Sunday, December 25, 2016

TOP10 FILMS OF 2016

1.  ARRIVAL




Moving and meditative, Arrival is even better on second viewing--it resonates long after you leave the theater.  Amy Adams is wonderful.  There's Denis Villeneuve's soulful direction, Eric Heisserer's brilliant screenplay from Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life (no mean feat to adapt!), and a haunting, lovely score from Villeneuve's Sicario composer Jóhann Jóhansson (who's also composing for Blade Runner 2049).


2.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA



Truth be told, I approached this film with some skepticism after having endured the 3-hour Lonergan cut of Margaret. But Manchester, with its seamless organic flashbacks and best-of-the-year actor and supporting actress performances from Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, blew me away.



3. ELLE



Quite simply, I think it's the best work Verhoeven and Huppert have ever done.  They're both auteurs.  And for my money, there's nothing like a stylish, well-wrought, provocative thriller.  I hope Huppert gets the Oscar for this.  For my full post on the film, click here.


4.  THE HANDMAIDEN




Park Chan-Wook's stunning and sexy adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith.  The plot, in three parts, from three different POVs, left me slack-jawed with awe.


5.  JACKIE



This appears to be director Pablo Larraín's year (his Neruda was also recently released).  The script for Jackie by Noah Oppenheim was originally to be an HBO mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg.  Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and 29-year-old Mica (Micachu) Levi's arrestingly dissonant score knocked me out.


6.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS



It appears to be Amy Adams' year as well.  I have to hand it to writer-director Tom Ford:  he took an interior, non-cinematic, not particularly well-written or engaging novel that somehow spoke to him, and he applied his vision to every aspect, resulting in a compelling, stylish neo noir.  And...Ford bankrolled the film himself (as he had done with A Single Man), because he can, and because he likes to have total creative control.  Kudos to him, Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  And a terrific Michael Shannon.


7.  HELL OR HIGH WATER



Sleeper of the year from Scottish director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan (part two of a trilogy). Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges are particularly great.


8.  THE INNOCENTS (AKA AGNES DEI)




Superb film from director Anne Fontaine that's been puzzlingly missing from critics' top 2016 lists.  Here's the log line:   In 1945 Poland, a young French Red Cross doctor who's sent to assist the survivors of the German camps discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent.  The film is this year's Ida.



9.  PATERSON



Jim Jarmusch's latest is refreshingly sincere and less self-consciously hip than his previous films.  Quite simply, it's the story of a bus driver/poet (wonderfully played by Adam Driver) named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, home to poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.


10.  LA LA LAND




You'd have to be pretty jaded to not respond at all to Damien Chazelle's magical tribute to musicals (which I generally won't even see) and Los Angeles.  It's not nearly as accomplished a film as Chazelle's Whiplash, but it's a charming outlier, and as so, audacious.  And Stone and Gosling are eminently watchable.


RUNNERS UP/HONORABLE MENTION:  Loving (beautiful jobs by writer-director Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga, and Joel Edgerton), A Bigger Splash (Swinton! Schöenarts! Fiennes!), Moonlight (the adult casting of the leads ruined it for me--they looked nothing like their younger counterparts), Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen deserves a nomination for this), Kicks, Midnight Special (also by writer-director Jeff Nichols), The Neon Demon.


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Saturday, October 22, 2016

LOVING


 Writer-director Jeff Nichols' second film of 2016 (earlier this year his terrific Midnight Special was released) is Loving, a title that is a double entendre, being both the last name of the couple at its center as well as a story about loving.

I haven't seen Nichols' first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, which he said he shot for $48K and which sat in the back of his father's furniture store for a long time because he initially didn't have the money to process the film stock, but all of the ones I have seen have been strikingly unique and affective dramas:  Take Shelter (in which Michael Shannon's character is well into developing paranoid schizophrenia--or maybe not), Mud (a Twainish story about young boys befriending a fugitive played by Matthew McConaughey), and the aforementioned Midnight Special (about a father and a son with special powers on the run).  Nichols was approached by the producers (who include Colin Firth) of the HBO documentary The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski, about Mildred and Richard Loving (pictured below), to turn the doc into a narrative film.


Nichols, at the Director's Guild in West Hollywood for a screening, said he warned the producers that if they were looking for a commercial film with the usual tropes--for example, the big courtroom drama that this could have been--he was not their guy.  In fact, this film is bigger than any courtroom drama, promised in the extreme close up that is its opening shot--simply Mildred's face wracked with an emotion that we don't, for a few moments, have any context for, hence her expression is initially inexplicable.  As inexplicable and ineffable as is love, and as Shakespeare put it, the "marriage of true minds."  Loving is a minimalist character drama that achieves intensity through its aching minimalism and subtlety.  And because it is so affecting and personal, it is far more effective in making a larger political statement about race and marriage and equality.  


