Taking place in early 19th century Wallachia, Radu Jude's Aferim! tells the story of Costandine, a local policeman, who is hired by a local noble to find Carfin, a Gypsy slave who has run away after being caught in bed with the nobleman's wife, Sultana. With his son by his side, Costandine sets out to find the fugitive and return him to the nobleman. Radu Jude's Aferim! is a film that defies conventional genre conventions, using black humor to touch on serious questions about personal responsibility, the relative nature of morality, and prejudice. Much of Aferim! running time is centered around the father and son's odyssey to track down Carfin. Running into an eclectic mix of people from various nationalities and beliefs, Costandin views this odyssey as a chance to teach his son the ways of the world, commenting on nearly every situation they come across with vigorousness, hoping to educate his son on the ways of the world. The story of Aferim! captures the relativity of morality through this father and son relationship, showing a man in Costandine who is much more indoctrinated to how things work in the world. While Costandin waxes poetic about the truism's of this harsh world of slavery and violence, his son takes on a more contemplative perspective, questioning some of the morals of this world, which particularly comes into play when the father and son eventually capture Carfin and are faced with returning him to the nobleman, who will surely punish him severely. Through this relationship, Aferim! demonstrates the need to evolve in society, with the son beginning to question the barbarianism of the world he inhabits, a character who is a symbolic representation of intellectualism. Given its comedic elements, Aferim! tone is never overly dark, but the matter-of-fact nature of the various barbaric acts throughout the film make their presence felt, being emotionally-cold sequences as the matter-of-fact nature expresses how common this type of barbarianism was in this world these characters inhabit. An aura of humanities need to distinguish themselves hangs over the film, with man's desire to segregate due to superiority, whether through class, religion, race, being another major reason for the emergence of slavery. From a direction standpoint, Aferim! is shot in black and white and features some beautiful photography, but I particularly liked the filmmakers use of wide shots, keeping a camera mostly at a distance, forcing the viewer to observe and listen to these character and their actions instead of simply waiting for the obvious emotional cues that never come. Radu Jude's Aferim! is a Romanian Art-house film that uses black humor to dissect moral relativity, barbarianism, and intellectualism, doing so in a way that helps contextualize the roots of racism and violence in history, oh and hey, it's surprisingly fun.
Sang-soo Hong's Hill of Freedom is another quietly profound film from the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker which manipulates narrative structure in telling its simple, yet engrossing story. Hill of Freedom opens with Kwon returning to Seoul after therapeutic stay in the mountains. Checking her mail, she receives a packet of letters left by Mori, an old friend and potential love interest, who has returned to Seoul from Japan in the hopes of proposing to her. While leaving the mail facility, Kwon accidentally drops the packet of letters, all of which are undated, making it up to her to make sense of the chronology of Mori's journey to see her. At 66 minutes in running time, Sang-Soo Hong's Hill of Freedom is a pleasant experience, but don't let the film's modest production and simplistic style fool you, as Hill of Freedom manages to capture life, humanity, and relationships is such a truthfully earnest way. While Sang-soo Hong's films could always be described as modest, it's the filmmakers quiet sense of humor that provides the viewer an easy window into the universal truths and experiences his film's express. Hill of Freedom isn't so much a love story but a story of longing and loneliness, using Sang-Soo Hong's quietly humorous tone to reveal attitudes, feelings, and universal truths. The fear associated with loneliness and the power of companionship or love is perhaps the primary focus of Hill of Freedom, showing a character who is desperate to reconnect with the one woman he believes makes him happy. Cultural dislocation is felt by Mori on his journey, being a Japanese man in South Korea, and Hong uses this dislocation as another layer of the story, helping to en-capture the psyche of a character who is longing, nervous, but also unsure of himself and what he is doing in general. Hill of Freedom reminds the viewer of how much companionship or love can provide shelter and security from personal problems, with the world feeling far more conquerable when someone is by your side, but Hong is very much a realist as well, reminding the viewer that humanity is rarely in control of its own fate and what we think we understand is merely manipulated by our emotions. Mori longs for Kwong but along the way he meets a host of individuals, both male and female, which help him feel at home in South Korea. Through these connections, Hong shapes Hill of Freedom with two possible outcomes, presenting them to the viewer at the end in back-to-back sequences. The film shows little interest in defining the ending of Mori's story, and I think that's the point, as both possible conclusions are assured and affirming regardless, capturing life in quietly astute ways, thanks to Hong's unique brand of filmmaking.
