Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cinema Obscura: La Prisionnaire (aka Woman In Chains)

Released in 1968 at the height of power pop and love, French director Henri Georges Clouzot's final film plays like he knows it'll be his last. Opening with a smorgasbord of subliminally placed bright colors amidst free-flowing jazzy editing , "La Prisionnaire" (or "Woman In Chains" as it was marginally released in the States) is a vibrant gasp effort from the aging (and ailing) filmmaker. Halted several times during production due to Clouzot's health, "Woman In Chains" ultimately feels like it should be recognized alongside Antonioni's "Blow Up" or "Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" as a film that not only seems to understand the overall 'grooviness' of its day but one that subverts its inherent perversion and takes stilted joy in the ideas just lurking beneath the surface. And like both those films, "Woman In Chains" twists and turns the idea of watching and being looked at into a spry psychological game of who'll bluff and look away first. The fact that its Clouzot's first and only color film is also quite wonderful, and gets a lot of mileage from it.

As the free-spirited woman in an "open" relationship with her husband, Josee (a beautiful Elisabeth Wiener) falls under the spell of modern at dealer Stanislas (Laurent Terzieff). He introduces her to his hobby of photographing woman in bondage photos. An uneasy relationship grows between them. Both the aesthetic choices of bondage and modern art (here recreated as gaudy pieces of chandeliers, decadent wall paintings and psychotropic displays) gives Clouzot the opportunity to enter into a fun-house style of set design. More often than not, "Woman In Chains" feels like a late 60's performance piece documentary rather than a psychological thriller. Of course, this being a French film, l' amour fou develops between the couple and the film ambles towards a climax of self-loathing, repentance and one beautifully staged moment between two people on a rooftop with the Eiffel Tower careening in the background.

Gaining some recognition on the festival circuit a couple years back, "Woman In Chains" deserves a much wider re-release than its been given. While it may not be Clouzot's absolute best film (which still remains "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique" simply for their genre-setting templates), "Woman In Chains" is a perverse, skilled and eye-popping rendition of how Clouzot saw the world in groovy 1968.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.2

The Great Wall

I have a weakness for the late period Zhang Yimou films derided by most everyone else. While lukewarm on "Coming Home", I found his 2012 Christian Bale-missionary-stuck-in-war-torn-China "Flowers of War" an especially immersive and moving marvel. The same can be said for his latest project, "The Great Wall", again starring a Hollywood star (Matt Damon) who manages to save most of China. This time it's not marauding Japanese soldiers, but marauding creatures that bellow out from underneath a magical mountain every 60 years and do battle with humans. Yes, its preposterous, but its also an extravagant and visually stunning effort that features an unending number of imaginative moments calculated to shock and awe. Yimou's roving camera, his mise-en-scene within heavily crafted CGI backdrops and his fetishistic use of color are magnetic technical attributes that save the film from being yet another internationally produced Game of Thrones knock-off hoping to recoup its assets overseas... and then score whatever bonus it can with American audiences. It's spectacle, but its a glorious one.


A Cure For Wellness

Overblown in its length and overwrought in its trippy representation of madness and Lynchian weirdness, Gore Verbinski's "A Cure For Wellness" is a vacant ploy of commercialism masquerading as avant garde. And if the carefully composed images don't stir the feeling, then its narrative about a New York finance employee going to a mysterious Swiss sanitarium to bring back one of his firm's head honchos certainly doesn't move the needle either. As the employee chosen for this mind-bending mission, yet another misstep is Dane DeHaan, portraying our protagonist with about as much magnetism as the cold marble walls and floors ever present in the hospital. From top to bottom, "A Cure For Wellness" is an unpleasant, dour and alienating effort.


Bitter Harvest

Manages to wrap a tepid and forgettable love story around a moment in history that should be anything but tepid and forgettable.  Full review on Dallas Film Now.


