“Maybe a miracle will happen,” ten-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) says, after hearing from a classmate a rumor about the new bullet train. The rumor is that when the incoming and outgoing trains pass one another, each racing at 160mph, one can make a wish and it will come true. What Koichi wants more than anything is for his family to be back together.

But Koichi isn’t the only one putting his eggs into a superstitious basket. One of his best friends wants to marry their lovely, bare-legged school librarian. His grandfather believes he can perfect a recipe for karukan cakes and make a tidy income on the side. A classmate wants to become an actress and beat out the more gregarious and self-absorbed girl who has already experienced more success in commercials. In essence, director Hirokazu Kore-eda asks gently, isn’t this how we live? We experience our world through a haze of magical thinking. (This lovely, sweet film is streaming now on Netflix.)

Koichi and his mother have moved to live with her aging parents in Kagoshima, a city perched across a bay from a volcanic mountain, Sakurajima. Every morning when he wakes up, he retrieves his air-dried swimming trunks from the balcony outside only to find that they are covered with volcanic ash, which he disgustedly knocks off. He fastidiously wipes down the floor mats in his room, as if to express his hatred of the entire situation.

In semi-secretive phone calls to his little brother Ryu (Maeda’s real-life little brother Oshirô, equally geeky and winning) — who’s living in Osaka with their musician/lie-about father — Koichi tries to persuade him to conspire to bring their parents back together. As much as he misses his brother, the happy-go-lucky Ryu appears less eager to reunite their parents, for reasons we see only gradually.

Nor are children the only ones who believe in some form of magic. Koichi’s parents separated because his father (Jô Odagiri, aka total hearthrob) put more effort into his music than earning a living — a fool’s errand if ever there was one. An elderly couple spends an evening pretending that perhaps that sweet child really is their grandchild, the child of their long-gone daughter. Koichi’s ham-fisted homeroom teacher, Mr. Sakagami (Hiroshi Abe, hearthrob x2) believes with one clunky gesture that he might serve as a father figure for the boy. Once we start to see the full landscape of wishes, foolish hopes, and magical thinking, we realize that there are so many competing and contradictory wishes swirling around the universe that they kind of cross each other out.

I’ve only seen three of Kore-eda’s elegant films, yet I’m completely in love with his vision. The best was Still Walking (2008), with its tense family reunion of people disappointed with one another. Kore-eda has a way with children, as he showed in Nobody Knows (2004), a wrenching film about a family of children effectively abandoned in a tiny apartment by their mother whose best (worst) advice was to remain under the radar of neighbors and the authorities. I Wish is sweeter, gentler, more evocative — and his two main stars, the Maeda brothers, have a grace before the camera that feels magical on its own.

This film feels so much kinder than this director’s previous films that its ultimate themes of reconciliation and realization sneak in slowly. On some level, we start to see that we engage in magical thinking at the very same time that we are realists. It’s one of the gentlest films about existence I’ve seen. But just because its protagonists aren’t faced with life and death terrors doesn’t mean the stakes are low, or that the director has nothing important and original to say.

Frankly, after seeing films that put their child characters at serious risks, it was a relief to see these children permitted to be children, given the gift of wishing without the horrors of what I think of as “movie reality” dashing all their innocence to shreds.

I will also say that this film benefits from subtlety and the specificity of culture — one must watch carefully, rather than get distracted during the bits that might look slow to someone used to over-caffeinated Hollywood fare. It feels quite Japanese, with its references to karukan cake and Japanese baseball heroes and J-TV that most Americans won’t recognize.

But I hope you watch it anyway and let the unfamiliar bits wash over you while you focus on the director’s larger themes (as well as those impossibly wonderful Maeda brothers). I loved this film, and am now working to find a way to see Kore-eda’s back catalogue of directorial efforts.

Meanwhile, for those of you awaiting Hurricane Sandy’s wrath: good luck!

