dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Innocence, an astounding debut by French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, feels as though it should begin as stories do—with "once upon a time," like the click of a latch in the door to the imaginary. Instead, it starts with a rumble. There's the rush of a waterfall (explicitly named in the title of the novella it's adapted from: Mine-Haha, or The Corporal Education of Young Girls) and then the subterranean roar of a train, the universal sign for a European boarding school.
But this school, surrounded by woods and a wide brick wall, is in a parallel world of its own. A little girl named Iris is delivered to one of five houses in a coffin. An older girl unlocks her and she is dressed and given colored velvet ribbons for her hair. The other girls, who are wearing different colors in their pigtails to indicate their ages, all take off their ribbons and trade them up for the next color of the rainbow. Iris is introduced to the school (ballet classes, rhythmic gymnastics, natural history) and its baroque customs (every year, the most appealing of the blue ribbons is selected by the headmistress to leave the school early). Nothing is explained.
Many critics have complained that Hadzihalilovic's vision of a little sensualist convent will draw pedophiles like flies, but the film is clearly told from the point of view of the girls themselves. It's suffused with an unmistakable dread. The most alert students make desperate escape attempts. Others retreat into familiar forms of little-girl psychological revolt: Selma is sullen and staring, feeding off some unseen internal fury; the pudgy Rose undulates with her hula-hoop, a cunning awareness in her eyes of her own budding appeal. Hadzihalilovic anticipates the pedophilia question in more complex ways as well: Her movie latches onto quasi-legitimate cultural obsessions, like the pristine smoothness of little girl legs. (See Lewis Carroll's inscription on one of his infamous photographs: "Pretty little legs/Paddling in the waters,/Knees as smooth as eggs,/Belonging to my daughters.") The source material may have been prescriptive, a protofascist recipe for how girls should actually be taught. In Hadzihalilovic's hands, it's a horror story of the subtlest kind. ANNIE WAGNER
Friends with Money
dir. Nicole Holofcener
The premise is a snooze: Rich people have problems too? You can't buy your way out of a midlife crisis? Lonely Pot-Smoking Maid is an unfulfilling career choice? Yeah, that "no shit" is visible from space. But Friends with Money, Jennifer Aniston's much-touted return to the indie scene, atones for its shortcomings in the plot department by kicking unprecedented ass in the great-actress-triumvirate-of-delight department.
The magical gals who save this movie, the three best actresses ever—just to get it out of the way, Aniston is not one of them, though she's okay—are Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, and Catherine Keener, who, along with Aniston, portray a quartet of Los Angeles best pals. Cusack is Franny, both the richest and the happiest of the bunch, whose biggest worry is where to donate those extra millions cluttering up the den. McDormand plays fashion designer and budding mental case Jane, beset by righteous indignation, a frantic aversion to shampoo, and a possibly closeted husband (Simon McBurney, sweet as pie). And Keener is Christine, an accident-prone screenwriter who has never seen her husband's asshole (" It's fucked!" says Jane). All three tut privately and condescendingly over Olivia (Aniston), who has achieved neither marital bliss nor financial stability, instead floating through her 30s in a pathetic haze— scrubbing strangers' toilets, scamming free samples at the Lancôme counter, and occasionally having sex with a detached meathead played by Scott Caan.
Though it won't appeal to everyone (like, say, if you're a person with real-life hardships, an actual housekeeper without friends to treat you to $10,000 charity dinners), Friends with Money is surprisingly enjoyable. The dialogue is sharp, believable, and self-aware (at a charity auction: "Ooh! Reese Witherspoon will knit me a sweater!"), and the performances flawless. But it's still a movie about the emotional pain involved in building an addition on one's house. LINDY WEST
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
dir. Jeff Feuerzeig
It was in the late '90s that I first heard the sweet, distinctly off-kilter warbling of Daniel Johnston—the late '90s, as I've learned from this absorbing documentary about his life and fame, were something of a Daniel Johnston renaissance. Almost nobody encounters his music without also being told about his mental disorders, and I reacted to the tape with the predictable mixture of fascination and queasiness that outsider art so commonly triggers. The songs were funny and unbelievably catchy (especially " Speeding Motorcycle" and "Casper the Friendly Ghost" ), but... was Johnston in control of his creative output? Did he profit from the sales of his cassettes? Who was his manager? Cui bono?
