I am going to pick up again right where I left off, with foreign films titled by a woman’s first name ending in “a” -- a surprisingly rich subcategory. I really liked Gloria (MC-83, NFX), both the character and the Chilean film. She’s a divorced woman of a certain age, who puts herself out there in a resilient manner, attending singles events for older people in Santiago, and flirting hopefully. Played by Paulina García, and directed by Sebastián Lelio, Gloria is funny and touching and romantic in a real-life way, without wish fulfillment. She connects with a Mr. Right who turns wrong; she gives him a second chance with discouraging results, but still winds up happy enough dancing alone. The story is slight but true, and the telling is likely to seduce you. (Again, I include links to Metacritic and Netflix listings for each film, and for 2013 films, I add rankings on FilmComment and IndieWire critic polls.)
Then there’s Yella (2007, MRQE-70, NFX), who certainly seduced me. Impressed by Barbara, I went back and looked at this earlier collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss. Petzold has a finely-tuned sense of film history as well as the divided history of postwar Germany. In this film he makes an unlikely linkage between a documentary about modern business negotiations made by his film school mentor, and Carnival of Souls, a cult horror film from 1962. Meanwhile the subtext conveys subtle clues about the lingering differences between the former East and West Germanies. Just a lot going on, in an elusive and hypnotic story. In Jerichow (2009, MC-71, NFX), the same pair take on another adaptation of the often-remade James Cain story, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and make it totally new.
This streak of similarly-titled films continues into this year with Ida (2014, MC-89, NFX), in which director Pawel Pawlikowski returns to Poland with major impact. He left at age 14, now lives in Paris and works mostly in Britain (see My Summer of Love), but embraces his heritage not just by making a film set in the Poland of his childhood, but in the style of the great films of Wajda and Polanski from that time, not to mention hints of Kieslowski and Bresson. In narrow-format black & white, he tells the story of a young novitiate, about to take her vows, who is sent by the mother superior to visit her only living relative, a complicated character played by an accomplished actress – powerful but slatternly – who has shocking news for the young nun, played by a fresh-faced non-actress. I really advise seeing this film without preconception, so I won’t say more than that the two opposites team up for a roadtrip in search of their family history. The film, in its restrained and meticulous manner, seems longer than its eighty minutes, but not in a bad way. The drama is beautifully underplayed, and every moment counts.
I’m a fan of Steve Coogan, so I was interested in his new departure with Philomena (MC-76, NFX). Judi Dench is always worth watching, and director Stephen Frears frequently so, but the resulting film was better than I expected, almost worthy of its Best Picture nomination. Coogan adapted the screenplay from a nonfiction book, and plays the journalist with wit and nuance, but without broad comedy. Dame Dench is his subject, an Irish woman who had her child taken away by the nuns from a home where she was consigned as an unwed teenager. Now she wants to find out what happened to her son, so the unlikely pair make an investigative match to discover the story, for their own respective reasons. In the quest, the odd couple also discover a bittersweet bond, and the search takes turns you don’t expect, to a sad but satisfying conclusion.
Dallas Buyers Club (MC-84, FC #48, IW #45, NFX) was also almost worthy of consideration among the best films of last year, and Matthew McConnaghey deserved Best Actor recognition, for this as well as a string of superior performances sufficient to make one forget -- and forgive -- the person behind the persona. Like the actor, this film does not ask to be liked too much. He’s a scrawny, ornery cowpoke, and drunken homophobic womanizer, who happens to have AIDS and won’t take death for a sentence. In saving himself -- through savagery and subterfuge in his battles with the medical establishment -- he saves others, including the transgendered Rayon, played memorably by Jared Leto. At least for a while some are saved, and an elemental drive for survival is celebrated. The premise seems thin and predetermined, but director Jean-Marc Vallé does a nice job of giving it dimension and surprise.
BTW, among Best Picture nominees I watched American Hustle a second time, enjoying the rom-com without having to figure out the con, and liked it even more, though not as much as Silver Linings Playbook, which I fell for completely.
