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2018 Favorite Films

Someone on Twitter quipped (I do not remember who, otherwise I would credit them) that 2017 had a small handful of great films which were better than anything released this year. However, considering films just a small step below that tier, 2018 had a much larger pool to choose from. I found that to be the case myself, with over twenty films I could easily have included in my top ten. This was actually one of the hardest yearend lists I have ever put together, given the lengthy list of very good movies I had to narrow down.

An overused quote by Graham Greene states that films should depict the world both as it is and as it should be. Almost all the films below feature a world broken in one way or another whether by pollution, absent fathers, PTSD from the Iraq War, mental illness, or child abuse. At the same time most of those movies feature some form of beauty and hope, whether it be the bond between a boy and his dog, a girl and her father, or a son singing pop songs with his mom.

I think I made a better effort this year than usual to catch up with as many titles as possible, but some things inevitably slipped through the cracks (Cold War and Blindspotting). If a film is not included, I either didn’t see it or didn’t care for it as much as the thirty-five here.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Lean on Pete, Thoroughbreds, The Rider, Minding the Gap, Roma, Shoplifters, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Death of Stalin, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, 22 July, Shirkers

Honorable Mentions:

20. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) – Jenkins’ third feature film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Alternating between flashbacks of an innocent childhood friendship blossoming into a touching romance and the harsher present day realities of being black in America, Baldwin’s story through Jenkins’ camera is both a witness to injustice and a celebration of love and family.

19. Annihilation (Alex Garland) – Deeply indebted to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Garland’s intoxicatingly beautiful sci-fi film about survival and the quest for the perfect organism takes equally awe-inspiring and terrifying turns as its scientist protagonists confront the alien world of the Shimmer.

18. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami) – Kiarostami’s final film, this beautiful recreation of twenty-four paintings and photographs invites reflection on what happens just outside of the frame, asking us to look beyond what we see in front of us and imagine the stories behind each work of art.

17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) – A love letter to Fred Rogers, a man who saw everyone as his neighbor and used television as a means of living out his Christian faith with as wide an audience as possible.

16. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni) – A debut feature from Nyoni, she poignantly captures the injustice spurred by fear and bigotry when a young African girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and forced to live in a state-sanctioned witch camp. A fantastic performance from Maggie Mulubwa as Shula reminds us of the freedom and joy a child should have in life and the tragedy of that being taken away.

Runners-up:

15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) – The “true story” of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down and out author who takes her agent’s advice to find a new career a little too literally and begins forging letters from deceased celebrities and then selling them to make ends meet. Marielle Heller’s comedy walks the fine line between sympathizing with its unethical protagonists without ever romanticizing or rationalizing their behavior. More pointedly, the film strongly criticizes the greed and superficiality of a society which gives Lee an outlet to use her talents in a criminal way, while acknowledging what a waste of a vocation that is.

14. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) – The second comedic telling of a true story on this list, Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70’s provides not only a brutally hilarious mockery of KKK, but a celebration of Stallworth’s victory over one racist segment of society. At the same time, Lee does not let us forget that racism is still alive and well with deep roots in decades of white entertainment that have been subconsciously absorbed for over a century. Drawing powerful parallels to the current climate, the comedic arc of the film reminds us that racism has been overcome before, and with effort can hopefully be overcome again. (full review)

13. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker) – Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the year, and unquestionably one of the most joyful and fun films of the year, this sequel and prequel to the 2008 musical is not only better than its predecessor but a great standalone film in its own right. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet, in his own top ten write-up, extensively draws from my favorite film of last year, asking what each of his favorite movies loves and pays attention to. The answer for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is: families, forgiveness and reconciliation, friendships, babies, mothers, grandmothers, courageous independent women, exposing and ridiculing sexism, Greece, Cher, singing, dancing, and of course, the music of ABBA. (full review)

12. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Another labor of love, the meticulous detail and craftsmanship from Wes Anderson reveals a love of canines, Japan, the films of Kurosawa, and haiku. It also shows a love of justice and compassion through its fable-like story about how we treat refugees, the sick, and the outcast. For a film which takes place in a world overrun with pollution, in this stop motion world of Wes Anderson, beauty and goodness abound in more ways than imaginable. A haiku:

Garbage everywhere;
We need outcasts to survive.
Green tea and puppies. (full review)

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rotham) – The most inventive and enjoyable superhero film since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly The Incredibles, the multi-verse approach to a Spider-man origin story provides kids of all backgrounds with a superhero they can look up to. Focusing primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to become New York’s only Spider-man, the world building introduces some of the most delightful surprises of any film this year, and the animations pop off the screen recreating the effect of watching moving comic book pages. To borrow a quote from another great animated film: not everyone can be Spider-man, but Spider-man can come from anywhere.