Before the Academy Awards I heard a lot of doomsaying from critics about the tedium of Best Picture nominees. “The form is dying!” someone is always bound to say at moments like this, because declaring the premature death of a genre is a way to get a lot of hits on a webpage. This post is all about fresh, innovative films I can’t stop thinking about.
Now, I love a good story — the kind of story told in, say, in such enjoyable but unchallenging films as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech — but just lately I’ve seen three more experimental films that mess with the genre altogether. They take on different modes of storytelling and camerawork, cross over into stage and formal painting, and sometimes eschew words altogether. The risks they take, and the things they achieve, give me new hope for the genre and make me wonder what film might do next: these films feel exciting, fresh, and wildly successful if not popular. The Arbor, The Mill and the Cross, and Le Quattro Volte are films for pushing out from the form’s limits.

1. The Arbor (dir. Cleo Barnard, 94 mins.): film, theater, biography, legacy

I’ve already raved about The Arbor, pronouncing it to be one of two winners of my own La Jefita awards for the best female-directed film of 2011.  So you’ll excuse me for puffing this one again — it’s just so good. It’s ostensibly a biography of Andrea Dunbar, a precociously gifted young playwright who emerged from a miserable housing estate in Yorkshire rife with the diseases that often accompany poverty — racism, alcoholism, mutual misery. Her plays re-created those voices and conflicts, and was called “a genius straight from the slums.” Meanwhile, Dunbar never escaped that world: she died at age 29 in a pub after a hard life of drinking, bad relationships, with three children born to three different men.

What I love so much about this film is the way it folds many layers of theater — specifically Dunbar’s own theatrical style — into the film. In some scenes actors sit in the middle of Dunbar’s own housing estate and re-create snarling, spitting scenes from her first play The Arbor, as current residents stand around the edges watching awkwardly. In others, we see those scenes re-created more intimately, as if they’ve been done for a film version of the play. Best of all, still other actors lip-synch the recorded interviews done with Dunbar’s family and especially her two daughters, girls left with the legacy of their mother’s gifts and weaknesses.

I’ve always preferred film to theater, mainly because I’ve had only stunningly limited access to good theater, and I’m one of those people who complains when a film feels overly stage-y or when an actor performs too theatrically. I can honestly say that only once before, in watching Vanya on 42nd Street, did it occur to me there might be so much to be gained by an overlap between the two media. Thanks to The Arbor, I’m converted.

2. The Mill and the Cross (dir. Lech Majewski, 96 minutes): film, art, vast historical sweep and everyday life

Isn’t this how it goes? I make a bowl of popcorn (popped in a pot on the stove with olive oil and butter so you can taste a few burned bits); I adjust all the shades in the living room so the light is just right; and I pop my head into the room where my partner is working.

“Wanna watch a film based on the 16th-century Bruegel painting, The Procession to Calvary?”

Blank stare and a flat “no.” And with that, I realize this is going to become joke fodder: Unbelievably Bizarre Films Didion Thinks She Can Make Me Watch.

I watch 15 minutes and cannot take my eyes off the screen. After 30 minutes I press pause and send a frantic email to my Dear Friend, the scholar who knows a very great deal about early modern Europe, insisting that she stop whatever she’s doing and watch this film. (She doesn’t obey, but that’s because she has a job and a life, and because when considering the triage of that job my email falls way down on the list.)

When I took Intro to Art History as an 18 year old undergrad, it was Bruegel above all whose work I found riveting. He loved to lavish attention to the mundane bits of everyday life: the country dances and bread baking and field workers that passed his eye every day — and he rendered those figures with a kind of affection that seemed rare for that era (to an 18-yr-old undergrad, anyway). He loved to see children at play and portrayed the hunch of a workman’s back, bent over his plough, with love.

But Bruegel’s attention to the quotidian could also carry deep political statements. So when I say that The Mill and the Cross simultaneously re-creates Bruegel’s painting and pries it open, you’ll forgive me if I skip all the spoiler details so you’ll experience the same sense of wonder. Just wait till you see the inside of that crazy mill at the top of the painting or the scene of a pile of children tumbling out of bed in the morning — and just wait till it ends.

Just like Bruegel, Majewski occasionally indulges in fantasy — and just like Bruegel, he shocks you with sudden bursts of violence, laced with hints of political significance. This painting was created during a period of Dutch lay opposition to the Inquisition as it had been implemented in part by the state. Spanish soldiers circle around this film, but the film demands that you do the work of figuring out what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.

