Contagion (2011) Written by Scott Z. Burns Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Things are feeling a bit tense and anxious these days. Coronavirus or COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle and for a good reason. It is an extremely contagious disease that is spreading at a rapid rate. The most vulnerable to its worst effects are the elderly and people who already have severe health conditions. However, it is vitally important that even people outside of those categories practice smart hygiene to prevent the spread even further. There is a slight pressure on the American population to self-quarantine if possible and enact “social distancing,” keeping away from large gatherings of people. With no vaccine on the market, these are scary times, waiting to see if we can respond before it gets out of control. People have died, and more will die before humanity manages to fight back COVID-19. In 2011, Steven Soderbergh directed a film that imagines such a virus getting loose and wreaking havoc.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) Written by Lynne Ramsay & Rory Stewart Kinnear Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Who do we blame when something terrible happens? It’s becoming fairly common in the United States for there to multiple school shootings every year. When this happens, there is a strong innate human need to place the blame on someone. Parents are typically the focus of the public’s ire. In the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, the mother of the shooter literally gave him the gun thinking it could be a hobby to help with his mental illness. I’m sure if you are reading this outside of the United States, you are thinking, “Why would you give someone with mental illness a high powered killing machine?” and you are right to question it.
He Took His Skin Off For Me (2014) Written by Maria Hummer and Ben Ashton Directed by Ben Ashton
He Took His Skin Off For Me walks that line between grotesque and beautiful, a contemporary fairy tale with relationship dysfunctions working underneath. The story is told entirely in voice-over from the unnamed female protagonist. She explains that she asked her male partner to take his skin off for her, a move that is never questioned and makes sense in the magical realist logic of the narrative. He does so but immediately encounters problems. There are bloodstains everywhere, sanguine footprints and crimson smears on the floors and furniture. His job is public-facing, and he tells her clients are pulling their business because of their discomfort with the man’s appearance. The woman tries to look on the bright side of all these setbacks, but her partner is withdrawing. During a dinner party, he answers in monosyllabic single word responses, a behavior that is very unlike him.
Monsieur Lazhar (directed by Philippe Falardeau) From my review: The film contains messages about multiculturalism and the themes of mentors & proteges, but it does this without feeling didactic. The way Lazhar adapts to the Quebecois culture and how his students learn from him is done organically without speeches or exposition. Offscreen events occur as we move through the winter and into the spring, but we are shown enough to get a sense of growth happening in Lazhar’s classroom. The performances by Mohammed Fellig (as Lazhar) and Sophie Nélisse (as Alice) are rich and layered, without being maudlin. As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how a Hollywood version of this would get so much wrong and essentially already has in so many other teaching centered movies.
Russell lives in a small apartment in Nottingham, England keeping to himself and occasionally venturing out into the suburbs to visit his lifelong friend Jamie. One Friday night, on his way home from a house party at Jamie’s, Russell makes a stop at a gay club to see if there are any men he’s interested in hooking up with. He brings Glen home and begins a weekend that will quietly reshape his life and his feelings about his sexuality. Glen is very militant about being gay, studying to be an artist and wanting to make confrontational work about gay experiences, particularly surrounding sex. Russell is fully confident that he is gay but still uncomfortable being gay in a public sphere. His friend Jamie is supportive, but something else is holding Russell back. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, Russell and Glen talk, argue and have sex all while challenging the other about their ideas. By the end of this weekend, neither man will be the same.
Le Havre (2011) Written & Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Marcel Marx is a shoe shiner in the French port city of Le Havre who lives a simple life with his wife, Arletty. Once long ago in his youth, Marcel had ambitions to be a writer and bohemian but time and a need for money put an end to that. Arletty becomes suddenly ill with a dire prognosis that Marcel is kept unaware of. Around this time, a crate of immigrants from Gabon is discovered on the docks and one of them, Idrissa, a young boy escapes the police. Marcel and Idrissa cross paths and the old man decides to house the refugee without question while trying to locate the boy’s family so they can reunite. Inspector Monet is out in the neighborhoods searching for the boy and knows Marcel by reputation as being a scoundrel and liar.
Shame (2011) Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan Directed by Steve McQueen
Brandon is an executive and bachelor living in New York City. He is a sex addict in the same way alcoholics regularly drink yet find creative ways to hide their addiction from the people around them. Brandon’s life is an empty shell of one-night stands, encounters with sex workers, and a near constant consumption of internet porn. The one thing that could pull him into a moment of self-realization is his younger sister, Sissy, a lounge singer who aimlessly travels without ever planting roots. Sissy is similarly in relationships that go nowhere and seems to want closure with Brandon over some unexplained events in their past. Brandon is obsessed with proving to people that their intimacy and commitments are meaningless, but this pursuit is leading him down a dark and broken path.
Oslo, August 31st (2011) Written & Directed by Joachim Trier
Anders is recovering from years of drug addiction. He’s two weeks out from finishing treatment and then having to leave the rehab center. To help him make this transition, he’s granted a trip out for the night which ends with him hooking up with an old flame. On the way back to the center he unsuccessfully tries to drown himself. In the light of the new day, he prepares to head into Oslo for a job interview. Before succumbing to drugs, Anders was a writer for newspapers and magazines but doesn’t feel a strong desire to return to that. He stops by the house of some old friends before the interview, ends up calling a lost love’s phone only to get voicemail, and is ghosted by his sister when she sends her girlfriend to talk with him at a cafe. Despite the strides he’s made, Anders feels the past traps him.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011) Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière and Philippe Falardeau Directed by Philippe Falardeau
At school in Montreal, two students discover that their teacher has hung herself in the classroom. The school works quickly to push the class past this event by repainting & rearranging the room while having a psychologist make periodic visits. A new teacher is found in a rush, Mr. Lazhar, an Algerian man who goes on about his experience teaching at a university in his former home country. Lazhar brings an approach unfamiliar to the students, emphasizing the techniques of grammar and spelling over more expressive forms of learning. He reads Balzac to the children and requires them to take dictation. One student, Alice, expresses her still simmering anger and confusion over the suicide of their teacher in an essay. This outburst causes Lazhar to re-evaluate his methods and the needs of his class.
Elena (2011) Written by Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Elena has been married to Vladimir for two years, having met him when he was hospitalized, and she was his nurse. This isn’t the first marriage for the two, but it is a comfortable, content one that can see them into their twilight years. Elena lived on the lower economic fringes of Moscow, and so entering Vladimir’s posh upper-middle-class lifestyle has been a blessing. However, Elena has a grown son with a family living in a decaying tenement. Her grandson Sasha has reached the age where, if he is not enrolled in university, he’ll be faced with compulsory military service. Elena implores Vlad for money she can give to her family, but he sees the whole lot as shiftless layabouts. Elena worries further when Vlad’s estranged daughter Katya comes back into his life. A moment will happen when she takes drastic action, but can she live with what she does?