film shines in what comes off narratively as a plodding middle act, precisely because it refuses to let up on the rigorous examination of this group slowly turning its attentions inward. Ostensibly the URA trained for revolution, but everything about their training was focused on themselves. As such, they began to lose a real sense of what they were fighting for.

The psychological complexity of this move is extremely well played by Wakamatsu, as the group begins to suffocate under the weight of its own expectations and increasingly delusional understanding of the requirements for revolution. A group looking to implement leftist ideals of fairness and equality, the URA eventually ends up being run as a dictatorship, the powerful personalities filling the void of leadership in the group. And when those people are paranoid hypocrites? Well, you can guess where it goes.

United Red Army effectively traces the psychological currents of an often misunderstood movement. From idealistic kids, the members of the URA—almost to a man—morph into isolated automatons, unable to stand up to the evil in their own midst.

Take Shelter (2011)

Jeff Nichols’ tense drama Take Shelter begins with a startling, apocalyptic vision. Darkened clouds gather on the horizon, gathering for what looks to be the storm of the century. Curtis (the appropriately disturbed-looking Michael Shannon), stands in his driveway and wipes the first oily drops of rain from his hands. When he wakens from this dream, the first questions that come to mind—Why is the rain oily? and How did the storm get so large?—are, interestingly, not questions the film is interested in. Rather, another question serves to draw the viewer in: Is Curtis seeing a vision of the future or is he losing his grip on reality? Or to put it another way: Is Curtis a prophet or is he mad?

Nichols builds the tension admirably throughout the film, refraining from overwriting the piece and instead letting the stillness and the experiences themselves set the tone and advance the straightforward plot. Curtis has a series of visions through the film, and as each gets progressively more intense, he seems to draw nearer either to enlightenment or utter breakdown. The tension over this question is fascinating, and Nichols raises the stakes when Curtis begins to build out the storm shelter in his backyard. Now as concrete resources and time begin to drain the family’s resources, the strain is unmistakable. Can the people Curtis lives with and cares for the most really stand by and watch him sink the life of his family on what looks to them a whim.

As the film carefully builds this dramatic core, we come to see that the question of Curtis’ mental state informs another issue that stands at the heart of the film. Essentially, Take Shelter is a character-driven piece, looking closely at the ties that bind a family together through the most trying times. And whether the trying time is a coming storm or the onset of schizophrenia or some other mental disease, the film is more interested in the way the family responds to the trials that beset them than it is in ferreting out the source or meaning of the visions.

The film builds to a beautiful climax as the family is forced to wait out a real life mid-western storm in the newly built out shelter. The imagery in the scene is laced with the hopeful notion of life after death. And if the film had ended on this note, it likely would have been a favorite of the year. Instead, it continues, moving to a Shyamalan-like finale that breaks the complex tension Nichols had worked so hard to build. Many have responded positively to that final sequence, but for me the film ends on a frustrating note—what was so close to greatness falters in its final moments.

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’ stirring portrait of monks under the threat of death, offers in clear terms a Christian commitment made tangible. Here we have a group of men so focused on their mission to the people of this region that they allow nothing to stand in the way of their fulfilling the task to which God has called them.

For these men of God, the life of faith is rooted in the concrete deeds of everyday life: a quiet moment in prayer and a song of praise, yes, but also more “earthy” tasks as well, such as keeping a garden, finding shoes for those in need, attending a dedication ceremony for a Muslim child in the community, or a gentle kiss on the injured forehead of a child. For a profession so often thought to be disconnected from society, this small group of men seems more grounded than most people today supposedly “living the dream” in a free society full of opportunity and choice.

And maybe that’s it. These men embody true freedom, a freedom that is felt deeply, a freedom that informs every aspect of their lives. These men are free to live lives in pursuit of the good. Released from the selfish pursuits of life ancient and modern, these monks live not for themselves, but for the other. And in doing so, they exude a quality refreshing and rare in our world: contentment. This small group of God’s servants is content with their lot in life. Certainly, much of the drama surrounds outside circumstances that disrupt that contentment, but a great portion of their victory in the film comes in finding it once again.

