Posts Tagged ‘Into The Abyss’

1) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

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While Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous offerings left this viewer a little apathetic, his new film adds a new found steeliness to bring to the vivid landscapes and existential angst. Following a troop of detectives and police officers as they seek to find the victim of their recent arrest, the film explores the idea of machismo in a sensitive and penetrating manner. Ceylan paints a portrait of a group of men all stumbling through the darkness, each trying to find a peace of mind in the Anatolian foothills. The serious nature of the crime lends the drama a mournful gravitas, while the landscapes are haunting and beautiful.

2) THE MASTER (DIR. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, USA)

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When it was announced PTA was making a film based around Scientology, many expected a scathing, incisive assassination of the cult. However, the director has foregone that route for a looser, relationship based drama; Joaquin Pheonix’s vagrant loner pitched off against Phillip Seymour Hoffmann’s dapper, cultured leader. The film is a bit of a curiosity- there is no real character arc to speak of for either characters, just a few minor lessons learned, and the mixture of exotic images and elliptical editing gives it an elusive, distant air. It’s the two central performances which elevate it to a higher level, and Pheonix will surely struggle to top this. His twitchy, desperate portrayal of a man too restless to know what he really desires will linger long after the credits have finished.

3) AMOUR (DIR. MICHAEL HANEKE, FRANCE)

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Michael Haneke is now so sure of his craft that he can almost turn his devastating gaze onto any taboo subject and nail it in one. This time he has chosen to focus on the ageing process and what that does to our basic human values. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the elderly couple, two ex-musicians, in their Parisian apartment, as they struggle to deal with Riva’s loss of mental and physical capabilities. Haneke pulls no punches in his depiction, and it is not an easy watch, but there are moments of hope and compassion that break through the Austrian auteurs notoriously bleak world view.

4) HOLY MOTORS (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE)

Maverick director Carax comes back from the wilderness with this anarchic, mind boggling oddity. The film stars his regular conspirator Denis Lavant as a man whose job is to be driven around in a limo to various locations and using different disguises, inhabit a melee of obscure roles, from leprechaun to ninja. There seems to be no obvious reasoning to his exploits, and months after seeing it, I am still befuddled by it, but there are hints of Carax’s masterplan; all of his films have been to some degree been excited by the idea of performance and theatre, so this film has a lineage. But to analyse it too deeply is to miss the cerebral pleasures of the film, from the triumphant accordion band in the church to the beguiling neon ninja.

5) KILLING THEM SOFTLY (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, USA)

Australian Andrew Dominik had a lot to live up to after his last effort The Assassination of Jesse James…, but his latest work can hold its own against that masterpiece. Dominik seems to be one of the few directors who can get the best out of Brad Pitt and they strike up their fruitful collaboration again here. Pitt plays a hitman hired to take out two lowlife criminals who have bungled a card game robbery. Killing Them Softly works brilliantly as a piece of genre cinema; there are the lowlifes, the gangsters, the shootouts, the double crossings and a barrel full of tension, but what elevates this from your standard gangster fare is a sense of contemplation, a workmanlike depiction of the trade. Dominik draws shrewd parallels between the US recession and the underworld; the unrelenting desire for money and profit and the fall guys who suffer when it all comes tumbling down.

6) SHAME (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, UK/USA)

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Steve McQueen’s follow up to Hunger was a similarly icy, visually striking drama, this time honing in on sex addiction. Michael Fassbender plays a wealthy corporate drone in upscale New York struggling to deal with deep seated intimacy issues, burying himself in pornography and meaningless flings. The arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, brings his problems to the foreground as they both seek to exorcise their demons. Shame is not a warm, emotional drama, but an unflinching, sterile work that nonetheless brings a difficult issue to the wider public. Fassbender and Mulligan give uncompromising performances as the troubled siblings.

7) TABU (DIR. MIGUEL GOMES, PORTUGAL)

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Alternating between modern day Portugal and an unnamed colonial era African country, this Portuguese arthouse fantasy drama was one of the smaller gems from this year. An elderly Portuguese woman, Aurora, is doted on by her maid and next door neighbour, with hints of her exotic past life gradually emerging. In the second half of the film, we see a young Aurora living with her husband and expecting, on a colonial farm in Africa. A dashing neighbour arrives to break up the monotony of her homelife and soon she has a decision to make. Tabu, named after the FW Murnau silent film, is both a tribute to the silent era and an exploration of place and memory. Gomes injects the film with a sense of childlike wonder and mystery, leaving the viewer enchanted by the travails of the doomed love triangle.

