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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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2015 Favorite Films

It’s that time of year again when film critics everywhere are publishing lists of their favorite movies from the past year, and I naturally don’t want to miss out on the fun. Looking over my list, I noticed a couple things. First, 2015 was not a great year for Hollywood, but it was a great year for foreign and independent cinema; there were nearly twenty films I would have happily put in my top ten . Second, I don’t think there’s ever been a year when this many of my favorite films all were about strong, compelling female characters. So with my standard disclaimer that these are my favorite films of 2015 that I saw this past year, not necessarily the “best films,” with my second disclaimer that while I made a really good effort to track down all my most anticipated films, it is inevitable that some great work of cinema slipped through the cracks, and with my final disclaimer to please check ratings and content advisories before watching some of these, here are my favorite films of 2015.

 

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

Crimson Peak; Paddington; Slow West; While We’re Young; Ex Machina; Amour Fou; Steve Jobs; The Big Short; Something, Anything; (Dis)honesty – The Truth About Lies; Shaun the Sheep Movie; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation; Everest; Winter Sleep

Honorable Mentions:

20. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer) – A companion piece to 2013’s harrowing The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence interviews surviving family members of those executed during the Indonesian genocide of the ’60’s, exploring human reactions when confronted with unimaginable evil.

19. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) – A journey of a father searching for his daughter who elopes with an army officer, but what he finds in the new world – a land of mythological beauty – is as mysteriously incredible to him as it is to the viewer.

18. La Sapienza (Eugène Green) – When a husband and wife are separated during their vacation, their time apart causes them to reflect on both their indifferent marriage and their careers, as contrasted by the wonderful optimism for life espoused by a young brother and sister whom the couple meets.

17. The Armor of Light (Abigail Disney) – Chronicles the compelling spiritual journey of conservative Evangelical minister Rob Schenck as his efforts to be more pro-life lead him to realize gun violence is a pro-life issue and it is not possible to oppose gun-control and be pro-life.

16. What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi) – A mock documentary in which the filmmakers interview a cult of vampires who live in a sort of fraternity, this is one of the funniest and cleverest films of last year, spoofing both documentary filmmaking techniques and vampire tropes.

Runners-up:

MV5BMjMwOTQ0NTUyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg3NDUxNDE@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_15. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako) – A tragic and moving depiction of how violence and jihadist extremism affects the entire diverse Muslim community of Timbuktu, beautifully connecting the lives of various people in spectacular cinematic fashion. Petty quarrels, loving families, and a peaceful community comprised of many different beliefs are all captured beautifully, only to have the film’s tone change to a soulful lament as it all threatens to fall apart.

 

MV5BMjQxNzM1Njg1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjAxMTg1MzE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_14. Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann) – Almost a horror film in which misdirected fundamentalism tragically ruins the life of a young girl who wants to live her faith literally, but has nowhere to turn for guidance due to the unforgiving rigidity modeled by her mother and the unobservant piety of her parish priest. As the director said, the film is not an attack on faith, but a portrayal of how it is too often misapplied. (full review)

 

MV5BMzE4MDk5NzEyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM4NDA3NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_13. Brooklyn (John Crowley) – There is no other film I saw this year which so effortlessly and so convincingly portrays a time and place since passed. When Eilis (a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) leaves her home in Ireland to start a new job and new life in Brooklyn, the story which follows is a beautifully human drama which unfolds nearly without any conflict, simply portraying the excitement of starting a new chapter of life, the sorrow of homesickness, and the range of emotions which accompany such a time. All the characters are so wonderfully written and portrayed, that I would happily spend at least five hours watching them go about their daily lives.

MV5BMTQ0MzQxODQ0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTQ0NzY4NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_12. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi) – The most striking feature of About Elly is the slow yet continuous crescendo of tension and emotion which results from everyday deceptions that we and the characters easily rationalize as harmless. When a family vacation abruptly goes awry, nothing turns out as we or the characters expect. As with Farhadi’s other recent films, all the characters here may be good people who mean well, but they still give into the human urge to put their own desires ahead of others’, and the conflict of interests inevitably adds to the growing tension. One of the most important aspects is the camera, which places us directly in the midst of the action as another character. Farhadi does not let us observe from a distance, but instead we share the characters’ misfortunes and joys, unable to judge, as we reflect on each new discovery which adds a layer of complexity to what we assumed we knew.

MV5BNTMwODAzMTQ5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDgzNjkwNDE@._V1_SX214_AL_11. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz) – The Elkabetz brother and sister writer/director team have crafted one of the most riveting films of the year, and it takes place entirely in a courtroom. According to Jewish law, only a husband can divorce his wife, although if a wife presents enough evidence, a Rabbinical Court may force the husband to divorce her. Gett details the extremely lengthy process and unjust favoritism which a husband receives when his wife brings forward a request for a divorce. As Viviane Amsalem, Ronit Elkabetz embodies the unwavering determination of a woman determined to leave an emotionally abusive husband, even if he has never done anything legally wrong. The camera perfectly directs our attention to where it belongs, sometimes the speaker, but more often a bystander who sits quietly as others determine what is best for her. Regardless of one’s opinion of divorce, this depiction of the injustice of a society in which a woman’s identity is determined by the men she knows is gripping and sobering.

