The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)

One of the first images in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is that of a radio microphone, looming dauntingly in warped close-up.  This initial visual says two primary things about the fitfully winning film.  The first is of a conceptual nature: we are being introduced to an era, as with Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, simultaneously enhanced, intimidated and turned upside down by the importance of the recorded spoken word.  The second is formally oriented: The King’s Speech is an unusually good-looking film, making terrific aesthetic use of jarring camera angles, London’s famous fog and even vivid wallpaper to communicate a historical moment in which the collective need for clarity was juxtaposed with a shroud of uncertainty.

The film offers an array of solid performances, pleasingly not bogged down by Oscar-hopeful pomp or self-indulgent grandeur.  Colin Firth, as the stuttering, reluctant monarch King George VI, is sympathetic in his quiet frustration without being overly lovable, while Geoffrey Rush demonstrates restrained eccentricity and loyalty as the King’s stubborn speech therapist and, ultimately, only friend.  The King’s Speech isn’t an excellent film – it lags in certain sequences and fails to give us a consistently dynamic narrative  – but its strong features outweigh its shortcomings, and the particularly rousing final sequence, much like the landmark event it portrays, is stirring in its simplicity and genuine message of hope.

Best of the Fest!

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog, 2010)

3D becomes the cinema of Werner Herzog.  Herzog’s twisted fascination with the natural world, and his unparalleled knack for capturing and manipulating that world in ways both hypnotic and horrifying, seems primed for the third dimension.  And what better moment to utilize the technology than when documenting the cavernous, primally unsettling reaches of the Chauvet caves in southern France?  With a characteristically heavenly score to enchant us, we watch as Herzog and his small crew of cameramen retreat into the caves for only a handful of hours under the supervision and knowledge-ready guidance of a team of scientists.

As portions of cave wall jut imposingly into the foreground, with the spelunkers’ haunted faces tangibly decorating the middle and backgrounds, the surreal geography of the internal lair becomes movingly apparent.  The caves’ most famous attribute, a series of painted horses still in miraculous condition, is consistently filmed with a moving light source.  Always one to draw intelligent comparisons to film, Herzog notes the powerful play of light and shadow over these images as a form of “proto-cinema.”  A spectrum of eccentric interviewees, including a wide-eyed “Perfume master” and an articulate ex-circus performer, accents the film with wonderfully random humanity.  Within Herzog’s trenchant obsession with nature is an even deeper and more soulful tie to the human lives that elegantly if fleetingly leave their mark on the dateless monuments he films.  To this end, a single handprint – a thrilling starburst of mankind in one of the furthest regions of the caves – is the final image of Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

If a reconstruction produces a real emotional response, is the reconstruction as significant as the original?  What if there is no original?  These are the allusive, shape-shifting questions at the heart of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.  A relentlessly intriguing, sumptuously meandering film that never ceases to provide a brain-tickling wealth of second guesses, Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as Elle and James, art enthusiasts spending a day adrift in rural Tuscany and pushing the limits of their own personal histories.  Binoche reminds us why she is one of the most important contemporary French actresses, exuding a deft combination of sheer radiance and passionate volatility as Elle, an art collector and seemingly single mother living in Arezzo, while Shimell is convincing as James, an author who pines in wistful pretension for a life of simplicity.

As the duo wanders in and out of galleries, churches and piazzas, fluidly trading languages, they increasingly slip into the roles of husband and wife, to their alternate amusement and devastation.  Kiarostami is particularly clever with his set-ups, and uses elaborate singles shots, mirrors and even craftily placed subtitles as a way of illustrating the malleable nature of perception and reinterpretation.  Whether Elle and James are in fact lovers, have ever been lovers, or are strangers overtaken by a seductive game of make-believe is the central enigma of Certified Copy.  Meanwhile, Kiarostami quietly, aggressively asks us to have faith in the transformative power of the present.

Boy (dir. Taika Waititi, 2010)

Set in rural New Zealand in 1984 when Michael Jackson was the moon-walking dominant species in the pop music kingdom, Boy is a chromatically dazzling, riotously adorable if melancholic tale of a child’s admiration of and then disappointment with his father.  11-year-old Boy (a hilarious and poignant James Rolleston) is on the cusp of adolescence, and when not in school exchanging a veritable assortment of phrases peppered with the f-word, is the makeshift adult at home for his scruffy, cherubic siblings and cousins.  When Boy’s absentee dad, Alamein (played with appealing slapstick goofiness by the film’s director, Taika Waititi), arrives on the scene, Boy is filled with the same icon-worship for his recently exonerated father as he is for the beloved Michael Jackson.  Dad wears leather jackets!  Dad is the leader of a gang!  Dad has buried treasure in a cow pasture!

As the film cheekily rolls along, with a fresh, wonderful quirk that has now become endangered in independent films, Boy realizes that reliance on adults is a tricky and even heartbreaking endeavor.  Indeed, this is symptomatic of the world Boy inhabits.  Though colorful and sun-drenched, the countryside Waititi shows us is dotted with parentless – or worse, bruised – children.  When Alamein’s demons fully emerge from the past, it becomes apparent that even adults cannot depend on the continued presence of loved ones.  Not a film to be filled with despair, Boy reveals with sincerity, honesty and a mischievous sense of humor that a family can be re-formed if its members have more love in them than faults.