The final scenes of the film—which I will not give away here—reaffirm this equanimity. As the reality of their contentment in God settles in each of them, their eyes are opened to the beauties all around them—the joys of community, of brotherhood, of service, and of beauty. These men, in the midst of a war-torn country, live freely and peacefully, just as their master did.

Top Films of 2011

With the Oscars signifying the end of the awards season, I’m taking the opportunity to write up my favorite films from 2011. The year has seen the release of a number of remarkable films, noted by the fact that I have had no troubles whatsoever filling out a top ten. Still, with many yet left to see, the following represent my favorites at the moment:

10. Pearl Jam Twenty: A highly personal pick to be sure, but one for which I feel great enthusiasm. Experienced director and unabashed fan Cameron Crowe offers up a history of the band laced with live performances, found footage, and interviews. The film’s opening sequence detailing the tragic end of Andy Wood brings heartfelt context to the band’s sometimes criticized earnestness. This is, admittedly, a documentary with little illumination of the darkest corners of Pearl Jam’s history. But the heart, the peace, and the connectedness of the band offer an intriguing counterpoint to their music.

9. Bill Cunningham New York: Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, is an inspiring individual. His simple joy for life, his consistent kindness to those he meets, his unending interest in others, and his absolute embrace of beauty wherever he finds it make him one of the rarest of people: a genuine human being. And when the interviewer asks Bill about his regular church attendance? A beautiful moment that simply has to be seen. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Reichardt’s humanist vision for America—or really, the world—set amid a 19th century Oregon wagon train makes excellent use of its well-rounded characters and compelling, real-world story. While Reichardt focuses on the simple, everyday lives of the settlers, the film slowly evolves into something much more complex and layered, a horrific vision of a people without direction and their mechanisms for trust badly in need of repair. And as Reichardt obviously allows her camera to favor the female characters in this male dominated world, the film stands apart as a unique testament to the ills and sufferings of a world badly in need of vision. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

7. A Separation: A complex, psychological portrait of not just a couple, but a family, a community, and dare I say, an entire society. What begins as a simple disjunction between a married couple continues to grow and manifest itself in ever larger networks of people, involving children, neighbors, employees, community officials, and even the justice system. The acting is exceptional, none more so than the young lady playing the daughter, while the opening and closing shots express at once the beauty and the tragedy of life in Iran.

6. Nostalgia for the Light: An extraordinary essay film less interested in facts and more interested in ideas, atmosphere, and the experience of life. The film deals in a central paradox: How can a place be at once so well-suited for examining the past (in the heavens and on earth), and yet be located in a country unwilling to deal with its own more recent, and tragic, past. Guzman’s photography is exquisite. As one shot blends into the next through creative editing, the film’s underlying humanism stands out all the more. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

5. Of Gods and Men: Love endures. This is a film about a group of men on a mission to love people as best they can, to be neighborly, to give of themselves however they can for the betterment of others. This is a physical and social task, but these men reveal that it is also a spiritual task, one deeply connected with who human beings are and ought to be. The quiet rhythms of the film mimic those same rhythms of monastery life, including sequences of profound goodness & beauty and a Christian ethic made tangible.

4. Tuesday, After Christmas: Muntean’s achingly restrained film illustrates the beauty of marriage by helping the audience to feel real loss when a marriage fails. Using lengthy shots filled with subtext, the film builds tension as the philandering husband nears, and eventually makes, his fateful decision. The key scene is an 11+ minute shot chronicling the aftermath of his choice, along with a wonderfully complex, expertly-acted, and heartbreaking final sequence. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

3. The Tree of Life: More ambitious than Malick’s other features, The Tree of Life brings a cosmic perspective to profound tragedy through the lens of a struggling man’s memories. The first hour of the film, up through and including the creation imagery, succeeds beautifully. As the film refocuses on the family for the final hour plus, it becomes more diffuse as the boy’s relationship with his family fractures. The search for peace, meaning, and beauty comes only in a proper rendering of the past–our own and that of the world.

