Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

by Will Ross

For the first forty minutes or so of Interstellar, it looks sure to be Christopher Nolan’s worst film yet. Hans Zimmer’s score piles on an intense drone over the otherwise peaceful scene-setting, running long cues through multiple scenes and emotional beats with absolutely no nuance or variation. The sci-fi exposition is both unnecessarily guarded (would it be so bad to even allude to why all of Earth became a giant dust bowl? Or give some substantial sense that this dystopia affected the world outside America?) and schizophrenically over-specified (the reveal that textbooks have been modified to say ‘We faked the moon landing!’ raises a lot of questions and ideas that the film never shows interest in exploring). And for all the time we spend with the family at the heart of the story, their characters and relationships are one-note: the paternal Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ace pilot who never got to make anything of his skills and dreams of exploration (“you should have been born 40 years earlier, or 40 years later,” a character says, probably barely suppressing a wink at the camera), his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), who is into science and super attached to her dad, his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, later Casey Affleck), who is a little dim but a pretty chill guy, and the grand-paternal Donald (John Lithgow), who is, uh, a grandfather. The script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, hammers away at these traits endlessly as it opens up a myriad of go-nowhere plot strands.

And there’s no technical saving grace to fall back on. Nolan’s visual direction is never incompetent, but it’s resolutely bland. The substitution of Nolan’s regular cinematographer Wally Pfister for Hoyte van Hoytema — whose work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks among my very favourite film visuals of the 21st century — seems to prove that the director’s pedestrian visuals were never Pfister’s fault: Hoytema does well enough with his lighting set-ups, especially given that he seems to have had, like, a million billion angles to light for, but he’s clearly hamstrung by Nolan’s resolute need to cover almost everything with medium close-ups.

All of that is apparent before what might be the worst thing in the movie, a small decision that is nonetheless so self-evidently wrong that it demands a full paragraph: inexplicable cutaways to 16mm documentary footage of grizzled seniors talking about what life was like on this post-apocalyptic, dust-ridden Earth. The extent to which this footage makes no sense in its narrative or aesthetic context cannot be overstated; it doesn’t provide significant exposition, it clashes drastically with the rest of the film, and its obvious diegetic source is such overt foreshadowing that it obliterates much of the tension before the plot even gets going. And the use of 16mm is self-parodic. I know that you’re a staunch defender of film over digital, Nolan, but do you really find a dust-bowl apocalypse easier to imagine than digital cameras becoming — check that — still being the default format for filmmaking, and especially documentaries, in the distant, resource-barren future? That the footage is spliced in from an actual Ken Burns documentary about the Dirty Thirties only makes it stranger, and it’s the only major gaff in Lee Smith’s ordinarily heroic cutting.

Well, the only gaff besides not jettisoning the vast majority of the first act on Earth and moving us into space as soon as possible, because that’s when Interstellar gets focused and turns from a half-assed expository mishmash into a big, idea-loaded sci-fi fantasy. Cooper and a team of astronauts are joined by the lovable robot TARS (whose variable emotion settings are the single most interesting trait of any character, and also completely at odds with the film’s themes) to fly into a wormhole that has opened, through which initial probes have revealed potentially habitable planets to replace Earth. The mission: confirm at least one planet’s habitability and deliver the info back to NASA on Earth, where Murphy and one astronaut’s father (Michael Caine) hope to learn how to control gravity.

Which, yes, is as silly as it sounds. The key word up there is “fantasy”, and I cannot stress enough the extent to which you should not take to heart the first two acts’ hard sci-fi posturing. Yes, there are lots of great sciencey ideas in the space exploration sections, especially those exploring the relative time between Cooper’s crew and the Earth they leave behind. But at the story’s heart are unexplained, even fantastical premises that you kind of have to just go with. A lot of plot points seem to be contrived only to allow another sci-fi idea to click into place later, and the Nolan brothers’ script is a lot dopier than it thinks it is, but, contrary to all the science-physics hoo-ha that gets thrown around, it’s a very simple plot, and it’s free of the mind-knots of the infuriatingly labyrinthine structure of The Dark Knight Rises. That makes it accessibly dopey. Even lovably dopey.

