This holiday season when theaters are full of pablum and poseurs, make a pre-New Years resolution to find better films. Start with two small, ambitious, well-told tales garbed as scary movies that leave us w lessons about what it means to be a family, how to cope with loss and how to make an excellent film.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is mesmerizing. Its images stay with you long after the film has whisked you through the grim wasteland of oil drilling, industrial flotsam and working class slums of Iran.
Arash (Arash Marandi) lives in this sparse 21st century borderland with his father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) a drug addicted widower. While his father wastes away with memories in their claustrophobic apartment, Arash works as gardener for the wealthy, does his best to provide for Hossein and to keep him away from drugs. But he loses his beloved vintage car to pay for his father's drug indebtedness.
Into this blighted landscape, Sheila Vand drops like an avenging angel. We see her wander the streets at night, a stark, unexplained wraith, confronting the forces of good and evil in Bad City. But this is not an American film where we would need to know where she came from, why she was there and what she would do. It's enough to see her stylized vampire image glide through the night time streets carrying the promise of revenge, moral justice and even personal fulfillment.
Ana Lily Amirpour's inventive film propelled forward by its techno pop soundtrack and stark dark images drives us beyond the dying post industrial landscape towards a promise of something new and unexplained. . . hopefully her next film!
The tight spare images of Girl Walks Home Alone also characterize The Babadook. Like its Iranian counterpart, the Australian Babadook is a moreal tale, its gripping character development unfolding in tragedy and fear.
The film is a taut psychological thriller centered on Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia's husband was killed while driving her to the hospital to have Sam delivered. Where we join them in the film, seven years later, Sam's progressively worsening problems with friends, relatives and at school have result in him being removed from school and largely isolated from other children. He insists that he and Amelia are threatened by a monster from which they will protect each other. He finds a likeness for this monster in a scary book, The Babadook. Fearful of its impact, Amelia tries to destroy the book.
As Sam is out of school ill and Amelia is out of work caring for him, they take refuge in their house. But their refuge takes on the trappings of a haunted house, as strange noises and events turn them against each other. Are they trying to kill each other or is it the Babadook?
Davis and Wiseman are brilliant in their portrayals . . . sympathetic, annoying, harrowing, frightening . . . reminding us of the strains of parenting and childhood, anger, punishment, fear and guilt.
Director Jennifer Kent, who studied acting with lead Essie Davis at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, builds pacing with the patience of a veteran fueling the tensions in which all characters inhabit the Babadook's universe. Radek Ladczuk's Cinematography transforms the most mundane architectural elements of the house into menace. Jed Kurzel's blend of music and silence frames and floats the action.
In the end, we learn what holds families together and what tears them apart . . . and that the terrible loss of loved ones never leaves us, but may be accepted and managed so that life can go on. Sometimes small films to scare us -- like The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night -- tell us more than big films how to care for each other and what is really important.