Guaranteed: many spoilers
Captain Phillips (2013), directed by Paul Greengrass, is a workmanlike thriller based on the autobiographical account of an American sea captain held hostage by Somali pirates. Greengrass applies his documentary-like style effectively, and his good choices involve casting skinny actors with bad teeth to play the pirates; a lesser auteur would have gone for glamorous African American movie actors acting all "gangsta". The almost unbearable climax takes place in a high tech lifeboat that looks like a pocket submarine. Every-guy Tom Hanks is a quivering mass of weeping nerves when we last see him; one more scene, showing him re-adapted to his life a few weeks or months later, would have sent me out a little calmer. Jan Kott once said that King Lear is a "mountain no-one wants to climb" and this movie felt a little like that: really well done, exciting and convincing, but I wasn't really glad I saw it. I already knew life is grim and dangerous, not just on container ships off Somalia.
Wadjda (2013), written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, is, I believe, the first Saudi Arabian movie, is directed by a woman and is about female empowerment. Given all that baggage, its also natural, unassuming, and avoids being self conscious or sugary. The protagonist is a twelve year old girl who badly wants a bicycle, even though everyone tells her that girls don't ride bikes in her country. She enters a Koran recital contest and wins it through sheer force of will. Its a view into an unfamiliar society: the unsmiling, angry principal, who seems barely into her thirties but lectures on propriety like a much older person; Wadjda's sad mom, who is being abandoned by an otherwise decent husband because she can't bear him a son. There is a moment in which Wadjda and am admiring male friend her age joke about suicide bombing (she wonders if she will find ninety bicycles in paradise) that stunningly reveals either the difference of the society, or of the director-- I wasn't sure.
All is Lost (2013), written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a rather remarkable cinematic artifact, a movie with virtually no dialog, just a few words of a letter at the beginning, a half-stifled "fuck!" partway through and some inarticulate shouting. Robert Redford is a man aboard a small sloop in mid-ocean. We know no back story, not even his name. The movie opens with the emergency: he is asleep and a drifting cargo container leaking sneakers puts a hole in his boat. He patches it, endures a storm, loses the boat, sets out in an inflatable life raft, endures another storm, huge cargo ships pass by without seeing him, and then (seeing a single light of what appears to be a much smaller vessel) he lights a fire, being out of flares, and accidentally sets fire to his raft. Through-out, we watch as he impassively evaluates every problem and sets out to solve it. Even at the outset, when the boat has been holed and water is flowing in, he does not react immediately, but walks around scoping out the damage. As the boat is sinking, he makes multiple visits, looking for items he will need on his raft. Almost the only thing I could deduce from Redford's performance was that the character wasn't from Brooklyn (or the soundtrack would have had a lot more language: "What the fuck? Fuck! Holy shit! Fuck me! Fuck!") A lesser film would have been over-burdened by narration ("And then I decided I had to abandon ship...") or had Redford talking to himself ("Goodbye, old girl"). The movie is beautifully shot, with images of ocean skies, clouds, lightning in the distance, and underwater scenes of a school of silvery fish following the raft (eventually some sharks too). At the end, the raft aflame, no help in sight, Redford gives up, dives deep to drown himself, and seemingly 100 feet down, opens his eyes to see a boat visiting his raft, swims back up and an extended hand pulls him out of the water. Its an annoyingly post-modern ending, designed to cause ongoing discussion on whether its intended to be real or a dying fantasy. I would have liked one more shot of Redford above water, just as I wished for one more shot of Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips. Cut the pomo crap.
Brian Winston's Messages (2004) is a useful history of the various media involved in free speech disputes: newspapers, theater, movies. The historical details are good, but, despite the book's premise and promise, it doesn't really concentrate on censorship or free speech rulesets.
We went to the Hamptons International Film Festival, an old ritual, and picked non-sold out movies at the last moment, almost guaranteeing we were seeing films that will get little or no distribution. The best of these was Oh Boy (2012), directed by Jan Ole Gerster, a German day in the life of a slacker, which slowly reveals that everyone in the society, or at least everyone he meets, is living in the past: his father, remembering when his vastly disappointing son was a more lovable child; a girlfriend, remembering when he loved her; a prospective new love interest who is too completely mired in memories of being fat; an actor friend who was the big star in his acting schoolclass, but is barely working; and finally, and most poignantly, an elderly man, encountered in the late evening in a bar, who reminisces about Kristallnacht, and concludes by observing that he started to cry because...wait for it...he was afraid he wouldn't be able to ride his new bike because of all the broken glass on the sidewalk. Then collapses and dies. Its an unusual and poignant movie, with a tip of the hat to Bunuel (the protagonist's attempt to get a cup of coffee are frustrated all day, in ingenious ways).
Ana Arabia (2013), directed by Amos Gitai, told an interesting story in an extremely slow and static way. An Israeli journalist visits the home of a now-deceased Holocaust survivor who married an Arab man and converted to Islam. However, the film is an extremely talky single take, and the talk wasn't that interesting. I have often wondered about Arab-Jewish intermarriage and would love to see a movie about it, but there would have been so many other ways to tell this story: as a straight up historical drama,an investigative noir, a documentary. Single take movies (seen a couple, Hitchcock's Rope presents as one though its really four takes) are constraining. The only interesting moment was when the camera, which had been following the journalist around, suddenly rose 100 feet in the air for the last moment of the film. I assume a camera guy with a Steadicam sat in the bucket of a crane.
Charlie Victor Romeo (2013), directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, was a simple (though, surprisingly, 3D) filming of an Off Off Broadway, and rather downtown, play in which the actors perform black box transcripts from a variety of plane crashes verbatim. It was a gripping exercise, both in theater (not film, really) and in human nature, as the gauges start to deceive you, the position, bearing and attitude of the plane become ambiguous, engines flame out and you have just minutes or seconds to save you own and everybody's life.
Mr. John (2013), directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, was a really disappointing noir about an ordinary guy who goes to Singapore when his brother dies, and ends up stepping into his life. Good idea, but its painfully underwritten, and the actors look uncertain, as if they haven't been provided enough information to create characters. Resorting to some slow motion underwater scenes and a big snake, Mr. John isn't certain what kind of movie it is: realistic or magical realism. The protagonist mopes around til you totally lose sympathy.
Code Black (2013), directed by Ryan McGarry, should have been a really compelling documentary, about young exhausted over-stretched doctors in an urban emergency room. Unfortunately, it mentions the health care crisis but never takes a stand on any solution (the fear was probably that an actual viewpoint would have militated against distribution, as only Michael Moore gets away with viewpoints). Without a coherent message, it becomes a vivid but ultimately forgettable tour of gunshot wounds, open chests, charismatic doctors trying to hold everything together.