Category: A+


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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

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Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

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Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

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Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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Chinatown is arguably one of the five greatest American films ever made if not the greatest period, and while the subtext of cruelty and random violence exists alongside a masterful deconstruction of the elements of classic noir, Chinatown‘s genius primarily resides in being an excellent story perfectly told. It has those elements of being about more than the story of Jake Gittes as well as great characters, but unlike most of the films I herald as “the greatest ever made,” it’s story is 99% of the draw. Chinatown is practically the Platonic ideal of great screenwriting, and 2000’s Memento from director Christopher Nolan is the greatest neo-noir since Polanski bowled us over 40 years ago.

Memento‘s reputation as “the movie told in backward chronology” kept me from watching it for many years. As someone who’s found Christopher Nolan’s work to be very good but not as great as many others seem to believe, I assumed the film’s gimmick was its only draw. That isn’t the case, but even if it had been and there weren’t any more layers to Memento other than its tightly-layered narrative, Memento would have been one of the most expertly paced and structured crime thrillers of the last decade. But by becoming a commentary on how we remember things and what we choose to remember (as well as a slick discussion of the emptiness of revenge), Memento is so much more than its gimmick.

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Though it is more than its gimmick and as sharply scripted and clever as any film of the aughts, Memento‘s unique structure provides half of the thrills of any first viewing. Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) plays Leonard, a man suffering from a severe (and not medically accurate but I honestly don’t care in this film) case of anterograde amnesia. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered, and during the assault, Leonard was given serious brain damage. He can remember everything before his injury with perfect clarity, but Leonard no longer has the capability of producing short term memories. Before long, Leonard forgets everything that’s just happened to him, and the only way he’s able to function is through an elaborate series of tattoos and photographs that direct him towards his next action.

Leonard’s sole raison d’etre is to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and left him with his condition. And the film begins with Leonard killing the seemingly friendly Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) because a photograph of Teddy that Leonard is carrying says he is the one and that he must kill him. And from there, the film continues to unravel back towards the beginning as we find out that maybe Teddy wasn’t him, and we get to know a dangerous femme fatale (Carrie Anne-Moss) that is helping Leonard and his photo says that he can trust her, but can he really? And what secrets are being hidden from this man who is constantly meeting people for the “first” time?

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Part of Memento‘s clever conceit of being told backwards is that it is actually a perfectly “structured” story of the Syd Field/Robert McKee vein. Yes, we’re getting all of the facts in backwards order, but if Memento were told from start to beginning, it would be a terribly structured tale with the revelations in a jumbled, poorly paced mess. Memento is a classic mystery/noir based around picking apart what is the truth and what are the lies in the life of Leonard and why he kills Teddy at the beginning and whether or not he should have done that. And few films can match Memento on a twist-by-twist basis as you navigate the minefield of its mental gymnastics. But, from a point-of-view of pure structure, it follows the classic mold to a tee; it just warps and plays with it to its own (and the audience’s) delight.

But Memento distinguishes itself by having more to say than just your traditional crime thriller. And that’s funny because I was almost content to give this movie perfect marks before I realized what the film’s real point was. I can’t talk too much about what this film is about without ruining some of the major twists of the film’s final act, but Memento is a stark subversion of your average revenge tale (as any film about revenge should be). Leonard can’t remember more than 20 minutes of his life at once, but he functions perfectly during those moments of time. And that means he can fall prey to human vice and human flaws, and are the facts that Leonard has written on his body really facts at all? Or do we simply remember what we want to even when we can barely remember anything at all?

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The worst that can be said about Memento is that it is not a visually imaginative film. With the exception of The Prestige and Inception, Nolan’s films are rooted in a gritty realism, and Memento‘s visuals are no exception. Although the claustrophobia of anonymous motel rooms and abandoned buildings works to Memento‘s advantage as it adds a level of disorientation for the viewers that matches Leonard’s state of mind. And, the black and white sequences that are running concurrent to the main story (without following the backwards tale [I don’t want to spoil this too much]) is a nice if perhaps too simple way of segregating these lanes of Memento‘s story.

