Tibuktu-A Great Film About The Rise Of Islamic Militants In Africa
Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, 2015
Manohla DargisThe quietly devastating “Timbuktu” creeps up on you crystalline scene by crystalline scene. Set in the present, it takes place in the Malian city of its title, soon after the arrival of an Islamist group that quickly imposesShariah law on the resistant population. At first, the story doesn’t seem to have a center or a protagonist. Instead, the directorAbderrahmane Sissako introduces moments of outrage, an approach that allows him to create a mosaic portrait of a people under siege.
One memorable woman walks through the streets, head uncovered, a long piece of fabric trailing her like a queenly train. She seems regally impervious to the jihadists, who, even as they casually break Shariah law, try to police the locals. Music is forbidden, as are cigarettes and soccer. One young man who defies the ban on the game is sentenced to 20 lashes. But the human imagination isn’t as easy to imprison and in a lyrical scene, boys joyfully play soccer with a make-believe ball as two jihadists on a motorcycle circle the dusty field, momentarily defeated.
In time, the story settles on Kidane, a Muslim who lives near Timbuktu with his wife, Satima, and their daughter in a small, peaceful kingdom on the dunes. Many of the family’s neighbors have fled after the jihadist invasion, but the violence seems to have passed over Kidane until one day it comes down on him with a vengeance. During a dispute with a fisherman Kidane fires a gun. He’s brought to trial before a jihadist jury, which mercilessly sets about enacting Shariah law.
The genesis of “Timbuktu” is ahorrific 2012 incident in which an unmarried Malian couple was stoned to death by members of the Islamist group Ansar Dine. The jihadists accused the couple, who had children, of having sex outside of marriage. Mr. Sissako, a Muslim who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, began working on “Timbuktu” the next year, seeking to draw attention to this atrocity. The movie is a great work of art but it is also a tribute to Muslim victims of terror that,as Mr. Sissako once put it, “makes Islam into something imaginary.”
“Timbuktu” is a tragic movie but not a nihilistic one. Mr. Sissako doesn’t shy away from showing violence, but he never sensationalizes any of the horrors. Instead, he answers those atrocities with visual beauty and moments of everyday joy and pleasure that, as the story unfolds, register as acts of artistic resistance. He also insists on humanizing the jihadists, as when an older man vainly directs a younger one on how to deliver a speech for a propaganda video. (“Your speech is not convincing.”) It’s an extraordinary scene, at once absurd and believable, and a reminder of the truth that it is people, not faceless monsters, who commit these horrors.
The human imagination isn’t as easy to imprison and in a lyrical scene, boys joyfully play soccer with a make-believe ball as two jihadists circle, momentarily defeated.
Frederick Wiseman, the director of “In Jackson Heights,” is not just one of the greatest documentary filmmakers working today; he’s one of the greatest directors. His subject is institutions, specifically men, women and children who assert their humanity in schools, bureaucracies and organizations that seem to have been created for maximum dehumanization. Among his admirers is Ava DuVernay, who rewatched some of Mr. Wiseman’s movies before shooting “13th,” her documentary on institutional racism and the American penal system. Manohla Dargis asked her about his influence. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Ava DuVernay discusses Frederick Wiseman’s influence on her work. DuVernay is the director of “Selma,” “13th” and the coming “Wrinkle in Time.”
Ava DuVernay“I saw ‘High School’ at UCLA, I was just riveted. First of all, just the form – ‘What is this? What am I watching?’ – just the intimacy of it. It’s people in institutions, people bumping up against the systems. It’s fascinating how he finds this intimacy within the epic and that there’s life there in systems that are very lifeless. The way the camera moves and what it’s interested in I’m interested in even though I didn’t know I was interested in it until he looked at it, until he showed it to me. Seeing it for the first time, it just felt raw. I cannot think of a documentary that I saw before ‘High School.’ That was a documentary to me.”
DVD and Blu-ray editions of “In Jackson Heights” can be purchased from zipporah.com.
