“The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”

A weak translation, I am told by the internet, of Boethius. It almost makes one want to learn ancient Greek. Almost.

Seriously, though, 24 Hour Party People is a great movie.

In which ten movies are reviewed in a failed response to a request for "not too subtle", "visually appealing" non-comedies

One of my favourite movies from the last few years was A Winter’s Bone. Harsh, dark allegory in the small hills and hard lives of the Ozarks. Brilliant noir meets western sensibilities in a morality play about how norms, rules and power play out in the shadow of the law. Like the Coen brothers without any of Tarantino’s glib distance from what’s happening.

How dark are you willing to go? Snowtown (or, for North Americans unlikely to pick up the box of what sounds like a ski-weekend comedy, The Snowtown Murders) is a kind-of horror movie, sans both the genre’s exhausting titillation and its sense of the Gothic. Rather, a depressing window on the conditions under which criminality gets normalized. In that way like Breaking Bad, except it doesn’t try to win points by having protagonists you care about. Very violent, with some scenes of torture made all the more nauseating when you know the movie is based on real case history.

A “lighter” option (because it is about terror rather than horror) is Animal Kingdom. By making a movie about bank robbers without any bank robberies, the writers are able to create the perfect setting for a portrayal of the fear of living with people who you know are not only capable of profound violence, but also under constant threat of becoming its victims. That set up is executed perfectly, by having the camera rather than the dialogue do most of the heavy lifting. Had my adrenaline running to the point I actually had to pause it at points, even though there are no explosions, no quick cuts, no firefights, and only one (very subdued) chase scene.

Another great movie that lets the camera do most of the psychologizing is Martha Marcy Mae Marlene. Also some unsettling violence, but here most of it is implied rather than played out – save one startling scene that thankfully ends quickly. Provides an insider’s view of what it might feel like to join a cult, and in particular, of the way in which transgression is used to maintain group coherence, and what that means for members if and when they leave.

A cute, off-kilter take on cults, though one that provides less insight into what we are like as social beings is The Sound of My Voice. I dare you to watch the first 12 minutes (which you can, online) and not feel like you have to see the end game. Replaces the sociology of Martha Mae with the soft-focus metaphysics of a freshman dorm-room. Is she or isn’t she? The narrative provides just enough misdirection to make you feel at the end that the answer can only be “both.”

If dark and disturbing are not really your style, I guess I would ask a question: how do you feel about Wes Anderson? He made Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums. If you are into his style (and there is really no mistaking it), then rush to see Moonrise Kingdom. It provides all the twee, odd, strangely paced artifice and nostalgia, painted in pastels and tartans over the surface of every one of his films, though with less of the pathos that marked, say, Tennenbaums. Some people find his focus on art design rather than art frustrating, and can’t connect to films without the veneer of Hollywood “realism”; if you are not that person, then you will probably find more than a few things to like in this particular take on his one-man genre, a particular interation that dips more directly into the style of kids’ adventures books than anything else in his oeuvre, in some sense even more so than The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Though this one has nothing on par with the latter’s amazing wolf-on-the-hill scene.

An older movie that also borrows from the school of valorizing presentation over representation and flair over fervour, is Rian Johnson’s Brick. In its essence, it’s like a film school project on genre mixing, bringing together film noir’s mystery, caricature, hard knocks and careless violence with the lightness, nostalgia and dramatis personae of a cheesy high school romantic comedy. Except for a few moments where Johnson allows the awkwardness and doubt of actual teenagers to poke through the script’s surface, the mastery of the film lies precisely in how well these two elements are balanced, giving what is obviously pastiche the patina of reality.

Speaking of bank robberies, and of old movies, have you seen Inside Man? A Spike Lee joint that seems the most significant departure from his usual efforts to capture the lived realities of America’s black communities, the film proves that his skills go much deeper than just a commitment to faithful storytelling. By letting the narrative unfold both forward and backward toward the heist’s punchline, Lee is not only able to make a movie about the thrill of constructing and executing the job (a la Ocean’s Eleven) but also provides a mystery, or really two mysteries, one of which is as political as you would expect from one of his picture. Except for the spent payoff of knowing how the hell they pulled off the job, the whole thing held up under a recent second viewing, as well.

A movie that really lets the camera do a lot of the work, and some might say too much, is Meek’s Cutoff. For those who played it, the idea that this is “the best movie never made about the Oregon Trail video game” is sure to catch a few laughs; the movie, on the other hand, is unlikely to catch any. About the madness of heading of West in the early years, it seems to star the scenery more than any of the actors, portraying plains so flat and desolate that they allude to an unspoken intent to kill. Probably falls into the “too subtle” category, but only if you think there is supposed to be some point beyond simply portraying what it was like to be there for the people crazy enough to start the journey. Very. Slow.

The movie I am most excited for the release of this year is Upstream Color, not because I know next to anything about it, because it was made by Shane Carruth, and that he made Primer. Primer┬áis like Rian Johnson’s most recent movie, Looper, in that it’s about time travel, except that it was made on less than 1% of the budget, is much smarter, and actually takes that subject matter seriously. Too often, science fiction gets caught up in chasing the possibilities of “what if?” in a way that ignores that all fiction works on exactly the same premise. Rather than chasing “aesthetics of the future” that almost always reveal more about present neuroses than presenting any real thought about how technological change, social change and design might interact, the film simply takes the “what if?” seriously, letting particular characters in a particular place respond to the disruption of a new technology. You could say that Carruth is also “too subtle” here, in the sense that catching the drift of the narrative probably requires a second or a third viewing, but that is a feature of a film that is unafraid to work with the real consequences – moral, metaphysical, psychological – of messing with one of the fundamental building blocks of our experience.