In one of the year’s most underrated films, Joe Carnahan unforgettably renders Ottway’s (Liam Neeson) shattering descent into unforgiving terrain. The plane crash that decimates the crew of oil workers heading home, leaving Ottway and six freezing, unprepared men (Frank Grillo, Ben Bray, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Dermot Mulroney and Joe Anderson) at the mercy of the elements and the wildlife, is appropriately sudden and disorienting. Less typical is Carnahan’s choice to stay on Neeson as he holds on for dear life and then rockets out of the plane and loses consciousness as deafening winds take hold. It’s a moment of cinematic wonder, a petrifying transition and an attempt to place us under Ottway’s skin and invest in Neeson’s survival. It works.
You know it’s going to go down a little differently when Mallory Kane (MMA champ Gina Carano), dressed to the nines, delicately slips off her high heels. Betrayed and about to have the life snatched out of her by Michael Fassbender’s operative, Mallory isn’t going down without a fight. What follows is a brutal throwdown in the confines of an upscale hotel room. Director Steven Soderbergh clearly has no interest in dipping even a toe into the Paul Greengrass school of covering close quarters action, shooting Carano and Fassbender throwing one another around with no music and minimal cuts (nevermind close-ups). He isolates the sounds of their struggle – there’s no score, only grunts, groans and shattered glass. Carano is all knees and elbows while Fassbender throws his weight around. It feels real and we commend Fassbender for going up against a champion fighter and making it look like he has the upper hand, however briefly.
Picking a highlight of Leos Carax's extraordinary, gloriously odd episodic puzzle piece "Holy Motors" is a near-impossible task -- we've already named a couple in our music moments piece. But for this writer at least, it comes down to the section where lead Denis Lavant reprises his role as "Monsieur Merde," from Carax's segment of the 2008 anthology picture "Tokyo!." Merde is a grotesque, grunting, wordless creature clad in a natty green suit, and once Lavant's Oscar transforms into him, he lollops through a graveyard, eating flowers and attacking passers-by, until he falls in love with, and kidnaps, a supermodel (a wonderfully game Eva Mendes), and takes her back to his sewer layer, where he proceeds to display his full-on erection for her. It's a wonderfully funny sequence, the feral, satyr-like Merde is one of Lavant's best performances-within-the-performance, but there's a curious tenderness and romanticism to it as well. Close runner-up, the musical moments aside, is probably the motion capture sequence. Or the bonkers ending. Or the beautifully drawn dialogue between a father and daughter. Or...
Director Bart Layton fashioned one of the best documentaries of the year with this film about... well, the less said the better, especially if you haven’t seen it yet and know nothing about it. Trust us, keep it that way, and go in as ignorant as possible before watching. One of the final scenes, in which we see con man Frederic Bourdin dance like Michael Jackson, is haunting, sly and filled with more levels than a skyscraper. It’s the kind of blissful, seemingly out of nowhere moment, a happy accident of archival footage, that comes to only the luckiest and most perceptive of documentarians. And it's done without any dialogue or narration.
It takes a lot of brass to conceive a scene that nears the twenty minute mark and make it no less than the penultimate one in a movie. But Patrick Wang’s “In The Family” had that distinction from the get-go: the director shot scenes in single long takes, delivered a three hour cut, and when festivals turned their backs on his baby, he took it on the road himself. Of course, we might call that “stubborn” if the film wasn’t at all competent, but thankfully ‘Family’ is a hugely touching, sensitive film without a false note in its makeup. Following a homosexual (Joey) after he loses his partner in a car accident, the real narrative begins when his son Chip -- his partner’s blood, though both raised the boy since infancy -- is lawfully handed over to his aunt. Joey loses the respect he thought he had, and when he pursues legal action for custody, he’s turned down by every lawyer he comes into contact with. Eventually he meets a compassionate attorney that agrees to fight with him, and it all leads to a vocal showdown in an office between Joey, his former sister-in-law (of sorts), and their respective legal teams. There’s no shouting, violence, or melodrama of any kind -- the conversation is calm and the characters make their plea with emotion, but nothing is forced. Despite its calm nature, the scene is utterly gripping; calling it a scene is even a disservice because, with its own arcs and twists, it seems more like its own short film within a greater body of work. A truly magnificent segment, incredibly paced and a guaranteed tear-jerker.
