Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). Sarah Mirk asked Film Fatales for a list of women-directed films. They offered two lists, one for recent movies, a second for movies that inspired today’s women film makers. “Summer film club, anyone?”, Mirk asked, and I thought that was a good idea. I’ve seen 11 of the “inspirational” movies, none of the more recent ones. I won’t know if I’ve turned this into a series until I’ve done at least one more, so I’ll start with Vagabond. Sandrine Bonnaire is blankly on target as Mona, a teenager on the road who doesn’t seem to have any forward-looking thoughts. She meets various people on her travels, but connects with very few ... she’s mostly just looking for money and weed and food. Varda gives each of the people she encounters a chance to talk about her, one-on-one with the camera. Each of them “explains” Mona according to how she fits into their own vision of life; none of them can really explain her. Nor is Mona “explained” by combining the various points of views into a whole, because she is unknowable. Varda doesn’t pass judgment on Mona, but she doesn't shy away from the character, either. The movie opens with Mona’s body in a ditch, dead (Varda says she was inspired by the structure of Citizen Kane), and ends in the same place. Mona gradually gets “worse” ... more estranged, more hungry, more tattered. But because she is presented as unknowable, we never quite understand how she is experiencing her decline. Varda shows us how each individual gets Mona wrong, but she refuses to show us a Mona we can understand. It’s as if such a demonstration would be corrupted by value judgments. Vagabond is stark, and Bonnaire is great, but ultimately we are too distanced from Mona to totally give in to her story. #827 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). I really didn’t like Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse etc., but I didn’t know before watching this one that it had the same director. After the movie was over, I wasn't surprised that I had a negative opinion about the earlier movie. The only thing that makes Killing Them Softly better than Jesse James is that it is an hour shorter. Take a modern mob movie, inevitably influenced by Tarantino, with lots of dialogue and a mix of notable actors (in this case, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, and others), and show off your greatness. Except ... Dominik is uninterested in pop culture references, which some might find admirable but which removes one of the ways Tarantino keeps our attention. Except ... Dominik’s dialogue isn't as good as Tarantino’s (OK, maybe that’s unfair, most movie dialogue isn’t as good as Tarantino’s). Except ... Tarantino loves his “Guy” characters, but he is also capable of a Jackie Brown or Uma Thurman's Bride. Killing Them Softly has one woman in the entire movie ... her character’s name on IMDB is “Hooker”, and that’s on target. She exists solely to suffer verbal abuse from Gandolfini’s character. Two scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini are worth watching ... the two actors pull off what doesn't work anywhere else in the movie. Remarkably, #771 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 4/10.