Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My Top 10 of 2017


            Lets not beat around the bush; 2017 was a difficult year to be a cinema fan, in more ways than one. There were alarmingly few blockbusters that stood out this year, and for some reason it was harder than ever to find independent and foreign cinema that is worth a damn. Nevertheless, when a breakthrough ever occurs it was more than an insurmountable relief, it was an event. The best films of 2017 were like guiding lights in a sea of despair and bad taste. Even if this crop of films could not beat the high points of previous years—though not many can compete with Moonlight and Mad Max: Fury Road—the best of 2017 were revelatory, strange and exciting to watch. Anyone who felt unfulfilled by cinema this year needs to check these out, for they truly made 2017 worth all the trouble. But first some quick addendums; I am guilty of not seeing Good Time, Jane, Rat Film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Mudbound, Personal Shopper and The Lost City of Z.  I did see Phantom Thread, Fantastic Woman and Paddington 2 but since I could not see these films until late into January I am considering these films as 2018 releases. So good luck, other films of 2018, you all got your work cut out for ya!
            Now, on to the actual list:


10. Nocturama
            Possibly the most morally distressing film since A Clockwork Orange; Nocturama is a story about a group of multiracial teenage terrorists who pull off something horrifying, and then hide out in an abandoned mall contemplating their actions. This is a bleak, nihilistic yet hypnotic little movie that is impossible to resist watching. The scheme is told non-linearly like Tarantino’s early crime work but has a deathly cold detachment that recalls films like Sonatine. The film comes to full bloom in the mall as these characters lay low coming to their own existential realizations and dance to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” which oddly leads to what makes this film so compelling. Nocturama controversially never truly explains why they did what they did, which may be a legitimate point but this point overlooks the fact that, well, they are kids. They are just sad, dumb, lonely kids, too scared to face society and too proud to cry for help, until it is too late.


9. Columbus
            Columbus is directed by Kogonada, who is most known for creating these specific yet captivating video essays like Ozu // Passageways and Hands of Bresson, and with Columbus—his first feature filmhe practices what he preaches in the best way. The cinematography is on another level. Every scene is composed with a geometric level of precision that evolves this quiet drama about a man (John Cho) and a woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who meet and bond over a fondness for architecture to cope with family into a spellbinding complex portrait of love and friendship. Not a single shot is wasted in this film and every moment moves. Columbus is such a masterful showcase of classic art-house filmmaking that to call it a great debut only sells it short.


8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
             “The farmers have won. Not us.”—Takeshi Shimura, Seven Samurai,
            There is a lot to discuss about The Last Jedi; as there always seems to be for a Star Wars film, but this one was particularly special in the grand scheme of the franchise. It still has exciting action; it certainly is the only blockbuster of 2017 that does not slump into a CGI blob in the final act. Aesthetically speaking, this is first Star Wars since Empire Strikes Back that feels unashamedly inspired by Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks and Flash Gordon. However speaking of Kurosawa, this is the Star Wars that takes the lessons of his films to heart. Taking an idea from Seven Samurai, The Last Jedi quite literally throws out the vain “traditions” in order to examine what it truly means to be a hero, and does so with hilarious audacity. The fact that this is the first film of the franchise to have genuine empathy for characters that are outsiders—whether it is a rebel bomber that nobody in the audience ever knew or a girl who came from nowhere—is absolutely remarkable, and to see people intimidated or confused by this idea makes it all the more vital. The Last Jedi is an exciting reminder that a lineage does not make a great hero but how one faces great obstacles. Not bad for a film that has flying rodents called Porgs.


7. Dunkirk
            A semi-silent WW II film that not only interlocks three stories but in three specific areas within three varying lengths of time and is not about the Allies winning but surviving a retreat. How did this get greenlit? This is less an old-fashioned war epic than a maximalist art film, an exercise in how montage can both compress and reveal the importance every vital second of this crisis. The story of the airplanes is especially compelling in showcasing grace under pressure especially when the pilot leader (played by a masked Tom Hardy) must face enemy bombers and fighters alone, in a Spitfire with a broken a fuel gauge. One can just see the stress his eyes as he calculates what he can do before he safely lands, or whether landing is even an option. The film is not interested in back-stories or moral discussions of its characters but rather examining their instincts and pains faced by those who triumphed in this dire moment in history. It is a WWII film that distills everything to its bare essentials, revealing triumph through action; if nothing else, it makes for one the most relentless blockbusters of the decade.


