Friday, December 2, 2011

The Mill and the Cross

The Mill and the Cross
By Lech Majewski, 2011

If you have ever looked at paintings from centuries past and wondered what a particular scene would look like when brought to life, here is your chance. In Lech Majewski’s new film The Mill and the Cross, he attempts to understand and portray the meanings and decisions behind Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. Why is there a tree there? What does the mill itself represent? As a filmic answer to these questions and more, The Mill and the Cross is quite the success.

The film opens on a Flemish landscape. The camera pans along the setting, and in it we see a crowd of people including soldiers, peasants and a woman crying in the foreground. The characters hold their stances as still as they can, with a horse or a child occasionally coming out of his or her freeze. Soon the artist Bruegel enters with a colleague to discuss the scene at hand, the scene that will become his painting.

The Way to Calvary is a work depicting Jesus being persecuted amongst the people of Flanders in the 16th century. Flemish people accused of heresy were regularly executed during this time by the Catholic Spaniards ruling the land. Bruegel created this work as an allegory for the inhumane crimes he witnessed, and now Majewski has painted a wonderful portrait himself, being ever so insightful of the painting with his film.

Besides laying out the scene in the painting (the scenery is beautifully composed using a wonderful green screen effect that allows the actors to appear alive on Bruegel’s painted background), Majewski uses elements from the painting to display historical details from the time period. When we cut away from the live-action painting at the beginning of the film, we are taken to the mill that stands in the artwork's top corner. A couple wakes up in the early morning, they put on their wooden clogs and begin the laborious process of starting up the windmill. A man asleep on the floor is also awoken; he walks the exaggerated distance (the mill in the painting is perched atop a steep mountain peak) to the mill’s terrace, where he releases the mill's sails to begin the grinding of grain. Soon after, we are shown a young Flemish couple take their calf to market, only for the man to be apprehended by Spanish soldiers, beaten, then tied to a wheel which is subsequently perched atop a tall stick of wood so his bloodied body can be feasted on by crows. In The Way to Calvary, these barbaric devices are seen planted throughout the landscape.

Unlike anything I’ve seen before, The Mill and the Cross is quite special. It is part documentary, part drama, part history lesson and part art lesson, using a minimal amount of dialogue to share its knowledge. Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but if you are keen on learning and have patience for details, please seek this film out. Immediately after viewing the film I found myself hoping that the director would follow up with another investigation of a painting. I really hope so.

4 out of 5

Friday, August 19, 2011

Project Nim

Project Nim
By James Marsh, 2011

My friend and I have a running joke about all things primate: chimps, gorillas, apes, etc. There isn’t a specific joke we have going, but we both find them hilarious and terrifying. Chimps are scary. As cute and human-like as they might seem, they are unpredictable and incredibly strong. With the new Planet of the Apes reboot just released in theatres, my friend and I thought we were up for a special blend of fun and scares. But with quite good reviews, maybe we ought to take that film more seriously before venturing to the theatre. The other primate-focused film in theatres right now is Project Nim, and after listening to an NPR podcast about a similar scenario, I recently opted to choose reality over science-fiction.

Project Nim is James Marsh’s documentary on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp raised solely by humans in the 1970s. Nim was taken from his mother by psychologist Herbert S. Terrace soon after being born in order to see if he could be taught American Sign Language. The film follows Nim’s journey through several homes, including his initial homestead where he was treated more like a child in a family than an animal, and a research building in the country where the comings and goings of psychologists and students would cause the chimp to act out in anger and revolt.

The documentary is a well-executed, suspenseful piece of filmmaking. Marsh sets up the story with a cast of interesting characters that include the types of heroes and villains one would find in a fiction narrative. The central character is always Nim, but he is as complex as any human you will see in a documentary this year; he becomes a type of antihero that you pity but also fear. The story is constructed with the use of great historical footage, and the interviews are quite intimate and direct at times, reminding me of Errol Morris documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and Standard Operating Procedure.

Although a metaphorical motif of having characters literally ‘removed from the picture’ is a little forced, as are some of the reenactments, overall Project Nim is a very interesting film. It raises many questions about our relationship with animals and the underlying, mysterious feelings these captive primates have. And Marsh seems to revel in these types of fantastical stories in our history, as he did in Wisconsin Death Trip and Man on Wire. These stories aren’t widely known, so let’s hope he continues to unearth many more and bring them to life, so we as an audience can join in on the discovery.

