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The best films of 2013

The above title is misleading. It’s something I mention every year, but it bears repeating nonetheless: the above title is misleading. It implies objectivity when in fact there is nothing more subjective than those end-of-the-year lists. “My favorite films of 2013” would be a better title, or at least a more accurate one. I mention it every year, and every year I still go with “the best films of whatever year it is,” because tradition, and because it sounds much better, and because it gives me an excuse to talk about this objectivity/subjectivity thing and to acknowledge that my lists always end up looking somewhat weird. As in different. (To a certain extent, of course.) Not that different’s bad, obviously. The last thing we need is for all those lists to include the exact same films in the exact same order. (See also Yeezus topping way too many best albums of the year list while not even being the best rap album of the year by a long shot.) Those lists are meant to encourage discussion, so different’s not bad, as long as it’s justified. Being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian is just trolling. Armond White may have made a career out of it, but it’s not a terribly interesting position.

The reasons my lists tend to look a bit strange are twofold. The first and more obvious one is taste; Blue is the Warmest Color, for instance, is a film you’ll see pop up on quite a few of those best of the year lists, but while I liked it well enough, I didn’t quite love it as much as many did. The second reason is simply that I live in France, not the US, so when I talk about “the movies of 2013,” I’m not actually referring to the same set of films many list-makers are. There’s a lot of overlap of course, but also significant differences. For example, Twelve Years a Slave and Her, two of the most acclaimed movies of the year, won’t be coming out until January 22 and March 19 of next year, respectively; meanwhile, two of the films on my list won’t be coming out in the US until next year at the earliest. Other well-received films not yet out here include Nebraska and American Hustle (although I haven’t been a fan of the recent output of both Alexander Payne and David O. Russell), Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, and even Johnnie To’s Drug War and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. (That last one is unlikely to ever be released here, so I went ahead and got it on DVD instead of waiting for a theatrical release that’ll never come; for a good long while it was my favorite movie of the year, and it likely would have ended up 3rd or 4th.) That also means that quite a few 2012 movies were only released this year here; those include Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all of which would have had a solid shot at my top 10 had I considered them. Instead, as usual, I only considered movies that came out in France this year while arbitrarily excluding those that had an American release in 2012. I’ll readily admit it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I’ve been doing it for the past four years now, so yay tradition. (I also somehow missed The Act of Killing, A Hijacking, and The Great Beauty while they were playing here, three movies that received significant critical acclaim in the US.)

And now, without further ado, the list.

10. The Past

The Past
Asghar Farhadi follows up A Separation with another heartrending drama, set this time in the suburb of Paris. Ali Mosaffa stars as a man coming back from Iran to finalize his divorce from Bérénice Bejo, only to get caught up in a conflict between her daughter and her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim). The characters of The Past, like those of all of Farhadi’s movies, are all decent people trying to do the right thing and struggling to figure out exactly what that is. The Past isn’t quite the masterpiece that A Separation was, but what it is is a very good movie about our inability to escape from our own lives. “The past is the past,” Tahar Rahim says at one point, but of course that’s not true (Farhadi doesn’t quite quote Faulkner, but the idea’s the same). Farhadi once declared he is more interested in questions than he is in answers, and with his latest, he once again provides plenty of questions, and precious few answers.

9. Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was the most fun I had at the movies this year, so much so that I went back to see it four times (although to be fair I saw all but two films on this list at least twice, if not three times). While most blockbusters have taken a cue from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and gotten more and more grim and serious, Pacific Rim went in the opposite direction, and the result was phenomenal. Its flaws may be obvious (Charlie Hunnam isn’t exactly the most compelling of leads, the exposition-heavy dialogue is sometimes a bit stilted), but it does so many things right that it doesn’t really matter. It’s an amazing feat of world-building, and if the characters are indeed little more than stereotypes, there’s quite a bit going on under the surface. And of course the fight scenes are a ton of fun.

(Here’s my take on what differentiates Pacific Rim from many modern blockbusters, and why I don’t think it’s a “dumb” film.)

8. Stoker

Let’s get it out of the way: yeah, the screenplay to Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, isn’t the strongest, although it’s much better than some may have you believe. But any flaw in the writing is more than made up for by the incredible visuals. This is a marvel of direction and editing, a film that’s at once gorgeous and incredibly creepy, and by far the best horror movie of the year. Matthew Goode makes for a most unnerving villain, and Mia Wasikowska continues to impress in what turns out to be the origin story of a monster. Much like Pacific Rim, Stoker is more style than substance (which is true of most of Park Chan-wook’s movies to begin with), but when the style is so compelling, who cares? Plus, it closes with a kick-ass Emily Wells song that perfectly fits the mood of the movie.

7. Like Father, Like Son

Like Father Like Son
After the relative disappointment of Air Doll and the solid-but-not-spectacular I Wish (although many will disagree with me on that one), Like Father, Like Son marks a return to form for Koreeda Hirokazu. The story of two families (one well-off, one not so much) whose 6-year-old sons were switched at birth, it explores the questions of class you would expect it to, but focuses just as much on what it means to be a parent. Never sentimental but often heartbreaking, Like Father, Like Son manages to avoid the clichés it could have easily wallowed in and refuses to pass judgment on any of its characters. It also once again showcases Koreeda’s ability to film children like nobody else, although this time most of the film is seen from the point of view of the adults, who seem to have at least as much trouble adapting to the situation as the kids.

6. Gravity

The thrill ride of the year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an incredible feat of filmmaking. Following Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to make it back to Earth however she can after getting caught in a storm of asteroid-like debris that kills everyone on her team but her and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), it is a visceral experience that grabs you right away with its amazing opening scene, one of Cuarón’s trademark long takes that lasts some seven or so minutes, and never lets go. Gravity is a breathtaking technical achievement, a movie that uses 3D in a more interesting and convincing manner than any other film before (although I have a soft spot for the way 2011’s Final Destination 5 embraced the 3D gimmick in its opening credits). I literally saw it twice in a row on opening night, after seeing it a week before at an advanced screening, and it felt every bit as awesome (in the strongest sense of the world) every time.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street
By far the best American comedy of the year, The Wolf of Wall Street also just so happens to be about a bunch of drug- and money-crazed crooks. Anyone who thinks Scorsese is endorsing Jordan Belfort’s deeds and lifestyle isn’t paying attention; we’re meant to laugh as much at these assholes as with them, and it’s made abundantly clear that for all his charm, Belfort is a monster. “Money makes you a better person,” he claims at some point, before doing everything in his power to disprove that notion. “Stratton Oakmont is America,” Belfort tells his cohorts, calling his company the real “land of opportunity,” but five minutes later his closest associate is leading them in a chant of “Fuck USA!” This is the American dream taken to its logical extreme, where all that matters is the individual, and fuck everybody else. The Wolf of Wall Street is insane and brilliant and exhausting, but at almost three hours, it doesn’t feel a minute too long.

