If you’re like us, nothing is more enervating than having to constantly hear about the “Death of Film.” Yes, this has been on the table since at least the 1950s, with the expansion of television, but it never stops being a topic for the unimaginative among our brethren, especially in the face of the transition to digital. It is accomplished. So what now? No amount of stale high-end-publication think pieces can change the fact that in many ways, things have never been more exciting.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a remarkably unromantic film about the solitary wanderer. A lack of sentiment and a disinterest in perpetuating hoary myths have always partly defined the Coens’ films, but perhaps because of the backdrop here—a time and place that often invites simple nostalgic rhapsodizing—this new film feels even more pronounced in its refusal to engage with cliché. The touchstones and signifiers of early sixties Village life are seen as though from a rear-view mirror.
“Paradise” is more a triptych than a trilogy—with all the reference to medieval altarpieces that that implies. Seidl sees the twenty-first century using the compositional values of the fifteenth, as evidenced in his flat, compressed tableaux, in which cell-like interiors are captured at a stationary medium long-shot, figures held flush in their center. Each image is framed much like the last, until the uniformity is interrupted by an outbreak of ragged, heedless handheld and, usually, violent chaos.
Eruptions of bottled-up rage and spontaneous acts of violence might be among Lee’s specialties, but they tend to be inspired by a kind of righteous anger directed at or generated by social structures, institutions, and ideologies. That isn’t to say that there’s no space in Lee’s body of work for conflicts between individuals, just that his violence is usually motivated by forces wider and deeper than crude payback or personal offense.
Lenin, Hitler, and Hirohito usurp godly powers, but rather than situate them at their height, Sokurov contemplates their decline. Power in its glorious decay, and the mystery of how dark energies come to be embodied in mortal men whose flesh is feeble and whose characters are ridden with eccentricities, are among Sokurov’s long-standing preoccupations. . . . Faust, Sokurov’s adaptation of a dramatic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, marks Sokurov’s leap in the cycle from historically rooted subjects to fiction with fantastical elements.
The Wind Rises takes its title from the Paul Valéry poem Le Cimetière Marin: “The wind rises! We must try to live!” Natural elements often manifest themselves as life forces in Miyazaki’s films, and here the wind is practically a separate character, bringing Jiro and Naoko together by blowing away their hats and parasols, only to later symbolize the couple’s tender fragility as specks fly and clouds dissipate in a vast field.
At Berkeley, the latest institutional study by Frederick Wiseman, could be called a bureaucratic drama. Much of the film, set at the University of California, Berkeley, feels like one long administrative meeting, an experience that is simultaneously mundane and anxiety-provoking. Throughout, we see Berkeley’s higher-ups, usually led by then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau, pore over the minutiae of running a major public university.
For anyone paying attention to Chinese news within the country or abroad, these real-life events have become commonplace (ask any Beijing taxi driver), but as each new tragedy propels the surface chatter forward, any possibility for deeper, more fixed contemplation seems to get further out of reach. So, with Sin, Jia was determined to adopt a new film language in order to “make an old thing new by detaching it from what usually surrounds it,” to quote one of his formative influences, Robert Bresson.
So many things scare us. And so many things that scare us have been exploited by horror movies over the past century, as I’ve come to realize after doing eight years of this annual Great Pumpkins series. Many of these fears are of the slow, agonizing death variety. Others are simply of bodily violation. Then there are of course the monsters, those hideous inhuman beings that inspire physical revulsion simply by their presence; and ghosts, manifestations of the inexplicable, forces that surround us yet are invisible or unconquerable and by the very possibility of their existence force us to confront the inherent immateriality and fragility of life.
Aside from the disembodied voice of an elderly woman emanating from a blinking electronic orb, and the legs of a woman modeling footwear, people are largely absent from McLean’s film, or what a subtitle describes as “a parallel universe of matter, indifferent to human experience.” Here, objects, whether isolated or accumulated, have a kind of totemic, even magical presence. They overwhelm human existence—in one shot, a hoarder’s stacks of books suggests that they construct a walled prison—but also survive it, creating a strange life of their own.
When we see Adèle teaching young children in a classroom, she clearly feels at peace, but in a slightly detached way; she doesn’t feel the need to strive in this environment the way that she does in loving and caring for Emma. It makes sense that Adèle’s consummation with Emma is so lengthy and thorough considering we have to believe their connection is intense enough to change the course of Adèle life and help her begin to feel like a complete person. The film doesn’t linger on sexuality because it pleases the gaze of the director or even the audience, but because that is what pleases its characters.
When casual Western observers think of the Egyptian revolution, they likely flash to the events of early 2011, when Egyptians gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square for weeks of sustained protests that resulted in the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak. But in The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s eyewitness documentary of the revolution, those events comprise just the first eleven minutes of running time. The fall of the seemingly insurmountable Mubarak regime was a watershed moment, but as the film illustrates, it hasn’t been the story of the revolution.
Steve McQueen’s highlight reel is coming along nicely. To the prison cell tête-à-tête between Bobby Sands and the priest in Hunger and Carey Mulligan’s flubbed nightclub aria in Shame we can now add the spectacle of Chiwetel Ejiofor standing half-strangled on his tiptoes in 12 Years a Slave. And make no mistake, a spectacle is what it is, even if it’s awash in signifiers of detachment: a distanced camera, a naturalistically dimmed soundtrack, little flitters of background action to offset the painterly stillness of the composition.
If interconnectedness is the great subject of 21st-century cinema, Greengrass traffics in the myriad dangers that spring from it. Jihadi hijackers waltzing onto commercial flights; a sprawling surveillance apparatus made possible by globalizing technologies; gaunt pirates from distant lands whose shores we now routinely touch—through all this, the globe-trotting director has had one message for Americans: it’s a dangerous world out there.
It’s a disturbing testament to her artistry that the most plangent impression left by Bastards is of its beauty, even as it is ultimately her most horrifying film since the cannibal holocaust that is 2001’s Trouble Every Day—indeed, in its considerably more far-reaching implications, perhaps even more so. Where that earlier film maudit provocatively charted the borders between carnality and carnage, in this more (deceptively) accessible film that adopts some of the outer shape of a thriller, Denis presents a fusion of familial love and the most sickening, exploitative violation.
Gravity exposes a latent tension in Cuarón’s oeuvre between virtuosity and dramaturgy. More so than in any of his previous movies, it finds Cuarón the show-off overpowering Cuarón the humanist. And still, it’s a testament to the extraordinary visual achievement of the film that its visceral accomplishments are enough to recommend it.