Monday, January 16, 2017

The Ten Best Animated Films of 2016

Say what you want about 2016, it was a fantastic year for animation. I was continually impressed by the quality of the animated films this year, with several contending for ten best films of the year, period. Here are the ten that stuck with me the most.

1
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
(Laika)

Every now and then, a film comes along that restores your faith in the art of filmmaking itself. After a long, dreary slog of a summer movie season, along comes KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a breath of fresh air that isn't just the best animated film 2016 has produced so far, it's one of the finest films of the year, period. Produced by Laika studios (which also gave us such fantastic films as CORALINE and PARANORMAN), there have been few mainstream, widely released films this year that have been so thrillingly original, so wondrously crafted, or so deeply engaging as KUBO.

It often feels as if a legend is being born before our eyes, as young Kubo, a boy with only one eye, is sent on a quest for three pieces of sacred armor - a quest on which his father died many years before. Pursued by his two evil aunts and his diabolical grandfather, the Moon King, and with only a cursed beetle warrior and a talking monkey for company, Kubo must rely on his wits and his skill with magical origami to stop his evil family from stealing his one good eye, and returning him to their celestial kingdom, where he will be blind to the suffering of the world.

You'll find no instantly dated pop culture references, bodily humor, or current pop songs here, as are so often present in many contemporary animated films. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS focuses on storytelling and character, crafting an epic tale like no other. It also has a depth that few children's films ever touch. Kubo's grandfather is a god-like creature who has deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering of the world, writing it off as a dark and terrible place, insisting this his family remove themselves from it, forbidding all emotional involvement. In that way, KUBO is one of the most indelible rebukes of Trump-ian cynicism and isolationism that I've seen in a long time. While not a political film by any means, it is a celebration of a beautifully flawed world, of hope, family, and that which unites us, as well as a repudiation of negativity, division, and fear. It is a film that feels timeless, but one with a message that resonates in our current political climate with a loud and clear cry for optimism. You'll find no trace of cynicism or irony here. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a warm-hearted and throughly entertaining surprise, a rollicking adventure that is one of the most unique and creative animated films to come along in a very long time.

2
YOUR NAME
(Funimation)

When a once-in-a-millennium comet passes by the Earth, a young man and a young woman who have never met awake one morning to find that they are trading lives in their dreams. As they live each other's lives, improving them as they go, they begin to fall in love, until a cosmic tragedy threatens to tear them apart forever.

Makoto Shinkai's YOUR NAME is a dazzling, heart-stopping, altogether wonderful film. It is a love story like no other, a breathtakingly animated tale of two seemingly unconnected people who have been searching for each other without ever knowing it. Shinkai's take on dreams, destiny, and the mysterious nature of love is a unique vision all its own, one that never loses sight of its emotional core even as its time-jumping plot becomes more and more complex. YOUR NAME is like a dream, a rapturous, haunting dream from which I never wanted to wake. Say what you want about 2016 - it was an incredible year for animation.

3
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
(GKIDS)

MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI may have an unusual title, but it might be the most unexpectedly emotionally devastating film I've seen this year.  It's the story of a boy nicknamed Zucchini, who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his abusive mother. Teased and alone at first, he soon finds himself ingratiating himself to the other children, each the product of neglect, abuse, and broken homes. Everything changes, however, when a girl shows up at the orphanage, whose abusive aunt is determined to adopt her in order to receive a stipend from the state. 

It's all very serious subject matter for an animated film, but it is all handled so beautifully by director Claude Barras. The screenplay absolutely nails the children's dialogue and worldview, even though the children have seen such horrors, they remain absolutely authentic. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI tackles the horrors head-on, but with a sense of child-like innocence that never feels fake or heavy-handed. It is a story about growing up in an imperfect world filled with pain, but finds a beautiful silver lining in a dark, dark cloud. A sensitive, astute, and wholly disarming, MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI is a marvelous work of art, a portrait of broken childhood that is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Bring a tissue. On second thought, bring a whole box.

