Director Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men wrestles with heavy questions of post-colonial anger and the essence of humanity in a complex and thoughtful script about the unsolved murders of seven French Trappist monks during the Algerian Civil War. Though there’s plenty of external violence and drama, the film’s true narrative is the group’s internal struggle to reconcile an instinctive drive for self-preservation with a calling to help their poverty-stricken Muslim neighbors and serve in the spirit of their lord. Lambert Wilson shines as Christian, the monastery’s clear-eyed leader who counsels his more doubtful brothers, while the gravelly-voiced Michael Lonsdale personifies the subjugation of the self to the spiritual. Through his subtle observational camerawork and pared-down settings, Beauvois highlights the deep strength and (sometimes detrimental) kindness of men who live their plainly appointed lives in search of a higher truth. Simple but profound issues of love and fidelity take on new urgency as the brothers pray and engage in the humble rapture of Gregorian chant, especially in one strikingly composed and emotionally jarring dinner scene. As the film traverses the heady days of summer to the brutal depths of winter, Beauvois comes to terms with the mysterious faith of this band of outsiders and challenges us to do the same.
Set amid the chaotic events of the U.S.-backed 1973 military overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, Pablo Larraín’s chilling love story Post Mortem does more with less. It centers on Mario (Alfredo Castro, whose salt and pepper hairstyle makes him look like Anton Chigurh’s older brother), an eccentric morgue assistant with a quiet but creepy obsession with his exotic dancer neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Both are oblivious to the political turmoil that surrounds them until Nancy’s home, a haven for pro-Allende supporters, is targeted by anti-government rebels. What is so fascinating about this exploration of Chile’s painful history is that Larraín deliberately keeps the camera focused on everything but the action; in one particularly brutal sequence Mario takes a long shower, while off-screen we hear the tumultuous birth of a revolution. It’s a deliberately frustrating, confrontational technique that’s ultimately rewarding in the way it enhances other aspects of the movie, like the incredibly rich sound design and the microscopic attention paid to Castro and Zeger’s complex performances. Post Mortem’s horrific depiction of the banality of evil reaches its apex with a pile of broken-down furniture that serves as the climactic expression of one man’s impotent rage; in this brutish, sad, and darkly funny film, the road to hell is paved with more than just good intentions.
Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung succeeds in turning Japanese author Haruki Murakami‘s beloved novel Norwegian Wood into an ethereal meditation on life, love, and death. Though the film lacks the book’s dense backstory, the basic story, set in the 1960s, remains the same; teenagers Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kôra) are each other’s first and only love, while Kizuki’s easygoing best friend Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is their constant companion. When Kizuki commits suicide, Naoko and Watanabe are sent reeling; she spirals into depression and joins a sanatorium, while he goes off to college and immerses himself in sex and literature. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood‘s evocative score, which devolves from jangly guitar pop to strident orchestral arrangements, foreshadows the downward trajectory of their reunion, which is complicated by Watanabe’s relationship with the outspoken Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Naoko and Watanabe’s internal battles with the primal forces of love, guilt, and redemption are embodied by quietly majestic scenes of rippling grasses, crashing waves, and snowy mountains; the movie has a powerful elemental quality that grounds its heavy emotions. It’s also refreshingly honest about the awkward allure of teenage sexuality, which plays a pivotal role in Naoko’s eventual downfall. Hung captures the nostalgia for and overwhelming uncertainty of first loves and heartbreaks, and the weary strength it takes to carry on.
Don’t be fooled by the dusty period garb and rattling wagon trains- Meek’s Cutoff is far from a typical Western and infinitely more intriguing. The film, based on real-life events, revolves around three couples who have hired self-proclaimed frontiersman Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) to lead them to wealth and prosperity in the West. As the two-week journey stretches into five, the party’s once-strong resolve begins to fade. Director Kelly Reichardt explores the philosophical and existential qualities of the traveler’s ever-worsening journey through the eyes of the female settlers and garners incredibly strong performances from the cast, which includes Zoe Kazan as Paul Dano’s high-strung wife Millie and Michelle Williams as steely-eyed Emily. The capture of a lone Indian stirs the slow-boiling plot and serves as the tipping point for Williams, who becomes the pragmatic voice of dissent to an increasingly dangerous Meek. As the thirsty group soldiers on, dwarfed by a stripped down landscape of hardscrabble plains and rocky valleys, their silent passage reflects the blind determination and stoic realism that formed the bedrock of our nation. Though it ends on an abruptly vague note, Meek’s Cutoff stands as a thoughtful and meticulous exploration of the will to survive and the courage it takes to do so.
