(Spoilers for all.)
I fell hard early on for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. It may have been the thrilling transition from a Yiddish folktale to 1960s America via Jefferson Airplane that hooked me; or when Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has to deal with an indignant student who won't take an "F" for an answer; or the time his encroaching, gun-toting neighbors return from hunting with a large bloody deer strapped to the top of their station wagon. While not Jewish, I have been accused of a persecution complex (they're always saying that!), have experienced emotional blackmail from undergrads (though, regrettably, not outright monetary bribery), and I once lived next to encroaching, gun-toting neighbors who tied a large bloody deer to a tree outside our door (in all fairness, it was Thanksgiving). A Serious Man proves the adage that by being as specific as possible art can become universal.
Lord knows the Coens are nothing if not specific. After fourteen films in twenty-five years, they have established themselves as enthusiasts of screwball comedy and film noir, masters of regional dialects, impeccable re-creators of cultural eras, traffickers of pitch-black humor in an uncaring universe. This last quality has earned them the frequent accusation that they have contempt for their characters. I don't think this is true, but A Serious Man is unquestionably their most personal film, as warm as it is merciless. Throughout, Larry is besieged by personal calamities (possible health problems and gathering storms), not insignificant injuries (infidelity from his spouse, anonymous hostile letters to his tenure review board) and petty insults (moving to a fleabag hotel, paying for his wife's lover's funeral). What's gone unnoticed in many reviews is that everyone else (his son, his brother) is enduring troubles as well. This gives Larry's determination to solider on a hint of backbone that compensates for his at-times infuriating meekness.
A Serious Man is, along with No Country for Old Men, the second Coen picture in three years to leave out their familiar stable of actors (Clooney, Goodman, Turturro, Buscemi, et al.), and the cast of mostly unknowns acquit themselves ably. Stuhlbarg is a winning, affecting presence as the tormented Larry; Fred Melamed is memorable as Sy Ableman, the unctuous lover of Larry's wife; Aaron Wolff, as Larry's son Danny, has a terrific sequence where he shows up stoned for his own bar mitzvah.
Perhaps it's the lack of stars that make the Coens seem more empathic this time around. Whatever the case, they've moved past their creative funk from earlier this decade (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), have honed their craft to the point where their effects -- occasionally strained in the past -- now feel effortless. A Serious Man is a great comedy, a model of elegant structure, with "Somebody to Love" the most original use of an overly familiar pop song since Wong Kar-Wai employed "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express. This song, its lyrics lined with lingering questions, underlines the recurring theme of the film -- the "uncertainty principle" at the basis of Larry's convoluted mathematical theorems, or the hilarious suggestion by one character that Larry stop trying to decipher a circular argument and simply "accept the mystery." I've been off and on about the Coen brothers for their entire career and frequently don't trust my initial reactions to their movies, but with A Serious Man I feel no such ambiguity: It's a masterpiece.
Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes and a Best Foreign Film nominee this past year, is fabulous in a completely different way. The teacher here, a Parisian high school French instructor Francois Marin (played by real-life version Francois Begaudeau, and as I write his name I can almost hear that old man from Amelie emphasize, "Begaudeau, not Bedaugeau"), is no mild mannered Larry Gopnik. Faced daily by an unruly melting pot of middle-school students, Mr. Marin creates an atmosphere of civil disobedience: by making them follow certain rules (no wearing hats, hands must always be raised to ask a question), he lets them argue their points with more freedom and vocality than you would expect. He's a gifted, challenging teacher, but also one who employs the kind of withering mockery that (he is told more than once) sometimes crosses the line.
As a fictional year in the life of actual teachers and students, it's only natural that The Class take a documentary approach to its subject, with hand-held cameras that blessedly don't draw attention to their jitteriness. Cantet's focus is entirely on the classroom dynamics, with intimations but no concrete revelations of the characters' personal lives. A question of Mr. Marin's sexual preference is deftly volleyed back to the student with a reply that may or may not be true. A once engaged student turns sullen and disrespectful and back again without explanation. A troublemaker in the back row enjoys a brief artistic triumph only to revert back to hostility.
The final act of The Class gets a little creaky with the plot mechanics, narrowing its expansive themes down to an expulsion hearing, but it manages to subvert expectations anyway. The anticipated Rousing Speech, followed by Slow Clap, never materializes. And the incident that leads to the hearing is ugly and ambiguous, with Mr. Marin sharing the blame. It's a fitting irony that an uncompromising language instructor would misunderstand a word he himself fatally uses. At the same time, when you're under siege as constantly as he is, it's remarkable that he didn't slip up sooner. The Class is a probing, troubling study of the high price of small mistakes.
The makers of Bubble and Old Joy must have watched Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories (2007) resembling the kind of slack-jawed yokels they depict onscreen. A movie about economically despairing Americans with enthusiasms, hobbies, interests! The central narrative -- a deadly blood feud between two sets of brothers following the death of their mutual father -- holds your attention the way an effective plot device should. Yet the lovely passages in between, where characters go to work, coach basketball, count cards, play movie trivia, and cultivate relationships form the film's real subject.
The main trio of siblings (played without a trace of condescension by Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, and Barlow Jacobs) is developed far more than the other group (from their father's second marriage), and I think Shotgun Stories would have been even better had we been given more reasons of why they loved their father as much as the former brothers hated him. It's still a terrific movie, though, reminiscent in tone to Carl Franklin's One False Move -- a "masculine" story that doesn't neglect its female characters, a depiction of squalor that still acknowledges the ravishing beauty of its rural Arkansas setting. Most movingly, Shotgun Stories depicts the tragic consequences of violence while also radically suggesting, in the end, that familial devotion needn't make one trapped by fate.