The Criterion Shelf: A Tribute To Sony Pictures Classics

The Criterion Channel celebrates some of the finest achievements by the industry's premier distributor of instant international classics

It’s a story I’ve told too many times. My intimates who know it will roll their eyes at the mere hint of me mentioning it once again: while my life as a film lover began in childhood, staying up late watching Bond movies with my dad, my life as a cinéaste (ahem) began with the release of James Ivory’s Howards End in 1992. That film, besides transforming me from being a person whose favourite movie was Dick Tracy to someone who began to yearn for so much more, also acquainted me with the words “Sony Pictures Classics.” As it turns out, this was the case for the whole world because that distribution house began with Howards End as its first release.

Merchant Ivory’s masterpiece was a great beginning for a company that continues to be one of the leaders in bringing world cinema to North American audiences. Howards End netted Sony Pictures Classics a Best Picture nomination (and won three Oscars, including Best Actress of Emma Thompson) as one of the two highest critically rated films of 1992. The other one, you ask? The Crying Game, which was also British, but was distributed by Miramax, whose reputation these days isn’t quite as rosy for reasons I probably don’t need to explain. Before he became the byword for the film industry’s culture of tolerating abuse against its artists and employees in the name of profit, Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein was already known for purchasing films at festivals and blocking their releases in order to have more control of the market for the films he wanted to promote for awards and ticket sales. A poignant example is suggested by a selection in the collection being celebrated in this month’s Criterion Shelf:  Zhang Yimou’s Hero was nominated for an Oscar in 2002 and its North American release was delayed for two years, before pressure from the Chinese government and a personal plea and endorsement from Quentin Tarantino finally saw it come out in theatres in the summer of 2004. That fall, Sony Pictures Classics released Yimou’s next film, House of Flying Daggers, almost immediately after its debut at film festivals. Watching this month’s collection of films (all thirty of them, thank you) with this knowledge prevalent in my mind, I found myself wondering how many more classics like the also almost-buried Lovers on the Bridge (by Leos Carax) might have fallen through the cracks and failed to conquer the arthouse market because they’d fallen into the wrong hands.

Founded in 1992 after the demise of Orion Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Classics was created by Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, who took more or less the same staff and moved floors in the same building, bringing some of their already established relationships with artists (most notably Pedro Almodóvar) along with them. At the time, Howards End was, like many films to come out in the next few years, in distribution limbo and was released six weeks after the new company was formed, the beginning of a great first year for them: Indochine, which would win Best Foreign Language Film, Danzon, Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes, Pialat’s Van Gogh and Sally Potter’s Orlando, which would play to raves and earn two Oscar nominations in 1993.

Sony Pictures Classics is a distributor as well as a producer, making famously conservative investments in smaller films that often see profits thanks to their success on the awards circuit.  The company’s biggest production, The City of Lost Children, was a massive disappointment that took a long time to become a cult favourite. However, very few of SPC’s films generally had the worldwide success of their biggest hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made on a $17-million budget and grossed $128-million domestically (their biggest hit of the 2010s, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, made $56 million, for comparison). The company has a track record of occupying the upper financial end of the arthouse circuit, releasing the films of Almodóvar, Agnieszka Holland, and Michael Haneke, as well as documentaries with cult followings like American Movie and prestige animated projects like Waltz with Bashir (SPC rarely occupies a slot in the Best Picture category, but you can find its output all over the documentary and International Feature categories in most years, in 2009 taking up three of them). This year, SPC celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, and the Criterion Channel’s thirty-film retrospective (only twenty-one in Canada: address all concerns to Mongrel Media, or see many of these films via them) covers all the bases of their résumé: American indie cinema, European prestige period pieces, groundbreaking documentaries, politically provocative works, and sensually indulgent films.

For me, Sony Pictures Classics’ films have remained a fixture in my development as a film lover. Most importantly, of course, is that Howards End has never left me. I watch it at least once a year and, twenty years to the month after I first discovered it, I had the pleasure of meeting director James Ivory at a Lightbox screening of the original 70 MM print. I saw Todd Haynes’ Safe on the day that I realized I was in love with the person I saw it with (the result of which was about as pleasant an experience as Julianne Moore had in that movie), Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale was my first time ever at TIFF, Brian Gilbert’s Wilde inspired me to write a play, Pollock added the phrase “Cracked it Wide Open” to my collection of overused phrases (I used it again today), I had a terrible fight with my best friend right before seeing Errol Morris’s The Fog of War that I have yet to forget, and took my niece to her first TIFF screening when she was still in my sister’s womb, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, which was also my first time at the Lightbox.  I will never forget a woman in the audience letting out a bloodcurdling scream in The Secret in Their Eyes when a penis showed up on on screen, Before Midnight made me decide to go back to Greece after a sixteen-year absence (I’ve gone back four times since and, ye gods willing, a fifth coming up), The Lives of Others inspired my day at the Stasi museum only a few months ago (that gorgeous orange Soviet décor is real, folks), and Compartment No. 6 will always remind me of the least stressful TIFF of my life, watching movies in the comfort of my living room without any overanxious Lindt representatives shoving chocolates in my mouth at the Elgin.

