This is the second-to-last installment of my list of unabashedly opinionated top ten films of the year. By "ten" I mean fifteen- don't listen to the naysayers. It's been a great year for film. Hope you enjoy the analyses!
For reference, here's Part One of the list, Part Two, and Part Three.
4. Gravity (Cuaron)
A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space. Trailer.
My review, posted on this site in October, is available here.
5. Le Passe (The Past) (dir. Farhadi)
A woman in the process of finalizing a divorce, her husband, her children and her new boyfriend wrestle with pasts that link them all. Trailer.
What I want to impress is how thrillingly engaging Farhadi's films are. Don't pass this one up because the synopsis sounds heavy or serious. The new Jason Segel comedy can wait. There's no one else out there making films as Farhadi does: domestic dramas structured as thrillers, with information and character revealed in layers, keeping us at the edge of our seat. Like a thriller, we can't tear our eyes away, because we feel for these characters as new revelations come to light.
In terms of urgency, his films go one better than genre thrillers- we're tense not because the information is about a fictional good guy looking for a fictional killer, but rather about humans like ourselves, going through struggles we find intensely relatable, because we are not detectives or serial killers after all, but ordinary people, human beings who deeply and innately understand the crises portrayed onscreen. We sympathize with the characters as we do our friends, because the protagonists have been developed so fully. Why resort to such prosaic devices as villains and plots when there is so much of real life to explore?
Among cinema's best virtues is its potent ability to situate us in the life experience of someone else. Films help us empathize, and it's easiest to do so when the characters are as rounded and dimensional as the people we know in life. Such is the case here.
Farhadi's previous film, A Separation, and his latest are both about couples in the process of separating, but they go about that subject in very different ways. Both films end up being about dramatically more than that single subject, complex though it already is.
A Separation deals with the frustration of leaving your homeland because of what it's become, while focusing on the many sides of filial, cultural, and religious obligation. The wife in that film wishes for a divorce, that she might move outside Iran and offer a better life for her only daughter. The husband in The Past, on the other hand, has already abandoned his wife and her children in France, to return to his homeland of Iran. The characters in A Separation were on the brink of making big decisions; in The Past, the life-altering choices have already been made, and they must now deal with the messy aftermath.
Robert Altman once said, "people tell me all the time that they have seen my films, what they really mean is that they have seen them once." In the spirit of that quote, I must admit that I've seen these two pictures only once each, and that is not nearly enough to take in the complexities of all that is explored in each piece. A reader can easily imagine the many facets and directions the above scenarios contain; Farhadi dives into them with thoughtful rigor, directing all his energies to fully realizing the complexities of the contemporary condition. These two pictures remind us what actual life is like, and in their quality make so many other films seem stilted by comparison.
I will leave discussion of the film's substance to those better qualified. On a single viewing it feels too rich, too large to wrap my hands around. It carries with it the pleasant satisfaction of reading a novel you know you will have to revisit, because of its great depth and skill. With regards to content I will simply say that it contains multitudes. Bejo's performance is enough to move one to tears; Ali Mosaaffa disarms with his uncanny ability to appear effortlessly genuine; and Tahar Rahim once again stuns, nowhere else than in the film's last thirty seconds, which are as profoundly affecting as any scene I've seen this decade.
What I do feel qualified to discuss, however, are Farhadi's aesthetic choices. He moves forward from A Separation's muted, naturalistic color palette to something more vivid here. Greens abound in the midtones, and blacks are deeper; colors are still naturalistic, but they are allowed to bloom in ways they didn't before. Farhadi and regular collaborator Mahmoud Kalari position the camera as objective observer. Though most scenes are told from the perspective of a specific character, the camera doesn't always emphasize this, preferring to stay neutral in the battleground of family tensions. In like fashion, Farhadi avoids using any music until the end of the film, exactly as he did with A Separation.
His choices seem to be all about minimizing artifice, and letting the content speak for itself; he aims thus for an aesthetic that isn't flashy, but not banal either. The measured, precise editing and carefully considered mise-en-scene are too good to call this an actor-centric piece. Compositions emphasize observations of performance- unspoken thoughts on characters' faces, reactions during dialogue spoken by others. Natural light is used more heavily in The Past, to great effect. Farhadi continues his preoccupation with reflections, and there is a terrific steadicam tracking shot following Rahim off a train, onto a platform, out of the platform area and back into it as he searches for his son.
