Category: Indie Drama


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

Room

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When I was reading Robert McKee’s Story months ago to help with my screenwriting (that book can really only teach you structure; it can’t teach you to be a writer), he went off on a long tangent about how modern independent cinema has forsaken plot for mood and atmosphere and stylistic window-dressing. I bet Robert McKee would have really hated 2005’s experimental indie drama Room. Here is a film that is all atmosphere, and when it attempts to have an actual plot or conversations between its characters on screen, it falls completely apart. But when it focuses on atmosphere, there’s something hypnotic about this film.

As an experiment in free-associative storytelling (and masterful post-production on a limited budget), Room‘s plot is not nearly as important as the way the film makes you feel though there is the skeleton of a story here. Julia Barker (Cyndi Williams) is a desperate and exhausted married mother of two. Her life consists of dealing with her delinquent eldest daughter and being yelled at by her boss at the bingo hall where she works in addition to being some type of delivery woman. Julia’s life is a monotonous grind of work and an unfulfilling home life. And there’s no way it will ever change.

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But, Julia’s life does begin to change when she starts to experience blackouts accompanied by visions of a massive empty room. The visions are muddled and unclear at first (and never really clear up that much), but the room appears as a giant loft, the kind you’d find in Brooklyn these days going for exorbitant rates. And so, Julia steals the deposit from her bingo hall’s safe and runs off to New York City desperately trying to find not only this giant room that she keeps seeing in her head but to find change and meaning in her life for the first time in years.

I almost feel like that last sentence of that paragraph is a spoiler for this film because ultimately, the emptiness of our lives is the point of the film and what I believe the empty room that Julia sees symbolizes. I don’t think that the film is remotely subtle in trying to get that point across. And, honestly, that’s okay to an extent. As a meditation on the desperation of impoverished working women in America and the idea that a family isn’t the only key to female satisfaction, Room is surprisingly powerful, and the interludes where there’s no dialogue and we just see Julia’s frantic search for anything in her life are fresh and evocative filmmaking.

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And the film’s sound design and editing match the disorienting feel of Julia’s existential crisis. With industrial droning and a schizophrenic cutting rhythm, Room (when it does what it does best) places the viewer right in the mindset of a woman on the brink. It’s a shame then that the sections of the film that focus on Julia’s interactions with others or dialogue seem so stilted and unnatural. Perhaps the director was attempting to make a statement on the mundaneness of Julia’s existence. But it didn’t make it any less dull and difficult to sit through.

Room isn’t like a lot of films you’ve ever seen. The only comparison to spring immediately to mind is Inland Empire although Room is decidedly less ambitious or mind-screwy. For casual film-viewers, Room will not be a rewarding experience and you will likely leave it angry that you sat through it all considering the film’s denouement (which to be fair, I enjoyed), but at 73 minutes, Room is worth a watch from fans of experimental cinema looking for something that truly follows its own rules and doesn’t bow down to the logic or structure of conventional cinema.

Score: B-

 

Wanda

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A couple months ago, I read one of the bibles of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story. Though I don’t necessarily believe in everything that McKee says in the book (ultimately his rules are mostly interesting for structure and his opinions become more questionable the further you move away from structural concerns), there was something he understood that is germane to the film I just watched. Cinematic storytelling (with the exception perhaps of documentary) can not simply be portraiture. It doesn’t matter how true your presentation of life is if there ultimately isn’t a story arc there, even if its the barest bones of a story.

The Italian neo-realists understood this. Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a no-frills portrait of post-war poverty and despair, but the movie also had a heartbreaking story of a father and son’s quest to rescue their livelihood at its core. Terrence Malick understands this as well. Yes, the story of The Tree of Life or To the Wonder is secondary to the emotions that Malick evokes with the film’s imagery, but there’s still a compelling story there. 1971’s Wanda from Barbara Loden (wife of director Elia Kazan) is a seminal “classic” of early independent cinema, but it’s lack of a compelling story or even compelling characters made it a nearly unbearable chore.

