Women & Film’s Top 10 Films of 2018
1. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe's nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
Played by a burly, bearded, brooding Joaquin Phoenix, Joe is a man haunted by grief and tormented (but also comforted) by thoughts of suicide. He is capable of gentleness — with his fragile, half-senile mother (Judith Roberts) and with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a girl he tries to save from sex traffickers — and also of ferocious cruelty, directed at himself and his targets. “I hear you can be brutal,” a potential client says. By the time that line is uttered, we know that it’s a drastic understatement.
The movie, based on a nasty, 90-page novella by Jonathan Ames, is brutal, too, less in its graphic violence — though there is plenty of that — than in the grisly intensity of its mood. The plot, which involves an all-the-way-to-the-top kidnapping conspiracy catering to the depravities of powerful men, is lurid and preposterous, an episode of “Law and Order SVU” amplified with self-conscious “Taxi Driver” overtones. A different version of the story would have brought out the weary sentimentality of Mr. Ames’s book, and turned its pulpy genre poses into sub-superhero clichés. But Ms. Ramsay, an uncompromising and iconoclastic British filmmaker whose earlier features include “Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” has never had much use for plot.
Or rather, she uses conventional narrative elements as scaffolding for the emotional effects and psychological explorations that are her primary interests. “You Were Never Really Here” is less concerned with what Joe does or why he does it than with how it feels to be in his skin and in his head.”
Mr. Phoenix serves Ms. Ramsay’s vision with disciplined doggedness. His lines would probably fit on an index card, and none of them are especially memorable. But the sound of his breathing, his groans of frustration and his gasps of panic, his occasional squalls of weeping are hard to forget. Even if his adventures in a netherworld of abuse are not especially credible — or even if they are, to some extent, the product of his own disordered mind — there is something powerful in his agony.
-via New York Times
2. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.
Shoplifters is, very quietly, a film about a crisis. The Shibata family comprises three generations crammed together into a small home—the adults earn low wages; work menial jobs; and struggle to feed, clothe, and educate the kids. This family, and their lives, could easily be framed in the dreariest way possible, and the writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been up frontabout wanting to use his film to address the widening class divides in Japan, which have shredded the country’s social safety net. But his storytelling touch is deft, rendering Shoplifters a warm, heartfelt, and engrossing experience that’s entirely deserving of the Palme d’Or it won at Cannes this year.
One of Japan’s premier directors, Kore-eda is usually drawn to intimate stories. Even though his masterful breakout film, 1998’s After Life, is a supernatural tale about what happens when you die, the movie centers on a tiny governmental office where people are processed before entering heaven. His most recent films, 2016’s After the Storm and 2017’s The Third Murder, were a deadbeat-dad comedy and a mystery, respectively, but both relied on Kore-eda’s sensitivity, his focus on small gestures and meaningful pockets of dialogue, and his gift for developing nuanced characters quickly without relying on exposition.
The situation in Shoplifters is, on the surface, rather complicated. The whole Shibata family lives in the home of grandmother Hatsue (the legendary Kirin Kiki in her final role), who receives a small pension. That income is supplemented by the others taking odd jobs, committing petty theft, and, for Hatsue’s daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), working in a peep show. Early in the movie, Aki’s sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and her husband, Osamu (Lily Franky), come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been abandoned and shows signs of abuse. The Shibatas take her in, even though they don’t really have room for her, thus beginning a peculiar year that Kore-eda meticulously chronicles.
Shoplifters is littered with wry humor and is refreshingly free of judgment. The premise—a poor family essentially kidnaps a young child—could be the foundation for a thriller, but Shoplifters feels more like modern Dickens, with Osamu as a kindly and benevolent version of Fagin, teaching his young charges how to survive in a harsh environment. Along with Yuri, there’s Shota (Jyo Kairi), an older boy who has been raised as a son by Osamu but doesn’t know who his biological parents are. Shota is crucial to the family’s shoplifting schemes and their desperate efforts to scrape by, though Kore-eda is careful to examine the moral repercussions of such a lifestyle.
