Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

Around and about

February 4, 2020
  • Roger Scruton passed away this month at the age of 75. Numerous tributes have been published, notable among them being Roger Kimball’s thoughtful appreciation at The New Criterion, Douglas Murray’s at The Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple’s at City Journal, and Edward Feser’s at his blog. I admired him, and am surprised to find that I’ve written about only one of his books in this space: Culture Counts.
  • Tom Stoppard gives a rare interview in anticipation of the premiere of a new play, Leopoldstadt.
  • It’s not often that I find myself onside with Philip Pullman, but I am in this case: the Brexit coin ought to have an Oxford comma.
  • At the American Scholar, Sudip Bose writes about Henry Purcell’s multiple musical settings of “If music be the food of love”.
  • Alex Ross commemorates the 50th anniversary of ECM Records, the coolest record label in the world. ECM has for decades made some of the best records of Arvo Pärt’s music; here is a good account of how those legendary recordings came about.
  • At Vulture, a good story about Terrence Malick’s process in making A Hidden Life.

For an envoi, let’s hear one of Purcell’s settings of “If music be the food of love”. This is Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley:

A decade of films for Catholics

January 25, 2020

It’s the end of the 2010s, and film buffs the world over are compiling lists of “Best Films of the Decade”. I’m making my own, in fact, but I’ve a number of films still to see before I’m ready to post it here.

In the meantime I’d like to write about the ten films from 2010-2019 that meant the most to me as a Catholic. These are not “Catholic films” in a straightforward sense, but rather “films that could be reasonably thought to be of special interest to Catholics”, or something along those lines, whether because of their themes or subject matter or setting or characters or whatever. Some are focused specifically on Catholicism, some are about Christianity more generally, and some are of wider scope. A few are off the beaten track. Some are about clergy and religious, some not. Some were made by Catholics, some not. Three were made by Terrence Malick, who is not a Catholic, but who is the preeminent Christian filmmaker working today. Few would be appropriate for a parish movie night, but all, I think, are very good films.

By way of prelude, let me run through some candidate films that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my list.

Regrets

These may have had an outside chance of making the list if I’d seen them:

We Have a Pope (2011); The Letters (2015); The Young Messiah (2016); Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017); Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (2018); The Apparition (2018); By the Grace of God (2019); The Two Popes (2019); Corpus Christi (2019).

Worst Catholic film of the decade:

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017) — A prog-rock musical in which Joan alternates between mumbo-jumbo theological speculations and vigorous head-banging in wilderness landscapes. If that sounds bizarrely intriguing, you’ve fallen into the selfsame trap that I did. It is a truly horrendous film, almost unendurable, with absurd choreography and terrible (emphasis on terrible) music, but so committed to its freaky premise that it merits wary acknowledgement. Watch the trailer if you dare!

Honourable mentions: films worth seeing

The Keepers (2017): A Netflix documentary about an investigation into the 1960’s murder of a Baltimore nun that uncovers long-concealed evidence of a predator priest; a good case study in how the establishment — police, lawyers, and the Church — obstructed rather than promoted justice for the victims.

The Way (2010): Martin Sheen walks the Camino!

Lady Bird (2017): Most everybody loved this film; I liked it alright. Lady Bird has a complicated relationship to her Catholic faith, but it means something to her, even if she can’t quite articulate it. A plausible portrait of how many half-lapsed Catholics experience the faith.

The Innocents (2016):  Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies are cleaning up and the Soviets are moving in, the film centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who have suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them. A compelling story about how good can come from terrible evil.

Runners-up: films hard to exclude from the Top 10

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019): A stately, melancholic mobster picture that reckons, as Scorsese’s films have not always done, with the toll evil takes on the soul. Of interest to Catholics, I think, specifically for the final act, in which the Church, a loving mother, tries to coax a heart of flesh from a heart of stone.

***

Le Fils de Joseph (Eugène Green, 2016): A weird and winsome tale about a young man in modern France who finds his life bursting with Biblical motifs at every turn; very funny and quite possibly seriously mystical. There’s nothing quite like it; one scene, in particular, rends the veil.

***

Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015): A film I love on many grounds, I include it here not because it’s especially theological — it is not — but because it gives us an attractive portrait of Irish Catholic parish life in New York in the 1950s, a world that has almost completely vanished in the meantime.