4
THE RED TURTLE
(Studio Ghibli)

A castaway who finds himself on a deserted island with only fiddler crabs for company, is suddenly visited by a mysterious red turtle who thwarts his attempts to escape the island. Enraged, he kills the turtle, only to have it turn into a beautiful woman, whom he marries and builds a life on their tiny little island at the edge of the world.

Evocatively animated and dialogue-free, Studio Ghibli's THE RED TURTLE is pure magic, a deeply moving fable about the beauty of a life well lived. It occasionally feels like a short film that has been dragged out a bit too long, but it soon recovers and delivers a truly moving emotional sucker punch. There is just something about its painterly images, combined with the lush score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, that makes the film such a mystical wonder. It's almost as if we're watching a life flash before someone's eyes, a series of moments in a young family's life, filled with laughter, pain, and most of all, love. That may sound a bit hokey, but there is nothing hokey about THE RED TURTLE, a rich and deeply moving work of art that stands as one of the year's finest pieces of animation.

5
ZOOTOPIA
(Disney)

Disney tackles racism and prejudice in a surprisingly smart way in their latest animated feature, ZOOTOPIA, which follows a provincial rabbit named Judy Hopps who dreams of being the first rabbit to ever become a big city cop in Zootopia - a city where predators and prey now live in harmony, having overcome their historic differences. Raised with a mistrust of foxes, she goes on to accidentally befriend a streetwise hustler named Nick Wild, who also just so happens to be a fox. Tasked with solving a recent rash of disappearances, Judy inadvertently stokes a fear of predators into a city that is predominantly prey. When she uncovers a plot to demonize predators and sew fear in the hearts of the majority, only she and her new friend, Nick, can set things right.

It's a heavy topic for a film aimed at kids, but it treats it with a surprising about of dignity and respect. ZOOTOPIA is also Disney's most charming, non-Pixar film since TANGLED (sorry FROZEN). It presents us with a world that mirrors our own, and one can't help but hear the rhetoric of Donald Trump echoing through the goals of the ultimate villain (who I won't reveal here), trying to stoke fear of "otherness" in order to inflame and unite the majority. No other major animated film has so indelibly and directly tackled racism as ZOOTOPIA, and it does so without feeling like a finger wagging lecture. This is a movie with heart, a movie with brains, a clever and incisive piece of entertainment that presents a striking portrait of our own world in ways that are easily digestible for children without being patronizing. It's a real winner.

6
FINDING DORY
(Disney/Pixar)

There are few animated films that have reached the popular and cultural heights of Disney/Pixar's FINDING NEMO. The breakaway star of that film was, of course, Ellen Degeneres' forgetful blue tang fish, Dory, whose mantra "just keep swimming" went on to become an iconic catchphrase.

It's surprising, then, that it has taken 13 years for Pixar to deliver a sequel, especially considering there have been a third sequel to TOY STORY, a MONSTERS, INC. sequel, and one much maligned CARS sequel in the time since FINDING NEMO was released. 

Thankfully, the long-awaited follow-up, FINDING DORY, turned out to be worth the wait. The new film shifts its focus from clown fish Nemo and his dad, Marlin, and onto everyone's favorite sufferer of short-term memory loss. Dory is one of those rare comic supporting characters capable of headlining her own film, never wearing out her welcome or descending into mere shtick. In fact, through FINDING DORY, Dory becomes an even more fully developed character in her own right.

The film introduces us to young Dory, perhaps the most adorable baby fish this side of the Great Barrier Reef, whose forgetful nature leads her to wander away from home, then forget that her parents ever existed. Prompted by her adventures with Nemo and Marlin, she begins to remember parts of her roots, and heads off on a journey across the ocean to put together the pieces. Along the way, she meets a nearly blind whale named Destiny, a grumpy (and stunningly animated) octopus named Hank, who just wants to get to Cleveland and be left alone, and a host of other sea critters who help her on her quest to rediscover her roots, and remember who she really is.