The characters are still all one-note, but Interstellar stops harping on that so much (save some groaningly bad lines from Anne Hathaway’s astronaut about love and evil), and finally gets to where Nolan’s passion clearly lies: big conceptual set pieces. They’re actually pretty exciting, though the visual blandness stays locked into cruise control, communicating concepts and actions with little-to-no compositional or aesthetic expressiveness. There is one visual motif, a camera mounted on the side of the spaceships as they fly around (like those videos with GoPros lashed onto the side of a bicycle, or the car-mounted cameras in Bullitt), whose constant repetition I simply don’t understand, and in general the highly positive reception to the space visuals is confusing to me. Yes, they’re technically impressive, but come on; we’re only a year out from Gravity reminding us that technical feats are nothing compared to technical feats in service of master visualists. I can only think of one truly memorable composition from the whole movie, an extreme-wide shot of two astronauts wrestling that perfectly emphasizes their remoteness and desolation in both a literal and figurative sense. But this is a big, ambitious sci-fi epic; one truly great shot is not an impressive count.

The fact that those effects-heavy scenes have any kind of affect or physicality is largely down to Lee Smith, whose editing takes the unimaginative camera coverage and uses it to precisely lay out complex, rapid beats, stacking Nolan’s customarily complex (and customarily problematic) intercutting sequences and building momentum seemingly effortlessly. A few qualms aside (I assume “Hey Chris, let’s cut the whole first act” wasn’t on the table), Smith mostly nails the quieter sequences too; not easy, considering Nolan seems to have less and less idea of how to shoot dialogue in a more-than-functional way. He even throws in a couple of elliptical fades that emphasize the ever-looming threat of relative time. Ah, fades! Remember when those were allowed in blockbusters? Lee Smith. Love that guy.

But as much as Smith remains the unsung saviour of Nolan’s aesthetic coherence, a little credit for that success must also be given — I can’t believe I’m saying this — to Hans Zimmer.

In recent years each of Zimmer’s scores takes on new production angles, from the throbbing dubstep of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the overpowering drums of Man of Steel, to setting his umpteenth self-plagiarism of “Journey to the Line” set to under-arranged strings in 12 Years a Slave (a score whose positive critical reception is utterly mystifying to me). These conceits usually seem less suited to their subjects than to Zimmer’s own flights of fancy, so it’s either a more thoughtful approach or dumb luck that brought Zimmer to a schema that actually works here: a Phillip Glass-inspired use of repetitive piano and organ, with flourishes of brass or strings here and there, and percussion laid down with an intensity appropriate for the given scene.

None of that is anything to write home about, but for Zimmer, who in the past few years has written some of the most putrid scores I have ever heard in mainstream Hollywood films, “nothing to write home about” is practically a revelation of restraint and precision. There are still major issues: it often gets caught in a ridiculous arms race with sound and dialogue (the sound mix, as usual, is one of the worst things about a Nolan film); it reveals too many of its themes and motifs on Earth to really musically develop in space; and at times Zimmer’s trademark underdeveloped melodies step in to wander around distractingly. Still, “generally effective window-dressing” is a far cry from “Zimmer’s score crippled the film,” and hopefully that marks a turnaround for a once-impressive composer whose ideas these days rarely run beyond huge dynamic shifts and production gimmicks. There’s even one cue for the film’s action climax (titled “Coward” on the soundtrack album) that I would say is his best in years, building a gradual crescendo from dread-laden percussive clicks into organ arpeggios that climax in a pretty sophisticated key change. It’s a good cue, and a reminder of the strengths that used to make  Zimmer’s scores worth a damn before they were overwhelmed by his melodic weakness and production fetishism.

That action climax, incidentally, is a major turning point for the film for reasons I daren’t hint at, except to say that it’s when the movie goes from fairly dopey to off-the-chart aw-ya-big-dope levels. It partially undermines the movie’s own themes and rules, but after the disastrous opening there was never a chance of this thing being a cohesive, so it’s not that hard to swallow and enjoy the sudden change of pace (even if it does keep you at emotional arm’s length).