At the end of the day, though, this isn't a film strong on style. It astounds by virtue of the content's overwhelming ability to compel, and through its quietly devastating and carefully considered realities. There is great wisdom in the observations made in this picture.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese)
A look at the lifestyle of mid-90s stockbroker Jordan Belfort, from his perspective. Based on Belfort's Memoir. Trailer.
"...[T]here are more and more billionaires popping up every day, and you often wonder, 'Okay, what is their contribution to the world?' When are we going to take that crossroads where they actually have a concern for anyone except themselves? ... Because, to me, this attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that's wrong with the world we live in."
Okay. There's a lot I want to get off my chest about this one. Here goes:
When the dust settles, Martin Scorsese's Wolf will be remembered as the film of our time. The other films on this list may be more immediately satisfying or obviously brilliant, but Wolf challenges us with uncomfortable truths, and lays bare a hypocrisy most would wish to turn away from. The villain of the piece is not the protagonist, but the individuals in the last shot (which is discussed here)- a society that doesn't just choose to allow such monsters to exist, but who also wish to follow in their stead. The great horror of Wolf is that its entertainment and comedy are not at odds with its social indictment.
Scorsese's masterstroke here is what he chooses to leave out. From the opening moments, we're aware of a complete lack of any moral center. No mention of this absence is made, but as the film goes on, we're bombarded with a sensory overload of everything but that, and the longer this behemoth of a picture continues, the more conspicuous that absence is, until finally it's the only thing we're thinking about.
When, near the film's end, Belfort for the first time performs an action for someone other than him, the action is jarring and noticeable (and, ironically, what ends up landing him in custody). Scorsese has said that it would be too comforting to impose morality or judgment on the characters inside the film; doing so would suggest that the problem has been solved. It hasn't. It's up to the audience to awaken and impose those perceptions in life. This is a film about characters too far gone to understand the consequences or context of their actions.
In this manner, the conference in which Belfort and co. discuss the what's appropriate to do to hired midgets at a work party functions as the film's whole in a capsule: the characters are unaware of the absurdity of how they're thinking. Wolf is told from the perspective of the characters themselves, and as such it has no place to objectively comment on its portrayals. It's up to us to perceive that. Scorsese expects us to be intelligent. I would hope that any audience would be sharp enough to not have to be told how to evaluate the moral content of the stockbrokers' actions. Is it so important to judge? We can go further by trying to understand the headspace these characters live in, the contempt people in money culture have for others, and more firmly decide where we stand.
Those familiar with Scorsese's ouvre knows of his fascination with the downtrodden, the marginalized, the unscrupulous- what the rest of the world calls "bad guys." He casts his disciplined eye on these nefarious types with compassion. One of the great hallmarks of Scorsese is that his characters, like real human beings, do not experience radical transformations or grand character arcs. Like most people, his characters don't change. At the films' conclusions, they've hardly learned anything- but we certainly have, watching them and their behavior. Wolf takes this approach to a nigh-unwatchable extreme. There is no character in his filmography more selfish, or with less scruples. Wolf is the work of someone deeply dissatisfied with society, and who has something to say about it with urgency.
I don't wish to dwell too much on the manufactured "controversy" over the film; the picture speaks for itself. Most of the rumblings seem to be coming from those unfamiliar with Scorsese's approach to character, but even without that it should be a logical conclusion that a film about mysogynists needs to show mysogny. There's a difference between depicting an action and endorsing it. We are confronted with an attitude that is very wrong, and the lack of commentary or closure within the text of the film induces us all the more to take action, or at least reconsider our perspective, in life. We have to provide the closure.
Some cinema historians posit that in the history of film, portrayals of strong, independent women in film happen most often during eras of great gender inequality, and as conditions for women have improved, depictions of them in film have gotten lazier. There are enough examples that fit this trajectory to lend it some credence (ask any serious female actor which decades had the best roles!).
