Communion—Playing for one show only, Saturday, January 5 at 4 p.m. at Harkins Shea, is this 72-minute astonishment from Poland. The debut feature of Anna Zamecka, this portrait of a struggling family is a bit hard to classify; it resides in a verité realm between documentary and fiction. The people in it play themselves and the power in many scenes is clearly the result of very real and immediate emotional pain and stress. But Zamecka, who is also credited as screenwriter, has filmed her subjects like actors and their situations like scenes, with no acknowledgment of a camera crew being present, and shuffled and shaped the material for dramatic effect.
The central figure is Ola, a teenage girl living in a cramped, cluttered flat with her detached father Marek and her seemingly autistic brother Nikodem. The mother Magda, who also has an infant child, has moved out, for reasons that are never made clear, though social services of some sort seem to be involved in the family’s case. So Ola has taken on the job of traditional Mom, doing the housework, getting her brother ready for school, and trying, against his antic resistance, to prepare him for his first communion, which she desperately hopes both of her parents will attend.
The scenes, shot head-on, with little internal cutting, are elliptical, giving us a sense of domestic turbulence without getting specific. But the effect is also intensely intimate, and we invest in Ola’s hopes even when we can see they’re both improbable and not for the best. And Nikodem comes across as a sly rebel and comedian, spouting tomfoolery that sounds startlingly profound, to the exasperation both of Ola and of his religious instructors. He’s like a character out of Dostoyevsky.
However one pigeonholes this movie by genre, what Zamecka has captured here is riveting. She got the best of both worlds: These people, especially Ola and Nikodem, have the vivid presence of movie stars, at the same time that they show not so much as a hint of the artificial or engineered. The sense that we are watching “real life” unfold before our eyes may be illusory—it almost certainly is, to some degree—but there can be little doubt that Zamecka has gotten truth onto film, heartbreaking but also inspirational.
The General—Sunday, January 6 at 1:30 p.m., FilmBar presents one of Buster Keaton’s masterpieces, his 1926 chase comedy set during the Civil War, and loosely based on a true story. Keaton plays Southern locomotive engineer Johnny Gray; the title character is his beloved engine, hijacked by Union raiders. Johnny pursues relentlessly up the tracks, keeping the same grave, stoic expression on his face no matter what daunting obstacle or peril he’s faced with.
As with many old Hollywood movies that deal with the period, The General’s sentimental attitude toward the Confederacy can be troubling to modern sensibilities. But taken in a political vacuum, this is one of the seminal works in the action comedy genre, and every serious film buff needs to see it. Expensive and difficult to shoot, it was coolly received by critics and audiences in its initial release, but has since been recognized as one of the Keaton’s, and cinema’s, greatest achievements.
Aside from its excellence as a piece of filmmaking, its power is due to the jaw-dropping nature of the star’s performance. As with Jackie Chan in our time, it isn’t just that we’re witnessing breathtaking daredevil stunts; it’s that Keaton is acting, with full panache and flawless comic timing, while he performs them.
OK, time to indulge in that lordly critical ritual, the Top Ten List.
Here are my picks for 2018:
November—American audiences don’t get nearly enough black-and-white Gothics from Estonia, and this one, based on a novel by Andrus Kivirahk, is eerie, magical, erotic, funny and complex.
American Animals—Bart Layton’s true crime docudrama about a moronic plot to rob a rare books room in a library is an innovative and provocative study of middle-class frustration and privilege.
Black Panther—The best, most-soul-stirring and most fun of the Marvel movies yet.
The Other Side of the Wind—Finally released four decades after it was shot—much of it here in the Valley—the final Orson Welles feature is a superficially chaotic, subtly precise spoof of both old-Hollywood machismo and new-Hollywood pretentiousness. Also, Pat McMahon has a small role in it.
Vice—As he did with the subprime mortgage crisis in his 2015 The Big Short, Adam McKay gets grim laughs out of the career of Dick Cheney. Christian Bale’s a wonder in the role.
Roma—Alfonso Cuaron’s drama about a Mixtec maid in a middle-class household in ’70s-era Mexico City generates a vivid glimpse of the period.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers documentary shows, among other things, how seriously radical Rogers was, especially in some of his early shows.
BlacKkKlansman—Another ’70s period piece: Spike Lee’s account of a black undercover cop in Colorado who ingratiated himself (by phone) with the KKK has an agreeable old-school cop-buddy-picture flavor.
Eighth Grade—Bo Burnham’s teen comedy about an awkward heroine negotiating the final weeks of the title grade is painfully naturalistic, and Elsie Fisher is touching in the lead role.
Journey’s End—This new version of R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama didn’t seem to get much notice, but it was splendidly acted and wrenchingly sad.