That’s actually Interstellar’s saving grace in general: it’s hard not to enjoy a film that is pouring so much energy and creativity into a completely sincere, uncynical goal. For as much as Nolan’s post-Memento work has only suffered by its greater resources and bigger canvases, Interstellar is a good reminder of why I’d rather give blockbuster carte blanche to a messy, inconsistent, but completely heartfelt artist like Nolan than the studio-molded cynics who usually get that privilege.

Our Indiegogo campaign for We Three Heathens is in its final hours, and soon it will be too late to donate. If you're interested in what we're doing, we urge you to donate whatever you can before midnight tonight!

Jul 21, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014)

by Will Ross

When I reviewed The Raid: Redemption, I was quick to point out that the action as wasn’t wall-to-wall as the popular narrative went — the bulk of the film is spent between the guns-and-fists hyperviolent action, and that shed light on a major problem: the story blew. There was so little detail or motivation or personality afforded to the characters in The Raid that it made the action a little more difficult to invest in, even if its over-simplicity also formed a partial justification for the film as a camera/fight choreography showcase, and a damned impressive one at that.

The runaway success of that film permitted its creative team to make their dream project, Berendal, and, after being retrofitted as a sequel to the first film, it was written, filmed, and completed as The Raid 2. And, despite a lengthier development and hugely increased budget, its problems are the same as its predecessor, only worse: the story is equally empty yet more protracted and grandiose, and for all the slashing, headbashing, and gore of the fight scenes, they are emotionally bloodless.

Raid 2 opens by immediately discarding the plot elements and character relationships from Redemption, obviously because writer-director-editor Gareth Evans never wanted the film to be a sequel in the first place. That’s amusing as a kind of “fuck you” to the sequeldom bestowed/imposed on Evans’s baby, but it may have been wiser for him to take the shreds of character development from the first film into this one, because lord knows The Raid 2 needs all the help it can get.

Immediately following the events of the first film, supercop Rama (Iko Uwais) is recruited to go undercover. In prison, he befriends and saves the life of Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Jakarta kingpin Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). After his release, heinfiltrates Bangun’s organization and aims to put a stop to police corruption. Relevant details don’t go much farther than that; Rama has a family that is apparently in danger (especially if he doesn’t go undercover, though this is never satisfactorily explained), but that doesn’t really come into play.

If Rama himself has any personal doubts or misgivings about the pressures of undercover work, he never shows them, as Uwais wears the same expression of stolid intensity through most of the film. Not that more is asked of him by the boilerplate script, which has no developing themes or characters in sight. Most of the action is driven by Uco’s lust for power, which leads him to engineer a gang war behind his father’s back, but the script never grants him depth beyond violent ambition. Rama, meanwhile, is seemingly only present to provide the film its requisite superhuman fight scenes; the film does all but diddly-squat with the undercover angle.

And requisite the fight scenes are. When the film isn't gleefully detailing expert killing, it's clearly, awkwardly engineered around getting to those fights. When they do happen, there are absolutely no emotional stakes nor plot development nor narrative payoff to them. They simply begin, proceed in ever-more-complex and ever-emptier technical virtuosity, and then end, with nothing really changed or gained except the most basic win-condition of brutally murdering your enemy.

And when they do end (and that can take a very long time), it’s back to the story, a totally different beast that Evans clearly cares about only fractionally in comparison, if the visual direction is any sign. The Raid’s dialogue scenes are staged with almost no verve or original intent beyond some self-conscious angles and palette choices, and their boring construction is a signpost for their disposability in comparison to the elaborate action staging.

One area of craft, however, remains consistent throughout the film: the sound design, which is incredibly repetitive. It uses the same “drop out all sound except a low-end rumble” trick dozens of times across its length, is filled with cinematic booms, and frequently ends scenes with intense, noisy, constantly crescendoing electronic score before cutting to another scene with a loud “BANG”! There is a scene that uses the Sarabande movement from Handel's Keyboard suite in D minor (in what seems to be a bizarre, misguided tribute to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), and it is one of the most misplaced uses of non-original music I’ve seen in years, completely at tonal and stylistic odds with the rest of the film.