4 out of 5

Sunday, August 7, 2011

2000s: Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
By Jennifer Venditti, 2007

I first saw Billy the Kid at one of my first Hot Docs Film Festival screenings. I was to finish my Film degree at York University the following year and excited to take part in what would become my favourite Toronto film festival. The film stuck with me over the years (Billy and director Jennifer Venditti are featured in the title bar of the site) and I was pleased to pick up a copy not too long ago. I rewatched the film last night.

Billy the Kid is a 2007 documentary about Billy Price, a sophomore high school student living in small-town Maine. Billy is intelligent, outspoken and loves karate, metal music and girls. He sounds like any other teenage boy, but in another way, Billy is quite different. He has an obvious social awkwardness to him; one which doctors said early on would mean he would need to be institutionalized. More testing revealed that Billy was perfectly fine to live at home with his family, which he does, and he attends a regular high school.

Venditti's film follows Billy's day to day activities, aided by a voiceover where Billy talks about his views on life, love and his personal mental health. He is mostly seen bouncing around the nearby woods or biking around the streets of his town, talking to local kids about his fascination with horror movies. A narrative takes shape when Billy meets a local girl working at a diner. With his heart aflutter, Billy woos the girl, and the magic of seeing someone with their first love is all caught on camera. All of this conjures up nostalgia for one’s own pining and high school crushes, but the film isn’t without its concerns.

One can’t help but wonder while watching Billy the Kid about exploitation in documentary. Billy’s social issues are confirmed in the DVD extras as Aspberger’s Syndrome. Venditti may not have been aware of this while filming, but she knew that something was amiss. So one has to question, is the director’s intentions sympathetic or exploitive? Billy obviously makes for a great character; his insights are profound, mature and hilarious. And Venditti’s commentary suggests that she had found someone whom we as an audience can all relate to, someone who displays all the awkwardness of coming of age as a teenager. But one can't help but wonder if she is also poking fun at Billy. There's a moment where we see Billy pick up his guitar, take his shirt off and rock out to a metal concert video on his TV. He is obviously hamming it up for the camera, but then the view is switched to outside of his window, and instead of hearing both the concert and Billy playing along, we hear just Billy. I was taken back by that small section when I rewatched the film, wondering if Venditti was intentionally teasing Billy behind his back. Or is she just showing an example of a memory we are all familiar with; one where we are back in our teenage bedrooms, doing things the rest of the world doesn't know we're doing? Whatever the reason, the film itself is a good conversation piece regarding the moral grounds of documentaries, and Venditti offers a lot of touching moments.

Billy the Kid is an enjoyable experience because we as an audience are tested by Billy's brazenness and are reminded of our own trials and triumphs when we were in high school. You can tell that Venditti does care for her subject and rewatching the film, I can tell why I was first so enamored with it when I first saw it. It's the tale of an outsider, being himself and finding his way through the ups and downs of life.

3 ½ out of 5

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog, 2010

The documentary subjects of Werner Herzog films are always unique. Whether it is the community of people living in Antarctica, a man obsessed with grizzly bears, or the flying of a one-of-a-kind vessel over Guyana, Herzog’s non-fiction subject matter seems specially associated to him; the focus is always Herzogian, if you will. Traveling to extremes, documenting curious individuals, and facing environments many have not encountered the likes of, the director’s latest adventure is no different.

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog and a small team of scientists and technicians explore the Chauvet Cave in France. The cave was discovered in the 1990s and found to contain perfectly preserved drawings from 30,000 years ago. Vivid and detailed drawings of horses, rhinoceroses, lions and others cover parts of the cave wall, looking like they could have been completed yesterday.

What is special about Cave of Forgotten Dreams, other than being able to see these drawings at all (Herzog was allowed incredible access to the cave. Most filming equipment could cause damage to the preservation of the drawings, so the documentary team had limited time and had to use special equipment to capture the imagery), is that it utilizes the currently popular 3D style. Personally, I find 3D films to be often quite distracting, headache-inducing, and diminishing in the overall colour of the picture. Yet the use of 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is actually quite wonderful. It creates an impressive feeling of depth within the cave and aids in visualizing the contours of the walls the scenes are drawn on.

