I love this time of year, frantically trying to catch up on past films from 2010, seeing the unveiling of numerous 'best of' lists and taking in the prominent December releases.
Claire Denis has always been a tactile filmmaker… relying on mood and fractured images that shift between interior psychology and external demands (I.e. lust, fear or sexual dominance). “White Material” is nothing different, a political film that never feels political and one that charts her predilection for slow-burn devastation with stunning ease. Starring Isabelle Huppert as one of the last remaining white people in a suddenly changing Northern Africa run amok with machete-wielding children and no workers for her coffee bean plantation, Denis spins a sunburned nightmare that constantly evokes the vestiges of a great thriller without ever really thrilling. While there a couple of seemingly impossible character arcs presented involving her son (Nicholas Duvauchelle), Huppert amazingly holds the screen. Roaming around the frenetic edges as their white-bred world comes crashing down around them is also Christopher Lambert as the enigmatic husband and Isaach de Bankole as a rebel leader. Not completely as successful as Denis’ “The Intruder” or “Trouble Every Day”, “White Material” is still an intelligent rendering of a story that’s been told numerous times.
Buoying his camera around the neck of James Franco like he’s a fellow frat boy along for the ride, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” would make for a solid double feature with Rodrigo Cortez’s “Buried” in the pantheon of claustrophobia cinema. And like “Buried”, “127 Hours” finds unique and moving ways to open up the stalled narrative device of a man stuck in the gut of a canyon with a boulder over his hand. Flashing back on his life, first love and even flash-forwarding into the future, “127 Hours” is a kinetic experience. Franco, whose already received some Oscar buzz not least because he’s hosting, deserves a nomination as Aron Ralston, the adventure-seeker who went to extraordinary lengths to free himself from a very serious predicament. As with Huppert above, Franco owns every single frame of “127 Hours”, and when the finale does occur, it’s an explosive, cathartic moment of filmmaking that wipes over you in waves.
The Next Three Days
Marketing and advertising be damned! If it weren’t for a few good words from friends about Paul Haggis’ new film “The Next Three Days”, I would have easily dismissed it as diminutive genre fare. Instead, it’s a taut, thoughtful picture that seduces a wonderful performance from Russell Crowe as the man struggling with his moral compass to break out his murder-accused wife (Elizabeth Banks) from prison. Haggis, with the exception of his debut film “Crash” that bluntly beat one over the head with stereotypes and West Coast liberalism, has crafted some great movies about complex subjects. In “The Next Three Days”, he scales back the preaching and focuses on the endless preparation of Crowe to mastermind an elaborate escape plan. Smart in all the right places and edited with razor sharp precision when the chase begins, every character is given depth, from the police detectives trying to piece together the puzzle to the flirtatious playground mom (Olivia Wilde). “The Next Three Days” also plays with compassion and identification, endlessly shifting one’s loyalty from cop to desperate family on the run without pulling at the emotions. It’s all very well done and with a deeply felt ambiguous ending.
I can’t shake Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” out of my head. Like “The Red Shoes” on acid, Aronofsky’s latest is a terror psychodrama that plays like a propulsive fever dream. Natalie Portman is terrific as the dancer who succumbs to the pressures of being a leading lady and Aronofsky (much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) never falters from having his camera perched just over the shoulders of his star as she marches through reality and unreality. Sound design has always been a staple of Aronofsky films, but he takes it to a new level here in “Black Swan”, echoing laughter in odd places and firmly subverting our own perceptions of what is real and what is not. An outright masterpiece.