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2006
A.O. ScottSome filmmakers are globetrotters and genre-hoppers, moving from place to place and style to style in pursuit of their visions. The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne prefer to stay close to home, in and around the industrial French-speaking city of Seraing. The stories they find there – tough, realistic tales that feel like parables, unless it’s the other way around – have earned them admirers and imitators. They have won a half-dozen prizes in Cannes, and their influence is visible around the world and up and down this list, from “Timbuktu” to “Wendy and Lucy.”
“L’Enfant” – a sinewy and suspenseful crime story that is also a spiritual fable – concerns Bruno, a young petty criminal (Jérémie Renier), whose girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), becomes pregnant. To say Bruno is unequipped for fatherhood is an understatement, and his solution to the problem of a new baby is all the more appalling because it makes perfect sense to him. I just watched it again and, even though I’ve written thousands of words on the Dardennes, I feel like I could launch into a whole new thesis about Christianity, the collapse of socialism in Europe, Robert Bresson, shaky camera work and everything else. But I was also completely caught up in the story, holding my breath even though I knew exactly what was coming.
Manohla DargisPart of what’s thrilling about their films is that while the stories seem relatively simple, the narrative stakes are always profound and, as in “L’Enfant,” a matter of literal and death. The stories inevitably involve stark moral choices and the kinds of falls from grace (or just common decency) and transporting redemption that we tend to associate with Christianity. Except that grace in the Dardennes’ world tends to come down to personal choice, which I think ties very much into one of your thesis points: the collapse of socialism in Europe. In a fallen social world, we have only one another and our choices.
ScottWhich is bleak, but not hopeless. Economic distress is part of Bruno and Sonia’s circumstance but they also have access to the benefits of social democracy and the relative benevolence of the state. The problem, though, is that non-material sources of value have deteriorated. Religion, family, class solidarity, hometown pride – none of these have the power they used to. The reckoning of this loss, and the emphasis on personal responsibility (paternal responsibility in particular) makes “L’Enfant” in some ways a conservative movie.
DargisIs it conservative or is it logical, obvious, just and right to assert – as the film does – that a father of a child must be responsible to that child, as well as to other human beings? Our obligations to other people are part of what makes us human and you don’t have to be on the right or the left (where the Dardennes clearly are) to see there are obvious perils when those obligations are delegated to the bureaucratic state. That we’re even discussing these questions, I think, speaks to the richness of their work. The Dardennes make enthralling movies that – as in the case here – are as gripping as a great thriller, but they also turn viewers into moral and political philosophers. To put it in Netflix terms, if you like “The Wire” and foreign-language movies – voila!
The Dardennes make enthralling movies that are as gripping as a great thriller, but they also turn viewers into philosophers.
The setting is an unnamed African country where Maria – played by a transcendent Isabelle Huppert – struggles to hold onto her family’s coffee plantation amid an escalating civil war. A fractured story about love, strength, the costs of white patrimony and the continuing ravages of postcolonialism, “White Material” finds the brilliant French director Claire Denis again in Africa, where she spent much of her childhood in Francophone countries. Here, the actor Robert Pattinson, an admirer of “White Material” and of Ms. Denis, answered a few questions by email about both put to him by Manohla Dargis.
Robert Pattinson explains why he admires Claire Denis films. This year he’s starred in “The Lost City of Z” and “Good Time.” He is set to work with Ms. Denis on “High Life.”
How did you discover Claire Denis’s films?
Robert PattinsonI saw “White Material” about seven years ago and she became an immediate favorite.
What specifically draws you to her work?
Watching the performances in her movies, you can just feel the freedom she gives her actors. She creates an entire world for them to behave in. And I think having such wide parameters to capture things from means her movies can be built from an enormous amount of incremental details rather than a narrow narrative thrust. Her movies feel like waves building and breaking.
What does Isabelle Huppert bring to the character of Maria Vial?
She plays a character that seems to live steadfastly in her faith and imagination and yet still feels so human, accessible and raw.
