- The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
- Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
- Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
- David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
- The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
- Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
- Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
- Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
- Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.
Archive for the 'Movies' Category
Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Peter J. Leithart
Because I like to do things in the wrong order, I bought this book after writing about The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies project. Perhaps it’s just as well; the temptation to discuss the book’s many insights would have made my review too long.
Leithart is a Biblical scholar, not a film critic, and he admits as much up front. He was so enchanted by Malick’s film, however, and so impressed by its theological weight, that he felt compelled to write about it. He recommends that readers see the film at least three times before taking up the book, and that sounds right to me.
If you haven’t seen the film at all, not only will Leithart’s book not be very meaningful to you, but this post might spoil things too. Not that it is the sort of film to suffer from spoilers, but some people are sensitive about such things…
The book covers many topics in its short compass. I was not surprised to see him writing about music, memory, and family as treated in the film, but he also treats several topics that I had not considered before, such as the way Malick uses water imagery, or the way he focuses on hands, or his use of doors and windows. For me the most valuable parts of the book were the discussion of the film’s overall structure, of the relationship between the film and the Book of Job, of the themes of nature and grace, of the role of evil in the film, and of that long, vexing final sequence on the beach.
The Tree of Life opens with a mysterious, flame-like image that fades in and then out, and the same image recurs at three other points in the film. The first divides that moving opening segment of the film set in the late 1960s from the Sean Penn segment set in the 2010s. The second occurs soon after, dividing the Sean Penn segment from the creation sequence, and the third occurs at the very end of the film. Leithart argues, quite rightly I think, that it is significant that the flame does not divide the creation sequence from the long section of the film set in the 1950s, suggesting that Malick intends them to be taken together, as related to one another, and this provides guidance as we try to interpret what the creation sequence is doing.
On this question Leithart proposes a few answers which were not new to me. He notes (what is my favoured interpretation) that the creation sequence could be taken as an echo of God’s “Where were you when I laid the foundations?” response to Job. (And Leithart notes that the film’s main (and only named) character is Jack O’Brien, whose name actually contains an echo of JOB’s name.) As in Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions is not a direct answer; God does not justify his ways to men; but it is an answer “on the slant”, asking the one who pleads to consider God’s power and providence. Or, by setting the ordinary drama of the O’Brien family against a cosmic backdrop, Malick might be raising another Biblical question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Yet the fact that the film itself is certainly mindful of the O’Briens makes us think about what the answer might be.
Leithart has also helped me to appreciate much more clearly how well-structured the film is as a whole. On first viewing(s), The Tree of Life can seem like a disconnected collection of chunks: the bit in the 60s, the long bit in the 50s, the bit in modern times, the creation bit, the beach bit. But Malick has subtly tied these parts together. For instance, in the very first moments of the film, when we see the mysterious flame for the first time, what we hear are the sounds of water on a beach, an obvious anticipation of the film’s closing beach sequence (but not so obvious that I hadn’t missed it before). And, crucially, in the early Sean Penn sequence there is an insert shot of his younger brother, R.L., standing on that same beach, and he speaks the words, “Find me”. I might almost say that this brief shot, which lasts less than a second and which I had hardly noticed on previous viewings, is an interpretive key to the whole film, for it is this “Find me” that sets in motion the descent into memory and the wrestling with God and death that constitute most of the film and determine its course.
Indeed, R.L. (whose initials we know only from reading the credits) emerges from Leithart’s analysis as a key character. His birth is the first disturbance to the happiness of his older brother Jack, who begins to experience jealousy and feel temptations to violence. He is a graced character, following his mother’s lead much as Jack follows his father’s, and so permits Malick to set up the nature / grace contrasts in both generations of the family. And it is R.L.’s forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty which, late in the film, begins to heal the wounds that were threatening the family’s life together. It is in light of R.L.’s place in Jack’s life that I begin to discern the overall structure of the film and its meaning, for that initial “Find me” on the beach is finally answered in the long beach sequence in which Jack does find him. The beach sequence is not just a strange add-on, but a fulfillment and completion of what came before. (Watching the film again after reading this book, I was surprised to find, for the first time, that this beach sequence actually brought tears to my eyes.)
