Clocking in during the final hours of the last day of the year seems appropriate to post ten of my favorite narrative features of 2015. At this belated juncture my hubris will be tempered by the fact that everyone will have had their fill of lists and I can squeak by dutifully without calling too much attention to myself. I've tried to create a list that reflects commercial achievements mingled with festival triumphs that, hopefully, can someday be seen. Listed in alphabetical order.
The Auction (Le Démantèlement / The Dismantlement, Sébastien Pilote, 2013)—Although a young filmmaker, Sébastien Pilote has an admirable sensitivity towards narrative portraiture of elderly men, demonstrated first with The Salesman (2011), and now again with The Auction (2013), which moved me to the marrow at the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival. Gaby Ganon (Gabriel Arcand) is a laconic hermitic sheepherder who runs the Bouchard & Sons family farm; a misnomer as he has no sons, just two daughters, who have both fled the farm for the city. When one of his daughters asks him for an extravagant loan to keep her city residence, Gaby has to decide whether to sell off the farm and dismantle a family business that no one wants to inherit, thereby giving up a way of life he has always known. His sacrifice is remarkable and poignant. Would this have happened if he'd had sons to take over the operation? Does it matter when a father's love is concerned?
Winner of the SACD Award for Best Screenplay at the 52nd Cannes Film Festival, The Auction offers a quiet, observant script with low-stated but heartfelt characterizations. Arcand was named best lead actor at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. The film had its North American premiere in the World Cinema sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was picked up by Film Movement for U.S. distribution, essentially on DVD and streaming platforms, including Netflix Instant Watch. I don't believe it actually achieved theatrical distribution in the U.S.—which is a shame—but, at least it's available for those desiring a keen, subtle tale. Highly recommended.
Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)—Thoroughly enjoyed Iñárritu's Birdman (2014), a welcome maturation of his consequential ensemble pieces. Michael Keaton is a sure shot for Best Actor accolades during Awards season for—as my San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Omar Moore phrased it—"playing at least three different characters", at least one of which wryly comments upon Keaton's one-off 1989 portrayal of Batman. Edward Norton and Emma Stone will follow suit with supporting nods. As a foil to Keaton's scene-stealing dominance, Norton handles his own with wit and physicality. With doe-eyed cynicism, Stone gives voice to a skeptical younger generation formed (and informed) by social media at odds with the old-fashioned integrity and artistic aspirations of Keaton, her father. And, of course, the film's technical merits will prove competitive.
Birdman's conceit of the "continuous" take tips a brim to Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and is more seamless in some transitions than others, now and again calling too much attention to itself, and relying now and again on arguably discontinuous tactics (timelapse anyone?) to achieve its conceptual flourish. Iñárritu's grasp of the insular world of backstage antics is compelling, offering the bitchy wit of the wings. My friend Mike Black—who I keep begging to write on film on The Evening Class—offered this winning observation via email: "As in All About Eve, Birdman offers up for our consideration that quaintly enduring tension between stage actors and 'movie stars,' as though it were a Marxist conflict pitting the working artist-proletariat against an economic elite, a conflict in which we all, as human beings, have a personal stake. Which may be true. In any case, despite all the artifice and whimsy, or because of it, the story ends up with a surprising poignancy that was quite satisfying." No doubt due to the script's lapidary dialogue, which is sharp as crystal at points.
Iñárritu's cinematographic tricks, the insular environment within the theater's anatomy, the choreography of his actors within the world he has staged, constitute a "spare no prisoners" mise en scène, reminiscent at times of Charlie Kaufman's exploration of the thin line between dream and waking life, shuffling realities even as imagination invents them.
In an acerbic stroke of reflexivity, I loved the scene where Keaton is bemoaning the loss of integrity in performance, railing that most audiences only want explosions—when suddenly, there are explosions, helicopters being shot out of the sky, and a robotic alien bird creature cawing over the edge of a building—and Keaton rages on that probably at that very moment the spectatorial eye is bulging with excitement and, sure enough, right there in my spectatorial seat, I felt my eyes wide-opened and bulging taking in all those delicious special effects. Busted! A brilliant moment of cinematic innervation taken to task.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)—What more is there to say about the undisputed cinematic achievement of the year? In concept, Boyhood may not be necessarily innovative—one need only recall François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle, Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, Michael Apted's Up Series, or Michael Winterbottom's Everyday (2012)—but in practice, Boyhood emerges as strategically and singularly expressive and, therein perhaps, lies the film's creative strength?
