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Top 10 - 2016

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 16, 2017 at 10:40 PM Comments comments (0)





When I reflect on the best films of 2016, I return to moods, sensations, and melodies that, taken as gestalt, seem to evoke the entire spectrum of human feeling. I remember the almost unbearably overwhelming catharsis of a son seeing his mother for the first time in 25 years after he went missing as a boy; the indignation of a free-thinking student forced to defend himself from the patronizing harangue of a despotic dean; the excruciating awkwardness but even greater ecstasy of a birthday celebration literally stripped naked, a nightmare scenario transformed into a gesture of anything-goes abandon; the pervasive air of dread, disorientation, and grief experienced by a woman and a country following a national tragedy; the boundless exhilaration of a ragtag group of kids on the road pumped up by communal sing-a-long; the mournfulness, inquisitiveness, and compassion of a woman who sees the world through a camera. Certainly any movie year produces a plethora of these indelible moments, but in a year that saw as much callousness toward our basic humanity as 2016 did, the feelings somehow resonated just a bit stronger.

It was noticeable, also, just how many of the year's greatest films were inextricably tied to music, whether they were actual musicals or dramatic films emboldened by unique, unpredictable, and exuberant incorporations of song. Many scenes are now emblazoned into the memory thanks to, among others, Rihanna's "We Found Love," Richard Harris's "Camelot," the SOS Band's "Take Your Time, Do it Right," and the most hysterical rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ever recorded. 2016 was a rollercoaster of a year, mostly not in the good way. Its best films, however, are reminders of the full register of humanity we cannot stand to ignore.

One note up top: as always, tricky release dates have complicated my determinations of what I deem a 2016 film. To keep with consistency, I will continue to go by the year in which the film in question had its major premiere. Therefore, despite it showing up on several critics' lists this year (and receiving an Oscar nomination!), I am considering Yorgos Lanthimos's brilliant The Lobster as a 2015 release. If this were not the case, it would be on my list - very high on it, in fact.



On to the Top 10:



10. Lion / Garth Davis

Based on a true story whose outcome is so improbable - a lost child in India adopted by Australian parents uses Google Earth 25 years later to successfully locate the home village he could barely remember and reunite with his mother who is still living there - Lion registers, despite its historical veracity, as the fantasy it really is. It is thus ideally made for the cinema, not only providing the kind of cathartic, against-all-odds resolution that has such capacity to satisfy our desire for closure, but thematizing it in a story that gives us the poignant shape of a narrative and an actual journey come full circle. Davis's nimble handling of Luke Davies's bifurcated structure reinforces this multiple sense of closure, movingly surfacing the memories of its first half, in which young Saroo is played by the revelatory Sunny Pawar, in the second, where Dev Patel pellucidly conveys the anguish and implacable drive of a man seized by the need to reconnect with his past and cultural identity. As his adopted mother, Nicole Kidman colors a portrait of motherhood equally embattled yet unshakable in her devotion. They contribute mightily to the film's cumulative emotional impact, which is difficult to overstate.

9. Everybody Wants Some!! / Richard Linklater

One of two blissful 2016 films that casually and unsentimentally espouses contentment as a way of life (you'll find the other further up the list), Everybody Wants Some!! is a rare kind of pleasure: a film interested in people who enjoy living, and realize it. Linklater has never been a conventional dramatist, but Everybody Wants Some!!, perhaps even more than its avowed predecessor Dazed and Confused, is the director at his most easygoing and pleasingly ambling, energized not by conflict but by the unbridled spirit of a time of life - young adulthood - and the seemingly endless breadth of possibilities it affords. At the ebullient center of this is a superb ensemble, whose group dynamic is at once rollicking in a broadly comedic kind of way and scalpel-precise, even anthropological, in its playing out of homosocial male behavior in the frat environment. This is a group of guys glued together by physical prowess and gamesmanship, experimentation and jocularity, who embody what it's like to feel young, vital, and invincible. One might expect Linklater's cleverly employed ticking clock structure to count down to some putative end to their fun, but instead, true to life and affirming of it, it only signals the arrival of more present moments to be savored.