The Salesman


Oscar winning Farhadi film again! One of the very best of the year so far. Review at Dallas Film Now.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Top 5 List: Films To Help You Deal With the Trump Administration (For better or worse)

5. Running Man- Stay with me on this one. A middle aged, white TV host with perfect white teeth and hair that's coiffed like a perfect toupee (Richard Dawson) and taking place in the years 2017-2019, forces convicts and under privileged people to fight for their lives in a sadistic televised game show. Poised somewhere after an economic collapse and a totalitarian police state, Paul Michael Glaser's futuristic 80's thriller was a staple for kids like me growing up. Looking at it now, in the shadow of the current administration, it feels more prescient than ever as the cultural, economic and idealistic divide is growing wider by the hour. Yes, at the time, it was simply an Arnold Schwarzenegger 'actioner' vehicle- based on a short story by Stephen King- but today (as with so many sci-fi efforts that deal with political events in the guise of imagination), it comes across as a chilling deconstruction of our dominating reality TV obsession and our President with the same empty smile and coiffed hair, just waiting for the chance to throw us all to the hungry wolves. Whether a television camera will track it all is yet to be determined. Stay tuned dear watchers.


4. A Face In the Crowd- While working my way through all of Elia Kazan's films last year, I'm not sure I was quite ready for this one. I'd heard about it, but watching it during the summer with the presidential primaries going on, it slowly gained a resonance that I don't think would have been there otherwise. About the film I wrote, ".....exhaustive from start to finish, Andy Griffith portrays a drunken bumpkin who ascends to stardom as a folk-singing cultural prohpet. Combining Peter Finch ala "Network" and pre-dating Beatlemania while mixing in some brutal stabs at political and media stalwarts, "A Face In the Crowd" has alot on its mind. It winds up being a pretty sorrowful reflection on hollow stardom". I've begun to re-think this assessment and see it as a sorrowful reflection on hate mongering and the empty spectacle of someone saying just what the insecure/insulated/insolent American wants to hear without a shred of decency or thought to back it up. So yes, this film is pretty damn topical right now. I wonder what Andy Griffith would have to say about things right now. Let's all sing a song about this.


3. Rashomon- I've said it once already, but stay with me on this one. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece not only set the precedence for wonky timelines in narrative cinema, but its perspective and suggestive story is an endlessly fascinating example of art cinema at its highest. Depending on who is telling the story, heroes are recast as villains and victims become perpetrators. A single act is shattered into a million perspectives and ideas. I can't think of a better analogy to the Trump administration than this. It's not a travel ban, says one official. Trump himself tweets that its a "ban". Someone else says its not a ban. It's not a "Muslim" ban. So many people are talking out of seventeen sides of their mouths, becoming a clusterfuck of bent rhetoric and non-transparent ideology. Kurosawa's tale of a crime splintered looks quite baroque compared to the double speak of today. Watch this one again for an extremely jaded outlook on things. And it's one of Toshiro Mifune's best roles, which is saying alot for his long, illustrious career.

2. All the President's Men


Probably the most obvious film on this list, but also, perhaps, the most hopeful? That being the current administration will eventually step over an imaginary boundary that seems to be pushed further ahead every day and finally commit some sort of treasonous act that requires impeachment. And if that day comes, Alan Pakula's film (based on the brilliant book by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) serves as a tremendous reminder of the sweat and tears that goes into a journalistic investigation to get the facts sound and accurate.


