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1. Apu Trilogy, India, 1955-59, Satyajit Ray
2. Au hasard Balthazar, France, 1966, Robert Bresson
3. Diary of a Country Priest, France, 1950, Robert Bresson
4. Ordet, Denmark, 1955, Carl Dreyer
5. Leolo, Canada, 1992, Jean-Claude Lauzon
6. Gospel According to St. Matthew, Italy, 1964, Pier Paolo Pasolini
7. My Dinner with AndrÃ©, US, 1981, Louis Malle
8. The Great Adventure, Sweden, 1953, Arne Sucksdorff
9. Hiroshima Mon Amour, France, 1959, Alain Resnais
10. The Quince Tree Sun, Spain, 1992, Victor Erice
11. Smoke, US, 1995, Wayne Wang
12. I'm Not Scared, Italy, 2003, Gabriele Salvatores
13. Unbearable Lightness of Being, US, 1988, Philip Kaufman
14. Broken Wings, Israel, 2002, Nir Bergman
15, A Place in the World (Un Lugar en el Mundo), Argentina, 1992, Adolfo Aristarain
16. Forbidden Games, France, 1952, Rene Clement
17. Ordinary People, US, 1980, Robert Redford
18. Ikiru, Japan, 1952, Akira Kurosawa
19. La Promesse, Belgium, 1996, Jean & Luc Dardenne
20. Promises, US, 2001, B.Z. Goldberg
21. Lamerica, Italy, 1994, Gianni Amelio
22. Stolen Children, Italy, 1992, Gianni Amelio
23. ThÃ©rÃ©se, France, 1986, Alain Cavalier
24. Wild Reeds, France, 1994, Andre Techine
25. Searching for Bobby Fischer, US, 1993, Steven Zaillian
26. O Lucky Man, UK, 1973, Lindsay Anderson
27. All About Lily Chou Chou, Japan, 2001, Shunji Iwai
28. Running on Empty, US, 1988, Sidney Lumet
29. Tokyo Story, Japan, 1953, Yasujiro Ozu
30. Boot Polish, India, 1954, Prakash Arora (Raj Kapoor)
31. Pixote, Brazil, 1981, Hector Babenco
32. The Search, US, 1948, Fred Zinneman
33. Vertical Ray of the Sun, Vietnam, 2000, Tran Anh Hung
34. Black Orpheus, Brazil, 1959, Marcel Camus
35. The Red Balloon, France, 1956, Albert LaMorisse
36. Grand Canyon, US, 1991, Lawrence Kasdan
37. The Man in the Moon, US, 1991, Robert Mulligan
38. The Dreamlife of Angels, France, 1998, Eric Zorca
39. Z, France, 1969, Con. Costas-Garvas
40. Kes, UK, 1969, Ken Loach
41. The Magic Flute, Sweden, 1975, Ingmar Bergman
42. A Man Escaped, France, 1956, Robert Bresson
43. The American President, U.S., 1995, Rob Reiner
44. La Vie de Jesus, France, 1997, Bruno Dumont
45. Sundays and Cybele, France, 1962, Serge Bourgignon
46. The Son (Le Fils), France, 2002, Jean & Luc Dardenne
47. Hero, US, 1992, Stephen Frears
48. Bus 174, Brazil, 2002, Jose Padhilla and Felipe Lacerda
49. Love Letter, Japan, 1995, Shunji Iwai
50. Resurrection, US, 1980, Nicholas Petrie
51. Miracle on 34th Street, US, 1947, George Seaton
52. Daniel, US, 1983, Sidney Lumet
53. A Bronx Tale, US, 1993, Robert De Niro
54. Ram Dass, Fierce Grace, US, 2001, Mickey Lemle
55. The Lives of Others, France, 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
56. The Passenger, Italy, 1975, Michaelangelo Antonioni
57. Good Men, Good Women, Taiwan, 1995, Hou Hsiao-hsien
58. Tricks, Poland, 2007, Andrzej Jakimowski
59. Deep Breath (Le SoufflÃ©), France, 2001, Damian O'Doul
60. It All Starts Today, France, 1999, Bertrand Tavernier
61. JFK, US, 1991, Oliver Stone
62. All the President's Men, US, 1976, Alan J. Pakula
63. The Cup (Phorpa), Bhutan, 1999, Khyentse Norbu
64. Taste of Cherry, Iran, 1997, Abbas Kiarostami
65. The Wild Child, France, 1969, Francois Truffaut
66. Milagro Beanfield War, US, 1988, Robert Redford
67. Chunhyang, South Korea, 2000, Kwon-Taek Im
68. Keys to the House, Italy, 2004, Gianni Amelio
69. Close-Up, Iran, 1990, Abbas Kiarostami
70. Intimate Grammar, Israel, 2010, Nir Bergman
71. Medium Cool, US, 1969, Haskell Wexler
72. Wings of Desire, Germany, 1987, Wim Wenders
73. Woman in the Dunes, Japan, 1964, H. Teshigahara
74. Raise the Red Lantern, China, 1991, Zhang Yimou
75. The New World, US, 2005, Terrence Malick
76. My Name is Ivan, Russia, 1962, Andrei Tarkovsky
77. The Jolson Story, US, 1946, Alfred Green
78. Dead Man, US, 1995, Jim Jarmusch
79. Umberto D, Italy, 1952, Vittorio de Sica
80. The Tree of Life, US, 2011, Terence Malick
81. Mon Oncle Antoine, Canada, 1971, Claude Jutra
82. How Green Was My Valley, US, 1941, John Ford
83. Days of Heaven, US, 1978, Terrence Malick
84. The Kid with a Bike, France, 2011, Jean & Luc Dardenne
85. Local Hero, UK, 1983, William Forsyth
86. Cyclo, Vietnam, 1995, Tran Anh Hung
87. La Jetee, France, 1962, Chris Marker
88. Devi, India, 1960, Satyajit Ray
89. The Weavers: Wasnâ€™t That a Time?, US, 1982, Jim Brown II
90. Matewan, US, 1987, John Sayles
91. Trois Couluers Trilogy, France, 1993-4, Kristov Kieslowski
92. 8 1/2, Italy, 1963, Federico Fellini
93. The Wind Will Carry Us, Iran, 1999, Abbas Kiarostami
