For the benefit of those of you who may eventually be directed here from someone's TIFF rundown, and who may assume that 57/100 amounts to an F.
100-90: Masterpiece, or damn close. Very rare.
89-80: Fanthefucktastic. Near-lock for my year-end top 10 list.
79-70: Definitely something special. Do not miss. Likely list contender.
69-60: Very good, but also flawed or missing some crucial element.
59-50: Didn't quite work for me, but has many redeeming qualities.
49-40: Demerits clearly outweigh merits.
39-30: I really did not enjoy this picture, but talent was involved.
29-20: When will this fucking picture end. When.
19-10: Outright fiasco and/or unwatchably boring.
9-0: One of the worst movies I've ever seen. Very rare.
W/O: I don't know the director and the first two reels (about 35 to 40 minutes) didn't convince me that (s)he has it going on.
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary): 55
["No movie could possibly live up to this," I thought during the monumental opening shot, but Tarr goes ahead and attempts the impossible, depicting the agonizingly slow shutdown process of an entire world that, like Bartleby, has apparently decided that it would prefer not to. It's a chilling conceit made unnecessarily sluggish by Tarr's decision to structure most of the film as a Dielman-esque repetition of mundane tasks, even though the performance of those tasks in no way suggests a particular state of mind. (He also shoots most of it indoors, which is too bad because the wind is its most compelling character.) Changing the angle each time doesn't provide the necessary variation, and the core idea is arguably ill-served by stasis; once a neighbor drops by to deliver a lengthy monologue about the debasement of modern society, there's little point in returning to the monotony of habits previously established. The jig is up, and showing father and daughter eating boiled potatoes with their hands, in stoic silence, yet again, only inspires an impatience that Tarr should be working overtime to avoid. Still, it begins and ends so magnificently that I can almost forgive the tedium in-between.]
Good Bye (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran): 49
[JIGSAW: "Hello, Iranian woman. I want to play a game. Before you stands an oppressive society determined to rid you of any agency whatsoever. Unfortunately, the plane ticket that will carry you to freedom has been implanted in your womb, where it's fiercely guarded by a plot spoiler I shouldn't reveal. If that seems too much of a burden, all you need do is walk through that door to a waiting OB/GYN, who will deliver you back to a life you despise with every fiber of your being. The choice is yours." More a political statement than a movie, putting its heroine through the wringer merely as a way of demonstrating how few options she has and how pervasive is the patriarchy's control over her movements. Miss Bala demonstrates that one can make that case without sacrificing excitement.]
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran): 95
[Overwhelming in part, I think, because there really is no cinematic equivalent of Ibsen and Chekhov and O'Neill, and yet Farhadi has somehow conjured up a film worthy of such lofty comparisons without betraying the medium in the slightest. Those expecting to see a searing drama about the travails of a married couple will be as stunned as I was when the titular separation (which occurs in scene one) sets off a chain of apparently trivial events that gradually accumulate power, significance and complexity until they encompass nearly every aspect of not just Iranian society specifically but -- hate to drag out this hackneyed phrase, but it can't be helped -- the human condition in general. Just listing those aspects would require more time and energy than I've got at present, so let me highlight the one that had me furtively weeping throughout: I know of no other film so insightful about the ways that parents unwittingly manipulate and even emotionally terrorize their kids, always with the best of intentions and no recognition of the possible consequences. (To say that the final scene wrecked me would be an understatement.) And the Berlin jury did right in bestowing both of their acting prizes on the entire ensemble, which is pitch-perfect down to the smallest roles -- crucial, since it's in the nature of Farhadi's moral reckoning that there's no such thing as a minor character. (Nonetheless, I'd single out the casually astonishing Peyman Moaadi as best in show.) Really, the only possible knock on A Separation I can even fathom is that it's unmistakably a writer's movie, relying on an understated, purely functional visual scheme -- clearly by design, as About Elly was considerably more striking in that regard. Why distract from the sublime?]
The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans, Indonesia): W/O
[But don't mind me -- the action junkies think it's the greatest thing since Ong-bak (which I likewise bailed on the first time, though I caught up with the whole thing eventually). Lengthy setup just seemed tediously gung-ho, devoid of wit and reminiscent of first-person shooter games (hate 'em); even when the ass-kicking proper finally began, I found myself wholly uninterested in what new method our colorless hero would employ to make the Midnight Madness audience yell "OHHHH!" en masse. (For the record, in one brief sequence I saw: pull knife blade down vertically along entire thigh; shoot point-blank in face several times; crack knee open like stubborn lobster claw.) But as with Ong-bak, I may feel obliged to return at some point and see what the fuss is about, as it sounds like most of the thrilling stuff happened after I left.]