***

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012): Presenting us with two contrasting visions of love, one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast, Malick invites us to consider which is more attractive, more fruitful, and more likely to bring happiness. Though not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work — it is elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — it is an incredibly beautiful film that is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”.

*****

And now, without further ado, my top ten:

10. Silence
(Martin Scorsese, 2016)

An agonizing and vexing film that nonetheless deserves to be in a conversation about great religious films, Scorsese’s long-meditated adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century Japan, where they are tasked with confirming or refuting rumours that one of their Jesuit brothers has apostatized. Captured by the violently anti-Christian and anti-European political powers, the two undergo horrendous suffering alongside the Christians they are trying to serve. It’s a film about faith under terrible strain, about the heroic sacrifices made by Christian missionaries, about what we owe to God, about living with doubt, and about how we discern God’s presence, or absence. As with the book, most of the vexation is packed into a climactic scene that nearly but, arguably, not quite ruins the whole thing.

***

9. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017)

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism (Transcendental Style in Film). These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in this film in which a middle-aged clergyman, Reverend Toller, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own salary, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

While it’s not a specifically Catholic film — all the Christians on screen are Protestants of one kind or another — I suppose it’s on this list just because it’s too well-made to pass over in silence, and its concerns about the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith, or the hazardous byways we can be tempted down in our search for meaning in life, are of wide application. Schrader has described the film as a tribute to his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers, but still very much worth seeing.

***

8. Kreuzweg 
(Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)

Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Brüggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and in that ‘almost’ lies at least a few cinematic delights.

The film wrestles with the hazards encountered by any group that struggles to retain its own nature and culture in the midst of a hostile, or even merely different, culture. The issue is not about whether these Catholics are right to resist the larger culture — this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be: fraught with loneliness and isolation, and beset by risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s an austere but potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. Of all the films on this list, this is the one most open to an anti-Catholic interpretation, but my view is that it doesn’t force us into that corner. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

7. Ida
(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.

The film has been gorgeously shot in black and white, and the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, frames his shots such that the action usually occupies only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above, as though there were figures hovering there whom we were just too dull to perceive. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a beautiful, quiet, and tender picture. It won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars in 2015.

***

6. Calvary
(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Another film that contends with the plague of sexual abuse in the Church, Calvary introduces us to a priest in a rural Irish parish who faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout of the sins of his brother priests. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the priest — a man of substance, feeling, intelligence, experience, and genuine faith — and the theological aspects of the film are richly developed as, over the course of one week, Gleeson’s priest relives, in his own life, the Passion of Christ. Were St Paul a film reviewer, he might describe it as a portrait of a Christian man, under extraordinary circumstances, being conformed to the image of Christ. Lavishly vulgar and unflinchingly violent, it could nonetheless be defensible Holy Week viewing.

***

5. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015)

A high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor, Knight of Cups follows Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

It’s one of Malick’s most difficult films, stylistically. There is little dialogue, intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, multi-layered sound, and discontinuous editing. Images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is difficult to discern; we experience it “under the similitude of a dream”.  And it is gorgeous to look at.

Malick aimed, I think, to capture that universal sense that we are summoned to something higher, that in this world, beautiful as it is, we are exiled from our true native land. To a significant extent he succeeded. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells.

***

4. A Religiosa Portuguesa
(Eugène Green, 2009)

St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. The risk is that we can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine.

Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but at night she is drawn to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” and how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour, and the frank religiosity of much of the film, which might be too on-the-nose from a more conventional filmmaker, is rendered strange by Green’s suite of distinctive directorial tics such that it slips past our defences.

I have cheated slightly; the film was originally released in 2009, but did not premiere in North America until 2010.

***

3. Of Gods and Men
(Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Based on the true story of nine Cistercian monks who were caught in the crosshairs of Algerian jihadists in the mid-1990s, this is a moving portrait of true Christian martyrdom, which makes such a striking contrast with what is called martyrdom by jihadists. The film focuses on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country as the violence around them increases, and the screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Few and far between are films in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story. Considered specifically cinematically, this is perhaps leaning to the pedestrian side, but it is a film of high moral beauty. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.