1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington- Frank Capra was Hollywood's most humanist director. He routinely found goodness in most people's actions, thoughts and reactions. In his classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", an ordinary 'bumpkin' replaces a senator and comes against the forces of political skulduggery at its most venomous. He eventually "wins" by filibustering and shining a light on the improper actions of others around him. Oh, if only it were that easy. I doubt there ever will be a Mr. Smith in our present government, but if there is one, now would be the time for him to step up and whisk us all away into his Capra-esque fantasy and wipe clean the (now daily) mounting improprieties of the Trump Regime. Released in 1939, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was certainly attuned to the growing feelings of misrepresentation and dishonesty, but I think even Capra (and screenwriter Sidney Buchman and original story writer Lewis R. Foster) would shrink from the foulness of today. Ultimately, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" is a triumph for the small man against a hulking, corrupt institution. Placed alongside the other nihilistic, sardonic and utterly prescient films on this list, I include Capra's film solely because of its illusion of decency and innocence. Lord knows we all can use some rays of hope nowadays, and this film provides it.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Damned: Christian Petzold's "Something To Remind Me"

In Christian Petzold's "Something To Remind Me" (2002), the air of fatalism hanging around the thing from the very beginning feels even more authoritative than any other in his long career. Tomas (Andre Hennick) sees a beautiful tall blonde Leyla (Nina Hoss) sharing his swimming pool and tries to start up a conversation. She ignores him but begins to slowly creep up into his life. She's there when his brother chats up a random girl having lunch at the same cafe. She eventually agrees to go out with him, leaving him breathlessly wondering where she went after a night of simple and unassuming exhausted sleep on his couch. The story abruptly shifts away from their relationship when Leyla begins working at a vaguely realized halfway house, again slowly but assuredly encroaching into the universe of one of the men housed there. Lurking, overweight and giving off the sense of a human teddy bear who often doesn't understand his own strength, Blum (Sven Pippig) can't help but notice Leyla's unsolicited flirtations. From there, "Something To Remind Me" crawls ever so carefully towards a climax that seems obvious and complex at the same time, firmly ensconced in the Petzold universe of Hitchcockian deception, social class divide and muted emotions. Not only is it a towering achievement of all these things, but further proof that Petzold is one of the finest directors working today.


Originally released on television in Germany, "Something To Remind Me" manages to elicit strong emotions of sexual persuasion and intense purpose without overtly showing anything... notably through the performance of Nina Hoss. Hiding so much behind her duplicitous gaze, the film gives off the feeling that everything is headed towards a shocking denouement by the way Petzold withholds certain information. And when that shocking finale does come- in typical Petzold fashion- it hits like a battering ram because the motives and decisions and consequences are so fraught with meaning and understanding. We accept why Blum does what he does. We feel for Tomas, a man who was thinking with something else on his body instead of his head, and we certainly can align with Leyla in her stoic, resolved plan. How all three come together is quite stunning.

"Something To Remind Me" marks the first collaboration between director Petzold and actress Hoss.... a partnership that will have lasted over 15 years now and five other terrific works, culminating with their masterpiece "Phoenix" (2015). It's like a match made in heaven as Petzold's camera seems to adore Hoss and the way she maneuvers around the frame and Hoss giving us just enough humanity to permeate from behind her typically icy facade. Like the best femme fatales, its easy to see why Tomas falls so hard for her and allows her to set her plan in motion. What isn't cookie cutter is the way Hoss makes us root for the femme fatale in serving justice to the injustices of the past.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.1

20th Century Women

Mike Mills' "20th Centruy Women" feels like an achingly real memoir about adolescence told not through the subject's eyes, but through the prism of the people around him whose voices and perspectives are given equal traction. At first, the film feels ragged and episodic, but it slowly gels into a magnificent ensemble full of life, fragility and casual wisdom. The beauty resides in its raggedness. Even though the women of the title (Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) are given moments of resplendence in the way they shuffle, dance, worry, react and interact with each other, Mills' screenplay and direction belie a gentle touch on everyone involved. It's also a film that understands the textures of an era in the way he flashes black and white photos to subliminally relay faces and images. And, just like a great novel, there's pain and reality in the way each person interjects their fate in voiceover, explaining future and past in one tumultuous gesture. It not only emphasizes the tangential nature of life, but breathes humanity in the present.