But the most amazing thing about this film is that at the same time it teaches you something about art history, it ultimately shows you that we are always blind. At the same time that your eye keeps lapping up detail (JB over at The Fantom Country described it nicely as “the canvas moves”), you start to realize you’ve missed something important. The film has the same deeply humane and reformist vision as The Procession to Calvary, and this is a remarkable thing. There have been a lot of films that purport to show you artists at work. After seeing The Mill and the Cross you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of them.

3. Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 88 minutes): mineral, vegetable, animal, human

Where do I even begin?

Let’s begin with Pythagoras, who lived in Calabria in the 6th century BC and spoke of each of us having four lives within us – the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human. “Thus we must know ourselves four times,” he explained. What kind of a crazy person decides this is the fodder for a film? Yet that’s what Michelangelo Frammartino does: he returns us to a tiny Calabrian village to tell of those four times (quattro volte) in an film utterly free of dialogue.

Maybe this already sounds pretentious. I can assure you it’s so unpretentious as to almost be a secret. 

Frammartino uses abrupt cuts and surprising vantage points — one minute a bird’s eye view of the village, the next a goat kid being born — and prevents you from feeling comfortable all the while. You’re never quite sure what’s going on, and the lack of dialogue forces you to scrutinize the scenes all the more closely. A long, long shot of a mountaintop or a tree makes you wonder — what am I supposed to see here?

Did I mention the film contains moments of humor that are almost as silly as a Buster Keaton film?

You’ll also be surprised that Frammartino can tell stories of vegetable and mineral just as effectively as those of human and animal. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see how he segues from one to the next, and how you can find yourself so weirdly involved in each of the film’s four movements.

Way back when I started this blog and wanted to create lists of my favorite films, I created a category called “films about existence” — a category that seems eminently problematic, yet still encompasses what these three films are doing. Each of them stopped me in my tracks as much for their innovative narrative styles and intersection with other art forms as for the extraordinary places they took me in considering the metaphysical. I’m going to keep my eyes on the field for similarly innovative, risky films. Let me know what you think I should see.

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

Mija lives with contradiction. So do I, and so do you, of course, but in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, it seems so stark. This 66-yr-old grandmother (played by beloved Korean actor Yoon Jeong-hee) has an almost whimsical lightness, as when she announces she’s going to take a poetry class at the cultural center. “I do have a poet’s vein,” she says. “I do like flowers and say odd things.” Yet her life also looks pretty bleak from our perspective, from the grim apartment she shares with her sullen teenaged grandson (Lee Da-wit) to her part-time job working as a maid and caregiver for an old man who seems to have suffered a stroke. This movie is a small masterpiece that reminds me of exactly why I watch film: to find unexpectedly searching, overwhelming films that haunt me for days afterward.

Poetry is such a perfect central conceit for the film, for the class sends Mija into an eager new determination to see the world with fresh eyes. When her teacher explains, “Up till now, you haven’t seen an apple for real,” she gazes up at him with naïve awe. “To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it,” he explains, “that is really seeing it.” This is exactly Mija’s view of poetry: lovely words about lovely things. But as she struggles to complete her sole assignment for the class — to write a single poem — her world begins to change, and she finds herself forced to see the ugliest things.

Mija may seem a bit foggy-headed in her innocent cheeriness, but we realize soon enough that everyone around her works is even more expert at overlooking their own pain as well as the tragedies of others. When she learns that she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she won’t tell her daughter, who lives in another city and seems to have very little to do with her son Wook. Instead, Mija cheerfully explains on the phone that the doctor told her to write more poetry, and then proceeds to boast a little about how close she is to her daughter, what good friends they are. But when she does broach something more serious — the fact that Wook is driving up her electricity bills to unmanageable levels — her daughter seems to brush over and ignore Mija’s precarious financial situation. Mija’s almost comical attempts to sing away her worries at a karaoke bar or gaze into the soul of a tree or a piece of fallen fruit in search of poetic inspiration appears, after all, to be perfectly in keeping with the head-in-the-sand approach to life taken by all around her.