Most interesting was Leithart’s analysis of the elements of this beach sequence. He points out that it is actually divided into two parts: a ‘resurrection’ part, with imagery of candles, processions, and figures rising from coffins, and a ‘reunion/restoration’ part, taking place on the beach. The two are separated by a shot in which the adult Jack passes through a doorway erected in the desert. In a long footnote, he cites evidence that the ‘resurrection’ part was originally planned to be much more extensive, and that Malick spent a lot of time filming material for it. It gives me another reason to want to see that rumoured 6-hour director’s cut!
Most commentators on The Tree of Life highlight the themes of nature and grace, and Leithart is no exception. He argues that as used in the film they don’t map readily onto Christian theological understandings of either. In the film, ‘nature’ stands for domination, competition, and control, whereas ‘grace’ stands for receptivity, contemplation, and love. Nature could be taken as representing modernity, while grace presents us a vision of an earlier order, or later (the influence of Malick’s beloved Heidegger is probably felt most strongly here). Grace is attention to being, which cannot be controlled or managed. Indeed, it is Mrs O’Brien’s openness to grace that makes her so vulnerable to loss and evil. Leithart also reminds us that Malick is himself a famously “graced” filmmaker, often working without a script, using reams of film in the hopes that something special will be captured fortuitously.
The film closes with two odd images: one of a field of sunflowers, and the second of a bridge. The latter is hard to love, being just a rather pedestrian shot of a suspension bridge, but Leithart argues that it is itself a symbol of reunion, uniting what had been separated, and therefore echoing the action of the film, and I suppose that is fair enough. (Perhaps not incidentally, Heidegger pontificated (if I may) about bridges.) The field of sunflowers is richer; Leithart calls it “the perfect image of the way of grace”, for a sunflower is rooted in the ground, but follows the arc of the sun with its face. It is indeed a beautiful, and beautifully apt, image.
This year I continued the effort to acquaint myself with admired films and directors. I may have watched a relatively small number of new films, but I did see films by Hitchcock, Ozu, Allen, Bergman, Chaplin, and Kurosawa, to name a few. Unfortunately for me, as I survey the films I have assembled for discussion today, I see that my preferences still veer toward contemporary cinema.
Here’s a surprise: the best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I am beginning to sound like a broken record. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times now, I think, and it was just as good, or better, this time around. It’s the best film I know.
Of the films I saw for the first time this year, I think my favourite was a rather unconventional choice: Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). This is Miike’s re-make of Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri (which I also saw this year). I am not generally an enthusiast for martial arts films, and I am aware that re-makes are rarely superior to their originals, but nonetheless I found Miike’s film got under my skin in a way that Kobayashi’s did not. It is a slow film with only a few action sequences; the focus is on the tragic plight of the central characters. When violence does make its way onto the screen — and there are two principal places where it does — it is invested with so much pathos that it is nearly unbearable. This is my kind of samurai film.
Another very compelling, and verrrrry slow, film is Southwest (2012), an independent film from Brazil directed by first-time filmmaker Eduardo Nunes. (Hat-tip: Tim Brayson) It is almost unbelievable that this could be a debut, for the directorial hand is so patient and so elegant. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, it tells the story of a young girl, born under mysterious circumstances, who ages rapidly and lives her whole life over the course of just a few days. Best understood, I think, as a folk-tale or fairy tale, it is mysterious through and through. But I found it mesmerizing. I don’t think it received very wide distribution, and it may be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. (Actually, the whole film is available on YouTube, if you speak Portuguese.)
My favourites of the older films I saw this year were Swing Time (1936) and Rear Window (1954). The former was a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and they are dynamite together. The story is a sweet one, but one watches the movie for the dance sequences, which are unadulterated delights. Music by Jerome Kern too. When the credits rolled I threw my hat in the air. And I’d seen Rear Window a few times previously, but since I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever tire of seeing Grace Kelly on screen, I doubt I’ll ever tire of seeing Rear Window.
