Saturday, January 7, 2017

Best Films of 2016

Despite in so many ways 2016 being a terrible year--especially with our recent election results--it was another strong year for movies. All talk of the impending death of the cinema is clearly exaggerated. Here are my favorite films of the year:

1. Moonlight. A heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful coming-of-age story of a gay black man. Its formal innovations with several beautifully composed and stylized point-of-view shots perfectly enhance the story and theme. Matching the beautiful visuals are superb performances. Every one is a work of wonder. The film tells its narrative episodically and elliptically in three chapters where we see the protagonist as a boy, a teenager, and a young man. This is a film that will be watched and discussed in film studies classes for years.



2. O.J.: Made in America. A powerful, detailed, nearly 8-hour documentary on the trial of the century and the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson but also a history of institutional racism in Southern California and an examination of the failure of the American dream. We learn that O.J. was a man who chose to assimilate into the privileged white Brentwood society and cared much more about fame and money than his race or his family. We also hear and see video recordings that document the institutional racism of the LAPD. The film clearly shows how the police discriminated against African Americans and how the justice system favors not only white police officers but also famous rich people. Another major revelation is that the jurors either ignored or brushed off the overwhelming evidence of O.J.'s history of domestic abuse. This seems to suggest that the jurors, and by extension Americans, blamed the victim not the perpetrator. Finally, we are reminded of the egregious mishandling of evidence by the LAPD and how the prosecution lost its case partly because of the stupid decision to have O.J. try on the famous leather glove. (streaming on Hulu)



3. Son of Saul. I sometimes wonder if there have been too many Holocaust films--especially considering the relative dearth of other historical films on, say, American slavery or genocide in Cambodia. But two of the best films in the last couple of years (Phoenix and Son of Saul) have been films about the Holocaust, which tells us that there is still more to say about the Shoah. (I do look forward to more films about other historical eras, though). The Hungarian film Son of Saul is told entirely from the point of view of a Sonderkommando, a member of prisoner work group usually comprised of Jews. In the film, after other prisoners have entered the gas chamber, the protagonist and others check clothing for valuables and then discard the dead bodies. The protagonist discovers a boy who miraculously survives the gas chamber (at least temporarily) and the protagonist begins--for a reason that is never given--a quest to find the boy and give him proper burial rights. This is a totally original and emotional film that gets at the complexities of life and death and one man's attempt to control something in a world where nothing is in his control. And the semi first-person perspective places us in the middle of the dark, brutal, incomprehensible environment.



4. The Lobster. A dark allegorical satire that comments on and mocks social expectations regarding marriage and the necessity of having relationships. The Greek director Lanthimos has previously taken on other big topics like dealing with the aftermath of death and coming to terms with the absurdity of family relationships. But this one is the best that I have seen of his. The Lobster tells the story of a man whose wife has recently left him. He joins a comically absurd dating program at a hotel resort that has strict consequences for those who don't pair up with people after a given time. They also go on hunting parties where they find and shoot single people, and single people are not allowed in town. It's one of the strangest movies I have seen. And it's hilarious. (steaming on Amazon Prime)



5. Cemetery of Splendour. A film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (don't ask me how to pronounce his name). Like all of his films, Cemetery of Splendour ruminates serenely on the past and the way the past impacts the present. No one makes films like Weerasethakul. They are strange and surreal works of art.



6. Arrival. I was taken aback by this science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve.  His other films (Sicario, which was one of my favorite films from 2015, Enemy and Prisoners) have been very dark--hopeless even, but Arrival is refreshingly optimistic. The way that Arrival depicts the language of the aliens is both beautiful and completely original. Ultimately, the film emphasizes the importance of countries working together to solve major world problems. Unfortunately, the real world seems to be going in the opposite direction. One major plot point made no sense to me, but I still really enjoyed the film.

7. Manchester by the Sea. Unlike The Lobster, Manchester is one of the saddest movies I have ever seen. A powerful and moving story about loss and the difficulties of moving past grief. Everyone has commented on Casey Affleck's performance as an emotionally scarred loner--and rightly so--but Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges are just as good. I felt the music was a bit heavy-handed in a few spots, but this was a minor problem in an otherwise superb story.

