Writers: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi, Bahareh Azimi
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Ramin Bahrani is one of the best and most consistent of the new generation of American writer-directors who has a clear and precise filmmaking style and a consistent narrative vision of the ‘real’ America. By this is meant that he has a deep understanding of, and empathy with, America’s immigrants and outsiders. He is unique in sustaining what used to be called a committed cinema. His new film, 99 Homes is no exception. Different in tone than his previous excellent film, Goodbye Solo (2008), it is a hard-hitting and well-researched examination of the vagaries, cruelties, exploitations and de-humanisation of the home repossession ‘business’ in the US today.
This piercing and eye-opening film largely eschews sentimentality but rather poses tough moral questions whose ambivalences are left open for audiences to ponder. Bahrani has marshalled a strong cast of better known actors – presumably budgets have risen – while steadfastly maintaining his independence and integrity. The direct cinema approach to filming and the use of very real location shooting positions the narrative and film squarely in the world of docu-drama and faction cinema, and is all the more authoritative for that.
Behind in his mortgage payments, construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) finds himself and his dependents, son Connor (Noah Lomax) and single mother Lynn Nash (Laura Dern), being unexpectedly and forcefully evicted from their family home by the brutal and cold methods of Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) a property acquisitions and repo man who is one of the few taking full advantage of the market meltdown. Desperate to save the family home and provide a roof over their heads, Nash has few options and must reluctantly and bitterly accept a go-fer job from Carver, which leads him into a dark and shady world of questionable tactics and moral ambiguity.
Extremely well-written (by Bahrani, Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi) and directed, what sounds in this brief synopsis like a stock premise is in fact a challenging and not-to-be-missed film that is absolutely on the mark and as timely as a newscast. Ramin Bahrani continues on his successful journey as a purveyor of excellent and challenging films for the thinking audience.
Cast: Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan
Children in peril and dysfunctional families were a running thread throughout Film4 FrightFest this year, and like another heavyweight of the festival, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, John McNaughton’s The Harvest involved monstrous motherly love, self-reliant children and dark secrets in the basement. After a 13-year absence from big screens, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proves here that he remains a master at plumbing the depths of twisted human behaviour.
A fairy tale of sorts (McNaughton said in the Q&A afterwards that the film’s structure was loosely based on ‘Hansel and Gretel’), The Harvest centres on a doctor, Katherine (Samantha Morton), overprotective mother to a sick child (Charlie Tahan), for whom she obsessively cares with her husband and former nurse Richard (Michael Shannon) in a country house. But when Maryann (Natasha Calis), a recently orphaned girl, moves into the area and befriends the wheelchair-bound Andy, she dangerously upsets the fragile balance of the family and forces its secrets out.
Samantha Morton is extraordinary as the woman turned ogress by hurt, alternately tender and terrifying, while Michael Shannon is remarkably nuanced as the weak husband complicit in his wife’s terrible decisions. Together they form a horribly believable couple bound by tragedy and guilt, capable of anything to protect their family, with only Maryann standing up to them.
The story assuredly simmers until the pace quickens and the tale turns increasingly disturbing. McNaughton skilfully toys with the audience, leading us in one direction before making a sharp turn into entirely unexpected territory, revealing a truth far darker and a love more perverted than could have been imagined.
Set among beautiful autumnal woods, the film, like its title, gives a deceptive appearance of bucolic melancholy, only belatedly revealing its full horror. A slow-burn that stubbornly follows its own path, it is an impressively mature and weighty return to cinema for John McNaughton.
Based on the book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by: Anthony Brun
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta
A hulk of a man with a soft spot for sadistic murder, Polish-born American Richard Kuklinski gained fame in the mid-1980s as the The Iceman, a highly professional Mafia hit man who is alleged to have ruthlessly killed more than 100 men (sparing women and children by rule), while living a sham life as a banker and devoted Catholic family man, with a wife and two loving daughters, in suburban New Jersey. History suggests he received his nickname for hiding a body in an ice-cream-truck freezer, but watching Arial Vromen’s chilly thriller about the notorious contract killer, that only vaguely hints at the subtle ingenuity with which Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) dispatched his numerous victims for the mob over the course of more than a decade.
Plotted and paced as a character study rather than a full-blown action movie, the film starts with Richie as a well-mannered, if somewhat unwieldy, young man out on a date with the girl (Winona Ryder) destined to become the love of his life. He clearly has the physical strength to kill, but a romantic at heart, he manages to pull off his stone-faced charm in his favour. However, soon after a short period of conjugal bliss, Richie’s focus begins to shift dramatically as he becomes involved with troubled local mob boss Roy (Ray Liotta), who gives him the opportunity to make full use of his vicious, barbaric potential.