As with most Herzog documentaries, the filmmaker plays a role in the narrative. His distinct voiceover plays throughout, describing his thoughts on the drawings and the people who may have created them thousands of years ago. His philosophical ramblings are a signature of his films (again, Herzogian), but in his previous works I have felt more at home with them. I find he strives to say things here that are intriguing but also a bit silly. At one point he asks a technician what the dreams of the cave drawers may have been, which is valid but also comes off as “trying too hard”; In a sense, I feel he is trying too hard to make this a Herzogian film. The connection he makes to alligators living in a sanctuary near the cave to the future of the cave itself also seems a bit haphazard and thrown in.

As always, though, a new Werner Herzog film is something to behold and discover. I admire the man for his guts and bravado, taking on and fighting to film the subject matter that many may believe is unfilmable. He is prolific beyond words, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams is another piece in his canon that is truly an original work of wonder.

3 1/2 out of 5

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - Buck

By Cindy Meehl, 2011

My last screening of the festival was yesterday, Sunday, May 8. A Mother's Day afternoon showing of Buck, Cindy Meehl's tale of Buck Brannaman, a traveling horse whisperer and horse clinic organizer, proved to be a wonderful way to end my venture into Hot Docs 2011. Brannaman's story of personal growth after a childhood of pain and becoming an amazingly talented and patient presence around horses was a hit at Sundance earlier this year and (just announced) placed sixth in Hot Docs' Top Ten People's Choice standings. Brannaman is an amazing subject. Interesting, handsome and hilarious, his poise, wisdom and grace carry the film. The landscapes are beautiful and the scenes with untamed horses at the clinics are tense, frightening and exciting. Meehl has captured something special here, for horse lovers or not.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Forgotten Space

The Forgotten Space
By Allan Sekula and Noel Burch, 2011

After the high of seeing The Interrupters, I rushed to a cinema in the same complex to see The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch. I had to skip a Q&A with Interrupters' director Steve James in order to catch this film, but I was soon wishing I hadn't. Maybe it was because I had just seen a very engagingly emotional piece, but I never really found myself connecting to The Forgotten Space, a film about the the effects of globalization on the transport industry. The film seemed more suited for a television news program, but even then, with its cloying voiceover and unfocused editing and subject matter, I don't know who would have found it particularly enthralling. Maybe a second chance is needed, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

2 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Interrupters

The Interrupters
By Steve James, 2011

Hoop Dreams director Steve James came to the Hot Docs Film Festival this year with a documentary about the state of violence in Chicago. The Interrupters follows the workers of a group named CeaseFire, a committee dedicated to intervening in altercations and preventing violence in the harsh streets of their city. The film is a lengthy 142 minutes, but the screening felt steady and brisk. With this film, James has captured a city in turmoil with grace, humour and empathy, and he succeeds as well as he does because of the wonderful subjects he interviews and focuses on. CeaseFire's Ameena, Eddie and Cobe offer a world of history and wisdom not just to the many young Chicagoans they are helping, but to the audience as well. The film is edited in the default "seasons of the year" style, but it is such an emotional and powerful piece that tears were often running down my face throughout the screening. Another festival favourite.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - At The Edge of Russia

At The Edge of Russia
By Michal Marczak, 2011

A young officer in the Russian military is sent to the country's northern border. Meeting his fellow patriots at their log cabin-like outpost, they are given the task of patrolling the snowy, barren land for invaders. Marczak has really captured something magical in At The Edge of Russia, as everything comes together wonderfully. The snowy landscape is beautiful and haunting, and the outpost itself becomes a secluded haven, a character itself. Speaking of characters, the director could not have found more interesting subjects. Without the use of interviews, we come to know the men, each with their own words of wisdom for the young recruit and each with their own characteristics and standings within the makeshift family. They pass their days with futile training activities, distracting themselves occasionally with games, songs and dances. The men's jobs may appear boring, watching the film is anything but. A real highlight from this year's festival.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Living Skin (with Guanape Sur)

Guanape Sur
By Janos Richter, 2011

Guanape is a short film that preceded the screening of Living Skin. Both films were a part of the Workers of the World series at this year's festival and both films came up slight for me as I had higher expectations. The short documentary is beautiful visually and the subject is highly promising: workers are sent to an island off the coast of Peru every eleven years to collect bird excrement that has hardened and turned into profitable fertilizer. Many risk injuring themselves due to infections, illnesses and the peril found on the steep landscape. When the film abruptly ended, I found myself wanting more. More scenes of the interesting landscape, more focus on how the fertilizer is collected and organized, and more intimacy with the workers. Sometimes Abrupt endings feel warranted.. Sometimes they just feel... abrupt.