4. Before Midnight

Before Midnight
Nine years after Before Sunset (and eighteen after their first meeting in Before Sunrise), Céline and Jesse are back, this time as a married couple with children. The opening scene, which has Jesse say goodbye to his now-teenage son going back to his mother thousands of miles away, makes it clear that their getting together at the end of Before Sunset did come at a cost. And now that cost is threatening to become too high to bear. “This is how people start breaking up,” Céline says early on, and for the longest time it feels like we might very well be looking at a break-up about to happen. For the first time in what’s now become a trilogy, Céline and Jesse fight, arguing not only about abstract concepts but also about their own day-to-day life, and they do so in realistic fashion, jumping from one topic to another, bringing up old grudges the other didn’t even know existed, getting caught up in ever more hyperbolic arguments that quickly spin out of control. Before Sunrise was a movie about falling in love, but this is a movie about what it takes to stay in love in the face of time and the routine of life. Here’s hoping that, nine years from now, we get another sequel that’s just as good as this one.

3. The World’s End

The World's End
The final installment in Edgar Wright’s so-called Cornetto trilogy is also arguably the best. Simon Pegg (who once again co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Gary King, a former high school rebel now pushing forty who wants nothing more than to relive his youth by dragging his old friends through their hometown to complete the pub crawl they attempted twenty years before. Except this time they also have a bunch of Stepford Wives-like robots to contend with. The World’s End is just as funny as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it’s surprisingly affecting, too (Gary’s “They told me when to go to bed!” is, in context, pretty fucking heartbreaking). Pegg and Wright understand both the attraction of nostalgia and the danger of living in the past, which makes their Gary King, alternatively a charismatic leader and a drunken buffoon (and often both at the same time), more than just a cautionary tale or the butt of the film’s joke. And then there are those crazy fight scenes, a reminder (especially to those who haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) that Edgar Wright is also a pretty great action director.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens’ latest follows Llewyn Davis, a doomed folk singer in early-1960s Greenwich Village. A tragicomedy that’s part Barton Fink and part O’Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is an almost pointless odyssey that has Llewyn (Oscar Isaac finally getting the part he deserves) run in circles and learn seemingly nothing, except perhaps that closing the door before the cat can get out is a pretty good idea. Llewyn is another one of those characters the Coens like so much, an asshole we can’t help but feel sympathy for and a talented artist (Isaac does all the singing, and damn does he have a good voice) who keeps getting in his own way. For all the laughs it gets (and it gets a lot of them), the movie hits surprisingly hard, and a little too close to home at times. When Llewyn tells his sister that working as a sailor and not making art is “just existing” in a way that makes it clear what he thinks of that, it’s hard not to relate, while at the same time realizing that he is being a huge dick. Some have argued that the Coens dislike their characters in general and Llewyn in particular, but to do so is to forget the fact that, for all his dickishness, Llewyn is profoundly human, and often profoundly touching.

1. Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer 2
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read that glowing review I wrote a couple weeks ago (or who follows me on Twitter, where I’ve repeatedly called it the best film of the year). Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut is everything one could have hoped for and more, a crazy action thriller packed with twists and turns, a movie that’s funny and brutal and that’s got more to say than all most of those other science fiction allegories put together. This is Bong Joon-ho showing Hollywood how it’s done, and then some. This is, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a masterpiece.

(My review.)

Honorable mentions: Jeff Nichols’s Mud and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (my review) were the last two films I cut from this list. Other movies that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another but deserve a mention include, in alphabetical orders, Ain’t them Bodies Saints, All is Lost, Behind the Candelabra, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Fast & Furious 6, Frances Ha, Les Apaches, Mama, A Simple Life, To the Wonder, A Touch of Sin, Venus in Fur.


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The best films of 2012

This has been a weird year, movie-wise, for a number of reasons. Reason number one, of course, is that I live in France, and not in America, where the past couple months have seen the release of more prestige movies than the rest of the year combined. No such luck here: December brought Life of Pi and The Hobbit (and Beasts of the Southern Wild, a good six months after its American release), but Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, The Master, and even Silver Linings Playbook will have to wait for 2013 (meanwhile, Richard Linklater’s Bernie may never be released here). That’s the way distribution’s always worked, but this year it seems that more “big” movies didn’t make it here in time for Christmas—or it might be that there were more such movies to begin with.

Another, more personal reason is that I simply didn’t care all that much for most of the “big” movies we did get (including most of the Cannes lineup). I profoundly disliked Amour (to be honest, I’ve always been ambivalent, at best, towards Haneke), had huge issues with Life of Pi and Beyond the Hills, and was largely disappointed by Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film I’d been waiting for since Sundance and which turned out to be, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky so rightly put it, bullshit. Even Holy Motors, acclaimed by critics everywhere, failed to entirely convince me, despite having some of my favorite cinematic moments of the year (including the intermission, which would probably top my list).

Yet in spite of all that, 2012 was still a very good year for film, thanks to a baffling number of strong genre efforts. In fact, 2012 may have been the best year for genre cinema in quite some time—the past two years were very top-heavy, with brilliant movies like Attack the Block, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Let Me In, while this year just had so many great genre films. That, to me, more than makes up for the (relative) lack of great prestige movie, and for having to wait until January to see Jessica Chastain kicking ass and Joaquin Phoenix running around like a lunatic.

