Battle of Algiers - Gillo Pontecorvo - Docudrama about the guerilla warfare in the Casbah in the 1950s, it's remarkable decades later how unsettling it still is to see the various urban gun battles and bombing campaigns enacted in this flick. Never untimely, this one can be revisited and re-experienced every few years with the benefit of another layer of history, another lens of contemporary context to refract it through. Chewy and still tense. Best moment: the Westernized ladies slip through.
Elephant -Gus Van Sant - A more or less real time unfolding of tragedy on the morning of a fictional school shooting, the film follows a host of high schoolers going about their various business on campus in the hour leading up to the event. As sensational as the subject matter is, the film is decidedly unflashy and you could be forgiven for not noticing how impressively staged it is. The longer the flick goes on, the more elaborate it reveals itself to be and it had me pretty stunned by the end. Some low-fi or at least un-showy De Palma shit going on here. The same scenes are experienced multiple times from multiple points of view and seamlessly placed into a tragic mosaic. In the end, that's about it. Can't say any character was particularly compelling or that the massacre was particularly stunning, horrific or emotionally resonant, but the picture is put together with enough skill and taste and subtlety to warrant repeat viewings. Best moment: the longest tracking shot following a student off the ball field and across campus right into a scene we've already witnessed. The choreography and sheer number of extras involved was quietly boggling.
Enemy - Denis Villeneuve - A history professor with a beautiful, blond girlfriend discovers there's another version of himself out there - a film actor with a beautiful, blond (and pregnant) wife - and his obsession with this alternate him derails his life. Make of it what you will, this is one of the most haunting pictures I've seen in a long damn time. There is an ill ease cast over the film like a shroud that filters out hope and draws every ounce of menace from of the atmosphere keeping it in an invisible bucket that is only dumped out when the director is good and ready. But you won't be. Nope. Huh-uh. No way. The final shot of the film just might be my favorite... ever? Did I say haunting? That's not quite right, 'cause the specter that followed me for weeks after viewing had something damn near physical properties. I'm not familiar with the source novel The Double by Jose Saramago, but I feel pretty safe saying that this is a better adaptation (let alone a better film) than Fernando Meirelles's Saragmago stab at the uber allegorical Blindness. I haven't been this electrically perplexed by a talky since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (though, I still prefer Lost Highway, baby). Which is not to say that I hold in the same regard... I'm not sure, but it's damn close and that's pretty special. Not a crime film, but noir at the core. Best moment: the final one.
Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine/Juve Against Fantomas - Louis Feuillade - Super criminal and Paris public frenemy #1, Fantomas takes what he wants and always stays a step ahead of his nemesis Inspector Juve. This serial was made more than one hundred years ago and I just don't have anything informed or interesting or clever to say about it. I'm nerd enough to have wanted to sit through it and plebeian enough to admit it was hard to. Best moment: Fantomas escapes police custody and dashes back to the restaurant he was arrested in to finish a meal.
Motel Life -Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky - The Lee brothers hit the road, a step ahead of the cops after Jerry (Stephen Dorff) accidentally kills a kid with his car. They stay at cheap motels, drink cheap booze and pine for other lives, particularly through impromptu stories told by Frank (Emile Hirsch) at his brothers' request. Based on the beautifully melancholic novel by Willy Vlautin, it's an achievement that the Polsky's have made neither the year's most depressing movie, nor the year's most hollowly optimistic one. The story is bleak, but there's warmth in Vlautin's prose and that's a trick to translate into cinematography. The stories are presented here as animated vignettes that, for once, enhance the words and perhaps even improve on those passages from the book, (though, overall, the book remains a more potent experience). Good as Hirsch is, it's Dorff who steals the show, chewed up, and shit out, not very smart, but not an idiot, guilty, but alive. The role requires a lot from him and he's never been this good (tho, c'mon, his Deacon Frost from Blade was pretty great) and his choice of projects continues to interest me (The Iceman, Public Enemies, Tomorrow You're Gone - from the Matthew F. Jones novel Boot Tracks, even rumored to have been attached to the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's Give Us a Kiss once upon a time). Supporting cast is uniformly good, even Kris Kristofferson opts not to phone in his couple of scenes and the real bravura sequence is the Best Moment: Hirsch with Joshua Leonard and Noah Harpster putting money down on the Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis fight. That is some blue-collar Scorsese shit right there.
Night Moves - Kelly Reichardt - A trio of aspiring eco-terrorists negotiate the dangerous space between idealism and survival. Shot like a heist procedural, (except the job isn't a robbery - they're blowing up a dam) where the gang comes together, executes the job and then, in the grand tradition, fall apart beneath the crushing weight of doubt and paranoia. Who's the weakest link and what defines that? What is too high a price, what's justified? All questions worth a movie and Reichardt delivers some solid suspense and tension, and while I'm pleased to see her exploring new territory as a film maker (this one's pretty bare bones, but compared to some of her other work, it's pomp and circumstance) I don't think this one quite measures up to her last couple of efforts, Meek's Cutoff and Wendy & Lucy respectively. Could be the handling of onscreen violence here - unfortunately feels a bit amateurish and lacks the emotional wallop that the (particular) moment deserves. If the moment were as visually disturbing as it should be, the whole film would resonate more deeply. Still, it's a much better offering than 90% of the thriller fare you're going to be offered this year, and I name Reichardt alongside names like Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green if asked to give hope for the next generation of American auteurs. Best moment: road block.