3 out of 5

Living Skin
By Fawzi Saleh, 2011

In the bustling city of Cairo, child workers play a prominent role. Living Skin is a mid-length documentary following various young boys as they work in the city's tanneries, handling animal skins, treating them with dangerous chemicals and shipping them by horse and cart. The conditions these boys live and work in are shocking and Saleh does a wonderful job capturing their daily routines, but its chosen structure comes off as a bit too easy and sloppy. The film is edited into days of the week, but for no apparent reason, because after the title card with the date is shown, one day is undecipherable from the next. The film is also heavy with narration from the boys, which plays over scenes of them working. The narration is interesting at times, such as when the boys speak about their work, but there are also tangents from them about girls they love and other feelings that, although are cute, come off as unfocused and would have been better presented elsewhere.

3 out of 5

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - We Were Here

We Were Here
By David Weissman, 2011

Weissman’s feature documents the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco from its uncovering in the late 1970s and early 1980s to its slowdown, yet still much alive state, today. We Were Here is a “talking heads” documentary, which can leave the viewer, such as myself, hungry for more visual and creative flair. But the interviews presented here are just so heartbreaking and involving, really making this film something to cherish. Interviewing various subjects who lived through the era: a florist, a nurse, a hospital volunteer, Weissman intercuts their words with haunting visuals of lives lost and of citizens in political and social unrest. Without said visual flair and a concrete ending (but could there really be an ending with such a subject?), the film risks alienating audiences, but the director has compiled such fantastic interviewees that I wonder if there was a dry eye in the entire theatre last night. A wonderful film and a great history lesson.

4 ½ out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Zelal

By Marianne Khoury & Mustapha Hasnaoui, 2011

Directors Khoury and Hasnaouri confine themselves inside the walls of a Cairo mental institution in their film Zelal, their camera rarely leaving the hard and worn faces of the resident patients. It can be a difficult film to watch as we learn many patients (I want to write inmates) have been abandoned by their spouses and families, with some showing signs of possible sanity but no freedom of choice. The direct cinema style displays haunting portraits of people forgotten by the outside world, but also creates a sort of redundant showcase: the ramblings of the insane become almost synonymous. The film should be seen for its unnerving view inside a world that is rarely observed, a world that should be opened up and renovated in its infrastructure and healthcare. But be prepared for possible boredom.

3 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Casle

The Castle
By Massimo D’Anolfi & Martina Parenti, 2011

The Castle is a cinema verite-style documentary focusing on various characters working, arriving, departing and living in the Malpensa Airport in Milan. Whether it’s a young man being questioned for smuggling drugs, people’s bags and phones being extensively searched or a hilarious bomb specialist investigating an abandoned suitcase, D’Anolfi and Parenti are allowed incredible access. The film asks no questions, but just observes with a wonderfully steady (although sometimes too steady) hand. A great piece of direct cinema.

4 out of 5

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - The Hollywood Complex

The Hollywood Complex
By Dan Sturman and Dylan Nelson, 2011

Set in the Oakwood Hotel in Los Angeles, California, The Hollywood Complex focuses on the families of child actors who stay there during the annual Hollywood television pilot season. While some families leave after the season is over, many stay year after year, their children taking classes and going to auditions. The film is pretty wonderful overall, displaying shocking and hilarious portraits of money-hungry parents and agents, and children wanting fame before anything else. The subject is one that needs to be uncovered and presented to the public, as much of the casting process for these children is startling. But as one of the directors stated during the Q&A, many classic films could not have been made without children, so there is a troubling conflict of sorts. If I have one complaint, it is with the same director trying to cover up his tracks during the Q&A by saying that he was worried by some of the audience’s laughter during scenes and that he hoped they presented not only the bad and the ugly, but also the good. I believe that much of the reaction to the film, with such subject matter, is unavoidable, and that the “good” really wasn’t much on display here. It did come off as an indictment of an institution, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And as a personal conflict: as much as I enjoyed the documentary and participated in the laughter, I just hope the film’s children never see it.