The Top Ten

10. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – After we witness a shocking and brutal murder right as the film opens, it seems like the trial which hangs over most of The Third Murder should be foregone conclusion, especially since this is the culprit’s second murder and he comes across as anything but repentant. However, the truth is far more complicated than it initially appears, as Kore-eda examines the corruption of the Japanese legal system where lawyers care more about an easy explanation than a true one. The title’s meaning isn’t revealed until the film’s end, when it provides a sobering commentary on the destruction of human life, whether it be by a criminal or by the state.

9. The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois) – Like Cuarón’s impressive Roma, The Guardians tells a story of fatherless children in a world torn apart by violence. In this case the violence is WWI, and Beauvois focuses on the ways that life at home away from the front changes as each character does what they believe necessary for survival. That naturally reveals the best of some characters and the worst of others as prejudices are either confirmed or altered. The film’s similarities with Beauvois’ previous feature Of Gods and Men becomes apparent as a more noble path is celebrated by the protagonist’s refusal to return evil for evil, even as the war and its hatred moves closer to her and those she loves.

8. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker) – One of the most brilliant films of the year, Madeline’s Madeline is an unnerving case of life imitating art imitating life. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a typical rebellious teenager seeking her own identity as she works after school with an experimental acting troupe in NYC. Idolizing her fellow actors and reviling her mom, Madeline is naturally vulnerable to being exploited and lashes out at others while trying to pursue her acting vocation. The film’s hypnotic editing underscores the value Madeline rightly places on her work while simultaneously emphasizing she may not be the best judge of who is looking out for her well being. The film makes the importance of vocation clear, while also showing the dangers of putting anything ahead of people as it reminds us that “creating art” is not an excuse for objectifying human beings.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) – A film that puts the gallows in gallows humor—in one scene quite literally—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises six vignettes on the subject of death in the old West. There’s a logical progression to each of the vignettes, from gunslinger to bank robber to traveling showman to prospector to pioneer to bounty hunter. Moving from outlaws to “more respectable” characters, the Coens make clear the one thing that connects everyone is death, as they satirize Western tropes in delightfully and wickedly funny deconstructions. The subversive storytelling invites us to reflect on the nature of our stories while simultaneously reminding us how those stories originated in the first place.

6. First Reformed (Paul Schrader) – This dark night of the soul story has been the darling of most Christian and secular critics for 2018, and the acclaim is richly deserved. A modernized version of Bergman’s Winter Light, with strong influences from Diary of a Country Priest, The Sacrifice, and Taxi Driver, First Reformed is a challenging examination of a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, pastor of a dwindling First Reformed church in upstate New York, pointedly and literally asks, “Can God forgive us,” after being confronted with the catastrophic damage done to the planet by humanmade global warming and the silence of many Christian leaders in response. Despite the scathing critique of a capitalist Church more concerned about prosperity than souls, Schrader is not interested in tolling the death knell for American Christianity, but instead champions the ways which Christian faith can make a difference in the world by standing with the outcast and caring for the least of these, while acknowledging the pain of watching many Christians do the opposite.

5. Paddington 2 (Paul King) – “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it!” That line from Mr. Brown summarizes the winsome charm of both the titular bear and this sequel to his 2014 cinematic adventure. This entry improves on the original in every way with its homages to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, one of the best production numbers of the year, glorious storybook-like production design, and outstanding supporting performances from the entire cast, with especially fabulous work by Hugh Grant. Embodying his Aunt Lucy’s mantra, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington celebrates joy and love wherever they’re found, from the care of his adoptive family to touching the souls of hardened criminals.

4. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – There’s a shot fairly early in You Were Never Really Here when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD Iraq War veteran who now works as an efficient hitman, is worried a kid saw him as he collected his next assignment. After being reassured he’s fine, there’s a shot of the empty doorframe after he leaves. It summarizes both the importance of invisibility in his line of work and his depression telling him it would make no difference in the world if he wasn’t here. A chance to rescue a young girl from a child prostitution ring provides an opportunity for Joe to make the proverbial difference, but depression, trauma, and violence do not wash away that easily, especially in a line of work which feeds upon all three. A sliver of hope is present throughout the film, however, as the relationships between Joe and his mother and the young girl form a contrast to a bleak world.

3. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis) – Given my amicable indifference to most of Denis’ past work, my love for this is as surprising to me as anybody. Featuring a phenomenal performance from Juliette Binoche as an artist desperately searching for a meaningful relationship, often with some of the most toxic men she meets, Denis structures a clear progression to the same place where the film began. Functioning almost as an inversion of the traditional romantic comedy arc, the film reveals the shallowness of genre clichés as it gives all the agency to Binoche’s artist as she learns happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development or progression.

2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) – I described this to a friend as King Lear from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan, retold as a vicious dark comedy. That description is overly simplistic, but it underscores the fine line between comedy and tragedy that The Favourite walks so brilliantly. A speculative, yet not implausible, version of events that led to the shift of power in parliament toward the end of Queen Anne’s reign, games of political intrigue have rarely been portrayed as darkly or caustically as the manipulation and backstabbing here. With Olivia Colman as the monarch, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies competing for her favour, the trio of actresses all give fantastic performances, and the ruthless portrayal of the court’s corruption provides the perfect backdrop to expose the price of vanity and envy. (full review)

1. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – The one film that has stayed with me more than anything else I’ve seen this year is this heart-wrenching tale of survival of a father and a daughter living in the Oregon woods as a means of the father coping with his PTSD from serving in the Iraq War. The inevitable conclusion hangs over the entire film, bookended in the first and last shots. Each time the protagonists depart another home, the pain of broken connections and relationships becomes greater and greater until the final separation demonstrates that humans are meant to leave a trace. Completely devoid of villains, the film is anything but an exercise in tragedy, as it instead celebrates the generosity and compassion of people from diverse walks of life who all want to do their best to help, even as it acknowledges the reality that that help is not always possible.

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2017 Top Ten

Award season is upon us, and it is once again the time of year when film critics share the films that meant the most to them over the previous year, and naturally, I don’t want to miss out on the fun. 2017 was an unusually busy year for me with a move across the country, and a few more films than usual slipped through the cracks – so I delayed posting this by one week to try to catch up on a few more. However, The Breadwinner and Call Me by Your Name are two major films I still need to watch.

2017 was also the year of #metoo, and recognizing the humanity of the downtrodden and those who have been systematically repressed by society for years, and that theme played out in several major films of the past year, including likely best picture nominee The Shape of Water, Anne Hathaway’s ambitious star vehicle Colossal, and the brilliantly unnerving Get Out.

Another major theme of this past year was the idea of questioning our heroes and reexamining what it means to be victorious, which very notably played out in the year’s most anticipated film, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That theme was also prominent in The LEGO Batman Movie as well as Christopher Nolan’s grandiose blockbuster Dunkirk.

Finally, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly blurred the line between cinema and television, but I still believe it should be classified as the latter; otherwise I would just list every episode as the top 18. I jest, but only partially.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

The Greatest Showman, The Wedding Plan, I, Tonya, Mudbound, Baby Driver, Columbus, Wonder Woman, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowtiz Stories (New and Collected), Good Time, Lady Macbeth, The Big Sick, Hunter Gatherer, The Work, Son of Joseph

Honorable Mentions:

20. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczyńska) – A modernized take on The Little Mermaid, setting the classic fairytale in a sleazy nightclub in Soviet Poland. Emphatically not a film for all tastes, this horror/fantasy/musical mashup is an impressive display of light and music capturing the danger and excitement of coming of age in far less than perfect world.

19. The Florida Project (Sean Baker) – Mostly shot from the perspective of six-year-old Moonee, (an outstanding Brooklynn Prince) Sean Baker’s deeply compassionate tale about the cycle of poverty in a Florida housing project just outside of Disneyworld captures the joy and hope common to kids even as it details the injustice of a painfully broken world.

18. A Ghost Story (David Lowery) – A meditation on time, grief, and moving on, the use of a fullscreen aspect ratio boxes the viewer into a world where a deceased husband is forced to watch time unfold in the home where he and his wife had blissfully lived, as he learns to live there as a ghost.

17. Get Out (Jordan Peele) – Both a horror film and a satire, Get Out simultaneously explores the frightening nature of racial relations in America and exposes the shallowness of liberal white people who pretend to be allies while perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

16. The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) – A seemingly simple and normal act of selfishness ends up having unexpected repercussions when an unknown girl ends up dead. Jenny, (Adèle Haenel) a doctor at a local clinic, feels particularly responsible and begins a quest to find the girl’s name so she can be buried in a grave and her family can know what happened to her. This effort to repair some of the damage ends up revealing a much more widespread tragedy of all the ways we fail our societal responsibility to one another.

