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Jared Mobarak’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Written by Jared Mobarak, January 3, 2018 at 8:55 am 

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We pretty much knew last year’s Best Picture Oscars race was coming down to La La Land and Moonlight right after the completion of the Toronto International Film Festival in September. But while there’s something to be said about the strength of films able to ascend to frontrunner position, I can’t help loving the idea of heading into March without a clue as to who might win. Ask ten different critics what their favorite of 2017 is and I’d estimate hearing at least eight unique titles. There’s a level of excitement to this reality that we frankly haven’t had in quite some time. It’s anyone’s game.

Unlike past years where the safe nominees were lacking that sense of out-of-nowhere creativity and pathos beyond tried-and-true molds, 2017’s field is inspiring in its diversity. And those twenty or so films with a real chance at a nomination are legitimately good. I remember there being years where my top ten was devoid of even one true Oscar contender and now I could feasibly see five or more of the following fifteen films making it to the show.

There are seasoned veterans, debuting newcomers, genre flicks, female-led narratives, LGBT-led narratives, women directors, and POC directors all worthy of inclusion. Whether or not the ones that do get honored ultimately reflect this deep talent pool, know that many will stand the test of time as modern classics regardless. Molds are being broken and audiences are gradually embracing the new voices leading the charge. It’s been a true joy to both watch it happen and remain optimistic it will continue from here.

Notable films I sadly missed: Phantom Thread, Foxtrot, Song to Song, My Happy Family, All the Money in the World, God’s Own Country, Loveless

Honorable Mentions

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10. Thelma (Joachim Trier)

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Joachim Trier delivers one of the most startlingly bleak openings in recent memory as Thelma‘s glimpse at difficult revelations yet to come tightens its vice-like grip. While the resulting coming-of-age tale proves supernatural in aesthetic, its resonant look at an adolescent breaking free of prejudiced constraints contains universally authentic themes. Nature and nurture collide as the power of embracing one’s own identity potently defeats the suppression through conformity ideal forced upon them. Whether a result of religion, race, gender, or sexuality, society will imprison psychologically with fear and hate. To realize you’re not the cancer in your own life is to therefore render those prisons into chrysalises and augment your escape with the strength to change the world.

9. Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)

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You may not peg Todd Haynes as a children’s film director—and the box office shows few parents did—but Wonderstruck quickly reveals itself as a perfect vehicle for the auteur. This adaptation of Brian Selznick’s Scholastic book is ultimately a culmination of Haynes’ career with formal eccentricity (two-thirds is a silent film), period aesthetic (half takes place in the 20s and half the 70s), and a stop-motion animated sequence depicting flashbacks. It’s about family and identity, history and “the movies.” Bring your kids to ease them into silent era classics and stay for its parallel, heartfelt (and fantastical) adventures towards independence, inclusion, and closure.

8. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

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Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion spans decades and yet feels less like an Emily Dickinson biopic than a portrait for gallery exhibit. Its series of personal vignettes is accompanied by her poetry, each glimpse packed with emotion, intelligence, and a hint of despair. The visuals are beautiful period reenactment lit with delicate drama, the performances deeply human and complex despite their aristocratic machinations. Davies paints Dickinson with a brush of honesty—a virtue her character holds above all others, a vice turning her coldly pessimistic as the world outside her physical and psychological exile of home becomes ruled by selfishness. And Cynthia Nixon shines with regality, wit, and authenticity, fearlessly portraying this legend’s faults as equally important to her strengths.

7. It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults)

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There’s nothing scarier than mankind’s potential to destroy itself. This is the message behind Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night—an intelligent slow burn of a post-apocalyptic thriller revealing how a high-concept danger lurking outside is never more potent than the monster lying within. Fear makes us unpredictable as survival hardens us beyond repair. You can live knowing death waits because life itself must be stifled to prolong that fate. Hope is therefore a weapon that softens vigilance, dismantles trust, and makes way for an evil we barely hold at bay. Life can become a gift we no longer deserve to keep.

6. Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)

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As gorgeous as any period film, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is also ten times more brutal. Gone are ballroom dances and awkward smiles of growing love because there’s no need to dress up an era of overt patriarchy and human property with romanticism. He provides reality’s harshness instead through the empowerment of a woman wresting back her freedom before inevitably seeing her position as victim corrupted into one of oppressor. It’s a chillingly bold depiction of souls weighed by a system erected by men rather than Gods. Innocence is lost to darkness as an unforgettable performance from Florence Pugh psychologically scars us in its drama like few horror films ever could.

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The Codes of Film Noir in Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s ‘The Man from London’

Written by Jesse Cumming, January 1, 2018 at 2:42 pm 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Upon the release of The Man from London, one might have been hard-pressed to consider Béla Tarr and his co-director Ágnes Hranitzky genre filmmakers beyond the broad designation of “European art house cinema.” While still fitting snugly under that banner (particularly as the first of Tarr/Hranitsky’s films to premiere at the art house mecca that is Cannes), The Man from London marked a more explicit engagement with the codes of film noir — perhaps an obvious turn for filmmakers known for their for their profound darkness of spirit and imagery.

Adapted from George Simonen’s 1934 novel of the same name, itself adapted into films in 1943 and 1947, the film concerns the railway pointsman Maloin. After witnessing a murder from his tower, he retrieves the briefcase full of British pounds that falls into the pier, setting off a series of events involving him, his wife (Tilda Swinton), and his daughter (Erika Bók), as well as the proper culprit (János Derzsi) and an English detective (István Lénárt).

In principle, the pairing of Tarr and noir makes sense — several stylistic and thematic genre tenets were present in Tarr’s oeuvre up to that point, including his signature high-contrast black and white cinematography, femme fatales (Damnation), webs of secrets and treachery (Sátántangó), and mysterious strangers (Werckmeister Harmonies). Money, that classic noir mechanism, remains as a key plot device in The Man from London. Through a driving force in earlier Tarr pictures as well, here the plot mechanics aren’t set forth from a desire to acquire money, but the Dostoyevskian repercussions of what happens after its been acquired. It’s here that one might begin to identify to the film’s potential shortcomings: for a filmmaker whose body of work is so grounded in themes of desperation, the need to reorient and build tension is hobbled when that desperation is diffused early on.

As with Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, Tarr shares a directing credit with his wife and editor, Ágnes Hranitzky, a creative collaboration that continues to be too often discredited and overlooked. Adapting a screenplay from the Simonen’s novel marked the first time since Damnation that the filmmaker hadn’t worked with source material from novelist László Krasznahorkai, though Krasznahorkai was credited as the film’s secondary writer. With familiar contributions by director of photography Fred Keleman and composer Mihaly Vig, whose ghostly score carries the film through several of the extended, expertly choreographed traveling shots, it retains the look and feel of a Tarr effort.

And its locations will be familiar to anyone who has spent time with Tarr’s films: ascetic offices and domestic spaces, damp bars, and rainy alleyways. The variations come in the forms of the exteriors, which recall the foggy ports that would have been familiar to the French poetic realists of the ’30s and ’40s, even though these were shot in Corsica.

