Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Werner Herzog’s most significant contribution to cinema this year is, of course, his part in the distribution of The Act of Killing. For all we know, the best thing he’ll do next year is his commentary on the Blu-Ray of Joshua Oppenheimer’s nonfiction sensation. However, Herzog’s much more active role in narrating, editing and releasing another filmmaker’s footage was mostly overlooked this spring.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a collaboration between the German auteur and Dmitry Vasyukov, whose time living on the Yenisei river yielded such beautiful, interesting images of life on the edge of human settlement. While Herzog’s narration occasionally yields to his more grandiose thematic impulses, at one point even gesturing toward the end of the world, on the whole Happy People is a minor triumph of frozen intimacy.

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A Hijacking

Harried men on boats is something of a theme this year, with All Is Lost and Captain Phillips angling for Academy Award nominations. But Robert Redford and Tom Hanks aren’t alone in this waterlogged genre. Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is a gripping tale of trouble on the high seas, focusing on an unarmed Danish cargo ship that gets captured by Somali pirates, and the subsequent efforts back in a Copenhagen corporate suite to get them back.

What sets it apart is its bold dual setting and its commitment to a hostage negotiation that goes on for months. Lindholm creates scenes of incredible suspense, but also finds moments of tranquility and humanity in places you might not expect. It’s formidably constructed, remarkably acted and just about every scene hits exactly the right mark.

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The Human Scale

There’s a bit of a surge recently of documentaries about city planning and development. This makes sense, of course, given the fact that more and more of the world’s population is becoming concentrated in urban areas. But is there enough to discuss to sustain that many films? The Human Scale proves that there absolutely is, if only because no two cities are exactly alike.

While the film is structured much like Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized, the cast of characters is very different. Director Andreas Dalsgaard filters things through a particular theory of urban planning in Denmark, that of architect and academic Jan Gehl. He then travels to Dhaka, New York City, Siena, Chongqing and other places to kaleidoscopically look at how cities have been managed and mismanaged over the last century. A final chapter in post-earthquake Christchurch, New Zealand is particularly essential.

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In the House

François Ozon has had an interesting, perhaps disappointing decade. RickyAngel5×2, and to an extent Potiche were all misfires, though interestingly so. In the House is far and away his best film since 2003’s Swimming Pool, but it almost slipped by unnoticed. It’s a comedy of manners that falls somewhere between Hitchcock and Pasolini, playfully and explicitly evoking both filmmakers. A mild thriller of imagination, interested in deconstructing the bourgeois family with the tempered and less radical humor of the 21st century, In the House is a lovely film built from one of the best screenplays of the year.

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