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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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Frank

Chris Campbell

It's an odd and bold gamble to take an actor and put them in a mask for the bulk of a film, but with Frank and Michael Fassbender it works surprisingly well. It's an odd concept but the mask reveals more than it hides in the characters surrounding Frank and it forms the emotional core of a film that goes from some pretty extreme tonal shifts to create one of the most memorable films of the past few years.

Aside from some rather wide shifts in tone, Frank also is bold with narrative point of view. It begins firmly in the head of aspiring musician Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and it ends with the perspective shifted and him walking out of the film at the end. Drawing on writer Jon Ronson's own experience in a band along with several other band stories mixed in, it's a complex picture of the creative process and talent and how things get created.

It's a darkly funny story that deals with mental illness and different people deal with it as well. It also deromanticizes many myths about artists and how they form. Part of the pleasure of the film the surprise at how things develop, so I'm not going to spoil that. But the heart of the film is in how the characters interact with each other and with Frank. Fassbender somehow manages to convey a surprising range of emotions all while beneath the mask and he also he has a great and distinctive singing voice.

The first member of the band we meet is the manager played by Scoot McNairy who has been turning in great character performances for years (most notably in Killing Them Softly). His portrayal of the manager as someone who is dealing with depression is one of the more unique portrayals of that in recent films. It's part of the strategy in the film of shifting tone to keep us off balance when we see something and are not sure if it is funny, sad, tragic, or all three. Most of all the characters are human and complex and they constantly resist stereotypes.

While audience surrogate Jon thinks the band (with the unpronounceable name The Soronprfbs) should be more popular, Clara (played with gusto by Maggie Gyllenhaal), wants to focus on the music and working together as a band. This conflict forms the dramatic tension and undermines the expectations we usually have for this type of musical film that traditionally ends with a big concert scene. The distance between the vision that Jon has for the band and the reality keep diverging throughout the film and that is ultimate it results in him leaving the narrative as he realizes that he doesn't belong there.

A great film can join a dramatic structure with solid acting and Lenny Abrahamson brings together a cast that have many subtle and beautiful moments as we go on a strange musical journey. Frank does have one of the most powerful and transcendent endings of any film of the past decade and it stayed with me for days.

Two Days, One Night

Chris Campbell

Two Days, One Night has a deceptively light and naturalistic shooting style. With a hand-held camera and moving around behind characters, there is an improvisational documentary feeling to it as with the Dardenne brothers other films. But like those films, there is a lot going on around that casual feeling with a world filled with interesting and complicated characters. With Marion Cotillard at the centre of the film in yet another stunning role, it becomes a deeply human and moving experience. With most scenes happening in long takes, we follow Cotillard's Sandra as she fights for her job over a weekend by talking with her coworkers to convince them to give up their bonus to allow her to stay. It's an unfair situation created by the manager of the solar panel plant where she works, but in the struggle we gradually see more of who she is and her relationships. It goes in unexpected directions and while it never feels like it is showing off, it also features some of the best cinematography in any recent film.

The technique of using the documentary style adds a layer of reality to the story which feels as if it is happening in real time. In some ways it's a distant echo of Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 in using a tight framework to highlight character. Using portable equipment and improvisational cinematography shows us a sliver of the world that the characters are within. It's a fragile and beautiful world that is a privilege to see.

The Dardennes create deceptively simple films that illuminate the human condition. Their films centre on difficult ethical choices and how character emerges from those situations. Often there isn't a right answer and in seeing the characters struggle with their choices is where the drama comes from. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard's costar is Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione, who supports her. The dramatic structure works surprisingly well as she tracks down and meets with coworkers over the weekend. We get glimpses of their lives and challenges along with Sandra's and there are some amazing moments that happen between them as the journey continues. It exemplifies the power of personal cinema in the hands of sensitive and gifted filmmakers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Chris Campbell

At the heart of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is a virtuoso performance by Ralph Fiennes who fits perfectly into the elaborate sets and huge cast that Anderson assembles. For those who love his complicated confections it is a joy, and for others I wonder if it holds up as well. I was lucky to see it on a big screen to enjoy the details in a big old theatre which felt perfect. It strikes a perfect balance between humour and melancholy in a similar way to how he did it with Rushmore which is my other favourite Anderson films.

One of the things I often forget about The Grand Budapest Hotel is how elaborately constructed with different time frames. Structurally the film is like a set of matryoska dolls with times nested inside one another. It begins close to the present day, then goes back to 1985, then to 1968, and then to 1932 where the bulk of the story happens. It features the usual meticulous attention to detail with art direction and design, but this time it connected with me because of the story, based the work of Stefan Zweig, who told stories of Europe in the time around World War I.