If the settings and production produce an uncanny effect when watching The Man from London, it’s doubled through the oft-criticized approach to casting and dubbing. “The shoot took place in our own languages, which was as chaotic as the Tower of Babel,” says Tarr in a DVD extra. The Man from London wasn’t Tarr’s first experience working with foreign performers (German actors Lars Rudolph and Hanna Schygulla were dubbed for their roles in Werckmeister Harmonies) but the maladroit dubbing of Swinton into Hungarian is one of several moments that forestall the immersion Tarr and Hranitzky work to foster. “Just don’t bother with the subs,” says Tarr in that same interview, suggesting the visuals are the films superlative element, a request perhaps more easily followed in films not adapted from plotty noirs.

Case in point: Tarr and Hranitzky’s minimal The Turin Horse, their only feature since The Man from London, and one that had been designated to be the last before Tarr decided to produce new work for his exhibition at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Museum in 2017. The exhibition, which in part offered a retrospective look at the filmmakers’ body of work, provided an opportunity to examine Tarr’s legacy as a whole.

An additional, complex relationship with genre emerges when examining the The Man from London with the distance of a decade: most notably the idea of a “slow cinema” movement, popularized at a cohesive, distinct movement-cum-genre in the late-2000s but retroactively applied to Tarr’s work as well as progenitors, such as Tarr’s statesman Miklós Jancsó. While an outlier in Tarr’s oeuvre, if anything the idiosyncrasies of the awkward (through still-respectable) The Man from London might serve to further reveal and reify such codes of slow or contemplative cinema and its frequent efforts to trouble traditional narrative — whether through documentary impulses or elongated takes. By working outside of his familiar context, the tensions at work in The Man from London  between atmosphere and plot, between realism and impressionism — perhaps reveal the mechanics of the filmmaker, his team, and cinematic realm more clearly than the masterworks. A true mouton noir.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017

Written by The Film Stage, December 30, 2017 at 12:39 pm 

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For our most comprehensive year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2017. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions — those personal lists will be shared in the coming days — and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled. (For the first time ever, our #1 overall pick wasn’t #1 on anyone’s personal list, showing how collective of a choice it truly was.)

It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next. So, without further ado, check out our rundown of 2017 below, our complete year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2018. One can also follow the below list on Letterboxd.

50. Uncertain (Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands)

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Located on the border of Louisiana and Texas, Uncertain (Population: 94) looks like the sort of place dreamed up in a novel, but directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands dig past the town’s quirky surface to find a series of rich and engrossing stories underneath. Profiling three different generations of men (a 21-year-old fighting addiction to gain independence; a middle-aged hunter trying to move on from his dark past; and a 74-year-old widower wanting to live out the twilight of his life in peace) living in town, Uncertain weaves their stories together, highlighting what they have in common while showing how much their place in life influences their own philosophies and attitudes. It’s an effective method that McNicol and Sandilands structure around an environmental crisis involving an invasive weed, a perfect symbol for the struggles these men face in their lives. Uncertain, much like the town itself, went largely unnoticed after its small, self-distributed release earlier this year, but it’s a film well worth seeking out, and the true definition of a hidden gem. – C.J. P.

49. Good Luck (Ben Russell)

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Ben Russell’s latest is an experiential document of contemporary gold mining practices and a transcendental ode to the valiant men who still carry out this arduous, anachronistic and seemingly absurd profession. Traveling from Serbia to Suriname, the film takes occasional detours into the sublime – for instance: to spectate an accordion rendition of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” performed in the deep, dark bowels of the Earth. – Giovanni M.C.

48. The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki)

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What Kiarostami is to the front seats of a car and Bresson is to the prison, so Aki Kaurismäki is to the perennial mid-80s Helsinki; that dark, pastel-colored nowhere where everyone smokes and drinks and wears cheap suits. One of the many interesting things about The Other Side of Hope — a poignantly contemporaneous deadpan comedy, surely among the greatest of his 20-or-so features — is that the auteur plants a Syrian refugee named Khaled (Sherwan Haji) into the center of that backwards world, as if he were a walking anachronism. Hope is as contemporary and vital a film as you’re likely to find in 2017, but it’s also one of the funniest and most classically (not to mention beautifully) cinematic too. – Rory O.

47. In This Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi)

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Occupying a lyrical middle ground between social and magical realism, Sunao Katabuchi’s elegiac anime epic In This Corner of The World meditates on life during World War II-era Japan through the perspective of a young woman on the homefront. This is far from another misrerabilist time capsule, though. Buoyed by a spectacular art style that blends together Chibi-influenced character design, muted watercolor backgrounds, and exhaustive digital details, it’s a hypnotizing film as concerned with mundane routines and idyllic daydreams as the endless daily bombing evacuations. – Michael S.

46. Nathan for You: Finding Frances (Nathan Fielder)

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Wherein an opportunistic — some might cut deeper and just say “sadistic” — TV host uses his mind-bogglingly vast resources to help a friend, thus unwittingly or not (and I really have zero idea) unfurling the fabric of a four-season-long constructed reality. Complete with a song-and-dance number I’ll never forgot, much as I’ve tried. “Well, the years go by.” “They do.” “In the snap of a finger, they go by.” – Nick N.

45. The Untamed (Amat Escalante)

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There’s something dark and wonderful lurking in The Untamed, the brilliant, frightening, hyper-real erotic mystery from the mind of Mexican auteur Amat Escalante, whose Heli ruffled plenty of feathers at Cannes a few years back. Is the 37-year-old merely a provocateur? On the evidence of his latest film, clearly not. The plot (a strange extraterrestrial being that lurks in the woods grants ultimate pleasure) sounds like a schlocky drive-in science fiction flick, but the director heightens things immeasurably by expertly cultivating the visceral, aesthetic nowhere of a drug trip, as if the characters involved (and perhaps the viewer) are participating in some sort of communal high. – Rory O.

44. Raw (Julia Ducournau)

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It’s unfortunate that the marketing for a unique introspective coming of age film focused on the more horrific aspects of Raw. That’s the difficulty of a dark comedic tone that the film takes with appealing to a broader audience. Raw follows a young woman’s journey through veterinarian school in France where she is often lovingly tormented by her older, upperclassmen sister. It’s here where a taste for flesh is awakened in the young vegan and her life starts to spiral as she deals with balancing her burgeoning sex drive, studying, and fitting in along with an omnipresent school that more closely resembles a fortress. It’s a unique film with a lot of heart and a curious sense of humor that shouldn’t be missed this year. – Bill G.

43. Milla (Valérie Massadian)

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What is living a life? If life is a refraction of specific moments and repetition than the beauty of being given a body is in the loop of breath and how it changes as days pass. Valeria Massadian’s Milla is a stunning portrait of the quotidian nature of life and how it gives birth to larger or more staggering moments. In her film we get a sense of who Milla is and how her everyday decisions impact her life, at first a hazy recollection on the timelessness of romance bursts apart when cause and effect bring motherhood, death and music. Cinema as humanity. – Willow M.

42. Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

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Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s last movie, Leviathan, his latest takes headlines for another excoriating look at contemporary Russia and the simmering resentment beneath its imperious, corrupt social structures. True and relevant as that is, it’s not what makes Loveless another masterpiece. The director’s pitiless gaze at the ruinous breakdown of a marriage and the disappearance of a child concerns more with the moral pit of modern humanity, run riot at want of things – sex, money, fashion, power – but not of love. Filmed with icy precision in cold, anonymous Moscow, with some of the year’s best cinematography – by Zvyagintsev regular Mikhail Krichman – the film is upfront, provocative and, in its bitterly satirical testimony of the decay of Russian cultural life, according to some critics blunt. But it’s in that vein that Zvyagintsev so powerfully confronts the domestic terror of the central missing-child drama. Really, Loveless is the great horror film of the year. – Ed F.

41. Western (Valeska Grisebach)

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Valeska Grisebach’s Western is this year’s Toni Erdmann. Both are third features by alumnae of the so-called, ever-fruitful Berlin School, both were snubbed by their respective Cannes juries despite easily outclassing most of the films they were up against, and both have emerged as year-end critical favorites across the globe. Oh yeah, one more parallel: they are both knock-out feats of filmmaking that will reignite your faith in cinema. – Giovanni M.C.

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The Best Performances of 2017

Written by The Film Stage, December 29, 2017 at 11:27 am 

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Around this time of year we usually post our breakthrough performances of the past twelve months, but looking at a preliminary list, we realized just about every selection could also contend for being one of the best performances of 2017, period. So, we expanded our usual count and today we present the 35 best performances in what is more strictly defined as cinema (sorry in advance, Kyle MacLachlan and the rest of the Twin Peaks cast.). Check out our selections below and let us know your favorites in the comments.

35. Ahn Seo-Hyun (Okja)

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A contender for the best ensemble of the year, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja features a can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing hilarious Jake Gyllenhaal, another twintastic turn by Tilda Swinton, the cheekily liberal activist group made up of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins, and more. The buoyant, beating heart that ties them all together is newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays Mija, a South Korea farmgirl that takes a globe-trotting journey to save her super pig. Bong’s wildly entertaining tonal shifts might have proven unwieldily if Ahn’s grounded, emotionally-piercing connection with the titular character didn’t burst through every frame. – Jordan R.

34. Jennifer Lawrence (mother!)

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Playing a symbol isn’t easy, and yet in a movie that’s nothing but filled with metaphors Jennifer Lawrence grounds the toughest one of all in her most nuanced performance to date. The unnamed character she plays in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is everything at once: Mother Nature, the perfect wife, a representation of the Virgin Mary, a passive aggressive host, the muse, the heart. But in a world built by men and for men, she’s also nothing. Watching her go from young bride mode into full on Medea is to watch the transformation of an actor who doesn’t always get her due credit. Sure, she’s won every award out there, but she is often praised for being a star more than an actor. In mother! she relies on her incredible instincts; her big J. Law laugh completely absent, she does magic with her eyes, a change of tone in a line reading, the tossing of a lighter. Even though her character is unsure as to what awaits her at every turn, the actor playing her is completely in control. She sets the screen on fire. Pun completely intended. – Jose S.

33. Hiroshi Abe (After the Storm)

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Yôko Maki’s mournful line, “This isn’t how it was supposed to turn out,” is the most potent encapsulation of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s unexpectedly harrowing and expertly rendered family drama, After the Storm. But it’s lead Hiroshi Abe’s shambling and frustratingly human performance as a sludgy gumshoe/errant father Ryôta Shinoda, who leaves the most lingering impression. A vapor of a man who hasn’t and may never find his place in the world, Abe and Kor-eda together conjure one of the most bittersweet and fully realized losers of the year. – Michael S.

32. Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats)

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The East London-born actor Harris Dickinson convincingly sports a Brooklyn accent, as well as the emotion impenetrability as formed by societal norms, in his break-out role in Beach Rats. His restrained blankness as he cruises never turns into physical delight, which renders accurate for a man who still inflicted with repression. – Jordan R.

31. Jason Mitchell (Mudbound)

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Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a film both enamored with and disgusted by American’s obsession with legacies – whether it’s the country’s deep-seated racial toxicity or the cycle of fathers and sons who die working for an empire of dirt. With its criss-crossing timelines, and perspectives, Rees builds a version of the Delta that feels both poetic in its potential and completely hollow in practice. But it’s Jason Mitchell’s radiantly idealistic Ronsel Jackson, who imbues the film with a emotional reality. A soldier suffering silently from PTSD, and trapped in a world where he’s unappreciated, Mitchell’s character and his elegiac performance repeatedly magnify the film’s interests from hundreds of years of family history to single individuals in the here and now. – Michael S.

30. Lois Smith (Marjorie Prime)

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Smith plays two roles in this film — first a woman with dementia, and then later a holographic projection of the same woman. Since the projection is working with incomplete information on the woman’s life, it often appears more like a dementia patient than a self-assured individual. It acts calm and confident, even as it adjusts to incorporate new “memories” on what “she” is supposed to be like, from the smallest habit to the greatest revelation of tragedy. In both roles, Smith is a reactor. As the mentally adrift Marjorie, she seizes onto whatever stimulus plants her back firmly on the ground of her identity, whether it’s something from the past or present. As Marjorie Prime, she is not a person but a physical (or, well, visual) embodiment of the past hanging over her family, their interactions with her making concrete the mental exercises we play when considering our pasts and what we have said, would say, or wish we would or could or could have said to our loved ones. – Dan S.

29. Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread)

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The casting of Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread led some to believe Paul Thomas Anderson might be taking on a sprawling, character-filled Mike Leigh-esque look on London society, with a touch of inspiration from his mentor Robert Altman. However, his latest film quickly reveals itself to be a chamber drama (or comedy) and a more minor, but no less integral part of the three-way triangle is Manville’s Cyril Woodcock. Sister to Day-Lewis’ Reynolds, through no more than a few words and a penetrating glare, the true relational hierarchy reveals itself in cunning ways thanks to Manville’s icy cool. – Jordan R.

28. Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories)

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Adam Sandler has already proved himself as a dramatic actor in works such as Punch-Drunk Love, but his turn in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is absolutely wonderful, largely because of its unassuming nature. As a father of a daughter about to enter college, he shines with a genuine sense of intimacy and lightness, which only makes his conflicts with and resentment of his own pompous father and distant brother more resonant. – Ryan S.

27. Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner)

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Scripted by Miguel Arteta collaborator Mike White, Beatriz at Dinner is not so much a comedy of manners, but a drama of classism with seemingly polite degradation turning into something more menacing. Salma Hayek weathers it all in one of her better performances in some time, providing a genuine horror and fury as the various atrocities of her foe come to light. – Jordan R.