So much of what the Shibata family does is out of love, but there are heavy prices to pay for not obeying societal rules. Kore-eda isn’t writing a fantasy film where those rules can be ignored forever with impunity. When the Shibatas take Yuri in, they give her a haircut and change her name to avoid attracting attention, but they also show her, for the first time in her life, the value of familial connection.
Early on, Nobuyo offers Yuri something nice and the girl flinches away—she associates gift-giving with her abusive mother, who would buy her things as a cheap apology for her short temper. Nobuyo quickly discerns the situation and gathers Yuri into a hug, whispering in her ear that this is what people who love you should do. Kore-eda’s brutal honesty and matter-of-fact sensibility keep the scene from feeling mawkish. This moment between Nobuyo and Yuri doesn’t solve everything for either character; it’s merely a recognition of how family can both inflict deep pain and heal wounds. The members of the Shibata household are all bruised in their own ways, but that makes their love for one another only more profound.
Eventually, sadly, and unsurprisingly, this world begins to crumble. The film never leans into pure horror or tragedy, but it has elements of both in its denouement, as governmental authorities get involved and everyone tries to figure out a way to stay alive in a country that’s ill-equipped to protect them. The final act of Shoplifters, like all of Kore-eda’s best work, is devastating. After seeing the director tease out every strange bond in this makeshift group, investing his audience fully in their future, one finds it that much harder to watch when things fall apart.
-via The Atlantic
3. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lathimos)
In the early 18th century, England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne occupies the throne, and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne's ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing, and Abigail sees a chance to return to her aristocratic roots.
In January 1711, Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch to occupy the British throne, appointed a former chambermaid named Abigail Hill to be Keeper of the Privy Purse, thus decisively reversing the fortunes of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who had previously been among the queen’s most trusted advisers.
That morsel of historical arcana is the basis of “The Favourite,” a wildly entertaining, bracingly cynical comedy of royal manners directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Anne’s court is populated by vain creatures in sky-high curly wigs and elaborately painted faces. Their pastimes include vicious sexual gossip, indoor duck racing and throwing rotten fruit at naked people. That accounts for the men, who also hold onto most of the power. Even with Anne (Olivia Colman) as head of state, patriarchy rules the realm, and women interested in power, autonomy or survival must navigate the hostile territory of male domination.
The busy, buzzing plot of “The Favourite” is propelled by scheming, double-crossing and manipulation among its three main female characters. Anne, plagued by gout, grief and self-pity, functions as the hypotenuse of a discreet erotic and political triangle, the other legs of which are Abigail (Emma Stone) and Sarah (Rachel Weisz). Sarah, who has known the queen since they were children, is her lover as well as her adviser in governmental matters. An ally of the parliamentary leader (James Smith) and the wife of an important military commander (Mark Gatiss), she pushes for war with France and heavy taxes on landowners.
Abigail, a cousin of Sarah’s, arrives at the palace covered in mud and full of ambition, and what follows can be partially described as a kinky, baroque variation on the themes of “All About Eve.” Abigail plays the role of wide-eyed ingénue, a masquerade that conceals formidable skills in psychological and physical combat. She cultivates an allegiance with the head of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult), a bond based on common interest and mutual disgust. Abigail fights dirty because a hard upbringing has taught her no fight is ever fair. Sarah accepts her as a protégée and is a bit too slow to recognize her as a rival.
Lanthimos, his camera gliding through gilded corridors and down stone staircases — in exquisitely patterned light and shadow, with weird lenses and startling angles — choreographs an elaborate pageant of decorum and violence, claustrophobia and release. The law of the kingdom is mutability, signified by the many names its sovereign and her subjects are called by. Sarah is Lady Marlborough, and also Mrs. Freeman. The Queen is Mrs. Morley. Abigail plots to marry a handsome doofus (Joe Alwyn), hoping to acquire a title of her own. No identity or value is fixed. Alliances shift like the weather. Fortunes rise and fall. Beauty transmutes into ugliness and back again. Love is a synonym for domination, or maybe for submission.
The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.
-via The New York Times
4. Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
In the Pacific Northwest in 1983, outsiders Red Miller and Mandy Bloom lead a loving and peaceful existence. When their pine-scented haven is savagely destroyed by a cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand, Red is catapulted into a phantasmagoric journey filled with bloody vengeance and laced with deadly fire.