The detailed construction of the film and the relationships between the characters is like the desert craved by many of the them, Mendl's Courtesan au Chocolate (a more complicated Religieuse). The ingredients for the film are echoes of Anderson's other films with the old European location providing the perfect backdrop for the international cast to engage in their intrigue. The author tells the story of how he met Zero, who tells his story of how he met Gustav H. and Zero's great love, Agatha. Most of the characters are not too deep, but as the film jumps around between them, there is just enough detail to keep it interesting.

For me the true genius of the film is how it smuggles in emotion. It crept up on me and hit me as it did with Rushmore. It's about people connecting in difficult times and finding happiness and pleasure no matter what the circumstance. It's about how the stories we tell that keep the memories of people alive. Below the layers of art direction and sophisticated camera work it is about friendship and love. It's great to see a filmmaker working at the peak of their power with everything balanced just right. The blending of the story and technique works well and it's a joy to see a cast and crew that are clearly enjoying what they do.

Ida

Chris Campbell

Shot in crisp black and white in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with precise and off-centre framing that recalls the work of Bresson, Bergman, and Dreyer, Ida carefully and quietly shows a series of revelations. It's short and powerful, feeling distant at first, but becoming more and more emotionally engaging as the film goes on. It's the coolness of the approach that let the film creep up on me while exploring the role of the Catholic church, Communism, and the Holocaust in post-war Poland. While the topics are heavy, the film never feels that way with the face of Anna forming the mirror that we see everything through.

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and cowritten by Pawlikoski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida is he most recent addition to my list of best films of 2014. It's about a young woman in Poland in the early 1960s who is about to become a nun. She's an orphan, raised by the Catholic church and just before she takes her vows she finds out that she has a surviving relative, an aunt who is a judge. This starts Anna on a journey to discover her Jewish ancestry.

Ida could easily fit into a retrospective of Polish and eastern European art house films from the 60s, but it doesn't feel like an homage so much as a evocation of the time. The understated tone and glimpses of life and society that made those earlier films so distinctive and important are here along with the benefit of hindsight. It's also a rare film that firmly focusses on women and their concerns with the men in the film taking a peripheral role.

The performances in the film are perfect with Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza at the centre as two women who defined themselves through their faith in the church and in the Communist state. They share an absent family destroyed by the Holocaust and we witness them determining how to square the horrors of the past with their present lives. The film feels as if it is from the 1960s with perfect period detail, looks, and sounds. It's a compact gem of a film filled with transcendent moments of beauty and sadness.

Winter Sleep

Chris Campbell

Winter Sleep is a film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan about characters and conversations. While it's a long film, it didn't feel that way. It's remarkable in how it is works through a series of long and perfect scenes filled with uncomfortable moments. It's about a man who is not likeable, and thanks to a boy throwing a rock at his car window, the entire narrative and revelations spiral out from that.

Stunningly beautiful at times with impossible-looking scenes in rural Turkey, it's a world that lives and breathes with a palpable sense of history. The cast is impressive with long takes and subtlety throughout all the performances. Haluk Bilginer plays the central character, Aydin, a former actor who know owns a large castle-like hotel in Anatolia that metaphorically serves as both a shelter and a prison. He is the king of the area, owning land and making decisions that affect all those who surround him and fear and hate him. But he is not unbearable and that is the key point as we see him being charming as well as being infuriating.

Through the interactions we see him trying to figure out why people don't like him, all while seeing him behave in ways that make us realize why he they hate him. One of the beautiful things about the film is in how it takes time to move between the characters to show their lives and relationships and struggles. Each time we see someone another piece of the puzzle fits which results in a complex and human portrait of a community and the relationships that exist within it. The landscapes of the area form a rich backdrop to the stories, but at the core is a marriage that does not work and in the scenes inside we witness the struggles between Aydin and his younger wife, Nihal, (played remarkably by Melisa Sözen) who is dealing with giving up her career and life to live in the isolated hotel with her husband. Aydin's recently-divorced sister, Necla (compellingly played by Demet Akbag) has an extended, but essential argument with him. It is one of the few times that someone honestly and openly talks with Aydin and while quiet and deliberate, it's one of the best scenes between two characters in a film I've seen in a long time.

It's a complex tapestry of relationships and regret that slowly unfolds, becoming more compelling and heartbreaking as it goes. We're immersed in this world that is part realist drama and part Shakespearean tragedy set within a melancholy landscape that stays with you for days.