Set in the seaside industrial landscape of Wales, Richard Ayoade‘s debut film Submarine explores the complicated emotions and relationships of Oliver Tate, an articulate, imaginative teenager with a penchant for briefcases and pyromania. By day, he yearns for Jordana Bevans (Yasmin Page), a rebellious classmate who chafes at the thought of romance. By night, he spies on his parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) and schemes to keep their lukewarm love alive. Craig Roberts, who is the actor Michael Cera wishes he could be, embodies Oliver with a deadpan humanity that makes his social awkwardness and forced eccentricities relatable to anyone who didn’t know quite who they were at 15, either. As he and Jordana begin a tumultuous relationship, their dusky adventures captured in the grainy Super-8 video of Oliver’s memory, he realizes his parents are growing apart, thanks to the arrival of his mother’s mulleted ex-boyfriend (Paddy Considine). Oliver is repeatedly told that all the sadness and heartbreak he’s going through won’t mean anything when he’s 38, but Oliver–and the audience–know that it’s precisely these painful moments which linger the longest. Filled with fantasy sequences that capture the spirit of teenage grandiosity, Submarine is a dreamy and melancholy snapshot of Oliver’s unsteady transition from misguided youth to self-aware adult.
As much a scathing satire of our societal obsession with fame as it is a trippy buddy comedy, Nerdland is what happens when you mix the anarchic animation style of MTV’s Liquid Television with Adult Swim’s ADD roster of comedy talent. Elliot (an agreeably loopy Patton Oswalt) is an aspiring screenwriter who never met a job he couldn’t get fired from. John (Paul Rudd) is his optimistically off-kilter best friend who decides that the two soon-to-be-thirtysomethings need to become famous. Now. The delusional but charming duo embark on a series of adventures that range from delivering a check to a local homeless man to rescuing people from a burning building, with each situation hilariously (and predictably) blowing up in their faces. In fact, much of director Chris Prynoski’s episodic film feels lifted straight from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker school of Absurdly Escalating Comedy. Hannibal Buress delivers one of the densely packed film’s best performances as The King, the purplish, priapic proprietor of a local comic shop who talks in the third person and wears a gold crown, while Paul Scheer serves up a pitch-perfect rant as a rabid tennis player. Though the film doesn’t quite deliver on the raunchy promise of its R rating, Nerdland makes the most of Rudd and Oswalt’s chemistry as the endearingly stupid but sweet BFF’s who realize that nothing is worth doing unless it’s done together.
Reading J.G. Ballard’s sleek 1976 novel about a market-based experiment in high-rise living gone horrifyingly wrong is an entirely different experience than watching director Ben Wheatley’s decadent exploration of societal and personal decay. Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the detached and enigmatic Robert Laing, a new arrival in a Brutalist apartment block designed by the architect-philosopher Anthony Royal (an inscrutable Jeremy Irons). All looming pillars and oppressive concrete, the building is packed with nearly every amenity its inhabitants could want–a pool, bank, hair salon, grocery store, even an elementary school–freeing them to explore the increasingly dangerous social dynamics that develop between the posh residents of the upper floors and the middle-class professionals and working-class families that reside below them. Wheatley, a native of Essex, nails the stiff-upper-lip strain of black comedy that runs through the gorgeously composed film, which luxuriates in the beauty of decay that Ballard’s clinical prose renders much more gruesome. Class warfare aside, much of High-Rise’s violence is of the gendered kind, with free-wheeling Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and domesticated Helen (Elisabeth Moss) as total opposites who are both subjected to the misogynistic rage of Helen’s increasingly unhinged husband (Luke Evans), all set to the superbly sinister score by composer Clint Mansell. A Lord of the Flies for the dystopian age, High-Rise bleakly looks into the abyss and wonders if the way forward is not also the way down.