A hypnotic, confident tour de force that centers on a beautiful widow (Nicole Kidman), and the little ten-year-old creepazoid (Cameron Bright) who asserts that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband. But the metaphysical suggestions (coscripted by Buñuel’s former screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière) turn out to be merely a device to scrutinize the woman’s gangrenous case of grief, and Jonathan Glazer’s film is crafty, subtle (Kidman’s manner sometimes suggests the presence of prescription tranquilizers, but in a way that calls attention to itself), and, in the end, heartrending. There’s also this, for what it’s worth: several bright critics have noted how Birth features scores of visual echoes of Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist assault Un Chien Andalou, itself a madcap dream parable about lost love. Maybe. With Lauren Bacall.
Jacques Doillon’s harrowing film Ponette may very well be the best, most grueling, and in the end most truthful and transcendent film ever made about the mechanics of grief. Don’t watch it on a lark, particularly if you’re a parent; after viewing it, you’ll feel as if you’ve been scoured with steel wool inside and out. The situation is purposefully simple: as we open, a pint-sized four-year-old named Ponette (Victoire Thivisol, a best-actress winner at the Venice International Film Festival) is in the hospital with a broken arm after a car wreck that killed her mother. As she is jockeyed around, during the transitional post-funeral period, from her aunt’s house to a live-in preschool to finally her father’s home, Ponette undergoes her own tribulation: she refuses to accept her mother’s death and move on. Nobody around her has much time or patience for the child’s inconsolable grief, and so she must go the road alone, attempting to collate what little she understands about God and Heaven into a reasonable scheme by which she can once again see or at least speak to her mother. What Ponette does best is quietly but indelibly express the plight of children as they attempt, with such inadequate tools, to survive under the merciless wheels of the adult world. All the more amazing, then, that Doillon finds deliverance for Ponette, in what may be either a simple dream experience or an unsentimental blast of secular magical realism. This isn’t merely a movie—it’s a mesmerizing ordeal by cinema.
A great, overlooked film of the American 1990s, this throat-grabber from director Peter Weir begins with a catastrophic airliner crash, then follows the dazed path of a survivor (Jeff Bridges), with a post-traumatic sense of invulnerability. Fearless‘s second story thread is where it leaves its bruises: a young mom (Rosie Perez) is ruined by grief after she fails to hold onto her baby son during the crash. The two them enact a dubious, free-for-all self-cure, and the fallout—particularly when Perez dares to smell someone else’s baby in a mall, or faces off against the dubious condolences offered by airline company grief therapy—is brutal and beautiful both. Be careful; it plays for keeps.
Fleshing out a grown-up, uplifting vibe in the mourning process that says “it’s time to move on,” this Paul Brickman drama has Jessica Lange’s soft-spoken widow Beth weather attempts, by her children and a quirky neighbor, to help her get back to the business of living. The give-and-take in Men Don’t Leave is sweet and genuine; the real gut-wrenching scenes—spoiler alert—are reserved for the youngest son (Charlie Korsmo), who must deal with the loss of his father via an unfinished tree house.