Varda: Les Plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) (2008)

The Beaches of Agnès is a kind of companion piece to The Gleaners and I. This time around, Agnès Varda is gleaning more extensively from her own life, but any resemblance to a biopic, or autobiopic, is somewhat offset by the way in which she tends to treat her own memories and experiences as if she’s stumbling across their sustenance for the first time, right down to discovering a pair of old photographs of herself and husband Jacques Demy at an old flea-market in southern France. For the most part, the film proceeds chronologically, but it quickly confounds any sense that Varda’s life and work are operating independently of one another, as a seemingly endless series of ingenious and irreverent re-enactments tends to cut against the splendid isolation of her earlier mise-en-scenes, even in the midst of her most canonical films and personal crises. As in Gleaners, the film’s more or less sustained by the artless irreverance with which she moves from one preoccupation, passion or distraction to another, without a trace of either irony or the knowing oblivion that might pass for twee, focusing on her interests – it’s hard to think of a director who’s more interested than Varda – with a sincerity that’s quite mercurial, the sincerity of someone who wore a camera on their sleeve pretty much their whole life, whether or not they happened to be officially shooting a film. Although there are moments of real and enduring grief, they’re untouched by nostalgia, while Varda’s activist rage never feels separate from her joy in everything she’s agitating for. Drifting into the world of “senior citizens and beyond” – the film was released on the eve of her eightieth birthday – she’s somehow able to puncture the pretensions of all her dreams while leaving dreams open to anyone else who might still want to have them, discarding the detritus of her life as she sifts through it even as she remains “willing to enter a reverie” with any object that might still speak to her, or listen to her. More like an eccentric, marginal directorial commentary on her film-life than a film or a life in itself, it’s the perfect swansong for a figure who came of age in an “age of questions” and never stopped asking them, whether in Sète, Nantes, Venice Beach or any of the other windy, watery expanses that anchor this beautiful web of associations and ruminations.


Robespierre: Obvious Child (2014)

Gillian Robespierre’s debut film stars Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, a comedian trying to make it big in New York’s indie stand-up circuit. We're introduced to Donna by way of one of her sets, during the opening credits, and it’s so painfully confessional and self-deprecating that you feel as if you know her almost uncomfortably well within a matter of moments. Like so many stand-ups, her comedy seems to be a way of keeping tragedy at bay, a mechanism for containing the spikiest, nerviest parts of her life, which makes it pretty dramatic when a pair of crises - being dumped by her long-term boyfriend and getting pregnant after a one-night stand – suddenly exceeds her ability to translate them into stand-up. Following Donna as she tries to get over her boyfriend, contemplates what to do about her pregnancy, and searches for a way to get her comic mojo back, Robespierre’s loose ambience is not dissimilar to Louie in the way in which it suggests a world beyond stand-up, or at least a world in which stand-up no longer has the powers of catharsis and containment it might once have had. For all that Slate is given several opportunities to exercise her considerable stage presence, most of the film takes place in the lonely hours after all the stand-up venues shut down, and confession starts to seep back into conversation, suddenly bereft of its powers to contain the depressive substrate of New York that Robespierre evokes so beautifully. That’s not to say that it’s not funny – Gaby Hoffmann, Jack Lacy, Gabe Liedman and David Cross all play supporting roles – but that there’s something oddly and powerfully aborted about Robespierre’s screenplay, which tends to feel either like a series of observational riffs that aren’t quite allowed to gel into a full set, or a sequence of wacky, eccentric incidents and encounters that would work perfectly as stand-up anecdotes, if only Donna could just find a way to pull them together. As it stands, there’s a sense that stand-up has become part of everyday life in a new way – again, not unlike Louie – as every character has painful anecdotes to brand, advertise and circulate as never before, but also a new kind of comic attention to just how unremarkable that actually makes them. And against that backdrop, the film manages, remarkably, to find the right comic register for abortion, if only because it's a sit-down comedy, a comedy that can’t stand apart from its subject any longer than Donna can stand apart from her pregnancy, as Slate and Robespierre feel their way though a world in which comedy no longer seems to exist in the way we once knew it.


Scott: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Poised on the brink of a globalised world, early 90s cinema saw a resurgence of interest in the horizon, discovering a new kind of synthetic pantheism and syncretic paganism at the furthest extremities of the screen. While Waterworld may have taken that widescreen moment to its extreme, in a film consisting of almost nothing but horizons, 1492: Conquest of Paradise perhaps provided its single greatest personification, in the form of Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) – or Ridley Scott’s Christopher Columbus, celebrated and canonised here as the first truly global citizen, the first explorer to truly apprehend the horizon in all its sublime curvature, and the first person to think in both Eastern and Western hemispheres at once. That might sound historically simplistic, but 1492 is less a period piece than a perceptual experiment, an attempt to see whether Scott can set his eye on the horizon as steadily as Columbus might have done, keeping it consistently in his sights while never losing sight of the diplomatic vision needed to envisage it as a truly multicultural, pluralistic threshold. That’s even more of a feat in that Roselyne Bosch’s screenplay is largely preoccupied with Columbus the colonist-governor rather than Columbus the sailor-explorer, with the result that the horizon becomes a state of mind more than anything else, a quasi-mystical mode of apprehension that ensures that even the most constrained close-ups feel as if they’re shot in staggering widescreen, not unlike the various chamber dramas in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. In the short sequences when we are actually at sea, Scott seems to distill every possible permutation of light and water in a few shots, fading dusk and dawn into a luminous, numinous ether, while Columbus’ treatises on the quadrant give the whole film an astronomical scope, really making you grasp just how much a journey like this was the equivalent of outer space travel in our own time. Combined with Vangelis' most monumental, ceremonial score to date, that makes for something like Scott's strongest sci-fi film since Blade Runner – the Tyrell Corporation remade as Queen Isabella's court – in which even the quietest, most sheltered moments aim for nothing less than to be the widest widescreen film of all time, the last port of call before cinema spills out into the surrogate horizons of IMAX rides and amusement park adaptations.