Runners-up:

15. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve) – An unnecessary sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, but a brilliant one that respectfully builds on the world of the original film without ever trying to surpass it or engage in derivative fan service, the next chapter in the world of replicants takes a simple yet thrilling mystery and explores human nature, memories, and how we treat others in a world where machines and humans are viewed as commodities. The alternate future is as chilling here as it was in the original, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the bleak world menacing and breathtaking.

14. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) – A beautiful and haunting fairytale about giving a voice to the voiceless and repressed, The Shape of Water merges fantasy and civil rights for the least of these in moving and powerful way. Sally Hawkins gives a powerhouse performance as a mute cleaning woman who risks everything she has to help a strange creature from the Amazon whom most of the world rejects as a freak, because she sees someone as broken as she. While a little heavy handed at times, del Toro’s film is nonetheless a splendidly filmed reminder of the value of the most vulnerable in our society. (full review)

13. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) – Arguably Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and unquestionably his most hope-filled, Dunkirk is a celebration of an unorthodox heroism that finds victory in retreat, capture, and loss. Crosscutting effortlessly between three timelines on land, air, and sea, Nolan places the viewer right beside the soldiers and civilians as they all do what they can to survive and to rescue the allied troops from the impending threat of the marching Nazis. Even with big name stars such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, no character stands out as the humanity and value of all the characters is equally important. (full review)

12. The Post (Steven Spielberg) – Thrilling newsroom drama about the importance of freedom of the press and the first amendment, Spielberg takes deadlines and interviews and turns them into life or death stakes that are as riveting as the best actions scenes he has ever directed. He also does not shy away from showing past failures of news outlets and still insists that it is essential they be allowed to do their jobs without censorship. As Katherine Graham, Meryl Streep as phenomenal as the reserved owner of the Washington Post making her way in a male dominated world and proving her small family paper is a major news outlet that won’t be intimidated by any corrupt politicians.

11. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) – Contrary to what many of this film’s detractors have claimed, this is not a film about redemption and how everyone has their own demons and how even the most racist scumbags deep down are good people. This is a film about damnation and how a perfect model for righteous outrage allows herself to become as corrupt, ruthless, and violent as the monstrous racists she claims to despise. Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, initially earns all our sympathy in her quest to protest the injustice of the local police department, but her understandable anger soon erupts out of control as the film escalates into a full-blown Greek tragedy. It’s a painful cautionary tale, but one timelier than ever. (full review)

The Top Ten

10. My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß) – A moving and intimate look at the dynamics of a family across generations and genders and the struggles and expectations that occur when one member wants to move out from the tight-knit unit. As we witness the different ways family members often take one another for granted and the tole that can take, frequently changing dynamics make us reconsider our own preconceptions. Masterful use of long takes with handheld cameras are incredibly effective at making the viewer another member of the family as the film invites us to observe and reflect on the dynamics of how we interact with our own family members.

9. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas) – An intense and beautifully filmed, genre shifting work of art about grief and the ways we deal with it (or don’t). The entire film is basically a MacGuffin, or several, as Maureen (a phenomenal Kristen Stewart) works in Paris as a personal shopper solely for the excuse of staying there to try to communicate with the spirit of her deceased brother. However, until she comes to peace with his passing and the unusual heart condition which also affects her, the materiality of her career, the unnerving mystery she gets caught up in, and the possibility of other supernatural entities haunting her, will be as meaningless and shallow as Hitchcock’s famous trope, which is why Assayas’ brilliantly detailed focus on those seemingly important subplots makes the narrative abandonment of them in favor of something greater all the more potent.

8. The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola) – Meticulously crafted and gorgeously filmed, Sophia Coppola does a fantastic job of letting the tension within an all-girls Southern boarding school slowly simmer into a toxic boil during the Civil War after they invite a stray Union soldier into their domicile. Exploring the notion of Southern hospitality gone awry and human susceptibility to be beguiled by the easiest solution to our problems, the selfish ulterior motives for doing the right thing slowly create cracks in the picturesque world the Southern women have envisioned for themselves. When the third act erupts into full-blown melodrama, Coppola skillfully drives the film all the way to its memorable final shot.

