Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.’

This quote from the writer Raymond Carver seems very apt when we approach the work of Terrence Malick. Malick has a way of drawing attention to somewhat ordinary things, fragments of everyday life, and making them seem wondrous. After watching his latest film, my path home through London took on a different feeling; the tiled skyscrapers appeared majestic and untouchable, the empty tube and escalators eerie and mysterious. Even with a lesser work as Knight of Cups, Malick has the ability to make the audience see the world in a different way.

Christian Bale plays Rick, the jaded Hollywood screenwriter at the heart of the film, a stoic, passive observer of the insanity around him. His world is full of lavish, hedonistic parties at picturebook mansions and an endless stream of wild beauties. People seem to flow in and out of his life like ocean waves; his tyrannical father (Brian Dennehy), his errant brother (Wes Bentley) and saintly ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). There is a portentous voiceover by Ben Kingsley, reciting The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, detailing a man’s descent into hell and ultimate salvation.

Continuing on from the improvisation of To the Wonder, Malick has appeared to strip away all forms of conventional storytelling, relying on sound and image to conjure a mood. Rick is near mute throughout the film, with snippets of breathless narration the only illumination of his character. It is somewhat sad how the last two films in Malick’s oeuvre have progressed. He was once noted for his ability to illicit strong, memorable performances from his actors, yet now he seems to use them as mere floating, emoting mannequins. The pompous narration does little to assuage this disconnect; it is difficult to feel anything for these characters.

What is frustrating about Knight of Cups is that it is a genuinely beautiful film. There are countless images that other film makers scrabble their whole lives for, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, of banality. The relentless beauty becomes dulling, and because there is no emotional connection with the characters or the story, they become shallow. I never thought I would use ‘shallow’ to describe a Malick film, but there we are. DOP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is again astounding, roaming and swooping, ducking and diving, swirling and twirling, but we may have come to a point when it might actually be a hindrance to Malick.

Lubezki’s collaboration with Malick has been the most notable change in his recent career, and it has been an exceedingly rich meeting of minds. However, Lubezki’s eye is beginning to overpower the story, or what little there is of it. The sprawling improvisation that Lubezki has allowed Malick seems to have dulled his senses- perhaps Malick needs to go back to basics for his next one. The still framing of Badlands and Days of Heaven, a more linear structure, more causal development of characters. In Knight of Cups, there is a feeling that Malick has indulged himself too much, much like the central protagonist Rick.

There are some redeeming points to the film. Hanan Townshend’s score is playful and nuanced, giving this contemporary story a classical, mythical grounding. Some images will linger in the mind, even if they are somewhat literal, such as the canine diving into the luminescent pool, yearning to gets its jaws around an elusive ball. It is an obvious metaphor for Rick’s own struggle to find meaning, always clutching out for something more. Sadly, we find Malick in a similar mode, reaching out for greatness and falling at the last moment.

 

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New Zealand-born composer Hanan Townshend was plucked from relative obscurity in a Texas university when an unnamed director got in touch to request his involvement in his new film. That director turned out to be the notoriously elusive Terrence Malick, and Townshend joined The Tree of Life project as an intern. He became the main composer for Malick’s next film To the Wonder and collaborated on his latest film, Knight of Cups. We spoke to him about his latest project and working with Malick.

You’ve recently finished working on Knight of Cups, how was it working with Terrence Malick this time around? Was it a different relationship?

It was and it wasn’t. I’m pretty familiar now with Terry’s process and we have our own way of working, collaborating together so a lot of it was an extension of what we’d already been doing with To the Wonder. Tree of Life was a little bit different because I was more of an intern and working in the capacity of an intern, I wasn’t the composer of course. I did write some music for it but I wasn’t the composer. But with this project I’m pretty sure that Knight of Cups was shot without a script. Obviously there was a vision for it and Terry would have the anchors, the pages of the script, but it wasn’t anything set in stone. So I feel like there was a bit more freedom in this project, in particular during the editing process, to just experiment and see the directions in which the film might take. So in many ways it was very similar and in other ways it was a little bit different. I wasn’t working in the office on To the Wonder. I was actually in an office building right next to the editing house so I was kinda creating things, sending it through every day, talking with Terry every day, or every second day. Whereas on this film I was working from my own studio and I was a little bit more separated from it, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

How did you communicate on this film?  Did he give you directives?