***

2. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019)

Another true tale of martyrdom, and even more intense than the last. Malick sweeps us into the world of St Radegund, a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Fani, are raising their young family, safe, they hope, from the infernal terror raging below. But it is not to be: in time the tentacles of the state snake up into St Radegund and Franz, like everyone else in the village, is made to decide and declare his allegiances.

I cannot think of another film that plays out so decisively against the horizon of the good — here is a man facing a specifically moral decision, and the course he chooses has no advantages to recommend it apart from the transcendental one: it is good. Franz must be incomprehensible to those who believe goodness is something subjective or conventional or confined to a world of immanence (and so it has proved). It is, despite its earthy textures and grounded characters, a film of the spirit that sees people — by implication, you and me — as spiritual beings governed by laws higher than those of nature or state. It is a grand cinematic exhortation.

What most surprised me about A Hidden Life was its emotional power. We expect Malick’s films to be overwhelmingly beautiful marriages of sight and sound — and that holds true here — but at the heart of this film is another marriage, Franz and Fani’s marriage, that is so richly developed that it gives this film a warm, beating heart Malick’s films have not always had. I think of the moment when Fani realizes that Franz has not just been expressing reservations, but intends to allow himself to be swallowed by the evil maw snapping at them, rather than commit an injustice. We feel the agony that either destroys love or forges from it something adamantine.

By any measure a luminous achievement, I believe A Hidden Life has to be given serious consideration in the conversation about which of Malick’s films is his second best.

***

1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprises here. One need only reason out the syllogism: (A) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to human beings; (B) Catholics are human beings; and therefore (C) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to Catholics. QED.

I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, and its beauties do not fade. Its mercies are new every morning. Certain images illuminate my imagination: a mother kissing her sleeping child, a stained-glass Christ, a dance in the air, a child swimming toward the light, a field of sunflowers, a little foot cupped by a father’s hands. Malick’s deep dive into memory has left its mark on me — or in me.

It is not possible to say in short compass just what The Tree of Life is doing — I have written about the film at greater length here and here — but I treasure it, in part, for realizing on screen the secret inner life in which a boy awakens to the world and plunges into mystery, a mystery inhabited by a hidden but alluring God. It is a work of wonder.

***

I’d be happy to hear about good films that I ought to have considered, or to hear reasons why I ought not to have bestowed my praise as I have.

Here and there

May 23, 2019

First, some film notes:

  • Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, A Hidden Life, premiered this week at Cannes, and the critics seemed to like it, calling it his best since The Tree of Life and, perhaps on account of its World War II setting, something of a partner to The Thin Red Line, all of which is wonderfully good news. It’s the film I’ve been most anticipating this year, though whether I’ll actually get to see it this year is another matter.
  • Deal Hudson praises First Reformed, while sketching out its relationship to the so-called transcendental style of film-making.
  • Another good film from last year was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ross Douthat argues that it’s “a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism” — which, if it wasn’t clear, he sees as a good thing. It’s a thoughtful take on the film.
  • There is a documentary from a few years ago — it never found a distributor, which tells you something — called An Open Secret which argues that the grooming system for child actors in Hollywood includes networks of sexual abuse and exploitation. The highest ranking Hollywood brass named in that film was Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films. A few months ago The Atlantic ran a good piece in which his accusers told their stories.

Then, some book notes:

  • Will Lloyd laments the rise of politicized books for children.
  • It’s my favourite colour and yours, and now Michel Pastoureau has written a book about it. The book was in our home, courtesy the public library, where, alas, it sat in a place of honour for some weeks before being returned, unread. But I would like to read it, and in the meantime Jesse Russell has written an appreciative review.
  • James Panero writes perceptively about the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (which I read a few years ago around about All Hallows Eve).
  • Finally, I have to recommend Michael Weingrad’s superbly barbed exploration of Harold Bloom’s life-long antagonism toward the Inklings, and especially toward C.S. Lewis.

For an envoi, let’s watch Buster Scruggs’ death scene, featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “Spurs for Wings”:

Favourites in 2018: Film

January 7, 2019

I had a rewarding year watching movies in 2018, somehow managing to cram quite a few into the nooks and crannies of my works and days. For this year-end list I’ve chosen ten of my favourites. Since they all have something to recommend them, I have not ranked them, but simply listed them in alphabetical order.

