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Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

Unlike the overly hyped and comfortably mediocre Lone Scherfig film An Education, Andrea Arnold’s sophomore effort Fish Tank captures with an astute, alternately delicate and visceral eye the complexity of an affair between a teenage girl and a fully-grown man.  Mia Williams (played with remarkable nuance by Katie Jarvis) is a hardened, foul-mouthed gamine who spends her days noticeably absent from school and either tucked away in an abandoned apartment relentlessly practicing hip-hop dance moves or roaming the streets of her drab city, Essex.  Like her French predecessor Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows, Mia has a penchant for aimless neighborhood walks (shot with a compositionally-minded handheld camera) which say something about her restless inquisitivity and even more about how little she wants to return to her hellish home.  When the cheeky, able-torsoed Connor (Michael Fassbender) enters the picture as Mum’s new boyfriend, Mia begins to notice with an irritated pleasure that he likes to give her attention.  What Fish Tank portrays wordlessly and with such heartbreaking gravity is that, to Mia, Connor is many things: a man she is sexually attracted to, an opportunity for revenge on her nasty, negligent mother, and someone she desperately wants to be a fixed point in her chaotic, fatherless universe.  Though the final twenty minutes skew a little heavy-handed,  Fish Tank proves its striking quality in myriad brilliant sequences, not the least of which is Mia’s reckless trek out to the beach.  Again finding similarity to The 400 Blows, Fish Tank gives us a glimpse of a young person who is alone and without options– and who, in a moment of panic, runs to the vast expanse of the ocean.

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In the Attic (Barta, 2009)

In the Attic, a simultaneously adorable and wicked delight from the renowned Czech animator Jirí Barta, is a criticism of totalitarian systems wrapped in the sweet disguise of a children’s film.  Buttercup, Teddy, Schubert, and Sir Handsome are a rag-tag crew of tiny stop-animated heroes living inside a suitcase in a forgotten attic.  When blond, angelic Buttercup is abducted to the far region of the attic by the quietly calculating Golden Head–perhaps one of the finest and creepiest cinematic villains in recent memory, complete with a bald head à la Lenin and a disembodied arm à  la Inspector Gadget‘s Dr. Claw– her friends begin a perilous journey across the dusty little room to save her.  It is in this journey that Barta’s true creative ingenuity becomes spectacularly apparent, most dazzlingly so with a storm of floating raincloud pillows and a literal flood of blue sheets that tumble forth from the attic’s closet, both bits of temperamental weather that threaten to wipe out Teddy and Sir Handsome.  As the title In the Attic suggests, the film examines the idea of a contained world, at once detached from and strangely, fluidly connected to another larger world.  When the alarm bell of Buttercup’s kidnapping is wrung, all the inhabitants of the attic– and a live actor from the street outside– hear this cry of rebellion against the attic’s malicious nation state.  Oppression resonates across universes, and the drive to dismantle this oppression (whether intentionally by Buttercup’s friends or unwittingly by a little girl who casually explores the toys in her grandmother’s attic) comes from all around.

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London River (Bouchareb, 2009)

It is rare when a film resounds with one emotion from start to finish, without giving way to monotonality.  Yet Rachid Bouchareb’s striking, absorbing and terribly wrenching film London River achieves exactly this.  Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 London bus and subway bombings, the film follows two strangers (a white, middle-aged mother played with deeply moving fragility by Brenda Blethyn, and a black, Muslim father played by the calmly understated Sotigui Kouyaté) as they search for their grown children who have alarmingly gone missing in time with the national crisis.  The simple, unflashy cinematography lends itself to the cold, sinking reality that haunts London River from the first scene onwards– the fate of the children is not really a surprise, but more a dreadful inevitability that instills a constant, ever-worsening sadness in the unlucky parents, and in us.  While deftly dealing with tragedy, Bouchareb also nimbly examines the nature and form of prejudice in contemporary England, primarily through the plot device of an interracial, interreligious relationship that comes as a shock and wake-up call to both the main characters.  With all the irreparable pain that comes from the loss of a child, London River finds awe, inspiration, and hope in the very act of continuing to live past such sadness.  As Blethyn’s character gardens in the film’s final shot, her face pinched in bitter misery and her swings of the hoe aggressively violent, we realize that in the face of an agonizing challenge a person’s bravest decision is to keep going.

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No One Knows About Persian Cats (Ghobadi, 2009)

Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats is a jolting, topical reminder of the ongoing oppression in Iran while also remaining a fresh and wildly hip perspective on a country most comfortably trapped within the label “Axis of Evil.”  Ashkan and Negar are Ghobadi’s principal subjects, a romantic couple of young hipster musicians who are determined to get out of Iran so that they can freely and passionately play the subversive indie rock they love (Negar dreams about attending an indie festival in Nice, while Ashkan wants to travel to Iceland to see the beloved Sigur Rós).  Shot  with impeccable wide composition (faces are framed elegantly in the extreme sides and bottom of the frame, as if pushed there), Persian Cats moves fluidly between Ashkan and Negar’s initially hopeful and then increasingly bleak storyline, and a multitude of vibrantly colorful and unapologetically in-your-face musical montages.  Of particularly impressive note is Hamed Behdad’s role as Nader, the smooth-talking, good-natured doofus who brings Ashkan and Negar to the furthest reaches of Tehran’s underground hideouts (basements! fields! half-constructed buildings! even a cattle ranch!) to show them– and us– the astonishing lengths artists will go to produce art in a restrictive society.  When Nader’s promise of visas and passports proves to be tragically empty, No One Knows About Persian Cats takes a starkly inevitable turn that is evocative of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and proof that Ghobadi is a filmmaker flying fearlessly in the face of a highly oppressive government.

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