Kingdom Come – Sean Baker’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT

 

1280_thefloridaproject2_a24.jpgCentering a film on children, especially annoying and mischevious ones, is walking a tight-rope. How far can you take their shenanigans until they become completely unlikeable? Where do you draw the line so their cutesy antics remain “bad but funny” and never go to being actually cruel? Mooney, Jancey, and Scooty, all around the ages of 6, 7, or 8, engage in a wide spectrum of practical jokes, from spitting on peoples cars from the balcony to shutting off the power grid. Yet, they remain the absolute heart and soul of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a highlighter-markered dramedy adventure with an incredibly dark undercurrent.

The title of the film is taken from the developmental code-name for Walt Disney World, and its no coincidence because the film lies entirely within the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth”. From rainbows and Disney gift-shops to rich tourists passing by getting scammed by Mooney and her mother Halley into buying stolen park passes, the title becomes a rather darkly comedic joke, juxtaposing the lavish and carefree living of American families on their way to a magical vacation with a community of people barely making ends meet.

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For the kids, Disney World is but a distant and unattainable pipe-dream. Instead, their kingdom is a four-story pink motel in Kissimmee, Florida which houses a diverse group of families, many of them poor and struggling. It’s easy to forget the psychological toll that poverty plays on children. Their reckless behavior is hard to sympathize with and understand. The concept of poverty and day-to-day uncertainty in life is so foreign for many us who, like me, grew up in the suburbs in a stable home with a steady income and a virtual guarantee of food, water, a paycheck, and electricity.  That these kids act out in a bunch of mischevious ways, curse like sailors, know a lot about sex and genitalia, is not a matter poor parenting as much as it is a matter of them being forced to find entertainment in the real world wherever possible. There are many movies which showcase how children cope with difficult living situations by creating their own worlds and forming their own mythos (the most obvious example here is Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia’s adventures with Pan result as a means of coping with death and brutality in Francoist Spain). For Mooney and her gang, the world is their oyster and in a much more serious sense, it’s their coping mechanism for a life that is incredibly unfair for children to have to live.

Sean Baker’s ability to bring a sense of genuine awareness and understanding of the downtrodden without resorting to gross sentimentality and reality TV kitsch is even better developed here than his previous entry Tangerine, an electrifying film about trans prostitutes in Los Angeles. He doesn’t force us to agree or like any of his characters, instead, building their humanity through their day-to-day struggles. Halley does her best at building a life, or really more a shield, for her daughter Mooney who doesn’t really grasp the idea that her mother has to steal and resell wholesale objects and have sex with married men to get food on the table. The constant pestering of the motel manager, a friendly but firm man named Bobby (a fantastic Willem Dafoe) doesn’t help matters. She’s vindictive, violent, a poor role model, and most of all, incredibly spiteful. It’s hard for us to find anything redeeming in Halley’s parenting of Mooney. Yet, their bond and love for each other are never in doubt.

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In many ways, Halley is similar to the character of Sin-Dee in Tangerine. Bold and brash, and obnoxious to many faults, but ultimately we come to terms with the fact that their attitude is what kept them going this long. It wasn’t a trait that was built internally, but externally, a product of a fight to survive in a world which has completely discarded them. Baker’s themes of poverty are sewed into every fiber of the film, and The Florida Project‘s greatest moments come from its character’s ability to see the joy and magic in a world that many of us would consider an absolute misery. The movie’s tagline “Find Your Kingdom” is melancholic, because it shouldn’t have to be their kingdom. They deserve better. But for as long as they are there, they might as well stake their claim as the commanders of their world.

 

IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM YET… STOP READING. SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

 

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What is going to be one of the most debated and divisive endings since maybe Chris Nolan’s Inception or The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the ending of The Florida Project is a jolt of electricity. It looks weird, it feels weird, it ends in a way where we have to slap ourselves and ask, what the fuck just happened? Corey Atab of Slate Magazine wrote a cool piece on why the ending is absolutely PERFECT.

In my personal view, the ending of the film ties back into the concept of “escaping reality” which is a theme that exists in many stories centering around children in difficult situations. The end of the films poses an inescapable and terrifying truth of life, where Mooney is going to be taken permanently away from her mother. We know this is not going to change, we know that there is nothing but ugliness ahead… yet, the children still have hope. Much like the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, where Ofelia’s life screeches to a tragic halt, a devastating conclusion to an existence in fascist Spain that featured war, death, hunger, and not much else… yet, the legend of her friendship with Pan, and her legacy as a Princess in the Kingdom of the Afterlife poses an alternate reality. Is this a cheap twist to squeeze happiness out of misery? The cynical may think so. But children’s minds, their imaginations, their hopes, and dreams are always different than ours. They are shaped by a yet unrelenting and untied belief in good. So when Mooney and Jancey run for their lives towards Disney World and the Magic Kingdom and a legacy build on fairytales and princesses, it isn’t just a naive escape from an inevitable reality, it is a confirmation that whatever may come, they will keep running towards a happy ending.