/House of Tolerance/ (Bertrand Bonello, France): 76
[Really ashamed now that I allowed the chorus of jeers at Cannes to sway me, because this is blatantly terrific. Bonello somehow manages to indulge in gorgeous, languid nostalgia without romanticizing a whit, reveling in beauty and female camaraderie -- in some ways this is a distaff war movie, set in the trenches -- while simultaneously acknowledging pain, loss, even outright horror. Runs a tad long, perhaps, but at the same time I'm not sure there's a moment I wouldn't be sorry to lose. Certainly not the much-mocked coda, which knocked me on my ass all over again.]
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg,
[No opening credits and I avoided reading anything in advance, so I'm afraid I may have startled my neighbors with a loud, that-explains-everything "Ohhhhhhhh!" upon seeing that it was written by Christopher Hampton, based on his stage play. As turgid and lifeless as Carrington or Total Eclipse; giving this dude a couple of notable historical figures and a keyboard is tantamount to presenting him with a License to Bore. Apart from encouraging Keira Knightley's ape face (which at least provides some manic energy), Cronenberg plays it disappointingly straight, convinced that Freud and Jung make compelling characters merely by virtue of being Sigmund Fucking Freud and Carl Yowza Jung. Consequently, Mortensen and Fassbender have little to do save recite text-derived speeches while looking suitably iconic, giving the entire movie the unfortunate feeling of high-school amateurs playing adult roles.]
Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia): 44
[I'm just not feeling this guy. Even here, working in a very different register from The Return or The Banishment, he still comes across as freeze-dried; it's as if he covers each frame with a white sheet before rolling, the way you do with furniture when you're painting a room. Everything's needlessly muffled. Elena is by far his least pretentious film to date, but I nonetheless spent most of it wishing I could crack open a window or something. Is that enough in the way of essentially synonomous metaphors, or should I go on?]
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve,
[Feels petty and churlish to largely reject a movie on the basis of a single logistical beef, but I simply couldn't get past the plainly evident non-aging of its two young lovers, who look exactly the same at 25 as they did when they were allegedly 15. Their predicament is only poignant if they fall back into old behavior patterns despite having become entirely different people -- the determined can rationalize Sullivan as a projection of Camille's memory, but Camille herself changing only her hair and wardrobe all but kills any sense of involuntary regression. It's as if Before Sunset had been shot just a year after Before Sunrise, with exactly the same script. I submit that it wouldn't have worked without Delpy and Hawke having lost the blush of youth, and neither does this one, alas. Otherwise lovely.]
Low Life (Nicolas Klotz, France): 40
[Rubbed me the wrong way instantly, thanks to a cast of privileged, verbose "squatters" who all seemed to be doing a Louis Garrel impression -- women as well as men. Finally grabbed my attention once a couple of them barricaded themselves in a bedroom and mostly stopped talking, but by then it was much too late.]
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA): 49
[Incessant, self-satisfied, pseudo-edgy voiceover narration sets such a noxious tone that I wanted to flee -- apparently Jim Taylor (absent here except as producer) had been responsible for red-penciling Payne's excesses. Why such an accomplished satirist insists on tackling complex human emotion is a mystery, especially given how uncomfortable it clearly makes him. Every time the film threatens to tap into something real, a cheap laugh eases the tension; it's most unforgivable during Judy Greer's hospital speech, but even Clooney's goofy run after first hearing of his wife's dalliance seems the work of a director convinced that his medicine requires a spoonful of sugar. And the ending is precisely the sort of facile crowdpleaser Citizen Ruth so memorably bulldozed. But that movie was largely ignored, whereas The Descendants exits TIFF as an Oscar frontrunner in multiple categories, so mission clearly and sadly accomplished.]
Keyhole (Guy Maddin, Canada): 56
[Even more phantasmagorical than usual -- to a phalt, yuk yuk yuk. Works best when it leans hardest on '30s gangster-movie conventions, allowing Jason Patric to command the screen with only the faintest hint of ironic quotation marks; loses steam when it indulges the same sort of half-assed Homeric allusions that infected O Brother, Where Art Thou? Still, it's not the utterly shapeless mishmash some have suggested -- I laughed at the bit early on, following a bloody shootout, in which the living were instructed to face one direction and the dead the opposite direction, but that turns out to be a signpost that not everybody apparently recognizes. And no movie in which a penile wall fixture gets casually dusted should be blithely dismissed.]
