In The Great Beauty, Rome is an open city meant for meandering, but those without a deep reserve of breath should beware: it may be taken promptly and without warning. Paolo Sorrentino, in his desire to evoke this quality, opens himself up to every technique he can think of. Each scene has its own editorial logic, and the result is cohesive in spite of the schizophrenic narrative path. This makes for a film that feels too much like life for us to ever want it to end; Computer graphics, subjective portraiture, frenetic montage and decadently languorous camera moves all conspire to variegate a tumblingly humanist series of tangents. Jep Gambardella is both our Vergil when this Berlusconi fever dream turns hellish and our Bacchus any time we find ourselves enthralled by the excess. In the end, it is Sorrentino’s sensitivity to the blah blah blah that allows him to make beautifully wrought, but terribly grand pronouncements about the transcendence of Life Itself. It may all be a sleight of hand, but few tricks can leave one so mystified, bewitched, and alive.
9. Like Someone In Love
Once you’ve peeled back its [expertly constructed] layers of lies and mistakes—sometimes harmless, sometimes violent—you will find that, beneath them, Like Someone In Love offers a new definition of intimacy. Abbas Kiarostami creates an image of love as the willingness to adopt a wholly vulnerable sort of anonymity. But the closest thing to intimacy that he gives us is an unconsummated relationship between a 20-something prostitute Akiko, and her client Takashi, more than sixty years her senior. They both willfully lose control over their identities—displacing them onto paintings, advertisements for escort services, answering machines—and assume new ones: the virginal college student, the protective grandfather. This playacting draws both of Kiarostami’s emotionally stunted characters toward the sort of romantic liberation they’ve thus far been denied. The film is sleek and stylish, complemented beautifully by the vibrant but artificial neon of hyper-industrialized Tokyo. In one of the most striking scenes of the film, Akiko leaves the navigation of this metropolis up to her cab driver. She sits in the back seat, letting the stream of neon splash across her face and lull her to sleep. In a city known for its endless push against the boundaries of technological innovation, Kiarostami meditates on the freedom that comes from adopting a passive position, allowing others to drive forward for you.
8. The Hunt
Thomas Vinterberg is probably best known as the co-author (along with Lars von Trier) of the Dogme 95 manifesto, and as the director of The Celebration (1998), the first film created under Dogme’s strict credo. His latest, The Hunt, seems like a close relative of The Celebration—not so rough around the edges, maybe, but pitched to the same level of emotional urgency and directness. The Celebration is a harrowing, uncomfortably funny portrait of a family’s implosion as memories of childhood abuse surface at a family reunion. The Hunt explores an inverse scenario, in which an imagined abuse threatens to destroy an innocent man.
Like an updated Day of Wrath, Vinterberg’s film charts the small slips, casual misunderstandings and misdirected aggression that, taken together, build to hysteria. When devoted kindergarten teacher and loving single father Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is wrongly accused of molesting his best friend’s daughter, his daily life within a tight-knit rural Danish community becomes an unrecognizable nightmare. Determined to hold his ground and maintain his innocence despite increasingly violent attempts to drive him away, Lucas lives with the stain of an accusation that can never be forgotten.
The Hunt grips us in a slowly tightening knot of anxiety as only the finest thrillers can, but is even more astonishing for its unexpectedly tender moments of compassion and respite. Even as the thin veneer of civilization cracks apart, revealing the ignorance and childlike insecurities that turn upstanding adults into snarling vessels of hatred and cruelty, these small mercies—a child’s smile, flirting in broken Danish, a bullet that misses its mark by a hair—are harder to shake than the fear.
7. Frances Ha
In Frances Ha, a happy-go-lucky twenty-something trying to make it as a modern dancer struggles to balance love, friendship, art and Manhattan real estate. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably just rolled your eyes. A year ago, I would have, too. Luckily, Frances Ha assumes our cynicism, and takes it in stride. As glaringly self-aware of its own French New Wave effervescence and Manhattan-era Woody Allen charm as it is, don’t be fooled: this is not an Important film. It is, however, a disarmingly sincere, refreshingly funny one.
Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s seventh feature, starring and co-written by longtime mumblecore regular (and Barnard alum!) Greta Gerwig, tells a familiar story with a rare energy. By never taking itself, or its protagonist, too seriously, it navigates through a minefield of potential clichés and emerges miraculously unscathed. It is, above all else, a comedy, with a razor-sharp command of the language and champagne problems of its privileged post-grads. (“Patch is the kind of guy who buys a black leather couch and is like, I love it,” Frances gripes.) Baumbach’s caustic humor (see Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale) seems tempered, here, by Gerwig’s irrepressible lightness.
Toward the beginning of the film, Frances reads aloud to her best friend and soulmate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The gist of the passage she’s reading is some critic’s contention that, in our day and age, one of the worst things you can say about a piece of art is that it’s “sincere”—but Frances Ha dares us to do just that. How else can we describe a movie that endears us to its sometimes-irritating characters with such grace, and reminds us, in glowing black and white, of the infinite possibilities for excitement and heartbreak on every street corner of New York City?
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers are hands-down the best visual stylists working in film today, and Inside Llewyn Davis, their latest, recreates the look of mid-century New York City impeccably. Characters dress like they’re trapped in a magazine. The air is filled with Marlboro smoke and Chevy exhaust fumes. Old subway signs shine with a dull winter glow. Working for the first time with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the Coen Brothers have made a gorgeous minor-key movie, an exquisite ode to discouragement. The music, to my mind, is a different story: every live performance in Llewyn Davis sounds like it was recorded in a studio vacuum, whether or not it actually was; the actors sing traditional songs in a rarefied pop warble; no one ever really makes a mistake. Still, even if the Coen Brothers don’t offer up any musical surprises, they seem well aware that Llewyn is only scratching the surface of a long and mysterious folk tradition in this country. As Llewyn himself starts to realize this (during a sequence in which he drives to Chicago with a jazzman and a stoic chauffeur, among the best filmmaking the Coens have ever done), he faces a quiet dilemma: is it worth trying to be an artist in America?