My top 10 for the year actually has 12 movies on it, because I couldn’t get myself to cut two of them, and the whole exercise is completely arbitrary anyway. The rules are the same as last year, and the year before last: any movie released for the first time in France in 2012 is eligible, except for films that were released internationally in 2011 (if you want to see what my list would look like were those films included as well, just head over to the French version of this blog (my top of 2012 list should be up tomorrow, with any luck). As usual, this is of course highly subjective, and if you disagree with my picks, you’re probably wrong. Unlike the last two years, when Breathless and A Separation respectively topped my list, 2012 didn’t have one film I felt was head and shoulders above the rest (or rather, there was one, but it was one of those 2011 holdovers), and at least all the films in my top 3 could have ended up in first place (and probably would if you asked me on any other day).

10. Robot & Frank/The Deep Blue Sea/The Grey

Robot & Frank
In Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, Frank Langella struggles with old age; in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz struggles with the disappointments of life, which never turns out the way we thought it would; and in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, Liam Neeson struggles with his own mortality and with the loss of his wife (a case of reality turning an unsurprising plot development into quite the emotional sucker punch).

The Deep Blue Sea
Despite their differences in terms of genre and approach (one’s a science fiction film about a retired crook and a robot teaming up, another one’s a survival movie in which Liam Neeson doesn’t quite get to punch wolves in the face), all three films turn out to be unexpectedly layered and heartbreaking, thanks in large part to great performances by their lead actors and, in The Deep Blue Sea’s case, by their supporting cast as well. If you’re feeling too high on life, try watching all three right after the other, it should bring you right back down to earth.

The Grey
(Also, this is relevant.)

9. Haywire

Here’s the thing: I’m usually no Steven Soderbergh fan. I tend to dislike his ensemble pieces immensely (I hated both Traffic and Contagion, and the Ocean’s movies range from mildly annoying to unwatchable), and to like his smaller efforts only marginally better (that being said, Out of Sight’s really good). But here’s the other thing: I really, really loved the two movies he put out this year. Magic Mike was smart and fun and OMG Channing Tatum’s abs, but Haywire was just a great action movie, period (and it also had Channing Tatum, natch). Gina Carano makes for a much more convincing action heroine than pretty much any other actress, the action scenes are brutal and beautiful and shot in a way that actually makes sense, and the script has a ton of fun with meta commentary about the way action films treat women. Simple, elegant, and tough.

8. The Raid: Redemption

The Raid
Speaking of action, Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption (what a dumb subtitle, really) was the adrenaline rush of the year, a relentless onslaught of violence punctuated by the occasional moment of visual poetry. It doesn’t get much simpler than “a bunch of cops are trapped in a building and must fight their way out,” but Evans milks that set-up for all it’s got, staging brutal set piece after brutal set piece, culminating in a two-on-one fight that keeps going for much longer than it has any right to, yet never feels too long. The Raid: Redemption is the kind of film you come out of physically exhausted, as if it was you who’d been getting your ass kicked for two hours.

7. ParaNorman

Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, and even Rise of the Guardians were all good animation films, but Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman was by far the best of the bunch. It starts off as a sort of comedic twist on The Sixth Sense, then turns into a PG zombie movie, before going into some genuinely dark and scary places. Like another film a little further down this list, it also has a lot of fun with archetypes and horror tropes. The best thing about ParaNorman, though, is its awesome (as in awe-inspiring) climax, an astonishing sequence of visual bravura that plays out like the most thrilling video game boss fight while keeping the emotional stakes as high as they can be.

6. Paris by Night

Une Nuit
Philippe Lefebvre’s Paris by Night is an old-fashioned noir, reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, and particularly Un Flic (the film’s original title, Une Nuit, even seems to be a deliberate Melville homage). For one night, we follow Roschdy Zem, as the commander of the Paris vice unit, as he visits bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, and tries to remain a step ahead of internal affairs and of the crooks that are trying to set him up. This is a moody and surprisingly complex film, and Zem, who seems to play nothing but cops and gangsters these days, delivers a great performance as a man who knows he’s doing the wrong thing but can’t find a way to do the right one. Not a single shot is fired in Paris by Night, but there’s more tension than in almost any other film that came out this year.

5. The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods
In terms of pure fun, nothing this year beat Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written with Joss Whedon, this is a marvel of a meta horror movie and a hilarious puzzle, full of twists and turns on top of more twists, and even more turns. I don’t like using the word “clever” to describe a movie, as it often implies shallowness, but The Cabin in the Woods is one hell of a clever film. And, yes, there’s no particular profundity to it. It is what it is, but what it is is a ton of fun, and one of the tightest screenplays this side of last year’s Attack the Block. Plus, you gotta love the way Goddard embraces the mayhem of the third act (one word: unicorn).

4. Oslo, August 31

Oslo August 31
From the year’s most fun movie to the most devastating. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 is a merciless character study, following 34-year-old Anders, a former drug addict who just got out of rehab. Anders (another one of the year’s great performance, by Anders Danielsen Lie) wanders around Oslo, a city he used to know so well, bumping into old friends turned strangers, trying to find a reason to go on living when the world seems to have passed him by entirely. In one of the best scenes of the year, Anders sits in a coffee house and listens to people, imagining what their lives must be like. No one seems able to show Anders the same empathy and compassion. “It’ll get better. It’ll all work out,” he tells his friend Thomas. Then his smile freezes. “Except it won’t, you know.”

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom
Perhaps my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom focuses, as usual, on an assorted group of outcasts and sad sacks, from Edward Norton’s inept scout master to Bruce Willis’s sad (but not dumb) police captain. It’s the kids that steal the show, though, and Anderson perfectly captures the awkwardness of adolescence with Sam and Suzy’s clumsy attempts at replicating adult courtship, followed by a no less clumsy moment of sexual awakening. The external world, so often a threat in Anderson’s films, is eventually integrated into the kids’ world rather than the other way around, and even Tilda Swinton’s inflexible social services agent (brilliantly named just “Social Services”) eventually softens up, making Moonrise Kingdom the most open of all of Anderson’s films.

2. Looper

Okay, so maybe Looper, and not The Cabin in the Woods, was the most fun you could have at the movies this year. Rian Johnson’s third feature (and second starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the perfect remedy to all those mindless science fiction blockbusters, a big-budget action movie with a brain—and one hell of a big heart. Like the best time travel movies, Looper isn’t so much about time travel itself as about its moral implications, about free will and determinism (“So I changed it” has got to be one of my favorite lines of the year). It’s the kind of movie I wish I could see for the first time every time, except it’s too much fun to see just how everything fits together.

