Monthly Archives: January 2017

2016 Year in Review

It’s the fifth annual PJH year in review (here’s 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015), and by now the 14 of you reading this have come to expect it at the tail end of January (a good six weeks after everyone else has weighed in and gotten fatigued by year-end lists lists lists lists lists) and full of something close to zero surprises. Still, it’s helpful to wrap everything up and put 2016 to bed — as we plunge into a 2017 that could bring anything from a coup d’etat to global meltdown to World War III (in which the USA is the bad guy). If that’s the case, hopefully we get a few more good films to escape with before the monsters in Washington shred the last fibers of democracy left flapping in the climate-changing wind.

2016 TOP TEN

1. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN — The best new release I’ve seen in 12 years and the one piece of cinema this year that reminded me why I even bother with this blog. I was hooked from the opening few shots, and already getting choked up before my seat was warm. Not much more to say than I did in my review, but if it’s playing in your city, do yourself a favor and enjoy it on the big screen: it’s an astonishing visual experience; it’s grand and evocative and eye-catching, which is something for a film that’s so nuanced in its writing and acting as well. A masterpiece by any definition.

2. THE LOBSTER — This was my #1 from May all the way until January, when Mike Mills snuck in at the last second to steal the top spot from a very deserving Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy. It’s both trenchant and timeless, both scary and hilarious, and you’ve never seen anything like it.

3. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! — Proof that nostalgic period pieces imagine eras the way we remember them, not necessarily the way they were. I saw this once, almost 10 months ago, but remember it so vividly (or do I?) because of its hot-blooded humanism, overflowing empathy, and buoyant humor. Linklater has quietly made three of the decade’s best movies in a row (don’t forget BEFORE MIDNIGHT or BOYHOOD; who could?) and no list of the greatest American directors alive can exist without his name.

4. (tie) FANTASTIC LIES & O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA — Two magnificent documentaries from ESPN’s 30 for 30 that tackle nothing less than the issues of race, media, sports, and the American legal system. The former is a brilliant 90-minute look at the infamous Duke Lacrosse story by Marina Zenovich. She craftily structures the film like a clichéd sports movie with a rousing climax, but what she’s really examining is the uninformed mob’s desire to rush to judgment, and the thorny lines crossed when privilege meets injustice. Similarly galvanizing is Ezra Edelman’s 7.5-hour Oscar-nominated epic about Simpson. It gets even more outlandish as it goes along, but smartly presents an exhaustive argument that everything has context, and our national obsession with celebrity and race is inextricably linked to politics, history, and every lurid detail in between.

5. ALLIED — A decade ago you wouldn’t believe me if I were to tell you a WWII epic from Robert Zemeckis starring Brad Pitt would be one of the most ignored, forgotten, and under-appreciated films of the year, but I mean a fascist imbecile is our President and so that’s just where we are now. Every composition, camera move, and set design is so well-conceived and beautiful to behold. But it isn’t just a triumph of classical filmmaking — it’s an adoring melodrama with an emotional punch that’s both unpredictable and handsomely earned. They do make them like they used to. They made it this year. Don’t sleep on it.

6. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS — Two movies, two great works. Maybe Tom Ford can do something other than slim-fit suits? If you’re not in this for the luscious framing story about the power and purpose of art — how liberating it can be — then you’re in it for the novel-within-the-movie where Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal put on an acting clinic.

7. THE HANDMAIDEN — Park’s comeback movie is also about the freedom that comes when you no longer have to hide your identity (either national, sexual, or moral), and it’s couched in an exhilarating package of sensational photography, score, and storytelling. One of the most entertaining experiences of 2016.

8. GREEN ROOM — Nobody could have guessed when this came out that it would be a template for our future. Millennials are attacked by Nazis, and their livelihood is quickly in danger. But aside from its accidental timeliness, this is just a terrific rapid-fire piece of sustained tension. And what a shame that Anton Yelchin, who just kept getting better, was taken from us so young. See this as a tribute to him.