6. The Shape of Water
            This is essentially the best adaptation to a best selling page-turning romance novel that never existed. The Shape of Water is chocolate box of cinematic tradition, a sprawl of elements stolen from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Amélie, even Fred and Ginger musicals, all gracefully interweaved into a gorgeous romantic spectacle, and it is so delicious.  Guillermo del Toro is an opulent director who brazenly flaunts his influences but more importantly is brilliant in his ability to contextualize these elements into vivid and clever storytelling. More than a love story between a fish-man and a mute woman, The Shape of Water is a beautiful story that is more than about seeing someone beyond any perceived faults, but rather in finding beauty in the faults.


5. Get Out
            Talk about film of the moment. Before this film premiered in January, all anyone knew about it was that insane trailer, which made it look like another horror film heading to theaters early for a Halloween home video release. It has been almost a year since then and people are still talking about Get Out like it premiered yesterday. Get Out is a film that so succinctly rips into the systemic racism that to say it is satire just puts it lightly, this film Jordan Peele diagnosing of America’s ills. Granted this is not just a case of “right place, right time” no this is an awesome showcase of classic sci-fi horror that is just unforgettable. The screenplay alone shows that writer/director Jordan Peele has a great instinct for thrills and allegory that recalls one of Rod Serling. Get Out is perhaps not quite as debonair as the continental breakfast that is The Twilight Zone, but the wit is just as sharp. 


4. Lady Bird
            The film begins with Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mom on a road trip, crying over of an audio-book of The Grapes of Wrath; after the tape ends, they talk about college, which leads to them arguing so intensely that Lady Bird jumps out of the car. This side-splitting exercise in whiplash represents so much of what Lady Bird gets right as a comedy, a coming-of-age story, and more. Lady Bird is a hilarious and dynamic piece of cinema that keeps the viewer guessing over what will happen next. Every character will make one laugh, cry, and sometimes both in the same scene. It is also a testament to how exceptionally edited this film is because sweet Jesus it is. Forget Dunkirk, if there is a film in 2017 that perfectly uses editing as an expressive tool of portraying the fleetingness of time, it is Lady Bird. Not only does the film reduce all big and little moments of a kid’s last year in high school in about 90 minutes, it quietly reveals what can be missed. So many little threads unravel that expand to what seems like every person in Sacramento, engulfing the viewer into what makes these people and this town so vibrant. By the end, it makes one wish that they were still there, just to see how everyone has changed. More than just a comedy, Lady Bird is a celebratory poem about how so much can change in one person’s life, within and around them, and it did so in almost half the runtime as Boyhood.


3. Faces Places
            A film that is as simple as its title suggests. This lovely and funny little performative documentary shows French New Wave legend Agnès Varda and mysterious street artist JR doing what they love, making pictures. Driving in what looks like a camera on four wheels, they take pictures of local people and plaster these gigantic photos on buildings, shipping containers, for the world to see. The reactions of the townsfolk range between amused and amazed to the point of tears. There is never a dull moment in Face Places; but as exhilarating as it is to just see Varda and JR deface these places, what makes this film so powerful are personal revelations of Varda and her friendly relationship with JR. Overtime, Varda quietly reveals that this creative project is as much about going for “one last ride,” blessing the artists of the future, and embracing the beautiful absurdities of life. Faces Places is a film clearly made by auteurs with heavy thoughts on their mind, but is a testament to their ability to express it with such delight and grace, which is surprisingly hard to find these days. 


2. The Florida Project
            When Sean Baker arrived into mainstream acclaim with his iPhone-shot barnburner Tangerine, he brought an empathic eye toward transgendered streetwalkers in LA with scorching colors that were simply unrivaled. With The Florida Project, Baker replaces the digital with 35 mm film but brings back that same eye for this vibrant and sensitive portrait of kids living in the motels/makeshift-projects of Kissimmee, right next to the Magic Kingdom. The result is a brilliant slice of poetic realism that vividly portrays the starry-eyed perspective of little kids living in American poverty. Every scene is lovingly shot, filled with scorching sunlight and all the colors of an old candy shop. The film even shows cranes that seemingly wander around the town like they own the place. That is the thing about Florida, for a child, even the land outside the happiest place on earth seems pretty magical.
             And what kids, they are an absolute riot to watch as they run unsupervised through the Magic Palace motel with adventure and mischief on their mind. There is nothing precious about them either, these little shits curse, burn stuff, and talk with their mouth full, but even at their worst, one cannot help but admire their audacity and fear for them. This is particularly true of Moonee (played with gusto by Brooklyn Prince) who has this crass drive and love for the motel she calls home that is disarmingly earnest and sweet. When she says a leprechaun with a pot of gold lives at the end of the rainbow, one could easily believe her. She is just a kid trying to live the best life that she can, which makes the film all the more heartbreaking.
            As playful as the film can be, the dire reality of these children is portrayed candidly and ever present. For every endearing moment there is undercut with violence, destitution, and more sinister fears that happen around these kids who do not know how much is at stake. The Florida Project is wild and can be hilarious, but is also a bleak and profound study of the most vulnerable people in the country.


