Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary"

"Deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers." – Pope John Paul II
With the appointment of a new pope, the beginning of Holy Week and President Obama's recent trip to the Holy Land, Christianity seems rather topical these days. So with that in mind, I wanted to look at one of the most fascinating, profound and controversial films ever made to deal with the Christian faith.

When Jean-Luc Godard's 1985 film Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie) was initially released, it set off a firestorm of protest. According to an article in a contemporary issue of Film Quarterly, the film was met with everything from "the Pope's Vatican Radio denunciations and Italian magazine covers depicting barebreasted blondes on crucifixes, to Catholics lighting candles and shaking rosaries outside offending theaters." The film was banned and the subject of boycotts, and religious leaders worldwide deemed it blasphemous (the above quote, which the DVD displays almost as a badge of honor on its cover, is just one example). But what was at the heart of the controversy? Why all this fuss? First and foremost, there was the plot.

Godard's film is a modern day retelling of the virgin birth. Here, Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-playing high school student who works at her father's gas station. Her boyfriend, Joseph (Thierry Rode), is a school drop-out who drives a cab. Mary suddenly becomes pregnant. But she's a virgin. How can this be? Predictably, Joseph is not exactly thrilled by this news. Rather, as would be expected, he is confused, suspicious and, at times, angry. The angel Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste), arriving via airplane, tries to provide some reassurance, but the situation is not an easy one for Mary, Joseph and their friends and family. How does a young girl like this cope with such a thing, and how does this sudden revelation affect her life, her worldview and her relationships?

These are the more reflective issues explored by Hail Mary. But to some, these ideas—indeed this very story—are not to be tampered with. Instead of seeing the film as a unique way in which to examine what such an occurrence would mean for those involved, instead of seeing the evolution of young Mary from average teenager to sacred vessel as one of deep religious transformation, many saw it easier to dismiss the film immediately, often sight unseen.

Adding to the objections was the considerable amount of nudity in the film. Roussel was well into her twenties by this point, so she wasn't really a teenager, thus her age shouldn't have been a factor. But perhaps the idea of seeing this present-day virgin mother naked was too much for some. However, in all reality, the nudity makes perfect sense. Here you have a young, chaste girl inexplicably with child. Doesn't it stand to reason that her body would be of the utmost importance? Wouldn't it be natural for her to therefore appear naked when she questions and examines her predicament? Or, take it from Joseph's angle. He hasn't touched her. Has someone else? Is she lying? ("I'm pregnant but still a virgin" would be a pretty tough declaration to go along with.) Obviously her body is now sacred, but Joseph is after all a young man. He probably has desires as would any other. Maybe he could at least see her naked?

In any event, Hail Mary was met with its fair share of detractors. And as such, many people have not seen the picture. Most have probably never even heard of it. But it's a worthwhile film, one that, if nothing else, should elicit some discussion and consideration. If one can step back from the sacredness of the Biblical text and just look at the film for what it is and what it presents there are moments of tremendous power to be discovered, even for nonbelievers or those of another belief. Hail Mary speculates on a great number of issues pertaining to the nature of faith, of human interaction and of how potential or actual holiness can situate itself in a contemporary world. This being a Godard film, none of this is simplistically spelled out, but it is there.
Hail Mary could be placed roughly in the middle of Godard's third phase of filmmaking. This is nearly two decades after his "French New Wave" days and years after his overtly political video experimentations and his Dziga Vertov period of filmmaking in the 1970s. By this point in his career, Godard was in the midst of a return of sorts to more narrative but nonetheless radically inventive productions. Such blatant religiousness was rare though. There was occasional religious imagery in his films, and the irregular quote alluding provocatively to religion would pop up (from Weekend (1967): "Didn't you hear what he said? Marx says we're all brothers!" "Marx didn't say that. Some other communist said that. Jesus said that."), but there was nothing like this. Later though, in his multi-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98) this passage stands out: "Cinema, like Christianity, isn’t grounded in historical truth. It tells a story and says, 'Now, believe.' Not 'Have faith in this story as you do in history,' but 'Believe, whatever happens.'"

