My Winnipeg (Maddin, 2008)

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A wonder rush of history and memory from Canadian director/critic Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg melds Documentary structure (omniscient voice-over, archival footage, reenactment) with silent film aesthetics (intertitles, expressionist acting). It’s funny, poignant, and altogether revealing, especially when Maddin evokes past family demons by hiring actors to play his siblings and mother (played by the late Ann Savage), staging some of the more complicated moments from his past. My Winnipeg might be overcome by artifice at times, but it’s a glaringly personal historiography of an artist re-addressing his own identity within a shifting time and place, frozen with contradictions, beautifully stuck in all its glories and pitfalls.

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Mad Detective (To, Wai, 2008)

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From its fragmented opening montage all the way to its deceivingly dark finale of broken mirrors and breaking psyches, Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai’s Mad Detective reveals a mistrust and deterioration of investigative instincts and the tragic ramifications of such doubt within Policiers, both in terms of genre and character. Inspector Bun (Lau Ching-Wan), the demented centerpiece of Mad Detective, is a brilliant but completely luny cop whose antics produce pinpoint results, often at the cost of plausibility. Bun claims to see a person’s inner personality(s), and To/Wai brilliantly visualize these scenarios by manipulating point of view and angle. Unlike traditional Hong Kong cop films, Mad Detective delves into an abyss of cowardice and weakness, leaving Bun outside the realm of modern rationale; alone, categorized, but completely justified. Yet the end result feels anything like a vindication. If anything, Mad Detective deconstructs a current trend in American television, the Wacky Detective genre where quirky cops solve cases in eccentric ways. To and Wai see the true genius in Bun, but they equally understand the brutal and reactionary fear in the eyes of the characters around him, adding a tragic context to an already dynamic story.

The Last Mistress (Breillat, 2008)

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The Duchess of Langeais is a tough act to follow. After reveling whole-heartedly in Rivette’s brilliantly staged rendering of forlorn love turned full-blown tragedy, I’m not surprised Catherine Breillat’s well-crafted The Last Mistress feels like small potatoes comparatively. Yes, both films use vastly different techniques and pacing to purvey their respective visions, but each can be linked by an obsession with past romantic entanglements, understanding, fantasizing, and re-living them. Whereas Rivette directly allows the viewer to grasp the minutia of the evolving characters by marking his narrative almost completely in flashback, making the book-ended present seem far more engaging and fateful, Breillat only uses flashback sparingly in one elongated montage of memory and regret, forcing her characters into predictable predicaments for most of the second half. Argento’s bold performance as the titular Vellini only heightens her need to be front and center, but instead she’s mostly defined as a calculating object offscreen. The inevitable finale is in turn disappointing, leaving little to ponder after the final credits. With The Last Mistress, the pleasures merely lie on the surface, in the texture of skin and blood, while Rivette delves deeper into his character’s uncertainties and shortcomings.

The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache) (Rivette, 2008)

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Jacque Rivette’s riveting power play between a French general (Guillaume Depardieu) and a Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) reveals a true mastery of the film medium, playing on facial expressions, passing glances, and sudden outbursts of emotion to portray a singular vision of love lost. The film deconstructs ideas of heroism, “prince charming”, and romantic expectation, while boldly painting a picture of human interaction at its most expressive and doubt-ridden. Their secret courtship evolves like a call and response number, each side noticing the other with increasing interest only to be anchored by the restraint of tradition and social cues. Yet both characters’ slow and debilitating fall from grace occurs in almost isolation, physically separated by a sordid stream of communication (or lack thereof) achieved through notes, kidnappings, and gossip. Most impressively, Guillaume Depardieu’s beautifully physical performance encapsulates a resentful guilt that personifies the disease of uneasiness and mistrust between lovers, no better represented than in Rivette’s final pan away from his tortured hero onto a cold, endless, silent ocean.

The Visitor (McCarthey, 2008)

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Liberal guilt? I’d argue just plain human guilt, since Richard Jenkins’ character in The Visitor is never given a political affiliation or overly emotional monologues. I’m not sure teaching at a University and recognizing the crumbling of human rights outside of your own selfishness qualify a character as “Liberal”,  just out of touch with reality. But I do agree with the critical minority (those dissenting against this otherwise universally loved film) about The Visitor in one respect, namely it’s sometimes shameless use of symbolism, in particular the way the American flag becomes a framing object. During every emotional scene, director Tom McCarthey fills his mise-en-scene with overt and pandering post 9/11 imagery, which ends up minimizing some of the film’s most powerful moments of silence and grieving. However, the film provides a daring, rhythmic final sequence which highlights Jenkins’ great performance.