There is one thing that cracks her surface dottiness: learning that not only is her grandson Wook a typically self-centered teenage douchebag, but he’s also a member of a group of boys responsible for a shocking series of crimes. It’s so shocking, in fact, that Mija’s first response is to repress the information — and you realize by the end of the film that we viewers, too, are weirdly eager to repress it. It’s the most eerie bit of finger-pointing I’ve ever seen a film achieve. The other boys’ fathers invite Mija to a cafe to discuss the problem — and by problem they mean how to bribe the victim’s family so they will not bring in the police to prosecute the boys. These men insist they feel bad about the crimes, but “now’s the time for us to worry about our own boys” — the boys’ futures must be secured. Mija wanders outside in a daze, crouches near a lovely flower, and takes out her notebook to jot down some poetical notes. Yet despite her instincts to repress the information, now when she sees red flowers, she can’t help but take notes about blood and pain.

It’s extraordinary, this film. It’s sending me on a quest to locate all of Lee’s previous films — not an easy task, as it turns out — and confirms my uneducated view that South Korea is one of the very few most creative cinemas in the world right now. It’s also one of the few that regularly features retirement-age women in phenomenally complex and rich parts — witness last year’s Mother, which should have earned its star a best-actress Oscar. There’s also a feminist vision at the center of this film that I can’t delve into without spoiling crucial parts of the plot; and I can’t help but see a potent political fable in Poetry, one that worries about society’s future in a way that is both transfixing and, ultimately, transcendent. Please see this film, and then tell me how much its elements come to you in dreams and visions. For it has most certainly haunted me in a way no thriller or horror film can.

I’m feeling so sheepish for having skipped seeing this for so long — because I’m so blown away by this film’s simplicity and elegance. There’s something so unnerving about the blue, blue eyes of these Scandinavian men as they perceive the world around them and try to make sense of it. Its themes about the nature and inevitability of violence, the psychology of revenge, and the sources of petty cruelty are painted so exactly and without decoration that I can’t believe it has never been done before. Most moving for me is young Elias (Markus Rygaard), whom the mean boys call “Rat Face” at school; but equally touching is his father (Mikael Persbrandt, above) who’s determined to model gentleness and gentlemanliness to his sons. Beautiful, stunning: it’s exactly right that Danish director Susanne Bier has won the Oscar and all those piles of other awards. I don’t even want to ramble on about it — just see it.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been in close contact with a former grad student who’s been looking for a salaried academic job for five years. Such a long time on the academic job market isn’t uncommon anymore, but it seems worse to her because last winter she finally signed a contract for a good job, only to have the university renege on the contract (they claimed statewide budget cuts). No wonder she’s now full of a terrible bundle of resentment, defensiveness, and misplaced shame. No wonder she has a hard time working up the energy to start applying all over again.

The problem she’s facing is that all those resentments bubble up to the surface and inflect her interviews. When one interviewer asked her recently about how her book manuscript was coming along, she blurted out, “I’ve been adjuncting for up to six classes a semester taught at three universities spread out over 110 miles! Sometimes I drive four hours a day just to get to and from class!” Another interviewer asked why she’d want a job at his third-tier school in Nebraska, and she said, “In this job market? you can’t seriously be asking me that question!” These are, of course, not the “right” answers. Even though we all learned at some point to maintain perfect composure and patience during interviews, she’s suffered such long-term trauma about work that she’s lost that mask—and losing it has caused her to suffer even more a sense of failure and frustration. Every single conversation brings up all that bile, to her detriment.

Thus, long-term trauma has thus been on my mind lately—and we know from our Psych 101 classes that it begins with the family, which is where it appears in the beautiful, acidic, funny film Still Walking (Aruitemo, Aruitemo), easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda takes as his subject the gathering together of two 40-something siblings and their families at the home of their aging parents, a gathering oriented around the commemoration of the siblings’ beloved oldest brother’s death a dozen years earlier.

What seems at first glance to be mundane is fraught with meaning. The siblings’ 70ish mother (Kirin Kiki) cooks constantly and somewhat frantically, varying her conversation between cheerful gossip and firm instructions about recipe preparation, with occasional dips into disapproval and superstition. The father, a retired doctor (Yoshio Harada), locks himself in his examination room with undisguised crankiness. Their grown daughter (You) has already arrived with her cheerful RV-selling husband and their rambunctious and good-hearted children, all of whom behave like they’re ready to appear in a sitcom about an ideal family.