8) LE HAVRE (DIR. AKI KAURISMAKI, FINLAND)

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to really capture a culture, and here deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki expertly observes both French community and its troubles with immigration. Andre Wilms plays an ageing shoeshiner who takes in a African stowaway who miraculously crosses his path. The film includes Kaurismaki’s customary kitsch mise en scene and dry humour, but the director is reinvigorated by the new locales. There is a genuine sense of local community running through the film, which makes it one of the most upbeat and optimistic of the year.

9) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR.WERNER HERZOG, USA)

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The capital punishment system in the US has often been scrutinised, but this time Werner Herzog brings his inimitable ‘truth’ to the subject. This austere, often harrowing documentary, follows various inmates as they recount their crimes and tell their life stories. Herzog steps back from the camera, allowing the tragedies to unfurl themselves, while families of the victims and the law authorities throw their voices into the ring. The mindlessness of the crimes and the inherent violence in the landscape are the two points of the film that will linger in the mind.

10) RUST AND BONE (JACQUES AUDIARD, FRANCE)

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Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard deliver knockout performances in this character driven drama by Jacques Audiard. Following up his successes in A Beat That My Heart Skipped  and A ProphetAudiard continues his theme of flawed characters with a burning passion; Cotillard is a devoted whale trainer and Schoenaerts a brutal amateur fighter. When their lives are turned upside down, they find solace in their outsider statuses. An offbeat, raw drama.

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1) DRIVE (DIR. NICHOLAS WINDING REFN) – USA

Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.

2) ANIMAL KINGDOM (DIR. DAVID MICHOD) – AUSTRALIA

David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.

3) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR. WERNER HERZOG) – GERMANY & CANADA

Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.

4) THE SKIN I LIVE IN (DIR. PEDRO ALMODOVAR) – SPAIN

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.

5) MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (DIR. WOODY ALLEN) – USA

Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.

6) TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (DIR. TOMAS ALFREDSON) – UK

Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

7) HUGO (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE) – USA

An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.

8) DREAMS OF A LIFE (DIR. CAROL MORLEY) – UK

Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.

9) SNOWTOWN (DIR. JUSTIN KURZEL) – AUSTRALIA

John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.

10) PINA (DIR. WIM WENDERS) – GERMANY

Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.

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Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-story-of-film-an-odyssey

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Last week I had the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s much anticipated documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. I am a great fan of Herzog’s work and I recognise that one key to the success of his films is his presence as a personality.

In Grizzly Man Herzog’s own opinion (put across via voice over) plays counterpoint to the outlook of Timothy Treadwell, the films main character. While Treadwell’s story is fascinating it would be much less interesting without Herzog’s idiosyncratic narration.  As an audience we have come to expect Herzog to feature as a key character in his documentaries (as he did in Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams). This is where Into the Abyss differs.

Into the Abyss tells the tale of a triple homicide in Texas, 2001 which lead to one perpetrator, Michael Perry receiving the death penalty and the other, Jason Burkett, a life sentence. The victims’ families feature prominently as part of Herzog’s investigation, as do a number of other figures including an ex-death house team leader, a death row chaplain and the officers who worked on the case. Herzog’s collection of interview subjects and his interview style successfully gain crucial insight into the crime as well as exploring the overall nature of the death penalty.

Herzog’s approach to this sobering subject is always respectful. His dignified approach is evident in his decision not to use voice over narration as normal, opting for title cards and subtitles to offer key information. Herzog does not want to distract the audience with his own personality and this allows us to focus on the characters whose lives were affected by the initial murders, as well as Michael Perry’s impending execution.

Instead what we are left with is an exploration of a crime that delves deep into the issue of whether it can ever be considered right to take another life. It is a film that does not judge its characters, but it does judge the choices and actions that are made by individuals as well as institutions. Into the Abyss is a tasteful study of a difficult subject which remains sensitive at all times without pulling any punches. It is perhaps the best work of Herzog’s recent, outstanding group of documentaries.

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Three clips from Werner Herzog’s new documentary on death row.

 

 

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