Occasionally a bit precious in its cinematography (one too many woozy shots and obvious visual cues), Andrew Haigh's Weekend is nevertheless a bold, beautiful film that uses the magnificent performances of its leads to confront cinematic complacency and limitations upon homosexuality. Glen (Chris New), the aggressive art student, is defiant about his sexuality in response to the heteronormative society around him, which he convincingly argues is more "in your face" than even the loudest queer. Russell, the shy one, still wrestles with his sexuality, and Tom Cullen captures the feeling of being the odd man out at a party (whether the stranger at a farewell bash or the one gay man among straights) better than just about anyone.
It's impossible to leave the sexuality of the characters out of discussion, as the tenor of their conversations and behavior with each other is informed by the social limitations imposed on homosexuals; by denying the naturalness of their expressions, the outside world makes their private chats more open and frank than heterosexual couples who've been together for years instead of hours. Cullen and New are so effortlessly natural with each other that not only are they believable as a couple, they are two of the few romantic screen pairings one could buy having a life-changing dalliance in just two days. Haigh still has some kinks to work out with his direction, but Weekend announces the arrival of one of the most nuanced, real makers of romance, and in this respect, the sexuality of the lovers in question couldn't matter less.
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2011)
If Weekend's naturalism quietly revolutionizes the indie romance, the elegant long-takes and flawless rapport of Tuesday, After Christmas' actors adds new textures to over-familiar adultery dramas. On paper, this film is as clichéd as it gets: a husband in a comfortable family unit risks it all for a fling with a younger, attractive woman. But Muntean and the actors craft realistic interactions—the married couple in the film are husband and wife in real life—that make Paul's quandary agonizing rather than perfunctory. In this modern age of decreasing average shot length, a film like Tuesday, After Christmas reminds us of the dramatic possibilities of simply holding a shot, which prolongs the perfectly ordinary conversations between characters to the point that one almost expects a bomb to go off. Why else would a shot be held so long over (seemingly) nothing? Muntean's long takes allow the actors to add tiny exchanges that make their relationships more real and therefore more meaningful, and the decision Paul must make by that post-Christmas Tuesday promises to be devastating regardless of what we eventually see him choose.
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)
Perhaps the most standard, TV-ready documentary Werner Herzog has ever made, and that includes his early work for German television (which are among his most poetic works). Yet if the film lacks Herzog's usual magic, it also makes for an above-average opinion piece that bluntly voices the director's views on capital punishment while still directly confronting the horror of the death row inmates' crimes. Herzog's use of archival footage and relatively straight interviewing style reveal he'd be a fairly successful "normal" documentarian. Still a major presence in his storytelling, Herzog nevertheless mostly steps back to let the interview subjects speak for themselves, only interjecting to push them on unexpected tangents that end up revealing more than the standard questions would have. Herzog captures the full ugliness of the situation—the two partners in crime blaming each other for the crime that got them incarcerated, the shame and rage the people connected to the perpetrators and victims feel—but it is precisely because he goes for the complete portrait of devastation that his adamant stance against the death penalty carries any weight. But if Herzog does not poeticize this subject, he nevertheless searches for the beauty and humanity in this dark tragedy, and he even finds vague whispers of hope littered among the bodies of the dead murdered by criminal and state alike.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2011)
If Into the Abyss leaves out Herzog's style but still makes an impact, Cave of Forgotten Dreams showcases his ability to make poetry of reality but lacks the grounding element that keeps his best work from simply drifting aimlessly. Herzog's speculation of peoples past based on the cave art they left behind broaches ideas of the foundation of all artistic expression and, therefore, communication. But he fails to tie delicate play of light and simulated movement over the beautiful and miraculously preserved cave paintings to the grandiose free association that usually strikes metaphysical pay dirt. Occasionally, Herzog's tantalizing meditations, linking the caves to German Romanticism and Wagner, recall the best of the director's thin but evocative spoken thoughts. But given Herzog's interest in casting these surprisingly sophisticated paintings as not simply the beginning of art in general but proto-cinema itself, it's a shame that the film doesn't feel more resonant throughout.