Every thirty days, I like to post a list of my favorite films I’ve recently watched. Here are the best films I’ve seen throughout the month of September. This list is based on movies theatrically released here in Canada, and I do not include what I have seen at film festivals.
1: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Screenplay by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors working on the international scene, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia might just be his best movie to date. This being his sixth feature, it won the Grand Prize at Cannes last year and as since received critical acclaim around the world.
In this metaphysical quasi-police procedural, a group of men (including a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murder suspect) drive out in the middle of the night through the Anatolian countryside, in search of a corpse. The mystery isn’t who the killer is but instead where the body was buried since the suspect, who claims he was drunk, can’t remember where he left his victim. The drama unfolds mostly offscreen but Anatolia is overflowing with deception, betrayal and violence from the start. Nothing is what it seems; when the body is found, the real questions begin to creep up.
Anatolia is a non traditional, unique and refreshing crime investigation, that is at times darkly funny, subtle and always gorgeous to look at. Cinematographer, Gohkan Tiryaki brilliantly uses light as a storytelling tool. The bare facts of the case emerge from the shadows, and the essential mystery deepens into the long night. The performances are as impeccable as the look; Anatolia is a crime story with emotionally layered characters and the acting here is superb, but it’s Ceylan’s mastery of composition and pacing (made with such confidence) that ranks Anatolia as one of the best films in recent memory. A must see for any patient cinephile.
2: Miss Bala
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
Screenplay by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz
Loosely based on a true story, Miss Bala (Mexico’s 2012 submission for Best Foreign Language Film) tells the story of Laura, a young woman who, after signing up for the local beauty pageant, finds herself the accidental pawn of a drug cartel. The entire film unfolds from the perspective of a naive Tijuana teenager, shot mostly with sharp extended tracking shots, widescreen compositions and over-the-shoulder perspectives that help convey the widespread corruption and menace surrounding the young girl. This first-rate art-house thriller has been criticized as more of a collection of standout scenes than a fully realized story, but perhaps the audience is meant to feel just as confused and disoriented as the protagonist. If you are looking for something refreshingly different, than look no further; Bala will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of all the chaos which unfolds.
3: Kid With A Bike
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Screenplay by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, The Kid With a Bike is essentially a movie about the consequences of parental abandonment, and how those consequences play out for the child involved. The boy in question, 11-year-old Cyril, is relentlessly on the move – it’s a bumpy ride and although the film centres around a simple premise, it is impossible to guess exactly where things are headed next. For Cyril, recovering his missing bike brings him one step closer to reuniting with his dad; its an obsession so clearly doomed but an obsession guided by denial. Only when Cyril stops moving do possibilities for a future present themselves, although sometimes those moments can lead him in the wrong direction.
Dardenne films have a distinctive rhythm, handled with a minimalist narrative style, never veering into overly sentimental territory and never attempting to manipulate the audience along the way. Originating from a shared background in documentary filmmaking, the brothers’ verité style surrounds their characters with naturalistic spark of energy, perfectly conveying the uncertainty of their lives. From the simple yet gorgeous cinematography to the basic editing, the film is as stripped-down and basic as it can get without going the Dogma route, yet this is what makes it even more powerful and truthful.
The Kid With A Bike could be placed alongside classics like The 400 Blows, or Bicycle Thieves, and like those films it features a fantastic performance by a first-time actor. Thomas Doret does a fantastic job at telegraphing Cyril’s vulnerability and his hesitation when anyone reaches out to help. He’s a restless ball of fury and heartbreak, and one of the most inspiring, strong, self-aware young protagonists in recent memory.
4: 21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Screenplay by Michael Bacall
21 Jump Street is both a buddy-cop-action-comedy and a smart, affectionate satire of ’80s nostalgia as well as teen movie tropes. This nonstop raunchy verbal riff is one of those rare comedies that’s funny throughout, and quite possibly the best since last year’s Bridesmaids. The unlikely pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is what elevates the film to such praise. The two have excellent chemistry and play off the bromance angle better and sweeter than any previous pairing of Apatow leads. This is formula-driven entertainment at its best simply because the filmmakers Lord and Miller are always fully self aware, while cleverly making clear their affections for cinema of yesterday.
5: The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray
This is a highly ambitious, grounded, intelligent, intriguing, thoughtful, emotionally gratifying blockbuster, which doesn’t pander or speak down to its primary target audience – how refreshing is that? Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t play by the typical rules of franchise building and abandons a glossy, romanticized mainstream feel opting instead for stark emotional realism. Ross is more concerned with the human element of the story, rather than the spectacle, Hunger Games features a compelling central character and a strong narrative structure, replete with sharp observations about the politics of democracy, authoritarianism and the various dangers of fascism… (read the full review)
Directed by Maïwenn
Written by Maïwenn & Emmanuelle Bercot
It’s in the great tradition of the French to deliver such complex, multi-nuanced, informative and provocative examinations of big city crime. From directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean-Luc Godard to more recent films like Un Prophète, Polisse can be added to the list. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for thirteen César Awards – an impressive leap for filmmaker-star Maiwenn, directing only her third feature. Like a whole season of The Wire distilled into a single two-hour-plus film, Polisse successfully takes on troubling topics and examines the lives of those who fight to protect the defenseless. This is a solid crime drama with a touch of humour and humanity that despite its frenzied structure, never loses focus of the harsh realities at its core. Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Polisse shows the growing effect on the officers from having to deal with one horrible case after another, day in, day out – not to mention how it affects their private lives… (read the full review)
7: The Raid: Redemption
Directed by Gareth Evans
Screenplay by Gareth Evans
Much like Die Hard, The Raid is built on a simple premise: a group of police officers in Jakarta infiltrate an apartment complex which houses a dangerous gangster and his dozens of thugs, who control the majority of the drug trafficking within the city. You can’t get a more straightforward story than what you have here. This is a movie that doesn’t want too spend much time getting bogged down with deep character development or exposition; the dialogue is limited that subtitles are rarely needed. There are good guys and bad guys and a shitload of high testosterone and adrenaline.
Winner of the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Raid is brutal, bloody and violent. In fact the fight scenes comprise about 75% of the running time. Some are long, other briefs, but always varied. Welsh-born director Gareth Evans, working on his third feature (the second of this kind) has an especially good understanding of how to choreograph and stage the fight scenes without the need of excessive shaky cam or flash cutting (note that Evans also takes on editing duties). Unlike many American Hollywood filmmakers, Evans gives us a clear view of every punch, kick, and gunshot.
Although there is some gunplay, the majority of the high-octane confrontations are hand-to-hand; the particular martial art on display here is the Indonesian art-form known as pencak silat. Characters shoot, stab, punch, and kick their way thought the apartment complex, through corridors, through ceilings, up and down stairs and even busting through the floorboards. Body parts twist, snap and break into peculiar positions; heads are smashed into walls, men are slammed against the ground, and one man is even used as a human shield while diving out of the 15ht floor window. Let us not forget the jagged segment of a broken fluorescent tube that practically decapitates a man. The Raid: Redemption is not a particularly edgy or daring film, but action aficionados will not be disappointed with its unapologetic balls-to-the-wall fight sequences.
Best of January
Best of February