I caught up this year with the latest Dardenne brothers film, Two Days, One Night (2014). The premise is a novel one: a woman will lose her job unless she can convince her co-workers to give up their raises, and so, over the course of the film, she approaches each of them, one by one, to make her case. Given that setup, the film more or less writes itself, and in the hands of lesser filmmakers it could have easily become tedious and schematic. But the Dardennes, and Marion Cotillard in the leading role, invest each of those encounters with genuine feeling and fresh ideas. The film turns into a quite probing meditation on justice and charity, on power and humility, and on what it means to love one’s neighbour. Just thinking about it makes me want to see it again.
Cheating a bit, and before I get to some genre picks, let me say a quick word about the best television that I saw this year. Actually, I think this was the only television I saw this year, but it was still good enough to warrant inclusion in this post. It was a BBC mini-series called The Hollow Crown, a four-part, roughly 8-hour dramatization of Shakespeare’s Greater Henriad, beginning with Richard II, continuing with Henry IV, Parts I and II, and concluding with Henry V. Naturally, a project this ambitious is bound to have a few weak spots, but by and large I thought the adaptations were excellent. Richard II was a play that I didn’t know at all prior to watching it, and as far as I know this is the only screen adaptation available.
In these productions, no attempt has been made to update the historical setting, and the sets throughout are sumptuous. The acting is top notch too, with Ben Whishaw playing Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, and Simon Russell Beale a superb Falstaff.
A highlight of the series for me was the portrayal of Falstaff. Somehow Falstaff on the page has always been for me something less than the Falstaff of my imagination: the Falstaff of wit and outsized merriment. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff also differs from the Falstaff of my imagination, but in a fruitful way. His Falstaff is rather sad, his wit always with a touch of weariness. He is a coward, of course, and a cheat, and we know that, but I had thought that his irrepressible spirit was supposed somehow to outshine those faults. Here they do not. Here Falstaff seems to know his faults and feel them, and it makes him vulnerable, most especially to his dearest friend. This vulnerability lends a real poignancy to the acting scene in the tavern, when he pleads the case of “old Jack”. Beale’s performance isn’t the last word on Falstaff, but it has enlarged my conception of who Falstaff is, or could be, and for that I am grateful.
And now for a few of my favourite genre films from this year:
Literary adaptation: Apart from The Hollow Crown, my favourite adaptation of a literary classic was Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which I had seen many years ago but watched again. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are wonderful as Elinor and Marianne, and Hugh Grant, looking well and truly discomfited by his period costume, is a suitably comic Mr Ferrars. Any film that can crackle with excitement as all the actors sit silently in their chairs has my admiration, and this realization of Austen’s novel has a few such delicious encounters.
Family films: I was completely charmed by Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella (2015). Blessedly free of self-consciousness, irony, and grrrl power, it simply lets the story unfold according to its own internal logic, and what a wonderful story it is. The CGI “transformation” scenes are splendidly done — the kids love them — and that final scene in which the shoe slips onto the foot is luminous through and through. Delightful.
I also want to praise The Secret of Kells (2009), a wonderful animated film from Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore (another first-time director, I note). It tells the story of Brendan, a young boy living at Kells monastery while the famous Book of Kells is being made in the scriptorium. The film is set at a time when Christianity was still relatively new in the Celtic world, and it includes encounters not only with monks but with fairies and deities of the Celtic religions. (Steven Greydanus has written from a Catholic perspective about the portrayal of religion in the film.) The animation style is distinctive, with a strong preference for geometric designs and symmetries, and, as is fitting for this story, a proliferation of Celtic weaves and curling tendrils. It’s a unique film that most people have probably not seen, or even heard of, but which I expect most would appreciate. My only real complaint about it is that it never tells us what is in the Book of Kells! It’s a book of the Gospels, of course. Why so coy? It’s an unfortunate omission that mars an otherwise highly recommendable film.
I’ll also mention briefly that Tomm Moore followed The Secret of Kells with Song of the Sea in 2014. It’s also terrific — maybe even more visually stunning than its predecessor, but the story didn’t capture me in quite the same way. Nonetheless, both films are superior to most animated fare.
