BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Most critics get their year-end piece done before Santa’s arrival, I’m always holding out hope that I could still see a year-end contender in the final days before the New Year. I finally caught up with Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film homage The Artist on New Year’s Eve and left feeling it has been preposterously over-praised. Conceptually, I am sold on celebrating silent and black & white cinema history, but its feel for the era is so lazily inauthentic and its plot so derivative and thin that it failed to levitate my spirit, although I’ll attest to the charm of lead actor Jean Dujardin’s engaging Gable-esque smile. At one part I did feel my heart leap, until I realized they had cut Dujardin’s close-up into a swashbuckling sequence from Douglas Fairbank’s 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro. Like with Scorsese’s Hugo, I can only snipe so much about a film celebrating the cinema I love, but their achievements are hitch-hiking on the backs of giants.
Good year for film or bad year, I’ll withhold proclamation, but I do live in dread of the idea that we’re in the final throes of the celluloid film print era. With digital screens set to outnumber conventional projection this year and the major studios’ pledge to be out of the film print business entirely by 2015, the century-old fashion of watching celluloid scurry past a lens will be left to fetishists and true believers. The death of film’s flicker makes the movie-going experience just a little more similar to the unblinking screens in our living rooms, and while convenience has its allure, the films on my list were all further empowered by the shared spectacle that happens when strangers converge to see a story unfold.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Directed by Terrence Malick
Talk about a big screen event. I’ll fall into the chorus of those swept up in the visceral emotionalism of Terrence Malick’s intimate epic, The Tree of Life. More sustained than any of the films Malick has made since his improbable late ’90s comeback, it is inspiring that at this late stage in the game the 68 year old director has loosened his grip on narrative to turn the film over to the quiet moments of poetry that has been his strong suit since his 1973 debut, Badlands. While its heavenly climax doesn’t reflect my afterlife beliefs there is a honest, impassioned religiosity that is impressive in its devout fervor. Plus, one of cinema’s greatest depictions of that hazily remembered thing we call, “childhood.”
THE TURIN HORSE
Directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse actually seems somewhat precise in the world of director Bela Tarr, situating its action mainly in a single setting and coming in at just under two-and-a-half hours (his Satantango is infamously seven and-a-half hours long!) Still it was interesting to watch modern audiences fidget their way through its slow-as-molasses pacing, as we scrutinize a father and daughter as they eat potato soup in a desolate cottage, waiting for a windstorm to descend. At some point an hour or so into this scenario, the door bursts open and a man walks in. By then, if you’ve turned yourself over to the movie, it seems like the universe has been ripped asunder. The Hungarian Tarr says the film is his last (he’s only 56 years of age) and if it is, it feels like a Master Class summation of his massive, iconoclastic talent.
THE YELLOW SEA
Directed by Hong-jin Na
Thank goodness Philly film writer Joe Batalke (of “The Passionate Filmgoer” blog) alerted me that the acclaimed Korean film The Yellow Sea was booked for a one-week run at the old Ritz Vorhees, the same week it opened in NYC (it never made it to Philly). The follow-up to Hong-jin Na’s excellent crime debut The Chaser, the film follows a desperate cab driver (Jung-woo Ha) as he journeys from the far northern provinces of South Korea to Seoul, in order to carry out a contract killing and hopefully find his missing wife. Director Hong-jin Na is in no hurry to get the action rolling, the fish-out-of-water cabbie calmly stalks the target and prepares his plan so we know exactly what to expect, shortly before everything goes terribly, terribly wrong. Similar to last year’s French-Muslim crime drama A Prophet, The Yellow Sea is so sharp in its delivery of underworld crime action that it isn’t until you reach the end that you feel the weight of this poor man’s soul.
THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM
Directed by Todd Rohal
Comedy is hard, and it is especially difficult to summon a fresh comic voice. Todd Rohal has further forged his own kind of comedy with his second film, The Catechism Cataclysm. Father William (Steve Little of Eastbound & Down) is a dopey, ineffectual priest who is encouraged to take time off. In that time he looks up an old boyfriend of his sister’s (Robert Longstreet of Take Shelter), now a broken-down roadie who he coerces into going on a camping trip with him. Lots of stories are told on this trip and few of them seem to be true, leaving the audience without a solid bearing on where this pair’s canoe could possibly be headed. A large part of comedy is surprise and Rohal’s twisted tale has lots of them.
Directed by Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy
While The Artist scored acclaim for its superficial take on the silent era, the duo of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon unleashed their third delirious paean of the joys and thrills of classic physical comedy, The Fairy. The story about a fairy coming to award Abel with three wishes sounds too twee for words but it is the series of absurdly inventive set pieces they concoct that defy description and belief. Abel and Gordon are a similarly matched, lanky and cartoonish pair, and like Cirque du Soleil acrobats there is great pleasure in watching improbable stunts of dance and comedy take place before your eyes. This pair seem overdue for major cult stardom, at the least.
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
Le Havre finds Finish director Aki Kaurismaki taking his whimsical tricks to north-western France, his powers undiminished. Re-introducing a couple of characters from his 1992 masterpiece, La Vie de Boheme, Kaurismaki creates a portrait of an oddball little neighborhood that pulls together to protect an African boy from deportation. Kaurismaki’s work has always felt indebted to the film craft of the 1930s, when Depression-era stories could be simultaneously sweet and crude, gentle and rough. Kaurismaki’s love of early rock and roll is intact too, as he gives a showcase to a most beguiling French rocker, the elfin “Little Bob” Piazza.
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Ever since The Matrix and The Sixth Sense hit in the late 90s, film have been crazy with the ‘what is reality?’ plot device. Now with Certified Copy even Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has gotten into the act, and he succeeds in using the plot twist brilliantly. An art historian (William Shimell, a British opera singer in his acting debut) and a flirty fan (the ever-lovely Juliette Binoche) tour around Tuscany discussing authenticity in art. Along their journey it becomes obscured on whether this is a couple pretending they are strangers or strangers pretending that they are a couple; bringing the question of authenticity back to the forefront. Less a puzzle than a wise riddle worth musing. Please Barack Obama: don’t drop a bomb on Abbas Kiarostami!
Directed by Evan Glodell
An admirably critical look at the delusions of modern manhood in California’s Palm Desert, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower sustains a beautifully naturalistic story of two friends whose dream of building a Mad Max style apocalypse car is interrupted by a mercurial romance. The director/star is gadget lover himself, and he tinkers with the film’s timeline as well as a jerry-rigged camera that infuses the sun-burned film with a look all its own.
MARTHA MARCIE MAY MARLENE
Directed by Sean Durkin
The wonderfully unsettled debut from writer/director Sean Durkin, Martha Marcie May Marlene, follows a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen Twins) who has escaped from a small and isolated cult church. She washes up at her status-climbing older sister’s summer home where she tries to piece together what has happened to her. The film brilliantly parallels flashbacks of the woman’s attempt to fit in with her cult members with her equally awkward attempts to adopt the alienated modern lifestyle represented by her upper class sister. Not since Todd Haynes’ Safe has suburban life seemed so foreboding
Directed by Lucky McKee
Writer/director Lucky McKee’s lurid domestic nightmare The Woman looks too ghoulish to attract much serious critical attention but it is a smartly-written fable that shines a serious light on patriarchal power. An All-American sociopathic dad finds a buck-skinned wild women living in the woods by his isolated house. He captures her and locks her in the tool shed, enlisting the family, his wife, and teenage son and daughter, to help him “civilize” her. A student of the Sam Fuller school of provocative social criticism through B-moviemaking, McKee doesn’t wallow in titillation but instead examines how men can control a household with violence. By the end, that power is shown to be illusionary, leading to a brutal crowd-pleasing climax that swept up the audience at its packed festival screening last April.
Hope to see you across a crowded theater in the New Year.