Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 December 2015

More 2015 Films. Awards-Season Edition. Part 1.

Confession. I have other writing deadlines that I should be working on and other reading I am supposed to be doing. But I am in Los Angeles, and I've been here for about 5 days. In that time I have seen 4 movies. And if I don't write down some thoughts, then I'm bound to forget everything.

The best of this bunch – and one of my favorite films of the year – is Youth, Paolo Sorrentino's new movie about two octogenarians (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) relaxing in a hotel in Switzerland. Caine plays Fred, a retired composer and conductor, and Keitel plays Mickey, a brilliant filmmaker who is working on his next movie with a team of young writers.

Youth is the follow up to 2013's The Great Beauty, and it is very similar in style to the earlier film. Its themes are somewhat similar, too, although I think Youth is more introspective, more about how we behave with the people around us, than The Great Beauty was. But Youth is filled with extraordinarily fascinating characters (Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz, Robert Seethaler, and Jane Fonda are all excellent in supporting roles), powerful dialogue, and lots and lots of magic. This movie, perhaps, has even more magic than The Great Beauty. There is a gorgeous shot early on in the film where Caine is walking on a tiny footpath in Venice. He's just above water level and is surrounded by many Venetian buildings lit up gorgeously. Coming toward him on the bridge is Miss Universe. They inch past one another comically and then continue. It looks like a tribute to Fellini's Casanova at the same time as it looks like something only Sorrentino could dream up.

Vacationing with Paul Dano
Fellini comes up again and again while I watch Sorrentino's movies, and he makes me like Fellini even more. He seems to have imbibed all of Fellini and then coupled it with dance music and irony and a kind of hopeless utopianism. I absolutely loved this movie. It is everything I need from a film. This is a film I wanted to see again as soon as it ended, a film made by a master of the craft (and he's still very young!). There are numerous sequences I could describe that are unforgettable – an extraordinary section where a retired football player (an homage to Diego Maradona) kicks a tennis ball repeatedly into the air without it ever falling, a running joke about a couple that doesn't speak at dinner, an entire bizarre and beautiful section with Adolf Hitler – these sections just keep coming in Youth. The film is consistently surprising, constantly beautiful. As in The Great Beauty, beauty is everywhere around us. And the final sequence – a gorgeous song by David Lang – is the most deeply moving scene of a film I've seen this year. I cannot recommend this enough

Oscar possibilities for Youth: not too many. Jane Fonda is looking good for a supporting actress nomination, although it seems insane to me that no one is talking about Harvey Keitel for best supporting actor. He is amazing in this movie. David Lang should also snag a best original song nomination for "Simple Song #3".

* * *
Lebanon's foreign language submission to the Academy Awards this year is a film by Naji Abu Nowar called Theeb (Wolf). It is an exciting little film with several surprise reversals in it. Theeb is a sort of combination character study slash adventure film slash coming-of-age story. It is by turns strangely erotic and oddly sentimental. In fact, I should say that I think what Theeb is is what Bone Tomahawk sort of wished it could have been. It also boasts an excellent performance from an actor named Hassan Mutlag, a murderer turned father figure who is much more fascinating than the child at the film's center.

But Theeb isn't quite as exciting as I wanted it to be, and it doesn't quite have as much to say as I wanted it to say. This may be (I've noted it before) related to my own impatience with films about children growing up or films that see the world through the eyes of a child. (In fact, I am sort of positive that this is part of the reason I was rather soft on the movie.) But Theeb is also a kind of love letter to a way of life that has passed. The film is set in 1916 during World War I and it mourns the passing of desert guides as the railroad arrives. This struck me as odd, too, since there are, of course, still nomadic peoples who live in the desert and raise animals the way Theeb's family does in the film.

In any case, Theeb is a good little film with some interesting and surprising plot twists, but it never really got under my skin.

Oscar possibilities for Theeb: One. This film made the shortlist of 9 possible nominees for Best Foreign Language Film out of the original 81 submissions. I can't see it actually scoring one of the final five slots, but it could happen.

More movies to come in the next couple of days.