A Perfect World
Clint Eastwood’s films overflow with violence and trauma, and none are as emotionally devastating as A Perfect World. This 1960s-set road film about two convicts who kidnap an eight-year-old boy during a daring escape is essentially a tale of paternal connections made and torn apart. Throughout, Eastwood fixates on the nature of evolving relationships, none more heartbreaking than the bond that develops between the charming and volatile murderer Butch (Kevin Costner) and his sheltered young hostage, Phillip (T.J. Lowther). Their short but potent time together spent evading lawmen on the backroads of Northwest Texas is full of striking moments stretched out to convey the young boy’s impressionable and incredibly lucid perspective. Eastwood allows his two leads the necessary space and time to develop a wonderfully complex chemistry, one forged through the power of shared subjective experience. This is a sundrenched Americana made up of conflicted men trying to be good fathers, and naïve boys desperate to be devoted sons, if only they were offered the chance. Glenn Heath Jr.
Post-1968, Jean-Luc Godard’s work becomes a tangled web of cinematic, political, religious, and aesthetic allusions, cathedrals of self-reflexivity spoken in a tongue invented and arguably understood solely by the director himself. For its part, Nouvelle Vague stands at or near the pinnacle of Godard’s mature period, extending a perhaps unintentional streak of embarking on each new decade with a work of helpful thematic disclosure, a tact he’s tended to spend much of the subsequent years editing and expanding into hyper-sensory audio/visual explorations. Shot in and around the Swiss countryside he calls home, the film is noticeably rich and dramatic in a manner befitting its personalized origins. Ostensibly a depiction of the underhanded dealings of bourgeois society and, in particular, a young woman haunted by the specter of a man she may have once murdered, the film uses these fairly conventional trappings as a means toward reducing the narrative to a base text, which in this case amounts to an interlocking grid of literary interpolations. Nouvelle Vague, then, may be something of a coded language, but it’s a bracing and beautiful realization of one artist’s splintered past and uncertain future, a new wave all its own. Jordan Cronk
The highlight of Claude Chabrol’s late career, La Cérémonie is a taut, chilling thriller that’s nearly perfect in every regard. The story, based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone, sets up increasingly uncomfortable class tensions that pit a wealthy family against their new maid, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and her new friend, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal worker the family distrusts. Thanks to stellar performances and a masterful script that Chabrol co-wrote with psychologist Caroline Eliacheff, La Cérémonie gives us characters who are elusive but nonetheless understandable; in the absence of details about Sophie and Jeanne’s culpability regarding their possibly murderous backgrounds, we still feel as if we could make up our minds about them. No second is wasted: Every line, scene, object, and expression makes narrative sense, connects with something else, or adds subtext (differences in the way characters watch TV speaks volumes about their place in the world). Illustrative of this connectedness is one of La Cérémonie’s best lines, a kind of blackly comic and ironic double entendre when you consider the film’s violent finale. After a priest scolds Jeanne for wicked behavior at a clothing donor’s house, she asks, “You don’t want our help?” To which the priest responds, “Maybe you should get some help.” Henely
Repetitive by design, Atom Egoyan’s precisely structured chamber film has an experimental constitution but a romantic heart, positioned as a direct conduit to the piercing pain of loss. Playing out across an economic 74 minutes, it hops between two discretely divided sections: 12 scenes set amid the quiet splendor of the Armenian countryside, interspersed with 12 set inside the cramped apartment of the unnamed protagonist (played by Egoyan himself). Employing a static camera, the film depends entirely on the placement of people and objects within its carefully defined tableaux. In the Armenia sequences, a flirtatious guide instigates the growing rift between Egoyan’s character and his wife as he works on a calendar shoot of old churches. In the home scenes, dinner dates with a dozen women are sabotaged by the intercession of a conveniently located phone and some inconvenient answering-machine messages, a scenario that grows more acute through repetition. Imagining both national and personal history as inescapable specters exerting a marked influence on our current lives, Calendar is a pointed inquisition on the eternal toll taken by the past. Jesse Cataldo
There are perhaps only a handful of great films that were originally made for television, and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov’s transportive five-hour-plus war diary from when he was stationed with Russian troops at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, is in that league of giants that also includes Histoire(s) du Cinéma and The Decalogue. This poetic reverie, shot in sepia-toned Beta SP, may be languidly paced and filled with the mostly humdrum activities of isolated soldiers, but it’s aglow with an artist’s wonderment. If you can tune into Sokurov’s wavelength, which he tests you on at the beginning with a seemingly unrelated, extended shot of a snowy landscape set to Mozart, Spiritual Voices is a mesmerizing experience, one filled with immense beauty, silent curiosity, and, by way of the film’s uncanny ability to make you feel as if you’re really out in the elements, the occasionally terrifying sense that real danger is imminent. Henely
Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira has the market cornered on impossibly old men who are even more impossibly still gainfully employed. It helps that his films are breathtakingly beautiful, puckishly challenging (bordering, for some viewers, on hermetic), and imbued with a personality that overwhelms even as it’s applied with genteel nonchalance. The three-hour-plus Abraham’s Valley locates these contradictions at a busy crossroads between Flaubert (the script is adapted from a Agustina Bessa-Luís novel, itself a riff on Madame Bovary), Bresson, and Max Ophüls—with more than a faint nod in the direction of Buñuel’s anarchic parting shots. Weaving a tragic tale of a woman who’s too beautiful for this world, the caustic l’amour fou wafts along by way of the film’s stately grace; eroticism bubbles acidly beneath the correct, dignified surface like a boner at a funeral, beholden to no civilized decorum dreamt of by modern man. Jaime N. Christley
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
After rampaging through the American dream in his original Gremlins, Joe Dante set his cartoon anarchists free in the headquarters of a multinational corporation for the sequel. While the first film’s creatures functioned as, per Jonathan Rosenbaum, “a free-floating metaphor,” here they’re explicitly the giddy vengeance of the disenfranchised: Their introduction into Clamp Tower is the indirect result of the corporation’s tacky Chinatown development project. Dante, as ever, spins off from this central conceit to poke fun at everything in sight, from Turner and Trump (embodied in Daniel Clamp, with his insatiable hunger for real-estate development and colorized classic films) to narrative convention (the film ceases to even make an effort at plotting following a brief reflexive interlude in which the Gremlins break the projector and Hulk Hogan pops up to scare them into restarting the show) to himself (there are multiple discussions of the completely illogical rules for the Mogwai laid out by Gremlins). While Dante may have made more conceptually and formally audacious films in the ’90s, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is still filmmaking that’s as smart as it is fun. Coldiron
The Last of the Mohicans
Considering Michael Mann’s recent decade-long foray into the realm of frenetic digital filmmaking, it’s easy to forget the director once specialized in sweeping genre spectacles like The Last of the Mohicans. Mann’s ravishingly kinetic and romantic adaptation of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel envisions the dawn of American democracy in a deeply felt love affair between an embattled British woman (Madeline Stowe) and a colonial backwoodsman (Daniel Day-Lewis) raised to manhood by a Mohican father. Their burgeoning relationship develops within the context of the bloody French and Indian War of 1757, a volatile and dirty conflict that spawned the rise of guerilla warfare in the new world. Mann’s precise battle sequences begin in epic long shot, only to cut in closer to the carnage with each tomahawk swipe and musket shot. The close-contact action is always swept along by the film’s beautifully fluid score, which feels elementally connected to the dense forests and rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley. It all leads to a profound and deeply cinematic climax during which two characters’ devastating mutual sacrifice feels like the birth of a nation, and the demise of something far more spiritual. Heath Jr.
Glengarry Glen Ross
It looks as though the unforgiving top-down system of quotas and steak knives and deadbeat leads has chewed up these tired and ever-weary salesman, ready to spit them out after years of dedicated service, all because, in the immortal words of Alec Baldwin’s brass-balled inspirational speaker, “a loser is a loser,” but the joke is that some guys just can’t cut it. The waft of desperation hangs around Jack Lemmon’s has-been schleper of land, permeating every word of his pitch, that affected put-on smile and plasticised ’50s charm almost painful to endure. But through the torrents of rain outside and Mamet-speak inside there are glimmers of light and vitality and talent: Witness Pacino, the poet laureate of sales-speak, as he zeroes in on his mark, the grace of the approach a thing of beauty. It’s a con, but we’re drawn to it for the same reason we find all cons seductive: The game, when played well, is an appreciable art. And we love to see people lose. Marsh
The variety and sweep of pre-Giuliani New York are on vivid display in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary via the microcosm of the eponymous expanse. One of a handful of essential films shot or released in the late ’80s and early ’90s that take the city’s evolution from drug-addled, subculture-rife urban sphere to obsessively regulated, Middle America-friendly metropolis as either text or subtext, Wiseman’s film deserves to be considered the quintessential New York movie of its moment—or perhaps any moment. Communists hold rallies in the park, an eccentric man teaches Shakespearean elocution, people roller skate, while in nearby buildings the Central Park Conservancy discusses how to regulate bike-riding and local residents weigh the merits of building a new tennis clubhouse. The conclusions are inescapable, though in Wiseman’s continued refusal of explicit authorial commentary, they’re left for the viewer to stumble across on his or her own. The changing conception of the city may make things more cosmetic and safer, but it threatens to efface the unique vibrancy of the town that is the film’s true subject and which has its glorious moment, in all its diversity and wonder, across the three unforgettable hours of Wiseman’s masterpiece. Andrew Schenker