8. La La Land / Damien Chazelle

Yes, La La Land pays homage to the effervescent musicals of Golden Age Hollywood (as well as the candy-colored fantasias of Jacques Demy), but it neither looks nor feels particularly like them. Damien Chazelle's modern day musical is really an entity all its own, mixing and matching an array of cinematic idioms to produce a slyly postmodernist variation on some classic themes. We can talk all we want about how the film replicates the (mostly) lily-white fantasy world of classical Hollywood - this is obviously no mistake - but what deserves more comment is the film's ambivalent relationship to fantasy in general, and to the nostalgia it entails in particular. From its very beginning Chazelle is pushing the idealized polychromatic vision of the American musical up against a reality that can hardly support it: take note of all the times aggravating signifiers of contemporary life (traffic and blaring horns, cell phone ringtones, malfunctioning movie projectors) intrude upon and disrupt the romance of La La Land's self-aware "movie magic." Chazelle gets what it's like to be a struggling artist, particularly one trying to make it in an industry where the line between meaningful and meretricious is perilously thin, and it's unclear if anything you do will have any lasting value. As significant as its undeniable mirth, then, is La La Land's tension, moxie and passion in conflict with pragmatism and uncertainty. Chazelle's bittersweet epilogue indulges in one final blast of nostalgia to keep the flame burning, but its power is in its final suggestion that some fantasies ought to remain just that. Thankfully, the screen is a pretty good place for them.

7. Indignation / James Schamus

The centerpiece scene in Indignation, one of the most sensationally performed of the year, is a nearly 20-minute ideological showdown between a defiant, secular Jewish student from New Jersey (Logan Lerman) and the paternalistic dean of a small conservative college in Ohio (Tracy Letts). The power imbalance is such that even before a word is exchanged, the cards are stacked against our erudite protagonist; that the dean articulates his condescending, anti-Semitic charges against the student with such eloquence serves to make this emblematic scene of inescapable dogma all the more terrifying. Adapted from Philip Roth's novel, the whole of James Schamus's Indignation similarly bristles with such palpable angst. This is a quintessential portrait of 1950s America as soulless province of conformity, repression, and covert domestic barbarism, a time and place that only rewards those willing to comply with its prescriptive conditions. In other words, not ideal for Lerman's Marcus, nor for Sarah Gadon's elusive, sultry femme fatale Olivia, whose own stifled desires and sexual hangups open a pandora's box for the inexperienced young man. Schamus's elegant narrative build and perfectly smoldering rein on atmosphere keep the vice-like grip tightening around him. As everything that could possibly go wrong essentially does, Marcus's conviction and recusance feel, paradoxically, both increasingly foolish and laudable. It's a no-win situation in one of the most searing films about the perils of stubborness since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

6. Toni Erdmann / Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann makes it acutely evident just how lacking so many comedies are in the departments integral to generating, and sustaining, humor: rhythm, timing, suspense, the element of surprise. It is not merely that the film is the most uproarious of 2016, it is that it exemplifies better than any in recent memory how comedy develops and accrues, and even further, why it works so extraordinarily well when it’s working. At nearly three hours, the film on one level operates as a kind of anatomy of a particular film comedy process, using its expansive runtime to offer a methodical demonstration of its comic logic. In this formulation, Ade allows us to see precisely how her situations build and her tone oscillates, how her actors incrementally add and combine inflections of embarrassment, bemusement, pain, longing, and elation through their winching interactions. Nothing in the film ever stays one way for long: its progression is a masterclass in the escalation of incident, carrying a sustained comic momentum that never wavers even as individual episodes flit liberally between farce, pathos, and caustic absurdism. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek provide the exhilarating tête-à-tête that keeps this tonal mélange authentic and spontaneous. Pushing and pulling at one another, deceiving and dissembling, assaulting and relenting, their brilliant performances illustrate the history of a fraught father-daughter relationship that seemingly only humor, and the blithe, extravagant undermining of social etiquette, can ameliorate. Toni Erdmann is a comedy in that it’s genuinely hilarious, but it’s also about its own hilarity: a tribute to and exemplar of comedy as disarmament, liberation, and euphoria.