Ben Wheatley has wrapped two films since making his sophomore feature, "Kill List," which hit theaters in the U.S. way back in January, having rolled out at festivals in 2011. But we'd be surprised if anything in either "Sightseers" or "A Field In England," or anything the director ever makes again, will be quite as traumatic or powerful as the kitchen-based torture scene in "Kill List." Hitmen Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are tasked with taking out three people, the second of whom, The Librarian (Mark Kempner), turns out to be a child pornographer. Enraged, they burst into his home and proceed to brutally torture the man with a cigarette until they get the info. And once they get it, Jay goes to work with a hammer. It's about as unwatchable and disturbing a piece of violence as we've ever seen on screen, but it's not the (extremely) graphic nature alone that makes it so. It's the way that Gal, clearly uncomfortable with the lengths his colleague and friend is going, sits quietly listening in the next room. And it's the way that, as his death approaches, The Librarian becomes calm and grateful towards Jay, telling him that he's "glad [he] met [him]," and thanking him as his hand is nearly severed with the hammer. But there's something else about it that's particularly chilling, suggesting however bad the horrors are that we're witnessing, something much worse is on the way...
Matthew McConaughey had a banner 2012. “Magic Mike,” “Bernie,” “The Paperboy” and “Mud” (which will arrive in 2013) all attest to this fact. And while his “Magic Mike” performance is stellar, perhaps none of his 2012 turns are as unhinged and go-for-broke as his titular role of Joe, a contract killer, who also happens to be a police detective in William Friedkin’s twisted comeback directorial effort. Written by Tracy Letts, the corrosively pitch black comedy "Killer Joe" centers on a trailer trash family that hires Joe to murder their mother to get the insurance money. Suffice to say the plan goes awry, but Joe, a certifiable sociopath still does the deed. And when he wants his money, he brings a psychotic angel of death hellfire wrath on this duplicitous family. One rather disgusting and unnerving scene of sadomasochistic torture involves Joe forcing Gina Gershon’s conniving step-mom -- who is planning a double cross of her own -- to give a blowjob to a greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken wing. She gags and sucks on the fleshy piece of meat as Joe grinds it into her face with his crotch getting more and more sexually aroused. In its quivering/fucked up feverish climax, Joe gets off, Thomas Haden Church vomits and the spectators and audience are aghast and shocked. What the fuck did all just witness? It's nasty, dirty and you'll want to take a shower after, but everyone plays the scene full throttle and it’s an unforgettable stain on the memory.
One of the best things about the wonderfully cynical and hilarious "Killing The Softly" is the use of sound. For the brutal scene in which Ray Liotta is interrogated, then beaten, for a crime he didn’t commit, writer/director Andrew Dominik and his sound crew conjured a visceral, distinctive audio soundscape, looping synthesized distortions with simple sound recordings (trains in the distance, a squeegee across a windshield, etc). This stylish effect is beautifully cinematic, putting the audience in the shoes of Liotta’s unlucky bastard. When the time comes to take him out for good later in the film, the style is amped up to another degree, adding a super slow motion sequence that looks like something out of “The Matrix,” with a brilliant use of sound. Sure, we’ve seen this kind of slow motion stuff before, but it looks beautiful and adds another hammer strike to the film’s darkly funny, none-too subtle political parables. All that style adds up to something in “Killing Them Softly,” a film that’s already receding into obscurity way too fast. [Check out this feature on the sound in the beating scene, courtesy of the New York Times]