We were certainly speaking on the phone a lot and he would usually call every couple of days, usually during the times when the music was having a really important part to play in a certain section of the film.  I usually go into the office where they’re editing the film and we just talk about the vision of the music and Terry’s vision for the film musically speaking. Then I usually just go away to my studio and we just start experimenting with a whole handful of different ideas. Terry has a lot of ideas and there is never any lack of ideas there (laughs). He has things that he wants to experiment with, so a lot of it is creating some music and then he might call and we’ll refine it further. But obviously I’m not creating music to picture so it’s a bit of a different thing, just kind of creating, y’know. Terry talks about it being like he’s the carpenter and I’m providing him with the wood and the nails to be able to kind of build the structure. Other than me building it, I’m allowing myself to just create this music and Terry and the editors will work to fit it to the film.

What kind of language does he use when he’s talking about the music? I’ve heard he uses particular kinds of words, like ‘river’ or ‘dance’ for the type of music he wants…

He does. Pretty much. He uses a lot of metaphors when he’s talking about music. He can be very specific and at times he can be very vague. I don’t mean vague in a way that he seems like he doesn’t know (what he’s doing). He has a very clear idea of what he’s doing. Sometimes I think as a composer and a creator in general if someone tells you too much you end up doing exactly what they tell you to do. Terry is very aware of that and he’ll talk a lot in metaphors. He speaks a lot about water. Water is a really important symbol in a lot of his films and it represents the river of life, this eternal kind of thing that continues on and on.

There is other things, like he is very interested in the tritone (an interval often referred to as “the devil’s music”). He likes to use intervals, simple intervals to kind of represent something in his film. For Terry it could be something as simple as a melody that he likes which really distinguishes his films. In this film there is a Ralph Vaughn Williams piece called Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which is based on an Episcopal hymn. So we take that theme and kind of try to find ways to create a score that isn’t just original music but is also taking some of the big themes that Terry uses in the film, creating a sense of continuity between them. So it’s not just this big piece of music. We have a reappearance of it in the film.  He can often be quite vague in what he wants but at the same time he’s not vague, he’s allowing some freedom to experiment and I really enjoy it.

Is it intimidating to be put up against these revered composers or quite flattering? He uses a lot of different types of music in his films…

Yeah it can be, but the thing working with Terry is that it’s a constant, morphing changing thing. Often I’ll go off and watch a scene from the film and it’ll be completely different. I guess I don’t really think about it as much because I’m not constantly watching it through. You know, the pre-existing licensed music, I feel quite separated from that. But there is a little bit of everything in there, I do at times feel like, y’know seeing Ralph Vaughn Williams, Debussy…there’s a lot of heavy hitters. Being part of it is kinda cool, it’s exciting.

Were there any times when you were particularly surprised how your music was used?

I don’t tend to feel shocked in the sense ‘Oh my goodness this music has been used in a certan way and it shouldn’t’. I think that’s part of it really, when I put my name down to work on the film I’m agreeing to ‘OK, I’m going to be sending this music to these guys and you guys should feel free to find the right places’. If I’m being honest there are a couple of editors in particular who work with Terry who I think are real music spotters, who can really place (the music), because it can make a massive impact you know, how the music comes into and whether it ties two scenes together, whether it changes the whole meaning or the symbolism. So yeah,  I trust them and I never feel like ‘Oh they’ve used this in the wrong way’ or anything, I’m usually pleasantly surprised.

Do you have any favourite composers working today that you admire?

Yeah, yeah definitely. I like actually a lot of UK/British composers. I really like Clint Mansell, think he’s doing some really cool stuff. I always enjoy his scores. His score for The Fountain is probably the first score that ever got me really interested, and there’s something about that score that for me, the ways in which he uses the orchestra as just part of the ensemble and then he’s got guitars and voice. I realised film scoring can be more than just an orchestra. It can be anything you want.I also really like Jonny Greenwood. Just once again, as a guitarist he can do the orchestral or conventional stuff but he can also do this hybrid classical which is really cool. Probably one other name would be Max Richter. Really, really cool take on orchestral music. I love tons of composers, but those three in particular. I don’t know, there’s something in their sound that just resonates. Maybe something in their education sets them apart.

When you’re watching other films are there any bugbears you have in listening to the soundtracks?