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Inside Three Films From the Latin American Film Fest

The AFI Silver theater was doing the Latin American Film Festival, and I decided with time restraints and busy schedule and all, to pick three movies playing at convenient times and watch them. I’m glad I did because they represented a good distribution of what you’d expect to be playing at most festivals around the world…  most of the selection was picked off from bigger premier fests from earlier in the year including Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, etc. All in all, it was a good experience and the audiences at these films are much more “there for the movie” than your regular theater audiences so the screening experience is almost always enjoyable.

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Vazante (Daniela Thomas, 2017)

I guess I should jump straight into extolling about what I thought was the clear standout of the three, Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian romance-thriller Vazante. Premiering at Director’s Fortnight earlier this year, and getting rave reviews there, the movie certainly lived up to its pedigree. It was without question the most accomplished of the films I watched, and also the most singular in its vision. Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film. The tranquility of its setting, where Beatriz walks elegantly through grass fields to the sound of tropical birds, belies the reality of each characters existence. The brutality of slavery is kept as a looming, threatening undercurrent in the film, and the violence kept to a bare minimum. Similar to a sequence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave where a young child plays with her dolls in the cotton field while we know, somewhere unseen and unheard, slaves a being savagely whipped, so too in Vazante is the majority of bloodshed implicit.

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When Beatriz falls in love with a slave boy named Virgilio, we know that sooner or later their luck of running away together unnoticed is going to run out. We know the terrible consequences of their actions. Yet, the glimmer of hope for them taunts us in many ways; in the traits of each character, such as Antonio’s seemingly lazy behavior (he sleeps in a hammock all day) at the plantation and his frequent long trips out into the jungle, as well as the technical choices of Thomas and her editor and cinematographer, who keenly keep the presence of Antonio felt throughout exchanges between Beatriz and Virgilio.

While both of the young lovers face similar peril in their relationship to Antonio, with Virgilio being a bought-for slave and Beatriz as bought-for bride, Thomas makes a clear distinction that Beatriz’s whiteness remains an inherent privilege. The class and racial consciousness Thomas infuses through simple gestures is markedly different from most American treatments of slavery, which usually features white characters “with a heart”.  Here, Beatriz is not shy about her disobedience to Antonio because even as a young girl, she is very much aware of her status while Virgilio’s life becomes more and more in danger as their relationship becomes more passionate.

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The Night Guard (Diego Ros, 2017)

A quieter entry in the fest was  The Night Guard, the debut film of Mexican filmmaker Diego Ros. Obviously working with budget restraints and helmed by a director clearly still getting his feet wet in the art of making cinema, it is set in a single location; a construction site near a hillside overlooking a large city. A security guard named Salvador is about to become a father, but instead of being with his wife as she’s going through labor, he is stuck tending to a police investigation of a dead child in a van which appeared near his construction site. As the night progresses, police corruption, shady activity from his co-worker Jose, an encounter with a hooker, and other obstacles keep Salvador in a reverse-Waiting-For-Godot situation where, as he is about to finally leave, he keeps getting pulled back. The movie aims to at once present a clever ruse necessitated by its budget constraints while also giving us a look at crime and security issues rife within Mexico. It has its share of flaws that usually befall a first-timer, with some strange editing, questionable acting, and a script which seems to be a little too thin and light for its full feature length, but it also flashes moments of Ros’s technical knowledge. He develops his aesthetic well, playing with light and shade and utilizing long shots to showcase both the isolation of his characters and the ambiguity of their surroundings. But with an ending that just leaves many of its ideas laying on the ground, the movie remains an unfinished product with potential.

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The Desert Bride (Cecelia Atan & Valeria Pivato, 2017)

Finally, from Argentina, is Cecelia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s The Desert Bride, which was an Un Certain Regard Selection at the Cannes Film Fest. Featuring a terrific central performance from Paulina Garcia, the movie is a charming buddy-road-film about a maid who loses her bag at a bazaar and goes in search of it with the help of the last person she remembers having it with, a merchant named Gringo. It’s a breezy entry that is incredibly easy to digest because its narrative follows an arc I am well accustomed to growing up on Hollywood cinema, and its central focus on the chemistry between its “mismatched pair” is basically custom-built to please audiences. While the movie is certainly enjoyable, it is a dime a dozen of the road-trip genre. Not much more to say here. You know what to expect.

