This year at Sundance, there was one film that seemed to blow everyone away: the first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild. If there’s a stereotype about the films that do well at the festival, it’s that they’re serious-minded, fairly realistic, talky independents, often with a strong dark streak. Beasts is something else entirely: a film of rare ambition for a first feature, but also—even more rare—one that actually succeeds in manifesting the skill necessary to realize its outsize ambitions. This is the best first feature you’re likely to have seen from any filmmaker in a long, long time.
The film takes place in a fictional coastal Louisiana island known by its impoverished local residents as “the Bathtub,” a low-lying spot on the wrong side of protective levies should a storm come through. Such a storm does, and leaves the Bathtub largely submerged, its residents forced to fend for themselves. The film concentrates on one particular resident: a little girl who goes by the name “Hushpuppy” (Quvenzhané Wallis) who’s raised by a single father with mounting health problems.
If that sounds like a film with the makings of a straight Katrina allegory or a political statement on the state of the coastal communities of Louisiana, it’s neither of those things. Zeitlin shoots the film from the perspective of Hushpuppy, and the result is a film that taps the waking-dream imagination of childhood, as she combines elements of the world around her to develop a magically realistic world of fantasy that both reflects and distracts from her more earthly problems. Ebullient and brimming over with imagination, this is easily one of the year’s best and one of the most unapologetically (and earnedly) joyful films you’ll see this year.
The second small indie this week that’s garnering plenty of acclaim for being among the year’s best is the second directorial effort from actor Sarah Polley. The film is set in a quiet Toronto neighborhood where a writer (Michelle Williams) is having a marital crisis after developing feelings for a neighbor (Luke Kirby) that call into question her feelings for her husband (Seth Rogen). Reaction has been hugely positive to Polley’s sensitive look at the complex inner workings of a marriage, as well as to the performances here. Of course, we know Williams is never less than stellar in whatever she’s in, but many are suggesting this is a revelation of previously untapped talent from Rogen.
If you’d long ago written off Oliver Stone, you’d hardly be harshly judgmental. Not only has the director not made a decent film since 1995’s Nixon, he’s barely even made anything that could charitably be described as mediocre in that time. World Trade Center is the one film made during that period to actually garner some positive reviews—but let’s be honest, few wanted to say a bad word about a reverential tribute to 9/11 first responders. Taken objectively, without that context, WTC is an awful film. So it comes as a big surprise that Stone’s latest is receiving notices that, while not glowing, are at least skewing positive. Savages, based on the novel by Don Winslow and starring Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, and Benicio del Toro, is about a Mexican drug cartel that kidnaps the girlfriend of two American marijuana growers, who are then forced to try to take her back on their own.
The second of Stanley Kubrick’s two privately funded films before he graduated to studio filmmaking with The Killing in 1956, this fairly straightforward 1955 film noir doesn’t immediately announce itself as an unmistakable Kubrick production the way his later films would. But despite its pulpy basis—a boxer near the end of his run falls for the wrong girl, a dancer with an abusive boss, and a string of bad luck, murder, and mistaken identity follow—there’s a quietly restrained melancholy to the film that gives it a more reflective mood than many of its trashier contemporaries. Killer’s Kiss still finds the young Kubrick (he was only 27 when he made it) working within established genre conventions, as he did with his war movie debut, Fear and Desire, and working out his own way of storytelling. While certainly not as notable or groundbreaking as much of his later work, this is still essential viewing for anyone looking to see the early halting artistic steps of a later giant.
Fans of modern dance and of choreographer Pina Bausch—or those whose interest in her work was piqued after seeing Wim Wenders’s memorable 3D documentary about her last year—should look to the Goethe-Institut on Monday for a rare screening of the only film Bausch ever directed. The 1990 German work finds the choreographer bending cinema to meet her own will rather than the other way around. Instead of trying to make a more easily marketable narrative film that also includes dance, this is a collage of dance scenes set in and around the city of Wuppertal, and is just as evocative and symbolic as one of her stage pieces.
DVD Pick of the Week: God Bless America
Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest directorial effort blew through DC cinemas in a hurry just a couple of months ago, which probably isn’t a surprise given that it’s a film designed to make the viewer feel more than a little guilty while they’re being entertained. The writer/director tells the story of Frank (Joel Murray), a down-on-his-luck former insurance salesman who with the goading influence of a teenage miscreant (Tara Lynn Barr) goes on a nationwide killing spree taking out the worst examples of American culture, from reality TV stars to cable news blowhards. It’s almost impossible not to feel a spark of empathy for Frank’s murderous quest; even when you know it’s wrong, when you find these people on your TV late at night it’s hard not to wish a little bad fortune on them. But that’s Goldthwait’s trap, as he’s not trying to make a hero out of Frank. In setting his protagonist up for a fairly significant fall, Goldthwait does the same to us, and amid the murder, mayhem, and frequent gallows humor, there’s some serious self-reflection he is trying to initiate with the film.
You can read my full take on the film, including an interview with Goldthwait, over at the Atlantic.
Special Features: A making-of featurette, interviews, and deleted scenes.