2013 Top Ten & Ballot

I never did this. I’ve been thinking of doing it for a long time. And now I’m going to do it. I’m going to give my top ten and my ballot for 2013 along with future years. They can and will be edited as I see more films from any given year.

Blue is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Someone in Love
Only God Forgives
Short Term 12
Spring Breakers
The Wind Rises

And the winner is…


I struggled with this. I looooove Spring Breakers and had it as my #1 for the majority of the year, but the film I keep coming back to in my mind from 2013 is none other than THE WIND RISES, the last masterpiece by one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, Hayao Miyazaki. The central thematic question of, “Can you sympathize with Jiro?” is quite relevant and a powerful one to ask yourself, especially since so many of his creations killed US soldiers. Miyazaki creates a complex viewpoint on Jiro; he judges him, but he also celebrates him. The contradiction only digs deeper into the heart of the film’s questions as it develops the themes tenfold. The film is quite possibly the most beautiful film he’s made as well. I only wish Miyazaki made more films of this level of maturity. Regardless, it’s wonderful to see a director leave the craft on top of his game.


Johnnie To, Drug War
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty
Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers
Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises

And the winner is…


That being said, no other film was as visually exciting or more confidently directed than Korine’s surrealist odyssey exploration of spring break. Whether you “get” the film or not, it’s nearly impossible to deny the crazy charisma Korine brings in every shot and sound of SPRING BREAKERS. It’s difficult to get out of your mind after seeing it. So many films struggle to be simultaneously entertaining and visually original without compromising their bigger themes, questions, and ideas. No one else could have made this film other than Korine. It instantly solidifies him as a major talent.


Adele Exarchopolous, Blue is the Warmest Color
Gaby Hoffman, Crystal Fairy
Julie Louise Dreyfuss, Enough Said
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Brie Larson, Short Term 12

And the winner is…


There’s a lot of ways a woman could have played this character. For instance, someone else could’ve played this pretty straight and to-the-point. Or someone could play this quite dark. Larson avoids both of these and creates a pretty Earthy, down-to-Earth character that is mostly dominated by her emotions rather than her head. She’s arrogant and quick to anger – she’s desperately clinging onto some semblance of power, power that was robbed from her before the beginning of the film. What makes her performance are the moments between dialogue, the little mischievous smile after her boyfriend makes an inappropriate joke or the all-too-knowing slight frown after a confession by one of the kids. The arc of her character strains toward convention yet she keeps it believable in every second.


Toni Servillo, The Great Beauty
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Twelve Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

And the winner is…


I may be the only person on the internet to love ONLY GOD FORGIVES enough to declare it a Refn’s masterpiece and to recognize the great work of Pansringarm as the film’s undeclared lead. Gosling does some sublime, if inconsistent, work in the film as well, but it’s Pansringarm as the “God” in the film’s title that brings the most nuance of the film. It’s a subtle performance of non-performing. Part of the time, Pansringarm creates a cold persona that is near impossible to crack, but when it does, the humanity of the character bursts through. He cares deeply about the people that surround him, whether they be a criminal or not, but his ethical code stops him from ever allowing his emotions to get the hold of him. The key scene is at the end where this front is completely broken, as he cries during his karaoke song. I’ve gone through several of the listed nominees before as my winner, but none have an undeniably strong moment as Vithaya has in that one moment.


Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station
Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12
Nicole Kidman, Stoker

And the winner is…


It was a tie between Lawrence and Seydoux, but honestly, whenever I think of the crazy fun time I had with AMERICAN HUSTLE, a severely underrated film by non-professional critics and cinephiles, I can’t help but think of the manic energy Lawrence and Cooper bring to the film. Lawrence’s performance here is utterly whacko insane; she’s obviously having a fun time with the character and we’re having just as much fun, if not more, as the viewer. It may get wildly inconsistent late in the film when the film abandons the majority of its plot, but the peaks are quite high and valleys are never too low. I contend that it is her best performance to date.


Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Ryo Kase, Like Someone in Love
Keith Stanfeld, Short Term 12
James Franco, Spring Breakers

And the winner is…



Was there ever going to be anyone else? He’s the heartbeat of the film. In a lot of ways, he IS the film. An instantly iconic performance of bristling intensity, often in equal parts of humor and pathos. SPRING BREAKERS made me a believer of the skill of James Franco. He sells every line with remarkable depth. An important scene early on between Alien and Faith shows just how much Franco can command the psychopathy of the character. When he lets people into his mind and heart (as he does in the infamous gun-fellatio scene) he only exposes that he’s, at his core, a sad human being who is completely governed by anarchy which only makes him a more depressive human being. Without an identity, he could appear to be a blank slate, but Franco smartly over-compensates with a big, flashy performance that tricks the audience into believing that he is what he says he is even when he’s confronted with the brutal truth by his ex-boss and current lovers. Masterful.


American Hustle by Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell
Enough Said by Nicole Holofcencer
Gravity by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron
Only God Forgives by Nicholas Winding Refn
Spring Breakers by Harmony Korine

And the winner is…

Only God Forgives_1

I mean, obviously? I’ve written extensively about it here. Quick note: I think it’s pretty disappointing that people so often ignored the strength of the screenplay of GRAVITY. Despite its simplicity and lack of meaningful dialogue, it is the best film I have seen about situational depression in decades.


Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix
Inside Llewyn Davis by Joel & Ethan Coen
No by Pedro Peirano
Twelve Years a Slave by John Ridley
The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki

And the winner is…


Another should-be obvious choice. Granted, Miyazaki is adapting the screenplay by his own comic, but when that story is this poignant, deep, yet beautifully simple, there is no denying it.


Solfian El Fani, Blue is the Warmest Color
Harris Savides, The Bling Ring
Emmanuel Lubzeki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Benoit Debie, Spring Breakers

And the winner is…


Strangely transfixing neon fever dream. This category is nearly impossible. Such strong work this year!


Various, Blue is the Warmest Color
Allen Leung & David M. Richardson, Drug War
Abbas Kiarostami & Shogo Yokoyama, Like Someone in Love
Douglas Crise, Spring Breakers
Nicholas De Toth, Stoker

And the winner is…


Another tough category. I love the editing in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR because it moved me swiftly through the three hour running time, but I had to give it to To’s DRUG WAR because it’s a master class in editing for an action film, something few filmmakers truly grasp.


Behind the Candelabra
Only God Forgives
Pacific Rim

And the winner is…


A look into the mind of Liberace. Gay fantasia at its most extreme and fabulous. The final set-piece is to die for. Wonderful, beautiful, lovely.


Steven Price, Gravity
Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel
Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives
Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
Joe Hisaishi, The Wind Rises

And the winner is…


Not only does the score evoke Ennio Morricone, it proudly stands amongst his best work, despite not being scored by him. The film may be Miyazaki’s last masterpiece, but it’s also Joe Hisaishi’s.


Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis
Spring Breakers
Upstream Color

And the winner is…


I wish I could find the image of her rolling the potato from the beginning of the film. Easily the best “sound” of the year. A feast for the ears, this movie.


Fast & Furious 6
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim

And the winner is…



Absolutely undeniable. Absolutely!


1. Short Term 12
2. Drug War
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Nebraska
5. American Hustle

1. Ellen Mirojnick, Behind the Candelabra
2. Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
3. Heidi Bivens, Spring Breakers
4. Trish Summerville, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
5. Paco Delgado, Blancanieves

1. American Hustle
2. Behind the Candelabra
3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
4. Faust
5. Star Trek: Into Darkness

1. “I See Fire” from The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
2. “Happy” from Despicable Me 2
3. “So You Know What It’s Like” from Short Term 12
4. “Young & Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby
5. “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Spring Breakers
3. The Great Gatsby
4. The Bling Ring
5. Frozen

1. The Wind Rises
2. Get a Horse!
3. Frozen
4. Monsters University
5. The Croods

1. Stories We Tell
2. Room 237
3. The Act of Killing
4. Casting By
5. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wiki Leaks

Have Yet to See, May Update When I Do:
All is Lost, Museum Hours, War Witch, A Hijacking, A Touch of Sin, Berberian Sound Studio, Wadjda, Gimme the Loot, The Selfish Giant, Caesar Must Die, Rush, The Hunt, Philomena, Something in the Air, The Grandmaster (Chinese Cut), Prince Avalanche, Wolf Children, Drinking Buddies, The Broken Circle Breakdown, & Kon-Tiki.

Also, various documentaries, including At Berkeley, The Missing Picture, and 20 Feet from Stardom.



     Only God Forgives is one of the best films of the year. It is also the most underrated film of the year with a lot of lack of praise from critics. We all know critics are temperamental, but I doubted their temperament would get in the way of a provocative, intelligent work such as Only God Forgives. I was wrong. The following is my interpretation and review of the film. 


     Only God Forgives weaves the two tales of Julien and Chang together. Julien is running a drug ring in Thailand. Chang is running a police station in Thailand. When Julien’s brother, Billy, rapes and kills a teenage girl, Chang seeks lawful justice. He finds the rapist and allows the father of the daughter to kill the rapist. However, he cuts off the arm of the father because he pushed his daughter into prostitution for money. Thailand, especially Bangkok which is where this city is set, is a highly unruly third world country. It is notoriously known for its underage prostitutes of both genders. How does one rule a country that is so cruel and brutal? Chang’s answer is to be brutal and cruel back, but in a way that reserves a strong moral code. Chang’s moral code is justice amongst all things, at all costs. He believes that he has the right to judge and to punish those that break his moral code. He has no qualms about whatever violence he doles out in order to achieve a peace of mind for himself and for the country. He knows that criminals can escape the legal system of trial. He knows probably that his legal system is in shambles. He is, in a lot of ways, God. God is the ultimate judge of all our lives. We may be found innocent, but God will see our guilt. God will see our innocence too. However, Chang is not fully God, nor can he be. For an example, Chang must partake in karaoke singing after every one of his judgments. This ritual, like other religious rituals, is a palette cleanser for Chang, allowing him to relieve his violent methods while at the same time singing a tribute to those that he punished. His singing is his expression of the reflections he has on his action. A later scene shows Chang conversing with his daughter, asking her, “How do we resolve situations?” to which she responds, “We talk to each other nicely…” If Chang is God in this story, then his daughter is Jesus, salvation that may one day be relinquished on Bangkok.


     The death of Billy pushes their mother, Crystal, to arrive in Thailand. Crystal is the opposite of Chang. While she is not fully Satan, she is very much like Satan. She demands that Julien kill the man who killed Billy, but Julien finds out what Billy did which gives him pause. When he reports Billy’s actions to his mother, she doesn’t wince at it. She wants blood. She wants revenge. To her, Thailand is a strange land that she wants very little to do with. She wants to kill those responsible and leave because she can afford vengeance. The other people in Bangkok are either poor or scared of Chang to be able to afford the right to revenge. Crystal believes she has that right, regardless of what actions the brother took and regardless of how the justice system works. Thus, the film sets up its main theme: the concept of revenge versus the concept of justice. When Chang let the father kill Billy and cut off the arm of the father, he did it unbiased, restricting himself to his moral code. Crystal’s moral code reacts solely to what violence is committed to her. An eye for an eye.


     Julien, on the other hand, is stuck in between. He loves his mother. It is suggested that she may have even molested him at one point, which further connects him to her. He killed his father, which even further complicates his relationship with the family. As much as Julien loves his mother, he also knows that she is poisonous, hence why he lives in Thailand away from her. However, Julien is disconnected from the surroundings of Bangkok. Billy, also disconnected, believes that he can dominate the surrounding culture (he feels superior to the otherness of Thailand). He fails, however, and dies for it. Julien is indifferent to his brother’s death. He is mostly indifferent to his family and his roots in general. Why? Julien wants to assimilate. He wants to leave his old culture behind. He wants someone else to take over the feminine role that his mother takes on. Julien sees his opportunity in a Thai prostitute. He admonishes her with a dress, takes her to his mom, tries to win approval, but cannot, failing at his mother’s approval and failing the prostitute’s approval. He cannot assimilate to his culture because he cannot run away from his mother’s “love”. Julien, defeated by his attempt to force his own assimilation, decides to try to dominate the culture by challenging Chang to a fight at the behest of his mother. However, Chang defeats Julien and beats him to a bloody pulp. Julien cannot force his own assimilation nor can he beat himself into it, so he finally lets his mom direct him to revenge for his dead brother. He is told at the house by his accomplice that Crystal wants the entire family killed, not just Chang. Just as Chang takes the extremity of justice system in finding the perpetrator and the enabler, Crystal has taken to the extremity of the concept of revenge in the sense that she wishes to wipe out an entire family in order for there to be no one to someday take revenge on her. Julien, again, is forced into a moral dilemma between the two symbolic characters of justice and revenge (Chang and Crystal, respectively). Does he take revenge or does he enact justice? When his accomplice murders Chang’s wife, Julien makes the decision. Just before the accomplice kills the daughter, Julien kills the accomplice. Even though the wife is still dead, he has redeemed himself which puts Chang at an awkward position.