5. Hail, Caesar! / Joel and Ethan Coen

Just when you thought every possible interpretation of Hollywood on screen had been exhausted, Joel and Ethan Coen step in to offer a fresh perspective. In Hail, Caesar!, the hegemonic American film industry becomes the church in a parable of faith in crisis, its products - mass entertainments both dazzling and phony - its religion. The witty narrative of the film finds its thrust in how Eddie Mannix, a pious studio fixer tasked with managing the folderol of industry politics, is forced to question the value of his role and the validity of his beliefs in the institution he works for. Rarely has the "Dream Factory" felt as apt a title as it does here: in characteristically sardonic fashion, the Coens satirize the artifice and mendacity of an industry that manufactures fantasies on the backs of exploited - although lavishly paid - labor, with artistic and spiritual worth almost always eclipsed by the profit motive. But this is also an atypically sanguine Coens picture. Rather than unequivocally skewer Hollywood's callous capitalist ideology, their vision evinces a pointed ambivalence that also carries a reverence for its craft and capacity to delight, most apparent in their buoyant homages to genres of the studio system. Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Eirenreich as the dashing but guileless Hobie Doyle have a ball with these tributes, navigating with precision their lovingly mocking tone. An allegory laced with irony and acid, Hail, Caesar! ingeniously embeds a philosophical meditation inside of a farce - and argues they mean about the same.

4. Jackie / Pablo Larraín

Jackie offers a surfeit of entry points through which it can be approached, each contributing to its prismatic, multivalent texture. From one angle, it is a feminist refiguring of an iconic historical moment; from another, it is a psychological portrait of destabilizing grief; a commentary on the performance of politics and the porousness of "official" narratives; an existential horror in which the foundations of an individual, and the country she helped represent, are thrown into terrifying limbo; a Brechtian display that uses uncanny simulations to make us aware of all the forces that mediate history. Larraín's film belongs to that special sub-category of the "biopic" in which the very conventions of biographical storytelling and cinematic representation are systematically questioned, in the process rendering conscious the larger epistemological problems of how history is written and received. But this is not a mere academic exercise: Jackie is, underneath all intellectual concerns, a chilling and visceral evocation of an unfathomable nightmare, in which Natalie Portman's haunting, brittle embodiment of Jackie Kennedy and the masterly work of below-the-line artists send physical shockwaves. In concert, they articulate a turbulent American mood with expressionistic force, fashioning a (frighteningly) resonant portrait of American political upheaval that ripples through and beyond the White House's glorified domestic sphere. In 2016, Jackie takes on another shade as an uncomfortably recognizable reflection of identity profoundly upset.

3. American Honey / Andrea Arnold

American Honey is a long movie, its length conferring on the spectator a sense of the drift, ritual, and general repetition of experience its characters endure. But the last thing anyone could call it is listless. On the absolute contrary, Arnold’s film is an exuberant, larger-than-life rush of cinema, a full-bodied sensory submersion that celebrates the will and resilience of its disenfranchised youth even as it palpably laments the socioeconomic circumstances that have led to their status. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, shooting in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that intensifies the film’s raucous energy precisely by not being able to contain it, conjure a cascade of saturated images in sensuous shallow focus. Their subjects, though, are the film’s raison d'être: a panoply of young actors, most nonprofessional, each with their own distinct physiognomies and behaviors that bear the traces of their characters’ pasts. Each actor brings their character to startling life, and in each other’s company create American Honey’s most rapturous effect: the mobilized, indomitable spirit of the group. Employing music as the motor and the glue, Arnold profoundly conveys how the individual surrenders herself not just to the group, but to the group in song. Far from implying an insidious submission, however, she powerfully demonstrates the unifying strength of music and its role in absorbing, and channeling, the collective emotions of a tight-knit community. With anthemic gusto, Arnold and her young actors produce a wellspring of angst-bound-up-in-optimism that’s vivifying, and empathetic without condescending.

2. Paterson / Jim Jarmusch

The other distinguished 2016 film that makes cinematic a worldview of contentedness, Paterson is a Zen-like experience whose measured rhythms and droll, affectionate regard for life's mundane sights and sounds has the effect of renewing a viewer's perceptual attunement to the world. It is a poetic, philosophical palliative, a soothing ode to deriving inspiration from the quotidian that mixes the banal and the idiosyncratic, the local and the cosmic, in ways distinctly Jarmusch-ian but oriented toward more affirming ends. In the largely invariable weekly schedule of Adam Driver's titular character, the director illustrates a blue-collar, workaday lifestyle that's recursive and predictable but also rife with expressive possibilities. Paterson names both the bus-driver-cum-poet protagonist and the city he resides in, and as the film transpires, shrewdly accumulating visual and narrative information in endlessly rhyming patterns, it becomes clear that both have reciprocally informed one another, urban space and individual mutually emboldened by the mere fact of their peaceful coexistence. And although Jarmusch slyly has us inhabit Paterson's subjectivity throughout (this is probably the most loving depiction of solipsism ever committed to film), he sketches a much more generously inclusive social portrait that reveals a whole diverse populace galvanized by creative energy they both produce and absorb. Hilarious, wise, soulful, Paterson encourages an active receptivity to and participation in life even, or especially when, it seems most routine.

