Silence and sentiment.
Emotion and fear.
The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.
—The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
When Christopher Nolan mapped the future of film earlier this year, he thought of format and presentation, new technologies and special features, but he said little about the types of films we’d cherish, or the reasons why we still go. What are the uses of cinema when the theater becomes just another platform for content? If television and small screen media take the place of many of the former functions of film – encompass an epic frame; add nuance to a large cast of characters; use the novelist’s eye to embrace wide thematic scope and granular characterization; depict anthropological detail large and small of contemporary life—then what is left for the domain of film? The character study dramas that might once have been the mandate of a Truffaut or a Rohmer tale contain conflicts addressed in a season’s arc on the small screen.
Spectacle is one purpose for cinema. Stories best viewed on a large screen because of the dollars allocated to their effects make the movie-going experience an amusement park. But, as at a theme park, many of the delights of the cinema of spectacle are best directed at the young, whose tastes are still nascent and who are responsive to kinetic thrills.
For the rest of us, cinema’s concerns can become smaller and grander. If the takeaway of a movie has become the screen capture—four or five frames that conjure the entire experience—film is no longer at-speed, emotional time travel. It works more concisely, in a few excised images that are an aesthetic index for exalted feelings. The importance of cinema’s plastic elements become exaggerated, like an advertisement— but they still carry an emotional heft. The aim now is the beautiful, and the interesting. In this respect, here are the films that demonstrate the power of cinema this year.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, which shucks off its literary source material as easily as Scarlett Johansson’s alien pulls on a human skin, exemplifies this approach. Johansson is celebrated as champagne in human form, and while she’s a great beauty, the essence of her appeal is her oddity. The difference between a screen actor’s appeal and a model’s has to do with the alchemy between the performer moving through space and the camera that tracks the person. ScarJo’s beauty has an alien oddity, a disproportion that is part of the desire to look at her—not just full breasts and lips, but the wide set eyes, the flared and slightly asymmetrical nose. She’s a cartoon of desire; her imperfections make her more desirable.Skin‘s narrative is devoted to Johansson’s vocation as predator. She drives a white lorry through Scotland and targets single men who are enjoined to accompany winsome Scarlett for a lift. She takes them to a run down house; the inside of her lair is designed in Kubrickian modern—Scarlett sheds her clothes and leads the willing men into a dark, aspic substancethey can’t escape. The film feels inevitable and persuasive like a bad dream. Like the sampling of Johansson’s vocal warm up that overlays the soundtrack at the beginning, the movie is a series of gorgeous syllables in which we get trapped.
The Clouds of Sils Maria does what Iñárritu’s Birdman purports to—evaluates the virtues of a franchise star and of a dramatic actor. Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, embodying these roles, play a star and her assistant holed up in Switzerland as the actress (Binoche) returns to the play that made her famous. The resulting two-hander is a combat between two traditions. If you wonder if there are really different styles of modern acting, the answer, definitively, is yes—Binoche is the greater in technique and bubbling-over emotion; while Stewart establishes that her career project is sincerity, and forces the film to adjust to her halting rhythms as she makes the dialogue count.
A part of every film should be something that you need to watch—it can’t read like a radio play, making sense without taking account of its images. Sils Maria, with its long rehearsals of dramatic dialogue, manages to present us with a visual sublime, in the intimacy between its characters, and with its setting, in the Swiss Alps, which manages to be dangerously awesome in all senses.
It seems to be the fate of cinema’s vampires to become reclusive aesthetes. For Jim Jarmusch’s blood-sucking couple in Only Lovers Left Alive, humans are the zombies. We destroy, we feed, we crave, but without nuance or appreciation, with lust and without delicacy. In their closeted lives, what Adam and Eve show us, what they do, makes up one of the purposes of cinema—to appreciate and to elegize. Jarmusch’s thumbprint is in his gorgeously cool taste, which he records here. We step through the warren of old Tangier, or Detroit’s decayed beauty; we pick through vintage rock recordings and antique musical instruments. We cherish artists whose work is so beloved that they feel like old friends, or actually are old friends, in the timeless lives of Adam and Eve.
Lovers‘ second pleasure is in the perfect calibration of its timing—not only in the deadpan delivery of the actors, but in the choreography of its action. When Adam and Eve trawl Tangier searching for blood sustenance, they stumble across the most serendipitous musical performance. Yasmine Hamdan and her band perform “Hal” in a whisper, with a bassline droning like a call to worship. As Adam and Eve get closer, the camera moves inside to watch the singer. The two peer through an open door, and Adam nestles his head over Eve’s shoulder in order to watch. The film praises this deliberateness as a kind of high artistry, as a prayer.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night reminds us of when the 90s came along and broke open cinema again by showing us what independents are good for—revitalizing mythologies. In this Iranian vampire western, the fanged heroine is appealing, but she is not wholly good. She is a semi-silent screen heroine, with the pathos of Buster Keaton and the vengeance of an Old Testament god. She feeds only on the guilty, but the delights of the film are not mainly in vindication and justice. They rest with the mordant solitude of its lead actress, who glides through Bad City’s streets on a skateboard, wearing New Wave stripes and a black burqa; and with the silent screen sympathy of the guy who accepts her violence.
The film I watched the most last year was a 2013 release, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. It is a film rife with allusions (notably, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), but never reduced to influence. It is a movie of excess made with modulation and control.
Let’s say the use of the crane in film is an implement of exaltation. If handheld shots and zooms telegraph an attempt at realism (the dropped-in-chaos effect of Greengrass’s Bournefilms) or a parody of realism (the shaky camera and long lenses of The Office), the crane, and to a lesser extent, the steadicam movements in The Great Beauty are an acknowledgement of all that is unnatural in filmmaking; where you feel the hand of the filmmaker presenting an aesthetic experience. Think of the angels’ views of Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire—the crane gives us a movement that begins or ends above the human eyeline—a lofty cosmological viewpoint, no matter the type of world surveyed, godless or pious, chaotic or managed.
This is the crane that introduces us to Jep Gambardella, the film’s central eye, on the occasion of his 65th birthday, also the anniversary of Rome’s founding. The camera rises above the action, surveys the solitary monomania of individual dancers, catches their eye in glance after glance, until we meet Jep. The camera is so giddy and intoxicated with our hero that the frame tilts upside down. Sorrentino’s parties show dance as persuasively as it’s been depicted on film: the oddity of movement, the pleasure of being in tempo, the isolation within a dance. His camera catches characters as they enjoy themselves and in the blank moments between enjoyment, showing us the desperate uses of distraction.
The Great Beauty is made of pieties—its long, smoothly rolling sequences elevate its subjects. This Roman panorama is not comprised only of geographic splendor, architectural triumph, exquisite haberdashery, one percent good living. Sorrentino finds beauty everywhere—in strippers, faded it-girls, corrupted priests, beatific nuns, in men and women who have failed to live up to their promise, or who have succeeded, but who have not trumped the passage of time. The elegant takes rush toward a statue, a chorus, a performance artist, our hero, Jep. As we peer at each of these characters, the camera and the editing create a great equivalency of faces. Each visage is as treasured as the next—the pristine and the devastated, the masked and the open—a humanist equation that is revelatory, and exalting, because it is so rare.
Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.