     In a field somewhere in Thailand, a scene plays out where Julien presents his arms to Chang and Chang slices them off. It is apparent that, even though Julien did redeem himself in not killing his daughter and the ultimate salvation for the country, Chang is still restricted to his moral codes and he must punish him for initially going with the plan. Julien has finally assimilated into the culture by allowing Chang to cut his arms off. As the movie begins its credits, we watch, for the last time, Chang singing karaoke. He is very visibly in tears. It is clear that his punishment of Julien has deeply affected him because he wishes that he could forgive Julien for his crimes since Julien ultimately saved his daughter, but Chang can’t forgive. Because Chang can’t forgive, he can’t ever really be the God he aspires to for Bangkok. As the film fades to black, we are left with the title of the film: Only God Forgives

     The film asks the question; can we truly forgive people for their actions against us? At the very least, could the political system that governs us truly forgive our crimes? Are we doomed to be punished even if we try to redeem ourselves? Have we created religion in order to find some kind of forgiveness for our actions? A film like this should obviously be celebrated, not damned. Only God Forgives may not be a masterpiece, but it is the closest Refn has come to yet.



01- Lincoln

For the first time in 31 years, Spielberg is firing on all cylinders. Lincoln signals the return of a major voice in cinema, a voice that could may just be the strongest of his own generation. There is no denying it, Lincoln is a masterpiece that may not be considered fully to some now, but will be in the history books. Through the extreme focus on two months of the life of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg unearths the myth of Lincoln by fleshing out the man completely which could of not been done were it not for Tony Kushner’s masterful screenplay (one I would consider to be one of the best of all time) and the impressive completely lived-in performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (which is by far the best performance he has ever given). The film begins with a dream that is a manifestation of Lincoln’s guilt over not pushing the issue of passing the 13th Amendment sooner. We see two sets of soldiers (one white, one black) presented in front of Lincoln who argue the merits of Lincoln’s presidency. A challenge is set forth as one of the black soldiers walks away, reciting Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. In this five minute scene, everything we need to know is set up for the story to delve into the bloody, dirty political battle over the passing of the 13th Amendment. Even though we know the outcome, the scenes with the congress rank to be the most thrilling of the year and the most thrilling of Spielberg’s career which does not lack in thrill at all. Kushner and Spielberg go into some uncharted territory though, showing that Lincoln himself was not afraid of getting his hands dirty in order to abolish slavery. The question of “do the ends justify the means” is present in every one of these scenes because it is quite apparent that Lincoln himself is thinking about this. It is an unanswerable question that American politicians have struggled for decades to answer, coming to no easy conclusion. Kushner pushes through other uncharted territory as we uncover Abe’s difficulty at dealing with family life as shown through his emotional distance to his wife and children. Daniel Day’s dedication to the role is astonishing; after a outrageously over-the-top performance in There Will Be Blood, he is incredibly understated, building an impenetrable wall on his face that no character in the film can fight their way through. The key to Lincoln is that he opens himself up through his anecdotes and stories that will later serve as his points in a political argument. As a film maker whose films span five decades and countless productions, I see that Spielberg’s story is very much Lincoln’s. Both are fully blooded Americans who struggle to relate to society in conventional means – they must cling themselves to stories and anecdotes to get through the painful parts of life and to ultimately open themselves to other people. Abe himself is shown many times bonding with his younger son Tad which correlates to Spielberg’s own auteur stamp of showing stories through the perspective of children. Lincoln and Spielberg are both hopelessly connected to their children and their inner child which brings an endless child-like wonder to their own world respective worlds. Lincoln is a truly transcendent experience in the way that it brings everything that I love about cinema and Spielberg together in a truly masterful way. It is the best film of 2012 and it is, without a doubt, the best film Steven Spielberg has ever made.

02- This is Not a Film

Of all of the films on this list, This is Not a Film is truly the best description of “mind-fuck” that I can come up with. As the film explains in the opening moments, Jafar Panahi, an Iranian film maker, was banned by Iran from making films for twenty years and put in house arrest for several. Yet, Jafar Panahi (with the help of his documentary friend Mojtaba Mirthahmasb), created this piece of art which I would also consider not a film because it is not shot on film, but by digital cameras (it is easier to transport SD cards across the Iranian border in birthday cakes than actually film). Defying the Iranian government, Panahi has turned censorship into art which is revolutionary in and of itself, but the movie itself is an enduring portrait of an artist struggling to come to terms with the fact that he cannot do what he has been his life’s passion for the last twenty years. As he says to the camera after trying to describe a film he wanted to make before the ban, “If we can tell a film, then why make it?” The tragedy of the ban weighs heavily on the film, but Panahi moves on trying to document his personal life in the 24 hours before he hears the result of a trial of whether or not he will be imprisoned (if you’re curious to the content of the films, they are strongly feminist in an fiercely anti-women regime). Panahi uses this time to comment on his situation, to comment on the politics in Iran, and to take care of his pet Iguana. It is strange how little happens can be absolutely riveting. In the final twenty minutes, Panahi rides an elevator to the ground and talks to a garbage man. Through the conversation, you can tell that Panahi is mining the young man for perspective on his own life as a garbage man. As an artist, Panahi perfectly understands that he must speak for those who are less fortunate than he and, despite the ban, he cannot stop himself from probing others to develop a worldview for a next possible film. This is Not a Film may be true to its title in the form it presents itself, but it is also everything the medium has been for its past 100 so years. Whatever it may be, it is definitely a masterpiece.

03- Holy Motors

The best way I can describe the plot of this film is that it follows Oscar as he travels around Paris to complete various assignments that force him to take on multiple identities. A lot of the so-called “plot” of the film is obscured by a vague thorough line connected to the limo he rides in between assignments. Every assignment tackles a different genre of film. We have proletariat drama, big budget CGI fests, period piece drama, surrealistic comedy, horror, musical, family drama, crime thriller, animated comedy, amongst others. Each assignment starts one way, then completely subverts the situation to the most extreme version of ridiculousness. While the narrative does this to you, the aesthetic also pulls you in to expect a certain development in the plot, then completely repulses you back. The film is not so much a piece of traditional art as it is a cinematic toy. You will only get the maximum amount of pleasure if you completely arrest yourself to its illogical and strange world. My take on the film is that it is the day in the life of an actor in a futuristic society where film is dead and actors create art through wreaking havoc throughout the city. The eye of the beholder is lost because the cameras just increasingly get smaller and smaller, the film argues. The scrutinizing of actors have led to them being increasingly distanced to their most personal family members as shown in the final frames of the film. Actors are never not acting. They can only truly connect to others under the guise of someone else.

