Film Journal: March 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Movies seen in March, now with letter grades because I feel like it. Starred titles are re-watches.

The Unknown Girl
This would be Dardennes-by-numbers if not for the new wrinkle of embedding a murder mystery within their usual neorealism; the problem is they don’t have the knack for the former, as its continual presence threatens to drag down the rest of the film (reportedly seven minutes shorter than the 2016 Cannes cut; perhaps they could’ve cut it down further.) Thankfully, Adele Haenel (whom I didn’t recognize from either Water Lilies or Nocturama) gives the film something of a center—her youthful doctor, fixated on responsibility and guilt, contains enough layers and flaws to make her more than a narrative construct. Grade: B-

Patti Cake$
It has all the clichés you’d expect from the Rocky of overweight, working-class, female New Jersey rappers, but I liked it anyway. Credit Danielle Macdonald in what should have been a star-making turn (a cliché, I know, but it really applies here) but also Bridget Everett, who is immense and devastating as the alcoholic, failed rocker mother who refreshingly turns out not to be the film’s villain. Hardly anyone saw this Sundance hit, but if they had, Everett might’ve given Allison Janney some stiff competition at awards season. B+

Thoroughbreds
Starts off a little boring and leaden, with two rich girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both very good) in a passive-aggressive pas de deux. It achieves some focus once the what-to-do-about-the-creepy-stepfather problem is established—a narrative we’ve seen too many times before. Despite all that, first-time director Cory Finley proves a talent to watch. The camerawork, the immaculate suburban, Old Money mansion setting and the almost avant-garde sound design all cohere to bring about an almost thrilling sense of dread which builds to an unforgettable, extended long shot that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. B

The Passion of Joan of Arc*
Utterly shocked and transfixed when I first saw this on a 19” TV screen circa 2001; viewing it again on a giant movie screen in 2018 was no less powerful, even as I knew exactly what to expect. Understandably radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film (at least one I’ve recently seen) that utilizes faces and close-ups like this. Uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this late-silent film’s rare achievement makes me wonder. A+

Frantz
Genre magpie that he is, I don’t believe Francois Ozon has shown this much restraint in any of his previous work, from Swimming Pool to Potiche; I debate whether this is a positive, for the story, a loose remake of Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby cries out for some melodrama. Still, this is sweet but unsentimental, with gorgeous-not-glossy cinematography (including selective, interesting shifts between black-and-white and color) and period design, but also uncommon kindness and introspection over how people process the aftermath of something as traumatic and life-disruptive as war. B

Loveless
Not as sharp a political allegory as Leviathan, nor does it possess that film’s necessary gallows humor (which might’ve been out of place here, anyway.) However, Zvyagintsev remains a necessary critical voice for his country and the petty squabbles between the two never-should-have-married leads are relatable to an almost uncomfortable degree. It’s bleak, but not unrelentingly so—brief, lyrical touches, like Alexey’s swirling red-and-white ribbon or the unremitting duty of volunteering citizens point towards a humaneness lurking within the director’s rigorous worldview. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
Third viewing and I’m still a little more baffled than seduced (although this time the guitar portions of the score made me swoon.) Here’s the thing: it could use even *more* Aguirre—apart from that immense, justly celebrated opening shot, the film only comes alive whenever Kinski’s glowering mug is onscreen, as if to say, “Well, of course the cameras should be on me! Why would you *dare* look away?” B

The Death of Stalin
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, from the “musical emergency” opening to the slapstick moving-of-the-body to a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child. I may need a second viewing to determine whether this is really of a piece with In The Loop and the best of Veep. Still, Steve Buscemi hasn’t fit so snugly into a role since Ghost World, and that I never even considered him for the Iannucci-verse is just one of many things that keeps this from feeling like a retread. A-

Viva
Notable for actually being shot in Old Havana (a peek into a one-of-a-kind setting) and for its RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy cabaret performances, which alone are essential viewing. The estranged father/son relationship is fine but takes too long to develop into something involving. Apart from the setting/culture, it has nothing on any Almodovar melodrama. C+

