Late Spring

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(Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Just the Way It Is

Noriko Somiya is getting older. Older, yes, but not in the sense that most of us today might consider “getting old.” Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is twenty-seven, and her marital status has become the primary concern of her widower of a father (Chishu Ryu) and meddling aunt (Haruko Sugimura) who worry that her age may increasingly be a hindrance in securing her a husband. Her aunt has even taken it upon herself to find her niece a proper suitor. To complicate matters, however, the affable and mild-mannered Noriko does not share her elders’ fears for she has no desire to marry at all. Driven to defending herself against her insistent aunt and unhelpful friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) – who’s already been married and divorced herself – Noriko becomes indignant as she finds her future being arranged without her consent. This is the primary narrative of Yasujiro Ozu’s subtle masterpiece Late Spring.

The Japanese master may be only rivaled by Satyajit Ray or Abbas Kiarostami for his ability to craft meaningful, even revelatory cinema without the flashiness of highly stylistic flourishes indicative of popular art film. Late Spring, then, is a crucial work in Ozu’s oeuvre as it established his signature minimalist aesthetic and familial narrative concerns of his postwar films, largely considered his finest period of filmmaking. The low-angled, lengthy takes composed almost exclusively of static shots and the soft, gentle editing technique of interposing shots over each other during transitions became mainstays of Ozu’s style after Late Spring. And, more than just trademarks of an impressive director, these choices perfectly serve this homebound work that draws us into the intimate exchanges of its characters through the film’s steady pace and intentional lack of filmmaking showmanship. Tokyo Story in 1953 would solidify Ozu’s status as master of heart-wrenching familial drama, but its predecessor Late Spring nearly matches his arguable opus in its challenging of traditional societal norms in the touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship.

Before Sugimara’s Aunt Masa enters the narrative as the antagonistic force of custom and traditionalism, Shukichi and Noriko are happy as a pair of father and daughter coping with the distant death of their wife and mother in postwar Japan rebuilding itself. Shukichi continues his work as a university professor, Noriko fulfills the duties of maintaining their home, and both of them serve as the other’s companion. The only roadblock standing in the way of their continued happiness is what others perceive as improper. Noriko, at twenty-seven years old, should be married, and Shukichi is not yet old enough to rule out getting remarried. The father falls victim to this way of thinking first, and follows his sister’s lead in urging his daughter to choose a spouse, and soon. Noriko resists the pair’s matchmaking efforts until her father surprises her with the news that he will soon likely remarry – a match also instigated by Aunt Masa. Over the course of the film, Noriko experiences waves of various emotions, at once attempting to express her own desire to remain single and care for her aging father while trying to reconcile this desire with a society that opposes it.

Ultimately, it seems her love for her father and perhaps an acceptance of defeat in the face of an unrelenting cultural norm, Noriko consents and agrees to marry the man her aunt has proposed as a suitable future husband. Cleverly, Ozu never shows her fiancé onscreen, leaving us with the only story that matters at its center. Noriko and Shukichi may both go on to marry – something Ozu hints that neither really wants to do – but the most important relationship of Late Spring is the strong bond between father and daughter. The film’s finale, then, is bittersweet, if not altogether tragic. Noriko stands in front of a mirror dressed in an elaborate wedding dress with her father and aunt gushing over her beauty, and the young woman forces a smile. Will she find happiness in marriage just as she found it as a single woman living with her father? This is beyond the scope of Ozu’s film, but the fact that the choice remains outside of Noriko’s control is telling of where the filmmaker stands on the idea of unquestioned tradition.

In this way, Late Spring is more pertinent than ever. The rights of women the world over have come along way since 1949, and yet the persistent assumptions many still hold with regards to women and their decision to remain single reveal that Ozu’s film was way ahead of its time. And yet, as each of Ozu’s powerful films has done, it rises above playing out as simply a message film by virtue of the importance the director places on character and story. Ozu’s cinema is a cinema of people – people with real issues and emotions – and Late Spring stands as one of the finest life-like portraits of a family in his impressive body of work.

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A Brighter Summer Day

Reblogging in honor of the Criterion release that just showed up in the mail. It’s a brighter spring day indeed!