26. Teresa Palmer (Berlin Syndrome)

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Teresa Palmer, with her sullen eyes, gives a miraculous performance in Berlin Syndrome, weaving between a layered emotional spectrum of outright physical hostility to veiled acceptance in hopes for an escape. Often unable to articulate the horrors of the situation, her subtle glances and gestures speak volumes to her determination for freedom by any means necessary. It’s no easy task for an actor to give range when inflicted by dominating hideousness for nearly two hours, but Palmer is thoroughly mesmerizing in conveying both her emotional and physical pain. – Jordan R.

25. Jessie Pinnick (Princess Cyd)

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Stephen Cone’s protagonists are often defined by an inquisitiveness, whether it pertains to faith, sexuality or maturation in general. In Princess Cyd, Jessica Pinnick captivatingly embodies these concern as her Cyd is the ying to the yang of her aunt Miranda, played by Rebecca Spence in an equally great performance. As the two delicately spar during a warm Chicago summer, Cone has carefully crafted another world bursting with humanity that any viewer would want to live in. – Jordan R.

24. Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)

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The subtle genius of Willem Dafoe’s performance in The Florida Project is precisely what he doesn’t bring to it. Known for his rather exuberantly theatrical characters throughout his varied career, Sean Baker understood that no one on screen could match the energy of his young ensemble. Rather, hotel manager Bobby Hicks is an upright character figure defined by exhaustion. He’s certainly not the best in the world at his job, but he does his duties–including being a de facto parental figure–with a determination and open-heartedness that is impossible not to conjure sympathy with any viewer. – Jordan R.

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‘There Will Be Blood’ and the Poetry of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Elegant Magnum Opus

Written by Eli F., December 28, 2017 at 8:14 pm 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Paul Thomas Anderson is, at heart, a poet. While firmly on the side of traditional narrative cinema, his films have always favored aesthetic and textual lyricism over purely prosaic storytelling, even the masterfully precise prose of professed heroes such as Huston and Kubrick. Anderson is inclined to rhyme, to paint images and movements from his rawest expressive impulses. What this, often, is that he vacillates between a kind of hysterical narrative maximalism, a sprawling tapestry of people, places, and events (e.g. Boogie NightsMagnolia) and an oppressive interiority, a hypnotic world of claustrophobic abstraction that, more than occasionally, strains the limits of coherency. (I’ve seen people who adore The Master and people who despise it, but both respond equally with ragged bafflement when asked to parse that film for a discernible meaning.)

There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s epic poem of period cinema set in the age of robber-barons and California mining rushes, elegantly bridges and hones the writer-director’s divergent impulses. Interior yet epic, focused yet vast, coherent yet cryptic, historical yet personal; it feels more singular, significant and fully realized than any Anderson project before or since, and at ten years old remains the magnum opus of an American master.

There Will Be Blood was adapted — very loosely — from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, about the son of an oil baron brought to moral and political reckoning with his father’s corrupt and exploitative ways. Sinclair, a fiery political activist whose works teased the borderline between fiction and journalism, could not have held storytelling predilections more distant from Anderson’s. It’s indicative of this stark difference in philosophy that Anderson’s vastly altered adaptation flips the story’s focus to the oil baron himself, a fictional composite character named Daniel Plainview. Over the course of thirty years, Plainview ascends from struggling prospector to powerful magnate and beyond, into a stratospheric peak of madness both uniquely his own and archetypically American. (Under the current administration, Anderson’s chronicle of the nihilistic derangement of the ultra-wealthy and the nightmare inversion of the American Dream feels more terrifying than ever.) Bearing warped, dreamlike echoes of Citizen Kane by way of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and even 2001: A Space Odyssey, the entire film is rendered as both haunting character study and chronicle of the fiery clash of elemental forces — capitalism and Christianity, individuals and communities, oil and blood — from which sprang American modernity.

Daniel Day-Lewis is known by reputation as a “big” actor; he does not merely “act,” but acts with a theatrical, snarling, scene-devouring intensity. It’s a polarizing quality, to be sure, but in Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis is given the ultimate role for his stature. Present onscreen in nearly every scene his eyes bulge and dart, reptilian, about the frame; his body sits in cool, coiled stillness before springing into violent gesticulations when Plainview is challenged; his voice, nearly unheard for the entirety of the film’s extended (and nakedly 2001-inspired) prologue, thunders and bellows with false congeniality, a slowly cracking facade of showmanship that groans and seethes with rage against Plainview’s world and perpetual emptiness within.

Plainview, a towering figure of ferocity and obsession, is capitalism itself. He is a man whose individualism, resourcefulness, and self-determination initially lift him out of the margins of society and the pits of the earth, only to further and further escalate as more power, wealth, and attention fall into his lap. By the end of the story’s three-decade span, the very same qualities that empowered Plainview to lift himself up by his bootstraps have continued to grow and mutate unabated, warping him more and more into a fiery, Nietzschean demon, an arch figure of solitude, misanthropy, paranoia, and senseless domination.

Complicating Plainview’s ascendency and continuously provoking his creeping madness is Eli Sunday, an evangelical preacher of the rural community that Plainview transforms into a bustling oil town. Eli is a man every bit Plainview’s equal in ambition and lust for power, yet he personifies social capital of an older breed: parochial, collective, Christian. He asks not merely for the material wealth of those beneath him but their very souls, the notion of which instinctually irritates and enrages Plainview as the two vie for the supremacy of their conflicting notions of authority. Eli, along with his estranged twin brother Paul, glimpsed only in the beginning of the film as he tips off Plainview to the Sunday oil reserve for a tidy fee, is given writhing, dancing life by Paul Dano, every bit Day-Lewis’s equal in the pantheon of character actors, whispering and shrieking to God with red-faced bulging eyes and quivering, veiny hands. The soft monotone of his speaking scenes gives way to calculated, disarming explosions of religious fervor in his sermons. Yet his nasally, pouting voice and delicate slender frame betray a weakness that viscerally provokes Plainview’s Darwinian spirit, like a rabbit biting a fox. He proclaims a greater, invisible cosmic order, one that favors him and the intangible bonds with which he holds others in thrall; yet to Plainview there is only earth, metal, and flesh. Eli and the Sunday family, juxtaposed with Plainview’s adoptive son H.W. and his physical and emotional transformations, present the two arch pillars of conflict — Plainview against religion, and Plainview against family — that complicate Plainview’s nihilism and form the dramatic crux of the narrative.

Like few on the screen before him, Anderson renders American history in eerie dream tones, never once reneging on the title’s promise of deep, continuous dread. True to his style, Anderson is unafraid to compress or expand time at his leisure, allowing some scenes to linger in rich silence while others collapse into loose, memory-like montage. Under the eye of DP Robert Elswit, Anderson’s camera glides slowly, majestically, over barren land and earthy wooden interiors, brown and dust-caked locales of California badlands and sets constructed with meticulous period detail; or else it floats like a ghost, with disconcerting intimacy, about the actors’ faces, dry, grimacing, either blanched in sunlight or wreathed in shadow. In panoramic wide-angle shots, sound collapses into a narrow tunnel and we hear only the muttered dialogue of key characters and the discordant violent strains of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score.