1. Dawson City: Frozen Time
            The story of Dawson City is almost too absurd to be history. A gold mining town founded between the birth of film and the Klondike Gold Rush, it was also last in line for Hollywood film distribution. As talkies became the norm, the studios suggested that the city should destroy these silent films. Over 500 films were buried underneath the town and they were forgotten about; until by some comic miracle, they were rediscovered by a construction crew in the 1980s, hired to dig up dirt for a septic tank. Finally, filmmaker Bill Morrison then used those very reels and photos taken at Dawson to create Dawson City: Frozen Time, a sweeping biography of the town and its people. However, what could have merely have been a beautiful slideshow evolves into an indescribably beautiful statement of humanity, art, and their place in history.
             Morrison seemingly performs reincarnation through appropriating these decaying strips like the artists of these films were finally given the recognition that they deserved after decades of rotting in obscurity. The decay of the reels instantly recognizable, often all but the very center of the frame is corroded away, but there is enough to convey genuine reality, like the games that surrounded the Black Sox Scandal, but also poetic truths. A scene of a lonesome man meeting a lover becomes a ghostly symbol when the lover is corroded out of the film. It is a devastating poetic documentary of how art can touch so many yet can be tarnished so quickly. Dawson City: Frozen Time is an extraordinary and unforgettable achievement of archaeology as poetry.

Honorable Mentions:
A Ghost Story
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Big Sick
Call Me By Your Name
The Ornithologist
The Square
Wonder Woman
Twin Peaks: The Return… ? I just don’t know what to do with this… experience. On one hand, it would easily be somewhere in the top five, but is this a film? Is this TV? It is certainly not HBO, but what is this?
            So now dear reader, what were some films of 2017 that you thought were amazing? What was overlooked? And more importantly, what the hell is Twin Peak: The Return? Seriously, it keeps me awake at night.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Some Movies I Missed in 2016

            It has been awhile, and at the end of the holiday season no less! Gone with the festivities, the days off, and the indigestion, but at the very least, there was plenty of time to catch up with some of the great films released over the year. Well, hypothetically speaking. The big downside this year was that so many films like Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, and Paddington 2, are not reaching Orlando until well into January, which is disappointing. What’s the point of even having an end of doing a top list or retrospective when release dates are this arbitrary, and where’s my Paddington 2!?  Granted, this problem is nothing new as every year so many great films get little or sometimes no chance to screen here in Florida. So as a fun experiment, instead of catching up on the 2017 releases, I spent much of my holiday catching up with some of the films I missed in 2016 and review those instead.

 Certain Women
            Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a beautifully measured anthology about the lives of… certain women who live around a small town in Montana. This includes Laura Dern; an insurance lawyer who deals with a lost cause, Michelle Williams; a mom building a house, and newcomer Lily Gladstone; a horse wrangler that is smitten with a teacher (played by Kristen Stewart). Kelly Reichardt directs the film in a manner similar to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jane Campion; the film is slow, nuanced, but every moment onscreen is engrossing and rich with empathy. The repetition of viewing Gladstone spreading hay, grooming her horses, every day reveals not only the hard work needed to do her job but also the loneliness of it all. Reichardt finds poetry and tragedy within the daily routines of her characters with an entrancing grace.
            Furthermore, and this may sound like a backhanded compliment, but Certain Women is one of the most vividly brown films that I have ever seen. Montana in this film is a decaying autumn of a state with its rundown hotels, muddy snowfields, and dirty leather jackets. Everything hints at a world on the cusp of dying out but Reichardt finds beauty in people striving to live on the land.

