Monday, January 8, 2018

Some Thoughts From A Year Of Not Really Watching Films


mother! (Aronofsky)
A Quiet Passion (Davies)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)
Ex Libris (Wiseman)
Wormwood (Morris)
Jane (Morgen)
Columbus (Kogonada)
Song to Song (Malick)
Logan (Mangold)
The Beguiled (S Coppola)
The Square (Ostlund)

I saw fewer new theatrical releases in 2017 than in any other year this century, so I don't intend this as anything resembling a representative sampling of the most recent twelve months of cinema, a subject which holds increasingly less interest for me. I consider Criterion's release of “Barry Lyndon” on Blu-ray the major movie event of 2017.

Except for “mother!” 

I love “mother!” from its tiny little “m” to its glorious ! I love “mother!” so much I considered just listing it ten times and posting it as my top ten without further comment. Except maybe for a few extra !s. Like The Simpsons' “Man Getting Hit By Football” it works on so many levels. It's funny, it's frightening, it's a vivid depiction of the misogynistic horrors propagated by Christian mythology and male ego, it captures the naked terror of exposing your personal art to an audience, and it's exquisitely filmed from just a handful of efficient camera setups. Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer are perfect, and, oh lord, the sound design... it's damned exciting, gonzo filmmaking. Really, I love it so much I need to wait a few more months before I can do more than gush. Naturally, critics couldn't wait to take a dump on it. I hope Aronofsky doesn't get tired of casting pearls. Illegitimi non carborundum, darren!

As much as I love, love, love the movie, I found several of the skeptical takes on “mother!” both reasonable and insightful, and I often found myself responding “You're not wrong... but that's exactly what I want from a movie.” The tiny handful of viciously negative takes on “A Quiet Passion” were, by contrast, nothing short of baffling. Cynthia Nixon delivers the performance of the century as a righteously indignant Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' semi-biopic, the best film about an artist this side of Peter Watkins' magisterial “Edvard Munch” (1974). The weirdest, wrongest take of all is the weird, wrong suggestion that Nixon's portrayal of a “difficult” protagonist somehow makes her character unsympathetic. One critic even described Nixon's Dickinson as a “harridan.” WTF? I was moved to tears, felt a desperate urge to apologize to Dickinson across the centuries on behalf of a fallen world that didn't deserve her, and, above all, to read lots and lots of her poetry as one modest act of contrition.

Albert Serra's “The Death of Louis XIV” would have been a heck of a movie no matter the lead, but casting little Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) as the setting Sun King is the year's stroke of genuine inspiration. How can any cinephile not compare teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the special power of cinema? Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, mind you) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. The array of charlatans who propose ineffective cures provide some of the year's quietest comic scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Paired with Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” (1966), Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Now we just need a film about Louis' passion for ballet to complete the grand historic trilogy. If it turns one has already been made, feel free to let me know.

Any year which produces new films from documentary masters Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris should be appreciated. “Ex Libris” turns Wiseman's studied eye to the glorious institution of the sprawling New York Public Library, proven here to be as vital as ever from boardroom meetings to dynamic guest speakers to endless shelves of real, actual, physical, beautiful books. In the six-part Netflix series “Wormwood,” Morris leads viewers through a few twists of the labyrinthine story of scientist Frank Olson, alleged to have jumped to his death from a New York hotel room in 1953, but possibly killed by the CIA because... well, because it's the sort of thing that CIA guys really get off on. Maybe. Eric Olson, Frank's son, still fighting (perhaps both futilely as well as nobly) for justice emerges as one of the year's most compelling characters. Both films showcase their directors' attention to detail and passion for rational investigation, though “Wormwood” also underscores the limits of empiricism when evidence proves elusive – that doesn't mean you stop digging, though! Both documentaries are sensational and my only complaint about each: too damn short.

The rest, in brief: “Jane” spins some glorious color footage of young Jane Goodall in Tanzania in the 1960s into one of the more beautiful documentaries of recent years. “Columbus,” the debut feature by director Kogonada (familiar to Criterion fans for some great extras features), turns architecture into a way of life and love and gives actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho ample room to shine. “Song to Song” is probably my least favorite recent Malick, but give me a chance to rewatch it and I may change my mind. Least favorite recent Malick still equals one of the year's best, of course.

Oh my god, Patrick Stewart is so great in “Logan.”

They don't have to be in competition, but I think Sofia Coppola improved on Don Siegel's original “The Beguiled” (1971). At the very least, she made it her own film, a fresh remake that actually has a reason to exist. “The Square” is a bit too long for my taste, and not nearly as good as “Force Majeure,” but Ruben Ostlund is becoming one of the modern masters of the squirm-laugh.

I greatly disliked a good deal of the year's critically praised movies, many of them likely award winners, but rather than mentioning duds like “The Shape of Water” or “Wind River” or “Three Billboards Blah Blah Blah” I'll limit myself to venting my spleen at “I, Tonya.” It's cruel, stupid, glib, condescending, and so incompetently made, it earned a glowing 90% approval from the Tomatogentsia, compelling evidence that we get the president we deserve. After a wearying year of unprecedented cognitive dissonance from every news source, I can't even face the prospect of speaking with someone who can't recognize what complete garbage this loathsome nothing of a movie is, and so I will never volunteer to speak of it again. 

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