A Better Life (Cédric Kahn, France): 51
[What the hell happened to this guy? Most apt word for his films up through Red Lights is arguably "punishing," but since then he's made a kiddie movie about a magical toy plane, another film that dropped off the face of the earth after Vadim Rizov called it "ceaselessly grating," and now this exercise in keenly observed schmaltz. First couple of reels compel, as Kahn deftly fast-forwards through the courtship phase and seems to be constructing a detailed primer on how to create a small business, but once the shit starts hitting the fan it's just an endless programmatic fecal blowback. (You're welcome.) Less maudlin than most films of this sort, and Canet's anti-ingratiating performance helps, but surely Kahn can find something better to do with his time.]
God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA): 54
[No prisoners taken, as advertised -- protag deliberately shoots a newborn infant in the face at the outset and it goes from there. (Fantasy sequence, but still.) Trouble is, for every bracing bit of pitch-black comedy, there's a completely witless rant in which Bobcat's onscreen surrogates just recite a laundry list of American culture's most detestable aspects, each of which stops the movie cold. (Imagine Dennis Miller minus jokes. Or just, you know, Andy Rooney.) It's lazy choir-preaching, totally beneath him. Fortunately, he still does marvelous work with actors: Joel Murray finds surprising reserves of real uncertainty in his cartoon misanthrope, and shares a pleasing chemistry with the young girl (which reportedly echoes a relationship in Super -- not an issue for me, skipped it). And Goldthwait has made gaspworthy strides as a filmmaker, though we're talking comparatively -- competent looks pretty miraculous next to inept. But that's more than Kevin Smith has ever managed.]
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, USA/Germany):
[She could've called this one Together Alone Together Alone, though I suppose that would make her project a little too blatant. First half once again slightly numbing (by design), though there's far more tension inherent in this scenario since we have no idea when to hunker down, or even why; it's also pleasurably disarming to witness lovers genuinely enjoying each other's company for such an uninterrupted stretch, even if there are hints (right from that surreal opening shot) of willful obliviousness; to say nothing of what I hereby dub the Trudge Effect, in which characters' movement through a constantly shifting landscape somehow magically forestalls boredom no matter how little is otherwise happening. Then comes the Event, of which I will say nothing save that it was so sudden, quick and utterly unexpected that I truly thought for an instant that I must have seen it wrong, surely that did not just happen? Subsequent non-events confirm that it did, and the film's extraordinary latter half depicts in minute and amazingly credible detail both the singular horror of being trapped in close quarters with someone you love but can't for the moment bear to be near (happened to me on a cross-country flight once) and the heroic, quixotic attempt of both parties to forgive the unforgivable. Much like Certified Copy, it condenses years of a relationship into a single day, using radical bifurcation rather than elegant gamesmanship to leap chasms of time (and avoiding the single pitfall of Kiarostami's film by never even once addressing the heart of the matter via dialogue -- you've never been so torn up by the request for a verb to conjugate). Is there a more exciting newish (I don't count Moment of Impact) voice than Loktev right now? Promise confirmed is as sweet as this gig gets.]
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA): 67
[Couldn't figure out why this felt like such a departure, despite being unmistakably Stillmanesque, but it finally hit me afterwards: He knows he's funny now. Which is not to say that the first three weren't knowing, but they do seem to me almost incidentally comedic, whereas Damsels is very much a Comedy, with bons mots shading into bona fide one-liners. Fortunately, the laughs are there, though he doesn't know how to write buffoons -- struggling to imagine someone witless and uncouth, he comes up with a guy who denies that his eyes are blue, observing that he (the doofus) doesn't view the world through a blue filter. (Which actually is kinda funny, but I can too readily conjure up the more self-aware version Stillman would have written in the '90s, when it would have been a riff rather than a gag.) Gerwig is game and mostly delightful, but perhaps dominates a little too much; there's a reason why Eigeman's Nick Smith gets shunted upstate at one point (very possibly to be killed), and Damsels sometimes plays like an ensemble piece with only one role. But who really cares, you know? It's just good to have him back.]