Snow White and The Hunstman
Sillier than the Disney version while also taking itself way too seriously. Kristin Stewart looks so uncomfortable that I’m relieved she and Olivier Assayas found each other. D+

Uncle Howard
Howard Brookner was a promising filmmaker who completed three features before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 (days before he would’ve turned 35). Directed by his nephew, Aaron, (whom he strikingly resembles), this is about average for a dead relative documentary, but the breadth of Howard’s unearthed, archival footage is a treasure trove—not just the numerous outtakes from his William Burroughs doc but also his own artful, affecting video diaries. B-

Nathan For You: Finding Frances
Feels less like a supersized television episode (even though technically it is) and more like a made-for-TV movie due to its uncommon seriousness. Nathan Fielder has always attempted a tricky balancing act between sincerity and satire, and he’s never threaded that line so carefully—at least for the first hour, before you’re almost certain he’s picked the former over the latter. Almost. A-

Talk To Her*
First viewing in a decade with almost unreal expectations—always considered this my favorite Almodovar, his mature masterwork. It’s still one of his best, but more challenging than I remember: the first half feels so slow and subdued, even compared to All About My Mother. But its themes of longing and companionship solidify after the scene whose dialogue provides the title, and rarely since has the director constructed such a tender (if twisted) scenario between two men. Also, Geraldine Chaplin is a hoot here. A

Foxtrot
Despite the title-referencing dance step, where one always ends up in the same place where one started, this is continually unpredictable to a degree most other films are not. The extended mid-section swaps the bookending domestic melodrama for David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch light surrealism, but it’s jarring, as if it was dropped in from another movie. This irritated me as I watched, but I admit the imagery (in particular, the sinking cabin, the outsized spotlight and that darn camel) and unusual pacing has stuck with me. B

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Film Journal: February 2018

Mudbound

I’m making an effort to write about every movie I see – an average of 100 words per title, sometimes more, often less. Reviews will appear on Letterboxd as I write them, and then get posted here monthly with starred ratings. Titles with a star next to them are movies I’ve re-watched.

There Will Be Blood*
Still one of my favorite films of the previous decade—revisiting it for the first time in over six years was like returning to a beloved novel, anticipating certain passages, but also feeling the brisk rush of joy in rediscovering others I’d totally forgotten, like the second restaurant scene with Plainview’s exquisite sourpuss expression at first sight of his rivals, or when he discloses more of his soul to Henry than he ever will to anyone else, or even “drrraiiinage!” Paul Thomas Anderson has made three features since—at least two are brilliant, but neither of ‘em sweeps up the viewer’s consciousness and embeds it within a fully realized world as seamlessly this one does. Rating: *****

Into The Inferno
The first Werner Herzog documentary I’ve seen since Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010) (which left me cold, perhaps because I didn’t see it in the intended 3-D format.) Naturally, you get all the opera-and chorale-accompanied staring-into-a-volcano’s-fiery-maw you’d expect, which Herzog renders as both startling and meditative. Even more startling is his undiminished knack for finding and showcasing odd, intriguing personalities, from a positively Owen Wilson-esque paleoanthropologist to volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, who is more friend than foil. Encompassing Indonesia to Iceland, Ethiopia to North Korea, it’s a mirror-image, globe-trotting companion to his great Antarctica film from a decade before in which he just happened to visit a volcano. ****

Mudbound
Much as I’d prefer a Dee Rees film to receive a theatrical release, who knows how buried it could have ended up if it did? Along with Okja, it’s a key title in getting cineastes (myself included) used to the idea that essential cinema isn’t solely available in one. For a narrative about neighboring Mississippi families (one black, one white), after years of post-Civil War settings, the 1940s feels refreshing, particularly in how in sets in motion a change in perception for one black character. The cast, from Garrett Hedlund and Carey Mulligan to a near-unrecognizable Mary J. Blige is excellent, and the multiple narrator device is deftly employed. Rees’ trickiest feat, however, is in her graceful depiction of an unlikely but authentic friendship that develops between two men, which sounds commonplace until you remember how rarely you actually see it onscreen. ****1/2