Patriot's Day


Part of my lukewarm appreciation for Peter Berg's "Patriot's Day" is for the film it could have been.... i.e. overtly sentimental and browbeating. It does go there for stretches, but for the most part, it remains a cool and measured procedural complete with investigative dead-ends and jurisdictional confrontations that lend a credibility. It does suffer some missteps, such as the seemingly amplified Watertown shootout that not only manages to flip exploding cars, but turn J.K. Simmons into a Rambo-style hero. Still, there's enough intelligent moments wedged in between the forced beginning and almost insufferable memorialized finale to make this worth it.


The Founder

A.k.a. The Great American Fast Food Heist. John Lee Hancock's "The Founder" continues Michael Keaton's recent surge of great roles, portraying Ray Kroc, the ultimate owner of the McDonald's fast food chain after fast-talking, hustling and out maneuvering the original owner brothers (Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch) and building an empire. There's very little sympathy and even less moralizing about Kroc here, which makes "The Founder" a dry, detached experience about the expansion of corporate America just when American families where coming out of their shells and exploring modernized attractions of the country. It's a good film, complete with the asshole standing at the top of the mountain with not only an empire, but a stolen wife (Linda Cardellini), unrepentant and basking in his own shadow. Too big to fail indeed.


Neruda

I probably spend more time talking about "Jackie" because its the better film of the two, but Pablo Larrain's companion pieces deserve each other. Full review at Dallas Film Now.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Moments of 2016

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (18 years running now!) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.




After ninety minutes of carnage, the way a man (Macon Blair) stumbles across a campsite and murmurs “We need the police.”   “Green Room”

An RV….a yellow raincoat flailing in the wind…. And the rush of music as a woman tries to catch up with a car on the road in “Tumbledown”

In Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight”, the sheer honesty and emotion on the face of Mahershala Ali as he silently answers a little boy’s questions at the dinner table

Emma Stone's audition scene in "La La Land"

“The Conjuring 2”. Hands slowly wrapping from around the edges of a painted picture, literally coming to life in the dark edges of the shadows. A scene just as spine tingling and eerie as the best Kiyoshi Kurosawa freak outs in films like “Pulse”

The first divergent strings of Scott Walker’s score to Brady Corbet’s weird and austere debut “The Childhood of a Leader” and a young boy, glimpsed from outside a window, wearing wings

Taika Waititi as a priest, eulogizing during a funeral about doors leading to other doors, and then his perfectly-timed aloofness when, after asking what is behind a second door, young Ricky (Julian Dennison) says “vegetables?”    “Hunt For the Wilderpeople”

The uncontrollable, girlish giggle let out by a nun as Mathilde (Lou de Laag) gently examines her pregnant belly, and then the way she quickly stifles the laugh as Mother Superior looks on in discontent.  A caveat of WWII history given grace and intelligence in Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents”

In “Dheepan”, the elegant framing of two people in separate windows, surrounded by a sickly yellowish light- a little girl plays in the far corner of the frame while the woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) on the left pleads with her husband to return home

One of the more hypnotic transitions of the year in Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” sees a man lovingly fitting a woman for her dress and head size, then the same woman bathed in red light as she dances a striptease wearing a horse-head

The way the camera patiently swings back and forth, POV from inside the wooden cage of a Jesuit priest (Andrew Garfield), as he's forced to watch peasants being drawn outside and killed in front of his eyes. "Silence"

“There looks like a man who could foreclose on a house…. I’m gonna go talk to him.” Jeff Bridges doing his best Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water”

Max Richter’s simply stunning music that bookends the more human aspects of Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece “Arrival”

During a Day of the Dead celebration… and all the face masks that come with that…. An array of hands reaching up for Superman as he gently drops a little girl into their arms. One of the few poetic moments in an overtly stylized actioner. “Batman V. Superman”

“It’s easier in here without a penis. We don’t shank each other. We form self help groups.” The response by “Miss Sloane” (Jessica Chastain) when told she looks good in prison

A 50’s dance scene that transforms in front of young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as his band rehearses, momentarily washing away the sadness and disappointment of reality.  “Sing Street”

In Naomi Kawase’s delicate and aching “Sweet Bean”, the way Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) quietly breaks down as he eats with Tokue, followed by the way she gently consoles him by saying “one should smile when they eat something delicious.”