Life and Nothing More

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(Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Lost in the World

A strong case could be made for Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day as the quintessential Taiwanese film as it’s concerned with the residual effects of the events that shaped this modern nation state in the wake of a severe split with its motherland. Yang’s film documents this crucial period in Taiwan’s history from the perspective of the next generation. The year is 1960, and political dissidents who fled mainland China in 1949 are now raising their children on this foreign island. Yang devotes some time to these aging individuals who still must cope with that jarring displacement, but he primarily focuses on Taipei’s youth – born into exile and forced to adapt despite their parents’ recurring pitfalls. It is no surprise, then, that Yang suggests these teens turn to street gangs to find their identity and Western pop culture to…

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Top Ten Films

cityofsadness

An utterly subjective, entirely unnecessary series of lists that remains nonetheless fun to read and write. I hope to update these regularly as tastes change and as I discover new and existing artists. 


1960s

2001

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States/United Kingdom, 1968)

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is both philosophically dense in its existential quandaries and exquisitely technically accomplished in its obsessively controlled set pieces, stunning visual effects, and symphony of perfectly employed classical compositions.

jetee

2) La jetée (Dir. Chris Marker, France, 1962)

A stunning collage of still photographs – with the notable exception of one breathtaking clip of footage – that explores the very nature of time itself in its alternate take on that well-trodden sci-fi trope of time travel.

playtime

3) Playtime (Dir. Jacques Tati, France, 1967)

Tati’s grand-scale treatise on twentieth-century modernity is rewardingly ambitious, quietly hilarious, remarkably prescient, and a technical wonder to behold with its impressive sets and re-creations of the concrete playground that is today’s urban sprawl.

andrei rublev

4) Andrei Rublev (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1966)

Tarkovsky uses the decades-spanning story of one of history’s renowned iconographers to dissect Christian spirituality, explore the depravity and potential good of humankind, and comment on his own nation’s recent past in spectacularly cinematic fashion.

psycho

5) Psycho (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1960)

Hitchcock solidified his unshakable reputation with this master class of suspense and genuine terror that famously features bold narrative decisions that consistently upend viewer expectations.

my night at mauds

6) My Night at Maud’s (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1969)

Unlike any other filmmaker Rohmer spins compelling dramas from basic moral dilemmas, and his finest film is no exception; heady dialogue, serious philosophizing, and believable character development combine for one captivating watch.

house is black

7) The House Is Black (Dir. Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1962)

A brief, yet deeply profound and hugely influential documentary that contemplates the value of humanity as its camera sheds light on society’s leprosy-stricken outcasts.

charulata

8) Charulata (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)

Ray’s heartfelt chamber drama succeeds on multiple levels: as a tender love story, a forward-thinking platform for the typically unheard voices of women, and an unexpectedly rich chronicle of a nation’s critical late-colonial days.

battle of algiers

9) The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)

A visceral depiction of urban guerilla warfare and the high stakes of creating a post-colonial Africa that is riveting to watch in its brushes with action tropes and gut-wrenching in its suggestion of the great cost of freedom.

autumn afternoon

10) An Autumn Afternoon (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1962)

The final work of one of cinema’s most enduring artists is fittingly one of the most poignant takes on his typical concerns of generational conflict, changing gender norms, and strained family relations set against the backdrop of postwar Japan.

Honorable Mention: 8 1/2 (Dir. Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963), L’Avventura (Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960), Cléo from 5 to 7 (Dir. Agnès Varda, France, 1962), Contempt (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963), The Exterminating Angel (Dir. Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1962), Lawrence of Arabia (Dir. David Lean, United Kingdom, 1962), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Dir. William Greaves, United States, 1968)


1970s

stalker

1) Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)

Tarkovsky’s greatest film is a grand-scale, multilayered meditation on art, faith, science, and humankind’s very existence dressed up in unconventional sci-fi tropes that delights in its own ambiguity.

days of heaven

2) Days of Heaven (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1978)

A glorious realization of an as-yet-untamed America that offers breathtaking visuals and a deceptively simple allegory of humankind’s potential for both good and evil.

jeanne dielman

3) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975)

Akerman crafts one of the most captivating explorations of cinematic time and space in this unsettling tale of a woman’s rigid routine unspooling and careening toward disaster.

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4) Killer of Sheep (Dir. Charles Burnett, United States, 1978)

A series of self-contained episodes of American city life strung together forms a compelling portrait of a nation as a whole refreshingly filtered through a distinctly African-American perspective.

annie hall

5) Annie Hall (Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1977)

Woody Allen’s most popular film is also his best; at once a cleverly non-linear tale of one failed relationship and a persuasive endorsement for the necessity of all relationships.