I, Tonya
I admit to being entertained—how could I dislike an ideally-cast Alison Janney with those ginormous eyeglass frames and live-bird-on-shoulder? And Margot Robbie with her nails-on-chalkboard voice is everything you’d want from a Tonya (even if she’s a tad old for the teen years). And yet, as much as this strives to and at times succeeds in making Harding sympathetic, that it does so at the expense of doing pretty much the same for her abusers is just a bit problematic. The overbearing soundtrack choices and unbecoming pacing (this could’ve easily been 90 minutes long) do the film few favors, either. **1/2

The Insult
As a primer on the decades-long clash between Lebanese Christian nationalists and that country’s Palestinian refugees, this is great, and given the current worldwide refugee crisis, exceedingly timely. As drama, however, despite all good intentions, it comes off a little hackneyed. It believably constructs the initial conflicts that snowball into national turmoil, but the subsequent legal stuff (which includes a twist best kept secret here) sacrifices the film’s realism for soap opera. Still, the idea that words carry consequences is most pertinent right now—has any recent American film explored such a topic with this much depth? ***1/2

Beach Rats
Much has been made of Eliza Hittman’s second feature being directed by a woman, even though the protagonist is a Brooklyn male teen who, when not hanging out at Coney Island with his loutish buddies, visits gay chat sites in private, meeting men he has sex with. Also, he’s trying to date a girl, and his father is in home hospice care for terminal cancer. It’s a lot to unpack, but the beauty of Beach Rats is in Hittman’s direction—she approaches the tale with enough care and generosity as if it were her own, even if it’s obviously not. Her feel for lived-in intimacy and everyday (but potentially transcendent) poetry reminds me a little of Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years); also, she coaxes a stirring lead performance from British (!) actor Harris Dickinson. ****

Lucky
No denying that the late Harry Dean Stanton was a rare breed of actor or that few nonagenarians are as deserving of an end-of-life vehicle than him. And this is full of unforgettable images and moments, from Stanton’s around-the-house wardrobe to his impromptu and utterly moving performance at a child’s birthday party. David Lynch, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt and Ron Livingston are all also in this movie, and despite limited screen time, they each leave just as much an impression. John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo) directs like an actor, which is to say, not all of the story scans as well as it could, nor does it cohere as much as you wish it would. But most actors would be so fortunate to receive such a fine, if a tad romantic farewell. ***1/2

Grizzly Man*
Genuine oddball Timothy Treadwell was the type of figure who could all too easily be made sport of, or, worse, cast in a sentimental light. And though you can’t help but both laugh at and feel for him, Herzog immediately sets the right balance of tone, knowing he has no use for reducing his found subject to cartoon or saint. His narration plays like the most incisive DVD (this is 2005, after all) commentary you’ll ever hear, and his selection from over 100 hours of found footage constructs a sharp but fair critical portrait containing multitudes—the most anyone really deserves, oddballs included. *****

Favorite Films of 2017

1. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Indifferent to much of what I saw this year, this film’s late December arrival felt like a small miracle. Reining in the excesses that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches: Armie Hammer and his alternately swooning and dorky physicality… a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg… the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score… and most of all, Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough may prove as iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. No piece of art is absolutely flawless, but I’d not change a single thing about this beautiful, devastating love story—my favorite new film in at least a decade.

2. FACES PLACES
We’re just lucky at all to get one more major work from the 89-year-old Agnès Varda, but there’s a twist in the form of her co-director: 34-year-old performance artist JR, whose giant portraits plastered onto buildings drive this essay film’s narrative. As the duo travel around France, we see them for the kindred spirits they actually are. Varda charts her friendship with this younger co-conspirator while ruminating on her illustrious past and contemplating her own mortality. It’s this last facet that provides an elegiac undercurrent in step with her affection for both art and the human spirit, and it makes for a fond farewell.

