Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho delivers a unique take on the class struggle by putting the remainder of humanity on a train that is speeding around the globe. A climate crisis occurred resulting in an ice age but Wilford, a forward-thinking billionaire industrialist, had a train constructed that contains all the amenities needed to keep a relatively small population of humans alive. Over time, the underclass passengers in the back of the train develop a plan to break out of their ghetto and get access to the privileges of the front car passengers. What follows is a bizarre odyssey that examines a lot of contemporary social and economic issues through this filter of a visually absurd high paced action film. Captain America Chris Evans is the protagonist, but even that gets subverted by the end of the film. There’s plenty of great twists and an impressive action sequence involving masked men wielding shiny silver axes. What Snowpiercer does right is balancing the somber and relevant themes with a fast-paced plot and intriguing characters.
The Selfish Giant (Directed by Clio Barnard)
From my review:
Dystopian futures are a fear of the privileged, and the dystopian present is a reality for the working poor. I’ve never seen this fact as more accurate than when I visit the poorest parts of rural America or watch a film from the UK centered around the northern parts of that country. The Selfish Giant does an excellent job capturing how marginalized the poor and the mentally ill are, pushed to the fringes by economic systems beyond their control or full understanding. This dystopia is a reversion into older, crueler times where the most useful skill is the ability to scavenge and fight. While the world around these boys tells them one way to live the school, a representation of “civilization” is saying they need to take their meds, tuck in their shirts, and follow the rules. However, they have no model to look at that shows them the authority’s prescribed path works.
Upstream Color (Directed by Shane Carruth)
From my review:
Carruth has spoken about Upstream Color as being about “cycles of harm” and how people break those cycles. In the film, there is a life cycle to the mysterious blue micro-organism that is hurting so many. Orchid harvesters find strange blue plants and sell them. The plants are purchased by The Thief who gets the larva that he uses to put people under his control and steal everything they have. The pig farmer has found that using subsonic sound; he gets victims who visit him. He helps them remove the worms and places them in his pigs. Through the pigs, he finds himself empathically connected the other victims. Eventually, he drowns the piglets born from the infected from the worms, and they leak out the blue powder that is absorbed by the orchids. Carruth describes the orchid harvesters as “benign,” the Thief as “malicious,” and the pig farmer as someone who isn’t benefitting from the cycle yet helping to perpetuate it. The pig farmer becomes an antagonist to Kris and Jeff even if he doesn’t realize he is.
American Hustle (Directed by David O. Russell)
From my review:
The opening scene of American Hustle is the thesis statement of the film. Irving’s bloated hairy gut is on display. Irving stands in front of a mirror, freshly awoken and spends an extended amount of time applying glue, a hairpiece, and fashioning an elaborate comb over. What’s communicated here is that the movie will be about false appearances, the people we meet will be duplicitous, and nothing we’re told will be the exact truth, lots of partial truths shaped for the benefit of interested parties. Appearances are significant for con artists; they need their marks to get caught up in a fairy tale that ends with the target being the hero or becoming disgustingly rich. The con artist needs to make themselves visually appealing to match their banter, so they sculpt their hair and their body to become something fantastic.om my review:
The Great Beauty (Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)
From my review:
There isn’t much concern with plot points, and instead, we get lots of character beats, seeing how these figures play off of Jep. There’s a juxtaposition of the first woman Jep loved and the only novel he’s ever written, people asking him when he’s writing another as he goes through a series of empty relationships. A crucial scene occurs when Jep visits an art exhibition where the artist has compiled daily photos taken of him first by his father and then himself. Seeing a person as a combination of the past and present seems to allow Jep a sense of relief that he hasn’t lost who he was to the decadent world around him. The picture is full of small moments, little epiphanies that sometimes create harmony and other times a fascinating dissonance.
Ida (Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)
From my review:
Beyond just the particulars of Poland and the Holocaust, Ida uses those elements to explore questions of identity. Our protagonist knows nothing but the church and then is suddenly thrust into a new status; she is a Jew. These dissonant labels cause her to question her upbringing further and open up the possibility of having an intimate relationship with another person, leaving the church and starting a new life. Ida is a reasonably silent character and could quickly be forgotten about against the boldness of Wanda, but I would argue that Ida is hiding a rich complexity that doesn’t reveal itself almost until the end of the movie. Her emotions are subtle, but they are there, and it requires the attention of the audience to infer what is going on as history comes hurtling towards her. The choice she makes in the final scene leaves many things up in the air but should provide for compelling conversation.
Prisoners (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
Reading the plot blurb of this film might lead one’s eyes to glaze over and move on to the next movie. Two little girls go missing; their families struggle to deal with this horror, while a detective is on the case racing against the clock to rescue them. In the hands of Denis Villeneuve, a standard plot is explored in unexpected ways. The fathers have a man they suspect is behind the disappearance and decide to take the law into their own hands, so they go out and take the man prisoner, putting him through torture. The man has cognitive disabilities, and these scenes are intentionally uncomfortable. Prisoners examines the dangerous power of personal certainty and the actions people take when groupthink becomes a part of that equation. There are some bumps in the third act that might cause some viewers to check out, and the plot can get twisty and turn-y, but I stand by the strengths of the film, especially the chilling ending.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)
This will likely never be one of most talked about Coen Brothers films like Fargo or No Country For Old Men. This picture shares DNA with A Serious Man, an examination of a contentious main character who experiences a series of punishments from life that could be argued to be a result of his actions. Before the film begins, Davis’ partner in the folk music business has died and, left as a solo act, Davis is adrift in life. He grows resentful towards other acts that are moving up in popularity, silently judging them as sellouts and growing more miserable as he attempts to navigate the New York streets sans winter coat. A stray cat proves to be the catalyst on Davis’ journey that leads him in what some viewers may determine is a cyclical path, emphasizing the sadness and frustration of this character. This is a beautiful and melancholy picture, one that recalls a past era and the seeming quicksand of youth that adults just setting out into the world often encounter.