2. Poetry: A beautifully shot and rendered film, Poetry encapsulates empathy for the other, the joy and the pain involved in truly seeing, and the continued–and maybe even increased–necessity for poetry in the modern world. Yun Jeong-hee’s performance is touching, nuanced, inspiring, and devastating. The film slowly builds to a narrative and emotional crescendo that prompts reflection long after the film ends.

1. Certified Copy: A magnificent achievement from Kiarostami both in writing and direction, as well as a stand out performance from Binoche, who is more compelling than ever. The camera’s gaze slowly humanizes these people, as they grow at once both more concrete and more cryptic. Each successive moment reveals and conceals. As the film drives toward its enigmatic conclusion, the film’s themes become ever clearer: the relationship between truth and fiction, the vulnerability associated with an openness to the other, and the mystery of matrimony.

The Best of the Rest

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (dir. Adam Curtis): A dizzying document of the way our understanding of machines and technology is changing our conception of humanity.
  • Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl): The film documents the life of a serene horse whisperer, a man who knows tragedy and has come out better on the other side of it.
  • In a Better World (dir. Susanne Bier): Bier has a gift for drawing out and dialing up tension in quiet and unobtrusive ways, which she does beautifully here in a film which divides the setting between Europe and Africa to compare and contrast approaches to vengeance.
  • Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino): A series of four movements following the life of a shepherd, a goat, a tree, and charcoal, the film immerses the viewer in creation. Even without the aid of words, Frammartino provides a strong sense of connection to his subject matter.
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen): The scenes set in the 1920s were full of energy, life, and well-rounded characters. If Woody had done the same with the contemporary scenes, this would have easily made the first ten.
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz): Ruiz captures light in ways rarely seen in the cinema, adding a layer of beauty to this exquisitely costumed, sublimely written, visual feast for the senses. The priest stands as one of the most quietly compelling creations in recent years. The story, though it spreads out over wide swaths of time and geography, never lets up, while the constantly shifting perspectives invite us to explore the potential and the limits of narrative.

Harmless Entertainments: A Better Life; Cars 2; Page One: Inside the New York Times; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Way Back

Frustrating: Contagion; Take Shelter

Still to See: The Arbor; Aurora; Being Elmo; Boxing Gym; Brighton Rock; Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; House of Tolerance; Hugo; The Ides of March; Into the Abyss; Margaret; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; Mother; My Joy; Norwegian Wood; Our Beloved Month of August; The Swell Season; Tabloid; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Trip; Tyranosaur; Uncle Boonmee; United Red Army; The Way; Win Win

Six Outstanding Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Lucky Life (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Taking its inspiration from the poetry of Gerald Stern, the film offers a sensitivity to the way pain and memory ripple through life. Chung edits the film intuitively, making connections that inspire reflection rather than determine meaning. And what a final shot.
  • Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-dong): A remarkable film about a woman’s journey from isolation and abstraction to a more connected and human existence. Its nuanced portrait of Evangelical Christians brings something unique to cinema. I wrote more extensively about the film here.
  • Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur): Terrific horror that focuses on the subtle psychological transformation taking place in the lead character.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Anderson): An engaging and engrossing essay film on the presentation and identity of Los Angeles.
  • Happy Here and Now (dir. Michael Almereyda): An atmospheric film from New Orleans that explores the loss of identity we experience as technology encroaches, even to the point of mediating our relationships for us.
  • Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh): Magnificent film from Leigh, attempting and succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks for a filmmaker and storyteller: presenting a believable and compelling vision of goodness—in this case, through marriage.