Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Impressions: It is true, I have some leftover bitterness towards Boston and surrounding areas from living there for a little over a year. It’s not at all what I feel for the rest of New England area; I have nothing but lovely memories of my 5 years living in Vermont.  But that aggression in the air, as portrayed in this movie is all too real. Riding the T or a bus to work, I often felt as if a physical altercation could break out any second. And I am sure not all those people had things as horrible as what happens in this movie happen to them. It is an attitude that this movie captures perfectly. I felt it acutely when I lived there.

This is a VERY depressing movie. It has the distinction of being the only movie I saw made in 2016 that fits in the “shoot-your-knee-caps-off” category of depressing. I knew it was a sad movie, and avoided it for a while. But I did not realize just how depressing, until I saw it. It is beautifully shot, and captures the mood and emotion of a place better than anything I have ever seen. It is also terrifically acted. The dialogue is just there to fill the space, it’s really the silences that convey the emotion and the underlying plot.

Something horrible has happened to Lee, and he has run away from Manchester.  He returns to help take care of his teenage nephew, but has to face his past. I’ve seen You Can Count on Me by the same writer/director, which also, interestingly features a messed up uncle. Although in that film, everyone else is portrayed as messed up to some degree as well. Here it seems everyone else has it relatively together, but Lee just keeps messing up and ends up deciding that the only solution is to try to protect everyone else from himself. While there are some lighter scenes thrown in with the teenage nephew trying to juggle his many girlfriends, this movie is very heavy. Some scenes are so heart wrenching I don’t think I could see them ever again.

Facts: A slow moving story set in New England, about a tragedy and its toll on the man who feels responsible and his wider family dynamics.

Julieta (2016)

Impression:  Almost 40 years after his first feature, Almodovar has perfected the way his films look, and it’s visually stunning. All the walls in this film look incredible as backdrops: from the long-established  deep reds to strange 70’s inspired psychedelic wallpapers. I wish Pedro would come and do-up my house!  But it’s not just the backdrops: there is a brief, and not particularly important, scene of food preparation in Julieta. I realized, even if I was just shown eggs cooking, out of context, I would be able to recognize it as Almodovar’s “cooking eggs.”  I can’t completely explain why or how, but there is something about the quality of the color, the way that particular yellow looks on film. The backdrops and the general look of the film build the mood within which the plot takes place.

The basic theme in Julieta is a lack of communication between the main character and people in her life. There are secrets and unspoken truths between her and her lovers, between her and her parents, between her and a friend. But most disastrously  between her and her daughter, who disappears without any explanation. Some of the motivations behind this central breakdown are revealed by the end, but never completely, and the ambiguity of why such a break would happen lingers after the credits. Interesting parallels are drawn between different relationships in Julieta’s life; she deals in different ways with similar situations in different contexts.  Infidelity when she is the cause of it is excused, when her father is in a similar situation is frowned upon, but when she is the victim is devastating. Yet she never quite grasps the hypocrisy. Despite her flaws, Julieta is portrayed as a sympathetic character who has lived through a number of traumatic events, and persevered. The film draws you in, and makes you feel devastated for her. She is stunned to find herself abandoned by her daughter. It’s not until a conversation many years later (still not initiated by her) that she gets some explanation and begins to acknowledge that some of her actions (or inactions) may have had consequences.

Facts: A woman searches for answers about her missing daughter and reminisces about her life.

Extra: Almodovar is my favorite film director. In my head, I divide his films into two eras: ones made before I discovered his movies circa late 1990’s and ones that have been made since. The dividing line is a little fuzzy, but basically either right before or right after Live Flesh (1997). The early ones are low budget, and either outright comedies with ridiculous premises (think: terrorist sniffing gay lovers, or nuns who smuggle weapons and prostitutes) or comedy/melodrama mixes.  The later ones are mostly dramas, with much higher production value, amazing cinematography, a much more main-stream feel, but sometimes still far-fetched melodramatic premises. The films in the two eras fall into completely different genres, and are hard to compare.  All About My Mother is my  favorite of the later films. And Julieta is now a close second.