They are waiting for the arrival of their second son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who’s not ready for any sitcom at all. There’s a list of the ways Ryo is not looking forward to this visit. First, his job as an art restorer is so tenuous that he spends most of his time on the phone seeking out new work; there is no way he’s going to tell his parents that he’s struggling to pay the bills. Let’s not even talk about the fact that he’s not a doctor like his father, a longstanding source of serious friction. Second, he has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son from her first marriage, an act that his mother pronounces unlucky. Why couldn’t he have married a divorcée, they mutter when he’s not around. And finally–most important, if you ask Ryo–he’s always going to be the second son, second in their love forever, always behind his long-dead brother. In other words, this is a visit like every other family visit: everyone walks around with their nerves on full alert, like very long cat’s whiskers on a hair-trigger response system.

And so they begin the frantic attempt to tick away the hours. Aside from the ritualistic trip to the cemetery there’s not much to do, so they spend it eating, eating, eating. They talk about eating, and in between they say unconsidered things to one another. Ryo’s father reluctantly emerges from his room for dinner, only to offend Ryo’s eager-to-please wife. Meanwhile, Ryo is so wrapped up with his own resentments that he fails to notice that his parents are treating his adopted son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), so formally that he may as well be a stranger.

Beautiful, weird, chilling, funny, cringe-making–the Yokoyamas might as well be your family. Roger Ebert calls Kore-eda one of the finest living directors in the world and the true heir to Yasujirō Ozu, who developed such eloquent, complex views of human relations. Me? I’m going to hunt down every single one of Kore-eda’s films on my path to deciding whether I agree.

Sofia Coppola’s Golden Lion-winning Somewhere can be disconcerting for its paucity of spoken words. It is, above all, about people who spend their time looking and being looked at rather than speaking: A-list movie stars, models, exotic dancers. Its protagonist, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), spends his days at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel drinking and lounging and picking up women and watching blonde pole dancers in twin sexy nurse outfits dance for him alone.Recovering from a broken wrist, he’s in this strange limbo, this somewhere, that seems alternately exotic and utterly mundane: he gazes impassively out of car windows, stares blankly at the pole dancers, and falls asleep in the middle of performing cunnilingus. He’s passive, lacking agency except for all those random hookups — and in Coppola’s subtle way, she asks us to think about such an existence in a way that never seems simple, never merely empathetic. What would it mean to spend your time being wordless?

For me such an existence is fundamentally foreign, for my world is structured by words — my days are (happily) filled with writing, reading, listening, debating, and (less happily, but I’m okay with it) lecturing and leading discussions. Here I am, in my free time, writing some more. There’s nothing that makes me happier than the anticipation of cocktails with quick-witted friends full of tales and observations; a perfect sentence in an email can make me emit involuntary squee noises. Words made me fall in love; they made me have an existential crisis while reading on a bus back in college. This film made me step out of my logocentric world to somewhere else.

After watching Johnny stare with blank pleasure at the pole dancers, it’s disconcerting to watch him gaze at his 11-yr-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). And yet … it’s not the same gaze, is it? Cleo has arrived for a regularly scheduled visit from Johnny’s ex; one of their first stops is the ice rink, where she’s taking skating lessons. At first, Johnny’s distracted — he keeps getting threatening texts from an anonymous number — but then he turns away from his phone and starts to watch Cleo move through a choreographed routine. She’s still tentative, but graceful; one can see her growing confidence in making difficult moves. Director Coppola is content to just let us watch Cleo, and watch Johnny watching Cleo, for it brings up strange emotions. One can’t help but think, at first, about how much Johnny’s tired eyes are more accustomed to watching exotic dancers; is he sexualizing his daughter? Coppola knows we’ll move through that thought to something more subtle: the ways that when he’s with Cleo, Johnny starts to show signs of life.

It took me a while to see Somewhere, and by this time I worried I wouldn’t like it. A lot of critics expressed a kind of frustration with it that amounts to something like, Why should I care about some rich actor’s ennui? I’ve written before about the suspiciously sweeping criticism leveled at Coppola: for example, although he attributes these complaints to unnamed “critics,” Dennis Lim of the New York Times claimed last December that “she makes the same film over and over again,” and that “the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.” As Rob noted back then in the comments to my post, it doesn’t really make sense to call Coppola an auteur and simultaneously complain that she returns to similar themes from one film to the next, which is pretty much what auteurs do.