94. Good Will Hunting, US, 1997, Gus Van Sant
95. The River, France, US, India, 1951, Jean Renoir
96. Lâ€™Enfant, France, 2005, Jean and Luc Dardenne
97. A Christmas Carol (Scrooge), US, 1951, Brian Desmond Hurst
98. Rocket Science, US, 2007, Jeffrey Blitz
99. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, US, 1982, Steven Spielberg
100. Malcolm X, US, 1992, Spike Lee
101. East of Eden, US, 1955, Elia Kazan
102. Munyurangabo, Rwanda. U.S., 2007, Lee Isaac Chung
103. Lâ€™Avventura, Italy, 1960, Michaelangelo Antonioni
104. Sweet Sixteen, UK, 2002, Ken Loach
105. The Natural, US, 1984, Barry Levinson
106. Persona, Sweden, 1966, Ingmar Bergman
107. The Long Day Closes, UK, 1992, Terence Davies
108. He Who Must Die, France , 1957, Jules Dassin
109. From Here to Eternity, US, 1953, Fred Zinneman
110. Wonder Boys, US, 2000, Curtis Hanson
111. Hoosiers, US, 1986, David Anspaugh
112. L'Humanite, France, 1999, Bruno Dumont
113. Carmen, Spain, 1983, Carlos Saura
114. The Warriors, US, 1979, Walter Hill
115. My Father's Glory/My Mother's Castle, France, 1990, Robert Yves
116. Wild Strawberries, Sweden, 1957, Ingmar Bergman
117. Viridiana, Spain, 1961, Luis Bunuel
118. Hud, US, 1963, Martin Ritt
119. Fateless, Hungary, 2005, Lajos Koltai
120. A Taste of Honey, UK, 1961, Tony Richardson
121. Where is the Friend's Home, Iran 1987, Abbas Kiarostami
122. In This World, UK, 2002, Michael Winterbottom
123. Flowers of Shanghai, Taiwan, 1998, Hou Hsiao-Hsien
124. Tropical Malady, Thailand, 2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
125. Color of Paradise, Iran, 1999, Majid Majidi
126. Dave, US, 1993, Ivan Reitman
127. Nine Lives, US, 2005, Rodrigo Garcia
128. Vanya on 42nd Street, US 1994 Louis Malle
129. Nobody's Fool, US, 1994, Robert Benton
130. Through The Olive Trees, Iran, 1994, Abbas Kiarostami
131. Moonlight Whispers, Japan, 1999, Yakihiko Shiota
132. Beijing Bicycle, China, 2001, Wang Xiaoshuia
133. A Midnight Clear, US, 1992, Keith Gordon
134. Two-Lane Blacktop, US, 1971, Monte Hellman
135. Beau Travail, France, 1999, Claire Denis
136. Donnie Darko, US, 2001, Richard Kelly
137. The Tracker, Australia, 2002, Rolf de Heer
138. The Green Ray, France, 1985, Erich Rohmer
139. Back to the Future, US, 1985, Robert Zemeckis
140. Home Before Dark, US, 1958, Mervyn LeRoy
141. Field of Dreams, US, 1989, Phil Robinson
142. Moonstruck, US, 1987, Norman Jewison
143. The White Diamond, Germany, 2004, Werner Herzog
144. Blow-Up, UK, 1966, Michaelangelo Antonioni
145. I'm Going Home, France 2001, Manoel de Olivera
146. Son of the Bride, Argentina, 2001, Juan Jose Campanella
147. Casablanca, U.S., 1942, Michael Curtiz
148. El Sur, Spain, 1983, Victor Erice
149. In Search of Mozart, UK, 2006, Phil Grabsky
150. Charly, France, 2007, Isild Le Besco
151. The Journey, US, 1959, Anatole Litvak
152. Quiz Show, US, 1994, Robert Redford
153. One Summer of Happiness, Sweden, 1951, Arne Mattson
154. Smiles of a Summer Night, Sweden, 1955, Ingmar Bergman
155. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, France, 2007, Eric Rohmer
156. A Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dream, UK, 1968, Peter Hall
157. Fireworks (Hana-Bi), Japan, 1997, Takeshi Kitano
158. Don't Die Without Telling Me Where You're Going, Argentina, 1995, Eliseo Subiela
159. Butterfly, Spain, 1999, Jose Luis Cuerda
160. Elephant, U.S., 2003, Gus Van Sant
161. Blissfully Yours, Thailand, 2002, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
162. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, U.S., 2006, Martin Scorcese
163. Twelfth Night, US, 1996, Trevor Nunn
164. Groundhog Day, U.S., 1993, Harold Ramis
165. Shane, U.S., 1953, George Stevens
166. The Graduate, U.S., 1967, Mike Nichols
167. Kramer vs. Kramer, U.S, 1979, Robert Benton
168. Meet Joe Black, U.S., 1998, Martin Brest
169. Life on a String, China, 1991, Chen Kaige
170. A Few Good Men, U.S., 1992, Rob Reiner
171. The Turning Point, U.S., 1977, Herbert Ross
172. Grapes of Wrath, U.S., 1940, John Ford
173. Sleepless in Seattle, U.S., 1993, Nora Ephron
174. Ballad of a Soldier, Russia, 1959, Grigory Chukhraj
175. In Between Days, U.S., 2006, So Yong Kim
176. Linda, Linda, Linda, Japan, 2005, Nobuhiro Yamashita
177. Flight of the Navigator, U.S., 1986, Randal Kleiser
178. Letter to a Child, Slovenia, 2009, Vlado Skafar
179. No Love for Johnnie, UK, 1961, Ralph Thomas
180. Couch in New York, US, 1996, Chantal Akerman
Offers no easy answers