Having segued seamlessly from films titled with a feminine first name to last year’s Oscar nominees, I can round things off with a simple pronoun, Her (MC-90, FC # 17, IW #4, NFX). As someone whose phone is defiantly un-smart, who relies on computer technology at least a dozen years old, I was not the ideal audience for Spike Jonze’s latest mind-bending fantasy. Another thin premise here opens out into a surprisingly full world of the near future (LA crossed with Shanghai). Joaquin Phoenix works at an internet company where he composes, prints out, and mails heartfelt “handwritten” letters for paying clients. He is an early adopter of the first cross-platform operating system with artificial intelligence. Given a choice, he asks for the system to speak as a female, and soon he is in constant confidential communication with Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice. Having met cute, they fall in love. The idea is sold better than I imagined possible, but then oversold, the movie running long and petering out. Amy Adams has to be mentioned in a small supporting role that could not have been more different from her character in American Hustle.
Jonze seems to have a thing for making beautiful women look as plain as possible, as with Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, though there he turns Catherine Keener into the hot item, rather against type. Even lacking the wild surprise of first viewing, a recent third or fourth look confirmed that film as masterly inventive, with one of John Cusack’s best performances. My impulse would be to ascribe much of the kooky charm of the film to Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay. And another look at Synecdoche, New York, which Kaufman directed as well as wrote, suggests he rather than Jonze was the heavyweight auteur behind Malkovich and Adaptation. The brilliant hall of mirrors that is Synecdoche is given a retrospective poignancy by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s lead performance. How long will we have to wait for Kaufman’s next masterwork? (BTW, I just watched another Kaufmanesque film, Stranger Than Fiction (2006, MC-67, NFX), which highlights by contrast his continuously inventive genius.)
Scarlett Johansson plays a totally different kind of seductress in Under the Skin (2014, MC-78, NFX). Here she has a body but almost no voice and virtually no affect, like a computer in sleep mode. If she seems inhuman, that’s because she is, an alien wearing human skin, luring men to a black widow-like fate. Black as the wig Scarlett wears, which makes her look startlingly like Ava Gardner. Hard to convey just how strange this movie is, and hard to recommend to viewers who aren’t ready to work at making sense of the story or experiencing very uncomfortable reactions. Jonathan Glazer’s film mixes sci-fi and horror film tropes with Glaswegian social realism, all delivered with art gallery visuals and music. Hypnotic, disturbing, weirdly beautiful, and definitely not for everyone. (P.S. Don’t make the mistake I did, and watch Glazer’s previous film -- Birth (2005, MC-50) -- on the strength of this one, unless you’re besotted by Nicole Kidman.)
Next up are a half-dozen recent foreign films that I think are worth seeing -- if you’re a viewer willing to make an effort -- starting with two by Iranians in exile. Abbas Kiarostami has become the ultimate international filmmaker. His previous film, Certified Copy, was set in Italy with French and British stars. His latest, Like Someone in Love (MC-76, FC #15, IW #22, NFX), is set in Japan with a Japanese cast, and an Ozu-like style that remains unmistakably his own. I find Kiarostami thrilling in a way that’s hard to articulate. He makes you think, to be ever seeking for his meaning, yet in a manner that instills confidence that there is meaning to be found. Take the very first shot, a wide, deep-focus set-up in a Tokyo bar, where we don’t even see the speakers of overheard dialogue, and only by paying patient attention do we have any idea who they are and what they are talking about. From there the story takes turns we can’t even guess at, just try to piece together after the event. I’ll say no more, so you can find out for yourself.
Asghar Farhadi follows up A Separation with The Past (MC-85, FC #40, IW #30, NFX), which again plunges us into a complicated domestic situation and asks us to sort out conflicting views and mixed motives. The film is intelligent and observant, but perhaps a little forced, a little overcomplicated. The setting is Paris instead of Teheran, which removes the inherent interest of seeing into an unknown world, but Bérénice Bejo has the same effect on the audience as on the men in her life, attracting and confounding. She’s called her Iranian husband back to France to finalize their divorce, so she can marry the new man whose child she’s carrying (except that he’s already married to a woman in a coma). She’s got two daughters from an earlier relationship and the new man has a young son, so there’s an excess of family drama. Still -- compelling to watch, if not in the end completely convincing.
