Two of the finest films of 2012, and I didn’t see them until the final week of January, 2013. This duo is responsible for kicking “Anna Karenina” and “Life of Pi” out of my recently published Top Ten of 2012 list, so, if you are looking for a place to hang blame—seek no further. “The Loneliest Planet” by Julia Loktev is spare and minimalist, not unlike the style of Kelly Reichardt(“Old Joy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”). “Oslo, August 31st” is a Norwegian film, from director Joachim Trier, that is bleak and remarkably observant—and ultimately devastating. It reminded me a great deal of Noah Baumbach’s under-appreciated “Greenberg”, but it’s far darker. It’s been impossible for me to shake either of these, and both deserve multiple views. “The Loneliest Planet” in particular, has a story thrust that turns on a dime mid-way through, and completely readjusts all that has preceded it. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away—it’s an unexpectedly powerful transition. And “Oslo, August 31st” follows the emotional journey of an addicted young man that plays deceptively familiar. But you may never have witnessed this kind of tale being handled so honestly and poignantly. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom a mainstream American film company financing and distributing either of these stark, difficult works(as stated, “Oslo” was filmed in Norway, and, in the case of “The Loneliest Planet”, although it is mostly English-language, it was shot in the Eurasian countryside of Georgia by Russian-American director, Loktev). Both of these are powerful, but neither attempts to put on a “big show”.
“The Loneliest Planet” focuses on a pair of adventurous back-packers, that are engaged to be married. Alex(the always excellent, Gael Garcia Bernal)and Nica(breath-of-fresh-air, Hani Furstenberg)are a deliriously happy couple with wedding plans set in the coming months. The film exhibits their youthful playfulness as they show all the standard signs of young lovers. They are around 30, but they remain exuberantly playful and tender together sexually. They walk and play word games and revel in each other’s company on their athletic hikes. They seem to enjoy the same types of things and are looking to a future of years of togetherness. Despite their obvious experience, they decide it wise to hire a guide for a lengthy and treacherous trek through the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia—which was at one time a republic of the Soviet Union. They find Dato(an earthy and local-looking, Bidzina Gujabidze)amongst a group of seemingly qualified men, and deem this older man the proper choice. Their trek begins innocently, and Alex and Nica continue their enthusiastic frolicking while they hike, as well as engage in some limited conversation with their new companion. About halfway through the film, the trio come across something unexpected while on their desolate journey. And in a matter of seconds, their relationship is altered forever.
“Oslo, August 31st” introduces us to Anders(a marvelous Anders Danielsen Lie), as he is about to embark on a day’s leave from a strict, drug rehab facility. Seems he is expected to appear for a job interview, briefly visit with friends, and then return to the clinic. But considering that the film opens with Anders attempting to drown himself and then ultimately “chickening out”, we realize that he is still a deeply troubled young man. Anders is a bright, handsome, 34-year-old, but he’s apparently burned a lot of bridges through years of drugging and boozing. But he’s also been clean for a while now, and seeks to connect with people from his past while he has the 24-hour leave. Things don’t always go well, even though certain folks attempt to be accommodating. Anders comes from a solid family, but he himself appears to believe that maybe his opportunities have possibly all been wasted. For instance, he is overly candid during his employment meeting, telling the interviewer that the reason for a long gap on his resume is “prolonged drug addiction”. Eventually Anders just ups and leaves the meeting. Anders is distraught that he has let so many people down, and makes numerous attempts to contact a lost love. Later that day he starts drinking after attending a party and then eventually goes to a club where there is open drug-use. Anders parties until dawn with a group of young people, and comes to a major decision by daybreak.
The style and pacing of these films will leave many viewers cold. But I greatly admire the work of a director that can be this subtle, insightful and exacting. On the other hand, these are the types of movies I speak of when I question people’s patience and savvy. How long before someone I come across comments on “The Loneliest Planet” by saying “nothing happens” or that “the ending is terrible”? Who will be the first to dismiss “Oslo, August 31st” as “too depressing” or exclaim that “I go to the movies to be entertained”? Is it too difficult to fathom being stimulated by nuanced acting, solid direction and intelligent writing? The pace of these films will be described by some as “slow”. Man, I freaking despise that word. I prefer the description as being “deliberate”. Character studies of the caliber of these never bore me. They are usually so fascinating I find myself wanting more. Listen, I don’t want to seem like I’m up on a soapbox giving a lecture all the time, but it still comes down to being aware of how much folks have been “conditioned” to expect certain things from their cinema experience. They want same and familiar and scoff at different or unusual. Film appreciation has gone flaccid. And it’s a crying shame. Want cheap laughs, overt spectacle and perfunctory dialogue? Your options are endless. Crave something measured and cerebral? Here’s a choice pair to start with from an increasingly limited field. Grades: both A