Horror: I usually steer clear of horror films, but this year I saw a few worth remarking on. At the top of the heap (of corpses?) is It Follows, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes festival and, following much critical acclaim, got a wide release in 2015. The premise is that a vicious entity pursues a target, slowly but relentlessly, until that person has sexual relations with someone, at which point the entity begins pursuing the sexual partner instead. It sounds silly, but it works wonderfully both on its own terms and on a metaphorical level. Much of the credit is owed to director David Robert Mitchell’s patient camera. When was the last time you saw a film in which a long, static, wide shot had you squirming in your seat and shouting urgently at the screen? It happens. The fact that the mortal danger is transmitted sexually, that the characters in the story are tempted to instrumentalize sexual partners, and that almost the entire film is populated by teenagers, without an adult in sight, has led more than one person to interpret It Follows as a commentary on the sexual revolution, and personally I think it works quiet well from that perspective. Naturally the analogies are imperfect, but this is one of the more thought-provoking films I saw this year.
A superior monster movie was Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006), in which a giant, mutated beast emerges from the river in a major urban center and terrorizes the city. It’s very well constructed, takes the time to invest in its principal characters, and has a few surprises up its sleeve. The monster is great, and Bong Joon-Ho, one of the leading Korean auteurs, elevates the material with his subtle stylistic touch. It’s awfully good.
Science fiction: I saw a few very good science fiction films this year, good enough to write about here, but also notably imperfect in interesting ways. The first was Coherence (2013), a low-budget independent film by first-time director James Ward Byrkit. It’s an ensemble film that takes place entirely at an evening dinner party among friends, during the course of which strange events begin to occur in the neighbourhood (the nature of which, for fear of giving too much away, I shall not reveal). The film works quite well on its own terms — the largely improvised dialogue is lively, the sense of atmosphere is warm and charming, and the bizarre phenomena that slowly unfold are fascinating — but unfortunately the film tries to connect these mysteries to real science, most notably to quantum mechanics. It can’t be done convincingly, and the script falters in consequence. But if you can overlook that bit of flummery, it’s a cracking good puzzle picture.
Ex Machina is also a directorial debut, this time from Alex Garland (previously known to me as the screenwriter of Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite sci-fi films of the decade). The film introduces us to the efforts of an eccentric genius (a superb Oscar Isaac) to build an android intelligent enough to pass the Turing Test. He invites a bright young student (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to help evaluate the robot’s performance, and the film follows the Test as it unfolds over a number of sessions. There are many things to like about Ex Machina: the android, played by Alicia Vikander, is a triumphant blend of strong acting and subtle special effects; the house in which the film takes place is used effectively to heighten tension; the screenplay has a lot on its mind and grows increasingly tense and troubled; and it has an ending that, although I didn’t particularly like it, is interesting enough to argue about. But like many popular accounts of AI the film is confused about the distinction between intelligence and consciousness, and about the meaning of the Turing Test. At least, it seems to be. There remains a tantalizing possibility that the filmmakers intend us to see that confusion as another element obscuring the characters’ view of their own situation. But that might be granting the filmmakers the benefit of too much doubt. Mixed feelings, then, but I liked it enough to consider seeing it again some day. Not recommended to those who dislike android nudity, of which there is an abundance.
War: I don’t know if it’s quite right to describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a war, but that is the setting for ’71, an excellent little film from 2014. It follows a British soldier through one harrowing night after he is accidentally abandoned by his unit in a volatile neighbourhood of Belfast. I particularly admire the film for a scene early on in which the soldier and his unit confront a crowd of angry protestors in the street. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that better conveys how frightening such a situation can be, how chaotic, and how quickly it can explode into violence. Once he is stranded, the film becomes a survival tale as he tries to make his way back to safety. It’s full of twists and turns, some of them harder to follow than others — the political alliances are convoluted, and the presence of undercover agents doesn’t help the clarity — but the film is tightly written and quite engaging.