Using samples too much. I remember Hans Zimmer saying this and don’t quote me exactly (laughs) but he said something along the lines of ‘the composer with the best sample wins’. When I say sample I mean sample libraries, orchestral synths. I’m just amazed, time and time again, I hear these scores it’s like not good synth, it’s fake synth. There are a lot of composers out there who do a pretty good job but I kind of learned early on if you want to get work and you want to do this job for real, you’ve got to know how to work a sample library and make it as realistic as you can. Because at the end of the day, if there’s no emotion in it, just strings going NEEE-NEEE-NEEE, no one’s going to get anything out of it.  Just bringing in a single player can really help, bringing in a violin and putting it on top. It doesn’t cost you, it’s economic, but having that one element of realism can take your mind away from all of the fakeness that you’re hearing in the samples. That’s probably my biggest bugbear because there’s no excuse for it.

When you’re working with the musicians do you always go in with a plan of what you want to hear or is there room for improvisation?

Well there are times where l’ll do both you know. There are times when I’ll be recording with an orchestra and there’s a very specific amount of time that we have to get through however much music. So I’ll work with an orchestrator and it’s completely planned out and there’s not going to be curveballs thrown in or anything. You get there, you record, you get the best takes you can get and then you mix it. But there are times where I’ll go into the studio and maybe there might be an extra 30 minutes left over with the players so I’ll use that chance in real time just to experiment. It all depends on the players, some players feel more comfortable. One piece in particular, Awareness, was used in To the Wonder and the Apple iPad ad, that was an improvisation with some woodwind players and it turned into this thing. So I love doing those sessions, you just don’t know what’s going to come out of it, you know?

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Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.

His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.

The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.

To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.

Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.

One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet.  Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.

There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.

Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.

Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.

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Hors Satan is the sixth feature film by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Dumont’s previous films were mostly shot in rural landscapes, often in his native country, and featured marginalised characters undergoing both extreme trauma and spiritual transformation. He has a particular directing style, using long takes and razor sharp visuals to bring his worlds to life. Comparisons could be made with Robert Bresson and Michael Haneke but this would not do justice to his singularity. There are few people working in cinema today who can conjure up the ethereal atmosphere that Dumont can.

David Dewaele, a Dumont regular, plays ‘The Guy’, a mystical man who roams the wild coastline of Northern France. This is an otherworldly being that the local community reveres and looks to for support. When one of their children is ill, they seek his healing powers, and in turn he collects food from them daily. His only real relationship seems to be with ‘The Girl’, a gothic, troubled teenager played by Alexandra Lemâtre. Dumont hints at domestic unrest in her family; hints of abuse from her stepfather. She confides her problem to him, and he takes matter into his own hands. A clinical shot to the chest as her stepfather steps out of his barn.

This action sets off a chain of violent retribution, but it would be foolish to mistake this film for a typical lovers- on-a- killing- spree yarn. For one, their relationship is strangely sexless. ‘The Guy’ rebukes her longing advances, and his only dalliances with the fairer sex are purely spiritual. When a local girl is deathly ill, he revives her through sex. Yes, it sounds absurd on paper, but Dumont makes it work. The violence is also far from sensational, appearing at infrequent moments and devoid of any cinematic relish. Instead, the duo wander the wilds of the countryside, dwelling in sunlight and gentle breeze. ‘The Guy’ seems to be completely at one with his surroundings, indifferent to ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but what exists before him.

Hors Satan, like Dumont’s previous work, is not for the restless viewer. It is full of long close ups of the two characters gazing into the landscape, little dialogue, and with banal meaning. There are few ‘events’ for the audience to grapple onto, Dumont allowing the landscape to almost flow through the viewer. Dumont uses a mixture of wide angle shots and close ups, and there is no sound editor to prettify the sounds of the coastline. Every footstep, every whistle of the wind, can be heard vividly on screen. These are important choices, allowing the audience to be completely immersed in the environment, beguiled by its beauty and indifference.

One film it is sometimes reminiscent of is Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It too features a couple too dysfunctional to operate in civilised society and finding comfort in the unbounded freedom that nature offers. There is a distinct parallel in Dumont and Malick’s thought processes as well; both seek to draw the viewer’s attention to nature and its power over mankind, using the sensory capabilities of cinema to express this idea. Like Badlands, Dumont’s film leaves us with more questions than answers but is similarly exhilarating. Although Dumont is an atheist, there are constant hints of spirituality and a higher power in his work, and Hors Satan continues in this vein. But perhaps for Dumont, it is the cinema that is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful.