4 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Maids and Bosses (with Three Walls)

Three Walls
By Zaheed Mawani, 2011

Screening before the mid-length feature Maids and Bosses, Three Walls is a terrific short about the history, design and society’s current feelings towards the modern-day cubicle. Director Mawani intercuts wonderful shots of factory workers building cubicle walls with the testimonies of several office workers and architectural designers. The film is a hilarious and poignant look at not just the physical structure, but office life in general.
4 1/2 out of 5

Maids and Bosses
By Abner Benaim, 2011

This year Hot Docs has a series entitled Workers of the World, a category that holds three of the films I will be seeing during the festival. Maids and Bosses is one of these films, which presents the dichotomy of servant and master in modern-day Panama. The film showcases both maid and house-owner, allowing each to tell their stories of either strife or success, with most of the sentiment belying the maids who have to undergo less than desirable treatment from their bosses. Many of these maids tell compellingly startling stories of absurd treatment, yet the film trivializes them with sometimes-unfitting music and strange and long cinematic diversions, such as a child making a mess in a toy room in slow-motion. I feel if the film followed two or three maids’ stories and used a more cinema verite approach, the film could have been more successful.
3 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip
By James Marsh, 1999

Part of the Ripping Reality series at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, which screens “looked-over” gems from the past ten or so years, Wisconsin Death Trip is Man on Wire director James Marsh’s look at the strange events that occurred in one small Wisconsin town between 1890 and 1900. Edited as almost a photo essay, the film uses articles from the town’s newspaper to list off what happened and incorporates wonderfully filmed reenactments to go along with the narration. Although the almost unbelievable occurrences make the film very engrossing, the ‘compilation’ feel of the editing (event after event after event) creates an expected tiresomeness.

3 1/2 out of 5

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hot Docs 2011

Tomorrow I start my annual venture into Toronto’s beloved annual Hot Docs Film Festival. I have 11 films I plan to see, so it’ll be another exhausting, but worthwhile run. I start with a late night screening of James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a documentary from 1999 about one small town’s crazy occurrence of disasters in the 19th century.

My list of films to see also includes:

Maids and Bosses by Abner Benaim
The Hollywood Complex by Dan Sturman, Dylan Nelson
The Castle by Massimo D'Anolfi, Martina Parenti
Zelal by Marianne Khoury, Mustapha Hasnaoui
We Were Here by David Weissman
Living Skin by Fawzi Saleh – screening with Guanape Sur by János Richter
At The Edge of Russia by Michal Marczak
The Interrupters by Steve James
The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula, Noël Burch
Buck by Cindy Meehl

I will be writing capsule reviews of these films as I did last year.

Friday, March 25, 2011

2000s: Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil by Amy Berg, 2006

With no real resolution, the case presented by Amy Berg in 2006's Deliver Us From Evil is one of the most difficult in recent times: the accusations of abuse by Catholic priests of children. Now I cannot act as an expert on this field, so I will try to keep discussion to the film at hand. As a sidenote, I will be viewing and discussing films, even if they are a few years old and do not seem relevant to today, as I am only coming to view them now.

The documentary Deliver Us From Evil primarily focuses on Father Oliver O'Grady who moved from Ireland to California in the 1970s to be the head of a parish in a small town. After accusations of abuse by parishioners, O'Grady was moved by heads of the church to various other towns in close proximity. Abuse in each location is eventually brought forth yet systematically covered up by higher powers. The film contains many instances in the trial of O'Grady and several abuse victims and their families speak of the horrible natures of their ordeals. We learn that the Catholic church itself continuously does its best to deny any knowledge of wrongdoings, particularly with O'Grady's case.