Documentary: I’d like to heartily recommend the odd but fascinating Tim’s Vermeer (2013). Tim is Tim Jenison, a tech wizard with a bountiful fortune, time on his hands, and a love for the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer’s photorealistic paintings have dazzled viewers for centuries, and Jenison, an expert in lighting and optics, simply could not understand how he accomplished it. So he set out to paint one himself, and the film tells the story of how he did so. In the process, he uses an optical technique that he argues, quite convincingly in my opinion, was used by Vermeer in order to achieve the fine gradations of light and colour that characterize his work. If Jenison is correct, it casts Vermeer’s technical virtuosity in a rather new, less impressive, light, though of course it takes nothing away from his sense of composition and his craftsmanship. All in all, it’s a lovely little documentary, highly recommended.
Most worthy of a shoe thrown at the screen as the credits rolled: Les Diaboliques (1955).
Other films I would recommend if I hadn’t already gone on too long: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Cat People (1942), Late Spring (1949), Wild Strawberries (1957), Le Samouraï (1967), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Upstream Color (2013), Interstellar (2014).
Films I saw but don’t remember seeing: Trouble in Paradise (1932), L’Atalante (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), The Red Shoes (1948), Chungking Express (1994), Talk to Her (2002), A Most Violent Year (2014).
- Roger Scruton has had his ups and downs, but has learned something along the way, about love, about parenting, about education, and many other things that are part of becoming a family. This old essay is well worth reading:
What we have discovered through marriage is not the first love that induced it but the second love that follows, as the vow weaves life and life together. Western romanticism has fostered the illusion that first love is the truest love, and what need has first love of marriage? But an older and wiser tradition recognizes that the best of love comes after marriage, not before.
- The Academy Awards came and went. I note that Ida, one of my favourite films from last year, won in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Well done, Academy.
- That film about Alan Turing was nominated for Best Picture, and lost. In much the same spirit, Ed Feser took a close look at the Turing Test and gave it a failing grade.
- I did not see any of the films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, but, just based on the trailer, I’m pretty sure I know which should have won. Check this out:
It’s the moment some have been waiting for: Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, had its premiere this weekend at the Berlin Film Festival. Here is the trailer:
Reactions to the film have started to come in from critics, and Jeffrey Overstreet is doing a good service by collecting and excerpting them. So far the reviews have been all over the map, from
With vacant eyes and mouth agape, man continues his seemingly irrevocable fall from innocence, in Terrence Malick’s eternally juvenile seventh feature Knight of Cups. (Michael Pattison)
The most anticipated film of Berlinale 2015 looks set to be the best one. It’s hard to imagine equivalent notes of grace and meaning being struck in this competition or indeed in this world. (Sophie Monks Kaufman)
I’m not all that surprised. Malick is such an unusual filmmaker — both technically and thematically — that not everyone appreciates him. This was even true of his greatest masterpiece (to date), The Tree of Life, which I know some people, unaccountably, judge to be something less than the greatest film ever made.
I don’t know when the rest of us will get to see Knight of Cups, but I’m hoping that it will be sometime this year. So far as I know there’s no distribution deal yet. In the meantime, we can watch the trailer again.
Speaking of Malick and knights: did you know that some years ago he was tossing around the idea of doing a film of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Can you imagine! Apparently the project has now gone cold. I do believe I’m going to be sad for the rest of the day.
This year I continued my efforts to acquaint myself with reputed cinematic masterpieces, giving relatively short shrift to recent films. I would like to share a few words about some of the films I encountered.
The best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Since this was also the best film I saw last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, I will not dwell on the point. Something I noticed on this most recent viewing was that the mother (played so wonderfully by Jessica Chastain) was so very lonely. That her loneliness did not mar her inner beauty, but perhaps even softened her heart and made her more receptive to goodness, is a possibility that I think will enter into my meditations on this bountiful film when I next have the joy of seeing it again.
My runner-up film is another re-visit: P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). It is a film that I am careful about recommending — it really is saturated with obscenities of every variety, and I understand why some might very reasonably want nothing to do with it — but there is no denying that it is masterful film-making. It is sometimes said that one cannot understand grace and goodness without first understanding sin and wickedness, and if there were ever a film to illustrate the point it is Magnolia, a film in which sin abounds, but grace abounds all the more. I know that there are those who consider P.T. Anderson to be the greatest director currently working, and that his reputation has only increased on the strength of the films he has made since Magnolia, but for me those later films are too controlled, too precise, and, in a way, too cold; I like the risks he takes with Magnolia, I like the messiness of it, its raucous energy, and its sincerity of heart.
