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.

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