Monday, February 24, 2014

Out of the Furnace, onto the screen

I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust

Out of the Furnace is the cinematic equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen song: industrial, gritty, full of character and beautiful; and American through and through. It’s not like one of the Boss's big stadium anthems he’s best known for though. Unlike Born in the USA or Thunder Road, Out of the Furnace won’t blow you away with its energy. I would compare it, in terms of tone and content, to Devils and Dust, a song about a soldier in the Iraq war.

When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust

The fact the Scott Cooper’s second feature arouses comparisons to music is not surprising. His debut Crazy Heart about an alcoholic country singer bagged Jeff Bridges a well-deserved Oscar. Cooper obviously has a good ear for music, which is also evident here. Out of the Furnace opens with Release by Pearl Jam and Dickon Hinchliffe’s excellent score is omnipresent.

We're a long, long way from home, Bobbie
Home's a long, long way from us

Furnace marks a departure from (melo-)drama into thriller territory for Cooper. Russell (Christian Bale) lives a simple life: he works at the steel mill and lives with his beautiful girlfriend (Zoë Saldana). His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) complicates things. He is the soldier from Devils and Dust. Since returning from Iraq, he can’t stay out of trouble. He gambles, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and mixes with the wrong people and has to rely on Russell to get him out of tight spots.

I feel a dirty wind blowing
Devils and dust

At its heart, Out of the Furnace is a film about male bonding and post-traumatic stress. Female characters are very much side-lined. The central question is: how for would you go for someone you love who is beyond salvation? This idea is by no means ground-breaking or original and has been done in a similar fashion many times (particularly The Deer Hunter), but it is very well executed. The film (it was shot on 35mm) looks suitably dirty and dark; however there are moments of immense beauty. Scott Cooper also achieves a real sense for the locations: the steel mill, the degenerate workers’ houses, the shady bars.

I got God on my side
And I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love

The cast is as follows: Bale, Affleck, Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. Listing the names of these actors is almost enough to make the point that the performances are great. No one disappoints or is miscast here.

Fear's a powerful thing, baby
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust

Out of the Furnace does not reinvent the wheel but it is a solid thriller which reinforces Scott Cooper as one of the most interesting young directors in Hollywood. It was released in the US and the UK in the middle of awards season. This was a mistake, because it can’t quite compete with the big contenders. This is one to look out for on DVD or on demand.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

More than a sausage fest: Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac)

If you are uncomfortable with seeing naked men, Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) is not for you. Stranger by the Lake might be the first film I've seen that shows you as many penises as faces. Last years much debated Blue is the Warmest Colour seems almost prude in comparison. Alain Guiraudie’s extremely explicit, uncompromising cinematic creation is however much more than a simple sausage fest: it’s a spine-tingling, beautiful thriller which is not only for gay men. The sex scenes have a clear purpose and reveal a lot about the characters. Prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, hailed it as the best film of 2013 and I can see why.

The film is set around a lake, somewhere in the south of France, which has become a meeting place for gay men to meet up, sunbathe, swim and “cruise” (disappear into the bushes). The entire film takes place in and around this lake, including the bushes. We know that some of the characters meet and talk elsewhere, but we are not privy to those discussions. Even though everything takes place outside, after a while, we feel trapped by this lake, by the bushes and by the nearby parking lot. Making a cinema audience feel claustrophobia is difficult enough, but achieving this by depicting an open space is truly masterful.

Franck is a good looking, young, naive (one might even say reckless) homosexual. He is played by Pierre Deladonchamps who is 35, but could easily pass as being in his early 20s. Since he is unemployed, Franck spends his days at the lake. Here he befriends Henri, a likeable, overweight, middle-aged man who stays away from the others. Meanwhile he develops a crush on a mysterious newcomer with a moustache that would make Burt Reynolds proud. The crush quickly develops into a passionate relationship.

One moment of violence then changes everything. I won’t reveal the details of the event, which is depicted by Guiraudie, through a four-minute unbroken shot. This moment has elicited worthy comparisons with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. When, a few days later, a police inspector appears and starts asking questions, we (knowing what happened) start to ask questions of our own: Why did he do it? Why is he lying? Why is he protecting him?

The nature of love, friendship and sex is challenged. The naivety of young love is exposed. We know a lot about the three main characters, but it’s what we don’t know that is most intriguing. We can never fully figure them out. Throughout the film, Stranger by the Lake builds an incredibly creepy and menacing atmosphere. This process is so slow and careful, that it creeps up on you until the tension boils over into a perfectly judged climax (not that kind).

