Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
Dutch documentarian Tom Fassaert certainly hit cinematic paydirt with this, his second feature, but of the sort that one hesitates to qualify as good fortune. Setting out to meet his estranged grandmother for the first time as an adult, Fassaert hopes to humanize a figure who loomed myth-like over his upbringing, and in so doing to find explanations for past traumas—but these two goals prove to be less than entirely consistent. Granny is as inscrutable as the sphinx, and her orbit is treacherous to navigate. For a first-person film, Fassaert wisely keeps his feelings close to the vest: rather than turning into therapy, A Family Affair becomes a meditation on the unbridgeable gulf that bars us from ever truly knowing what’s in another person’s mind.
Labeled at the outset, with no small amount of irony, “an educational experience,” José Luis Guerín’s latest is a diaphanous shape-shifter, a confounding pleasure, a Gordian knot left intact and used as a ping-pong ball. Following real-life philology professor Raffaele Pinto with documentary attentiveness as he expounds (and practices) a suspect theory of artistic inspiration, in lectures and in private dialogues with his wife and his attractive, younger female students, this poker-faced metafiction is by design open-ended and unresolved, provoking many more questions than it answers. The free-ranging intricacy of the film’s verbal discourse is matched by the layered reflections which Guerín builds into his compositions at every opportunity and with iridescent beauty.
Veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s memoir of her working life is a vital antidote to the artless exposition that constitutes so much documentary filmmaking. In a mode that’s contemplative rather than programmatic, Johnson takes a tour through her c.v., a highlight reel that becomes a kind of retroactive diary. She aims to tease out meanings, by association and juxtaposition, from these images of and from her past, not to project a viewpoint onto them. Watching these fragments coalesce into a legible self-portrait of a dedicated artist, one who carries with her the full weight of decades spent practicing her craft, made Cameraperson the most unexpectedly moving film of the month.
2. The Apostate
In this refusing-to-come-of-age story, director Federico Veiroj submerges turbulent emotions in sly comedy and unstable subjectivity. Gonzalo (played by Álvaro Ogalla, a first-time actor who conceived the film with Veiroj and co-wrote the script) wants to formally opt out of the Catholic Church by expunging the record of his baptism, a conscious attempt at regression in a life marked by seemingly perpetual adolescence. Venturing deep into the protagonist’s dream life, wryly observing unsightly monsters from the id, Veiroj makes Buñuel an inevitable reference point; it’s to his great credit and the film’s that The Apostate, prankish and heartfelt, is not diminished by the comparison.
Regrettable as Clint Eastwood’s recent “pussy generation” comments were, they have the same relevance to his movies that George W. Bush’s watercolors have to his presidency. The fact remains that his body of work as a director, Sully included, represents one of the most searching examinations of our democratic values in the American cinema. (Among living filmmakers, his only competition in that respect is Frederick Wiseman.) Moreover, in a moment that seemingly belongs to fan-servicing franchise properties and water-cooler-humping TV dramas, it’s bracing to see a big movie—the kind referred to (fortuitously, in this case) as an “event film”—that doesn’t need to hide anything up its sleeves. Deftly managing taut spectacle, procedural detail, and deep feeling, this is the rare picture that threatens to give Oscar-bait a good name.
Dud of the Month: American Honey
Andrea Arnold’s first trip across the pond is an aimless tour through the underbelly of middle America—Spring Breakers as straightfaced social realism. Even such dubious intentions might have been redeemed in the execution, but Arnold ensures that her characters remain essentially blank slates, doing nothing to differentiate the nominal leads from the interchangeable supporting players she’s surrounded them with. Arnold’s strenuous gravity and her determination to elide all traces of backstory or interiority are exhausting for as long as you’re prepared to take them seriously, and risible once you’ve given up. Anemic even as it approaches three hours in length, American Honey has as many arresting images as a stock photo gallery, and the same emotional stakes.
Best New Old Movie: C’est vrai
Like its director, legendary photographer/Beat survivor/ultimate bohemian Robert Frank (subject of a recent BAM retrospective), this wondrous, bewildering Rube Goldberg contraption of a movie is one of a kind. Made for French television in 1990, it’s a single, continuous hour-long take, documenting a jaunt through the East Village that’s alternately frenetic and pensive. Frank’s eye stays squarely on the viewfinder as he zigs and zags through the thrum and bustle of the neighborhood, from his apartment out into the street, through traffic in a van and eventually down into the subway. His environs quickly reveal themselves to have been seeded in advance with a motley constellation of performers, creating a most peculiar kind of disorientation, in which no detail is too trivial to escape the possibility of infinite significance. Choreographed with an unknowable degree of precision, C’est vrai (that’s français for “it’s real”) exists to document the illusion of its own making—a mindfuck of the most refreshing sort.