Some quick thoughts on three 2016 films I recently caught up with. The sensitive, emotional Moonlight and the decidedly non-blockbuster alien film Arrival are both in theaters now. A small indie with lots of style, Krisha, is available on Amazon Prime.
Moonlight / Barry Jenkins / 2016 /
Bracingly, bruisingly intimate. It’s a rare and precious gift in cinema to feel as close to a character as we do to Chiron in Moonlight, the center of this episodic, moody film about a young black man struggling to define himself. We emphasize with his fragility, with as a boy almost too sensitive for this world, and the young performers capture this fragility in a way I’ve never really experienced before. I felt especially connected to Ashton Sanders, the second of three actors to play Chrion, whose slender frame communicates so much rage, hurt and insecurity. Read more…
Seven Samurai / Akira Kurosawa / 1954 /
Active Ingredients: Richness of character and theme; Epic scope; Framing
Side Effects: Some tones might feel unfamiliar to Western audiences
Seven Samurai is a film so rich and prismatic as to belie its simple, elemental narrative. The compelling moral fable advanced by Kurosawa (and copied so relentlessly in Western cinema) is justly remembered, but what’s often overlooked is the geometrically interlocking subplots, the universe of human experience the film establishes and the complex ways those experiences group and interact, reach out and perhaps ultimately fail to truly integrate.
Never has the individual and the group been so richly explored narratively, and compellingly dramatized visually. Again and again, Kurosawa frames exquisite, dynamic compositions emphasizing layers of alignment between characters, either deepened into discrete fields with wide-angle lenses, or flattened into stark juxtaposition by telephoto ones. The facility with which these tableaus are composed and intercut is just one of the film’s many miracles.
The Fits /Anna Rose Holmer / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Tonal balance; Modest scope; Depiction of joy
Side Effects: Mystery surrounding “the fits”
The Fits is a fantastic debut of a new voice and a refreshing sensibility. Co-writer and director Anna Rose Holmer shows remarkable control over the size and scope of the world she depicts—an impress feat for a first-time feature director. She’s content to keep the film modest. “Modest” may feel like a dirty word, but it’s the perfect choice for this wispy breath of a film. Holmer’s vision and execution are perfectly aligned. Read more…
American Honey /Andrea Arnold / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Real people; Small moments of connection
Side Effects: Runtime; Repetitive narrative
With its fringy naturalism, American Honey presents a unique snapshot of contemporary youth and culture, but its impact as pathos and drama will depend on the tolerance of its audience. One woman’s travel of self-discovery could be another’s roadtrip that refuses to end.
British director Andrea Arnold has been known for sensitive, gritty realism (Fish Tank) and stormy emotional turbulence (Wuthering Heights), and though these modes may seem opposed, they combine in American Honey. The film, cast largely with non-professional actors and photographed in real locations around the country, follows a hardscrabble teenaged girl, Star (Sasha Lane) who impulsively joins a gang of other poor, directionless youths to travel the midwest in a van. Their stated goal is to peddle magazines for a shifty impresario (much like an older version of themselves), but work seems secondary to partying, drinking, singing along to hip-hop and socializing in truck stops and seedy motels. Read more…
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience / Terrence Malick / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Childlike wonder; painterly images; poetic inquiry
Side Effects: Truncated feel
Terrence Malick’s paean to existence, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, begins with an incantation, an invitation to its watcher. “Dear Child,” it begins. “Today you’re going to watch a movie that shows the story of the universe. From the birth of stars, to modern cities glowing in the night.”
That the film is explicitly addressed to Child is no accident. Whether it speaks to a literal boy or girl, like the ones we see in the film’s opening minutes; the ever-inquisitive inner child within all of us; or the child of the universe that is every living thing is irrelevant. All are one, all yoked together in the unfathomable miracle of existence. Read more…
Robert Eggers’ striking debut The Witch is still one of the year’s very best films months after its release. With its creepy period specificity and effective tension that never cheats, the film is a bona fide instant horror classic. And October is a perfect time to revisit the film, or check it out for the first time. My original review can be found here, but this spoiler-filled post explores more of The Witch‘s themes of Satanism as an inversion of Christianity, and a perversion of spiritual ecstasy. Read more…
The Godfather / Francis Ford Coppola / 1972 /
Active Ingredients: Duvall and Cazale; Themes of ambition and corruption
Side Effects: Michael’s sudden turn towards the Family
One of the most interesting aspects of The Godfather—whose mammoth reputation threatens to swallow whole a work that is still compelling, alive and occasionally troubling— is its stylistic positioning as a classical work in a modern cinematic landscape. Its nostalgic auburn hues, novelistic scope and stately compositions must have felt nearly old-fashioned in a time of “easy riders and raging bulls.” Read more…