After reading all that naysaying, imagine my delight when I found Somewhere to be striking and different than Coppola’s earlier The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. This one is ultimately about a kind of unexpected parenthood — a man living an aimless, oversexed life begins to find himself opening up to a new, inexpressible love and connection to his daughter. Just look at that complex expression on Johnny’s face, above, as he watches Cleo skate on the ice: this is a lovely screen portrayal of what parental love can do for a man who’s essentially just a child himself. It might well be an idealized portrait of fatherhood — after all, Johnny is unencumbered by worries about money or work. But I’ve never seen it before onscreen, and it doesn’t feel idealized when you watch him experience these emotions.The hardest part for Dorff and Coppola was to achieve all of this wordlessly, in long shots of facial expressions. Imagine the contortions involved: you are Stephen Dorff (a famous actor with many rabid fans out there), playing a different famous actor who’s used to crazy adoration. Your job is to act without any crucial dialogue, and to express on your face that weird conglomeration of feelings — from a growing contentment with life to anxious protectiveness — that emerge from this deepening relationship with your kid. Let’s face it: words don’t really capture those emotions.

Which brings me to one last note about an uncharacteristically funny moment in the film. Despite speaking very little Italian themselves, Johnny and Cleo fly to Milan to attend an Italian TV awards show at which the garrulous hosts ramble on with typical MC repartee in rapid-fire Italian. They invite Johnny up on stage to receive an award and tell him “the stage is all yours” — but as soon as he expresses gratitude and delight in his limited Italian, an overcaffeinated group of female dancers pour out on stage to wiggle and grind and sing lyrics he can’t understand, leaving him perplexed as to what to do. He’s left standing there again, wordless, grinning uncomfortably.

Yeah, maybe that moment is a little bit like Lost in Translation — but the context is so different that it’s unfair to make that charge. Honestly, I don’t care if Coppola herself is rich, the daughter of a famous director, and preoccupied with capturing inchoate feelings onscreen. She does extraordinary work, and I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next. I, for one, am happy to set aside my logorrhea for a Sofia Coppola film in which emotion comes before words.

The opening scene of Miranda July’s The Future shows Sophie (July) and Jason (the eminently appealing Hamish Linklater) at opposite ends of their sofa. It’s a nice shot, with their identical heads of dark brown curls, their big eyes, their shared quirky sense of humor. This is a couple dedicated to their own perpetual youth. Later, Jason strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely old man and suddenly realizes that the old man has exactly the same sofa — as well as a lot of the same quirky items of household art — making Jason realize this man might be a kind of cosmic mirror of Sophie and Jason’s future. Oh yes: trepidation about the future is the central theme of this film.

Here’s the thing: my parents used to have that sofa too — a comfortable, classic 1970s deep brown wide-wale corduroy. It was great for sitting and reading in exactly the position Sophie and Jason have assumed here. For little reasons like this, I wish this film had captured me from the get-go.

Instead, I had problems with the film’s central conflict: Sophie and Jason have found an old, injured cat; they have reluctantly decided to adopt it; and this prospect makes them uneasy about becoming adults. The cat’s so sick that the vet only expects it to live for six months or so — unless, the vet says, it bonds to its new owners and is very well cared for (and yes, the cat has a voiceover in which it explains how much it has already bonded to them. I can just imagine July’s haters gagging on that plot element). At first I liked this conceit: the young couple determines to leave the never-never land of their perpetual youth and decides to become, simultaneously, both parental figures and caregivers for an old, dying animal. No wonder it brings up all manner of fears about the future.

What’s less persuasive is their shared sense that true adulthood and middle age are equivalent to death. “We’ll be 40 in five years,” Sophie says fearfully, those lips open with quivering uncertainty; to which Jason responds, “Forty is basically 50. And then after 50, the rest is just loose change.” By “loose change,” he means “it’s not enough to add up to anything.” When the vet also tells them they can’t take the cat home for 30 days, they take bold steps to prepare for/repress the future: they quit their clockwatching jobs and decide to let the universe tell them what to do with their lives, permitting them a rare, temporary openendedness. The remainder of the film is about those 30 days of freedom — Jason’s improbable and deeply unsuccessful adventure as an environmental canvasser, Sophie’s determination to create 30 new dances and post videos of herself on YouTube. Instead, their relationship goes to hell.

