The Kids Are All Right
The kids might be all right in Lisa Cholodenko's film, but the adults have plenty of problems to deal with. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple who have each had a child by the same sperm donor. Now that Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has turned 18, her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) wants her to seek out their father, which is how Paul (Mark Ruffalo) comes into their life. While Jules and Nic initially make an effort to welcome this new presence in their children's lives, the relationship between the three adults eventually becomes strained and complicated, and Cholodenko skilfully finds both comedy and tension in this awkwardness. Her direction is extremely astute throughout, highlighting small gestures and glances that communicate so much of her characters' hidden thoughts and feelings, and the screenplay she wrote with Stuart Blumberg is full of sharp, funny and insightful dialogue. Occasionally, The Kids Are All Right does hits a bum note, and I was never entirely convinced by the way Paul and Jules' relationship developed, as it felt more like a device required to move the plot forward than a natural progression, but these minor caveats don't do a great deal of damage to the picture as a whole. The performances are exceptional, with Julianne Moore in particular doing her best work for years, and Cholodenko provides all her actors with their moments to shine. This is one of the most adult, engaging and satisfying American films of the year.
Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires)
The second film from 21 year-old wunderkind Xavier Dolan is beautiful and stylish but disappointingly shallow, much like the characters at the centre of his romantic drama. The director himself plays Francis while Monia Chokri gives an outstanding performance as his best friend Marie, two trendy twenty-somethings living in Montreal, whose friendship comes under threat when they both become besotted with the same man. The problem is that Nicolas (Niels Schneider) never exists as anything more than a sexually ambiguous lust object, and watching these two jump through hoops to win the heart of someone who barely seems worth the effort eventually grows wearying. Still, there is a great deal to enjoy here, and despite his tender years, Dolan is hardly lacking in confidence either in front of or behind the camera. His direction is daring and vivid, and he crafts a number of gorgeous and imaginative sequences which are accentuated by the colourful costume and production design. He is guilty of self-indulgence at times, displaying an excessive fondness for slow motion and for a couple of his soundtrack selections, but it is bold and sensual filmmaking nonetheless. Sadly, the shallowness does tell in the film's second half, which often drags aimlessly, and Dolan seems to have a great deal of difficulty bringing his picture to a close. Every time the screen cut to black in the film's faintly tedious final 15 minutes, I was ready to leave. As bold and sensual as Heartbeats undoubtedly is, it eventually outstays its welcome.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Santa Claus depicted in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is not the jolly, bearded figure in red that we are so familiar with. Instead, this Finnish oddity depicts him has a horned monster whose 'little helpers' are scrawny old men with a taste for reindeer and a fondness for abducting naughty children – Merry Christmas, everyone! Jalmari Helander's film is unevenly paced and it doesn't quite hang together at times, but it's a fun and pleasingly twisted Christmas movie with some imaginative touches. The film doesn't really seem to have enough plot to fill its entire running times, and there are a few stretches in which Helander doesn't seem entirely sure of where he's taking things, but it has a charmingly off-kilter sensibility and it builds to an exciting and outlandish climax, which isn't overly hampered by the ropey effects. As the young boy who has the courage and tenacity to save the day, Onni Tommila gives a terrific performance in the lead role.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat)
This extraordinary and unique film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it fully deserves every honour that is bestowed upon it. The young Thai director has ditched the bipartite structure of his previous films for a more straightforward narrative here, although straightforward is perhaps not the correct word for a film so suffused with mysterious happenings and cryptic tangents. Essentially, the story is about Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a farmer slowly dying of kidney failure, who is visited by ghosts and by the memories of the lives he previously lived, whether as a man, a woman or an animal. The film is driven by a genuine belief in reincarnation and the transformation of souls, and while I'm not going to pretend that I understood all – or even half – of what I saw, I found the experience of watching it absolutely mesmerising. There's something about the way Joe composes his shots and paces his films that completely sucks you into his world, not to mention the outstanding and atmospheric sound design. Uncle Boonmee has something wondrous to offer in almost every scene; the appearance of a spirit at the dinner table, a sexual encounter between a princess and a catfish, the monkey ghosts lurking in the darkness, the gorgeous cave exploration. It is an astonishing and transcendent piece of work, so endlessly imaginative and enigmatic, and I can't wait to see it again.
It's Kind of a Funny Story
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Sugar was always going to be a tough act to follow, so perhaps it's no surprise that It's Kind of a Funny Story ranks as a disappointment in comparison, but this more conventional film is still very enjoyable. What I admire about this filmmaking partnership is the way they take themselves in a new direction with each picture, and this is their first novel adaptation, with Ned Vizzini's book providing the source material. Keir Gilchrist stars as Craig, a suicidal 16 year-old who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital for treatment, and during his five days there he meets a number of people who help him see through his problems. For a while, it's hard to ascertain exactly what tone Boden and Fleck are going for, and the film's hectic opening half hour is hindered by some ill-advised comedy inserts and fantasy sequences. When it does settle down, however, the film becomes a good deal more involving and the filmmakers successfully walk a fine line between treating the hospital's patients as empathetic figures as well as a source of comedy. Gilchrist is excellent in the lead and Emma Roberts gives a very appealing performance as the self-harming Noelle, but the acting standout, surprisingly, is Zach Galifianakis. This is exactly the role Galifianakis needed to show that he can do something other than play the comedic man-child, and he invests the character of Bobby with a soulfulness and hint of pain that makes him the most compelling presence in the film.
Everything Must Go
I don't think I've read the Raymond Carver short story that Everything Must Go is based on, and yet this film felt so tiresomely familiar to me. Will Ferrell stars as Nick, an alcoholic executive who loses his job and his wife on the same day. As her parting shot, Nick's soon to be ex-wife locked him out of the house and left all of his belongings on the front lawn, so he decides that's where he'll stay, drinking in the garden while his life crumbles around him. Cue a couple of underdeveloped supporting actors to turn up and help Nick turn his life around; a young black kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) who helps organise a yard sale, and a pregnant neighbour (Rebecca Hall, wasted again) who occasionally pops into the narrative without doing much of interest. The story is flat and unconvincing and writer/director Dan Rush directs in an unimagitive fashion. The biggest problem, however, is Ferrell, whose limitations as a dramatic actor are exposed in the straightest role of his career. He never looks completely comfortable in the role, and the character never allows him to display his strengths in the way that The Other Guys recently did. As I watched this banal and forgettable film, I frequently wished I was watching that picture again instead.