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice ready to take her vows, learns through her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) that she is of Jewish parentage and must come to terms with a past she never knew existed. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida offers no easy answers but looks at each character's complexities, leaving only a trail of ambiguity. Shot in black and white by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, the film is set in Poland in the early 1960s and masterfully captures the bleak look of Communist-controlled Eastern Europe where the physical and emotional scars of World War II are impossible to hide.
Before taking her vows, the Mother Superior asks Anna to go to Lodz to visit her Aunt Wanda, her only living family member, but the visit causes her to experience emotions she had never been forced to confront. When the slender, frail, saintly-looking younger woman meets her aunt for the first time, Wanda is dressed in a bathrobe, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a shadow of the judge and former Communist prosecutor of "enemies of the state," who routinely sent people to their death. Leading Anna into the kitchen, Wanda blurts out with little subtlety. "So, you're a Jewish nun," telling her that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that she was brought to the convent as an infant after her family was murdered by either the Nazis or the locals.
On the surface, Wanda is the sinner and Ida is the saint, but, as the film progresses, these distinctions become blurred and each is revealed as a multi-layered human being whose mysteries are not easily penetrated. When Ida asks to visit the grave where her parents are buried, Wanda tells her that "they have no graves," but both know that they must seek to find those responsible for the crimes. Wanda is aggressive as she tries to track down the guilty, but the search is more of a psychological journey to find closure than a desire for revenge. Along the way, Ida, an innocent motivated by faith, listens to the more experienced Wanda who tells her to live her life fully while she has the chance.
While it is difficult to know with any certainty what Ida thinks about the idea, she hesitatingly samples the secular life in a romantic relationship with Lis, a handsome saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnick) who has a gig at their hotel, removing her habit and literally and figuratively letting her hair down. When Lis invites her to go to the beach with him, she asks, "What then?" When he replies, "Marriage and a family," she asks again, "Well, what then?" His answer is that we just go on to live our life, a notion that Ida seems to recoil from, but carefully guards her emotions.
Ida is a quiet film but masks the characters' inner torment. There is little dialogue but thanks to the direction and the strong but understated performances, especially from nonprofessional Trzebuchowska, the film becomes a hypnotic, if enigmatic experience. While Ida raises the question about whether or not it is best to live with comfortable illusions or seek an often painful truth, viewers are left to decide the answer for themselves.
The Immigrant (2013)
About the contradictory nature of the American Dream
The 1920's were the culmination of the greatest wave of immigration in American history in which more than 25 million people arrived, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, to escape the aftermath of the Great War and its resulting poverty and oppression, or simply to embrace the promise of the "American Dream." Many of these immigrants traveled in steerage and third class and were subject to crowded and unsanitary conditions aboard ship and an intrusive medical and legal interrogation when they arrived by ferry or barge at Ellis Island. By 1920, 42% of New Yorkers were foreign-born, most clustering in ethnic communities such as the Lower East Side.
What they faced were crowded tenements, disease, low-paying jobs, and a language they could not speak, obstacles that made them targets for con men and gangsters. As a result, it is estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of new immigrants arriving after the war eventually returned to their countries of origin. This struggle for survival is painfully depicted in James Gray's masterful The Immigrant, the story of a devoutly Catholic Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her fall from grace, dictated by her desire to reunite with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is detained at Ellis Island, suspected of having tuberculosis.
