Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). Varda’s sedate, stirring drama follows a young itinerant woman, paying special attention to the variety of ways society expresses its disdain for her. To a degree, it’s because of her place on the tattered fringe of the social structure, but a remarkable amount of the pain she endures is provoked by her gender rather than her place in class culture. She’s used, dismissed and disregarded repeatedly. Sandrine Bonnaire is evocative and moving in the leading role, clearly investing deep feeling into the performance. It would be easy for the film to lapse into woeful melodrama, but Varda has a steadier hand than that. She brings an observant style to the film that lends it greater impact than a parade of overheated anguish could ever generate.
Dinner for Schmucks (Jay Roach, 2010). If comedy were a disease, this film could be studied to discover the cure. Adapted from a French farce, the film has an abundance of gifted comic actors working with material that absolutely has promise. Several of the details are funny on the surface and there are even moments when the script is dispensing jokes that are well-structured enough that they should be funny. The conflicts reasonably balance the absurd with the recognizable. Not a bit of it works as comedy, however. The whole endeavor is about as flat and drab as a movie can get. Somehow, Roach leeches all of the energy out of it. It’s adequately shot and staged, but with no life to it whatsoever. He couldn’t have hindered the film more with a directing job if he were deliberately trying to sabotage it.
The Pool (Chris Smith, 2007). Smith, best known for his documentary efforts, directs a narrative feature about a boy in India who covets the prosperity represented by a neighbor’s outdoor swimming pool and emerges with something that is so authentic and honest that it’s a bit of shock to realize it didn’t come from a Indian director. Smith clearly understands that honing in the universal aspects of his characters’ experiences only heightens what’s specific about their imagined lives and vice versa. He’s especially good at developing the friendship between the lead character and the much younger boy he befriends as their eke out an existence on the streets. Smith may be an outsider to the culture he depicts, but the journalistic integrity he developed in his nonfiction features helps him transcend that limitation to make a film that feels deeply real.
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977). The feature directing debut was written for his UCLA master’s thesis, filmed in the mid-seventies and was largely unreleased for about three decades before it made the rounds to great acclaim in 2007. Skepticism that the praise was overstated because of the film’s rarity is answered decisively by the film itself which is a remarkable, insightful, evocative depiction of the daily grind of African-American life in Los Angeles in seventies. The film is more a loose collection of experiences than a focuses piece of storytelling, but that simply heightens the profound sense of drift that the characters and their community are living with. The performances are natural and engaging, and Burnett frames his imagery like a photographer at his artistic peak. There’s an unassuming sense of the trouble that hangs over the community and a lively acknowledgment of the many ways that everyone deals with their dismal prospects, from the spirited play of the children to the jagged verbal sparring practiced by the adults. Killer of Sheep is a truly great film.
Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008). Based loosely on the true story of a plot by German soldiers in World War II to assassinate Adolf Hitler and reclaim control of their nation, Valkyrie plays out like no one has the conviction to take the film in a decisive direction. There’s a sense that no one could decide if the film should be trashy or solemn, so they settled on some deadening purgatory in between the two. Cruise plays the colonel at the heart of the scheme, and he proves utterly incapable of investing the role with the appropriate level of gravity. The character should show some level of anguish or indication that there may be some sort of inner conflicts going on as he tries to save his country by betraying it. Instead, it’s just another one of Cruise’s driven hotshots, looking at the world through eyes that gleam with an unsettling self-confidence. There’s a whole troop of great British character actors rounding out the cast, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson among them. They’re at their most convincing when they look a little unsettled and even mortified, feelings that are presumably as pertinent to the actors and they are to the characters.