Djo Munga crafted a gritty urban crime drama with energy to spare, and it benefits from strong performances and the uncommon setting of Kinshasa. The unique aspect, though, is its uncompromising honesty. The story has no apologies for its lurid subject matter, graphic violence, sex, lesbian action, and the utterly corrupt characters that make up the heart of Viva Riva. Ridiculously entertaining, while having neither sympathy nor mercy for the characters held in thrall to the relentless Congolese beat. This is in some ways an exercise in style, but it never drifts too far from the central theme of the gravitational center of money, and how it drives and destroys everything we see. Sure, the men and women kill for money, but without cash flow, like the gasoline Riva brings to the city, nothing shall move.
Tree of Life
One of the most ambitious films of this decade, or indeed any decade, Tree of Life grapples with the most basic and unanswerable of questions. Ostensibly about a father raising his children, it becomes a meditation on how we relate to the processes that created life around us; or maybe it is about how we deal with a distant deity and make sense of religion; or using vast perspective to understand where we fit in the struggle for life and how we find our way. There are as many interpretations as there were viewers of this transcendent film. I considered it through the perspective of the father; falsely confident about how the world is around him, he feels his way through the process of rearing his kids, never able to know the wisdom of his actions until long afterwards. You tell me.
Crippling depression isn’t so bad in the end of days – if Earth is about to collide with another planet, then having an apocalyptic view is a positive boon. While a fascinating consideration of how different personalities deal with the yawning precipice of oblivion, it allows the audience to understand and perhaps internalize the power of depression. That being said, Melancholia is uncommonly entertaining, with shockingly beautiful compositions. The end is nothing to be worried about, after all.
A minute or so into The Artist, I had forgotten I was watching a silent film. The surprise here is the extraordinary skill Hazanavicius brings to telling a story with spare dialogue, scrupulously constructed visuals, and the faces of two of the best performances of the year. A star-making turn by Berenice Bejo is matched by a pitch-perfect Jean Dujardin (who already is a star via the OSS films). As far as bittersweet films go, this ode to the glory of old Hollywood is as bitter as it gets. But that is the central theme – the Artist, if they truly believe in their art, wish only to entertain, and that for a brief time. The crowd, adoring though it may be, will move on, never to return. ‘That is life’, as one character says. So why is one of the best films of the year in a dead medium?
Princess of Montpensier
Passion destroys all it touches in this sumptuous costume drama from a master of the craft. Against the backdrop of the pointlessly bloody yet enthusiastically fought war between Huguenots and Catholics, a similarly aimless love triangle reveals the destructive force of passion amongst shallow people who have yet to learn that life is not to be taken too seriously. At least not if it is to be understood. Populated by mostly narrow-minded characters driven by emotion to destructive ends, we get to view the awkward dance of human nature as people labor against their best interests. All in the name of love, pride, honor, and faith – all variants of foolish passion. Seldom has the cataract of human conflict been viewed with such thoughtful reserve.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
This odd meditation on our history and how we interpret those frozen moments in time captured in ancient objects fascinates beyond reasonable comprehension. The rare experience of the Chauvet Cave becomes the centerpiece for a review of prehistoric peoples, or at least our guess as to who they were based on what was left behind. This sets up the amazing sequence of slow shots of the oldest cave paintings of the world, preserved for tens of thousands of years. Primitive, yet sophisticated in use of contrast and medium, and in the creative use of the contours of the cave; possibly the greatest works of art in human history.
The Red Chapel
A thoughtful commentary on the slippery nature of truth in documentaries, all masquerading as a sublime practical joke on North Korea. A group of comics seek to show the creepy and self-destructive culture of the world’s most isolated country using the dumbest imaginable stage comedy show. Meanwhile, a simple and goofy expose becomes something else entirely. As it turns out, propaganda goes both ways, and The Red Chapel becomes not only wickedly funny, but also ends up burying the guerilla documentary as a fundamentally dishonest genre.
A small band of settlers strike west in search of a new life, and in Oregon circa 1845, they find themselves utterly lost, without water or food. Guided by one of the better-constructed unreliable narrators in cinema, their guide Meek has a shortcut in mind. As they press forward into nothingness, we are lost with them in this wilderness. Lacking in traditional narrative structure or any sense of closure, Meek’s Cutoff is a unsettlingly immersive experience as we join the characters in not knowing whether salvation or death can be found beyond the next hill. Perhaps they will make it, as it is always just a bit further. We must do without a hero or any real guide, just as they do, and have no idea who is speaking the truth. Metaphorically rich and thematically dense, one could see it as a simple treatise on the nature of risk while in the midst; the risk of trusting to fate, the gamble inherent in retaining one’s humanity at the cost of safety, and the payment demanded by ill fortune. In more concrete terms, it is a cry from a nation, once emboldened by Manifest Destiny, that has completely lost its way.
There are no immutable truths in art, as in life or love – subjective in all ways especially regarding perspective. Straying across subjects about art, authenticity, and how these could apply to men and women, courting and married, now and long into the future, Certified Copy is a brilliant work that does not fit any conventional narrative mold. Part of the way into this feature, an antique dealer and a writer appear to be discussing the inherent value of copies against the original – and then the goalposts are moved in a way that shifts the subject, bringing subtext to the surface, and telescoping time in dramatic fashion. Bold and meditative, and benefits from repeat viewings as the person we are changes with time – as would one’s view of this film.
Life, Above All
A blistering indictment of South Africa’s response on the level of health ministry, government, and society, Life, Above All is a deeply intimate look at the effects of a pandemic that has crippled an entire continent. But never mind the mind-boggling statistics of HIV – this focuses on one family that is being devastated by the disease, but even more so by the malignant actions of the community around them. Belief in magic and curse rules the land, and provides a protective curtain behind which the plague spreads unchallenged. This film deftly addresses the war between fact and superstition, and the proxies that fight on their behalf. There is no other way to deal with adversity of any kind other than head-on, and it can be said that AIDS has been less damaging to Africa than the ignorance that nurtures it.
The visionary creation of Jim Henson is now regarded with nostalgia – but The Muppets make it clear that the show is not over yet. The consummate entertainers unite in a knowing and clever film that is a tribute to entertainment and entertainers. Equally turns touching and hilarious, The Muppets is a fitting way to reinvigorate the stage show and reestablish Kermit and Company. Welcome back, guys.