Sunday, January 10, 2016
10:18 AM |
Personal Best: Forty (Actually 44) of My Favorite Films From 2015, Part 3
A film's greatness, I think, largely depends on chance -- no filmmaker goes about his business telling himself, "I am going to make a bad movie" -- but having an acute sensibility that is able to fuse technology and vision is paramount. Read Part 1 (nos. 40-30) and the explanation for my choices here
and Part 2 (nos. 29-20) here
. Let's get on to the third batch of movies that delighted me in 2015...
19. Seymour: An Introduction
(Ethan Hawke, dir.)
The intriguing question that haunts this film by actor and first-time documentary filmmaker Ethan Hawke is this: what happens if you walk away from it all at the height of one's artistic peak? Meet classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, who abandoned his rising career as a concert pianist to retreat to a more modest and very private life as a music educator and composer. We follow him go about his day, and bit by bit, we get life lessons -- all unforced -- about living the authentic life, and the value of keeping the integrity of our art central to our lives. The film unwinds like the finest chamber piece. I've always loved documentaries that follow artists in the pursuit of their creativity; this is a fantastic exploration of that.
18. 45 Years
(Andrew Haigh, dir.) / Grandma
(Paul Weitz, dir.) / I’ll See You in My Dreams
(Brett Haley, dir.)
Here is a trifecta of films that feels linked for me, and grouped together they afford us varying glimpses into the rich emotional landscape of women of a certain age. I could add a fourth, Paolo Sorrentino's audacious if uneven Youth
, which contains a searing cameo by Jane Fonda, but the central performances in that film belong to two old men, so never mind. These three films, however, amply demonstrate the undiminished power of fantastic actresses usually considered past their prime -- and they do so with a subtle measure of heart and wit and beauty. An aching for connection connects the veteran actresses in the three films. In Brett Hartley's I'll See You in My Dreams
, Blythe Danner -- gifted in this film with the starring role largely absent from a long and illustrious career as a character actress -- a longtime widow, very independent (she refuses to live in the same assisted living facility like the rest of her friends) slowly comes to terms with the loneliness that starts engulfing her more fully. In Paul Weitz's Grandma
, a misanthropic poet played by Lily Tomlin, recently left behind by her lesbian lover, takes to the road with her granddaughter in search of money needed for an abortion. And in Andrew Haigh's incandescent 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling grapples with the slowly dawning knowledge that she can never be loved truly by her husband because of a ghost from the past. (I've written more fully about 45 Years here
.) As acting showcases for three beloved actresses, they are sublime.
17. Clouds of Sils Maria
(Olivier Assayas, dir.)
This film has been in the ether for so long, it feels weird to still talk about it in 2016. Oliver Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria
came out in festivals at the same as Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman
but never received proper distribution until 2015 -- and both are practically the same kind of film but made with different sensibilities. Both are about aging actors (Michael Keaton in one, and Juliette Binoche in the other) preparing for plays that promise to redefine their careers, but are unsettled by the ghosts of old roles that defined them in the first place. Assayas' film is the better movie, I think -- it feels like a sturdier study of being human rather than a prolonged technical gimmick, but guess which one had traction? The one about the male actor. Kristen Stewart plays Binoche's assistant and foil -- and reaffirms her mark as a compelling actress beyond the usual and unfair disparagement of her as a one-note actor. (News flash: she's not.)
16. While We’re Young
/ Mistress America
(Noah Baumbach, dir.)
There are three New York filmmakers who best encapsulate the quirky intelligensia of the city that never sleeps -- Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Noah Baumbach. All three are great directors, adept at catching the wit and ennui of big city intellectuals, but 2015 just happened to be more of Baumbach's year. Allen's Irrational Man
was a scatterbrained waste of an effort
, and Whit Stillman's pilot for Amazon Studios, The Cosmopolitans
, never made it past the first episode. But consider the year's output by Baumbach: While We’re Young
and Mistress America
, two films of radically different conceits, are both wonderfully made and wonderfully acted, both trying to answer the ageless question of the restlessness and the diminishing promise of youth of artists in New York.
