I had another fairly instructive year at the movies. Last year in my annual round-up I mentioned that I had been trying, in a desultory manner, to educate myself by viewing films with some claim to classic status. That enterprise continued this year, except that I expunged all traces of the desultory from my efforts: I established a kind of system (which, for fear of ridicule, I shall not unfold in all its glorious complexity) to ensure that my film viewing would be both entertaining and improving, stretching the (mostly temporal) boundaries within which I have traditionally confined myself. Sad to say, much of that good seed fell on hard soil, or was choked by weeds, or trampled underfoot, and I feel it has borne relatively little fruit. As will be evident in a moment, most of the films I most enjoyed this year were of recent provenance, and I am just a little bit ashamed of that.
This year, for example, I went back and watched the very earliest films on record: the Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the short films of the Lumière Brothers (c.1895), and the first narrative film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). I watched a few early horror films of the German expressionist school (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)) and some early American films about wartime (The Birth of a Nation (1915), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Gone with the Wind (1939)). I made a point of watching films by highly regarded directors, such as Hitchcock [Notorious (1946)], Wilder [Sunset Boulevard (1950)], Kurosawa [Seven Samurai (1954)], Dreyer [Ordet (1955)], Altman [M*A*S*H (1970)], Tarkovsky [Solaris (1972)], Mamet [Homicide (1991)], and Anderson [The Master (2012)]; these I appreciated to greater and lesser extents, but none of them, at least on first acquaintance, have found much of a place in my heart.
A highlight of my year was a “Dardenne Brothers Film Festival”, in which I discovered the work of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I watched La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), L’Enfant (2005), and Le Gamin au vélo (2011), the last of which I discuss in more detail below. These are great films. The Dardennes have a distinctive aesthetic: handheld cameras, spare dialogue, long takes, shots often taken through door frames or half-blocked by corners, and so on. They have a particular fondness, which grows endearing, for filming the backs of their characters’ heads. There are thematic elements too that crop up again and again and make their films into something like a unified body of work. In each film they are looking at the economic underclass, people on the brink of poverty who often resort to blackmarkets or other illegalities to stay afloat. All of their films are intensely concerned with the relationships of parents and children, and especially with the role of fathers in the lives of children. But perhaps what is most characteristic of their films, and also most interesting, is their keen moral sense. Though their characters live buffeted by all kinds of pressures and act from all sorts of motives, we are never allowed to forget — and neither are they — that they are moral beings facing specifically moral decisions. Not that the films are “moralizing” in a perjorative sense, but the films exist in a moral universe. In 2011 the Dardennes were awarded the Robert Bresson Prize, given to filmmakers whose work “has given a testimony, significant on account of its sincerity and intensity, of the difficult road in search of the spiritual meaning of our life.” They deserved it.
Now a few thoughts about the films I most enjoyed this year, more or less in descending order:
To the Wonder
(Terrence Malick, 2012)
With each new film he makes, Terrence Malick is rising steadily in my personal pantheon of filmmakers. That is not to say that each new film is better than its predecessor — To the Wonder is a lesser achievement than The Tree of Life in just about every respect — but the more experience I have of his work the more I find myself sinking into it, soaking it up. At this point, I am ready to give myself up to his films, floating along with his camera like a feather on the wind.
To the Wonder is in many respects his most challenging film yet. There is no question that it is visually and aurally gorgeous, but it makes few concessions to familiar cinematic conventions. It’s elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — Malick’s penchant for voice-over is here taken to an extreme. Where most of Malick’s films invite a contemplative viewing, To the Wonder comes close to requiring it. It divided the audience at its premiere, and is likely to go on doing so.
The story centers around an American man, played by Ben Affleck, and his relationship with a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko. They fall in love in France — there is a glorious sequence filmed at Mont St. Michel that lifted me up to the fourth or fifth heaven — but they eventually move to Texas where, for various reasons, most of which are only hinted at, their romance falters and the hard business of loving one another begins. Where The Tree of Life was concerned with exploring the meaning of grace, To the Wonder is about love: what is it? what does it mean? what does it feel like? how is it lived? where does it come from?
Malick explores these themes by contrasting the central romantic relationship with that of another character: a priest in the town where the couple settles (played by Javier Bardem). He is a good man who spends his days visiting the poor and sick, and who preaches from the pulpit with wisdom and authority, but who, rather like Bernanos’ country priest, is inwardly dry, steadfastly longing for God but finding no consolation in Him; he feels abandoned and alone. Nonetheless, he carries on with faith and hope, day in and day out.
My reading of the film is that Malick has set before us two understandings of love: one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast. Which is the more attractive? Which is the more fruitful? Which brings the most happiness? The answers will vary from viewer to viewer, though I think I know where Malick comes down. There is, after all, little reason for the priest to appear in the film apart from his value as a provoking counterpoint.
This is not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work; it is too saturated with unfamiliar techniques that, to the uninitiated, would be alienating. It is also a film with a remarkably cool, distant tone (though I think this is intentional and is related to the film’s moral attitude toward commitment). And it is admittedly a flawed film, with an awkward structure and a certain lack of cohesion. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly beautiful film that poses big questions and is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”. It is my favourite film of the year.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
(Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
I hesitate to mention this film, not because it is not an excellent film — it is, emphatically — but because it is a difficult film to watch. Nonetheless, here we are. The film is set in Romania in the 1980s, under the Ceauşescu regime, and it tells the story of a woman who, with the help of a friend, procures an illegal abortion.