In the 1970s and ’80s, when Bernard and Barker first got involved in distribution, major studios used to invest in world cinema that found popularity in the United States, the films of Visconti or Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, for example, a system that died with the advent of home video viewing in the ’80s. It’s thanks to this company’s incredible output of almost 500 films in thirty years that they have taken over this tradition and have kept it to a high standard ever since.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted. Many thanks to Emma Badame, Dakota Arsenault, Marko Djurdjic for their generous contributions

 

MUST-SEE

Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

Potter’s international breakthrough feature has her liberally adapt the narrative but remain true to the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, which was inspired by her relationship with author and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. A favourite of the queen in the court of Elizabeth I, Orlando is gifted a stately manor by his monarch who orders him to not “wither” or “grow old,” which he obeys, living over three hundred years and somewhere in the middle changing sex. As a man, Orlando is free to pursue a love for poetry and drown his amorous sorrows in meaningless political postings to the Middle East, but as a woman, she must fight for all the basic rights that she once took for granted. Sumptuously photographed and scored, and featuring a dominating performance by Tilda Swinton in the title role, Potter’s feminist delight is meaningful and uncompromising and, like the work upon which it is based, delivers its message with generous helpings of humour and beauty.  Orlando received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, and won for Best Actress for Swinton at the Seattle International Film Festival and Thessaloniki Film Festival.

 

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)

This Sony Pictures Classics release is one of the best movies of its decade and a perfect example of the personal as political. Based on the graphic novel by Satrapi, Persepolis covers her childhood during the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s and coming of age as an adult during the Iraq-Iran war. Her understanding of the world comes as much from the rich personalities of her loving family as from her experiences of exile and repression. Much like Jafar Panahi’s Offside (see below), the emphasis is not on miserable tragedy but on reaching out for joy, knowledge and communion in a world determined to destroy human happiness, told with a humorous warmth that makes us love the personalities involved as if they were our own family members. The voice work by an all-star cast is exquisite, the best of them the late, great Danielle Darrieux as Satrapi’s elegant, fiercely principled grandmother, who teaches her that, no matter what state the world is in, personal integrity is always at premium value.  The film is an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature. and the winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Animated Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics and New York Film Critics, and Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review.

 

Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

Penélope Cruz establishes herself as one of the finest actors of her generation with her towering performance, playing an Italian-neorealist-style woman who is drawn back to the village of her childhood when she has to cover up her daughter’s Mildred Pierce/Lana Turner-style crime, while her own dead mother (Carmen Maura, reconnecting with Almodóvar after their parting ways quite dramatically in the late ’80s) shows up to atone for a murky past. The cocktail of elements that make the Spanish enfant terrible‘s films such a satisfying voyage for his fans achieves one of its most perfect combinations here, featuring as it does an assortment of warm but uncompromising women, hints of magic realism, touches of film noir, deeply sympathetic pathos and dangerously lowbrow humour, all of it splashed across the screen in the visual language of Almódovar’s familiar, bright palette. Oscar, SAG, Golden Globe, and BAFTA nominations for Best Actress (Cruz). Cannes prizes for Best Actress (to the entire female ensemble) and Best Screenplay; Best Actress for Cruz from the European Film Awards, Dublin Film Critics Circle, Best Film at the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film from the National Board of Review and Vancouver Film Critics. This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S.

 

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Farhadi’s international breakthrough, the best film of 2011, features a delicate interplay of wholly realized, concretely three-dimensional characters, their interactions reaching explosive conflicts thanks to a domino effect of strategically motivated secrets. A middle class businessman, newly separated from his wife, hires the poor wife of an unemployed cobbler to look after his senile father, but when they argue over her devotion to the job and he throws her out of his apartment, she accuses him of aggressive violence that causes her to miscarry. The details of bureaucracy and law that take place are fascinating, while the sharp turns of the drama that occur every time someone reveals their hand are wholly devastating. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film (the first from Iran) and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Winner of the Golden Bear, along with Best Actor and Best Actress for the whole ensemble at the Berlin International Film Festival; Best Foreign Language Film from the Chicago Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics, Independent Spirit Awards, Golden Globes, Kansas City Film Critics, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics, North Texas Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics, Turkish Film Critics, Utah Film Critics, Vancouver Film Critics, Best Screenplay from the Los Angeles Film Critics, Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film from the National Society of Film Critics.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S. Canadian viewers can stream this film on Kanopy, Sundance Now, or AMC+.

 

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

An attempt to get Persepolis nominated as both Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars resulted in a citation in only the former category, while SPC’s next attempt to do the same with Folman’s brilliant documentary only earned a nomination in the latter (and it was disqualified as a documentary; it would not be until last year’s Flee that a film would be nominated in all three categories). Folman animates an investigation into the ways that trauma can block access to memory, beginning when a friend tells him of a recurring dream he keeps having that is connected to their experience serving in the Israeli army in the 1982 Lebanon War. Folman realizes that he has images in his own mind that he cannot piece together. He begins a series of interviews with fellow soldiers, a television reporter who covered the conflict, and a psychologist who helps him understand the ways that his brain is trying to protect him. He eventually realizes his own account of witnessing the tragedy of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Presenting it in the form of animation adds to the haunting, dreamlike quality of the stories being told, overlaid with one of the most effective musical scores of the decade. Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, Best Foreign Language Film from the Critics Choice Awards, Chicago Film Critics, Golden Globes, Best Directorial Achievement in Documentary from the Directors Guild, Best Animation from the Los Angeles Film Critics, Best Documentary Screenplay from the Writers Guild.  Subscribers please note that this film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S.

 

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011)

A blistering examination of academic competition that could possibly be Cedar’s masterpiece, Footnote is the story of a father and son who are both nationally venerated Talmudic scholars. Long passed over by his colleagues despite admirable devotion to his research, the aging Eliezer Shkolnik has little to claim on paper besides a mention in a footnote by his even more admired mentor. However when he gets the call that he has won the Israel Prize, he drops his curmudgeonly cynicism and forgets his resentments. When his much more media-savvy son Uriel discovers that the committee meant the citation for the younger Shkolnik and dialed the wrong phone number in delivering the news, he tries to force the committee to keep his dad as the recipient in order to avoid causing him a wealth of pain and embarrassment. Not that Uriel doesn’t have plenty of complicated feelings about his father, who doesn’t soft-shoe his criticism of what he feels are his son’s less intellectual pursuits in their field of study, and Uriel’s attempt to do the right thing ends up creating explosive realizations in both men. Working from a letter-perfect script bursting with emotionally charged dialogue and graced with deeply felt performances jumping out of each tightly edited scene, this film captures the rigorous world of academia as simultaneously an opportunity for high stakes prestige and a playground for unchecked egos. Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and winner for Best Screenplay at Cannes and the Dublin International Film Festival.

 

Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, 2001)

Actor turned filmmaker Perrin (best known in North America for his appearances in Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort and Donkey Skin) spent four years amassing footage of the ritual behaviours of various bird species, compiling them into a delicately beautiful documentary that captures nature at its most splendid. Ducks and geese and everything in between are photographed migrating across the globe, using no special effects and, reportedly, causing no interference despite the intimacy that the camera has with many of its subjects. Birds are, admittedly, among the animal kingdom’s most charismatic creatures and in this film reveal themselves to be very much deserving of their many close-ups.  Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography from the Boston Society of Film Critics. Subscribers please note that this film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S. Canadian viewers can rent this film on Knowledge Network or iTunes.

 

The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)

Morris’s explorations of the lives of misfits and outsiders risks going obnoxiously mainstream with his choice of former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as his interview subject for what is likely his most widely acclaimed and successful documentary. As McNamara narrates his experiences in the major conflicts of the twentieth century, however, he reveals a fascinating, complex perspective on what his detractors would call his appetite for destruction. First describing his part in developing more efficient bombing techniques for World War II that resulted in his burning Japanese cities to the ground, later taking part in the trip down the rabbit hole that was the Vietnam War, McNamara’s candid testimony about good intentions and wrong decisions reveals that there was less policy difference than we think between the supposedly just war and the unpopular one criticized as immoral.  Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary from the Chicago Film Critics, Independent Spirit Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, Toronto Film Critics Association, and the Utah Film Critics Association

 