A Field in England (Directed by Ben Wheatley)
The word “experience” gets tossed around frequently in the film community, but that is precisely what A Field in England. The plot is secondary, and characters are essential but malleable in their roles within the story. Set during the English Civil War, an alchemist’s apprentice Whitehead flees the battlefield and ends up in the clutches of O’Neill, an Irish wizard who has a history with the protagonist. Two other soldiers become embroiled in a demented treasure hunt, running in circles through the same field. The imagery used after the characters ingested mushrooms they eat to satiate their starvation is hallucinatory and mind-melting. There’s a particularly horrific scene where Whitehead is tortured into mindless submission by O’Neill. The evil deed happens off-screen, but we hear Whitehead’s reaction and then see him emerge from their tent looking insane and demonic. It’s near impossible to pin down A Field in England’s exact premise, but it’s densely layered and ready to be dissected from several critical viewpoints.
Her (Directed by Spike Jonze)
From my review:
Every aesthetic choice from the production design to location scouting to cinematography and music all lends itself to the melancholy beauty of this film. Jonze creates a future world that’s much more hopeful than our current outlook in regards to the climate. Locations in Los Angeles and China are used to create a landscape of clean urban lines that merges the technological with the organic. Computers are encased in polished wood; the flow of chairs and couches is natural. It’s an incredibly beautiful looking future. The music evokes a familiar feeling of traveling through urban spaces alone, contemplating the surprises and joy that can be found in those concrete corners.
Under the Skin (Directed by Jonathan Glazer)
From my review:
The pace of the film could be understandably frustrating to some viewers; it moves at its unique speed, lingering on specific moments that might be seen as unimportant. However, because we are viewing the world through unfamiliar eyes, the commonplace becomes fascinating to her. There comes a moment when she encounters a group of women in a bachelorette party. Their dialogue is overlapped to the point that we are in the alien’s shoes and cannot understand the specifics, only the essence of their emotions. What Glazer has managed to create here is a very pure ontological film. As the alien makes attempts to be more human, we, in turn, begin to ask what it is that makes us human. She tries to eat food but finds it utterly distasteful. She wants to have sex with a human male but finds herself biologically incapable of feeling anything. Early in the picture, before she has been awakened, we see her watching stoically as a couple drowns to death and their infant sits bellowing on the shore. Our instincts are to help the couple or rescue the baby, but she views this with such passivity.
12 Years a Slave (Directed by Steve McQueen)
From my review:
There are moments where an audience could think McQueen was exploitative, but I think he is stylistic, both to heighten the horror but create a psychological distance between the viewer and full trauma of the experience. We see multiple instances of black bodies being torn apart by inhuman slave owners and masters, McQueen doesn’t hide the strips of bloodied meat that hand from their backs and the permanent scars. However, he also employs a Steadicam which creates a floating dreamlike tone to many of these scenes. I recall a moment where Northrup is allowed to walk to town by himself to purchase items from the general store and sees an opportunity to escape. As he wanders through the woods, he happens upon a lynching in progress, likely two runaway slaves. The white man overseeing the murder spots Northrup and makes sure he gets the message. The whole moment feels like some horror out of a fairytale, of haunted woods and an inescapable nightmare.
Blue Ruin (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
From my review:
What hit me hard about Blue Ruin is how relevant its themes are personally and globally. At first, this seems to be a straightforward revenge film, but the revenge comes very early in the movie. I found myself shocked at what the rest of this film would be about. Then both the audience and Dwight realize his first error, which compounds into more and more. This compounding of mistakes leads to Dwight forced into killing more people, and this breaks him down. He seeks out help only to keep himself long enough to try and remedy his errors. When the full revelation of the inciting crime comes to light, we enter a space of moral ambiguity. People Dwight believes are guilty of things may not be the ones who did it. They are not innocent by any means, but the circumstances are significantly more complicated than first revealed.
Enemy (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
From my review:
He presents us with towering objects that cause our protagonists to seem minuscule and unimportant in their shadow. That sense of insignificance is critical in Enemy. Early on, Bell gives a monologue as a lecture to his students about the nature of dictatorships. They are at their core, an obsession with total control. The consequences of this control are never taken into account, merely the desire to have all under your heel. Bell learns that St. Claire has a wife who is six months pregnant, and soon after that begins having daydreams and hallucinations involving spiders. Adam Bell is trapped in a web as we see through constant shots of the cable car wires crisscrossing against the yellowed sky. These creatures most definitely represent the wife. Most female spiders will consume the male after impregnation and beneath the surface of the story of doppelgangers is this theme. Much like Eraserhead, Villeneuve is exploring the psychological breakdown brought on by impending responsibility.