Running just 83 minutes, Trigger is a very short work, but that doesn't make it sight. It's just a movie that gets the job done quickly. It centers on two women, each one-half of a band that broke up ten years earlier. They're brought back together by a benefit/tribute show that one has secretly put together and which the other isn't even sure she's actually going to attend because the music scene is so tied up in all of her experiences as an addict that she doubts she can set foot back into it without falling back down the rabbit hole. Unfolding as several long, dialogue heavy scenes in which the film maps the landscape of the duo's history, Trigger is basically just a story about two women who know each other so well that they don't even have to work at it to push each other's buttons and who remain tightly bonded even though they've spent a decade apart. A work that has a particular feeling of urgency for being co-star Tracy Wright's final film, Trigger is a brisk but engrossing movie.
To watch Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary in which the director explores the Chauvet Cave in France, is to be left in awe of the sheer scope of human history. Sealed for tens of thousands of years by a rock slide, the cave contains some of the best preserved cave paintings in the world, which carbon dating has dated to approximately 32,000 years old, as well as fossilized remains of cave bears and other intriguing evidence of pre-historical life. Because the cave itself is so fascinating, it would be easy to say that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film that succeeds because of its subject and not because of the craft of its filmmaking, but it would definitely be a lesser work without Herzog behind it, dreamily intoning about the finds in the cave. In voice-over Herzog ponders: "In a forbidden recess of the cave, there's a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We'll never know." Maybe not - but it's a film that stirs the imagination.
Danny Boyle is known for movies that barely slow down to take a breath, so a film with a protagonist who is literally stuck in one location and limited in his ability to move for much of the story seems, at first glance, antithetical. Yet 127 Hours is one of Boyle's most dynamic films to date, creating a sense of movement and urgency that you wouldn't think possible given that its protagonist is trapped in a crevasse. In the years since making the film James Franco has worn out his welcome with many, but his performance here (for which he received an Oscar nomination) is a great reminder that while he might be exasperating as a public personality, he's also one of the best actors of his generation. Playing a smart man whose experience has lulled him into a false sense of security that results in him acting recklessly and suffering the consequences, Franco is tasked with charting the escalation of his character's desperation and his sense of regret at the life he might leave unfinished. Together, Boyle and Franco turn this story of survival against impossible odds into a spiritual journey that is as uplifting as it is brutal.
Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake envisions Eden as a gay cruising spot where encounters unfold with innocent simplicity until one day a snake appears and changes everything, turning paradise into a killing ground. The film's protagonist knows he should avoid this other man, a newcomer to the area, but he's drawn to him despite the danger - or, perhaps, because of it. A film that might be described as an "erotic thriller," albeit one that is so extremely sexually explicit that it makes even the wildest such film out of Hollywood seem tame by comparison and so sedate in its pacing that even the murder which kicks the story into gear happens in a way which seems low-key, Stranger By the Lake builds itself around the danger of desire and the rush of taking risks. It's a story told with sharp precision and narrow focus and which is almost hypnotic in the spell it weaves.
35 Shots of Rum is about a man and his daughter, the family friend who is in love with the man and thinks of herself as a substitute mother for the daughter, and the young man who has feelings for the daughter but is in such early stages of figuring out who he is and what he wants to do with his life that he doesn't really know whether he's coming or going. The man and the daughter have been living in a kind of stasis for years, paralyzed by grief and unable to move forward with their lives, and the progress of the story is in how they realize that they can't cling to the way things are but have to grow and change and, perhaps, begin to move in different directions. It's a slow paced him, the type that might be described as being "about nothing" because it's just about people and the subtleties of how they interact and how their relationships to each other change in ways that are almost imperceptible. It's a film that requires a bit of patience, but as told by the masterful filmmaker Claire Denis, it's well worth the effort.