***

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism in Transcendental Style in Film. These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in First Reformed (2017), which he both wrote and directed. A middle-aged clergyman, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own income, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

Schrader has said that the film is his tribute to a number of his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It is a beautifully filmed and carefully put together picture. Like Taxi Driver, it takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers; I was very nearly among them. But on reflection I lean toward admiration of the film’s boldness. Even if it is not believable as a realistic story, it works as a fable, and that fable is about — what? Maybe simply the hazards of our need for meaning; or the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith; or, though it seems a cliché, the power of love to overcome violence and despair. It’s a complex, artfully constructed film, very much worth seeing.

*

The first and maybe best reason to see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is that no other film shows Rome to better effect. To see the city filmed with such sumptuous beauty — and magically empty of tourists! — was a glorious consolation to me.

And that might well be the only consolation on offer. Jep — Jeppino, as he is once called, and fittingly — is a Roman socialite, one-time novelist, living off the fumes of his literary reputation and enjoying his posh creature comforts. Having reached his 65th birthday, he begins to take stock of himself, and, rightly, finds himself wanting. The film alternates between bacchanales and quiet, ruminative moments as Jep ponders how his life, and he himself, might acquire more weight and substance. He considers a variety of remedies: popularity, artistic creation, religion, sex, love. All, with the possible exception of some combination of the latter two, the film rejects with greater or lesser degrees of smugness. It is, in this sense, a spiritually dark film, blind to certain possibilities. An instinctive cynicism, which reveals itself most clearly in the film’s gorgeous opening sequence, is its chief defect.

Jep says he is lost because he was looking for the great beauty, but never found it. But were you really, Jep? Be honest.

Despite my misgivings, it is a film that grapples with a serious matter — the search for meaning in a world bereft of transcendence — and for this I honour it. That is seems to have nothing to say in the end is, first, honest, for there is no good answer given those premises, and, second, belied by the manner in which it is presented: saturated with a beauty that just might undermine the complacent immanence of Jep’s world. The film may be wiser than it seems at first blush.

*

At the beginning of Loveless (2017) a young boy goes missing; he is an only child, and his parents are in the throes of a separation. The police are called; search parties are formed; the boy must be found.

Except that the film cannot keep its mind on the plot. Instead it lures us into the self-involved, oh-so-understandable troubles of the boy’s parents, adults who have things on their minds, new lovers, and what they would no doubt call emotional needs.  They are petty and selfish, and we, to the extent that we are drawn into their concerns, are subject to the same damning criticism. Not often have I felt so strongly that a film, as I watched it, was watching me with an unsparing eye.

There is wonderful art here: patient direction, fantastic lighting and cinematography, creative use of the camera. Like the director’s previous film, Leviathan, it moves slowly but surely. What I appreciated most was its withering, steely-eyed interrogation of that mother and that father. Here, friends, is a film about divorce that is cold as ice and entertains no excuses.

*

Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’, is a closely observed study of the gap between ideals and actions, and of the difficulty of knowing the heart, whether our own or another’s. We follow Jean-Louis — a thirty-something man, articulate, somewhat lonely, a committed Catholic — who is invited by a friend to the home of Maud, a beautiful young divorcée. When the friend departs, Jean-Louis is left alone with Maud, and a long conversation, like a dance, begins, as she gently but persistently probes his integrity, and he, more brusquely and instinctively, hers.

Their encounter works on a metaphorical level — this was 1969, after all, and in that room we see the sexual revolution coming up against the Catholic order of marriage and sexuality, which, if nothing else, makes the film a fascinating cultural artifact — but it also works, and works quite beautifully, on a personal level, as a tale about two people who, though very different, find one another strangely fascinating. The film has a second act in which Jean-Louis falls in love with a Catholic woman; this section reconnects with the first in some surprising ways that reinterpret what we have seen before while reiterating and deepening the film’s main concerns. Altogether an excellent film.

*

I haven’t seen many film noir on par with Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum plays a man trying to start again, but his past life of crime will not let him be, and he is forced back into that world in a final effort to escape. Mitchum is weary, imperturbable, and sometimes inscrutable, such that when the plot warms up we cannot be entirely sure his crossings are not double-crossings. Much the same could be said of the excellent femme fatale character, played by Jane Greer. It’s a film in which the men are as tough as you’d expect, the women are as beautiful as you’d hope, but people aren’t always who and what they seem to be.

