Unseen (in Chico) cinema

CN&R critic has to dig to find some of 2014’s best films

<i>Blue Ruin</i>

Blue Ruin

Reveries of vampires in love, two witty and intelligent comedies from France, bumbling eco-terrorists in Oregon, tragicomic film noir in grassroots America, Dostoyevsky in corporate drag, Shakespeare in prison, tremors of apocalypse, Tilda Swinton, several sides of Jesse Eisenberg …

That’s one way of suggesting something about the dozen or so outstanding films that haven’t reached Chico theaters in the first eight months of 2014—most of which are already (or soon will be) out on DVD and via on-demand streaming.

There are, of course, no blockbusters in the group I have in mind. Most of them tend toward the “indie/foreign” niche, and what they offer in place of the industry’s “mainstream appeal” is independent spirit and the artistry of star directors.

That amorous vampire reverie, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, is a rapturously laid-back gothic fantasy in modern dress, with Swinton and Tom Hiddleston playing the lovers. Lush old-school romanticism mixes with the director’s characteristically gritty absurdism.

Caesar Must Die, from the filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, is a documentary/drama hybrid concerned with a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar featuring a cast of convicts inside the walls of a prison in modern-day Rome. The Tavianis use combinations of footage from performance, rehearsals and informal interviews to create fascinating portraits of several of the actor/convicts.

Grassroots noir of a richly pungent sort turns up in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Saulnier gets a maximum out of a no-name cast in a grubby landscape. Mickle does the same with a big-name cast (Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard) in a hardscrabble setting. Tragicomic revenge dramas play out with erratic fury in both.

The multicultural, multilingual, multicharacter romantic comedy of Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle involves a set of characters who first met in his L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and met again in Russian Dolls (2005). This time the central foursome (played with charming verve by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France and Kelly Reilly) reconnects in New York City, with freshly rambunctious results.

Eisenberg plays dual roles in The Double, Richard Ayoade’s radically stylized updating of the Dostoevsky novella. And he plays a would-be eco-terrorist (alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) in Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s humble-looking Oregon fable. The former is the more inventive and spectacular of the two films, but the latter is more genuinely haunting.

Two bleak, brilliant films from Eastern Europe have extraordinary portrayals of women in crisis. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, an orphaned convent girl (Agata Trzebuchowska) gets a harrowing tour of her family’s past, with her strong-willed, defiant aunt (Agata Kulesza) as her not-entirely-sympathetic guide. In Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, a well-to-do woman (the superb Luminita Gheorghiu) from Romanian officialdom tries every trick she can think of to keep her overprotected adult son from being prosecuted for a traffic accident that killed a child. The stories are personal, but the reverberations are social, spiritual, political and unexpectedly moving.