a theatre, film & pop culture review
And thus we arrive at the category that ruins my Oscars streak nearly every year. I saw 56 of the 57 nominated films, but alas, The Missing Picture has not yet been released in the U.S. and is impossible to find online (if you’re looking in the U.S., anyway). In the film, writer-director Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his own narration to recreate the atrocities Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979. A winner at Cannes and by all accounts fascinating, it seems a bit too form-pushing for the Academy.
Of course, the weakest film also has the highest spoiler potential, and Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown is a mess. In this manipulative melodrama, the relationship of atheist Americanophile Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and super-tattooed believer Elise (Veerle Baetens) is tested when their daughter is diagnosed with cancer. Jumping back and forth from the strained present to the passionate past, the weepy film is periodically broken up with charming musical performances (the couple is in a bluegrass band) that offer a welcome distraction from its otherwise overly-familiar story and liberal pandering (there’s a lot of eye-rollingly obvious anti-Bushism). It’s not as affecting as it wants to be (though the two actors are more than likable), but it’s the type of sentimental film that the Academy goes for, so it’s one to keep your eye on.
The latest from director-writer Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) concerns the Israeli occupation of Palestine and is grippingly filmed like a Bourne movie with heart-pounding torture sequences and chases down narrow alleys, across uneven rooftops, and through unsurprised strangers’ apartments. Omar focuses on three childhood friends — two of which are in love with the third’s sister — who prove their opposition through sniper attacks on Israeli military. When Omar (Adam Bakri) — handsome, with a poet’s soul — gets caught, his only choice is to feign collaboration while everyone believes he’s turned against them. What this political thriller does so well is depict the disarming contrast between everyday life on the West Bank and the violent, constant reality of the occupation and its resistance. The ending, chilling and abrupt, speaks to the shocking truth of that situation, but it’ll prove too pro-Palestine for the Academy.
In The Hunt, a spurned girl crushing on her kindergarten teacher acts out by implying that he behaved inappropriately toward her. Not understanding the severity of her actions until it’s too late, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) tries to right the wrong, but the community has already determined that Lucas — sensitively, inwardly portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen (A Roayl Affair, Hannibal) — is beyond guilty. The result is a witch hunt that plays, mercilessly, with hunting metaphors: Lucas is the accused predator of children, and so the village of ever-aggressive hunters becomes animalistic in its violent pursuit of him. Director Thomas Vinterberg just as aggressively builds the disturbing tension, crafting a deeply unsettling depiction of mob mentality in a small town. The Hunt is an unlikely winner, but a worthy nominee.
There’s so much going on in The Great Beauty that it’s difficult to process after just a single viewing. Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s film follows legendary one-time novelist Jep (Toni Servillo) who, at 65, continues to seduce his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome. Constructed as a series of highly stylized, loosely connected incidents (Baz Luhrman could learn a thing or two from the delirious party scenes), the film roves, philosophically, contrasting the modern (boozy nightclubs and shiny baubles) with the ancient (the relics and ruins of Rome) and ruminating on our own mortality. What else is there in life but to enjoy and appreciate each moment, the film asks, just as a wide-eyed tourist does, traveling to never-before-seen locations? It’s interesting to note that The Great Beauty comes along at the same time as, and is a cousin (not quite a sibling) to, those other hedonistic films, The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street. To varying degree (of success), all portray decadent excess in order to get at something deeper, more profound about ourselves. That it’s the frontrunner in this race, is surprising, but it’s already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, and so will likely take the Oscar home as well.