1. Cosmopolis

If ever there was a movie for the 99%, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel is it. A brutal critique of capitalism run wild, Cosmopolis is set almost entirely in a limo drifting through a Tonronto barely disguised to look like New York going through the apocalypse. Everything in the movie happens on the edges of the screen, because its hero, golden boy Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), is too bored and self-obsessed to pay attention to the world that’s coming crashing down around him—even as he’s about to come crashing down with it. The esoteric dialogue (“I don’t understand that,” Samantha Morton’s character keeps repeating in her one scene) and somewhat slow pace make it a tough sell, but Cosmopolis is nothing short of phenomenal, and once again proves that Cronenberg is one of the very best directors working today.

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Anna Karenina, Argo, The Avengers, The Day He Arrives, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Killer Joe, Laurence Anyways, Premium Rush, Magic Mike, Skyfall, The We and the I.

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The best films of 2011

December is a month defined by its traditions. You stuff yourself on Christmas, get smashed on New Year’s Eve, and if you’re a film critic, or play one on the internet, you make a list of your best films of the year. It’s always “best,” never “favorite,” as if we truly did believe that our list was the definitive one. Claiming objectivity just as we’re engaging in the most subjective act of all. Since I’m nothing if not a slave to tradition, here’s my own list of the 10 best films of 2011. If you disagree with it, you’re probably wrong.

2011 was a great year for cinema. After all, a year in which we get two genuinely great action blockbusters (Fast Five and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) cannot be a bad one. (I kid, I kid. Except for the part about Fast Five and Mission Impossible being great. They are.) This is perhaps why I found December to be such a disappointment, relatively speaking. The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of critical darlings, including Shame, Carnage, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, and Le Havre, which all failed to elicit in me the same kind of passionate reaction they did in others. (Well, I hated Le Havre, but that’s not what I meant.) Most of them were good, but none of them struck me as great, perhaps because of heightened expectations. Carnage was a particularly frustrating offender, the promises of its brilliant first half remaining unfulfilled until the end as its characters turn into little more than drunken caricatures (the moment when John C. Reilly starts spouting tired clichés about marriage being the film’s low point for me). Unsurprisingly, A Dangerous Method is the one that I find most fascinating, and while I was originally underwhelmed for a number of reasons, I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about it since then and will probably give it a second shot soon. This month’s few bright spots came with less exposition, either commercial or critical. They were the aforementioned Mission: Impossible and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, as well as what I expected to be a minor film from one of my favorite filmmakers and which ended up making my best of the year list as number 6. (Another example of the absurdity and artificiality of those lists: did I really like that movie slightly better than the one in 7th place and slightly worse than the one in 5th place?)

December was also a frustrating month because, try as I might, I simply can’t see every single film I’d want to see before the end of the year (he says, having seen over 300 new releases this year). This includes films I missed during their (sometimes much too short) theatrical run as well as films that won’t be coming out in France until next year. Some heavy hitters and/or critical favorites that won’t be hitting French theaters until 2012 include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Margaret (not slated for release until late August, brilliant), Take Shelter, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Conversely, many international movies that may never see a theatrical release in the US have already come out here. In compiling the following list, I therefore used the same eligibility rules I did last year: any film with a 2011 French release date is fair game, with the exception of movies that were released in the US in 2010 or earlier (because as much as I love Black Swan, Somewhere, and Animal Kingdom, I don’t think it would make much sense to have them on my best of 2011 list). Films that will be released in the very last week of December are also exempt (for the obvious reason that I haven’t been able to see them yet), which, sadly, include The Mill and the Cross and Snowtown, two films I am very much looking forward to.

One last thing before we start: although I didn’t get to see Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon until early this year, it actually came out in 2010 here. Had it been released in 2011, it would probably be sitting at number 2 or 3 on my list.

10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Gorgeous cinematography is a minor recurring theme in this top 10, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning (sorta) crime film has them all beat. Shot almost entirely at night, it is, if nothing else, a marvel to look at, and features what’s probably my favorite opening shot of the year (amusingly, the number one film on this list features my favorite closing shot of the year). The film unfolds as a group of cops, led by a prosecutor, a doctor, and a police captain, escort a couple of suspects in search of the burial place of the man they killed. The night is long, the body seemingly impossible to find, and the men start talking. They all have their stories, their ghosts and their demons. They’re all looking, if not for help, then for reassurance and comfort, which they can’t and won’t find in one another.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is as sad and cruel and funny as a Chekhov story, with its men who are ostensibly looking for truth but want nothing less than to find it. Blessed indeed is the gendarmerie sergeant who accompanies the men, and for whom truth is but a geographical location.

9. Sleeping Beauty

Whether you read it as a twisted fairy tale about a bored young girl or as a feminist allegory (notice how, in spite of the numerous shots of naked female bodies, the careful framing and composition deny the very possibility of a male gaze), or as both, Julia Leigh’s debut is an astonishing piece of art, just as unsettling as it is fascinating. Sleeping Beauty follows Lucy (Emily Browning), a young Australian student who works several odd jobs to pay for school and finds herself hired by a strange company first to serve, half-naked, at exclusive upper-class dinner parties, then to lie asleep and naked as men do whatever it is they want with her body save actually having sex with her.

The film plays like a vivid nightmare spiraling ever more out of control as we watch Lucy lose herself in her new job, body and, perhaps, soul. It’s the former that interests Leigh the most, though. Bodies and how we represent and see them, and what ideology lies behind. It’s hard to think of a fiercer skewering of Hollywood’s still much too common objectification of women.

(You can read my original review here.)

8. Tomboy

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her masterful debut Water Lilies would actually make for quite a fascinating double feature with Sleeping Beauty. While Leigh looks at external representations of the body and at the ideology behind them, Sciamma is more interested in processes of self-identification. Water Lilies was all about the sexual awakening of three fifteen-year-old girls; Tomboy is about ten-year-old Laure (a brilliant Zoé Héran) who, upon moving to a new neighborhood, introduces herself as Michaël to her new friends and does everything in her power to pass as a boy. The endeavor is doomed from the start, as summer is coming to a close and Laure will undoubtedly be found out on the first day of school, but she clings to it with all her might, especially as she starts to build a relationship she doesn’t quite understand with her neighbor Lisa (Jeanne Disson).