The uncompromising, brave manner, which Alain Guiraudie has chosen to depict the lifestyle of these men, will surely take many people aback. Nevertheless, Stranger by the Lake is one of the most fascinating thrillers in recent memory.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My problem with Her

Scarlett Johansson is a brilliant actress. Scarlett Johansson is a beautiful woman. Scarlett Johansson gives a fantastic voice performance in Her as the operating system SamanthaIn spite of this, Scarlett Johansson is Her’s biggest problem. 
Over the past 15 years or so, Johansson has become one of Hollywood’s most recognisable actresses, carving out a career in art-house cinema (Lost in Translation, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) and studio blockbusters (The Island, The Avengers) alike. She also models on a regular basis and billboards adorning her face are a frequent occurrence on bus stops all over the world. 
She also has a fantastic, distinctive voice (as long as she doesn’t do a New Jersey accent, see Don Jon) to go along with her physical beauty. Deep and husky, her vocal chords produce some of the most pleasant and sexy noises imaginable to many.
The problem with casting Johansson in Her is that she is simply too much of a presence in the film. The most important aspect of Samantha’s character is that she doesn’t have a body; she only exists as a voice in Theodore’s head (played by Joaquin Phoenix’s head). As he starts falling in love with her, he has no visual reference points whatsoever. This is a crucial source of tension in the relationship and one of the most interesting questions explored by Spike Jonze.
As an audience member, we are unfortunately not in the same position as Theodore. As Ian Nathan puts it in Empire review: “you can’t help but picture her [Johansson] floating in cyberspace.” While imagining Scarlett Johansson is a pleasant activity in itself, it denies the audience the chance to go through the same imagination procedure as Theodore. We are spoon-fed a pre-existing image of the perfect woman, instead of inspired to use our own imagination. This is particularly the case in the film’s more intimate moments.
Interestingly, the lesser-known (but equally brilliant) actress Samantha Morton was initially cast in the role. During shooting, she was present on set, interacting with Phoenix only to be replaced during the editing process. While there might be a legitimate reason for the change, I would be interested in seeing the Samantha Morton version. The casting of Scarlett Johansson is a strange decision which undermines the purpose of the film.


Review: The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)

The Missing Picture, Cambodia’s official selection for the best foreign language film category, is one of the more surprising nominations at this year’s Oscars. It is a documentary about the atrocities that Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979, but it is not a history lesson. While you get a certain sense of the horrific events that occurred under Pol Pot’s regime, it is an extremely personal film about dealing with painful memories and the loss of innocence through violence. Director Rithy Panh tells his own remarkable story: On the day before his 12th birthday, his hometown Phnom Penh was taken by the communist party Khmer Rouge and the entire town was deported into labour camps. Panh spent the next four years in these camps, enduring incredible hardships, famine and the loss of everyone he knew.
He chooses the form of the essay film, using a first-person narration as a surrogate for his own voice. He illustrates the words with an agonizing soundtrack, the little stock-footage that has survived the period and most interestingly with little immobile clay figures. Numerous, elaborate models were built, recreating moments of Panh’s past. These sets are populated by hauntingly beautiful dolls. It is left up to the imagination of the spectator to conjure the images of the violence.
Watching The Missing Picture is like being privy to a therapy session in which the patient attempts to come to terms with his past. A recurring theme is the loss (or rather the theft) of Panh’s childhood, which has preoccupied him throughout his adult life. The dolls, which are essentially toys, thus have a triple function within the film: visualize events of which no footage exists, allow Panh to access painful memories more easily and bring back his childhood to a certain degree.
This concept is very original and thought-provoking. The emotional impact of a simple image of an expressionless face carved in clay is surprisingly powerful and you get a genuine insight into the director’s mind and his utter contempt for ideology.
On the whole, The Missing Picture never fails to be interesting, but is not as engaging as it should be and lacks energy. The numerous shots of the motionless figures are beautiful, yet not very cinematic and slightly repetitive. The cinematography in these shots is not the most interesting either and slow, horizontal pans are overused. The narration, whose content gets increasingly passionate and opinionated as the film goes on, never quite makes up for this deficit.
It is an unusual thing to say about a film, but The Missing Picture feels in many ways more like a (great) museum exhibition about grief and memory than a piece of cinema, and on these merits it is an interesting, different artistic achievement.


Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Halfway through Martin Scorsese’s latest, the biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio says a line that perfectly sums up his character and the movie: “I want you to deal with your problems by getting motherfucking rich!” He does not say these words; he rather screams them into a microphone in front of the assembled office, like a possessed preacher delivering a sermon. His assembled congregation of stockbrokers reacts enthusiastically, screaming, cheering and singing. This is one of the film’s calmer moments.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an outrageous, extremely entertaining comedy about greed and addiction. Closer to Scarface than Wall Street or even Goodfellas, and featuring a similar amount of cocaine than the Brian DePalma classic, it depicts the insane lifestyle of an obsessed, power-hungry individual; replacing a drug-lord with a stockbroker. It is a fantastic film, but it is not one of Martin Scorsese’s best works.
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you would never think it was directed by a 71-year old. Not only is it the sweariest film of all time (everyone’s favourite F-word is uttered an impressive 506 times), had to be cut down to avoid an NC-17 rating; but Scorsese’s direction, cinematography and editing are filled with so much energy, it makes 3 hours pass without a second of boredom.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort meanwhile is the film’s most pleasant surprise. We all know that Leo is a great dramatic actor and a charismatic screen presence, but Wolf gives him the opportunity to show off his comedic skills. Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio could do physical comedy? His performance in the much discussed drug-overdose sequence, in which his character loses virtually all control of his body, could not be bettered by the best comedians.
The movie is however kept short from greatness by its protagonist. There are no two ways about it: Jordan Belfort is an awful human being. He is a drug-addict, a sex-addict and worst of all a money-addict. His treatment of women is horrendous and he is possibly one of the most selfish characters in cinema history. The problem is not, as some critics claim, that the film glorifies Belfort’s excessive lifestyle (any intelligent audience member will realize his dreadfulness, even if the film does not outright condemn him), but that this renders the character slightly one-dimensional. The fact that he is vile and unlikeable doesn’t help much either. Unlike Goodfellas’ Henry Hill or The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, there is nothing that daws you towards the character. There seems to be nothing but darkness in his soul. Belfort is more like Tony Montana, but the narrative of The Wolf of Wall Street is not as tight as that of Scarface, despite the similar running time. The satirical, political element about the absurd nature of the stock market, is quite thin, pretty much explained in full by the brilliant Matthew McConaughey within the first half hour (“fugezi, fugazi, it’s a whazi, it’s whozi; fairydust!”) and is pretty much repeated throughout the film; as are some of the jokes.
In a way, not unlike another of this year’s big awards contenders, the significantly weaker American Hustle, is all surface and little depths, and I wonder whether the film will hold up on repeat viewings. No one does surface better than Martin Scorsese though and you will leave the cinema bumping your chest and humming.


Review: The Physician

The Physician is two and a half hours long. Two and a half hours! In perhaps the biggest European (and non-British) production of recent times, German director Philipp Stölzl adapts Noah Gordon’s novel of the same name, about an 11th century English physician, who travels to Persia to learn the secrets of his trade. On a purely technical level, The Physician shows that Europe can compete with Hollywood. The budget, which according to German publicationSpiegel is 26 million euros, can be seen on the screen. The visual effects, the costumes and the set design are of a very high level. The performances are, some wobbly accents aside, also rather good. Tom Payne makes for a decent leading man, whereas the reliable Stellan Skarsgård and Sir Ben Kingsley provide some star-power in supporting roles.
Unfortunately, the film is however all over the place and cannot decide what it wants to be about. As is often the case in literary adaptations, there are too many underdeveloped subplots and unexplored relationships. The central and most interesting theme, the history of medicine, is quickly abandoned for a generic adventure story and heavy-handed religious metaphors, desperately trying to make it “epic.”
The only significant female character is meanwhile reduced to the role of the damsel in distress, deeply in love with the hero for no reason. The story covers a period of several years, but Stölzl fails to convey the duration of this. A plague epidemic for instance seems to be over within a matter of a few days without many consequences other than a few dead bodies.
Then there’s the matter of the hero’s “superpowers.” He is able to foresee a person’s death by touching them, because everything is suddenly slow-motion; but only when the plot requires him to. This is not only silly, but completely undermines the historical and scientific aspect of the movie.  
If The Physician was 100 minutes long, it could be described as a fun, forgettable adventure film, but it’s simply not enough for two and a half hours. It’s not bad, it’s just very mediocre and the most frustrating thing is the obvious potential. Had the budget been 13 instead of 26 million, it would probably have made for a better film. The Physician is ultimately a missed chance for European cinema to prove that it can produce quality, entertaining movies on large scale, which is a shame.