04- Damsels in Distress

There is just nothing like this comedy out in American cinema right now. Damsels in Distress, in a lot of ways, is the antithesis of Bridesmaids; instead of physical and gross out humor, all of the laughs come from the witty banter and extremely offbeat characters. Greta Gerwig is gloriously hilarious and yet, strange and heartbreaking as Violet, a cult-like leader of female do-gooders at a New England college. They believe in dating men who are below in intelligence in order to change their lives for the better and that they can cure suicidal cases through the power of teaching them how to tap dance. This is their form of community social service that they fully believe will change the world. The cult is disrupted when Lily, a transfer, begins questioning the group’s intentions by criticizing Violet’s increasingly strange worldview that includes the belief that starting a dance craze is the ultimate gift that she can give the world. The film’s narrative zaniness is a possible factor as why it was written off by the public, but I embrace it completely for it. I cannot praise the brilliance of the dialogue enough – lines like “You want to stop me from killing myself so you won’t look bad” “No, I want to stop you from killing yourself so you don’t make yourself look bad” are as ridiculously hilarious as they are intellectually stimulating. For those of you truly missing sex humor though, there is a anal sex subplot that reaches a rewarding punchline in a understated if outrageously humorous way. Damsels in Distress, more than any other film on this list, is one I simply cannot wait to return to.

05- The Master

To be honest, I don’t know exactly where PTA is going. I still don’t truly understand the film. The Master is less of a true masterpiece and more of a true mess-terpiece. At times it feels perfectly organized, but at others it feels like 1960s stream-of-consciousness writing. If you look past the marketing pretense of how the film is (apparently) about scientology, you will find that the film is a strong, multilayered character study of a Freddy Quell, a WWII veteran who is constantly searching for some sort of salvation for himself despite his inner reluctance to tame his inner, incredibly strong “animalistic” desires and sensibilities. He is recruited by The Cause, led by Lancaster Dodd (played in by a mannered Philip Seymour Hoffman in contrast to the chaotic performance given by Joaquin Phoenix) who takes it upon himself to reform Freddie by any means necessary. What follows is a decade long battle of different ideological bulls, a master/pet relationship, and, possibly, a romantic one. We are never quite sure what happens between Freddie and Dodd, why they are so magnetically attracted to each other despite being of two different attitudes and outlooks. Their relationship drives the film, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually as we see it dissolve and reassemble throughout the years the film follows. The Master is not an easy film, but is by far Paul Thomas Anderson’s deepest and aesthetically immaculate film. Mihai Malaimaire Jr.’s work is simply extraordinary to behold – his images cannot be denied of power. As Freddie, Phoenix digs and digs into the hardened soul of the character until he reaches a place that is similarly as mysterious as DeNiro was in Raging Bull. The film’s circular plot doesn’t allow for easy resolutions; PTA has provided us his own meditation on the universal questions of the meaning of human life. Do we continue to search for meaning in our lives? Do we indulge ourselves in life’s pleasures? Or is everything that surrounds is a master, and we are a servant to it?

06- The Day He Arrives

Every now and then I come across a film that is particularly inspiring because it is highly relatable and surprisingly universal. Hong Sangsoo’s The Day He Arrives is much like if Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad married Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. The film follows a film maker returning to his hometown (?) to see some of his friends. What follows is a cacophony of mixed scenes together that could very well relate to the scene previous or the scene following or could just be jumping around a timeline. Hong never gives you a straight answer, but he gives you enough room to take one lead and follow it down a rabbit hole and not feel wrong about it. My personal take on the film was that it was that the story is about the pitfalls of looking back, returning to your own home, but also an old girlfriend and the possible impossibility to avoid it all. Are we all cursed into trying our best to recreate the past? Are we all just attracted to one kind of man or woman? The film does not give any easy answers but only suggests that once we move forward, looking backwards may not ever be the best option.

07- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Several men led by a prosecutor, a police officer, and a doctor are looking for the body of a man with assistance by the convicted that murdered him. Nothing happens, but everything happens. As stakes are raised throughout the narrative, the three non-named characters outgrow their simple archetypical personalities and become flesh and blood characters. The methods they use to search for the body becomes a commentary upon themselves more than a commentary on the nature of crime. What is thought to be the most insignificant, rudimentary night of their lives becomes extremely important as their desperation to find the body grows. Nuri Bilge Ceylan creates the best argument for digital cinematography since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The images are as crisp and clear (and even sometimes more) than the master work by Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s work in The Master. Ceylan uses close-up incredibly well evoking a Dreyer-like style of directing actors – the focus is more on their silent actions and behaviors than the dialogue and the reactions to plot developments. The focus he gives to his close ups are given the same amount of weight to his beautiful landscape shots. Ceylan’s background in digital photography roots him in a refreshing cinematographic approach to cinema opposed to many film makers who tend to believe cinema is more of an extension of theatre.

08- Jeff, Who Lives At Home

The Duplass Brothers are possibly the best American film makers alive right now that seamlessly blend laugh out loud humor with tearjerking drama. It is without a doubt a feat when the duo can do all of this within a 80 minute duration and not have any of the characters or plot feel slight in development at all. Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a story about a slacker loner Jeff who believes that the universe is connected and that every life is a meaningful piece to a gigantic puzzle. He is surrounded by cynics, most notable being his brother Pat who is in the middle of a crisis with his wife after he goes behind her back to buy a car. On his way to do an errand for his pissed-off but depressed widowed mom, he runs into Pat and they begin to track Pat’s wife with belief that she is having an affair. The plot takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns with the last five minutes to be the most moving scenes in cinema of 2012. Jason Segel, as the stoner with a heart of gold, Jeff, gives an extraordinary performance that invites the audience to laugh at his incredulousness, not his extreme optimism. It is a difficult balancing act that would unhinge other actors. Susan Sarandon, meanwhile, is given a small subplot but fills it colorfully as a widow who has all but resigned to the monotony of life and eventual death until a secret admirer comes her way in another unexpected way. Very reminiscent of the Hal Ashby comedy-dramas of the 1970s, the Duplass Brothers have again out done themselves to pull the rug out under from me. Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a beautiful film about life, love, and the struggle to accept mortality.

09- Tabu

Miguel Gomes’ sensuously gorgeous picture is a romance film on the surface, yet if you look closer at the small details he sprinkles the film with, it becomes almost an Adam & Eve like tale that explores a forbidden romance between two Portugese colonists in South Africa as much as it comments on romance films themselves. The first hour slowly delves into the later life of Aurora through the eyes of her close friend, Pilar. We see short scenes of Aurora who is brimming with mystery and life. In a bizarrely entrancing single take, Aurora retells a dream to Pilar that connects to her previous life. Another scene shows us Pilar, who is the audience’s cypher for the first hour, protesting the colonization of African colonies. It is not until tragedy strikes that we are given the second hour of the film (our keyhole for the key that is the first hour) that is largely set in Africa many years before where a young Aurora engages in a torrid affair. What is particularly striking about Tabu is how it uses black and white cinematography to give a 1930s travelogue feel to the proceedings that take place roughly in the 1960s during the second half. Other than a narration, music, and sound, the entirety of the second half is completely without dialogue which draws us even closer to the characters. What makes the film particularly masterful is how it silently criticizes colonialization; the several white Portugese people show little concern for the people in Africa, they largely see Africa as an Eden-like paradise where they can indulge themselves in fully whether it be hunting down animals for the sake of it or engaging in steamy affairs with the African sunset as background. The euphoria of conquering land is dangerous to the invaders – it gives them too much power which they use to disobey the natural and political laws of the land.