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6) Touki Bouki (Dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal, 1973)

Influenced by its European predecessors, Mambéty’s singular work is still boldly stylistic and defiantly African in its point of view granting the world a glimpse of a rapidly changing, post-colonial nation in the story of one man’s journey.

apocalypse now

7) Apocalypse Now (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1979)

The horrors of bloodshed and war are on full display in Coppola’s American classic that boasts a host of unforgettable set pieces that underscore some of humankind’s worst tendencies.

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8) Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1976)

Scorsese’s searing depiction of New York City’s seedy underbelly seen through the eyes of one unstable man with delusions of grandeur gave cinema one of its greatest characters.

badlands

9) Badlands (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1973)

The debut feature of one of the medium’s future masters is both an exemplar of the so-called New Hollywood movement and an announcement of an artist’s singular style that favors imagery over plot to tell stories.

spirit of beehive

10) The Spirit of the Beehive (Dir. Victor Erice, Spain, 1973)

Favoring gorgeous visuals rife with symbolic meaning over any traditional narrative thread, Erice’s first feature is a honey-glowing ode to childhood and a haunting portrait of a nation’s recent war-torn past.

Honorable Mention: Barry Lyndon (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States/United Kingdom, 1975), The Godfather (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1972), Nashville (Dir. Robert Altman, United States, 1975), Solaris (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1972), A Touch of Zen (Dir. King Hu, Taiwan, 1971)


1980s

city of sadness

1) A City of Sadness (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1989)

Hou’s greatest film offers one of cinema’s most challengingly elliptical narratives in a devastating family saga that provides a microcosm of an entire nation’s recent history.

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2) The Green Ray (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)

An earnest spirituality bubbles underneath the everyday lives of middle class Parisians as one individual seeks purpose and truth amidst debilitating societal pressures and norms.

sacrifice

3) The Sacrifice (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986)

The final film of one of cinema’s finest contemplatives is a fitting swansong with its complex meditation on humankind, profound spiritual allegory, and astounding visual grandeur.

my neighbor totoro

4) My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)

Simplicity marks both the narrative style and the very crux of this winsome tale enthralled by the beauty of uncomplicated rural life filtered through the unclouded eyes of children.

distant voices

5) Distant Voices, Still Lives (Dir. Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 1988)

Davies’ impressionistic chronicle of a mid-century Liverpoolian family is gorgeously and tenderly realized and boasts a unique theatricality unseen in most films.

shining

6) The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1980)

Littered with fascinating continuity errors, Kubrick’s mighty film delivers bone-chilling terror, visually arresting set pieces, and serves as the basis for endless conspiracy theories to this day.

where is the friends home

7) Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1987)

Kiarostami’s breakthrough finds the filmmaker turning a simple moral quandary into an unlikely race against time that launched one of the most exciting careers in the history of cinema.

nostalghia

8) Nostalghia (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Italy, 1983)

The poetic and metaphorical flourishes of Tarkovsky’s challenging work are stretched to their limits in this satisfyingly oblique portrait of longing for one’s home.

do the right thing

9) Do the Right Thing (Dir. Spike Lee, United States, 1989)

A scathing indictment of the festering open wound of American racism that demanded attention in its day with a refreshingly confrontational aesthetic but remains powerfully relevant today.

ran

10) Ran (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1985)

One of cinema’s finest Shakespearean adaptations, Kurosawa’s film is a staggering historical epic that features the filmmaker’s finest qualities for this late-career highlight.

Honorable Mention: Blue Velvet (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1989), Fanny and Alexander (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1982), Sans Soleil (Dir. Chris Marker, France, 1983), The Thin Blue Line (Dir. Errol Morris, United States, 1988)


1990s

close up

1) Close-Up (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990)

Kiarostami crafts one of cinema’s most captivating exercises in self-reflexivity as he perfects the risky hybrid of narrative fiction and documentary while brilliantly commenting on the essential nature of truth and the inherent falsity in recreation.

thin red line

2) The Thin Red Line (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1998)

Humankind’s propensity for violence is wondrously juxtaposed with the glorious beauty of the natural world and life itself in Malick’s welcome return to film after a twenty-year hiatus.

brighter summer day

3) A Brighter Summer Day (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Yang’s magnum opus bears a remarkable literary quality in its sheer scope and in its densely layered, character-driven narrative threads that form one of the most heartbreaking tragedies on innocence lost.

taste of cherry

4) Taste of Cherry (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

In one of Kiarostami’s best films a man weighs the value of human life against his desire to end his own, and the filmmaker uses this premise to subtly affirm all life and further his career-spanning exploration of the line between fiction and reality.

chungking express

5) Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)

