Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

We Need To Talk About Kevin
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