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There is the bare bones of a story in Wanda. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s worth the two hour investment of your life this film asks of you. Wanda (Barbara Loden) is, to quote Mumford & Sons, a hopeless wanderer. She’s abandoned her husband and her kids but not for any reason that makes sense. She just refuses to settle down. When the film begins, she shows up late for the court hearing for her husband to officially take her children, and she doesn’t put up any fight once she gets there. And, afterwards, Wanda drifts from one meaningless event to another until she takes up with crook, Mr. Dennis (Mike Higgins), who finds himself with a companion he never really asked for.

I actually feel like there could be a good movie here. A somber meditation on female dissatisfaction with the limited options women had in life in the 1960s and 70s. Of course that movie exists; it’s called Rachel, Rachel from Paul Newman starring his wife Joanne Woodward. That film is one of the saddest and most powerful that I’ve ever watched because Rachel was a haunting and powerful examination of repressed feminine yearning. Wanda on the other hand seems to have nothing to say other than that Wanda’s life has no meaning, but you don’t get any looks into why or what would push her down the absurd path she follows.

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None of the performances in the film were memorable either. Barbara Loden’s performance was particularly wooden which is astounding considering who her husband is. I don’t know why he didn’t come around the set and tell her that everyone in the film felt stiff and unnatural. Mike Higgens performance would rapidly flip from hilariously campy to occasionally appropriately moody and intense. No other characters were on the screen for more than a couple scenes, and most of them were even worse than Loden and Higgens, and I suspect they were grabbed right off the street, Bubble-style.

I’d rather work on my screenplay than devote any more time to discussing this film. Here’s the bottom line. Do not waste your time with Wanda. It has  a reputation as being one of the first great independent films, but give me a John Cassavetes film any day. The characters are flat, the performances are unnatural, and the story goes nowhere even if it ends on an obvious climax. The film is only an hour and a forty minutes long, but it felt like I was sitting through Lawrence of Arabia again. There are few sins in film-making worse than that.

Final Score: C-

(P.S. This film is so obscure that there is no trailer for it on Youtube.)

 

Spring Forward

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The moment when human society surpassed “mere survival” as our primary life’s activity and developed culture and civilization instead is more of a mixed blessing than you’d think. We were finally able to find pleasure in our own existence and life ceased to be a never-ending struggle to not starve, but with that time to relax and ponder our place in the universe, we were struck by the existential questions that have defined modern human life. Why are we here? What’s the point of it all if we’re just going to die someday anyways? How do I find purpose in my life?

And though such philosophical quandaries are the bread and butter of the upper crust and the intellectual who have the leisure of devoting significant parts of their lives to introspection, these are questions that every person faces. And the cultural divide between the academics and professionals from the working class and uneducated makes it too easy for the former to think that the latter doesn’t think about these same issues. The only difference is where the meaning in our lives is derived. And whether that’s God, family, love, or intellectual pursuits, before we die, every man and woman must find their answer to that question.

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1999’s Spring Forward isn’t so much an attempt to answer the great questions of life (look towards The Tree of Life for that type of film) as it is an examination of men who are desperately seeking some meaning and some stability to grasp onto in their lives. And by placing the film squarely on the shoulders of two blue-collar but intelligent guys, Spring Forward avoids the potential snares of intellectual pretension by showing vividly crafted and realistic figures attempting to wrestle with ideas that have eluded the philosophers for millennia. About the only complaint one could lodge against this film is that all anyone does in it is talk, but when the conversations are this good, who cares?

After spending 18 months in prison for committing an armed robbery when his life went to complete shit, Paul (Liev Schreiber) gets a job in the Parks and Recreation department of a tiny New England town, and it’s his last chance to get the pieces of his life back together. When he was in prison, Paul was introduced to spiritual writings from the great minds of all of the major religions, and for a guy that dropped out of high school, Paul is able to find parallels in the writings of these men and the life he’s living right now. But it isn’t until he’s paired with the old Murph (Toy Story 3‘s Ned Beatty) that Paul finds the steady footing he needs.