3. PATERSON
Jim Jarmusch appears to have entered his twilight renaissance phase, first with the surprisingly sturdy Only Lovers Left Alive and now with this endearing, understated character study of a bus driver/poet with the same last name as the titular New Jersey city he lives in. Adam Driver has never been more attuned to a director’s sensibilities than Jarmusch’s but don’t overlook the film’s supporting cast: everyone from real find Golshifteh Farahani (as his wife) to William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place!) leaves deep traces that fortify an honest-to-god community. This late-January-in-Boston release proved a touch too quiet for last year’s Oscars, so call it an ideal future cult classic.

4. A QUIET PASSION
With director Terence Davies, you’d expect an unconventional biopic, and with Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, you sure as hell get one—bet you never thought you’d see ol’ Emily impulsively smashing a dinner plate. Still, as he did with Wharton’s prose in his razor sharp adaptation of The House of Mirth, Davies does his subject proud while, with considerable help from Nixon, also humanizing her. They allow this venerated artist to be something of a mess, but an intriguing one, illuminating both her professional and personal struggles, most eloquently in conversations with her sister (a stunning Jennifer Ehle) and Nixon’s daringly agile, all-out performance.

5. PHANTOM THREAD
Yes, the retiring (we’ll see) Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably great (as is Mike Leigh-ster Lesley Manville), Jonny Greenwood may be only second to Mica Levi in innovative modern film scoring and the attention-to-detail, from costuming to period breakfast food is impeccable. And yet, it’s two other unexpected things that launch this into the upper echelon of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. First, the odd confluence of tones he absolutely masters, particularly from the midpoint on. Second, the arresting Vicky Krieps, who is every bit DDL’s equal, her Alma shrewder and smarter than a Hitchcock heroine—expect more great things to come from her.

6. STAYING VERTICAL
Alain Guiraudie’s enigmatic follow-up to Stranger By The Lake follows a drifter (Damien Bonnard, hypnotic in his laconic befuddlement) who stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) It occasionally feels like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, but for all its quirks and unusual left turns, it builds towards a conclusion that’s powerful in its sobriety.

7. GOOD TIME
Wipes away any doubts you ever had about Robert Pattinson as a good actor—in accent, haircut and overall demeanor here, he’s scarcely the Edward he once was, and good on him. But the Safdie Brothers, whose work I’ve admired since their not-mumblecore debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, have also evolved in sensibility and scope, drawing as much from Scorsese as they do from Cassavettes, only making it all their own thing (with ample help from Oneohtrix Point Never’s dense, thrilling score.) A slice of life far more nuanced than the somewhat overrated The Florida Project.

8. THE SHAPE OF WATER
I get that whether you find the fish-man arresting or disgusting is a possible make-or-break in enjoying Guillermo Del Toro’s ambitious spectacle; still, I immediately surrendered myself to all of it—the mid-century period design, the subversion of and alliance to classic Hollywood tropes, the great Richard Jenkins in his finest role since The Visitor, Michael Shannon’s most intense (and that’s saying a lot) villain ever and of course, Sally Hawkins, whom in a less competitive and politically charged year would win all the awards for her lovely turn as a mute cleaning lady consumed and redeemed by love.

9. WONDERSTRUCK
As Todd Haynes films go, I’d rate this below most others, but second-tier Todd is still pretty great, especially in how flawlessly he utilizes the dual structure narrative. Both the 1927 sequences, which pay close-but-not-fawning tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and the 1977 stuff, which nails that particular New York minute far better than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ever did could each make a compelling film on their own. Still, it takes a master like Haynes to convincingly thread them together and an actress like the young Millicent Simmonds to push through all the conceptual stuff to express this tale’s heart.