9. NOCTURAMA — I was going to hold off and see if this got distribution in 2017 (and then put it on my 2017 list), but so far it doesn’t have it, and it may never get it in Trump’s America. The “My Way” sequence is a standout, but almost every set piece in Bonello’s uncommonly sensitive look at the production and post-production of a terrorist act is a stunner.

10. HELL OR HIGH WATER — Leave it to a Scotsman to investigate the heart of America’s economic depression and tell a sharp, evenly-tuned story about a world that has given everyone a short shrift, yet the film leaves nobody out to dry. Roles both big and small are given three-dimensional treatment, thanks to Sheridan’s magnificent script and an all-star cast. A grand over-achiever.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: If I hadn’t included NOCTURAMA, then Kenneth Lonergan’s aching/funny MANCHESTER BY THE SEA would have snuck into the 10th slot and not been out of place. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CREEPY is an expertly directed horror curiosity. Keith Maitland’s documentary TOWER, about the mass-shooting in Austin by Charles Whitman, is audaciously affecting (with animated re-enactments to boot) and highly recommended. Houda Benyamina’s engrossing DIVINES sports a terrific lead performance from Ouyala Amamra amidst a surprisingly bleak but endearing story set in the Paris ghettos. A similar look at the forgotten underclass from a talented female director is AMERICAN HONEY, which divided audiences but remains a memorable experience at the theater.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Mike Mills, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Best Actor — Colin Farrell, THE LOBSTER

Best Actress — Annette Bening, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Best Supporting Actor — Jeff Bridges, HELL OR HIGH WATER

Best Supporting Actress — Lily Gladstone, CERTAIN WOMEN

Best Screenplay — Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, THE LOBSTER

As usual, no Worst list. This world definitely doesn’t need any more worsts, and I don’t even like the concept of shitting on films on purpose. I’ll savage a bad movie in a review, but there’s no need to call attention to it again in year-end wrap-ups. Plus, I’m often lucky enough to skip the worst of the worst.

And that’s it. Please comment below with anything you want to discuss. Thanks for reading.

 

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La La Land — 5/10

LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

Entering this conversation very late and with very little of interest to say. There are some nice touches throughout that keep this watchable and dynamic: Gosling is quite good despite his mediocre dancing and singing — he’s really in it for his comic timing (watch that flinch reaction when he sees his sister in his apartment when he gets home) and puppy-dog sympathy when things don’t go his way. Stone is fierce in the audition scenes and giddy in musical numbers, though her chemistry with Gosling was sharper in both CRAZY STUPID LOVE (really good) and GANGSTER SQUAD (really bad). It seems now this regular pairing is just coasting on already-established good will.

But this is a film about aspiring artists, and its message is both trite and uninspiring. We’ve seen a million times a story about a guy stuck doing something he hates until he achieves his dream, and this goes nowhere we don’t expect. Sebastian even gets a chance to learn something new: John Legend has a great speech to him mid-film about how you need to tailor your skills to the needs of the marketplace. About how “jazz is dying because of people like you” who are ignoring a younger generation in favor of old traditionalists. A nice point to make, but Chazelle disagrees with it!

So instead, he makes a movie designed to do nothing but nod to older movies and tell us how good they were. Yeah, some of them were good. But aren’t I supposed to be watching a good one now? Why not make this one good too? Instead, the camera work in the musical numbers is boring, sloppy, and haphazard. Even the long take on the freeway (why is Stone going from the 105 to the 110 in the morning if she lives with her girlfriends in Hollywood?) feels weighed down by molasses instead of gliding on air. The house party pool scene has murky underwater photography before drunkenly settling on phony fireworks. Artifice is a theme of the film (in Los Angeles, everything is fake!) but if the emotions in the movie are supposed to be real, then why not make us feel something?