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When the film begins, Murph is one year away from retirement, and he and Paul couldn’t be more different. Murph hasn’t strayed from the path a day in his life (or so you think at first), and the foul-mouthed, explosive Paul is set up to be a thorn in his side. But Murph’s gay son is dying from AIDS (never explicitly stated as such in the film) and we soon learn that Murph is as much of an emotional mess as Paul is because of his guilt of not giving his son enough love. And over the course of one year, Murph and Paul confide their deepest secrets to one another as they become the father and son they both desperately need.

Spring Forward is structured more like a play than a traditional film and it is broken down into clearly recognizable acts. Each scene is much lengthier than your average movie (they can be nearly twenty minutes a piece) and each time (with the exception of the final scene), the scenes are centered around a conversation between Murph and Paul as the year has progressed and their friendship has gotten deeper. They open themselves up to each other, and in the process, they voice their concerns and philosophies about the nature of the world as they dance circles around one another trying to determine if the other is worth the trust and affection they both need to give.

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Though I was enjoying the film, it finally cohered into a great picture halfway through when its theme and goals were made clear. It’s the beginning of fall and Paul and Murph are cleaning up leaves at a baseball field when Murph has a breakdown about his son. The pair get stoned together and all of Paul’s philosophical jabbering through out the movie finally adheres into a meaningful outlook on life and Murph tells a deeply personal story about an event at his brother’s funeral (which leads to one of my favorite lines in the film where Murph talks about how in a certain Indian tribe, the words for “breath” and “poetry” were the same).

Spring Forward is a beautifully acted and emotionally subtle film that proves to hold an emotional wallop when all is said and done. I’m hard-pressed to name a better performance in Ned Beatty’s career than as Murph, particularly as the layers of his character are slowly peeled away as the film progresses. He starts out as the sage father figure Paul needs, but Beatty makes it clear just how fueled by regret and guilt Murph really is. And though Liev Schreiber’s accent was comically unplaceable, he captured the simmering tension and desperate earnestness of Paul masterfully. And the naked emotional intimacy the two men shared was a wonderful display of masculine vulnerability.

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That the plot of this film is propelled almost entirely by conversations is going to be a turn-off for some. There are exactly two scenes where a major event occurs that isn’t almost entirely an extended conversation (and even then, there’s plenty of talking). So, perhaps writer/director Tom Gilroy (Girls Town) could have done a better job of externalizing these revelations and conversations, but the point of the film was watching men from a very specific walk of life wrestle with these incredibly tough questions. And from that perspective, it is a great film and a worthy heir to the My Dinner With Andre-legacy of existentialist, conversation-fueled cinema.

Final Score: A-

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Shane Carruth is a demanding filmmaker. Like David Simon, Charlie Kaufman, and David Lynch before him, Carruth refuses to hold audiences by the hand and offer simple solutions and recognizable tales. If you’re willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to comprehend one of his stories, Carruth rewards you with mind-bending science fiction unlike anything else out there. And, if you won’t…, well it’s clear that Carruth isn’t interested to catering to the Michael Bay audience. And, his total refusal to make anything other than the art he wants to make is what makes him such a special and valuable artist.

2004’s Primer took inaccessibility to new heights with its graduate-level physics technobabble, but if you pierced its thick veil, you were taken down a recursive rabbit-hole and got to engage in Olympian mental gymnastics. And, because of the intricately complex nature of Primer‘s plot, it’s become the very definition of a modern science fiction cult classic even if I bemoaned the film’s almost total lack of an emotional context. But, by taking a cue from a fellow Texan, Terrence Malick, Carruth has answered all of my complaints about his debut feature by revealing the marvelous Upstream Color, which is quite possibly the best science fiction film since Children of Men.

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I bring Terrence Malick up because, despite the labyrinthine nature of his plots, Shane Carruth is proving himself to be a master of minimalism. Going beyond the fact that Primer was shot for $7,000 and Upstream Color was rumored to be made for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Carruth is a master of stripping away the non-essentials of his storytelling. Although Primer got by on occasional expository speeches, Upstream Color is the closest thing to The Tree of Life in modern film-making to almost totally eschew exposition. The plot occurs, often not even on screen, and Carruth requires you to pay attention and put the missing pieces together yourself. And it is magnificent when that happens.