I'm Carolyn Parker (Jonathan Demme, USA): 43
[Dude. Stop making documentaries. You're really bad at them (though I say that without having seen Cousin Bobby). The all-encompassing receptiveness we all treasure in your best work doesn't serve you well in non-fiction -- you're so enthralled with everything that judgment fails you, and without a script to diverge from, judgment is all you have. In this particular case, you failed to realize that Ms. Parker, while no doubt a wonderful human being and a fantastic cook, isn't a terribly fascinating camera subject, especially for those of us who've already seen Trouble the Water and When the Levees Broke and know what real down-to-earth New Orleans charisma looks like. Or maybe you did come to realize it at some point but were unable to toss several years' worth of footage. Judging from the equally tepid Man From Plains and The Agronomist, though, I kinda doubt it. You fell in love with her and felt confident that we'd share your enthusiasm. We often don't. Sorry.]
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, Australia): W/O
[Strongly reminiscent of Animal Kingdom, which I realize most folks will consider a recommendation. I didn't know going in that it's about Australia's most notorious serial killer, but I certainly got wind that the sordidness into which it was rubbing my nose early on was only the beginning, and what I saw didn't inspire confidence that Kurzel would provide the insight or chops to make such a harrowing journey worthwhile. Sorry to miss out on Daniel Henshall as the psychopath, though -- he was taking the role in an intriguingly avuncular direction when I bailed.]
The Student (Santiago Mitre, Argentina): 45
[Just because the subject matter is dry and inconsequential doesn't mean the filmmaking should follow suit. Many folks at Cannes felt that Joseph Cedar jazzed up academia a bit too much in Footnote, but at least nobody fell asleep. Or you could make like Christoph Hochhäusler in The City Below and shoot corporate non-intrigue as if it were a ticking-bomb thriller. But if you're determined to present us with the niceties of university-level political backbiting, even as a metaphor or whatever, have the common decency to acknowledge that nobody gives a shit. And then handle the material accordingly. Which is to say, not straightforwardly. Fewer comas that way. Other than that...]
Shame (Steve McQueen, UK): 53
[Suffers to some extent from the same unfair problem as sex addiction itself, which is that it's hard to dredge up much empathy for someone trying to fuck/wank the emptiness away -- at least he's getting off. Consequently, I more or less rolled my eyes at Fassbender's tragic-orgasm face (THIS VAGINA ISN'T HELPING!!!), preferring to ignore the film's banal content in favor of its impressive form. McQueen doesn't go nearly as abstract here as he did in Hunger, but my pal Josh Rothkopf isn't reaching much when he insists that Shame is fundamentally about New York City; I've been gone for over two years now, and have seen probably dozens of NYC-set movies in that time, but this is the first one that captured Manhattan's streets and energy and flavor in a way that made me feel actively homesick. Still, the ostensible foreground narrative proves too much of an irritation, especially when it comes to Mulligan's generic lost soul. (The big sibling confrontation so wearied me that I wound up focusing intently on out-of-focus Looney Tunes visible on Fassbender's TV set, which I'd like to believe were edited to be continuous violence.) McQueen's clearly a superb director, but his subject matter thus far seems strangely arbitrary, just stuff he can aestheticize. I'd like to see him pull a Von Trier and abandon everything he thinks he does well.]
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/France): 39
[Three years before Dogtooth, I walked out of Lanthimos' debut, Kinetta. Now I remember why. Shorn of outrageous black humor, his films become plodding, lugubrious exercises in kooky aberrant behavior -- especially problematic in this case as his characters are selling their pathology to the general public, which is implausibly eager to buy. As it is, the basic scenario plays like warmed-over Egoyan (who more or less owns absurdist forms of grief management), only treated in a clinical style that's fundamentally at odds with material so emotionally fraught. All of the actors, including Labed and Papoulia, seem totally lost, as if they've been handed a rigid set of behavioral anomalies and then left to their own devices. Come to think of it, what Alps really reminds me of is a bad Egoyan film, viz. The Adjuster (which I rewatched in '02 and consider his worst ever, Chloe included). It's ludicrous without being funny, unusual but miles from insightful. That Lanthimos has so quickly retreated to this mode is a bad sign.]
Beauty (Oliver Hermanus, South Africa/France): W/O
[Oh for fuck's sake, not the married macho closet case again. Even Chris Cooper couldn't make this character work.]