Declared a woman of "low morals" by the ship's captain and marked for deportation, Eva is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), the master of ceremonies at The Bandit's Roost, a vaudeville theater that employs mostly young foreign girls who escaped from the War, in reality, a front for prostitution. Bruno pays off the corrupt officials at Ellis Island and gives Ewa a place to stay but recruits her into working for him with the promise that the money she earns will go to help pay for her sister's medical expenses. He is charming and seems to care for Ewa, who is grateful to her benefactor but refuses his advances and tells him (with sufficient reason) that she does not trust him.
After she agrees to help a teenager become more "manly", Ewa flees to Brooklyn to seek the support of her aunt and uncle but is rejected by her fearful uncle who heard reports of her alleged immoral behavior aboard ship and is taken back to Ellis Island. There she listens to a concert by the famous tenor Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja) and watches as a magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), performs a levitation act. When Orlando falls for Ewa, Bruno is threatened but saves her once again from deportation and she agrees to work as a prostitute if she can earn more money. Though we listen to Ewa's self-deprecation in the oppressive darkness of a confessional, little is shown of her actual "work" and, as a result, it is not easy to relate to her feelings of degradation.
After a confrontation with the club's owner ends badly, the slick Bruno takes to the streets where he parades his girls in Central Park, exhibiting them to wealthy onlookers, while pretending that they are daughters of millionaires, but a confrontation with Orlando leads to unforeseen consequences. While both Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard deliver memorable performances, it is Gray's skill in characterization that makes the film a rich and emotionally honest experience.
Bound together by mutual need, the principal characters are not stereotypes, but three-dimensional human beings who exhibit a range of feelings including a rare capacity for forgiveness. While The Immigrant can be described as a period piece which evokes a specific time and place in American history, like its complex characters, it is more a commentary about the contradictory nature that lies at the core of the American Dream, an elusive mixture of idealistic beauty and harsh reality. Ewa, resilient but no longer naïve, is compelled to dream another dream and try to piece together a life out of the ruins of the old one.
The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
A poignant character study
Now the top grossing film in the U.S., The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone's drama of cancer-stricken teenagers can be overtly manipulative and traverses a thin line between honest sentiment and maudlin sentimentality, yet it succeeds where others have failed because of the authentic emotion generated by its lead actors, Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) and newcomer Ansel Elgort, who display a rare chemistry together. Based on the best-selling novel by John Green and adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, on the surface the film is about cancer but is, in reality, more a poignant character study of the thoughts, feelings, and connections that teenagers make with each other and the world.
Told from her point of view, 17-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has had thyroid cancer since she was thirteen. Because her lungs are prone to filling with fluid and interfere with her ability to breathe, she has to carry an oxygen tank with her at all times. Hazel is mature for her age and, in Woodley's remarkably expressive performance, conveys a nuanced emotional range running from a resigned cynicism to a witty commentator on life but always with an innocence and intelligence. In a voice-over that begins the film, Hazel tells us that "this isn't just a movie, it is the truth, sorry."
It is a bold claim that, in spite of the filmmaker's sincere attempt, does not always live up to its promise and there are as many false notes and genre clichés as there are moments of lived-in reality. Concerned about their daughter's depression, Hazel's mom Frannie (Laura Dern) and dad Michael (Sam Trammell) encourage her to go to a cancer support group at the local church. When her mother tells her that she knows that depression is a side effect of cancer, Hazel jumps in and says her "depression is not a side effect of cancer. It's a side effect of dying." This oh, so clever remark might seem pretentiously literary coming from someone else, but when Woodley says it, it feels just right.
Hazel reluctantly attends the support group and shares her observations with other cancer survivors but one in particular catches her attention, a tall, good-looking boy of eighteen named Augustus (Elgort), whose battle with cancer has left him with a prosthetic leg. Gus radiates charm and sincerity and tells the group that he is there only to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who is in danger of losing both eyes to cancer. Both Hazel (he calls her Hazel Grace) and Gus relate to each other in a thoughtful way and even the most potentially awkward dialogue comes across as natural. When he tells her that she is beautiful and later when he looks in her eyes and tells her how much he loves her, it sounds deeply felt and authentic.
The two talk about their favorite books and what their life is about and the imminent spectre they face of an early death. He tells her that he plans for his life to have a meaning that will remembered through the ages to which she reminds him that there will come a time when none of us on the planet will be remembered. Hazel says that her favorite book is An Imperial Affliction, a novel about a young person with cancer which he agrees to read but is dismayed by the fact that the book ends in mid-sentence. They send each other text messages, and their affection for each other grows exponentially until Hazel decides they should be "just friends."
She tells Gus that she is keeping her distance because she is "a grenade likely to explode and wants to minimize the casualties," but Gus has fallen in love with her and is not about to let go, whatever the consequences. He invites her to go to Amsterdam with her to meet the author of the book, Peter van Houten (Willem DaFoe), to ask him what happens to the other characters after his book ends. Their trip to Amsterdam to meet van Houten, however, though beautifully photographed by cinematographer Ben Richardson, turns into a near disaster, though it ultimately serves to bring them closer together.
Unfortunately, the entire middle episode feels leaden, highly improbable, and incongruous with the tone of the rest of the film. Hazel and Gus' subsequent visit to Anne Frank's house, while well done, also does not ring true. If the ending is predictable, the tears it evokes are earned because we care deeply about the characters we have come to know and identify with. Author Washington Irving observed that "There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues." If that assessment is valid, then The Fault in Our Stars, for all its flaws, is the most eloquent film of the year.
