Monrovia, Indiana / Frederick Wiseman / 2018 /
Active Ingredients: Rural landscapes; Portrait of everyday life
Side Effects: Lack of a unifying theme or institution
[Monrovia, Indiana plays this month at Boston’s MFA.]
Nearly every year like clockwork, it seems, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman releases another great film examining a particular location, community, or institution. His methods are rigorous and his eye is unerring, making his body of work one of the most consistent and important in American cinema. If you’ve seen Ex Libris or In Jackson Heights, or indeed any of his other nearly 50 feature films, you’re familiar with the way he works, the way he constructs detailed portraits from discrete moments like mosaics. But Wiseman’s new empathetic look at small town Middle America shows that each of his films reveals its own unique insights. Read more…
Ex Libris – The New York Public Library / Frederick Wiseman / 2017 /
Active Ingredients: Incisive editing linking ideas
Side Effects: Occasionally too swift despite runtime
Copyright – The New York Public Library
[Ex Libris – The New York Public Library screens at Boston’s MFA from October 1 to October 18.]
The pace and structure of Frederick Wiseman’s latest in-depth exploration of an American institution will be familiar to those who have seen his recent work, or indeed any of his nearly 50 films in as many years. With patience, curiosity and an unerring sense of rhythm, Ex Libris documents the people that come and go through the New York Public Library’s many branches and outreach efforts, from high-profile speakers to local community organizers, from board members shaping the entity’s mission to workers sorting book returns in the bowels of the library. All are components of the same whole, Wiseman shows us, just as he has with London’s National Gallery, or Berkeley University, or the streets of Jackson Heights. But the familiar pace and structure of Wiseman’s films shouldn’t blind us to his indispensable brilliance. Each of these works are masterpieces of the poetry and politics of the everyday, and Ex Libris is no less incisive and revelatory. Read more…
A Ghost Story / David Lowery / 2017 /
Active Ingredients: Cinematography; Music and sound design
Side Effects: Jarring changes in scope; Monologue
A Ghost Story is a huge step forward in lyricism and stylistic confidence compared to David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a singular work with some moments of haunting beauty and others of metaphysical introspection, even if I did feel at times that it lacked a clarity of vision.
Lowery wrings emotion from the authenticity and naturalism of Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, but the real stars are those strange glints of light you see on walls, or particles of dust illuminated by windows. Read more…
Dunkirk / Christopher Nolan / 2017 /
Active Ingredients: 70mm presentation; Empathy; Scope and pacing
Side Effects: Overuse of music; visual narration
As you might imagine, Dunkirk looks absolutely stunning in its 70mm IMAX presentation. After a stark black opening title, the first image fills the mammoth screen: soldiers walking down a desolate street as menacing fliers drop from the sky, foreshadowing the bombs to come. The sheer scope of the image, along with its startling clarity and depth of color, took my breath away. And indeed, the bulk of Dunkirk was shot in this format, so the raw visual power of the image doesn’t fade and comes to dominate the theatrical experience of the film.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that the images in Dunkirk are more impressive than they are artful. There are beautiful deep blues, dramatic streaks of sun, and inky nighttime blacks, but the inspiration behind the composition of these shots does not shine so brightly. Read more…
Song to Song / Terrence Malick / 2017 /
Active Ingredients: Concentration on character; Elliptical editing
Side Effects: Thematically thinner than most Malick films
There’s a style of image that detractors of Terrence Malick are quick to point out, a sort of critical low-hanging fruit: sun-dappled closeups of hands passing over stalks in a wheat field. Or else women twirling, often in those very same fields. You’ll see variations on this image in The New World and The Tree of Life. They’re all over To the Wonder. Detractors find these images pretentious, I suppose, cheaply beatific and all too earnest. And they become emblematic of Malick’s entire style: unabashedly poetic and unfashionably yearning.
What’s less often pointed out about these kind of images in Malick’s films, is the purpose they serve: to emphasize the sensation of touch. What other filmmaker is so attuned to the specific physical quality of objects in the room? To the warmth of sunlight?
This emphasis on physical touch is particularly important to Malick’s newest film, Song to Song, a film of unusually tenderness. Read more…
I recently shared my Top 20 films of the year, and while people are still talking about that Oscar gaffe (and unfortunately less about the merits of Moonlight) there’s still time to look back at 2016. In this post I’ll name my favorite lead and supporting performances, along with my favorite scenes of the year and “The Year in Miscellaneous Superlatives.”
For some reason I felt a much stronger pull towards many of the supporting performances this year. There was some great, unselfish ensemble acting, so why not begin with the supporting actors?
There were a few key themes I noticed in 2016 in film. First, justifiably, a lot of conversation emerged centered around representation in cinema. Representation is about more than just nominations to an already-dubious awards show. To me it’s about empathy, about listening to unfamiliar voices and considering unfamiliar situation. So while we may talk about representation in Moonlight, let’s not forget the sense of radical inclusion to something like Cameraperson as well.
I also noticed two sides to a similar issue. Blockbuster cinema continues to underwhelm while fresh style continues to emerge from new, confident voices painting on much smaller canvases. Consider Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, a striking debut with more verve and mystery than the entire Marvel oeuvre. And yet, as the critical community sheds some much-deserved light on these new filmmakers, we may have also turned a blind eye to remarkable work from established masters. Maybe in our haste to discover new talent we’ve taken for granted the mastery of someone like Martin Scorsese.
So please enjoy my Top 20 films of 2016 and let me know what you think in the comments.
Honorable Mentions: Mountains May Depart, Hail Caesar, My Golden Days
Regrets: Paterson, Jackie, Julietta, Things to Come
A list of all 2016 releases I’ve seen is available here. Read more…