In the City of Sylvia (Guerin, 2007)

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Films that sell love and yearning often enable characters to reach a serene, comfortable place alongside the object of their affection, ending with a unified vision of strength and hope. But In the City of Sylvia is an altogether different beast, avoiding exposition, character development, and closure while detailing the fragmented emotional state of an unnamed young man searching for a woman he briefly met six year before. His motives are muddled, if not elusive, and one begins to distrust the very notion of expectation as director Jose Luis Guerin guides this character down a long, voyeuristic quest to re-imagine the past.

In the City of Sylvia fills the frame with the action of everyday life, layering the motion of bodies, the sounds of voices, and the pitches of a city constantly in flux. But this is not a combustible vision of city life, but a slow, meticulous look at a man trying to remember the feelings behind a past moment. As the young man (called El on IMDB) sits at a coffee shop waiting and watching, Guerin invades the space of the other occupants with his camera, lingering on obscured faces, reflections in windows, hands curling hair, lips sipping coffee – the permeation of close-up action. Point of view shifts, and the setting turns into a jazz concert of unexpected occurrences, bursts of dialogue, and pure silence.

When El believes he’s found the titular Sylvia, he follows the woman for what seems like hours. Guerin plays with time and space, shortening gaps, lengthening streets, holding on locales long after the principal players have left the frame. It’s one of the most thrilling chase sequences of all time, and by its finale, the film has once again subverted expectation. We cannot ever fully understand the reasoning behind El’s story, but his pain, and doubt, and creepiness, and heartache, become incredibly personal.

So In the City of Sylvia allows El to wait in peace, hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman who might not even exist in a world full of life but short on immediate connection. The process is illuminating, charting an act of strange devotion words could never describe.  Time drifts off course with little need for happy endings or reassurances, using the smallest reminders of nostalgia as breadcrumbs for a character obviously lost in space.

Dead Snow (Wirkola, 2009)

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Dead Snow gleefully resurrects the guilt and trauma of Nazism still haunting the European psyche, soaking blood into snowy mountainsides, shoving entrails into the frozen hands of its victims, ripping to shreds the present with the lifeless limbs of the past. The familiar conventions of the horror film at first confound the notion of originality, melting away as the Nazi-zombies reveal themselves from the shadows. They quickly turn from unseen monsters to absurd and deadly evocations of incomplete history books and newsreel footage.

Despite early signs to the contrary, we begin to care about this particular group of breathing post-collegiate cliches, a lucky joyous few on vacation in the snow and ice hoping for casual sex, beer, and movie trivia. Innocent to a fault, these characters commit one mortal sin – ignorance of their nation’s past. Does the punishment meet the crime? Perhaps not, but Dead Snow puts on a bloody show nonetheless.

The dynamic action scenes propel each victim into different directions and the film into hilariously absurd tangents, forcing retaliation against both mental disbelief and physical harm. The inherent joy in dispensing Nazi after Nazi quickly turns to the realization there might be too many hidden waves of evil to survive.

Unlike most Horror films of this ilk, the details of death in Dead Snow make an impact. Each cut, slash, and slice, purposeful and mistaken, both relinquish and reinforce fear in the characters. The process of mythmaking also comes into play, giving strength to common folk much like the propaganda machine of any country would achieve. Dead Snow claims loudly that like it or not, we are linked to the past deeds of our countrymen, and now more than ever the ground seems to be swelling with horrific reminders. The question is, will we listen.

Julia (Zonca, 2008)

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Without the presence of Tilda Swinton, Julia would be a catastrophic mess. As the alcoholic, morally questionable kidnapper in Erick Zonca’s film, Swinton’s shifty twitches in personality, her honest desperation, her beautifully imporivisational adeptness, keep this otherwise scattered film from running off the tracks completely. We live and breath with Julia through her most vulnerable, idiotic, and ultimately compassionate decisions, yet for every revelatory moment there’s an enigmatic and asinine filmmaking decision hurling her into a deeper, convoluted hell.

There are many strong proponents of this film that I deeply respect, but it’s amazing to me these critics can so easily reconcile the abysmal sense of pacing Zonca shows throughout the lengthy story, setting the movie in motion to a specific direction, then through some formulaic force of screenwriting propel Julia and Tom, the young boy she’s holding hostage, into a completely different one. This approach grates the life out Swinton’s momentum, creating a tension between performance and directing that is both strange and disheartening. Maybe this very attribute is what they admire most, but a character’s drunken haziness does not give credence for the filmmaking to be equally mindless and hazy.