A good introduction to his music and life story
During the course of three years, director Jeremy Frindel traveled with Kirtan singer Jeremy Kagel, now known to the world as Krishna Das, interviewing many of his colleagues and tapping into KDs strengths, not only as a Grammy Award winning singer, but also as a teacher, healer, and a man of depth and compassion. The result is the documentary One Track Heart, not an in-depth assessment of the artist, his music or his life, but a means to introduce him to a wider audience who may be unfamiliar with his music and life story. The film traces his life from being a rock singer in his teens in the band that would become Blue Oyster Cult to becoming the best-selling New Age artist of all time, having sold over 300,000 records.
Interviewed are author and teacher Ram Dass, Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin, best-selling author Sharon Salzburg, and Pulitzer Prize nominee Daniel Goleman. Kagel, influenced by Ram Dass, sold all of his possessions and moved to the Himalayan Mountains in India to study with Ram Dass' teacher Neem Karoli Baba and took on the name Krishna Das. The film describes his devotion to the guru who led the way for him and transformed his life and his subsequent depression and drug abuse when Maharaj-ji died in 1973, and the struggle with his demons that led to his decision to introduce Hindu Bhakti yoga to the West.
The film offers a sense of the resilience of the man and the power of his ability to capture an audience and hold them in his spell. As shown in the film, there is joy and happiness at his concerts (I'm going to one on June 27th here in Vancouver), labeled by the usual cynical critics as being "blissed out," something perhaps they should try. For those unfamiliar with Kirtan singing, In Hindu devotional traditions, Kirtan practice involves the call and response chanting of hymns or mantras, performed with instruments such as the Harmonium and tablas and cymbals. The chants often repeat the names of Hindu gods as a means of opening the heart, beginning slowly, and then building up to a peak of ecstasy.
As Krishna Das has said in his Pilgrim of the Heart audio series: "The words of these chants are called the divine names and they come from a place that's deeper than our hearts and our thoughts, deeper than the mind. And so as we sing them they turn us towards ourselves, into ourselves. They bring us in, and as we offer ourselves into the experience, the experience changes us. These chants have no meaning other than the experience that we have by doing them. They come from the Hindu tradition, but it's not about being a Hindu, or believing anything in advance. It's just about doing it, and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing."
As the chorus in Hou Hsiao Hsien's Good Men, Good Women sings, "When yesterday's sadness is about to die. When tomorrow's good cheer is marching towards us. Then people say, don't cry. So why don't we sing?" Yes, why don't we?
Under the Skin (2013)
An alien with a difference
There is a thin line between the hunter and the hunted, the ordinary and the odd, and maybe even between other-worldies and humans, though that hypothesis has yet to be tested. Scarlett Johansson, however, as Laura, the unholy other in Jonathan Glazer's mesmerizing Under the Skin, takes it for a spin. Pursuing a murderous agenda with cool efficiency, it is only gradually that she begins to grasp the idea that humans may have more to offer than dinner. Based on the novel by Michael Faber and set in the Scottish Highlands, Laura reflects the alien stereotypes we see in pop culture superior, lacking in emotion, evil, strange, impossible to communicate with or understand, yet still looking kind of like us, in many ways a projection of our society's fear of the outsider.
Laura, however, is an alien with a difference. Dressed provocatively, her attractive features and intimate voice suggest the kind of person one might want to spend some time with. Unfortunately, Laura has a mission on Earth and is single-minded in its pursuit. Her job is to find sturdy male passersby and process them for home delivery and she goes about her serial-killing business as detached as any normal CEO. As the film opens, accompanied by an atmospheric electronic soundtrack by Mica Levi, a blinding speck of light is transformed into a large disc and then into an eye. The lights become motorcycles and the eye becomes the cruising Laura as she drives a white van through crowded Glasgow.
Her modus operandi is to pretend that she is lost, flag down a passerby, ask for directions, offer them a ride, and then lure them to her home, where she takes off her clothes and the men, like sheep, follow her into a pool of black oil without so much as a protest. As her depravity asserts itself even in the most mundane surroundings - a supermarket, a crowded street, even a pristine forest, the scenario is repeated with little dialogue and with a pervasive randomness. Glazer's camera follows the predator as she stalks her prey, allowing us to see our own world through an alien lens with the incomprehensibility of the Scottish dialect only adding to the overall feeling of weirdness.
The men follow their instincts, obsessed, as many of us are, only with surface appearances. Laura presumably is just following orders, though the "banality of evil" has rarely looked so alluring. All this time, she is followed by a mysterious motorcyclist who is either a voyeur or an alien control to keep her focused. Under the Skin is not always a pleasant experience but it is a riveting and haunting one. While it may indeed give men a sense of the fears that women experience every day, any attempt to extrapolate the film's meaning from the sequence of events is purely subjective. Unfamiliar with what makes human beings tick, Laura, in pursuit of a surfer, witnesses a woman trying to save her drowning dog, her husband trying to save her, and a surfer attempting to save the husband.
