5. Child’s Pose, dir. Călin Peter Netzer
Movie moms are the easiest to render, easier than garrulous sidekicks who get killed in buddy movies. The trick is to direct and act them so that they don’t turn into gargoyles. Child’s Pose flirts with gargoyle poses but its devotion to the procedural mechanics of the new Romanian cinema wipes the snarls from their faces. With functional dialogue and improvisatory air, Child’s Pose has the same inexorable pace as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in both of which Gheorghiu also played crucial roles. It also has less of a point to prove, which makes for more satisfying watching; critics aren’t conscripted by the material to pontificate about “life in post-Communist Romania” or something. But from the argument over the clean needle or a later scene of Cornelia counting cash at her dinner table, Netzer’s fascination with process and bureaucracy is of a piece with its forebears of the last ten years.
4. Abuse of Weakness, dir. Catherine Breillat.
That least sentimental of actresses Isabelle Huppert plays a director whose left side is paralyzed by stroke. During casting sessions she meets Vilko, released from prison after serving time for check fraud. Do his graceful movements arouse her? Or do comments like “My master is Nietzsche”? Before long she is writing him check after check; in return he serves as dinner companion, occasional crutch, and object of derision. They even share a bed, sexlessly. It’s during these moments when Huppert and Shen act like snapping turtles that Abuse of Weakness turns into one of the odder movies of 2014. Lit in refrigerator white tones, it imposes the sterility of a sick room. It’s as if Maud’s using herself as a test model for a theory about relationships.
3. Norte, The End of History, dir. Lav Diaz.
This Filipino take on Dostoyevsky is many things: a patient movie about full-of-shit young intellectuals gabbing and gabbing; a prison picture that unfolds like it understands the master-servant power dynamics therein; a social realist picture about belonging to the working poor, no hope, no recourse. It’s four hours long. I wanted eight or ten.
2. The Immigrant, dir. James Gray.
If in Little Odessa and We Own The Night James Gray demonstrated he understood how ethnic politics complicate family relationships such that affection looks like wine on Sunday, The Immigrant‘s alertness to smells and looks and the degree to which actions muddy preconceptions about people represents a new peak. The late Gordon Willis could not have asked for a more nuanced appreciation than Darius Khondji’s grainy and blue- and gold-hued compositions (a fade to darkness as the sissy boy stretches a tentative hand towards a recoiling Ewa is a blemish). There are scenes so well-staged and resonant that they could serve as drafts for a next set of films about New York in the twenties: scenes with the middle-class men at the speakeasy; the Russian woman, Rosie, who runs the Bandit’s Roost; the tough but surprisingly fair police who work at Ellis Island, even the ones on the take; the casual racism of the others. Twice while watching The Immigrant I wondered what the hell it was about, what the hell I was watching; devoting space here to synopsis is an attempt to clarify what I saw. The currents of loathing, pity, and gratitude flowing between Phoenix and Cotillard were like nothing I’d seen in ages, the kind of ineluctable pulses that mirror the batshit patterns of our own lives. Even noting the melodramatics of the Jeremy Renner subplot doesn’t account for his warmth and Cotillard’s response to it; he’s like Robert Walker in The Clock, carried aloft on his own sensuousness.
1. Stranger by the Lake, dir. Alain Guiraudie.
To remind the audience that Stranger By the Lake is a movie about movement, Alain Guiraudie makes every crunch of sneaker on gravel resounds like a cathedral bell; we haven’t heard a sound mix in a French film this loud since Robert Bresson’s L’Argent. The other obvious forebear is Jean Renoir’s great short A Day in the Country (1936), in which two women get seduced by weather so delectable that it’s more irresistible than the two peasants who seduce them. As part of Guiraudie’s attempt at an erotic democracy for gay men of every weight and color, Stranger By the Lake shoves buttholes and scrota in viewer’s faces. It’s a murder mystery, a masterful exercise in showing the ties between love and death. When it opened more than a year ago, I knew I’d love it another year.