We’re just past the halfway mark of 2014, but I already have a clear favorite for best film of the year. The Strange Little Cat is only seventy-two minutes long, but what happens within that short span amounts to some of the most brilliantly realized filmmaking in recent memory. Each passing second and every inch of the frame of this film displays remarkable attention to minute details that build into an utterly original way of looking.
On one level, the premise couldn’t be more simple: it’s a day in the life of a single household preparing for a meal with extended family. Over half of the film takes place in the kitchen, a small and familiar space. But over the course of seventy-two minutes, the film reinvents the space of this kitchen over and over, from one shot to the next. In this tiny space, it orchestrates 10 family members as well as a naughty kid neighbor, each with their own characteristics, like a set of musical instruments. Their individual movements and interactions with each other are constantly unfolding and evolving, both dramatically and cinematically.
But people aren’t the only characters in this film. There is a cat (who doesn’t seem that strange, or little) as well as a dog, and even a moth makes a featured appearance. There are also memorable cameos by a host of everyday objects: a bottle that seems to enjoy spinning in a pot; a bag of groceries that gets hoisted to the upstairs neighbor; orange peelings that always fall with the white sides up. These objects seem to take on a life of their own, and this tiny apartment becomes an almost magical ecosystem where things and people all play their part in equal measure.
Everything in this film is connected. Each shot relates to the others like a set of interlocking parts, both in terms of space and time. Not only do we get a stunning variety of both shallow and deep compositions, but each cut to the next shot changes our perception of the space as well as of the characters. There’s always something or someone offscreen that we don’t see, but is always there, and only with a sudden cut do we realize that they’re watching. Such is the claustrophobic theater of family life.
Clearly, all of this is choreographed with tremendous forethought and precision, and yet it feels spontaneous and effortless. There’s a beautiful poetry to the way it unfolds; how a moment at one part of the film will rhyme with another half an hour later. The film has dozens of patterns and connections waiting to be noticed. What does it all mean? Something that really gets at the essence of a bustling household, with its constant negotiations of spaces and relationships, its delightful moments of shared mirth, as well as its dark flashes when loved ones become monsters. This movie takes everything that’s familiar about family, and makes it strange and exciting.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.