Ignorant Fairies (His Secret Life) (2001)

Impressions: The film opens with a sequence showing a woman who seems to be leading a very happy, if not perfect life.  She is married to a great guy, she has an important job where she is respected. Ok, maybe she doesn’t get along with her housekeeper. A major tragic event interrupts her life, and leads her to seek answers to her past, which leads her into a world completely foreign to her.  Through her sadness and confusion, she slowly gets sucked into this world, and keeps revisiting it. The communal type life, the fabulous Sunday meals on a gorgeous terrace overlooking rooftops of Rome are all so attractive that she soon becomes a part of that community.  The shots of food preparation, the splashes of color, the colorful characters, they are all like something very much out of an Almodovar movie. Who wouldn’t want to be preparing food with these people every Sunday?

Facts: A sudden tragic event, leads a woman into a world she knew nothing about, and sends her on a major re-evaluation of her identity and place in the world.

Extras: In 2001 when I saw this film, it was titled Ignorant Fairies. For some reason for the American distribution it got renamed into His Secret Life. This is still my favorite movie I have ever seen during 11 years of going to TIFF and probably close to a 100 movies. Getting to see it by not making the line to another one, made it even more of a treat, and actually inspired the way I do festivals from then on: always open to serendipity and suggestions, and very light on prep and background, because my favorites have always been the ones that did not sound interesting when I read the descriptions. It’s maybe also inspired how I live my life, but that’s a whole other post :).

Mountain (2015)

Impression: Who knew all kinds of kinky things go on on the Mount of Olives at night? Beautifully shot, and amazingly acted, it’s kind of a Virginia Woolf novel set in an Orthodox Jewish family, but with a more sinister ending. Manages to touch on more individual themes of loneliness and isolation, but in a very subtle way also on politics. There is very little dialogue, but there are a lot of long scenes showing the main character’s boredom, and unhappiness. A small cramped house at the edge of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives is kind of a perfect visual metaphor for the smallness of the world she inhabits. But she soon discovers nefarious activities going on just outside her front door at night, and becomes intrigued. She is introduced to a whole different world, and the inability to communicate with her husband (a Yeshiva teacher who studies late into the night and never has time for her) becomes more and more intolerable, until she finally takes decisive action. This was a stunning debut feature, and I am excited to see more from the same director, Yaelle Kayam.

Facts: A woman in an unsatisfying marriage and four kids, discovers people leading very different lives come to hang out just outside her cramped world in a tiny house at the edge of a cemetery.

Sparrows (2015)

Impression: Icelandic, set in the far north small town during the summer, so there is no night. Icelandic summer means non-stop daylight, and the light with which the film is painted is unlike anything I have seen, everything is sharper, and more stark.  All sense of time is lost, and events seem to happen and escalate a lot faster than they would somewhere where action takes place over 12 hour stretches followed by breaks.  Somehow, everything is amped up. The plot follows a teenager who unwillingly comes to stay with his dad and grandmother for the summer. The otherworldly Icelandic landscape is captured really well, and is a great background for his coming to terms with adulthood in a series of progressively more heartbreaking episodes. Definitely a candidate for the “shoot your kneecaps off” category of depressing films. Still, very good!

Facts: A teenage boy comes to spend a summer with his estranged father and grandmother in the far north of Iceland.

 

You Carry Me (2015)

Impression:  I really liked how this movie looked, I thought the acting was very strong, and I liked that it’s mostly about strong female characters. But… at almost 3 hours, I think it’s too long: It could easily have been cut in length and not lost the point or the feel of the movie. It’s also too intense. Everyone in it is pissed off all the time. Having a connection to Croatia, I  unfortunately know that this is just the normal state of affairs in Croatia, but honestly it’s why I don’t enjoy visiting so much anymore or reading the news.  It’s like everyone (not just the women) is on a verge of a nervous breakdown.  The film is also a little too ambitious: It tries to do too much, touch on too many issues, and it seems to lose focus towards the end. I liked the first story the best, it was about a woman being torn between dealing with her father’s illness and trying to live her own life at the same time. I thought it was really well done, and well paced, and sweet. It was very different than the later stories, which seemed to pick up in pace, ending with the very frantic, melodrama at the end.  Other than living in the same city, the connection between the characters is that they all work on a set of a ridiculous TV soap opera. Towards the end of the movie the real life relationships seem to actually morph into something from a soap opera. While this was most likely on purpose, I am not sure what the point of it was. The film is also not too subtle about other films it takes ideas from, bird scene from Amour, a little bit of a Y Tu Mama Tambien vibe, the magic realism, a little bit of the Almodovar melodrama, etc…

Facts: Three stories about three women from different socioeconomic strata in modern day Croatia dealing with every day life. And for once it’s not (directly) about war.