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…
Manchester by the Sea / Kenneth Lonergan / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Emotional landscapes; Precise screenplay and editing
Side Effects: Denial of catharsis
With intricate contours and minute detail, Manchester by the Sea charts the emotional wreckage of the past. It’s like a topographical map of pain, a survey of hurt. Each trigger of this pain is catalogued and explored, and its linked reaction is charted across the face and body of Casey Affleck. It can be an agonizing prospect to know pain so intimately, but it’s exactly the kind of reflection Affleck’s down-on-his-luck handyman needs to return to life. And Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) writes and directs this hurt with such exactitude that its surveying feels poignant and necessary. Read more…
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…