By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 19, 2013 at 10:25AM
At this point it's more notable when the Coen Brothers make a film that's disappointing than when they make an excellent one: the filmmakers have one of the highest hit rates in the business, and aside from a spotty period in the mid '00s, they've generally gone from great film to great film. That said, some of their most recent films I haven't entirely clicked with: "Burn After Reading" was fun, but feels minor in retrospect, while "True Grit" was uncharacteristically straightforward and old-fashioned in the context of some of their more gonzo affairs.
But as you might have heard, "Inside Llewyn Davis" [A] sees them right back on top again, with the film likely to settle into the top tier of their work. Centering on the titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac), a slightly feckless drifter trying to carve out a solo career after the suicide of his double-act partner, it's perhaps closest in tone to "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man," but with the near-musical element of "O Brother Where Art Thou" and some typically sharp, borderline absurdist humor.
It's almost novelistic in its structure, moving from episode to episode relatively languidly, including a substantial mid-film detour as Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago with John Goodman's cantankerous jazz musician and his valet (a nearly wordless, very impressive Garrett Hedlund). But what it might lack in narrative drive, it more than makes up for in a beguiling, melancholy mood not quite like anything they've made, abetted by photography that's among the directors' most beautiful, despite the absence of usual collaborator Roger Deakins. (Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborator Bruno Delbonnel has the viewfinder instead. To be perfectly honest, I could have watched a full two hours of Llewyn's runaway cat looking out the windows of a speeding subway, so gorgeous is the image.)
The film, like 'Fink,' is a sort of portrait of the artists as young men, and anyone who has, or had, creative ambitions will identify with Davis, who is talented enough to acquit himself (Isaac's performances are excellent: he's arguably better than the character is meant to be), but probably not enough to move up to the next level (like Garrett Hedlund, now that we think about it ... ). As a result, it's hard to apply the occasional criticism of emotional chilliness that the brothers sometimes receive to this one. There's a lot of feeling at work, from the deep grief Llewyn feels at his partner's death to the complex, barbed sort-of affection between him and Carey Mulligan's Jean, even if some of it's buried under the surface.
The whole cast, as ever, are excellent, but there's never a moment's doubt that the film belongs to anyone but Isaac. He's been an actor of considerable promise for a while, but goes into the stratosphere here with one of the most impressive performances we've seen in a long time. Llewyn Davis is, frankly, kind of an asshole, and Isaac never shirks from that, but lends him enough vulnerability and smarts that you're on his side even when he's behaving at his worst. If there's any justice, it'll make him a megastar. But if it doesn't, he'll still have starred in one of the best films by two of our best filmmakers.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" was a film we were eagerly anticipating that matched our expectations, but "Ida" [A] was one that was barely on our radar that may turn out to be our favorite of the whole festival. The return of Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski, who made a splash with "The Last Resort" and "My Summer Of Love" before disappearing for the best part of a decade (he came back last year with little-seen Ethan Hawke thriller "The Woman In The Fifth"), it's the first film that the director has shot and set in his native Poland.
Taking place in the early 1960s, it follows Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan about to take her vows and become a nun. Before she dies, she wants to meet her sole living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a drink-sodden magistrate who proceeds to tell her that her real name is Ida and that she's actually Jewish. The pair head out together to dig into their family history together, and start to rethink their respective life choices.
It's a simple little film, running at barely 80 minutes, but Pawlikowski packs an awful lot in, touching on guilt, identity, religion, recrimination, depression and sex without ever feeling scatter-shot. There's a deep humanism that falls somewhere between Truffaut and Bresson, with the latter being a more obvious formal comparison point.
And what form: every second (shot in black-and-white Academy ratio by newcomer Lukasz Zal, who's surely one to watch) is gorgeous, with Pawlikowski composing to make the most of the space, often placing his characters on the fringes or corners of the frame, and making the most of the high contrast. It's absolutely stunning, one of the year's best films, and a fulfillment of the promise that the director has shown for so long.
Less of a happy experience is "Grand Piano" [D], a baroque high-concept thriller that sees troubled star concert pianist Elijah Wood held hostage by sniper John Cusack. It's a fun, if silly, idea, but the screenplay never makes the most of it, all too often finding excuses to break or cut away from the tension.
Spanish director Eugenio Mira shoots things with a certain De Palma-esque flair with a few impressive shots, but he also pulls his punches—for all of Cusack's off-screen menace, it feels bloodless and low-stakes. It doesn't help that Wood is wildly miscast as the tortured musical genius, proving only a little more convincing than the American accent of the mostly British cast.
Already out in the U.S. is indie hit "Short Term 12" [B] which was unveiled in London a few nights ago. I wasn't as convinced as our Katie Walsh was back at SXSW. The script is a little too neat for such messy subject matter, bearing the joints of screenwriting manual-inspired rewriters, and it does feel structurally closer to a TV pilot than a fully-fledged movie.
But if it was a pilot, I'd watch the fuck out of the ensuing series. For all of its exposition and slightly contrived set-ups and payoffs, the film deftly hints almost all of its emotional beats in a truthful and affecting way. All of this is anchored by a mighty performance from Brie Larson, who if there was any justice, would be among this year's Oscar nominees. It's far from a perfect picture, but it's one that establishes enough of an emotional connection that you'll forgive an awful lot.
Finally for today, a brace of films I already saw in Venice made it to London in the last few days. There's Jonathan Glazer's totally stunning "Under The Skin" [A], Kelly Reichardt's gripping, controlled "Night Moves" [A-], Stephen Frears' surprisingly sharp crowd-pleaser "Philomena" [B+], John Curran's picturesque-but-dull "Tracks" [C+], and Ti West's striking but unsatisfying "The Sacrament" [C].