The year 2013 is anything but ordinary. What I predicted to be another nondescript annum in the calendar of my human existence turned out to be quite the opposite. As the year draws to a close, I cannot help but recognise what a vintage year it’s been and it will certainly go down as one of the most memorable in my own miniscule life. Unexpectedly, The Moviejerk reached the glimmering shores of Cannes last May, soaking up the French Riviera along with thousands of other passionate followers of film. It’s something I will remember fondly when I’m old and grey, and the thought of this little film blog ending up in the world’s most prestigious film festival will certainly give me a reason to get up in the most dreary of mornings. It also helped that I’ve been granted with an official press badge at this year’s London Film Festival, finally accredited at the home turf. But I reckon the words “I’m press, bitch.” wildly scrawled on my badge easily got me access into film screenings. More of that soon, when I hopefully sweep along Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance in my film festival destination list.
As you will notice herein, the traditional top ten catalogue of best films has been stretched to twenty, making more room for other good films that deserved to be honoured in the list. This year has produced an exemplary spectrum of filmmaking, from both sides of the arthouse and mainstream arenas. Plenty of auteur films season the agenda below, peppered with a few studio-financed pictures, Gravity being a spectacular standout. I personally despise 3D – it’s the abomination of commercial cinema – but Alfonso Cúaron is the first man on Earth to convince me of the medium’s raison d’être, proving that when done artistically, it’s a sensually immersive experience. The documentary form has also luxuriated in a sterling year, producing extraordinary results like The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, two of which ended up below.
As much as I love irreverence, I keep this list simple – only films released theatrically in the UK during the last 365 days are considered. So anything touted to be great and has only been seen nowhere near the butthole of Great Britain, tough shit. You’ll have to wait ’til next year then. Otherwise I would have included a few films I’ve seen in Cannes last May which the proletariat of this kingdom haven’t even seen yet, in a justified bid of not being an uppity snob unlike other critics. This means films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Stranger by the Lake, Only Lovers Left Alive and 12 Years A Slave all won’t see the theatrical daylight until early 2014. And should I decide to include Jane Campion’s small-screen epic Top of the Lake, which is one of the best things I’ve seen this year in screens both big and small, it will blow the entire list out of the water.
So, let us commence.
There aren’t multitudes of people who have seen Michael Mayer’s debut Out in the Dark. But for those who have, consider yourself fortunate. This could’ve been the LGBT movie of the year had it not been for the scene-stealing Blue is the Warmest Colour. No less resonant and politically important, first-time filmmaker Mayer places gay cinema on an entirely bigger map comparable to what Ang Lee did back in 2005 with Brokeback Mountain. This is a portrait of love denied of legitimacy and happiness, and one that gains momentum and an agonising sense of urgency given the socio-political context in which the film is set, pitting the Palestinian and Israeli lovers against the neighbouring nations’ decades-long discord. The premise isn’t entirely new, but Out in the Dark makes up for its gritty realism, beguiling honesty and sensitivity that doesn’t, not for a second, insult our thinking organ. Even at the film’s emotional peaks, Mayer never steers into mawkishness or easy, manipulative sentimentality and instead delivers a thoughtful, poignant, nerve-shredding and hauntingly relevant story of human turmoil that demands to be seen by anyone who has an open mind and a beating heart.
What sounds as another generic, based-on-real-events Hollywood-varnished genre exercise becomes a technically propulsive and proficient drama-thriller hybrid in the hands of Paul Greengrass, who specialises in this kind of knuckle-gnawing tension he demonstrated in the Bourne franchise and the terrific United 93. What surprised me most about Captain Phillips is that I haven’t pulled all my hair out, keeling all over the floor gagging for an oxygen mask. In some key scenes, you’ll very likely forget to breathe. Greengrass is masterfully effective in delivering high-stakes, lacerating tension whilst still maintaining a character-driven film. The momentary nuances of the parallel between Phillips and Muse (non-professional Barkhad Abdi providing unexpected complexity, steering the character away from the prototype villain role), both captains of their crew following protocols and higher social orders, have so much humanity that feeds the unfolding cutthroat crisis. The finale alone is a superb exhibition of thrill, depth and drama, with Tom Hanks knocking that ‘performing art’ out of the park. This actor might have mellowed down over the years, but the last few minutes of Captain Phillips bracingly captures the protagonist’s post-traumatic distress with such emotional force, it will have you sobbing like a wreck into your rigid hands tightly wrapped over your mouth.
