Monday, December 2, 2013

STORIES WE TELL: BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR


Stories We Tell was so good that I was honestly intimidated to write about it like I am with a handful of other great modern films I haven't gotten the nerve to do justice on this blog and probably never will (Cache, The Mirror, L'Argent, Life Is Sweet, Mulholland Drive, Do The Right Thing, etc). The only reason I was able to find the words to write a review on this is because it's an incredibly personal film and I'm in an pretty personal mood when it comes to cinema these days as I'm two films deep into the personal "Whole History Of My Life" series on The Pink Smoke (Part One: The Belly Of An Architect, Part Two: Fear X).
I also make it a point to do an individual review on the one or two movies I consider to be the absolute best from each year since I started this blog: Uncle Boonmee (2010), Drive (2011), Post Tenebras Lux & Holy Motors (2012).
I've been going on & on about this documentary for the last 6 months so maybe it’s time to actually write about it...

This has been a pretty strong year for personal/intense/strenuous relationships on film which may sound a bit unappealing if you're actually in a relationship. Why would you wanna see other people's personal stuff when you already have your own stuff to deal with? Gimme an action movie or a dumb comedy so I can escape that for two hours. It’s understandable to not want to sit through a draining three hour long relationship drama (Blue Is The Warmest Color) or a 20-30 minute long argument sequence like Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke have at the end of Before Midnight. But Stories We Tell is about more than just the relationship between Sarah Polley's mother & father. It’s about the importance of family (as cliche as that sounds), secrets and getting a new perspective on someone (specifically a parent) you thought you knew all your life but kinda didn't to a certain extent (although after making this documentary I'm sure Sarah Polley got a better understanding of her mother).
I really stand by my opinion that Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's extremely personal documentary about her family and the discovery that she was the product of an affair, is the best film of the year (I still have yet to see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her or Nymphomaniac but I'm sure those films won't have the same personal & emotional level as Stories). Some of you may not be as touched by this documentary as I was but I'm pretty sure that anyone who has a love for cinema and/or a close relationship with their family will definitely get something out of it.

Sarah & Michael Polley (L) / Diane Polley holding Sarah (R)
Without question Stories We Tell is the film that Sarah Polley has been working towards as a director so far. It couldn’t have come out at a better time given that Michael Haneke's recent academy award winning film; Amour, is spiritually connected to Polley's first film; Away From Her. Both stories are partially about aging couples having to battle sickness/alziemers. I don’t know if I've seen too many reviews on Amour that didn’t bring up Away From Her at some point in the critique. This brought some attention back to Polley's work just in time for the release of her new documentary. After watching Stories We Tell for a second time, her filmography made even more sense. Both; Away From Her (2006) & Take This Waltz (2011) have to do with infidelity and Sarah Polley is the product of an affair (a fact she came to find out later on as an adult). I’m surprised I didn’t catch the connection right away but after listening to Polley's interview on the treatment podcast with Elvis Mitchell, it turns out that she didn’t even catch it right away, so I don’t feel all that slow after all (I'm also surprised that I didn’t catch how all three of her films coincidentally have three-word titles). 
I don’t mean to sound so cold by saying that Polley is just the product of an affair. Her mother isn’t as guilty as one would imagine and according to Sarah Polley herself, she was raised with tons of love growing up. In the documentary we come to learn that Polley's mother; Diane - a theater actress who passed away years before this was made, was already unjustly vilified by damn near all of Toronto from the events of her first marriage. Before Polley's parents met, Diane was married to another man who she eventually divorced and she was made out to be an unstable & unfit mother and became one of the first Canadian women in history to not gain custody of her children following the divorce (a few years later Diane eventually ended up getting custody when it was discovered her ex-husband's new wife was abusing her kids/Sarah's older half-siblings).
I don’t know what it is but cheating on a partner, which Diane certainly did in her second marriage to Polley's father; Michael, is kind of the worst thing you can do to someone in a relationship. There are reasons for doing it I guess but at the end of the day I don’t have much sympathy for it. But through the course of this film, Sarah Polley makes her mother out to be one of the few sympathetic people in recent cinema to cheat on someone (and get pregnant from the affair as well) yet you don’t look at her in the same negative light that you normally would someone in her position.
This is kind of ironic because Polley’s portrayal of her mother is in contrast with the portrayal of Michelle Williams' character "Margot" in Take This Waltz (Polley's 2nd film) another person in one of Polley's films that we're supposed to feel some type of sympathy for when she cheats on her husband. But I just can’t do that no matter how much the tone of Take This Waltz suggests I should. The circumstances in that film are much different (the character of Margot isn’t a bad person either, but at the same time I get very frustrated with her throughout that film. I mean, who leaves their stable/good/loving husband for a rickshaw driver???).
As a male I sometimes have an issue with films that show people who cheat because 99% of the time whenever a man is doing the cheating, there's never much understanding or sympathy when they stray from their significant other (which there really shouldn’t be) but whenever it’s a women, there's a much better chance that there's gonna be a "legitimate" excuse or the film places these female characters in situations where they have no choice but to cheat. Thankfully Sarah Polley doesn't present it that way.

