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Mid-year, I teased my working lists of The best films of 2015 … so far. It’s finalized. Four films had their premieres at either Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival or its mid-season Gems event. I had the chance to catch up with one of these films (Flowers) thanks to the Coral Gables Art Cinema booking it even without a distributor. It later became Spain’s entry to the Oscars and was picked up by Music Box Films. Another movie had its premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. But I’m spoiling the suspense already…

Now, in reverse order and capped off with 10 honorable mentions with links to reviews where appropriate, are the 10 best movies I saw in 2015. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

10. The Forbidden Room

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The only film in my top 10 I did not review. Suffice to say that The Forbidden Room is an incredible experience of dreams and primal desires infused with that indelible Guy Maddin sense of humor.

9. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice poster

Read my review

8. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

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Read my review

7. Heart of a Dog

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Read my review

6. Flowers (Loreak)

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Read my review in The Miami New Times

5. Theeb

THEEB

Read my review

4. My Golden Days

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Read my capsule review in The Miami New Times (longer review to come)

3. Love & Mercy

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Read my review

2. The Assassin

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Read my review

1. Clouds of Sils Maria

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Read my review

My honorable mentions (or bottom 10 – 20) are as follows (titles either link to reviews or Amazon): Mr. Turner, The End of the Tour, The Look of Silence (review), Voice Over (review), Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Spotlight, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (review), Brooklyn.

Next, Ana Morgenstern weighs in with her top 20.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the_look_of_silence_posterIt takes a strong constitution to look into the abyss presented by The Look of Silence, the latest documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, the Oscar-nominated director behind 2012’s The Act of Killing. Beautiful images of the lush Indonesian jungle and a soundtrack that mostly features crickets are juxtaposed against tales of the horrors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965/66 and its terrible effects on its survivors. In this “war,” the military sat back and let propaganda do its work, as mostly civilian death squads took charge of killing the communists, intellectuals and Chinese immigrants that allegedly threatened their society. The Act of Killing already documented all kinds of killings in Indonesia, detailed by several boastful perpetrators. Oppenheimer showed how they are treated as heroes in Indonesia today, as those in power got there because of this genocide.

Though it takes on the same subject, The Look of Silence is a very different movie. Gone are the surreal, staged reenactments by the killers. Instead there is but one reenactment, and it’s only shown on a 4:3 TV screen watched by Adi, the son of elderly survivors who lost their first son, Ramli, during the massacres. It shows two old men laughing about eviscerating their victims by the Snake River before throwing their remains in the water. They also go into stark detail of how they chopped at one victim, including a humiliating death blow. That victim was Adi’s brother.

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Despite the collaboration of many victims in The Act of Killing, all were simply credited as “anonymous” for their protection. Adi and his parents, however, not only appear on camera, but Adi also goes out to interview known members of the death squads, seeking some apology for the death of a brother he never knew. His job as the village’s optometrist gives him access but also acts as metaphor. Oppenheimer never makes it feel heavy-handed, as he prefers to explore the silences with rich images. It’s a film that primarily exists between the lines of action. It’s in the pacing of the shot/reverse shot during Adi’s interviews or his silence as he watches the two jabbering old men in the video. It’s also in the wide shots of the gorgeous jungle that grows fruitful because of the past and its decay. Still, no amount of finesse can overshadow the crimes against humanity committed in the past, and Oppenheimer emphasizes this by repeating certain set pieces.

For instance, both killers and survivors repeat, “The past is the past.” The past certainly provides the distance necessary to cope with the horror, but Oppenheimer doesn’t allow it to cloud the viewer’s judgement of these scenes. He presents no archival footage to validate the statement. He keeps The Look of Silence firmly in the present, but the weight of the past is felt everywhere. Actions define the victims and the perpetrators now and what kind of people are they.

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So who are these people? They are Adi’s father, who, according to his mother, started losing his teeth after Ramli was killed. He’s now a shell of a person, lost to dementia, an object that sometimes lets out a groan of discomfort, as Adi’s mother bathes him, scrubbing with a familiar, routine purpose. Then there are the perpetrators who blame another time for what they did, even though those in power today are there as a result of the mass killings. The past is also no to be trusted. As in an early scene in an elementary school classroom where a teacher tells his half-bored students, including Adi’s son, about the evils of communism. He bends down to a boy and points a pen to his eye as he talks about communists who gouged the eyes out of their enemies. The only concrete presentation of the past, however, is in that video Oppenheimer shot about 10 years prior and Adi obsesses over.

These are people, but they are also walking metaphors for the effects of these crimes. They are human, breathing records of the effects of a society born of impunity. Adi is the lone optometrist trying to open everyone’s eyes. His mother is sadness personified whose longing for her murdered son is only qualified by her belief that Adi is his reincarnation. The father of Ramli, is the saddest of the lot. Adi’s mother says he began losing his teeth after the death of Ramli. Now his is blind, toothless and demented. In one harrowing scene shot by Adi, he scoots around the house on his behind patting at the walls, calling out for help, that he doesn’t recognize the building. Hope, however, lies in Adi’s two children, a daughter who still finds flatulence funny and a son who Adi must constantly re-teach history in spite of his teacher’s propaganda.

