I awarded three stars to each of 35 films this year, and I could envision almost any of them on my honorable mention list. I’ll confine myself, though, to the three films this year that earned 3.5 stars but just missed my top-ten list. In alphabetical order, they are…
“The Angels’ Share,” a sleeper of a Scottish comedy by director Ken Loach, who made my top-ten list with 1990’s “Hidden Agenda” and 2000’s “Bread and Roses.” Loach brings his trademark integrity and acuity to this story of Robbie, a young Glasgow street tough who wants nothing more than to provide for his girlfriend and new son. When the whiskey connoisseur who runs Robbie’s community payback program takes him and his mates on a distillery tour and Robbie hears about the two percent of each cask that evaporates naturally (the angels’ share), he thinks he sees his chance. The lightness and joy of the movie – its warm heart and stream of big laughs – caught me off guard. I recommend seeking it out when you’re in the mood for an evening’s great light entertainment.
Pablo Berger’s black-and-white silent movie “Biancanieves,” full of Spanish music of every kind from romantic guitar to heel-clicking flamenco. A melodramatic reimagining of the Snow White story, the film opens in Seville in the 1910’s, where the beloved matador Antonio takes on six bulls on one card before losing his concentration for one brief and tragic moment. Badly gored, he falls into the clutches of the avaricious nurse Encarna, who learns that his wife has died in childbirth and insinuates herself into his conservatorship.
The forgotten daughter, Carmen, lives with her loving grandmother, but Encarna soon brings her to their expansive estate, warning that “the entire second floor is absolutely off limits to you!” Carmen and Antonio share stolen moments together while Encarna engages in obliquely observed perversions and heaps cruelties on Carmen. After assiduously ignoring her for months, Encarna finally invites her to dinner – at opposite ends of a screen-length table - where Carmen realizes that Encarna has roasted her beloved rooster, Pepe. “Don’t you like Pepe-ry chicken?” Encarna asks. After fending off the flunky Encarna dispatches to kill her, Carmen escapes into the woods and a caravan of six dwarf bullfighters who take her under their wing. The film climaxes at the same coliseum where it opened, where the appreciative crowd throws Carmen coins and roses – and one temptingly juicy apple.
“Biancanieves” stays true to the essential framework of the classic narrative while adding lots of charming and delightful little touches. Berger has made a lurid and lush film as interested in feeling as in structure. And his last shot is an absolute gem.
One of the two hardest films of the year to describe (the other is Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color"), Miguel Gomes’ allusive, languorous and entrancing “Tabu,” filmed in 16mm black-and-white and told in two halves, the first in contemporary Lisbon, the second in colonial Mozambique. We first meet Dona Aurora late in life, an ornery woman given to gambling sprees who believes her lifelong maid, Santa, secretly practices witchcraft on her. Her kindly neighbor, Dona Pilar, wants to help her but doesn’t know how, until Aurora asks her to summon a man, Gian Luca, whose name she’s never before mentioned.
Pilar finds Gian Luca at a nursing home, where he recounts his history with Aurora. She was happily married to a moneyed farm owner in the valley of Mount Tabu when he met her through his bandmate Mario, her husband’s close friend. Instantly an electric spark of sexual attraction jolted through them, and in the film’s second half (largely silent but for Gian Luca’s present-day narration), we see their reluctant and star-crossed affair unfold and unravel.
So what’s the movie about? Giving yourself over to the enveloping warmth of its shadows. Listening to the regretful words of the elderly, as much for their beauty as their wisdom. Stream-of-consciousness storytelling both exceedingly simple and mischievously complex (some events as likely as not imagined by the characters relating them). Aurora’s pet crocodile. A cinematized vision of colonial life that makes no claim to reflect reality. A traveling band that wanders Africa covering Phil Spector songs. Clouds in the shape of animals. The way a woman’s lip quivers at the height of sexual ecstasy and at the pit of romantic despair. The gaudy neon lights of a casino against the dolorous face of a woman paralyzed by nostalgia. Love letters thrown into a fire. Love letters not thrown into a fire. So there’s your review.