In the middle of a spasmic dance to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) looks and dances straight into the camera.  “A Bigger Splash”

A stray bullet. A random man on stilts at a wild, orgiastic party being hit by said stray bullet. Just one of the many shocking and seriously funny detours in Shane Black’s wonderful sun noir “The Nice Guys”

In Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, after a long walk together, Sebastian (Gosling) returns to his car that was parked right in front of the valet all along

The way  Kevin (Andre Holland) licks his fingers and moves seductively around a kitchen, fixing a late night dinner for his friend.  “Moonlight”

In Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America”, the gentle exterior pan around a moving car’s windows as Craig Robinson recounts, to his son (Markees Chritsmas) the time he traveled to Germany to meet up with his girlfriend. Life lessons expounded into a moving relationship between son and father, encompassing forgiveness and understanding

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”.  A night time raid set to the tune of Harry Nilsson

In the foreground, a man’s face in clear focus as he throws out questions… and in the background, out of focus, a little girl transforms into something hideous. Just one of the many unsettling tricks in “The Conjuring 2” and its nightmarish palette

In “Christine”, the way Rebecca Hall offhandedly remarks that the vase of flowers sitting on their news desk is fake.  Sometimes it takes a rare and sensitive person to notice the artificiality in the world and then a struggle to ignore it. It won't happen, but Rebecca Hall deserves Oscar support

Those final 4-5 minutes in “The Childhood of a Leader”. Words can’t do justice to the malestrom of images and music as a ‘leader’ comes into his own. God help us all

The final glance between  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) and the way they nod at each other, their eyes encompassing so much forgiveness, regret, warmth and, finally, acceptance.  “La La Land”

The way the camera suddenly swings upward and a group of bodies are walking on the ceiling before our perspective is changed, I can’t imagine a better way to transcribe man’s first entrance into an alien spaceship than that in “Arrival”

"Indignation". The almost doll-like eyes growing a bit dimmer as Olivia (Sarah Gadon) quickly covers up the scars on her wrists.

While asking about his two children, the way Fahim (Christopher Abbot) remarks that his boy is “getting strong.” When asked about his little girl, he comments “she’s stronger”.   “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

The long sequence as Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) make their first batch of bean paste together.    “Sweet Bean”

One woman hangs by a rope from a tree while the other screams in jealousy, all captured in a serene long shot. "The Handmaiden"

That nervy opening credit sequence in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals". From that moment on, expect nothing and suspect everything

In "Les Cowboys", the look between Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) and his sister in a small grocery store. No words are exchanged, but its crystal clear that this tale is far more devastating than its unexpected narrative turns suggest





Monday, January 09, 2017

Faves of 2016

15. The Light Between Oceans


Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance seems to be preoccupied with consequences and all the messy, time-lapsed emotions that come along with them. In his previous film, the masterful "The Place Beyond the Pines", he quickly aborts the gritty, burned-out-looking crime thriller premise about halfway through and jumps ahead in time more than a decade to ponder the fate of two children helplessly caught up in the maelstrom of their parents decisions. And with "The Light Between Oceans", (based on the novel of the same name by M.L.Stedman), the innocent are at the mercy of another bad decision by two people hopelessly dealing with grief and loss. It's certainly a prestige picture... full of handsomely mounted purpose and sweeping drama.... but it also defiantly stands its own ground as a film imprinted with the soul of its filmmaker and deserves its hard-earned whimpers and eye swells. Even though it largely failed to find an audience (and generating quite the snark from online blurbs whose presence is growing increasingly unwelcome in these lightning quick digital times), "The Light Between Oceans" deserves to be seen and recognized as a piece of proper Hollywood fall season bait done oh so right by Cianfrance and his attention to the complicated and treacherous decisions that ultimately save one life but destroy many others.