The film itself is impressive in its access to O'Grady himself. He talks freely with the filmmaker about his urges and his ideas on what should and should not have happened. At one point I found myself oddly respecting him because he was able to talk so openly about his feelings and the events that occurred. This respect changed by the end, when a glimmer in O'Grady's eyes showed something very disconnected with his past actions. A smile here and a wink there left me bewildered and disturbed. Berg's choice of interviewees is also to be commended as experts on the Catholic faith and officials of the law give very interesting commentaries on the nature of the church's actions and the possible reasoning behind so many priests' unlawful actions.

It's hard to argue about Deliver Us From Evil on an artistic level. The film is a talking-heads expose on the church and its crimes and its interviews are surprising and heart-wrenching. One may find it difficult to say certain artistic choices failed when the subject matter is really what is most important, yet I found the editing lacked a certain build-up. The story at times seemed a bit all over the place and I found it a bit difficult to understand the chronological order of events. The music choices also felt sometimes odd – as in when the abuse victims visit the Vatican, a Celtic-style soundtrack is used that hearkened too much towards O'Grady's cultural background and almost felt like an unneeded Irish celebration. I am sure this was unintended, but that was the vibe I felt.

Deliver Us From Evil is a film that really should be seen. It angers one to see how so much is being covered up by an institution that is to be revered for its morals. The director should be acknowledged greatly for her unearthing of facts and testimonies to tell a shocking tale of incredible deceit.

3 1/2 out of 5

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Arbor

The Arbor by Clio Barnard, 2010

At a very young age, Andrea Dunbar became a local sensation in her Yorkshire town. Having written a play called The Arbor, Andrea found her work commissioned for a theatre in London. She had a simple reason for its title: this is where the events in the play take place. This is where all of these events really happened.

Clio Barnard’s new film, also titled The Arbor, is a unique venture into filmmaking. What could be called a fiction/narrative-styled documentary, the film uses actors to lip sync to audio interviews Barnard recorded with her subjects – mainly Andrea Dunbar’s relatives and acquaintances. The style is often immediate and unsettling: you know the actors are not saying the words, but their interpretation of the subjects’ responses and gestures, along with their gazes aimed directly at the camera give the film a haunting importance. Although one may argue that the subjects themselves could have easily been filmed and presented in real form, I found the technique a mesmerizing and worthy choice.

Dunbar’s story is a tragic and often difficult one to hear. Her plays tell of struggles with pregnancy, racism and violence (scenes from the play The Arbor are performed throughout the film in the Brafferton Arbor where Dunbar grew up, with residents surrounding the actors as a real audience) and the interviews with Dunbar’s relatives and acquaintances speak of a harsh family life and subsequent hardships experienced after Andrea’s early death. The interviewees’ heavy accents are almost indecipherable at times, but the story is compelling and heartbreaking, and the performances are really top-notch. During a post-screening Q & A, an audience member asked if English subtitles were considered. Barnard’s answer was that reading words at the bottom of the screen would have viewers missing the actors’ subtle facial movements and expressions. And with a film as uniquely styled as The Arbor, one really does not want to miss anything.

4 1/2 out of 5

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Top Ten of 2010

After finally seeing The King's Speech this past weekend, I thought it was time to write a Top 10 list of 2010. I need to catch up on the Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature, and it must seem like an obvious omission to have not seen all of them before writing this list. But, alas, here is my list anyway. The order in which the films are listed are not set in stone, as I keep flip-flopping when I try to place certain picks above others (my honorable mentions could be swapped into the top ten as well), but my top two are definitely there to stay.

Festival Films:

I think it may be a little unfair to list these three films in my top ten as they were only, to my knowledge, shown on the festival circuit. Nonetheless, they are fantastic:

La Belle Visite - Jean-Francois Caissy

The House of Suh - Iris K. Shim

The Fabulous Fiff and Fam

Honorable Mentions

Two wonderful examples of realist cinema, set in opposite landscapes and displaying opposite tones and atmospheres. One from a legend in the medium, the other from a newer American filmmaker. Both containing winning performances, especially from the likes of Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Dale Dickey and John Hawkes.

Another Year - Mike Leigh

Winter’s Bone - Debra Granik

Top Ten:

Although this is mainly a documentary/realist cinema blog, I like what I like. I’ve recently come across the fact that many of the films I gravitate towards and purchase are, well, somewhat ‘downers’. Therefore, I found myself really enjoying creative and fun “popcorn fare” this year. I think my number one choice, in a way, combines my various tastes.

