All is Lost
(J.C. Chandor, 2013): Robert Redford plays an unnamed protagonist in one of his final performances before retiring from acting. The film begins with some of the only dialogue in the film, when he's adrift in a life raft and writes a farewell note to an unidentified recipient. We then flashback to eight days prior where his sailboat hits a stray shipping container in the middle of the ocean. Redford's character furiously spends the next half an hour repairing the breach in his ship with whatever items were available. For a while it looks like he might be able to make it, but a storm drives him into an increasingly desperate situation. The minimalist and austere style isn't for everyone, but I found it captivating. Redford, who was in his late 70s when he filmed this, gives a physically demanding performance that enthralled me throughout. My only real complaint is that
the film inexorably marches to the character's death. Just as we seem to get the culmination of his fate, a deus ex machina comes out of nowhere to save him. It's a forced happy ending that feels very out of place with the preceding material.
(Jake Scott, 2018): Sienna Miller plays Debra, a down on her luck 31-year-old grandmother who spends her days working dead end jobs and her evenings having an affair with a married man. Debra lives with her teen daughter Bridgette (Sky Ferreira), and Bridgette's year-old son Jesse. One day Bridgette goes missing. After an extensive search fails to turn up any evidence of her daughter's whereabouts, Debra faces the prospects of having to raise her grandson. The film follows her progress over the next decade and a half as she pulls her shit together and provides a loving, if not stable, home to raise Jesse in. The film's cast (which also includes Amy Madigan, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, and Will Sasso) uniformly give excellent performances as a working-class family doing their best to survive through tragedy. Debra's life follows a path of ups and downs that feels highly realistic and natural. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby delivered and outstanding script, and Jake Scott, a Hollywood scion who's spent the lion's share of his career working on music videos, shows his range by turning in a product that is diametrically opposed to the style he cut his teeth on. It was an emotionally taxing experience that left me in well-earned tears throughout. I really look forward to seeing what else Ingelsby and Scott have to offer.
(Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2015): Hsiao-Hsien Hou returned from an eight-year hiatus to direct the first genre film of his career. Young orphan Nie Yinniang (played as an adult by Qi Shu) is trained by a Buddhist nun to be a deadly assassin in eight-century Tang dynasty China. We see little of Nie's childhood as Hou quickly moves on to her experiences as an efficient, but emotionally conflicted killing machine. When her conscience leads to her failing to fulfill her orders, she's given a seemingly impossible task as punishment. She must now kill rogue general Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) who has renounced his fealty to the emperor and caused chaos in the countryside. Nie once again faces her own internal drama as Tian is both her cousin and one-time romantic partner. Hou cast actors untrained in combat for the roles, but gets around their lack of expertise with frequent edits and other tricks. He does a good job making Qi look like a skilled warrior, and gives her a chance to demonstrate a far greater acting ability than was on display in her early sexploitation work. With long meditative shots that stand in contrast to the somewhat infrequent combat, and stylized camera placement (how many scenes are filmed behind semi-transparent curtains?) the film is often gorgeous to look at. I really loved this one.
(Andrzej Zulawski, 2015): In what turned out to be Polish auteur Andrzej Zulawski's final film before his death in 2016, we follow the journey of failed law student Witold (Jonathan Genet) who, along with his comrade Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), leaves the madness of Paris for what they think will be a quiet country retreat. As Witold makes his way toward the house, he's greeted by a dead sparrow hung from a noose in the middle of the path. It’s the first in a series of odd occurrences that the pair will encounter. The estate is populated with a menagerie of peculiar residents, but none more consequential than Lena (Victória Guerra), the married older daughter of the inn's proprietors. Witold becomes obsessed with Lena and demonstrates his love for her by, um, murdering her cat. Zulawski made one of my favorite films of all time The Third Part of the Night
, but the rest of his career is filled with a mixture of highs (That Most Important Thing: Love
, On the Silver Globe
) and lows (Szamanka
lies somewhere in the middle, existing as a thoroughly mediocre farewell to his fans. Like most of his films, it works best when operating on an ethereal level--almost dream like in its freedom from logic and literal meaning. What I can't get around, however, is Genet's ridiculously over-the-top performance that is best described as a more shouty version of Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. It may have been what the director wanted, but it's so distracting that his facial contortions and inappropriate raspy shouts ruin every scene they're in.
(Guillermo del Toro, 2015): Co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro gives life to his love for gothic horror in the apotheosis of the genre: the ghost story. The first part of the story is more The Portrait of a Lady
than The Turn of the Screw
as British nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) woos aspiring horror author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who's love of the genre was inspired by a childhood encounter with the ghastly apparition of her dead mother. Thomas, however, has ulterior motives as he and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) wish to get Edith's nouveau riche father Carter (Jim Beaver) to invest in his idea of a new kind of mining machine. Carter declines and forces Thomas to break off relations with his daughter, setting up a bloody chain of events with frequent supernatural occurrences. Wasikowska is given little to do other than play the hapless victim too blinded by her romantic feelings for Thomas to realize what's going on, but both Hiddleston and Chastain make the most of their roles. The real star, however, is the gorgeous set design fueled by del Toro's obsessive attention to detail.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
(Wes Anderson, 2014): Speaking of obsessive attention to detail, co-writer/director Wes Anderson crafts a story within a story within a story within a story. Little attention is given to the first two meta-narratives, and we spend sometime in the third where Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) converses with a writer played by Jude Law, but the majority of the film's runtime takes place at the final level where Moustafa was a young hotel employee in the 1930s going by the name Zero (Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel's concierge. Gustave spends most of his time running the hotel and bedding the rich widows that frequent it. When one of them dies Gustave inherits an invaluable painting, leading her jealous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) to frame him for murder. Zero and Gustave must now clear his name while avoiding Dmitri's goon Jopling (Willem Dafoe), and uncover the identity of the real killer. Like all of Anderson's films, the real star (despite a good many famous actors who pop up in the production) is the unparalleled set design where the content of every frame springs from years of a production team's work bringing to life the director's vision. Anderson's humor is as wry as always, making this a sweet and charming tale of murder. It's so good that I truly regret waiting seven years to see it.
Son of Saul
(László Nemes, 2015): Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jew surrounded by death in Auschwitz. Saul prolongs his own existence by operating as a Sonderkommando, a concentration camp prisoner who guides his fellow Jews into the gas chambers before disposing of both their clothes and their corpses. When a preteen boy clings to life after one such gassing the shell-shocked Saul clings to the delusion that he's the boy's father. After an SS guard murders the unnamed youth, Saul becomes preoccupied with the compulsion to give him a proper burial--a luxury that no Jew gets there. Deluded, but rational enough to preserve his own existence, Saul constantly walks a tightrope between his desire to get a rabbi to give the boy a funeral and the constant labor that he must perform to stay alive. Championed by Claude Lanzman himself, Son of Saul
does an admirable job of telling the story of a man broken by the inhumanity that enveloped him. Having previously seen Nemes's just okay follow up Sunset
, I wasn't expecting much out of this historical drama. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the brutal matter of fact approach that the director took as well as the recreation of the horror that was Auschwitz.