Review: Nebraska

Some movies simply need time to have a full impact. Alexander Payne’sNebraska was the first movie I saw at the London Film Festival, which is perhaps the worst possible timing. I really enjoyed the film, laughed all the way through and was touched by it. However, only one hour after the lights went up after it finished, I was sitting down for the next film, the second of four of the day. 10 days and 30+ movies later, when it came to pick my top 10 films of the festival, Nebraska wasn’t one of them. While I had not forgotten about it, I judged it to be light and less memorable than other films.
About a month later, when I was picking my favourite films of 2013, Nebraskamade the initial long list. Clearly there was something about it that stayed on my mind. Then Nebraska was finally released in UK theatres, and with it came the usual articles, interviews and reviews. After reading Matt Micucci’s excellentreview of the film, I finally did what I had neglected to do after seeing it: I thought about it. Well over two months had passed since I had seen the film, and yet more and more details came back to me. Another month later, and I still can’t stop thinking about it, which is why I have decided to write about it. Sometimes, it just takes a little time to fully appreciate a film.
Woody is an old, retired mechanic on the brink of senility. The film’s opening shot shows him walking on foot next to the highway and being stopped by the police. He has received a letter promising him a million dollars if he shows up in Nebraska, and is determined to walk the 700 miles from his home in Montana to claim his prize. Despite everyone repeatedly assuring him that the million dollars does not exist and that the letter is a marketing scam, Woody refuses to (or is unable to) see sense. Finally his son David takes pity on him and agrees to drive him to Nebraska. Together they embark on a journey which has no pot of gold at its end. On the way, they stop in Woody’s home town, where the supposed millionaire quickly becomes a local celebrity. 
First of all, the film looks absolutely beautiful. Payne, who was born in Nebraska, has an eye for rural America like few other directors. His decision forNebraska to be in black and white was an inspired one and the visuals give the film simultaneously a stylised looked and a certain sense of realism. The cast is also outstanding. Stacy Keach and June Squibb (as Woody’s ceaselessly bickering wife) shine in great, scene-stealing roles, but at the heart of the film are Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Dern’s performance has been rightly receiving a lot of attention, winning the best actor award at Cannes, but Forte (primarily known as a comedian on SNL) is the biggest surprise. He takes a very difficult role of the quiet, anxiety-ridden son and makes it his own; first-class under-acting.
Payne not only has an eye for the look of rural America, but he also has an ear for the people of rural America, their character and their language. Even though he did not write the script for Nebraska himself, it feels very much like an Alexander Payne film (one might call it Payne-ful), balancing drama and a particularly warm and human sense of humour, which has distinguished his films in the past.  Woody’s home town and his family are crowded with quirky, unique characters and the small town politics play out perfectly.
The most interesting thing about Nebraska is however the father-son relationship at the centre of it all. Woody has not been the best father to David, prone to have a drink or two; but there is clearly a lot of love, even if he struggles to express it. David is unsure how to feel about his dad, he desperately wants to love him, but doesn’t know how or why. The journey to Nebraska is also a journey for David into the unknown realms of his father’s past. Meeting people from his father’s youth helps him understand the old stubborn man he is travelling with, and slowly they start to reconnect. It is this troubled, affecting relationship that remained with me all this time and which makes Nebraska my favourite Alexander Payne film.


First reaction: Nymph()maniac

“You know, if you put all the foreskin that has ever been cut off together, it would reach to Mars and back!” Yes, subtlety was never Lars von Trier’s strong point and Nymphomaniac is his maddest and most ambitious movie yet. After realising that his five and a half hour cut was unreleasable, he agreed to let it be cut down to a “sensible” four hour running time to be released in two parts.
Watching the two volumes of Nymphomaniac back to back is an incredible experience. The fact that this film got made is extraordinary. Lars von Trier is clearly completely mental, and unashamed to put his craziness on the screen. If ever a film deserved an 18 rating, it’s this one. While very explicit in its depiction of sex and violence of all kinds, calling Nymphomaniac porn would be reactionary and ridiculous.
The film is about the life of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and, in a younger version, newcomer Stacy Martin), a sex-addict, to put it mildly. The story is held together by a framing device, in which Joe tells the various chapters of her, mostly sexual, life, to Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman.
There is an awful lot to criticize about Nymphomaniac, and not all of them are related to Shia LaBoeuf’s hilariously bad British accent (think Dick van Dyke meets Danny Dyer). The film is pretentious beyond belief, drawing comparisons between sex and classical music, the Fibonacci numbers and of all things, fishing. Von Trier also clearly goes for shock value over substance, as he tends to do, on several occasions. The film’s depiction of gender is questionable to say the least (I have not had enough time to think about it, butBreaking the Waves  is one of the most misogynist films I have ever seen).
Yet, I couldn’t help but admire von Trier’s ability to get under my skin. While enjoying is the wrong word, I was transfixed for the entire four hours, never bored. The pace is slow, but it has a certain hypnotic energy to it. It is also fairly funny, in the most twisted way, especially through the interaction between Skaarsgard and Gainsbourg. The only real disappointment is the ending, which is rather anti-climactic and predictable, which is a shame.
I don’t know any people, except for proper cinephiles, I would recommendNymphomanic to(and I know plenty of people I wouldn’t recommend it to), but it is an experience worth having, which you won’t forget any time soon.