Things to Come
            When a film examine topics like philosophy, divorce, and parental death, it is easy for a story to fall into a pit of despairing melodrama, thankfully Things to Come—which goes for the whole trifecta—does not. The film is about a philosophy professor named Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), who suffers through a couple major tragedies, but the film is less about the external conflict and more about her embracing the absurdity of it all. Director Mia Hansen Løve finds great humor and pathos in clumsy moments like when Nathalie fishes out a reusable grocery bag after accidentally throwing it away with a bouquet of flowers, in a fit of rage. It is hard to think straight on a bad day, but Nathalie is not so hopeless as to throw away a decent bag. This leads to Nathalie finding solace in her philosophy and begins moving on. So what if she is alone? At least she is free and healthy. It almost makes too much sense that Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, she always performs with such understated boldness and wit; it is like the character and actor are cut from the same cloth. Huppert carries the viewer through this film with unmatched confidence and by the time the plot reaches the lush fresh countryside, everything clicks together, and one is at peace.

The Love Witch
            A Technicolor horror throwback about a witch who finds, loves, and destroys her suitors with love magic? Sign me the heck up! Like a Powell and Pressburger film if the duo went on a binge on Hammer horror films and mushrooms; The Love Witch is delightfully a mad showcase of style and an unflinching feminist tale of finding power in femininity. Director, writer, editor, set decorator, and costume designer Anna Biller made one of the most singular and excitingly auteur films of 2016, if not the decade. Double-bill this with Daisies that party will be talk of the week.

Cameraperson
            A boxing match, postwar Bosnia, a midwife assisting birth, a mother with Alzheimer’s disease, these are among the many, many moments documented by Kirsten Johnson in her sweeping and personal collage documentary. The film itself is a revealing anthology of people living through conflicts of various forms but what makes Cameraperson so unique is how revealing it is of the person behind the camera. The bulk of this film is made of unedited clips from dozens of documentaries (i.e Citizenfour, The Oath, and Derrida) photographed by Kirsten Johnson and throughout the film we hear her work behind the camera. We hear her talking to her directors about coverage, her reaction to a kid talking about their eye injury, and sometimes she is alone, outside in the cold, and the only way to know she is there is when she sneezes. With these simple details, it subtly reveals the physical, psychological, and ethical tolls Johnson goes through on a routine basis and also why this job is so important for her. It sounds like a dull avant-garde piece, and while it certainly is avant-garde, but dull it is definitely not. Do not let this film slip away.

 
The Wailing
            Set to some ominous music, The Wailing begins with a verse from Luke 24:37-39 “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” and it only gets cheerier from there. The movie proper begins like a dark comedy as Jong-goo, a shlubby small-town cop, ineptly deals with villagers who are infected with a rabid zombie-like disease. It is hilarious, but it stops playing like director Na Hong-jin’s pseudo-sequel to Shaun of The Dead once Jong-goo’s daughter gets infected. The plot does not merely take a sharp turn so much as it evolves into one of the most blasphemous horror epics since The Exorcist. The Wailing is a lot to take in, brutal in every sense of the word and it haunts long after it ends.

Sing Street
            Lets end on a high note with the other instant classic musical of 2016. Sing Street is an adorable coming of age tale about a boy who in an effort to impress a girl starts a new wave band so that they can make a music video. But much to everyone’s excitement and horror, the band is actually pretty good. In fact, they are kind of amazing. They are so unreal that it could only work in cinema. Set in the 80s, Sing Street plays very much like that decade’s many jukebox dance-film/musicals like Dirty Dancing and Footloose, but has the tremendous advantage of having original songs that transcend their pretense as a throwback. Sing Street teases many 80s trends, a running gag of how the band dresses up like specific one-hit wonders whilst the bandleader talks about being original is hilarious, but this films has nary a cynical bone inside itself. Sing Street is shamelessly nostalgic, shamelessly romantic, shamelessly crass, but who cares? This film is the dance party that the 80s deserves. So check it out!