8. Love and Friendship. An excellent and hilarious adaptation of Jane Austen's posthumously published epistolary novel Lady Susan, written when Austen was in her late teens. Unlike her other novels, Lady Susan features an amoral and scheming protagonist, one who only cares about acquiring a wealthy husband for her daughter and an even wealthier husband for herself (she is recently widowed). Kate Beckinsale is perfectly cast; she's a pleasure to watch and plays Susan with great aplomb. I had a small problem with Chloe Sevigny's casting as Susan's American friend; Sevigny is too modern an actor to perform in an Austen adaptation. But the film--directed by Whit Stillman best known for his Austen-inspired heavy-dialogue romantic dramas from the '90s Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco--is well worth the time. Even the opening title and closing credits are funny. (steaming on Amazon Prime)


9. Kubo and the Two Strings. A stop-motion animated film set in an ancient fantastical Japan. So many animated films look exactly the same. Even Pixar's high-quality films don't have much variation in visual style. But Kubo tells a compelling story and it is visually distinctive and original. The all-white cast somewhat mars the film and I suppose that some might charge the film with a kind of cultural appropriation, but it does feature a cockroach samurai, so that sort of makes up for it. 



10. Embrace of the Serpent. A poetic black and white film that tells the story of two European scientists in search of a rare healing plant in the heart of the Amazon. It's the story of the impact of colonialism.



11. The Witch. A supernatural horror film set in the Puritan era. What is most interesting about this film is the attention to period-era details--the King James English, the 17-century sets, the austere Puritan clothing. It's obviously a fictional film, but it probably captures what most people actually believed at the time about witches and the power of evil. And it features an evil black goat.



Others films I really liked: La La Land (I especially liked Emma Stone), Gleason (a moving documentary about a former NFL player who gets ALS), Dheepan (a French film about Tamil refugees who emigrate to France with fake identities), The Treasure (a Romanian film about a family man who searches for buried treasure), Deadpool, Hell or High Water (smart bank heist film that is also a commentary on the polarized economy), Green Room (a punk rock band plays for a white supremacist club and bad stuff happens), Keanu (Key and Peele's epic action film about rescuing a really cute lost kitten from gangsters), I Am Not a Serial Killer (a strange film about a teenage sociopath who hopes he doesn't become a serial killer), Midnight Special (directed by the director of Take Shelter and also starring Michael Shannon, it tells the story of a boy with supernatural gifts trying to flee from a religious cult and the federal government)

Still trying to decide if I liked Nocturnal Animals, and I wish I could have like Terrence Malick's hyper-arty Knight of Cups more than I did.



Sunday, January 1, 2017

Best Films of 2015

This post is a year late, but I wanted to put out a quick list before I post my 2016 list. I liked several films from 2015. Here are my top thirteen:

1. Mad Max: Fury Road. The best (by far) of the entire series, an original vision of the apocalypse with a positive feminist message about the importance and power of women.



2. The Assassin. A beautifully shot and meditative martial arts film by the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.


3. It Follows. One of the best horror movies that I have ever seen. What makes it great is that it is also an allegory about growing up with the monsters representing adulthood, but the director leaves room for interpretation.

4. White God. A Hungarian drama about a 13-year-old girl and her dog.


5. Sicario. A smart and very dark action genre film that is also a savage criticism on the war on drugs and corrupt government institutions.


6. Arabian Nights. A three-volume, six-hour long collection of both realistic and fantasy stories set in Portugal and very loosely inspired by 1001 Nights.


7. Brooklyn. A beautiful period drama set in the 1950s about an young Irish woman who immigrates to America, falls in love and finds herself conflicted about whether she should return home.


8. The End of the Tour. A fictional film about literary genius and sui generis David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008. It's a touching film about life, love, literature, dogs, finding contentment, and Alanis Morissette.


