Twice this year, I was awed by small films by acknowledged and accomplished American auteurs, first by Woody Allen's terse work of formal rigor, Cassandra's Dream. Allen—a director who's been accused of artistic laziness for at least a decade—displayed directorial chops and intense (if negative) energy. Taut and cynical, this gem nails all of its aesthetic decisions and has a pronounced eeriness that would have enhanced even an acknowledge masterpiece, like Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Cassandra gains impact not only from its scenes of suspense and a firm grasp of its ideas, but the incidentals of Colin Farrell's performance: dancing on the sidelines of a party as he plots a murder, childishly telling his brother he would have carried out the dastardly assignment had someone not gotten in the way, taking lines like "I can't get through the day without drinking" out of the clunk heap and making them devastating. Allen, while no longer beloved, has had an enormously successful career, but in Cassandra he goes to convincing lengths to understand and communicate the desperation of those who haven't been as lucky as he (see Match Point's tennis net metaphor). Audiences and critics, however, seemed keener on Allen's sunnier Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which does tacitly explore similar ideas of fatalism. But by bathing his ideas in golden Barcelona light rather than the British bleakness of Cassandra, Allen had a modest hit on his hands. While I enjoyed Barcelona both times I saw it, especially due to Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, I wished that Cassandra had gotten an equal share of deserved attention.
A similar thing happened to Gus Van Sant's two movies, as Paranoid Park skated in and out of theaters with little more than a kick-flip (sorry) while Milk is probably going to stick around through the Oscars. Milk is a competent, moving film, but Paranoid Park possesses finer tuning and a much sharper tonal and visual sense of its subject matter. Paranoid tells a quiet story that uses an elliptical approach to zero in on emotional truths and precise moods, like the different ways it felt to walk down the hall in high school, and Van Sant can heighten those moods without bloating them. It's no surprise that the big meaning and historical weight of Milk beats out the specificity and craft of Paranoid, but that doesn't make it right.
Chances were few to attend Triangle screenings of the Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu's tense story tracing a single day in the lives of two women procuring an illegal late-term abortion. While it could be mistaken (and undoubtedly has been) for a simple polemic about choice, what I found most impressive about the movie was Mungiu's ability, with two terrific young actresses, to create a complex friendship while never importing ready-made details about their relationship or their past, sticking strictly to their navigation of the crisis that is central to the film. Unfortunately, if Indy readers blinked they may have missed the short Triangle run of Mungiu's masterful film.
No matter how peeled their eyes were, readers couldn't have caught Boarding Gate in theaters, the deliberately junky thriller by French heavy Olivier Assayas. Asia Argento, an actress often unfairly reduced to her sultriness, helps power this elusive quasi-mystery in a performance that is equal parts tacky and weighty. Working in B-movie mode without the quote marks of the ironically schlocky Death Proof, Boarding Gate has a sense of space, pace and the feel of a vague dream turning to harsh nightmare that reminded me of another underappreciated film, 2006's Miami Vice. While Michael Mann's movie at least had a fair shot in theaters, Boarding Gate languished even at festivals and in major cities.
While foreign films like Boarding Gate and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days always struggle in smaller markets, and getting two movies each from Allen and Van Sant is hardly anything to cry about, I feel that there was hypocrisy in the tepid reaction that greeted Mister Lonely. A quick stop at metacritic.com reveals that the critical response to Harmony Korine's third film was almost exclusively of one kind: The movie had some good bits, which were "indelible" (L.A. Times), "arresting" (San Francisco Chronicle) and of "preposterous invention" (Roger Ebert), while the same critics, respectively, said that "you don't always feel it," it was "an average effort" and it has "no clear idea of what its job is."
Sure, Mister Lonely hits plenty of false notes; in terms of performance and story it is practically tone-deaf. But its narrative elements are just blatant excuses to see what happens when you have Marilyn Monroe fall for Michael Jackson (turns out it makes perfect sense) and put Charlie Chaplin in charge of a farm. Perhaps Korine's Gummo—which at least gained the distinction of being a polarizing film—was better received because it didn't make anyone believe they might have the luxury of settling in with the comforts of a familiar narrative template.
Critics were eager to dismantle this movie for its inability (or unwillingness) to satisfy pedestrian criteria when they should have been illuminating its gifts by working out its problems. That is, if Lonely's deafness is a problem at all—the stance that dismisses this movie's crudity dismisses artists like David Shrigley, Daniel Johnston and the Kuchar brothers along with it.
Had viewers missed the movie's brilliance altogether, their dismissals could be excused as poor judgment; maddeningly, detractors noted its unfamiliar conceit and startling imagery while writing it off for not being emotionally involving and cohesive. This amounts to a conscious decision to devalue the conceptual and visual—that is, the artistic—wonders of a work because it did not try hard enough to be liked. This is not poor judgment, it is injustice.