Sarah Polley’s ultra-personal odyssey deep down the roots of her family tree seemed to be nothing more than an exercise in celebrity navel-gazing and epic self-aggrandising – an artful version of BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? But nearly halfway through, as Polley steps aside and zeroes her attention to her parents, Michael and Diane, siblings, friends, relatives and the jovial people that surrounded their abode, Stories We Tell transforms into something incredibly rich, rewarding, intimate, intense and incredibly poignant meditation on personal identity and the secrets and revelations of family life. Polley becomes an investigator and documentarian, exhaustively tracing her biological tracks through a labyrinthine reconstruction, leaving no rock unturned. The nature of truth and storytelling are rivetingly prodded, explored, contemplated to a sheer spectacle of nuance that’s wonderful for an artist as young as Polley. Her own personal life feeds her art, and it’s only justified and even cathartic that she unravels her own sense of being through the power of documentary, naturally allowing the subjectivity of truth to come out from all the lies, deception and manipulation of the form.
Many would very much like to wipe Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy out of their memories, banishing this sweat-soaked, lust-smeared Floridian daylight noir into the sordid hell where it belongs. Well, my bags are packed as I’m coming down along with the trashiest, raunchiest, riskiest motion picture independent American filmmaking has ever produced in recent memory. Where most industry films are mainly playing it dull and discreet, Daniels drops prestige and dives into the treacherous waters of race and sexploitation with maniacal abandon. Where most of her peers settle for the safe, pleasant and subdued, Nicole Kidman delivers a tragicomic performance made with pure balls of steel, dropping renowned elegance and grace, and goes on to portray a maximal Southern white-trash whore this side of John Waters territory – all bleached-blonde, fake-tan, lurid lipstick and impossibly tight 1960s ensembles, sex and depravity oozing through her pores like sweat on skin. The result is both distracting and utterly, strangely, provocatively entertaining, despite reducing the plot to almost non-entity. Who cares about some pulpy murder investigation when Nicole Kidman is having a hands-free, telepathic orgasm with John Cusack, or pissing on Jack Efron’s jellyfish-stung face, or Macy Gray mockingly masturbating on the floor through a pantyhose? Any puritan would find the film obscene. The last thing you’d expect in a film like The Paperboy is restraint. This is no Michael Haneke film. It’s a work of Daniels, and it’s all ’bout excess.
Steven Soderbergh’s terrific, hilarious, magnificently judged Liberace biopic is such a grandstanding blast that it’s hard to process it may very well be the director’s last film we see on the big screen (for the time being, anyway). Behind The Candelabra is a glorious culmination to the director’s two-decade career, fusing style, substance and a lot of panache into one handsome package sequined with sparkling wit, humour and unapologetic gayness that Hollywood bats an eyelid above the typical rate of a cardiac arrest. Turned down by studio executives, the reason being that most parts of America still believe that dead homosexuals like Liberace are currently being barbecued in fiery, eternal damnation, Behind The Candelabra fell on HBO’s lap and waltz it to Cannes in sheer triumph. Michael Douglas, who’s never been this damn good since Wall Street, milks Liberace with zingy one-liners, fabulous innuendos and show-making flamboyance more grandiose and magnificently coutured than a feathered flamingo. Golden-haired sirloin Matt Damon is extremely good, too, and Rob Lowe occasionally stealing the limelight with an impossibly Botox’d face, but the it’s Soderbergh that makes the proceedings bouncy and full of joie de vivre. He’ll be missed.
Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love features one of 2013’s most controversial scenes in cinema – a group of drunken, middle-aged, flabby and debauched white women coaxes an erection from a young Kenyan male prostitute in a late-night hotel room party, while the camera stares on, never shying away from the potentially exploitative sequence that screams of racial prejudice and sexual demoralisation. Some things just cannot be unseen, and Seidl makes sure our eyes are wide open. His film is a subversive, sardonic and ultimately penetrating look into the sex tourism industry, cast with a cynical eye from a director of blunt yet bold talent. Chances are, you won’t have much fun watching Paradise: Love – it’s not a holiday film but rather a caustic commentary on racial prejudice and human ageing that will leave a dark, bitter aftertaste. The journey of its protagonist Teresa (a brave, show-stopping performance by one Margarete Tiesel), a sad, sexually unfulfilled white Austrian woman who flies to Kenya to feast on the third-world, virile male escorts that flock this purported ‘paradise’, is never one-sided. Seidl skirts any form of moralising to show a keen sense of truth, exploring what happens when women forages on the palpably less-culture male subjects and then radically turning tables around as the escorts themselves become predators on the emotionally needy and romantically deprived women from the West. Turns out, both sides have prices to pay.
Harmony Korine’s latest – a hedonistic, crotch-baring tour-guide to Florida’s neon-flared, sweat and sex-soaked bikini hell – will prove too much for some. It scantily treads the line between ironic cinema and aimless non-narrative, undoubtedly dividing the house and inevitably being misinterpreted by many. The characters that populate Spring Breakers are indeed a bunch of morons in the same intellectually sub-zero level as those who perpetually binge on wild parties, drugs, booze, beach-whore, tits galore – cripplingly dumb homo sapiens whose greatest ambition is to lead a stupid full-monty MTV lifestyle. Because nothing else matters, and not everyone reads books, not everyone majors in a smart-arse degree, cares about the future and gives a damn about a career. There’s no denying Korine is ripping apart the exact same vacuous world he’s portraying on-screen, self-consciously looping debauched images, immoral voices, depraved moments in a preternatural repeat like a terrible, surrealistic trash nightmare you’re screaming yourself awake from. Beneath the sensual assault of editing tricks, backward-and-forward narrative juggle, and the satirical juxtaposition of Britney Spears and unhinged violence, Korine keeps a sinister undertone all throughout, creating a portrait of pop culture gone haywire as much as a corrosive perspective on the mad, lunatic, vacuous Floridian beach-party pilgrimage, in itself a religion followed by the hollow souls of the modern American youth.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska captures that start black-and-white monochromatic feel of a classic American road movie that folks in Hollywood don’t make anymore. The aesthetics chosen here seems a mere affectation at first, but it signals a stripped-down, back-to-basics affair for Payne, focussing instead on its minimal, misanthropic tale of a curmudgeon’s futile search for his lottery winnings. While it’s no masterwork, it wryly captures family dynamics and small-town morass with sharp, perceptive writing. It also features grumpy old people swearing, and I have a soft spot for grumpy old people swearing so it’s quite a treat to see this one. It also helps that Dern, who bagged the Best Actor prize in Cannes, an actor whose previous work do not measure to his own pedigree, gives a remarkably convincing performance here – anchoring this road movie with an emphatically poignant heart as the quietly determined Woody Grant. Add in June Squibb’s hilariously foul-mouthed mother, a delightful comic gem. She’s the film’s joyful source of bile, and the voice of reason which everyone ignores. As inherently funny the script can be, the shrewdness of Payne is that he never forgets that the kind of laughter to be had here comes from a deeper place – the universal truth of fathers determined to leave their legacy to their sons, no matter how inconsequential that might be.
There’s a long line of tradition in cinema of anti-heroines – suppressed females seduced into the carnal chutzpah of ultra-violence – that precedes the arrival of Stoker. Think about Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Carrie – all exhibiting psychologically fractured female psyches waiting to unleash a hellish tirade of pitch-black nihilism. So anybody comparing this to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 American suburban thriller Shadow of a Doubt is obviously being misled. What Stoker morphs into is something decidedly darker, a more disturbingly macabre, malevolent and erotically charged study of transgression featuring a female protagonist whose burgeoning sexuality serves as a red hot button. And it takes an amoral uncle to act as a trigger. Chan-wook Park presents a supreme control of formality, allowing his dark arts to simmer underneath the gorgeously realised visuals and the tension to build up rather than boil over. It’s a masterclass in visual storytelling, employing almost every technique in the book, and an illustration in perfect casting, a trio of damningly exquisite actors who ratchet up this tale of domestic/erotic tug-of-war. But this is really Mia Wasikowska’s show, whose India is innocent yet cunning beyond her years, virginal yet seething with lurid desires, loyal yet rebellious in nature – and yet still remaining ambiguous in every turn. The more she becomes unhinged, the harder it takes to look away from in this pitch-black origin story of a Gothic femme fatale.
