Favorite Movies of 2017

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I guess you could say spending New Year’s Eve getting screened in the Middle East by United States Border Patrol officers is the perfect ending to the political experience of 2017. At least I got some champagne and dessert afterwards.

Part of the flight, I re-read one of my absolute favorite pieces of film criticism ever written; Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango. It reassured me that the great cinema is not something that should be assumed to be lost on most people. That there is always an audience for a great film no matter how unwieldy, ambitious, or downright unappealing in appearance it may be. Rosenbaum is always great at scanning cinema and all its aspects of writing, directing, production, distribution, and consumption through the lens of a “power of the people” mantra. It’s a political philosophy which prioritizes access regardless of demographic models and it undoubtedly needs to be made more aware of because of the sectarian means by which cinema (and culture in general really) is showcased in America. So this too was a perfect capping of 2017.

This year, I continued my habit of the past couple years of just saying “fuck it” to trying to watch new releases just for the sake of watching them. Selectivism over volume, hurrah. Out of the dozens of remakes, sequels etc. that got churned out at the detriment of much more interesting material that could easily have taken it’s place, I saw but a few (War for the Planet of the Apes and BladeRunner 2049) and they were both rather underwhelming, especially in comparison to their own predecessors.

Looking at my Best of 2017 list, there is a dearth of American movies (also possibly due to the ambiguity of Hollywood vs. UK produced film). The three that end up on there are all, unsurprisingly, original films, one a major blockbuster by a well-known celebrity director, and the other two, small indie films by relatively new filmmakers. These movies are becoming rarer in a distribution cycle which is slowly and surely being overtaken by whatever sells in China, Hollywood’s largest market. Outside of Star Wars which remains quintessentially, an American-exclusive loved franchise entity, everything else from Marvel to DC to Fast & Furious to Monster Movies to whatever the hell James Cameron comes out with next is going to be seen by more Chinese paying customers more frequently than any other nationality of movie-goers on Earth.

But I consciously hoped to allow this list, like the ones I made in the past, be a representation of the diversity of cinema that is still existent in the nooks and crannies of cinema-halls in the U.S., if you care to search and look for them. Movies are always going to be there even with Netflix and Chinese-centric marketing models because there are always artists who are going to be making them. If not in the U.S, then elsewhere. It’s a huge world, and it’s connected closer and faster than ever. Fascism and nationalism are rising, but so is everyone’s desire to see things outside of their own box. Maybe 2018 will be about that.
Anyway, here’s the list of my Favorite Films of 2017. (click on the title of each film to be taken to a full review of the film) :

  1. The Other Side of Hope | dir. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland)
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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

2. The Florida Project | dir. Sean Baker (U.S.A.)

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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.

3. The Killing of a Sacred Deer | dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (U.K.)

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which can be considered Lanthimos’s first dive into genre cinema, plays on the same sort of premise set by James Wan’s Saw series. A sociopathic teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, who deserves every award for this) sets the rules for a game wherein the central character, a surgeon named Steven, (Colin Farrell) must make an unthinkable sacrifice to save himself and others.

4. Let the Corpses Tan | dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani (France/Belgium)

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“You remember those Looney Tunes cartoons where Taz comes ripping through a jungle in a giant whirlwind and everything is just tearing and flying? That’s how I imagine Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were in the editing room when they edited their latest film, a rapid-fire pulp-drama of blood and fury, Let the Corpses Tan.”

5. Clash | dir. Mohammed Diab (Egypt)

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The conversations that Diab strikes between his characters are wild enough to make our heads spin, the confusion of who is on who’s side is unclear enough to frustrate our ignorant and uneducated Western minds. I could tell, from the first 10 minutes of the movie, until its conclusion, that Diab’s film works both as a stark social commentary for an Egyptian filmgoer and a mocking satire of America and Europe’s feeble attempts to try to “pinpoint” the good and the bad of the Arab Spring. The film systematically obliterates our binary point of view when discussing tensions in the Middle East. Diab purposefully populates the back of the police van bit by bit with different groups, initially daring us to pick the good guys. Like the Western-educated rube I am, I fell for it.

6. Dunkirk | dir. Christopher Nolan (U.K./U.S.A.)

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

7. Vazante | dir. Daniela Thomas (Brazil/Portugal)

 

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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.

8. Kedi | dir. Ceyda Torun (Turkey)

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Kedi is still overall light-hearted, featuring several sequences of “go-pro” style camera tracking shots that give ground-level point of view shots of the cat’s journey through human-dominated habitats. The film is fun, and it plays perfectly to our unmitigated need to place human characteristics and traits onto non-human animals. A sequence where one of the cats chases after a mouse plays like the tunnel scene from the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive. The mouse peeks in and out, aware of the cat’s presence but avoiding being seen. It’s thrilling, it’s quirky, it’s exactly the type of thing that gets a million “likes” and “clicks” and “retweets”.

9. Endless Poetry | dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile)

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In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view.

10. Brigsby Bear | dir. Dave McCary (U.S.A.)

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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.

 

Best “Past Discoveries” of 2017:

The Turin Horse | dir. Bela Tarr (Hungary, 2012)

I Stand Alone | dir. Gaspar Noe (France, 1998)

Twin Peaks (Season 1) dir. David Lynch (1991)

The Panic in Needle Park | dir. Jerry Schatzberg (1971)

The Sopranos (Seasons 1-6)| (1999 – 2005)

Night and Fog | dir. Alain Resnais (1956)

The Spirit of the Beehive | dir. Victor Erice (1973)

The Werckmeister Harmonies | dir. Bela Tarr (2000)

The Forbidden Room | dir. Guy Maddin (2015)

Shin Godzilla | dir. Hideaki Ano & Shinji Higuchi (2016)

 

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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.

Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.