However, there are numerous exceptions to this general trend, and Wolf is among them. Who looks bad at the end of the picture? Unlike the men, who combust under the film's withering gaze, most of the female characters get away clean. They are not mere enablers, or defined only by their relationship to men- you'd be surprised how many films do exactly this, without going much further. Belfort's two wives are individuals who think for themselves, and use their own (very different) ways to keep the marriage afloat and ultimately take care of themselves. Scorsese seems interested by this dynamic: this is his third film about long, troubled marriages ruined by character flaws that were there all along.
At the end of the day, there are only three moral anchors in the picture: Belfort's first wife in the film's first act, Belfort's father (Rob Reiner) in the second act, and Kyle Chandler's FBI agent in the third. It is Chandler who gets the last laugh riding home on the F train, defiantly unswayed by Belfort's tempting life, "worth more than the whole damn bunch put together," to quote a similarly-themed work.
Rob Reiner is the lone voice of reason. Like Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, another story about characters who lose their souls without realizing it, the authorial moral stance on the film's characters is verbalized only once. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Scorsese expects us to be paying close attention. We have to supply the missing puzzle pieces.
No one's talking about the craftwork in this picture right now, probably because of how volatile the subject matter is. I can't help but put in a good word for Marty's below-the-line talent, however, which helps the film be the masterpiece that it is. Most controversial films (I'm excluding horror here) also happen to be incredibly well-made; if they weren't, well, they wouldn't be controversial. They'd just be bad. A Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers, The Wild Bunch, The Public Enemy, Last Temptation of Christ, Night of the Hunter, Blue Velvet, Antichrist, Birth of a Nation... don't tell me any one of these aren't astonishing aesthetic and technical achievements. Wolf is no different on that front.
As usual, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is aces, and the long months she and Marty put into every one of their films together always shows onscreen. Here, they take a different rhythm than their typical accelerated, high-density approach. While the pace is still rapid, shots roll for longer, to accommodate the improvisatorial mode of acting Scorsese and his actors opted for here. Shots last onscreen for no longer than they take to communicate the information their intended to offer, as per Scorsese's normal M.O., but many dialogue scenes are accomplished with less angles and simpler setups, allowing the improvisations to be captured.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of highly designed shot sequences, and Scorsese and Schoonmaker continue their habit of dispensing with the beginnings and ends of scenes in the final film. The film may be three hours, but it feels like four hours squeezed into three (and it is, interestingly; read this in-depth interview with Schoonmaker for lots more on the film and their working relationship).
Working with Scorsese for the first time is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's (Babel) regular cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, best identified by his high-grain images and love of rich, filmic colors. Though Scorsese had intended to shoot the film digitally, he and Prieto opted for film instead because of its superior ability to capture skin tones and general color nuance. Digital was reserved for low-light situations.
Early scenes in Wolf are deliberately flatter and reduced in depth of field, to suggest Belfort's lack of confidence and direction in those moments. Later on prime lenses are used and diffusion filters removed for more pristine clarity, and colors become more defined. Prieto pushes the negative a stop in some scenes for greater grain and contrast. Elsewhere he uses daylight film stock under tungsten-balanced flourescents for an amber hue.
When Belfort hits his stride in a big way, working in massive offices and commanding entire floors of stockbroker minions, Scorsese opts for "wide focal lengths, deep focus, white light, vibrant contrast and quick, defined camera moves.” Certain shots in the quaalude sequences were shot at 12fps and double-printed for a slow-shutter look.
These visual pyrotechnics are a pleasure to behold for photographers and non-photographers alike. One gets the sense of a carefully designed work, where all the tools of the craft are being harnessed to being communicate a lot of information. Rather than relying entirely on dialogue, Wolf, like so many other great films, maximizes the potential of the medium to overload us with information. There is so much thought put into the frame- the decision for the camera angle and composition, the aesthetic qualities of the image, the mise-en-scene, the performances (I'd write about how this is DiCaprio's best performance in an already great career, but I think that goes without saying), the music... watching great films sometimes reminds me of driving the bus. Both are a complete deluge of data, to be processed and considered, and enjoyed.