Nothing chimes in the holidays quite like films dealing with infidelity, substance abuse, and white privilege. But as I’m catching up on some on the many noteworthy releases of 2012 that I missed out on, I’m encountering a great number of films dealing with emotionally draining issues. Looking at these pictures in a group though, they speak to a larger social concern – with the recurring thread of anxiety resonating. And perhaps most interesting is the fact that most of these films are from fledgling directors. Leading a pack of new cinematic voices, the following works look to address not just the anxieties of relationships, but the anxieties of daily living and etching a legacy.
Watching Mike Birbiglia struggle through the comedy circuit had a sense of immediacy to me, especially given that someone I know has a similar passion for stand-up comedy. But Birbiglia’s biographical sketch of his early comic days carries universal heft in his deconstruction of relationships. In Sleepwalk with Me, the title’s emphasis on Me underscores the passage in which Birbiglia navigates his narrative, opting to tell a story of a singular perspective. It works well insofar that he openly acknowledges that the insular worldview provided by the film is his and his alone. It’s a respectable first effort, displaying Birbiglia’s strengths as both a comic writer and perhaps even more convincingly, a vulnerable dramatic actor. But his directorial presence is unremarkable and limited – his rhythms as a director tend to ebb and flow based on his own presence in the film.
Having seen Julia Loktev’s 2006 debut effort, Day Night Day Night, at an impressionable time in my cinematic consumption, I was eager to see what she could do for me six years after the fact. The Loneliest Planet ascribes to the same deliberate pacing of Day Night Day Night, instilling an unnerving level of anxiety through the first hour of the picture. As a recently engaged couple backpack through the Caucasus Mountains with a Sherpa, the singular event of the film serves to question the very nature of love and fear – and where the line is drawn as far as commitment goes. Loktev has an impeccable knack for getting you closer to a character’s psyche through silence than most other directors, but her overindulgence rests in extended panoramic shots that, while significant in establishing the film’s journey experience, begin to wear thin at the end of its runtime. Regardless, Loktev’s ability to maintain such an overwhelmingly anxious tone without relying on dialogue is commendable.
When watching Jody Hill’s 2009 effort, Observe and Report, I speculated on the possibility of a comedy to cross the threshold of what is socially acceptable and completely reject ascribed standards of morality. Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, a film that Jody Hill produced, responds to my proposition. It’s a film that embraces obnoxiousness to a suffocating degree, brazenly positioning its characters in situations that make them increasingly unlikable. But the ludicrous nature of The Comedy offers some measure of bewildering satisfaction, at times even arousing amusement. It’s an incredibly difficult film to enjoy, but it’s something of a mesmerizing conundrum – in a scene involving a doofus hipster and a colleague suffering from a seizure, I found myself wide-eyed and stunned. With The Comedy, Alverson proposes a twisted worldview that’s equates to the notion of “it’s so bad, but I can’t look away”.
First and foremost, Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography in The Grey is among the finest of the year. His gorgeously lit arctic environments are unquestionably the highlight of the film. Secondly, the picture’s score, composed by Marc Streitenfeld, blends together traditional American compositions with an evocative Asian influence. The result only adds to the picture’s overall tone and feel, bringing me to my final point of how The Grey operates as a contemporary response to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The difference rests on their differing narrative situations, though The Grey’s adopts themes of kinship amongst men, loyalty in the face of adversity, and symbolic instruments of self-identity (Joe Carnahan substitutes Kurosawa’s swords for wallets and their mementos) – features found in Kurosawa’s epic. While the film falters at times for a narrative that willfully embraces action-film tropes, the technical elements of the film, along with Liam Neeson’s best performance to date (this is including his work in Schindler’s List), makes The Grey one of the biggest and best surprises of the year.
The need to replicate a high in cinema strikes me as an effort in exaggeration. From Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream to Andrew Dominik’s recent Killing Them Softly, filmmakers that explore substance abuse often attempt to provoke a high from within the audience as well. This was my initial fear when hearing that Joachim Trier’s film would explore the exploits of a rehabbing man returning to his hometown for an interview. His first directorial effort, 2006’s Reprise, relished in hyper visuals and perpetual movement. But with his sophomore effort, Trier opts for a more introspective and socially conscious look into how a drug affliction can hinder a man’s opportunity for social mobility. Featuring an incredible lead performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31struminates on time and place - people think and hold onto memories of their home under differing circumstances. For a user, the lines are blurred and memories become distorted. Without having to deploy gimmicks or overly stylized renditions of what a high feels or looks like, Trier takes a narrative approach that tosses a man to a place that was once home, only to return as an outsider.