It’s been a little while, so I thought I’d herald my return to the ol’ website with something I promised to do back in early 2016. I finally got around to seeing three films from 2015 that I couldn’t simply forget about: Josh Mond’s James White, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, and László Nemes’s Son of Saul.
All three of these reviews were previously published on my Letterboxd page, where I give brief reviews of every movie I’m watching. I’ve edited them slightly for this article.
Link to my Letterboxd page: https://letterboxd.com/TheCineMaverick/
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
Josh Mond’s first feature tackles a bevy of serious problems for its title protagonist: a flaming temper, addictions to drugs and booze, a relative lack of ambition, a heaping of self-loathing, and (to top it all off!) the scourge of cancer that afflicts his mother. Yet the film’s great strength is that it overlays these problems, letting its protagonist define and, in some cases, genuinely defy them. It’s shot through with a sort of hazy cinematography and shallow focus that shows us a man locked inside himself, but still responsive to the world and open to the possibilities of love and change.
The film mostly succeeds in its naturalism, though at times we see Mond straining a bit too hard to evoke the tragedy of James’s life. I’m thinking especially of scenes where James’s violent tendencies come to the fore. Luckily the actors manage to sell them (for the most part).
Fair warning: Christopher Abbot’s scenes with Cynthia Nixon as his ailing mother may wreck you. They’re probably the best written scenes because they acknowledge grief and pain while also acknowledging an acceptance of their circumstances. I’m not sure how profound the film is, but it strikes a raw, emotional chord that feels just right.
Heart of a Dog
Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)
Director Laurie Anderson takes what could have been a sob story about her lost pooch and transforms it into a free flowing, philosophical ramble about love, loss, and human consciousness. Part doc, part fiction, part poetic musing, it refuses to be pinned down, either by genre or subject matter.
Yet despite tackling various subjects from modern surveillance to linguistics to 9/11, Anderson’s film always feels of a piece. She finds parallels between the macro and the micro that feel completely natural, that remind us we’ve been here before, if not in memory, then perhaps in dream.
This film is a free‐wheeling, ever‐evolving dialectic, prone to commenting on itself (and on occasion, rebutting itself). It belongs in the same conversation with Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life: true film experiences that move to their own rhythm, defying categorization. Feel free to take a ride.
Son of Saul
Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)
In his debut feature film, director László Nemes dive headfirst into the abyss. This isn’t just another Holocaust film; it places that monumental tragedy in a new and frightening context. Most prominent is Nemes’s bold choice to shoot the film in almost total shallow focus, a technique that serves multiple purposes. Sometimes it shields us from the horrors; at others, amplifies them, letting our imagination account for what we can’t see.
Nemes also recognizes the absurdity of the camps, horrific as they were. He even finds moments of humor that don’t distract from the tragedy as much as reveal the myths of so‐called Nazi supremacy.
Géza Röhrig as Saul is integral to all this. He’s never showy despite the camera that centers on him. He plays a human being brought to the lowest point, desperately searching for meaning amongst the dregs of humanity. And yet the film never judges his singlemindedness, letting us makes up our own minds. What a miracle that is.
It’s the deserved winner of last year’s Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, that rare success of form and subject matter.