Film, I think, is the most complete cultural artform of our era, expressing the spirit of our times in monuments to human endeavor worthy of comparison to the great works of art, literature and music from centuries past. I promised myself in 1978, when I finished college with a degree in humanities, that I would track and appreciate the output of the people of my own time, and not continue living mainly in the past. Now, forty years later and in my first year of graduate school, I was a little shook up when a wise confidante warned me that he remembers graduate school as “those five years when I have no knowledge of any popular culture.” Luckily, I had four weeks off for Christmas, and had a chance to catch a few movies. Ok, more than a few.
The list follows, in order from my most to least favorite. There is clearly a theme, which is human suffering, and a perspective, which I think is realism shaded with hope, although disillusion and despair are in there. There are many tales of human effort to overcome suffering, not always going according to plan. Not tragedy, not melodrama, just plain old “shit happens.” I think my own personal aha of 2016 was discovering the inner peace that shows up when I realistically accept my own suffering. I’m learning to embrace its place in the context of my whole life, of other lives, of infinity and eternity, while recognizing on a deep emotional level that these things represent something quite different from emptiness or absurdity.
Embrace of the Serpent (2015, Columbia), dir. Ciro Guerra, with a complete unknown from the local Amazon rain forest village as the young Karamakate, the shaman, and another unbelievable actor as old Karamakate. I woke up in another world, back then, and before that, where everything seemed to mean something completely different from anything I was familiar with. The music and the chanting, not to mention the images, will echo for a long time to come.
Manchester by the Sea (2016), dir. Kenneth Lonegran. Casey Affleck killed it. Beautifully shot and it captured the pace of a slow painful apathetic hopeless life. I really enjoyed the hard realism. Compassion without pathos?
Guernica (2016, Spain), dir. Koldo Serra, w/James D’Arcy: the Spanish Civil War and a lame love story, but it is set in Bilbao and the Basque countryside. And nothing compares with a cast of hundreds dying onscreen. They scream out to eternity, just like in Picasso’s painting of the same horrifying event.
La La Land (2016), w/Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone. Ok, a throwback 50’s style musical, seriously? Technicolor. Jazz. It would not have worked if it had a happy ending. Sublime.
Jackie (2016), w/Natalie Portman as Jacqueline and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Her husband’s dead. There’s blood all over her. Somebody cried “poor casting;” I’ve got a feeling they hadn’t seen the movie. She killed it.
Knight of Cups (2016), dir. Terence Malick, my surreal New Years eve experience. The camera tirelessly trapses after Christian Bale through six hopeless love affairs, searching for meaning in a superficial American landscape. Evocative of timeless truth and beauty, even though the film is as self-indulgent as it’s main character. Cate Blanchett was haunting, and pretty real.
99 Homes (2014), w/Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Garfield was good as evicted homeowner Dennis Nash who crosses over to the dark side in order to survive and provide. Picks you up and runs you through on spin cycle.
Krisha (2015), dir. Trey Edward Shults, w/Krisha Fairchild as Krisha, and Trey Edward Shults as her son, Trey. A (somewhat) recovering middle-aged alcoholic comes home for Thanksgiving. Heartbreaking, totally heartbreaking. You can’t get much more real than this.
The Accountant (2016), w/Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick. I don’t know if you have to be an accountant to love this movie. First action film in 62 years where I did not get bored during the fight scenes.
Boondock Saints (1999), w/Willem Dafoe as a mean police guy. Two athletic Irish catholics kill a lot of criminals in between visits to the priest for encouragement. A genre unto itself.
The Innocents (2016, France), dir. Anne Fontaine. A nurse is having an affair with a doctor in 1945 Poland, trying to get the French soldiers patched up and shipped home, when she runs across a convent full of pregnant nuns who need her help. Despair and redemption.
The Dynamiter (2011), dir. Mathew Gordon. A 14-year old boy become a man in rural Mississippi, and leaves the past behind, in spite of a bad start. Well acted, insightful, moving.
Marguerite (2015, France), dir. Xavier Giannoli, with Catherine Fort. Based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkens, the lady who couldn’t sing but did anyway, with a change of venue and era. Catherine Fort is incomparable, and there is cool Dadaism stuff. Made me think about being totally in the dark about how I appear to other people, and how I handle it when I learn the truth.
Complete Unknown (2016), w/Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon. She left her boyfriend and her life and assumed a new identity during college, and then kept doing that over and over for twenty years. The complete unknown makes me want to do that too, but she is very, very sad.
A Year and Change (2015), Bryan Greenberg as a loser with a heart, and a brother in trouble. Will they make it?
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), with Sam Neill. A treat. It took me beyond here and now and into the heart of some very real characters.
Dixieland (2015), dir. Hank Bedford. Real southerners playing real southerners. Drugs, violence, hope, defeat, redemption, not necessarily in that order.
Faraway, So Close! (1993, Germany), dir. Wim Wenders, with Willem Dafoe, Peter Falk, (German) others. Angels above and around about Berlin. Death and Life, and Life, and Death, etc. Pretty cool, really.
The Wailing (2016, Korea), dir. Hong-jin Na. A bunch of murders and a bunch of real people in a small town, including a memorable police detective, neither endearing nor disdainable.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016), dir. Tim Burton, w/Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson (evil incarnate). Some people live forever, others don’t. In this case it comes at a price – constant uncertainty and fear.
Allied (2016), dir. Robert Zemeckis, w/Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Not as bad as I thought. Ok, it was good. Peter Sarsgaard plays a bad Nazi, but he gets gunned down by our hero and heroine. Brad Pitt’s character dizzies around with a moral compass and his own heart.
The Age of Adaline (2015), Blake Lively as Adaline Bowman, a woman who doesn’t age, with Michael Huisman, Harrison Ford, and Ellen Burstyn. Haunting juxtaposition of then and now, especially since I lived in San Francisco, where it is set, when I was young and carefree and thought I would live forever.
Viktoria (2014, Bulgaria), dir. Maya Vitkova. Bulgaria, communism, an unwanted motherhood, a failed attempt to escape to the West. Futility. The kid is a brat, but nothing lasts forever. Long and poetic with a lot of cool songs and pensive moments.
Louder than Bombs (2015), dir. Joachim Trier, w/Isabelle Hubert, Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg. Gruesome intrapsychic turmoil. Not her best film, but well played. Full of inconvenient truths, mostly about human cruelty, human frailty, and marriage.
The Handmaiden (2016, Korea), dir. Chan-wook Park. Explicit erotica plus history plus good storyline with twists and turns. The bad men get what they deserve.
Little Men (2016), dir. Ira Sachs, with Greg Kinnear and Pauline Garcia. Two boys make friends. Dad is kind of a shit, a second rate actor and trying to be a tough landlord. Pauline Garcia as the other kid’s mom is amazing. The teenage son of Kinnear’s character comes to accept his dad for who he really is and still loves him. Sounds melodramatic but it is adequately underplayed.
Wrong Move (1975, Germany), dir. Wim Wenders, based on a novel by Goethe but in a contemporary setting. The main character Wilhelm leaves home and hooks up, goes here and there, can’t really commit. Moves on and goes on. Flashback to my youth.