Paris Countdown - Edgar Marie - Two Paris nightclub owners get in over their heads with underworld types and end up in a baaaaaaad way in Mexico. Six years later, their friendship a thing of the past, the guy they crossed to save their skins comes back looking to make both of them dead. They don't want to be dead. Starts off amazingly strong, really for the first 10 minutes or so I was wondering how the hell people hadn't been beating me over the head with recommendations to watch this one right the hell now. It does bog down in the middle, but picks up enough at the end to remain a mild recommendation from me to you. Best moment: any time Reda Kateb is on screen. That guy is fantastic. He was my favorite part of Zero Dark Thirty and is even better here - in a non-starring role. Get him a lead role in something decent and toss a match at it. Gonna be a big damn fire.
The Rover - David Michod - In a near-future gone to hell Australia a man's car is stolen by a gang of criminals on the run from a botched robbery that left bodies on the ground - one of the bodies belongs to one of their own whom they presume to be dead. The film follows the vehicularly bereft Eric (Guy Pearce) on his relentless and savage quest to retrieve his property. Eric soon nabs the gang's abandoned half-dead half-wit Rey (Robert Pattinson) and forces the non-literally-sparkling film presence to lead him to his compadres and his own titular(?) favored mode of transport. The gang has made the same mistake that the audience is invited to - underestimating Eric and his resolve to recover his property. Maybe it's the cargo shorts. The viewer will quickly change their opinion of the man in the short pants as his moxy and ruthlessness are revealed in layers - each one peeled in a perfectly shocking moment. But Rey is his own onion-like creation, at first underestimated due to his physical injuries and later because of his mental limitations, but the relationship between the two develops into something akin to a man and his loyal dog and I found the finale fucking riveting unsure where loyalties could/would come down, especially for Rey. The third star of the movie is the world itself. I've heard it described as post-apocalyptic, but I don't think that's quite accurate. It's a reduced society for sure, the functioning of the economy is one of the most fascinating features and the population are well-armed and wary of everybody else, but there are still ideas of a more cosmopolitan civilization operating somewhere. We get glimpses of it: well equipped police/military/private militia pop up once in a while, but protect and serve nobody we ever see and in the film's most jarring moment, a glittery Top-40 pop song blares on the soundtrack and is revealed to be something that one character is listening to (and singing along with) on a radio broadcast - indicating that the characters have an understanding of a better life being lived somewhere by people not altogether unlike themselves, though their actions and attitudes make it clear that they never expect to be touched by the good life and do not consider themselves citizens of anything larger than their immediate partners or selves. It's a beguiling and intriguing film, fierce and rich in it's textures and nuances. I'm looking forward to revisiting soon. Best moment: I want to buy a gun.
Witness - Peter Weir - Philadelphia detective John Book's (Harrison Ford) investigation into the murder of a fellow policeman gets personally dangerous when the lone witness, a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas), identifies another cop as the killer. When Book's brethren move against him, he flees, wounded, to the home of the boy and his recently widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) among the Pennsylvania Amish. Book is given refuge while he recuperates, but it's only a matter of time before the killers track him down and come a shootin. One of my early favorite movies was the John Wayne vehicle Angel & the Bad Man which I caught on TV as a youngster and had probably seen two or three times before seeing this more or less updated, contemporized version and it subsequently blowing my mind. It's difficult to imagine my current tastes and interests ever evolving the way they have without the influence of Witness, and I revisited it with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it hold up or would I cringe and roll my eyes throughout? While I did cringe once or twice, I'm happy to report that it's a solid, better than average thriller that manages to be vaguely 'about something' without getting preachy. The non-violence practicing Amish and the worldly man whose currency and native tongue are bullets and fists (I'm hell at whacking), not to mention buttons!, make an interesting odd couple and just enough space is given for their philosophical tensions to mix and fizz and present the viewer with the germ of an idea before whisking her away to something juicier (sex! violence! carpentry!). Best moment: death by grain - somehow even more terrifying now.
The Yakuza - Sydney Pollack - An American business man (Brian Keith - who, frankly, acts Mitchum's mug off the screen every time they share a scene) has fucked up the deal he made with a Japanese organization and he can't hold up his end. In order to encourage him to try a little harder, they've abducted his daughter and are keeping her under wraps till he can cough up the d'oh. In the meantime he sends his pal Robert Mitchum to go over there and smooth feathers. Mitchum's an ex-GI whose tour included a lengthy chunk in occupied Japan and he still has connections and a little bit of pull over there. He's also got a long-pined-over love and a complicated relationship with her brother, a Japanese soldier whose life he saved. This one features a script by two of the biggest names in 1970s screenwriting, Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and it's a mixture of their sensibilities that goes down smoother at some times than others. There's an awful lot of clunky exposition in the first half of the film, but I can't deny that it's a good story and the plottiness certainly adds some gravity to the film's final act. I wonder if they'd gone for a 70s violent cinema scribe trifecta and given Walter Hill a re-write if it'd smoothed things out? Also working against it is another terrible Sydney Pollack-selected jazz score. That guy chose terrible fucking music to score more of his movies than anybody else I can think of. I've given up on more than one of his movies that otherwise looked swell to me, based solely on his awful, shitty taste in music. That tinkling jazz piano or saxophone or brush drums he went to over and over just cut the guts right out of any sense of tension his thrillers were trying to build. BUT, man, once the violence starts to happen regularly, it gets guuuuud. Shit. It gets really fucking good. Some really swell action close out the final third of the film and even Mitchum's phoned-in performance has a weighty closing scene. Best moment: suicide mission. I'd place it aside the reputation of Sam Peckinpah for operatic violence.