1. Cameraperson / Kirsten Johnson

The title of Kirsten Johnson's humane, transcendent documentary memoir may refer to her profession, but its best and truest meaning exists beyond that literal denotation. Instead, the compound word points to a veritable melding of human and machine consciousness, an intimate, corporeal relationship between body and camera that Johnson, throughout her film in a myriad of thought-provoking ways, suggests to be one of the most significant and symbiotic partnerships we have the privilege of engaging in. Every shot and every moment in Cameraperson, all from unused footage Johnson shot for various documentaries over her career, evince the fundamental inseparability of cinematographic apparatus and embodied human subject. Johnson proves that there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective or a recording of subjects divorced from human presence: marshalling our attention, transfixingly, toward aspects of framing, lighting, and cutting, she reifies how images are made and read only through processes of human mediation. And although Johnson only appears briefly on screen once, Cameraperson is among the most personal and powerful of all cinematic autobiographies. It shows not only a woman's unique work, passion, memory, and life inscribed in the corpus of the images she's produced, but shows those images as constitutive, an archive and body all their own with the capacity to touch and transform. Although on the most basic level a superior interrogation of filmmaking practice and ethics, Cameraperson finds its greatest import as an example of cinema as our foremost conduit for communication, expression, and empathy.



And the magnificent runners-up:



THE FITS, by Anna Rose Holmer, a dazzling and assured debut feature that celebrates young female identity and agency blossoming through dance. At just over 70 minutes, an economical and evocative miniature with major power.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, by Whit Stillman, an exceedingly witty Jane Austen adaptation with a blisteringly acerbic bite. Silly, caustic, brusque, and as whip-smart as the best screwball comedies.

LITTLE MEN, by Ira Sachs, a beautifully sensitive child's-eye view of vexing adult conflicts that refuses to judge the positions of any of its parties. As the boys whose friendship is both forged and dissolved under their parents' contentious interaction, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are extraordinary finds.

Silence

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 14, 2017 at 8:15 PM Comments comments (0)



SILENCE   ***

Martin Scorsese

2016

 

 

IDEA:  In the 17th century, two Jesuit priests travel to Japan to find their mentor, who is said to have assimilated and renounced Christianity.


BLURB:  Few, if any, films in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre have felt as austere or intimate as Silence. Its 160 minutes are devoted not to operatic formal flourish or the generation of historical sweep, but to soul-sick rumination; rather than build outward in grand strokes across that runtime, it burrows deeper and more ceaselessly inward to a psyche beleaguered by a profound crisis of faith. Starkly, without superfluous adornment, Scorsese cuts right to the essence of his protagonist’s belief-shaking quandary, initiating a dialectic that constantly and in increasingly lacerating ways pits stubborn religious conviction against uncompromising national ideology. That both could be referring to either side in this loggerheads is what makes Silence such a compellingly ambivalent work. Our point of entry and identification, however, is Father Rodrigues and by extension Christianity. As played by Andrew Garfield, whose lithe features and soft-spoken demeanor make him an agreeable figure from the start, Rodrigues embodies passionate piety and intrepidness, as well as a naïveté masking imperialist fervor. We understand, even admire, his tenacity, and it is testament to Scorsese, co-writer Cocks, and Garfield that our relationship to him grows more agonized, not resistant, as the consequences of his actions grow more visibly destructive. He emerges as the latest in a long line of Scorsese antiheroes, inviting our simultaneous sympathy and disapproval. Both feelings are elicited by the Japanese characters, as well, and in the simmering morass of anger, righteousness, and repudiation they all share, Silence viscerally captures the internecine struggle of imperialism and the angst-ridden trials of inveterate religiosity. This may not be the most immaculate of Scorsese’s films, but in its bluntness and relative minimalism, it feels like his most personally sobering.

Paterson

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 7, 2017 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)



PATERSON   ***1/2

Jim Jarmusch

2016



IDEA:  A week in the life of Paterson, who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey and writes poetry about his experiences.