7. mother! (Darren Aronofsky) – A horror film fantasy, a Biblical allegory, a contemporary parable on care for the environment, a feminist tale of the injustices society inflicts upon women, a meditation on the nature of art and the artist’s need to create, Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream is all those things and then some. A nameless artist (Javier Bardem) and his doting wife, the titular mother, (Jennifer Lawrence) live in a sort of Eden removed from society, but when his desire for fame brings an increasingly unpleasant stream of guest to their home, the disregard and contempt they all show for mother’s vocation results in a tale about the purpose of art and its corruption. Featuring some of the most bombastic imagery of the year, Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is truly remarkable. (full review)

6. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu) – “I don’t do things like this,” says the school principal in a conversation with a student’s father. The father, a respected surgeon played by Adrian Titieni, responds that he doesn’t either. And yet, the entire film is about his efforts to do such a deed and his rationalizations for it. After an early tragedy, which he is attempting to rectify, it’s easy to excuse his choices, and nearly everyone in the film does. However, that creates and endless cycle of corruption in a society where good intentions are often the closest thing to actual goodness. This portrait of the consequences of sin at all levels of society is not devoid of hope as the film quietly observes its characters, occasionally offering glimpses of a more noble, if difficult way.

5. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi) – Winner of last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, The Salesman did not receive a wide release until this year, and it is one of Farhadi’s most powerful films yet. The imitation between art and life blurs after two married actors are forced to evacuate their apartment and find themselves dealing with an unexpected tragedy, which results from the previous tenant’s dissolute lifestyle. The different ways the husband and wife respond to that tragedy threatens not only to derail their production of Death of a Salesman but to break apart their marriage as well as the husband’s quest for justice becomes less about his wife and more about his own desire for vengeance. The most remarkable aspect of the film is the way it handles questions of forgiveness, reputation, and healing, reminding us to whom those abilities belong.

4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson) – Easily the most imaginative film of the year, and one of the most downright enjoyable as well, Luc Besson’s comic book adaptation is everything that a sci-fi film should be: fun, action-packed, and visually splendid. Besson’s world building demonstrates the full potential of CGI and 3D technology, taking them to dazzling heights previously unexplored. Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan make an unorthodox but thoroughly enjoyable screen couple, as they join Besson for his wild ride across galaxies and planets, which always takes time to appreciate the incredible creatures and places Besson puts on screen along with the importance of mercy and forgiveness. No film this year unlocked the full potential of digital cinema more powerfully than this. (full review)

3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) – An intimate portrait of the tortured soul of an artist, interspersed with several of her most famous works, Terence Davies’ unusual biopic covers the life of Emily Dickinson from her school days to her death, highlighting her tempestuous but compassionate relationships with her father, sister, brother, and other New England socialites. Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Emily is unquestionably my favorite of the year, and Jennifer Ehle’s turn as her younger sister is wonderful supporting work that enables Nixon to play Emily’s moods off Ehle’s quiet and sympathetic presence. Focusing on Emily’s growing agnosticism, insecurity, and sense of perfectionism, Nixon makes us empathize with a “difficult” character who struggles to fit into the world and uses her poetry as the primary means of communicating the longings of her soul.

2. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) – When high-end London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) takes a foreign waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) into his home with the intention of remaking her into a suitable model for his flawless dresses, the Vertigo style tale of a neurotic man controlling and reworking a doting woman takes a delightfully sinister turn as two self-centered people attempt to prove their love for their obsessions in increasingly demented ways. Paul Thomas Anderson seamlessly – pun intended – weaves Jonny Greenwood’s lush continuous score into the film, creating a sort of fantasy world where Woodcock’s neuroses and desire dictate every action. When the continuous score gives way to traditional cues, that world is shaken, and the new one that replaces it beautifully shows the destructive selfishness which permeates the world of an artist who only lives for his desires.

1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) – I’ve made no secret that Gerwig’s directorial debut is my favorite film of the year. But I have now watched Lady Bird four times, and besides always growing richer with each viewing, the one thing that is truly apparent is that it is first and foremost an act of love. Gerwig’s love for all her characters, for Sacramento, for New York, for mothers, for fathers, for theater, for first boyfriends, for Catholic school, for prom, and for best friends shines through in every scene, every line of dialogue, and every frame. As the headstrong, titular protagonist Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal as she chases her dreams and aspirations through her final year of high school, and the coming of age tale reflects an appreciation for all of life’s ups and downs, and the juxtaposition of successes and failures is a reminder of how life is often a funny and heartwarming combination of both. (full review)

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

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Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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2016 Top Ten

For most of 2016, much like the cycle of depressing news regarding celebrity deaths and politics, cinematic prospects were pretty grim. The quality of films was markedly lower than the last two years, not only for Hollywood, but for foreign and independent cinema as well. Additionally, for much of the year (January-October) the few stand out films were usually about topics such as depression, isolation, or grief. If there were one recurring theme at the movies this year, I would say it was grief.

