It is always exciting when a filmmaker comes out of nowhere with a fully formed and distinctively new way of seeing the world. It adds intrigue, and a certain amount of wonder, when that filmmaker is in his 60s. Actually, Eugène Green was a youthful 50-something when he made his first feature in 2001, but it’s his two most recent pictures that have garnered international exposure: La Sapienza, a 2014 look at a married couple against a backdrop of architectural history, and his latest, The Son of Joseph. Green’s style is formal, almost stilted: Characters pose in front of luscious European settings, reciting their lines with sincerity but little melodrama; when the conversation becomes especially intimate, the people speak directly at the camera. Most movies use naturalism as a way of getting to something real. Green goes the opposite direction, with the same goal.
Movie comedy lacks a wild streak. We get funny films occasionally, and certainly there are performers who can get nutsy in short spurts—as Melissa McCarthy’s instant-classic White House press-briefing sketch on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live proved. But the storytelling in most comedies now is tame and tidy, or merely a framework in which comedians can improvise. It’s so rare that a modern comedy takes off in the style of a His Girl Friday or Some Like It Hot, where the story devices accelerate and the whole thing goes aloft in a dizzying and demented trajectory. Silver Linings Playbook is a notable recent example of that kind of glorious madness.
The German film Toni Erdmann, Oscar-nominated in this year’s Best Foreign Language category, is a true wild one. It doesn’t achieve craziness in the rocketing manner of a Hollywood screwball comedy, but by its own slowly zany method.
Public intellectuals,” as a species, once roamed the American airwaves. If you flipped on a talk show in 1963 or 1971, you might easily have heard Norman Mailer or Lillian Hellman or William F. Buckley orating at great length and with enormous erudition on the issues of the day, whether the subject was modern art, baseball, or the Vietnam War. There was the presumption that some people were so learned they could spout off on just about anything and come up with penetrating thoughts.
We’ve pretty well demonized the term “intellectual” in America since then—certainly no political candidate would ever dream of using the word as a self-description.
He is now 68, but in recent years Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t been making films like an old master. His astonishing The Skin I Live In (2011) blended identity politics with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, in a mix that apparently disturbed even his ardent fans (I think it may be one of his greatest films). I’m So Excited (2013) was either too silly or not silly enough in its embrace of zany comedy. But then who wants Almodóvar, once the bad boy of international cinema, to behave like an old master?
Like it or not, Julieta has an unmistakably masterly touch. This is a controlled, sure-handed drama, made so that every scene is in place. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design impeccable. Almodóvar’s expressive use of color is wonderful to watch—he might be making a Technicolor Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s. I wonder if this mastery itself could explain why the movie, strong in many ways, also feels just a bit vacuum-sealed.
There’s a talking dog in Beginners, the 2010 movie that won Christopher Plummer a supporting-actor Oscar. To be precise, the dog speaks in subtitles, which might make the premise easier, or possibly harder, to take. As a general rule I am not opposed to talking-canine scenarios; for instance, the title pet of the cult picture A Boy and His Dog makes a strong argument for the idea. But in Beginners, it was one thing too many in a film that already pushed the boundaries of cuteness.
Its writer/director, Mike Mills, returns with 20th Century Women, a movie with an attractive premise and cast. It’s set in 1979—a cool time to be young, despite what you may have heard—and it puts three distinctive actresses at the forefront of a coming-of-age story.
If Paterson, New Jersey, already seems overblessed with great poets—William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg both laid claim to the place—Jim Jarmusch believes it may have room for one more. In Jarmusch’s Paterson, the bard in question is a bus driver, an agreeable young man who organizes his life according to a timetable. He has to; he’s a bus driver. But he also writes poetry, and periodically we see his poems projected on the screen. They are written in the off minutes of his job, and they have the beguiling lightness of words written in off minutes. Despite the appearance of casualness, we can see that these words are carefully and precisely chosen.
That is of course a description of the peculiar charm of Jarmusch’s own movies, which—from Stranger Than Paradise to his 2013 gem Only Lovers Left Alive—have projected a superbly crafted shagginess. Paterson joins this list, and is one of the most pleasurable movies in recent memory.
If it were more purely about the workplace and less about the homefront, Hidden Figures might have an even stronger case for shining a light on unknown American history. The history in this case surrounds NASA and the lives of three black women who set a new standard for the status of African-Americans in the space program. The three women only occasionally overlap, but we meet them in an outstanding opening scene as they carpool to NASA’s Virginia site in the early 1960s. A minor problem stops the car, which is really no challenge given the mechanically minded women driving it; the ladies bide their time with jokes and easy, confident banter as they tinker with the engine. Then a police cruiser stops by, and the freeze that descends over the scene is immediate. The cop isn’t especially menacing; but these are black women and a white police officer in the Jim Crow South, and that is enough for instant watchfulness.