Jia Zhangke is one of the most interesting young directors in world cinema. His latest, A Touch of Sin (MC-77, FC #5, IW #13, NFX), brings an unusual martial arts focus to his usual social (sur)realism, though each of the four interlocked stories is based on a recent Chinese news event. Beyond his typical documentary-style critique of the inequities of China’s economic boom, each of these episodes explodes in stylized violence. So it’s not one of his films that I particularly esteem, but it certainly has the hallmarks of his visual flair and seriousness of purpose.
Broken Circle Breakdown (MC-71, NFX) is an oddity that sometimes endears itself and sometimes does not. The Oscar nominee from Belgium is deep into the world of bluegrass – who knew there was a Flemish slice of Appalachia in Ghent? In a fractured time scheme, flashing back and forward, it tells of the meeting, marriage, and parenthood of a blond tattoo(ed) artist and a Kris Kristofferson type. She starts singing with his band, and the performances of songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” are very well-done, as is the sensuous love story. The turn into family melodrama (hardly a spoiler since you find out right away their young daughter has cancer) is less satisfying. Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film is not quite Once all over again, but it plays the same bittersweet tune.
As someone who has never found himself on Wes Anderson’s wavelength, I’m not the person to tell you whether you should see The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, MC-88, NFX). Many, apparently, were entertained. I watched it in a drowsy state, not giving it my usual level of attention, which may have been cause or effect of my lack of appreciation. To me, it was cute but inconsequential, a live-action cartoon. Energetic and meticulously made, yes, but to me frankly a bore.
I grant you that Ralph Fiennes was terrific in Budapest, and he is equally good as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (MC-75, NFX), directed by himself. I really liked this literate literary biography, except that it left me with the feeling that they ran out of money and abandoned the last ten pages of the script. Up to that point the film feels well-appointed, in true Victorian style. As I say, Fiennes makes a highly plausible Dickens, conveying the drama of his celebrated public readings as well as his more closed-off private persona, and Felicity Jones is effective as Nell Ternan, the young actress who becomes his long-term mistress. This film does what shocked W.H. Auden about Jane Austen, “Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’ / Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society.” Tom Hollander as Dickens’ friend Willkie Collins, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Nell’s mother round out an all-round quality production that falls just short of an outright recommendation from me.
I’m not sure whether the prolific British director Michael Winterbottom intended to jump the gun on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood but he did something like that with Everyday (MC-55, NFX), casting four real siblings and filming them intermittently over a period of five years. Their mother is played by Shirley Henderson, and their imprisoned father by John Simm. As a working single parent of four, the mother’s life is an everyday grind as she waits out her husband’s sentence. And yet there are glimmers of satisfaction, maternal and otherwise, in her troubled, relentless life. She’s hard-pressed but not crushed, surviving each day until the long-sought reunion of her family, which of course brings its own problems. Very much a kitchen-sink story, told in a documentary, caught-on-the-fly style, I found it highly watchable, like all of Winterbottom’s work. Not everybody does. Rule of thumb – if you like Wes Anderson more than Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, stay away from this.
In somewhat the same vein, I was more open than some to Run and Jump (MC-72, NFX). In Steph Green’s film, an Irish wife and mother (very winningly played by Maxine Peake, of whom I look forward to seeing more) is trying to hold her family together after her husband has a stroke and returns from the hospital a mere shadow of himself. With him comes an American neuroscientist (Will Forte) who wants to study his recovery, which is not expected to be anything like full. So besides the incapacitated husband, demanding children, and difficult in-laws, the wife has to deal with this interloper, observer, and -- you guessed it -- love interest. Steph Green is a young American woman exploring her Irish roots, and relies a bit too much on indie pop-song montages to glide over emotional transitions, but she’s still a talent to watch -- funny, sincere, and truthful.
After the break, you can read my off-hand reactions to a score of recent films, only the last of which I endorse and truly recommend.