Dialogue in film noir is often darkly witty, but I can’t think of a single film that surpasses this one in that respect. (Roger Ebert’s review gives some examples, and they could be multiplied.) The director is Jacques Tourneur, who also made Cat People, a superior film of the creepy sort. In any case, with an abundance of trench-coats and cigarettes, and style to burn, Out of the Past is highly recommendable.

*

In the contest for least-inspired movie title, one could hardly do better, or rather worse, than Personal Shopper (2016), but that blandness is a disservice to an involving film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. The film is centred on Maureen, an American living in Paris, who is mourning the recent death of her brother, and, more than just mourning, is waiting for him to send her a sign from beyond the grave. He had been a medium of some talent, and Maureen believes that she has this gift too. And she does have experiences that could be, perhaps, signs, but are hard to interpret. The film gradually — too gradually for some, perhaps — builds toward a crisis in which something very dramatic occurs, although just what is hard to say. Like those messages Maureen seeks, the film, too, is hard to interpret.

I watched Personal Shopper twice this year, separated by several months, because I wanted to give my first enthusiasm for it a chance to wane before another sober viewing. On second acquaintance I am less convinced it holds together. Most vexing is that there does not seem to be any one interpretation of the film’s final half-hour that makes sense of all we are shown. Nonetheless, the film’s quiet exploration of desire and loneliness, underpinned by an excellent low-key performance by Kristen Stewart in the lead role, coupled with intriguing plot developments that had me watching and re-watching certain scenes with great attention, made it for me one of the more fascinating film experiences of the year.

*

It has been a decade since a Paul Thomas Anderson film won my admiration, but Phantom Thread (2017) did the trick. Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. Within that graceful framework, however, he has given us a pretty bizarre tale.

The story is that of an artist — Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer in London in the 1950s — and his muse, Alma, a younger woman whom he meets when she waits on his table one morning in a hotel. Reynolds has been through this before, typically retaining his young women until their value as a muse wears off. But Alma is different; initially overwhelmed by the glamour of the life into which she has been spirited, she cannily finds a way to make a place for herself. The film is very much a study of the complicated relationship that develops between these two.

Thus far the story sounds like one we’ve heard before, more or less, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. Anderson has prepared the ground quite carefully, but subtly enough that I missed it on first viewing. As the film drew to a close I actually began to wonder — if you know PTA’s other films — whether Alma was going to drink a milkshake.

If the terminus of the story arc sits rather uncomfortably on my mind, the rest of Phantom Thread is of the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft. Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave one of the greatest film performances known to me in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, gives a very different but, I am tempted to say, comparably impressive performance as Woodcock, a man of fastidious habits and sensitive temper into whom Day-Lewis disappears. That Vicky Krieps, as Alma, can hold the screen with him is high praise. There is a delightful vein of understated humour running through the film that adds sparkle, and everything about the production and direction is the work of a master.

*

I saw two good films this year with titles beginning A Quiet P. One was the thrilling blockbuster sci-fi alien invasion disability farm family pregnancy drama A Quiet Place, which caused me to carefully check all the staircases in my house for a particular hazard. The other was A Quiet Passion (2016), about an unlikely cinematic subject: Emily Dickinson.

To make a film on the life of a poet seems a daunting challenge; the cinematic potential of a woman sitting at a desk, pen in hand, are limited. But of course Emily Dickinson was a woman like other women, with a family, and views on religion and society, and the dramatic possibilities to be drawn from a network of close relationships between articulate speakers gathered in a sitting room are, as we have learned from Jane Austen, rich and delightful, and A Quiet Passion makes much of its slender material.

(Speaking of Austen, by a peculiarity of the casting — in particular, by having Jennifer Ehle play the handsome second sister — I was continually tempted to conflate this story with the famous Pride and Prejudice adaptation! In this parallel universe, our poet appears in the role of Jane, the slightly homely, taller, thinner sister who has a harder time in social circles. Never had I suspected that Jane was a poet! Sadly Mr Darcy makes no appearance, having drowned, perhaps, in the pond.)

The oddest thing about A Quiet Passion is the dialogue. In the first half or two-thirds, dialogue consisted largely of aphorisms, as though everybody was choosing lines from an Oscar Wilde anthology. Quite stagey. Strangely, this effect seemed to dwindle as the film progressed.