So, the film features energetic technical showcases of violence in the context of a boilerplate, undernourished gangland drama that exists only to permit the former. But the narrative’s decreased depth and increased length and self-seriousness makes the technically superior action of this film morally and emotionally inferior to that of the first film. The violence in The Raid: Redemption was already drifting into uncomfortable fetishism, but the lower proportion and video-game referencing nature of its “one-building, level by level” premise made it easier to accept as a display of technical showmanship and spectacle first and foremost. But to approach The Raid 2 on its own terms is to approach it entirely differently than its predecessor, because the scope of the sequel’s narrative and higher story-to-action ratio suggests Evans has real narrative ambitions.

Fine. But that means that the violence in The Raid 2, which is more interested in the limits and destruction of the human body than ever, should inform and take cues from those ambitions. Instead, it presents extremely graphic, low-consequence, high-body count violence. The film is amoral, not only in its indifference towards violence, but in its disdain for the human being as anything but a weapon or target. Raid 2 is obsessively interested in digging deep into its characters, but only in an all-too-literal way. There is only flesh and bones here, no soul at the center.

For those of you who aren't plugged into our current project, the feature documentary We Three Heathens, it now has an indiegogo site up and running until the end of July, right here! You can find all the info you'd want there; we need your help to make this movie (and we're willing to throw in some perks if you do), so give it a look and share with your friends!

Our accomplished film collective Sad Hill Media ("Paradiso", "Mr. Video", "Manboyhood", "The Bottom of My Heart") is ecstatic to officially announce its first feature film project: We Three Heathens.

We'll need your help to make this happen — fundraising will begin on July 1, 2014.

The idea

Faith and spiritual enlightenment, ideas historically central to the human condition, are undergoing a shift. The modern world is increasingly divided between secularism and religious fundamentalism; just as a record number of atheists now walk the planet, the Vatican is seeing an upsurge in popularity. We Three Heathens explores how young, secular people like Devan Scott, Daniel Jeffery, and Will Ross might connect with the spirituality of ages old — by having us pass through it.

We Three Heathens is a quest in the form of a documentary. Will, Daniel, and Devan will embark on the
Camino de Santiago, the world's most famous pilgrimage. The Camino encompasses hundreds of pilgrimage routes, all ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where, as tradition has it, the remains of St. James the Great are buried. The trip, all told, will take two months to complete on foot. We will battle language barriers, walk hundreds of miles across mountains, deserts, and weather both fair and ravaging.

The Method

Tradition has it that pilgrims may carry a rock along the path, imbued with their own spiritual weight; we will each carry a camera. With these cameras, we will film anything and everything. Each of the three of us will act as our own director, crafting a trio of distinct personal visions that are imbued with our respective personalities, both in front of and behind the camera. From these, a feature documentary will be constructed.

The documentary will intercut between the three perspectives; it will find radically differing visions of the big moments and discoveries on a split screen, it will juxtapose the quiet moments of solitude and confession unique to each of us.

The People

Indeed, we all have unique personalities, behind and before the camera. Daniel is a natural-born confidant, and as close to an invisible presence as one can get behind the camera, especially when employing the 'low-fidelity' technology of a handicam. Will is analytical, contemplative, and moody; he examines situations through the use of precise camera placement and editing, making careful observations, aiming to reveal and articulate through patience and careful composition. Devan is a joyful interventionist, a curious rascal. He throws himself into situations, disturbs equilibriums, allows his camera’s involvement to influence the actions and reactions of a moment.

By thoughtfully merging these styles, we’ll have opportunities to be observational, to be incisive, to be warm and funny — imagine one filmmaker cheerfully calling it a night, and then cutting to another filming him loudly snoring. Or showing a local telling his life story, and then showing that one of the filmmakers is oblivious to the story; he is too busy nursing the blisters on his feet. Three unique subjectivities will harmonize into a portrait both grand and intimate.

Communicating these inner journeys will take many forms; video journals, interviews, and multi-camera documentation of happenings comprise only a few of the possibilities available to us. Opportunities for structural experimentation abound; this will be no ordinary travelogue! No matter the elements, they will be edited into a triptych of coherent wholes, and those inner journeys will manifest as one statement, one approach — maybe even one answer.

On July 1st, we'll be doing a crowdsourcing campaign so we can make the film happen. We're raising funds for equipment, travel expenses, and post-production. Our success depends on as many people getting the word out as possible, so we'll be making videos and blog posts along the way. If you like it, sharing with your friends will make the difference!