Dargis and ScottStrange as it may sound, there’s a strong case to be made that Steven Spielberg is among the most underrated American filmmakers of the 21st century. In the 1990s, he made the transition from popular artist to prestige auteur, bookending the decade with the imposing historical dramas “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” His post-“Ryan” career has been distinguished by extraordinary productivity and equally remarkable range, but it hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim. And yet, with characteristic verve and discipline, he has plunged into science fiction, history, politics, animation and espionage. Surveying his prodigious and protean output, we became convinced that at least one of his dozen most recent features belonged on this list.
But which one? One of us regards “A.I.” as an immortal masterpiece. The other one said: “Over my dead body.” We share the conviction that “War Horse” didn’t get its due (though the best action sequence in “Wonder Woman” pays homage to its dark and thrilling vision of trench warfare). We have called “Bridge of Spies” “perfect” and “Lincoln” “splendid,” even as some of our colleagues ignored the first and nitpicked the second. But we needed some help making up our minds, so we went to Facebook.
And that only multiplied the ambiguity. While nobody was eager to go to bat for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” or “The BFG,” there were fans who embraced the buoyancy of “Catch Me if You Can,” the kineticism of “The Adventures of Tintin,” the dystopian terror of “Minority Report” and the evil-E.T. action of “War of the Worlds.”
That film is part of a loose trilogy of films that evoke and respond to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. We settled on another in the trilogy, “Munich,” a controversial, frequently misunderstood drama about violence, righteousness and revenge. Set in the 1970s, as a group of undercover Israeli operatives ferret out the terrorists responsible for a horrific attack at the Munich Olympics, the film is a twisty and suspenseful thriller with unsettling and ambiguous ethical questions at its core. What is the line between justice and vengeance? How can human decency survive the fight against fanaticism? These questions have not hardly lost their relevance, and neither has “Munich.”
I cast my vote for the underappreciated Bridge of Spies. It’s a beautiful movie about empathy and integrity in the face of systematic injustice. Andrew Frank on Facebook
A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s just brilliant, poetic and a masterpiece. Martín Coitinho on Facebook
Why are we debating this when we all know the answer is CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. Sheila Wagner on Facebook
My heart says War Horse, my head says Minority Report. Suzanne Tidwell on Facebook
Minority Report - emotionally resonant, ahead of its time and impressively prescient in its take on the impact of technology on our lives. Charles Qian on Facebook
The terminal was good. tom hanks was awesome. Ashutosh Bajpai on Facebook
The Adventures of Tintin! This is a collective, unanimous vote of all ages in my household. Jordan Roberts on Facebook
War of the Worlds. He channeled all my nightmares, from the river of bodies to the burning train to the choice between two children. Alison Chapman on Facebook
Lincoln, the most unexpectedly relevant and politically insightful movie of this decade. Robert Hamer on Facebook
Lincoln. Lincoln. Lincoln. Michael Bennett on Facebook
Munich, even if I haven’t seen it since release. It shook me. Chris Williams on Facebook
Munich. I would’ve voted it for Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain as well. John Buckley on Facebook
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2006
Revered among filmmakers and critics around the world, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is far from a household name for American moviegoers. Visually gorgeous and emotionally subtle, his films range across genres and periods, exploring Chinese history and contemporary life with wit, curiosity and formal rigor. “Three Times” is divided into three sections: “A Time for Love,” set in 1966; “A Time for Freedom,” set in 1911; and “A Time for Youth,” set in the present. Each chapter concerns a man and a woman – always played by the same actors, Chang Chen and Shu Qi – whose romantic yearnings illuminate and in some ways transcend their historical circumstances.
Barry Jenkins talks about “Three Times,” one of the inspirations for his drama “Moonlight,” winner of the 2017 Oscar for best picture.
Mr. Hou’s influence extends far and wide. Among his admirers is Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture this year and was partly inspired by “Three Times.” He shared his thoughts with A.O. Scott via email. Here are excerpts:
On seeing the film:
Barry JenkinsI first saw “Three Times” at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. It was wonderful, Roger Ebert introduced the film. He loved it and thankfully gushed over it in a way that didn't hype such a delicate film.
