The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (2014)

The Babadook has to qualify as the most over-rated film of the year. I really don’t understand the hype around this one. Horror film? No. Psychological thriller? Barely. It’s pretty much a straight allegory of the grieving process, and a damned literally minded one at that. If Freud’s Dora had a kid, this would be her song (as writ by screenwriter Freud of course). The film is so bloody straightforward there are no cracks for interpretation to slip in, and certainly no room for scares. The “horror” aspects of the movie are so cliché and banal I can’t believe critics are eating them up (bugs coming out of the wall, lights flickering, creepy voices, skittering J-horror style monster, etc etc etc). More offensive is that the director seems pretty high on her own supply, acting as if she’s reinvented the horror film by putting it on “serious” footing – in interviews, she compares it favorably against big studio horror sequel dreck, and acts like she has just invented psychological horror. What, we’ve never seen a film before concerning a mother ambivalent about her own child? We’ve never seen a horror film with “symbolism?” Perhaps such things are less frequent in American cinema of late, but certainly there is a rich history in Europe of psychological horror, and maybe she’s heard of our Canadian friend Mr. Cronenberg? It is well made, for sure, but I found it pretty boring and on the whole pretentious – a few dark humor chuckles here and there, but no scares, and no need to think about the film after the fact, as it is so… damned… literal.

One and a half stars out of five

I don’t like pooing on a female director, so in compensation I’d direct interested viewers to Netflix to see Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, an exceptional and comparatively quiet drama about struggling through the passages of life, trying to define yourself before the clock runs out. Psychologically astute, nuanced, and unlike Mr. Babadook, the implications and resonances grow in proportion to the viewer’s observational perspicacity. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. The performances are great too. All three of her features are streaming, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the other two (Archipelago and Exhibition). Check ’em.

Force Majeure – Ruben Östlund (2014)

Force Majeure got little buzz at Cannes, and looked a mix of serious drama and satire, so my hopes were low. Happily, it turned out to be underrated; the satire is balanced by psychological nuance and writing that mines the territory in relationships between the trivial and the weighty. It’s an effective satire of the “Dad impulse” (over-explaining coupled with under-performing) but manages a level of modernist-style symbolism that both keeps the film itself from triviality and elevates it to Euro art film territory (which it easily inhabits). It works on multiple levels. Not amazing, but very solid and memorable.

Three and a half stars out of five

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I’d recommend Goodbye to Language even if it were horrible, simply because it is Godard in 3D. It is not horrible, however, and resides aesthetically somewhere at the middle point between Godard’s relatively more “normal” late narratives and his video work a la JLG/JLG and Histoire du Cinema. His use of 3-D is easily the most interesting I’ve seen (in a “mainstream” release), and the film is quite funny too. Spoiler alert: the juicy fart Foley work in this rivals the Wet Hot American Summer DVD for over-the-topness.

Four stars out of five

Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy (2014)

Today I saw Nightcrawler. The Gilroys somehow make interesting films that move me not an iota (Michael Clayton being the exception, but it was still just one small iota). It makes an interesting companion to Gone Girl in its focus on the perverse (and erotic) American fascination with images, and is worth seeing for Gyllenhaal’s performance. It lacks visual interest, though, or any ability to affect via cutting or narrative structure. Like many of their films, it seems low key and interested in detail, but ultimately builds to little more than a character study. As that, it’s not bad, but for a supposed thriller, there is little lurking inside except night and sleaze.

Two stars out of five