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is, in some ways, an inoculation against these questions: As compulsively and consistently as Daniel Johnston made art, he sought fame. (As a charismatic high-school student, he all but hijacked an MTV program on the Austin music scene in 1985.) His admirers included Kurt Cobain and members of Sonic Youth, so if he was an outsider, I don't know who counts as inside. The movie smoothly suggests that no matter how controlling Johnston's friends and family may seem, they're working for a cause they believe in. Johnston, meanwhile, does his part to disrupt the easy equation of madness and genius by enthusiastically witnessing at a hipster-packed in-store on behalf of the Lord.
The documentary is hopeful and disturbing—part celebration of Johnston's achievements, part warning to keep your delusional bipolar friends off acid. It's hard not to mourn Johnston's singing voice, which is totally shot, but it's also hard to resist the apocalyptic Casper imagery in his highly profitable new medium: the slapdash drawing. ANNIE WAGNER
A Clear Day
dir. Gaby Dellal
Frank Redmond is a tough, well-loved, and recently laid-off shipyard boss in Glasgow. One of his sons drowned at 7 (he blames himself, of course), his other son is distant, and his wife is secretly training to become a bus driver to pay the bills. All this leaves Frank feeling idle, desperate, and ashamed. So the 55-year-old Glaswegian does what any of us would—he decides to swim the English Channel. Guess what happens along the way? He confronts his demons, argues and reconciles with his son, bonds with his friends, and wipes away a few manly tears.
Surprisingly, this adult bildungsroman isn't particularly sappy—it's just inert. There's struggle. There are tension-cracking jokes. There is Chan, the local fish 'n' chips man who becomes Frank's trainer and drops cringe-inducing Confucian chestnuts: "A gem cannot be polished without friction nor a man without trials." There are side characters with colorful names like Merv the Perv and Mad Bob. There is a band of merry, supportive comrades (including a post-Hobbit Billy Boyd). There isn't a single surprise, but there are mellifluous accents and touching scenes of a boy with serious deformities (rickets maybe?) swimming bravely through the pool where the despondent Frank trains.
The cast works hard to save the movie from its own tepidity. Boyd is chipper as he was as a Shireling, and Brenda Blethyn plays Frank's wife—a tough old bird and the only character he considers his equal—with quiet dignity. Peter Mullan is our swimming hero and he looks startlingly like George W. Bush—especially when he's brooding, which is often. Then he opens his mouth and, instead of that grating voice of oligarchic privilege, we get a blue-collar Scotsman with a conscience and sense of humor. If only life could be like the movies. BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Lajos Koltai
This Hungarian export is, without question, the grimmest Holocaust film I've ever seen. Between the viewer and the face of death there is nothing—no nice Nazis, no convivial pockets of conspiring prisoners, no colorful winter coat on the shoulders of a little girl. There are flashes of human resilience, but these are even darker than the despair that surrounds them: One prisoner maliciously barters food scraps against future guarantees, another shares a bed with a rotting corpse so he can trick the guard into serving him two meals.
The second prisoner, the one who snuggles up to death, is a child named Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy). He's the main character, but by the end of the film he's been so ravaged by what passes for life in a concentration camp that it's pointless to try to describe his personality. It's hard to say whether he has one. Before, Gyuri is a schoolboy with a crush on a neighbor girl; afterward, he's a wraith.
The story (based on a novel by Imre Kertész) is more or less familiar: a well-to-do family, a father who trusts the state because he can't see any alternative, then waiting, box cars, forced labor, and Buchenwald. Outside the concentration camp the film is subtly tinted sepia, and inside the tones range from gritty silver to wet black. Director Lajos Koltai lets a little poetry seep in: When the prisoners line up in the mornings, they shiver and sway like they're grasses or reeds in the wind. The beauty of these images is grotesque, but without them, there wouldn't really be a movie. ANNIE WAGNER