Much like Primer, much of the fun of Upstream Color will be trying to piece the plot together for yourself so I fear spending too much time discussing the story on the off-chance that I spoil something. But, even a cursory introduction of the plot should entice viewers to lose themselves in the mystery at the heart of this tale. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young professional that finds her laugh destroyed when she is kidnapped and drugged by a thief. But her captor doesn’t have her under the sway of any ordinary drug. This drug, distilled from orchids and the worms in their soil, allows for the brainwashing and control of anyone in its thrall, and the Thief (Thiago Martins) steals every last penny of Kris’s savings.

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And when the Thief has taken all he can from Kris, he leaves her without a second thought, but her troubles are only now beginning. With no memory of what happened to her, Kris loses her job (for missing work for so long with no explanation), loses her home (the Thief took out equity against her house), and the life she’s known and loved, and she simply thinks she’s going crazy. And that’s when she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). The two are immediately drawn to each other, and Jeff has gone through what neither of them can remember happening. And all the while, a mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), seems to be toying with his power over this pair.

And, that’s all I’ll say about the plot of Upstream Color except to add that just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’ll be shocked to discover just how wrong you are. Like Synecdoche, New York and Primer, it’s clear that Upstream Color will only grow in power with repeated viewings as the subtle implications you may have missed on your first go will suddenly make sense when you see them a second time. Carruth is a big fan of “Chekhov’s guns” and he has them laying all over the place. When it comes to tightly scripted stories that emphasize masterful foreshadowing, Carruth may only be bested by Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

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Minimalism isn’t the only area where Carruth is clearly inspired by Terrence Malick. Somewhere between 2004 and this year, Carruth learned a thing or two about cinematography, and Upstream Color is a stunningly gorgeous film to behold. There are numerous, lengthy swaths of the film where dialogue is at a minimum, and the story is conveyed through hauntingly beautiful shots and creative editing. Shane Carruth did virtually all of the major technical jobs in the film (directing, editing, writing, cinematography, music), and not for a second do you get the impression that he was stretched too thin.

My biggest complaint about Primer was that I had virtually no reason to care about its protagonists. While the puzzle aspect of the film was deliciously complex, I could never emotionally invest myself in the world of the film. And it’s a testament to the tightness of Carruth’s time-travel plot that it didn’t bother me more. Upstream Color obliterates that concern. Though Carruth isn’t capable of a Sunday Bloody Sunday-style of character depth, it’s not his goal, and through strong writing (and even stronger performances), I found myself enticed and enveloped by the trials of Kris and Jeff.

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If it wasn’t clear from all of the surprisingly accurate (despite the technobabble) engineering and physics at play in Primer, Shane Carruth loves science, and though Upstream Color may not seem as immediately high-concept and as directly sci-fi as Primer, it tackles an equally esoteric (but fascinating) field of science as Primer did with time travel. Without wanting to spoil too much, for anyone interested in quantum entanglement theory (but played from a psychological perspective rather than quantum physics) should find plenty to love in the nuts and bolts of Carruth’s story.

Science fiction this smart comes along so rarely that when a director with Carruth’s vision and intelligence comes along, he must be prized. Ten years is a long time to wait to follow up a beloved debut feature, but the wait was well worth it for Upstream Color is an undeniable science fiction masterpiece. Although I hope we won’t have to wait this long again for another Carruth picture, I suspect it will be years and dozens of viewings later before I’m finally able to piece together every part of the Upstream Color puzzle. And it’s a guarantee that at least the attempt will be made.

Final Score: A

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Like many young intellectuals yearning for something deeper in their lives, I have turned to Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel, On the Road, for inspiration. One of the defining pieces of “beat” literature, On the Road is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century and its portrait of young Americans without purpose or direction has carried a romantic power to millions of disaffected youth since it was first released in 1957. However, unlike many of my contemporaries who have read Kerouac’s classic novel and viewed it as a romanticized ode to life on the road and freeing one’s self from the shackles of society, I interpreted On the Road to be a deeply sad and lonely evocation of the desperation that has consumed young people when we’ve found ourselves freed from whatever ties we imagine society has bound upon us but have yet to find any actual meaning within our own lives outside of evading those strictures.