Greenwood’s contribution to the film, incidentally, would be difficult to overstate; his score is nothing short of revolutionary. Far from a replication of his Radiohead material, Greenwood’s first-ever film score brings together his experience with the haunting, atonal strains of the band with his prodigious classical training in a feat of brilliant, anachronistic alchemy. An outfit of traditional stringed instruments, evocative of the film’s historical setting, produces the complex atonal strains of electronic and modernist avant-garde composition, creating a perpetually heightened state of uncanny detachment, imbalance and chaos to mirror the central character’s roiling psyche. Scenes of apparent mundanity are scored with oppressive ominousness; the process of prospecting and drilling oil is treated musically with the violence and dread of a horror film, as if a Jaws-like carnivorous beast were on the hunt.

This is because Anderson, the poet, visually constructs the film around a layered and violent interplay of primal elements. In an early scene, Daniel Plainview’s path to prosperity is wordlessly christened with the mingling of blood, filth, and oil on his face and clothing, fluids that will come back to him at key moments in the proceeding story. Thematically, they are triplets: the very act of extracting oil from the maw of the earth is treated by Anderson’s lens as its own primordial act of violence, as instinctive yet unholy as the drawing of human blood which it leads to. Often those fluids glisten in the light of hellish fire, or else shrink under harsh brilliant daylight.

It is only in one of the final shots of the unforgettable final scene that There Will Be Blood delivers fully on the promise (or warning) of its title. The camera pans steadily over the film’s only image of unconcealed gore, as dark blood and brain matter oozes free from a collapsed human skull. There is no more fire or sunlight now; only the glare of harsh electric lightbulbs, reflecting in patches on the advancing pool, in a room full of white. The finale is cryptic and shocking, but as the credits cut harshly into the scene’s conclusion, the soundtrack blares the triumphant strains of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major — heard previously in the film as Plainview’s new well gushes forth with prosperous oil. Plainview’s triumph and downfall are inextricably linked, and the cinematic narrator comments on the horrific spectacle with bemused irony. It is rhyming and lyrical, classic Anderson at the height of his abilities but with a clarity that has so often eluded him. It is understood intuitively by the audience, yet resists overly rational explanation. Poetically, however, it makes perfect sense.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

The Best Movie Posters of 2017

Written by Jared Mobarak, December 28, 2017 at 8:54 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column (with a special year-end retrospective today) focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


It’s kind of crazy to see how far the poster industry has come in the past few years. Where we used to get excited for the latest Mondo sheet because of how rare and wholly original they were six years ago, it seems as though every IMAX release these days gets an illustrative “limited” print regardless of the title. Studios have embraced that aesthetic without sacrificing what they know, compromising so fans get the pretty designs and theaters get the fifty character sheets to assault ticket-buyers with over-saturation.

One good thing to come out of all this, however, is a merging of styles. You can see it via the universal praise bestowed upon James Jean and the unique look of post-photo portraiture he’s brought to multiplexes through Honorable Mentions The Shape of Water and mother!. Studios are hiring artists to give them a broader palette to choose from. Their design firms can still use the same typography and excess of text as their photo-based work, but the illustrative effect stands out just the same.

It was tough to therefore whittle my shortlist of 60+ sheets to the 25 you see below. Many firms wielded mood and atmosphere in a good way (see the synergistic similarities of Art Machine’s Murder on the Orient Express and B O N D’s Three Billboards). Others played with composition to stage mystery (see the pushed off-center focal points of InSync Plus’ Personal Shopper and Leroy and Rose’s Only Living Boy in New York). And two decided to utilize Jennifer Garner as object: spy (Devon Gibbs’ The Tribes of Palos Verdes and target (InSync Plus’ Wakefield). I really like all six of these and yet none made the cut. That’s a good sign for the art of movie marketing.


Honorable Mentions


#25
The Post
BLT Communications

#24
Justice League
B O N D

#23
Risk
The Boland
Design Company

#22
Table 19
MIDNIGHT OIL

#21
The Shape
of Water
James Jean

#20
Alien: Covenant
BLT Communications
& Ten30 Studios

#19
The Lost City
of Z
B O N D

#18
Wonder Wheel
The Refinery

#17
Darkest Hour
Empire Design

#16
Human Flow
Gravillis Inc.

#15
Downsizing

#14
Get Out
LA

#13
Star Wars:
The Last Jedi
Midnight Marauder
and Tony Stella

#12
mother!
James Jean

#11
The Void
Phantom City Creative

Top Ten

Blade of the Immortal #10
Blade of the Immortal
Gravillis Inc.

Gravillis went all out on their Blade of the Immortal sheet with dramatic typography, tactile layering, and kinetic composition. To look at the placement of the actor is to feel as though he’s slo-mo spinning in mid-air, ready to slice and dice whatever is in his path. The red circle around the title enhances this motion while also lending a Japanese signature stamp aesthetic. This is a straw buff page put through a one-color letterpress of detailed black etching topped off with a blood-red seal. Add a couple of splotches and watch as you become his eviscerated victim bleeding out atop him.

Escapes #09
Escapes
Jump Cut

For Escapes, Brandon Schaefer delivers a captivating image that excels beyond the product it advertises. Do you need to know what this documentary is about to find yourself mesmerized by the artwork? Does it matter if the man beneath that brilliant Medusa hair of film is Hampton Fancher or some nobody? No and No. This is a work that draws you in; an image that lingers in your brain after your eyes find another object to view. You want to know what’s on those strips, what stories will be told. You want to get in that head no many its owner’s identity. And you will remember the brightly colored title to do exactly that.

Spettacolo #08
Spettacolo
Jump Cut

I was happy to put Schaefer’s Spettacolo after his Escapes because it shows how talented designers can be when left to their devices and not forced into straight contractually-obligated portraiture (or into mimicking a single style ad nauseam). He moves into full optical illusion with this one, turning the page itself into a scene with enough depth to invite us inside. He breathes life into the tagline with intuitive visual metaphor, the vibrant colors that should overwhelm taking a backseat to the dark abyss of the unknown at center. And the title stands out in its subtlety, whispering its name as we seek the adventure we’re being beckoned closer to enjoy.

Machines #07
Machines
Marcel Weisheit

I knew it would land on this list as soon as I saw Marcel Weisheit’s poster for Machines. It’s just a gorgeous example of typography and the way in which text can integrate with the image rather then compete. He actually did two (here’s the other), but this one is my favorite because of how the letters adapt to the photo. The reason that the “HIN” is pushed right and the “ES” left by itself is because the man in the foreground would block legibility. This title block is therefore photo-specific—it loses part of its purpose when combined with that other image. These men are the “machines.” They work no matter what is in their way.

Raw #06
Raw
P+A

It’s great that a foreign independent horror like Raw has multiple posters, but P+A’s cannot be beat. While I still don’t love how big and compressed the credit box is at bottom, it doesn’t distract from the gorgeous textured grain of the photo or the razor sharp Modern Serif font’s high contrast thick to thin construction cutting into it. The way the blood drips off her nose towards the title keeps our gaze focused on its absence of color, its placement at center making it impossible not to still feel her laser-focused eyes at top. Looking up at them risks altering her view towards you instead, though. That blood isn’t from injury, it’s a warning to run.