Sarah & Michael Polley, 2012
After years of wondering if the father she grew up with was really her biological father (her siblings always joked about how she didn't look like her dad) Sarah Polley does some investigating and comes to find out that her biological father is really Canadian filmmaker/theater playwright; Harry Gulkin (Harry & Diane met years ago while working together on a play in Montreal). What are the odds that Sarah Polley's biological father is a filmmaker too?! But that's not to say she didn't get her creativity from the father she grew up with (who she still considers to be her real father). Michael Polley was also a theater actor and a writer. One of the major conflicts between Sarah's parents is that Diane wanted Michael to apply his talents as a writer more but that never really happened until this documentary which he wrote part of. This is one of the many bitter-sweet things about Stories We Tell. Diane Polley never got to see this film which is essentially a love letter to her. She also didn't get to see her talented husband finally apply his writing to their daughter's work. Diane Polley would have also probably felt some type of relief & unburdening from today's modern audience that this documentary was made for as we don't see her as the unstable & unfit woman that she was made out to be in her first marriage.

Harry Gulkin - Sarah's biological father

After coming to learn the shocking news of who her biological father is, Polley shows us how she, her family and her new family deal with it. But most importantly, it’s how her father Michael (the one she grew up calling "dad") handles it which might surprise some of you (I don't want to give off the vibe that Diane didn't love Michael because she clearly did very much).
To a certain degree, Stories We Tell is a collaborative project between Sarah & Michael Polley. Michael narrates the film (with somewhat sad & haunting voiceover) and he doesn't just feel like a typical interview subject in a documentary. 
Style-wise, Sarah Polley draws a bit from filmmakers like Errol Morris (specifically The Thin Blue Line) in that this documentary has some reenactment scenes (spliced together with real home video footage of the Polley family) and other cinematic moments that make Stories We Tell an interesting viewing experience (I was also reminded of Jonas Mekas from time to time).

who fucking cares about our family? - Joanna Polley (Sarah Polley's sister)

Not to sound arrogant but I represent the perfect test audience for Stories We Tell. If I enjoyed it, almost anyone can. I hardly relate to anything in this film. I'm an only child who grew up in a fairly pro-black household with both parents who are still together to this day. Sarah Polley is the youngest of 5 from a white Canadian family whose parents had some issues that were either hidden, swept under the rug or never addressed (I like to think my parents have a pretty open relationship and know everything they can about each other). That's what makes this film so genuine in that it transcends race and personal experiences. We all know we're prone to relate to a story with people who look like us a lot of the time but Stories We Tell is an exception to that. Another indicator of how great this film is and the kind of nerve it touches on is in the kind of conversation I had with the person I saw it with (Teo Maniaci - the cinematographer responsible for the great Clean, Shaven and one of my favorite films; Claire Dolan). Without even knowing each other very well, moments after the movie was over we shared semi-personal stories with each other brought on by Polley's documentary. 
There's something so intimate & personal about Stories We Tell that you can’t help but be at least a little touched by it and thankful that Sarah Polley felt courageous enough to open up to a bunch of strangers about her personal life. I'd be lying if I said the positive aspects of Polley's family didn’t remind me of my girlfriend’s large family. Like Sarah Polley, my girlfriend is also the youngest of 5 in a big/close family who all live near each other and see each other on a regular basis. Coming from a small family it's always fun to be around them because it's an atmosphere I'm not use to (not that I take my parents for granted).

I wanna put Stories We Tell up there with some other early contenders for best films of the decade so far along with Post Tenebras Lux, Alps, Uncle Boonmee, Tabloid & Holy Motors.
Since Away From Her, Take This Waltz & Stories We Tell are an unofficial trilogy that all deal with similar themes, I wonder if Sarah Polley is ready to tackle new ground with her next project...

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