Mai Zetterling was an interesting person in Swedish film history. She worked at roughly the same time as Ingmar Bergman, who wrote the screenplay for Zetterling's debut as an actor, in Torment (1944). She appeared in films as an actor for another 20+ years, until she moved to writing and directing. Loving Couples is her first feature as a director. It was controversial in its time for its sexual themes (including homosexuality) and nudity. The film is reminiscent of other, better, movies, but it stands on its own as well. Much of the film takes place at a celebration at an estate that brings to mind Renoir's Rules of the Game and Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. There is a framing device with three women delivery babies in a maternity hospital that recalls Bergman's Brink of Life. If you're gonna have influences, it's good to choose the best movies. If in the end, Loving Couples will stick with me mainly because it made me want to watch those other movies, well, there are worse things for a movie to accomplish.
Long ago, I invented a genre of movies I call "Not for Steven," aka the works of Terrence Malick. These are movies where the director clearly accomplishes what they've set out to do, but I don't care for the results. Songs from the Second Floor is Not for Steven, but I admit, I haven't got the slightest idea what Roy Andersson was up to, so I can't say whether or not he accomplished his goals. His film connects with a lot of people, and critics love it ... it's #40 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#456 all-time).
There's no real plot. The film is a series of vignettes, and for the most part, I think the audience is supposed to make connections between the scenes. Andersson isn't laying it out on a platter for us. Each vignette takes place in front of a stationary camera (there is one scene where the camera moves a bit). People turn up multiple times ... there may be no plot, but there is a continuity among the characters. I just didn't care. For what it's worth, Andersson is inspired by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, whose poems pop up as dialogue. Some have said Songs from the Second Floor should be seen as a poem, itself.
It would be exaggerating to say that I don't like Dogme movies. It's true that I don't seek them out, but ultimately, that comes from my disliking most of the Lars von Trier movies I've seen (Melancholia excepted). Thomas Vinterberg, who along with von Trier created Dogme, has made a couple of movies I've liked (The Hunt and Another Round). The Celebration was the very first Dogme movie, and it's a good one.
The tone of the film is tricky. At first, you're not sure if it's a comedy, and there are some funny moments in the story of a well-to-do family coming together to celebrate the father's 60th birthday. As is usual in families, everyone has their problems, and it's clear that this family's celebration is likely to be turned on its side. What I wasn't expecting was how that turn would be so serious.
Over the course of the film, we learn of the darker side of the family, but even then, Vinterberg allows himself to indulge in some humor. Some call The Celebration a dark comedy, and I suppose that's accurate, but it downplays just how that darker side plays out. There is nothing funny about it.
The large cast is good throughout, with Ulrich Thomsen having the juiciest role, and he definitely delivers. This is not a family I'd want to be a part of, but in Vinterberg's hands, it's a family worth spending time with. As for the Dogme 95 elements, much of what we expect from movies today is stripped away, leaving handheld cameras and detailed character development with a complete lack of special effects. Honestly, it just looks like an indie film, and you don't need any knowledge of the Dogme Manifesto to appreciate it. #421 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
With Triangle of Sadness, I have now seen 9 of the 10 movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year (sorry, Avatar). I think Everything Everywhere All at Once and Women Talking are the cream of the crop (I'd include RRR, but it didn't get a nomination). I'd put Triangle of Sadness in the middle of the pack.
My guess is by next Monday no one will even remember that Triangle of Sadness got three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) and won none. Which isn't a knock on the movie ... there are more worthy/likely winners in those categories, and if the three nominations are a stretch, they aren't egregious. But Triangle of Sadness will eventually stand on its own, regardless of Oscar nominations, and based on what I've seen, it's a pretty typical Ruben Östlund picture. I've seen Force Majeure and The Square, and like Triangle of Sadness, those are odd movies, decent but not great, with just enough bizarreness to stick in your mind. I wrote about The Square, "You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself." I added, "None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath." I'd say something similar about Triangle of Sadness. It's supposed to be an attack on class structure, it is an attack on class structure, but the rich people aren't mean enough. Which I can see as a good thing, but Östlund sets things up so we can enjoy the comeuppance of the rich, and then makes it less enjoyable because they aren't that awful despite their wealth. I may be asking for the wrong thing.