Godard himself was raised Protestant, but at the time of Hail Mary he no longer practiced. However, as he said in the aforementioned Film Quarterly, "I'm very interested in Catholicism. I think there's something so strong in the way the Bible was written, how it speaks of events that are happening today, how it contains statements about things which have happened in the past. I think, well – it's a great book!" He continues, "And somehow I think we need faith, or I need faith, or I'm lacking faith. Therefore maybe I needed a story which is bigger than myself."

Hardly the words of one who is seeking to wound the religious sentiments of believers.

Ultimately, Hail Mary joins the ranks of films like the groundbreaking The Miracle (1948) made in years previous and such works as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and even Dogma (1999) made since; it is a film of significant meaning and remarkable artistry, but one that tends to get obscured by a controversy that, in all reality, was relatively isolated and, in time, proved to be rather reactionary.

If you're looking for something different to watch this time of year, Hail Mary would certainly be a bold selection, but a worthy one. As a side note though, if you're seeking a more conventionally religious film, one still presented in an innovative fashion by a most unlikely of filmmakers, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which I've written on before, would be another recommendation.  


Louise Brooks & "Pandora’s Box"


There’s no doubt that G.W. Pabst was a more than competent director (his The Threepenny Opera is an exceptional film), but Pandora’s Box (1929), perhaps his most famous feature, begins and ends with the fantastic Louise Brooks. After the first time I saw this picture, I immediately searched for more of her films; Prix de beauté and Diary of a Lost Girl (the latter also directed by Pabst) were two stand-outs. Still, even after these other films, I kept coming back to her Lulu. This is a great, iconic performance, certainly one of the best in all of silent cinema, and it makes Pandora's Box an extraordinary movie.

It’s fitting that Marlene Dietrich was also considered for the role. She and Brooks, particularly in this film, both exert a strong and daring sensuality, a fusion of self-aware and confident (bi?)sexuality and yet also a adolescent naiveté. This is the case in some of Dietrich’s earliest American roles: Morocco, The Devil Is a Woman, and Blonde Venus among others. Both actresses were masters at expressing assured, commanding and magnetic female attitudes and behaviors.

Another comparison that kept coming to mind while re-watching Pandora’s Box were some of the female characters created by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina in the 1960s, especially (with somewhat similar hair and all) Vivre sa vie. There’s a playfulness and charm that comes potently across with some of the roles. The way Lulu bounces about early on, in the offices, her home and backstage, recalls Karina’s exuberant, fancy-free behavior in Pierrot le fou, Bande à part, and Une femme est une femme. Godard, being the homage-loving cinephile that he is, must have certainly turned to Brooks for inspiration here. And speaking of Godard’s female characters, a comparison could be drawn also with Jean Seberg’s Patricia in À bout de soufflé; both women have a flirtatious quality, coupled with a disturbing ability to wreck havoc. This comparison is additionally apt as Seberg was also an American actress who found her most memorable and prominent role only after being sought after and hired by a foreign filmmaker.

More than anything though, Brook’s Lulu stands as an exemplarily characterization of the neue frau blossoming in Germany during the 1920s; this was sexually liberated “new woman” emerging out of a modern, urban society where women were gaining social stature and cultural importance, where they were becoming more independent, and where they were (as was society as a whole) becoming more and more concerned with surface values, of consumerism and material possession. Lulu embodies this, particularly the latter traits, perfectly. She is all about artifice. Much of what drives her character is a selfish devotion to ownership (of power, objects and people). She wants it all. There is, at the most extreme, a hedonistic amorality, but Pabst present Lulu rather objectively. She is a product of the time and place she lives, which was teetering between prosperity and stability on the one hand and vice and destruction on the other. Lulu is sort of like a mesh of the two Marias from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, also of the period.  

All of that noted though, I am admittedly biased when it comes to watching Brooks in this film. There’s no denying that she is a destructive and troubling women—“Lulu leaves a trail of broken bodies and souls in her wake as she moves through society, not because she does not care for the individuals she meets, but because she doesn’t think at all,” writes Ian Roberts. Yet for me anyway, she is quite attractive. It’s hard to fault her as she functions in this world where (1) she doesn’t know any better and (2) she is continually pandered to. She doesn’t know “no.” It takes and apparent Jack the Ripper character to adequately deny her anything. That’s what makes this character, and thus Brooks’ performance, so rich—this complexity. She’s a very physically and mentally multifaceted woman, with layers of motivation and desire. She is like a drug, an addiction for some of the other characters. She is irresistible when she puts her wiles to work. She’s got that killer smile. Two great instances are when she and Dr. Schön are caught in their intimacy by his son and fiancé; she just looks up at their shocked faces, smiles a bit, hops up and goes on with the show. Then later, after Dr. Schön’s death, the prosecution is demanding the death sentence. She looks at the lawyer and goes from fear to the most cunning grin. Her traits, in terms of shrewdness, enticement and deceit, make her an excellent early example of the femme fatal. 