When the surfer crashes onto the shore, Laura hits him over the head with a rock while ignoring the cries of a baby sitting alone in the sand, showing that she still has a ways to go to grasp the human in human being. She only begins to become aware of emotion when she realizes that her body structure does not allow for sex with a caring man and when her own feeling of degradation allows her to relate to the deformity of a young man, perhaps understanding for the first time what loneliness truly feels like. Nothing close to sentimentality intrudes in Glazer's austere landscape, however, and the ending is as enigmatic and mysterious as the beginning, a metaphor for life itself.
Fed Up (2014)
An important film that doesn't try to "sugar coat" the problem
If you pay attention to nutrition labels on the food products you buy, you may notice that next to the number of grams of sugar, there is no percentage shown. The sugar industry made sure of that. What they don't want consumers to know is that the sugar content of many of their products is 100% or more of the average daily requirement. Stephanie Soechtig excoriates the sugar industry for valuing profits over health in her hard-hitting documentary Fed Up. Produced by Katie Couric, who is also the narrator and Laurie David, producer of the climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the film compares awareness of the true causes of obesity to the decade's long campaign informing the public about the danger of smoking cigarettes.
Though individual choice does play a part, Fed Up says that the main problem is not the lack of will power of the individual but the fact that people have become addicted to sugar. According to Soechtig, collusion between the food industry, Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has led to fierce opposition to regulation, government subsidies to farmers for their corn (which has been turned into high fructose corn syrup), unhealthy school lunch programs (80% have contracts with Coke or Pepsi), and relentless advertising campaigns directed towards children.
Bolstered by interviews with former President Bill Clinton, author Michael Pollan, and Senator Tom Harkin together with a bevy of medical researchers, the film cites statistics showing that 80% of the approximately 600,000 products sold in the supermarkets and convenience stores have added sugar and that, since the late 1970s, Americans have doubled their daily consumption of sugar so that now, one in every five people face obesity. It is estimated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that in one year, kids eat more than 10 pounds of sugar by weight from breakfast cereal.
Using charts and graphs, Soechtig also shows that the amount of sugar the industry has added to food to compensate for the unappealing taste of low-fat products has contributed to the increase in Type II diabetes such that by the year 2050, it is predicted that one out of three Americans will be diabetic. The film makes the problem even more real by focusing on several teenagers who have struggled with their weight for many years, emphatically pointing out the error of the conventional wisdom which says that eating less and exercising more (striking a balance between calories in and calories out), is the best solution.
Sparing no one including Michelle Obama, the film notes that her "Let's Move" campaign has been co-opted by the food industry and the responsibility for obesity placed on the individual. While Fed Up is definitely an advocacy doc and is typically one-sided (representatives of the food industry refused to be interviewed), it is an important film that doesn't try to "sugar coat" the problem but asks us to become involved by seeking an alternative to sugar-laden products, putting pressure on government and industry representatives, and demanding that the food industry begin caring about the health of our children. Now wouldn't that be sweet?
Hypnotic, thought-provoking, and ultimately exhilarating
People make mistakes, especially when they are young; however, it takes a big person to acknowledge them and do what it is necessary to set things right. While "doing the right thing" can indeed go a long way towards regaining self-respect, it always has to be balanced with how it will affect others. Just ask Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) in Steven Knight's riveting film simply called Locke. Ivan is a foreman for a construction company for ten years whose Chicago-based company is getting ready for the concrete pouring of one of the biggest building projects in their history.
His boss Gareth (Ben Daniels), his assistant Donal (Andrew Scott), and others in his crew expect him to be there the next morning to oversee the project - to verify that the right concrete is being used, arrange for all the roadblocks, and to take care of any emergencies that may come up. "You can't rely on God when it comes to concrete," he tells Donal. Ivan, however, is not coming home and he cannot rely on God to clean up the mess he is in the process of making. His decision is to be with 42-year old Bethan (Olivia Coleman), a woman he knew for only one night but who is now in the hospital about to give birth to his child.
Knowing from experience with his deceased dad (who he talks to during the drive) what it feels like to be abandoned by someone, he has made his decision and, though others have trouble dealing with it, he is committed to the choice he has made regardless of the consequences. On paper, Steven Knight's Locke does not seem designed to hold the viewer's interest. There is only one man on camera throughout the entire length of the film. It all takes place on a rainy night inside of a car, and the only dialogue consists of telephone conversations during the trip. What looks one way on paper, however, on the screen turns out to be a totally different experience.
In Locke, Knight, who wrote the screenplay for Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things, delivers a tense, absorbing film about the choices we make in life and how we are often unprepared for their consequences. Far from being static or one-dimensional, Hardy brings such life to his character that the experience is mesmerizing as he becomes more and more deeply involved in sorting out his life. A very dependable family man, Locke's wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and his two boys Eddie and Shaun (Tom Holland and Bill Milner) expect him to be home to watch a big soccer match with them as he promised.
During the 85-minute drive to the hospital at night, Ivan has to talk his frazzled assistant Donal through the steps necessary to have the project work in addition to calming a distraught Bethan, handling his son's disappointment, and dealing his wife's rigidly unforgiving reaction. "The difference between never and once is the difference between good and evil," she tells him. In Hardy's nuanced performance, Ivan is not an irresponsible scoundrel, but a three-dimensional human being, like most of us part saint and part sinner, who feels that he is acting out of integrity and expects everyone to understand.
