James Gray makes beautiful films. The way that his films play with light and shadow, the way that he captures movement, the way that he frames his characters all work to create a visual tapestry that's as rich as the narratives he's unfolding. The Immigrant, in particular, is painterly in the way that it's photographed, like a moving Caravaggio that heightens the emotional intensity of everything that's going on in this story of a woman who comes to America to escape post-WWI Poland and becomes trapped by her lack of resources, making her the perfect target for exploitation. Built around masterful performances by Marion Cotillard as the woman seeking a better life and Joaquin Phoenix as the man who takes advantage of her lack of power, The Immigrant is an ambitious and commanding film about the hardship, desperation, and hope of that most American of stories: the immigrant story.
Michael Haneke's films always have a sinister undercurrent, but usually the threat is coming from without. It might be vague and beyond understanding, its aim might be psychological disruption rather than physical violence, but it comes from the outside. In Amour, the threat comes from within and there's no defense against it. Told with stark simplicity, it explores the final chapter of a long married couple whose life together is upended when the wife's health suddenly and swiftly begins to decline, leaving her entirely dependent on others for her care while her husband becomes fiercely entrenched in his refusal to have her hospitalized, even as it becomes increasingly clear that he's not capable of taking care of her himself. The couple are played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, both of whom deliver incredible performances that as unforced and unflinching as the film itself, touching the raw truth that loving someone can be as much about knowing how to let go of them as it is about how to hold on to them.
Olivier Assayas' film about an actress revisiting the work that launched her into stardom is a film awash in ambiguity, revealing and concealing in equal measure. It rests on a dynamic played out over and over again between two women, one younger and one older. There's a fictional version that appears in a play, in which the two women have an affair and the cruelty and manipulation of the younger drives the older to suicide, and several real versions that play out in real life, not as physical affairs and not always with the younger one in that power position, but always with that sense that one woman is taking everything from the other. It's an artfully made film that is aesthetically entrancing and hard to pin down, it shifts so constantly and so subtly, and it's rich and funny (if you've ever wanted to see Juliette Binoche do a perfect spit take, this is the movie for you) and beautifully acted by Binoche and co-star Kristen Stewart.
The Tribe will get no points for accessibility, but the skill with which it tells its story is equal to the challenge it presents to the viewer. Set at a boarding school for the deaf, its dialogue occurs only in Ukrainian sign language, none of which is subtitled so that you never know exactly what is being communicated but have to fill in the blanks for yourself based on what you see from scene to scene, the body language of the characters, and the emotions that the actors are able to convey. The story it tells is a dark one in which the school is ruled by a gang involved in theft, violence, and prostitution, and the silence of the piece functions to heighten the brutality of what occurs on screen, removing the sorts of verbal cues that audiences are accustomed to and making what happens seem all the more unsettling. The Tribe is a disturbing and haunting movie which functions by cutting off the typical avenues of communication between audience and film in order to tell a story through the sheer power of images.
If the only thing George Miller's return to the Mad Max franchise had done was return vibrant color to the desaturated color pallet of the cinema landscape, I would adore it, but it does so much more than that: it offers a crash course in efficient world building, deftly mixes CGI and practical effects, blends narrative and action so seamlessly that neither has to pause to make room for the other and instead unfold concurrently over what amounts to a 100 minute chase, and it manages to be feminist in a way that doesn't merely pay lip service to feminist ideas. Yeah, it's awesome that Furiosa is such a badass, but it's not just about that. Nor is it just about a group of women denied agency and fighting to regain it. It's about depicting the ways a Fascist/patriarchal system makes victims of women and men, denying them political autonomy and reducing them to "bodies" to be used in whatever way the government feels fit, be it as concubines or "blood bags" or canon fodder in war. Fury Road is a dazzling movie on a visual level, but it's also one that's deep and rich thematically.
Steve McQueen's feature debut is stark and merciless, an exploration of the 1981 Irish hunger strike that is structured like a relay as the perspective moves from one prisoner to another until landing, finally, on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), whose agonizing death acts as the film's closing chapter. Largely apolitical with respect to what resulted in the arrests of members of the IRA, its focus is instead on how the political prisoners are treated, which is nothing short of inhumane, and on the vast chasm between the political rhetoric (delivered by Margaret Thatcher, appearing as a disembodied voice whose speeches are played as voice-over) and the reality of life in the prison. Notable for an unbroken 17 minute shot during which Fassbender and Liam Cunningham engage in a back and forth debate about the hunger strike, Hunger is an arresting film that demonstrates McQueen's ability to design visual strategies that bring his themes into sharp relief.
History is how it's remembered - a "legacy" is not something that merely happens, it's something that is actively created, designed, and maintained. Jackie is about the curation of a legacy, not just for JFK but for Jackie Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman in a sharp, formidable, and fantastic performance) herself as she stage manages the funeral of her husband to ensure that it, and by extension him, will retain a permanent place in the public imagination. Told in searingly intimate detail that seeks to remove as much distance as possible between the viewer and the larger than life character on screen, Jackie unfolds largely in tight shots that give it an inescapable emotional immediacy that never feels exploitative, even when it's observing its title character washing her husband's blood off of her face. This is a raw portrait of grief played out for public consumption and a masterfully made film about how history is made.
Peter Strickland's homage to European softcore from the 1970s is a glorious act of narrative sleight of hand. Ostensibly a lurid tale of two women engaged in a dynamic that turns on one humiliating the other and punishing her in sexualized ways, it's actually a very thoughtful exploration of the difficulties of being in a relationship with another person. Though it expresses itself as an elaborate BDSM role play scenario, it is fundamentally about how two people with different personalities and different needs and interests can find a way to be together and stay together. It's about the need for compromise and empathy, how routine can result in boredom, and the competing frustrations of not having your needs anticipated by someone else even after repeatedly voicing them and, alternately, being expected to act as a mind-reader. The Duke of Burgundy is a rich, complex, surprisingly funny, and enjoyably odd movie, rendered with no shortage of style.
An outsider can never truly know what goes on in the relationship between two people. In 45 Years one of the people in the relationship discovers that she didn't truly know what was going on either. When her husband learns that the body of a long dead girlfriend has finally been uncovered, a woman begins to feel displaced in her own life and starts to question everything she thought she knew. Was this her life at all, or was she playing out her husband's vision of a future with this other woman? Her name is Kate, the other woman was Katya; she's his wife but, despite describing her as a "girlfriend," this past woman may also have actually been his wife. Everything real now seems unreal and his retreat into a grief that excludes her only exacerbates her sense that the place she's been occupying in his life and their life together has never been meant for her. Centering on a shattering performance from Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years is a work of great subtlety and delicacy but also incredible emotional intimacy.
The power of Persepolis lies in its complex point of view. Co-directed by Marjane Satrapi (Vincent Paronnaud is the other half of the team) and adapted from her autobiographical graphic novels, this story about her coming of age during the Iranian Revolution casts a critical eye in all directions. It is very much about how vulnerable women are when political and social circumstance shift, particularly when they shift towards an extremist group that will seek to consolidate its power by reducing the female population to the level of second class citizenship; but it is also about the harm that can result from foreign interference when powerful allies exploit another nation as a means of pursuing their own self-interests at the expense of the people who will get caught in the upheaval that is beyond their ability to control. This is a film in which the political is very personal and the passion that Satrapi brings to it gives it an emotional weight that makes it especially powerful.