9. Phoenix. A German film about a Holocaust survivor who tries to recreate her life and finds herself in denial about who her husband really was. You have to embrace the absurdity of the story--it has to do with plastic surgery--but if you can look past that, the film becomes a deep meditation on love and recreating the past.


10. Timbuktu. An African film about a village that is taken over by an Islamic terrorist group.


11. Experimenter. An inventive biographical film about the revolutionary work performed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, most famous for his obedience experiment in which participants were asked to shock other participants when they did not correctly answer questions.


12. What We Do in the Shadows. A seriously funny vampire movie shot as a faux documentary.


13. Ex Machina. A smart precursor to Westworld.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

2014 was a strong year for films. There were several totally original, mind-bending and other superlative-words films. In a previous post, I listed what I thought were the best mainstream films of the year. Here is the link to that post. What follows is my list for the best art-house films of the year. Most of these are what I would call independent or foreign films.



1. Norte, the End of History. A four-hour and ten-minute long retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment set in the Philippines, it's a philosophical commentary on the powerlessness of the very poor and the ineffectual nature of the intellectuals to change anything. Norte tells a bleak story of a man falsely accused of a brutal murder and the parallel story of an intellectual ubermensch who decides to carve out his own moral universe. The style of the film is totally original. Every shot is a long take, each lasting at least five minutes. I fond Norte moving, intellectually engaging, tragic and achingly beautiful. I wish that everyone in the middle and upper classes would watch it. They would learn something about institutional poverty and the undeserved privileges of the rich, but I realize my wish is futile. Still, it's available on Netflix.


2. The Missing Picture. One of the most original documentaries I have ever seen, The Missing Picture is a memoir of a Khmer Rouge survivor who reflects on his childhood and life in a concentration camp. Instead of reenactments, the director Rithy Pahn uses painted clay figurines to reconstruct the events described in the narration. The effect of the figurines is something like the effect of the cat and mouse comics in Art Spiegelman's Maus. In Maus and The Missing Picture, we see the horrors of the Holocaust and Auschwitz in the first and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the latter, but there is something of a distancing effect because of the medium and style of the images. The distancing effect actually makes the horrors more accessible, paradoxically pulling the reader/audience in closer. Instead of turning away, we learn something as we watch The Missing Picture. It's a poetic treatment about a tragic moment in history. Also available on Netflix.



3. Birdman. This is a film for those who love film making and the theater. Almost the entire movie (probably 98%) is shot in a single fluid long take, following different characters as they walk up and down stairs into dressing rooms and onto and off the stage. The camera transitions from day to night by simply tilting up and using digital effects. It's a remarkable feat of cinematography and purposeful special effects. Michael Keaton plays an aging actor retired from the superhero films of his younger years (clearly there are loose parallels with Keaton's own life). He risks everything to direct, produce and act in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story to appear on Broadway. He also may or may not have actual superhero powers. And this is what makes the film brilliant--the ambiguity. Nothing is completely clear in this smart rumination on life, theater and performance. Brilliant performances by Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.


4. Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien life form who borrows the skin of a woman, seduces a series of men, and begins to explore what it means to be human. It's a haunting, mysterious, and enigmatic film that in no way spells out its own meaning. We never find out why the aliens do what they do, nor do we know what the black room scene means (you'll know what I mean if you see it). I couldn't help wonder whether the aliens who are intent on harming and harvesting humans are better or worse than human beings--men specifically--who sometimes manipulate and rape women but also sometimes save strangers from drowning or feed needy people. Under the Skin also includes very little dialogue, which contributes both to its unconventional style and gives it a haunting eeriness that lingers well after the film ends. The visual style, music and themes owe a great deal to Stanley Kubrick, but it's no mere pastiche. This is only Jonathan Glazer's third film (Sexy Beast and Birth were his others), and it's another early indication of more great things to come. Streaming on Amazon Prime.