Free Fire #05
Free Fire
B O N D

B O N D distills Free Fire to its aesthetic of guns and 70s style. I love the limbs’ three-dimensionality as they simultaneously exit the center with a goofy lilt similar to when two people get stuck in a single doorway. The concept embodies its ensemble’s trigger-happy nature and yet the designers refuse to sacrifice art for commerce. They add intrigue with the bold font’s subtle diagonals providing motion and comedy with the inspired decision to pump the shotgun with two different hands. This and Empire Design’s genius character sheets depict a one-two punch of unyieldingly violent chaos with stunning economical beauty.

It Comes at Night #04
It Comes at Night
InSync Plus

The best suspense horrors generally have one thing in common: an ability to scare without revealing their monsters. But while you can build dread with the combination of performance, cinematography, and sound, selling that mood with a single static image is near impossible. InSync Plus rose to the challenge with It Comes at Night‘s darkened vacuum of unknown terrors and succeeded. The typography coming at us rather than leading inward conjures a sense of something ready to pounce. It’s purely psychological—this mystery freezing us in place—but like the dog we stare with futility until everything goes black for good.

Carrie Pilby #03
Carrie Pilby
The Refinery

The Refinery’s Carrie Pilby embraces the graphic approach to portraiture that’s needed to break free of the stranglehold glossy photography has on the industry. Simply putting Bel Powley on the poster isn’t enough to draw us in because another actor’s face is on the wall at either side. But when you deconstruct her image into a duotone of flat hair and softly detailed features with a hint of red to imply rosy cheeks and lips, you create the potential of reaching a viewer’s imagination. Let your audience fill in the images blanks by engaging their brains. Mark them with a memory of something familiar experienced in an unfamiliar way.

Super Dark Times #02
Super Dark Times
Gravillis Inc.

There’s no better way to engage your viewer than directly. The question is how to do it without feeling silly. Just because your actor looks at the “camera” doesn’t prevent us from looking through him/her onto “it”—the art. Give Gravillis credit because they’re Super Dark Times dissolves all sense of “it.” They flip the dynamic between art and consumer so that the three silhouettes transcend the page via their act of “catching” us. Their flashlights imply we’re sneaking around and currently stuck in the open with nowhere to go. Those dots are like tractor beams forcing us to divert our eyes towards the hand-scrawled title below. We’re active participants.

Colossal #01
Colossal
Akiko Stehrenberger

I saw Akiko Stehrenberger’s insanely good Colossal sheet in April and knew it would reign supreme. The film begs you to go in cold so as not to ruin its surprises, but NEON never managed a poster or trailer devoid of spoilers. Where they failed, Stehrenberger dazzled. On the surface this painting is a minimalist portrait of Anne Hathaway’s character—simple, attractive, and mysterious. Once you watch the film, however, it rewards you by transforming into a keenly measured optical illusion worthy of awe. Every poster should aspire to approach the levels of intellect and artistry this gem provides.

What is your favorite poster of the year?

Follow our complete year-end coverage.

The 50 Most Overlooked Films of 2017

Written by The Film Stage, December 27, 2017 at 10:32 am 

the-most-overlooked-films-of-2017

There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to provide a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to be the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, there are more reasons than ever that something might not find an audience and, as with last year, we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.

Note that all of the below films made less than $1 million at the domestic box office at the time of posting — VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public — and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, many documentaries would qualify for this list, but we stuck strictly to narrative efforts (though one genre-blurring documentary made both lists); one can instead read our rundown of the top docs here.

Check out the list of 50 (or so) below, as presented in alphabetical order and, in the comments, let us know the 2017 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up. One can also follow the list on Letterboxd.

Abundant Acreage Available (Angus MacLachlan)

abundant-acreage-available

Faith-based cinema is as diverse a genre as there is, from the extreme, often violent portraits of devotion from established directors like Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, to the attacks on logic in the God’s Not Dead and Left Behind pictures. Angus MacLachlan, a great storyteller of the not-too-deep south, offers a nuanced example of what this genre can bring, returning with the moving Abundant Acreage Available. – John F. (full review)

After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

After the Storm 5

Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of contemporary film’s best empathists, extending tremendous good humor and generosity of spirit to his characters even as he lays bare their weaknesses and failings. Has-been author Ryota is the writer-director’s biggest fuckup of a protagonist, chronically unable to translate his earnings as an ersatz private detective into child support payments instead of gambling debts. And Kore-eda manipulates every mechanism of the story to engineer one lovely moment in which life’s everyday ugliness falls away, and this is done not in the service of offering Ryota absolution, but instead a bittersweet reminder of beauty past, future opportunities lost, and the assurance that it is in fact still possible to do good and decent things in the midst of utter confusion. – Dan S.

All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak)

All These Sleepless Nights 2

Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location. – Jordan R. (full review)

Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)

beach-rats-1

Burgeoning sexuality is the basis for nearly all coming-of-age films, but with her specific eye, Eliza Hittman makes it feel like we’re watching this genre unfold for the first time. With only two features to her name, she’s captured the experience with a sensuality and intimacy nearly unprecedented in American independent filmmaking. Following 2013’s It Felt Like Love, the writer-director follows it with another look at the teenage experience in Brooklyn for this year’s Beach Rats, this time with a protagonist five years older and of a different gender. – Jordan R. (full review)

Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland)

berlin-syndrome

While the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane and Room told stories of captivity with various hooks — science-fiction and the process of healing, respectively — Cate Shortland’s approach in her latest, harrowing drama Berlin Syndrome makes room for more nuance and depth. Locked in a Berlin apartment, there is little hope for our protagonist for nearly the entire runtime. And while some of the story’s turns can feel overtly manipulative, Shortland finds a bracing humanity in depicting the perverse situation of Stockholm syndrome. – Jordan R. (full review)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Osgood Perkins)

The Blackcoats Daughter 1

Osgood Perkins’ debut feature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter – originally known as February at its premiere – is a stylish exercise in dread, teasing out its slow-drip horrors with precision, and building a deliriously evil presence that hovers along the fringes. However, there’s a thin line between mystery and vagueness in storytelling, and it becomes difficult to decide where a film fits when it only works in the context of a specific structural order. Read my full review. – Mike S.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo)

bpm-beats-per-minute-4

Sometimes a movie doesn’t need much character development to make an impact. The ensemble cast that comprise Robin Campillo’s AIDS activists in BPM (Beats Per Minute) all work together to be the same voice. Through this group, the director captures a force that resonates more in message than in any of the conventional, dramatic sparks you might find in a Hollywood version of this story. This is one of the most politically-minded movies to come around in quite some time as Campillo stages heated strategy sessions between the activists of ACT UP like a Godard cinematic political essay post-La Chinoise. Through effective direction, the activism on display here is inspiring enough to rile one up to set aside preoccupations and try to make a difference in the world. – Jordan R. (full review)