Linklater has already exhibited an incredible grasp of the elasticity of time through his narrative trilogy and character study Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), let alone his rotoscoped ruminations on same in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), but his grasp of the theme of how lives are shaped by the passage of time—his sheer genius, I have to say—has achieved a pitch of brilliance in Boyhood, which I caught in a special pre-theatrical version screened in conjunction with the San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award given Linklater at the San Francisco International Film Festival, surfacing as my favorite movie experience in recent memory. I'm grateful to have been present at that event to ask Linklater an Evening Class question.
I was outright stunned that Linklater had the creative foresight to imagine a film that would take 12 years to make (with all its attendant creative problems and solutions), chronicling the titular boyhood of Mason (in a career-defining performance by Ellar Coltrane). Ranging from Mason's childhood inquiries into the existence of elves to a lovely mind-altered dalliance on his first day of college, Boyhood exudes the majesty of becoming oneself. If I have any regrets about the film, they would mirror Michael Hawley's own notation in his film-415 year-end list: "I'm especially grateful to have seen the 'festival cut' with Linklater's dream soundtrack, which included songs from Outkast, Daft Punk, Weezer and others that were sadly M.I.A. from the theatrical release."
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)—As David Robson wrote in his Evening Class preview for this year's Mill Valley Film Festival: "Writer-director Olivier Assayas has made a career out of examining social shifts through the prism of the creative process; in his newest state-of-the-earth address every exchange is weighted but graceful, with half the movie spent watching Binoche and Stewart in and around the Alps, their conversation taking in life and art, high- and low-brow, age and youth, time and space. The total experience is never less than bracing…."
Still on festival track (next up, the Palm Springs International), Clouds of Sils Maria is a sinuously textured meta-fiction that reveals time as a moebius strip, and art as a Faustian bargan with celebrity. Juliette Binoche offers a rich performance that feels like she is playing multiple roles in sequence; first, a glamorous red carpet darling who, secondly, becomes masculinized in her search for a character. Her gendered range is amazing. And as Robson mentioned in his capsule, Kristin Stewart is a revelation. The film, which premiered at Cannes, has won the prestigious Louis Delluc prize and is being represented by MK2, so expect it at a theater near you soon. Keep an eye out for a particularly affect-drenched dissolve where Stewart is shown driving on curving roads in a dialogue-free sequence that reveals more about her character's struggle for autonomy and independence than words could ever say.
Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, 2013)—Along with Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake (2013), it appears that homoerotic thrillers are this year's dark horse darlings. When I viewed Campillo's Eastern Boys at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, it seemed at first content to track with Guiraudie's Stranger as a cautionary tale against the dangers of compulsive desire—with its not-to-be-missed suspenseful homo home invasion sequence!—but then it opened out into an intriguing, satisfying narrative about immigration and assimilation, with the added queer provocation that having "a Daddy" sometimes awards certain rights of citizenry. Campillo's French erotic fantasy (of sorts) hits all its intense marks and fully entertains as Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), a middle-aged Parisian, gets more than he bargained for when he takes up with Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), an Eastern European train station hustler.
Winner of the Venice Horizons Award at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival (where Variety critic Guy Lodge deemed the film "sleek, shape-shifting and intermittently stunning") and Best International Feature at the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Campillo is best known for screenplays co-written with Laurent Cantet (Time Out, The Class). Eastern Boys is the first film he's directed since 2004's Les revenants (They Came Back), which directly inspired Fabrice Gobert's French TV series The Returned, which in turn has curious similarities with the ABC series Resurrection (though Resurrection attributes its premise to Jason Mott's 2013 novel The Returned). As far as I've been able to determine, it was not given a theatrical release but is on queue alerts for DVD rental and on-demand.
