There and then was a transitional period, as Franco's fascist Spain was awkwardly adopting democracy a dozen years after his death. Typing away in a café, septuagenarian journalist Miguel (José Sacristán) is a feisty wordsmith whose every turn of phrase is aimed to pithily seduce any targets within earshot. At least, that's his game when nubile journalism student Ángela (María Valverde) turns back up in the horndog's life, having recently interviewed the feared and revered veteran. Nominated for the World Cinema Grand Jury prize at last year's Sundance, David Trueba's perceptive, alternately prickly and witty two-hander was not actually adapted from a book or play, surprising since the central plot device could've been hermetically non-cinematic: After pressuring the liberated mamacita to not only accompany him to his artist pal's vacant loft for some whiskey, but to disrobe as well, Miguel accidentally locks the two of them in a grimy bathroom, both nude, for the next 24 hours. Thus, a cross-generational gabfest with but one towel between them is initiated, an unorthodox sex farce grinding against a power-shifting, culture-clash drama as conversation slides from art to politics to gender and death, Proustian passages of time both discussed and happening before our eyes. Sacristán has the showier role, his character deeply in love with his own baritone pretentiousness, but the quieter, more guarded Valverde proves a wonderful complement. Or as Seth MacFarlane would say of her performance: "I saw your boobs."
As the concepts of what documentary and drama are (and can be) evolve, or at least mutate with stylization and hybridization, it's vital to comprehend and respect the influence of French filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. In the summer of 1960, the two teamed for a beguiling, highly unusual experiment, armed with a 16mm camera and rudimentary synch-sound prototype. On the streets of Paris, working-class strangers were asked a deceptively simple question: "Are you happy?" Given a diverse sampling of responses (a self-assured young man flirtatiously pulls out a book by Descartes to the pretty ladies asking; a middle-aged couple answers, "Almost."), the filmmakers followed up on meatier world topics with an opinionated factory worker, struggling artists who scam the system, a Nigerian student, a woman who spent her childhood in a concentration camp, and an Italian émigré battling alcoholism and depression. Sometimes academically staged in group discussions over dinner, other times loosened up by depicting the subjects "playing themselves" in their natural habitats, the film very much reflects and combines the divergent objectives of its creators into a tricky, contradictory aesthetic. In his six-decade career, Rouch had invented and implemented the idea of "cinéma vérité," subtitled here as "film-truth," just as one might translate Dziga Vertov's "Kino-Pravda" series. Yet the subtle distinction between the provocative theories is that the filmmakers appear onscreen, self-reflexively critiquing themselves (harshly), just as they let their subjects do in the final minutes by watching their own footage. "Intimate," someone calls it, and yes it is. "Painful," at times. "Boring," never, and neither is the next fifty years of cinema forever shaped by a question.
Some critics have overpraised Michael Haneke's "Amour" as if it were the only film to tackle familial love while facing the inevitability of death and self-decay, so it's a shame that few people in the U.S. last year saw Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui's take—also understated, unsentimental and humanistic, yet more charmingly delicate. Middle-aged bachelor and film-biz accountant Roger ("Infernal Affairs" star Andy Lau) has routinely relied on the servitude of his housekeeper Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) his entire life, since she has worked for the family some 60 years, even before Roger was orphaned as a child. After Ah Tao suffers a stroke and must retire to a nursing home, the nuanced dynamics between the two are flipped, but his busy life and their mutual unpreparedness never get in the way of their spirited chemistry: Roger snaps right into stepping up to care for an elder, complete with regular visits, and Ah Tao maintains her feisty dignity while never wanting to burden the man she has nurtured forever. In quiet, lovely, often unexpectedly droll moments so perfectly observed that scene descriptions won't do them justice (of note: Lau's character is based on actual life events of producer Roger Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Lau is Ip's real-life godson), we see their bond is more mother-son than whatever their class differences dictate societally. Though loneliness is impossible to avoid when surrounded by older, frailer, more neglected souls, Ah Tao's world-wariness never weighs down the mood, nor is she unrealistically impervious to self-pity. As further testament to the film's life-affirming human connections, Ip had planned to retire after shooting, but changed her mind after the film became a box-office smash and she took home the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival. (Further footnote: watch for Hong Kong superstar icons Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark in bit roles, as themselves.)
Paul Thomas Anderson's epically staged, intimate post-WWII drama is hardly an under-the-radar pearl, but not enough attention has been paid to an amazing bonus feature that only appears on the Blu-ray edition: John Huston's hour-long, 1946 documentary "Let There Be Light." Clearly an aesthetic and thematic inspiration for Anderson, this black-and-white scientific portrait of "the psycho-neurotic soldier," produced for the U.S. government, depicts with clear-eyed candor the treatments given to battle-scarred soldiers following the war. No scenes were staged, announces an opening title crawl, though it's papa Walter Huston's unmistakably melodramatic narration ("utter fear and isolation") that leads us through the rehabilitation procedures inside an Army hospital. From positive-reinforcement interviews between soldiers and doctors (formally composed similarly to Joaquin Phoenix's early sequences in "The Master") to group psychotherapy, sodium amytal injections, and a successful hypnosis scene that needs to be seen to be believed, this film offers more guarded optimism than propagandistic back-patting in an era of mental-health that's known more in hindsight for its primitive barbarism than innovation. It's a kick to hear the eloquent, generational cadences of men we typically call grunts, but even more surprising is how warm the bedside manner of the army doctors, professional alpha-males of a time and place in which crying was for sissies.
Aaron Hillis has written about film for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, LA Weekly, Variety, Filmmaker, IFC News, Premiere and Spin. He is the former curator of the reRun Gastropub Theater, and the new owner of Video Free Brooklyn (two-time "Best Video Store in NYC" winner, 2012).