5. Exhibition. This is an unapologetic art film about not art but artists and the artist's life. It follows the ordinary lives of a British artist couple spending their days working and busying themselves as they grasp for inspiration. It mostly follows the wife. Sometimes she lies around the house, sometimes she looks out the window, sometimes she calls her husband rather than walk upstairs and speak to him, oftentimes her husband demeans her in subtle and not so subtle ways, other times she dresses up, and occasionally she creates. I imagine this is probably what life is really like for some artists. Most people will probably find Exhibition boring, but I found it fascinating. Now streaming on Netflix.



6. Snowpiercer. Chris Evans plays the anti-Captain America (read: dark, brooding) in this philosophical action film about a bullet train continuously traveling across the globe due to a global warming crisis. It's a Marxist commentary on the divisions we place among ourselves and the brutal ways in which the privileged exploit the poor. Smart stuff and cool action sequences to boot. And Tilda's Swinton's over-the-top character is pitch perfect for the film. It's directed by the very talented South Korean director Bong joon-ho (Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder). This is his first English language film. Available on Netflix.



7. Like Father Like Son, Written and directed by one of the great living Japanese directors Hirokazu Koreeda, Like Father Like Son tells the heartbreaking story of two boys switched at birth and their parents' decision whether to exchange the boys they raised for six years once they discover the truth. The parents come from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds--one set is fairly poor and one set very prosperous--and they have very different models of parenting. The film not only asks the broader question of what a parent is but it also challenges the audience to consider their own parenting. I couldn't help ask myself whether I spend enough time with my son and whether I push him too hard--or whether I don't push him hard enough. Available on Netflix.


8. Wild. A former drug addict decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail with very little preparation or planning. In way over her head, she sticks with it and the film becomes a triumphant story of the power of the human spirit. Encountering a mixed bag of people--some frightening and some genuinely friendly--on her way, Cheryl primarily faces the elements and the power of nature. Stylistically, the film is a great achievement. As she hikes the PCT, we are informed of her back story through a series of flashbacks, but what I thought was totally original is that most of the flashbacks are only seconds long. They are literally flashes of memories and operate the way actual memories operate--with brief images rather than the typical fully drawn-out scene with dialogue. It's ultimately a spiritual quest and walking the PCT helps Cheryl find out who she is. And Reese Witherspoon is excellent.



9. Ida. A black and white Polish film set in the early 1960s, Ida follows the life a a young woman about to take her vows as a nun. Raised in an orphanage, she has no knowledge of her family until an aunt shows up out of nowhere and tells her that her parents were Jewish and died during the war. The young nun goes on an odyssey to discover the truth about her family. The cinematography is beautiful, and one detail that stood out to me is that the frame is almost always shot with characters in long shot where the characters are off balance at the very bottom of the screen.  The background landscape or shots of buildings literally dwarf the people in the frame. I wasn't sure exactly what to make of it. Maybe it was a way for the director to comment on the smallness of people, that people are merely objects of causality too often caught in forces beyond their control. Available on Netflix.



10. Only Lovers Left Alive. A revisionist vampire film by director Jim Jarmusch, Lovers tells the tale of two immortals living worlds apart who have lots of time on their hands, time to read poetry, write music, collect guitars, and simply think. It's a slow, meditative film that refuses to conform to the vampire genre conventions. This is one of the most romantic movies I have seen (and by romantic I mean Wordsworth/Coleridge/Blake/Byron/Keats Romantic).



11. The Immigrant. This movie has echoes of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, but in my mind it surpasses many of the silly elements in Leone's masterpiece. This is great storytelling about the American experience. Available on Netflix.



12. Blue Ruin. The most original revisionist revenge film I have seen is French director Claire Denis's Bastards, but I found that film too unconventional--for my tastes anyway. Blue Ruin is a smart revisionist revenge film that turns many of the conventions on its head but it also doesn't go so far as to alienate the viewer.



