To look at Marion Cotillard is to look at a woman with the kind of face that seems ageless. I don’t just mean that she’s beautiful (though she is that)—it’s also that she looks like she’s stepped out of another time. It’s no surprise that some of her most significant roles as an actor have been in period pictures, playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (for which she won that surprise Best Actress Oscar) and a dream vision of the Jazz Age in Midnight in Paris. In The Immigrant, her face could be that of a figure from an old photograph of Ellis Island, or of a forgotten silent film actress. The director, James Gray, uses her like D. W. Griffith used Lillian Gish: she becomes a vessel for tragic pathos at the same time that she blows us away with her star power.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—by which I mean awards season. As the nation’s critics begin to cast their votes for the year’s best films, and as I prepare my own list of favorites, I’m catching up with some notable titles that I missed the first time around.
Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski): This is Poland’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, and it very well could win; it’s already proven the favorite of over a dozen critics’ groups. It’s set in the early 1960s and, with its black-and-white cinematography and weighty subject matter, feels like a vintage art house film from the same period. The title character is a Catholic novice who learns that her parents were Jewish, victims of the Holocaust. This news, which comes during a visit to her aunt—her first time away from the walls of the convent—causes her to question her identity, her religious faith, and her life’s mission. It’s a lean, spare, intimate work, and while it didn’t resonate much with me it does have one sublime moment, when the curious Ida hears the sounds of John Coltrane’s “Naima” wafting up the stairs from the jazz club below her aunt’s hotel room.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook isn’t just the best new horror film in recent memory—it’s one of the best films of the year, period. It’s a horror film that understands, as all the best horror films do, that our scariest encounters are often with the people we know and love best; that the most familiar and intimate of spaces can also be the most dangerous; and that within a family the urge to protect one another can sometimes shade into the desire to kill one another. It’s the same principle that drives the stories of the Brothers Grimm, in which a child can never be sure if his parents are going to save him, abandon him, or eat him.
Remember back in the summer of 2013 when the Edward Snowden case was breaking, and we kept seeing that same picture of Snowden over and over again on all the news channels and all the websites? The Onion even made a joke about it (“Nation Demands New Photograph of Edward Snowden”). It wasn’t just that we were tired of that picture; it was that the man at the center of the story seemed to be an enigma. Who was this guy? All that we had to go on was a couple of minutes of interview footage of Snowden in conversation with Glenn Greenwald, shot by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden and Greenwald broke the story of the NSA wiretaps.