10) Blue Valentine – Derek Cianfrance - A modern American relationship drama about an age group that never seems to be represented as truthfully as it is here. A wonderful performance from Ryan Gosling and fantastic time-shifting editing.

9) The King’s Speech – Tom Hooper - Gloriously shot, a historical comedy/drama that succeeds due to its central friendship. Director Tom Hooper builds tension in a climactic scene that needs no guns or violence to pin you to your seat.

8) Kick-Ass – Matthew Vaughn - A film where the guns and violence do pin you to your seat, but it’s so fun that you want it to go on long after it has ended.

7) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work – Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg - This one has grown on me over time. A comedy legend brave enough to show us her real self, inside and out. Touching, funny and ultimately and surprisingly sad – but in a good way.

6) Incendies – Denis Villeneuve - Canada’s nominee at the Academy Awards is a brutal, heavy piece on war, memory and coincidence. A film I think that iss ultimately too heavy for me to view again, but one that is so wonderfully made that it deserves its place among the best of the year.

5) Let Me In – Matt Reeves - Chloe Grace Moretz is one of the breakout stars of 2010, with this film and her turn in Kick-Ass. She and Kodi Smit-McPhee give two of the best performances of the year in this dark remake of the Swedish original. I may be sacrilegious in saying this, but I believe it succeeds in eclipsing its predecessor. More fluid and engaging, and containing an astonishing car accident scene, this film impressed me more than I could have imagined.

4) Exit Through The Gift Shop – Banksy - A hilarious and astounding piece on street art and its transformation into sometimes bullsh*t commodity, Banksy creates a portrait documentary on a man who becomes an unlikely and, while viewing the film, unexpected star.

3) Scott Pilgrim Versus The World – Edgar Wright - One of the most creative and exciting films I have seen in a long time. Succeeds in making Michael Cera charming again, with a wild cast and an even wilder visual presentation. I can’t wait to see it again.

2) Marwencol – Jeff Malmberg - Seeing this at last year's Hot Docs Film Festival, I was astounded by its contents. The director never trivializes his subject, and what a subject he is. Mark Hogancamp is so interesting and his photographs are so beautiful that after watching Marwencol one can’t help but wonder why he or she hadn’t thought of taking similar pictures. Excellent stuff.

1) Please Give – Nicole Holofcener - It was a toss-up between this film and Marwencol for the top spot, but every time I think of the past year in film, I immediately think of Please Give. A touching and hilarious portrait of every day people and how consumerism and guilt affect them, the film contains some of the best performances I have seen all year, Amanda Peet topping them all. A film with no easy answers or resolutions, Please Give is all the better for it. It may not be the most groundbreaking piece seen in 2010, but it affected me in a way I can’t explain. I take that as a good sign.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Realist Cinema: Another Year

Another Year by Mike Leigh, 2010

I don’t find myself in any way qualified to review a Mike Leigh film. The man is a legend for his variety of films mostly focusing on the British working-class and his well-known improvisational techniques used to get the very best out of his performers. Although they may lack the gritty texture of other realist films, an exception being Naked, his films are the epitome of realist cinema and it is always a privilege to watch his work.

Leigh’s latest, Another Year, centres on Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a tremendously content older couple living out their peaceful lives in London. The two have a beautiful home, a loving son and grow fresh vegetables in a communal garden outside of town. Tom works as an engineering geologist and Gerri as a councelor at a medical clinic. They frequently have guests over for dinner, during which most of the film’s drama takes place.

The aforementioned guests include the alcoholic Mary (Lesley Manville), a coworker of Gerri’s who is always looking for reassurance that she is either satisfied with being alone or that one day she will find Mr. Right. Then there is Tom’s friend Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight bachelor whose love of food may just be a suppressant for his own sadness. As the guests wine and dine, conversation eventually turns to tears and Tom and Gerri are there to console.