14. Loving


One refreshing theme from 2016 involved directors working proficiently. Not only did Pablo Larrain have two films open within a few weeks of each other, but American filmmaker Jeff Nichols started the year with "Midnight Special" and ended it with "Loving". While the former is a very good film, it doesn't compare to the nuance and sublimeness of "Loving". Ripping its story from the civil rights headlines- in which an inter racial couple bucked the Jim Crow ways and got married in late 1950's North Carolina- "Loving" contains an emotional force precipitated by lead actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Negga especially. Rightly deserving an Oscar nomination this year, her mixture of country humility and steely reserve shines through her eyes and crimped face in every single scene. Nichols also does the unthinkable and crafts a legal thriller (as their case eventually winds its way to the Supreme Court) that wisely avoids stepping foot inside a courtroom, maintaining its humane gaze on the couple's reactions and their unending wish to simply 'exist' as man and wife.


13. Two Trains Runnin'


Integral in crafting a masterful documentary is timing. And timing is something Sam Pollard's film has in abundance. It unites a fateful day in Mississippi of June 1964 in which two individual strands of outsiders descended upon the Deep South for wildly different purposes. One for the pure joy of music and the other, hopeful for real political change. "Two Trains Runnin" is majestically told, edited and visualized, including some nifty animation sequences that flesh out a story that would've normally been recounted and not seen. It's a film of immense resonance in our current climate of social and racial unrest. And while it features quiet breaks in the narrative to spotlight blues music legends such as Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr and Lucinda Williams performing blues staples, these excerpts not only emphasize the film's overriding theme of hope, but it marries the idea that the soaring power of music is harmonious with the indefatigable power of people to exact change. We need all of that in abundance now. 


12. Les Cowboys


Thomas Bidegain's re-imagining of John Ford's "The Searchers"- updated to reflect the post 911 uncertainties of Muslim and European relationships- hurdles through so many unexpected narrative permutations that its sleek 100 minute running time feels almost epic. It's an obsessive journey over decades (first from the father, eventually and reluctantly absorbed by the son) whose ending is so perfectly devastating that it dares to rival Ford's very patriotic and myopic view as something less substantial. That's certainly high praise indeed.



11. The Thoughts That Once We Had



Like Jean Luc Godard's mammoth series "Histoire(s) of Cinema" (1994), essayist and filmmaker Thom Andersen's "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is a shifting, breathless and ultimately personal didactic about what gives him inspiration and belief in the moving pictures. Broken down in loose sections entitled "the affection-image" (faces), "the perception-image" (war and its ugly ideals) and "implied dreams" as well as other lofty excerpts from Deleuze's applied theories on cinema, "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is best enjoyed by film enthusiasts for its constant barrage of film clips... some esoteric but many immediately recognizable. Like Andersen did with his best film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" (2003), "The Thoughts That Once We Had" encompasses a filmmaker obsessed with film itself and how it often becomes ingrained in our subconscious and manifests itself in every day life.


10. Sweet Bean



Following up her heartbreaking and quiet adolescent drama "Still the Water", Naomi Kawase latest film, "Sweet Bean", is a delicate meditation on the simple connections that develop between three people in varying degrees of ages dealing with regret, loss and pivotal absent figures. It almost becomes too overwhelming towards the end as Kawase gently prods our affections and sympathies, creating a deeply moving exercise on the damning reverberations of past and present isolationism.  


