Ashes of Time (Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed)

In the future, when the mob wants to make some one disappear, they send them back in time thirty years to when time travel hadn’t yet been invented. Joe (played in his twenties by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and in his fifties by Bruce Willis) is a “looper” whose job is to kill people sent from the future and dispose of their bodies. All loopers are required to murder their future selves and not killing yourself can have dreadful consequences, so it’s a problem for Joe when something goes wrong and he literally gets away from himself.

An imaginative and gripping (if soulless) SF thriller, Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) does a good job of holding one’s attention for two hours but that’s really all it does. As with the films of Christopher Nolan, keeping on top of the complicated narrative requires so much mental exertion that it only gradually becomes apparent that the story is populated exclusively by stock figures rather than characters who seem to exist beyond the margins of the plot. (It’s established early on that the younger Joe intends to retire in Paris, but we aren’t given any hint as to what he’d do there or why he decides to go to Shanghai instead.) This is a skillful and efficient genre exercise — to my taste, vastly superior to Nolan’s much wordier The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010) — but it’s ultimately so insubstantial that, like one of the characters at the end of the movie, it seems to vanish into thin air the moment it’s over.

Speaking of time travel movies, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) isn’t as demanding as Looper but it’s far more beguiling. The story is about a moody hipster girl (Aubrey Plaza) who meets a weirdo man-child (Mark Duplass) under false pretenses, but after spending some time together — spoiler alert! — she starts to fall for the guy: he’s so sweet, so intensely himself, so committed to wearing that jean jacket. He also claims to be building a time machine, which introduces an element of suspense into the film: exactly how crazy is this guy, and what precisely is he up to? By the by, there’s a Judd Apatow-ish B plot involving the heroine’s aggressively obnoxious coworker (Jake Johnson), who embarks on a time travel project of his own — specifically, tracking down his high school girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) on Facebook and helping a geeky intern (Karan Soni) get laid — which is self-contained enough that it could’ve been cut from the movie entirely without anyone noticing its absence. That said, at 86 minutes, this is a lot tighter and funnier than the Apatow comedies it periodically recalls, and Duplass gives a surprisingly effective performance as a man who is utterly serious about time travel.


Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon (Corpo celeste, Hors Satan)

Formally and stylistically, Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo celeste (2011) is familiar art house fare, but it nonetheless provides a fascinating glimpse into a small religious community in southern Italy. The thirteen-year-old heroine, Marta (Yle Vianello), is mainly a passive observer rather than an active protagonist, and much of the movie’s slender narrative consists of her going about her usual routines — chiefly, attending catechism classes, spying on her neighbors, and fighting with her older sister. The other important character is a local priest (Salvatore Cantalupo) who goes door-to-door telling his parishioners who to vote for in the next election, and what sets the film apart from other coming of age stories is its negativity about Catholicism, which is conveyed primarily through the gritty mise en scène. Nearly everyone associated with the church is not just unsympathetic but physically unattractive, down to the dirtbag janitor who’s tasked with disposing of a litter of kittens by putting them in a plastic bag and smashing it against the pavement. Given everything the Catholic Church has done, it seems a tad myopic for the movie to hurl so much scorn at sexually unfulfilled Sunday school teachers and careerist priests, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Hobo With a Shotgun

In the opening minutes of Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (2011), a rural teenager (Alexandra Lemâtre) enlists a haggard looking man (David Dewaele) to kill her stepfather with a shotgun (it’s never precisely explained why), but this isn’t a story about lovers on the run from the law. (For one thing, the police never suspect them of the murder. What’s more, they’re not lovers.) Instead, the movie gradually reveals who the characters are through the repetition of their daily routines, as in the tightly framed shots of the man knocking on different doors and receiving food from unseen donors. However, the sparse dialogue often doesn’t explain what’s happening or why, giving viewers room to come up with their own answers. In other words, unlike most narrative films, where there’s a narrow range of possible inferences — as opposed to interpretations — here there are numerous ways of explaining the enigmatic plot. (An episode involving an apocalyptic fire is especially ambiguous.) Although the movie ultimately slides into religious allegory, culminating in a resurrection cribbed from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), the elliptical storytelling is never less than captivating.