Through it all, he is the only one who remains calm but the events are testing his patience and the pain can be read on his face. With a strong, confident tone delivered in a beautifully enunciated Welsh accent, he reassures Donal that he can handle the responsibility of the project even though he has begun to drink, and he lets Katrina know that he loves no one else beside her. He tells the boys that he will explain tomorrow and that everything can be fixed and things will return to normal, but whether he is being practical or delusional is left for the viewer to decide.
Hardy's performance holds our attention throughout and Knight's deft and gimmick-less direction plus the gorgeous cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos transforms Locke into what might have been a desultory, claustrophobic experience into one that is hypnotic, thought-provoking, and ultimately exhilarating. Do the right thing and see it.
Heaven Is for Real (2014)
Asks us to listen to our children
Most parents as well as many psychologists, educators, and religious leaders assume that children are not able to be "spiritual," and their experiences are dismissed as fantasy, hallucination, or pathology. Randall Wallace's Heaven is for Real, however, asks us to keep an open mind and listen to our children. Based on the bestselling book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent and adapted for the screen by Wallace and Chris Parker, the film dramatizes the near-death experience of then four-year-old Colton (Conner Corum) during surgery for a ruptured appendix as told to his father Todd (Greg Kinnear), a local pastor and volunteer fireman in rural Nebraska.
According to young Colton, during his surgery he could look down and see his body on the operating table, see his father venting his anger at God in an adjacent room and his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) talking on the phone. He talks about a vision he had of a place of light and beauty that he called "heaven," reflecting his Christian upbringing. Colton also describes a vision of Jesus riding on a multi-colored horse, sitting on Jesus' lap, and listening to angels singing to him. More surprisingly, Colton says that he met his grandfather whom he identified from an old picture and a second sister who died in a miscarriage many years ago even though he had never been told about her.
Todd, who had a rough year, fracturing his leg playing baseball, enduring a bout of kidney stones, and struggling to make ends meet financially, is uncertain how to deal with his son's story and the family's reaction captures the fear and confusion that many adults have when children know or see more than we think they should. While first dismissing it as a child's vivid imagination, the details that emerge of Colton's visits with deceased family members cause him to rethink his easy dismissal. With no map for understanding these experiences, church members also feel uneasy, especially Nancy (Margo Martindale) who is bitter that that her son was taken while Todd's was spared.
Todd also has to endure ridicule from friends while young daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) is forced to physically defend her brother from unthinking taunts by schoolmates. Even Todd's best friend Jay (Thomas Haden Church), a banker and church board member, begins to pull away and Todd's position as pastor appears in jeopardy. Beset by doubts, he begins to question his own faith. Though he loves his son unconditionally and believes he is telling the truth, he cannot explain how the boy's experience fits in with his biblical teachings. Unfamiliar with children's near-death experiences, he does some research on the Internet and visits a psychology professor at the university (Nancy Sorel), but she offers little insight.
While Heaven is for Real can be moving and strives to maintain a balance, it is too simplistic in its depiction of a powerful and mysterious experience as just another feel-good story that reinforces Christian beliefs. The film also does not tell us that what people see in their near-death experiences depends on their own psychology, personal experiences, and cultural and religious upbringing. As Todd, Kinnear brings intelligence and sensitivity to his role and bolsters a story that could have become heavy-handed. Similarly, Corum is very convincing and rarely awkward as the little boy with the unusual story.
While it is definitely told from a Christian point of view, to its credit, the film's focus is less on religion than on the effect of Colton's NDE on the community and the bond between father and son. Even if you do not believe that Colton's epiphany provides a glimpse of what may await us in the afterlife, it is wise to reflect on the words of Albert Einstein who said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." If the film accomplishes nothing more than having people pause to wonder, it will have achieved its purpose.
A Girl and a Tree (2012)
A hymn to nature and a love song to life
Birds, leaves, sky, trees, branches, things of beauty we see every day but hardly recognize, are brought to our rapt attention in Slovenian director Vlado Skafar's lyrical documentary A Girl and a Tree. Like Louis Malle's My Dinner With André, the film consists mainly of a conversation between two friends, in this case Slovenian actresses Stefka Drolc and Ivanka Mezan, now 91 and 88 years old respectively. Set in an idyllic Slovenian meadow by cinematographer Marko Brdar, the pace is unhurried and the mood is dreamy and poetic. It is a film of spaces and silences, a hymn to nature and a love song to life and the beauty of growing old.
Using gradual fadeouts rather than cuts to blend one scene seamlessly into another, the first part of the film consists of an interview with Stefka. Seated in a chair in the middle of a wide grassy area surrounded by trees, her long white hair flopping on her face. In a manner so intimate it feels as if she is in your living room talking directly to you, she reminisces about her childhood and the places she lived as her father moved from job to job. In the attic of her apartment in Maribor where her older sister was attending university, alone within herself, she began to daydream.
When her sister started acting, Stefka went with her to rehearsals and began to be included in the cast, taking the first steps towards an acting career. With compassion and a wry smile on her wrinkled face, she talks about the lovers she had and how her mother was accepting when she became pregnant at age eighteen. Pausing to reflect on her life, she says that now she has to learn to walk again, and to live again and again, to "sort herself out, to be good to people and help them." "Happiness," she asserts "is being able to love people without restraint."