More than most movies, it’s hard to know where to begin with an appreciation or critique of Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy.” It’s a really difficult film to capture tonally and even narratively in a review, largely because it is such a stylish, visceral experience that it demands you give yourself over to it actively instead of passively analyzing it. On the one hand, it’s a thriller, of sorts, a vengeance piece about a man killing those who destroyed his life. But, man, does that not really capture the experience of this movie. Some have compared it to an ‘80s heavy metal album cover sprung to life, but that’s only part of “Mandy,” and doesn’t convey the emotional depth that saturates every frame. And then there’s the fact that “Mandy” is kind of two movies in one, a slow-burn journey into hell in the first hour and a blood-soaked climb out of it in the second. Did I mention the chainsaw fight yet?
Nicolas Cage stars in “Mandy” as Red Miller, a lumberjack who lives a quiet life in the woods with his girlfriend Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough. One day, Mandy catches the eye of a cult leader named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who proceeds to conjure motorcycle-riding demons to steal the girl and make her one of their own. In the process, Red is tortured and nearly killed. The first half of “Mandy” is filled with long, color-saturated takes of impending doom. Even casual behavior like quiet scenes between Mandy and Red have a foreboding nature, and then the film peaks in the middle with a waking nightmare as Red sees something no one should ever see happen to the love of his life. Deeply traumatized, Red is destroyed, and there’s a sequence in which Cage drinks an entire bottle of booze (well he ingests the stuff that isn’t poured on his wounds) while in his underwear, howling like an injured animal. It’s going to be GIF-ed and mocked, but it’s actually a great bit of acting, conveying a man not just mourning or in grief but literally destroyed.
Like a character in a Queensrÿche concept album, Red emerges from this destruction with his plans for vengeance. With a title card that divides the film in half, “Mandy” then becomes the movie that most people will remember in that it’s about Red working his way through both the demons that Jeremiah conjured and, inevitably, the gang itself. The heavy metal comparison is apt not just because the genre often included figures like the nightmarish creations that Jeremiah brought to life but in the very structure of “Mandy,” which unfolds in a very untraditional manner in both halves. Scenes play out like songs on an album, episodically cast in extreme color palettes that amplify the trippy, surreal natures of the entire experience. “Mandy” is a fascinating genre exercise in that it is as untraditional a horror movie as you’ll see this year but also relies on so many classics of the form. It is, at its core, a downright biblical tale of evil and vengeance.
It’s also pretty bad-ass when it comes to stand-out moments, particularly an already-acclaimed fight with two men wielding chainsaws like they’re swords. It’s a perfect blend of the old and new in “Mandy” and a distillation of what the film does well in how it takes a familiar good vs. evil sequence and twists it to fit Cosmatos’ vision.
-via Roger Ebert
5. Suspiria (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Young American dancer Susie Bannion arrives in 1970s Berlin to audition for the world-renowned Helena Markos Dance Co. When she vaults to the role of lead dancer, the woman she replaces breaks down and accuses the company's female directors of witchcraft. Meanwhile, an inquisitive psychotherapist and a member of the troupe uncover dark and sinister secrets as they probe the depths of the studio's hidden underground chambers.
The year is 1977, and a young American, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), arrives in Berlin to audition at a dance academy of lofty repute. Her particular wish is to be schooled by the choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who, with her benign severity, her floor-length dresses, and her waterfall of hair, looks like Martha Graham grafted onto a weeping willow. But something is awry at the academy, from its echoing entrance hall to its no-go cellars; one student, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), has gone missing, and another, Olga (Elena Fokina), gets trapped in a rehearsal room. Without warning, and without a blow, her body is bent and cracked beyond recognition, and her agony is reflected in the mirrored walls. It’s as if she were partnered with a poltergeist.