As much as I enjoyed the story, and I did, for me the principal attraction of this film was the direction. It is my first Terence Davies film, and I am now very interested in seeing others. The direction is careful, with slow pans and beautiful compositions, and transitions are managed elegantly. I had the impression that Davies is a superb craftsman.

*

Every year since 2011 I have named Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) as my favourite film of the year. (Readers interested in why I love it might read this.) This year I watched it again, of course, but with a difference: a new, extended version of the film was released. The extended version adds about 45 minutes to the original 140 minutes, so it is a substantial augmentation.

Most sections of the film have been altered to some extent, sometimes just by brief insert shots. The most substantial changes are twofold: first, to the scenes with the adult Jack (Sean Penn), which are fleshed out and expanded from the modest material in the original version, and, second, to the long central section of the film devoted to life in the O’Brien’s household. To this section, which has always been the heart of the film, new story elements are introduced, including a dramatic storm sequence, and a new and quite upsetting plot development. The overall effect is to enrich the portrait of this family, deepening our appreciation of them. By giving this (fairly) traditionally narrative section of the film more weight, the new film has its feet planted more firmly on the ground than did the earlier, more enigmatic version. Something is gained, but also lost. And the new version clocks in at more than three hours; I don’t know how it is where you live, but for me it is hard to find three uninterrupted hours to do anything.

So, in the end, I’m not sure which version I prefer. My resolution, for future viewings, is to alternate until such time as one version wins my heart. In the meantime, The Tree of Life, Extended Version was my favourite film of the year.

*

The joys and pitfalls of young love are the theme of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Shot in retro black and white, it tells the story of two young French lovers whose romance is interrupted by war but nonetheless continues to overshadow their lives. It is a beautiful but bittersweet film that just might break your heart in the end. Part of its beauty is its special conceit: it is entirely sung. There are no ‘big numbers’, just a steady stream of through-composed music that floats the film from its first scene to its last, with the singing a kind of heightened speech. Be careful, though: your jazz allergy may act up.

**

I have listed ten films. Most were easy to choose; a few were difficult on account of competition from other good films. Those that missed my list this year, and might have made it were my mood swings more erratic, were The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), La Fille inconnue (2016), Paper Moon (1973), and Top Hat (1935).

***

Best superhero film: Wonder Woman (2017), the greatest wonder of which was that it included a battle between two invincible characters that was not dull as dirt.

Best action film: American Made (2017), if it is properly called an action film.

Best musical: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Best animated: The Hobbit (1977), a weirdly folkadelic take on Tolkien’s tale that nonetheless managed to capture some of the childlike spirit of the book.

Best filmed stage performance: Romeo and Juliet, from the Globe Theatre; the best production of this play that I have seen, for stage or screen.

Started, but not finished: My Winnipeg (2007), in which my fledgling interest in Canadian cinema came to a sad end.

Watched, but not remembered: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); All About Eve (1950); The Assassin (2015).

Watched again: The Princess Bride (1987); When Harry Met Sally… (1989); The New World (2005).

Film rescued by a single scene: Paris, Texas (1984).

Film rescued by a single character: Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Disappointments: A Brighter Summer Day (1991), A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Shortest films: Simon of the Desert (1965) [45m]; Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) [1h10m]; Le Monde vivant (2003) [1h10m]

Longest films: A Brighter Summer Day (1991) [3h57m]; Ex Libris (2017) [3h25m]; Spartacus (1960) [3h17m].

Oldest films: The Great White Silence (1924); Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928); Pandora’s Box (1929).

Newest films: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Nov); Mission Impossible: Fallout (July); A Quiet Place (April).