(Lenny Abrahamson, dir.)
Every thing Jacob Trembley does in Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Emma Donoghue's Room
feels authentic, it is startling. The film itself feels like your regular standard good movie, although much can be admired of Abrahamson's uses of claustrophobic space about this drama about an abducted woman kept hidden by her abductor in a locked shed for ten years, together with the five-year-old kid she bore in her captivity. Brie Larson's Ma is a study of schizophrenic dilemma, but Trembley's Jack goes to town with a searing portrait of a boy who knows no other world except a small room. And that midpoint reunion is calculated to shred you emotionally..
14. The Look of Silence
(Joshua Oppenheimer, dir.)
This is not exactly a sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer's tremendous The Act of Killing
(2014), but it is a continuation of the same exploration of Indonesia's mostly untold genocide of communists and other people in the political opposition in the 1970s. It runs shorter than the former film, but it is arguably the better made of the two. Oppenheimer makes a difficult subject bearable by a use of cinema that's breathtaking, and while you can question the forced metaphors (an ophthalmologist opens the film! to make you "see"!), the painstaking effort at documenting the atrocities and the ghosts that remain is admirable and brave.
13. Night Flight
(Leesong Hee-il, dir.)
I have a grudging admiration for the films of Leesong Hee-il. The Korean filmmaker is unique in the respect that he remains the sole Korean director who's openly gay, and who's adamant in pursuing frank gay story lines in his films. But there has always been a strange and distasteful undercurrent of violence to his body of work -- No Regret
(2006), Break Away
(2010), Going South
(2012), Suddenly, Last Summer
(2012), White Night
(2012) -- which could never be erased by the tenderness that is also present. His characters have to be bloodied, tortured, and maimed before they can ever find a hint of (gay) romance in their lives, and it got me asking: is this a reflection of the annihilating conservatism and homophobia in Korean society? Night Flight
does not differ from Leesong Hee-il's expected treatment of gay characters, but for some reason, this film becomes a flowering of the director's queer sensibilities. Two childhood friends find themselves growing miles apart in high school -- one becomes the ringleader of a band of bullies, the other the hapless friend of another schoolmate who becomes the object of the bullies' ire. Both are openly antagonistic towards each other, but they maintain an undeniable bond they cannot deny. Then secrets from the past are revealed, and the mayhem begins. Also love. This is a painful film to watch, but it's also beautiful, and in its small ways, quite grand.
(Denis Villeneuve, dir.)
I had to watch this film twice to get the full measure of its unbearable greatness. And it is, for that matter, a great film -- the latest in Denis Villeneuve's efforts to follow the desperate turns in desperate times for regular people, with a gimlet-eyed view of that despair finally spiralling to chilling violence. I held my breath watching Incendies
(2013), and Enemy
(2013) -- but I gripped my chair to a pulp while watching Sicario
. We follow Emily Blunt's FBI agent as she gets involved in the hunt for a notoriously violent Mexican drug lord, and the labyrinthine journey she takes is a nightmare of betrayals and bureaucracy. Benecio del Toro has a star-turn here as an asset of dubious motivations, and how he steals the film in the third act proves what an important, and often unsung, actor he has always been.
(Tom McCarthy, dir.)
Tom McCarthy's Spotlight
is a throwback to class films of journalistic procedurals (think All the President's Men
and The Paper
) that no longer gets produced by Hollywood. And while it doesn't deliver much in terms of visual delights, it is an important film of the present because it is fearless in pursuing an important issue: the cover-up by the Catholic Church of the abuses of hundreds of children in the hands of pedophile priests. The cast is a scintillating ensemble (save for Mark Ruffalo's irritating choices in characterisation), and the story is evenly paced, written, and edited that "thrilling" almost becomes the byword to describe the usually boring acts of investigation and writing. This is a film that celebrates the best of what investigative journalism can do, and I loved it.
To be continued...
Labels: documentaries, film, life, list, review
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