I took that view of the novel because deep down, there are no happy characters in the book. The closest you get is Dean Moriarty (later on, famous real life Merry Prankster, Neal Cassady, in real life: see The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But even Dean’s manic joie de vivre masks a complete lack of any meaning in his life and a total inability to care about anyone but himself in any sort of real or meaningful way. Dean is a product of pure, selfish, destructive id. And everyone else, from Sal to Carlo to Marylou to Camille, are wandering around in an existentialist fugue hoping that the next great adventure will provide them with a sense of purpose. And, that sense of purpose never comes until, at last, Sal is able to wash away the idealistic facade he’s built around himself and his relationship with Dean Moriarty. And this understanding that On the Road is a tremendously sad and introspective work is probably the only thing that the 2012 film adaptation gets right.

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I didn’t read On the Road until fairly recently so I had known about the plans for the movie for a while, but had I read the book without knowing there was a movie coming out, I would have made the argument that On the Road was unfilmable, and Walter Salles’ film adaptation does little to make me think I’m wrong in that supposition. What makes On the Road succeed certainly isn’t it’s narrative structure which, sprawling as it is, is mostly Sal Paradise wandering around the country with a different group of outcasts and outsiders and barely making any sort of revelations or character change until perhaps the end of the film. On the Road is important for its sharp, unique  prose and the poetry of his descriptions of the fringes of American 1950s American society. The only way that I could see an On the Road adaptation working as a movie is as some type of late-period Terrence Malick style visual tone poem which tries to keep as much of Kerouac’s prose and poetry intact. The film version that exists attempts a more traditional narrative structure and it robs the piece of much of Kerouac’s magic insight.

For those who haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the tangled web of “beat” literature, On the Road is a very autobiographical tale of the both literal and spiritual journey that Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), aka author Jack Kerouac, takes around the nation when he finds himself drawn into the social circle of a group of mad and passionate intellectuals and freaks including homosexual poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), aka Allen Ginsberg, and manic conman Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), aka Neal Cassady. Deciding that the only chance he’ll have to write anything of meaning will be if he leaves his material world of comfort in New York City behind, Sal sets out on the road and crosses back and forth across the country multiple times in search of inspiration and the elusive American dream. Whether or not he ever finds it is up to your interpretation of the novel.

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On the Road clearly couldn’t adapt the entirety of Kerouac’s sprawling, epic portrait of life on the American road into a two or so hour movie and so the vast majority of the book’s more minor subplots get left on the cutting room floor (though when they arrive, they are so thinly developed that you’d probably be left wondering what the fuck is going on if you haven’t read the book), and screenwriter Jose Rivera picks a few key threads to focus on. A significant amount of the novel is dedicated to Dean Moriarty’s almost criminal mistreatment of his girlfriends/wife, the 16 year old Marylou (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart) and the older but even more suffering Camille (Kirsten Dunst) as well as the homoerotic subtext of Dean’s friendship with Sal and his explicit (in terms of not being subtext/not graphic portrayal) homosexual relationship with Carlo Marx.

Those are important threads of the novel, and I particularly appreciated that the movie made clear things that Jack Kerouac only really hinted at in the novel in regards to Dean and Carlo’s sexual relationship (something that’s become a matter of historical record since the novel came out). And, the film addresses the insanely misogynistic behavior that Dean commits pathologically that Sal seems to in love with him to ever call him out on in the book. But, by focusing so heavily on the darker aspects of the novel, the movie fails to capture those moments (which are as important to the book as its sense of alienation and desperation) in the novel where Sal is bowled over by the simple beauty of life. I understand that sort of tonal complexity is difficult to accomplish in a film but if you’re going to tackle such an important and beloved novel, it’s subtleties have to be respected.

