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) :
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.