I could go on and on about Louise Brooks in this film, but simply put, I can’t imagine any other actress in this role. She is a force of nature in this film. In every way she is a knockout.


Sergei Eisenstein & "Battleship Potemkin"

There is much that is fascinating about the life and work of Sergei M. Eisenstein. While critics turning to directing is not unheard of—the “Cahiers du cinema” writers of the French nouvelle vague, Paul Schrader and Peter Bogdonovich here in America, British critics like Lindsay Anderson—it is relatively rare for theoreticians to take their ideas and transfer them to actual filmic work, to practice what they preach, if you will. To the best of my knowledge, Eisenstein is unparalleled here. While his writings, some of which are collected in “Film Sense” and “Film Form” (two great, though dense, texts), delve into areas he never had the chance to experiment practically with—he was a proponent of 3-D, for example—the way his theoretical considerations manifested themselves in his regrettably few completed films is remarkable. Most famous of these pictures, and rightfully so, is Battleship Potemkin (1925). Here we find many of his ideas working themselves out in the arena of a film about revolution, class struggle, and politics, favorite themes of many Soviet directors of this era.

With ideas based around notions of psychological association, dialectical (see Marxist) concepts of collision, paths to synaethesia, conflicts of aesthetic attractions forming modes of montage (here a distinct idea from what we normally think of as editing), and even taken from concepts derived from haiku poetry and kabuki theater, Eisenstein’s theories, and therefore his films, Potemkin being the prime example, are richly and complexly layered.

Eisenstein felt, initially anyway, that in many ways the shot was the “raw material” of the cinema; it was an image with signifying features already firmly in place, the juxtaposition of which, against another shot, would result in a third shot producing a new idea unattainable from either previous shot alone—“two film pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition,” he writes in his essay “Word and Image.”

That being said, many single shots, single frames, of Potemkin are strikingly constructed and meaningful by themselves. Take, for example, early on when we see the sailors lying in the hammocks. They are intersecting, with diagonal and horizontal planes emphasized, and depth and solidarity clearly in focus. Contrast this to when the revolt begins and these same sailors are shot standing upright, in line. They are still together, keeping the unity of the previous image, but now they are no longer at rest, they are engaged, and the contrast highlights this sense of action. Though not right next to each other, these two examples of shot construction in this film show how Eisenstein creates major significance with his mise-en-scéne.

His is a cinema too of bold faces and gestures (his actors hired based predominantly on their look, “typage,” somewhat like the Italian neorealists would later do). The close-ups of animated expressions of discontent and anger are quite powerful. We also see compositions such as the higher angle above the ship where symmetry is key, and within that the conflict is clearly expressed in the black and white opposition between the worker sailors and the officers. The sea of white hats mingling recalls later in Potemkin when the masses gather around the murdered Vakulinchuk. Memorable single frames also include when Vakulinchuk is thrown overboard and is left dangling above the sea; and also later, in the famous Odessa steps sequence when the mother, carrying her child in her arms, stands in the foreground while in the background the lower-halves of the bombarding soldiers make their way down the stairs, and in between these two unwavering forces are scattered bodies strewn across the steps—it’s an amazing image. Off-center framing and canted angles all add to independent frames of colossal dynamism.

But of course the combining through editing of single images is where Eisenstein is most famous, and where many of his ideas were concerned. Right off, and repeated later, we get images of the machinery of the ship. The mechanics of the impersonality of this vessel are at once isolated as repetitive and automatic, and yet through its sexual connotations we see a human side; this is representative of the duality of film in general, which, to use two of Eisenstein’s common and conflicting terms, can form either the “art machine” or the “art organism.”