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What I’m about to say will probably come off as somewhat ironic since I’ve been harping on how much I dislike Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady as an actual person, but he’s also without question the most interesting and dynamic figure in the work (though the increased attention given to Carlo Marx in the film helps make that more of a competition). Dean can’t stop moving. If he stands still for even a second, he gets bored. And his ever-present restlessness brings ruin down on everyone around him so thank the gods that the best performance of the film comes from Garrett Hedlund who plays perpetual motion machine Neal Cassady so well. He may not have the “hopped up on speed” mania that I got from reading the book, but it’s also easy to see why Sal began to swoon so hard for this man of undeniable magnetism (how homoerotic did that sentence come off). There’s a scene at the end of the film where Dean confronts Sal one last time that is heartbreaking as played by the talented Mr. Hedlund. I want to see more from this young star.

Others in the film seemed less well cast. Sam Riley seems like the premiere contender for most absurd casting decision ever. He looks nothing like Jack Kerouac so his mediocre performance can’t even be looked over for him at least having some type of physical resemblance to the man. If Sal is a passive observer in the books, the movie manages to make Sal Paradise seem even less interesting by comparison. Kirsten Dunst has never been well cast for a role in her life and it still boggles my mind that she has an acting career, and her Camille is no exception. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss shows up for all of five minutes to play a minor role and I kept wishing that she would have played Camille instead. Surprisingly, Kristen Stewart was an interesting take on Marylou and it reminds me that in Adventureland and Into the Wild, she’s a good actress. She’s just forced the awful Bella Swan on the public as her most famous role.

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If there’s one last positive thing to say about the film, it’s that one can’t fault the gorgeous cinematography from Eric Gautier who provided similarly impressive work on an earlier, better Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries. This review comes off as really harsh to this vision of one of the most well-loved novels of the 20th century, so I don’t want to give the idea that On the Road was a bad film. It just made a number of bizarre design decisions that distract from what makes On the Road so special and unique. I don’t envy anyone the task of trying to make a film on a novel that’s so personal to so many people. Lord knows that as a screenwriter myself, I would never want that burden. But, they volunteered to do it, and throughout the whole film, I had the thought at the back of my head that I wish it had gone differently.

Final Score: B-

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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

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In my review of Werner Herzog’s breathtakingly beautiful Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, I went on a lengthy discourse of my definition of a “spiritual experience” removed from any explicitly religious context. To me (an agnostic), a spiritual moment or experience are those times in your life where you are exposed to something of great beauty or an undeniable moment of human communion. And, of course, when I described films that I found to be spiritual experiences, I mentioned Terrence Malick’s stunning masterpiece, The Tree of Life.  Beyond the film’s peerless cinematography, The Tree of Life was philosophical and existential in a way that few American films have ever been. Breaking his streak of waiting years and years between films, The Tree of Life‘s follow-up, To the Wonder, was released after only a two year hiatus, and Mallick hasn’t come close to losing his touch.

Though Bergman was fairly explicitly agnostic, Terrence Malick joins Werner Herzog as being one of the most spiritual and philosophical directors since the great Swede slipped from this mortal coil. What his detractors mistake for ephemera and a sense of muddled clarity is in fact the poetic subtlety of his work matched with Malick’s grand, almost unachievable ambitions. Between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, it is clear that Malick is obsessed with the notion of man’s struggle to find meaning in our lives. But rather than tackling that most ancient of philosophical questions, Malick is more interested in looking at the heartbreak that comes when that definition isn’t present and the pain and suffering that life itself foists upon us without our consent just through our existence. And if The Tree of Life asked these questions from the point of view of a child discovering the terrible power of the universe, To the Wonder paints a portrait of adult loneliness and desperation and the ultimate fragility of romantic relations.

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Even more than The Tree of Life, plot is a secondary concern in To the Wonder. What story that exists is advanced not by typical plot devices by the emotional power of images, soaring orchestral music, and often half-heard narration. To the Wonder‘s goal is the evocation of a specific set of emotions first and then one can spend the second half of the film trying to suss out the ultimate meaning and ambitions of the film (which are there if one has the patience). And so, like The Tree of Life, if you don’t have the patience for Mallick’s fetishistic devotion to cinematography over traditional characterization and story, To the Wonder will be a torturous experience unlike any other. But, if you can handle a film whose ambitions are more equivalent to a visual tone poem than a conventional film, this film is as must watch as they come.