From the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, to Natalie Portman’s showcase vehicle Jackie, to Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Silence, to the young adult fantasy A Monster Calls, to the riveting sci-fi film Arrival, to the powerful documentary Tower, to Terrence Davies’ poetic Sunset Song, to Terrence Malick’s meditative Knight of Cups, to the disturbing indie thriller The Invitation, and to Will Smith’s acting packed Oscar bait project Collateral Beauty, grief, suffering, loss, and the ways which we deal with those things permeated cinema this year. Even the Oscar frontrunner and throwback to uplifting old school musicals, La La Land, is tinged with themes of loss and regret.

Naturally, there were a few bright, hope filled films such as Whit Stillman’s hilarious Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship and Steven Spielberg’s magical fantasy full of childlike wonder, The BFG.

I’m not equally fond of all the above films. Some of them you will see below; others will not be here. While much of the year I admittedly wondered whether my top ten would look respectable, in the last few months, several great filmmakers came through and delivered powerful, accomplished works of art that challenged and moved me tremendously, showing the power of art to transform and inspire, and I’m happy to share those. Feel free to share your favorite films of 2016 in the comments.

 

Good Films Worth Noting (35-22):

Loving; Sully; The Shallows; Hacksaw Ridge; Queen of Katwe; Kubo and the Two Strings; Little Men; Moonlight;  Doctor Strange; Pete’s Dragon; The BFG; Hail, Caesar!; Elle; Kate Plays Christine

Honorable Mentions:

21. 13th (Ava DuVernay) – This documentary about the mass incarceration and systematic discrimination against African Americans which originated with a loophole in the 13th Amendment is timely and powerful enough that it warrants expanding the honorable mentions by one slot.

20. The Young Messiah (Cyrus Nowrasteh) – As the title says, this thoughtful and meditative film portrays a possible year in the life of the child Jesus as his human nature comes to fully understand his divine nature. (full review)

19. Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood) – Is drone warfare ever permissible and what if anything constitutes an acceptable collateral loss of life? Those questions are at the front of this engrossing drama with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. (full review)

18. Sing Street (John Carney) – Carney’s third musical may be his weakest, but it is still another testament to the power of music to transform lives. This time it’s vulnerable teenage protagonists who start a band, through which we see their desire for the way the world should be while acknowledging the far from perfect way it is.

17. A Monster Calls (J. A. Bayona) – “Stories are wild things” the tagline reads, and 12-year-old Connor learns how true that is as stories from a monster teach him to face the truth that about himself which he’s been denying since his mother’s cancer. (full review)

16. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) – A brilliantly edited, hope filled sci-fi film full of mystery and wonder regarding the appearance of aliens and their pod-like spaceships, the film is a testament to the importance of communication with everyone, especially those we don’t know or with whom we disagree.

Runners-up:

images15. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine) – The first of two films on this list which explore God’s presence in the midst of suffering, The Innocents is about an horrific tragedy that forges an unlikely alliance between an atheist communist nurse and a convent of nuns in post-WWII Poland. The appalling nature of the tragedy results in some nuns losing their faith and others abusing their faith to rationalize equally horrific attempts to rectify the tragedy. However, the misfortunes and the alliance ultimately result in good, as the importance both of the vocation of the nuns and of the work of the nurse is affirmed. (full review)

images414. Right Now, Wrong Then (Sang-soo Hong) – When a famous director visits a Korean city to give a lecture on one of his films, he arrives one day early, and a chance meeting with a fan plays out two different ways. With reversed title cards providing a sort of commentary on those two different ways, the first half showcases a bitter reality marred by manipulation, and the second half contrasts it with a desire to understand and respect one another, even as each character’s fundamental nature remains unchagned. An ingenious use of long takes and still frames creates a meditative point of view, reminiscent of any film director. (full review)

images313. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) – A coming of age/sports/horror/fantasy film about a young girl who regularly works out in the boxing gym with her older brother but wishes to abandon that in order to take up dancing, the deliberate ambiguity of the title overshadows the film as tracking shots follow the young protagonist through a difficult transition of her life in which she desires to fit in with the others while fearing the strange illness which seems to affect them. The film walks the line between straightforward rite-of-passage drama and surrealism until the brilliant finale, which merges both with visual flair while maintaining the ever present ambiguity.