Everything is in motion in Wong’s early-career highlight – his camera, his characters, the bustling city around them – and here the visionary filmmaker hones his dazzling aesthetic that lends the film its effortless nineties cool and emotionally resonant core.

raise the red lantern

6) Raise the Red Lantern (Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, 1991)

Zhang’s eye for gorgeous set pieces and vibrant colors finally matches a solid narrative thrust with socio-political insight unseen in the rest of his stylish oeuvre.

beau travail

7) Beau travail (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)

The apex of Denis’ career features each of the filmmaker’s finest qualities: sensual camera movements fixed on human bodies, an exploration of troubled psyches, and an exhilaratingly ambiguous narrative.

flowers of shanghai

8) Flowers of Shanghai (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)

For his best film of the decade, Hou commits to an intentionally restrictive, aesthetic formalism that serves to augment the hazy, dimly lit corridors of the intoxicating spaces his camera captures.

safe

9) Safe (Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 1995)

Haynes visualizes the comfort in homogeny and segregation in the life of one suburban homemaker, yet utilizes her bizarre downfall to comment on the vapidity of this sanitized existence.

wind will carry us

10) The Wind Will Carry Us (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1999)

Kiarostami caps off the most fruitful decade of his career with yet another meditation on life and death that also fosters an engaging dialogue on the urban/rural divide.

Honorable Mention: Days of Being Wild (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1991), Goodfellas (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1990), The Long Day Closes (Dir. Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 1992), A Moment of Innocence (Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996), Through the Olive Trees (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994)


2000s

In the Mood

1) In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)

If film is defined as art in motion – a holy union of story, image, and sound – then Wong’s best film stands as one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

Syndromes and a Century

2) Syndromes and a Century (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

Eschewing traditional storytelling, Weerasethakul utilizes the same actors and the same scene-setting premise to launch both halves – one set in a rural hospital, the other in a bustling urban medical center – to deliver a quiet, yet affecting meditation on the rural/urban divide.

Headless Woman

3) The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)

Martel affixes her camera to the film’s subject, intensely studies her behavior and gestures, and draws metaphorical parallels to the fallout of her accident and her bourgeois privilege.

New World

4) The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

The blurring of images as they flash across the screen, sometimes for no more than a second or two, functions as a fitting visualization of Malick’s usual exploration of the intersection where humankind and its environment meet.

Yi Yi

5) Yi Yi (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Yang’s last film is a family saga in the vein of his and his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work that takes its time in weeding out the details of multiple characters’ lives that, taken together, paints a holistic portrait of a modern-day Taiwanese family.

Mulholland Dr

6) Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)

Thrillingly operating in a mode of absurdist dream logic, Lynch’s nightmarish depiction of the dream factory that is Hollywood as a horror show brilliantly subverts our expectations of what fame and fortune promise.

There Will Be Blood

7) There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2007)

Every frame is filled with metaphorical depth, and the ferocity with which Anderson builds his jaw-dropping set pieces serves to overturn the long-standing notion of American exceptionalism for an increasingly disillusioned age.

Tropical Malady

8) Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)

The film’s first half’s unhurried romance unfolding linearly abruptly ends halfway through and is given new, allegorical life in the second as a mystical fable involving animals and spirits that echoes the story in the first.

Intruder

9) The Intruder (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)

Denis continues her intimate exploration of the human mind via a visual fixation on the human body accompanied by a rush of non-linear images that blur narrative reality and imagination.

Eternal Sunshine

10) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)

Gondry takes us on a whirlwind trip through the mind and through memory, and in the end makes a convincing case that relationships are essential to life despite their inevitable difficulties.

Honorable Mention: See full list here.


2010s (so far)

tree-of-life

1) The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)

Malick recreates the spectacle of the beginning of life itself, tenderly portrays one insignificant family as they grapple with life’s curveballs, questions the existence of God, and makes a convincing case for espousing grace and love in the face of hardship with the promise of beauty.

certified-copy

2) Certified Copy (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)

Kiarostami wonders if a replica, a copy, a piece of art has any intrinsic value in itself when compared to its original as he masterfully applies this notion to even human relationships.

this-is-not

3) This Is Not a Film (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011)

A filmic diary entry in protest of his twenty-year ban on filmmaking, Panahi greatest work is challenging essay film that serves as both an intimate personal statement and an inquiry into the creative process.

boyhood

4) Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2014)

With an unprecedented twelve-year shoot, Linklater has created a touching coming-of-age tale, a beautiful celebration of the everyday, and an astounding cinematic experiment of time with his likely magnum opus.