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1. BADLANDS (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK. USA, 1973)

There are filmmakers, and then there is Terrence Malick. On the surface this is a fairly conventional road movie following two young lovers on a crime spree. But Malick subverts the story of murderer Charles Starkweather for his own purposes; this is a dreamy, timeless film that hints at abstract emotions that transcend mere happiness or sadness. With his beautifully photographed Hopperesque landscapes and mute characters, Malick gives us something otherworldly and genuinely odd.

2. PARIS, TEXAS (DIR. WIM WENDERS, USA/GERMANY, 1984)

A letter of both love and hate to America, German auteur Wenders perfects the road movie with his tale of Travis, a loner who seeks to reunite his estranged family and rediscover the American Dream. A clever distortion of both the American road movie and the Westerns of John Ford, Paris, Texas really soars as a piece of melodrama. Harry Dean Stanton’s movingly hangdog central performance holds the film together, while the final monologue is both heart breaking and cathartic.

3. ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA, 1966)

Alongside Kubrick, Russian director Tarkovsky is perhaps the only filmmaker to really push cinema to its limits on a large scale. This epic film follows the tribulations of painter Andrei Rublev through a period of religious strife and violence. While some of Tarkovsky’s other works veered too much towards introspective worthiness, this film utilises the director’s inventive technical vision to his greatest heights. The opening balloon sequence and the pagans on the river count as two of the most extraordinary set pieces committed to film. Existentialism and technical vision collide with aplomb.

4. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (DIR. PETER WEIR, AUSTRALIA, 1975)

Once voted the greatest Australian film of all time, this Peter Weir film is arguably one of the most curious and beguiling works in history. Based on the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a mountain in 1900, the film revels in it’s languid, strange atmosphere and sugar coated visuals. Bravely, Weir never seeks to solve the case- but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Weir challenges the audience to consider the idea that sometimes there are no easy answers, that not everything in this world can be categorised and put into boxes.

5. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Francois Truffaut once said that all war films end up glamourising war, despite their best intentions. Come and See is one of the few films which genuinely challenges this theory. Set in Nazi occupied Belarus during WW2, the film follows the young Flyora as he seeks to evade the army which has killed his family. While most war films tend to lend an air of nobility to the fighting (cough Saving Private Ryan cough), Come and See shows wartime as it really is; a nightmare-ish hell where confusion and inhumanity reign. The film is redeemed as a genuine piece of art by the frequent touches of poetry, both in the vivid imagery and striking sound design. The shot of Flyora lying shellshocked by a dead cow will stay with you forever.

6.  THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Once you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll start to wonder how every other filmmaker is so bloody….mundane. Jodorowsky’s films touch on religion, sex and death, but it is the striking visuals and mind boggling set design which mark his work as cult gems. The baffling plot revolves around the ‘thief’ and his quest for immortality, leading to a series of wild adventures. If Dorothy had taken a tab of acid on her route down the Yellow Brick Road, this film would probably have been the result.

7. TRUST (DIR. HAL HARTLEY, USA, 1990)

Hal Hartley came to prominence in the late 80’s in US independent cinema, embarking on an inexplicably good run of films, like Scorsese/Coppola in the 70’s. His De Niro is Martin Donovan, a chiselled jawed, verbose actor who stars alongside the late, elfin-like Adrienne Shelly. The film follows Shelly as the brattish teenager who discovers she’s pregnant and homeless, and her chance meeting with Donovan, an older man undergoing his own existential crisis. Hal Hartley is extremely influenced by Godard and Bresson, even taking scenes wholesale, yet he is much warmer than Godard and funnier than Bresson. His films have often been compared to choreographed dance, where the characters waltz around each other in torment and lust, and in Trust we have his most defining film.

8. MAUVAIS SANG (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE, 1986)

Leos Carax is regarded as some kind of renegade in French cinema, with his films usually set around outsiders from society. Mauvais Sang, his second film revolves Alex (Denis Lavant), a prodigious lock picker who gets involved in a heist with Marc (Michel Piccoli) and his young lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Tensions between the three of them grow as Alex begins to fall for Anna, and the film is essentially a romantic thriller. Denis Lavant is one of the most unusual actors around, his reptilian features and penchant for acrobatics and impromptu dance routines making him irresistible. Binoche has never been more radiant as Anna. Edited in a poetic, elliptical style, Mauvais Sang is a cult gem, full of vitality and life.