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

A peaceful country village in Germany is the site of a series of disturbing, violent incidents that speak to the shifting tides that will bring about change with the first World War erupting only months later. Christian Berger’s stark, Oscar-nominated monochrome cinematography captures a host of characters who make up this quiet little hamlet, the physical crimes unveiling much subtler but very devastating conflicts existing between upper and lower classes, men and women and, most savagely, older and younger generations, with the adults brutalizing children who will one day bring their country to its most notorious point of the twentieth century. Up there with the best of Haneke’s work (most of which came out in this same decade), his first of two Palme d’Or winners is a stark but smooth ride through misery and dread, its uncompromising subject matter made poetic through a series of elegant, understated performances and unsurprisingly confident direction. Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography from the American Society of Cinematographers. Best Foreign Language Film from the Chicago Film Critics, Golden Globes, Toronto Film Critics Association, and Best Cinematography from the Los Angeles Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics

 

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004)

Dakota Arsenault: With the international success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Western world was ready to lap up more films that featured unique fight sequences blended with stunning production design and costumes. Yimou, who already had a long and storied career in place, was the main benefactor of this heightened interest in Chinese action films. There is a rich history of Wuxia films, a genre of filmmaking that uses martial arts as a backdrop for historical dramas where a code of conduct controls the protagonist. A subgenre of the Wuxia movement is Wire Fu, which uses stunt rigging to propel the performers to have an almost superhuman ability to fight. House of Flying Daggers is a love triangle between Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind woman who is a rebel resistance fighter with the Flying Daggers, caught between two police Captains, Ji (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who goes undercover as Mei’s protector to learn about the Flying Dagger’s new leader, and Leo (Andy Lau), who watches from a distance with great interest. There are plenty of double crosses along the way as the plot thickens, but you’re likely watching the film for two reasons: Ziyi’s drum dance game performed at the Peony Pavilion brothel and the bamboo forest ambush. Both set-pieces show off the majesty of Wire Fu with jaw dropping choreography and impressive stunt work: sure, the CGI of the daggers zig zagging through the air is slightly less impressive now, but the rest of the action more than makes up for it. Like any great Chinese historical epic worth its salt, the use of colour, wardrobe, and elaborate sets are just as worthy of a viewing as the fight scenes are.  Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film from the Boston Film Critics; Best Foreign Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics; Best Director and Best Cinematography from the National Society of Film Critics; and Best Cinematography from the St. Louis Film Critics.

 

An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

Emma Badame: This gorgeously filmed coming-of-age story from Danish director Scherfig is probably best remembered for being the film that put lead actress Carey Mulligan squarely on the map. Based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, it is set in early 1960s London and follows bright young schoolgirl Jenny (Mulligan) as she is drawn into the worldly orbit of the charming but much older David (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny longs to experience all that life has to offer–love, longing, art, and culture–but is faced with the hard truth that she’s not emotionally equipped to deal with the duplicities of the real world. The film, at its core, is both a cautionary tale and an ode to growth and resilience, and fairly brims with impressive ‘60s detail and moody, evocative musical choices.  Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay; SAG nominations for Best Leading Female Actor and Outstanding Motion Picture Cast. Best Actress for Carey Mulligan from the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Houston Film Critics Society, National Board of Review, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Toronto Film Critics Association, Utah Film Critics, Vancouver Film Critics Circle, Washington DC Area Film Critics Association; Best Foreign Film from the Independent Spirit Awards; Audience Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance.

 

Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

Leigh’s explorations of working-class London life often oppose harsh realities with sunny dispositions in an effort to break away from the self-righteous depictions of kitchen-sink dramas of yesteryear. Here he assembles one of his most memorable assortments of (familiar) characters in one of his loosest plots. A group of friends are glimpsed throughout one year, once per season, beginning in spring as public mental health counselor Geri (Ruth Sheen) has her old work friend Mary (Lesley Manville) over for the usual dinner and too many drinks. The season changes to summer when Mary decides to fixate on Geri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) as a way to demand validation for her own feelings about aging and loneliness. In autumn, Mary’s desperation reaches an embarrassing boil in front of Joe’s new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez). Then in winter, Geri’s husband Tom (Jim Broadbent) brings his recently widowed brother Ronnie (David Bradley) to stay with them and resolution is achieved. The opposition of a cheerful and practical woman (Geri in this case) against one who deals with her woeful insecurities by being annoyingly chatty (Mary) isn’t a new dynamic in Leigh’s work, but watching these magnificent actors (including a terrific cameo by Imelda Staunton as one of Geri’s patients) makes for compelling, unforgettable viewing. And for the last time, Leigh’s movies are NOT improvised and he never said they were. Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay. Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. Best Actress for Manville from the National Board of Review, Best Supporting Actress for Manville from the San Diego Film Critics.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the United States. Canadian viewers can stream this film on Tubi.