Adam McKay's The Big Short is the surprise film of the year for me, featuring storytelling that manages to entertain with biting satire and strong performances, while simultaneously never losing the gravity of the situation in the story it portrays. The film is centered around a group of outsiders, men who work on Wall Street but don't think like most on Wall Street, whom predict the upcoming credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s. Taking advantage of the big banks own greed and ignorance, these men bet against the American Economy, with the potentially upcoming economic collapse promising to pay them billions. The Big Short is a film that rubs your bell and whispers sweet nothing in your ear as it slowly reveals the monstrosities committed by the big banks, decisions which would leave millions homeless, jobless, and penny-less. The Big Short is very playful, considering the gravitas of its subject-matter, but this decision works beautifully to the film's advantage, managing to give the The Big Short a simplified, yet informative approach into the inner working of how corporate greed fueled the collapse of the housing market. The film breaks down some rather complicated and quite frankly boring economic stuff in a very discernible way for the viewer, doing this with glee and disgust as if the filmmakers are still having a hard time even believing that something this absurd actually happened and using humor to dull the pain of this widespread American tragedy. The audience is treated like a guest on this wild and depressing story of greed and ignorance, as The Big Short begins to grow increasingly angry about the value our society places on money over people. There is a quiet cynicism throughout The Big Short's playful storytelling, understated but prudent, almost as if the filmmakers have come to the conclusion that with a story this massively depressing all one can do is laugh at the absurdity. The Big Short is really a film about best interests and how pieces of paper have devalued our own sense of humanity, as even the protagonists of this story find themselves profiting off of the collapse of the American Economy, a collapse that will leave many in need of help. While The Big Short's lighthearted take down of capitalism is its main focus, the film also has something interesting to say about the group think mentality of humanity, exploring how all these banks and financial institutions went along, all believing the good times and money being made could never come to an end. To this point, a lot of detail is given to the group of eclectic characters, from Steve Carrel's short-fused, Mark Baum, to Christian Bale's Michael Burry, the outsiders who went against the flow of the banks and financial institutions, unable to merely accept the ignorance and greed coming from these institutions about a flawed Housing Market which could never last. The Big Short is a an energetic examination of corporate greed that is part farce, part heist film, part comedy, and part tragedy, being one of the most interesting and compelling Hollywood films of the year.
Dan Rybicky & Aaron Wickenden Almost There is the type of documentary that astonishes with just how much intellectual and emotional depth it's capable of touching on in its 93 minute running time. The weight of the film makes it feel more like an epic odyssey, following Peter Anton, an 82-year old eccentric artist, who has spent decades secluded in his run-down old family home, obsessively chronicling his life through a colossal, visual autobiography which he has titled, "Almost There". Early on, Almost There is very reminiscent of Grey Gardens, as when the filmmakers arrive at Peter's house they discover it is very rundown, mold-infested and teetering- a property that could be mistaken for abandoned, and should probably be condemned. Dissecting a character who has spent years creating a visual representation of his emotions, inspirations, life experiences, and tragedy, Almost There offers a unique window to the life of a man who has fortitude for his art, accepting suffering as a bi-product of completing his work. The lifeblood of what Art has the ability to do is a major aspect of Almost There, with Peter's obsessive tendencies being centered around his need for Art, which gives him the ability to create and share a piece of himself with the outside world. Living to what amounts to a life of complete solitude for what seems like a few years now, loneliness is a component of this as well, as art lets him feel connection by sharing his life with others. As Almost There slowly unravels a lot more details emerge about Peter's past, details which I won't go into here, but lets just say that Almost There does a fantastic job of never showing any judgement towards Peter Anton, presenting a profound sense of empathy for humanity in spite of all of its flaws. Almost There questions if it's possible to separate important accomplishments, in the art world or otherwise, from a person's personal crimes, with Peter himself committing a questionable act in his past, and thats probably putting it a little too kindly. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Almost There is its exploration dependency, as Peter clings onto his old family home, showing an attachment to his parents that he lived with his whole life, never being capable of being truly independent. As the filmmakers get closer to Peter they realize he shows great dependency towards them as well, leaning on them with a complete sense of in dependency, besides when it comes to his art. The film's study even erodes into the filmmaker's personal life, as the director's own brother reminds him of Peter, being a man with dependency issues, who also could suffer from some type of mental illness. It is important to understand that Almost There is not a particularly easy film to watch, especially after this dark reveal, but it's a singular story and detailed character study that embodies a lot of universal truths about dependency, loneliness, obsession, mental illness, and goodwill.