In the second part of the film, Stefka is joined by her friend and fellow actress, Ivanka Mezan. Lying on the grass, eating lunch and noticing how beautiful and peaceful everything is, Stefka oddly begins to talk about the horrors of the world, especially the events of September 11th. While Stefka can also see the injustice in the world, in the Zen tradition, Ivanka says that things are the way they are and it doesn't mean anything. It's just that way. To her, life is always up and down. We get up and then we fall down. "As long as we can live with nature," she says, "things will be good."
Ivanka is reminded of a poem that tells of the poet's sadness and how she looks to nature to find happiness. Ignored by the stone that is silent, by the stream that keeps running, and by the oak tree that sadly smiles as its leaves bid farewell in Autumn. she gazes at the blue sky. The poet notices that the sky isn't happy or sad, it's just a blue sky and the blue sky is forever. Reaching out to Stefka, she tells her not to be sad, "Don't think too much about it," she says, "there are so many beautiful things in the world." When Stefka talks about her own mortality and remarks that "there is beauty in saying farewell, but I shiver when I think about someone close, my beloved," Ivanka says, "Everyone experiences it and lives through it.
When I will not exist anymore, everything will be the same. There will be earth and sky, hell and paradise. Everything will go on as it is. It's hard when you get older. You realize one day that you live only in your memories. You no longer look forward." "Look at the wind," she says, this peace, this silence. These moments are happy." After a long silence, Ivanka smiles. "I just had a thought," she says, "happiness is that we are." With that the two friends walk off. The sun will set any minute. They are in a peaceful place, purified. The world is beautiful, at least for the moment. As a branch drifts slowly out of the picture, we know that eventually we will all do the same, a part of nature and of all that is.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Little to sink our teeth into
Mystics, saints, and sages throughout the ages have said that life is forever and that love is forever but I don't think they had vampires in mind. Though around for ages, vampires seem to have become more popular in our society today, perhaps reflecting the corporate consumerism sucking the life out of our society. Though vampires may be reflective of the corporate culture, they may also be metaphors that describe those who are blind to the wonders and beauty of life and can only suck the blood out of it. In Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch attempts to deconstruct the classic vampire story by eliminating most of the "horror" aspects, substituting a wry cultural elitism with an unholier-than-thou attitude.
The film stars Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as Eve and Adam (you heard right) as lo-o-o-ng-time lovers who, unlike their "zombie" counterparts in everyday life, survive together over time by being agreeable and refraining from throwing things at each other in a fit of rage (maybe it works out after a few hundred years). Though the film is witty, romantic, and well-balanced without descending into camp, it has a curiously flat quality and its attempt to convey sophisticated ennui comes through only as sad cynicism and world-weariness.
Adam and Eve have been separated from each other, though for how long and for what reason are not explained. Perhaps after hundreds of years together, they needed a break. Adam is a musician living in Detroit, Michigan which is shown as a desolate, industrial wasteland. Not necessarily anti-social just anti-zombie (his word for us ordinary humans), Adam thrives on being alone. The wild-haired Eve, a studious scholar, meanwhile, has been living in Tangier, Morocco, a city that Jarmusch claims is his favorite city on Earth (we don't know if he has a favorite somewhere else).
Eve's best friend is the ex-boy wonder of the 16th century, Christopher Marlowe, who survived a knife in his head to become a vampire writing under the pen name of William Shakespeare (we knew there was something odd about the man from Stratford). In any event, Adam and Eve no longer attack human beings to drink their blood. That is sooo 19th century. Each has their own supplier of purified blood which they drink from cocktail glasses (Bloody Mary, anyone?) I wouldn't say Adam is lonely and depressed, but is more than willing to spend his cash (saved over the centuries, perhaps) on a wooden bullet encased in a gold shell in case he wants to end his bloody life (didn't know that vampires had it in them).
When Eve gets a sense that Adam has an aliveness problem, she flies from Tangier to be in his arms once again. Now, they can talk about Adam's priceless set of guitars that he purchased from Ian (Anton Yelchin), one of the nicer zombie's around and drop names of the people they have known such as Schubert, Byron, and Shelley and probably Dracula. Soon, Eve dreams her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) into coming from Los Angeles to visit them (spooky movement at a distance).
Full of youthful energy but without true vampire scruples, Ava helps herself to the "good stuff" in their home and generally acts in a selfish manner until she is sent packing and told to go back home to the true zombies who live in Los Angeles. While it is a treat to see "cool" vampires instead of the usual ghouls, there is no real joy in the film. Jarmusch is going for romance and humor and atmosphere by the bucket load, but the film is emotionally wooden and all the centuries-long love affair has produced seems to be a couple that really like each other, who have an eclectic musical interest, and just enjoy lounging around between meals.
Only Lovers Left Alive, aside from some flashes of stylistic brilliance, has no compelling story to engage us, nor anything of importance to say - no insights, realizations or character growth. Shall we say, there is little to sink our teeth into. Judging by the reaction in the theater, the lovers in the film's title may be the only ones left alive, only because there was no one left in the audience who fit in that category.