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)

brawl-in-cell-block-99

S. Craig Zahler is the kind of genre filmmaker who’s making films unlike anyone else in his field today. His 2015 debut Bone Tomahawk pulled together an impressive cast of character actors to make a two-plus hour western/horror hybrid, spending its sweet time building to a repulsive finale. The long runtime, slow pacing, and abrupt tonal shift all worked, though, thanks to Zahler’s memorable dialogue and imagination when it came to horrific violence. Brawl in Cell Block 99 sees the writer-director sticking to the same formula that made Bone Tomahawk work so well, and it’s hard not to blame him. Usually formulaic would be a bad thing, but Zahler is the only one using his particular formula, and the results are just as brutal and entertaining as before. – C.J. P. (full review)

The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey)

the-breadwinner

In the Taliban-controlled Afghan city of Kabul, Nora Twomey’s debut film as sole director (she co-helmed Oscar nominee The Secret of Kells) depicts an eleven-year old girl facing the futility her future inevitably holds. Adapted by Anita Doron from the award-winning novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner delivers a heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale within a nation that’s lost its way. The shift was virtually overnight once the Taliban took over: women forced under hoods and trapped in houses, photographs and books outlawed, and men turned cruel as “protectors” of an extremist interpretation of a peaceful religion. The city’s former glory is immortalized only through stories of those who still remember. And as they perish to be replaced with new generations raised in hate, the past risks being forgotten forever. – Jared M. (full review)

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‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ and the Last Gasp of the Hollywood Spoof

Written by Eli F., December 21, 2017 at 9:00 am 

walk-hard-the-dewey-cox-story

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the last of its kind. The spoof movie – that is, the vigorous feature-length ribbing at popular films and Hollywood pieties of the moment – was already in decline by the late 2000s. The comedic tastes of the American public were changing; former heavyweights of the genre, like Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers, were no longer as active as in their heydays of the 70s and 80s. And newcomers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer were rapidly eroding whatever credibility the spoof movie had left with their seemingly interminable succession of quick, cheap flash-in-the-pan moneymakers (Disaster MovieEpic Movie, et al) widely despised by critics and hip audiences and yielding diminishing financial returns.

Walk Hard, then, may be one of the last true spoof movies made by funny people who actually gave a damn, with David Wain’s They Came Together being the only bright spot since then. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan (whose Jumanji sequel is now in theaters), and produced and co-written by Judd Apatow just as his brand of sweetly boyish obscenity was turning him into a household name, Walk Hard models itself in title and structure after Walk the Line, James Mangold’s earnest but conventional hit Johnny Cash biopic from 2005. But much as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police (in 2004) took blistering potshots at the entire Hollywood institution of Jerry Bruckheimer films – and not just The Rock or Armageddon – Walk Hard is clever enough to see the bigger comedic picture, incorporating well-calculated jabs at the entire genre of the award-baiting artist biopic.

Fresh off his comedy breakout in Talladega Nights (also an Apatow production), John C. Reilly stars as the eponymous fictional rock icon, delivering a rare Golden Globe-nominated comic performance as he deadpans his way through the character’s wildly exaggerated peaks and valleys of creative success. (And yes, he sings his own songs.) Every clichéd story beat from Walk the Line (and countless similar pictures) is present, accounted for and amplified to the point of absurdity: Dewey’s foundational childhood trauma — an innocent machete duel gone horribly wrong. The menacing, Freudian specter of his tyrannical Southern pa, who blames Dewey for the death of his favored sibling — “The wrong kid died!” barks Raymond J. Barry in every single one of his scenes, even singing it to himself when nobody else is around. His failed first marriage — “You’re never gonna make it!” cries his beleaguered wife, played by Kristen Wiig, as they move into their million-dollar mansion. His tumultuous true love — Jenna Fischer alternates between throwing herself at Dewey and beating him senseless in the same scene. His repeated temptation by drugs — the chronically underrated Tim Meadows plays a hard-partying bandmate who always seems to show up at perfectly inopportune moments to enticingly describe a new psychoactive substance while simultaneously insisting that Dewey “don’t want no part of this shit!” His drug-fueled dark periods — “God damn it, this is such a dark fucking period right now!” His redemptive final act — reconciling with his dozens of illegitimate children gives him the inspiration he needs to complete his magnum opus.

While the film certainly doesn’t shy away from crude humor – one sight gag involves naked naughty bits appearing out of nowhere to take up disproportionate chunks of the frame – it’s some kind of testament to Kasdan and Apatow’s commitment to their joke that it never sinks to the level of utilizing its suggestive title for an overt gag. Scenes are dramatically lit, staged and shot as though the film really were the sort of Oscar-y prestige drama it’s mocking. It’s a feature length piss-take on the genre, densely caked in zany irony with nary a straight-faced moment in sight – though its commitment to sniggering ironic detachment might just have made the film a little too esoteric for mass audiences, as its theatrical release flopped (hard) at the box office.

Some jokes deliver less on punchlines than on weird, ticklish metafictional absurdities: obligatory cameos by Elvis Presley and The Beatles brushing shoulders with Dewey are deliberately miscast – think Jack Black as Paul McCartney – and played as grotesque caricatures of popular caricatures of the real people depicted. A ludicrous twist on maudlin melodrama cliché sees the ghost of Dewey’s cherubic, martyred brother morph before his eyes into an obscenity-spouting Jonah Hill, whom he supposedly would have grown up to be. The lyrics to Dewey’s “hit” songs interspersed throughout always reflect, with on-the-nose bluntness, whatever domestic melodrama might happen to coincide with them as his style evolves to caricature the trends of each era in pop music history. (One of the film’s goofiest numbers “Let’s Duet” has Reilly and Fischer’s infatuated characters trading filthy double entendres in the style of a country music slowdance – another direct mockery of Walk the Line.) In perhaps the most understated bit of the film’s winking meta-humor, a post-credits coda displays grainy black and white footage of “the real Dewey Cox” – also portrayed by Reilly.

Like other projects to bear the Apatow name, Walk Hard sports hints of a raw improvisational energy and generously loose scene structure that set it apart from more canned, conventional studio comedies. (A self-labeled “Unbearably Long and Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut” – possibly yet another jab at Walk the Line – extends and adds scenes to put the film at nearly two hours.) But compared to his typically freewheeling festas of vulgarity and bromance, Walk Hard stands out as a uniquely focused and high-concept article of silliness; a throwback in more ways than one to the Hollywood spoof movie of yonderyear. In thumbing its nose at an awards-season institution of bathetic filmmaking, Walk Hard and its keen parodic eye also provoke reflection on the rote narratives our society constructs for the lives of successful artists, and the ways in which the public is invited to implicitly associate “true” art with personal melodrama.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

The Best Documentaries of 2017

Written by The Film Stage, December 19, 2017 at 10:24 am 

documentaries-2017

Healing from past trauma, film preservation, ISIS, libraries, chimps, rats, and cats — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2017 wrapping up, we’ve selected 21 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)

abacus-1

Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. That double purpose is the quiet genius of James’ latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The central story recounts the stranger-than-fiction courtroom saga of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned Chinatown bank that is still the only bank indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 American financial crisis. But James’ priorities are less about the courtroom minutiae than the case’s reverberations through the owner Thomas Sung, his family, and their misunderstood immigrant community. – Michael S. (full review)

All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak)

All These Sleepless Nights 2

Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location. Read my full review. – Jordan R.