images212. Jackie (Pablo Larraín) – As I said in my review, I fully acknowledge the many flaws in Jackie; however, this raw and messy portrayal of grief about Jackie Kennedy coping with the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination is strangely powerful. Director Pablo Larraín’s constant unconventional cinematic choices along with the non-linear structure and quiet moments of grace make Jackie a riveting, visceral, and deeply humanizing portrayal of the former first lady, helmed by what may be Natalie Portman’s best work of her career, with a strong supporting cast as well. (full review)

images111. Tower (Keith Maitland) – A mostly animated documentary, with bits of historical footage and live interviews used sparingly and powerfully, Tower recreates the first school shooting in the USA via rotoscoping. It is devastating, difficult to watch, and ultimately full of hope. Focusing on the simple acts of heroism and the ways which a community came together to support one another, the film powerfully recreates the 96 minutes of terror, placing the viewer alongside police officers, students, victims, and survivors. Additionally, the near removal of the shooter from the story and the focus on beautiful acts of courage and compassion underscores the ability of art to heal a broken world.

The Top Ten

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10. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) – What do the lives of three separate women have in common? At a first glance, not much, as the three chapters of writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s film chronicle the everyday struggles of four seemingly unrelated women. As those women, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone all give stellar performances as strikingly different characters, but the three short stories which comprise the film highlight the similarities among all of them. As we watch them resolutely deal with work related conflicts, try to live up to others’ expectations, and face subtly ingrained sexism, their common humanity shines through beautifully. Reichardt never fails to challenge the viewer’s expectations and assumptions, and her use of the cold Montana landscape is gorgeous as each segment takes us closer the vast expansive freedom offered by those mountains.

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9. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) – Whit Stillman’s affinity for Jane Austen was made clear in his debut film Metropolitan. With Love & Friendship, he adapts her novella Lady Susan into a joyful and infectiously funny period piece. As Lady Susan Vernon, Kate Beckinsale effortlessly embodies the conceited, manipulative protagonist who has spent so much of her life rationalizing her schemes that she can utter statements like, “Facts are horrid things,” while viewing herself as an innocent victim who’s always in the right. When she moves in with her in-laws to find a husband for her daughter while allowing rumors of her adulterous improprieties to die down, she simultaneously resolves to woo and humiliate her sister-in-law’s brother as revenge against a perceived slight. Lady Susan naturally sees no irony in her actions, and her small echo chamber of devotees (primarily Chloë Sevigny) continually tell her she’s absolutely right, but the genuine love and friendship exhibited by the other characters is a stark contrast to Lady Susan, and Stillman writes and films their interactions at refreshing buoyant pace that is a delight from beginning to end.

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8. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig) – A morbidly offbeat comedy that may not be to everyone’s taste, The Edge of Seventeen exuberates compassion and sympathy for its flawed yet loveable characters. Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is perhaps more of a drama queen than the average high school student, but she has suffered some excruciatingly painful losses, with which she never came to terms. Her feelings of depression and isolation reach a peak when her best (and only) friend begins dating her older brother. As she lashes out at most people in her life, the film refuses to whitewash her mistakes, but it also never abandons portraying her with empathy, especially as personified by her acerbic history teacher (Woody Harrelson). The witty sarcastic banter between the two of them is delightful, and it also conveys an unorthodox way of listening and caring for someone who needs help. (full review)

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7. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) – Hell or High Water demands at least two viewings to fully appreciate all the meticulous craftsmanship that went into it. From the first scene, images are loaded with meaning, as the camera pans over a graffitied protest against the recent bank bailouts while veterans are losing their homes. As a story of injustices about changing times and losing one’s way of life due to corporate policies, not only are Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s bank robbing brothers trying to preserve what they have always known, but so is Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger, who throws himself into this last case of his, partially out of duty and partially as an attempt to put off his looming retirement. The crosscutting is absolutely perfect, whether to contrast the lawmen with the robbers, the brothers with each other, or to build tension for the final robbery and chase. The entire cast makes Taylor Sheridan’s droll dialogue crackle with life and wit, and Sheridan does a brilliant job of shifting our sympathies from character to character, making it so no one is purely a villain or a hero. The result is a nontraditional Western that brilliantly subverts the genre, while acknowledging the tragedy of the cycle of violence instigated by greed and rationalizations.

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6. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda) – A wonderfully gentle and life-like film, Our Little Sister chronicles the ordinary, daily life of three sisters who agree to adopt their younger half-sister when they learn of their father’s death. Even though their father abandoned them years ago to run off with another woman, the sisters cannot deny the bonds of family which extend to thirteen year old Suzu (Suzu Hirose) who has now lost both her parents. As the film shows all four sisters adjusting to a new life together, the compassion, love, and occasional awkwardness displayed make for a truly beautiful work of art that builds to a wonderful climax of forgiveness and grace. Like last year’s Brooklyn, this is the sort of conflict free film about wholesome endearing characters whose lives I would happily follow for five hours, as we glance through a window into a different culture, yet see actions and emotions which unite us all.

