December 11, 2016

Year in review 2016: witches, models, dads, mothers, hopeful aliens


THE 10 BEST 
1 The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015).
A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Lars Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep. And it was even timely in ways no one could have expected: in a year of Satanic child-abuse conspiracies in the basements of pizza restaurants, maybe it’s useful to go back to the source of America’s founding Puritan terrors.


2 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). 
The funniest film of the year is nearly three hours long and German. Peter Simonischek in wigs and false teeth is the disruptive father who acts as a mischievous prankster within the carefully controlled professional life of his daughter (Sandra Huller), a German businesswoman in Romania. The comedy unfolds within the drab non-places of EU commerce: hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, serviced apartments.
3 The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). 
As though Dario Argento and Kenneth Anger had collaborated on a far-too-beautiful horror film about a Los Angeles modelling world that apparently chews women up and spits them out. There are elements of Lynch as well in its Hollywood occult gothic – you might wait for someone to say “this is the girl”, Mulholland Drive-style. Watch this as the second half of a double bill with Terrence Malick’s esoteric LA film Knight of Cups.
4 Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). 
People leaving and arriving, crossing roads, half-hidden, seen through car windows or behind the wheel: this marvellous and subtle Todd Haynes film of a Patricia Highsmith novel both opens up the mystery of romance and lets it remain enigmatic. Haynes’ rock biopics (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Superstar) turned lives into complicated mysteries to be solved or not solved ­the same may apply here.  


5 Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, 2016). 
Just as Haynes adapts Highsmith, Pedro Almodovar adapts Alice Munro and produces his most mature and melancholy film so far. These are stories about estrangement and forgiveness that allow Almodovar to demonstrate once again that he is a subtle master of film narrative who can move effortlessly between different iterations of characters, times and locations. Tendencies towards camp are entirely suppressed.
6 The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015). 
Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams.
7 Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016). 
Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness. 


8 Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016). 
You didn’t make the mistake of thinking Verhoeven had mellowed, did you? This remarkable rape-revenge story, with a mesmerising performance from Isabelle Huppert, is the wildest thing he has made since … we probably have to say Showgirls, but we would rather say Starship Troopers.
9 Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). 
Better than Stranger Things, more intimate than Arrival. This under-rated film is so deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and it contains Michael Shannon’s most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols. Watch in a double bill with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
10 Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015). 
Laurie Anderson’s deeply immersive essay film plays like a complicated dream about death, family and memory. Despite what it is about, and the person it never directly addresses, it feels joyful at times and even hopeful. That rare commodity.
Honourable mentions: Anomalisa, Arrival, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I, Daniel Blake, Knight of Cups, One More Time With Feeling, Paterson, Son of Saul, 10 Cloverfield Lane.


OLDER FILMS 
1 Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
2 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
3 Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
4 Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5 River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)
6 Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)
7 Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
8 Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)
9 Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)
10 Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009)
11 Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010)
12 Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)
13 Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
14 Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
15 Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
Some of these were seen for the first time (Chimes at Midnight at the NZFF) and some were revisited (River’s Edge nearly 30 years after seeing it at probably the Paramount, Wellington).

November 30, 2016

Humiliations


I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). Ken Loach has been so consistent for 50 years that we almost risk taking him for granted or feeling we know what to expect. But still, I, Daniel Blake is very powerful and moving in its plainness and compassion. We see the deep, personal humiliations of austerity; this is almost a culture of humiliation. What Loach does here, and elsewhere, is more European than British: his use of non-professional actors in important roles, his commitment to quiet realism. 

November 29, 2016

Interplanetary ego

My Scientology Movie (John Dower, 2015). Does the cutesy school-project-style title suggest that we all have a Scientology movie in us? But Louis Therouxs version adds little to the groundbreaking work in Going Clear (Lawrence Wrights book and Alex Gibneys film) and other, earlier cult-abuse exposes, opting instead for stunts over scoops. So we watch as Theroux tests the patience of security guards, films people who are filming people, cribs an idea about re-enactments from Joshua Oppenheimer and, ultimately, reveals the limits of his personality-based journalism. (Ethical limits included.) Or could you argue that the empty, hall-of-mirrors self-centeredness in this Scientology movie is a comment of some sort on the churchs intergalactic, celebrity egotism? 

November 28, 2016

Swimming pools in The Neon Demon



Because a film set in Los Angeles should have swimming pools. But no one swims. They have other uses, largely ceremonial. 