Sciamma refuses to provide us with simple answers and explanations; what she does give us is a bittersweet tale of friendship and early sexual identification, as well as quite a harsh look at how, and how early, society imposes gender roles on us. (Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into an essay on gender politics. That’ll be for another day.)

7. Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere, Monte Hellman’s first film in over two decades, has the look and feel of a David Lynch movie set in North Carolina. Indeed the opening credits can be seen as an homage to Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. The film itself is a rather complex affair: it follows young director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) as he’s making a movie about a real-life (within the film) accident/murder involving one Velma Duran., played in the film-within-the-film by a non-professional actress by the name of Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), who may or may not actually be Velma Duran.

Road to Nowhere is a film about relationships of power, with characters who constantly shift and change, even sometimes adopting entirely new identities. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Road to Nowhere, because there’s no such thing as a fixed reality there, and in that sense it’s also a film about how we tell others and ourselves stories in which we end up believing even though we know they’re not true. Don’t expect a clean resolution here; the title tells you precisely where Road to Nowhere will end up, but what matters is how it gets there.

6. Oki’s Movie

Oki’s Movie, the second Hong Sang-soo movie to have been released here this year after Hahaha (which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2010), sees the South Korean director return to some familiar characters and themes: there’s a semi-failed filmmaker with an alcohol problem, a sort of love triangle, and some fascinating meta commentary. The form is new, though, as Oki’s Movie is composed of four distinct short films revolving around the titular Oki (Jeong Yu-mi), a young film student, and the two men who pursue her, fellow student Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun) and married professor Mr. Song (Moon Sung-keun).

Human relationships are always at once extremely complex and extremely simple in Hong’s films (“How can you win against your own sexual desire?” Mr. Song asks. “Show me anyone who’s done it. You can’t.”), and men are rarely positive figures, though they’re usually more pathetic than bad. Oki’s Movie provides us with a hilariously thorough deconstruction of the dogged nice guy archetype (the first segment actually revolves around an older Jingu who seems to have forgotten all about Oki, is now a full-blown alcoholic, and may or may not make it a habit to sleep with his students), Mr. Song proves to be a much more enigmatic and nuanced figure. And then there’s this delicious moment in the last segment, also titled “Oki’s Movie”, in which Oki narrates what is presented (within the film) as her student film and remarks that she chose actors who look like Jingu and Mr. Song for it to be as close to reality as possible. But of course those actors are played by the same who did play Jingu and Mr. Song in the first three segments, and suddenly you’re not quite sure what you’re watching after all.

5. The Kid with a Bike

Much like Tomboy, the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (which shared the Grand Prix in Cannes this year with Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) is a seemingly simple story with much hidden depth. Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the eponymous kid, an impetuous and sometimes violent boy who’s been left in an orphanage by his deadbeat father (Jérémie Renier). By complete chance he meets young hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), and on a whim she decides to take him into her home on weekends.

The Kid with a Bikeis perhaps slightly less grim than some of the Dardennes’ other works, but it is no less relentless in its portrayal of social and emotional distress. Cyril, portrayed by a pitch-perfect Thomas Doret (2011 could very well be the year of the child actor), is wounded and hurting, and lashing out at everything and everyone in response. The Dardennes wisely refuse to make him an entirely sympathetic figure; the kid is almost feral and, at times, frightening in his violence. And if The Kid with a Bike packs quite the emotional punch, it’s never of the cheap, easy variety. As usual, the Dardenne brothers want not only to make you feel, but to make you think.

4. Attack the Block

What do you do when your neighborhood is attacked by a bunch of aliens that look like “big gorilla-wolf motherfuckers?” If you’re a kid from the South End of London, well, you grab a baseball bat (or a katana) and take the fight to them, of course. At least that’s what Moses (intense John Boyega) and his friends do in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which would play like a tribute to both John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (don’t talk to me about Super 8) if it weren’t so much its own movie. On top of the aliens, the kids have to contend with the police and with a local drug lord who’s not at all amused by this turn of events.

Attack the Block is choke-full of thrills, laughs, and blood, and provides a much subtler commentary on race and class relations than it may seem at first glance. That some critics felt it impossible to empathize with the kids because the film opens with them mugging a nurse speaks volume when we are routinely made to root for cold-blooded killers and other unhinged individuals in movies. But forget about that; for pure entertainment value, nothing this year beat Attack the Block, with its tight story, brilliant acting, clever zingers, and great action scenes.

(You can read my original review here.)

3. Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her devastating Wendy and Lucy is a marvel of a revisionist western that follows three families on the Oregon Trail, led by real-life pioneer and guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The group is lost and Meek’s authority is challenged, especially by Emily (Michelle Williams, marvelous), who thinks she has found a replacement guide in the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) the group has captured, and with whom they can’t communicate. (His lines are never translated, leaving us as much in the dark as Emily and the other pioneers as to what he’s thinking.)

With its ponderous pace and oppressive atmosphere (quite an accomplishment, given that it takes place entirely on the wide open Oregon Trail), Meek’s Cutoff manages to convey both the dullness and the sheer terror of a westward voyage in the middle of the 19th century. It also gives a voice, so to speak, to the nameless Indian as well as to the bonnet-wearing women, generally voiceless characters (again, metaphorically speaking) in westerns. (Yeah, I may have been lying about this not turning into a gender politics essay.) Incidentally, it also closes with my second-favorite final shot of the year, an image that should keep you thinking for days after the film’s end.

2. I Saw the Devil

Kim Jee-woon’s demented revenge movie pits serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, in a performance that’s even better than the one that made him famous to western audiences in Oldboy) against secret service agent Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), whose girlfriend he murdered. I Saw the Devil ostensibly takes the form of a classic duel between good and evil, intense, grim, and bloody, but it soon turns into something else entirely when it turns out that Soo-hyeon may be just as much of a monster as the man he’s hunting.

