Here follows a small selection of films by the Arts team which have stood out to us so far this year.
Beyond the Hills
After scanning through my list of films I’ve seen this year, I’ve realised that there is a shocking absence of funny and happy films. I haven’t really seen any new comedies at all, and a lot of the movies I’ve watched that have “happy” endings (such as Django Unchained and Spring Breakers) have achieved those ends through quite gruesome measures. So apologies, but my three choices are a bit on the heavier side.
It’s 1945. The war is over. Germany is in devastation. Somewhere lost in the chaos is a band of Aryan siblings, led by oldest sister Lore, who are trying to get from the Black Forest to Hamburg . They’re not characters you necessarily like or sympathise with (after all, they’re the Hitler Youth), but then again you can’t help willing them to make it. Lore presents the reversal of the von Trapps, the anti-Sound of Music. It’s an unsentimental Nazi road-movie with a dark nastiness at its course. There are no easy answers here and the director doesn’t pick sides. Lore would make for a fantastic double-bill with Haneke’s The White Ribbon.
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s gripping documentary about Indonesian war criminals is not a pretty film. It focuses on Anwar Congo, an aging gangster who boasts about how he personally executed hundreds during the military overthrow in 1965. Alongside his mobster mates, Congo is celebrated as a hero in Indonesia for wiping out around a million alleged communist, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese. What makes Oppenheimer’s film so interesting, exciting and downright horrifying is that he effectively hands over the cameras to the killers, asking them to recreate scenes from the genocide themselves in amateur fashion. With the stamp of seasoned documentary makers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog as executive producers, this is a real must-see movie.
Beyond the Hills
Beyond the Hills is a powerful and dark drama by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. At 145 minutes, this is perhaps a little on the long side, but even that doesn’t stop it from being my favourite of the year so far. When Alina returns from Germany to find that her best friend has taken refuge in an Orthodox convent, it threatens to destroy their relationship irreparably. Much like his Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It’s a tale of insidious religious dogma played out in the isolated Romanian countryside.
Although we have been unable to avoid the occasional CGI turkey (here’s looking at you, Pacific Rim), this past year has showcased an outstanding array of filmmaking talent. My favourite films this year tease out a web of complex character relationships across barriers of time and settled expectation. They also happen to be visually mesmerizing, portrayed with such grace and sensitivity that they avoid falling into the popular trap of self-indulgence.
Hot on the heels of his co-writing success in Borgen and more recently, the Cannes award-winning The Hunt, Danish screenwriting talent Tobias Lindholm embarks on his first directorial debut – and dazzles as a result. With standout performances from growing Danish talents Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling, Lindholm’s script revolves around the hijacking of a Danish freight vessel by Somali pirates and the company’s negotiations to ensure their safe return. At its core, A Hijacking is a probing examination of spatial and empathic distance. It’s rather ironic then, that some film critics desired a more formal flair, neglecting its value as a terse, intelligently paced and claustrophobic drama.
When an emotionally unstable woman turns to an experimental drug prescribed by her psychiatrist, she starts to experience delirious symptoms that culminate in the apparent murder of her husband. What begins as a pyschological thriller quickly morphs into a suspenseful murder mystery, littered with dizzying but satisfying twists. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Side Effectsis another addition to his genre-blending versatility; outstanding and unremitting since his outing in 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape. At the time of its release, Soderbergh announced his ‘retirement’ from filmmaking; a malleable definition, given both his recent biographical romance Behind the Candelebra and upcoming TV mini-series, The Knick.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Don’t let Ryan Gosling’s silent-come-stuntman character fool you; this unexpected gem is in a completely different category to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. Derek Cianfrance’s crime-drama pivots around two fathers, each striving for self-fulfilment but who operate on different sides of the law. In spite of a clichéd ending, the period transition that segregates the film is the most embracing and effective I have seen in all of cinema. The real star however is behind the lens; Sean Bobbitt, the cinematographer responsible for framing Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, imbues Cianfrance’s drama with pathos and precision. Fluid, subtle and uncompromising, The Place Beyond the Pines will leave you enamoured long after you have seen it.
If I were to be completely honest then I’d probably have to say that Despicable Me 2 was my favourite film of the year, but that would be nothing worth noting as it is probably everyone’s. I will admit though, that it is not the best film I have seen so far this year, and so have elected to discuss some slightly more high brow offerings. Amongst the films I have chosen are a consistent return from a beloved director, an exciting debut by a new director and a fresh look at an old mode by an established one.
Taking the time to carefully craft a trilogy is a rare thing these days, but with ‘Before Midnight’ Delphy, Hawke and Linklater have done just that. Not only that but they have perfectly rounded off possibly the most beloved since the Three Colours series. Having inhabited these characters for so many years, the heavily involved and lengthy writing process that this team works through has produced something true and unique. The dialogue is so refreshingly spot-on that it almost makes one uncomfortable. In the same way that Before Sunrise / Sunset did, this is a film which will stay with the viewer. It manages a satisfying progression without deigning to offer a conclusion. It’s release is also a wonderful excuse for fans to re-watch their earlier favourites, and for the uninitiated to fall in love with Jesse and Celine.
Gimmie the Loot
First time writer/director Adam Leon has quietly stepped onto the American scene with this wonderful look at two days in the life of two kids from the Bronx. Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) dream of being the biggest ‘writers’ in New York city – but these dreams are far from literary; the duo hope to graffiti one of their cities most iconic symbols and in doing so one-up all of their rivals. The film is overflowing with youth and summer and coming-of-age goodness in a way that is reminiscent of Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness – and is probably doomed to mild obscurity like the latter too. Carried by strong and unaffected leads, in some ways the film is simply an exploration of the tender and difficult stages of a friendship, where each party seems to be leaning a different way. Taking small glances at class and race politics in a way which always seems natural and non-preachy this film is a love letter to New York and a well-rounded if slightly rough around the edges first feature.
This Italian interpretation of Snow White’s story is filmed in black and white, largely silent and does not deserve any of the comparisons it has drawn to The Artist. The two could not be farther apart, which, considering the huge cinematic tropes that they share, is a testament to them both. Blancanieves is hard to describe; so much of what makes it so wonderful comes from unique interpretations and flare which would be senseless and impossible to explain. Twisting the old story slightly so that it leans more heavily on its darker elements, we find that Carmen (Snow White) herself becomes the seventh dwarf, and amongst them is revealed to be a wonderfully talented Matador. This is to the great ire of her wicked, twisted and wonderfully evil stepmother – played so fiercely by Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labrynth, Y Tu Mama Tambien) that the viewer finds themselves held in a state of equal terror and thrill throughout. The atmosphere and strength of character that a silent film under the right director allows for is simply spectacular – hopefully we can expect more innovative offerings in this old medium in the future.
Which films of the year do you think nobody should miss? Comment below and let us know!