On Hou Hsiao-hsien’s place in cinema:
I’m here at Cannes at the moment, and a phrase I keep hearing is “beyond cinema.” Hou Hsiao-hsien is beyond cinema. I mean that not in the sense that his formalism is antiquated or de rigueur, but more to accentuate the synesthetic quality of his work. His craft is as evocative as any of the more brawny stylists we revere as auteurs, but the effect it arrives at is much more delicate, elusive by nature.
How “Three Times” influenced “Moonlight”:
The structure of “Three Times” is the sole impetus for the structure of “Moonlight.” The source material the film originated from was not in triptych form. Beyond that, this idea of a delicate treatment of roiling emotions, of interiority translated through external imagery (and SOUND) rather than interior monologue, these things I kept in heart and head as “Moonlight” evolved into the film that it is.
A.O. ScottInspired by a famous 1857 painting by Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners and I” is a cinematic essay on the importance of valuing what we might be tempted to overlook or throw away. The gleaners on Millet’s canvas are French peasant women gathering kernels of wheat after the harvest. Their combination of need, thrift and dignity inspires a wide-ranging search for present-day counterparts. Freegans, hoarders, artists and hermits – people who, for various reasons, step out of the relentless cycle of consumption and waste that defines so much of modern life.
The director Agnès Varda – the “I” of the film’s English title – counts herself as part of this informal tribe. A genial, inquisitive on-screen presence, she collects images and anecdotes that would otherwise be too easily neglected. The result is a documentary that is difficult to characterize and impossible to forget. Though it can feel charmingly miscellaneous – a free-associative tour of its maker’s mind and sensibility – it has an unmistakable coherence and rigor, like a museum exhibit or an art installation.
Ms. Varda, the only woman permitted entry into the boys’ club of the French new wave, has migrated to the center of a trans-disciplinary, international artistic tendency – a counter-tradition of critical and creative thinkers that includes her friend and sometime collaborator Chris Marker, the novelist and art critic John Berger, Patti Smith and other artists who defy the usual categories. “They call me Granny Punk,” Ms. Varda once told me, and she embodies the defiant, anarchic, do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, past and present.
In true punk spirit, “The Gleaners and I” doubles as a programmatic aesthetic statement and a protest against the way things are. Collecting, interpreting and juxtaposing heterogeneous objects – paintings, potatoes, seashells, books – is the approach to art-making closest to the pulse of life. There is no higher purpose than to appreciate the peculiarity and uniqueness of people, places and moments, and the things we gather around us are symbols of that appreciation. But the tide of commerce renders our experience as disposable as the junk we toss away, leaving us at once glutted with stuff and starved for meaning.
That’s certainly true of movies. There are so many of them, and they come and go so quickly that it’s easy to lose sight of how and why they matter. “The Gleaners and I” is precious because it’s a perfect example of its own argument – a small thing of nearly incalculable value.
“They call me Granny Punk,” Agnès Varda once told me, and she embodies the defiant, anarchic, do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, past and present.
Dargis and ScottWe took to Facebook to find the best action movie of the 21st century and what resulted was, in part, a philosophical debate. What, exactly, counts as an action movie in this era of hyperactive digital special effects? Are superhero franchises automatically action movies? What about kid-oriented fantasy adventures? The Jason Bourne movies? The rebooted “Star Trek” or “Planet of the Apes” series?
Tough questions! And while film scholars may differ, our standards are fairly inclusive. There needs to be a lot of chasing, and a lot of stuff has to blow up. That can happen in outer space, in Gotham, at Hogwarts, on the freeways of Los Angeles or in whatever global capital poor Jason Bourne happens to be running through when his enemies catch sight of him.
But anyway, this was not a close call. The best action movie of the 21st century – the action movie that sails into contention as one of the best movies, period – is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” By a dusty outback mile.