With its extremely graphic displays of violence, I Saw the Devil clearly is not for everyone. There’s a lot of blood and close-ups of people getting beat up and maimed, but that violence is never gratuitous. It is used instead to turn I Saw the Devil into a brutal deconstruction of the revenge movie genre and into a reflection on movie violence and its moral implications in general. It is also a viciously effective thriller, beautifully shot, with two brilliant performances by Choi Min-sik and Kim Jee-woon regular Lee Byung-hun.

(You can read my original review here.)

1. A Separation

We started with a fake police procedural, and we end with another one. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation chronicles first the divorce of middle-class couple Nader (Peyman Maadi, magnificent) and Simin (Leila Hatami), then the lawsuit that opposes Nader to Razieh (the incredible Sareh Bayat), the woman he hired to take care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, and her short-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). It’s a film of incredible complexity, both in terms of narrative (which doesn’t mean that it’s hard to follow), and in terms of characters and relationships. No one comes out of it unscathed; not Iran’s westernized middle-class, nor its ultra-religious masses, nor Iranian society as a whole.

Farhadi would rather leave his audience with questions rather than answers, and A Separation literally ends with an unanswered question and with a final, sustained shot that gets my vote (as I have already mentioned) for best final shot of the year. A Separation is, ultimately, a film about how we live with ourselves, with our principles and our compromises, and that heartbreaking final shot shows just how costly it all can get.

Twelve movies that didn’t make the cut but came pretty close (in alphabetical order):

Beginners, Drive, Fast Five, Footnote, Hahaha, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Source Code, The Tree of Life, Warrior.


My Best Movies: Breathless (2009)

Note: I’m currently working on what should be a longer entry on my favorite film of the year so far. In the meantime, here’s a slightly revised version of what I wrote last year about Yang Ik-june’s Breathless, which I ended up choosing as best film of the year.

Yang Ik-june’s Breathless (Ddongpari) opens with a close-up shot of a man beating up a woman in the middle of a nondescript South Korean street. The camera follows them closely as the man kicks viciously at the prone form of the woman, then pans out to reveal that the scene has a few witnesses, bystanders who watch in shocked silence but don’t react in any other way. Then another man walks into the frame, and proceeds to break up the fight by assaulting its initiator. This newcomer is no knight in shining armor, though. For one thing, he seems a little overenthusiastic in beating the crap out of the other guy, and the fight soon turns into a terribly one-sided beatdown session; even after his opponent has fallen to the ground and shows no sign of even being able to get up, he sits down on his chest and punches him in the face several times for good measure. For another, he does not seem to care overmuch for the woman’s safety. Once he is done beating up her aggressor, he crouches down in front of her, spits in her face, and proceeds to slap her across the face repeatedly. “Why do you just take it?” he asks her several times, most likely referring as much to the abuse he is currently dishing out as to the one from which he rescued her. The camera then closes up on his face as he takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. He only has time for one drag, though, before a blow from an unseen assailant sends him sprawling and we cut to the title card.

Thus ends our first encounter with Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), protagonist and antihero (in the strongest sense of the word) of Breathless. Sang-hoon works for the affable loan shark Man-shik (Jeong Man-shik), and his job description includes such fulfilling tasks as the breaking up of student rallies and the recovery of the money Man-shik is due by legions of borrowers. Sang-hoon doesn’t seem to like his job per se, but it gives him an outlet for his anger and violent urges. And those he has aplenty; when out on a mission, his own companions are just as likely to get beaten up as their intended targets. It’s not so much that Sang-hoon can’t tell the difference as that he just doesn’t care. “Could you please try not to beat up the guys too much?” Man-shik says several times, and every time his plea is met either with silence or with one of the numerous insults through which Sang-hoon communicates. Sang-hoon’s anger manifests itself most viciously when he is confronted to his recently-released-from-jail father (Park Jeong-soon), who we soon learn has an abusive past of his own.

Then Sang-hoon meets Han Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi), a high schooler who seems not to be afraid of him even after he knocks her out cold by punching her in the face on their first encounter. Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee quickly become friends, though it takes them a while to admit it, and they never stop pestering and insulting each other. Perhaps their reluctant friendship is born of the instinctive recognition that they have much in common. Though Yeon-hee pretends to come from a quiet, affluent family—a lie that Sang-hoon accepts so readily that we cannot help but wonder whether he does not perceive the truth right from the start—she is no stranger to violence; her “quiet” family consists of a widowed father (Choi Yong-min), delusional and violent, and of her brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan), who somehow manages to be even more abusive, and ends up being arguably the most monstrous, but also the most tragic, character of the film.

If this strange friendship provides Sang-hoon with a welcome respite from a life of aimless violence and pleasureless gambling, so does his relationship with Hyeong-in, the son of his estranged half-sister Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon). Sang-hoon awkwardly tries to connect with the young boy the only way he knows how, constantly calling him a “mute idiot”—Hyeong-in is a shy boy who seems at once intimated and enthralled by his uncle, which never ceases to annoy Sang-hoon—and rushing him to put him in an armlock and dare him to try to get out of it when he sees the boy coming back home from school. Above all, Sang-hoon tries to get the boy to come out of his shell, and eventually, and with much reluctance, comes to be a father figure for him.

However, whatever sense of harmony Sang-hoon may derive from his interactions with Yeon-hee and Hyeong-in is not enough to counterbalance the violence he is forced to inflict and witness each and every day, and which takes an ever-increasing toll on his life.

In case I haven’t made it clear already, Breathless is an exceedingly violent movie. French New Wave director François Truffaut once claimed that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, arguing that the simple fact of depicting war on the screen is enough to make it exciting, thus defeating the very purpose of the film. The same is often true of violence, though modern filmmakers voluntarily choose to glamorize it more often than not (just think of Michael Bay’s trademark explosions, and of the tedious fights between giant robots to which he might very well continue to subject us well into the 2020s). Not so much in Breathless. The violence depicted here is not meant to inspire awe. The audience is never invited to cheer for its perpetrators. Yang Ik-june films it all with a handheld camera, but Breathless couldn’t be further away from the shaky-cam aesthetics of Paul Greengrass, from the carefully-choreographed-to-look-messy fights that define the Bourne trilogy and its countless, second-rate imitators. Most, if not all, of the fights in Breathless are like the one that opens it; short, brutal, and often terribly one-sided—”fights” is probably too strong of a word for those, since, with very few exceptions, the victims of violence rarely even get a chance to defend themselves, let alone to retaliate. Sang-hoon has no compunction against (literally) kicking a man when he’s done, and neither do the unsavory people he works with. Yang intends you to wince with every punch and kick, to recognize violence for the utterly destructive force that it is, both at an obvious and immediate level, as well as at a long-term one (the somewhat clichéd phrase “circle of violence” has never seemed more apt).