Some films demand repeated viewings to fully grab hold of the senses, and I had to watch this one twice to fully bask in Paolo Sorrentino’s elusive, enigmatic yet searingly truthful and compassionate ode to transience, humility, lost love and the sheer pulchritude of The Eternal City. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is a bravura piece of filmmaking that will surreptitiously haunt you for days, its mellifluous ideas and philosophy, its sweeping grandeur and scope, its rhythmic flow and episodic nature singularly goes against the tide of popular cinematic conventions, structured as part-tableaux and part-paramour to Rome. Tony Servillo’s Gatsby-type Jep Gambadella, whose Cheshire cat grin slowly dissolves into contemplative longing throughout the film, throws highfalutin’ Fellini-esque parties on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Colosseum where the saintly and debauched rub shoulders, goes on nighttime strolls and laments daytime excursions as though in search for the purpose of life. And all the while Sorrentino’s camera elegantly glides and soars and sweeps through the city with an ease of a visual poet, capturing Jep’s encounters and frank conversations turning inwards as he meditates on lost time, lost chances and the intoxicating, glorifying and saddening beauty of being alive.
Noah Baumbach, who joins Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in 2013′s class of back-to-basics, monochrome module of cinema, strips down to a fundamental level associated to cinematic works of yore – a dialogue-ridden, lo-fi black-and-white picture that mostly depends on a central performance and the travails of the lead character, harking back to the loose, freewheeling aesthetic of the Truffauts and Godards of the French New Wave. The result is Baumbach’s finest work to date, perhaps rivalling the assurance of The Squid and the Whale, and certainly his most inspired and exuberant. We also welcome the arrival of Greta Gerwig, who finally gets to leave an indelible mark on a signature role, deftly balancing ineptitude and clumsiness with a remarkable emotional frankness. There is almost nothing her character cannot make a joyful moment out of any tribulations. First-world problems, yes, but Gerwig’s Frances makes you feel that a white educated female with middle-class upbringing has genuinely low opportunities in a tough city, with human connections crumbling under the weight of competition and social expectations. This is one of the most witty, perceptive and emphatically touching depictions of a twentysomething drifter getting her shit together. So in times of crises, what would Frances do? Step back, admit mistakes, embrace the chaos and try becoming a better person.
Another solid addition to the Romanian New Wave stronghold is Călin Peter Netzer’s Golden Bear-winning Child’s Pose, which throws an unflinching look at a fractured contemporary Romanian society beset by a systematic corruption of the bourgeoisie. The despicable upper middle-class is embodied here in the fur-draped, bejewelled and impeccable coiffured form of Cornelia, a Bucharest-dwelling firebrand matriarch who storms into a nearby working-class town to intervene a police investigation where her 32-year old son is involved in a motorway accident. The intricate screenplay refuses easy judgements, turning a police procedural inwards into a stunning character drama, spearheaded by Luminiţa Gheorghiu’s astonishing central performance as the monstrously conniving mother. Her Cornelia is a fierce addition to a line-up of cinematic matriarchs from Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce right through Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives – but with added ambiguity and intelligently layered complexity. Her devastating plea during the film’s cathartic finale is undoubtedly a heart-wrenching watch, a mixture of self-humiliation and wretched parental desperation shot in extreme close-up, Cornelia’s face a spectacle of contorted emotions. But carefully scrutinise this woman’s motivations and you’ll see some cunning display, that this moment might be her most complex piece of manipulation yet, convincing the simplistic, penniless family of compassion by showing tear-strained humanity. A ferocious mother or an upper-crust monster, it’s left for you to decide.