10- The Kid with a Bike

The fairy tale storybook feel that is ever present in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Wright’s Hanna is ever present here with the film only having a total of six to seven distinct locations and the characters seemingly never changing clothes. The film tells the story of Cyril, a kid who is abusively neglected by his own father who abandoned him to a orphanage at age 10. Thomas Doret, the actor who plays Cyril, is a force of nature. The Dardennes never let us into his psyche or thoughts, but this distance to character makes us observe him all the more closer to his painful journey to acceptance of his situation. Cecile De France takes the kid in on the weekends after he desparately clings to her after an escape from the orphanage (“You can hold me, just not so tight” she tells him). The boy is in desperate need of some sort of parental love. His story is utterly devastating as he continuously tries to get himself back into his dad’s good graces who is simply not interested in being a father. The Dardennes follow the Campbellian narrative that George Lucas celebrated so gloriously in Star Wars to the T. Symbols abound in the film whether it is the freedom that Cyril feels in getting his bike back finally or the gang acceptance gift of a coca cola. Every last detail in the film pushes the narrative forward and develops the characters deeper. Sit back and appreciate the meticulousness.


Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31st, I Wish, Seven Psychopaths, & 21 Jump Street

01. “Once upon a time in Anatolia” – The line, not the film. At one point in the film, a character says, “you can one day tell your child this story and start it with ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia, we were searching for a body…’ and he trails off. Despite the film’s stark realism, it is kind of like a fairy tale, right? While I believe in the Bible, others don’t and they see the birth of Jesus to be a fairy tale like story. I bring this up because throughout the film, I found several different allusions to the Biblical story of the three kings. The Prosecutor, the Police Chief, and the Doctor are all three kings. They are looking for a body, not a newborn, but a dead one. They have their star, but it’s in the form of a human being. Instead of the star staying over the manger of the body, the star is confused as to where the body is. They search through the night because when they arrive to the body they need to use their skills, not give gifts to find a similar salvation that the three kings found in Jesus: truth. They aim to find out what exactly happened while the three kings were aiming to find God in the flesh.

02. Expectations – From the reviews of both Cinema on the Road and Filmspotting, I was almost suspecting this to be a Apichatpong Weerasethakul/Bela Tarr-like study on the human consciousness with long durations without dialogue and long takes on the landscapes and faces of the men. Their set-ups were wrong! Not that I care, it is just funny to note how both podcasts make the film out to be something more difficult to sit through for the average film goer. Personally, while it is different from most law and order type procedural films and TV shows, I still think I would wholeheartedly suggest this to my middlebrow film friends. It is slow, don’t get me wrong, but the film is never boring and there is always a forward push with the development of the characters and situations.

03. Zoom – Ah, Ceylan does love a good face. Luckily, all three of the leads are easy on the eyes. With rare precision, Ceylan uses zooms to a strong effect. As a film maker, I am strongly opposed to zoom ins (which might be why I am not as an ardent fan of Kubrick as much as others), but here he is using them as they are meant to be used: to pick up and analyze facial movements instead of pushing a point on you. Whenever there is a zoom in, the character’s face is moving. This way, we get a analytical look at the face while never feeling like we are being pushed into the character’s psyche. It is one slow, swift movement.

04. Time – Here is something I seldom see in cinema: the lack of cutting away to a point later in the script. Granted, there are few moments where the film does it here, yet a lot of it is done in long takes to keep a slow rhythm to the film. The other thing I don’t see much in cinema is the way it captures those seemingly unimportant conversations you have during a late night doing something whether it be a job or hanging out with friends. Perhaps you’re in a uncomfortable, non-life altering situation (at least at the moment it doesn’t seem so) when conversations awkwardly bubble up that you don’t feel any strong emotional connection to until you think back and say to yourself, “well, that was a day when I truly connected with that person”. Anatolia captures that subtle feeling we all have when we remember that the most seemingly insignificant nights usually turn out to be the most important ones. It is mostly due to the languid pace.

05. Acting – When I used to act, I came across a monologue where a man is making a report on an autopsy on a corpse that he once had some kind of relationship to. However, there was no indication in the script or the dialogue that explains this out right. No actions. The dialogue consisted of somewhat banal listing of what occurred. At the time, I ignored it, but later on I thought just how wonderful it truly was. It relied on intonations and pauses to give weight to the character’s connection to the corpse. The acting doesn’t focus on the dialogue so much as it does to focus on how the characters behave. In a way, Ceylan is perfecting the skills on pure cinematic acting something that was touched on most famously with Dreyer’s [i]The Passion of Joan of Arc[/i] where the movie’s true mysteries lie on the face and the body language, not the dialogue and the plot developments as so many other movies employ. When you get down to bare bones, movies are just an advancement over photography – the same basics apply, the same quote of “a picture says a thousand words” applies. For too long has cinema based itself around the parameters of a novel (heavy focus on forming a plot, heavy focus on holding the audience’s hand, heavy focus on dialogue that defines the characters completely) when cinema is anything but! Books are filled with a thousand words, maybe even a million words, that define the characters and situations every step of the way. The key question to “a picture says a thousand words” is what words does the picture say? And, does it say the same thousand words to every person?

The love of cinema is rooted in the love of voyeurism. The love of voyeurism is rooted in lack of excitement in life. Cinema, first and foremost, is a visual medium. Literature allows for the imagination of readers, but cinema defines it through the concrete visuals it possesses. Novels can pinpoint every thought and feeling of a character at every second, but film can’t. As famously noted from a Chinese proverb though, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, so every frame of a film contains multitudes of detail. Films have the ability to connect to audiences in a more personal way than novels because actors and actresses are far easier to relate to than paragraphs.

It is because of our need to connect with humans in a behavioral way that makes Rear Window more of a film about relation and the evolution of cinema than the heart pounding intensity of a thriller. Through the view of his binoculars, Jeff watches the neighbors across him with increasing obsession from his apartment living room after being hospitalized for an injury he incurred while on the job. Jeff is a photographer, so his natural inclination is to observe people and take photos of them. His inability to do this due to his profession has made him turn his head to the window. The inability to live out one’s own life forces one to live through the lives of others.  Across Jeff’s window lie several stories that encapsulate stories that Jeff can relate to. He cannot hear the people in the apartment, he can only relate through the demeanor of their character and the actions of their behavior. This aspect of Rear Window is clearly reflexive because what the protagonist is essentially viewing is several different silent films. Silent films remain the purest way of telling stories through film because it is strictly image based. The phrase, “actions speak louder than words” also connects this idea of image based storytelling back to human interaction. The way emotions are conveyed by the human body and face are easier to relate to than words that define a character as being sad. Jeff uses these people as his subjects to escape his current predicament, but his girlfriend’s act of relating their situation to one of the subjects, a lonely woman, pulls him back into his real life situation. This calls back the famous quote that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote to Wendy Hiller in a letter, “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.” Art naturally reflects life because art is rooted in real life. The only way to create true escapism is to avoid any kind of human vulnerability whether its emotional or physical. Jeff’s observational tendencies is meant for a source of entertainment, but as he continues to watch people, he begins to become more and more involved in their lives until the inevitable happens; suspicion of one of them as a murderer.