On paper, this may sound like a solid enough premise to make for an enjoyable ride. The performances are strong throughout, in particular Ray Liotta, but also Ryder as Kuklinski’s trusting wife, who didn’t have a clue what her caring, if increasingly abusive, husband was up to when he left home every day. But even a strong cast lead by an outstanding actor such as Shannon (Take Shelter) can’t diminish the feeling that there is something wrong with Vromen’s film from the outset. And this doesn’t necessarily apply only to the standard criminal biopic plot, which feels a little clumsy and heavy-handed in places. What ultimately makes The Iceman a rather underwhelming experience is the over-stylised period look, which tries too hard to re-vive the cool grittiness, low-tech feel and cliché of the classic American gangster and crime movies that ruled the 1970s, while throwing in a touch of film noir and some explicit violence for good measure. However, instead of daring to move further into darker and more mysterious horror territory, Vroman seems more interested in exploring the tragic duality of Kuklinski’s life as the proud, loving family man who killed for fun, for money, to cover up his own crimes, and to satisfy his inner rage. Yet, the calculated, episodic structure Vroman applies to ratchet up this high body count doesn’t quite keep up enough narrative momentum to carry the audience along.
In the end, The Iceman seems like a missed opportunity, as Shannon’s authority as the lead is undeniably tantalising. His performance is finely tuned and powerful as ever, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character. Kuklinski, it seems, was a man as much at war with himself as with the world that surrounded him, and Shannon, with his unnerving charisma and emotionless, beady eyes, resembles that intelligent, cruel, animal energy required to maintain a two-fisted façade that never revealed the true killer inside, until his arrest in 1986.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
The latest film from Jeff Nichols tells the tale of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two poor 14-year-old Arkansas kids whose attempt to claim a boat stranded high up in the branches of a tree by floodwaters brings them into contact with Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a strange, charismatic drifter, who has taken the vessel to use as his base of operations. He is apparently back in town to rescue the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), from some nameless trouble, and the boys are quickly drawn deeper and deeper into his schemes, unaware of how much danger they are putting themselves in, never asking themselves who Mud is hiding from, and why.
Mud clearly sets out from frame one to run along well-worn tracks – it’s like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn meets Whistle down the Wind (1961). Ellis (and this is mainly Tye Sheridan’s film) is a boy of unusual determination, who is appalled that his parents are about to break up and that the boat they live upon is going to be demolished by the river authority. He seems to seize upon Mud’s mission to prove something to himself about love and life. Mud himself is a semi-mystical character, a full grown child of nature with his own set of rituals and talismans, a romantic, not quite living in the real world. Much of the surrounding cast are a series of fathers and father-figures (Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker) offering alternative models and down-home wisdom on women and the messy business of being a man.
The trouble is that having masterfully set up all this classic Americana rites of passage stuff, Nichols simply doesn’t follow through with it. I was continually expecting the creator of Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) to get a little darker or weirder, to defy my expectations. But although there are areas of ambiguity (mainly centred around Juniper, a kind of white-trash femme fatale, mortified by her ability to cause misery), in the end, hard life lessons are learned, shady characters come good, the bad guys are confronted and all is resolved. So in the end, it’s just too… straightforward.
It’s still a quality piece of filmmaking, the photography is fluid, unflashy and pretty damn gorgeous, with a wide palate of mood and light. You can feel the heat and humidity, the stifling small town boredom. All the details seem right, the bootleg Fugazi t-shirt, the cans of Beanie Weenies bought from the Piggly Wiggly. And that great cast is pretty much faultless. I couldn’t help wondering, though, how the film would have played with Nichols-regular Shannon in the lead instead of McConaughey (who’s at his best, as far as I’m concerned, playing outright bastards) and whether, in that case, we’d have something a little more troubled, unsettling and notable. Ah well…
Electric Sheep writers review the best films of 2011.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
Take Shelter is Michael Shannon‘s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols since the director’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly loses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism. Pamela Jahn
Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 2010)
Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Vincent Gallo is an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, taken prisoner and flown to an alien country; confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, he becomes increasingly animal-like. Despite the initial, politically charged prison scenes, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his astonishing emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed. Virginie Sélavy
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)
Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical. Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naí¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band). There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors. Sarah Cronin
Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)
This third feature film from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. Larraín’s stylistic restraint in Post Mortem is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario (Alfredo Castro), who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring. The only criticism of Larraín’s confident and brutal minimalism might be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh. Frances Morgan
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Released in the UK in January after a striking festival run in 2010, Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan remained one of the most exciting films to come out this year. A dizzying, intoxicating dark tale of passion, obsession and jealousy, the film follows young ballet dancer Nina (Nathalie Portman) who becomes dangerously caught up in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina performs a technically perfect White Swan but consistently fails to deliver an equally convincing Black Swan breathing sex appeal and malevolence. Pushed by her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her narcissistic former dancer mother and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new arrival in the company and potential rival, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act. Blurring the line between the supernatural and the psychological with touches of horror, Aronofsky pulls off some astonishing visual twists in a glorious melodrama that might bring nothing new to the table but certainly makes for a thrilling ride. Pamela Jahn