Guy Pearce’s performance is one of those rare performances that you might think is stale and boring at first (because he’s a dude who literally can’t remember more than 15 minutes ago) but you grow to appreciate it more and more as the film progresses until you reach the end. But, as the layers of his character are revealed, you see the obsessiveness and cold brutality that is lying beneath the seemingly lost exterior of Leonard, and Guy Pearce (and Christopher Nolan) peel back these characters with laser precision. Carrie-Anne Moss also shines as the femme fatale whose real motives are constantly up in the air.

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For those, like me, who found the cult of Christopher Nolan to be a bit insufferable, Memento may likely be the only film capable of changing your mind. For those whose itch for neo-noir can never be fully sated, Memento and its labyrinthine layers will keep your brain working long enough to scratch that itch. Great story is so rare in today’s world of sequels, remakes, and reboots, and while Christopher Nolan has never managed to live up to this remarkable second feature, it’s one of the most refreshing and intellectually invigorating stories of the 2000s and a true can’t miss for any real cinema lovers.

Final Score: A+

 

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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Narrative elegance has become something of a lost art. With the notable exception of Kenneth Lonergan, the idea of a simple story, exceptionally told, rarely graces the silver screen.  The idea that you don’t need a high-concept logline but, rather, just exquisitely drawn characters providing a fresh perspective on the human condition. I don’t mean to dismiss complex narratives or metatextual storytelling (my adoration of Synecdoche, New York should speak to that) or films of the Terrence Malick stripe that nearly abandon plot all together. I simply year for easier access to films with a more natural and understated approach to observing life, in all its forms. And 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is an undeniable masterwork of that species of film-making.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the fathers of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, a post-World War II school of filmmaking rooted in a realistic portrayal of lower-class suffering (Fellini’s La Strada is the closest I’ve come to reviewing a Neo-Realist picture on this blog before, but more accurately, that was a transitional film for Fellini to his later, surrealist works). Neo-Realist films often utilized non-professional actors so the movies would look even more authentic, and they intentionally avoided the glitz and glamour of Hollywood-style film-making. And in De Sica’s magnum opus, The Bicycle Thief, the tenets of Neo-Realism are on full, heart-wrenching display as one man’s quest for survival is chronicled in all of its tragic (non)glory.

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In a post-fascism Italy, unemployment is endemic, and Rome, one of the shining jewels of Europe, is awash in crippling poverty. Jobs are given away by lottery, and on one fateful evening, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has his name chosen to place posters around the city (of a Rita Hayworth film which is a particularly clever joke about this film’s non-glamorized nature). Antonio has been unemployed for so long though that he and his long-suffering wife have been forced to pawn most of their possessions including the family bicycle. And, in the first of many ironic twists throughout the film, Antonio’s new job requires him to own a bike.

Of course, Antonio doesn’t have enough money to get the bike out of the pawn shop and he and his wife are forced to pawn their sheets, which were part of the wife’s dowry on their wedding. And, in another brilliant visual in the film, we see a mountain of sheets that other families in the Riccis same position have had to sell. And so, Antonio finally has his bike and for the first time in ages, he can provide for his family. But, the cruelty of an indifferent world has other plans in mind when Antonio’s bike is stolen at the beginning of his very first day of work, and so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to go on a day-long mission to find the bike because if they can’t, they won’t have enough money to even eat.

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And, in what I hope isn’t too massive a spoiler considering the brutal nature of the film, they don’t get the bike back but that’s far from the most upsetting element of the film’s denouement. From a plot perspective, that’s all The Bicycle Thief is. It’s a story about a father and son’s failed quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle. But beneath that simple surface is a series of complex statements on the relationship between father and sons, the quiet desperation of the working poor, and the lengths we will go to provide for those we care for. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but The Bicycle Thief with a new coat of Reagan-era, “Me”-Generation  paint?