So, if y'please, follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page, and check out our official website for more details on the route, updates on our crowdsourcing campaign, and fun little goodies. Ciao!

Devan's List

Boy oh boy, was 2013 ever fantastic; just full of works that succeed in such divergent ways! Form-busting experimentation, great works of classical narrative storytelling, technological marvels, documentaries. The sheer variety of genres, mediums, and modes of filmmaking I was lucky enough to experience this year was just absurd. I mean, just take a look at this list! We have acid satire right up there alongside beautifully-mounted genre fare, grand humanist populism, chamber drama, impenetrable mumblecore, hellish experimentation, achingly personal non-fiction, lyrical poetry, silent throwback fairytales... just an astoundingly rich year for all shapes and forms of cinema.

Presented below are my twenty favorite films of this past year. Now, what constitutes a 'favorite' of mine and how that differs from 'films that I feel are objectively the best' is a question that I find nearly impossible to answer, as the two are so intertwined in my mind; let's leave that particular line of thought with the sentiment that those wishing to see what I think are the best films of 2013 will have to make due with this list, which I deem 'eh, close enough'.

1.The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese
“I want you to solve your problems by becoming rich!”

This is an angry movie. It's angry, of course, about Jordan Belfort. It's angry at the culture surrounding Wall Street. And most of all, it's angry at us. It's angry at us for enabling Belfort and blindly buying into the American myths of self-made fame and fortune. It is a film that allows us to be seduced by Belfort as played with unholy charisma by Leonardo Dicaprio before plunging us into a moral black hole of hedonism and sociopathy. That it does so while bouncing off the walls with an utterly insane amount of energy, wit, and invention is a massive achievement on the part of Martin Scorsese, and I have little doubt that this film will, in time, be spoken of in the same breath as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

2. Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

“People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. “
Prisoners is not so much about human depravity as it is about how we react to it. When does self-reliance in the face of evil become morally dubious? Are the systems we as a society have set up effective? No answers are given; this film opts to push each ethical dilemma to its extreme, leaving it to us to reconcile the events onscreen with our own philosophical framework. All ethical quandries aside, the film is a crackerjack of a thriller, jettisoning the realist procedural framework that dominates most modern crime stories for a more emotive vein of storytelling reminiscent of the hardboiled crime pictures of the first half of the 20th century. The craftsmanship employed to serve this mode of storytelling is unparalleled; special mention must, of course, be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is a paragon of visual metaphor combined with flawless deployment of all the tools of his trade to create a beautiful, haunting world of duelling colours and tones.

3. At Berkeley by Frederick Wiseman
A miraculous endeavour of documentation that sees Frederick Wiseman train his cameras on the machinations of a massive institution, capturing the byzantine complexity of its inner workings in painstaking detail. As the details pile on, one comes to realize how the seemingly disconnected scenes depicting the different aspects of campus life coalesce into a haunting portrait of the living organism that is Berkeley University.

4. Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
An existential wretch; a slog through hell that exposes the cruelty of the universe in merciless detail via the lens of a GoPro. It's an unending nightmare wherein fishermen depicted are less recognizably human than anything else presented onscreen. The mundane workings of the natural world are rendered as Boschian scenes of devastation; one such scene featuring an injured seagull failing in its attempts to overcome an obstacle is as soul-crushing as anything I've seen in years.

5. The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer
“But I can feel it. Really, I feel it. I did this to so many people. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to."

If you could meet the devil, what would you say? Countless works of art have dealt with evil, but I can't recall any that have directly confronted the ways in which human beings rationalize and come to terms with the nature of their own evil in the way The Act of Killing has. The devil's myriad replies are something to behold.

6. Before Midnight by Richard Linklater
“I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing. “

Before Sunset's premise was scary: how would two lovers deal with being separated for nine years? Before Midnight presents an infinitely more frightening possibility: how would they deal with life together for nine years? The results, aided by typically stunning work from Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, are so harrowing that the film's final grace note seems downright miraculous.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis by Joel & Ethan Coen
“Llewyn is the cat?”