BLURB:  Paterson brings the viewer into a serene, meditative state of mind hard to come by in contemporary American cinema. It sharpens our focus to make us cognizant of the mundane beauty immanent in our surroundings, appreciative of those strange synchronicities that can often feel like meaningful cosmic winks in the fabric of an indifferent time-space. Like few other filmmakers, Jarmusch drolly surfaces the sublimity in quotidian environments and actions, suggesting at once the richness of the world we inhabit and the ability of the arts – film in particular – to reconfigure our conceptions of it in order to tease out its most peculiar treasures. Paterson does this more literally than most of the filmmaker’s past work: subtly assuming the subjectivity of a bus driver poet whose name is identical to the city he lives in, it amusingly and poignantly articulates a perspective on work, relationships, and life informed by poetry. It illuminates how the world is in constant, reciprocal cultural exchange with its subjects, who are formed by its external spaces and rhythms as much as they form them through their expressive presences. In its recursive structure and meticulous formalism, it produces a kind of naturally unfolding feng shui that manifests itself in a bounty of visual rhymes and narrative echoes. An earlier, more cynical Jarmusch might have treated all of this repetition as some cruel cosmic mind game on the protagonist, but here the connections are fortifying whether they have meaning or not, signifying an attentiveness and receptivity to life’s vagaries that indicate the virtues of simply being present. While it contains the familiar hallmarks of Jarmusch’s other films, Paterson replaces his typical confusion and irresolution with a profound sense of equanimity, demonstrating with Zen contentment how, foibles and all, we still maintain our balance, day in and day out.

Lion

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 31, 2016 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)



LION   ***1/2

Garth Davis

2016

 

 

IDEA:  In 1986 in India, a young boy is inadvertantly carried thousands of miles away from his home on a train. Adopted and raised by an Australian couple, he uses Google Earth some 20 years later to locate his home and reunite with his mother.


BLURB:  The pleasures and exceptional catharsis of Lion derive from the simple, not-to-be-underestimated satisfaction of closure. This isn’t so much the satisfaction of narrative closure as it is of a deeper, much harder to realize psychical closure; an against-all-odds fantasy closure whose biographical truth paradoxically makes it all the more fantastical, and gratifying. What Lion taps into, via its astonishing real-life tale of a man’s reunion with his mother and sister 25 years after he went missing as a child, is the desire for a primal resolution that entails a return to one’s origins – to the familiar geography of home, to the warm embrace of a mother who is still there to receive you. Its emphasis is on an inviolable bond that time and distance constantly fail to sever. The first half of the film, led by the remarkably self-possessed Sunny Pawar, is all about the spatial disorientation and terrifying dislocation of a boy taken far from home. Long, wordless passages of the little Pawar alternately wandering, napping, and running amidst the dense urban activity of Kolkata have a straightforwardly affective force, even as Davis perhaps struggles (who wouldn’t?) to represent the full terror of the events he depicts. The film’s second half, taking place 20 years later, is his and screenwriter Luke Davies’ best accomplishment: avoiding the pitfalls that often hamper bifurcated or time-jumping stories, they deepen and complicate Saroo’s journey by poignantly folding in the accumulated weight of memory and guilt. Any worry that the abrupt shift to an adult Saroo will rupture our identification or engagement is handily allayed by Dev Patel, whose full-hearted, emotionally transparent performance – and rapport with the radiant, generously nuanced Kidman and Mara – imbues what could have so easily been a facilely uplifting final act with rich, variegated, unfiltered human feeling. Watching him as his suppressed memories slowly resurface, galvanizing him to complete his journey, is a uniquely cinematic pleasure. His closure feels like ours.

Manchester by the Sea

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 21, 2016 at 11:35 PM Comments comments (0)



MANCHESTER BY THE SEA   ***

Kenneth Lonergan

2016

 

 

IDEA:  An emotionally withdrawn man's routine is disrupted when he is assigned to care for the son of his recently deceased brother.


