Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami, one of the greatest filmmakers of the last half-century, left his native country of Iran shortly before his good friend and fellow filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, was arrested, imprisoned, and banned from filmmaking for 20 years on a fabricated charge. Formerly content to ban or censor its best artists' work at home while allowing distribution and exhibition abroad, the Iranian government's suppression of its artists has become far more sinister in recent years. Having never made a bad film, Kiarostami was hardly in need of an artistic rejuvenation. Nevertheless, his two fiction features made outside of Iran have been career high points, despite the sad circumstances leading to their existence. Kiarostami filmed 2010's Certified Copy in Italy with French and British leads (Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell) and dialogue in Italian, French, and English. His new film, shot in and around Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast, is objectively distanced from its characters yet empathetic, and both seductive and unsettling. Taking place over the course of one night and part of the following day, the film follows a college student moonlighting as an upscale call girl, her unstable ex-boyfriend, and an elderly retired sociology professor, most likely widowed, and the strange yet strangely ordinary set of circumstances that bring them into each other's orbit. Despite a landscape and culture, and exterior and interior spaces, quite different from the Iran of Kiarostami's earlier films, most of his trademarks are here. Kiarostami remains the best director of scenes shot inside cars we have, but he's also great at showing how people look (and look past) each other and how they organize, understand, and move through physical space. Kiarostami's endings are always open doors, never closed ones, but even by his standards, Like Someone in Love concludes with a sharp apathy-killing jolt that has kept the film turning in my mind since the second it ended. This is the film of a free man, and I don't mean his geographical location or the political constrictions or lack thereof of its government.
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Spring Breakers opens in a neon hell of interchangeable tanned bodies chugging beers, flashing body parts, and grinding and groping each other in a predetermined robotic debauch to Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and ends in a hail of bullets. Korine, though his detractors will never admit it, is a skilled visual artist with a talent for creating images never before seen on a screen. Though Spring Break is well-trod territory, Korine manages to make it look as strange and ugly-beautiful as anything else in his filmography. With a color palette channeling Skittles and Starburst, Spring Breakers is a candy-neon incantatory art film with a beach party titties'n'guns exploitation veneer. Korine makes excellent use of repetition, as scenes are shown multiple times from different perspectives and dialogue is repeated and layered, chopped up and rearranged in different contexts. One particularly impressive piece of filmmaking captures a diner robbery in a single take from the perspective of the getaway car as the driver circles the building, but there are lots of other highlights. The ex-Disney girls in bikinis hook has already made Korine more money in one week than his four previous films combined, and he deserves it.
Stoker (Park Chan-Wook)
Park Chan-Wook ties everything in this post together. Harmony Korine has a cameo as a high school art teacher, and like Korine in Spring Breakers, Park in Stoker uses repetition of images and dialogue and the same events from different visual perspectives to create an incantatory effect. Like Kiarostami, Park is working in a country and a language he's never worked in before. The South Korean Park has made his first English-language, American film, and though he's working with a bit of an overheated screenplay by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Park's stunning visual prowess elevates this one above its flaws. Besides the sheer virtuosity of many of its shots, Stoker contains several striking closeups of its actors' faces, with a particular emphasis on their sharp eyes. A Gothic thriller with nods to Hitchcock, Stoker takes place in an indeterminate time period that seems to exist in several decades at once, much like the otherwise very different films of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Park has made the adjustment to American cinema without sacrificing too many of his strengths.
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