Tout les garçons et les filles (Damsels in Distress, Moonrise Kingdom)

There’s a scene in Damsels in Distress where a French graduate student uses François Truffaut’s Baisers volés (1968) to seduce an American coed—the implication being that some girls would rather do just about anything than watch an old movie—and like that film, Whit Stillman’s fourth feature is pleasant and diverting but not much more. Greta Gerwig plays the leader of a pack of peppy college girls who volunteer at a campus suicide prevention centre where they use scented soaps and tap dancing to alleviate their classmates’ depression. And since the most serious problems they encounter are breakups, body odor, and constantly being asked if you’re suicidal, their methods are largely successful. In the twenty years since he made his debut with Metropolitan (1990), Stillman hasn’t developed much as a stylist—his static blocking looks especially rudimentary alongside Truffaut’s dynamic staging of actors—or as a storyteller. The plot proceeds in fits and starts and big chunks of the story are barely sketched in (we never learn what most of the characters are studying as the only time anyone goes to class it’s in order to catch a playboy-operator in a lie), but individual scenes are hilarious and the perky cast radiates enough charm to keep one amused throughout.

Les Mistons

Some filmmakers try something different each time out; others like Stillman return to the same subjects and stylistic choices again and again. Wes Anderson has made films set in Texas, India, and now 1960s New England, but they always look like Wes Anderson Movies, full of brightly coloured, symmetrically framed planimetric compositions and deadpan line readings. However, rather than simply repeating himself, Anderson continues to refine and expand his distinctive cinematic vocabulary. In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), some new additions to his usual repertoire are an onscreen narrator (Bob Balaban) who addresses the camera directly, a non-diegetic insert that contradicts what’s being said in the dialogue, and a violent streak that’s all the more shocking in contrast with Anderson’s usual whimsy.

Furthermore, although Anderson has made films about flawed parents and troubled children in the past, the plot of Moonrise Kingdom isn’t merely a retread of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The preteen hero, Sam Shukusky (Jared Gilman), is a socially unpopular orphan who runs away from summer camp with his equally maladjusted girlfriend, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). It’s implied that the latter is acting out because she knows that her mother, Laura (Frances McDormand), is having an affair with a stoic cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis)—who, unlike Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), is a real man. (At one point, Walt—stripped to the waist, holding an ax in one hand and a half-empty whisky bottle in the other—announces to his three sons that he’s going to cut down a tree. Why? Because that’s what men are supposed to do.) The somewhat dubious message is that a stable home life would magically solve the kids’ problems, but even if the limitations of Anderson’s style are apparent in spots—compare this film’s unambiguously happy ending with the more open-ended conclusion of Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (1959), a more tough-minded movie about a juvenile delinquent—its charms are full in evidence as well.

Lights and Shadows (The Light Thief, Footnote)

A very chilled out movie, Aktan Arym Kubat’s The Light Thief (2010) has the ingredients of a conventional narrative but not the recipe. Indeed, there’s something vaguely passive-aggressive about the way that this laid back Kyrgyz feature tells—or rather, doesn’t tell—its story. In the opening sequence, a rouge handyman, Mr. Light (Kubat), is busted for helping a poor neighbor steal electricity, but instead of defiantly taking a stand, he immediately caves in to the authorities. Mr. Light is also building a windmill to generate electricity for his house, and he has dreams of building much bigger ones that will produce enough power for the entire village but doesn’t take any steps towards achieving this goal. At bottom, the movie is a character study contrasting Mr. Light, who wants to help the community, with a shady developer running for local office (Askat Sulaimanov), who only cares about making money. Serenely unhurried and often beautifully framed, the film plods along amiably for most of its seventy-nine minutes, making the downbeat ending—in which Mr. Light takes a stand against the developer and winds up paying for it—all the more potent in contrast.

A supremely unflattering depiction of academia barely disguised as a light comedy, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote (2011) is a movie about rabbinical scholars who are motivated by jealousy, spite, and a desire for personal recognition. Set in Jerusalem, the story centres on a father and son who are both professors. The father, Eliezer (Schlomo Bar Aba), is a curmudgeon who’s dedicated his life to careful scrutiny of the Talmud and has nothing to show for it; unbeknownst to him, a close colleague has been sabotaging his work for decades because he’s jealous of Eliezer’s relationship with an influential Talmudic scholar (now dead), who once mentioned him in a footnote. On the other hand, Eliezer’s son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has been widely fêted for his own work but still demands a steady stream of mild praise from the professors in his department as partial compensation for the approval he’s never received from his father, who dismisses Uriel’s work for its lack of historical rigor. In a sense, the split between the two men—one demanding and obscure, the other popular but frivolous—is reflected in the style of the movie itself, which is neither a light crowd-pleaser nor a Bergman-esque chamber drama. Certainly the film finds a great deal of humor in the characters’ pettiness, and the zippy montage sequences and wry score by Amit Poznasky indicate that we’re not supposed to take the story too seriously, yet the movie does such a thorough job of exposing the characters’ flaws that one cringes more than laughs—and I mean that as a compliment.