Not to say Julia doesn’t have moments to admire. The opening sequence crammed with drunken bodies, Julia wasted out of her mind flinging against other women like a bowling ball knocking over pins, calls to mind the smokey locales and characters of Cassavetes. And thankfully Julia’s relationship with Tom never fully redeems her, achieving a deep complexity by slowly revealing the impact of her actions and the details of her life more important than money or booze. For all these superb moments, Zonca shreds the film with endless plot twists, chase sequences, and standoffs where Julia feels completely out of place. Julia is up to her eyeballs in trouble from the start, but never once does the Zonca make any of these physical conflicts as real as the personal turmoil going on inside Swinton’s daring performance.

Best of the 2000’s: #10

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In 2002, Bloody Sunday premiered to almost universal critical acclaim introducing Americans to British journeyman director Paul Greengrass, whose previous work included mostly television movies and two feature films. In the years since, Greengrass successfully graduated to Hollywood (United 93, The Bourne Franchise) and Bloody Sunday has become noted as a fine beginning for an important film artist.

But for whatever reason, Bloody Sunday does not get mentioned much anymore, especially amongst the canon of great films. Ironic, considering the film specifically functions as a lasting cinematic memory for a crucial traumatic event: The Bogside Massacre of January 30, 1972 in Derry, Ireland.  To this day, it still makes quite an impression both as a cinematic historical document and emotional/political tragedy.

Re-watching Bloody Sunday for this project harkened the intense emotions I felt upon first viewing, the haunting feeling history was unfolding in front of my very eyes, paralyzing my senses with authenticity while illustrating the contradictions and gaps within a disastrous situation. The film confronts the very idea of memory, perception, and reality, challenging our historical timeline as a clean, linear roadmap. It creates a confused state, leaving us with cluttered observations and distinct anger, ultimately shaken more by what we don’t see that what’s actually on screen.

When considering the best films of the last ten years, Bloody Sunday remains a landmark achievement for many reasons. Like no other film in recent memory, it masterfully recreates both a specific physical time and place and the defining emotions and tensions running under the surface. The impact is substantial, even when history tells you what to expect.

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This detailed structure regarding social and political contexts immediately defines Bloody Sunday. The film opens with a stunning sequence crosscutting between Derry Civil Rights Leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) and British Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), each embroiled in a press conference addressing the political climate of Northern Ireland circa 1972. Cooper stresses non-violence as the only option, promoting a massive protest march with the backing of the populace. Ford yearns to send a message of force due to the increasing violence perpetrated by the IRA, vowing a crackdown if the march goes forward.

These two contrasting ideologies evolve into representations of collective stories on both sides, foreshadowing the innocent loss of life for the protestors and the indelible guilt felt by some of the British soldiers and high command. Greengrass utilizes a deceivingly simple editing technique – fading to black after each scene – overtly illustrating the breaks and gaps within memory and trauma. The final goodbye between sister and brother, the casual conversation between preacher and disciple, the last embrace of two lovers, all represent the small, but devastating human toll of the event itself.

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Aside from the meticulous editing, Bloody Sunday brilliantly displays the improvisation and realism inherent to the Cinema Verite style of filmmaking. The gritty hand-held cinematography by Ivan Strasburg evokes an immediate, on-the-ground vantage point, positioning the viewer in a delicate and fleeting position to watch the characters interact before the heart-wrenching ordeal, throughout the panicked bloodshed, and finally during the grief-stricken haze of the aftermath. History unfolds through minute details, and this documentary-style approach captures them with stunning clarity.

Even as the massacre occurs, the camera becomes an extension of the viewer’s incomplete point of view, capturing a collection of sporadic shocking moments. Shots are fired, but rarely are bullets seen hitting the protestors. The camera simply pans and finds bodies lifeless, bleeding, suffering, focusing on the horrific aftermath instead of the act itself. Most impressionable are the moments when the camera stops, holding on the cowering survivors screaming and crying, watching in disbelief as their loved ones disappear from this world.

Bloody Sunday remembers a complex and shifting community battling for a sense of identity. We get all the inner workings of familial structures and relationships, between loyalty, religion, and revolution, while constructing these contrasting visions within a society connected by collective angst.

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But the film also delves into the procedures of military occupation, all the miscommunications, inactions, and moral ambiguities inherent with such a venture. The panic of young soldiers, the brutality of seasoned officers, and the regret of guilty subordinates make up a startling mosaic exposing military hierarchies and contradictions.

Bloody Sunday shows the devastating culmination of a society slowly ripped apart by fear, two sides moving away from peace because of human miscalculation and arrogance. Greengrass’ masterpiece stuns the viewer with moments of hope and tragedy, violence and calm, and in the process constantly reminds how easily one can shift to the other in a single heartbeat, by the sound of a gun, or a cry for peace.