BLURB:  A husband and father who has buried his emotions following an unspeakable tragedy. A brother whose past trauma reemerges in the face of a new one. An uncle who is tasked with being his teenage nephew’s guardian following the death of the boy’s father. The protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, played in surly, hauntingly wearied form by Casey Affleck, fulfills all of these roles. Lonergan has him at the center of a nuanced family drama in which an assortment of relationships are simultaneously drawn and reconfigured, built and fractured and built up again, in the wintry murk of the eponymous New England town. This is a man whose myriad infractions, gradually and poignantly revealed throughout the film’s flashback structure, should make us despise him. There is little arguing that he has been immature, irresponsible, and ill-equipped at the worst possible moments. And yet in Lonergan’s generous portrait, humans are not subjected to the judgment of an assumed moral authority. They simply carry on, burdened by their mistakes when they make them and, unsurprisingly, fraught by the struggle to mend the grief they’ve sown. If anything is to be criticized about Manchester by the Sea, it is unfortunately bound up with its male-oriented subject matter: Lonergan has very little time for his female characters, and the women who do appear are, rather bafflingly, either obstacles for men or inexplicable flirts, in all cases underdeveloped. Such an unfair separation along gender lines feels incongruous in a movie that accords its characters ample room to express themselves, that regards them with compassion and never attempts to fit them into snug prescribed narratives. It’s an unfortunate oversight that makes the otherwise moving, sensitive, impressively restrained Manchester by the Sea a too narrowly masculine affair.

Arrival

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 9, 2016 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)



ARRIVAL   ***

Denis Villeneuve

2016



IDEA:  A linguistics professor is enlisted by the military to decipher the language of aliens who have landed around the globe.


BLURB:  Arrival confounds audience expectations in minor but satisfying ways. First: despite its extraterrestrial subject matter, the film offers an exceedingly human-scaled story about one woman’s journey in confronting the ripples of grief and connection. Physically it is just as pared-down, rarely leaving the gravity-defying corridor of the alien spacecraft or the adjacent military compound. These locations, shot through with a murky gray haze, become the unassuming sites of this woman’s internal drama. Second and most importantly: its structure gently plays with the spectator’s perception of narrative chronology. In thrilling accord with Louise’s evolving mastery of an alien language, our own increasing grasp of the film’s unique syntax is commensurate with how we understand its construction of time. This blossoming semiotic comprehension is not particularly complex, but by mirroring it to Louise’s mental transformation through an alternative language, Villeneuve renders visible his own cinematic language, and thus by extension the ways in which it structures and reconfigures our reading of his film. Also confounding, although more to its detriment, is how Arrival falls short of truly investing in a nonlinear temporal perspective. Outside of its best, most dramatically rich moments – the first entry into the alien passageway, especially – it is never as perceptually disorienting as it perhaps should be, adhering to a deterministic logic that often seems to contradict its imagining of an “other” time. Still, even with its frustrating aporias, Arrival is thought-provoking and lean and unusual in ways that sometimes redefine those very kinds of attributes.

Certain Women

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 21, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)



CERTAIN WOMEN   ***

Kelly Reichardt

2016


 

IDEA:  Three women in Montana - a lawyer with a volatile client, a family woman looking to build new property, and an independent ranch hand - experience adversities small and large.


BLURB:  The women of Certain Women are steady, determined, and courageous in ways they never have to call attention to. Kelly Reichardt, whose filmmaking is shorn of any shred of didacticism or bombast, gets this, and presents them plainly: never are they dramatically elevated to symbols of a particular gendered condition, but shown as humans negotiating the particulars of their socio-cultural environment. In this case, that’s an American West that Reichardt has remarkably demystified and empowered at once. Written and hegemonically upheld by Man, she doesn’t so much reimagine the landscape from a contemporary female perspective as demonstrate how its ideals are experienced and reworked through various female subjectivities. Law, property, and freedom, those sacrosanct male-scripted institutions, are undertaken by the women of Reichardt’s film, who operate within their patriarchal constraints while asserting their own agencies. Certain Women is not after a polemical call-to-arms but an inductive observation of social roles prescribed by gender and, in the superior final chapter of its triptych, by class, race, and sexuality. Reichardt offers neither a fantasy to redress systemic inequality nor a jeremiad; in the fashion befitting her unsentimental, understated style, she simply shows women living their lives, compelling us to realize that when it comes to the art of the West, that’s a quietly revolutionary thing indeed.

Cameraperson

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 11, 2016 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)



CAMERAPERSON   ***1/2

Kirsten Johnson

2016



IDEA:  A film composed of unused footage cinematographer Kirsten Johnson shot for several documentaries. 