Other films that round out my top 24 include NightcrawlerLe Week-End, It Felt Like Love, Coherence, The One I Love, Jodoworsky's Dune, Night Moves, Tim's Vermeer, Venus in Fur, Foxcatcher, Frank, and Gloria.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Why Boyhood Is Overrated But Still Important

Boyhood has been appearing on many top-ten lists, and it was the number one film on both Film Comment's and Metacritic's lists--both of which survey critics and assign points to those critics' films. I didn't dislike Boyhood, but I do think it is the most overrated film of the year. People should still see it because the concept itself is totally unique. As most people know, it was filmed and edited over the course of a 12-year period, so it literally shows the maturation of young actor Ellar Coltrane beginning at age six . The film attempts to balance the mundane with the philosophically profound, but in doing so it often relies too heavily on heavy-handed dialogue. While Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke put in solid performances, none of the other actors are great, including Coltrane and the director's daughter--especially as they age. I do like the way it respects the role fathers can play in the lives of their children. Too often in the history of film do we have fatherless children or children with emotionally or physically abusive fathers. Ethan Hawke's character chooses to make certain financial and personal sacrifices so that he could remain in his children's lives. And that's admirable.



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Aptly Titled American Sniper

I'm still working on my year's best list, but in the meantime I thought I would reflect a bit on Clint Eastwood's new film, which I saw last weekend.



American Sniper has most of the elements that would ordinarily make it an excellent film: strong writing, directing, editing, and acting. The last several films I have seen with Bradley Cooper (Limitless, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Guardians of the Galaxy) have demonstrated that he is one of the finest working American actors today, and he is extraordinary in Eastwood's film. It's a raw, emotional and believable performance. Cooper plays an all-American cowboy sharpshooter, a protector of innocence, a war hero, a man who never quits and loves his country possibly more than his family. I've heard that the actual Chris Kyle was even more unambiguously patriotic, that Cooper toned down his character a bit. If what I hear is correct, Cooper made the right decision. He has some stiff competition in the Oscars this year--I think Michael Keaton should win but it will probably go to Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Cooper is just as deserving as anyone else in the best-actor category. Also, in terms of quality film making, this is Eastwood's strongest in a few years. It's well paced and the performances hit the right notes. Aside from all of the strengths of the film, though, its moral absolutist message undermines all of its superlative qualities.

There's an old axiom I heard once that all war films are anti-war films, but this over-simplified truism does not apply to American Sniper. It's not that the film romanticizes or glorifies war exactly, but it clearly and categorically approves of the war in Iraq and suggests that the only problem soldiers have are dealing with amputated limbs and feeling guilty that they didn't kill bad guys before they killed their friends. These are not soldiers traumatized by war, and this is not a film that questions why we were in Iraq in the first place. The film's depiction of the insurgent Iraqis as "savages"--a words that is used several times in the film--is particularly problematic. The depiction of the enemy serves to draw a black and white line between the "good" guys and "bad" guys. While all of the Americans from the grunts to the officers are good: read honest, patriotic, noble, brave, kind, and think of others before themselves, all of the Iraqis are bad: read dishonest, cowardly, and think only of themselves. Compared to something like The Thin Red Line or even Band of Brothers, American Sniper seems pretty backwards in its depiction of the enemy. It's almost as if the film were made in the 1940s.

Another problem lies in Kyle's characterization. The preview for the film implies that the film will grapple with the difficult decisions soldiers have to make on a daily basis. Should a sniper kill a woman and a child--who might be enemy combatants? Are they actually carrying weapons? Is a man simply using his cell phone or is he alerting the enemy of American troop positions? Soldiers surely make mistakes and unintentionally kill innocent people. So, I was surprised when I watched the film that Kyle never struggles with making decisions--everything is simply right or wrong; people are either good or bad. He's never tortured by decisions because he never makes mistakes and his decisions are always right. Even in the scene where the soldiers are in the midst of a sandstorm--where the sand could have been a perfect metaphor for the ambiguities of war, the difficulty to see what is true, Eastwood fails to exploit this moment and simply utilizes the sand for what it is--an obstacle that has to be overcome before the bad guys come.