9. L’ HUMANITE (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE, 1999)

Bruno Dumont is another French filmmaker influenced by Bresson’s stark humanism and obsession with faith. Yet, Dumont has his own style influenced by his time as an industrial corporate film maker; static images of desolate Northern France and vivid cinematography give the impression of thereness. Pharaon De Winter is the detective of a small rural town where a young girl has been found murdered. A childlike man, De Winter struggles to solve the case, and all the time the audience is questioning his role in the film.  L’ Humanite deals with sex and violence in a non-judgemental, matter of fact way, and the film veers between tenderness and brutality with ease. A sinister, disquieting film yet strangely invigorating in it’s realness.

10. GUMMO (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA, 1997)

One of a handful of films that could have potentially hinted at a new direction for cinema. There is nothing quite like enfant terrible Korine’s debut, save perhaps his idol Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small,which has a similarly scant plot and improvisational feel. Set in the fictional town of Xenia in small town America, the multi stranded film meanders through a series of vignettes of the distinctly dysfunctional inhabitants. Mixing pop culture as diverse as Roy Orbison and Sleep, naturalistic performances and moments of poetry, Gummo is a singular oddity that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. While some have labelled it exploitative, there is a sense of compassion and genuine affection running through the film from Korine.

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1) THE TREE OF LIFE (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK) – USA

A confession– I had been waiting for years for Terrence Malick’s new film to come out, listening out intently for snippets of information on its long production. So forgive my bias, but there is simply no other contender for film of the year. In all honesty ToL is not a perfect film. Some scenes work, some scenes don’t. But when they do work, they soar. I’d take 20 minutes of some scenes from ToL over the whole year in cinema. Pitt and Chastain perfectly convey the complexities of parenthood, while the young boys are a revelation. Lubezki’s roaming camera combined with the beautifully operatic classical pieces is utterly glorious. Malick’s most personal, sincere and adventurous film to date.

2) WUTHERING HEIGHTS (DIR. ANDREA ARNOLD) – UK

Scottish auteur Arnold updates the classic Bronte novel with hyper real cinematography and naturalistic performances. The young Cathy and Heathcliff are excellent as the bruised lovers, while the Yorkshire valleys take on a wild, oppressive life of their own. One of the few British films to use the landscape in a refreshing and exciting way.

3) SLEEPING SICKNESS (DIR. ULRICH KOHLER) – GERMANY & CAMEROON

This beguiling odditiy comes across as a mix of Claire Denis, Uncle Boonmee and David Lynch, combining jungle environment with hallucinatory, surreal touches. A German doctor is working in an unnamed African hospital, where he deals with the ‘Sleeping sickness’ bug, a condition that makes the sufferer feverish and hallucinate. His family have to leave the country without him, and then things start to get weirder on his own…

4) TRUE GRIT (DIR. THE COEN BROS) – US

The Coen’s are so consistently good, it’s almost boring. Here they turn their meticulous hands to full on western, and master the genre in one fell swoop. A remake of Henry Hathaway’s original, the brothers stick to a more traditional approach, harking back to the classic Westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, but with a few of their own surreal touches for good measure. Jeff Bridges seems to be one of the few leading actors of the 70’s not to have settled into semi –retirement, and is a wizened joy here.

5) NORWEGIAN WOOD (DIR. ANH HUNG TRAN )– JAPAN

Based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 60’s set doomed romance, Vietnamese director brings an exquisite visual style to the books foundations. Garnering only luke warm reviews, this is for me one of the more underrated films of the year. Taking his cues from his earlier films, Hung Tran combines lush, sensual cinematography with subtle, restrained emotions. On top of that, it has an excellent soundtrack featuring CAN and The Velvet Underground.

6) SENNA (DIR. ASIF KAPADIA)– UK

Painstakingly compiled from endless hours of footage, Kapadia’s documentary of the golden F1 driver Ayrton Senna introduces a whole new legion of fans to a sport they thought they hated. Or at least for a couple of hours or so he does, anyway. Made up of grainy interviews and races, with only voiceover to compliment them, the film takes on a hypnotic, compelling quality as we follow the charismatic Senna through his highs and lows.