 

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Marko Djurdjic: An unnerving study of humanity’s darkest contrasts. While it never shines away from the brutality and hate that bubble below the surface in all of us, Incendies also features moments of love, peace, and hope, something that war often eradicates within those of us who have experienced it. The Marwan siblings are tasked with solving the harrowing mystery of their mother’s life after she passes and, while there is so much more to tell, and even more to discuss, the film exists–loudly–and it should do the talking. It is difficult to summarize Incendies because it is not just a film comprised of moving images and sounds: it is a journey, an emotion, a recollection. It is memory set in motion, a half-remembered dream that suddenly appears like a marble in your mind, tangible and whole and clear. It overtakes your senses and engulfs them. It is an experience that you feel and taste and smell. Incendies shudders through you. It quakes. This is, by far, Villeneuve’s best film: beautiful, disturbing and unfortunately all too relevant. A tragedy that blossoms into catharsis, it brings with it all the things we fear, the things we escape from, the things we can forgive but never forget. It is messy and grotesque, spectacular and uninhibited, fleeting and devastating. Just like the truth.  Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Best Foreign Language Film from the Boston Film Critics; Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association and at TIFF; Best Canadian Film, Best Actress and Best Director from the Vancouver Film Critics.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the United States. Canadian viewers can stream this film on Prime.

 

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

In the mid-eighties, fear of the East German Secret Police (or “Stasi”) ruled the lives of GDR citizens, who were intimidated into informing on (or at least keeping secrets from) their neighbours in the name of upholding the good name of socialism. Ulrich Mühe, in one of his last films before his early death from cancer, gives a mesmerizing performance as a high-ranking security forces agent who is thrilled at the prospect of surveilling a state-approved playwright (Sebastian Koch) after his spidey-senses tell him that the man is likely participating in subversive activity behind closed doors (Mühe’s wife, Susanne Lothar, who appears in The White Ribbon, died five years almost to the day after him). When Mühe realizes that his superior officer’s affair with the playwright’s lead actress and girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) is the real reason for his mission, he comes to have an appreciation for the artistry of a man he identifies as a fellow idealist in spirit if not in practice. Its conclusion provides one of the most powerful film endings of the century, this is a great work of humanity, not just of film, and as such makes it very easy to forgive the director’s failing to make lightning strike twice with his attempt at a follow-up (Never Look Away, and we’ll just say that The Tourist was a great way to pay off his mortgage).  Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Best Foreign Language Film from the Central Ohio Film Critics, Independent Spirit Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics.

 

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

One of the most exciting and fascinating prison films ever made, and without a doubt Audiard’s masterpiece. Tahar Rahim gives an irresistible, star-making performance as a modern-day version of Eleanor Parker in Caged: he goes behind bars as a soft, clueless lamb and comes out a few years later the king of the beasts. After life as an orphaned juvenile delinquent, Malik is sent up for assaulting an officer and doesn’t fall in with his fellow Arab prisoners. He instead becomes an errand boy for a Corsican gangster (Niels Arestrup) who more or less runs the place, learning his language and remaining loyal to him despite frequently taking his abuse. When the opportunity comes up to do a little drug-running on the side, Malik takes the confidence that he has gained from surviving his rough environment and uses it to climb his way to the top, although that means having to push the current boss out of the way. The two main characters are the centre of a fascinating array of personalities who intersect seamlessly and spontaneously, Audiard revealing the illusory nature of power with daring touches of magic realism (Malik’s “roommate”) and tenderness (his face when he looks out a plane window) without unbalancing the film’s uncompromising and sometimes deeply off-putting grittiness. Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Best Foreign Language Film from the Austin Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics, National Board of Review, North Texas Film Critics, Oklahoma Film Critics, Utah Film Critics, and Best Supporting Actor (Arestrup) from the Los Angeles Film Critics.

 

 

WORTHY

 

Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006)

A group of young women disguise themselves as boys to get into Tehran’s soccer stadium and see their home team qualify for the World Cup. However, the law allows only men to attend live sporting events and they are all arrested and held in detention outside the stands for the duration of the game. Spirited, clever and resourceful, they manage to get running commentary on the action and keep abreast of the score while arguing about the injustice of their situation with the soldier who is in charge of holding them. Portions of the month-long shoot were filmed during actual live matches and use genuine celebrations as background in the concluding sequence, which Panahi weaves into a seamlessly spontaneous experience that pays tribute to the human spirit. It’s disguised as poignant comedy, but somehow, the more the characters express themselves through humorous exasperation or cutting sarcasm, the more devastating the political reality of what is happening is (and to watch it right now is that much more significant).  Jury Grand Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and Best Actress for the female ensemble at the Gijon International Film Festival.