Guadagnino and his screenwriter, David Kajganich, who collaborated on “A Bigger Splash” (2015), do not confine themselves to the dancers. The movie keeps looking elsewhere, as if to trace the spread of the unease. We go outside, to the demonstrations that are roiling West Berlin, this being the violent heyday of the Red Army Faction’s guerrilla campaign. We cross through checkpoints, into East Berlin. We suddenly switch to rural Ohio, and to the sickbed of a dying woman—how does that fit in? And we are caught in the cogitations of Dr. Josef Klemperer, an elderly psychiatrist who is treating the truant Patricia. (His name recalls Victor Klemperer, the Jewish scholar whose diaries are an invaluable record of daily existence under the Third Reich.) His fear, as Patricia unloads her paranoid delusions about the academy’s weird regime, is that she might not be deluded at all.
The actor who plays Klemperer is listed in the credits as Lutz Ebersdorf, and he, in turn, is played by Tilda Swinton. (After much speculation, she revealed the truth to the Times.) It’s an astounding feat of prosthetics and dramatic flair, but, more than that, it deepens the suspicion that we are watching a very serious game; if something about Klemperer eludes our grasp, the same goes for the movie. Madame Blanc and her colleagues are a coven, as we discover, and their rituals—one entails the use of meat hooks—have the glint of genuine witchcraft. (For a laugh, they even hypnotize a couple of police officers, pull down their pants, and mock their genitalia.) To describe the women as standard-issue witches, however, would be an insult, and when Klemperer, as a good Jungian, seeks to decode their mythical status, what he delivers is less a solution and more an incantation: “Three Mothers. Three gods. Three devils. Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum. Darkness, tears, and sighs.” Got that?
The film is the offspring of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (1977), which, with its superhot colors and its pulsing score, was a fever dream, best viewed with a temperature. Its star, Jessica Harper, makes a touching appearance in the new version. Not that Guadagnino aims at a remake. Rather, he claims, his “Suspiria” pays tribute to the overwhelming impact that the original had on him at the age of thirteen. Argento acolytes may well dismiss the result, and fans of orthodox horror will drum their nails in impatience, for this “Suspiria” runs more than two and a half hours, and is decidedly short on cheap thrills. There are thrills, but they come at a high emotional cost. Instead of jumping with surprise, you shiver, wince, frown, and bear the brunt—never more so than when the action hits the dance floor, and when the editing snaps in time with the bodies in motion. Dakota Johnson, so gentle of speech, leaps up and slams herself down into a feral crouch, as if to rebuke the false and unnatural ecstasies that were demanded of her by the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Susie says of her dancing, “I feel like what it must feel like to fuck.” “You mean a man?,” someone asks. “No,” she replies, “I was thinking of an animal.”
-via The New Yorker
6. Border (dir. Ali Abbasi)
Customs officer Tina is known for her extraordinary sense of smell. It's almost as if she can sniff out the guilt on anyone hiding something. But when Vore, a suspicious-looking man, walks past her, her abilities are challenged for the first time ever. Tina can sense Vore is hiding something she can't identify. Even worse, she feels a strange attraction to him. As Tina develops a special bond with Vore and discovers his true identity, she also realizes the truth about herself.
At first, “Border” is the story of an ostracized woman named Tina (Eva Melander), who works at a remote Swedish port where she sniffs out contraband, and long ago accepted that she was ostracized because of her unusual appearance. But this is not your average ugly duckling story. As the movie charts a path to her burgeoning self-confidence, it arrives at a sex scene so unexpected and ludicrous it instantly transforms the movie into a dark fairy tale.
While Tina possesses unique abilities, she has sagged into a mundane routine. A short, bulky woman with a gnarly overbite and exaggerated snout, she spends her days watching new arrivals at the port, sniffing the air like an animal as she puts her inexplicable sense of smell to use by picking up on contraband and busting smugglers on a regular basis. Tina’s peers don’t comprehend her special abilities, but she’s so effective at using them that nobody questions them.
Sadly, years of rude stares and teasing have turned Tina into a dour introvert who has accepted the absence of happiness in her life. She spends her evenings at home in a remote forest with her apathetic partner Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), who’s more content with watching television and petting his dogs than paying her heed; meanwhile, her senile father barely recognizes her when she pays him a visit. Tina finds some modicum of comfort from her relationship to animals, going so far as to pet a passing moose in her yard after dark, but the monotony of her day-to-day routine shows no signs of letting up. As she sneers, growls, and sniffs the air, her peculiar habits seem like a cruel joke with no apparent punchline.