Force Majeure had an impressive avalanche, and The Square had some kind of monkey man who was also a work of art or something. The impressive avalanche in Triangle of Sadness is a colossal classy dinner served on a cruise ship during a storm that has some of the most ... what word am I looking for, "entertaining"? ... scenes of vomiting. It's not easily forgotten, for better or worse. It's even part of the publicity for the movie:
Triangle of Sadness is too long ... it has three parts, and for me, the entire first part could have been cut without doing any damage to the film. (The Square was also too long.) It's another Ruben Östlund film that you'll remember with a combination of fondness and something less positive. With Harris Dickinson, Dolly de Leon, and Charlbi Dean (who died unexpectedly at 32 just after the film's release).
I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:
- Woman in the Dunes (1964)
- Attica (2021)
- Drive My Car (2021)
- Flee (2021)
- Petite Maman (2021)
- Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
- RRR (2022)
Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- A Hard Day's Night (1964)
- Jaws (1975)
- The Last Waltz (1978)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:
And this list of everything I watched this year:
The story goes that Renate Reinsve had decided to give up on acting to become a carpenter. She met with Joachim Trier, and he wrote her the lead part for his new movie, The Worst Person in the World. Reinsve had done some stage work and had appeared in several Norwegian television series, but she wasn't yet a name. Trier saw something, and Reinsve has now won a couple of Best Actress awards (including one at Cannes). The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Oscars, and if Reinsve is absent from the nominations list, she can take pride in being at the center of a film that is highly regarded.
Trier has said that The Worst Person in the World is a rom-com for people who hate rom-coms. Honestly, I could barely tell it was a rom-com. It is an honest look at love and relationships, how difficult they can be, and how a person can struggle in relationships when they are still finding out who they are. Needless to saw, Reinsve's character (Julie) is not the person referred to in the title, but that title does reflect how we don't always see the good things about ourselves that others recognize in us.
There is more to the film than Reinsve ... in particular, Anders Danielsen Lie is excellent. But the reason to see The Worst Person in the World is Reinsve, and the character Trier has created for her.
You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.
The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.
Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.
It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.
OK, someone explain this to me. Shame is (at least) the 17th film by Ingmar Bergman I have seen. I have yet to see a bad one, so the expectations are great. But after watching Shame for the first time, I was embarrassed that I had never gotten around to it before. It is, to my mind, one of a handful of the greatest films of Bergman's career, and thus, one of the great films in cinema history. But apparently, not a lot of people agree with me. Bergman has 14 films on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time ... none of them are Shame (it finished at #1279). In the recent TSPDT users poll, Bergman received votes from 853 of the 1983 participants, the 6th-most of any director, and more than such directors as Wong Kar-wai, Welles, and Godard. 21 Bergman films received votes ... 12 of them got more votes than Shame, which got only 6. At the time of its release, noted critic Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice that Shame was "completely worthless as a work of art."
OK, taste preferences and all that. But I'm dumbfounded nonetheless. Here I was so happy to fill in this blind spot in my filmgoing, and after the fact I find I wasn't alone in my blind spot. Except now that I've seen it, for me it is a blind spot no longer, and I am here to say that Shame is a great film.
Shame is a war movie, but at first it feels like an abstract war movie. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play an unsettled married couple who are living on an isolated island, only marginally aware of the war going on in the world outside of their lives. Bergman never explains who is fighting, or what they are fighting over. What he does show is the impact of war on even the non-participants. The couple is isolated, but not isolated enough ... eventually, the war comes to them. They must confront their own inner beings, and they aren't very pleased with themselves. Gradually, Shame becomes just brutal to watch (in its way, it's as hard to experience as Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain). We never do learn what the war is about, which is why it feels abstract, but what the war does to the characters is not abstract, but rather unsparingly real.
