Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Bigelow)
So much controversy has surrounded the newest collaboration between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal that the film's cinematic qualities seem to have taken secondary importance, but this chronicle of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is masterfully directed and tightly constructed around what was, on a day to day basis, a mostly mundane affair. Bigelow's approach keeps the audience at a distance, avoids creating an emotional connection and gives a more or less journalistic account of the procedural, which is why I'm at a loss when it comes to the accusations that the film endorses torture. I think it's obvious that Zero Dark Thirty claims these "enhanced interrogation" techniques helped moved forward the investigation but in no way does it attempt to make a commentary one way or another.
Then again, I'm falling for the same trap here. Putting my opinions on the politics aside, this is an astonishing film. Anchored by an incredibly smart and sensitive performance by Jessica Chastain and a strong supporting cast, Bigelow's film is a grand exercise in building tension without embellishing the core with genre elements. The first half of the film can strike viewers as slow but the nature of the mission requires a faithful telling of the story to map out the process with such meticulous detail. Excepting certain sequences where the sprawling editing drags the narrative a bit and one sequence where excitement is meant to be heightened but is, in effect, only dampened because of the predictable outcome, Zero Dark Thirty is taut and riveting in the way it puts on the screen everything we already knew but were afraid to confront. And the final act of the film, where all the talk and scuffle culminates in the raid we know was coming all along, is a masterstroke of directing, the work of an extremely talented filmmaker at her very best. (A)
Anna Karenina (dir. Wright)
If I'm being honest, this film wasn't on the top of my 'to watch' list, partly because Leo Tolstoy's classic novel has been adapted quite a few times in the past and partly because Joe Wright's work has never completely resonated with me. Extremely divided reactions from TIFF didn't help boost my confidence either, but I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. This experimental re-imagining of the book has its flaws but is an audacious cinematic adventure, the likes of which I would treasure more than any faithfully adapted, but prosaic costume drama.
Anna Karenina's Achilles heel is Aaron Johnson, who's ineffective as the irresistible romantic lead and seems intimated by the actress he's supposed to have lusty chemistry with. The rest of the cast impress, particularly newcomer Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) and the always delightful Jude Law. But the real story is in the crafts departments -as one would expect of a film directed by Wright - where a small budget has led the production team to artfully create the entire space of the film within an old London theatre. Wright's cleverly edited film conceals this spatial limitation and instead diverts focus to the film's dynamism; the design not only conveys mood, but even progresses the narrative by utilizing every little carefully measured element. (Frequently, the interior atmosphere tells more about the characters than the actors do.) The energy with which Wright thrusts his audience into the environment of the film closes the gap that naturally appears between the spectator and conceptual works like this. What this adaptation lacks in transferring the book's heated emotions, it compensates for with ambition and conviction. This is a true passion project, one that can stir equally passionate response in anyone who gives in to the constructs of its world. (B+)
Rust & Bone (dir. Audiard)
Every year there's one film I leave inexplicably to the last minute despite my enthusiasm for everyone and everything involved. This year that film was Rust & Bone. But it was certainly worth the wait. Jacques Audiard's brute, bruising follow-up to A Prophet, is a moving story of two lovers under the strain of dealing with physical and emotional damage; one has to learn life without her legs, the other to take care of his son on his own. Audiard's unique brand of hyper-stylized naturalism is firing at us from all corners. He's teetering on the brink of genre cliches and forceful tugging at our heartstrings but there's no denying the emotional impact of this powerful film. And for any of those eye roll-worthy cliches he dabbles in, there's a potential pitfall he dodges as he takes the story in unexpected directions. The narrative isn't as condensed as some of his previous films and the themes are less prominently pronounced, but Rust & Bone is a film that thrives on its rhythmic beats.
Marion Cotillard's work is superb. Her performance is one of absolutely effortless skill. Without sentimentalizing a character that could have gone wrong is so many ways, she breaks our hearts with her reticent but heartfelt expressiveness. Matthias Schoenaarts is equally outstanding. Like in Bullhead, he's found another role where his hulking physique can both serve the character and distract from his characterization, but he handles that duality deftly. Their chemistry and their frank exploration of the harsh realities their characters face remains authentic even when the film hobbles off its path. Rust & Bone is a true actors' showpiece and also the only film to comfortably and unashamedly make the audience cry to Katy Perry's Firework. (B+)