With less than a month to go before top ten lists are due, time is running out to catch up with the best movies of the year. From now until the end of December, I'll be posting weekly updates about what I watch and whether I think it stands a chance to make my — or your — best films of 2012. This week I watched:
Directed by Bart Layton
This wildly acclaimed documentary (96% on Rotten Tomatoes; A- on Criticwire) tells the unbelievable true story of Nicholas Barclay, a young boy from Texas who vanished for three years and then reappeared in Spain with different hair, eyes, and a French accent. In fact, the boy claiming to be Nicholas wasn't Nicholas at all — he wasn't even a boy, but a 23-year-old con man named Frédéric Bourdin. That someone would prey on an emotionally distraught family is not all that shocking; that the emotionally distraught family would accept him into their home even though he sounded and looked nothing like their real son is. Cutting between interviews with the Barclays and Bourdin, and extensive slow-motion reenactments, director Bart Layton attempts to get to the bottom of that central mystery. Casting actors to portray real people further blurs the line between fact and fiction, and emphasizes the idea of role-playing that is crucial to the Barclays' story. Still, there might be a bit too many reenactments, and at times "The Imposter" begins to feel like a really well-shot episode of "Unsolved Mysteries." Thankfully, the plot thickens considerably in the last thirty minutes, building to a crescendo of lingering questions that recalls "The Usual Suspects." Finally, we understand: sometimes it's easier to live with a lie than to face the truth.
Will it Wind Up on my Top Ten List? Not quite, though it could sneak onto my honorable mention list.
Could It End Up On Yours? Definitely. I expect to see it on a few lists next month.
Directed by Craig Zobel
Another film, albeit a fully fictional one, based on an implausible real life case, with participants whose decisions are very hard to comprehend. One Friday night, a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy) calls a busy fast food restaurant and tells the manager (Ann Dowd) that one of her cashiers (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer, and while he's tied up elsewhere he needs her to handle the investigation as he instructs her over the phone. The manager accepts the man at his word, even as his requests grow intrusive and then abusive, and the "investigation" quickly devolves into a degrading series of assaults. Zobel, who previously made the far lighter "Great World of Sound," has a knack for casting and a good eye for detail, particularly in the mundane dramas of the restaurant that continues to operate as if nothing is wrong even as one of its employees is systematically destroyed just out of sight. Interestingly, many of the film's negative reviews call into question Zobel's interpretation of events, describing them implausible or outrageous. If you read the news articles about the actual incident, you will be astounded — and horrified — how close he sticks to the record. "Compliance" is hard to watch and even harder to forget.
Will it Wind Up on my Top Ten List? Don't pretend to be a policeman and force me to do horrible things if it doesn't, but at this point it looks very possible.
Could It End Up On Yours? It will probably wind up on either your best of list or your worst of list. There's very little in between on this one.
The Invisible War
Directed by Kirby Dick
Documentarian Kirby Dick specializes in films that expose systemic secrets. His "This Film is Not Yet Rated" revealed the lunacy behind the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board; "Outrage" uncovered the hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians and lobbyists who support anti-gay legislation. His latest film, "The Invisible War," investigates the alarming frequency of sexual assaults in the military and the even-more-alarming tendency within the armed forces to blame victims and protect rapists. With extensive interviews and statistics, Dick shows how so many women (and even some men) who wanted to serve their country found themselves abandoned and betrayed by the people who are supposed to protect us all. The film — yet another story of shocking real-life injustice and gross abuse of authority (get your year-end think pieces ready, gang!) — is infuriating. But don't take my word for it; two days after he watched "The Invisible War," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made a change in the way the military chain of command handles sexual assault cases. Hopefully it's just the first of many positive changes.
Will it Wind Up on my Top Ten List? Probably not, but it's definitely a contender for Best Documentary of the Year.
Could It End Up On Yours? I don't expect to see it on a ton of top ten lists — it lacks the sort of formal daring or stranger-than-fiction narrative hook that define docs that get that sort of acclaim (like, say, "The Imposter"). But it's absolutely worth seeing.