Richard Linklater has been through an uneven rough patch for his last few films, some good, and a few more not so memorable, but it's probably not a surprise that a story set in his home state of Texas would also mark a brilliant return to form for the director. Teaming up with old pals Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey -- who both give great, atypical performances -- “Bernie” is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale about a small town mortician who enters an earnest relationship with the wealthiest (and meanest) widow in town, but winds up murdering her. Taking a conventional docu-drama approach actually does wonders for the film. Mixing interviews with real life locals with a sardonic narrative that would do the Coens proud (comparisons to “Fargo” are apt), the movie is a concise, quick-moving breeze, anchored by the impressive, dialed down, yet distinctly fey, mannered and oddball pitch Black brings to the title character. The murder actually doesn’t take place until halfway through the picture, allowing the audience to see why the townspeople were ready to forgive the otherwise generous, kind-hearted and sympathetic Bernie (and Black does a helluva job selling him). But it’s the cocky swagger of McConaughey -- playing a small town lawyer with the ego of a big city prosecutor -- that provides the counterweight to the idea that the confessed murderer should be let go. Linklater manages a tricky balance as well, never mocking the real life characters, but letting the outrageousness and absurdity speak all on its own. The result is his best work in years, a singular and unique comedy, where the laughs are often big and pleasurable (read our review).
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
After doing tiny, highly personal art films for a little over a decade, Nuri Bilge Ceylan threw a curveball with “Three Monkeys,” an Andrei Tarkovsky-thriller goulash that retained his love for human behavior while combining a meatier plot and a lurking, uncertain anxiety. Though with "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" he established a desire to make something a bit different, few could’ve surmised that his next flick would be a nearly three-hour ensemble epic, a slow-burn murder investigation that takes the police and the guilty party through the vast steppes of Anatolia. The collective slowly make their way through nowheresville to find and identify the victim’s remains, eventually having to rest at a nearby village before returning home for the necessary paperwork. Within the long, arduous journey are rather brilliant character moments that are at times humorous and touching; always adding another intricate layer to a character’s being. Despite no longer holding the cinematographer’s position, Ceylan’s photographic eye is still there: the film showcases some gorgeous environments bathed in natural light or, more astonishingly, entire sequences that are lit by just the headlights of the investigators’ vehicles. This approach gives everything a very organic feel, one which only compliments a story that is basically about society’s relationship with life and death. ‘Anatolia’ is a long one, but it's consistently rewarding throughout and eventually leads to one of the most poignant endings of this year (read our review).
"The Turin Horse"
Forlorn and harrowing, no, Bela Tarr's final offering wasn't very affable, and though his stuff never was, you'll find little of the enchantment or humor he displayed in past flicks such as "Werckmeister Harmonies" or "Satantango," respectively. Despite it all, no amount of misery keeps 'Turin' from being an astonishingly moving experience -- every meticulously crafted unbroken sequence (whether it be capturing a wind-battered woman gathering water from a near-exhausted well or an elderly man devouring a scalding potato with his fingers) captivates; the indelible black and white images attack along with a dedicated sound design to make every moment as impressionable as the last. Working with a barebones story -- a destitute family suffers greatly when their horse refuses meals and labor -- the Hungarian filmmaker is able to center in on the essence of poverty, bypassing condescending melodrama for the cold truth of hardship. The amount of power Tarr is able to channel through mundane actions such as cooking dinner or changing out of work clothes is astonishing -- who needs plot twists when the everyday routine is so affecting? But few, of course, are as skilled as this filmmaker, which makes “The Turin Horse” even sadder: that it is a curtain call for an extremely talented auteur. Thanks for the send off, Bela (read our review).
Reviving the '70s American filmmaker mindset that lay dormant for years, Pablo Larrain's sophomore outing, which finally made it to U.S. shores earlier this year, was a much more restrained and outright weird offering compared to his violent, unruly debut "Tony Manero." Whereas the latter involved a protagonist murdering and discoing his life away while the Pinochet regime raged on, "Post Mortem" shoves its hero into the middle of the conflict, as he is forced to deal with the dead bodies by the very same military that is causing them. Because of this, the film is much more engaging on a traditional level than its predecessor, with the horrors of the dictatorship pushed to the forefront. Alfredo Castro stars as Mario, a morgue transcriber who discovers love just around the corner in Nancy, a burlesque dancer and neighbor who catches his eye, and soon the two begin seeing one another. Unfortunately their love is put on hold once the tanks start rolling in, as her ties to the Communist Youth of Chile cause her to go into hiding. Just like any chivalrous sweetheart would do, Mario harbors his main squeeze until it all blows over. Larrain often keeps the audience at bay, constructing characters that act mysteriously but never randomly -- you won't see certain things coming (how we wish more films were like this), and while they're shocking, the train of thought is believable. And aside from the invigorating tone, lovable look, and restrained camera style, one of the greatest triumphs of the film is its offbeat humor -- a dry, surprising playfulness that pops up every so often that prevents the film from being overtly somber. Word from the Cannes front was that Larrain's "No," while a crowd-pleaser, had very little in common with his previous output. We'd be lying if we said we weren't looking forward to it, but on the other hand, it'd be a shame to see this fine aesthetic return to the grave (read our review).