First love, when it grabs hold and takes over, is a maddening, all-consuming, intoxicating surrender of the senses. Cinema has plumbed all manners of depths to this topic, but perhaps rarely as emotionally and erotically charged as Abdellatif Kechiche’s long, languorous, explicitly bold love story Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2). Kechiche’s premise is familiar, but his approach on the material is quite something to behold, remarkable for holding back no punches, leaving no human emotion uncovered, sugarcoating no feelings and locating his frame in extreme close-ups – tears, snots and all – as if the camera itself is in thrall of every minutiae, every flicker of the passion shared by Adèle and blue-haired bohemian painter Emma. And then there’s the much-ballyhoed sex scene of any gender category since Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Kechiche ups the ante and extends his chamber piece to seven lucid, confronting minutes. Whilst doubtlessly brave, these scenes raise some questionable debates about how the actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux’s epic lovemaking is often viewed from the male perspective. But then the director has a fine point of argument, too, if anybody ever paid attention to the thesis the film is putting forward. That sex is the ultimate expression of incontrovertible love. That to make love is to bare one’s self into absolute, unaffected intimacy. Boundary-pushing and beautifully passionate, Kechiche has given us a tremendous emotional odyssey that pulses with the searing intensity of the human experience, performed to a glorious crescendo by Exarchopolous and Seydoux. I swear you’re not a human being if you see this and not feel anything.
Films about women on the verge of nervous and mental breakdown now have a quintessential contender in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, featuring a central character whose nerves are splaying like plucked out violin chords at the end of a turbulent concerto. Given a good deal of analysis, this may be one of Allen’s most significant work in his entire career (we’re talking about four decades of filmmaking here), spinning tragicomedy and morality tale with such dexterity that squirming humour and existentially dark pathos become marvellously unrecognisable from each other. It doesn’t reach the masterpiece levels of Annie Hall and Manhattan (honestly, what does?), but it points to the darker Allen days of Husbands and Wives and even The Purple Rose of Cairo. Abandoning his Euro-travelogue stints, his return to America has done the director good, undistracted by picture-postcard sights and fancifully contrived scenarios, narrowing his lens into the life of his tragic anti-heroine, the eponymous Jasmine – a spectacle of haute couture, smeared mascara, vodka martinis, migraines and meltdowns. Through this fascinatingly pathological character who defies sympathy and compassion, the film scores Grade A with the astonishing sight of Cate Blanchett, who gives her finest and most meticulous performance in her entire career. Her face is the foreign land Allen is keen to explore, and the actress wrings out every possible emotion the human face is capable of expressing. Jasmine loses all her shit, hits rock bottom after climbing up the social ladder way too high, deserves every single misery she brought upon herself, and yet somehow making us a feel a shred of understanding is largely due to the miracle of Blanchett’s performance.
Only God Forgives has all the makings of a critically divisive film, taking that ‘style over substance’ debate to more hysterical levels, sending any mainstream-inclined viewer up the wall with its confounding abstraction and refusal to provide an easily identifiable narrative due to the fact that a) it’s more mood-piece rather than a straightforward revenge drama we’d come to expect, and b) Ryan Gosling barely has anything to say in its entire 90-minute running-time, making his character in Drive look and sound incredibly verbose. If it weren’t for Refn brilliantly flipping the prototype revenge-movie dynamics, Only God Forgives would have played as a conventional vengeance story, but his refusal to pander to audience’s taste and expectations make this a particularly challenging, if not enthralling, watch. Deception is at the core of Refn’s concept – taking a Shakespearean tragedy and turning the lead characters into the story’s perpetrators. The family of expatriates are the film’s chief villains and the enigmatic policeman Chang the rightful protector of his homestead, a silent samurai serving justice and cleansing his society of Western contamination. Stanley Kubrick’s influence is heavy from the get-go, balletic cameras gliding through crepuscular, scarlet-bathed corridors and neon-lit Bangkok byways, and it often feels like a horror film with splashes of visceral blood and unflinching violence. Hard to watch, but Refn makes violence inherent in this brutal world. In many cases, the physical violence are no comparison to the emotional cruelty of its characters who deserve no empathy. They are the demons that drift in the Dantean world they live in, and they need to be burned in an atmospheric descent to hell. Gosling is muted all throughout, but makes perfect psychological sense if your mother is as terrifying as Kristin Scott Thomas, whose matriarch-fatale is one of the most sinister creations in cinema this year. Soon, your balls will quiver at the sight of a leopard-print dress.