assassin

5) The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

A testament to the mastery of the cinematic medium, Hou’s late-career masterpiece delivers another astounding example of his signature elliptical storytelling while relishing in the visual pleasures he creates.

uncle-boonmee

6) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

Weerasethakul builds on his fascination with dualities to present a beguiling reverie on the fragile line between life and death while incorporating elements of countryside fables and his typical head-scratching sequences.

closed-curtain

7) Closed Curtain (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2013)

Blurring the line between narrative fiction and factual anecdote, Panahi risks self-indulgence as he blows apart traditional narration to explore his own troubled psyche.

mother

8) Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2010)

With a taut Hitchcockian narrative, Bong has crafted a modern-day thriller in the classic Hollywood mold that features a jaw-dropping central performance and enough twists and turns to keep viewers firmly in their seats.

social-network

9) The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher, United States, 2010)

Fincher wisely forgoes an easy didactic approach to our modern social media-saturated age by spinning a whip-smart narrative about how truth and fabrication are perceived.

look-of-silence

10) The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, United States/Indonesia, 2014)

A companion piece to the more attention-grabbing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s real triumph is a gut-wrenching documentary that calls into question its chosen genre’s limitations in its decidedly biased approach.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

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(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1985)

Movie Magic

After a string of well-received “dramedies” – that waved sayonara to the all-out zaniness of his earliest films – imbued with a healthy dose of philosophical, moral, and religious quandary and featured a whole lot of talking, Woody Allen piggybacked on the success of Zelig and created another brief, yet high-concept fantasy with The Purple Rose of Cairo. Eschewing deeper questions raised by the likes of Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and even Stardust Memories, and choosing to exclude himself from the cast of characters this time around, the film is a considerably lighter affair, but it’s no less significant because of it. In fact, without Allen’s typically garrulous banter on any and every topic, the strength in Purple Rose lies in its singular focus. Allen’s one-two punch of classic filmmaking that is Annie Hall and Manhattan were intentionally all over the place covering the filmmaker’s neuroses, opinions, pitfalls, comedic ticks, passions, and the like in a very short span of time. In contrast, Purple Rose narrows in on Allen’s own cinephilia and a troubling notion bubbling under the surface certainly more paramount than a mere love for the movies.

The set-up is a clever one, indebted to film’s lengthy past: Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a struggling waitress in a greasy diner, lives for going to the movies. In the 1930s amidst the Great Depression, Cecilia’s crummy, abusive husband Monk (Danny Aiello) is out of work, and the pervading national climate is one of utter hopelessness. It’s no wonder then that the cinema becomes a safe haven for Cecilia – a place where she can escape for seventy minutes or so into another world where all will be right by film’s end. At the local theatre, the ticket counter attendant and the projectionist know Cecilia by name, and she’s unafraid to see the same movie multiple times during its initial run. Fed up with Monk pushing her around and sleeping around right under her nose, Cecilia resolves to leave. But, when she finds she has no place to go, she quickly winds up back home. Then, the new film The Purple Rose of Cairo begins showing at the theatre, and Cecilia is hooked. She sees it four or five times, and it’s not long before one of the film’s characters Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) takes notice of her sitting all alone in the audience from up on the screen. Interrupting the continuity of this once-predictable movie, Tom follows an impulse and emerges through the screen into the real world in order to get to know the beautiful young woman so entranced by his movie.

What follows is a fanciful romance as Tom whisks Cecilia off her feet as the charming romantic he was written to be. But, Cecilia wrestles with her own marriage and the obvious fact that Tom isn’t real. Things become even more complicated when the studio responsible for the film sends the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd (also Jeff Daniels) to sort things out. Meanwhile, the characters left behind remain onscreen in some of the film’s funniest moments as they bicker about who’s actually the main character and how hungry they are waiting for Tom to return. This fantasy is clever in a way only Allen could milk, and he knows just how long to do so – Purple Rose is just shy of an hour and a half placing it in line with the pictures Cecilia would have been enthralled by back in the ‘30s. The story is engaging in its own right, but there’s also quite a bit to gawk at throughout. The immeasurably talented Gordon Willis is once again at the helm of Allen’s camera, and he brings this dreary New Jersey town to life with soft pastels and lends credence to the scenes on the screen at the theatre with appropriately sharp black and white photography. It’s a beautiful film to take in, and proof that Allen and Willis were a formidable team to reckon with in the late ‘70s into the late ‘80s.