November 25, 2016

This is the girl


The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). There is something about esoteric colour symbolism, and all these triangles and prisms, so it makes sense that The Neon Demon is screening (finally!) in the pseudo-Kenneth Anger-ish Alice Cinematheque in Christchurch, with its golden Egyptian kitsch and red walls. Call this The Inauguration of the Americas Next Top Model Pleasure Dome. Deeper and richer than Only God Forgives but less accessible or romantic than Drive, this is a cold, slow, brutal, intensely artful, beautifully shot and uncompromising film  a savage horror riff on beauty, envy and violence that owes much to Anger as well as Argento, Jodorowsky, Dressed to Kill-era De Palma and of course Lynch (I was waiting throughout for someone to say this is the girl). Elle Fanning is pretty wonderful in it but can we also say that we really need to see Keanu Reeves doing more of this? 

November 24, 2016

Washed up


The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, 2016). This has the placeless artificiality that often strikes us in period movies that were filmed here but set elsewhere see also: Sylvia and it may not help that British and Swedish actors play post-WWI Australians, with real Australians in support parts. The material is a fable-like soap opera about grief and love in which nothing fully rings true. Would it have been better if Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) had really loosened his hold on this and let it turn into wild, Gothic melodrama? I think realism was his problem. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are excellent and should be doing the same thing somewhere better; Rachel Weisz is stuck as a crone-like widow, the living spirit of guilt that complicates sunnier romantic stretches. As expected, New Zealand looks good, especially around the picturesque and remote lighthouse at Cape Campbell, which has been hit by the Kaikoura earthquakes since. 

November 21, 2016

Friday night lights



Crucifixion and temptation in Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), where Barbara Hershey was the secret and visible link or direct influence. Boxcar Bertha is lurid and roughly-made, a cheap, fast knock-off of Bonnie and Clyde in which the terrible physical shock of the crucifixion and the bright artlessness of Hershey are the only really memorable elements. It makes sense that these two aspects, a crucifixion now more drawn out and stoically resisted and Hershey as a more mature witness and female hero, were carried over to a very different, very personal project. 

November 12, 2016

Unstuck in time


Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Arrival is a science-fiction film that combines awe and sadness in an unusual way. How often do we see those qualities together? Is it ultimately hopeful too, as some claim? Not sure. The black spaceships hang in the air like bombs that never quite land or giant, inscrutable art objects and the screenplay bites off more than it can chew about big issues like time, grief and language. The very skilled Denis Villeneuve (his Jose Saramago adaptation Enemy is close in feeling to this) aims to give us both a deep emotional experience and a cold cerebral puzzle, as though 2001 had got in a blender with The Tree of Life. It is impressive, especially its sound and visual design, but it feels dark and insular too. 

November 10, 2016

November 7, 2016

Two words for the same thing


Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016). This is the only Marvel film so far that let me forget that it is just a small part in a much larger scheme – that vast, carefully-plotted Marvel universe. Until the two closing credits scenes, at least, which drop us back into Marvel’s mechanical, militaristic version of normal reality. Ignore that. Doctor Strange can stand alone as a surprisingly deep and psychedelic variation on the typical superhero initiation story that owes a little to The Matrix and quite a lot to two Christopher Nolan films (Batman Begins, Inception), and isn’t swamped by an over-complicated, incoherent story. The depth is largely supplied by the actors, for a change. How often have you come out of a Marvel film remembering the performances? But this has Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I can’t think of many times I’ve enjoyed them more. (But I won’t include an unusually limited Mads Mikkelsen in that list, because I can think of many times when I have enjoyed him more.) 

October 29, 2016

Auteur theory, East Coast


Mahana (Lee Tamahori, 2016). It’s been a really good year for Maori cinema – Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Mahana have all come from different directions, and tackle different eras, but all have had confident Maori directors in charge. In the closing seconds of Mahana, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha by screenwriter John Collee and directed with a strong sense of nostalgia and affection by Lee Tamahori, a girl asks teenage Simeon (Akuhata Keefe) to the movies. The story’s tyrannical patriarch is dead and this meeting happens at his tangi (there is a sense of liberation: this tangi rhymes with the gloomy Christian funeral that opens the film). The patriarch had outlawed trips to the movies along with any fraternising with another local family, so this invitation breaches two of his now redundant rules. Who’s in the movie, Simeon asks the girl. Elvis, she says. Who made it, he asks. Don Siegel, she says. Oh, he made Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Simeon replies. Which means the Elvis movie is Flaming Star and the year is about 1961. This outbreak of auteur theory among teenagers on the rural East Coast in the early 1960s might seem unlikely but that hardly matters because it really signals that Simeon is the stand-in for Ihimaera, himself a famous movie-lover and, more broadly, his love of the movies and their escapism and glamour relates to the ways that Simeon, more sensitive than the other boys and young men around him, can see the fantastic, mythical and epic in the everyday, including in his own family history, even though this is an aspect of the material that Tamahori, cleaving closely to a kind of sentimental realism, never fully capitalises on.