Julia is a nasty little piece of work. Centering on an amoral alcoholic who is recruited into a kidnapping plot and then, through greed and sloppiness (because she can't stop drinking even at times when it is absolutely crucial that she be stone sober), takes things from bad to disastrous. In what is easily her most fearless and vanity free performance, and arguably her very best, Tilda Swinton plays the title character, a woman who, even if she didn't spend much of her time on screen terrorizing a small child, you would be hard-pressed to like but who can be amusing nevertheless thanks to the film's dark thread of humor. I don't know that many actors could successfully do what Swinton does here as she telegraphs her character's growing panic to the audience while still projecting an aura of bravado that makes it believable that the characters she's interacting with think she's got things under control. Julia is a tough little movie, but it's an indelible one thanks in large part to Swinton's high-wire act of a performance.
Joe Carnahan's The Grey is about a man who wants to die but, when placed in a life or death situation, finds that deep down there remains something within him determined to press on. The man is played by Liam Neeson, who came to the "ass kicking" portion of his career late but nevertheless effectively, and as the film begins he's working at an oil patch that he describes as God forsaken and filled with men just like him, men who have no place in the civilized world. A plane crash leaves him stranded with several of these men, picked off one by one by wolves until there are only four of them left, grimly determined to make it out of the wilderness. The Grey is a genre film stripped down to its most basic parts - it's lean, it's mean, and it's terribly effective. While it can honestly be described as "the movie where Liam Neeson punches wolves," it's never just that; it's a haunting film about despair and the will to survive and Neeson delivers a truly great performance that helps the film transcend its genre trappings.
Lauren Greenfield's documentary is a film that almost wasn't because it was almost something else. Intended to be a documentary about the construction of the biggest single family dwelling in the United States, unironically named and modeled after the Palace of Versailles, it would instead end up documenting the financial collapse of its subjects during the 2008 recession. A fascinating inside glimpse at the smoke and mirrors, mortgages and loans, lifestyle that precipitated the economy going under, the film follows David Siegel, a man who is basically the personification of fleeting "rich on paper" excesses, and his wife, Jackie, a woman who comes across as patently ridiculous in the beginning but becomes surprisingly sympathetic as the film goes on as she demonstrates a determination to pick herself up out of the ashes and make the best of what she has left. She's a "character," to be sure, but she ends up being a very compelling one even as Greenfield subtly extends the focus, making the film about more than just one family's fall from grace to become a sharp portrait of a culture of greed and lifestyle performance that was too big not to fail.
Whiplash is one of the best films I've ever seen about the psychology of an abusive relationship. It's a story about a teacher who has obtained almost mythical status and a student who desperately wants his approval and what unfolds over the course of the narrative is an escalating campaign of physical, mental, and emotional abuse as the teacher humiliates the student and methodically rips away every shred of confidence he ever had in himself in order to make him totally dependent. Although he manages to extricate himself from the relationship, the student remains so psychologically trapped by it that he's drawn back in, unable to break himself out of the mindset that everything will be good if he can just satisfy the demands of the teacher, making for an ending that is as thrilling as it is devastating. Played out as a brutal duet between actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash continues to resonate long after it's over.
One of the most common criticisms about Jennifer Lawrence's career is that she's so often cast to play characters who are meant to be older than she is. A rewatch of her breakout movie, Winter's Bone, provides a great reminder that even when she plays age-appropriate characters, she still projects as older, as wise beyond her years and accustomed to bearing more responsibility than she should. In Winter's Bone Lawrence plays a teenage girl who bears all the responsibility, her mother lost to mental illness, her father a career criminal who has disappeared, suspected of having jumped bail, and when she learns that he's put the house up as collateral and that she, her mother, and her two younger siblings will be evicted if he doesn't turn up, she's tasked with doing the detective work to find him. Taking a story that is constructed and paced like a thriller, writer/director Debra Granik uses it to explore a corner of society rarely seen in film, painting a sharp and perceptive portrait of a community marginalized by the rest of society.