Another year, another nihilistic film by Coen Brothers film about a character who's trapped in an endless loop of misery caused by some unknown concoction of their own doing and the universe's indifference and/or outright malevolence. They'd have to be the greatest working filmmakers for a schtick like that to not get old. Except they are, and it doesn't, so we get dense, tender, and formally flawless work like Inside Llewyn Davis. Thank goodness.
8. Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski
“Look, did, you ever ask yourself 'How many squares are there on a chessboard?” “Sixty-four.”
It's shot on 60s-era video cameras which look like absolute balls, the sound design stretches the limits of what we might call 'audibility', and it's about a bunch of weirdos who stumble around their lives only half-aware of the profound questions they're confronting about the nature of consciousness and the order of the universe as they attempt to put on a Chess tournament wherein the only participants are primitive computers. But it's awesome, I swear.

9. To The Wonder by Terrence Malick
“Why can't I hold on to what I've found?
Never has the all-too-common idea of a dichotomy between style and substance been more plainly exposed as the falsehood it is. The journeys of the three main characters and our connection to them is expressed entirely through formal cinematic devices, most significantly through the dance between the cinematography and sound design, which flow between perfect harmony with one another to open opposition and back throughout. If one is willing to follow Malick down this particular cinematic river, the rewards are great indeed.

10. Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron
“Either way, it'll be one hell of a ride.”

A rare film wherein the themes and the events onscreen are matched so perfectly that they practically become one and the same. It's about the inherent value in the experiences of life and the grandeur of the universe, and Cuaron's shouting-from-the-rooftops exuberance in expressing this is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Next Ten (Unordered)

Stories We Tell
The World's End The Great Beauty Wolf Children
Captain Philips Museum Hours The Hunt Side Effects
All is Lost Blancanieves

Will's List

No matter how strong 2013 turned out (and it turned out pretty darn good), it was bound to land as a bit of a step down from 2012, given that it didn't provide a new lynchpin for my ideals of modern cinema (and only $3 to rent it in HD I can't believe it wow what a deal). Still, there was plenty to find, and it was a year of such diverse offerings that I feel more behind on last year than any other since I got into the whole "movie" thing.

Still, I'd like to think that's more a reflection of a superb year than too steep a slowdown on my part, so it feels fair to share the ten films of 2013 that have offered me the most. Each one succeeds on totally different terms, and, true to form, there's more than a little overlap with Devan's list.

1.Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners is first and foremost a straightforward thriller, more in the vein of hardboiled detective novels than the realist police procedurals that earn so much more praise these days. That might belie its allegorical power; Prisoners is far from the lousy kidnapped-kid cash-grab that trailers suggested. It subtly reveals itself as a savagely powerful investigation of torture and undue process. Condemnation and sympathy often emerge in the same breath. But what makes the film really astounding is its superlative craftsmanship, particularly its astounding visual splendour and metaphor, which marks both a career-best for world-best cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a major breakthrough for Canadian auteur Villeneuve.
Side Effects2. Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh
It comes as no small joy that Side Effects is the most complex and difficult work of Steven Soderbergh’s career; one that’s been long marked by genre dissection and structural gamesmanship. The coup of Side Effects’s Hitchcockian shift (more Vertigo than Psycho, really) is that the seemingly divergent narrative tones work so well on their own terms. Side Effects betrays our sympathies and expectations, to be sure, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts: its move from takedown of the pharmaceutical system to a psychological thriller about obsession is not just a nifty trick, but a comparing of bureaucratic systems with personal motives that grows richer the further past its surface you dig.

3. Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
At least as recognizable as “horror” as it is “documentary,” Leviathan builds upon the sheep-watching splendour of Sweetgrass, co-director Castaing-Taylor’s previous film, with an intense and surreal view of offshore fishing. Leviathan’s endless streams of gulls, spilled fish guts, and the gruelling tedium of seamanship are harrowing enough on their own, but its up-close visuals lift GoPro cameras to expressionist heights that are matched by the film’s overwhelming sound design. Leviathan feels like the most furied and complete response to the ever-expanding possibilities offered by consumer cameras, creating a sensory experience unlike any other documentary.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese
As black as comedy comes, Scorsese’s biopic of ultra-hedonist stockbroker con-man Jordan Belfort is one of the most formally alive films in years, in the truest sense, hyperactively leveraging its conceits to remind and engage us with its structure. The Wolf of Wall Street fires off unreliable narration, battling voiceovers, chronology switch-ups, and more, constantly calling attention to Belfort’s performative charisma. Even the three-hour length, utterly exhausting given the insane pace, is a tool to exhaust us and make the last hour’s less-entertaining fall from grace as unromantic as possible. And any doubt of whether Scorsese condemns Belfort’s ilk is erased by the gut punch of a final shot.

