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 (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.