Besides having perhaps the best use of punctuation in a title this year, Carhles Poekel's Christmas, Again offers much more to the viewer than clever use of punctuation, being a delicate, observed, and nuanced portrait of Noel, a heartbroken Christmas-tree salesman whose day-to-day life is steeped loneliness. Plot isn't a major focus of the film, with Christmas, Again focusing much more on the moments life offers to its main protagonist, somehow by the end capturing the "holiday spirit" and consolations which the Holiday season can provide. Returning to New York City again to sell trees out of his RV, we are introduced to a character who simply hasn't been able to put his past behind him. Still shackled with the grief of having his long term girlfriend leave him, Noel puts on a good face while doing his job, engaging with a eclectic mix of customers, each of which add flavor to the film's restrained approach. The customers aren't written in there simply to add color to the film, but to provide a evocation of a very specific time of year, the December Holiday Season, showing the tenderness and sometimes ugliness, the season can bring out in people. Each customer which Noel encounters feels well-dimensioned, an impressive feat when considering that many of these roles are merely seconds long. Of course the most important relationship that develops in the film is between Noel and a mysterious woman he discovers one night passed out on a park bench, in need of some assistance due to her inebriated condition. There is a romance element to their relationship, but once again Christmas, Again never pushes this agenda at all in its narrative, really evoking a sense of togetherness and letting these two somewhat troubled characters (aren't we all in one way or another), find some semblance of connection again. Bringing a "day in the life" type authenticity to its storytelling, Charles Poeke's Christmas Again has a quiet sadness, a sense of loneliness that encaptures this main character through most of the film, juxtaposing the 'holiday cheer' with Noel's sadness. Perhaps Christmas, Again's greatest attribute is merely its ability to balance the emotional elements of its film, with the joy or happiness of the storytelling feeling understated, never forced to serve the story, opting instead to let the character's relationship evolve organically. Featuring an understated but powerful performance from Kentucker Audley and an impressive script and direction that encapsulates the holidays with no cheap sentiment, Christmas, Again is an impressive first time feature film.
Basil Dearden's Sapphire tells the story of a young lady named Sapphire who is found dead in a park, murdered in cold blood. The film focuses on the police investigation which follows, as these men attempt to get to the bottom of who is responsible for this crime. While Sapphire is a film that could easily be described as a police procedural film, as we follow the lead inspector, Nigel Patrick who is hot on the trail, the film uses this tried and true narrative lynchpin to explore racism in a time which it was very prevalant on a day-to-day basis. As Nigel patrick investigates the murder, he discovers that Saphire was actually a "colored' individual, something which is surprising to him and his fellow investigators, given the young woman's lighter complexion. Given it's the 1950s, when Racist-fueled prejudice was prevalent, this discovery fruther complicates the case, bringing out a host of bigotry which threatens to derail the investigation into who is responsible for the murder of this young woman. The police procedural is merely the through-line in Sapphire, with its real intentions centered around the British Bigotry and outright racism that was prevalent in the 1950s, particularly towards commonwealth immigrants. The film doesn't pretend that these type of prejudice are easy to fix, at one point even having Sapphire's brother, a doctor himself, telling the chief investigator that he has cured all sorts of illnesses, but nothing like this, referring to the toxic racism that exists in society. There is no denying Sapphire's social relevance and its important subject matter, but the film does at times feel horrible dated, succumbing at times to its own prejudice stigma which it exposes. Throughout the investigation some of the main clues which aid the detectives in uncovering the truth are outrageous stereotypes that by today's standards come off as incredibly patronizing and even racist, though I think these issues never diminish the overall intentions of the film. Basil Dearden's Sapphire is an incredibly edgy piece of filmmaking, for the time period, that attempts to reveal the social injustices of the time, and while it's severely out-dated in ways, its overall message rings very load and true even today.