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We meet the kids as they watch jumping beans, larvae that struggle so violently to get out of their shells that they jump. Oppenheimer does not make The Look of Silence some precious movie about seeking closure. These are people deeply scarred by a most dehumanizing kind of warfare that pitted neighbor against neighbor. They are not victims searching for a way to forget the past and move on but accept it in order to live with it and move forward. The Look of Silence is an extraordinary document of the dark nature of humankind and a testament to its ability to heal. It’s a film that must be experienced fully, with eyes open, for the sake of our own humanity, as well.

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You can read more about this movie in my interview with the film’s director:

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, talks influences, follow-up movie and “the past” — an interview

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence runs 103 minutes, is in Bahasa and other Indonesian dialects with subtitles and is rated PG-13 (the most disturbing thing about it is the details of the past). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores today, Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article. Finally, listen to me on WLRN today as speak in praise of this movie as well as as films at 1 p.m. EST. The live stream is here. The show will also later be archived on that page.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Joshua_Oppenheimer - photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

For his follow-up to 2012’s The Act of Killing, documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to once again explore the late 1960s massacres of innocents that put the nation’s current government in power. With The Look of Silence, once again, Oppenheimer, co-directing with the victims and the victims’ family members who he credits as “anonymous,” creates a stark testament to a grim history. As opposed to The Act of Killing where he spoke to only the perpetrators who killed people with clubs, knives and steel wire with impunity, The Look of Silence features the family members of one of the victims.

Speaking via phone from New York City, the Danish-born filmmaker reveals he first thought of this film before he shot The Act of Killing. However, he only began shooting The Look of Silence in 2012. It was actually too dangerous to identify survivors of the massacres because the current government could have imprisoned them or worse. People still live in fear of the government in Indonesia, and the release of The Act of Killing has now given him and his victims a kind of protection, though he still had to be careful not to shoot interviews with people who were too high-ranking in the government.

Oppenheimer calls The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing mirror images. He says the title The Look of Silence also came to him before The Act of Killing. Explaining the film’s title he says, “It was, above all, a definition of a project of making visible, of making palpable something normally invisible, this silence born of fear and the traces that fear and silence leave on a human life. How can you look at a family that’s lived for 50 years afraid and in silence, and in forced silence, and see the traces of that and how can you discern the inventive ways that people find to live with dignity and love, despite being surrounded by the powerful men who killed their loved ones.”

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It’s a profound observation for a heavy subject. The family Oppenheimer spotlights is that of Adi, a village optician who makes the rounds testing the eyes of his neighbors, including some who actually participated in the massacre. And it is Adi who conducts the interviews with some of the perpetrators. They share with him chilling stories of drinking the blood of their victims to keep from going mad. But what mainly gets to Adi is footage Oppenheimer shot of two elderly men while making The Act of Killing. The two men stand at a clearing by the Snake River and admit they were the ones who killed Adi’s elder brother, Ramli, They even act out their actions and go into gruesome details of each machete blow that they remember. And they laugh.

The film also features Adi’s parents, his mother, who calls Adi the reincarnation of Ramli, and his father, who is now blind, toothless and suffers from dementia. In a particularly unnerving scene that Oppenheimer says Adi shot one day when he was home alone with his father, his father suffers an episode and begins crawling on the ground patting the walls crying that he doesn’t recognize where he is. “Adi explained to me, ‘I shot this because I couldn’t comfort him that day,” says Oppenheimer, “because I was a stranger to him, and I realized that it’s too late for my father to heal. He’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and his family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten his fear, and now he’ll die like millions of others, in a prison of fear. It’s too late for him to heal because he’s forgotten what happened, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear.’”

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Indeed, this is a stark movie that dwells not so much on explaining but understanding how to heal from such a past for the sake of the nation’s future. A sort of mantra is repeated by both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide: “The past is the past.” Oppenheimer explains this reasoning thus: “It’s a statement that absolutely belies itself because the survivors always say it out of fear, and the perpetrators always say it as a threat, indicating that the past is not the past. It’s right there, keeping people afraid. It’s a gaping wound. It’s an abyss dividing everybody. Keeping survivors afraid and a kind of threat by the perpetrators. The past is right there and is open … That’s really the experience of the film. I tried to create a film that’s so immersive that it goes beyond a message.”

Oppenheimer has created a poetic film, actually. It is much more than a documentary (my review: The Look of Silence explores aftermath of genocide with startling cinematic poetry). The quality of his filmmaking stands alongside the work of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two of contemporary cinema’s most influential and important documentary filmmakers. Both even acted as executive producers on The Look of Silence. However, Oppenheimer names very different filmmakers as influences on this film. “I kind of made a study in preparation for this use of silence of two filmmakers. I suppose for the viewing scene, I was thinking more of the work of Robert Bresson. Diary of a Country Priest, for example, the closing shot of that film, where you see a face reacting to memory and reacting to the plights of the world and the trials that are being thrown at the priest, and in the dialogue scenes, I was thinking about Yasujirô Ozu, whom I think is a master of creating dialogue scenes where everything important being said is articulated through silence and shame as opposed to the words.”

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You can read much more about the film, its story and Oppenheimer’s intentions in an article I wrote for the Arts and Culture blog of “The Miami New Times.” I’m quite proud of it. Jump through the logo of the blog below to read an even more insightful piece on what is sure to be one of the greatest documentaries of the year:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores on Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)