Note: The Filmist’s epic consideration of his #10 choice, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, can be found here.

“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Le Silence de Lorna (Dardenne, Dardenne, 2008)

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As the title would suggest, Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) concerns itself with exploring the inner turmoil of Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant living in Belgium who happens to be embroiled in a fake marriage scheme. The muddy plot involving Russian gangsters and Belgium hustlers evolves at a snails pace, but the Dardennes are more concerned with the moral ambiguity inside Lorna after she helps double-cross her puppet-husband (Jeremie Regnier) for a future with another man.

The Dardennes once again manipulate time throughout, sometimes jumping days with a single edit throwing the audience into catch-up mode. But this makes their films challenging, and what continuously draws me back to their fractured morality plays. Time and space are never secure, and in Lorna’s case, constantly changing from the inside out. Lorna’s torment produces deep guilt, but doesn’t reveal itself until the convolution of the outside world subsides, and the silence of the woods allows us to finally understand her actions.

Le Silence de Lorna lives and breathes with Arta Dobroshi’s performance, a central mission statement against the obviously male-dominated narrative and environment. For most of the film, Lorna acts as a pinball between one male hierarchy to the next, a singular figure pushed to the brink by greed and manipulation. While Le Silence de Lorna may not be as masterful as The Son or La Promesse at constructing tragedy out of the small details in life, it still succeeds in revealing the subtle shifts toward madness inherent in the process.

Zombieland (Fleischer, 2009)

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Zombieland treats the undead apocalypse like a series of bumpy carnival rides, continuously pumping the same adrenaline-packed entertainment into slightly different blood-drenched packages. All shapes and sizes are game for mutilation and frenzied feeding, even those cute girl scouts and innocent brides to be. Chaos reigns, but under a mushroom cloud of irony.

The film cleverly uses voice over as Jesse Eisenberg’s nerdy Columbus introduces his rules of survival while proving their importance in a battle for his life. Zombies have long taken over the world, and in this stunning and hilarious opening sequence, the audience gets a taste of the sense of humor needed to survive.

Only the strong have survived, or at least the reclusive and cunning. Columbus, who seemingly missed the rise of the undead  because he was too busy shut in playing video games, meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a knife throwing, shotgun wielding badass with a special knack for dispatching zombies.  The two form an unlikely alliance and the thin narrative goes from there in all the obvious directions, but with a specific flare for horror iconography and film history.

But despite the 81 minute running time, Zombieland suffers from overkill, both on the comedy and horror side. It’s fitting the film ends in a Disneyland-esque amusement park, the artificial setting for a massive showdown between the film’s surviving heroes (which now include sisters played by Emma Stone and Abagail Breslin) and legions of excited zombies. After much repetition (aside from the great cameo by Bill Murray) and excess, these final kills remind us of the energy on display in the opening moments.

Zombieland aims to please, touring the terrain of previous films with pinpoint accuracy and wit. Just don’t expect a lasting meal. Beyond the absurd facade, it lacks the character depth of Shaun of the Dead and the social weight of Romero’s Dead films. But then again it aims pretty low on purpose, enjoying the small things in life. For Zombieland, there’s no one left to enjoy the subtext.

Five Minutes of Heaven (Hirschbiegel, 2009)

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Truth. Reconciliation. Revenge. For much of the first hour, Five Minutes of Heaven brilliantly submerges these themes under a wave of memory and trauma, cross-cutting between turbulent past and bubbling present. As Allistair Little (Liam Nesson) remembers the day he assassinated an innocent Catholic man in the streets of Lurgan, so does the victim’s little brother Joe, who witnessed the crime as a child and is now a trembling mess of a man (played to perfection by James Nesbitt). The two converge for a planned meeting, pushed to fruition by a BBC-style program vainly hoping to achieve some closure on past events, and the tension peaks as each man sits in their separate spaces waiting for a film crew to dictate their historical confrontation.

Sadly, Five Minutes of Heaven shifts gears and drops this approach of guilt by separation, putting the narrative into the now active hands of the two tormented protagonists. The idea of time and space gnawing at these two men becomes strangely moot, and the story begins to force false reactions from characters who’ve been so successful at conveying epic emotions through subtle twitches in psyche.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who garnered such a brilliant performance from Bruno Ganz in Downfall, loves to confront an actor’s face, in this instance with frontal close-ups of Nesbitt as he squirms in the backseat of limo, battling his memories with a mental sledgehammer. His physical presence rolls in and out of consciousness, transposing three decades of trauma into a cramped space. It’s a key reminder of the great story hidden under the false sense of collective relief blatantly apparent by film’s end, best on display during a highly ridiculous fight sequence and a somewhat Hollywood denouement.