Fincher: Gone Girl (2014)

From their earliest screwball inception, comedies of remarriage were also comedies of remediation, stories of couples who mediated their marriage by way of the mass media itself, searching through its most frenetic outlets for a new way of being close to each other. Something similar happens in Gone Girl, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, although arguably on a much more ambitious scale. The less said about the plot the better, except that it opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovering that his wife Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike) is missing, and that he may be the prime suspect. As the investigation proceeds and publicity builds, Nick finds himself at the epicentre of a twenty-four hour news cycle, a massive digital media event that quickly spirals out beyond his home town of North Carthage, Missouri, interpolating and interrogating all his perceptions of Amy in the process. A great deal of the film’s pleasure comes from the ambiguity about who, exactly, is crafting this media event, and to what extent and purpose, partly because Flynn’s screenplay so scrupulously preserves the digital screwball of her novel, couching each character in a kind of snap-chat snappiness that’s more interested in timeliness than speed, and oppressing Nick with a series of ominously up-to-the-minute utterances that don't unfold in real time so much as generate their own bewildering, alarming hyperreal time. Among other things, that frees up David Fincher to indulge in some of his most ambient, freeform datascapes to date, gesturing towards a mystery that exceeds any of the intricate narrative loops that Flynn deals with so efficiently – namely, the mystery of why on earth this couple ever got together and why, having got together, they ever decided to stay together. At least, that’s something Nick seems to ask himself as he sinks further and further into DP Jeff Cronenweth's digital miasma, a dim and dusky world in which natural light suddenly seems to have become tidal rather than diurnal, endlessly receding without ever exhausting itself enough to plunge us into total darkness, and exposing a strange new digital streambed in its wake, a streambed that Nick can only skulk, scramble and stumble across to the best of his ability. For all that this media event multiplies in platforms and dimensions, then, the Midwestern Mississippi town that generates it just seems to get flatter and flatter, more and more liquid, drowning everything in a digital swamp murk that occasionally makes it feel much further South than it actually is. With barely enough time to put his face on for each new camera, and barely enough time to take it off again, Affleck’s dopey, himbo vibe has never worked better, never given less away - for years, we’ve pretended his romantic charisma was sustainable, but by finally giving up on that Gone Girl gives him his best performance to date. And with Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris among the supporting cast, it feels as if heterosustainability is just what Fincher and Flynn are satirising, offering up one digital fantasy of the good life after another, while daring you, in the slyest, wryest way, to take them seriously.


Braff: Wish I Was Here (2014)

Ten years ago, Zach Braff was as ambitious to be the voice of his generation as James Franco is today. In a way, he succeeded with Garden State, or at least succeeded in a more concerted, singular way than Franco’s multiple projects ever have. However, that just appears to have made it all the more traumatic, a decade later, to no longer be the voice of his generation – or to still be the voice of his generation, but to find, on the cusp of his forties, that that’s no longer such a glamorous thing. From that perspective, the notorious Kickstarter campaign that funded Wish I Was Here is absolutely integral to its project, since it’s clear that by this point Braff needs to feel an entire generation backing him, offering up his sophomore effort with a chronic lack of confidence, an acute self-consciousness about slipping into the limelight, that would utterly consume it were it not so concretely assured of its audience in advance. Even as it stands, it takes place in a kind of sustained limelight, which Braff more or less conceals as the perpetual summer twilight where this Los Angeles version of Garden State unfolds. And for all that that generates a much brighter sheen than rural New Jersey, the transition from Garden State to Golden State is fairly imperceptible, as Braff once again unfolds a series of inspirational tableaux, slow-mo, hi-five convoys designed to rouse a generation into the epiphany that they are a generation. Admittedly, this time around, Braff's a family man, with a wife (Kate Hudson), father (Mandy Patinkin), brother (Josh Gad) and kids to take care of, just as all the moments of generational communion, all the mutual salutes to a future we can make our own, take place between him and his kids, rather than his contemporaries. Yet Braff's charisma isn’t really altered by being disseminated as a parent rather than a peer – if anything, it just clarifies how much he aspires to be a seer, a purveyor of wisdom, taking us on an exhortative road trip that starts with him deciding to home school his kids and ends with him becoming a theatre teacher. Of course, that’s all qualified by Braff's sense of indie self-effacement, or at least his sense that being indie means being self-effacing  – he's still the struggling actor, the neglected son, the cutesy dreamer – but even that feels somewhat overgentrified, as if the film were finally afraid of being too indie to satisfy Braff’s ambitions, which only seem to have expanded since Garden State into the sci-fi fringes that were apparently the point of contention with his producers here, and which led him to seek out crowdfunding in the first place. As fascinating as it is, then, to watch someone do exactly the same thing ten years later, it's a film that doesn’t leave a great deal of room for you as an audience – you crowdfund it by watching it, kickstart it by buying tickets to it, engage with it only by turning yourself into a bit player in Braff's most expensive, extravagant cutaway to date.