There are only four picks left in my award-winning “Best Of The 2010s” series and I have to be honest with you now. Three of them have appeared on quite a few other lists. I never claimed to be a contrarian, not in the last few hours anyway. My selection for the fourth spot, however, was somewhat less than universally praised.
“mother!” captures the gut-wrenching terror of sharing your art with the public, that horrible moment of letting your personal creation go. Even the people who love it (or claim they love it) won't understand it quite the way you do. And as your precious creation gets passed around, cherished or ignored or just briefly sampled as a mid-day distraction, there's a good chance it will get torn to bits, and perhaps you along with it. Yet you continue to create because you don't have any other choice. And it's still better than having nobody else ever see your work at all. Maybe.
“mother!” is a strident environmental allegory. If Jennifer Lawrence is mother! Earth (which she is, among so many other things) we first meet her in her Edenic home with only one other person in sight, her husband/partner Him (Javier Bardem). One stranger intrudes and then another and soon the world population explodes. And damn near every one of these bastards likes to party too, exploiting Mother Earth and her beautiful house, all without considering her opinion on the matter or worrying about wrecking the place, right up until the inevitable Malthusian crash, and the grueling cleanup of the filth they leave behind.
“mother!” vividly depict systemic misogyny stemming from multiple sources, from Christian patriarchal ideology to the pernicious myth of the lone genius male artist and his disposable muse. Maybe she'll be venerated as a saint later, but that's cold comfort to an abandoned Jennifer Lawrence as mother! Mary, valued primarily for her ability to produce one very special baby, or perhaps to help Him publish his latest work and soak up all the glory.
Like Hans Moleman's celebrated “Man Getting Hit By Football” Darren Aronofsky's gonzo screed works on so many levels, and I love, love, love this movie from its lower-case “m” to its ostentatious ! As manic as the film gets at its overcrowded crescendo, Aronofsky and crew frame most of the action with a handful of simple, repeated camera setups, making it a more controlled and rigorous formal exercise than the legions of skeptical critics have given it credit for.
Because this movie really works on so many levels, at least for me. One of the defining elements of my dreams is that I'm rarely able to make a difference – scrub that stain but it never goes away, shovel that coal but the pile never gets any smaller. Maybe that's just me, but “mother!” captures the feel of my dreams in a way I've never seen in a movie before, and I'm especially thinking of the sequence where Lawrence implores raucous party-goers to stop bouncing on her sink, only to find them back at it just seconds later. And I haven't even talked about how this movie so clearly sees the world through the eyes of an introvert for whom true hell is other people.
Lawrence is great. Michelle Pfeiffer is great. I think everything about “mother!” is great. I gave serious thought to making it my top pick of the 2010s. Maybe I chickened out because of the negative reviews, some of which I respect but simply disagree with. I'm grateful that Aronofsky didn't chicken out, and went for broke in every frame of this deranged tour-de-force.
“The Turin Horse” was billed at the time as Hungarian master Bela Tarr's last film, and so far that's proven to be true as far as feature films go, except for the fact that most critics (myself included) omitted the fact that the film was co-directed (and edited) by Agnes Hranitzky, also the co-director w/Tarr of “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) and “The Man From London” (2006). If it really is the last feature film for either director, they sure proved they can throw one hell of a farewell party.
An elderly peasant and his daughter live it up on the old farm where they get to stare at dust clouds through the living room window and eat all the boiled potatoes they could ever want, provided they only want one each. Feel the excitement! The film, photographed in a stark black-and-white that wallows in the tedium, unfolds at the pace of a day per act, though these might well be Biblical days that stretch out for eons. Or perhaps longer for the poor viewer who doesn't dig the glacial rhythm or the nihilistic vibe.
Soon enough it becomes apparent that the world is ending, though it's hard to tell for certain over the constant howl of the scouring wind. Fortunately the starch-fed protagonists have low expectations for life. When the light, possibly all the light in the world, goes out, the daughter responds with a resigned, “What's all this?” Few films grind more mileage out of a black screen. Each day of Tarr's slow-motion apocalypse yields to a slightly degraded copy of the day prior, bits and shreds of existence flaking off until finally there's just not enough energy left to sustain life, or even a film.
I also think “The Turin Horse” is damn funny at times, but I've been told by reliable sources that means I'm crazy. Tarr has described the film as an expression of “the heaviness of human existence” and, really, what could be funnier than that?