Do you need to ask why? O.K. fine. Because George Miller is an old-school choreographer of chaos, favoring practical effects over their digital counterparts. Also because the movie drags the snarling, anti-authoritarian, punk-rock wit of the first “Mad Max” movies into a new era, updating and conserving in a single gesture. And finally because in Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s one-handed, buzz-cut, kohl-eyed avenger, the movies that famously didn’t need another hero found the one we all needed.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the perfect combination of gonzo filmmaking and cathartic carnage. Toni Perling on Facebook
Ong-Bak. Tony Jaa is the martial arts equivalent of Nijinsky. Peter Nellhaus on Facebook
Very tough question but if someone with a “very particular set of skills” held a gun to my head I'd pick Taken. Lawrence Hakiwai on Facebook
Guardians of the Galaxy, it blows the rest out of the water. Christian Montoya on Facebook
The one I’ll always keep rewatching is “Hot Fuzz.” It hits every ridiculous action high I need. Gabe Rosenberg on Facebook
‘The Raid: Redemption’is the most thrilling, inventive, relentless, and brilliantly-edited pure-action film of the 21st century, hands down. Anthony Marinetti on Facebook
The Raid - Easily. If I had to pick a second, I’d pick it again. Nothing comes close! Jon Hopper on Facebook
The Bourne Ultimatumtakes the prize. Taylor Costello on Facebook
Bourne Identity, easy. Defines both the action and spy movie dramas for me. Casey Decker on Facebook
Mad Max: Fury Road is not only the best action movie of this century so far, it's one of the most perfect movies ever made. Devin Rubink on Facebook
Mad Max: Fury Road. Compared to that, every other action movie looks like a kid smashing together their muscled male action figures. Alix Heintzman on Facebook
Directed by Barry Jenkins, 2016
A.O. ScottI have loved and championed a number of films over the past 17 years, but this one is somehow special. From the first time I saw it, I felt an unusually intense and intimate affection for it, an almost protective investment in its flourishing. And I think part of the reason is that “Moonlight” solicits that kind of affection for its main character, Chiron, as a boy, an adolescent and a man. People talk about identifying with or relating to a character, but what happens here is different. You feel close to him. Responsible for him. I have studied this film closely, and I’m still not sure exactly how Barry Jenkins made that happen.
Manohla DargisThat’s one of criticism’s essential questions, isn’t it: how do directors make characters – with their interior lives, their specificity and universality – come alive on screen? It can feel alchemical, magical, even if we intellectually understand how fiction creators invite our empathy. In this case, Mr. Jenkins brings us into Chiron’s life quickly by opening the story when he’s just a child. He’s physically tiny (never more so than when next to Mahershala Ali, who plays his protector) and his size combined with his reserve and large, haunting eyes, suggests such acute vulnerability that you want to sweep him into your arms.
Scott“Moonlight” also demonstrates that honest, alert storytelling and formal inventiveness can have political implications. Like Chiron, the movie never raises its voice or makes an overt argument.
DargisPart of the movie’s genius is how it folds its argument into its actual narrative structure. Mr. Jenkins sustains and tests our empathy as Chiron grows up. In the second chapter, he has become a bullied teenager, whose lovemaking with a male friend becomes his secret and ours. By Chapter 3, he has become a swaggering, hard-body adult who wears masculinity like armor. Mr. Jenkins plays with this stereotype brilliantly: he invokes the cliché of the black male “thug” – a stereotype it’s worth pointing out that was partly invented by American cinema – yet it also forcefully rejects Hollywood conventions. “Moonlight” is an art film, but it is also an act of resistance against a system that traffics in degrading, offensive images of black masculinity.
ScottBy asserting the complicated, entangled humanity of all its characters (including Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, the drug dealer who befriends him and the friend who betrays him), it shows how black lives matter.
People talk about identifying with a character, but here you feel responsible for him. I have studied this film closely and I’m still not sure exactly how Barry Jenkins made that happen.
In Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” a young woman named Wendy passes through a Pacific Northwest town on her way to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. She has a little bit of money, an unreliable car and her dog, Lucy. This stripped-down tale of desperation and hope in hard times – a Raymond Carver story for the Great Recession – stars Michelle Williams, who talked with A.O. Scott about the experience of making it.
Michelle Williams discusses her work on “Wendy and Lucy.” In 2016, she starred in “Manchester by the Sea” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.”
How did you first come to work with Kelly Reichardt?
Michelle WilliamsMutual friends. Laura Rosenthal, the casting director – we used to live in the same neighborhood and she stalked me at the local coffee shop. And then I watched “Old Joy” [also by Ms. Reichardt] and I knew that Kelly was making the movies that I wanted to be a part of.
Was there a challenge for you in getting into that character?
Kelly is very clear about what she wants. She is a really easy collaborator because she is so precise, so things happen very quickly. You understand the place and the person very quickly because she’s very specific about what she wants. She’s still open. I would shoot her ideas and she would say, “Come back in a week when you’ve honed that thing down from your garish, stupid, big idea to something that I might actually like, Michelle.”
Her characters aren’t very expressive or easy to read. That has to be a challenge for an actor.
I find Kelly’s characters get to maintain a lot of dignity and self-respect because they aren’t always giving themselves away. And I find that kind of tricky. It’s an incredibly fine line to walk. Is anybody going to know me? Is anybody going to understand who I am as this person? Are they going to care? Is there going to be a there, there?
And for Kelly’s language, for her sensibility, there is. These characters don’t feel compelled to explain themselves. You have to sort of train your ear and your eye and get to know them slowly. It’s like not sleeping with someone on the first date when you watch her movies. You’re like, let me take a little time to get to know you and absorb you.
“Wendy and Lucy” came out at the end of 2008, right in the middle of the election campaign and the economic collapse. There’s a powerful sense that while the movie is very much about this one young woman and her situation, it’s also about a lot more than that.
All of Kelly’s movies are political, but you would have to maybe have been told that to be aware of it. She’s able to slip it into everything she does, but it’s never didactic or heavy-handed. It’s an essential part of who Kelly is. She’s interested in a lot of genres, but the backbone of it is, how do people get along? How do people get by?
A.O. Scott“I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’s film about Bob Dylan, is not a biopic. It’s an extended essay in Dylanology, with six actors (among them Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett) incarnating aspects of the future Nobel laureate’s protean personality. In that spirit, we have compiled the following brief Q&A, which should clear up any mysteries about this film and its subject.
Where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one?
I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some land. I yelled to Captain A-Rab, I’ll have you understand. Who came running to the deck and said, “Boys, forget the whale. We’re going over yonder! Cut the engine! Raise the sail!”
Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
Someone’s got it in for me. They’re spreading stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick. But when they will, I can only guess.
With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace, and your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace, and your basement clothes and your hollow face – Who among them can think he could outguess you?
I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes. And for that one moment I could be you. Yeah – I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes. You’d know what a drag it is to see you.
How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home. Walking a road other men have gone down. I’m seeing a world of people and things. Of paupers and peasants and princes and kings.
Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me, I took his flute. No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?
You might like to eat caviar. You might like to eat bread. You might be sleeping on a floor. You might be sleeping in a feather bed. But you’re going to have to serve somebody.
You know something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.
Oh, I’m sailing away my own true love. I’m sailing away in the morning. Is there something I can send you from across the sea, from the place that I’ll be landing?
I’ve got to get back into my hotel room. I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece. She promised she’d be there with me, when I paint my masterpiece.
You might be sleeping on a floor. You might be sleeping in a feather bed. But you’re going to have to serve somebody.
Manohla DargisIn “Silent Light,” the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas does more than tell a religious story – he invites you into a world of grace and wonder so beautiful that it turns his film into a kind of prayer. The narrative is minimal; the filmmaking lush. Set in an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, it traces the agonies of a farming couple, Johan and Esther, who are being torn apart by his love for another woman. Little seems to happen but this is a movie about everything: what it means to love, to have faith, to live in the world.