 

On the silver screen

September 4, 2018

A few film-related links today:

  • Writing at The Weekly Standard, John Simon gives a primer on the films of Ingmar Bergman. I believe I’ve seen about a half-dozen of Bergman’s films, and many of those Simon recommends as good entry points are yet unseen by me. Like Bresson, I’ve found Bergman a tough nut to crack; sitting down to watch him sometimes feels too much like homework. But, as always in such cases, I willingly shoulder the blame, and I’m planning to follow-up on some of Simon’s suggestions, homework or not.
  • I have no similar difficulties with the films of the Coen Brothers, from whom the most recent news is that their forecast mini-series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has now been converted into a feature film instead. This is disappointing, as I’d been curious to see what they would do with the extra time and scope that the mini-series format would provide, but, on the other hand, a new film from the Coen Brothers could never be simply disappointing. I look forward to it.
  • I’ve also been looking forward, for over a year now, to Terrence Malick’s new film, Radegund. Rumours were circulating that it might premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but the festival’s line-up has now been announced and I am sobbing quietly, in voiceover.
  • It is also rather sad to note that I have lived in and around Toronto for almost 20 years and have never been to a single TIFF screening.
  • Also at The Weekly Standard, Tim Markatos has written a fine appreciation of Dreyer’s classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and of other cinematic treatments of St Joan’s life. I’ve actually seen quite a few of these, including Rossellini’s, Bresson’s, and Rivette’s — but I’ll not contest the critical consensus that Dreyer’s is the best.

Lecture night: mercy and Malick

April 8, 2018

John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, speaks in this lecture on mercy in Malick’s The Tree of Life. He brings that great film into conversation with Augustine’s Confessions, and illustrates the lecture with several excerpts. It’s an excellent lecture, recommended to admirers of the film.

Deeper roots of The Tree of Life

December 10, 2017

I’ve been watching my favourite film again, and I’ve discovered a worthwhile commentary on it in the form of a video essay. This format is especially well suited to a visual analysis of a film, and if there was ever a film that would benefit from a visual analysis, it is The Tree of Life. Recommended to those who’ve seen the film at least once; it’s about 20 minutes in duration.

Note that the essay relies heavily on the screenplay to draw out the film’s structure and themes, which does seem to shed some light, but is also, perhaps, misleading, for Malick generally feels free to depart from script during both filming and editing, and indeed it is obvious that he did so when making The Tree of Life. That said, and despite a few other minor missteps, I learned some valuable things from watching it.

Multi-Malick

February 17, 2017

When it rains, it pours. Earlier this week we got the first still from Terrence Malick’s forthcoming Radegund:

radegund-still

And then today the trailer for Song to Song (formerly called Weightless) was made available:

Song to Song will open the SXSW festival next month. Radegund is rumoured to have a 2017 release date as well. Come quickly.

Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

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By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

***

brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

***

My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

*

My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

***

Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

***

Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

***

The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

***

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

***

The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

***

Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

***

Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

*

In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

*

Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

***

Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

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And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!

Things blight and beautiful

September 30, 2016

A few brief noteworthy items:

  • The Tragically Hip have been on tour in Canada, a final, farewell tour that was organized after frontman Gord Downie announced that he has brain cancer. Non-Canadians probably don’t understand the place of The Hip in Canadian pop culture: a band that at least aspires to art, that has nonetheless been consistently popular here, but a band that never made it big outside our borders. I am not a huge fan, but I will be sorry to see them go, and naturally I wish Downie and his family well. That said, the laudatory coverage of this final tour in the Canadian press has been a bit hard to take at times, and I admit I was rather grateful for this high-spirited critique of their “spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification”.
  • For the opposite of blurry amplification, check out this charming video of Boris Giltburg, who found an upright piano in a train station and decided to pass the time by tinkling a few keys. (The music is the middle section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.) Isn’t music a wonderful thing? (Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
  • Speaking of beauty, an interview with Peter Kwasniewski reviews a century of Catholic teaching on sacred music and argues that the beauty of our worship should be a central concern for Catholics:

Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God.

  • A few years ago I reviewed Robert Reilly’s wonderful book Surprised by Beauty, an alternative history of twentieth-century music that focused on composers loyal to tonality and dedicated to making something beautiful. A new edition of the book, much enlarged, has just been issued, and here is a good interview about it. I hope to get this book for Christmas.
  • Terrence Malick’s new film, Voyage of Time, is set for wide release soon. I missed seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m determined to see it once it hits theatres. Early reviews have been mixed: Richard Brody at The New Yorker loved it, Ben Croll at IndieWire hated it, and I’ll just have to see it for myself. Here is the trailer:
  • The title of this post promised blight. The other day I walked past the north side of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum:royal_ontario_museum

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For an envoi today, let’s hear one of The Tragically Hip’s best songs: