I Wish is an absolute delight. It tells the story of two young brothers whose parents have split up; the mother took the elder brother to live with her parents, leaving the father and younger brother behind. The split was acrimonious, and so the boys must communicate by phone, in secret. The mother’s family live in a town across the water from an active volcano; its looming presence fills the sky and ash falls more or less all the time, coating the town in a dull film that has to be constantly cleaned up. It’s a state of depressed limbo that reflects the lives of the family; things are unresolved. The film centres around the elder boy’s desire to bring the family back together; he decides that if the volcano exploded it would resolve things once and for all by forcing an evacuation of his town, and his parents to reunite. He ends up leading an expedition of children, each bringing a desire of their own, on a quest to reach a magic place where two Shinkansen trains will pass each other for the first time, which the kids believe will create enough energy to make wishes come true.
Kore-eda is a master of tone, and this is one of his subtler, sweeter films, like Still Walking; it doesn’t have the deep, intense sadness of, say, Nobody Knows. That isn’t a criticism; the film is note-perfect all the way through. The emotional content is lighter and more delicate, but it’s honest and says something true about growing up, without being sentimental. There’s a magical sense that we’re getting a real glimpse into the strange world of childhood. Kore-eda always coaxes extraordinary performances from child actors, and this film is no exception. The kids are fantastic, especially the brothers. There’s sweet little Ryu, always smiling, always doing the chores his rather dopey musician dad is too bohemian to notice, and sombre Koichi, diligently sweeping ash and helping his grandfather make cassava cake. But every character is beautifully drawn; each relationship, no matter how small a part it plays in the plot, is portrayed with real heart. Without doubt, this will be one of the very best films of the festival. — Yasmeen Khan
Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2011)
Lanthimos’s breakthrough 2009 feature Dogtooth may have seemed at the time like a surprising inclusion on the foreign film shortlist for this year’s Oscars – being chilly and confrontational in a context where the norm is the middlebrow crowdpleaser. But in comparison with Alps, Dogtooth looks almost machine-tooled for crossover success; its plausible high-concept setup and blackly comic set pieces a model of accessibility next to the dizzying, hallucinatory narrative swamp that Alps drops the viewer straight into, with plausibility barely even given lip service.
The Alps are a secret organisation who provide an unusual service to the recently bereaved: for a fee, they will “substitute” for the dead – dress like them, behave like them, parrot lines they’re given so they sound like them. The purported rationale for this is that it will help the bereaved get over their loss. But that’s not an idea the film take seriously for a moment, instead using the idea as a springboard for a series of cryptic riffs on identity, impersonation and performance – concepts that Lanthimos aggressively collapses into one another, calling into question whether the non-substituted relationships and even the internal senses of self of the characters in the narrative are any less performative or artificial than the substitutions. In addition, as in this year’s Attenberg (directed by Alps and Dogtooth producer Athina Rachel Tsangari, and starring Lanthimos and Ariane Labed, who also appears here) and Lanthimos’s second film Kinetta, there’s an emphasis on the body as the axis around which all these confusions pivot – these are films full of diegetic physical performance as phenomenological exploration, whether it’s the Labed character’s rhythmic gymnastics routines in Alps, the recreations of violent incidents in Kinetta, the narratively unmotivated glimpses of dance in Attenberg, or the sexual roleplays that eventually define almost every substitution job in Alps.
What’s it all about? Dogtooth lent itself readily to a reading related to the way power constantly works to redefine the society it controls – through everything from metaphysics to language. My first instinct is that the concerns of Alps are similar, but that the characters here are oppressed less by external power structures (although there is plenty of casual brutality in the world of Alps, naturally mainly directed at women) than by a deranged sense of self. There’s a character in Alps (played by the excellent Aggeliki Papoulia, also in Dogtooth) who has a nervous breakdown that felt to me like something out of Ballard: her sense of her person as the boundary between her inner space and the outer social space disintegrates. She doesn’t know who she is any more, and she doesn’t know (and nor do we) if that’s even the right question. — Indy Datta
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2011)
Two seconds of The Loneliest Planet change absolutely everything. Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a young engaged couple lazily hiking through Georgia, hopelessly wrapped up in each other while they take in their breathtaking surroundings. Then SOMETHING HAPPENS which rocks both of them to their very core and they spend the rest of the film desperately trying to work through their emotional response. To give away what happens in that central incident would spoil the whole film – suffice to say the impact that it has is absolutely massive and it will almost certainly be one of the very best moments in any film at this year’s festival.
Director Julia Loktev is interested in non-verbal communication and how people process major upheavals in their life as they happen. She charts the emotional terrain of her two protagonists as ably as she captures the breathtaking panoramas of Georgia , creating an intensely intimate and personal film set against an epic, overpowering backdrop. Many scenes consist of the characters doing nothing but walking across these vast landscapes, all the real activity happening internally.
It could probably stand to be a little shorter – a huge part of the film’s aesthetic is an attempt capturing the monotony of travel, and the stark, lonely beauty of the wilderness, but I’m convinced that this could still have been achieved if fifteen minutes had been cut. Overall, though, The Loneliest Planet marks Loktev out as a director to watch. The way she visually captures the distance between the two characters is often subtle and striking, and the way she uses sound and colour is at times extraordinary. — Adam Howard
Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
Steve McQueen’s Shame is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, a brutal and unflinching drama about a man, a city and an era. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a well-paid New Yorker who lives alone, punctuating his days with a myriad of sexual encounters, be they online, masturbation, one-night stands or bought and paid for. His routine is shaken when his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives.
Their shared history is hinted at, but never explained, and McQueen keeps us at a distance from his characters – a decision that reflects the distance they can’t (or won’t) bridge themselves. Both leads give flawless performances, Mulligan – playing further against type than Fassbender – may be drawing less praise just because of the superb body of work that Fassbender has accumulated in such a short time since his breakthrough performance in McQueen’s debut Hunger.
McQueen’s direction bears the confidence of a director at the very top of his game. The camera work is superb: with particular emphasis on fantastic tracking shots like the one that sweeps through the city as Brandon runs through it at night. In an era when great city-specific films are becoming rarer, Shame is a fantastic New York film. It doesn’t shy away from the seediness of the characters’ lives, or the scarcity of their happiness, yet this is a city that could compel you to stay, it is a shimmering, beautiful place, where the ugliness is provided by humanity.
McQueen’s use of music is extraordinary – an early scene set on a subway features one of the most outstanding uses of a soundtrack for a long time. If you expect Shame to be psychological examination of sex-addiction and suicidal behaviour, you may be disappointed: this isn’t that film. What it is, though, is an invigorating, visceral experience. — “Ron Swanson”
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
157 minutes well spent. A group of policemen, soldiers, a prosecutor, two suspects, and a doctor (who slowly emerges as the main character) drive through the Anatolian night looking for a buried body. Towards dawn they stop in a village, where the mayor offers the whole party hospitality, equally given regardless of each man’s role in the group. This is a film about men and the tiny shifts in power between them. The women appear only fleetingly and in the background: nagging on the end of the phone, providing food or waiting for news of a dead husband. The only exception to this is the mayor’s beautiful young daughter who, unaware of her own loveliness, touches the inner lives of the men in a totally unconscious way. Her counterpoint is the young widow, possibly the cause of the argument between her husband and his killers, whose wantonness is suggested quietly by the red of her headscarf, and her chunky heeled shoes. With beautiful panoramic photography, the minute shifts in the relationships between the men giving glimpses into their interior lives, this is like seeing a novel transferred onto the big screen. — Susan Patterson
Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)
Moverman’s second feature deals with a subject much beloved by film and TV – corruption in the LAPD. Woody Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a veteran cop in its Rampart Division who continues to play by the old rules (beating up suspects, stealing evidence) while the world is changing around him. The film is the story of his refusal to accept that his style of policing can no longer be tolerated by public opinion – and therefore by his bosses – and how this intransigence leads him to self-destruction in all aspects of his life. It’s a fictionalisation of the aftermath of the real-life Rampart Scandal, in which many officers in the division were implicated in massive corruption and widespread misconduct in the late 1990s. Dave Brown, although applauded for his actions by his fellow cops, is singled out by his superiors for censure, and becomes increasingly paranoid that he’s being set up as a scapegoat. Reportedly, the production faced opposition in LA; it’s still a sensitive subject.
Moverman took over and developed James Ellroy’s original screenplay, and the film seems strongly ill at ease with the resulting clash of visions. The most glaring example is Brown’s unconventional home life, which Ellroy wrote. Brown lives with a pair of sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and has a daughter with each of them. This quasi-Mormon setup has no bearing on the plot – apart from the elder daughter, none of the family have much to do except be disappointed in Brown. And that’s the trouble. Neither do we. Brown won’t change, so nothing else does. The film is intensely stylised, doing a myriad of ‘clever’ things with camera and editing. Unfortunately, most of these things aren’t just unnecessary but actively annoying. Glaring sunlight just obscures; the camera whirling round a meeting table in nauseous arcs is probably meant to convey something about the state of tension in the room, but does nothing except distract from it.
The middle-aged white male with an anger-management problem is a peculiar trope in cinema. For some reason he’s considered worthy of endless study and indulgence; his transgressions are lovingly detailed and excused. Rampart isn’t about police corruption, it’s about the racism, alcohol abuse, violence and womanising of a cipher. He’s familiar from countless other films that privilege and fetishise the empty aesthetics of personal crises of masculinity – the cigarettes, the sunglasses, the oily slosh of whisky in shot glasses, the seedy sex – far and above anything of substance. Moverman may be trying to provoke disgust at corruption, but there’s nothing here that examines the context; it just leaves a portrait of a fascist whose ideology largely goes unchallenged. And it’s boring. Rampart is a terrible film. It does almost everything wrong. Its only real achievement is the ickiest sex scene you’ll see all year. — Yasmeen Khan
Adam Howard (@afahoward) blogs at The Blank Projector.