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Life and Nothing More

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 24, 2017 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)


Antonio Méndez Esparza


IDEA:  In northern Florida, a single mother and her son struggle with family life.

BLURB:  Life and Nothing More is not radical filmmaking, yet in its unassuming naturalism, patience, and sensitivity in depicting the lives of the black working poor, it can often seem like it. Antonio Méndez Esparza and his sublime cast of non-actors bring into relief the rarity of seeing a story so unwaveringly and compassionately focused on underserved black lives. The sheer existence of a film that chooses to tell their stories, however, is not why Life and Nothing More is so special. What is special is how absolutely it refuses the sensationalism and exploitative gaze so often associated with this subject matter; how it disarms and subverts harmful stereotypes about race, class, and gender, as well as narrative clichés about crime and broken families; how its simple but ingenious formal design, including unusual blocking strategies, keeps visual attention intimately fixed on Regina, Robert, Andrew, and Ry’nesia above all else. These are people who exist well beyond the frame, in excess of whatever necessarily partial narrative Méndez Esparza has constructed around them, and Santiago Oviedo’s unusual elliptical edits smartly prevent any pat apprehension of their circumstances. Life and Nothing More is a corrective to dominant media representations and discourses that peripheralize the kinds of people it returns value and visibility to, but it is not a moralizing political screed nor an emollient. In its quasi-documentary mode of vernacular realism, it does nothing so much as foreground ordinary lives so as to understand and embrace them, and entreats us all to do the same.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 15, 2017 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

MOTHER!   ***

Darren Aronofsky


IDEA:  A homemaker and her author husband are visited by a series of unexpected guests, transforming their placid, isolated home into a chaotic nightmare.

BLURB:  Excessive and unwieldy by (thrilling) design, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a gallimaufry of anxieties and grandiose artistic statements filtered through religious allegory. The symbolism, and the filmmaking, is as gratuitous and unabashed as the debauchery that erupts into the film’s fragile Eden. Aronofsky’s condensed, audacious Genesis-to-Revelation narrative is laden with an arsenal of jarring temporal dislocations, nightmarishly amplified sound effects, and woozy camera movements that help to evoke the film's sundry vague but viscerally felt terrors. These range from bodily abjection to domestic invasion and social anxiety, destructive egotism and powerlessness, creative obsession, environmental degradation, misogyny, and entropy. All of these are either inherited by or inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s mother, whose symbolic status as a kind of Mother Earth is eclipsed by her function as a beleaguered audience surrogate vexed by an absurd, irrational world. An inherently reactive part, the role nevertheless results in the actress’s best performance yet, Lawrence inhabiting a dizzying spectrum of physical and psychological torments with go-for-broke commitment. Aronofsky’s own chutzpah may have the tendency to spiral out of control, but he maintains a command of the form that, depending on the degree to which one surrenders to his vision, goes some way toward forgiving his self-aggrandizing depiction of the artist as megalomaniacal-but-divine creator. If nothing else, even though it’s a lot else, mother! is always inventive and excitingly nervy, a Grand Guignol of human nature where hell truly is other people.

The Girl Without Hands

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on August 14, 2017 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)


Sébastien Laudenbach



IDEA:  A poor miller sacrifices his daughter to the devil so that he may receive bountiful wealth. The girl, deprived of her hands, journeys to find new life.

BLURB:  Consisting of loose, fluctuating strokes of line and color, the animation style of The Girl Without Hands expresses a world of profound tenuousness. Corporeal forms that should be solid waver and dissolve erratically; landscapes and objects flicker, splinter, and deliquesce with equal unpredictability. The film transpires with the sense that its representations could completely collapse at any moment, that the multiply intense feelings of peril that cause its lines to burst into paroxysms or temporarily disappear might just annihilate its mimetic integrity altogether. Both thrilling and terrifying, this visual impressionism-verging-on-chaotic abstraction conveys a liberating and destabilizing boundlessness no live action recording could replicate. Yet for all its emphasis on violability, The Girl Without Hands also exults in the fecundity of existence, in particular the procreative capacity of the female body. Subjugated by men and marked as lack by her physical impairment, the titular girl nevertheless stands as a resilient vessel of life in all its vibrant contingency. Laudenbach underscores her corporeality even as she loses definition, using his animation to suggest a process of becoming as much as one of fragmentation. The Girl Without Hands finds a singularly apt aesthetic to articulate this delicate liminality, a state of ongoing transition scary and beautiful at once.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 26, 2017 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)

DUNKIRK   **1/2

Christopher Nolan


IDEA:  By land, sea, and sky, the British army at Dunkirk tries to stave off German forces and get safely back home.

