Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers offers some perspective.
Posts tagged film
Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers offers some perspective.
Pity film critics that dislike most movies they see, for I enjoyed most pictures I watched throughout 2016. Of course, watching movies in a theatre is one of the things I like best in life, and I have the benefit of choosing what I am likely to like, an attitude that may be criticized as unadventurous, or as choosing to inhabit a cinematic echo chamber, but well — life is too short and Cinema too big for my time to be spent on movies I’m not much sure I’d like. I won’t rank these few movies I particularly liked in 2016, for I think comparing works of art is often like comparing eagles to motorcycles — absurd.
Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! proved that the Texan director is American cinema’s master humanist. Whereas teenage movies often requires the protagonist to be an underdog and sports jocks to be one-dimensional antagonists, in this movie Linklater revels in an earnest admiration of jock-ness and the constant insecurities and competition that come with it. Of course, Adam McKay’s The Big Short, then, seems to throw jocks and underdogs together long after they graduated, presenting Big Finance’s excesses and Finance-jocks comeuppance as entertainment for the proles, but McKay’s film based in Michael Lewis’ investigation succeeds in explaining the 2008 Financial Crisis very very well, even if aided by blunt cinematic devices, which is no ordinary feat. That it didn’t have a political impact is shocking but unfortunately was quite expected.
Of course, jocks’ community does approach meritocracy (that guy did manage to slice the baseball with an axe while others watched), but away from sports that meritocracy is but a practical joke the privileged under neoliberalism inflicted upon the proles. The sick consequences were eloquently presented in Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake, but I found Ken Loach’s film a little bit too straight and tidy. In the same vein I’d favor the messier La Loi du Marché / The Measure of a Man by Stéphane Brizé, which replaces Loach’s tale of martyrdom by a scarier tale of conformity, in which the protagonist ends up accepting a job as guard labor rather than keep on fighting for his rights to the bitter end. Which is worse? Both movies are masterpieces about neoliberal awfulness.
People sometimes push back though, by all means including violence, and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is probably among the finest examples of what might be a justified return of the Western, as the 21st century is shaping to be like the 19th. All the ingredients were there: ghost towns, bank robberies, concealed guns, moral ambiguity — people taking the side of the robbers rather than the banks’, confounding Jeff Bridges excellent sheriff character; only the horses were replaced by automobiles.
There was an oscillation between bleakness and levity in the movies I chose to watch in 2016. The Coens’ Hail, Caesar! was, along with Everybody Wants Some!! perhaps the most fun I had in a theatre all year, even if it relies too heavily in its viewers’ knowledge and fondness for 1950s film. But Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship was also a joy to watch, by the relentless pace and wit of his Jane Austen adaptation. Some movies did marry the bleakness and the levity, though — Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups was both grim and pleasurable, one of the most L.A. movies I remember watching, as if Malick took the entire Bojack Horseman series and made a two-hour movie. And nobody films like Terrence Malick.
A note also about Isabelle Huppert, who shined through 2016, not only starring and making Mia Hansen Love’s Things to Come, but also making Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a probable masterpiece which I’m still deeply perplexed about.
There was also a number of movies I now consider masterpieces I didn’t get to watch until 2016. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is an incredible picaresque set in an isolated town, whereas another picaresque, Whit Stillman’s Barcelona has that quality I admire so much about Stillman’s early work, which is that it feels like watching Peanuts comics with an adult cast. Then I also watched Orson Welles’ F for Fake for the first time, and can’t really believe how long it took. It’s the perfect movie for 2016, a year in which nothing was real, all was fraud, fakery, deceit, and rooms full of mirrors.
(That last one is from Lady from Shangai, actually.)
I would also like to write a few lines about television: I’d say Bojack Horseman was the Best Show on Television (or at least on Netflix), an animated treatise on existentialism unmatched by much of what passes for Serious Cinema.