9. Indignation



James Schamus' adaptation of Philip Roth's novel strives to encapsulate the post World War II generation's swirling mass of emotions which includes the disdain for parental over-indulgence, the groping for expected spiritual (non) identity, and youthful sexual abandon. Lofty ideas, indeed, and "Indignation" hits the mark and more. As young Marcus, Logan Lerman is spectacular as the Jewish boy swimming against the grain at a prestigious Ohio college, whose life becomes even more confused when he meets beautiful (and non Jewish) Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and they begin dating. College is certainly about new experiences, new attitudes and finding oneself, but "Indignation" soon charts the upheaval of conflicting traditional versus progressive ideas and actions in a carefully modulated manner. Not only does Marcus not understand the ways of love, but his very ideals come under insidious attack from the school's dean (Tracy Letts), none moreso than a long give-and-take scene between the two that proves talk in cinema can be just as tense as anything else. "Indignation" is verbose, powerful, moving and, ultimately, heartbreaking in the way lives are seismically altered by a few words. Of all the films on this list, this is the one I'm most curious to watch again, studying how it's ultimate impact will reveal itself and deepen on repeat viewings.


8. The Nice Guys



Deconstructive. Self deprecating. Knowingly subversive. Whatever one wants to label Shane Black's "The Nice Guys", I'm all for it. Finally, after so many knock offs, he gives us a stone cold, raucous 'sun noir' that not only dips into the 70's title font bucket, but seems to fall in love with the overall hazy, sun-drenched milieu of the times just as easily. Like the best of the genre (i.e. Altman's "The Long Goodbye", Aldrich's "Hustle", Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride" or Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon" which trust me will make more sense once you've seen both films), Black's film ambles, waddles and hints at so many prevailing winds of attitude, 'hippiedom' and culture clashes that the basic story of two private investigators (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) trying to locate a missing girl becomes secondary to the effort. It's the oblique journey and not the straight up conclusion that makes this and fellow neo-noirs so compelling and immersive. Like the visual style of the film- which is often more inclined to tail off from the narrative and hover over some Los Angeles landmark or take more joy in the nighttime valley of lights that is hypnotic 1977 Los Angeles- "The Nice Guys" challenges our expectations of a "thriller" and provides us something much more interesting and non derivative. Black's script is tone perfect, darkly humorous (i.e. a man on stilts receiving a very random bullet) and whip smart. Oh, and it does get around to solving the central mystery which is just another satisfactory tentacle to the film's pleasures.



7. Valley of Love



The first two-thirds of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of a middle-aged couple (Gerard Depardieu and woman of the year Isabelle Huppert), divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind. This is entrancing, evocative cinema of the highest order.


6. O.J. Made In America




For an eight hour documentary, I simply could not wait to watch each portion. That's the inherent pull of director Ezra Edelman's look at sports star-turned-media-circus person O.J. Simpson. Traversing his entire life, from low-income roots to whitewashed African-American personality cloistered in his Brentwood home and facing murder charges in the 'crime of the century', "O.J. Made In America" is a mammoth achievement. Not only does it easily transcend its ESPN TV documentary roots, but it becomes a stirring, clear-eyed expose of Los Angeles, race relations, politics and American-fairy-tale-gone-horribly-wrong. I'd be tempted to say this history lesson wrapped up in a true crime enigma should be shown in classrooms for years to come.



5. The Handmaiden



Being unfamiliar with the novel, entitled "Fingersmith", that Park Chan Wook's "The Handmaiden" is based upon, I can't ascertain just how much of its eroticism and psychological deviancy is transposed to the screen. If it's half as good as Wook's adaptation, then I can't imagine why it didn't reach soft-core-female-thriller status like E.L. James (the "Fifty Shades of Gray" series) or Paula Hawkins ("The Girl on the Train"). Regardless, the current film itself is not only one of the best films of the year, but a masterstroke of filmmaking by Wook whose no stranger to shocking, abrupt narratives that turn on a dime and whose undercurrent of broiling social commentary remain hidden just enough to become subtext. "The Handmaiden's" formal brilliance is matched only by its scathing wit in the way it feverishly peels back layers of deception and perspective. And it just wouldn't be a Park Chan Wook film without a dash of violence, revenge and shifting alliance that constantly jerks the expectant rug out from underneath our careful toes.