Like FINDING NEMO before it, FINDING DORY heavily explores the idea of home and what that means to different people. Ultimately, it's not just Dory's family who represents home, but Marlin and Nemo as well. Home is where we belong; our chosen family, not just our blood family, and FINDING DORY manages to take those themes that were first explored in FINDING NEMO and give them an even deeper resonance. That's the hallmark of a great sequel - it expands, rather than repeat itself, it goes deeper, rather than merely treading water. It's also every bit as funny as the original, even if it doesn't quite hit the same emotional highs. Still, while it might not be a ten hankie weepie the way some Pixar films are, it's still a crackerjack sequel that doesn't rely simply on nostalgia for its meaning. Even Thomas Newman's score mostly ignores the iconic piano melody from the first film, replacing it with lovely new thematic material representing Dory's adventure. 

Degeneres is as charming as ever as the beloved Dory, giving the film an energetic yet emotionally grounded center that remains one of Pixar's most indelible creations. FINDING DORY is a worthy follow-up to FINDING NEMO, a warm, big-hearted sequel that takes everything we loved about its predecessor, and crafts a fresh new adventure that feels every bit as spirited and beguiling as its predecessor did 13 years ago.

7
MOANA
(Disney)

Based on Polynesian mythology, MOANA is the tale of the daughter of an island chieftain who sets out on a quest to save her people by finding the lost demigod, Maui, in order to restore the heart of an ancient island, whose disappearance has put a curse on the local tribes. 

Under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker, MOANA becomes one of Disney's strongest animated musicals in years, thanks to glorious new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina. They may not be as readily hummable as some of the studio's classics, but they're easily some of the most lyrically graceful in the entire Disney canon. It's also one of the most stunningly animated films  the studios has ever made, coming alive with vibrant color at every turn. 

It's interesting that Disney has moved away from tales featuring conventional villains, often taking a less black and white view of the world. From BRAVE to MALEFICENT to FROZEN, Disney continues to showcase strong women without the need for a love interest or a conventionally evil force. The "villains" of Disney's contemporary works are less evil and more misunderstood, people and beings who are just misguided or suffering in ways that the hero needs to understand. It's a more complex view of the world, but one that I think strengthens its young viewers world views, even if I miss the great Disney villains of old.

8
SAUSAGE PARTY
(Columbia)

Seth Rogen and team take on Pixar in this bawdy, profane, and altogether riotous animated comic satire about foodstuffs whose ideas of life after the grocery store ("the great beyond") are shattered when they discover their true purpose. SAUSAGE PARTY is a gleefully blasphemous allegorical take on faith, organized religion, and the search for meaning, as the characters discover that their belief in an afterlife was created to assuage their fear of death. 

Bitingly funny and unrepentantly vulgar, SAUSAGE PARTY is a wildly original and irreverent work of animated anarchy that has a surprisingly layered take on issues of faith and fact (and the sometimes inherent need for both). It often becomes enamored with its own obscenity, but when the satire is this sharp, and Alan Menken's self-parodic music is so good, it's hard to ignore the intelligence at the heart of its crudeness.

9
MISS HOKUSAI
(GKIDS)

An animated biopic of O-Ei Hokusai, daughter of legendary artist Tetsuzo Hokusai, MISS HOKUSAI is a gorgeously rendered tale of a woman who struggled to make her own living as an artist in the shadow of her famous father, often painting works under his name without credit. 

While the supernatural elements that skirt the edges of the film never really come together in a satisfying way, it's hard to ignore the elegant beauty of this film, and its lovely blending of modern and classical sensibilities. Yet those elements are an important part of its exploration of an artist's vision, and the importance of creating a complete work of art. Director Keiichi Hara uses abstraction to take us inside Hokusai's mind, allowing us to see the artistic process from beginning to end, separating great art from the poseurs. At times, it almost feels like an animated Mizoguchi film in its portrayal of a strong woman's societal plight. It may not have a strong plot, but Hara seems content to focus on character details. It honestly feels like no other animated film I've ever seen, taking its beats and cues with a laid back sense of time and place, revealing in the small moments rather than the big picture. It's a small scale, quietly powerful triumph.