7) MARGARET (DIR. KENNETH LONERGAN)– USA

Kenneth Lonergan’s long gestating follow up to indie hit You Can Count On Me was riddled with studio and editing troubles, and on it’s eventual release it almost went unnoticed. Thankfully a few major critics rallied around it and it looks like it has at least cult appeal. Following a brattish New York teenager, played by Anna Paquin, as her life is turned upside down by a shocking road accident. Regarded as a response to the confusion 9/11 brought to American life, Margaret is a raw, sprawling drama that leaves the audience to work out their own point of view.

8) BIUTIFUL (DIR. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU) – SPAIN

There was a sense that Inarritu was starting to get ahead of himself, with the bloated Babel and the split with writer Arriagas, but with Biutiful the director has gone back to basics. Anchored by a towering, moving performance from Javier Bardem as a people tracker who starts to have a change of heart. Inarritu shows a side of Barcelona that the tourists won’t see.

9) MELANCHOLIA (DIR. LARS VON TRIER) – SWEDEN & DENMARK

Based on Lars Von Trier’s own struggles with depression, this unusual, elegant film is an effective distortion of the Hollywood disaster movie. Kirsten Dunst plays a bride to be in the midst of the illness, and sees a kinship with the hovering blue planet Melancholia that threatens to engulf the world. The lush visuals and subtle performances elevate this above your standard apocalypse film.

10) CONFESSIONS (DIR. TETSUYA NAKASHIMA)– JAPAN

A fairly low key release this year, this Japanese film was a strange mixture of high school drama, thriller and who dunnit. A teachers child is killed by one of her students, and like Battle Royale, the adults end up having the last laugh. Multiple view points tell the story, and the film is notable for its inventive, playful visual style and soundtrack featuring the XX and Radiohead.

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I’m in two minds about Last Winter, the debut feature from John Shank. On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, serious, occasionally visually striking drama about a young farmer coming to terms with the loss of his industry/world. On the other hand, it feels like a film that’s predictable from start to finish, from every single character to every plot movement. There is nothing new here.

We are introduced to Johann (a commanding Vincent Rottiers), who is toiling alone on the farm that he inherited from his dead father. The farm is based in small village in central France, a stark, blustery landscape, bringing to mind some of Bruno Dumont’s film terrains. He is evidently dedicated to his work and revels in the environment. Shank shows him milling in idyllic rivers and tending to sun-glazed animals. He is supported by a local girlfriend, who waits each night for him to climb into bed. All rosy so far.

The edenic existence is shattered, however, by the realisation that the farming co-op that Johann is part of, is suffering. As the head of the co-op, it’s Johann’s ultimate decision whether to give in to Helier (Michel Subor), the middle man between the co-op and the larger foreign companies who want to dictate the farmers work. Johann, ever stubborn, is reluctant to adapt to modern demands.

Coming from a rural background, these issues are not unfamiliar to me, and there are many news reports about farms capitulating under bankruptcy, and even suicides. This is clearly a serious issue and one that I have not seen represented on screen much, if at all. Yet, it might be this familiarity that with the subject that makes the film slightly staid for me.

Perhaps it is because the director Shank, American born, was not already ingrained in the culture that he is depicting; does his outsider status perhaps make the film feel a little inauthentic? Altogether the film feels somewhat by the numbers. His girlfriend is of little or no consequence, barely saying a few words, and then there is the inexplicable presence of his mentally disturbed sibling, a strange staple of independent dramas (What’s eating Gilbert Grape?, Lost Times), whose only role seems to be to inject unnecessary angst to the story and bludgeon home how compassionate the protagonist is.

There are elements of Malick in the idyllic shots of nature and landscape, but these are mostly drowned out by the gloomy middle section. There is a particular sequence which seems indebted to Days of Heaven‘s famous locust spectacle. Bruno Dumont appears to be another reference point, with his stark portrayals of rural French life. Last Winter unfortunately feels like a lite version of these auteurs films, neither beautiful or otherworldly enough for Malick, or gritty and compelling enough to be a Dumont.

By the end I was pleading for Shank to refrain from an ‘open ending’. Once a thoughtful, challenging part of many art films, it now seems to be a weapon for lazy filmmakers unsure of how to end their story. Often there might not be a ‘right’ ending, but I think Last Winter had the choice of two interesting paths. It chose the middle road.

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