Porfirio (Alejandro Landes,
[Possibly the festival's best pure camera subject, despite being a fat bald dude in a wheelchair rather than, say, naked Hafsia Herzi. (Greetings to everyone who just arrived via Googling those last three words! Nothin' here for ya!) I tend to be suspicious of doc/fiction hybrids involving people re-enacting aspects of their own lives, but Landes mostly seems content to let Porfirio simply be his weirdly compelling self (if it were a Hollywood movie he'd be played by Jon Polito), depicting his circumscribed existence and its arduous management in fascinating detail. Not sure I've ever seen so much emphasis on the horizontal in a film set mostly indoors -- it's like watching a nature doc about a giant snake or lizard, complete with sections on feeding, mating, grooming, and of course cell-phone rental. But this strictly observational approach suddenly seems wildly inadequate when it's revealed that...well, better not to say what's revealed, even though it's a matter of public record (and presumably something that Colombian viewers would know going in). That Landes arrives at this point virtually without prelude (only a couple of phone conversations with unidentified bureaucrats hint at it), then just abruptly ends the movie without depicting the incident in question, certainly qualifies as ballsy (and Porfirio's self-mythologizing folk song works nicely as a closing statement), but it's still perversely unsatisfying, a sort of shaggy-dog shoulder shrug.]
I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan): 56
[Pretty close to being a flat-out kids' movie, albeit an uncommonly subdued and melancholy one. Kore-eda's willing to indulge more of a darndest-things vibe than in Nobody Knows -- the kid playing the younger brother even mugs for the camera on a regular basis, fully aware of how cute he is, which in the context of recent foreign-language art cinema almost qualifies as an alienation effect. Emotional underpinning tends toward the wispy, but as the film expands to accommodate more kids and their respective wishes, turning into a pastoral road movie, it's hard not to surrender; the climactic bullet-train montage, with its chorus of barely-audible shouted pleas to magic/God/Life, packs more of a punch than the preceding series of low-key incidents would suggest. Just for the record, though, pre-adolescent boys don't need to be planning some sort of Parent Trap scheme to root for a volcano to blow. That's the default setting.]
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, UK):
[You really wanna blow the lid off received notions of literary adaptations? Give us the novel's perpetually undramatized second half. That's Ed, I did think Arnold had managed something genuinely revelatory upon first seeing her teenage Catherine, played by a newcomer named Shannon Beer who truly looks like a girl named Shannon Beer; it's a bracingly feral, productively ungainly interpretation of a role that's usually played much too proto-aristocratic. Unfortunately, it's impossible to believe that she'd grow up to be the adult Catherine, played by an actress appropriately named Kaya Scodelario. Nor does reimagining Heathcliff as Afro-Caribbean amount to much more than the sort of gangster-Macbeth nonsense that's been kicking around for decades. In theory, I like the idea of treating a canonical novel as pure cinema, but while Arnold gets plenty of atmospheric mileage from her wiley [sic?], windy moors, it hardly replaces everything she's elided, leaving a gaping do-we-really-care? void at the film's center. File under impressive stunts to be admired at a great remove.]
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (Werner
Herzog, USA): 50
[Apparently Herzog realized he was drifting into self-parody and decided to take corrective measures -- this is easily the most conventional, least Herzogian doc he's made in a decade or more, devoid of puckish voiceover narration (though you do hear him ask questions of interview subjects) and doggedly committed to a single Big Issue. Thing is, he's not remotely an Issue guy, so what we have here is the most soft-hitting take on capital punishment imaginable, in which various people associated with a run-of-the-mill homicide just blurt their feelings at the camera when prompted. These folks seem far too ordinary to compel Herzog's full attention, with the notable and slightly discomfiting exception of one prisoner's wife, whose insistence that she's not one of those sad death-row groupies (she clearly is) only makes her look that much creepier. (Her closing reveal can be justified as the eponymous "tale of life," but Herzog's evident delight in what he assumes must have been their methodology threatens to render the rest of the movie weirdly irrelevant -- it feels like this is what he's been waiting for all along.) Not without interest, inevitably boasts a few powerful moments, but this is the first movie he's made that mostly feels as if it could have been directed by almost anybody.]
The Forgiveness of Blood (Joshua Marston,
[Now here's an Issue guy. If the adjective that best describes your movie is "scrupulous," it's only common courtesy to hand out airplane-size pillows at the theater entrance and dim even the exit lights. Maria Full of Grace managed to be consistently tense as well as earnest; here, the blood feud essentially amounts to a lethal variation on house arrest, which means that for long stretches we might just as well be watching Lindsay Lohan looking frustrated and bored. Marston clearly did his homework, and by god, homework is what you'll get.]