There are so many blunders that they had to be intentional: the sequence where Stone and Gosling walk the studio lot on a “first date” is in sync for the close-ups but the wide masters are hopelessly out of sync; like they were ADR’d on purpose. It doesn’t even come close to matching. There’s a hair in the gate in a simple quick shot of Gosling sitting on a bed that could easily have been noticed and touched up. (Doubt this was a projection issue because it disappeared on a cut, plus it was a DCP). Glad that Chazelle shot on 35mm film, but come on, Oscar-nominated DP. Check the gate. I can only imagine all of these things were left in to contribute to the theme of artifice, meta-knowledge, and peering behind the curtain. But it’s also a really convenient excuse.

It’s not enough to tell us that you liked THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG or SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN or ALL THAT JAZZ. And in what amounts to the single lamest THE CONFORMIST homage in film history, we get a low-angle shot of about four leaves dribbling towards Stone’s feet, reminding us that there is an entire wealth of cinematic classics we could be watching instead of this bland, forgettable, occasionally agreeable, but slight exercise in ripping off better movies.

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Split — 5/10

SPLIT (2017, M. Night Shyamalan)

The references are there from the very beginning — Night signals Hitchcock with the opening shot, which is a dolly-in/zoom-out on Taylor-Joy (not quite as good as she was in THE WITCH, but it’s just the material’s limitations, not hers), and then we get repeated PSYCHO-type exposition from Betty Buckley, aka The Worst Psychiatrist Of All Time. Shyamalan has always been a better director than writer, and here his script lets him down yet again. He gets to do more with the camera than in THE VISIT, which was hampered by the found-footage gimmick, but that was still a scarier and more interesting film than this multiple-personality cliché rehash: really just an excuse to prove that James McAvoy can actually act (which is the most shocking twist by far).

Night’s camera makes concrete what the metaphors about McAvoy’s brain imply — people trying to get to the light, being trapped in boxes/cages, the desperate need to communicate, etc. It’s all very tight and well reasoned. But in the service of what? Even the post-title-card nod at the end to one of his earlier movies feels desperate and pointless. The rest is just a series of dull conversations between McAvoy and Buckley, plus some nervous winging-it from Taylor-Joy. The presence of weapons, doors, and silence do create a foreboding atmosphere of dread, which is clearly Shyamalan’s strength, but not only did Hitchcock do this stuff better — De Palma did too, and we already have RAISING CAIN.

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20th Century Women — 10/10

20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016, Mike Mills)

Even if it hadn’t obliterated me by the end, leaving me a sobbing mess on the floor of the theater, I’d still be over the moon for this thing based on everything else that’s pitch perfect about it. Warm without being treacly, emotional without being melodramatic, smart without being arrogant, and witty without being pretentious. It gets away with being about big ideas — like life, family, sex, love, and human connection and the search for meaning — by somehow lasering its focus on a narrow slice of time, in a specific place. The clothes aren’t overly designed and sparkling clean from a costumer’s rack; they’re frayed and stained, overused and comfortable. The appliances weren’t bought in 1979; they’ve been around since 1972 because things lasted that long back then. Thick, heavy cords run across the ironing board. The record player takes a second to crank up to 33 rpm. Photographs are dulled and bleeding color, but the paper is thick. This movie feels not just like a snapshot of a time, but like it’s still happening. The two hours you spend in front of the screen is all you get to live with it, but it was going on before you got there and will continue pulsing after you leave.

Mills found a gorgeous tone of empathy and kindness with his great 2010 film BEGINNERS, but he steps it up here, proving himself to be one of the sharpest eyes and ears for visual art working in America today. His actors move within the frame without looking like they’re hitting marks; there’s an effortlessness to the way his numerous dialogue scenes are staged. Arguments don’t happen with people waiting to get their line in and with practiced interruptions; they are real and they cut. Nobody here is flawless but nobody is angelic. It’s so refreshing to see a film about three-dimensional human beings that aren’t props for a story or clumsy concepts.