Moving on now to films I saw for the first time this year:
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.
People who know more about film history than I do have compared Ida to Bresson’s work, but I can’t comment further on that. I can say that Ida is one of the most visually stunning films that I have seen in years; I paused it numerous times just to appreciate the loveliness of individual frames. The director, Paweł Pawlikowski, also made an unusual, but clearly deliberate, choice to frame his shots such that the action occupied only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a very good film.
Beyond the Hills
(Cristian Mungiu, 2012)
Last year I praised Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in my end of year summation, and this year I had the opportunity to see this, his most recent film, which is almost as good.
The film takes place in a Romanian convent. A young novice’s friend comes to visit for an extended period, and the nuns begin to believe that she is possessed by a devil. For all of its formal and dramatic restraint, it is a harrowing film that explores the perils of a marriage of imprudence and authority in a small, tightly-knit community.
It would have been easy for Mungiu to play to the prejudices of his audience. Instead, he tacks against them, immersing us in the lives and world of these nuns so thoroughly that their motives and actions appear to us as they appeared to themselves: sensible and natural, given their understanding of the situation. Their sincerity and goodwill are never in doubt, even as their actions careen into recklessness. Indeed, Mungiu is so even-handed in his treatment that (with an important exception, described below) the film leaves open the possibility that the priest and nuns acted well, that the woman was in fact possessed — indeed, this might be the most fascinating thing about the film. I appreciated the unsensational and sympathetic portrayal of religious devotion in the central character, which served as an effective counterweight to the portrayal of tragically misguided zeal in the others.
As a bonus, Mungiu is teaching me to appreciate the art of direction. Each scene in this film is shot in a single take, and the compositions are superbly well considered: the placement of characters, the timings of their entrances and exits, the use of foreground and background, motion and stillness. It is intensely interesting to watch. His films are good examples of “art concealing art”.
As was the case in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Mungiu allows himself to comment on the actions of his characters in the very last shot of the film. He passes judgment, and (here as before) he condemns. The manner in which he does this is wonderfully judged: a consummately cinematic moment.
While we’re on the subject of priests, nuns, convents, and the like, let me briefly mention a few other excellent films I saw this year in which religious figures had a prominent role. I re-watched Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); I had first seen it about ten years ago and it had not clicked; this time it did. The face of Maria Falconetti has been haunting me for months. Two films by Roberto Rossellini impressed me: in Rome, Open City (1945) a priest who is helping the resistance against the Nazi occupation is an inspiring example of courage and grace in the face of danger, and his The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) gives an understated but winsome portrayal of the early adventures of St. Francis and his brothers. I also liked Calvary (2014), a film from director John Michael McDonagh in which a priest of a rural Irish parish faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout from the sexual abuse crisis that has so crippled the Irish church. The film is perhaps a little too schematic, too neatly structured, but it is remarkable for its portrayal of a priest who is a good and faithful shepherd struggling to find ways to heal the wounds of his flock.
A few others:
After a ho-hum response to his more famous films (Seven Samurai and Rashomon) I finally hit Kurosawa paydirt with Ikiru (1952), a moving story about a staid Japanese bureaucrat whose complacency is upset by a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Trying and failing to give his life meaning by pursuing various pleasures, he finally resolves to devote himself to doing good. A more conventional film might end there, but Kurosawa devotes the last third of the film to a kind of conference of fools, in which the man’s colleagues debate his character and his final actions. Equal parts Pilgrim’s Progress and Twelve Angry Men, I found it really engrossing.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a dramatization, filmed to have the look and feel of a documentary, about the Algerian fight for independence from the French in the 1950s. It is short on character, dialogue, and so on, but it is fascinating as a study of the logic of terrorism and the process of political revolution. Another “process” film that I enjoyed was The Hole (1960), about a group of French inmates attempting a prison break. Again, the film is not really about the characters, their lives or their reasons for taking the risk (although there is a bit of that), but about how they go about it: the digging, chipping of stone, sawing of bars, and so forth. It’s more exciting than you might think.