That Breathless contains some autobiographical elements is made obvious by the intensity Yang (who wrote, directed, produced and edited the movie) brings both to his character and to the film as a whole. The theme of domestic violence and of its consequences runs throughout the film and provides some of its most disturbing and heart-wrenching scenes, such as that early flashback in which we are made to see, through the eyes of a 10-year-old Sang-hoon, the events that led to his father’s imprisonment and assuredly played a part in his own descent into a life of violence. And what about the psychological torture to which Yeon-hee is daily subjected by her brother? When she refuses to give Yeong-jae the money he tries to extort her, he goes into her room, takes her school uniform, and threatens to tear it to pieces, keeping her at arm’s length and taunting her like he would a child until she is reduced to tears. When Sang-hoon walks in on a man beating his wife in front of their children, he goes berserk and proceeds to pummel the man with a toy truck while delivering a heroic rant against the cowardice of Korean fathers who act like “they’re Kim Il-sung” at home. “But some day,” he adds, “you run into someone like me.” Yet this Dirty Harry-like semi-boast is tinged with despair; for every deadbeat husband who gets what’s coming to him, how many are left free to terrorize their wives and children?

In spite of all that, Breathless never feels preachy. Even when Sang-hoon seems to be acting as a mouthpiece for Yang, as in the aforementioned scene, it never feels forced, as we understand exactly where his character is coming from. This is due not only to Yang’s screenwriting skills, but also to the strength of his cast. Yang is pitch-perfect as Sang-hoon, and so are Kim Kot-bi as Yeon-hee and Jeong Man-shik as Sang-hoon’s partner and friend Man-shik (I was astounded to learn that Breathless was the first acting experience for both Kim and Jeong, as they deliver performances that would make a seasoned veteran blush). Even young Kim Hee-soo is great as Sang-hoon’s nephew Hyeong-in.

This great cast turns Breathless into a film that is at once brutal and earnest, nerve-wracking and at times surprisingly funny. The combative friendship that unites Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee is the source of much hypocritical humor, as they constantly bemoan each other’s lack of respect and foul language, knowing full well that they are guilty of the exact same thing (“do you have to talk like that?” Yeon-hee asks at some point, before muttering “asshole” under her breath). The relationship that Sang-hoon half-reluctantly builds with his 6-year-old nephew also has its hilarious moments, as Sang-hoon makes for quite the unorthodox father figure. “Say goodbye to your uncle,” Hyeon-seo tells her son as Sang-hoon leaves them after having been coerced into staying for dinner, and Hyeong-in waves at his uncle. Sang-hoon stares at his nephew for a moment, then flips him the bird. Hyeong-in, unperturbed, responds in kind.

Man-shik, Sang-hoon’s boss, seems at first glance to serve mostly as comic relief. He seems much too jovial to be an effective loan shark, and treats his employees like he would younger friends, taking them out for drinks (and getting utterly smashed himself in the process) and complimenting them on their looks (“You’re really cute,” he says upon seeing a new recruit for the first time. “Look at these eyebrows!”). He trades insults and jabs with Sang-hoon almost as often as the latter does with Yeon-hee, but unlike the schoolgirl, he almost always finds himself on the losing end of those exchanges. This doesn’t seem to be a persona; Man-shik really seems to be a very nice and friendly man, who just so happens to be running a successful loan shark operation (though we do see a different side of him during a flashback). However, upon closer examination, there turns out to be more to Man-shik than just bubbling comic relief. This is a man who is deeply concerned for his friend and who tries, clumsily, to help him. “You should stop gambling,” he tells Sang-hoon, and goes so far as to try to write him checks instead of paying him in cash so that he cannot spend it all right away. He hands him money to give his father, much to Sang-hoon’s disgust. Man-shik tries desperately to be a positive influence on Sang-hoon’s life, though he isn’t nearly as successful as Yeon-hee. Yet the amount of abuse he is willing to take hints at the extent of his dedication to Sang-hoon.

In its last third, Breathless veers deeper and deeper into drama territory, delivering one emotional sucker punch after another (I rarely cry at movies. I have now seen Breathless three times; I cried every single time). Yang does not rely on unexpected twists to shock his audience–there is one early on in the movie, when it is revealed that Sang-hoon is partly responsible for the death of Yeon-hee’s mother, but Yang tastefully refuses to go that way and neither character is ever made aware of it. Instead, he has his characters face the consequences of their choices to the very end, and is as relentless there as he is in the depiction of violence.

Perhaps the most powerful scene of the entire movie (and, truth be told, one of the single most beautiful scenes I have seen in a while) takes place towards the beginning of that last third: at the end of a night that can legitimately be said to have been a nightmare for the both of them, Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee reconvene to have a drink. They sit outside on some steps, with nothing but the night sky behind them. For a while they don’t say much, and what little they say betrays their weariness, though they both refuse to tell the other what they have just been through. Then Sang-hoon lies down on the steps and puts his head in Yeon-hee’s lap. She is understandably surprised, as their relationship so far has not included much physical contact (if one disregards the punch to the jaw that started it all). She starts to protest, but when she looks down at him, she realizes that Sang-hoon has broken into tears. Soon she is crying, too. The camera remains focused on them for a while, then fades to black. Putting into words just how much impact that scene has isn’t easy. It represents an enormous breakthrough for both characters, and by the time it happens, you empathize enough with both of them to realize just how far they have had to come to be able to even just cry alongside each other.