Then she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who arrives at the port and instantly catches her gaze. They pair have markedly similar physical characteristics: the same elongated nose, jagged teeth, and long brow (the movie’s makeup art plays a big role in the plot). Vore displays a strange eagerness to subject to himself to a search from border security, which leads to the first of several revelations about his gender-bending identity and how it relates to Tina’s own feelings of displacement.
She begins to obsess over Vore, who displays all the confidence she lacks, and he begins to seduce her in a series of enigmatic encounters. Abbasi plays up the disgust factor, as Vore has a penchant for munching on maggots and relishes the presence of dirt underneath his fingernails, while Tina is at once repulsed and aroused by every detail of his existence. However, just as their courtship starts to look like an outrageous variation on Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” the story takes another turn that reveals far more about their past and takes the movie into a more fantastical realm. These sexually-fluid beings are more than the sum of their appearances, and when Tina learns as much, she’s forced to grapple with a whole new set of questions.
By the time Vore proclaims that “the entire human race is a disease,” it feels like he’s indicting all of us. “Border” doesn’t stop there. While Tina gains confidence in herself, she’s unsure where her allegiances lie, and the movie concludes with the implication that not every ugly duckling has to abandon the other birds to feel like they belong.
7. Nancy (dir. Christina Choe)
Craving connection with others, Nancy creates elaborate identities and hoaxes under pseudonyms on the internet. When she meets a couple whose daughter went missing 30 years ago, fact and fiction begin to blur in Nancy's mind, and she becomes increasingly convinced these strangers are her real parents. As their bond deepens, reasonable doubts give way to willful belief - and the power of emotion threatens to overcome all rationality.
Done right, the first few shots of a film can pack in a load of information, and the two that open Christina Choe’s Nancy lay much of the groundwork for what follows. In the first, Andrea Riseborough’s childlike 35-year-old title character peers into her phone and texts determinedly, the light giving a blue cast to her pale, blotchy face framed by dyed-black hair. The second reveals that Nancy is perched on the edge of a bathtub across from an old woman (Ann Dowd) on the toilet. “If you could get off that for a minute I’d like to get up,” says the woman, who is Nancy’s mother, Betty. It’s bad enough to have to be inches from someone moving her bowels, but to be verbally shat on, too? (“You’re addicted … Would it kill you to comb your hair?”)
It’s no wonder Nancy — living in a dark house caring for a belittling mother — pours all her emotion into creating multiple personae to make connections with other people. No one wants to publish her short stories — she has a glove compartment crammed with rejection letters from magazines. But online she can be someone she thinks other people need. Before going to meet an email correspondent — a man (John Leguizamo) whose wife gave birth to a baby who died after several hours — she straps on a fake belly: She’s now the young blogger who wrote of her decision not to have an abortion. If you didn’t know that Nancy’s pregnancy is a sham, you’d be moved by their conversation. You’re still moved. More important, Nancy is moved.
Nancy is a grim piece of work, but Choe’s empathy for her protagonist gives the film its distinctive texture — woebegone, with flickers of both hope and dread. There’s enough emotional truth in Nancy’s lies to suggest that she wants to believe they’re true. She’s not a psychopath. She’s just very, very damaged. When, after her mother dies, she sees a TV news report about a couple marking the 30th anniversary of their 5-year-old daughter’s disappearance, she wants to believe that she’s that girl, Brooke, and that her supposed mother had kidnapped her from an upstate New York mall. The thing is, she looks a lot like a photo-artist’s rendering of how Brooke would look at 35. The thing is, she might well be Brooke. Which would explain a lot.
8. The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao)
After a riding accident leaves him unable to compete on the rodeo circuit, a young cowboy searches for a new purpose.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), the protagonist of The Rider, was a rodeo cowboy until a few months ago, when he fell off a bucking horse and suffered a traumatic head injury. With a metal plate in his head and doctor’s orders never to return to the saddle, Brady mostly finds himself wandering around South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation (where he lives with his father and sister) with little to do. In the cruelest irony, the brain damage has given rise to a strange symptom: One of Brady’s hands sometimes locks into a clenched fist, physically unable to let go of whatever he’s holding onto.