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5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook) – Every film critic has a short list of movies that he loves but would recommend to absolutely no one. The Handmaiden is such a film for me. Featuring stellar performances, perfect editing, gorgeous art direction, and entrancing cinematography, the story is so disturbing and graphic that despite my love for the film, I do not recommend it to any casual viewer. When a professional thief recruits a naive assistant (Tae-ri Kim) to help him marry and then institutionalize a rich heiress (Min-hee Kim) so he can steal her fortune, the stage is set for a Hitchcockian thriller with elaborate deceptions and double-crossings; but underneath the sinister scheming, the film’s focus is on the two women, both of whom have been victimized and objectified by more powerful men all their lives. Their relationship at the center of the film serves as powerful catalyst for the women to claim their own identities, which culminates not only in several brilliant plot twists, but also in the destruction of a library of pornography – both a symbolic and literal prison.

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4. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) – This is a film about joy, the joy of Adam Driver playing a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, NJ. The joy of writing love poems about matches, the joy of listening to your wife’s dreams, the joy of a cameo of two actors from one your favorite movies. Jarmusch’s thoroughly delightful film follows a week in the title character’s life, focusing on his daily encounters, beginning with his wife Laura, ending with the local bartender, and punctuated throughout the day by passengers, pedestrians, his English bulldog Marvin, and his melancholic coworker. In his spare time Paterson keeps a notebook that he fills with poems, some of them love poems, others observations about the daily happenings. Naturally some days are better than others, but regardless of what misfortune or blessings Paterson receives, the sun rises and sets every day, and Jarmusch captures both with an optimistic sense of humor and pathos not only for the titular bus driver, but for the oddball characters he encounters as well.

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3. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson) – I confess, when I first heard of Cameraperson, I was skeptical that it would be as good as the raves I had heard. It was better. Compiled purely from unused footage that cameraperson Kirsten Johnson shot for documentaries over her career, the film reveals the secret life of cinematographers. As we watch the scenes that never made it into the finished movies, we see the relationships she forms with each of her subjects, always treating them as people regardless of what decision they are making. We see the spontaneous moments of joy, such as berry picking on the mountains of Bosnia or a Nigerian midwife starting a newborn baby’s heart. We also the see the first hand ability of cinematographers to raise awareness of grave injustices from the Bosnian genocide to the attacks on the World Trade Center to the practices at Guantanamo Bay. Regardless of what Johnson is filming, her attention to detail and capturing truth and beauty all comes through in her brilliant editing that makes the film infinitely watchable.

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2. The Witch (Robert Eggers) – With The Witch, first time feature director and writer Robert Eggers has crafted a modern horror masterpiece that offers no easy answers as it explores the dangers and tragedy of rigid fundamentalism that despairs of the mercy of God. Set in Puritan New England, the film is deeply unsettling in the way it recreates the mentality of the sixteenth century and asks the viewer to accept that worldview along with the fears which motivated the witch trials. When a strictly fundamentalist family is exiled and forced to set up a farm on the edge of the woods, the family’s infant son soon afterward disappears, and the question of whether only a witch or something else in addition is terrorizing the family hangs over the film with brilliant dread and tension. The most horrific aspect of the film is not the presence of the demonic entity, but the destruction of the family though fear, despair, and the misuse of religion, the toll of which is most clearly shown on the eldest daughter, (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose inability to navigate her coming of age adds a powerful sense of tragedy to the horror. (full review)

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1. Silence (Martin Scorsese) – There are few things more endearing to a film critic than a highly anticipated film delivering all that one hoped it would. After reading Endo’s powerful and devastating novel last January, I eagerly waited to see if Scorsese could pull off his long planned adaptation. For the first half of the film, Scorsese’s reverence for the novel was clearly apparent, and his recreation of imperial Japan was beautiful and haunting. During the second half, the best of his filmmaking skills shine through, and the mounting tension in each confrontation between Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and his Japanese inquisitors makes for some of the most compelling cinema of the year. As a portrait of a dark night of the soul, the film treats its central question with solemn dignity, and the climax is every bit as challenging here as it was in the book, reminding us that whatever choice we make when we feel abandoned, God is right there alongside us. (full review)

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Favorite 2015 Discoveries

Not my top ten list, a list of older films I watched for the first time in 2015.

Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/favorite-2015-discoveries-evan-cogswells-list/

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