See Also: Franklin’s Best American Films of the Year (So Far)
2011 Film Festival Premiere/2012 Stateside Theatrical Release
A Burning Hot Summer, directed by Philippe Garrel
Philippe Garrels’ third consecutive collaboration with his movie star son (and onscreen surrogate), Louis Garrel, following their award-winning Regular Lovers (2005) and the vastly underrated Frontier of Dawn (2008). All three of these films feature articulate (and very French) discussions about art and radical politics and share a preoccupation with the possibility of love, the trauma of failed relationships, and the specter of suicide. This time around, Louis Garrel plays an uninspired painter, living in Rome with his beautiful actress wife (Monica Bellucci). When another couple (Jerome Robart & Celine Sallette) come to live with them for the summer, Garrel discovers his wife’s infidelity and realizes that their marriage cannot be saved. Although it begins on a hysterical note (the protagonist drives his convertible BMW head-on into a tree), the drama quickly settles into something more characteristically muted and listless. That’s because Philippe Garrel is not interested in feverish melodrama, but, rather, the internalized crises that arise out of the mundane, the stagnation of relationships, and periods of artistic non-productivity. Another chapter in a deeply personal filmography, built around conflicts of male pathological need, this latest will be best remembered for three shots of extended length — Bellucci dancing with a guy friend at a wrap party; Sallette sleepwalking at night by a pool; and a totally naked Bellucci, posed like Manet’s Olympia on a bed, beckoning her doomed husband.
The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies
In Davies’ first fiction feature, since his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000), a wife (Rachel Weisz) leaves her much older husband (Simon Russell Beale), a wealthy judge, for a dashing RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston), and then attempts suicide in a miserable boarding house. Davies intelligently refashions Terence Rattigan’s play (lesser material than his celebrated The Browning Version) into a memory piece, striking a balance between the operatic and the restrained. Weisz and Hiddleston certainly make fetching lovers, but it’s Beale, as the passionless husband, pathologically attached to his mother, who steals the film and gives one of the year’s best performances. Together with his production designer James Merifield, costume designer Ruth Myers, and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Davies conjures an atmosphere rich in postwar period detail with an astonishing range of visual texture. This is cinematography as oil painting and a reminder of what can only be done with 35mm film stock and what will be lost forever, once the transition to digital is completed. Two of the year’s most rapturous moments: the spiraling, overhead shot of Weisz and Hiddleston’s naked bodies, entwined in erotic ecstasy; the long tracking shot of Londoners, taking refuge in the Underground, during the Blitz, as one man sings a traditional folk ballad.
When twelve-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is abandoned by his deadbeat father and sent to a foster home, Samantha (Cecile De France), a local hairdresser, steps forward to offer him her comfort and a shot at a new and stable home. In its narrative simplicity and emphasis on good and evil, innocence and its potential corruption, this is the closest the Dardennes Brothers have come to making a fairy tale. Also, the widescreen shooting format, summertime natural lighting, expressive use of color (the boy’s red jacket, the green of the nearby woods), and fluid tracking shots of Cyril riding his bike around town, come together to make this their most visually dynamic film. Doret, who seems to be in perpetual motion, is a real find, while De France gives one of the year’s subtlest performances, as the Dardennes’ embodiment of kindness.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The Turkish auteur’s best film yet: an epic police procedural about the nighttime search for a body, which gradually evolves into a meditation on civilization and the elemental forces, which both hold it together and threaten to tear it apart. Ceylan’s stunning panoramic photography of the Anatolian steppe is matched by his tremendous, enveloping sound design. The sonic details of the natural landscape — gusts of wind, the loud rumbling of thunder, the rolling of an apple down a bumpy hill and into a stream, the violent intrusiveness of a dog barking — individually stand out and seamlessly complement the ghastly sound effects of an extended autopsy sequence in the film’s third act. At what point do the private and the public intersect? Can one ever really discern another person’s true motive in committing a crime? Is blunt honesty more damaging than lies? Can the repercussions of a crime be prevented with an official lie? Ceylan’s resonant third act deserves to be studied for its psychological complexity, dramatic ambiguity, and brilliant moral and ethical inquiry.
This Is Not A Film, directed by Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
This documentary, the year’s most artful home movie, chronicles a day in the life of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, while under house arrest in his Tehran apartment. Branded by the state as subversive, Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison, banned from writing and directing any films for twenty years, and prohibited to give any kind of media interviews and leave the country. Awaiting the results of his appeal, he turns the camera on himself, speaks with his lawyer on the phone, plays with his pet iguana, and enacts a scene from the screenplay that he will probably never get to make. Most recent documentaries about politically-charged subject matter are marked by shallow didacticism and a slick tv journalism style. Not this film. Made at the epicenter of one of the planet’s most oppressive states and smuggled out for the rest of the world to see, Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s artifact is both frightening and moving, while bearing the multi-layers and reverberations of a great work of fictional filmmaking. As a portrait of the conflicts brewing within Iranian society, this is also more trenchant and illuminating, than the Oscar-winning A Separation. A limited apartment setting, a focus on victimization, and an (possibly) unraveling psyche at its center … this could very well be a Roman Polanski film.