5. The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer
The Indonesian killings of 1965-1966 — an act of total political retribution involving political executions, mass extortion, and genocide — have long remained nationally underexposed. Like the great Holocaust documentary Shoah, The Act of Killing evokes the past not with archival footage or photos, but by examining its effect on the present. Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited former members of a notorious death squad to stage filmed re-creations of the atrocities, to which they enthusiastically agreed. The result is more surreal, more damning, and more complex a study of perpetrators as human beings than anyone could have expected.

6. Before Midnight by Richard Linklater
The third film in a series now spanning three decades, Before Midnight ambles back into a day and night in the life of a couple who met in Vienna in 1995, and finds that their lives and relationship are more complicated than ever. The series’ usual high-minded intellectual dialogue is present, as is its skill of embedding in that dialogue conflicts and backstories that explode in the climax. But Midnight excels on a different level than its predecessors, as middle age brings Céline and Jesse to a new place in the trilogy (for now), where fleeting decisions of love and family are now for keeps.

7. Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski

A film whose budget and production scale is low enough to circumvent much of the studio system’s infernal apparatus is always appreciated, especially when it uses its means to such unusual and invigorating ends. In the guise of an 80s pseudo-documentary shot with black and white video cameras from the 60s, Computer Chess follows a national competition held in a hotel conference room, where the often eccentric or maladjusted competitors face irrational breakdowns in both their computers and their day-to-day lives. It’s an Altman-esque ensemble comedy that isn’t afraid to get weird, and when it does, it’s equal parts funny and profound.
8. At Berkeley by Frederick Wiseman
Long a chronicler of the institution, Frederick Wiseman’s study of The University of California, Berkeley finds him in his most comprehensive and daring mode. At Berkeley is a self-consciously slow and detailed film, one that demands a near-interactive commitment from its audience to yield its best rewards. But when that commitment is made, details and connections between its scenes slowly surface, all culminating in a massive sequence detailing both a student protest for free tuition (among an incoherent slew of other demands) and the institutional response to it. Wiseman’s conclusions may surprise you.

9. To The Wonder by Terrence Malick
The Tree of Life was just about as seminal an arthouse phenomenon as they come, and most any follow-up was bound to have its flaws put under a microscope. To the Wonder isn’t another rewriting of the narrative ruleset, but it is another work of astounding and emotional craftsmanship. Terrence Malick has placed more faith in the emotional power of elliptical editing than ever, and that in conjunction with his customarily sweeping, swirling visuals and expressionist sound design gives a sense of love’s dance between intimacy and estrangement, and the faith needed to survive that struggle.

Museum Hours
10. Museum Hours by Jem Cohen

Certainly a film far from perfection — its willful stylistic freewheeling catches up with it a fair amount — but what lands Museum Hours here is its boundless love for the act of art appreciation, for the inspection and compassion and discovery that comes from poring over artwork from all manner of eras and sources. No formal slouch itself, Museum Hours is full of little tics and odd moments that draw as much attention to the idea of art as they do to its two unassuming, warm, charming leads' love of it.

