Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Four stars)
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey/Bosnia-Herzegovina)
Though not for the timid, this 156-minute slow-burner from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan ( Distant, Three Monkeys) is something special in its carefully controlled tone and underlying humanity. A forensic procedural that plays like a Russian novel unfolding within a 12-hour period, it follows a convoy of cars carrying a young doctor named Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), a public prosecutor, a police chief and a couple of other cops, along with a pair of confessed murderers, who are wandering around the Anatolian countryside trying to find where a murder victim is buried. Eventually, the corpse is located and an autopsy takes place at a local morgue, while we learn a lot about adultery, the hope for children and the vast spaces that separate people who work side by side.
The Descendants (Four stars)
Directed by Alexander Payne (USA)
Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, George Clooney stars in Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne’s ( Sideways) heartwarming, tragic and, at times, hilariously funny drama about a middle-aged father and husband whose seeming idyllic life in Hawaii has been thrown into chaos by a boating accident that has left his thrill-seeking wife in a coma, fighting for her life. Clooney is the harried Matt King, a work-obsessed real-estate lawyer whose relationship with his wife has been strained, and drifting, for years. After the accident, King is faced with trying to fix a broken household where two teenage daughters – both angry and grappling to figure out how to reconnect with their one remaining parent – struggle to remain a loving family unit. Clooney and the elder daughter (Shailene Woodley) give Oscar-worthy performances in this hard-knocks film that will have you laughing one moment and sobbing the next.
Le Havre (Four stars)
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki (Finland)
This note-perfect neo-realist fairy tale from the comic Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki follows a self-styled bohemian shoe-shine man, Marcel (André Wilms), who lives with his wife (Kati Outinen) in the French port city of Le Havre. When his wife learns she’s suffering a serious illness, she hides it from her husband. Meanwhile, Marcel befriends a refugee boy from Africa and uses all the resources of his network of friends to keep the kid free from the dogged police detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Both playful and serious, Kaurismaki’s film is an old-fashioned celebration of the fellowship between the powerless and the rejected.
Cafe de Flore (Three and a half stars)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Canada)
Let's try to imagine what some won't like about this masterful film by the director of C.R.A.Z.Y. For one, it is based around waiting for two disparate-seeming plotlines to gel. French star Vanessa Paradis is a mother in late-sixties Paris, determined to raise her son, who has Down syndrome, and shower him with love. The second story follows a successful nightclub DJ in Montreal who is struggling, along with his family, through a divorce and an intense new relationship. Despite continual flashbacks and flash-forwards, the stories merge elegantly, in large part due to the thoroughly grounded performance by actress Hélène Florent playing the DJ's ex. Vallée is playful in his editing, with the gumption to use small visual and sound tricks throughout, without watering them down, even at the risk of contrivance. Simply a beautiful, intricate film.
50/50 (Three and a half stars)
Directed by Jonathan Levine (USA)
Even hardened cynics will embrace the cliché – yep, you will laugh, you will cry. When doctors discover a malignant tumour in his back, Adam gets his survival odds and the movie gets its title. The rest spins his potentially terminal cancer into a buoyant romcom, an unlikely partnership that, dancing adroitly between the drama and the laughs, works remarkably well. Seth Rogen is there to dole out his trademark yuks, Anna Kendrick doubles as a callow counsellor plus the budding love interest, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is touchingly restrained in the victim's role. You'd expect black comedy here, not these brighter hues, but with a few exceptions – the bad-girlfriend subplot, an antic car crash – the colour scheme is a credible blend of lively and sombre. Expect this to be a huge crowd-pleaser – I'd put the odds at 90/10.
Shame (Three stars)
Directed by Steve McQueen (U.K.)
Following his penchant for one-word titles, McQueen examines a New York man's hunger for sex, the loveless brand purchased from prostitutes or viewed on porn sites or garnered from libidinous femmes in trendy bars. In the frank nudity here, the debts to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and most anything by Catherine Breillat are obvious. Certainly the picture packs all the intensity of McQueen's debut in Hunger, but it lacks the same rich thematic resonance. Still, his manipulation of the camera, his marriage of sight to sound, his ability to advance the narrative without dialogue, are a joy to watch. What's more, it's fascinating to compare Michael Fassbender's lead performance here with his work as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method – similar primal appetites but such a vastly different style.
A Dangerous Method (Three stars)
Directed by David Cronenberg (France/Ireland/U.K./Germany/Canada)
Two outings after A History of Violence, David Cronenberg explores the history of sex, at least as filtered through the psychoanalytic minds of Messrs. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Set in Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, the story tracks the meeting of those two minds, then their fractious parting. En route, the dialectic pits the rigorous science, and surprisingly dry wit, of Freud against the earnest mysticism of Jung, who struggles to balance a primal relationship with a troubled patient (an overwrought Keira Knightley) and the banal conventions of marriage to his rich wife. The performances are generally solid and the dance of ideas engaging, but the result feels a bit slight by Cronenbergian standards, or perhaps it's just playful. Either way, you'll exit the theatre reminded anew that a cigar, the one you can't smoke anywhere any more, is never just a cigar.
The Ides of March (Three stars)
Directed by George Clooney (USA)
Set over the course of a crucial presidential primary in Ohio, this is designed as a political exposé in the back-room tradition of The Candidate or The Best Man, the kind where idealism is the victim and pragmatism the rule. Working both before and behind the camera, Clooney plays a Democrat with impeccable liberal credentials (hardly a stretch), but the bulk of the camera time goes to Ryan Gosling as his press secretary, prowling that back room in the company of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. The dialogue is smart, crisp and witty and, given the quorum of talent, it's not surprising that the performances are superb. What is surprising, and disappointing, is that the plot borrows, not once but twice, from the hoariest tropes in the book of smug clichés. The effect is to cheapen all the hard-earned realism. Contemporary American politics does a fine job of cheapening itself – the script doesn't need this melodramatic varnish.
Melancholia (Three stars)
Directed by Lars von Trier (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)
Lars von Trier's Melancholia begins with a haunting prelude: a bride with a charred, tattered train; birds falling from the sky; a horse falling to the ground and a little planet pinging into a large blue sphere, like a sperm entering an ovum. Life is finished. Then the story begins. The first hour follows the utterly disastrous wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a debacle reminiscent of von Trier pal Thomas Vinterberg’s caustic The Celebration. Part two sees Justine emerge from a catatonic depression to become a source of strength to her terrified sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) while a luminous giant asteroid glides toward Earth. The drama is clunky, but the visual experience paradoxically uplifting.
Wuthering Heights (Three stars)
Directed by Andrea Arnold (U.K.)
Andrea Arnold’s take-no-prisoners adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic is sure to divide audiences and critics. Set against an intimidating backdrop of bleak moorland, muddy yard and barren house of cold stone and creaking wood, it argues the novel’s chief theme is the way cruelty is handed down from one generation to the next. It includes hand-held camera work, a halting pace, scant dialogue, regular expletives, one scene of animalistic sex and several of animals being killed, and features neophyte actors playing the young Catherine and both versions of Heathcliff, who is black. Its singular and unflinching vision is always admirable and often breathtaking. Unfortunately, the film fails in its second half where a bland Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) and a blank Heathcliff (James Howson) never ignite the passion that should be the counterweight to all that pain.