The standard image of the phoenix rising from the ashes is that of the majestic creature soaring straight up, powerful and reborn with vigor to spare. Christian Petzold’s searing masterpiece invokes the phoenix in direct opposition to such an image. The rebirth that the film revolves around, in which a woman thought dead in the Holocaust returns to post-war Berlin, is tentative and guilt-ridden, bruised and scarred. There is no spreading of wings, because how could there be? Petzold engages in the myth of the phoenix particularly in how badly people want it to be true, that someone could experience trauma and immediately get back to their life. Like the best films surrounding the atrocity of WWII, Phoenix has little patience for that kind of romanticism, but it also avoids becoming a nihilistic dirge. Petzold, along with frequent collaborator Nina Hoss, finds ugly truths alongside powerful demonstrations of resilience, a cohabitation that is the essence of 20th century history.
In Stations of the Cross, Dietrich Bruggeman perfectly matches the austerity of the family at the center of the story with his filmmaking. There is one camera movement in the film’s entirety, coming at the very end. Each scene is a single take, representing one of the fourteen titular stations that tell the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Importantly, none of those stations are Jesus’ supposed resurrection, contrasting the joyful, rejuvenative aspects of Christianity with the snuff film that is the passion. This suffering forms the backbone of the fundamentalist Catholic family that the film revolves around. Jesus was tortured and brutally murdered for his followers, an act that trails this particular sect in their every move and every thought. The brutal form of religious fervor on display makes for a difficult and painful film to watch, as the lead character moves closer and closer to a meaningless end.
Greta Gerwig, queen of indie cinema, has been in a dozen films about tentative young women trying to figure out the next steps of their lives. The best of these, like Frances Ha and 20th Century Women, balance a light tone with serious introspection, while the worst, like Greenberg and Lola Versus, devalue Gerwig’s character as either a prop or a caricature. Having taken part in so many versions of that particular archetype, Gerwig is uniquely suited to turn back the clock to 2003 and make her own film about the kind of person some of her characters might’ve been in their teenage years. By also turning the protagonist into a rough approximation of herself, Gerwig can also construct a deeply specific coming-of-age story with an anti-indie sensibility. For all the focus on the titular Lady Bird in Gerwig’s immaculate directorial debut, she’s only one grounded and affecting character in a film packed with them. No props or caricatures here, just love for everyone that graces the screen and a film that is impossible to not fall for.
The stereotype of the emotionally cold Scandinavian gets officially buried in Lukas Moodysson’s Together. The big-hearted Norwegian film Elling should’ve dispelled the assumption that these descendants of Vikings are stiff and monotone and depressed, but I still held onto it in spite of mounting evidence. Even Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, otherwise a Job-like film about a teacher falsely accused of sexual abuse, contains back-slapping scenes of old friends jovially spending time together. Moodysson puts any bedrock expectations about Scandinavian cinema to rest with his joyous celebration of connection and growth.
Irish playwrights and auteurs Martin and John Michael McDonagh have been responsible for some of the most memorable morality plays to hit theaters in recent years. John Michael’s Calvary is a definitive ‘good man in a fallen world’ post-recession tale, and Martin’s In Bruges resuscitated Colin Farrell’s career on its way to cult status. Of the two brothers, Martin experienced the McDonagh family’s greatest success with his roiling hit Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. An angry film for angry times, Martin McDonagh turns tragedy into righteous fury and blinkered obsession, while taking stabs at a conservative flavor of political correctness that praises figures of authority and state power. There’s also grace in the small Ozark town at the film’s center, but its inhabitants have too many excuses to shun it. Three Billboards is complicated and conflicting and often times at odds with itself. McDonagh’s utilizing some raw power in a less-than airtight film.
Mad Greek genius Yorgos Lanthimos opens his latest film with an apt metaphor for his consistently stellar work. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a surgeon, and the film begins with his POV at work, staring into an open chest cavity as the heart inside pulses away. It’s just tissue and viscera, sparked by ion gradients. However, what appears to be mechanical contains mystery and incalculable value, much like Lanthimos’ penchant for having his actors deliver flat expository dialogue that still communicates depth and humor and meaning. His latest is another jolt of idiosyncratic black comedy pumped into the cinematic bloodstream, as vital as any element or amino acid.
The idiot plot, defined by Roger Ebert where the plot of a movie could be settled if everyone wasn’t an idiot, could be called a stubborn plot in Marc Webb’s Gifted. A simple and obvious compromise is the necessary remedy in this story of what to do with a young math prodigy, and Webb postpones the easy solution to his film’s problem for as long as he can. He fills in sympathetic characters on all sides of the central conflict, puts talented actors in those roles, and doesn’t treat the viewer any stupider in smaller scenes than the premise is already treating them. Disguise the solution staring the characters in their faces and Gifted becomes a very-good to great film, an indie heartstring-tugger that’s more perceptive and tangled than implied by initial appearances.
A different kind of superhero origin story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women looks at the unique creative beginnings of the DC superhero. Whereas a character like Spider-Man was born out of an economic need to reach teen audiences, psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is pitching radical feminism and sadomasochism directly at comic book consumers in thinly veiled metaphors. Director Angela Robinson’s film takes great care to find plenty of instances in Marston’s comics to back up what the professor clearly stated was his purpose, and it’s amazing that Wonder Woman was allowed to be published in the first place under censors’ noses.
With The Florida Project, Sean Baker continues his tales-from-the-underclass directing career. As a follow-up to his trans prostitute film Tangerine, Baker’s latest contains the same desperate poverty and the same utilization of non-professional actors. Set in the shadow of Disney World, the denizens of The Florida Project live day to day in a flophouse motel, painted purple to distract bypassing tourists from a region that’s supposed to contain the happiest place on earth. Tellingly, the only character that comments on the general crappiness of the Magic Castle motel is a well-off Brazilian woman, baffled that such a place exists and that she might have to spend the night there. While foreigners might be surprised at this kind of poverty in the wealthiest country on the planet, Americans are increasingly accustomed to it. Baker uses his child protagonists to get the viewer to the high of how children can find happiness and adventure in almost any setting and to the low of wondering why they have to do so in such a decrepit setting.
The accomplished Belgian directing duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne experience a career peak in the sublime Two Days, One Night. Their previous films like L’Enfant, The Son, and The Kid With a Bike all mined adolescence for drama and pathos, but Two Days, One Night finds plenty of both in the rigors of adulthood. Aided by a stellar central performance from Marion Cotillard, the Dardennes perfect their oft-stated themes of casual, everyday cruelty and the recognition of those moments.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.