 

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Dazzling fantasy that was sadly the last feature directed by the great Kon before his death, four years later at the age of 46. A scientist named Atsuko is the project head of a team who have created a device that allows her to record and analyze other people’s dreams, entering and hosting an alternate reality under the avatar of a character named Paprika. When the devices are stolen, she and her colleagues realize that someone is using them to fracture the psychological well-being of the entire city, and must race against the clock to prevent total destruction. Dream worlds are created with elegant, imaginative designs that get more beautiful with each passing scene. It’s easy to forgive the film’s shallow emotional poignancy thanks to how visually engaging it is. Winner for Best Animation at the Newport Beach Film Festival

 

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

This documentary is an extraordinary story of artistic genius rescued from obscurity. The film explores the lore of singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who performed professionally under his last name alone and was signed to Sussex Records in the early 1970s, but soon released from their roster after his two rock-folk albums didn’t sell. Rodriguez went back to working manual labour to support his family, having no idea that bootleg copies of his music became wildly popular in South Africa and played a pivotal role in the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement. At the same time, the legend of his mysteriously brief career and supposedly gruesome early death proliferated from rumour to fact among South Africans who had no reason to believe otherwise. In the late ’90s, an article investigating the true story behind Rodriguez’s life and death resulted in a comeback out of a fairy tale, which Bendjelloul captures through passionate interviews, a rich sound of Rodriguez’s music on the soundtrack, a narrative that is up there with the most exciting underdog stories ever made and a star whose charisma shines with an otherworldy, aloof but never cold glamour. Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature. Best Documentary from BAFTA, Athens International Film Festival, Australian Film Critics Association, Critics Choice Awards, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics, Houston Film Critics Society, Indiana Film Journalists Association, National Board of Review, North Carolina Film Critics, Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Vancouver Film Critics, Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary from the Directors Guild of America, Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Outstanding Producer of Documentary from the Producers Guild, Special Jury Prize and Audience Award in World Cinema (Documentary) at Sundance, and Best Documentary Screenplay from the Writers Guild.

 

Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005)

A classy Chicago art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) is desperate to get a southern folk artist to show in her gallery and decides to head down his way with her husband (Alessandro Nivola), who conveniently comes from a town not far from their destination. Going there means visiting his family, but their arrival sparks tensions with the family he hasn’t seen in three years. His quietly put-upon father (Stuart Wilson) can’t express his joy to see him. His mother (Celia Weston) disapproves of everything that might threaten his perfection (particularly this upstart of a new wife), and his brother (Ben McKenzie) can’t even be bothered to hide his resentment over returning to the shadow of his superior sibling. Then there’s the brother’s heavily pregnant wife, played by Amy Adams in the role that put her career on the map and earned her the first of six Oscar nominations, whose perpetually chatty, cheerful demeanour slowly reveals itself to be a desperate but inept plea to heal everyone else’s miserable tension. Blissfully intelligent in its refusal to offer pat-happy resolutions, this film is also bold for reaching the very limit of showing southern eccentricity at its ripest without spilling over into ridicule. There’s a cultural strength to all the praying and hymn-singing that Morrison does not caricature. McKenzie doesn’t have the talent for the simmering rage that the character requires, and Nivola is never convincing as American, but the rest of the cast is a bounty of riches, the finest of them Davidtz’s perfectly calibrated turn as a woman who does her very best to keep her British-accented finery defrosted, but can do nothing to stop the resistance coming her way. Oscar and SAG nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Adams). Winner for Best Supporting Actress to Adams from the Critics Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, Florida Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics, Vancouver Film Critics, Washington DC Area Film Critics, and a Special Jury Prize to Adams at Sundance

 

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)

Marko Djurdjic: “Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That’s senseless! But that’s what happens, man.” Thus goes one piece of sage-like advice offered by Mark Borchardt, would-be filmmaker and central “star” of Chris Smith’s documentary about the pitfalls of filmmaking, obsession, and the American Dream™. Mark wants to make an ambitious small-town drama, but he’s broke. In order to fund this project, he decides to finish a low-budget horror short, and employs friends and family to help him achieve this. Hilarity (and anxiety) ensues. The perfect, ludicrous (perfectly ludicrous?) Midwesternness of it all gives the proceedings a surreal theatricality, and the film’s influence on mockumentary “cringe” comedies is evident: even in its bleakest, most hopeless moments, the film is very funny, and oftentimes, you sit there dumbfounded. Mark always needs gas money. It’s Kafkaesque. As the greatest band of all time once told us, it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever, and there’s no sweeter spot—in life or in cinema—than when you straddle that line. Chris Smith knows it, Mark Borchardt knows it, and when you watch American Movie, you will too. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance.