"I think equality is an idea," Nichols put it, explaining that it's something never fully achieved or even achievable, but something each generation strives for again and again.  He was shocked that, as a Southerner (from Little Rock, Arkansas) and an American, he had known nothing about the Lovings' story until he'd seen the documentary.  (I hadn't, either.)  In the 50s and 60s, with regard to marriage, it was about equality in interracial marriage; now it's about same sex marriage.

Nichols has shot all five of his films on celluloid.  He explained why.  "I think suspension of disbelief is a very precious thing," and something he believes all narrative films need to have--even those based on real events.  He feels that celluloid helps that, because he finds that film "makes me sit up and focus."  Nichols says that when he's viewed recent period films shot on digital, he just doesn't buy them.  Also, "I want my films to have weight."  Joking about the literal weight of film canisters, he said he truly feels that celluloid adds heft.  Nichols' films not only induce "the willing suspension of disbelief," but demonstrate the filmmaker's "poetic faith," terms first used by the poet Coleridge:

"It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."  --Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817

Leads Ruth Negga (who's Irish, by the way), and Joel Edgerton (Australian) give Oscar-worthy performances.  The finesse of Mildred's subtly emerging character arc is particularly deft (I can't wait to for the PDF of the screenplay to see how it read without these performances).  And just the way Edgerton uses his body shows us everything about Richard's internal conflicts and feelings of awkwardness.  Nichols is fond of working with the same team--Edgerton was also in Midnight Special, and Michael Shannon, another alum, has a choice cameo in this film.

I loved the choice that Nichols made to use an elliptical approach to the lovers' relationship.  We come upon it in medias res--no trite meeting/courtship scenes, no sex scenes (but how soulful and sexy it is, then, when at one point Mildred takes Richard's hand, leads him into the bedroom, and he closes the door!).  In fact, in their first scene together, the two sit side by side but aren't initially even touching each other.  Nevertheless, the connection between them is palpable.  This is a testament to the actors' craft and to Nichols' writing and directing.

Loving is a beautiful piece of work by a gifted young (37) auteur whom Elle magazine deemed "already a national treasure" in their November issue.  Here's the trailer:



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Saturday, September 10, 2016

ELLE


I've been a fan of director Paul Verhoeven's work from his early Dutch films--Spetters in particular.  Well, perhaps not of all his films (I don't know if I even saw Showgirls).  He's been absent from making American films for 20 years, so Elle arrives as a wonderful surprise--a French film that may be the best one that both Verhoeven and Huppert have ever made, at, currently, ages 78 and 63, respectively (ripeness is all!).  I'm not alone in my reaction:  when it debuted at Cannes, it received a 7-minute standing ovation.


Verhoeven is known to be provocative, and in that respect this film will not disappoint.
I knew it was about a woman who's raped, and I expected it to be about her revenge.  How reductive!  This film will confound all expectations.  First, Michèle's (Huppert) actions after she's assaulted and raped are, at least initially, inexplicable.  Second, her reaction to finding out the identity of her rapist is also, initially, inexplicable.  But as we gradually glean bits and pieces of her backstory, a history of trauma emerges, and her actions then become (almost) completely understandable.

As a psychotherapist, I loved and appreciated the psychological complexity of this story.  As a writer, I was mightily impressed with how screenwriter David Birke handled the gradual exposition of Michèle's backstory--no mean feat.  (The script was an adaptation of Philippe Dijan's French novel Oh.)  It's masterful writing that serves to sustain suspense and mystery, and I can't wait to get my hands on the script.

Because of Michèle's trauma history, she bears a heavy burden of shame.  In the film she tells her closest friend and colleague Anna (Anne Consigny), "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all."  Shame resulting from trauma appears to be central to Michèle's characterological makeup.  As a result she engages in what might appear to be immoral or sadistic behaviors--but which I can tell you, as a therapist, are quite understandable given her history.


I love that Anna and Michèle are, like the leads of the excellent television series Halt and Catch Fire, best friends and colleagues as co-owners of  a video-gaming company (with all young male employees), and that their relationship survives, well, being severely compromised.

I also appreciate that the film depicts middle-aged women as sexual beings.  How alien is that from American films?

Most of all, I love that this film was made by and with aging actors and filmmakers.  It shows that there need be no end to productivity or creativity.  Everyone involved with this project is at the height of their powers.  It gives me hope. (And let us not forget that writer-director George Miller made arguably the best film of his careeer so far, Mad Max:  Fury Road, in his 70s.  Having just seen The Road Warrior  again on it's 35th anniversary, I have to say that I can't imagine having the energy to make the superior Fury Road).  

I should add that Elle has humor as well--c'est très important!  There's a Chrismas dinner scene that Verhoeven has said it is the one he is most proud of in the film.  And a scene involving the ashes of a deceased relative that, with The Big Lebowski, is a classic.

Elle opens in the U.S. in early November.  Here's a link to the trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-iBBgcp7PY


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