Author Archives: Max Berwald


Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald


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Beyond the Hills has to be commended for talking up to its audience in such a way as to cause completely unwarranted optimism in the young cinephile. Christian Mungiu might be called a contemporary master of the close-up. He’s also so unassuming as to be disarming. So little posturing. So little talk, so much walk.

And like many great directors, he makes it look easy. The opening shot is kind of a stunner. Although, again, the word is unassuming. All Mungiu has to do is commit, and commit he does. The camera follows the back of a head, heading the wrong way up a crowded train platform. By wrong way, I mean that everyone else in the known universe is going the opposite direction of this small figure (which, as the first person on screen, we have already subconsciously assumed to be our hero.) The salmon upstream.

The conflict is so obvious as to seem narratively cheap, or visually worse—a type of shorthand or cliché. But Mungiu sticks with it. He lets the battle continue maybe ten seconds longer than you might expect. He believes in the psychological effectiveness of the tried and the true, and he comes out on top. From the beginning, we’re straining forward. We’re trying to pick out the face of our hero, and once we’ve picked it out, we’re trying to draw from it some sort of truth. Some sort of certainty, or a verification of a wholly knowable psychological/ emotional/ spiritual state. What we get is a bottomless well, and down it you shall surely fall.

Beyond the Hills is an apt title for a film all about peering beyond the physical, about trying to get a peak beyond the geography of our world and our bodies. What’s out there begins as anyone’s guess, but becomes a sort of key question. What’s in there represents an echo of that question, or else its natural and lonely answer. The battle between good and evil on earth is rendered by Mungiu as a love story, and if the viewer clings to that love story even as the story hurtles forward, they won’t be disappointed.

Mungiu, a student of English literature, has since drawn upon the Cinema of Contemplation’s progress—whose films in particular is a question I leave for the comments—and come away with a generous supply of techniques for filming his questions or theses or stories.

Besides the obvious durational influence (the aesthetics of the slow are here) there is also the tendency to show the corner of something, so as to make us look closer. To show a fragment of the whole, not to imply helpfully (about the nature of the whole) as a documentarian might, but to productively torment, to bring us to the question of what is that? This is the ledge beneath which the uncanny is always creeping, ready to remind us how small we are.

This particular tendency has led filmmakers to photograph the backs of lovely young girls’ heads for a long time, and it’s a game that Mungiu is up for. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, but I suspect that back-of-the-head game is a bit different in its end, but hardly in its means.

The other great locus of the Mungiu-uncanny (although some jaded viewers may find it so boneheaded as to embarrass me) is the way he mines his environment (while many directors would find it one-note) for expressionism. Expressionism as a tendency is criminally rare and clumsy these days, and the clumsiness and rarity made mentionable by one another. That is, because solid environmental expressionism has all but vanished from the Western cinematographic vocabulary, it’s become a psychological heavy-hitter again.

The back of our hero’s head, at one point, only partially eclipses an out-of-focus window, perhaps occupying a sixteenth of the frame. Beyond this window, snow is falling. The falling snow is the only mentionable movement in the frame. The space between it and the (in-focus) back of our hero’s head, is the only space we wish (subconsciously or quite consciously depending on the viewer) to occupy, because it contains the face, and if we only could see that face, we feel, we would be able to guess the ending of this parable. We would be able to see whether all of this were occurring in heaven, or in hell.

But the world is never that simple, and graciously, generously, torturously, vitally, neither is Mungiu’s cinema.

-Max Berwald

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Hitchcock said something like: drama is life with the boring bits cut out.

If we’re to take him at his word, maybe we have less use for drama now than ever. Kiarostami is doing something different. I don’t think it’s radical to suppose there’s drama to what he does, but it’s surely life with the “boring bits” restored.

Kiarostami has talked openly about a cinema of naps (my own phrase,) suggesting that falling asleep during one of his films might add a level of experience. Tuning out becomes a radical type of “reading.” The work becomes a context to be lived and breathed inside, rather than a text to be read.

Such a philosophy is useful (at the very, very least) insofar as it gives us a context for understanding what’s so fun about a Kiarostami. Like Someone In Love may not be the director’s best, but it’s probably better than Certified Copy, a certifiably great movie that it seems decidedly in dialogue with. (They were both made in countries other than Iran, and address cultural differences only in the sense that they are there. The rest is about characters, some of their relationships colored somewhat mysteriously. Such relationships are distinct but comparable to those that David Denby described as “perversely ambiguous” in Certified Copy, if that helps you.)

Like Someone In Love is not so unfathomably opaque as some critics would have you believe. It only looks opaque when you try to read it out in Bazinian, Freudian, Kantian or Ebertian terms. Watching the film is not so much like staring at an opaque text as like putting on a prickly, woolen sweater. Maybe a family heirloom, but more likely an artifact from an old relationship.

The greatest gift the movie has to offer is its willingness to wander (unless someone really has broken down the mechanics of why everything-follows-everything in this odyssey.) We get really intimately acquainted with our small cast of characters, and we have plenty of time to see them being themselves.