BLURB:  Without being precious or overly academic about it, Cameraperson demonstrates the transcendent body- and mind-expanding functions of the cinematographic camera apparatus. It’s right there in the title: for Johnson as it is for the spectator, the camera conflates with the individual, becoming an annex organ that has the capacity to enact and fulfill innate human needs. The humanist core that blossoms through the film’s measured formality attests to this central truth. Johnson gets us to reify how the apparatus gratifies our passion for perceiving; the ways in which it orients us in the world through mediation and identification; how it sparks our consciousnesses and consciences to make us agents of social awareness and change; most poignantly, through her deeply personal meditation on memory, deterioration, and death, its ability to overcome the constraints of time by memorializing that which is most transient. Indeed, Johnson formulates her film as a memoir, and yet we only ever see her once, briefly. In truth, there’s no need to see her at all: her footage becomes a gestalt, its content and precise formal choices enough to evince the character of the person who produced it, its collage emerging as a veritable archive of her memory and emanation of her very being. At all times asserting the presence of the camera and the influence of the person behind it, Cameraperson posits the apparatus not as a mechanical observer, but as a fundamentally human project, activated only in its interaction with the body and mind, and endowed with all the moral responsibility and fragility that inevitably entails.

The Birth of a Nation

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 1, 2016 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)



THE BIRTH OF A NATION   ***

Nate Parker

2016

 

 

IDEA:  The story of Nat Turner, a preacher who led fellow slaves in an insurgency against their owners in 1831 Virginia.


BLURB:  Bristling with urgency and palpable moral outrage, The Birth of a Nation decocts American racial tensions in service of a cathartic cri de coeur for our uneasy times. More than a retelling of a historical event, the film is energized by the politics of the contemporary moment that inform its righteous anger. Nate Parker potently builds the cultural resonances into the picture, locating biblical and modern parallels in a story he fashions as both myth and future social promise. The portrayal of profoundly recusant slave Nat Turner could rightly be dinged for hagiography if not for the way he becomes filtered through his own homiletic teachings: while the Christ imagery is heavy-handed and often excessive, especially considering Parker has cast himself in the sanctified role, it is drawn from a place deeply connected to the guiding principles of his character and the culture he emboldens. Like the film’s title, it is also an emphatic reclamation of text that has and continues to be used to persecute and subjugate. Parker bluntly foregrounds this safeguard of religion to underscore its centrality and assert its primary purpose as one of enlightenment. He also calls upon other hallmarks of what would become the civil rights movement, giving particularly persuasive space to the rallying power of oration. The Birth of a Nation is not an especially refined film, and it shouldn’t have to be. Parker’s rough-edged, two-fisted approach bespeaks a visceral, untrammeled expression that in many ways disarms legitimate reservations about his film’s design. An emotional and political deflagration, it bursts forth as a splanchnic howl from the depths of an embattled African American psyche.

Pete's Dragon

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on August 30, 2016 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)



PETE'S DRAGON   *1/2

David Lowery

2016


 

IDEA:  Stranded after his parents are killed in a car accident, Pete finds protection and companionship in Elliot, a friendly dragon who lives in the woods. Their peaceful existence, however, is threatened by the arrival of a park ranger and a fleet of rapacious loggers.


BLURB:  In its most lyrical moments, Pete’s Dragon aspires to the kind of earthy, poignant poetry of canonical boy-and-his-pet movies. For the rest of the time, which is a dispiriting majority, David Lowery’s loose remake lazily employs all the kids’ film clichés that Disney has made its bread and butter. The simplistic nature of the story is not by itself the issue: for a little while, Lowery seems to have tapped into the appropriate fable-like tone, which operates on straightforwardly primal storytelling and easy-to-read archetypes invested with the resonance of tradition. His prologue, largely nonverbal, promises economical image-making in an understated emotional register. Then it falls apart. The obligatory run-and-play scene between boy and dragon, placed right at the beginning, is a rousing sequence that nevertheless serves as a premature crescendo to a narrative that hasn’t even occurred. It is followed by an increasingly slapdash string of unimaginative dramatic confrontations and pursuits, each one culminating in a similar climax en route to the predetermined – and saccharine – resolution. Daniel Hart’s majestic score, at least, suggests the awe the film consistently fumbles to produce, but even its sweeping strings begin to sound as mawkish as the scenes they accompany. When Pete’s Dragon finally amounts to little more than a rote reiteration of the sanctity of the traditional family unit, that initial artistry supplied by Lowery feels like either the vestiges of a squandered opportunity or a hint at another film that would better serve his talents.


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About the Author


Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a cinephile, film critic, and artist currently working on his Master's degree at UCLA.

Contact at [email protected]

Devoted to the Movies