For most of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, chances are, you’re shaking your head in wild, condemnatory disbelief. That Oppenheimer refuses to go the easy route most documentaries tread and zeroes on the slaughterers of the Indonesian genocide rather than the unfortunate victims is something that requires boldness. By denying us historical detail and granting carte blanche to the oppressors (here personified by death squad gangsters Angwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry) to re-enact their killings in whichever known Hollywood genre they prefer not only makes this documentary unconventional but it reinforces, even transcends, the medium’s form and function. Its confrontational approach is even more remarkable for refusing to graphically re-enact torture but rather allow us to stare at the faces of the madly proud perpetrators as they recount their inhumane brutality. Angwar alone has the blood of a thousand people on his hands, and his gleeful reconstruction of the massacres says an awful lot to the horrendously skewed government which sanctioned these executions. Only when he acts as the victim does the full pulverising blow lands, and Oppenheimer’s clarity of purpose subsequently emerge. Angwar’s slow, shattering realisation of the gravity of his crimes powerfully essays a deeply entrenched evil and corruption in societies such as Indonesia that’s a by-product of something maddening and ultimately sickening – the inconceivable human ignorance that clouds over rationality, question of authority and even the most fundamental morality.
Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino. The walking, breathing, ego-spewing motormouth has done an awful lot more than many American directors working today, revitalising near-comatose genres, sticking up a middle finger to conventions and stirring up some daringly pitched provocations. In Django Unchained, he’s further cemented his own brand of glorious, cathartic revenge odyssey that treats the ‘slavery movie’ not with constipated historical reverence but with sheer cinematic flamboyance and subversion of a master entertainer. In Tarantino’s purview, cinema is not history, it’s an artform – hence his hyper-violent yet never unjustified treatment on the pre-civil war American slavery, a topic which causes a spell of hushed anxiety over executive Hollywood boardrooms. Tarantino lifts this fog and rams home his unapologetic Spaghetti revenge Western with a decidedly dazzling mix of style, craftsmanship, savage wit and incendiary storytelling vigour. What’s even more extraordinary is that Tarantino never ignores the sever brutality of the era and offers a damn sight more complexity than many slavery movies, and that includes Steve McQueen’s recent furrow-browed treatment 12 Years A Slave. Django blows wide open the stereotypical concepts of master and slave, exposing the treacherous middle-ground which all other players occupy. Samuel Jackson’s Stephen is the prime court exhibit here, the quintessential Uncle Tom with more disturbing motivations. And his is only one of the several taut, layered and compelling performances that grounds the film – Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio – whom all deliver spades in this Western mythmaking of self-empowerment and liberation.
Commerce and Art are uncomfortable bedfellows, let’s face it. Especially in Hollywood where convention and formula are espoused, sending craft and creativity to go beg nickels-and-dimes on the streets. But not Alfonso Cuarón. He weds these two strange bed-partners together to conceive a beautiful, legitimate lovechild that is Gravity, obliterating your notion of soulless contemporary Hollywood filmmaking in the process. That something drafted and bankrolled from a major studio not only manages to extract a sizable part of your pocket, but also made sure those dimes are damn well spent, offering an all-in-one package of spectacle, thrill, intelligence, poetry, humanity and sheer depth. For all of Gravity‘s preposterously consumerist 3D marketing stunt, Cuarón sneaks in a survivalist arthouse film into a glossy, crowd-pleasing blockbuster designed to make your jaw drop with its technical precision, make your butt clench at its most horrifying moments and your heart soar at its grandly emotional and life-affirming coda. Its humans-marooned-in-space narrative may be deceptively linear, as many detractors would point out (to which I retort, it’s not Inception in space, duh), but under the principle of ‘less-is-more’, Gravity triumphs as a metaphorical reinforcement of life as the greatest spectacle of all. Earth here is a tremendous reminder of the grief and pain that Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is floating away from, and her subsequent life-or-death adversity places her in a challenging existential reformation, re-evaluating what human communication and survival really means. It’s a stunning character arc that Bullock achieves with extraordinary emotional weight. Gravity is a one-woman show and Bullock commands a screen presence that’s altogether strong, vulnerable and deeply thoughtful, hammering home the things we all wretched human beings take advantage of every waking day of our lives – that wondrous pull of life right beneath our feet.
