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Reviews

Films of the Year

Gareth Higgins

Rfilm.jpgLamentation isn't popular these days, so we have to thank Martin Scorsese, former seminarian, cataloguer of the broken male psyche, and kinetic film-maker for releasing the finest film of the year Shutter Island at the beginning of Lent.

Shutter Island, in which federal marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a patient from a secure institution on a windswept Massachusetts island in 1954, turned out to be a metaphor for what happens when an individual (or a country, or an era) becomes detached from the consequences of their actions, pretending to face trauma by burying it. In that sense, it's the ideal unofficial sequel to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a film that suggested that enjoying really violent entertainment is the reason we are willing to entertain real violence.

Shutter Island
risks telling an unpalatable truth: that war is not clean, that the line between the 'good guys' and the 'enemy' is ambiguous, that the post-Second World War era shattered community bonds, and allowed hidden personal brokenness to reach epidemic proportions.

If the line between good and evil runs through each person, then even after we have faced our shared culpability in structural evil, we may see that there i­­­s good in us too. Shutter Island doesn't present a solution, or at least not a palatable one; although it does suggest that merely making a decision to take one step out of the darkness is better than nothing. But the purpose of the film is not to give us answers: it is to lament, which means that embedded within it is both a warning of what we can be when we lose sight of our interdependence as human beings, and a reminder that the purpose of lament is to prepare us for a new start.

DiCaprio also stars in my second film of the year, this time as a man whose job is to enter the minds of powerful industrialists and extract information, now facing his trickiest commission to implant an idea in a corporate boss's mind. Inception is a huge dramatic entertainment, but also exudes intelligence. It's an adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride which has as its centrepiece one of the most exhilarating action sequences ever constructed. It's also a film that is in love with cinema.

But beyond that, Inception is about the subterranean realities of our souls, our personalities, the background noise we can never forget. Leo has constructed an alternative reality in his own mind, and needs to shift his perception into a place where he can accept responsibility for what he's done and move on. It's a moving treatment of awful tragedy, raising the question of ego and desire being at the root of all fear, questioning subconscious projections versus concrete reality.

In third place, I Am Love is a magnificent Italian movie in which Tilda Swinton is a Russian aristocrat marrying into an Italian family, dealing with the fact that her primal desires of love and connection are not able to breathe there. The compelling story goes forwards and backwards through time, rooted in the essential reality of the need to be actualized by your encounter with the other.

It's prepared to face the messiness of that, how when humans pursue each other there can be a lot of detritus left in the wake, but declares that the future for the human race is in true connection.

The Sundance Festival winner Winter's Bone is a drama about poverty in the USA and the evil that families can do to each other. A teenage girl living in the Ozark mountains who has to track down her father who has put their house up for bail and then disappeared.  It's grey and bleak, and has a magnificent central performance from John Hawkes. As a slice of life, and as a portrayal of a part of the USA that doesn't often appear on screen, it's a great achievement.

A group of pilgrims visit the eponymous shrine in hope of a miracle in Jessica Hausner's  Lourdes, but when one of the party who is paralysed  appears to be healed, it seems that this may be harder to deal with than disappointment. A representation of the yearning for healing that seems to be one part of what makes us human, the film takes the realities - and potential mysteries - of Lourdes more seriously than perhaps the church does.

Where The Road presented a vision of hope where, whatever happens, innocence and love prevail, The Book of Eli, in a similarly post-apocalyptic future offers a different vision of hope - whatever happens we will always have culture and be able to rebuild from the bottom up. Denzel Washington is a wanderer fighting his way across north America to save the sacred book. It's visually stunning, but for me something of a guilty pleasure, in that it has no imagination at all about the use of violence - all problems are solved easily with a knife or gun.

And yes: Sex and the City 2. It's a satire, get over it. It had some of the worst reviews ever, providing an easy screen for liberal rage, but as a theatrical comedy it is consistently entertaining. But there are also elements that make it deeply politically subversive. It's one of the most pro-Middle East, pro-Muslim films of the post 9/11 era. The protagonists are self-critical, the Middle Eastern characters are far from stereotypes; it's an apology for the consumerist excesses of the original.

You should allow several hours for Enter the Void, two and a half to watch the movie and a couple for hours after to decompress. Sometimes its like being assaulted, sometimes like being taken on a meditative trip. A first-person narrative of a man who very early on is shot to death, the cameras sometimes take his point of view, sometimes stand behind him,  sometimes inside him, with some camera angles I have literally never seen before. It considers the lengths we all go to find meaning and protect loved ones, and how sometimes the consequences of our stupid behaviour can be out of all proportion to our stupidity.

Finally, four  documentaries, as yet unreleased. For Once in My Life is about a choir made up of people with physical and mental disabilities. Raw Faith is an intimate portrait of a retiring clergywoman. The Philosopher Kings tells brilliant tales of people doing manual work in the US. And Everything is Going Fine is Steven Soderbergh's retelling of the life story of the magnificent dramatic monologist Spalding Gray, in his own words: an emotionally exhilarating experience.

Gareth Higgins

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