by Will Ross

There’s little doubt that Godard was pleased with Vivre Sa Vie, and unafraid to broadcast his pride: he placed it at #6 in his own top 10 of 1962 (behind Rohmer, Truffaut, Bergman, Rossellini, and Hawks) and placed visual references to it in Le Mépris. His satisfaction was plain to see, but Godard wouldn’t be Godard if he didn’t carry misgivings and self-contradictions even in the light of his wildest successes. After a film festival screening of Vivre, Godard was asked how he’d like to develop his work next. “What worries me is that I find I am no longer thinking in terms of cinema… When I was making A bout de souffle or my early shorts, a shot of Seberg would be… making sure that her head was just at the right cinematic angle, and so on. Now I just do things without worrying how they will appear cinematically.” Though anyone with an eye would guess that Vivre Sa Vie was his most carefully composed yet, Godard insisted it was made “as if I were writing an article without going back to make any corrections.” What a guy. Still, his next film, Les Carabiniers, can be clearly connected to his worries of “cinematic” precision. Whereas Vivre treated each shot (and each tableau) as an elaborate, self-contained compound, Les Carabiniers is far more concerned with montage. Godard was clearly having misgivings about the power of images, because this film is an assault on the notion of images as tools of persuasion, objects of fantasy, and connotations of what is “real”. It is, even more than Le Petit Soldat, an extremely roughly hewn film: compositions seem chanced upon, the location sound is filled with clattering and half-heard dialogue, the beginning of a shot will often repeat a line or gesture from the end of the last one, and the narrative lacks almost any clear arc. That narrative, as it stands: two army officers visit a small grouping of shacks to find recruits for a new war, using a “personal letter” from the king as persuasion. They hit their mark with Michelangelo and Ulysses, promising them any extravagance they wish in return for service, be it unchecked violence or a chocolate factory. Intrigued by this idea, and urged on by their wives Venus and Cleopatra, the two go to war, and the middle half of the film (only 80 minutes long) is a succession of stock newsreel footage, messily handwritten title cards, and vignettes involving Michelangelo and Ulysses.

The washed out, muddy appearance of the visuals (and the generally amateurish craftsmanship) serves two main purposes: first, to undermine any of the glamour or excitement typical to war films, even “anti”-war films, and second, as a Brechtian cue to the film’s own grammar. Les Carabiniers shows us unconvincing images to remind us of how convincing those images can be in a more conventional film. That point is never clearer than the sequence Michelangelo watches films in a cinema — modelled on the Lumiere actualités of the late 19th century — for the first time. He braces himself when the train rushes by the screen, and pivots and repositions himself to get a better view of the naked woman in the bath. Eventually, Michelangelo tries to hop into the image itself, only to tear the screen and rupture the illusion. The scene plays not only as a satire of empty wartime promises of glory and grandeur, but a caution towards the visceral seduction that cinema can offer when positioned as a mirror of reality. It’s like a self-riposte towards the Joan of Arc scene in Vivre Sa Vie.

The Cinematic Lure — Les Carabiniers, left, Vivre Sa Vie, right.
Yes, the gullible duo at the heart of the film’s satire are a couple of stereotypical country bumpkins, a counter-intuitive choice for a film that also includes stark depictions of murder, sexual assault, and other war crimes. Godard is well aware of this, and foregrounds counter-intuition and paradox every chance he gets (those bumpkins' namesakes of classical maestros are no accident). For Godard, war is an absurd invention, rooted in fantasy and illusion, a perspective brought fully to bear in the anti-climactic sequence, where the soldiers return home and spend 10 full minutes sharing their spoils of war: a suitcase full of postcards. Soon after, seeking the return on their deeds, they are told that the king has won, but made a compromise for peace (i.e. lost the war) and agreed to execute any war criminals. Michelangelo and Ulysses are certainly war criminals, and so they are hastily executed (like almost all the film’s deaths, off-screen) by one of the men who recruited them. It’s a sudden, banal, and dull death, much like the rest of the film. Les Carabiniers isn’t a pleasant film to watch, nor is it perfect. One scene, where the soldiers at first hesitate to execute a beautiful Marxist rebel and then riddle her with a comically lengthy storm of bullets, is politically salient but a little too random and disengaged from the central thematic apparatus of the film; the scene is less counter-intuitive than confused. But such missteps and muddle may be endemic to such a wilfully and brilliantly difficult approach, and the repulsiveness of Les Carabiniers is livened immeasurably by the wit that governs it. --- Further Reading 
“Godard’s 60’s: Les Carabiniers” by MJR at Reverse Shot
A review critical of the film's class politics by Robert Stanley Martin at The Hooded Utilitarian
"Les Carabiniers Under Fire" (1, 2, 3), contemporary defense of the film by Jean-Luc Godard