This premise only worked for me about half the time. I’ve never had a problem with getting older; hell, I like myself a lot more now than I did during parts of my 20s. I’m baffled by those who indulge in crises around the arbitrary ages of 30, 40, or 50. In addition, coming from a line of long-lived women as I do, the notion that everything after 50 will be “loose change” makes me yawn. I can appreciate, however, the notion that the prospect of taking on a pet might bring on anxieties about one’s capacity to be parental. Children, sick pets, one’s aging parents — who doesn’t have fears of becoming permanently responsible, prepared to deal with death and grief?

Compounding my ambivalence about the basic plot structure is July’s weird on-screen persona. She seems to like to make us wince a little when watching her. She plays self-serious, sensitive, artistic types — it was the same in her début film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2007) — and here, as Sophie, she’s a bit too prone to breaking into interpretive dance, and often while wearing creepily weird items of clothing (see above photo). No wonder she has real haters out there, as I learned from reading an unusually thoughtful profile piece in the NY Times Magazine by Katrina Onstad. But what is it that they hate? The cringe-making personalities she depicts onscreen are supposed to be gently funny, not admirable. These aren’t hipsters — as Onstad puts it, “in July’s work, nobody is cool.” She’s poking gentle fun of hipsters, but not doing it so much that she loses their attention. She clearly has great affection for quirkiness (to wit, the cat who narrates the film). But her focus doesn’t end there: she wants to show what happens when such people get really, really stressed — and she seems to want to spark in us the most passionate desire for human connection.

But a talking cat? Ugh. Named Paw-Paw (because of its injured paw)? Is there a line between her mockery of the twee and her full embrace of it? And let me note, too, that the cat is voiced by July, who has an unusual and somewhat grating squeaky voice. It’s worth noting that when I emailed with the blogger/critic JustMeMike about possibly doing a joint review of this film, he was pretty skeptical about The Future‘s similarities to Mike Mills’ Beginners, released earlier this summer, which had a talking dog, a woman prone to elaborate bodily postures, and a high level of quirkiness. Perhaps it goes without saying, but July and Mills are married. (JMM: this film also touches on the subject of magic.)

Ultimately, that’s the thing about July. Watching films by this filmmaker demands that you wrestle with her odd persona, both in and out of character, as well as her strange mixture of cutesiness and the dead-serious, occasionally awful dialogue mixed with occasionally heartbreaking moments of truth. My ultimate take? This is just not as successful a film as her earlier Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2007; nevertheless, you can bet I’ll go see her next film.

Do you remember how it felt as a child to misbehave — to behave so badly that you wondered if your soul had turned permanently bad? For me it was sometime around age 11. I became a horrible person, and I couldn’t stop being that person. I was mean to my sister on a new level, outdoing my previous triumphs at cruelty. Worse, I could not stand my mother. We entered a short period in which I was unbearable to her in a way that I still cannot quite understand, intellectually or otherwise.

If I had been Terrence Malick and had grown up in 1950s Waco, Texas, I’m quite certain I would have understood this part of my life through a biblical framework. How could you not? The bible is full of tales of fathers and rebellious sons, brothers who battle one another — and distinctions between those who are chosen and those who are fallen. Good and evil; choices; fateful acts. In that context would I have seen myself as evil? Would I have asked whether one be saved from evil, or regain grace? Instead, I grew up female, later in history, and without religion. Thus I wonder, are these questions of Malick’s, so beautifully captured in The Tree of Life, not just Christian but male ways of seeing the world?

I loved, loved The Tree of Life — and because none of you needs yet another critical assessment of the film as a whole, let me don my gender hat instead. I do so in part because Malick’s work always struck me as painfully, extraordinarily sensitive to women and the strange, dark, inexpressible relations between women and men. Even just thinking of the voiceovers by Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973) and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (1978) breaks my heart. Tree of Life seems different, male. This is the most amazing film about childhood I’ve ever seen; but it seems to me not a universal story but one about boys.