It opens with an astonishing sequence that inaugurates a new day, a dawning that – as blackness filled with whirring and cawing gives way to light – suggests opening theater curtains. The constant presence of the natural world gives the movie a vaguely documentary feel as does the unforced sincerity of the nonprofessional performers, who primarily speak in Plautdietsch, a German dialect the Mennonites brought with them. At the same time, the dialect, the family’s modest clothes, austerity and piety give them a near-otherworldly quality.
Over the course of the movie, Johan and Esther’s marriage badly frays, yet even as it does Mr. Reygadas underscores their intimacy with each other and their children, a sense of togetherness that gradually includes us. Much of what Mr. Reygadas does – both narratively and visually – seems intended to draw you close to his characters, to look intently into the faces framed inside his lingering close-ups. Their relative isolation means that we’re often alone with Johan, Esther and their children, which further deepens our connection to them.
Looking is critical here. Mr. Reygadas doesn’t provide the usual cinematic signposts: no score to cue tears or speeches. Characters instead act and speak much as people do in life. This palpable realism is deepened by scenes of the family’s ordinary habits. In one ravishing sequence, the family bathes semi-clothed in an outdoor pool surrounded by green foliage, a paradisal interlude that’s disturbed when Esther begins crying. After Johan suggests they swim, Mr. Reygadas narrows in on a blurred image that steadily comes into focus, revealing a wild orchid.
Mr. Reygadas wants us to see this orchid and see it deeply, so that we grasp its fragile beauty and, importantly, its impermanence. This reminder of life’s transience connects to two moments that bookend the story: the first, at the start, when someone stops a ticking clock, and the second, near the end, when someone else winds it up again. With the stopped clock, Mr. Reygadas reminds us that there are other rhythms to live by, including the rising and setting sun. He is also suggesting, I think, that there’s something timeless – eternal – about the love that fills this movie and leads to its startling, last-minute resurrection.
Little seems to happen but this is a movie about everything: what it means to love, to have faith, to live in the world.
Dargis and ScottMaybe it’s the mood of the times or just the mood of Times readers, but according to a highly unscientific, (and endlessly fascinating) survey we conducted on Facebook around Valentine’s Day, the best movie romances of the 21st century (so far) serve the bitter with the sweet, the melancholy with the moonstruck.
With a few notable exceptions – the first “Bridget Jones” movie; “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and (heaven help us) “Love Actually” – readers gravitated more to melodrama than rom-com, and favored stories of loss and longing rather than happily ever after. It’s striking how many of the great love stories of our era are really breakup stories, meditations on love’s mutability rather than its permanence. Even the most recent romantic conversation piece, “La La Land,” is about a relationship that can’t survive the pull of professional ambition and the play of chance (though in that case, the problem may also be the state of heterosexual romance). “(500) Days of Summer,” which several readers mentioned, is also about a romance that doesn’t quite work out. The same is true of “Her” and the French lesbian coming-of-age story, “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
Disappointment is more satisfying than fulfillment. We like movies about great love affairs that never quite happen as well as those that flare up and flame out. “Once” and “Lost in Translation” made strong showings. And it might be that lustrous images of unrequited longing are better than sex.
And the winner of our survey – by critical fiat as well as popular acclaim – is a movie that combines laughter and melancholy, nostalgia and hope. It’s a movie about how you never forget your first love, unless you have a mad scientist with a fluky homemade gadget to help you out. It’s also about how desire and loss are inseparable, and about how the yearning to clean the slate and start over is just another case of eternal recurrence.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a wintry pop song of a film, one you want to play on repeat with a cast in top form. In addition to the startlingly credible Jim Carrey and the irresistibly orange-haired Kate Winslet as lovers, it has Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo. Charlie Kaufman’s writing has the perfect equipoise of cynicism and sensitivity, and finds a perfect correlative in the director Michel Gondry’s whimsical ingenuity. The only thing better than seeing it again would be wiping it from your memory and rediscovering it for the first time.