As I watched Another Year, I became more and more frustrated with Tom and Gerri, which I took as a sign of me not liking the film as much as I had hoped. They appear to be the loveliest couple in the world, so I am supposed to like them, right? But I don’t think Leigh meant for the film to be that black and white. This couple isn’t perfect, and like Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a person’s good will creates different reactions in different people – we cannot help everyone. Tom and Gerri continuously harbor these sad cases, even though they don’t look like they are enjoying themselves while doing it. For whatever reason, whether it is pity or genuine concern, they bring these people back into their lives and I found myself annoyed that they did so. But then I realized that maybe this annoyance is granted, and might just be a suitable reaction to Leigh’s work here. The film isn’t simply about good people helping other people in need, but the variety of reasons they do such things and how they come together to interact. Also a rumination on loneliness, the film has various layers to speak of.

The performances in the film are all-around wonderful. Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are believably in love, and stolen glances here and there show true feelings behind their warm smiles. At first Lesley Manville’s Mary appeared to me as an unbelievable eccentric, but I came to respect Leigh and Manville’s choice to throw her quirks in our face. Mary may seem a bit erratic and strange, but the performance is one that becomes well rounded for it. Anyone else might have gone for something subtler, so it was refreshing to watch a true character creation. A cameo from Imelda Staunton at the beginning of the film is also fantastic.

Another Year's simple construction (the film's events take place over the defined four seasons of one year) can take away from the free-flowing elements of the dialogue and story, but it also allows Leigh to do what he does best: develop intricate characters and relationships, and give us the treat of watching said events unfold.

4 out of 5

Monday, January 10, 2011

Realist Cinema: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance, 2010

After months of waiting, it finally came. After months of working through the acknowledged, acclaimed, and critics-groups-awarded films of October, November and December, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine has reached the cinemas of Toronto. After months of only having a charming ukulele dance scene to view on Youtube, I was able to sit down and watch one of my most anticipated films of 2010.

Blue Valentine stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as couple Cindy and Dean, and follows the evolvement of their relationship over time in a fractured narrative style. We are first introduced to their characters at a particular stage where Cindy and Dean are in their early thirties, married and with a child named Frankie. Dean drinks beer in his undershirt and jokes and tickles his daughter, a cigarette hanging on his lips. Cindy appears to play the adult role in the family, preparing their daughter’s breakfast while Dean and Frankie make a mess of it. Petty arguments ensue. There are obvious strains in their marriage.

Cut to years back. Cindy and Dean have not yet met. The world is a sunny place, fuller of hope and possibilities. Dean is hired as a mover, while Cindy is studying medicine. When Dean sees Cindy for the first time during a move, it is love at first sight.

The film is edited to great effect in this past and present style. Arguments in the present about specific subjects become clear when the past is revisited, while the juxtaposition of the two makes the central romance and its decay that much more meaningful. What was once something bright has become dull and painful and the attempts made to renew that love fail in comparison to the ease at which it began. The cinematography also aids in the juxtaposition, with the past shot in a carefree, handheld documentary style, and the present more controlled, with icy blue overtones evident in the picture.

Although the various reasons behind the central relationship's deterioration are never fully realized, Blue Valentine is a work of honesty because there are no simple answers and no one person is at fault. A documentary-style, observational drama, Cianfrance's approach smartly makes the film realistic and relatable. Certain events may be uncomfortable to watch, but are never that out of the ordinary, and although one may feel the film lacks cinematically because of its lack of narrative extremities, I think it is better for it. When the film does move in that direction, such as a particularly explosive scene at Cindy's work, it tries too hard to be more interesting, and instead pulls away from what was already interesting enough - the dialogue, and lack thereof, between the central characters.

Williams' and Gosling's performances are spectacular, their chemistry filling the frame. While I feel the character of Cindy is a bit too cold in what is considered the present, with her constant angry demeanor threatening to comprise her other layers, Michelle Williams is wonderful at subtlety and body language. Watch her neck tense as Gosling's character attempts a rendezvous in the shower. Similarly, Dean's character in the present may at times verge on being a white-trash cliche, but Ryan Gosling creates a likable and complicated man. Dean's mood swings and his charm vary in an instant. He is wonderful to watch.

Derek Cianfrance has created a complicated modern age relationship drama about a generation that is more often than not portrayed in silly, sexualized comedies. It is refreshing because of its seriousness and realism, and Cianfrance should be commended for the risks he takes here. If a cinema verite-styled ukulele scene is one of the most touching scenes I have witnessed this year, he must be doing something right.

4 out of 5