This film is deeply, profoundly concerned with manliness and patriarchs. “There are two ways through life,” his mother (Jessica Chastain) tells Jack (Hunter McCracken), “the way of nature, and the way of grace.” So close to grace that she’s nearly angelic, she infuses her young son with close attention to the wonder of nature and protects him from the world’s terrors. In one scene she dances with a monarch butterfly, which lands on her hand; in another short clip, she spirits her son away from the disturbing sight of a man having a seizure on their front lawn. Yet ultimately her way of grace can’t protect them from the husband/father (Brad Pitt) whose dissatisfied, striving character makes the “way of nature” so impossible to ignore, and so interchangeable with “feet of clay.” Surrounded by brothers and those neighborhood boys who run in packs, Jack is utterly focused on his father’s quickly changing moods, on the project of being male.

Pitt’s jaw juts out just a little bit more than usual in this role — it’s so subtle, so evocative of the resentment and cussedness always simmering below his steely surface. (This is the best acting I’ve ever seen from Pitt; it’s crazy good, and he’s absolutely found his match in the exceptional Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.) He can be such a loving father, but the love is overshadowed by terrifying moments in which he educates his sons in manliness. “Hit me!” he says to his sons when he tries to teach them how to box, simultaneously glaring and smacking his own jaw to indicate where to aim. In another, rare confessional moment he admits his mistakes to Jack: “Don’t do what I did.” He rules the dinner table with an iron fist; it’s tricky even to know how to pass the mashed potatoes, so Jack watches his father closely. Everything about his father’s physical presence — those heavy glasses that serve as a mask, the military-trim crew cut, the beefy hand with which he grabs his son by the neck in an expression of simultaneous affection and control — bespeaks a man constantly wrestling with himself. Kartina Richardson puts it most succinctly: the film shows that “to be white and male is not only to be in a prison, but to be the prison itself,” over at her elegant blog, Mirror.

Malick spins outward from this personal story — especially the tale of the older Jack (Sean Penn) still disturbed by the death of his brother at age 19, a moment we only see via a telegram arriving at his aged parents’ house — to the biggest questions we have. In breathy voiceovers, we hear Jack at various ages asking, “Where are you?” “Why am I here?”, that universal set of questions about existence we keep asking over and over. Is he asking God these questions? Is he asking his dead brother? “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will,” the younger Jack whispers to us. But it’s really Father, isn’t it? And beyond that, isn’t Malick really wrestling with a Christian god?

Thus, as much as I loved, loved, loved the film, I ultimately found it oddly disconcerting that for him, the universal questions have that Christian overlay with its oppressive, problematic manliness. As important as my father is to me and was to my childhood, his role was so non-patriarchal that I feel all my own hard questions were inflected by different problematics than Malick’s. I knew when I walked into the theater that Malick infused his story with some of those piercing, unanswerable questions; but when I walked out I felt a little bit farther away from my own questions, those which troubled me so deeply and which still occasionally wake me at 3 a.m.

The Tree of Life seems ultimately to tell a story of a particular kind of man looking backward. But whether or not it portrays something universal, it produces a sense of wonder in the viewer — by means of those amazing shots of nature, astronomy, bubbling volcanic magma, mysterious fires — such that I spent all afternoon today hiking in those beautiful rare wild parts of New Jersey with all five senses heightened. Sometimes the beauty of a bird flying, light shining through a canyon, or a shot underwater of waves crashing up above is enough to humble you to the core, to break your heart at the passage of time.

Oh, the back and forth between the divine and the specific. Most of all, the scene that stays with me is that of the boys racing out to greet the DDT truck that wandered the streets in the 1950s to eliminate mosquitoes with a delicious cloud of fog. My mother tells an identical story from a different 1950s childhood (indeed, she and Malick are nearly the same age). Somehow the specificity of this scene creates the same delight as the waves and canyons and cathedrals. It’s in that cloud of whispered questions, lost innocence, half-remembered moments, and that fog of shots that you lose yourself. All of it, including the autobiographical parts, seem to show the world from a child’s height, as the camera looks up at Jack’s parents or at the dome of a beautiful building: spectacular. This film may be the story only of one boy’s life, his own patriarchal Christian questions, but you won’t leave the theater quite the same.

Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.