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)—It fascinates me that in the space of two years two completely different films have approached the biblical tale of Job and presented creation's intrinsic violence by way of stunningly distinct approaches. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paraval's experimental documentary Leviathan (2012) converted a fishing trawl into a site of horrific carnage, and now Andrey Zvyagintsev's epic novelistic thriller skewers the Russian Orthodox church for lobbying political advantage by preaching the Old Testament to corrupt officials ("God is power; power is might") and the New Testament to a fleeced flock ("God is love; love is truth").
In contradistinction to North American narratives (Unbroken comes immediately to mind), I applaud Leviathan's eschewal of melodramatic formulas that set up victimized protagonists who triumph over overwhelming forces. Instead, with Leviathan we get a very real story about how you cannot bait Leviathan with a fish hook. In other words, sometimes individuals are not only victimized but brutally and systematically crushed for no good reason other than that they can be. Leviathan is powerful in its indictment of institutional corruption in government and church and I find it close to unbelievable that Russia's Oscar® selection committee—steered by Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Putin's buddy—have chosen Zvyagintsev's film as Russia's official submission to the Academy Awards®.
Along with winning Best Screenplay at the Cannes film Festival for Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin, Leviathan has been awarded by the National Board of Review, won the Critics Prize at the São Paulo International Film Festival, the Golden Frog at Camerimage, Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival, and Best Cinematography at the Seville European Film Festival. It has pending nominations at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes, the London Critics Circle Film Awards, and has been shortlisted for the Academy Awards®. Although still on festival track (next stop: the Palm Springs International Film Festival), Leviathan has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and will open in the Bay Area and at Boise's The Flicks come February 2015.
Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)—As a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) I felt compelled to nominate Joel Shepard, Video & Film Curator at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for our annual Marlon Riggs Award (given for courage and vision in the Bay Area community). I was delighted that my SFFCC colleagues agreed. In recent years Shepard has created a diasporic conduit between the rich film culture of the Philippines and San Francisco (whose community is the highest-rising Asian American demographic in the Bay Area). His visionary New Filipino Cinema film series has brought the best of independent Filipino cinema to the U.S., including encore screenings of Norte: The End of History, which premiered earlier at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). When editing EatDrinkFilms, I invited Philippine critic Francis "Oggs" Cruz to map the 2014 edition of New Filipino Cinema and his colleague Richard Bolisay to culturally contextualize Norte.
In his introduction at Norte's SFIFF premiere, Rod Armstrong mentioned that Norte was possibly the longest film at SFIFF (clocking in at 250 minutes), at the same time that it was one of the shortest in Diaz's ouevre. I was swept up by Diaz's epic exploration of Dostevyskian themes regarding the nature of crime and its punishments, and ravaged by Sid Lucero's savage performance as an existential law school dropout. As a Filipino actor, Lucero hasn't received much love from American enthusiasts, but his devastating performance is one of the most heartbreaking and shocking of the year. Several scenes in Norte felt like gliding vessels slowly filling up with grief, guilt, revelation and overwhelming meaning. Elliptical interruptions in the narrative jolted the storyline into startling new trajectories. Profundity and depth earmarked the familiar conceit of the free man imprisoned in his own skin and the incarcerated prisoner achieving freedom through inner peace.
Continuing to win converts on its festival trajectory, Norte: The End of History stops next at the Palm Springs International Film Festival as part of its Awards Buzz sidebar; Norte being the Philippines' official submission to the Academy Awards®. Further highlights include multiple wins at the Gawad Urian Awards (the most prestigious film awards in the Philippines): Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It's also been honored with the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Award, and the Best Director prize at the Cinemanila International Film Festival. Included on the short list for the foreign language category at the Academy Awards®, Norte has likewise been nominated for the upcoming London Critics Circle Film Awards.
Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)—Remember when The China Syndrome (1979) opened in theaters and then two weeks later Three Mile Island happened? A similar symbiosis appears to be happening with the release of Ava DuVernay's Selma and the Black Lives Matter protest movement triggered by increased public outrage over the slayings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York. Lending a sense of lineage and historicity to the truth that Black lives have always mattered despite institutionalized racism to the contrary, Selma offers an intimate interpretation of the events surrounding the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting right marches, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As righteous melodrama pitched to an elegant degree, Selma achieves its goal and satisfies profoundly. It is an emotionally charged historical fiction, resting largely on the shoulders of David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a role he was born to play), with solid supporting turns from Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace.
As much as Selma succeeds as historical melodrama, however, its historical accuracy has proven controversial and come under fire, primarily for the film's representation of President Johnson as an obstructionist. LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove has stated, "When racial tension is so high, it does no good to suggest that the president of the U.S. himself stood in the way of progress a half-century ago. It flies in the face of history." In his article for the Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. has likewise highlighted historical inaccuracies in Johnson's portrayal. On a Facebook entry dated December 28, 2014, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum stated he'd seen Selma and opined: "It isn't terrible overall, but it's historically lazy on many levels—not as much as Spike Lee's Malcolm X is, but still lazier than it had to be."
But, again, as melodrama Selma hits its marks. The hair went up on the back of my neck watching Selma's reenactment of the Bloody Sunday march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And the glimpse into the factious strategizing fueling the movement was welcome insight. If historically lazy, Selma is at the same time inspiring in its contemporary moment, which—with no disrespect to history—might be more important right now. Of particular interest to me was the necessity of DuVernay to write "sound-alike" speeches for King's character since the license to use King's speeches had already been secured by Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks team and Warner Brothers for their own projected biopic. I'm going to reserve judgment on Selma until I see how that project passes the historical litmus test.
My transcript of the on-stage conversation between Elvis Mitchell, Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey and the film's producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner might be of additional interest.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)—One of the cinematographic trademarks of films by the Dardenne Brothers is that of the camera stalking closely behind a subject's shoulders, as if following within their narrative trajectory. Some of that is used here in their latest Two Days, One Night but somehow that spatial sense of identification has tightened even further so that at several times within the film I felt—not behind Sandra (Marion Cottillard)—but within her, experiencing the film through her own heightened anxiety. Ultimately, I found Two Days, One Night one of the most suspenseful films I've seen in some time, a nail biter, bringing me face to face with the most uncertain of scenarios: encounters with unpredictable human beings, driven by necessity and self-interest.
Two Days, One Night feels searingly relevant. Sandra has discovered that she is about to lose her job so that her co-employees can earn a year-end bonus. She seeks to convince each of them to not accept the bonus so she can keep her job. Rationalizations rise like thunderheads as she travels household to household beseeching solidarity. This simple narrative encapsulates the ignobilizing pressures of neoliberal capitalism in a global nutshell.
White Shadow (Noaz Deshi, 2013)—Another discovery from the San Francisco International Film Festival was Noaz Deshi's fevered feature White Shadow (2013), wherein—as Michael Hawley synopsized for The Evening Class—"a Tanzanian albino teen struggles to remain alive in a culture that believes his body parts have restorative properties. …Variety's Guy Lodge praised the film as being 'stylistically reckless in the best possible way,' as it 'veers wildly between earthy verité and near-ecstatic surrealism.' "
At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd von Hoeij notes: "The film's camera work is agile, occasionally even jumpy, and the colors go back and forth between realistic and heavily de-saturated during the day and almost pitch black at night…. This jumble of different types of footage, shot by German cinematographer Armin Dierolf and the director, infuses the film with an energy that's part bad fever dream, part harsh reality."
Premiering at Venice Critics' Week where it scored the Luigi De Laurentiis Award, White Shadow bolstered its festival pedigree with a Special Jury Mention at the Transylvania International Film Festival, the Grand Prix and Audience Award at the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival / Poland, the CineVision Award at the Munich Film Festival, Best Feature at the East End Film Festival / UK, Best Director at the Durban International Film Festival, and the New Directors Prize (Special Jury Recognition) at the San Francisco International, where I had the distinct pleasure of taking Deshi out for brunch to discuss his film. I'll reserve further praise until that transcript is posted. As far as I've been able to ascertain, plans for distribution have not been announced.