Halt and Catch Fire has also been one of my very favorite shows after its second season put an end to its early Mad Men, but in the computer industry intentions and allowed it to become its own show — an incredible study of creativity and its conflicts. Mr. Robot, which had a peerless first season in 2015, may had had a very slow start to its second season, marred by the troubles of writing to audiences that, since watching Fight Club, know and expect too! damn! much!, but once the last few episodes get going, delivers what will be one of the greatest twists in television — one that once again sets the bar even higher for Mr. Robot’s next season. In the meantime, Louis C.K. made a break from his great namesake show to sell us his and Steve Buscemi’s Horace and Pete, well worth the price of admission, in what I hope is a new trend of high-quality indie television.
And then there was Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. I can’t really say I was that fond of its third season, finding most episodes revisiting ideas better explored in earlier seasons. But there was Episode #4, San Junipero: with an unrelentless positive vibe, it presented a twist on Black Mirror itself, and it presented a twist on 2016. Overall, perhaps, my favorite moving image piece of the entire year.
Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda is an oldie but goodie. Just earlier I saw this mass of people by a downtown square, all peering into their phones trying to catch Pokémon, like asocial angler fishermen or, if one chooses more terrifying metaphors, like extras in a Black Mirror episode or future Matrix human batteries.
I’m not saying Pokémon Go is a harbinger of the End of Times. Not only there are far better candidates for that, but I also think one shouldn’t actually give a fuck about how others spend their afternoons and choose to enjoy the sunset. Still, I think Pokémon Go highlights just how powerful software developers are and how it’d be perhaps wise to reason about software companies as some kind of Fifth Estate. Just imagine, as I was talking to friends yesterday, if Pokémon Go had some kind of scarcity game mechanic in which rare monsters could only be caught by one player (I actually thought the game worked like that so I wondered aloud why there were no reports of street fights breaking out, among all the news of people crashing into police cars or walking themselves off cliffs).
Thing is, someone may well create such a game. I mean, just watch old concept demos of what became today’s technology, and then look at Microsoft explaining how Augmented Reality assists scientists in exploring Mars, designers in designing motorbikes or dads in playing Minecraft with their kids. And then consider the actual history of the web, from banner ads to ransomware, from Flash to government sites that only work in Internet Explorer 6. And then rewatch Matsuda’s video. Just rewatch it and try to debunk it.
And then ponder whether software should be regulated, like cars or houses or public infrastructure are. Ponder whether such regulation is feasible, or desirable (for it would be the death of general-purpose computer, thus the ultimate authoritarian wet dream). And wonder: are we fucked? Even if we escape authoritarianism, climate change, terrorism, cyberwar (meaning the large scale use of malevolent software)… can we also handle plain ill-considered, misdesigned software?
Here’s a site that does one thing well: personal movie reviews and ratings. Here’s my profile and my favourite part, my movie watching diary. Of course, I’m only interested in keeping a record of my film watching habits at someone else’s site inasmuch as Letterboxd is promising that a public API will be available soon, so I’ll be able to back up my records to my own server — and integrate them in this site’s reviews page.
Since I started writing these film flashbacks, I never had any trouble picking my three favourite films of the year, ranked. Not for 2015, however: a year that had strong movies and a few strong disappointments, but overall felt like an average year as most movies basked in the afterglow of last year’s award season contenders (it must be noted that many of the movies on other 2015 best-of lists will only arrive in Portuguese theatres in a month or so). So, sorted chronologically rather than by rank, here are five of my favourite films of 2015:
Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. No other filmmaker that I know of has Nanni Moretti’s ability to walk such a fine line, making a film in which the protagonist (a filmmaker herself, because Moretti — he writes what he knows) must deal with her mother’s fading health as finds herself with already a lot in her plate (a terrible shoot, a separation, jealousy of her brother, etc) without either giving in to melodrama or to ‘dramatic comedy’. The film doesn’t demand the audience’s tears, but doesn’t give any kind of relief or 'silver lining’. There are no lessons here, only what happens. Mia Madre feels real in a way that very few films do.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights vol. 1, the Restless One (and only volume 1). Gomes’ six hour opus may be the very definition of cinematic ambition: to weave documentary, drama and both literary and popular myth in a movie that is about the impact of this Long Depression in Portugal. Released in three parts, I believe the first part does justice to the whole enterprise. Pity then, that some macro-editing issues show in volume 2, and totally undermine volume 3. Perhaps a truly masterpiece exists in there, as a two-part, 4.5 hour movie.