BRIGSBY BEAR and the nostalgia of one.

 

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Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)

 

Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.

The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.

I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.

Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.

Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)

American Honey

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American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

The after-effects of watching Andrea Arnold’s latest film American Honey made me feel it etched a defining signature for this generation and era of youth the way Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show did for the beginning of the 70’s. It’s a real and raw take of the “seize the moment” youth culture that has seeped into the central theme of several coming-of-age films, most of them tawdry offerings like Paper Towns. What sets American Honey apart however is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will. Star, an 18-year old dreadlocked girl, jumps ship from her borderline abusive boyfriend and two kids who aren’t even her own to join Jake, a young salesman she catches a glance of through a dingy van window. That split-second eye contact was enough for Star to seize an opportunity to join a ragtag group of magazine sellers looking for a quick buck.

Star’s journey ends up being a crossroads of American culture. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Every passionate kiss between Star and Jake goes in and out of focus as the camera tumbles along with them on the grass.  Its akin to many of the things that connect directly with a millennial culture that embraces imperfection, and a spontaneous jubilance for discovery.

Then there is of course, the money aspect. Star’s new job and love are hampered by the presence of Krystal, the leader of the magazine business, and much to Star’s devastation, the one who Jake answers to beck and call. In a pivotal sequence in the film, we see Star on the verge of losing her job and forced to watch Jake apply lotion to Krystal’s bare thighs. As their conversation goes on the sound of skin slapping and lubricant sliding grows ever louder and Star’s body begins to shake with ruin. It becomes clear that the newfound freedom still has its strings. At the heart of the film, thumping on the blood pumped through a carefully meditated playlist of songs including Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, Mazzy Starr’s “Fade Into You” and Raury’s “God Whisper”, the film depicts a camaraderie of a generation, all searching for an individual goal but finding solace in a companionship between equally lost and wandering souls. Despite the fact that their “job” is a sham, that Krystal’s grip of money and power may dampen what should be free enterprise, and Star’s own rollercoaster of falling in and out of love with Jake several times, the characters who populate Arnold’s remarkable story hang their hopes on a feeling, one they get from each other and through the film’s music.

Call it a musical, a coming-of-age drama or even a road movie, but American Honey is a generational film, one which drips with the feeling of growing up in this era, seizing a moment, a glance through a dingy window, riding in a packed van with misfits, never knowing where you’ll end up next, but knowing that they are there, and just as lost as you.  

Why So Pretentious?

Satantango.jpg
Sátántangó (Bela Tarr, 1994) – another classic punching-bag of a “pretentious film”

What is the point of a movie that is 3 or 4 or more hours long and is really slowly, methodically paced? Don’t these people know we have lives? Don’t they know that the point of a movie is to keep people’s attention? Where do they get this self-indulgent mentality to act like they deserve our viewership for that long? Every time a movie is made up of slow meandering camera movements, features minimal dialogue, completely immerses itself in its own unhurried aesthetic, or concentrates on an object, landscape, or character which seemingly has nothing surface-level going for it, I can hear the thousands of people who go to the movies for their supposed money’s-worth entertainment say to themselves “what pretentious garbage”.

But what does pretentious even mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around at the drop of a hat lately. The direct easy-access, low-hanging fruit of a pickup for the lay film-goer to act like his/her inferiority complex is completely justified because the cinema they don’t have the patience to give a chance is there for no other purpose than as a high-brow exercise in showing off artistic ambiguity. Films beyond easily digestible fast-food drive-thru offerings of Michael Bay and Colin Trevverow exist solely to make us feel inferior, right? Like if we don’t “get” them, then automatically we’re deemed as lesser people. That’s clearly got to be the filmmaker’s motive right?

You don’t understand the point of Terrence Malick forgoing much of the blood and carnage and “war is hell” obviousness of Oliver Stone’s Platoon and instead trying to toggle with less obvious themes regarding soldiers in war, not as a collective, but as individuals with their own personal thoughts  in The Thin Red Line. It’s pretentious, you say, because it doesn’t play to the tunes of what we know or expect, it doesn’t give it to us straight. Instead of displaying soldiers as a singular entity or “one hero” each character has a wildly different view of their place in war. Nothing in Malick’s film is offered as an answer. If you notice, the voice-overs of the soldiers in the film are not statements, but questions.