With Rear Window, Hitchcock is showing us the history of cinema because cinema is rooted in voyeurism and voyeurism is due to lack of excitement in life. Constant viewing of another person’s life gets boring after a while, so Jeff, whether his claims are true or not, imposes a narrative on one his subjects. He believes that his neighbor has killed his wife and he tries to convince friends and policemen that his claims are true. During the 1910s and 1920s, people grew tired of watching a train moving towards them or watching people play cards, so naturally film became more focused as a storytelling medium along with being a medium to express behaviors. Jeff wants to give his subject a narrative structure because he is bored of what he is seeing. There is comfort in placing a narrative structure to life because life is seemingly without one.

Until the very end of Rear Window, the audience is still uncertain that Jeff’s accusations against his neighbor are valid. The ending culminates in a battle between Jeff and his neighbor where Jeff literally uses his camera lights to fight the supposed villain off. The lights are as artificial as the assumptions that Jeff is using against the neighbor to accuse him of a crime. The neighbor uses his own natural strength to fight Jeff back. The battle of the audience and the actor figuratively plays out with the audience winning; Jeff is validated of his claims and evidence is found that convicts the neighbor of killing his own wife. The fictional suspicion of Jeff’s mind becomes the truth. Does Hitchcock convey the message to fight for the fiction instead of the truth? No, he’s not demanding that we do, he’s rather stating that it is what we do through the unwavering faith Jeff puts in his suspicions. The realistic ending of the film would be that the neighbor is not the killer, and that Jeff has been deluding himself the entire time. Realism and honesty are not virtues of cinema because art, in and of itself, is a lie. Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. With Rear Window, Hitchcock disproves the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger quote that audiences don’t want escapism in films through the actions of Jeff.


01- The Tree of Life

You either love it or hate it. It’s an experience that demands your attention as it demands you to meditate within it. Love it or hate it, you can’t help but respect the sheer ambition, the beautiful imagery, and the grand mystery of it all. The camera pulls us into the character’s lives as if the audience is a ghost while the editing makes the viewer feel as if we’re traveling through someone’s consciousness, looking over every memory, every feeling, and every imagination of the universe’s secrets. The film’s two showcase, controversial scenes – the creation sequence and the end – are scenes I don’t see as natural progression, but of mirrored repetition. The creation sequence recreates the beginning of the universe while detailing the beauty of it as well. It all boils down to a moment – the creation of our protagonist, Jack, that perfectly exemplifies the weight of one’s life. We are important since the world has led to us living, but we are unimportant in the scope of all creation. The ending sequence shows us how humans have successfully created their own universe through the interactions and creation of other human beings.  The Tree of Life is not a film, but a transcendental experience that forces any willing viewer to reflect on his or her life while giving affirmation for it.

02- The Interrupters

Thinking about films that came out in 2011, none hit my emotional core as much as Steve James’ new masterpiece did. Shot over a course of a year, The Interrupters follows a group of “Crime Interrupters”, hence the title. Through persuasion and psychological tactics, these people try their best to calm victims of inner city crime from taking revenge on their attackers.  As communicated in the film by several of the Interrupter experts, most crime in Chicago comes from a never-ending cycle of revenge. The most fascinating aspect of The Interrupters is that the three people that the film is centered around are all former criminals that have since redeemed themselves through their work in trying to help others. The ability for these violence Interrupters to be able to relate honestly and emotionally with these victims of crime changes the results incredibly. Steve James does not shy away from the tough questions and the difficult scenes. In one scene, a man passionately asks his violence interrupter, “How can you help me?! How can you help me RIGHT NOW?!” It isn’t about physically changing the world around you, but being emotionally and mentally capable with dealing it.  The film gives the stats that there are 40% less homicides because of their group known as Cease Fire. Why hasn’t the government put more money into this organization? The Interrupters is a film that truly captures the spirit and beauty of pacifism in a way that has rarely ever been on screen. To me, the film is easily one of the best documentaries ever created and my second favorite film of 2011.

03- Mysteries of Lisbon

Narrative trickery is the name of the game here. And not just for the sake of it, but to show the audience the deterministic way life works. The film is extensively about a series of back stories and how they all fit into the complex web of other characters in the film. Mysteries of Lisbon questions the very nature as to why we tell stories. It doesn’t stop there, though. While the biggest theme rests within the overall story of how scenes play out, the execution is a lovely throwback to old cinema with long takes that follows characters through dancing and slices through the walls like a Ophuls or Visconti film. Characters play out not only the melodrama of the piece, but thriller, comedy, and romance elements of the film as well. It encompasses most genres of film entertainment, attaining that old movie quality of mixing every genre in order to please everyone. It’s an old technique of the old studios, largely forgotten when films started to solely focus on one or two demographics in order to make as much money as possible. Mysteries of Lisbon is a treasure out of the past – at 4.5 hours long, it encapsulates the lost feeling of the old studio melodrama epic masterpiece.

04- A Separation

A simple separation of man and wife leads to a study of how the small details of Iranian laws create a system that actively works against its citizens in the most desperately complex of situations. The attention to character in this intricate drama reminds one of Mike Leigh. The magnifying glass is so close that you can see each character’s fears, flaws, and joy. Through this intense observation, the ensemble becomes more three dimensional than the majority of films released today with pitch perfect performances to complement it. Sareh Bayat gives my favorite female performance of the year as a maid who’s pushed into a situation that she barely has any resources to solve. Equally desperate is Peyman Moaadi, playing her employer who fights against her to solve a predicament that is as ambiguously grey as the characters. It’s difficult to choose sides at times in this web of lies and deceit, but whatever one does, you can’t help but feel sorry for the girl stuck in between. As Teremeh, Sarina Farhadi plays a young woman trying to believe in her father even when everything around her comes crashing down. Her story is the true separation of the film’s title – does she leave the country of her culture and background with her mom or does she stay there with her father? As the film’s woeful final shot tells us, there is no right or wrong answer for this question.