For the most part, Allen atypically allows sentimentality and nostalgia to do its work on his audience with a subdued, yet winsome sense of humor, but the film’s unexpected finale packs one emotional punch. Cecilia, forced to choose between three men, ultimately gives up on her thankless marriage and bids farewell to Tom recognizing the limitations of his two-dimensional personality. She chooses Gil who has also expressed his love for her, but in the end, it was all a ploy to get Tom back on the screen. When she returns to the theatre to meet him, he’s already on his way back to Hollywood. Capturing Farrow’s quiet, sorrowful emotional collapse in fitting close-up, it’s impossible for your heart not to sink into your stomach. Heartbroken, she shuffles her way into the cinema and sits down to face Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Something of a smile returns to her blank face as she looks on and lets the magic of the movies consume her. Here, Allen suggests a notion both painful and startlingly close to home for many: we’re all fated to some form of escapism when faced with the cruel disappointments of life. Cecilia finds hers at the movies, and Tom walks right through the screen bored with the repetition of his. In some ways, Allen has been here before. He often asserts that we all want what we can’t have, but as a filmmaker and self-proclaimed cinephile, it’s a poignant reminder of what the movies can and do mean for some people.

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Two Days, One Night

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(Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2014)

Every Single Life

If turning simple Christian virtues into compelling dramas has become the Dardenne brothers’ calling card – the impossible forgiveness in The Son’s final moments or the unmotivated act of kindness at the center of The Kid with a Bike to recall the pair’s very best – then Two Days, One Night finds the directors unearthing the inherent worth of every human being. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been on medical leave for crippling depression, and as the film abruptly starts with the ringing of a cell phone, she finds out one Friday afternoon from a friend at work that her coworkers have voted for a substantial bonus in exchange for her termination. She pulls herself together long enough to face her employer and beg for a revote the following Monday. Upon her husband Manu’s (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) well-intentioned suggestion, Sandra spends the next two days and one evening visiting her sixteen coworkers to convince them to vote for her to keep her job.

And, as with the brothers’ best work, the filmmakers mold this fairly simple premise into a fascinating character study and a muted near-action thriller. The film is appropriately steady-paced, but the imminent Monday-morning vote gives Sandra’s mission a palpable sense of urgency. Perhaps what is most impressive with regards to the Dardennes’ narrative is that we spend ample time with Sandra as she struggles to cope with her very real mental illness while balancing work and a home life, but the brothers also dedicate the majority of the film’s screen time to the confrontations between Sandra and her coworkers. Sandra repeats herself almost verbatim as she tracks down her coworkers at their homes throughout the city, but from her very first plea over the phone we learn to expect the unexpected.

Despite Sandra’s commitment to presenting her case ad nauseam so as to preserve the integrity of a fair vote, no two conversations are exactly the same. The Dardennes show these uncomfortable confrontations in full, brilliantly allowing suspense to build as we anxiously await each coworker’s response. These character interactions are captivating to watch. Some end before they even begin, some erupt into violence, some lead to revelations about these peripheral characters’ own hardships, and others end in tears. And, as the film progresses it seems for every ‘no’ Sandra receives, she also gains a ‘yes.’ This push and pull is predictable in that it understandably propels the plot forward, but the Dardennes effectively keep their audience guessing with each subsequent, unpredictable encounter. Through these brief meetings the brothers’ film seeks to comment on the value of every single life. Sandra’s coworkers must weigh her personal struggle that ultimately doesn’t affect any one of them against an unearned bonus that most of them somehow already feel entitled to. For those on the fence, the inner conflict is visible on their faces and in their actions. Wisely, then, the Dardennes never condemn these individuals for their decisions. Each of them has inherent worth too.

When Monday morning inevitably arrives, Sandra knows where most of her coworkers stand having spent the last two days seeking answers. Thus, when the result of the vote is communicated to her, there is some semblance of resolve even as she must empty out her locker and vacate the premises. But, like its predecessor The Kid with a Bike, Two Days, One Night bears a late-film complication that upends expectations and thrillingly threatens to spoil an otherwise tidy finale. Over the course of the film, Sandra’s coworkers are asked to determine the value of her worth, but in the film’s final moments the test is flipped and now Sandra finds herself faced with weighing the value of another against her own. These final act conflicts – the confrontation between betrayer and betrayed in Rosetta, the skirmish between teacher and pupil in The Son, the role reversal of victim and perpetrator in The Kid with a Bike – have become the Dardenne brothers’ secret weapon. Over the past two decades they have valiantly accepted the torch from Eric Rohmer as cinematic chroniclers of moral quandaries.