The Turin Horse, directed by Bela Tarr
Tarr’s self-proclaimed final film is another black & white vision of the apocalypse and a more than worthy companion piece to his masterworks Satantango (1994) and Werkmeister Harmonies (2000). In what might be rural Hungary at the end of the 19th century, a storm rages, the animals have stopped eating, and the world is threatened by the onset of a permanent darkness and silence. A farmer and his daughter take refuge in their isolated farmhouse and enact a series of excruciating daily rituals. Tarr invokes Nietzsche’s apocryphal story of the title animal in the opening moments, but Samuel Beckett is clearly the other major source of inspiration for this darkly comic scenario. Like his collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s highly modernist novels, Tarr’s films embody a deeply pessimistic belief that the world has been plagued and corrupted beyond repair by demagogues and false prophets. Yet, as bleak as his films might be, their sheer beauty and rigor of craft attest to an enduring human need to be in touch with awe and wonder. Each of Tarr’s signature long takes, therefore, could be viewed as a painstaking act of faith.
We Have A Pope, directed by Nanni Moretti
Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Moretti’s latest are the year’s two great comedies of depression. Before he can be formally announced as the newly-elected pope to the world and the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Melville (the legendary Michel Piccoli) is stricken with emotional paralysis. In a panic and eager to avoid further crisis, the Vatican summons Rome’s top psychoanalyst (Nanni Moretti) to evaluate Melville. This is not the all-out satirical indictment of the Catholic Church, which many critics were expecting from the vocally leftist Moretti, but something less politically obvious and, altogether, more humanistic, instead. In fact, Moretti, throughout the film, is far more critical of psychoanalysis, as an ineffectual institution, than he is of the Church itself — while Moretti’s narcissistic psychoanalyst is revealed to be driven by competition, his estranged wife, also a psychoanalyst, quickly falls back on a canned explanation that all personal issues stem from “a deficit of parental love.” Ultimately, what makes this a more optimistic film than Stillman’s comedy of depression, is Moretti’s faith in art (specifically, the theater of Chekhov), as a genuine (and potentially more reliable) tool for healing. The ending reaffirms that true leadership, both spiritual and worldly, begins with humility.
2012 Berlin Film Festival Premiere/July Stateside Theatrical Release
Farewell, My Queen, directed by Benoit Jacquot
Jacquot depicts the tumultuous days leading up to the fall of Versailles, through the eyes of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) most loyal servant (Lea Seydoux). More intimate than epic, this period piece’s distinguishing ingredient is an ample dose of sapphic desire. While it has neither the depth nor deviance of Jacquot’s still-unreleased stateside Deep in the Woods (2010), this is still a highly engaging work, thanks in large part to the beauty and skill of his two lead actresses. Diane Kruger reveals a distinctly new layer to Marie Antoinette in each of her key scenes — flighty and girlish in her bedroom introduction, tragic in her parting with a would-be lover (Virginie Ledoyen), and, finally, diabolically manipulative at the film’s climax. It could be her most accomplished performance yet. As the Queen’s personal reader, who harbors a potentially dangerous crush, the luscious Seydoux carries nearly every moment of the film with great subtlety.
2012 Cannes Film Festival Premiere/August Stateside Theatrical Release
Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg
Cronenberg’s flawed adaptation of Don DeLillo’s underrated novel about late capitalism and its many discontents, is one of the year’s real oddities, onscreen or anywhere else. Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a 28 year-old billionaire, who, in his high-tech limousine, embarks on an odyssey across midtown Manhattan to get a haircut. Cronenberg makes some questionable adaptation decisions, which ultimately obfuscate the protagonist’s intentions and grand scheme of self-destruction, significantly reduce the dramatic momentum of the narrative, and render one recurring character (the wife) less integral to the storyline. However, the filmmaker must be saluted for retaining whole blocks of DeLillo’s genuinely unique dialogue. Abstract, not readily digestible in meaning, off-kilter in rhythm, and prone to non sequiturs, his dialogue is like a new or alien (or is it all-too familiar?) language and it quickly becomes the real star of the film. Of the cast, Pattinson, Juliette Binoche as an art dealer, Samantha Morton as a special consultant, Kevin Durand as a bodyguard, and newcomer Emily Hampshire as a sweaty financial adviser, particularly excel at delivering the author’s words. The film is at its strongest when it embraces the novel’s more satirical tone — a negotiation to purchase the Rothko Chapel immediately follows a rear-entry (or is it anal?) sex scene between Binoche and Pattinson in the limo; a lecture on new “theory” by Morton, while a protester sets himself on fire outside the limo; a rapper’s funeral procession, which elicits a few tears from Pattinson (“Coming from the streets/To Mecca/Death, no matter where you go/Come and getcha”). Perhaps best described as a sustained exercise in stasis and inscrutability, Cronenberg’s curious literary adaptation will likely grow in stature with each new viewing.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently reviewed Moonrise Kingdom and interviewed actress Alice Barnole.