A terrific moment, which though defused sets the tone for what is to come. Throughout Hidden Figures the reality of being black and female is presented as a struggle that never ends.
While everybody else wonders whether 2016 was the worst year since 1968, or simply the worst year ever, the conversation in the world of cinema has brightened of late. Yes, for much of the movie year, 2016 was declared calamitous. Maybe movies were dead, or maybe were they merely much worse than television. And then (as always) a bushel of terrific, smart, challenging films arrived in the final weeks. From the vantage point of December, cinema looks very much alive.
The biggest disappointment of the movie year was Hollywood itself, and not just because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are calling it quits, devastating as that may be to our lives. The cycle of remakes and sequels was more relentless than ever, and they seemed emptier this year than usual. Of the superhero genre, only Deadpool showed signs of life … by ridiculing the clichés of superhero movies, And it made a lot of money doing so. Meanwhile, a would-be franchise starter, Warcraft, offered more fun than anything on the Marvel slate, but flopped in the U.S., although the international market—crucial to a blockbuster’s success now—saved the day.
It aspires to gossamer and moonbeams, to bygone eras of jazz and black-and-white movies, to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It has scenes of people breaking into song and dance in the middle of dialogue. They used to call these musicals.
How can any movie lover, or any civilized person really, be against La La Land?? Let me try to explain. The idea is swell, and the spirited efforts of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—neither known primarily for song-and-dance prowess, though both have experience in those departments—are, for sure, spirited. There are even moments where the musical-drama format (this isn’t exactly musical-comedy) slips into blissful gear, especially when a rambling nighttime conversation above the lights of Los Angeles morphs into a dance duet that feels truly earned, playing out in a single unbroken take that carries us into the old-fashioned movie paradise that the film is aiming at.
At the heart of Miss Sloane—and a cool heart it is—lies a question. Why does the title character walk out on her lucrative career as one of D.C.’s highest-paid lobbyists to join an underfunded nonprofit in its quixotic attempt at changing some gun laws? The question keeps the movie from falling into the easy do-gooder outline of Erin Brockovich. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, all stiletto-heel precision) might possibly be stirred by a sense of social justice, but she might also just want to win a game that everybody tells her is unwinnable. We’re talking about an alpha female who isn’t content with mere victory—she gives you the impression she also wouldn’t mind hearing the lamentations of women (and men) on the field of battle. It’s crucial to this movie’s crisp watchability that we’re not sure what motivates her battle plan. Maybe battle is just her thing.
The spirit of film noir lives on in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a downward spiral set in contemporary China. In the outline of the classic noir, a person makes one wrong move which sets in motion an inexorable series of disastrous events: Fred MacMurray sells a fishy insurance policy to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Tom Neal picks up a good-looking hitchhiker in Detour. The bitter irony in Old Stone is that this particular spiral is set in motion when a man makes a right move—or at least a generous, unselfish one. His gesture, in trying to save someone’s life, brings down a rain of Biblical calamities.
Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.
A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.
Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case.
Aquarius is large but intimate, political but personal; it’s frank in its ambition to explore The Way We Live Today, but also mysterious and elusive. I’ve seen few films this year more fascinating. The second feature by Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighborhood Sounds), this movie clocks in at a leisurely 142 minutes—some urgent, some curiously relaxed.
We are in Recife, a city of beaches and history. Living in view of the beach is Clara, a writer now in her mid-60s. She comes from a comfortable background and is a widowed cancer survivor, her three children all in adulthood. Clara owns a condo in a gorgeous Art Deco building—the status of which will provide the movie’s backbone.
Clara is played, radiantly, by Sonia Braga, and this is an important part of watching Aquarius.
There are strong, original things in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and there are things that would fit in a cautionary ABC Afterschool Special. Sometimes the film’s style is muscular and striking, and sometimes it’s flat. But Jenkins got one thing right: He really knows how to build. By the time Moonlight reaches its third and final act (it’s explicitly divided into chapters), the film has gained power and a slow, steady momentum. The last few scenes consist of two people sorting out longstanding issues between them—and barely managing to do that—but the suspense is formidable.
We follow one troubled character from childhood to adulthood, so it’s one of those movies with three different actors—all haunting—playing the same role.