And yet, as much as Two Days, One Night is unmistakably a film of this accomplished pair of filmmakers, it belongs just as much to Cotillard as it does the brothers. Several of their films have relied on a staggering central performance (Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta and Olivier Gourmet in The Son most readily come to mind), but Two Days, One Night finds them working with an international star and former Oscar-winner for the first time. And while the appeal of much their earlier work resides in their dedication to a style of verisimilitude, including the use of either unknown or non-professional actors, the casting of Cotillard pays off immeasurably. While any number of actors could have filled her role adequately, Cotillard is the heart of the film, securing audience support and empathy for her troubled Sandra. No other performer working today conveys depths of emotions with a pair of eyes quite like Cotillard. She is undoubtedly one of contemporary cinema’s greatest treasures.

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The Grandmaster

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(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2013)

Tides of Change

Not since 1994’s wuxia film Ashes of Time has Wong Kar-wai attempted another genre exercise until now. With The Grandmaster, his long-gestating fictionalized biopic of legendary kung fu master Ip Man, Wong has submitted his own chapter to the expansive canon of martial arts pictures. Lest fans of the cinematic master fear he’s finally kowtowed to the pressures of filling theatre seats, make no mistake – his latest, though a slight departure in both setting and genre, is a Wong film through and through. One shouldn’t be surprised to find that his take on the famed story of Bruce Lee’s instructor is less a strict historical account of the man’s life or a crowd-pleasing action flick than it is a vehicle for Wong to further explore well-trodden themes that have been staples of his cinema since his debut in the late ‘80s.

More than Ashes of Time – his only other brush with action tropes – The Grandmaster evokes both the style and the nostalgia-soaked narratives of his early ‘90s period. And yet, fittingly, his latest is more mature thematically and in execution than career highlights Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels for its time period and aging central figure demand a more stately approach. If those three early films dealt with Hong Kong’s youth and the romanticized pining for eras of generations past rather than memories of their own, then perhaps The Grandmaster is even more poignant and hard-hitting as it explicitly concerns those who have lived through their nation’s better seasons and must find their place amidst national turmoil and permanent change.

Though Ip Man (Tony Leung) is the grandmaster of the film’s title, Wong instead chooses to visualize the shifting cultural and generational landscape in the character of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). She is both student and daughter to China’s northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) who, in his old age, passes over his skilled daughter to entrust his martial arts legacy to protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin). If there is one plot-driven thread that runs through the relative narrative wanderings of Ip Man’s story, it’s the story of Ma San’s betrayal and Gong Er’s subsequent quest for vengeance. As a whole, the film takes on the episodic quality mastered in Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express that finds characters walking in and out of the narrative in a non-linear fashion (notably Chang Chen’s brief appearance as the ruthless Razor who’s humbled by Ip Man’s natural finesse) tied together by the film’s protagonist’s philosophical and narrative voiceover.

This adherence to a tried and true aesthetic is The Grandmaster’s greatest strength. Yes, it boasts exhilarating choreography and its fair share of tense moments, but isn’t that a given in martial arts films? It’s more impressive what Wong does with this material – DP Philippe Le Sourd proves an apt stand-in for regular Christopher Doyle, and he and Wong work in tandem to filter these fight sequences through the director’s distinct perspective. Furthermore, and unsurprisingly, Wong extracts superb performances from his two leads. Leung effortlessly plays Ip Man as a wizened gentleman who convincingly conceals a brutal punch behind his winsome smile. And, Zhang turns a career-high performance as the film’s arguable true lead. Recalling her other great performance (also for Wong and alongside Leung in 2046), she conveys depths of emotion and a subtle elegance hiding a fiery passion with not more than her face. Wong captures Leung and Zhang in precious close-ups allowing both actors to do what they do best.

If Gong Er represents tradition itself and Hong Kong a place of exile for these mainlanders, then Wong once again beautifully and tragically crafts another treatise on longing for the better days of the past and urban loneliness in the face of inevitable change with The Grandmaster. Another era has passed. Nothing remains of it any longer. (Brilliantly, near film’s end, there is a stunning shot explicitly referencing the master’s opus In the Mood for Love as two would-be lovers meander down a darkened alley silhouetted by streetlights.) The Gong Family martial arts style and legacy ends with the death of Gong Er, and as modernity sweeps through Hong Kong Ip Man must compromise his own tradition in order to adapt. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the film’s denouement, it’s due in large part to the true story the film is based upon and the promise of Bruce Lee’s fruitful career.