It’s the one metaphor The Rider’s writer and director, Chloé Zhao, allows herself in her second movie, which debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival before getting a surprise slew of nominations at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, prior to its stateside release. That critical attention isn’t misplaced. The Rider is a powerful, confident work that blends fact and fiction to create an authentic portrait of life in South Dakota’s Sioux community. At the tale’s center is a man struggling to put aside the one thing that gave his life meaning, even though he knows it could kill him if he doesn’t.
Zhao, a Chinese director who studied filmmaking in U.S., also set her first work in the Pine Ridge Reservation: Titled Songs My Brothers Taught Me, the movie focused on the bond between a Lakota Sioux girl and her older brother, and the bleak conditions of their life. The film never felt sensationalistic, even if it was miserably one-note at times. But while making that movie, Zhao met the Jandreau family at the center of The Rider and worked with them to re-create the real-life story of Brady’s injury and recovery process. (The performers all play fictionalized versions of themselves, but with a different surname.)
Though none of the central cast has acted professionally before, The Rider doesn’t come off as amateurish.
The Rider is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2018 (with the caveat that there are many months to go, of course). It also feels like the announcement of a major artistic talent in Zhao. She blends narrative with documentary seamlessly, giving the audience a glimpse into a way of life rarely seen on the big screen, without exaggerating its difficulties. She strikes another key balance, too: between conveying the dangers of Brady’s risk-taking, and capturing the freedom he feels whenever he’s in the saddle. Zhao clearly understands that universal conflict between desire and reality, and with The Rider, she’s dramatized it beautifully.
-via The Atlantic
9. Happy as Lazzaro (dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Lazzaro, a good-hearted young peasant, and Tancredi, a young nobleman cursed by his imagination, form a life-altering bond when Tancredi asks Lazzaro to help him orchestrate his own kidnapping.
Adriano Tardiolo, who plays the teenage title character in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro, has an amusingly unassertive presence: He’s just there, staring out of huge eyes in wonderment at … everything. With his soft, rounded features, Tardiolo suggests a rustic, beefier version of Elijah Wood’s baby-faced Frodo, except that he’s not a talker and he doesn’t seem to have any mission except being helpful. Lazzaro is happy, all right, but is he vacuously happy? Is he meant to be an allegorical figure — a simpleton saint? Part of the movie’s fun — and it is fun, once you adjust to its uninsistent rhythms — is how it forces you to share Lazarro’s go-along-to-get-along ebullience.
10. Capernaum (dir. Nadine Labaki)
After fleeing his negligent and abusive parents, a hardened, streetwise 12-year-old boy sues them to protest the life they've given him.
Nothing in director Nadine Labaki’s first two pleasant but tonally inconsistent features, “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?,” approaches the power and skill of “Capernaum,” which represents a major leap forward in all departments. Proving herself an astonishingly accomplished director of non-professional performers as well as a measured storyteller, Labaki draws attention to the plight of children in Beirut’s slums and the Kafka-esque bind of people without ID cards. While this is unquestionably an issue film, it tackles its subject with intelligence and heart.
Labaki uses a trial to structure the film, though this isn’t a courtroom drama and those scenes are wisely kept to a minimum. Admittedly the case could probably only exist in cinema: Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), already serving a five-year sentence for stabbing someone, is suing his parents … for giving him life. Approximately 12 years old (even his parents don’t know his exact age, and they never got a birth certificate), this pint-sized James Dean is a sensitive toughie simmering with righteous resentment. One glimpse at his troubled home life and it’s easy to understand why.
Visually, “Capernaum” is notably more sophisticated than Labaki’s previous work, and certainly more gritty. Sequences where the camera hovers around Zain’s height allows for a sense of subjectivity without an easy reliance of p.o.v. shots, and rising cinematographer Christopher Aoun proves his mettle with a number of potent scenes, such as the moment when Zain tries to protect his parents from selling Sahar for a few chickens. Editing is also skilled, and Khaled Mouzanar’s low key music is in perfect harmony with the film’s emotional tenor, accompanying the action without manipulation for most of the way.