The Romanian New Wave is fast becoming one of the most important cinematic movements of recent memory, with a body of work that exorcised the post-Ceaușescu era into purgative, politically damning works of art. Cristian Mungiu overcomes that ‘second difficult album’ syndrome and produces Beyond The Hills, a magisterial follow-up of the powerful abortion morality drama 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days. Where his previous work angrily condemned the Communist Romanian government, this time Mungiu narrows his lens on orthodox religion, which still besiege the country until today. In pure Mungiu fashion, 150 minutes unfold with unrelenting existential claustrophobia, testing our patience and endurance with its bleaker-than-hell account of the very human nightmare that takes place in an isolated Orthodox monastery. Slow-burning as it is, it nonetheless holds you with a vice-grip, refusing to let go until its final closing minutes – a testament to Mungiu’s supreme mastery, shaping up to be one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, finest purveyors of serious cinema. It’s all there in every frame of Beyond The Hills – the formalist control of Bergman, the controversial taste of von Trier, the sombre approach of Tarkovsky and even the tautness of early Polanski at his very best. He fleshes out in excruciating detail this tragedy of two individuals trapped in a philosophical tug of war, the liberal, rebellious and clearly troubled Alina in direct competition for Voichita’s blinkered, devout and passive love for something invisible, unseen, an unproven theorem – God. What follows immediately is probably the closest arthouse cinema gets to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but with more devastating ramifications. The moment you hear the voice of human logic in the film’s closing scenes feels like a blast of fresh air. Mungiu’s thesis is that dogmatic religion is as worse as any dictatorial regime. There is no questioning right or wrong. There is only blind obedience masked behind so-called ‘good intentions’.
To build an entire film around conversations is no mean feat, let alone an entire trilogy. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset have given me far more insight about relationships and the unknowable nature of romance than many hundred-fold movies ever committed to the history of celluloid, transcending the romantic travelogue movie and turned it into witty, withering, microscopically perceptive and ebullient dissections of life’s many enigmas – love, mortality, time, fear, dreams and human connections. I saw Sunrise at eleven, Sunset at sixteen, and now Before Midnight nine years later, so I’ve pretty much held an emotional attachment to Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s creative collaboration. The real accomplishment, however, lies in Midnight‘s defiance in bowing down to easy wish fulfillment and ultimately using real time in real life as a canvas to which this film draws its sublime power. It does not only provide an emotionally and intellectually satisfying capper to the Before trilogy but also betters the two predecessors by its maturity, wisdom and its sheer precision in piercing wide open the blisters of long-term commitment and consequences of consummated love. Time has always been love’s enemy, and it eats away the edges of Jessie and Celine’s relationship, with the real world sagging heavily on them – a previous broken marriage, a disconnected son, conjugal quibbles, past resentments and present responsibilities that all boil down to a tragedy looming on their landscape. The film is not set among the Greek ruins for nothing. A few eloquent, elegant and poignant discussions about the foibles of life give way to a tour-de-force coup de cinema, turning a merely modest hotel room into a battleground of wills, maniacally turning a sweet refuge into a scabrous, vicious verbal-sparring arena that would exhaust any adept wordsmith. There is a nod to Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, but Jessie and Celine have a quite a strong claim on the quintessential bickering cinematic couple, fiercely articulating mid-life issues and magnificently trashing the delusions and misconceptions about romantic love with such razor-sharp wit, pragmatism and perception. It goes without saying that two people committing to love is really goddamn difficult, and it’s far easier to throw away 18 years worth of halcyon fantasy than to build a life together. The scene where Jessie and Celine watch the sun quickly disappearing down the horizon is telling. “Still there, still there,” she mutters. Cherish everything you have now. Time is brief. We’re just passing through, and then we’re gone.