BLURB:  With Dunkirk, the gifted but chronically ponderous Christopher Nolan has attempted to make his fleetest, most pared-down film, and has half-succeeded. Running a relatively brisk 107 minutes, the film has no time to get bogged down in extraneous expository dialogue or convoluted narrative mechanics, the troubling features that have to varying degrees marred the director’s previous work. Instead, it plays out with a directness and efficiency satisfyingly in line with the underlying credo of the stranded soldiers: just stay alive. This conceit frees up Nolan to invest in a more streamlined, sinewy kind of filmmaking than he is accustomed to, the result being a big-budget war movie tempered by a kind of formal modesty and narrative economy rare in comparable projects. The problem, alas, is that he is unable to fully rein in his most tiresome proclivities, his ambitions frequently overburdening the simplicity of his story. The braided structure, for instance, in which three “timelines” interweave to highlight different aspects of the Dunkirk evacuation, feels arbitrary and ineffective, a temporal muddling of the event that doesn’t so much convey disorientation as it hobbles each strand’s dramatic momentum. Despite his inimitable technical prowess, Nolan’s inability (or unwillingness) to modulate tone and rhythm yields a monotony that further blunts the film’s visceral impact, a numbed state compounded by Hans Zimmer’s distracting, pile-driving score, which works overtime to generate suspense but has the adverse effect of seeming annoyingly redundant. Dunkirk works best when Hoyte van Hoytema’s sumptuous 65mm lensing does the heavy-lifting. The vivid teals and azures of sea and sky, set against the viscous browns and blacks of soldiers huddled in the sand or shuttling through the air, have more potency than any of the film’s rather humdrum action sequences.

Arabian Nights

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 23, 2017 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (0)


Pier Paolo Pasolini


IDEA:  The ingenuous Nuredin travels the desert in search of his missing slave girl, Zumurrud, while various others along the way expound on their own romantic travails.

BLURB:  Even more than the first two films in his Trilogy of Life, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights feels like Pasolini’s id splashed across the screen, the director’s most unwieldy, quixotic, indulgent, and uninhibited vision of insatiable erotic desire. His loose rendition of a handful of stories from One Thousand and One Nights is less a loyal historical account than an unapologetic idealization of a pre-modern past figured as a phantasmagoria of bountiful carnal pleasures. There is little denying that Pasolini, in exalting a relatively uncorrupted (by capitalism at least) era and people, tips emphatically over into Orientalism and sensual extravagance. His mise-en-scène contains majestic Middle Eastern vistas and supple, young nude bodies in equally abundant measure; unashamed nakedness bespeaks an innocent and liberating comfort with sex he mobilizes in protest of contemporary Western prudishness. The perspective is obviously highly dubious, but also gratifying – Pasolini makes no claims to either realism or good taste in his fantasy of fleshly abandon. Yet to posit Arabian Nights or the other films of the trilogy as purely idyllic retreats into the past would be a mistake. The films are as vivified by the idea of humans stripped of civilizing cultural constraints as they are haunted by the absurdities, cruelties, and hypocrisies of religious dogma and reigning structures of power. Still, in Arabian Nights as in the other films, mankind’s follies are always bound up with its irrepressible primal urges. Pasolini’s fervidly messy tales allow those urges to run (mostly satisfyingly) amok.

A Ghost Story

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 19, 2017 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

A GHOST STORY   ***1/2

David Lowery


IDEA:  After being killed in a car accident, a man returns to his home as a ghost to check in on his bereft wife.