A huge reason these characters come alive is this cast. Greta Gerwig has never been better, nor has Elle Fanning (which is saying something about two remarkable actresses), and Billy Crudup relaxes into a performance that supports without trying to steal. He knows when he’s a side dish. Newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann is a terrific find and a real talent (watch his expression when Gerwig instructs him to put on his “most inscrutable face”); if it weren’t for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s Lucas Hedges, this would be the most truthful teenager on screen in 2016. But this film belongs to Annette Bening, a consistently underrated actress who has a career moment with this — her Dorothea is role filled with impressive lines and big scenes, but it’s Bening’s face that expresses a woman who knows so much, has so many conflicting motivations, and is overflowing with compassion. She’s the mommest mom you’ll ever see on a movie screen.

Mills structures his film not unconventionally — it begins with a subtle task (Bening asking Gerwig and Fanning to help Zumann through his awkward teens) and has a climactic culmination — but he lets the edges of the story become the meat of it: it’s how dancing becomes an unspoken symbol of connection; how distance between people within a shot floods you with anxiety. There could be essays and essays written on what this movie has to say about feminism, technology, parenting, and the bygone era of Carter’s America. I won’t waste your time with incipient thoughts on those subjects. The most important takeaway I have immediately is that this is a huge, bold, staggering achievement, full of the kind of red-blooded feeling you go to the movies for. And, much like Linklater’s EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! from earlier in 2016, it’s a movie so kind and selfless that you feel a twinge of pain entering the real world when it’s over. When the lights go up and you’re in 2017 and an army of fuckfaces led by Trump are about to annihilate civility in government, when assholes and thugs infest almost every street you turn down, you want to do nothing more than turn right back around and climb back into the comforting, exhilarating, eyes-open exploration of life, humanity, and everything that makes it bitter and sweet that is 20th CENTURY WOMEN.

 

 

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Paterson — 6/10

PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)

Jarmusch is playing in the same sandbox he has for 30 years, turning the volume down to 4 and playing too-cool-for-school. His muted, moseying style works best for me when it’s contrasted with fantastical elements: strange settings or dramatic ideas. Take the dreamy western DEAD MAN or the fierce, still, rap-laced GHOST DOG — these are worlds that fit nicely with Jarmusch’s tendency to underplay everything. But here, focusing on a complacent protagonist (who always answers “I’m okay” to anyone who asks) throughout a week in his uneventful life, the filmmaker displays his typical allergy to vibrancy and it threatens to ossify the movie.

Luckily, what’s left (after incident, emotion, and stakes are removed) is a highly watchable and likable atmosphere. An actor named Driver plays a driver, working in a town called Paterson with a name Paterson. Jarmusch plays on this by starting off with a conversation about having twins, then discovering several sets of twins throughout the film. But these curiosities are just minor flourishes on bland wallpaper — there aren’t any major revelations here. The small pleasures, like Driver’s face when he chokes down Laura’s cheddar-and-brussels-sprouts pie, or when he smirks at overhearing an amusing conversation from passengers, are resolutely small.

Jarmusch has often populated his films with Japanese characters, but here the expected inclusion comes in the form of a magical Japanese tourist in a strangely off-key and clumsy echo of the Magical Negro character in films from 25 years ago. Masatoshi Nagase (a movie star in his own right, though he was also in MYSTERY TRAIN) just pops up to offer corny wisdom and a gift of blank pages to Paterson, merely serving a purpose for the protagonist in a way that other supporting roles don’t (while they only exist when Paterson crosses paths with them, at least they have outer lives).

The film is modest almost to a fault. There’s nothing wrong with quiet and contemplative, especially when it goes down this smoothly. But like with the vampires in his previous ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, there’s a sense that blood has been drained out of the effort. With low risk comes low reward. Characters here don’t have any displays of heated emotion, and when they do (Everett’s unhinged bar freak-out) they’re evidence of character flaws. To be cool in Jarmusch’s world is to not let anything get you too excited; wake up, kiss your loving girlfriend, get through the day, be bummed sometimes, chuckle once or twice, and stay grounded.

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