Top 13 of ‘13: 1. Inside Llewyn Davis

The most impressive thing about the Coen brothers these days is that they are seemingly effortlessly brilliant. Like Luis Suarez and nutmegs, they make filmmaking look straightforward and easy. Inside Llewyn Davis, their tale of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, slots in perfectly in their filmography, closest in tone to Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
The movie opens with a close-up of microphone in front of a dark background. A title has told us where we are: The Gaslight Café, 1961. Guitar music is playing and a male voice starts singing: “Hang me, oh hang me; I’ll be dead and gone…” Even before we see our protagonist, we know exactly where we are. It’s unusual to talk about the music first in a film review, but the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis is not only brilliant, but also integral to the story. Most of the songs are performed live and in full length by the characters, almost making it a concert-movie of sorts. Enlisting the help of regular collaborator and music legend T-Bone Burnett, the Coens have assembled (there is only one original song) one of the best soundtracks in years.
The film tells the story of the failed (or rather failing) folk singer Llewyn Davis. After losing his singing partner, Llewyn is struggling to make it as a solo artist. Broke (he can’t even afford a winter coat) and homeless, he treks from couch to couch, until he runs out of friends and starts at the beginning. We are never sure whether Llewyn is a misunderstood musical genius or just a pretentious failure, but he sure thinks he is the former. He is rude, selfish and takes the charity of others for granted; yet somehow strangely likeable. Credit for this has to go to Oscar Isaac, who delivers a superb, understated acting and singing performance, completely embodying this character. He is never caught acting.
As usual with the Coens, an abundance of eccentric and funny supporting characters pop in and out of the story. Highlights include Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan playing the musician-couple Jim and Jean, John Goodman, who is finally reunited with the Coen brothers for a fifth time as the hilarious, drug addicted jazz musician Roland Turner, and a ginger cat which Llewyn chases through New York.
The structure of Inside Llewyn Davis puts an ironic, extremely coenesque twist on the classic road movie (there even is an actual road trip to Chicago in the middle of the film). Llewyn is constantly travelling from place to place, meeting different characters. Unlike Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s great road movie, Llewyn’s journey has no goal, and our hero keeps going around in circles, returning to where he has been before.  It’s the story of a loser who remains a loser.
While the story, when you think about it, is quite bleak, the tone is surprisingly warm and affectionate, not only due to the music, but also due to the characters. The dialogue is filled with an ever so slightly strange humour and wit, some of which you won’t notice the first time around, rewarding multiple viewings. The period is beautifully realised and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel almost makes you forget that Roger Deakins was busy shooting Skyfall.
Making sense of it all may be difficult and if closure is what you’re looking for, you’re going to be disappointed. Asking more questions than it answers, Inside Llewyn Davis is an almost nihilistic, empty masterpiece, yet full of warmth and humour. It’s a film about how following your dreams might not always be the best idea, it’s a film about music, it’s a film about grief and responsibility; it’s simply a film you have to see.