To call Museum Hours (2012) modest and quiet might be to risk overstatement: it is as unspectacular as they come. But at its heart — and it does have a heart, however measured its beating — it wants to propose a simple question: what if we gave to the everyday world around us the focused attention and regard that we give to the paintings that hang in a gallery? What if we saw meaning and significance, humour and beauty, in the sight of young people sitting together on a bench, or an old woman slowly teetering up a lane? It makes its point through close observation of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel paintings that reside in the Viennese gallery where much of the film takes place, and as such would make a brilliant double-bill with The Mill and the Cross.
My favourite comedy of the year was Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), about a genial and enterprising Englishman who promotes his chances of inheriting a dukedom by systematically murdering everyone else in the line of succession. It sounds macabre, and it is, but delightfully so.
Animated: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), a touching story about two young Japanese students who discover one another and then find that their histories intertwine in ways they never expected, was the best animated film I saw this year. I’d not seen this sort of naturalistic animation, suitable more for teenagers and adults than young children, from Studio Ghibli before, and I really enjoyed it. It is a gentle film, thoughful and detailed. I want to praise it principally for its portrayal of the young, tentative romance that springs up between Umi and Shun. It is rare — very rare, I dare say — to find a film that treats that first blush of wonder with more honour and appreciation than this film does. Their young love is quiet and dignified, yet bright and full of hope, in a way that our culture — Hollywood culture, anyway — seems to have lost the capacity to express. When my daughter is 12 years old, this film is going to be slyly placed in her path.
Science fiction: Primer (2004) is an intriguing and confounding little film about two engineers who make an amazing discovery. It is more concerned with how its characters respond to their situation, and how it affects their relationship, than with gee-whizzery — though it must be said that it is one of those rare science fiction films that at least tries to couch its bluff in something intelligible. It becomes increasingly difficult to follow as it proceeds, and I confess that at film’s end I am at some loss to say what happened. But I don’t really mind: time travel is intrinsically confusing. I have the feeling that if I see it again my admiration may increase. According to Wikipedia the film’s budget was just $7000.
Blockbusters: I did not see many of the big blockbusters from this year, but I did see a few. The best of them was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly affecting drama in which awe-inspiring special effects are placed entirely as the service of the storytelling. It’s a far better film that we had any right to expect. And the same could be said of Aronofsky’s Noah, which somehow managed to be compellingly dramatic, engage seriously with the source material, and also preserve the art-house reputation Aronofsky has been building all these years. (And I loved the rock monsters.) Finally, I’ll give an approving nod to Edge of Tomorrow, an indifferently titled but rather funny and fun alien invasion spectacle. It riffs on Groundhog Day without any of the profundity of Groundhog Day, but sometimes it is entertainment enough just to watch someone stuck in a time loop.
Others I enjoyed: Sunrise (1927), Paths of Glory (1957), Blood Simple (1984), In the Mood for Love (2000), The Act of Killing (2012), Night Moves (2013), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Films I most disliked: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Favourite moment: When the young and unknown Bob Dylan took the stage in the fading final moments of Inside Llewyn Davis.
The folks at Image Journal (a fairly high-brow arts journal informed by Christian faith) have put together a list of what they are calling the ‘Top 25 Divine Comedies’ — a list of films broadly comic yet concerned, in one way or another, with “questions of ultimate import”. The list is here, and some introductory comments (with a remarkably Chestertonian flavour) can be found here.
The first thing I notice, with some gratification, is that my all-time favourite comedy sits atop their list. Clearly they are on to something. I am also surprised to find that I have seen nearly three-quarters of the films they selected. That doesn’t usually happen with me. I suppose it must just be my superb comic instincts.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
Good commentary on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life from Roy Anker of Calvin College:
This hardly plumbs the depth of this inexhaustible film, but it does make some astute observations about it. The emphasis on “glory” and “shining”, which were also elements of Malick’s earlier films The Thin Red Line and The New World, is spot on. I also like the way he connects the structure of the film to the prologue of St. John’s Gospel.
What a film! Truly.