 

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Chomet follows his world-conquering The Triplets of Belleville with the resurrection of an unproduced script by the auteur whose work has inspired a great deal of his animations, Jacques Tati. The main character is clearly animated to look like Tati, who allegedly wrote the screenplay as a love letter to his estranged daughter. The films follows a once highly successful, now forgotten magician in late 1950s’ Paris who takes a series of humiliating gigs throughout the continent and up to the outer reaches of Scotland just to keep the lights on. He strikes up an immediate paternal feeling for a sweet young village barmaid and the two of them hit the road together. They set up shop in Edinburgh where he struggles to make ends meet, while she blossoms into adolescence. As with Triplets, there are maybe only two or three discernible lines of dialogue and it adds to the magic of the emotional experience, a film that whose poetic melancholy is emphasized by its peaceful pacing and wry, gentle humour.  Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and winner for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S. Canadians can stream this film on Tubi or Hollywood Suite.

 

Nine Queens (Fabian Bielinsky, 2000)

A marvelous heist comedy that burns slowly but whose twists sting, this one begins when small time con-man Juan tries to pull a fast one on a gas station cashier and almost gets caught before the much smoother grifter Marcos saves him. They later run into an old friend of Marcos’ and get roped into a scheme when he asks them to take over the sale of fraudulent Weimar Republic stamps to an avid philatelist, a gag that could net them all hundreds of thousands in profit. It should be an easy payload but the details of the trade end up being layered within a nesting doll of spontaneous complications, though one of the funniest jokes that Bielinsky has for both his characters and his audience is the revelation that these crafty crooks have nothing on the government’s economic disasters conning everyone out of their dough. Superb performances and a strong script allow us to be seduced into a bunch of false narratives before we eventually figure out the whole score in the film’s delicious conclusion.

 

Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010)

Marko DjurdjicAnimal Kingdom tells the story of the Cody family, a criminal brood of thieves and armed robbers, as they contend with police, in-fighting, and a crumbling family dynamic. The film is a remarkably tense and relatable mini-epic. This dark familial drama takes minute human moments of trauma, tragedy, and tenderness, and makes them monumental. The film doesn’t shy away from asking troubling questions, and while the images, actions, and relationships are at times cold and brutal, they are never gratuitous. For this family, this is life, and there’s truth in their anger and disenfranchisement. They are like this because they have to be, because this is what generations of violence and crime have forced them to be. All families are juxtapositions, and the Codys are no different. Ben Mendelsohn and the formidable Jacki Weaver are pure, sadistic evil, and one particularly disturbing scene with Mendelsohn is sure to shock and disgust even the most hardened movie watchers. Although the film’s grimnness and grittiness may alienate some viewers, others will find much to “enjoy” in this unsettling and complex watch. But then again, all the good ones are. Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema-Dramatic at Sundance and Best Supporting Actress to Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, San Francisco Film Critics, and Best First Film from the New York Film Critics.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S. Canadian viewers can stream this film on Amazon Prime and on the CTV app.

 

Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000)

Artist biopics rarely achieve the fine balance that Harris pulls off in his directorial debut. Harris stars as the celebrated post-war purveyor of masterful splatter paintings and the film gives generous views of Pollock creating his work, follows his turbulent personal relationship with his wife and strongest champion Lee Krasner, and charts his disintegration into alcoholism. It does all this without overburdening any narrative strand or putting the viewer through unnecessary misery. Harris is also at his most electrifying as a performer here, finding the perfect role to suit his generally prickly onscreen persona, threatened in his dominance by Marcia Gay Harden’s mercurial, Oscar-winning turn as Krasner, while the rest of the cast is brightened by a series of cameos from luminaries including Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim, Sada Thompson as Pollock’s mother, and Jennifer Connelly as his mistress Ruth Kligman. An underplayed, palpable sense of the period more than makes up for the fact that few of the actors resemble the people they’re playing here. Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress (Harden), nominee for Best Actor (Harris). Winner for Best Supporting Actress for Harden from the New York Film Critics and Best Actor for Harris from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

 

 

FOR THE CURIOUS

 

Grateful Dawg (Gillian Grisman, 2000)

Grisman looks at the personal and professional relationship between Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and her own musician father David Grisman, who discovered their shared love of bluegrass at a Bill Monroe concert and later created the band Old and In The Way. Garcia’s fans get to enjoy a glimpse of his life outside the Dead, which will make the film far less rewarding for those not already plugged into an appreciation of either subject, but the director wisely keeps the talking heads and biographical information to a minimum and spends most of the film’s running time letting us enjoy some wonderful tunes. Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Newport International Film Festival

 

Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005)