The Bicycle Thief joins Rachel, Rachel and A Single Man as being one of the most overwhelmingly sad films that I’ve watched for this blog. From beginning to end, the sheer weight of retrieving a stolen bicycle feels like the matter of life and death that it has become. And Vittorio De Sica shoots the film with such honest detail and confident assurance in the audience’s ability to understand the plight of the Ricci family that The Bicycle Thief never has to resort to ham-fisted melodramatics to get its point across. It simply presents this family’s life as it is and it lets the audience come to the natural conclusions.

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The Bicycle Thief has been accused of being political propaganda (particularly that it was some type of Marxist allegory), and though I can understand that interpretation, my response is “So what if it is?” and that the film has so much more going than that. Clearly, Vittorio De Sica is overwhelmed by the poverty and desperation that was destroying his country. And, by taking one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rome, and reducing it to its poorest elements (only once contrasting it with an upper-crust bourgeois life during the restaurant sequence), De Sica shows the reality of the 99%. But, the film takes pains to not mythologize or romanticize poverty which leads to the film’s most famous sequence, which has now become one of the most powerful film scenes I’ve ever watched.

As I said earlier, Antonio doesn’t get his bike back, but that’s now where his humiliation and degradation ends, and it’s part of what makes the film so powerful. If The BIcycle Thief were made today, Antonio would get his bike back or some kind stranger would help him find a way out of his situation even without the bike. Here, Antonio is pushed so far past the brink of despair that in a moment of weakness, he tries to steal another man’s bike, making the circle of poverty and desperation complete. And, as he’s chased by an angry mob and Bruno watches his father with shameful tears in his eyes, you realize that whoever took Antonio’s bike was likely pushed there by the same cruelties that led Antonio to the same situation.

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And though the film is stripped of a lot of cinematic artifice, it’s black and white photography is still gorgeous though the most impressive technical aspect of the film was editing. The print on Netflix Instant is a fairly miserable transfer job, but there were moments of montage and transposition that were at an Eisenstein-level of brilliance. In fact, I imagine that during the lead-up to Antonio’s failed attempt to steal the bike, De Sica was heavily influenced by the “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. The interplay between the world, not of wealth but merely getting by, against Antonio’s existentialist battle to survive does more to cement what drives him to steal another man’s bike than any amount of exposition ever could.

Lamberto Maggiorani was a non-professional performer as Antonio but his performance was better for its almost total lack of theatricality. A great director can get star performances from the most unlikely sources, and Vittorio De Sica hit a home run with Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio. Not simply because he looks like the type of man who would be in Antonio’s position, Maggiorani hits the right notes of frustration, desperation, and wounded desire at every corner. Antonio is a man constantly bullied by the cruel whims of fate, and Maggiorani always makes you feel his heartbreak. Enzo Staiola is also excellent as Bruno’s young son particularly when his visions of his father are forever shattered by Antonio’s decision to steal the bicycle.

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But, above all, what makes The Bicycle Thief such a masterpiece is its complete refusal to talk down to its audience or gild the linings of the movie whatsoever. Even before Antonio decides to steal another man’s back, he is pushed to the edge time and time again. He follows an impoverished old man into a church and harasses him during mass on the off-chance the man will help him get his bike back. At one point, he thinks his son has drowned in a river but when it turns out to be another boy that has suffered, he can’t even suppress his smile that at least it’s someone else suffering. If there’s a political statement in The Bicycle Thief, it’s that society can not be surprised if we begin to sociopathically care only for our own needs and desires if there is absolutely no safety net waiting to ensure that we survive.

I had never seen The Bicycle Thief before yesterday, and even after one viewing, it has already leaped its way into being one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. Occasionally, the films that I idolize for this blog are particularly cerebral and are only appreciable by a niche crowd (The Tree of Life or Through a Glass Darkly). The Bicycle Thief is simple yet so elegant that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to love in this marvelous picture. For film-lovers, it is the definition of required viewing.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

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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+

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Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+