It is for these, I suppose you could say political, reasons that the film is problematic. It's disappointing because it has so much going for it, but it ultimately proves to be a two-hour long commercial for the military.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best Popular/Mainstream Films of 2014

This year I thought I would make two separate lists, one with independent and foreign films and this one with mainstream films. Mainly, I wanted to do this because there are very different expectations for art house films than there are for the typical films that play in a suburban multiplex. As a whole this was a solid year for all different types of films, and there were several popular films I really enjoyed.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. Funny, smart, perfect pacing, and great music. This movie has everything but the kind of big ideas I prefer in films--which is why most people liked it. As both an English teacher and a human being, I loved Drax's inability to comprehend metaphors. He takes everything completely literally. Nothing goes over his head, or so he says. I'm not sure if anyone else noticed this, but I wonder if there is a subtle but unintentional racist message in giving almost all of the Kree parts to African American or black actors. The Other is the Other. Anyway, still loved it.


2. X-Men: Days of Future Past.




3. The Lego Movie. I'm not sure if it's a smart anti-capitalist satire or a really long capitalist commercial for Legos and the DC characters, but I didn't really care when I watched it. Yes, the infectious "Everything Is Awesome" song will stay with you like an unshakable cold, but it's all good fun.



4. Gone Girl. For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought this movie was going to be terrible, but I should have had more faith in its director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network). It takes lots of twists and turns, and it asks some pretty interesting questions about love and relationships in America today.



5, Edge of Tomorrow. I like action movies that also grapple with ideas, and this is one of them. I would have probably liked it more if it didn't have Tom Cruise, but...



6. The Trip to Italy. OK, I know. This Steve Coogan film isn't exactly mainstream or hugely popular. But it should be. It's a sequel to The Trip, a film in which Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves as they travel the Lakes District in England, stopping at lots of restaurants and doing imitations of Michael Cain and others. The Trip to Italy isn't a great film, but it is funny and entertaining. I haven't laughed as hard or as loud in a long time.



7. Captain America: Winter Soldier. I liked this one better than the original.





Monday, June 23, 2014

All Is Lost



In J.C. Chandor's fascinating film All Is Lost, Robert Redford is the only cast member and he speaks only a handful of lines. Even though the film contains very little dialogue (or, I guess, technically it would be monologue), Chandor's structure and pace make the film a gripping spectacle--so gripping my 9-year-old son watched it and said afterward, "That was a really good movie." The film begins with Redford's character reading what we assume is a letter to his family, explaining that "all is lost" and repeating that he is sorry. Then we flash back to the beginning of his troubles.

I was surprised to read on Slate that the ending is considered ambiguous. According to Slate, after screening the film at Telluride the moderator asked how people interpreted the film. Half interpreted it one way and half the other. I won't say what happens, but I was surprised at the supposed ambiguity because I thought the film made it very clear how things ended. I saw no ambiguity. I never even thought of another possibility. It's reassuring to know that film and literature open up endless possibilities for readers and viewers. There is no single truth or single perspective. My viewing of what I believed literally happened at the end reiterates my limitations on how I (and, by extension, everyone) see the world.

While I enjoyed the film itself and Redford's performance is mostly stellar, I did think there were a few places where he seemed a bit stiff and unnatural. And while I enjoyed the snapshots of what he did to survive without any explanation at all (I'm sure someone familiar with sailing would understand much more than I did how he tracks his position without any electronic equipment or how he figures out how to produce drinking water), I felt the film could have been a bit longer and shown even more of his daily, monotonous and mundane tasks: eating, thinking, and even sleeping. Ten minutes of Redford attempting to catch fish or fifteen minutes of Redford writing something down. These details would probably be boring to some people, but I think they would have given the film more philosophical and naturalistic weight. A great film could still be made that combines All Is Lost with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman.

 



I'm sure an interesting essay could be written that compares All Is Lost with Gravity. I'm also sure I'm not the only one to make the comparison: lost at sea in the first, lost in space in the second. A man in one, a woman in the other. One begins and ends alone, the other begins with a crew and ends alone. But fundamentally both films are about the struggle to survive, the struggle to live against all odds.