A crucial part of a critic's job is to point readers in a direction they might not otherwise follow, toward a destination they might not be aware of. We're talking films that slip through the cracks and will never sniff the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
For instance, Estonia's official Oscar submission in the foreign-language film category. November is just your typical combination of pagan folklore and European Christian mythologies, featuring werewolves, ghostly visitations, rampant thievery and some of the most gloriously haggard faces you'll ever have the pleasure of cringing at. And if that description makes the movie sound strange, don't worry. It's even stranger.
It's also gorgeous. Shot in various gradations of black and white, from icy, washed-out landscapes to pitch-dark shadows and every zone in between, November is one of those films you can enjoy staring at from a perspective of visual-arts appreciation, even if the story gets thin (and it definitely does). I can't pretend to know all the narrative details of November, but I can tell you cinematographer Mart Taniel is a superstar talent. His work on November earned him the best cinematography award at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.
November starts with a jaw-dropper of a sequence that brings to mind the surreal world of Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. A long-striding figure made of random parts including sticks, gears and an animal skull clicks and ambles across the screen, uses a chain to secure a stolen cow, and flies the beast to its master.
The creature is a kratt, a magical creature in old Estonian mythology. The kratt does hard work for its master. Unfortunately, to get a kratt, you must sell your soul. Kind of a good news, bad news proposition.
But wait: There's also a love story. Young Liina (Rea Lest) has eyes for Hans (Jörgen Liik), who has a thing for the unattainable Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis). Hans is a romantic sort; his kratt is a snowman who tells sentimental tales as he slowly melts. Liina might be a werewolf, which poses certain obstacles to relationship possibilities. So does the constant threat of the plague, which provokes a nonstop obsession with superstition and death. Such are the circumstances under which one might sacrifice his or her soul.
November is based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, which was quite poplar in Estonia. The film is a true original, the kind of movie that might make a young David Lynch think, wow, that's really odd. (You can certainly sense some Lynch in November's DNA). This is the kind of film that pushes the outer limits of theatrical distribution, and that inspires other filmmakers to stick to their imaginative guns. Kudos to Oscilloscope Laboratories for picking it up, and to the Texas Theatre for showing it.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go find a good kratt. Lots of work to do.