That’s the medicinal quality of Like Someone In Love: there’s plenty of time. That restoration of time, the concession or discovery that the passage of time need not be feared—but that it can be savored—is something that is whispered to you, in the audience, until you resort to frantic texting or else leave the theater for Dead Man Drop. In a culture where “time is money” can, occasionally, be uttered without irony, there is perhaps nothing so unnerving as a film that suggests just being alive may be enough. That looking carefully at the things that surround us everyday might be worthwhile.

I think some have been reluctant to talk about Kiarostami in terms of a contemporary contemplative cinema because of his metaphysical/ surreal bent. But you find that in Weerasethakul-World as well. There is a way of being surreal, of leaving the world outside the theater outside the theater, and all the while keeping a firm grasp on the reflexive consciousness of the viewer. Kiarostami’s new film is uncanny in much the same way that Certified Copy was; you hold your breath at first, wondering what secrets are about to be explained to you, and all the while they explain themselves to your untrained ears. Whether you start feeling the film a fourth of the way through, halfway through, or in its final moments is not entirely up to you– but I believe it is partially up to you. Think of this like listening to narrative music.

If you’re looking for a thematic statement, you might look elsewhere. But for introspection, sally forth.

Kiarostami reminds us that in a culture sluggish with the weight of anti-realism, of pop-fantasy and dependably body/mind/soul-alienating commercialism, a film that grounds itself in the rhythm of real-life and real-unknowability, is radical.

-Max Berwald

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Side Effects
can’t be accused of cleverness because, depending on who you’re talking to, its craftsmanship is hopelessly clumsy or uncannily on-point or cunning to the point of manipulation. Put another way: vintage Soderbergh. Is his aim gamesmanship, pleasure, homage? What? Your guess, Dear Viewer: good as mine.

It’s not a film that upsets me. You take its punches because they feel good. There are real miss-steps and red-herring miss-steps, if you know what I mean. I’m possibly delivering a spoiler (ahem) when I observe that Catherine Zeta Jones’ sad-bad performance (was she high?) could be directorial meta-cunning. Directing a great-actress badly for the greater good of your movie? Damn, Steve: that’s kinda cold.

Some will call Soderbergh’s game Hitchcockian. Kind to Hitchcock, I say. Side Effects is a good one. At a point, the film has a choice between being a moral, topical, critical work, or a sorta sophisticated fun one, and chooses fun without hesitation or remorse. It’s a choice many films (directors) never have to make! How can we judge? (Except, sigh, I do.) On my first viewing, I’m comfortable accusing Soderbergh of victim-blaming.

Because a moral (preachy) chore (failure) might be more noble than an intriguingly informal (if not warm) popcorn twister. Might. You can tell me if I’m wrong. There’s the obvious problem that no one will watch your moral-chore film…

While we’re on the subject of temperature though, the film is so damn cold you can’t not mention it. I recalled Match Point. Part of what makes calling Side Effects Hitchcockian is that it hands ole Alfred the monopoly on making ingenious little suspense/narrative candies out of a few extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. He doesn’t deserve it! I’m not a h8r but—he doesn’t deserve it.

Hitchcock’s got lots besides the mentioned, but that’s what Side Effects has got. You want details? Ohhh.

 Jude Law is good. Rooney Mara is great. Catherine Zeta Jones is not. The scenes are good, tight, built, lean, fit, mobile. Channing Tatum is also good, but could never be called lean. The frames are often embarrassingly frank (maybe Stephen does need his own DP after all?) and the music is jarring enough to warrant its immediate removal. It’s that darn story that’s so good… Yes, the art of the screenplay is still alive, taking jabs at the mainstream when you least expect it.

But then, we have come to expect good things from Soderbergh. As for this being his last film, it wouldn’t be what you’d call a finale. He’ll be back. And we’ll welcome him with open arms. What a thinker. You admire, I think, in Soderbergh, a certain intersection between thinking and feeling, thinking and action, thinking and crying-out, thinking and scrambling.

The sin is picking up a contemporary moral issue, chewing on it, and then throwing it under the bus as soon as a good narrative moment reveals itself. God help all writers.

-Max Berwald

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Christian Petzold must aspire to make all sorts of strange movies. He has assembled an arsenal of techniques, and a not-quite-formalist grammar, both original enough to be impressive.

You can go off the fantastic Notebook interview (here), but the proof is in the pudding. Barbara looks and frequently behaves like a great movie, but admits frankly that it is not. Especially in its ending, which forces us to accept what we could scarcely believe through the rest of the ride: this is, more or less, a standard mystery/thriller told in a more sophisticated, deliberately articulate way than you might expect. It’s no The Conformist, but it’s a hell of a lot more to chew on than The American. Anyway, the film does stick with you.

What Petzold calls “spatial suspense” is no joke. He’s playing a very tight game. I’m just not convinced that the ends have here justified the means. The means in this case being not merely visual, but apparently a more-than-a-little eccentric production process, and the ends being narrative.