Your Sister's Sister (Lynn Shelton, USA):
[Shelton does the best semi-improvised character work of anybody working in English right now, for my money. As in Humpday, I could just listen to these people talk to each other forever, almost regardless of the scenario -- somehow she creates a space for her actors (including, in this case, established pros like Blunt and DeWitt) to communicate in a free-flowing, discursive, off-the-cuff way that never once degenerates into affected mannerism or rudderless wheel-spinning. Every interaction feels just right, utterly credible but in an entertaining way; even when a character's behavior seems contrived to narrative ends, its specific manifestation never does. Her only real problem is her exit strategy, which is completely nonexistent. Humpday collapsed only in the last few minutes, which wasn't a dealbreaker; here, though, the entire movie is basically an extended setup for a raucous comedy, with the events that would normally comprise acts two and three compressed into an unbelievably lazy montage set to a noodly guitar score. Filmus interruptus. But until that montage there wasn't a moment I didn't thoroughly enjoy. Even in the face of massive structural defects, that has to count for something.]
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK): 78
[Hmm, how to handle the fact that I'm writing this two weeks later and have already rewatched the movie, which I wound up downgrading slightly? Guess I'll accentuate the positive here, address reservations below. If I over-responded the first time, however, that's only because it's so damn glorious to have Davies back in full-blown expressionistic fervor -- the opening movement alone, with its quick dissolves and overhead spirals and total disregard for conventional exposition, creates a luxurious despondency that's every bit as swoonworthy as Melancholia's justly vaunted prelude. Davies likewise boldly heightens the melodrama that follows, giving even scenes set in the story's present the burnished intensity of a sad memory and encouraging each of his three lead actors to fully embody a single defining trait, in a way that somehow suggests neither stereotype nor caricature but simply essence distilled. Weisz in particular plays a largely unsympathetic character without once begging for our approval or understanding, reveling in pragmatic masochism -- it's like watching somebody cut herself using another human being instead of a knife. As a rule, I'd prefer that prestige literary works be left on the shelf; if we must have adaptations, please, let Davies make them all.]
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger & Bruce
Sinofsky, USA): 52
[Wouldn't have missed this for the world, since I'm now as caught up in the fate of the West Memphis Three as anyone else (even if the final disposition of the case leaked a couple of weeks before the film's premiere). But what made the original film great had little or nothing to do with the miscarriage of justice -- its power was deeply rooted in that particular time and place, and both of its sequels, for all their amateur sleuthing and righteous indignation (by no means misplaced), feel like feature-length addenda. This one at least presents a plausible alternate suspect and refrains from demonizing him -- a huge relief, as Revelations used John Mark Byers' propensity for self-destructive theatrics in a way that barely skirted exploitation. Wish they'd had more access to Damien and Jason, who've grown into remarkably thoughtful adults and no doubt have plenty to say, but obviously that was beyond their control. No point in judging it as art, really -- it's a work of pure advocacy, one that accomplished its goal simply by being made.]
Rampart (Oren Moverman, USA): 70
[Bad Lieutenant minus the anguish, which is as it should be. Moverman's still trying a bit too hard at times -- there's an office scene composed entirely of overlapping circular pans that makes you want to slap him -- but his rhythmic sense is impeccable, and he's mostly freed here from the burden of plot that weighed down the second half of The Messenger. It's just a straight shot of unexpurgated Ellroy, no Confidential-style wussing out. Harrelson admirably refuses to let the character become too charismatic, which makes his downward spiral at once satisfying and pitiable; when Ice Cube drives the final nail home, the absence of mercy couldn't be any, well, colder. What's more, the movie is crammed with inessential but pungent details that keep it from feeling too programmatic, some of which are so casually bizarre that they almost have to derive from real life, e.g. the two ex-wives who seem to have formed their own mini-commune. Familiarity holds Rampart back from real distinction (might be even more invigorating for those who didn't watch The Shield), but I'm now pretty stoked to see what Moverman does next.]
Intruders (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Spain): 52
[Stupid but sporadically potent, with another fantastic performance by a little kid (the girl, obviously, not the boy). Obvious third-act twist is justified to some degree by thematic resonance, as the film wonders aloud where fear comes from. To which the answer is a tad depressing.]
Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, Hong Kong):
[When the financial crisis hit, who didn't think "Man, I can't wait to see what the Milkyway Creative Team makes of this!"? Repeatedly bogs down in fiscal minutiae, then struggles to engineer a Big Finish; apart from a few isolated comic moments (mostly involving Panther's efforts to secure his boss' bail), I could scarcely have been more disengaged.]
Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France):
[Odd, fascinating amalgam of mobile camera, declamatory performances, striking locations, theatrical staging. Might challenge Turin Horse for the year's best opening shot, except I'm not 100% sure it's a single shot. Stunning regardless. Real shame about Akerman's unaccountable fondness for Stanislas Merhar, though.]
Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz, The Philippines):
[Loved the recurring song element, but enjoyment-to-irritation ratio just seemed like it'd be deadly at six hours. Also, do his other films look this cruddy? He seems to be using black-and-white as shorthand for "art film," paying zero attention to light and shadow.]
Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold,
[Strongly suspect I'd like this even more were it not part of a trilogy, as the aspect of it that haunts me is sorely diminished by the mere existence of two other films involving the same killer (regardless of their quality, though it doesn't help that they both kinda suck). When I close my eyes and try to pretend it exists in a vacuum, it seems remarkably bold, employing the fantastic as a cruel metaphor for the depressingly mundane; even the subtitle plays like a slap in the face. Might need to give it a solo second look down the road.]
Dreileben: Don't Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf,
[Begins as a rapid-fire yet dull procedural, then metamorphoses into a weirdly low-key personal melodrama that just didn't interest me much, even though I appreciated the bait-and-switch aspect. This one arguably benefits the most from its relation to the other two films, though seems to me it would only be effective as the middle section (which is how it's being shown everywhere, near as I can tell) -- it gets a lot of mileage just from the stark contrast in look and tone.]
Dreileben: One Minute of Darkness (Christoph
Hochhäusler, Germany): 44
[As I feared, the final, focus-on-the-killer chapter only literalizes the aspect of Beats Being Dead that sang for me as stark metaphor. And it's surprisingly, disappointingly straightforward -- especially given the way Hochhäusler deliberately amped up the quotidian in The City Below, to which this plodding effort bears zero resemblance. Kevin Lee suggested that the whole trilogy plays quite differently if you watch this one first (and Beats Being Dead last), which might be the case...but also assumes you maintain enough interest to continue.]
People Mountain People Sea (Cai Shangjun, Hong Kong):
[Note to self: When in China, be somewhere else. Formally assured, oft-arresting nihilistic onslaught doesn't really progress beyond the casual brutality of its opening sequence and concludes on a note that I see I'm not alone in finding utterly baffling; it's the kind of film you reluctantly admire but would blanch at the prospect of revisiting. But it does at least eschew the sheep's clothing of anguished spirituality that makes most of Dumont's films so unpalatable to me.]
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK): W/O
[Not really surprised to find that Considine believes ugliness and truth are directly proportional. I'm sure there are women out there who really do just lie there and take it when their husbands piss all over them as they sleep (not in a sexual way, just as sheer contempt), but here it just plays like macho arthouse bullshit. SOAK IN THEIR PAIN!!]
/The Deep Blue Sea/ (Terence Davies, UK): 74
[Second look confirmed my sense that Rattigan's play isn't quite strong enough to merit such reverential treatment -- though I gather that Davies invented the scenes involving the mother-in-law, which are far and away the most egregious clunkers. (His anger toward parents isn't his best feature, which is one reason I much prefer The Long Day Closes to Distant Voices, Still Lives.) Still glorious, but it does feel just a bit like a warm-up exercise from an artist who's a tad rusty. May the next one arrive relatively soon.]
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK): W/O
[This guy just bugs me. Reliable reports indicate that Kill List takes some freaky turns after I bailed (though at least one setpiece, as described, sounds so horrific that I wouldn't care to endure it without a damn good reason -- "solidly entertaining" wouldn't cut it, much less the more likely "dude that was fucking sick!"), but most of the first two reels indulge in the same tedious Mike-Leigh-meets-casual-evil badinage that drove me out of Down Terrace as well. Wheatley's notions of dramaturgy are so antithetical to what I value that at this point I can't imagine him making a film I'd enjoy. But I once thought that of Carlos Reygadas, too, so there's always hope.]