Bobcat Goldthwait's Call Me Lucky is a reflective, evolving documentary about Barry Crimmins, a one-of-a-kind stand-up comedian, whose abrasive, in-your-face type of comedy challenged American audiences and politicians to question the status quo for decades. A man who has all but been forgotten today, Call Me Lucky turns a pensive eye to this brilliant and complex comedian in Barry Crimmins, whose bullish comedic style took on American ignorance and complacency in the 1980s America at the height of the Reagan era. Call Me Lucky is a film that starts off as a ode to an important man in Bobcat Goldthwait, offering an in-depth biography of this bristling comedian who spoke his mind and was more in-touch with what was going on around him than almost anyone. The film is a wild ride for most of its running time, getting various comedians to talk about the influence Barry Crimmins had them, his importance and legacy, and how it inspired many comedians to be themselves. What makes Call Me Lucky a powerful documentary though is how quickly the film evolves into something far more compelling, revealing Barry Crimmin's dark-seeded past, capturing how it shaped the man he is to this day, an outspoken activist who wants nothing more than to make the world a better place. Through Barry's tragic story of being sexually abused as a child, Call Me Lucky provides an intoxicating portrait of how past tragedy can shape future triumph, revealing a man whose activism and deep-seeded anger towards those who oppress the weak stems from his past. We see how Barry's worldview was shaped by his past experiences, understanding where this man's outspoken nature comes from, with stand-up comedy being the first creative outlet which let Barry Crimmins express his outrage with a system that leaves far too many in the shadows. I like how the film makes the distinction between being angry out of selfishness vs. selflessness, revealing how Barry Crimmins was always a lover of people, most notably the individual, with his rage and anger focused solely on destroying complacency and ignorance in society, forcing people to see what is much easier to ignore than confront or repair. Angry, tragic, and ultimately heroic, Bobcat Goldthwait's Call Me Lucky is a powerful biography of the complicated life of Barry Crimmins, a story of personal trial and selfless triumph, which led him to inspire many future comedians, as well as be a major force in driving increased child protection laws against sexual abuse during the early days of the internet.
Samantha Futerman & Ryan Miyamoto's Twinsters tells the incredible true story of Anais and Samantha, South Korean-born identical twins, who were separated at birth, only discovering of each others existence in their mid-twenties. On February 21, 2013, Samantha, an American actor who lives in Los Angeles, received a ominous facebook message from Anais, a French fashion design student living in London, who claims they look alike. Strange at first, the two 20-somethings are shocked by the uncanny resemblance each has to the other, which sends Samantha & Anais down a path of discovery, not only learning that they are in-fact identical twins, both born on November 19, 1987, but also that they were both adopted shortly after by different families. Twinsters is a heart-warming, infectious documentary about the constructs of family, individuality, and the place we call home, taking an intricate look at two sisters who are just now getting to know each other after a quarter of a century. Twinsters is the type of documentary thats subject goes a long way in making it a success, relying heavily on the authentic qualities of a two long lost twin sisters being reconnected after so many years. While Twinsters starts off as merely a cute and airy film about the incredible circumstances of this story of re-connection, the film becomes more effecting and profound as it progresses, raising interesting questions about family and individuality. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how it explores identity and individuality, examining how these two identical sisters have many similarities both physically and emotionally, but also how each has been shaped differently by the environmental circumstances around them, such as how they were raised, where they were raised, and who they interacted with growing up, including siblings and other influences. What we get in the end is a life-affirming tale of the importance of family, in however we ourselves wish to define it, with Twinsters being a touching examination of two young woman who are forced to reconsider their definition of family and home.