The comparisons drawn when Eisenstein focuses on, first, the priest hitting the crucifix into his palm, followed by, second, an officer stroking his knife, again not only recalls some obvious sexual notions but also forms an idea invoking forms of aggression and actions, of a belief system and its application in a revolution. We get a great sort of flashback/forward associative montage when the doctor has been flung overboard and Eisenstein inserts a shot of the maggots on the meat (recalling his evaluation earlier) and then a shot of his glasses hanging (how he examined the meat earlier, and also pointing towards the graphic shot of the women getting shot in the face later in Odessa). Then, through two simple shots of sailors and their guns, Eisenstein conveys so much—when the firing squad is about to shoot the unruly sailors, Vakulinchuk pleads with them. We get a shot of their guns, perfectly straight, rigidly drawn; an intertitle comes in noting that the “rifles wavered”; then there is a shot of the guns shaking and coming down. The sense of accomplishment and solidarity established is explicit.

While the Odessa steps sequence has been much-discussed and justly-lauded (as well as frequently referenced—De Palma with The Untouchables and Scorsese with Gangs of New York are just two examples), while watching the film again I noticed particularly how well Eisenstein utilized the graphic conflict of the static camera placement with a mobile, even subjective camera operation (reminiscent of F.W. Murnau).    

Additionally, if ever there was a film to be watched without the sound playing it would be this one. The rhythm of Eisenstein’s editing is extraordinary in the way it builds up to an action, shows that action, and decreases in impact.  

There is so much to say about this masterpiece of the cinema and about Eisenstein as a filmmaker. It’s always extraordinary to look at the work of a filmmaker who, like Griffith, Welles, Godard, Hitchcock, and very few others, actually developed and altered the language of the cinema.


Top Ten Films of 2012

This Is Not a Film (dirs. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi) - #10

In 2010, the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested by his country’s government. The essential “crime” was committing acts of supposed propaganda against Iran through his movies. In addition to house arrest, he was banned for 20 years from writing and directing films, giving interviews, and from leaving the country.

This is where we come in, in this, his latest effort. While he’s awaiting an appeals court verdict, he decides to challenge his restrictions and calls over friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Mirtahmasb records Panahi as the director describes and performs sections of a recently written film (the script is already done, so he’s safe there, and nobody said anything about acting).

This he does for a while, setting up the basic scenario and characters, mapping out the location in his living room, and going through the motions of certain scenes. Eventually though, this isn’t enough. Why make a film if you can just tell it, he asks. Try as he might, something’s missing. He needs to direct.
Following this daylong endeavor, This Is Not a Film takes shape as a poignant statement on an artist’s need and on the role and meaning of a filmmaker. It also calls powerful attention to the state of contemporary Iran, as we hear Panahi’s phone calls and see him watch the news, both revealing much about this controversial nation.

An altogether innovative approach to documentary (and fiction) filmmaking, this provocative movie was initially even shown in distinctive fashion: it was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake, on its way to premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Panahi’s fate remains uncertain, though he has somehow made a new film, Parde, and it showed at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Ah, the triumph of cinema.

Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg) - #9

How could a David Cronenberg film based on a novel by Don DeLillo be anything but atypical? And while Cosmopolis is certainly that, it is also absorbing and intellectually stimulating (not dirty words for a movie).

Here, we’re in a limousine; in fact, we’re here for most of the film, riding along with billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he simply tries to get across town for a haircut. As ostensibly banal as this endeavor may appear though, it becomes anything but. External forces continually overwhelm and bombard Packer: professional predicaments, ongoing, citywide riots, threats on his life, and even a prostate exam.

As Packer is driven along, mystery abounds, as do statements on society, consumerism, capitalism, sex, and violence. Various people come in and out of his life (and often in and out of his limo), many played by great supporting performers such as Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton. As Cosmopolis builds in tension, Packer’s life grows more and more chaotic, eventually reaching a startling breaking point.

Cronenberg is nothing if not consistently innovative, in terms of form and content. With Cosmopolis, we get him at his best in both.


Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax) - #8

Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, has an unusual job. At least, it seems to be his job. Through the course of his day and into the night, he transforms himself, via elaborate and convincing make-up and costume, applied in the back of his white, stretch limo, into a number of individuals. In Holy Motors, we see him do this about nine times. He exits the vehicle, steps into the position of said “character” and goes about the respective business. He’s a monstrous, underground-dwelling deviant one minute, a performer in a motion-capture film the next. There’s a musical interlude; there’s a scene of graphic violence; there’s a scene of graphic (and bizarre) nudity; there’s a scene of immense tenderness.

Where does his real life begin, and where does it end? How, despite moments of obvious artificiality, does he maintain this charade? What, exactly, is the goal of this vocation? I won’t pretend that Holy Motors answers any of this. That such a peculiar movie could be so thoroughly engaging and amusing despite these ambiguities is a testament to Lavant’s performance and Carax’s confident direction. It takes confidence to craft a film like this, and it takes some degree of confidence to watch Holy Motors. One has to be comfortable enough with the surreal. Like with the films of Luis Bunuel, an acceptance of idiosyncrasy is mandatory, as should be the viewing of this extraordinary movie. 

How’s this for a plot? Aging former rock star Cheyenne, disaffected and melancholy, a goth living in Ireland, visits his dying father in New York, and upon his dad’s passing he picks up his father’s mission to track down and possibly kill a Nazi war criminal hiding in America.

As unusual as that may sound, This Must Be the Place, named after the Talking Heads song - which is essential to the film and used brilliantly - is nonetheless relatively reasoned and thoroughly compelling. It’s also one of the most amusing films of the year, thanks in no small part to Sean Penn’s bizarre and strangely charming portrayal in the lead role. On the outside, he’s still the bombastic rocker of old, hair in a torrent, makeup pronounced, but inside he’s subdued, his voice barely above a mumbled whisper. He embodies the sort of anxious potential inherent in the film itself, where one gets the sense that the story could go any number of ways, and then frequently finds those expectations defied. This Must Be the Place, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il divo, 2008), moves along a strange path, with pleasant and sometimes random stops, but it ultimately arrives at an extraordinary destination.


This is a film for our times. Set in 2008, just around the time of the Wall Street collapse and President Obama’s election, Killing Them Softly looks at how financial burdens and a jaded nation can also affect the world of hit men. Brad Pitt stars alongside James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta as criminals and killers who are feeling the pinch of an economy in crisis. After a card game heist, Pitt is brought in to help get to the bottom of things and to begin (violently) restoring order. In the depiction of this, the film looks at how unstable and poor fiscal conditions can hinder quality and compensation, even for hired guns.

The standard salary isn’t quite what it used to be; for example, you can now get someone to kill someone else at a lower fee … you know, because of the economy. These guys barter and treat their business just like any other working man.They struggle to survive in America, to make a go of it, even if it isn't exactly honest or legal. As Pitt's character says in the film's best line, "I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business."

While Pitt may headline the picture, it’s director Andrew Dominik who stands out, bringing a strong visual flair to the film and capturing much of the tone and dialogue of George V. Higgins source material. This film doesn’t have the ethereal, poeticism of Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007 - my pick for the best film of that year, also with Pitt); now the images are damp and dirty, with sporadic bursts of cinematic flourish — one shooting sequence in particular.

An arresting film with something to say, Killing Them Softly will hopefully find the audience it missed (or I should say the audience that missed it) once available on DVD/Blu-ray.   

The most wide-ranging emotional film of the year, Rust and Bone is a multilayered story of two people who come from lives of broken dreams and despair to find purpose and love with each other. As the film plays out, this seemingly melodramatic storyline develops into something much, much more. Led by a stunning performance from Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone covers the gamut of expressive resonance. There are moments of great joy and terrible sadness, scenes fraught with tension placed right next to moments of compassion.

Director Jacques Audiard, whose previous work, A Prophet (2009), was one of the most lauded films of that particular year, manages to balance this assortment of sentiment superbly. The film is also notable for having what I feel to be the greatest single sequence of any film last year, as Stéphanie, Cotillard’s disabled whale trainer, comes to terms with her condition and begins to move on by going back, remembering what she loves and acting on it, all to her signature song.


Amour (dir. Michael Haneke) - #4

For Amour, German filmmaker Michael Haneke took home last year’s Palme d’Or for best picture at the Cannes Film Festival (his second such honor; sixth time nominated) and it now has the distinction of being nominated for five Academy Awards: best picture, foreign language film, director, original screenplay, and lead actress. Several organizations worldwide have already chosen it as the best film of the year.

