Gang Chen in Johnny Ma's 'Old Stone'
Gang Chen in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone

Over the last few decades the term ‘film noir’ has been increasingly misused. Where once it represented a distinct type of story – one in which the central character finds him or herself trapped in a predicament not entirely of their own making – it’s since been applied to routine police procedurals, gothic thrillers, and any film (especially those filmed in black and white!) with a suspenseful and tricksy plot.

Director Johnny Ma’s Lao Shi (Old Stone), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 9) is a noir in the original sense. Coming as a total surprise (and really coming out of nowhere), it’s also one of the best films of the year.

Gang Chen plays the title character, a taxi driver who runs into a motorcyclist when a drunken passenger distracts him. Though the accident wasn’t exactly his fault, Lao finds himself caught up in a maze of trouble in which the police, the victim’s family, their insurance company, and the jerk responsible for the accident unintentionally conspire to make his life impossible.

Gang delivers the understated performance of the year as Lao Shi, whose personification of sadness and regret summoned memories of Carlo Battisi’s unforgettable Umberto D in Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 film of the same name. De Sica’s film, of course, was neo-realism not noir, but Umberto D’s plight would certainly fit comfortably in the noir realm.

I also can’t speak highly enough of Lee Sanders’ original score, a percussive beast heavily influenced by Takemitsu (some of whose musical cues Sanders works into the film) with a soupçon of Bernard Herrmann. It’s one of the finest scores of the year and worthy musical accompaniment to a film too few people will see. Try and make time for this one before its weeklong run comes to an end.

A Lampedusan goes diving in 'Fire at Sea'
A Lampedusan goes diving in Fire at Sea

The delightful surprise that is Old Stone made up for the disappointment I experienced watching Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), Italy’s official entry for 2016’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The film has already won numerous awards; my anticipation was high.

Opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Dec. 9, Fire at Sea is an odd amalgam of documentary and drama that pushes the Errol Morris envelope pretty darn far. The film was shot on and around Lampedusa, an Italian island located roughly halfway between Tunisia and Sicily.

Over 400,000 refugees from Africa and the Middle East have landed here in the last twenty years, and the film’s footage of waterlogged, starving people being rescued and ‘processed’ is riveting, heartrending stuff that delivers genuine emotional highlights — most significantly, the testimony of a Nigerian refugee and a distraught doctor who’s seen more than his fair share of death.

Unfortunately, that’s only about half of Fire at Sea. The other half consists of footage of the Lampedusan natives going about their daily lives via a series of long (long!) static shots of people making beds, diving, and eating. If director Gianfranco Rosi (no relation, apparently, to the legendary Francesco Rosi) had cut  20 or 30 minutes of this footage, I’d be more enthusiastic: as it stands, his film quickly becomes a dull, dry essay.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...