            So there you have it. Hopefully something in here peaks your interest and maybe by February I will have something that resembles a top-10 film list for 2017.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: Swashathon Edition


            Swashbucklers were the old man’s superhero films. The name invokes images of grinning heroes in tights and button-down shirts holding a sword in one hand and a princess in the other. After decades of pictures since Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (1924), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad brings the swashbuckler back to Arabian Nights territory in thrillingly absurd fashion. The film presents an exciting world thanks to the lively special effects by Ray Harryhausen and wraps it in a simplistic hero’s journey where every beat can be predicted a mile away, but for most people, this will not be a problem. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a film that jolted the swashbuckler genre into more fantastical effects driven style that makes the film seem mythical, even if Sinbad is no Hercules.
            The story of Sinbad the sailor, swordsman, and heartthrob is a classic heroes journey. Sinbad and his crew land on an island to find food, only to run into the wizard Sokurah, who is being chased by a Cyclops for stealing a magic lamp. Sinbad rescues the wizard, but loses the lamp. Sokurah, the grateful man that he is, secretly shrinks Sinbad’s fiancé Parisia to the size of a mouse but promises to cure her if Sinbad retrieves the lamp. Sinbad and Parisa face insurmountable odds with a smile, which is a plus for the film.
            These two leads are relatively unique to the genre because they begin in love and never leave each other’s side. Typically the hero of a swashbuckler as does all the adventuring alone and either woos or rescues the fair princess in a tower, pirate ship, etc.  In this film, our hero is already taken (sorry ladies) and much of the conflict is resolved with Sinbad and Parisa facing it together. Classic swashbuckler moments like when they swing over a lava pit rings a touch more earnestly, it becomes more them about having faith in each other than about Sinbad rescuing a princess. Sure Parisa spends most of the time in a box but even then she uses her size to her advantage; namely, sneaking into the lamp to come face to face with a genie. Sinbad and Parisa are lively characters when together, but unfortunately for Sinbad, Parisa truly is the better half.
            The biggest weakness of the film is that Sinbad himself is not that interesting of a hero. This is partially due to Kerwin Mathews’ performance, which is so mild that it makes any moment of excitement feel bland. Moments like when he finds Parisa’s shrunken body or searching for food with his starving crew shows Sinbad flatly smile or act with the sense of bemusement that recalls when Bob Ross brushes a happy accident. Nothing is exciting to him, just smile to the next point of conflict. At least with Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, part of why his smile works is that Robin Hood is audacious; he relishes in conflict, so of course he smiles at danger. Sinbad smiles, but it feels forced and almost tired. He passes the line of audacity of Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks and into just appearing unimpressed or vacant, dulling most of the tension of the story.
            Sinbad is also a dimwit. The root of conflict of the film relies on the fact the Sinbad cannot deduce that Sokurah—the only known wizard in all of Bagdad—may have shrunk Parisa in order to trick Sinbad into stealing the lamp. One could see the intention is to show Sokurah as both a clever and otherworldly villain, but one would think using magic would be too obvious a trick for Sinbad. Plus, the cure is on the Cyclops’ island anyway so why make it a secret at all?  The story still functionally works with getting Sinbad closer to fighting monsters but it is rare that such a call for action would make the protagonist so irritating to watch.
            At the very least the stop-motion animated creatures in the film are something to behold. Made by Ray Harryhausen, the wildest moments of the film involve characters fighting giant creatures, and they are wild. This film has a skeleton, a dragon, a Cyclops, which fights the dragon and who could ask for more? Harryhausen’s creations are not only imaginative and exciting but are driven with a sense of character that makes as dynamic as anything from Pixar studios, albeit more gruesome. The Cyclops in particular is very amusing, more than an animal he is a greedy beast that is puzzled by the influx of brave humans stealing his stuff, but they do make a tasty snack so he does not mind. Harryhausen’s monster effects are so bizarre and entertaining that they more than make up for a clumsy story and characters, mostly.
            The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is near perfect prototype of a modern blockbuster, faults and all. It is bright special effects driven spectacle where the story merely functions to move character action set piece to set piece. This does not make The 7th Voyage of Sinbad bad entertainment, films like Singin’ in The Rain, The Avengers, and Baby Diver also function specifically to encourage action and they are great. The ultimate problem is that the plot functions so sloppily that the swashbuckling and the monsters clash more than harmonize. Sinbad and Parisa have some moments of action but they are still difficult to watch when the titular character is less lively than the clay puppets. The film is a below average swashbuckler stitched into a great monster feature; that being said, anyone who does not watch this back to back with Jason and The Argonauts is missing out on a good time.

            This is essay is part of the Swashathon! It is a blogathon that celebrates the most gleeful and saltiest movies that the genre can muster. Hosted by the blog Movies Silently, check out this link for more essays by other bloggers on the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and Maureen O’Hara? Who knew!?