October 27, 2016

Across Texas



Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016). This really is a Story with a capital S: a cop on the verge of retirement and his Indian partner chase two brothers with a sentimental reason to rob banks across a raw Texan landscape obviously subject to sharp economic decline. The themes are clear, but the treatment is so soulful, you will forgive any tendencies to feel too literary, too conscious of history and meaning. The minimal screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), the very clear and precise direction is by David Mackenzie (still best known for Young Adam) and all four lead performances are strong. Jeff Bridges even finds naturalism in a character  a grizzled police veteran with rare intuition  that would encourage showboating from almost any other actor. 

October 26, 2016

You want it simpler

The Conjuring 2 (James Wan, 2016). Two films in, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are very good as devoted Christian paranormal-investigating couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, as they bring out a kind of tenderness and dedication, but now I want to see something simpler that focuses on them, their story and their faith, without the generic horror bells and whistles, the regularly timed shocks and the ludicrous Marilyn Manson goth-nun that terrifies Lorraine throughout the sequel. While the art-directed shabbiness of 1970s London sometimes feels overdone, the film is at its best when it sticks closest to the known facts of the so-called Enfield haunting, including the strong possibility of hoaxes. This is the supernatural world in all its murky, smudged, suburban ordinariness (see Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black). 

October 25, 2016

In the corner of the morning


Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015). Three hours in Berlin, in the corner of the morning, that move seamlessly from rave film to crime film to something other. One of the best things about this enormously impressive stunt is that you always believe what happens is possible, which also means it is much more than a stunt. But who was she before and who is she after? Schipper and his writers wisely don’t offer any clues. 

October 8, 2016

I can see the monsters


Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton, 2016). Less camp and straighter than Burton has been for years, which is very good news. There are also interesting ways in which this seems to intersect with both WG Sebald and Austerlitz. Has anyone written more about this? Here, the kindertransport has become a supernatural fable in the hands of a contemporary writer named Ransom Riggs who formed a narrative around strange old photos of children (even the settings seem right: Wales, Belgium). There might be something of the book Haunted Air in that, too. In the story, we keep replaying a loop of time to delay death, and eventually the reassuring supernatural fantasy comes to almost completely obscure the historical tragedy.

September 25, 2016

Basement


The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981). Crude, often incoherent and wildly excessive and repetitive (why do something once if you can do it at least 10 times?), but packed with memorable images that seem to have poured out from an unmediated subconscious of 1970s horror, as though the nastiest parts of Dont Look Now, The Amityville Horror, Dawn of the Dead and The Sentinel (and others I have missed) were somehow spliced together as a series of unheard warnings aimed at a hungry audience that probably left cinemas more shocked and confused than they expected to be. There are basements and windows, and eyes that are constantly at risk of being gouged out or blinded.

September 22, 2016

How lonely does it get?


I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham, 2015). What if an actor cast as someone who was troubled cannot really embody that trouble? What if the highs and lows of a musical career, of a marriage, of an addiction are talked about but are never communicated to us? What if a film named itself after a gospel song that explained the division of the world into dark and light, but the film gave us neither, just a grey in-between state?

September 18, 2016

Storytelling and violence


The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015). Does this take us back to Reservoir Dogs? We have one room like a stage set, a group of strangers with aliases and secrets, backstories and revenge, plus a theme about white male fear of sexual humiliation or rape by black men (Chris Penn’s unrepeatable line about prison to Mr Blonde in Dogs; Samuel L Jackson’s remarkable flashback here). All stories inevitably end in violence, but since at least Kill Bill Tarantino’s films have been bloated with self-indulgence and clumsy attempts to include a female dimension (at its worst in Death Proof). Short answer to the latter problem: never cast Zoe Bell again. Long answer to the first: blame the Weinsteins. 

September 14, 2016

Another world was possible

David Lynch’s Inland Empire
“Extraordinary picture. It’s like standing in front of the most obscure, enormous and odd modern painting and you just connect with it or you don’t. I talked to Laura Dern a couple of days before shooting and I asked her, ‘What’s it about, because he won’t give me a script.’ And she said, ‘Well I’ve been filming for a year and I don’t know what it’s about.'”
Jeremy Irons, interviewed at Indiewire