10. Beyond the Hills

Even I wasn’t too terribly thrilled at the prospect of watching a 150 minute Romanian film about two young women at a monastery, but Cristian Mungu’s bleak and horrific descent into the world of failed support systems and an aggressively conservative church is intoxicating.  The story of two orphans, one returning from Germany to get her lifelong friend to leave the monastery where she’s become a nun is quietly simple in the beginning and then manages to complicate everything by a series of elements outside of the two girls’ control. Mungu subtley plumbs deeper and deeper as events begin to spiral further and further out of control without the vast implications of what’s going to happen (spoiler alert, this film involves of all things an exorcism).  Crucial to its success – and something achieved through its mood and style – is the way Mungu refuses to judge anyone.  People are trapped by circumstance, whether thats poverty in the case of the orphans and the girls, or a lack of funding in the case of the hospital, or by their own ingrained religious beliefs in the case of the “Daddy” Priest and his nuns.  It’s a cruel, patriarchal and hierarchal system that blithely causes a tragedy, and there’s nothing directly malicious from anyone.  That’s not just the stuff a great character drama, but it’s the key to great political filmmaking.

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25. Byzantium 

Neil Jordan’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful career has made anticipation for his work…difficult.  So it’s with some amount of shock that his vampire movie is effective as it is.  It shouldn’t be too surprising, since he famously made the intriguing-if-silly Interview with the Vampire oh those many years ago.  A refreshing feminist take on vampire lore – without, thankfully, ignoring its deep Christian roots – sees Gemma Arterton (often underrated) and Saorsie Ronan as mother and daughter vampires, somewhat duped into becoming vampires after a nefarious British officer essentially forces Arterton’s Clara into prostitution.  It’s a smart, beautifully cold film whose modern day story nicely intermingles with the flashback structure, demonstrating the ways in which, for women, the present isn’t all that different than the past.  There’s more to it than that, and though a whole post could be written about nails replacing teeth in the mythos, suffice it to say that it raises itself above the heap of Twilight-inspired vampire mania and stakes (ugh) out its own identity.  It also includes a waterfall of blood, which is far more gorgeous than it is possible to describe. Read the rest of this entry »


Every year has its share of great films, but 2013 was special for the sheer number of films that can and will be considered “great”.  It was unusually strong, then, with even the late year traditionally “Oscar bait” releases delivering more often than not.  Of course, I’m not a professional critic which means both time and access are factors in what I could and couldn’t watch, especially as this year I’ve spent a majority of my time in the Deep South (which has, if we want to be polite in that Southernly way, a rather limited number of diverse releases) as well as a healthy chunk overseas.  I’ve missed some big ones, then, although I have somehow managed to see about 125 eligible films.  As usual, that “eligibility” is roughly the Academy Award criteria of any film released theatrically for public consumption in the calendar year, so festival-only films and undistributed wonders don’t count.  The major misses that I’ll have to catch up on in the coming months include Touch of SinBlue JasmineShort Term 12At BerkeleyViola, and Night Across the Street.  Obviously this isn’t the final word on the year in film, especially as only one of the films mentioned in the coming posts have I seen more than once (I am not a believer in that rather silly Kael maxim of only watching a film once, as the truly great ones and even some of the mediocre ones leave room for discovery with repeated viewings).   Read the rest of this entry »