The Rabbi’s Cat
Directed by Joann Sfar & Antoine Delesvaux
Screenplay by Joann Sfar & Sandrina Sardel
Based on the Comic Book Series by Joann Sfar
Once more I fudge my rules, but this exceptionally weird, very, very French film got the most limited of limited releases in 2012 when it was listed as a potential wild card nominee for Best Animated Feature at last year’s Oscars (it ultimately wasn’t). Set in 1920s Algeria, this adaptation of Joann Sfar’s series of graphic novels begins when a rabbi’s hairless cat eats a talking parrot and gains the ability of speech. The cat is in love with the rabbi’s daughter, the beautiful (and realistically designed – for once) Zlabya, but the rabbi fears the cat’s deceitful and self-serving tongue to be an ill influence on his daughter and forbids him to come near her. Determined to prove his newfound commitment to Judaism, the cat badgers the rabbi for a bar mitzvah, and from there the story spirals outward to feature visitations from a cousin who live with lions, a Russian painter stowed away in a shipment of smuggled books, an epic quest for a fabled African Jerusalem, and none-too-kind parodies of Belgian reporter-detectives and their dogs. Along the way, the cat learns a thing or two about humility. But not much.
If I lost you at ‘The Cat Talks After It Eats a Parrot,’ chances are this is not your film. But like The Croods before it, The Rabbi’s Cat makes it onto the list for the litany of sights and sounds that are wholly original to itself, albeit with a much more laidback, contemplative tone than The Croods’ manic energy. Seemingly emulating the Marjane Satrapi model of self-adaptation (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums), Sfar guides us through his worldview of religion and its potential for grace and for harm, all filtered through his wry comic sensibilities. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, as it lurches from one scenario to the next and crowbars its philosophical points into the dialogue with little care. But you’re unlikely to see a film that both entertains with such imagination and asks difficult questions about life and religion and existence with the gentle, funny touch that this does.
It deserves praise, if nothing else, for this rarest of moments depicted on-screen: two people of different faiths calmly debating the pros and cons of their and the other’s religion and enjoying each other’s company immensely.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Co-Directed by Christine Cynn & Anonymous
I wrote a pretty extensive piece of this film in this blog post. Steven Boone’s review, which inspired me to see the film, is maybe one of the finest pieces of film criticism I’ve ever read. Come to think of it, Matt Zoller Seitz’s thoughts on it aren’t half bad, either. I’m not what else there is to say, other than this: ‘Fascism’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it’s almost as ubiquitous as ‘Hipster’: a word to describe a certain mindset that’s become so malleable that it’s lost all meaning. But it’s important to understand how we as human beings construct our image of ourselves. How we bend and filter the information around us to suit our needs. And how we process our memories to make them our struggles and our triumphs. And how that allows things like genocide to happen. The Act of Killing does that with a power that few films have ever had. (Maybe second only to Waltz with Bashir.)
Any documentary with a message and a halfway decent editing crew can make you angry and sad and sick to your stomach. It’s easy to choose not to watch them. I often don’t. And that’s perfectly understandable.
Directed by Neil Jordan
Screenplay by Moira Buffini and Based on Her Play “A Vampire Story”
It’s fair to say that vampires, as far as cinema is concerned, have become blasé. They’re an aloof, chiseled, veeerrry horny species affixed with permanent scowls who for some reason can’t stop fighting werewolves. And sometimes, they sparkle!
That said, when Neil Jordan, who’s Interview with the Vampire arguably created the template for the modern-day movie vampire, returns to the genre two decades later, you sit up and pay attention. And when that film decides to use vampirism as a metaphor for institutionalized misogyny …well, you pay attention to that as well.
Luminously shot by Sean Bobbitt (whose work here is second only to his work on 12 Years a Slave), Byzantium follows the story of teenage vampire Eleanor (Soairse Ronan) and her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), in modern day England. Eleanor, who repeatedly writes the story of her birth and transformation only to tear it up and throw it to the wind, only drinks the blood of those she knows are ready for death. Clara, who supports them by stripping and hooking, is not quite so discerning. When a close call with the Brethren, a patriarchal organization that has been chasing Clara and Eleanor for centuries, ends (spectacularly) violently, the girls flee to an English coastal town. There they meet the lonely, pitiable Noel (Daniel Mays), who mentions that his recently deceased mother has bequeathed him the dilapidated Byzantium Hotel. Convincing Noel that the two of them are sisters, Clara moves them into the Byzantium, promptly begins renovations, and enrolls Eleanor in the local school. Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a hemophilic dying of Leukemia, who is immediately attracted to her and knows that something is up. Of course, for all her better instincts, Eleanor can’t help but be drawn to FranK, too. And do you think that this newfound idyll is too good to be true, and the Brethren are still hot on their tail?
There’s certainly a lot of familiarity to Byzantium’s framework, and perhaps that just comes with the territory. But what makes it such a joy to watch is the strength with which it is written and performed. To call Ronan’s performance excellent is redundant, but it is. Arterton, who’s essentially been misused almost her entire career, finally gets a chance to shine as Clara, whose abusive backstory and callous disregard for life makes her a potent mix of sympathy and terror. Similarly, May’s Noel (a performance that is almost certainly underrated even by those who saw it) easily checks a lot of the schlubby loser boxes, but he also brings an awareness and sensitivity to Noel that makes his sadness even more pathetic. (“Y’see, I know what your sister’s doing,” he tells Eleanor. “The thing is: I just don’t care.”) Jones, whose creepy, sweaty ginger face bothers me, actually overcomes those handicaps in the Frank, revealing his inner strength and letting you get why he and Eleanor fall for each other as deeply and as quickly as they do. And if you need a villain, it’s hard for them to come more despicable than Johnny Lee Miller’s Ruthven, who despite being relegated to flashbacks, practically coats the screen in a film of slime every time he appears. (“I have given you your profession. Whore,” he chillingly spits at Clara.)
Some might argue about the effectiveness of Buffini’s misogyny metaphors (I personally found them compelling enough.) And you certainly can’t call much of what happens in Byzantium original. And what does a girl who’s been alive for two centuries need to go to school for in the first place? But the truth is that when everything started coming to a head, I found myself both very, very fearful for and of our protagonists. I don’t know many movies that have made me feel that in the same breath. And that’s why Byzantium is on this list.
It is also home to what is perhaps 2013’s most effective, disturbing, beautifully shot gore (again, second only to 12 Years a Slave.)