Taking place in Berlin during the Romantic Era, Jessica Hausner's Amour Four tells the story of poet Heinrich who has grown infatuated with the idea of conquering the inevitability of death through love. Unable to convince his cousin Marie to join him in his suicide pact, Henrich meets Henriette, the wife of a businessman, who lives a life of servitude, devoid of any real sense of passion or companionship with her loving but distant husband. While Henrich's proposal is met with deft ears at first, when Henriette finds herself suffering from what is diagnosed as a terminal illness, she becomes increasingly infatuated with the young Poet's proposed 'love". Considering the subject-matter, Amour Fou could have been a much darker film, as Jessica Hausner opts instead to deliver a far more witty film than I was expecting, being a meditation on fate, circumstance, and companionship, while also exploring feminism in an era where the term simply didn't exist. Henriette is a character who lacks intimacy, which combined with her lack of individuality, makes her an oppressed individual in this story of two men, in her husband and the poet, Heinrich, each whose purpose and goals are predicated on Henriette's servitude. Henriette is a character who fits the mold of society, quietly serving her husband in a way that is expected. While the poet himself wants to break her free of this convention, he does so for his own mutual gains, as Amour Fou paints a portrait of a character in Henriette who has no freedom, with each one of these characters offering a unique form of oppression, regardless of if they realize it or not. The mise-en-scene of Jessica Hausner's Amour Four stands out, with every sequence being strategically realized, not only the cinematography's compositions, but also the use of lighting, placement of furniture, and staging of the characters, which together give the film a look of authenticity that is equal parts hypnotic. The cinematography uses a lot of restrictive framing, featuring symmetrical imagery that evokes a sense of strict structure and confinement, beautifully illustrating Henriette's situation, one which woman in society at the time were more than accustomed too. Amour Four seems to be not only about the elasticity of fate but also emotions as a whole, using this story to illustrate the illusion of choice and control we all have, with our emotions and desires themselves being far more elastic than we care to admit. Featuring lots of philosophical banter about the jarring realizations of life which death can bring, as well as an examination of the oppressive nature of desire, Jessica Hausner's Amour Four is a beautifully rendered exploration of choice, fate, and oppression, that offers up a lot for the viewer to chew on long after the credits roll.
Taking place in sun-kissed Orlando, Florida, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes tells a modern day tragedy set admist the backdrop of the 2008 housing market collapse. Dennis is a construction worker, working his tail off to try to keep up on the payments to his house where his mother and daughter reside. Evicted from his home by Rick Carver, a poised real-estate broker who represents the banks, Dennis finds himself homeless and desperate. Unexpectedly getting an opportunity to work for Rick Carver, striking a deal with the very man who evicted him and his family from their home. Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes is an angry film about the 2008 housing market collapse, making it clear early on that the film is going to attempt to encapsulate the predatory nature of capitalism. Dennis is a character who is essentially selling his soul to the devil, eventually aiding Carver in kicking people out of their homes in an effort to gain as much property as possible. 99 Homes captures the nature of capitalism in that you really need to be out for yourself in order to truly succeed, as Dennis sees his morals go out the window in an effort to save his own family home. While the film feels a little to "on the nose' for my liking, Michael Shannon adds a great level of dimension to a rather flat, one-dimensional Rick Carver character, with underlying tenacity and deep-seeded fear for being poor that drives him. His character embodies the competitiveness which capitalism breeds, with Andrew Garfiled's Dennis Nash his puppy dog counterpart, which Carver has power over. 99 Homes could have been better if it was more balanced in its critique, with Shannon's character exposing his intentions too promtly for my liking, making it almost feel like the filmmakers felt like they needed to have a 'bad guy', not letting the system itself, which created this collapse, carry the torch. Given 99 Homes examination of capitalism and the greed it breeds, the comparisons to Wall Street are warranted. The biggest problem I have with 99 Homes is the fact that it's a little too forceful in getting its message across but the strong performances and solid direction make it solid drama about the destructive power greed has not only on the individual, but society as a whole.
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