Behemoth (Zhao Liang)

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There’s just one thing missing from Zhao Liang’s visually masterful documentary Behemoth: a before image of what this wasteland of coal and rock used to be before God’s beast was unleashed. That creature — as represented by the industrial machine — devours the mountains of Mongolia, exploding large formations into rubble to be separated by the Sichaun people acting as minions. These citizens become the cause and effect, each job necessary to aid in their survival also proving to be the root of their demise. All this land destroyed; all these innocents dead amongst the ash. What was once a haven of gorgeous landscapes has slowly devolved into a blight of dust and fire, its inhabitants’ purgatorial existence consumed as Hell rises from beneath. – Jared M. (full review)

City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)

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Cut together with gut-wrenching intensity and packed with footage that feels equal parts remarkable and horrifying, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman returns to Sundance with City of Ghosts, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the lives of the head members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). A campaign made up of activists based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and around the world, these young men risk their lives to garner intel on and about ISIS, what they’re doing and what they plan to do. As the Arab Spring brought revolution to countries like Syria, the vacuum of potential democracy was filled by a militant group calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS). – Dan M. (full review)

The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani)

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What do you do when you have everything? When you can do literally more than any human being could ever hope to fit into one life? This film Qatari sheikhs suggests that you get a sports car or two… and then put your pet cheetah in the passenger seat… on your way to bid more than most people ever make in their lifetime on a falcon… as a start. Yuri Ancarani’s dispassionate, almost anthropological survey continually lays bare the obscenity of the wealth. It’s bad enough that these assholes hog all the money, but they don’t even have the decency to pretend to enjoy any of the ridiculous activities they spend it on. – Dan S.

Contemporary Color (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)

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Contemporary Color often plays as a snapshot of one moment in time — brief footage of an empty room’s TV broadcasting news of marriage equality passing in the U.S. is one quiet moment of the world passing by that’s later externalized in a performance from host David Byrne and guest St. Vincent — as much as an apotheosis of effort for its young participants, for whom this may have passed as quickly as it began. But just as none of the involved players are likely to forget that moment for the rest of their lives, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ film, in its displays and occasional transcendence, ensures their efforts and passions live forever. – Nick N.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)

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There is a scholarly theory that proposes films are always telling the story of their creation, singing an endless song about their own history. That seemed to have been literally the case in 1978 when Frank Barrett, a construction worker in Dawson City in the northern Yukon, discovered strips of nitrate film poking out of the earth in the site of a new recreation center — like stubborn blossoms trying to defeat the harshness of winter. Children had taken to lighting the visible strips on fire unaware that in the joy of the pyrotechnic display they were erasing history. Barrett’s unique discovery led to the unearthing of over 500 reels containing films made in the 1910s and 1920s, and considering that it is believed that 75% of all silent films were lost, this might have been the most important finding in the archaeology of film. Taking clips from these reels and solving the mystery of how they ended up buried in the Yukon, director Bill Morrison made Dawson City: Frozen Time which might just be the ultimate found footage film. – Jose S. (full review)

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Cry Me a River: The Radical and Revolutionary Power of Melodrama

Written by Willow Maclay, December 16, 2017 at 9:22 am 

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Within the first ten minutes of Nicholas Ray’s unimpeachable classic Rebel Without a Cause Jim Stark (James Dean) wails, “You’re tearing me apart!!!!!” This is not an instance where the film crescendos with an emotional breakdown, but begins. Jim Stark is a staggering portrait of apocalyptic masculine adolescence ripping apart a young body through expectations put on him by society and his own self-imposed fears that he could turn into his passive father. Jim Stark is one of the defining characters of cinematic melodrama with his unbridled emotional honesty laid bare for the world to see. He physically cannot keep himself from gnashing, wailing, and screaming in the face of emotions that bubble to the surface. Melodrama opens the lid on these reactions and rides that feeling to cinematic honesty and authenticity. Melodrama is realer than real; a hyper-stylized evocation of feelings that we’re all familiar with as human beings. Realism is phony. Heartbreak is gospel.

Which brings us to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s globetrotting spectacular retrospective series on melodrama appropriately and inventively titled Emotion Pictures. Beginning this week and playing through January 7 are 62 films which showcase the universal languages of struggle, heartbreak, triumph, and joy spanning the world, with features from regions such as Asia (The Housemaid, Rouge, The Goddess), Africa (Cairo Station), Latin America (The Castle of Purity, Beyond Oblivion), North America (Careful, Gaslight, The Bridges of Madison County), and more.

Melodrama finds its greatest strengths in how it lenses gendered issues. The genre frequently referred to as a “women’s pictures” or “weepies” made the issues of women, queer coded individualism and men whose masculinity was in crises their focal point, which presented a picture in direct contrast to other popular genre fare at the time like creature features, westerns, and screwball comedies. No, these films were movies of the heart and they were going to wrench on that organ until there was nothing left but a pure emotional response. In the case of the Hollywood productions of old these films’ critical standing was never taken as seriously as they should have been, but now films like Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and the vast work of Douglas Sirk being featured in FSLC’s melodrama series are widely considered classics of not only their genre, but cinema in general.

While melodrama works within a mode that capitalizes on both basic and complex emotions, the formal tendencies and thematic questions these movies asked was nothing short of radical and revolutionary. Through melodrama, topics like infidelity, race relations, and questions of sexuality could be reckoned with in a way that other genre pictures of the time did not offer. Douglas Sirk’s films have famously gone on to influence new queer cinema giant Todd Haynes (and fellow Emotion Pictures player Terence Davies). Haynes is perhaps our greatest melodramatist today, but where Sirk’s questions of sexuality were always shrouded in the subtextual Haynes brings homosexuality to light. Haynes’ most recent film, Carol, stands alongside the other finest melodrama works of the century like In the Mood For Love, Mulholland Drive, and Brokeback Mountain. The melodrama lives on proudly today in LGBT cinema.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s scope reaches far beyond the machinations of America cinema, and offers a full portrait of the melodrama as a symptom of humanity, and not just an instance of American drama. Offerings from Japan playing throughout the duration of the series like The Goddess and The Life of Oharu are portraits of complex, driven women who are tangled up in the limitations of womanhood imposed upon them by Japanese society. Other highlights of the series include Russia’s The Cranes are Flying and Insiang from the Philippines. Both are essential films which show formal grace and ingenuity tied into the emotional complexity of the women who are front and center. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series on melodrama is the best possible curated retrospective series imaginable. It’s certainly the best that 2017 has to offer, and if there’s anything that’s true about the year, it’s that women have struggled, fought, scrapped, clawed and fought back against a society that has long since considered us second class citizens. Do yourself a favor this blustery winter and give the women of these melodramatic pictures your eyes and ears, whether they be in love, heartbroken, damned, damaged, or just living their lives in spite of it all.

Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama, a 62-film series, runs through January 7. See the full schedule.