New York Review contributors on films nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards
One comes away from Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu not only despising the tyranny of Islamic extremism, but also strangely buoyed by the sense that its exponents may be redeemable through the dignity and beauty of their victims.
Rightly or wrongly, we expect something different from the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars—something specific to the country that produced it, something that takes us out of the usual Hollywood way of making movies. The case of Human Capital, which was Italy’s entry for this year’s Oscar but was not nominated by the Academy, may be instructive in this regard.
For all its patriotic rhetoric, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not a moral lesson but a tragedy. The causal link Eastwood establishes between the trauma of September 11 and the catastrophe of Iraq is less the dramatization of history than an illustration of historical paralysis—elaborating the implications of an endless, unwinnable war.
Perhaps my skepticism about holding movies like Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everythingto rigorous standards of veracity has to do with the fact that I grew up during an era in which “historical” films routinely departed so far—and often so comically—from reality.
A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument.
In Birdman Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken his cinematic nightmare to the Great White Way, illuminated it with Broadway footlights, located the pathos—and the hilarity—in the New York stage, and given us a cast of nuanced and beautifully acted minor characters.
Featuring Marion Cotillard in what may be the most self-effacing, yet bravura performance of the year, the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night traffics in suspense and is a sort of thriller. But as a search for a lost (or stolen) livelihood, it is also a descendant of The Bicycle Thief, the neo-realist classic that implies a world in which “the poor must steal from each other to survive.”
By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public.
To say that Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully and successfully adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice to the screen is another way of saying that he has changed it into something entirely different. The words in Anderson’s film are mostly Pynchon’s; the plot elements too, however freely they have been culled and transposed; the free-associative multiplicity and ricocheting mood changes are carried over with a miraculous lightness of touch.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is riveting, visually and dramatically. It is also precise about Russia: the corruption, inequality, and ultimate hopelessness that drive its plot are becoming only more evident and pronounced in the current meltdown of the economy.
The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turning, seems determined to suggest maximum tension between him and a blinkered society. But this completely destroys any coherent telling of what Turing and his colleagues were trying to do.
The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity—the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras.
At sixty, Turner was both admired and ridiculed, his work leaving critics and spectators baffled and sometimes angry. Many saw his shimmering canvases as a crazed denial of familiar rules. Was his eyesight failing? Was he going mad? Tate Britain’s Late Turner: Painting Set Free is a fittingly autumnal show. Seeing the exhibition with Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is like watching a strange, exhilarating conversation.
It is one of the uncontested wisdoms of our era that “marriage is hard work.” The belief that conjugal happiness can be earned only by rigorous and sustained emotional labor is so deeply entrenched in the common culture that when Amy Dunne, the female protagonist of David Fincher’s new movie, Gone Girl, boasts cheerfully of finding marriage “easy,” it is as if she had entered Dracula’s castle scoffing at the existence of vampires: the audience knows at once that her hubris must be punished.
In their extraordinary revelations about what the NSA and its secret programs have been doing, Edward Snowden’s leaks have shown the precariousness of privacy in the digital age. But Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour also demonstrates, unwittingly, that we are part of the problem. We have chosen to broadcast our lives.
It is a commonplace to say that time moves more rapidly now than it did, say, twenty years ago: information is allegedly super-compressed, as in texts and tweets, the “news cycle” has shortened from a day to an hour to a minute, fashions flare and peter out in the blink of an eye. But twelve years are always going to be twelve years when measured on the human face. Boyhood is, among many other things, an assertion of time’s stateliness against the fidgets and spasms of contemporary experience.