That said, I’m noting nothing new when I also proclaim Amour to be an amazing, heartbreaking and powerful movie. It may also be one of the greatest films I am in no big hurry to watch again, as it is truly a demanding (yet highly rewarding) experience. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star as an eighty-something husband and wife who struggle to deal with the latter’s recent stroke and her subsequent deterioration and death.

Haneke has never made films that were always easy to watch, and Amour is no exception. Here, he maintains an observational distance, but it is an unflinching one. We are simultaneously drawn to and troubled by the level of intimacy granted. The discomfort while watching Amour doesn’t derive - like some Haneke’s past work - from overtly disturbing content. Instead, the tragic normality is most affecting.

Alps (dir. Giorgos Lanthimos) - #3

Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), one of the most extraordinary films in recent memory, was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Alps, just the Greek director’s third solo feature, comes pretty close to matching that film for daring and originality.

Like Dogtooth, Alps is notable first and foremost for its unusual plot: A group of individuals, each code-named for a mountain in the Alps, take on a side job of impersonating someone recently deceased. Friends and family hire them to fill that vacant spot until the grieving process is over. Typically, despite the obvious, all goes well and this seems to help. Inevitably though, the charade goes too far and the professional distance is broken down.

Filled with the absurd, the comic and the tragic, Alps can be as bizarrely disquieting as it is hilariously amusing. We can’t believe what we’re seeing at times, but it’s all so mesmerizing and distinctive - stylistically and substantively - that we’re enthralled all the same. This approach, while typifying Lanthimos’ work, also seems to be spreading throughout his homeland, as Attenberg (2010), a good film in its own right (and one in which Lanthimos actually stars), seems to attest to. It has some glaring similarities, but lacks something of the visual appeal and wit of Dogtooth and Alps

The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr) - #2

The great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, one of the most distinctive and astonishing directors of the past few decades, has declared The Turin Horse to be his final film. If that is indeed the case, he chose an excellent conclusion to a remarkable career.

In many ways, this is Tarr’s most intimate film, and his most narrowly focused. Several of his features contain just a handful of characters, but here we’re essentially dealing only with the farmer Ohlsdorfer and his daughter for the entire film, most of which takes place in and around their small, isolated house existing in a wind- and rain-swept rural expanse of land, typical of Tarr’s scenic preferences.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in Turin, had apparently at one point protected the titular horse from abuse. Now, this father and daughter use the horse to cart items in and out of town. However, the horse is growing old and weak, and with that realization also comes the awareness that these two farmers will not be able to sustain their current existence.

As with much of Tarr’s work, the plot is sparse and the images are immaculate. The long takes, some going on for several minutes at a time, are hauntingly beautiful in their black and white composition. Minute details are deliberately lingered upon until they take on surprising resonance. The Turin Horse, done in collaboration with long-time associates Ágnes Hranitzky and László Krasznahorkai, is one of Tarr’s best … hopefully it won’t be his last.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film continues his trend of making extraordinary and wholly original movies. The Master is also his most complex and baffling feature. A film like this can easily frustrate, but for those willing to step outside of the norm, it can also be immensely satisfying.

The story revolves around a naval officer Freddie Quell, played remarkably by Joaquin Phoenix, who finds himself adrift in his post-World War II life. Through the course of his meandering travels, he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a sort of religion that is in many ways a not-too-thinly-veiled take-off on Scientology. Quell’s involvement with Dodd and his parishioners grows ever more tense and complicated as he struggles with his own eccentricities.

Gorgeously shot (but rarely shown) in near-defunct 70 mm, The Master is as visually arresting as it is engaging in its plot construction. Quell’s actions and his thoughts (many rendered subjectively by Anderson) are frequently inexplicable, and the film follows this erratic form more than it necessarily strives for overt continuity. There is no simplistic narrative thread running through The Master; like Quell, the audience has to find its own meanings and reasons. Also like for Quell, the journey here is paramount, even if we’re not quite sure where we end up.

2012 - Runners up

End of Watch (dir. David Ayer)
The Kid With A Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
Twixt (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
A Royal Affair (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Paperboy (dir. Lee Daniels)