Top 13 of ‘13: Special Mention: Stray Dogs

Before revealing my film of the year, I would like to mention a film I saw at the Venice Film Festival and which I haven’t stopped thinking about since: Ming-liang Tsai’s Stray Dogs. It hasn’t had a commercial release yet, which is why it isn’t on the regular list, but it deserves to be mentioned. Here is my review I wrote back in Venice: 
Ming-liang Tsai’s Stray Dogs, winner of this year’s Grand Jury Price, is not for everyone. In fact, it is not for most people. After the opening scene, a continuous shot of a woman brushing her hair while sitting next to two sleeping children which lasts for seven minutes, you know exactly where you are: cinema in its barest and purest form; almost closer to an art installation than a narrative film. The plot (it’s not as much a plot as very loose narrative linking the different images) depicts a father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children who live in Taipei. During the day, the father works as a human billboard, holding a sign next to a busy road while the children roam the streets of the city. There is little more to say about the story. Not much happens and we don’t learn much about the characters. Furthermore, the pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. There is little to no camera movement and the different scenes are extremely long (the entire 138 minute film contains about as many shots as a single scene in a Paul Greengrass film). 
It would be very easy to dismiss Stray Dogs as pretentious and boring or to lose patience with it (as indubitably many will). You keep waiting for something to happen, and it never does. Scenes have no causes or consequences, they just exist. We see the man eat a chicken, stand beside the road holding his billboard, we see the children wandering a supermarket getting free samples, we see a woman feeding stray dogs. This breaks every rule of fiction cinema and nothing seems to make any sense. If you go along with it however, Stray Dogs is anything but boring. It definitely is long, but it’s also mesmerizing and beautiful. It has a certain hypnotic quality to it: you don’t know what you are watching or why you are watching it, but the images are somehow fascinating. They burn themselves into the brain, and stay there for a long time after the end credits roll and everyone runs to the bathroom.
The acting is absolutely flawless in this. The actors are given very little to work with and all of them give wonderful minimalist performances. Lee Kang-sheng is arguably the stand-out. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he has to make a love-hate relationship with a cabbage (don’t ask) believable, similar to Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away; and he does so with unbelievable charisma and conviction.
Stray Dogs is a film that requires a lot of patience, but the rewards are infinite and the film will stay with you for a long time. Cinematic, beautiful and thought-provoking it is a piece of work for true film-lovers and perhaps the best I’ve seen in Venice.

Top 13 of ‘13: 2. Before Midnight

Before Midnight was by far the most anticipated sequel of 2013 within the art house community (even more so than The Smurfs 2!), reuniting director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delply and Ethan Hawke after 9 years.  The formula from the first two instalments remains the same: it’s all about Céline and Jesse talking.
 After a mediocre opening scene between Jesse and his son from an earlier marriage, you are instantly back where Before Sunset left you. The incredible chemistry between Hawke and Delply (who are credited as co-writers) is still there and as strong as always.  We learn that after their second meeting in Paris, they got married and had twin girls, and that they are currently on holiday in Greece. Unlike the first two films, we meet other characters (friends whom they are staying with), albeit only shortly.
As we listen to Céline and Jesse, we realize that they are not the same people than they were nine years ago. They have matured (they’re 41 now) and have a different outlook on love, sex and life in general. They’re marriage is not perfect. Céline in particular doesn’t really seem happy about her professional life and wants to move to Paris, which would mean that Jesse would have to leave his son who lives in America. As they argue, jokingly at first, and then more and more intense, you feel their pain as they keep talking past each other. 
The most important thing about the film is that you completely believe in these characters (even if you may disagree with them or don’t like what they’re saying). The dialogue is extremely intelligent and carefully crafted, but at no point does it feel forced or unnatural. Linklater is very restrained in his direction, using long takes, in order to give the actors room to perform, and they deliver brilliantly.
Hawke and Delply form one of the best onscreen couples in film history andBefore Midnight is an intelligent and romantic (a combination you unfortunately don’t see too often) character study. Only nine years to go until Before 4; I’ll be the first in line.

Top 13 of ‘13: 3. Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations is the biopic of Belfast record store owner come talent scout come music producer Terri Hooley, who discovered The Undertones and produced their breakthrough song Teenage Kicks. The film perfectly captures the spirit of the Northern Irish punk scene of the 70s and 80s, a group of misfits who were simply sick and tired of endless fighting of the Troubles, which are always looming in the background of the narrative, and just want to have a good time.
Terri Hooley, brilliantly played by Richard Dormer, makes for a fascinating protagonist. He is such an eccentric, passionate and hopelessly optimistic character, you can’t help but be swept up by his enthusiasm (facilitated by his wonderful Irish accent). He is however also naïve, unable to handle finances or maintain a healthy relationship with his wife and children, which gives him a certain edge and believability.
The directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn biggest strength is their ability to create several moments of intense emotional release and pure joy. In this sense, the film almost feels like a sports movie, with listening to a great punk song or having your record played on the BBC replacing the cup-final or the big fight. Funny, smart and above all fervid and inspiring, Good Vibration is a wonderful surprise from Northern Ireland, not just for punk fans of a certain age, but for all those who have a passion in their heart.

