Writer/director Kelly Reichardt sees something extraordinary in the simple daily struggle of ordinary people. Her latest film, Certain Women, again observes with genuine interest the (mostly) routine choices and sacrifices that quietly shape lives.
Weaving together three separate tales, each with just a whisper of a connection to the next, she tells of the isolation and disappointments coloring the lives of certain small town women.
Laura Dern stands out, exasperated but compassionate, as a rural Montana lawyer contending with a confused and obstinate client (Jared Harris, wonderful). Their story crescendos with uncharacteristic (for Reichardt) drama, but even here, the intimacy and understatement highlight something far more human than the tale itself predicts.
Reichardt regular Michelle Williams leads the second story, one full of understated moments echoing with regret and longing. The third, starring Kristen Stewart as a new lawyer teaching a class and Lily Gladstone as the desperately lonely ranch hand she befriends, is the most hushed and heartbreaking.
Stewart, who’s been so strong in recent roles (Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, Equals), falls back a bit on her trademark angst, but Gladstone’s aching loneliness balances it out.
It isn’t simply the characters, beautifully wrought as they are, that carry these loosely braided tales. Reichardt’s eloquently captured Montana landscape, lovely but hard, both informs and reflects each of the leads.
She’s working again with regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and together they let the rugged landscape speak as loudly, or as quietly, as the cast.
Few filmmakers – if any – can create such texture in a film. Reichardt rushes nothing, letting every scene breathe, every performance matter. There’s no shorthand here, and viewers thirsting for clear-cut drama and momentum may be uncomfortable with her choices. But those familiar with her work – Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), in particular – will embrace the quiet intimacy of the portraits.
Sunday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. We thought we’d celebrate by perusing the very best horror directed by women. It’s a much stronger list than many people realize and it includes two of the finest genre works of last year.
5. Near Dark (1987)
Back in ’87, future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow brought a new take on a familiar theme to the screen. A mixture of vampire and western tropes, Near Dark succeeds mostly on the charisma of the cast. The always welcome Lance Henricksen is campy fun as the badass leader of a vampire family, while the beguiling Mae (Jenny Wright) – nomadic white trash vampire beauty – draws you in with a performance that’s vulnerable and slightly menacing.
The most fun, though, is Bill Paxton as the truest psychopath among the group looking to initiate a new member. All the film’s minor flaws are forgotten when you can watch an unhinged Paxton terrorize a barful of rednecks. Woo hoo!
4. American Mary (2012)
A masterful Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.
Writer/director/twins Jen and Sylvia Soska offer a screenplay that is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.
3. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.
Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).
Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.
2. The Babadook (2014)
You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.
Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman.
The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.
1. American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.
There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.
Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well it does because of the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane and yet somehow empathetic. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.
Of the many excellent trends in movie houses this year, our favorite was the focus on female directors. Here we celebrate our favorite films of 2014 helmed by women.
Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut. It opens in Columbus on January 9. Do not miss it.
The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer. It also marks first time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent as an artist to watch.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature – also Iran’s very first vampire film -is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.
Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with this one. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.
Belle: Amma Asante’s directorial breakout is the fact-based tale of a bi-racial girl raised by her aristocratic grandparents in 18th Century England. Well told and perfectly cast, with the always flawless Tom Wilkinson playing the family patriarch and a wondrous turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead, the film draws parallels you never knew existed between past and present.
Beyond the Lights: Mbatha-Raw impresses again with help from another female behind the camera in this cautionary tale about fame by Gina Prince-Bythewood. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.
Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s second effort behind the camera tells the truly amazing story of an Olympic runner turned WWII POW. Her attention to detail benefits the historical epic, and another strong turn by Jack O’Connell keeps your attention.