Even as satisfying as Wong’s film is, it’s far from perfect or even one of his best. There’s an undeniable incompleteness to the project, and one can’t help but point fingers at Harvey Weinstein who insisted on a reedit before U.S. distribution. Thus, two versions exist – the original that wowed Hong Kong and swept the Asian film awards circuit and a shorter American cut – and Western viewers like myself are left to wonder what Wong’s complete vision for his Ip Man tale might have looked like. And yet, it only speaks to the director’s genius that a palatable version of a more than likely better film is still one of the year’s best. If My Blueberry Nights understandably worried fans that Wong had lost his touch, The Grandmaster suggests that perhaps one of recent history’s most exciting voices still has more to say.

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Frances Ha

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(Dir. Noah Baumbach, United States, 2013)

Best Friends Forever

Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, opens with the somewhat perplexing image of two grown women presumably play fighting – slapping, punching, shoving each other for their own amusement. What follows is an extremely well edited montage establishing these two twentysomethings as best friends and roommates living in contemporary NYC. These seemingly candid moments between friends are amusing (fondly reminiscent of the antics of Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids) and set the tone for this dramedy that chronicles a few months in the life of its unstable titular character. Greta Gerwig brings 27-year-old Frances Halladay to life in a way few actors do in comedies these days. Her assistance in co-writing the film’s script with Baumbach may have led to the plausibility of her performance, and her subtle humor and unapologetic quirkiness make Frances Ha a delight from start to finish.

While the better part of the past decade has seen filmmakers exhaustively dissect the American man-child in genres both comedy and indie drama, Baumbach gives us an honest and welcome look at the woman-child, not nearly as explored or even depicted on film, in Frances. At 27, Frances still doesn’t have a stable job, has no secure means of paying rent, and frequently makes rash and spontaneous decisions that end in regret. We first encounter Frances on the eve of a soul-crushing break-up. No, not with a boyfriend (though that happens too), but with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Sophie, who seems to have her life together (we find out later she doesn’t), moves out of the apartment with Frances to move in with her boyfriend. Devastated and unable to make rent there, Frances moves in with two Bohemian wannabes Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver) who reaffirm her carefree way of living – though they live generously on familial handouts and don’t seem to share their new roommate’s growing fears about making ends meet.

Progressively distancing herself from Sophie (both intentionally and circumstantially), Frances embarks on a journey of couch surfing that takes her from Brooklyn to Sacramento to Paris to Poughkeepsie and back to New York where it all began. While she doesn’t exactly discover herself along the way (something that helps Frances Ha stand out amidst of a myriad of recent human condition diagnosing comedies), the journey is an engaging one. Cinematically, Baumbach’s film has an unsentimental nostalgic feel invoking the techniques and style of the French New Wave (most obviously in its black and white cinematography, less noticeably in its choice of reference checking music) and early Woody Allen. That being said, it also unmistakably belongs to its modern 21st century setting – a snapshot of extended adolescence that increasingly marks the college graduates of today’s America. Of course, Baumbach is wise enough to neither applaud this trend nor lambaste it. Instead, Frances Ha stands more or less as a portrait of a woman grappling with the responsibilities of adulthood.

Perhaps what is most striking about Frances Ha is its refreshing depiction of women who don’t need men to fix their problems. Thankfully choosing not to indulge in an outdated feminism that posits men as villains, Baumbach and Gerwig take a third approach – in this way sharing a breakthrough with this year’s Frozen, a more far-reaching if not less artistic film dealing with similar themes – that celebrates the power of female friendship as a catalyst for positive change. Frances may not have been explicitly motivated to get her life together because of Sophie, but the crucial reconciliation between the two sets her down a path that leads her to pick herself up, take a less than ideal but decent-paying job, work toward improving her skills as a dance choreographer, and find her own place.

The trajectory of Frances’ story is remarkably simple, but everything in between is genuinely heartfelt and at times quite hilarious. As Frances, Gerwig is utterly charming if not completely aggravating in her glaring lack of self-awareness. And yet, this may be what makes Frances Ha so enjoyable. It remains a delightfully realistic portrait of that one funny girl everybody knows given an entire film smart enough not to draw attention to its forward-thinking portrayal of modern women on the big screen. Kudos to Baumbach and Gerwig for daring to offer a much-needed alternative to the Apatow brand of comedic self-discovery. We can only hope to see more of this from both collaborators in the future.

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