Tag Archives: Dardenne Brothers

Best Films of 2014

BOYHOOD

In spite of North Korea-sponsored hacks and Hollywood’s subsequent self-censorship, constant doomsday talk of box office decline and much ink spilt about The End of Movies, it was a terrific year for cinema. It’s always difficult in years like this to narrow down to ten favorites, but  below is my attempt. These are films that moved me, astonished me, taught me, and focused my attention more clearly than any others this year. I heartily recommend them all to you:

10) Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favorite directors, and his goth-hipster take on the vampire genre did not disappoint. Starring the always wonderful Tilda Swinton and Tom “Loki” Hiddleston as a pair of vampire lovers with impeccable taste (Basquiat, Lord Byron, David Foster Wallace), Only Lovers Left Alive is both darkly funny, elegant and mournful in a way only Jarmusch (Down By Law, Broken Flowers) can quite pull off.

9) Calvary: This dark comedy from John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly) tells the story of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners. The film plays at times like a Clue-esque whodunit but what I found most compelling about it is how it shows the day-to-day ministry of a priest caring for his flock. Against the backdrop of a post-Christendom Europe, where churches and clergy are viewed by many with suspicion if not contempt, Calvary shows one the beauty of one man’s faithfulness and burden for the lost.

8) It Felt Like Love: This stunning debut film from Eliza Hittman follows a 14-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in Brooklyn as she navigates relationships and sexuality in those awkward girl-to-woman years. Subtle, realistic, quiet and immensely perceptive, the film reminded me a bit of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2010). More than anything I’ve seen, It Felt Like Love shows the disturbing ways that our sex-saturated society and misogynistic media landscape warp young people’s senses of love, body image, relationships and sexuality.

7) Ida: This Polish film from Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) is quiet, spare (filmed in black and white) and understated, yet it packs a punch. Set in the devastated (physically, emotional, existentially) landscape of post-Holocaust Poland, the film follows a novitiate nun as she discovers details about her family from the time of the Nazi occupation. Perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, Ida is also one of the most insightful films I’ve seen about the lingering ghosts of WWII in contemporary Europe.

6) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my review)

5) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my review)

4) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my review)

3) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

2) Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Son, The Child, The Kid With a Bike) make masterpieces so often it would be easy to take them for granted. “It’s just another tour-de-force triumph of humane neorealism,” one might say of their latest film, Two Days, One Night. “Ho hum.” But the film, starring Marion Cotillard (her second Oscar-worthy performance of the year, in my estimation), is nevertheless worthy to be counted among the best movies of the year, even if it feels like another effortless outing in Dardenne-land. What makes Two Days stand out this year is how timely it seems, touching as it does on issues of depression and mental health, as well as economic malaise and the struggle between individual profit and collective responsibility. Like all the Dardenne brothers’ films, Two Days feels beautifully specific and yet at the same time universal–a film about a woman, a husband and a community which we can all identify with.

1) Boyhood: Even if its acting and story were a bust (they aren’t), Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would still be something of a monumental achievement in cinema. Shot over 12 years (the patience!) with the same actors, showing on film the real growing up of a boy (real in the sense of each year he is visibly older, as are his family members), Boyhood chisels away from a mound of time to form an unprecedented cinematic sculpture of temporality and family-shaping childhood development. It’s sort of like the Up series meets David Brooks’ The Social Animal. As I’ve reflected on the film I’ve thought about the inaccessible reality of one’s childhood: photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and one has memories. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually one’s descendants will render their life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all. The power of films like Boyhood is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Cold in July, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, The Wind Rises, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  Selma, Whiplash.

Note: Several of the films on this list contain content (violence, nudity, sex, drugs, language, etc.) that should be approached with caution. 

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Best Films of the First Half

Another year half-way through, another pause to reflect on the best films of the first half. Last year by this time, The Tree of Life topped my list, followed by Meek’s Cutoff. Below are my picks for the five best films I’ve seen in theaters in the first six months of 2012:

1) The Kid With a Bike: The latest from Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is perhaps their most masterful yet. No other film this year affected me as much as this, a deeply humane portrait about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Riffing on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the Dardennes offer up a characteristically nuanced, minimalist, jarring look inside a world both foreign and intensely familiar. The little bursts of Beethoven are just icing on the cake. (my review)

2) Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s beautiful film is one of the best films about childhood I’ve ever seen. It captures–in characteristically colorful, deadpan, boxed-in form–the magical spaces in which children dwell: playing, exploring, flirting with danger and adulthood, taking in the world with wonder and curiosity. More than just a stylistic exercise (Anderson’s films can sometimes fall in this trap), Moonrise is a somber, poetic “coming of age” story with profound things to observe about how children experience the world. (my review)

3) The Grey: I didn’t expect much more from Joe Carnahan’s film than a  typical “angry Liam Neeson” action flick. But man is it more than that. It’s a tough-as-nails film; gritty and masculine to the core. And yet it’s also deeply poetic, existential and surprisingly emotionally jarring. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really punches you in the gut. (my review)

4) Bernie: Richard Linklater’s true crime tragicomedy is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Not only does it feature a remarkable performance from Jack Black as the title character (by far Black’s best acting to date), but it also tackles pretty weighty questions about morality and justice. Linklater’s affection for the particularities of small-town Texas (his home state) also lends Bernie a special personality that makes it stand out as a truly fresh and original, rather uncategorizable film.

