Son of Saul succeeds on every level. It’s an emotionally devastating drama, which sometimes plays out like a thriller, with a precise focus on one character in a Nazi concentration camp in order to convey the broader trauma and grief of the Holocaust. Its stylistic technique of predominantly filming this character in close-up so that the audience experiences the horrors of the camp through sound and his peripheral vision is confronting and effective. And by making the character one of the death-camp Sonderkommandos, who becomes fixated on a personal act of humanity, the film wrestles with questions of what it takes to survive, when does a noble act in extreme circumstances become reckless or selfish, and how do you measure life and morality when surrounded by death and evil. Son of Saul is a triumph and as the debut feature film by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent.
On the surface Brooklyn seems like a modest film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, USA, in the 1950s to start a new life and ends up torn between two men. While the film very much works as romance film, it is also a stirring tale of personal and cultural identity. The excitement and liberation of new experiences, versus the familiarity and emotional bonds with home are both depicted as powerful motivating forces that are to be wrestled with before making major life decisions. As Eilis, the young woman torn between two countries, two sets of friends, and two potential lovers, Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautiful performance of somebody hungry to experience life with all its uncertainties and difficulties. The result is a gorgeous film about love, home and community.
Brooklyn left me feeling hopeful about love and companionship with its romantic glow, but 45 Years took all of that away with its portrait of a woman starting to realise that her husband of 45 years has never been as emotionally invested in their marriage as she has. In his debut feature film Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh proved himself to be a master at using subtle film style, especially camera position, to differentiate between the private and public dynamics of a relationship. In 45 Years Haigh again displays his ability of depicting private and public spaces, and a major incident in the film is framed around the circumstances in which somebody reveals their emotions and how that in turn affects the other person. It allows for a devastating final scene where the cut to the credits is so perfectly timed that all the restrained emotion of the film until that point finally bursts free.
Continuing the theme of doomed relationships, Anomalisa goes one step further to present the world experienced by an unlikeable yet not completely unsympathetic man who has become incapable of forming any type of relationship with anybody at all. While the film’s darkly humorous existentialism is a trademark for writer/director Charlie Kaufman (who shares directorial duties with Duke Johnson) the use of stop-motion puppet animation is both unusual and weirdly inventive in its blandness. However, as the main concept of the film becomes clear so does the rationale for using the animated puppetry, making Anomalisa yet another singular vision by Kaufman that is bitterly funny, uncomfortable and melancholic.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Jobs is that despite how overtly fictionalised it is, it still delivers a convincing and engaging version of ‘reality’. Structured like a three act play, with each act set right before Jobs is about to launch a major new product, the self contained backstage spaces become a microcosmos for the dramas in Jobs’s life to play out. Across the three different time periods he interacts with the same group of people, moving from being a ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex to a slightly less ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy script, Danny Boyle’s flamboyant directorial style, the first rate ensemble cast and the setting, give this unconventional biopic the energy of a backstage musical.
My favourite film by Joel and Ethan Coen is still their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, a Faustian story set in the classical Hollywood studio system where an aspiring young writer trades his integrity, soul and sanity for a shot at the big time. Hail, Caesar! is a sort-of companion piece by the Coens, although set a decade later in the 1950s and much lighter in tone. At the centre of a sprawling narrative that involves a group of Communist writers kidnapping the star of a new Biblical epic, is a fictionalised version of producer and studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. With no shortage of deliberately overt symbolism and references, Mannix is a flawed Christ figure who spends the film taking the sins of the studio on his shoulders, while resisting the temptation of abandoning his flock at the factory of dreams. The Coens manage to have their cake and eat it to with their loving tributes to the films of the classical Hollywood era while also presenting a scathing critique of the studio system as encapsulating the worst aspects of capitalism.