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. When I went to watch The Force Awakens, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note of all the obvious paralelisms with A New Hope; getting angrier and angrier at said paralelisms after leaving the theatre, realizing I’d been had. When I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note all the things I hadn’t yet seen in such a straight simple action movie before; noticing more and more things as I replayed the movie in my head while leaving the theatre, growing more fond of the movie and realizing I had seen a classic.
J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. Proof that if you film it like The Godfather, even a story about some guy who needs to raise money to finish the purchase of a lot for his trucking company can be truly compelling. There’s a lot to be learned about cinema here.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. Chekhov in Cappadocia makes for a just recipient of the 2014 Palme d'Or.
There were disappointments, of course: I had high hopes for Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, for instance, but it ended far below Baumbach’s previous works (which is still good, but still…). I also felt promising portuguese filmmaker João Salaviza’s first feature Montanha was a dud, a kind of anti-Moretti (shoot about and over-aesthetize what you don’t know). In the pop side of things, Spectre brought back Mediocre Bond (and worse Blofeld), while The Force Awakens was, as I mentioned, the strangest of objects: a film that doesn’t disappoint while you’re watching it for the first time, but infuriates a couple of moments after the credits roll (and apparently I’m not the only one feeling this way — or the opposite).
I watched many other notable films in 2015. Alejandro González Iñarrittú’s Birdman and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash deserved their take during the last award season. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us perhaps the best Thomas Pynchon adaptation film as a medium will ever allow in Inherent Vice — but I still felt such a project was doomed to be slightly unsatisfying from the very start. Each episode of Damián Szifrón’s Relatos Salvajes / Wild Tales is perhaps destined to become a conversation classic (“that film in which the explosives engineer blew up the impound lot”, “that film in which the two guys killed each other in a road rage incident” & etc.), as well as Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (“that film in which a 17th century swedish king entered a present-day pub on horseback”). Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was perhaps the most interesting science fiction film I’ve seen last year, a kind of dark and claustrophobic counterpart to 2014’s Her. Ridley Scott’s The Martian was also a very solid piece of sci-fi and a welcome reminder that Scott can be a great filmmaker when working to preserve a script’s verissimilitude. I found Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation a great action film (from what I’ve seen in 2015, second only to Mad Max), the best M.I. at its fifth instalment, handily beating Spectre at its own game (and am I the only one to notice how weirdly similar — down to locations — both films’ plots are?). Finally, both Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth made the uninteresting — eg. the inner lives of affluent and undecisive expatriates in Switzerland — compelling and engaging. Sorrentino’s more of a baroque (for which some critics won’t ever forgive), of course, but masterful still.
Ushev is the author of the incredible Sleepwalker (trailer) I watched at this year’s Cinanima animation film festival (where Demoni had won an award a few years back): as if Oskar Fishinger’s classic films had art by Joan Miró, but in an effortlessly undated way. Nice.
Douglas Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group team filming a close-up of Sean Young’s eye for Blade Runner.
Despite being yet another much-unneeded sequel, now that it is confirmed that Blade Runner II is happening, I am hoping Denis Villeneuve will be able to pull it off. Sicario was one of the best films I’ve watched all year, but somehow I can’t see the director making that leap, and it’s worrying to see Ridley Scott announcing the opening scene of Blade Runner II will be something that was deleted from the original Blade Runner script — but on the other hand, I’d love to watch a film including some of the things that the original movie didn’t take from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, like mood control, the synthetic animals thing (including Deckard’s envy of his neighbour with the organic horse) or that scene where he is taken to a police station staffed by replicants.
