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.