05- Take Shelter

Taken as a thriller, the film succeeds as Curtis slowly loses his mind to the sinking feeling he has that the apocalypse is near. Through the camera’s constant observation of how much money is being spent and their budget, though, the film becomes something far different: an allegory for the months before the financial collapse in 2008. Upon further reflection, it’s as clear as the first few minutes when a raindrop falls on the hand of Curtis. He’d later describe it like motor oil. With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols joins the ranks of Bahrani and Reichardt as cinematic provocateurs weaving stories that, through the observations of modern day lower to middle class Americans, criticize modern day American political and sociological issues. It’s also a damn good thriller, especially in the way that it allows the characters to establish and define themselves through the film’s slow pace instead of just allowing their character arcs pull them through the rote paces of a standard psychological thriller. It becomes more of a in depth character study as we move past the surrealistic nightmare sequences to the real horror – Curtis’ whacked out obsession with creating a bomb shelter to keep his family safe. Michael Shannon creates a lived in performance – his demeanor is one of little words, but through his eyes you can see a man that, even though he is uncertain of himself if his worries are real or not, can’t help but feel scared for the future.

06- The Muppets

People might say that I love this film because it’s a nostalgia fest. Well, yes, there is a lot of nostalgic moments, but the film is not a clear cut nostalgia wank. The film’s theme is rooted in the song, “Pictures in my Head” where Kermit sings about his yearning to see his friends and entertain once again. Like Hugo and Midnight in Paris, The Muppets is not only nostalgic for the past, but explicitly about nostalgia. It goes farther though – The Muppets addresses the fact that a lot of entertainment these days is mean spirited and sarcastic. Unlike Hugo or Midnight in Paris, the film finds actual value in the things we are nostalgic for rather than just saying that we should value the past because it’s the past (Hugo) or because we’d imagine it to be a lot more of an entertaining time (Midnight in Paris). The film’s characters are fighting for positive, light hearted humor, a quality that the antagonist, Tex Richman says is dead. The Muppets are out to prove him wrong by fighting for their own relevancy and fame once again. At the same time, the film’s content reflects the narrative by being a hugely funny, full of heart, musical comedy. If the film doesn’t melt your heart while simultaneously providing fantastic belly laughs, then I question your humanity. The Muppets is as close to cinematic serantonin as I can think possible. Rarely have I smiled from beginning to end in a movie theatre. While my favorite musical number is the tearful ode “Pictures in my Head”, “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Man or Muppet” are instantly catchy as they are hilarious and fun. See the film if you want to feel happy.

07- Weekend

To call this a gay remake of Before Sunrise is ignorant. The film is about homosexuals and the topic of homosexuality in modern day society, yet the majority of the themes and emotions felt from this film are deeply universal things that anyone of any orientation can relate to. A one night stand turns into a two day one as two souls connect over conversation, sex, and drugs. The micro budget of the film shows, but it also makes for a level of intimacy not seen in the majority of romantic films today. With the initial sex out of the way, a love grows as the two fight against each other and themselves to try to attain something more. In the end, though, they are separated by fate (as the best romance films do), and we see that this small interaction, this small “weekend” has made an incredible change in their lives. As Russ, Tom Cullen gives an extraordinary performance as a introverted man trying to come to terms with himself, while Chris New, as Glen, plays the opposite – a man that’s so obsessed with his own orientation that he can’t seem to stop talking about it. Weekend is quiet, but stirring, sad, but hopeful. It’s 2011’s best romantic film of the year.

08- Melancholia

A difficult film to process as it’s a difficult film to recommend, Melancholia is no holds barred dive into the state of deep clinical and non clinical depression. The prologue tells you the entire story – it even spoils the end. Von Trier does this in order to do away with narrative so that you care about the characters and the emotional states that they are in. What a ride! The first half deals solely on the depressive mental state of Justine as she struggles with the reception following her wedding with the second being about the aftermath she shares with her sister’s family and a planet, Melancholia, heading towards Earth that may or may not signify the end of the world. Von Trier keeps it intimate; we never see the universal reaction to the apocalypse, it’s all kept within Justine’s immediate family. Through the perspective of Justine, we can relate to her feelings. Even though we might deny it, I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t felt the crushing emptiness that depression makes. The follow up to the narrative asks the question – is it the end of the world? Or is Melancholia the mental manifestation of a coup de grace that we all want when we hit rock bottom? Melancholia is a deep examination of the feelings we want to acitvely deny or sweep under the rug. It’s unrelenting, painful, and nihilistic, but the emotions speak true, digging right to ther core, whether you like it or not.

09- The Skin I Live In

An endlessly entertaining film with the year’s oddest plot. It’s a 1930s monster movie mixed with the classical melodrama genre translated through Pedro Almodovar’s head with unforgettable twists and turns. Underneath the trickery of genre mashing and stylistic complexities, a rather interesting examination of the obsession of revenge surfaces. How far do we go when we want to get revenge on someone? Antonio Banderas plays a doctor who has locked up a woman and has experimented on her, at first out of malice, but soon the experiments become part of him as he subconsciously (?) shaping her to look like his dead wife. The film’s plot twists are flat out bizarre. The murkiness of the plot goes to a truly transcendently mysterious place. Yet Almodovar never engages in self indulgent directorial flourishes, instead he creates an atmosphere so hauntingly sterile that you don’t even realize how disturbing the plot is until after the film has finished. His technique of creating these strikingly unforgettable images edited to a thumping Alberto Igleasias score perfectly blends the style with the substance. At times, it’s difficult to ascertain which is stronger. It’s a strange tale, directed in a strange way. It makes me laugh, but in a nervous way. It takes my breath away, but it also makes me gag at the thought of it. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like The Skin I Live In.

10- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee plays out as the antithesis to Von Trier’s Melancholia. Whereas that film is dark and depressing, Uncle Boonmee, in its own way, is hopeful and happy. The film is about the last few days of Boonmee as he prepares for his death. Weerasethakul uses surrealistic elements, like Boonmee’s ape spirit son and a past life of his involving a woman and a catfish, to meditate and explore a major theme of humanity’s lost connection with nature in a bizarre, yet entrancing way. There are few films as deeply hypnotizing as Apichatpong’s, his use of mood and atmosphere draws the viewer in like any film of Lynch, Ozu, or Tarkovsky. Taking a journey into Weerasethakul’s jungle (mind) is usually impenetrable to interpret as it is breathtaking to watch. Weerasethakul wants you to meditate in his jungle, so results will vary from person to person on if you gain anything from the film. The arresting visuals and haunting sound is worth the seeping into your heart and mind if you can only stand the film’s languid pace and its constant surrealism.

More of an analysis than a review. My first analysis on the film as well.

Pretty messy.

