January 19, 2016 – 4:42 am

Critic After Dark Noel Vera gives the lowdown on some of the movies in 2015 that probably went under the radar.

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy
A Jess Franco-style pastiche about a lesbian relationship - what else is new? But Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy reminds one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel - you go in expecting a healthy dose of prurience and come out more startled than unsatisfied. The erotica is middling sensual, the kinkiest act in the film performed disappointingly (or titillatingly) behind closed doors, gurgling splash choking gasp and all. Strickland (like Nabokov before him) apparently has other ideas: a precise charting of a relationship’s fading glow; the growing sense of obligation, of dreary chore, in what should be sexual play; the encroaching claustrophobic panic as pleasure becomes more and more a dull pain. If Strickland (who wrote and directed) and his good-looking cast (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna as the role-playing lovers) don’t commit to making an all-out erotic picture they do commit to making a surprisingly supple poignant drama - which I suppose is all the commitment we need, really.

Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure
Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure turns (as the title suggests) on a random act of God: a supposedly controlled avalanche goes slightly out of, threatens a luxury ski resort. The disaster (shot in a single impressive take, the oncoming tsunami mushrooming so fast the onlookers are caught between trying to enjoy the spectacle and trying to run from it) has few physical consequences (some overturned chairs, a sense of bruised dignity) but the psychic shockwaves reverberate throughout the film. Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba can’t believe her husband (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) would pick up his cellphone (from which he receives suspiciously frequent text messages) and abandon his family like that; Johannes Bah Kuhnke as Tomas can’t believe Ebba won’t accept the most charitable interpretation of what happened - his own - and drop the subject, for dignity’s sake.Along the way there’s the suggestion that these tensions didn’t just appear out of nowhere (when Ebba catches Tomas surreptitiously texting she doesn’t get upset; instead she gives a knowing, exasperated snort), that the incident was a mere excuse to allow long-simmering resentments and suspicions to burst open like a festering sore. Ostlund records the family’s disintegration the way he records the avalanche: in mostly uninterrupted scenes, in real-time, with a dispassionate eye that only points up the story’s darkly comic aspects. He reaches the perfect ambiguous final image, only to move past (alas) and settle for a more disappointingly explicit, more obviously enlightened conclusion. But before that - if you leave the theater some… ten or fifteen minutes early - it’s a devastating little comedy.

Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher
Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher is all kinds of interesting, from Sarit Larry’s beautifully passionate Nira - the film’s eponymous instructor - to Avi Shnaidman’s inscrutable possibly autistic Yoav, the budding five-year-old poet whose precocious verses arouse Nira’s interest. Lapid dispassionately records Nira’s growing obsession with Yoav to the exclusion of her husband her friends her colleagues; Yoav for his part simply stands up, announces he has a poem, paces back and forth till he produces in full (in many ways it’s a lot like the time spent straining on a toilet seat). They’re a comically odd couple, teacher and student, only you can’t help but worry for Nari’s sanity and Yoav’s safety.

The poems are pretty enough - apparently Lapid himself produced them at the age of four-and-a-half to seven years of age - but hardly to these inexpert ears a reason to be overprotective. That may be part of Lapid’s point tho: when you decide to make someone and his artistic future the sole overriding purpose of your life you don’t pause to consider if he’s actually any good.

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix
Concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) undergoes reconstructive surgery to repair her damaged face. She seeks out her husband, presumably to confirm if he had really betrayed her to the Nazis; when they meet he doesn’t recognize her but does recruit her to pose as his wife and help him claim her family inheritance.

Christian Petzold’s well-received film has the retro-romantic style of the best Hitchcock (one Hitchcock film in particular); while it lacks the obsessive spell Hitchcock casts over the viewer it does manage to evoke the haunted ambiance of the best ghost stories, or best love stories (and when you think about it aren’t the two practically indistinguishable?). Hoss’ lost-girl beauty and Ronald Zehrfeld’s (as Nelly’s husband Johnny) thickset good looks are an appealing match; one look at them and you know they must have cared for each other at some point, perhaps do still; you also know their relationship is probably - no, almost certainly - doomed.

Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a gloriously deadpan film, director Roy Andersson possessing a far dryer sense of humor than both Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch combined. His thirty-seven fixed-camera compositions have the look and feel of Museum of Natural History dioramas complete with painted backdrops, desiccated statues, musty bottled air utterly drained of any humidity whatsoever.

Andersson reportedly took the title from a detail in Pieter Brugel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow, of birds perched on tree branches looking down; we basically assume the birds’ point of view, bemused viewers following the horrifically comic activities of the gasping stumbling grotesquely two-legged creatures below. Sometimes the laughs are obvious - two droopy salesmen trying to sell novelty items like vampire fangs (extra long) to unenthusiastic store owners; sometimes the humor needs a little chewing over to wring out the juices,* as with the running gag of various folks on their cell phones, declaring (in the most hopeless tone imaginable) that they’re happy to hear you’re doing fine. Sometimes - on at least one unforgettable occasion - the laugh is a sharp outraged bark, yanked out of you by the horror of what you can’t believe you’re seeing (but are anyway).

* The meat is tough, the flavor worthwhile.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine
Are we meant to find the transgendered hookers in Sean Baker’s Tangerine beautiful? They may not dress modestly or to most people’s taste, and I question the shade of dye applied to their chemically abused hair, but they have an irresistible vitality, a style a spiky warmth. Yes Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin Dee - fresh out of jail for solicitation - may tear about town looking for her faithless boyfriend Chester (the sleazily appealing James Ransome) to rip him a new one, but she really does care for the no-good yet undeniably charming philosopher-pimp.

The film is also about Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a quietly hungry taxi driver who would rather cruise around looking for transgendered prostitutes than spend Christmas Eve with his family. Razmik’s is a decidedly more somber storyline with an unsatisfying conclusion (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film!) - after maneuvering everyone into the Donut Time store did the writer-director really need to have everyone carelessly ruin Razmik’s reputation in front of his relatives like that? A regular paying customer, a sympathetic joe? Yes he couldn’t wait to leave his family’s Christmas dinner; I was never a fan myself. Couldn’t Baker have come up with a resolution more appropriate to the character instead of settling for something so cruelly simplemindedly farcical?

Baker’s film - shot entirely on iPhone 5s then digitally tweaked to adjust color temperature and the like - isn’t especially inventive visually but it’s brightly lit (by blue-tinted flourescents, and by the relentless Angeleno sun) with a palette varied enough to keep the eye occupied if not fascinated. What really stays in memory though is the dialogue’s snap crackle pop, and the rapid-fire chatter of Sin Dee’s unbelievably loud heels.

Note: You can also email Noel Vera here.

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