The Top Ten

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10. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy) – The role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to some aspect of the world, shining a spotlight on its beauty or ugliness. In Spotlight, Tom McCarthy shines an unflinching light on one of the ugliest evils to plague the Catholic Church and the world in the last half-century, the sex abuse scandal, and the praiseworthy efforts of the Boston Globe Spotlight team to expose it. I’m sure many Catholics will flinch at this movie, but there is nothing to fear from the truth, and Spotlight takes a calm balanced approach to a very uncomfortable subject matter. With a stellar cast and script which depicts the tireless efforts of the journalists, the film criticizes not only the Church’s cover-up, but the culture of silence from the Boston legal system and press which unknowingly enabled it. (full review)

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9. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assays) – When the renowned actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked to act in a revival of the play which made her famous, only playing the older woman manipulated by a younger conniving employee (her original character), she initially balks at the idea, still strongly identifying with the eighteen year old character she played over twenty years ago. Despite the best efforts of her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) to get her to identify with the older character, Maria remains adamant and uncomfortable regarding the production. As Val rehearses Maria’s scenes with her, the similarities between the play and their own professional relationship begin to make it unclear where life imitates art and art imitates life. Reinforcing the generational difference of opinions and starkly coming between them is Chloe Grace Moretz’s Jo-Ann, the young scandal-ridden actress who will be taking on Maria’s original role. The final scene between them may be expected, but the way it holds a mirror to Maria’s own fears and attitude towards acting is truly riveting.

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8. Carol (Todd Haynes) – If you’re familiar with Carol, you may be asking what is a lesbian love story doing on a Catholic film critic’s top ten list. Aside from the fact that Carol is technically one of the most brilliant films of the year, it is also a deeply complex and nuanced one, filled with tensions, and it eschews straightforward dramatizations and easy classifications. Therese and Carol (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) are certainly sympathetic characters, but both of them are also self-centered enough that their affair may seem doomed without the conventions of the ’50’s. The film fantastically walks the line between tragedy and romance, avoiding clichés and subtly sprinkling noir-like trappings throughout. The result is a story of two women badly lost amidst their own desires and the roles society expects them to play, neither of which allows them to live honestly with society or with themselves.

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7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) – Of all the revivals of franchises from the ’70’s and ’80’s which were released this year, Mad Max stands head and shoulders above the rest. The series’ original director, George Miller, steps back into the director’s chair as if he never left. The film is primarily comprised of a two hour car chase, and it is the single most thrilling and flawlessly executed car chase I’ve ever seen. Miller perfectly paces the movie with occasional pauses and a natural acceleration to the finale. Along the way he touches on themes of social justice, sexism, and environmentalism, showing how disrespect for one area of creation leads to disrespect in other areas, not dissimilar from Pope Francis’ points in Laudato Si. With Max (Tom Hardy) relegated to a supporting character, the movie belongs to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and as both learn to trust one another, their journey reveals that blaming our enemies for the state of the world is easy, but learning to work with those we despise is a far better way to reach one’s destination.

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6. Man From Reno (Dave Boyle) – Consider this a cross between Chinatown and No Country For Old Men in the style of Japanese pulp fiction. Man from Reno brilliantly utilizes cross-cutting between a gritty “unsolvable” murder that baffles the San Francisco police department and a vacationing Japanese mystery novelist, who finds herself involved in a missing person’s case. The intertwining of the two stories maintains a gradual and perpetual increase of tension, perfectly punctuating that tension with bizarre and unexpected twists along the way. A writer finding herself lost in the type of story that she usually creates is not a novel idea, but the overarching sense of tragedy which stems from her mistaken belief that her writing skills make her a real life detective and director/writer Dave Boyle’s willingness to follow his concept all the way through its unusual and darker elements makes this presentation feel entirely fresh.

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5. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) – The second film from Noah Baumbach and his girlfriend and co-writer Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, may not quite be the masterpiece that their last collaboration Frances Ha is, but it is a delightful screwball comedy nonetheless. As Brooke, Gerwig effortlessly returns to her effervescent screen persona, and this time she whirls through life even more haphazardly than Frances. When she meets Tracy, her step-sister to be played by Lola Kirke, there is an instant bonding between the two. However, Tracy’s infatuation with Brooke and her big-sisterly mentoring is not enough to overlook all of Brooke’s shortcomings, nor is it enough to excuse what Tracy chooses to do. It’s common to see comedies in which one character messes up and must seek forgiveness; Mistress America’s unusual twist on that scenario results in a riotously outlandish climactic set piece that also serves as a thoughtful cross-examination of its characters. (full review)

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4. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad) – The most remarkable thing about Love & Mercy is not the way it avoids every biopic cliché, nor Paul Dano’s pitch perfect performance as the tormented young Brian Wilson, nor even Elizabeth Banks’ wonderful performance as a woman who reaches out to offer love to an injured, scared man whom many would find off-putting. The most remarkable thing about Love & Mercy is the way it seamlessly jumps between two time frames of Brian Wilson’s life and effortlessly ties all those elements together. The life of Brian Wilson – his early fame, desire to do something new, hitting rock bottom, and eventual recovery – is the type of story that would make for a by the numbers “inspirational” and ultimately forgettable film. Love & Mercy is so powerful and memorable because it focuses on the characters, their motivations, and their struggles, leaving the familiar beats of the story we know un-shown. What it does show adds tremendous depth and background, dramatizing Brian Wilson’s story in truly uplifting and mesmerizing fashion.