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures. Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. Ultimately, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema. Julian Ross
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Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
A dysfunctional upper-class family gathered for the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies. The film’s take on the End Times is in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Opinions on whether the classy cast succeed in transcending some of the plot’s holes and clunky dialogue will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression. Frances Morgan
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost his whole career. His approach is that of a man following his own obsessions, his own line of thought. He is the opposite of the parochial, petit bourgeois smugness of a Michael Palin, who doesn’t seem happy unless comparing Timbuktu/an Afghanistan opium market/a Vietnamese wedding to Saturday afternoon on Clapham High Street. Having said that, Herzog’s The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) does have a Palinesque fascination with the foreign only in so much as it reflects on the normal. Of late, Herzog has sought out obsession obsessively: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are all brilliant in their portrayals of a mad engagement with the world to match Herzog’s own. Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes a similar cast of oddball scientist - Herzog can barely contain his delight on hearing one of the scientist was a circus performer - but it is the place, a unique archaeological site containing the oldest cave art, that is the star. Despite his fun with the scientists (openly scoffing at one boffin’s inability to throw a spear), Herzog is seriously fascinated with the paintings, and his breathless enthusiasm and the patient unveiling of the cave’s wonders create a hypnotic meditation on life and art. The time scales are enormous, tens of thousands of years, and yet, despite this, Herzog manages to convey a sense of both humanity and continuity, arguing persuasively that his own activity as a filmmaker is analogous to the cave painters’ art, crooked little fingers and all. John Bleasdale
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
This intriguing social drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi attracted many awards this year, including Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for its ensemble cast. Powerful, convincing performances are essential to the film’s dramatic tension, which starts with middle-class couple Nader and Simin arguing over a divorce. Marital discord is just the beginning. When Simin moves out, Nader needs someone to look after his elderly father. He hires Razieh, a woman from a poor family, and before long, they are making grave mutual accusations of theft, violence and neglect. The film’s surprising shifts in perspective make for a thoroughly engaging experience. Each character has his or her own version of events, but as a spectator you believe that you have a fairly clear sense of what really happened. This impression of omniscience falls apart as the film gradually reveals facts that the characters would prefer to keep secret. A Separation is also notable for its portrait of contemporary Iran: while highlighting stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between bourgeois and proletarian families, the film shows that both groups are vulnerable to the country’s arbitrary judicial system. Alison Frank
Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
If there was an award for the best opening sequence it would unarguably go to Tetsuya Nakashima for the mesmerising, if not comfortable, first-act monologue in which teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her unruly class on the last day of term that she won’t be returning after the holidays as she believes that the murderers of her four-year-old daughter - whom she refers to as student A and student B - are in the room and that she, knowing that the law won’t help her, has subtly and unobtrusively taken revenge. Adapted from the debut novel by Kanae Minato, Nakashima’s refined, bleakly ironic, yet deeply unsettling thriller is more than just another coming-of-age schoolyard bullying horror tale about the troubled Japanese youth. With wonderfully natural performances and remaining faithful to a script that plays with deft pacing while keeping a perfect balance between hypnotic tension and surprising plot twists, Confessions is an unexpected emotional tour de force that keeps you petrified in your seat from the very moment teacher Yuko begins her lesson in revenge. Pamela Jahn
Red White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news. Unflinchingly gruesome in parts, yet sensitively, elliptically, edited, Red White & Blue has fully rounded characters who, although capable of the most terrible acts, are neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Director Simon Rumley has crafted an original take on the serial killer genre that flirts with horror but subverts the rules to create a deeply affecting twisted romance. Virginie Sélavy
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino,2010)
On paper, a virtually dialogue-free art-house movie set in and around a mountain village in Italy, which unfolds at a snail’s pace and focuses on an elderly, dying goat shepherd, a lost kid and a fir tree, might sound like one to avoid for all but the hardiest of cineastes. For my money though, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s finest movies, charming, delicate and subtly transcendent. Frammartino’s visually poetic docu-essay, advertised by perhaps the year’s most beguiling promo poster - a memorable image of a goat on a table - seduces the viewer with its gently undulating rhythm, flashes of slapstick humour and understated approach to its dominant themes; the cycle of life, inter-connectedness, rituals, communities and time. Frammartino tackles these weighty and complex concerns in a deftly simplistic manner that exudes a quietly reverential understanding of the symbiotic nature between humankind and the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. The relentless cycle of death and rebirth, collapse and rejuvenation, is poignantly threaded throughout Le Quattro Volte, from the shepherd’s death, via the kid’s separation from the herd to the preparation of the charcoal after the fir tree is felled. A contemplative, yet accessible examination of ‘big’ ideas. Neil Mitchell
Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)
This quiet little film is about a mother and her baby who get picked up and driven in a truck the 1,5000 miles from Asuncií³n, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Filmed mostly in the constricted space of the cab of the truck, these two strangers lives slowly open up. It is a spare, affecting and exemplary model of slow cinema and proves that layers of non-diegetic (or indeed diegetic) sound need not be employed to aid the viewer in ‘getting’ the story. The film won best new director and film awards at Cannes, Oslo, Mumbai, San Sebastian and London FF. Patience will pay off with this one. James B. Evans
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