Once again, the first weeks of the new year are yielding up a good many films that, if streamed just a little bit sooner, might have been included in my musings on last year’s best (“Film Flood 2021″).
The best of that lot includes four films from established auteurs:
The Card Counter (USA) just might be the true masterpiece of director Paul Schrader’s career. The title character, played with smoldering conviction by Oscar Isaac, is a gambler and loner with an austere code of conduct. He becomes a strangely taciturn mentor to a troubled young man (Tye Sheridan) who is plotting revenge against a shared antagonist (Willem Dafoe). All in all, the film is a strangely compelling character study, darkly reflecting Schrader’s Calvinist background and his deep investment in film noir.
The French Dispatch (USA): Like The Grand Budapest Hotel and much else in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, his latest is a dazzling blend of art film, period piece and coruscating entertainment. It’s premise is the visualization of stories from the final issue of a fictional New Yorker-like magazine published in Paris and distributed in provincial middle America. While the stories seem to have no particular axe to grind, the film as a whole takes flight in ways that suggest free-flowing entertainment and as ends in themselves. A large wry-humored cast (Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Léa Seydoux and many more) proceed through it all in wistful high spirits.
A Hero (Iran): Rahim (Amir Jadidi), on leave from debtors’ prison, attempts to find enough cash to gain his creditor’s approval. The creditor refuses, and Rahim attempts to return the cash to his female benefactor; but nothing goes as planned, and soon he and everyone involved—family, fiancée, bankers, prison officials, charity groups, TV reporters—are entangled in the Kafkaesque crossfire of suspicions, falsehoods and misguided good intentions. Asgar Farhadi (A Separation, The Salesman) tells the tale with gentle irony and even-handed concern, and gets a fine nuanced and understated performance from Jadidi.
Petite Maman (France): Céline Sciamma, the creator of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, tells fairy tale-like story of two little girls who meet while playing alone in the woods near their homes. What ensues is a kind of wonder tale in which the girls emerge as versions of each other and of their respective mothers. Time and identity loop back and around on themselves, but—more’s the wonder—the basic settings remain the same throughout. Cinematographer Claire Mathon mixes earth colors with motifs of scarlet and blue, all to magical effect. Twin sisters Gabrielle and Joséphine Sanz are superb in the lead roles, a literal doubling that works beautifully with the more mystical doublings of the story.
More honorable mentions:
Don’t Look Up (USA) is a funny, stingingly satiric comedy about human beings’ inability to respond in any adequate way to impending global disaster—in this case, the threat of a super-sized asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as a flummoxed research scientist who tries and fails to make a significant dent in the self-serving “narratives” of the national media and the federal government. Mark Rylance is especially fine as a billionaire “visionary” with touches of Zuckerberg and Musk. Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalomet and Jonah Hill have their moments as well, but Adam McKay’s production can’t help but be partially caught in its own trap—a symptom of the very dilemma it portrays.
The Lost Daughter (USA/Greece), directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and based on an Elena Ferrante novel, features a quietly powerful performance by Olivia Colman as a middle-aged college professor who, in seeking some relief from her personal life at a Greek beach resort, finds herself running into memories and reminders of her conflicted relationships with her own daughters. Nuanced performances in supporting roles (Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley) add to the rich emotional textures in this drama of mothers, daughters and personal identity.
The Hand of God (Italy) has some religion in it, but the title actually refers to a moment in the history of European football, a moment that reverberates significantly in this offbeat semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale. Filippo Scotti is a delight as the youthful protagonist, and the esteemed Toni Servillo is charmingly antic in the father role. Paolo Sorrentino’s festively exuberant direction confirms his claim to the seminal influence of Federico Fellini.
In Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon (USA), downcast loner (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself put in charge of his sister’s young son while she’s out of town tending to a particularly dramatic family crisis. It’s no great surprise that the ensuing miscellany of small adventures brings the kid and his uncle out of their respective doldrums and into a renewal of family bonds. But their struggles, filmed in moody black and white, seem genuine, and there is a fresh surprise in the way the kid (a very lively Woody Norman) becomes a spirited mentor to his uncle.
Vicky and Her Mystery (France): Young Vicky (Shanna Keil) has moved into a wilderness cabin with her recently widowed father (Vincent Elbaz). An animal-loving geezer (French star Tchéky Karyo) gives her a pup from his barn—“a gift from the forest,” whom they name “Mystery.” The pup turns out to be a wolf. Mystery gets along just fine with Vicky, but the local sheepherders are out to eliminate all wolves from their territory. What began as a sweetly innocent tale verges on stark calamity before turning to a more equitable (and surprisingly lucid) resolution.
Pig (USA): Nicolas Cage plays a burnt-out Portland chef who lives alone in the woods with his prize pig, raising pigs and supplying upscale restaurants with prime pork delicacies. When his pig is kidnapped, he storms back to old Portland haunts in search of it. That may sound like the makings of yet another Cage revenge pic, but what actually emerges is a bristling portrait of a profoundly alienated artisan and the mostly urban “underground” he’s tried to get clear of. In a way, it’s Portlandia with none but the darkest glimmers of humor.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (UK): With its eccentric humor and snippets of animation, this zesty, fanciful biopic and period piece is playful and ornate in something like the Wes Anderson manner. Wain is an archetypal weird genius, known especially for his paintings of cats and his theories of psycho-spiritual electricity. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a marvelously quirky performance in the title role, frivolously mannered yet not without moments of emotional depth. If there’s a resemblance to Anderson here, there’s also the feeling that Will Sharpe is channeling some of the British film comedies of the Alec Guinness era.