5) Undefeated: Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights,  this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors   are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It’s a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, The Avengers, Haywire, Cabin in the Woods

Lorna’s Silence

No one is making better films out of Europe these days than the Belgian Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), who for more than a decade have been churning out stunning, humane, punch-in-the-gut films about working class contemporary Europe. If you haven’t checked out their films The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and The Child (2005), I urge you drop everything and watch them.

Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes’ latest film (and winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2008), is yet another masterpiece—if not their best work then at least their most emotionally complex. It’s a film that left me incapacitated and breathless in my seat as the credits rolled.

I hesitate to say too much about this film because I’d rather you just see it for yourself and let it unfold before you. I went in to it purposefully oblivious to any plot details, knowing only that it was a Dardenne Bros film. If you want to do the same, perhaps you should stop reading here.

Lorna’s Silence centers around Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a working class Albanian woman who wants to open a restaurant in Belgium with her boyfriend. To gain Belgian citizenship (and to get a little extra money), she allows herself to be part of a mobster-conceived scheme in which she marries a druggie (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), divorces him, and then weds a Russian immigrant who also wants to gain Belgian citizenship. Whatever her motivation for getting involved in such a sordid plot, however, it quickly becomes clear that she is merely a means to an end for much more corrupt and dangerous gangsters. Her dreams or desires are the least of anyone’s priorities, and she is a woman alone in the company of some really bad men. She lets herself be used and abused by them with scarcely a word of protest, which is (presumably) where the film gets its title.

The film—as all Dardenne Bros films do—begins in medias res with only the slightest effort to catch the audience up on who these people are or why they are doing what they are doing. But gradually we come to know what we need to know, if only in the faintest of relief. But it’s okay. This film is not about the plot details as much as the plight of humanity at the center. Shot in the trademark visual style (handheld, spare, bleak, cold, with no effects or nondiegetic sound) that the Dardennes did first and better than all the many imitators, Lorna’s Silence puts us right in the middle of a horrifying, desperate urban world full of struggle and depravity and yet nevertheless haunted by hope and beauty. It’s all set against the backdrop of post-EU street-level Europe as it might be imagined through the dire eyes of Cormac McCarthy. It’s a bleak, godless place in which things like marriage and pregnancy are merely economic transactions and nurses at government run hospitals might provide the only unconditional affection in someone’s life.

But Lorna’s Silence isn’t primarily a commentary on contemporary working class Europe (though this is certainly an important part of it). It’s mostly about the journey of Lorna and the desperate situation she finds herself in—a situation at once out of her hands and completely within them. It’s a film about a woman and the tragic loneliness she endures. Who, if anyone, is in Lorna’s corner? As the film goes on, the question becomes increasingly depressing.

Lorna is a woman aching to make a better life for herself—to love and be loved back. She’s like everyone in that way. But unfortunately the hand she’s been dealt has mostly been hardship. She’s an immigrant from a poor background (she wears the same red jeans in nearly every scene and works long hours as a dry cleaner), has no family in sight, and associates with all the wrong people. But she can’t blame circumstances on everything. She can help who she does business with and she could have said no from the beginning. But she didn’t, and so she suffers the consequences.

Still, as much as we know that Lorna has made bad decisions, it’s hard not to empathize with her and feel the existential desperation that cascades out of her eyes in almost every scene. She’s resilient and brave and only cries once or twice, but we see it in her countenance at every turn: Lorna is a very sad person. For most of the movie, she keeps it dangerously bottled up. But by the end of the film (the last ten minutes are breathtaking), Lorna finds a new strength and a new love to live for. She begins to truly speak.

Among the Dardenne Brothers other strengths, they tend to structure their films in such a way that tension and bleakness build up only to be released in a tiny but potent catharsis at the very last moment. Here, like in their stunning finale to The Child (L’Enfant), the Dardennes surprise us with where they end the film. When it cuts to black, in medias res as in the beginning, we feel the weight of an uncertain but hopeful resolution. As in life, we don’t know what exactly will happen, but to know would be to tragically and too-quickly move beyond the hardship and struggle we’ve just gone through. It’s better to just think about where we are and where we’ve come from, to mull over the journey thus far. However harrowing the future may be, it’s enough to just worry about the now.