Phew! What a lousy year it was, 2014. After a great 2013 film-wise, either I chose my movie outings poorly, or 2014 had indeed a rather bad crop. I only went to a movie theatre about thirty times, and quite often I just looked at the listings, thought everything was so meh!, and went to do something else instead. There were however, amongst the superhero episodes (which at least create mythologies) and the forgettable dramedies, some good works of art and entertainment in the theatres in 2014. Unlike this critic’s, my picks for 2014 might even be very slightly better than my favourite movies of 2013.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I’m not one to jump on bandwagons and I’m usually suspicious of anything that has the degree of universal acclaim Linklater’s masterpiece achieved. Still, I am hard pressed to find any fault whatsoever with this film (well, maybe except for the use of Coldplay in the soundtrack at the beginning of the film), the result of an incredibly risky project that feels perfectly natural in the body of work of the guy who directed Slacker. In Boyhood, character transformation happens because it just does as time passes, not as a result of plot. Small episodes might have consequences, or might have not. People come into the life of Mason and his family and seem important, and than they’re gone elsewhere. Boyhood almost challenges what is meant by ‘fiction' because even though those are made-up characters played by professional actors acting made-up situations, there's no disbelief in the movie requiring suspension. It's a truthful fiction, showing the extraordinary (as it must be, as we watch it in a movie theatre and find it compelling) in the ordinary.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Without leaving Earth for mythological heights inhabited by aliens and superheroes, Nightcrawler is on the far opposite end of the placid Boyhood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a rabid hungry coyote, perhaps more wolfish than di Caprio’s, perhaps more of a psycho than Bale’s. He is the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, only holding a camera rather than trading financial derivatives.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and back to placid-er plains. Wheareas plot is probably the least important element of my other two picks, Nebraska, while not exactly a tightly-plotted film (leave that to something like Gone Girl), had the most satisfying story I’ve seen in a film all year. It’s veritable literature, coupled with Payne’s humourous deadpan Americana.
Some films of 2014 were genuine disappointments — I would say Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is as vast and as empty as space, while I found Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which I had eagerly awaited since watching the first trailer, more interested with the bodily noises of J.M.W. Turner rather than his art. Still, besides the 2014 Top Three, I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which, like Nightcrawler, I found a great observation of turbo-capitalism, this time as a farce. I also liked Spike Jonze’s Her as a thought experiment about emerging AI; as I wrote previously, even though I found its resolution quite flawed, it’s a film sure to occupy philosophers (and UX designers) in years to come. Another glorious but flawed film I really liked was Ari Folman’s The Congress, which I thought even trippier than Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Considering Boyhood, Steven Knight’s Locke is perhaps the most opposite kind of project one could imagine (just a guy driving his car for ninety minutes), but Tom Hardy does give the defnitive performance of Bluetooth-connected acting. And finally, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which I enjoyed as perhaps the definitive film of a long-missed subgenre, the Michael Douglas thriller (not starring Mr. Douglas).
I should also highlight David O’Russell American Hustle (a giant in the pantheon of cinematic hairdos), Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (no film ever made me want to visit Rome as much), Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (which I actually found manneiristic and lesser Wes, but still, Anderson), Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man (its closing scenes becoming more shocking and poignant as marking the premature end of Philip Seymour Hoffman), João Botelho’s Os Maias (a very lively — and even fun — rendition of the novel dreaded by so many portuguese highschoolers) and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (a refreshingly humourous superhero flick to gorge on popcorn and coke).
Still, there are some interesting movies on the horizon for 2015 that are not Star Wars. And indeed, is there a better way to spend the New Year’s Day hangover than at the movies?