Breathless could end on that perfect picture, but it doesn’t. This moment of peace is but another respite, before violence takes hold of their lives again. When Breathless does end, though, it does so with a shot that is at once perhaps the saddest of the whole movie and the most hopeful as well, depending on how one chooses to interpret it. It feels a little clichéd to talk of Yang’s film as a story of redemption, yet that is what it ultimately is (whether Sang-hoon believes himself to be capable of redemption is up for debate). And though it is a long and difficult journey, there are moments of peace along the way, such as the few scenes in which Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee (later accompanied by Hyeong-in) walk among the stalls of an open-air market. Those are the only scenes in which Yang makes use of a soundtrack, and the music, calm and soothing, drowns out every other noise. The camera sometimes loses track of the characters, then focuses on them again as they wander through curio shops and food stalls. In those moments, Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee are but faces in the crowd, anonymous and, however temporarily, at peace.


My Best Movies: The Host (2006)

Note: this was originally posted on my previous blog in April of last year.

Monster movies seem to have fallen out of fashion. These days, if you’re not a zombie or a vampire (thanks for nothing, Stephenie Meyer), chances are you’re not getting a movie deal. Except, that is, if you manage to grab the attention of Bong Joon-ho, perhaps the best director to come out of South Korea in recent years, in which case you may end up starring in what I consider to be the best monster movie since Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The Host opens in 2000 on an American military base near Seoul, where an American mortician orders his Korean assistant to empty some 200 bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, which leads to the Seoul sewers, and from there to the Han River. Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? Well, that part actually happened, and understandbly caused quite the uproar in South Korea. I’m assuming the part where the toxic pollution leads to the creation of a mutant monster is pure invention, though. We see the monster develop over the course of the next few years, from a tiny, fishlike creature caught and released by two fishermen, to the huge, dark thing lurking underwater glimpsed by a man about to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge into the river.

The next time the creature is seen, it’s on the banks of the Han river, where the Park family (a deliciously dysfunctional family that would be at home in many an American indie comedy) operates a snack stand. The monster attacks just as slow-witted Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), his father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) and his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong, above being snatched up by the creature) are watching Gang-du’s younger sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) compete in a national archery tournament on television. The monster proceeds to wreak havoc along the banks of the river (as monsters are wont to do), before escaping, taking poor Hyun-seo with it. The Parks, joined by Gang-du’s younger brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), former student/political activist turned jobless alcoholic, decide to go looking for the monster and for Hyun-seo. As if things weren’t already complicated enough, Gang-du also happens to have been exposed to the creature’s blood, which makes him a prime target for the Korean and American authorities, now trying their best to identify and contain the virus the monster may be carrying.

Part of the joy of watching a Bong Joon-ho film comes from the way the South Korean director shamelessly mixes genres. The Host is part monster movie, part dark comedy (as the Parks, who have been locked up in a gymnasium with other survivors of the attack, are crying and pulling their hair out in grief, a woman is being reprimanded in the background for not having parked her car correctly), part social commentary, and part family drama. The monster’s first appearance, masterfully crafted and terribly effective, gives the tone of the movie: the creature is first seen hanging upside down from a bridge, and is then “fed” beer cans and peanuts by passersby speculating on its nature (“perhaps it’s a dolphin,” one of them says, prompting you to doubt whether they’ve ever seen a dolphin), before disappearing underwater and resurfacing only to attack the unsuspecting onlookers. To say that the scene then devolves into a chaotic mess would be putting it mildly, as the beast proceeds to trample everything and everyone that stands in its way, changing direction seemingly at random, while Bong Joon-ho films the ensuing panic and mayhem with obvious delight and enough enthusiasm to make you forget any flaw in the CGI (which nevertheless makes for a much more interesting monster than, say, the smooth-looking Medusa of the recent Clash of the Titans). Fifteen minutes into the movie, and you already know you’re in for one hell of a ride.

From then on, Bong Joon-ho shifts effortlessly from one genre to another as he follows the Parks in their hunt for the monster (and the monster in its hunt for more victims). Bong Joon-ho’s a master of misdirection and repeatedly shatters expectations, often to great comedic effect: see the Korean official who, in order to calm a confused and hostile crowd, proposes to turn on the TV and watch what the news have to say about the attack, only to realize that perhaps for the first time in film history, the news don’t seem to be discussing the movie’s events as they’re happening. Or what about this mainstay of the family drama, the scene where the outcast’s backstory is revealed, leading to a new understanding of his behavior? Here Hee-bong is the one doing the explaining (“Do you really think your brother so pathetic?” he asks Nam-il and Nam-joo, who both nod yes without hesitation), but his children fall asleep halfway through, leaving the patriarch to talk to himself and displacing most of the scene’s emotional impact. “Maybe he didn’t have enough protein growing up,” Hee-bong says as Nam-il snores lightly in the background, “so that’s why, every now and then, he dozes off like a sick rooster.”

The premise of the movie obviously lends itself to some biting social commentary, and the ghost of SARS (now thoroughly forgotten) is evoked as the monster is thought by Koreans and Americans alike to be the host of an unknown virus (hence the title). The Parks are the victims of a wave of manufactured paranoia, and when it is announced that the allegedly contaminated Gang-du exhibits flu-like symptoms, we see people at a crosswalk casting suspicious glances at and scuttling away from a poor man who just so happens to be coughing a little. If the monster is created, and the situation eventually made worse, by authoritative and meddlesome Americans, Korean authorities aren’t exactly paragons of efficiency either—rather, they’re ineffectual buffoons at best, subservient sycophants at worst. The same Korean official who tries turning on the TV to quiet the crowd is first seen entering the gymnasium wearing a hazmat suit and wielding a megaphone, tripping over himself and barely breaking his fall with his hand, before straightening up with a stern look on his face, as if daring anyone to comment on what just happened. The doctors and policemen the Parks encounter at the hospital aren’t much better, first refusing to listen to Gang-du as he explains that Hyun-seo is still alive, then failing to prevent the Parks from escaping in one of the funniest chase scene ever filmed (“She’s your only sister! How could you forget her!” Hee-bong berates his son after Nam-joo fails to make it to the getaway van and they have to drive around the parking lot at what seems like a sluggish pace to pick her up).

The Host culminates in an appropriately awesome finale, in which the Parks work together to bring the monster down (if that’s a spoiler, you need to watch more movies. Seriously). And perhaps even more appropriately, Bong Joon-ho doesn’t provide us with a neat happy ending. The monster’s death, like the film itself, is a messy and strangely beautiful affair. Neatness doesn’t belong here, and would just cheapen the whole thing.

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