I am one of those annoying movie fanatics who tend to make year end lists. You know what I mean: the top ten movies of the year, the best acting, directing, writing, etc. And if that’s not bad enough, like most people who do this, I start building that list early on such that by June, say, I have some strong possibilities as to who might make it out of the Darwinian survival of the fittest mire and who might not.
But there is something interesting happening this time round. While I already could easily have a top five or more list when it comes to female actors, I don’t have anyone I feel that strongly about for their male counterparts. So far this year, roles for women have been more interesting, more complex and more exciting than roles for men.
Yes and verily I say it true: 2014 has been up until now a season in which the movies that have centered on men have been bland and disappointing or worse (and believe me, some have been far, far worse). And I’m not just talking the big budget and/or studio produced films like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Neighbors, Noah, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Transcendence, which have ranged from bad to good, but not quite up to snuff enough (you know who you are, Monuments Men).
I’m also talking about the medium to lower budget films, where true hope often lies for the future of the art, movies like Cold Comes the Night, The Best Offer, Fading Gigolo, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Locke, Blue Ruin, Bad Words, Enemy, Joe, etc.
I’m talking about films that are so uninteresting or lackluster, with leads that are weighed down by screenplays and directing that constantly fall too short of the mark, that there’s little chance of them making any list, whether the parts are well played or not (and sometimes, as in the case of Ralph Feinnes of Grand Budapest…, Nicholas Cage of Joe and Tom Hardy of Locke, they are very well played indeed).
And to further demonstrate my point, in Captain America: Shadow Recruit, where the title character does not make it to the dishwater simile, it’s the female characters (played by Scarlett Johannsen, Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp) that are the most alive and exciting part of that film.
(I won’t talk about Godzilla here since it’s never really been clear just what gender old radioactive breath is.)
In fact, so far the only actors that have any sort of lock on making my year ender is John Cusack (for Adult World, a movie that centers on a female protagonist) and Woody Allen (for Fading Gigolo, in which he steals the movie from male lead John Turturro). And both of those are for supporting roles.
So now, let’s look at the evidence for the distaff side. It’s only May (and halfway through that) and we have had Child’s Pose, Under the Skin, 9 Month Stretch, In Bloom, In Fear, Lucky Bastard, Not My Type, On My Way and Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II. All with female leads that are far more intriguing, thought provoking and noteworthy than anything Chris Pine, Zac Efron, Andrew Garfield or Chris Evans have given us.
Of course, this does come with a few caveats. The movies with these strong and vibrant female protagonists are generally foreign or low budget independent. In other words, females may be winning the war, but are doing so by engaging in battles that no one has heard of or cares about.
But let’s not be half empty. As of now, it does seem that 2014 is the half year of the woman.
And adding to my assertion, we now have three more contenders: Ida, Young & Beautiful and The Immigrant.
Ida, the new Polish film written by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz and directed by Pawlikowski (who is perhaps best known over here for My Summer of Love), is a high concept wolf in low budget sheep’s clothing.
It’s the story of Anna, a novitiate living in a convent in 1960’s Poland who is about to take her vows when the Abbess tells her she needs to visit her only known relative, an Aunt that the young woman hasn’t seen since she was put into an orphanage during the war. When Anna visits her Aunt, an alcoholic judge who is very free with her affections when it comes to men (every aspect of her life is in direct contrast to this future Bride of Christ), Anna is informed that she is actually Jewish and her birth name is actually Ida.
Ida is filmed in black and white, in stark contrasts and moody lighting (the marvelous cinematography is by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal). It has the feel of an early Andrzej Wajda movie like A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds, or Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water.
It’s a cinematic choice that seems to emphasize that Anna’s world is haunted by deprivation, both due to the war and to the country being controlled by Communist Russia. The rooms are large and spacious leftovers of an earlier time, but there aren’t many cars on the street and the cities never seem to be booming.
Everybody seems just a bit unhappy and depressed (the major male character plays a saxophone which is about as moody and introspective an instrument as one can get). And it’s a Poland still guilt ridden and haunted by the Holocaust, as the central section of the film becomes a road movie as Anna and her Aunt try to uncover just what happened to the young woman’s parents and where their bodies are buried.
Ida is a very moving film filled with plot turns that are often shocking and unexpected. It also has an ending that I was surprised wasn’t more controversial and talked about more. Anna has to decide whether to return to the convent and ultimately take her vows, knowing that she was born Jewish.
She makes an interesting choice. After deciding to experience everything the world offers, she has a one night stand and morning after conversation with that saxophonist. He suggests they make a life together and when she asks what that life consists of, he says, being together, falling in love, getting married, having children. But after each suggestion he makes as to their future, she just keeps saying “and?”, “and?” until he says, “and then life”.
But if that all life has to offer, “and then life”, if that’s all there, then maybe returning to the convent is just as valid a choice to make as becoming a part of the outside world.
And perhaps, then, the most interesting aspect of her decision is that it is not a religious decision, but a philosophical one.
With Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna (in her film debut with a performance that is hampered a bit by her being in many ways a cypher) and Agata Kulesza (who tends to walk away with the film, partially due to her experience, her sharp featured and intriguing face, and a more flamboyant part).
Young & Beautiful is the latest entry from French writer/director Francois Ozon (Time to Leave, 8 Women, In the House). It’s the story of a seventeen year old girl, Isabelle, who loses her virginity during a summer vacation and decides to become a prostitute.
Why she does so is a bit unclear. The movie makes a huge jump at this point. And for some, this has been somewhat of a stumbling block for the picture working for them. As for me? Well, I actually thought this was one of film’s strong points.
The movie works best, as Ozon’s movies often do (Swimming Pool and Under the Sand) when it is at its vaguest, when it is at its most mysterious, when it’s a bit unclear what is going on and why. Isabelle loses her virginity and then, next thing you know, she is using sex to make money she doesn’t really need.
Certainly one could come up with theories. Is she doing it because her first experience was so unpleasant and such a let down from what she thought it would be, she might as well make money off of sex since it means so little to her? Or is she doing it as a way of trying to find an experience that will make her change her mind about sex, that will make her actually enjoy it? Or both? Or neither?
Who knows? I’m not sure Ozon does. But I didn’t care. I was just too caught up in it to try to dissect it that way.
But then the movie falters when it suddenly becomes less vague and more to the point. The story is divided into four sections, each once based on a season of the year. Isabelle loses her virginity during summer and becomes a prostitute during the fall. And then something terrible happens and she quits.
And then winter comes and unfortunately, this section is a bit hard to get through, as winter is wont to be. Everything comes tumbling out and Isabelle’s double life is exposed. At this point, Ozon doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with the story and it becomes, I’m afraid to say, more of an after school special (“So Your Daughter’s a Prostitute”) as everyone tries to deal with the situation. Ozon seems to flounder here. He has nothing to say, or at least anything that is new and original.
However, the movie in many ways is redeemed by the rebirth of spring (which is appropriate enough I suppose) as Isabelle is contacted by the wife of one of her johns and they meet at the hotel room of their last encounter. Why does the wife want from this? Why did she make the assignation? I don’t know. What I do know is that we’re back to the vague and mysterious Ozon and it’s an ending that is somehow deeply moving.
The wife is played by Charlotte Rampling in a deeply complex performance. Isabelle is played by Marine Vetch in a performance that is more than promising.
The Immigrant, the new period piece written by Ric Menello and James Gray (Gray also directed and the both of whom also gave us Two Lovers), starts out well with gorgeous cinematography of prohibition New York City, and historically impressive designs of sets and costumes, lush, lavish and luxurious in a downbeat, depressing, working class sort of way.
True, there is a certain, slight Merchant/Ivory dullness to it all, but everyone is working very hard to make a go of it and it also has Marion Cotillard, with those enchanting Loretta Young doe eyes and a fragile suffering look to her, as well as Joaquin Phoenix playing his evilness in an appropriately banal manner.
The story is about Ewa (Cotillard), an immigrant whose sister is taken to the hospital wing at Ellis Island because she has tuberculosis. Now Ewa has to make a deal with the devil, Bruno (Phoenix), a pimp and what passes for the artistic director of what passes as a less than third rate burlesque show of the period.
There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea. It may take a little long for Ewa to realize what is what and there’s an unusual scene early on in which a wealthy father brings his gay son to have sex with a prostitute to cure him of his homosexuality and Bruno whispers, with all the nonchalance of an everyday occurrence, that he can provide a male companion as well.
But something starts going wrong when Emil (Jeremy Rinner) enters the scene. He’s a brilliant magician who can levitate and out-Houdini Houdini in escaping a coffin and who the writers justify as being unsuccessful with vague references to drinking and gambling problems.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Emil’s first appearance, at a show for those being held at Ellis Island, is full of promise and potential as to what it could mean for Ewa and the plot. But once Bruno and Emil find their way to each other (they’re cousins, you see—not even brothers, for some odd reason), the story suddenly starts heading in the wrong direction; well, actually, heading kind of in all sorts of wrong directions.
This is possibly because the writers have two different through lines and have the wrong central character. They may think that Ewa and her attempt to rescue her sister is what is driving the story. But, in reality, it’s Bruno’s love for Ewa and his inability to earn her affection in return that is really at the heart of the drama.
And while Emil’s arrival should actually expand and build on Bruno’s journey, instead, the story becomes clunky (wincingly so at times to be honest) and the various plot lines start flailing as they can’t find a way to hold together in a satisfying whole because the authors haven’t given themselves enough time to develop an emotionally resonant relationship between Ewa and Bruno.
And it’s one of those stories that ends without ending. Ewa rescues her sister, but she is basically where she was at the beginning of the movie—no money, no resources, no employment, no place to live. It’s a journey that begins at point A and ends there as well. Everyone tries to hide that fact and make it more triumphantly tragic than it is, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, just better than the ones Bruno provides for his strip show.