4. Mustang




In the opening scene of Deniz Erguven's devastatingly real tinderbox of female-emotion-drama, the older three of five sisters are waiting outside the school for young Lala (Gunes Sensoy) as she says her goodbye to a teacher. The three stand, half full of swagger and attitude, knowing that their budding sexuality and natural beauty are but moments away from blooming when they meet their boyfriends by the ocean. It's as if they're poised to star in an 80's teen drama and they're most certainly Kim Richards or Lea Thompson... i.e. the bad girls. But it's exactly this risque attitude that lands all five sisters in trouble when they get home, subsequently beaten and verbally abused for being such loose women and flirting openly with men. "Mustang" doesn't reside in John Hughes middle America, but the restrictive culture of Turkey. Gradually, their freedom (both of personal expression and choice) are eroded as they're locked inside their home and kept prisoners by grandmother and uncle until, slowly, each one is given away to womanhood and arranged marriages. "Mustang", the debut feature film by Erguven, works methodically and brilliantly, canvasing the girl's suffocation in gentle overtones. There are night time escapes to freedom. Outward displays of retaliation. And of course tragedy. Even though it's a Turkish film, "Mustang" is universal in its depiction of smothered youth via overwrought and antiquated traditions. By the time it ended, not only was I reduced to tears for these girls to make it out alive, but ultimately resentful of so many nationalities whose backwards belief system chokes the life from sparkling eyes.


3. Silence


In Martin Scorsese's other curious exploration of religion, "The Last Temptation of Christ", there's a moment when Willem DaFoe as Jesus blurts out, ".....and they want to push me over the edge...." before the camera abruptly shifts its perspective and hinges on the side of a cliff. It's a shocking moment every time I watch that film. Well, here in "Silence", that same expressiveness behind the camera infuses every frame and simple camera move, extolling grace, doubt, conjecture and violence with each tilt or pan. Not only is "Silence" a devastating and austere piece of history observed through minuscule eyes, but the questions it stirred in me about faith, acceptance and personal resignation only come from true masters of cinema, using the medium to poke and prod for their own evolving belief system.  


2. La La land


Bracingly raw like early Scorsese, technically acute as P.T. Anderson and playfully movie-drunk as Jean Luc Godard, Damien Chazelle's technicolor musical-drama "La La Land" is a magnificent echo of the past while burrowing its own modern hooks into your head and heart. If Emme Stone hasn't already won a deserving spot in movie halls for decades to come, this is her grand entrance. From start to finish, this film slides, sweeps and ultimately breaks the emotions both through song and narrative drive as two young Hollywood-ites fall in and out of love while chasing their dreams. On any other given day, this film could be in the number one spot on this list. It's a levitational experience of cinema, deepened and expanded by the harsh realities of our current climate where song and dance really needs to overpower everything else. 

1. Arrival


After his last few films (and really since "Polytechnique" which is a shame so few people have seen), filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is, quite simply, working a higher level than most around him. With "Arrival", his plume of visual poetry becomes married with a heartbreaking piece of human fiction that gives to birth to a staggering science fiction film that left me breathless and gasping for my senses. Reaching far beyond the simple establishing premise of aliens visiting Earth and our clumsy, inconsequential methods of communication with them, "Arrival" is a riveting exploration of memory, language and compromise. As the linguist who unlocks the secret, Amy Adams delivers a wonderful performance, allowing herself no show-off moments and almost losing herself in the murky blacks and blues of Villeneuve's vision (shot by DP Bradford Young) before emerging as one of the year's strongest characters on screen. It's been said that "Arrival", whose screenplay is based on a story by Ted Chiang, is the closest we have to Tarkovsky-esque science fiction (or Russian sci-fi mind melts in general) and I tend to agree. Beautifully rendered in every moment and gesture, "Arrival" ranks as the most magisterial films of the year.