10. LEMON
I can’t resist squeezing this curious little indie into my top ten. Falling somewhere between Todd Solondz and Quentin Dupieux, director Janicza Bravo’s aesthetic is certainly not for everyone (if anything, Michael Cera’s more deliberately mannered here than he was in Twin Peaks: The Return!) But, you couldn’t ask for a better showcase for Bravo’s husband Brett Gelman, who infuses his schmuck-everyman with a fearless, vanity-deficient gusto. Although it often plays like a series of absurd sketches (family sing-along “A Million Matzo Balls!” is my fave), his continued presence lets it coalesce into something more.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE:

After The Storm
Columbus
Dunkirk
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Lady Bird
Little Boxes
Strange Weather
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

I don’t really need to say anything more about the four titles Oscar-nominated for Best Picture (or I Am Not Your Negro, a Documentary-nominated holdover from last year that opened theatrically in February here.) Strange Weather and Little Boxes (pictured above) are indie festival titles now streaming on Netflix, featuring great performances from Holly Hunter and the late Nelsan Ellis, respectively. Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm is nearly up there with Our Little Sister (if not Still Walking); I hope that Jennifer Kroot’s delightful Maupin doc hits a streaming platform near you in 2018.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story, God’s Own Country, Handsome Devil, The Hero, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Kedi, Nocturama, Okja, The Red Turtle, The Salesman, T2: Trainspotting, Tom of Finland, Wind River, Your Name

25 Favorite 21st Century Films

What Time Is It There?

I usually post a “favorite films of the year so far” list right about now, but in 2017, I’m just not feeling it. Sure, I’ve seen a bunch of good films—A Quiet Passion, Get Out, Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, The Trip to Spain—I’d have no qualms recommending each of them to anyone. But, none are what I’d call “great” like last year’s Cemetery of Splendour or even Gett or Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter from the year before.

So, as I hope 2017 proves particularly backloaded with gems, in lieu of a YTD report, I present my 25 favorite films of the 21st century (so far), like all the cool kids are doing. I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order, along with director and year of release; I’ve also limited myself to one title per director because even I have to admit a Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater-heavy list would look suspect.

You may scan this list and wonder why so many selections are from 2001 or why there’s only four from this decade. Let’s just say 2001, like 1939 was an exceptional year for cinema; and, increasingly, unless something hits me hard right away, I need more time to let it sink in and fully affect my senses, thanks to my ever-more critical eye.

I would happily watch any of these again, anytime, anyplace:

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2005)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

Best Films Since 2000

Y Tu Mama Tambien
Y Tu Mama Tambien

The BBC recently published this poll in which 177 critics submitted their ten favorite films since 2000.  Here’s my own list:

  1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
  2. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
  3. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
  4. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
  5. Yi Yi: A One and A Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
  6. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
  7. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
  8. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
  9. Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
  10. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

If I had been able to submit this ballot, it would not have changed the poll’s results much – its top three titles are on my ballot (including the same number one – yes, Lynch’s Los Angeles dreamscape has finally taken over Wes Anderson’s New York family saga for me) and four of my other selections made the poll’s top 100. I chose Before Sunset over Boyhood because I prefer the former’s deliberately limited scale and tightness, although we’ll see if that holds once I get around to watching the latter again.

As for my three outliers, I’m not surprised at Maddin’s singular “docu-fantasia” or Eimbcke’s ultra-charming micro-indie not making the list, but I am shocked at the decreasing visibility of Cuaron’s breakthrough film. Granted, I haven’t seen it in about a decade now, but at the time, it had a considerable impact on nothing less than how I watch movies. Perhaps, it’s simply been supplanted by Children of Men as the Cuaron film to watch (which I loved, but need to see again).

The problem with any top ten list, of course, is that it’s way too short and constricting. Other movies I considered (in addition to Boyhood): C.R.A.Z.Y., Far From Heaven, Frances Ha, Gosford Park, Holy Motors, Spirited Away, Stories We Tell, Synecdoche, New York.