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3. Phoenix (Christian Petzold) – Phoenix opens with Nelly (Nina Hoss) seeking facial reconstruction surgery after being shot and left for dead in a WWII concentration camp. Her request of the surgeon is that she wants to look exactly the same as she did before the war. However, that’s not possible, and neither is it possible for an identical return to life the way it was before the war, as comforting as that may be. With her appearance altered, Nelly’s main concern is to find her husband and rebuild her life with him, despite her best friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis, which Nelly is confident is a misunderstanding. When she does finally encounter her husband, the unusual journey they take underscores the importance of remembering the past and moving on from it all the while building to one of the most powerful musical finales of the year.

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2. The Assassin (Hou Hsian-Hsien) In seventh century China, a lethal female assassin (Qi Shu) is ordered by her superior to assassinate her cousin in order to preserve peace, and she finds herself increasingly reluctant to carry out her assignment. Her confrontation with her past and family causes her to reevaluate her life and to rethink the best means of achieving peace. Gorgeously shot and edited in such a way that scenes become clear as they unfold, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film about pacifism and war is in some ways the opposite of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Both concern an expert female assassin who reaches a crisis in her life, but whereas Tarantino’s protagonist chooses to use her skills to regain her career and lose her soul, Hou’s film shows how the assassin uses her skills to abandon her career, saving her soul and possibly others’ as well. Even more remarkably, the film’s meditative nature shows how the less-traveled road of non-violence can be even more difficult and require more courage than the path of violence.

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1. Inside Out (Pete Docter) – Pixar released two films this year, and while The Good Dinosaur was an unmitigated disappointment, Inside Out was one of their best and arguably Pete Docter’s best work as well. With wonderfully developed characters, a brilliantly original premise, a vibrantly sketched world, and a heart stopping finale, Inside Out is a film that not only showcases the difficult transitions of growing up, but also the importance and goodness of all our emotions in shaping our personalities and our actions. By creating characters for five principle emotions, and exploring what happens when two of them get lost in long-term memory, the film humorously and touchingly provides a dramatic realization of the ups and downs which affect everyone as they mature. I can think of no other film which would manage to show young children the importance of sadness or how it’s possible to be sad and happy at the same time. Inside Out does just that, and the beautiful mixture of sorrow and joy which it contains has moved me to tears for at least half the film all four times I’ve seen it. (full review)

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Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury Award Winners

The winners are up. I’m proud to have voted in this list, and all my fellow jurors did a great job. All of these films are well worth checking out.

Part 1 (films 10-6)

Part 2 (films 5-1, plus honorable mentions)

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Press Release for the 2015 Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards

The 2015 Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards have a decidedly international flavor. Six of ten films recognized by the Image sponsored discussion forum (http://artsandfaith.com) were foreign-language films.

Perhaps because of that international flavor, this year’s list of films specifically recommended for Christian audiences looked beyond representations of Christianity and included an Israeli film about a Jewish divorce trial, an historical drama set in 7th century China, and three films set in contemporary nation-states ruled by Islam.

Two films looked back on American history, showing the positive impact of the Roman Catholic church on one community and the devastatingly painful impact some of its adherents and administrators had on another.

This marked the second year that an animated film received recognition, with Pixar’s Inside Out receiving a spot on the jury’s shortlist.

The jury expanded from twelve to fifteen members this year. Jury members represented a variety of evangelical press outlets including Christianity Today, Crosswalk, Sojourners, Christ and Pop Culture, and Image. The panel nominated and seconded seventy-nine films that had first-time festival, theatrical, or DVD releases in the last calendar year. Jury awards were then given to the ten eligible films with the highest average score from voting members.

In addition to promoting the Arts & Faith discussion forum, the Ecumenical Jury’s mission is to challenge, expand, or explore what it means to specifically recommend a film for Christian audiences.

The ten finalists are: About Elly, The Assassin, Brooklyn, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Inside Out, The Look of Silence, Love & Mercy, Spotlight, Stations of the Cross, and Timbuktu.

Image Magazine will count down the winners and announce the jurors’ honorable mentions at its “Good Letters” blog. To review last year’s selections, please visit Image Magazine at: http://old.imagejournal.org/page/blog/arts-faith-ecumenical-jury-awards-the-top-ten-films-of-2014.

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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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