Top 13 of ‘13: 4. Wadjda

It seems to me that these days, every second art film is compared to Italian Neorealism and usually to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda is finally a film that warrants this comparison, both in terms of style and quality; not only because of the bicycle theme.
The first ever Saudi-Arabian feature film to be directed by a woman, tells the story of Wadjda (played by first-timer Waad Mohammed in one of the best child-performances you will ever see), a 10 year-old girl who, despite society’s expectations, is determined to get a bike and race her friend Abdullah. Wadjda is a fascinating character: rebellious, mischievous, witty and inventive in finding ways to get her hands on the money for the bike. Her story is incredibly charming, engaging, moving and at times very funny.
 In the background (and crucially not forced upon the audience) of all this are the political and ideological issues the film deals with. Wadjda is a deeply feminist film and critical of the Arab society: Wadjda can’t have a bike because she is a girl; in a subplot, her father takes a second wife, because her mother won’t bear him a son. The film does this extremely rare and difficult thing of simultaneously telling a compelling, entertaining and moving story while also raising important issues.
Like Bicycle Thieves, Wadjda is slow-paced, firmly rooted in reality (with a spark of fantasy thrown in) and is told from a child’s perspective. Most importantly, like Bicycle Thieves, Wadjda is a brilliant, thought-provoking piece of cinema, which is worth seeking out.

Top 13 of ‘13: 5. All is Lost

This is my London Film Festival of All is Lost. It’s out in the UK on Boxing Day, so go see it!
J.C. Chandor’s follow up to his debut Margin CallAll Is Lost is without a doubt easier to summarize than any other film playing at the London Film Festival. It only takes five words: Robert Redford on a boat. That’s all. In the beginning of the movie, we meet a man sailing alone on the Indian Ocean. Soon thereafter, while he is asleep, his boat crashes into a roaming container full of sneakers, which must have fallen of a ship, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the ship. Subsequently, everything that could go wrong goes wrong and when the inevitable storm hits, we watch Redford’s struggle for survival.
There is no dialogue. Except for a short narration at the beginning and perhaps a handful of lines, there is no monologue. There is no backstory for the main character either; we don’t even learn what he is doing in the middle of the ocean.  Walking into the screening of All Is Lost, I was dreading it as I couldn’t imagine it working. Coming in year which for some reason is filled with quality seafaring movies (Life of Pi, Kon-Tiki, A Hijacking, Captain Philips), my expectations were limited.
I was wrong. It is exactly the simplicity of All Is Lost which makes it work. That and Robert Redford. Casting was absolutely vital for this movie, and they got it spot on. It had to be someone familiar to audiences, so that they can relate to him immediately, and it had to be someone with an intense stare. Redford delivers a spectacular, extremely physical performance and shows that he is one fit 77-year-old. If there is any justice,All Is Lost will give the legendary man his only second (!) and well deserved acting nomination at the Oscars.
It would however be wrong to give all the credit to Robert Redford. Writer-director J.C. Chandor creates an intense, exciting and scary ride, which will keep audiences on the edge of their seats for two hours. The visuals are strong, and the deafening sound is terrifying. The only way All Is Lost could be more intense would be if cinemas put air blowers in front of the screen and sprayed sea-water at the audience.
All Is Lost may be a simple survival story, an acting vehicle, which we all have seen many times, but it’s executed with great skill. It is one of the best thrillers and most cinematic experiences of the year, and should be seen for Redford’s performance alone.

Top 13 of ‘13: 6. The Broken Circle Breakdown

This year’s LUX Prize winner, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium is utterly charming, moving and tragic. The film follows a couple, Bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), over the course of many years, from their first meeting, their falling in love, their marriage and birth of their daughter  Maybelle until things start to go wrong after Maybelle loses a battle with cancer.
These are not plot spoilers, because van Groeningen uses a similar structure than the acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance), jumping back and forth within the chronology of the story, between the blissful early stages of Didier and Elise’s relationship and the heart-breaking end. Seeing this couple, who you grow very fond of quite quickly, due to the extraordinary chemistry between the two leads, fall in love and fall apart simultaneously is all the more painful.
Underneath the romance, which is beautifully played and never gets cheesy, is a compelling, mature examination of grief and spirituality. Didier and Elise have different methods of dealing with the grief and pain of losing their child. The former is an atheist and a rational thinker deals with his despair by working himself up in anger against people opposing bone marrow research, which might been able to save his grief. Elise on the other hand seeks answers in the realm of the spiritual (but never explicitly religious), thinking about, and hoping for an afterlife or a return of Maybelle to earth in a different form, a concept which Didier not only fails to comprehend, but also to accept.
This discussion is enriched by the music. There is a lot of music in this film, and most of the songs are performed onscreen, live and in full, by Didier and his bluegrass band, sometimes joined by Elise. The soundtrack is brilliant in its own right and is without a doubt one of the best of the year (have a listen) but, like every great soundtrack, it also adds to the story. Bluegrass has its roots in the Appalachian region of the USA and is frequently of a deeply spiritual and religious nature, creating an interesting contradiction in terms with Didier’s knee-jerk ideas.
While The Broken Circle Breakdown is probably not going to get the awards recognition it deserves, due to the dominance of the also excellent The Great BeautyI (Paolo Sorrentino), it is a smart, romantic and incredibly sad film, which should be seen by more people.