BLURB:  Ethereal, evocative, and pregnant with a voluptuous sense of mystery, A Ghost Story is a rumination on human consciousness that feels as fragile and wondrous as the fabric of existence it captures just a sliver of. From its first frames, Lowery lets us know that his universe is one where the eternal is enfolded in the everyday, juxtaposing shots of the cosmos with scenes of intimate domestic contentment. As in life, places are never just places, and attachments are never merely physical connections; they are imbued with and informed by history, memory, and existential knowledge, inscribed with the psychical imprints of human subjects. Lowery’s ghost is an allegory of this and more. It is a spectral emanation of an individual’s habits and anxieties, preoccupations and residencies, a manifestation of his attempt to cling to a world of which he is a mere transient fragment. A Ghost Story is, on this level, an achingly poignant meditation on impermanence that uses the figure of the ghost as a prism through which to view the imponderable flux of existence. But it is perhaps even more remarkable as a demonstration of cinema’s senses-expanding faculties. By anchoring his ghost, our point-of-view, in one location as time contracts and speeds by in front of him, Lowery offers a compelling metaphor for film spectatorship, making thematic the medium’s ability to reorganize space-time and present us with a world we are absent from. While the director’s narrative logic begins to unravel by the end – the line between allegory and serious metaphysical inquiry becomes too muddily negotiated, and his exceptional laconicity turns convoluted – his formal rigor never wavers. A Ghost Story is a slippery, diaphanous object, sometimes to its detriment, but it is also an exemplary showcase of meticulously controlled film form that invites us to bear witness to our own ghosts, including the ones conjured by the cinema.

The Beguiled

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on June 28, 2017 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)


Sofia Coppola


IDEA:  The fragile ecosystem of an Antebellum south girls' seminary is disrupted when one of the girls brings a wounded Union soldier inside.

BLURB:  In Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, pastel dresses and southern hospitality are the seductive signifiers of a primly manicured vileness. Their surface sumptuousness can hardly conceal the angst, antipathy, and sexual hysteria simmering beneath. Filtered through Philippe Le Sourd’s gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, however, the cloistered world of the girls’ seminary appears as a placid idyll verging on the embalmed. The war brewing outside is for the women a distant, if not suppressed, reality; their ossified isolation betrays their insidious complicity in its violence. In a shrewd exploiting of our allegiances, Coppola portrays them as a tight-knit collective of women protected by communal rituals and female solidarity. They seem innocent enough, until their carefully maintained walls are destabilized by the unruly excesses of the outside world, and human nature itself. Their subsequent unraveling is orchestrated by Coppola with a masterfully winching tension. The becalmed air and patina of etiquette never abate, making their increasing psychological precarity and malice all the more chilling. One could easily object to how the film glorifies their evil, reveling in the gorgeous, frilly aesthetics of their depravity, and it would not be an unwarranted qualm. However, this allows Coppola to sneakily modulate our identification in a compounding of the film’s unsettling effects. The war may remain on the periphery, as it does for the women, but its horrors, finally, refuse to stay at a distance.

A Quiet Passion

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 30, 2017 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (0)


Terence Davies


IDEA:  A portrait of Emily Dickinson, from her iconoclastic teenage years to her later increasing reclusiveness.

BLURB:  One of the most notable features of Terence Davies’s supremely witty and ineluctably sad A Quiet Passion is its use of language. Everyone in it, from Emily Dickinson to her family and friends, speaks in an exaggeratedly eloquent, hyper-literary English whose crisply theatrical delivery attunes us to each and every word. The effect is a foregrounding of prosody as much as meaning, underscoring the dense materiality of spoken language and its attendant pleasures and frustrations. This is clearly an appropriate and clever strategy to employ in a film about a poet, especially one, as Davies shows us, whose sharp linguistic sense contributed to both her artistic triumphs and her personal torments. The dialogue shrewdly embodies this duality: it is at once dazzlingly acrobatic and piquant, optimally mobilized for expression, and thick and entrapping, the structure of an intractable discursive realm that Dickinson in particular struggles to find peace within. Emotionally brittle and abrasively forthright, equally empowered and debilitated by her stubborn convictions and rhetorical proficiency, Cynthia Nixon’s astonishing performance illuminates a woman bound up, for better and worse, in the vagaries of such discourse. For Davies, she is a fiercely smart, sensitive individual whose tragedy was just that, an artist for whom words were her greatest ally and the material of her self-seclusion from the unjust world she refused to yield to.

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.


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


Martin Scorsese




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.