When Petzold says in the interview (neither bragging, nor confessing) that he deals primarily in first takes, anyone who has seen Barbara will scarcely be surprised. It’s a great explanation for the constant discomfort, and the constant, organic tension we perceive burning out of the center and the soul of our heroine. She is walking a tightrope. The anxiety performed, and the anxiety in regards to the performed, have theoretically coalesced into something altogether more potent.

And all right, I’ll drop the “theoretical” qualifier. It is something altogether more potent, in terms of character and performance.

Yet the film leaves us troublingly little to talk about when it’s over. The aesthetics of ambiguity are nearly all show. And the character of Barbara herself as a cypher, as a mystery in her own right, I don’t really buy. The most interesting bits of that are in the first series of shots, when she is only being looked at, and is not yet performing those weighty duties we impose on every protagonist. In the end, the film represents a straightforwardness that I don’t resent, but also don’t much enjoy.

What Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has identified as “suspense by induction rather than coercion” may or may not be the most compelling way to handle suspense. I welcome the absence of didacticism, the favor given to texture and objects-in-the-world over blunt, violent plotting, but I think the narrative has got to match. What’s the point of telling the same story with higher, subtler language, unless that language can manage to reveal what we never saw before?

But maybe that’s an old question.

-Max Berwald

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Because it’s never too late to waste time making lists, here are some of our writers’ favorites from 2012—and other things.

If you post your own top 10’s in the comments, we’ll be glad to form impulsive opinions and  fight over them. 


Top 10 of 2012:

1. Amour (Michael Haneke)
2. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
3. Bullhead (Michael R. Roskam)
4. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
5. The Master (PT Anderson)
6. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
7. The Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russel)
8. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
9. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
10. Bernie (Richard Linklater)

Top 10 Anticipated Films of 2013:

1. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
3. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez)
4. The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
5. Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
6. You’re Next (Adam Wingard)
7. Resolution (Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)
8. Twelve Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
9. Oldboy (Spike Lee)
10. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

Samantha Wilson:

Top 10 of 2012:

1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
2. Argo (Ben Affleck)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
4. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
5. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
6. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim)
7. Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia)
8. The Master (PT Anderson)
9. The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller)
10. Casa de Mi Padre (Matt Piedmont)

Worst 10 of 2012:

1. Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
2. The Man with the Iron Fists (RZA)
3. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov)
4. The Paperboy (Lee Daniels)
5. The Lucky One (Scott Hicks)
6. Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
7. The Possession (Ole Bornedal)
8. A Thousand Words (Brian Robbins)
9. American Reunion (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg)
10. Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman) (actually the worst movie I have EVER seen)

Emily Parrish:

Top 10 Films Released In 2012 (That I Wanted To See But Didn’t):

1. Amour (Michael Haneke)
2. The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
3. Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)
4. The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre)
5. The Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard)
6. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi)
7. Looper (Rian Johnson)
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
9. Side by Side (Christopher Kenneally)
10. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

Daniel Corona:

Top 10 Movies I Saw This In 2012 (Including One I Interacted With)

1. Horse Takes it to the Limit
No movie has brought me more joy this year

2. The Comedy
Not the best movie on this list but it resonated with me.

3. The Master

4. Holy Motors
Deserving of all its praise

5. Journey
I know it’s a videogame but videogames are still moving images and this one is beautiful

6. The Unknown Skater
Stumbled across this randomly and was very pleased and surprised

7. Interview with a Cannibal
A lonely late-night viewing, follow it up with a Suehiro Maruo book.

8. Chef and Dale
Andre Callot makes great work

9. 1002 Images of the moon
A nice gesture

10. Indie Game: The Movie
Made me proud to be a game enthusiast, was even touching at times.

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It’s the mark of the New New Hollywood that a film can feel at once plodding and rushed. The Silver Linings Playbook is one such curious failure, where the screenwriter seems to suffer from an abundance of trade-skill and an aching, anemic shortfall of things to say.

Adapting a novel is here given the cinematic equivalent of: the Sparknotes treatment, and the result is as riveting as that brand suggests.

Good performances and inoffensive direction cannot save a movie from such a screenplay, which finds intriguing characters shouting at one another and overcoming their odd-ball differences over quirky dinner-fare in perfunctory scene after perfunctory scene. However well these scenes play to satisfying prods, nods, quips and quibbles, they play to them mechanically. Jennifer Lawrence: radiant. Bradley Cooper: better than he’s ever been.

There’s more to say, but I don’t know what. It’s not a pastiche, but it has been done before. Whatever the dubious merits of the phrase “feel-good film,” people who think they’ll love this film probably will. In advertising, the axiom is that nothing kills a bad product quicker than good marketing. Here, that could not seem less true. The advertising (over years and years) seems to have created a product that loads of people love to “feel good” about.

A snoozefest of the Oscar variety, Silver Linings is enough to chase one away from the Cineplex and back to Netflix.

-Max Berwald

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