Top 13 of ‘13: 7. Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Despite this being his fifth outing as the billionaire playboy turned superhero (if you include his post-credits cameo inThe Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008)), Downey Jr. still brings the same energy and wit to the character, and you don’t get bored by him. On the contrary, Iron Man 3 is the best and by far the funniest Marvel movie yet.
Hiring Shane Black to direct and co-write (alongside relative newcomer Drew Pearce) was a stroke of genius. Black, who made his name as the screenwriter of the Lethal Weapon series, makes Iron Man 3 play in many ways like an old-school, 80s cop movie. All the best Shane Black trademarks are there: sarcasm, fourth-wall breaking voiceover, brilliant one-liners uttered by the villain’s henchmen and inevitably a Christmas setting; while staying true to the Avengers universe.
The decision to deprive Tony Stark of his Iron Man suit for a large portion of the film is good one and takes the character to new places. The returning supporting cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau) is excellent and the new characters blend in well (Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce). The real stand-out is however Ben Kingsley, who is utterly brilliant as the new villain, The Mandarin, who turns out to be one of the most surprising and funniest characters of the year (the fact that he is a Liverpool supporter is an added bonus).
While the final act, similarly to The Avengers, has a tendency to turn into overlong, unnecessary, generic action with robots bashing robots for 20 minutes, the sequence is put together with great competence, makes complete sense and is always fun. Fun is actually the best word to describe Iron Man 3,which left me with a huge smile on my face.

Top 13 of ‘13: 8. Gravity

The set-up for Gravity is simple: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are two astronauts who are lost in space after an accident involving satellite debris and are struggling for survival. Essentially, it is a B-movie with a budget. Its story is thin and its characters are even thinner. The dialogue is frequently clunky, melodramatic and unbelievable. George Clooney plays a mixture of Buzz Lightyear and himself in the Nespresso ads.
Gravity works nonetheless is because it is aware of this and keeps things simple. It never tries to be anything more than spectacle, a quick, 90-minute thrill ride. It’s not about saving the world; it’s about surviving in the most hostile environment a human can find himself in. The reason a B-movie with a budget is one of the best films of the year is not a lack of good films, but the amazing things Alfonso Cuarón has achieved with this budget. The visual effects are of an unprecedented quality; even the 3D is great.
The film’s unbroken 13-minute opening shot is the single most spectacular action-scene of the year by some distance, and the action in general is simultaneously absolutely gorgeous as well as frightening and intense. While more of a ride, a spectacle than an actual film (some people have dismissed it as a mere technical exercise, which is very harsh in my opinion), Gravity is one of the most cinematic experiences of the year, demonstrating Alfonso Cuarón’s craftsmanship as a great director and should be seen by everyone, in 3D, on as big a screen as possible.

Top 13 of ‘13: 9. The Place Beyond the Pines

Note: The best way to watch The Place Beyond the Pines is by knowing as little about it as possible, so, if you like the trailer, I’d recommend you watch it without talking to anyone or reading anything about it. I saw it this way and was blown away, which is why it is on this list. There are very slight spoilers below!
The narrative of The Place Beyond the Pines does not work like a traditional film. Critic Mark Kermode has repeatedly compared it to Greek tragedy, in which issues are passed on from one generation to another and there is a strong sense of fortune and destiny. This structure is highly unconventional for (semi-)mainstream cinema and works in most parts very well. The final part is clearly weaker than the preceding ones, but by that time, you are so compelled by the story it almost doesn’t matter.
Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, a very different but equally brilliant movie) mixes this epic narrative (the soundtrack, one of the year’s best, also gives it a sense of grandeur) with a gritty, ultra-realistic aesthetic; a combination which works surprisingly well. The cinematography is extraordinary and full of energy, particularly the bank robberies performed by Ryan Gosling in the first part, some of which were shot in a single take.
The Place Beyond the Pines, for all its faults, does many things that you don’t see very often in films, but does so in a very cinematic way. Most importantly, it completely surprised me (which doesn’t happen very often) and after that surprise kept on compelling me until the end.