In the midst of all this, Liv Ullmann gives one of her greatest performances. Shame was left out when it came to Oscar nominations, but surely Ullmann deserved some attention. (Next January, she will finally get her first Oscar, an honorary award.) Ullmann comes face to face with her fellow actors, and with the audience (thanks to frequent close-ups), and she is never less than brilliant.
Geezer Cinema: Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019). Something like Geezer Cinema, where my wife and I take turns picking a weekly movie, is great partly because every other week, I'm exposed to a movie I might not have found on my own. Unfortunately, Midsommar was my pick, and I can't say I liked it. I enjoyed director Ari Aster's earlier movie, Hereditary (which it happens was my sister-in-law's pick from another movie group I'm in), and while I originally thought Midsommar was a Swedish-language art film, once I realized it was a horror film I picked it for Geezer Cinema. Midsommar is 20 minutes longer than Hereditary, and it felt even longer than that, bordering at times on Slow Cinema. I thought it could have been half an hour shorter, and was surprised to find out there is a 171-minute Director's Cut out there. I assume Aster wanted to build suspense slowly, but I never felt it ... perhaps it was too slow for me. Florence Pugh is the best thing about the movie, which is ultimately too muddled for me to care. Bonus points, though, for a mallet that serves as Chekhov's gun.
21 Bridges (Brian Kirk, 2019). Before the pandemic, our Geezer Cinemas took place in theaters, and we must have seen trailers for 21 Bridges a dozen times. We knew it wasn't Chadwick Boseman's best movie, but it was still hard to pass up when I remembered I had recorded it on the DVR some time ago. Boseman is fine ... when wasn't he? ... but he is given little to do. 21 Bridges in a paint-by-numbers thriller, with Boseman as a cop who closes down all the bridges connected to Manhattan so he can find some bad guys. There's nothing wrong with the premise, and there's a nice cast (besides Boseman, you've got Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons, and Stephan James). But it devolves into shootouts that are mostly uninteresting, and the twists in the story aren't too hard to guess in advance. It's not the worst way to spend an afternoon when you are bored, but you can do better if you're in the mood for some Chadwick Boseman.
The only other film from Thomas Vinterberg that I have seen is The Hunt, which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. It was a good movie, in large part because Mikkelsen was so interesting in it. Another Round is more of an ensemble piece than was The Hunt ... Mikkelsen stands out, but he's not the entire focus of the film. The story, of four high-school teachers who come up with the idea of trying to maximize their job performance (and their lives) by getting just drunk enough to bring out their best, is different at least.
I can't speak of the veracity of the image Another Round paints of a place where half the country, including the high-school kids, are drunk. (The Danish title is Druk, which means drinking.) Things get interesting when the teachers first find their abilities enhanced. It feels like Vinterberg wants us to believe the idea that drinking makes us better people. But things get carried away, as you know they must. They base their experiment on a theory that apparently is actually espoused by someone, that people need to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 to achieve peak performance. Once the four are successful (at least in their eyes), they wonder why they should stop at 0.05. Wouldn't things improve even more if they got drunker? Which they do.
The blend of comedy and drama isn't always smooth ... perhaps it isn't meant to be. There are plenty of fun (not necessarily funny) moments, and of course, there are moments of great drama, especially around the crumbling marriage of Mikkelsen's Martin and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). I was never sure just how tragic this was supposed to be. We never really see Martin and Anika when they are happy, so we don't have much at stake with their relationship. Overall, Another Round is about the four male teachers; it is sneakily a guy movie.
Everything changes in the final scene. Mikkelsen breaks into a drunken but still stylish dance, and for a couple of minutes, I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. For a brief period, I was unconcerned with what Vinterberg was trying to say. It's a lovely moment.
Another Round is nominated for two Oscars, Best International Feature and Best Director, which is unusual. I've seen all five pictures in the directing category, and Vinterberg doesn't stand a chance of winning. I haven't seen the other "international" movies, so I can't hazard a guess about that category.