The Films of 2015: The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was one of 2013’s best films, so I was anxious to see his follow-up documentary The Look of Silence, which screened at the Boston Independent Film Festival this Sunday.  While the two films beg to be seen side-by-side as a kind of cinematic diptych—both are reflections on the Indonesian genocide of the late 1960s, in which it is estimated that one million Indonesians were branded as Communists and massacred by government-appointed death squads—they are very different takes on the same subject, and they raise different sets of questions about trauma, memory, and history.  In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer turned his gaze on the men who—proudly—claim responsibility for having executed countless numbers of people; more of these executioners turn up in The Look of Silence, cheerfully posing for pictures in a clearing by the river where they recall beheading hundreds of prisoners with machetes.  (They also describe drinking the blood of their victims in an attempt to ward off guilt and madness.)  But this time it’s personal: the central figure of The Look of Silence (and Oppenheimer’s surrogate) is Adi, an Indonesian optometrist whose older brother was tortured and killed by a local death squad.  The film follows Adi as he confronts the men responsible for his brother’s death, quietly but forcefully pressing them to justify their actions and explain their motives. 

The Films of 2015: The Tribe

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Boston’s thirteenth annual Independent Film Festival.  I was only able to see two films this year, though both were excellent—though maybe not on the level of Boyhood, the standout from last year’s fest.  On Friday night I caught a screening of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, set at a Ukrainian school for deaf teenagers.  I had first heard about this film a year or so ago when it caused come buzz at Cannes, where it won the award for the best film screened in the Critics’ Week sidebar.  The film contains no spoken dialogue because the characters communicate with each other using sign language, and because the sign language has not been subtitled we are forced to interpret relationships and motivations by observing the characters’ body language and other context clues.  (The effect is not so different from watching a film from the silent era.)  The film opens with an unnamed boy’s arrival at the school, which he soon discovers is ruled by a gang of thugs and petty criminals.  Our hero is forced to make a place for himself within the gang’s hierarchy, and when one of his fellow gang members is killed in a grisly accident, he takes over his role as a pimp, escorting two female classmates to a nearby lot where they’re farmed out to local truck drivers.  Complications arise when he develops an emotional attachment to one of the girls in his charge.


The Films of 2015: Clouds of Sils Maria

Judging from the trailer for Olivier Assayas’ excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, you’d think that the film is a vaguely sleazy lesbian thriller—something akin to Brian de Palma’s Passion, or Assayas’ own demonlover—in which a woman of a certain age falls prey to the sexual machinations of a young femme fatale.  So it was with some relief that I found the film to be a good deal more meditative, and less sexually overheated, than that misleadingly edited trailer would suggest.  The relationships between the three women in the film are highly charged, to be sure, but also prickly, complicated, and richly layered.  This is not the story of a love triangle, nor is it your typical juicy backstage melodrama.  Indeed, the most audacious thing about the film has to be the straightforwardness and intelligence with which it regards all of its characters.  There are no villains here, only three very different women, each at a different moment in her professional career, trying to make their way in an increasingly fractured industry.   


The Films of 2015: While We're Young

Somewhere near the end of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the title character (played by Ben Stiller) delivers a rant to a roomful of twenty-somethings, telling them “there’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying.”  The horrifying confidence of twenty-somethings is the focus of Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, in which Stiller and Naomi Watts play a Brooklyn couple who make the mistake of befriending a pair of free-spirited hipsters played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.  If the film starts out as a broadly comic satire about the absurdity of hipster culture (as well as the mysterious allure it holds for those who are beginning to feel no longer relevant), by the end it has become a queasy cautionary tale about the havoc wreaked by the young and inexperienced.    


The Films of 2015: It Follows

Sex is to horror movies what horses are to Westerns: not an essential ingredient per se, but an important one.  The link between sex and horror has been theorized by Carol Clover and Linda Williams; by horror movies themselves (Scream, The Cabin in the Woods); and by me, in posts such as this one from 2012.  So David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—in which sexually active teens find themselves relentlessly pursued by murderous phantoms—feels slightly belated in its insistence on the relatedness of sex, fear and danger.  It’s a slickly designed throwback to the horror films of the late ’70s and early ’80s, right down to its killer synth soundtrack, and it has much to recommend it.  But it doesn’t exactly live up to the expectations that its premise sets up.  It’s a film that’s better at being suggestive than direct, and while I respect its unwillingness to leave certain ideas unresolved it ends up feeling more than a little slack. 


Decasia; or, that time I met Bill Morrison

Spring, 2003.  I was a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, where I had recently defected from the School of Film and Animation in the hopes of pursuing a degree in English elsewhere.  Even after leaving SOFA, however, I would often attend departmental events and film screenings (I was particularly fond of the end-of-term student film critiques, which were open to the public and which stretched on for days).  So when I saw a flyer publicizing a program of short films by Bill Morrison, introduced by the filmmaker, I was intrigued and ended up going with my then-roommate.  I was immediately struck by the panache of Morrison’s work, most of which utilizes found footage from the early twentieth century.  My roommate had a more difficult time with it; I can remember him turning to me halfway through Morrison’s The Death Train (1993) and saying, “I can’t watch anymore of this—sorry!”, and splitting.  I stayed for the rest of The Death Train, though I was more taken with two of Morrison’s shorts from the early 1990s: Footsteps (1992), a woozy mélange of footage from old jungle adventure movies, and the elegiac Photo Op (1992), which evokes an eerie post-war Europe.