Marko Djurdjic:  The directorial debut from Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) is the definition of “Sundance”: quirky, detached, darkly comic, and awash in empathy and overly simplistic psychology, a trite look at the pressures and complications of teenagerdom. Justin Cobb, our titular protagonist, experiments with all of the teenage clichés—sex games, recreational drug use, and debate club—but all he wants is to connect with someone, to feel cared for and in love. To feel normal.” When he starts taking medication for his newly diagnosed ADHD, his thumbsucking stops and you think things will get better, but of course, they don’t. Although the performances are top notch, Mills’s sincere, idiosyncratic approach inevitably leads to moments of eye-rolling tweeness. And while the awkward humour and bizarre, dreamlike asides balance the melodramatic sentimentality and Elliott Smith songs (whom I love: no disrespect to E), the film slips into an emotional rut, trying very hard not to stray from its arrested emotionality while resting on a superficial Coles-notes reading of ADHD symptoms, diagnoses, and needs. It’s the definition of middling.  Winner of the Best Actor prize for Lou Taylor Pucci at the Berlin Film Festival, Best Actress for Tilda Swinton at the Gijon Film Festival and Best Actor for Vincent D’Onofrio at the Stockholm Film Festival. Awarded the Special Jury Prize for Pucci’s performance at Sundance.

 

L’enfant (Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2005)

A teenager is released from hospital after giving birth to her son and she reconnects with her boyfriend, a smoothly confident small-time crook. Always ready to sell something on the street in order to buy something else to sell at a higher price, Bruno goes one step too far in his schemes and it causes a rift between him and Sonia that results in his hitting rock bottom, needing more than his usual tricks to achieve redemption. Neither of the two Palme d’Or-winning films by les frères Dardennes are their best works, but this one is definitely the less pretentious of the two, even if it does try to pass a very middle-class attitude towards its characters off as social concern (the life of crime that is weighing him down takes the form of his constantly having to lug around large objects that LITERALLY weigh him down). As always, though, the Dardennes are experts at keeping a plot moving and the jagged edges with which they shoot and cut scenes never feel artistically self-conscious, always getting at the emotional power of the characters’ experiences with confident ease.  Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

 

 

SKIP IT

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)

One of the biggest non-English-language hits of the late ’90s, this techno music-fuelled action film, laced with mild philosophical musings about choice and fate, begins when Lola receives a frantic phone call from her small-time hood boyfriend Manni telling her that he needs 100,000 marks in twenty minutes or his gangster bosses are going to kill him. We then watch a scenario played out in real time three different ways.  Each iteration offering different variables and a variety of outcomes for Lola, Manni and the bystanders she passes as she hotfoots it to her ultimate destiny. The story plays likes a video game and it’s about as soulful as one, but if you like its kinetic visual style and are into a lean, mean experience with nothing deeply emotional to offer, it’s a satisfying watch.  Named Best Foreign Language Film of the year by the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Independent Spirit Awards, Florida Film Critics Circle, Kansas City Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, and winner of the Audience Award in World Cinema at Sundance.

 

Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001)

After a London butcher dies, his three best friends gather at a pub with his ashes, toast him in their favourite drinking spot one last time, and then with his son head to Margate to fulfill his last wishes to be scattered there. Along the way, they reminisce on tangled memories of the past, from service in the Second World War and the bonds forged in that time, to later love affairs, family secrets and ongoing sorrows that have been suffered in silence. Graham Swift’s prize-winning novel is brought to the big screen with an accomplished director and an impressive roster of stars: the names Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone and Helen Mirren will bring you to see it and you won’t regret watching it for them, but the combination of this cast with so powerful a story should result in something much more memorable than what we have here. The sentiments are right but other elements are off kilter, particularly the flashback sequences in which the younger actors (including Kelly Reilly as the younger Mirren and Hemmings’ real life son playing him) aren’t effective as counterparts to the older set. The recreations of the period, similarly, are not particularly convincing.  Winner for Best Ensemble Cast from the National Board of Review.

 

The City of Lost Children (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995)

The success of Caro and Jeunet’s Delicatessen brought them the opportunity use a bigger budget for an even more imaginative epic, but what resulted is an unholy mess. Its main concern is an old cynic who kidnaps children in order to harness the power of their dreams and restore his own joy, but he steals the little brother of a circus strongman (played in halted French by Ron Perlman) and prompts the big lug to team up with a clever little girl to rescue him. There is a host of other characters and no end of ornate sets, designed in that vein of comic-book steampunk that would come to define Jeunet’s aesthetic as he progressed to far better work (which includes his unfairly maligned Alien sequel). Its visual aspect is dazzling and we all appreciate the anti-capitalist allegory, but at the end of the day this is a giant bore.  This film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel in the U.S. Canadian viewers can rent this film on Kanopy.

 

 



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