In the Mood for Loveshould start and end this debate. Michael Gately on Facebook
“Her” was the most romantic movie I have ever seen. Absolutely beautiful. Deirdre Hayes on Facebook
For the entire range of love, romance and disappointment, hard to top “Before Sunset.” “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane!” “I know.” Josh Wartel on Facebook
Silver Linings Playbookis a perfect depiction of imperfect people seeing the best in each other. John Moho on Facebook
I’ll admit to being head over heels in love with the first Bridget Jones’s Diary. I laugh, I empathize, I swoon every time . Jeri Stoeber on Facebook
Crazy, Stupid Love. I mean, Ryan Gosling is in it AND Steve Carell. It’s a funny, sometimes sweet film that I really enjoyed. Plus, Ryan Gosling is in it, or did I already say that? Rachel Wimberly on Facebook
No one on God’s green earth can tell me that Hot Fuzz isn’t a love story because it absolutely is. Sarah Avery Fainer on Facebook
I am Legend. I can only hope someone will love me like Will Smith loved that dog. Darko Vel’Rulise on Facebook
Todd Haynes’ Carol(2015). Everything about Carol is lovely & heartbreaking. Tram Ngo on Facebook
The Notebook, there is a silly romantic idealism to it that gets me every time and who doesn’t like a passionate kiss in the rain. Mwesigwa Herbert on Facebook
Top Five - The chemistry between Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson makes me wish they did a movie together every year. Zayne Reeves on Facebook
I instantly thought of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.... It’s messy, and crude and just plain perfect. Katie Marie on Facebook
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Directed by Judd Apatow, 2005
Manohla DargisWhen “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was released, I had no idea I was watching a defining movie about stunted masculinity or that its director, Judd Apatow, would soon emerge as a force in American comedy. I had expected jokes, though not scenes of violent chest-waxing and lonely tuba playing and certainly not such depth of feeling. The image of Steve Carell’s title character, Andy, painting his little collectible soldiers remains a perfect encapsulation of its themes and a desperately poignant vision of an American tragedy.
A.O. ScottAccording to a bunch of French critics (who often appreciate our movies more than we do) we are living in “a new golden age of American comedy.” Its great theme – pioneered by Mr. Apatow’s erstwhile housemate Adam Sandler and pursued by a swarm of man- and (more recently) woman-children – is the fight against maturity. Sometimes the battle is nasty and sometimes sweetly naïve, but this movie is the one that manages most successfully to have it both ways.
DargisIt does have it both ways – an Apatow signature – though it feels more like a cautionary tale against boys’ clubs than one itself. Andy’s dilemma is partly situational, and it’s poignant rather than alarming. Part of the comedy is that he fits a pathological stereotype – he could be a pervert or a serial killer. He lives next to an elderly couple and works with guys (who are juvenile, not virginal) at an electronics store, a clubby, nearly all-male space that could work as a metaphor for the movie industry. The one woman he works with is a ravenously, terrifyingly sexual older woman – a figure that says a lot about male anxiety toward women, maybe more than the film realizes.
ScottFear of women, of female sexuality in particular, is a staple of manchild comedy, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes left as a sour subtext. The wonderful thing about “Virgin” is that it shows how the horn-dog acting out of the guys at Andy’s job (a dream team including Romany Malco, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd) is less the mastery of that terror than an expression of it. If Andy is afraid of women, it’s partly because he’s disgusted by the ways other men talk about them.
Catherine Keener’s Trish, who ultimately turns Andy into a 40-year-old non-virgin, is the film’s designated grown-up. It would take another decade, but eventually women comedians and writers would stake their own claim to immaturity. Mr. Apatow may not be the father of modern feminist comedy, but his early movies did in some way lay the tracks for “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer’s breakout celebration of a woman’s right to misbehave.
I had expected jokes, though not scenes of violent chest-waxing and lonely tuba playing and certainly not such depth of feeling.