Both the style and the content of the film deserve comment. It is stylistically very dry: there are long, wide shots in which the camera is stationary, no overdubbed music as far as I recall, and in general a studied absence of overt effects. This does not at all mean that the film is artless: there is one scene, of a dinner party, that includes a single, static, long shot that is agonizingly great; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it before. In general the director seems determined simply to show us his story, without getting in the way. This even-handedness extends to the story itself, which, on one hand, confirms everything that a pro-choice advocate believes: yes, this woman seeks her abortion on the black market, and yes, it is far more dangerous for her than it would be in our fair land. The film is right to portray this. We understand her desperation and we sympathize with it. But the force of those arguments is blunted beyond repair by the unsparing commitment of the filmmaker to show us what is actually happening. The quiet, apparently emotionless deliberateness with which the film proceeds grows increasingly sickening, and the director grants us no easy evasions. As such, I cannot believe that anyone could watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days without profound sorrow and disgust. Normally that would not be the way to recommend a film, but this is an exception. The final scene, in which the two friends sit together after the immediate terrors have passed, is understated but devastatingly effective.
Le Gamin au Vélo
(The Kid with a Bike)
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
As I mentioned above, most of the Dardenne’s films are about the relationships of fathers and sons, and the same is true here but with this difference: the father is absent. They give us a probing portrait of the devastation wrought in the heart of the son by such absence. Rejected and abandoned, young Cyril is taken in by a local woman, Samantha, who becomes a steady friend to him. (The scene of Cyril’s first chance encounter with her is wonderfully handled by the Dardennes; this is understated direction at its best.) I loved that Samantha’s brave and unselfish solicitude for him was presented without any fanfare or underlining; goodness is so attractive that it can be trusted to shine even without a spotlight.
The film is morally serious: it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions (explored in a number of mutually impacting ways), about moral failure and moral heroism, about children’s need for love and role models, about forgiveness, and about the importance of families. The characters are richly drawn, and the relationships believable. Even the title is resonant: on one level it blandly refers to Cyril and the bicycle he rides around, but in the film the bicycle serves as a kind of symbol or stand-in for his father, and the title assumes a sadly wry undertone when we realize that Cyril is finally a kid with … just a bike. Ouch. The spare use of music in the film is superb: the Dardennes normally don’t put a “soundtrack” over the sounds their microphone picks up, but here they break their rule at key points, playing the opening chords of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, and it adds another dimension to the film that works superbly well.
(Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)
Alfonso Cuaron has a reputation, I believe, as one of the more talented and serious directors of his generation — though I confess that I have not myself seen any of his other films — so I was surprised to find him at the helm of Gravity, which on paper sounds more or less like a straightforward thriller, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in quantity: astronauts cut-off from mission control by an in-orbit disaster must somehow find their way back to earth. It just goes to show that a good director makes all the difference between a paint-by-numbers thriller and a dazzling feat of cinematic virtuosity. From the acrobatic opening shot — which lasts for something between 13 and 17 minutes (depending on who you believe) — it is clear that we are in the hands of a master, and Cuaron sees his story, simple as it is, through to its white-knuckle finale with a sure hand. In the end, it is a fairly slight tale, filled out sparely but effectively with enough backstory to give the characters weight (so to speak) and some suggestive thematic elements. (I recommend Adam Hincks’ analysis of the film for insight into this deeper matter.) The principal glory of the film is its visual splendour: Cuaron works here with Emmanuel Lubezki — also Terrence Malick’s go-to cinematographer, note well — and the images he puts on screen, together with the choreography of the camera movement in the three-dimensional weightless environment, made this one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences that I have had in years.
(Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
My first Charlie Chaplin film. From the opening scene, in which the Tramp is caught sleeping on a public monument as it is unveiled before a great crowd, I was won over. The story, about the awkward but sweet relationship between the mute Tramp and a blind woman, packs a big emotional punch at the film’s climax. I followed up by watching Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a more overtly political film, and while I thought it was delightful it didn’t displace City Lights in my affections.
A Serious Man
(Coen Brothers, 2009)
When A Serious Man was in theatres a few years ago I had the impression that it was a “minor Coen Brothers” film, something to file beside The Man who Wasn’t There or (*cough*) Intolerable Cruelty. I’m now fairly sure that was wrong. Certainly it is a mesmerizing film in its own quiet way. Larry Gopnik is a middle-aged physics professor (!) whose life begins, piece by piece but rapidly, to fall apart: his wife wants a divorce, a student tries to bribe him, his brother cannot be dislodged from his couch, and odd coincidences unsettle him. The film is tonally very interesting: the general feeling is one of subdued and uneasy anticipation, even dread, yet step back a bit and the comic elements jump out. Indeed, the film as a whole is structured like a Jewish joke (“There were three rabbis in a small town…”). The first ten minutes of the film, a Jewish folktale offered by way of prologue, are perhaps the best ten minutes of cinema I saw all year. Absolutely delicious. And the ending too is a knockout. I’m not yet sure if A Serious Man is a “major Coen Brothers” film, but I definitely want to see it again. This trailer plays up the comic element more than the film itself does:
Other films I enjoyed: Anna Karenina (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Great Expectations (1946), A Late Quartet (2011), Lourdes (2009), Modern Times (1936), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Sunset Boulevard (1950).