Questions? Why are we asking questions about war, when we should be giving people answers. Because Oliver Stone’s cute little tagline on the DVD cover of Platoon, “The first casualty of war… is innocence” looks so good on a poster. It looks so good as a singular black-white umbrella term for his anti-war cinematic movement (furthered by Born on the 4th of July) that can be shared across social media by millions without anyone really thinking about it. It’s a one track mind, which is perfect because it means we have now formed an identity against war, from this one simple banner phrase. But this is true pretentiousness is it not? Applying grave importance and merit to a single sentence, an overarching term which really doesn’t mean anything but sounds like a totally solid slogan: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” Put that on a baseball cap or T-shirt and parade it around, man. You’re gonna look so insightful and provocative!

But really… The Thin Red Line is the classic example of  what the internet would deem “pretentious cinema” though, because it lasts 3 hours long and is comprised of extended sequences of soldiers questioning their own participation in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Blood is at a minimum, we don’t have scenes of a soldier screaming for his mother trying to stuff his intestines back in his lower abdomen like in Saving Private Ryan. Malick isn’t milking anything here, because he doesn’t have to. Doesn’t the opposite of pretentious mean that the filmmaker has enough trust invested in his audience that he knows, and he can be sure that we’re smart enough to get that war sucks? Do we really need to be told that through exploding organs, blood-drenched battle-fields and cutely worded taglines that people in war… y’know… die… and… uh… experience grief and loss? Are we going to call Malick’s film pretentious because presents the idea that soldiers may actually doubt themselves once in a while? That they’re not all like-minded courageous heroes who overcome all odds? They have their own personal views of war and not everyone is on the same page as each other? That when they’re actually in battle, there may be an inkling of them that isn’t sure whether what they’re doing? Is The Thin Red Line pretentious because it takes too long to watch, and doesn’t fill every sequence with some snappy, easily digestible dialogue that makes us feel like we totally have a grip on this whole “war” thing, or a rocking battle-sequence where we root for a side and hope they “win”? Are we going to point and yell “pretentious” at a movie that doesn’t treat us like children waiting to be lectured on war, but instead treats us like individuals who have our own questions to ask?

Pretentious is being used by people the same way the word “theory” was hijacked to mean “guess”. Pretentious no longer applies to just things which attach more importance to themselves than they are worth… Pretentious is now the spitball we throw at anything that may take more time to understand than we are willing to give it.

Ironically, the so-called mainstream Hollywood movies that have been coming out seem to embody every level of pretense. I just watched Captain America : Civil War and asked myself, what the hell about this movie even justifies the title Civil War? The film lasts about 2.5 hours, and maybe an hour of it is back-and-forth conversations between the Avengers making the most hollow, tumblr-post level arguments about whether their power needs to be kept in check because everywhere they went they saved people, but also inadvertently murdered a bunch as well (ATTENTION: war is hell guys… war is hell. In case you couldn’t figure that out for yourself). Not to mention that this giant epic battle of choosing sides between TeamCap and TeamIron takes place on… and airport. No, seriously, the whole thing happens on a deserted airport terminal, and lasts roughly 5 to 10 minutes . It is only in maybe the last 7 minutes of the movie where Captain America and Iron Man show any level of real, tangible animosity towards each other, where for a split second, Captain America raises his shield to slam it on Iron Man’s face, then catches himself. In 2.5 hours, this 6 second moment is the only time where I felt Tony Stark’s fear and grief over the killing of his parents, and Captain’s very-American level of nationalistic arrogance shielded as “a fight for justice”. Of course, this is erased right after when the movie cuts to the “future” and Captain America sends Iron Man a voice-mail saying “sorry”, and we’re all just supposed to act like he didn’t almost just bash the man’s face in with a metal shield… okay.

The word pretentious is closer associated to the title of this movie, Civil War (more like Civil Argument) than anything that goes on in Yorgos Lanthimos’s also recently released dystopian love story, The Lobster*… a movie that no doubt people will call pretentious because it completely subverts our idea of love and marriage into a bizarre ritual of “find a soul-mate or effectively die” that the movie gives no background for. The characters speak and behave in awkward pauses and robotic monotone dialogues on purpose, and its so hard for us to understand this level of non-conformity in our love stories that we automatically slap the PRETENTIOUS tag on it because its beyond our trying to figure out. Never-mind that the entire agenda of Lanthimos is to evade any sense of importance to his story, other than have it exist and just say “here… you deal with it”. Meanwhile a middle school locker-room argument between Iron Man and Captain America is a CIVIL WAR. Yeesh.