So what happened is this: As some may have noticed, I have removed my yearly lists of top ten films for the past five years from the site. They’d been taunting me with how quickly my tastes had changed, and I found them inadequate at this point. Instead, I will be conveniently replacing them soon with a long list of my 50 favorite films of the first half of the 2010s, now snugly coming to a close after five long years. Expect plenty of overlap, but the text will all be brand spankin’ new, and of course 2014’s crop of beasties will be on board too. I promise I won’t do this again, but a good portion of those lists were leftovers from my previous pre-blog writing days, and I wanted to start fresh with the new year.
For the next few days I will be uploading a collection of short reviews, in pairs for post-size sake (although the pairs will not be linked conceptually at all, unless you consider films released in the 2010s a sufficient link). All will be of films that are in consideration for the list (great films I first saw or re-watched recently, with some new and not-necessarily-so-great 2014 leftovers I just caught for the first time thrown in for fun). Just some stocking stuffers for y’all to tide you over this Holiday season.
The Raid: Redemption
2014 brought The Raid 2: Berandal, which upped things to operatic heights of artistic blood-letting and furious visual motion, but sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off in spades. For The Raid 2 frequently hits, and hits hard at that, but if director Gareth Evans took action down to the wheelhouse on a never-ending train ride of grandiose brutality, his storytelling stowed away to no avail. The end result was a film of two halves, one a rampagingly color-coded action extravaganza with an eye for physical motion and space, and the other a pretentious, over-cooked crime thriller with eyes for Infernal Affairs that don’t suit the film’s strengths.
It was too long, and too self-important, to elevate itself to the halls of great cinema (when it works, however, nothing works quite like it). It should have taken a lesson from its pugnacious, ready-to-rumble predecessor and knocked things down a notch to its rambunctious, brutal core. The Raid’s heights do not reach as far as its successors, but it has a much higher batting average, and is a much more stream-lined, cohesive, propulsive product as a result.
Evans’ concoction certainly knows the benefit of simplicity, with a stripped, mechanically perfect idea played down to its bare essentials of space and time: Rama (Iko Uwais), along with a collection of heavily armored SWAT agents, rush an apartment block in hopes of catching a gang boss who resides at the top off guard. Naturally, things don’t quite go their way, and Rama has to make due with what he has – which turns out to add up to no small amount in the final analysis.
Already, things are primed and ready to go, Evans’ film taking the form of a pit viper ready to strike. On the more traditional front, the first quarter of the film is a masterclass in suspense simmering to a boil, with Evans editing for maximum impact and teasing out the existential air of deterministic genre filmmaking. But it’s when the film blows up thirty minutes in, and Evans proves he’s a conceptual artist in a director’s body, that things take a turn for the sublime.
Evans’ work here is transformative: brutal, bruised, beautiful, and matched in its torrential circularity only by its forthright directness. He directs action like a ballet of the senses, drawing out emotion and tension through geometric form and finding passion in bodies in eternal transience. The film never seems still; it glides and lurches forward, blending the smooth and the painfully grimy to perennial success like a mad charmer. The end product is perhaps the most progressive, forward-thinking action film in years (if we forego Steven Soderbergh’s own 2012 film, Haywire, and its rivetingly deconstructionist anti-action self-critique, but that’s in a league of its own). Combined with the choreography by star Uwais (who gives an effectively sweaty, nervy turn as Evans’ meat-bag du jour) and Yayan Ruhian, which emphasizes physicality and fluid motion in its bluntest form, The Raid is a singular potion of pure muscular construction.
It is in short the kind of film that restores one’s faith in genre cinema, a film to cherish as much as your particular modern art house resurgence pic of fancy. Furthermore, it is not merely as good as a work out of the art house, but it is good for the same reasons: snug, expressive filmmaking, a boisterous attitude, a particular and tumultuous eye for raw geometry and physical form as concrete and immediate as it is conceptual and notional. It’s a work of true art; its art simply happens to take the form of crushing skulls and and severed limbs. Certainly, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it fits your fancy, sink in.
Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s particularly inscrutable 2010 Western, braises the genre down to its bitter, sun-scorched roots. She follows a wagon party traveling Westward with the sands of time on their tracks, resigning herself with poetic distance to the far reaches of space around them and carefully, pointedly refusing to comprehend or explore the inner machinations of their minds. Although the characters are graced with strong performances from the likes of Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood, the actors don’t so much inhabit the roles as become transfixed by them. It is not an actor’s film, for the characters are icons in an environment stood up only to be shot down again, props in a director’s vision which emphasizes mood, texture, and tempo rather than psychology. Whatever details we might glean from these people are entirely tenuous, brittle graspings for meaning in a forlorn landscape which decries it.
The net effect of Reichardt’s exclusively inductive portrayal of the world is to capture with icy observational prowess the hellscape of Westward movie in the limbo of space and time Reichardt has provided them. We get the sense they might walk off the frame and circle back to begin again on the other side, never moving forward, melding stagnancy to circularity. Chris Blauvelt’s white-hot cinematography almost sets the characters on fire, yet they don’t run from it. They’re blinded, shocked into submission by Reichardt’s intentionally static, wide-open frames that extend in every direction to find the characters at their slightest and most ant-like. The best in show though might be Jeff Grace’s heavy, burdensome, tormented string score composed almost entirely of hard angles that seep through the screen and almost stab the characters in their tracks.
Meek’s Cutoff is a difficult film, courting turgid chill at every turn. It seldom cuts, never giving its viewers the gift of release, and the intentionally monotonous cinematography goes on and on until it numbs us to the pain. For Reichardt, the worst thing about the Westward Passage isn’t desperation or hopelessness, but that these two emotions serve as spikes and exceptions to the prevailing sense of weariness and apathy. That’s a dangerous proposition, one we aren’t wont to support in many films. But it is an important one, and a necessary truth about human experience at its most traumatically disengaged. Meek’s Cutoff latches on to that sensation and never lets go.