But, I suppose if I’m going to get any of you to actually watch this film I must tell you “what it’s about” even if the story almost doesn’t even exist. After spending time in France, environmental scientist Neil (Argo‘s Ben Affleck) returns to his native Oklahoma and brings the French single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), he fell in love with back with him to the United States along with her daughter. But the taciturn and emotionally reserved Neil can not give the free-spirited and effervescent Marina the affection and emotional support that she needs and not long after making it to Oklahoma, Marina begins to feel trapped in her new existence. Complications arise when, during a break in their relationship, Neil strikes up a romance with an old friend, a widow (Midnight in Paris‘s Rachel McAdams), who proves a contrast to the jubilant joie de vivre of Marina. Meanwhile, a lonely Catholic priest, Father Quintana (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) experiences a crisis of faith.

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The only other films that I can think of that reach the complexity of understanding of adult romantic relationships as this film are masterpieces like You Can Count on Me and Manhattan, and those films have the advantage of having actual plots. Terrence Malick’s ability to project so much emotional complexity through so little is an act of cinematic wizardry without equal. Even his peers of Bergman or Fellini in terms of visual mastery rage against conventional plot through post-modernist gamesmanship, but there’s still the structures of great storytelling. In To the Wonder, I suppose there is an underlying plot but it is so secondary to the simple power of images and suggestion. You can’t accuse Malick of being a minimalist because Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is too lush and magical for that to be true, but more than any other filmmaker of the modern age, Malick has reduced cinema almost to the bare building block of individual images and wrests stunning art away in the process.

That’s not meant to insult other aspects of the film. Olga Kurylenko’s performance in particular stands out despite the fact that she has very few actual lines on screen that aren’t her voice-over narration. Similar to Berenice Bejo in The Artist, Kurylenko has to evoke almost the entire spectrum of human emotion but hardly ever say anything. She does this and more. It doesn’t hurt Kurylenko’s case that Malick’s camera turns her into a stunningly beautiful figure out of some majestic painting. Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams also shine. Affleck probably speaks less than thirty words in the whole film yet he still captures the essence of Neil. But, the other stunning performance from the film was Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana which should do more to make audiences understand the loneliness and isolation of the clergy than any film that has come before.

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If Malick doesn’t get a Best Director nod and if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get a Best Cinematography nod at this year’s Oscars, it will be a crime. When these two men work together, what they produced goes beyond magical; it borders on divine. To the Wonder is photography at its absolute finest and unmatched. Malick has an unerring ability to make even the most mundane aspects of human life look gorgeous with a near religious fervor. One need look no further than the sequences shot in grocery store parking lots or on run-of-the-mill suburban streets to see Malick and Lubezki’s talent to wrest beauty from whatever is on hand. You could watch The Tree of Life with what little dialogue there is as well as the narration turned off, and  if you love cinematography, you would hardly lose much of the experience.

Now, before you see my score for this film, I’ll reveal it early and say I’m giving it the same top marks I gave to The Tree of Life which I only give out a handful of times a year (To wit: Only one film from 2012 received an “A+” from me, The Master), and To the Wonder is the first film from 2013 to get that nod. But, I think The Tree of Life is a marginally better film. It has a grander, more existentialist ambition than To the Wonder. But, to me (and I know how divisive Malick’s later work has become), To the Wonder is a simply flawless film that more than accomplishes its goals of examining the nature and futility of human relations. Malick works entirely within his own sphere of film-making, and if there’s any doubt that he’s crafted yet another masterpiece, you must simply be incapable of enjoying Malick’s particular style.

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For those with any interest with cinema that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the medium, To the Wonder goes beyond must-watch. To not see this film (or The Tree of Life) would be a dereliction of your duty as a film-lover. Every frame in this film shines with the detailed composition of a Renaissance painting. It is a haunting masterpiece from the opening seconds until its heartbreaking close. Terrence Malick has another film scheduled for release in 2014 and if this means he is back to making films at a regular pace and they are all as powerful as this, Malick just reconfirms his position as not just one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern age but one of the most visionary filmmakers that has ever lived. Malick walks among the gods of the medium.

Final Score: A+