I originally saw this film back in May. I left a few knee jerk reactions on a few different web sites, but I never wrote a full length review on what I thought about this piece of work. The reason for this is because the film had such a profound effect on me. I could not shake it; I could not organize my thoughts into a coherent fashion. That is, of course, until now. Let me get the obvious out of the way first and foremost. The Tree of Life is a masterpiece. There are few movies where the ambition and passion match the talent and The Tree of Life is one of them. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is another. So are Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. But this is beside the point. The Tree of Life is a meditation on life, the universe, and the human consciousness that struggles so hard to understand it all. It’s a film that encompasses all that surrounds us while attempting to explain the process as to why we ask these questions. There are not many directors who dive into subjects they can’t truly comprehend for themselves. Malick bears all that he knows and feels about life and the universe into this movie. This is a work of true passion.

With that out of the way, I want to address some thoughts and feelings on the film. Unlike other films, The Tree of Life is near impossible to write an analysis on because it’s more so a movie you have to experience. The words in this review can only scratch at the surface of the emotional involvement one will have with the film if they are patient and willing to allow themselves be swallowed.

One thing I’ve noticed about most reviews on the film is lack of thought on the cinematography. Sure, Malick has always known for his beautiful imagery and his impeccable sense of composition. However, there’s something that’s more striking here than his other films. At times, I felt the camera was a spirit that was following the family. The best example I can think of is in the beginning of the film with the shot inside the family home. Mrs. Obrien is inside the house, looking through her mail. The camera swiftly follows her – when she looks down at her mail, the camera looks down at the mail. When she walks, the camera shakes ever so gracefully. Malick never does the shaky camera in-the-trenches war documentary thing. The camera floats, as if it’s a spirit that’s watching over the family. I’d like to believe that the spirit is actually Malick himself, reflecting on past memories, racking his brain on what exactly happened within this family. Of course, this could be tied back to the framing device Malick gives the film – an older Jack O’Brien, played by Sean Penn, is seen drifting through the concrete jungle of the business world, disconnected from life. His portions of the film almost play like a silent film. The camera in these scenes is a bit more rigid, a bit plainer, which makes me consider the notion of the interpretation that the film’s segments about the family are actually Jack’s memories and that supposed spirit I thought is actually Jack searching through his own memories in his mind. However, we also get a clearer flashback cue when Mrs. Obrien questions God in the beginning. I must digress because the film is too far complex to write a broad criticism about. Later on in the film, during the family “movement” (if you will, let’s consider this film as an orchestra piece instead of a story), the camera again has this light feeling as it captures the children within the film growing up. It’s through this movement that the film develops the family dynamic and captures the process of growing up better than any film in recent memory. The scene that sticks with me the most is the consciousness of a baby realizing that there’s another child in their midst. This scene shows the birth of sibling rivalry; the boy cautiously approaches his newborn brother, unsure, unaware, frightened, intimidated. It’s moments like these that not only establishes character better than most films about children, but give a universal truth, a voice to a feeling that we with siblings have always felt, but never remember when it came about. Character development is never about dialogue and it shouldn’t be even about action, but reaction. The camera breathes an organic life to the film by making us feel like a child and remembering our experiences as a child. A few instances; we never learn the first names of the parents, most of the shots, if not all, never have the camera looking down on the parents, and my favorite example is the shot that goes along with the following dialogue, “You will grow before that tree is tall.” It’s a shot that instantly reminded me of my childhood – from the child’s POV up to his mother. His mother is looking down on him as if she’s the great teacher of life.

The relationship between the parents and the children in this film is another difficult quality to grasp. I’ve seen a few criticisms across the internet that claims that the mother is a fairly one dimensional figure. Yes and no. There’s a certain level of holiness Malick imbues in the mother which lacks in the father character. Mrs. Obrien represents grace and Mr. Obrien represents nature. Through Jack’s eyes, we see grace as an encompassing love of life, whereas nature is a tough love that’s consistently conscious about how hard life is. Jack feels a certain love for his mother over his father because she treats him better; she isn’t someone he feels he has to win over. With his father, he feels that he has to earn his love, but even when he tries earning it, he can’t achieve it. He comments on how his father does things in life that he would punish his son for doing. He struggles with understanding why his father doesn’t love him, why he doesn’t favor him as much as his other brother. Then he begins a rivalry with him, saying that he can raise his brother better than he can. This leads to a fateful moment in the woods where he realizes that he is his father’s son and that he’s more like him than he wanted to be. As a man, I want to avoid the mistakes my father made. I believe that I can improve on the things he lacked in. In the end, Jack and us, realize that Mr. Obrien is a human being. Like all of us, Mr. and Mrs. Obrien (or our parents) aren’t some deities sent from God to teach us how to live life, but just ordinary people trying to get by.

The semi-controversial “creation” segment of the film is an organic exploration of the beginnings of the universe. The main reason I love and appreciate this sequence is because it proves this idea that I’ve always had. At this very moment, I’m writing a review. I’m eating a cracker. The big bang, the universe being created, life forms making a big evolutionary jump into full human consciousness, empires rising and falling, wars fought, all of the world’s history – it has led to this moment of me crunching on a cracker. And this is exactly what the creation segment is telling us – life is to be appreciated, everything that has ever happened led up to this moment whether it’s meaningful or not. We are alive because of all the happiness and sadness that has been meted out on the superior and the inferior. Our descendants survived for the hope that we would be happier than them. Nature exists for us; it doesn’t exist because of us. We should appreciate it more. But as humans, we only relate to humanistic things. This is why I think this sequence gets such disdain – we are so obsessed with ourselves that once something happens that doesn’t have a single human or talking animal on screen, we get bored because it’s not about us. The thing is, Earth is not about us, it’s about all things. We aren’t as special as we think we are, we are ultimately just a grain of sand in the vast history of time that the Universe has existed. Once we realize our ultimate inferiority in the grand scheme of things is when we can start fully asking questions about life and the reason to why we are here. I believe Malick has a fairly agnostic idea of life, given the ending to this mammoth of a film.

The ending of The Tree of Life is completely ambiguous. Every last shot of it is difficult to fully comprehend what’s going on. The most common interpretation is that this is an afterlife. Another interpretation is that Jack has given up the nature lifestyle that he ultimately adopted from his father. My idea of the scene is a bit difficult to fully explain, but here goes. There’s a moment in this sequence where the mother and Jack’s wife are together and Mrs. Obrien whispers something about how she’s passing herself through his son to her or something, I’m not sure. So, sit down for this. My idea is that the reason that Jack has this moment where he reflects on all life and everything around him is that his wife has just told him that she’s going to have a baby. This one scene of the film is showing how life is passed on. The mother gives birth to the son, the son impregnates his wife and she gives birth to a child. Life is passed on to create new life. The cycle continues. Why does Jack see all of the people in his life? Because these are the people who made him what he is today. These are the people to made him, just like nature has made humans, people make other people. The father, his brothers, and his mother are all part of Jack’s genetic code. Life begins anew.

I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m missing. But that’s what second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on viewings are for. If you haven’t seen this film yet, run out and see it. It’s more than worth it.