10
KUNG FU PANDA 3
(Dreamworks)

Po is back, and this time facing a supernatural threat from the spirit world - a former partner of Master Oogway who has returned from beyond the grave to take the Chi from all the kung fu masters in revenge for an ancient grudge.

While not quite as good as its predecessors (what threequel ever is?), KUNG FU PANDA 3 is still a surprisingly strong and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At first it feels like its back tracking on the lessons Po learned in KUNG FU PANDA 2, but it soon becomes a moving exploration on identity, and what it means to be a family. Director Jennifer Yuh has done a fantastic job of steering this franchise into emotionally grounded territory, rather than rely on overly self-reflexive or pop culture references for humor. 

In KUNG FU PANDA 2, Po learned that he didn't need to rely on his past for his identity. Now that Po has found his panda family, it allows Yuh to explore themes of recognizing culture and tradition while forging your own identity. These are surprisingly strong, but incredibly relevant themes for a kids movie, and Yuh continues to relay them with humor and grace. KUNG FU PANDA 3 lets kids know that it's OK if your family doesn't look like the traditional model - that your family is what you make it. It's OK to have two dads, even if one of them is a goose. There are a lot going on in these films, and even if some of the jokes are beginning to feel tired in their third iteration, there's enough here to keep things fresh and bring the series to an entertaining and heartwarming conclusion.

Also strong, but just missed the top ten:
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Best Blu-Rays of 2016

1
TRILOGIA DE GUILLERMO DEL TORO
(Criterion)

The Criterion Collection truly outdid themselves in 2016 with this sumptuous box set featuring Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth. Not only does it have perhaps the most beautiful packaging I've ever seen on a Blu-Ray (the fold-out box featuring Del Toro's artwork is just stunning), it's also a veritable film school in a box, taking in-depth looks at three of the Mexican filmmaker's best films. In a year of great archival releases, this was the showstopper.


2
PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA
(Kino Lorber)

Not to be outdone, Kino's Pioneers of African American Cinema delivers one of the year's most important cinematic releases, compiling forgotten and overlooked films by early African American filmmakers in one impressive package. An essential piece of film history, and an essential collection for any film enthusiast.


3
DEKALOG
(Criterion)

Krzysztof Kieślowski's crowning achievement gets a glorious Blu-Ray treatment from The Criterion Collection. Featuring all 10 films in the series, plus A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, the Dekalog box set is a gold mine for film lovers.


4
L'INHUMAINE
(Flicker Alley)

Flicker Alley has quickly become one of my favorite specialty labels, and their release of Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine is a perfect example of why, taking an overlooked, idiosyncratic silent masterpiece and giving it the love and attention it deserves. 


5
MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
(Criterion)

One of the most beautiful films ever made gets the Blu-Ray treatment at long last, and it is worth the wait. Robert Altman's anti-western masterpiece has never looked better, and its washed out, over-exposed quality is like walking into a dream.


6
THE NEW WORLD
(Criterion)

Terrence Malick + The Criterion Collection is a can't miss equation, and Criterion delivers in spades. Beautifully packaged and lovingly restored, the naturally lit Virginia landscapes are some of Malick's most breathtaking imagery.


7
WOMAN ON THE RUN
(Flicker Alley)

Flicker Alley brought two lost film noir classics to Blu-Ray for the first time in 2016, but it was Woman on the Run that was the standout. Long thought lost to fire, this tightly crafted thriller has returned like a phoenix from the ashes.


8
THE GRADUATE
(Criterion)

What more can be said about Mike Nichols' seminal film that hasn't already been said? Criterion has given us the definitive edition of a classic that captures the spirit of its generation-defining tale of post-graduate angst and ennui. 


9
DESTINY
(Kino Lorber)

Of Kino's two Fritz Lang Blu-Ray releases this year (the other being Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Destiny was the true discovery for me. It's one of Lang's most stunningly beautiful films, and the loving Blu-Ray upgrade by Kino gives it new life.


10
THE LAST DETAIL
(Twilight Time)

Twilight Time was certainly the workhorse of the specialty Blu-Ray labels this year, cranking out five releases each month, each lovingly restored and featuring fantastic liner notes by Julie Kirgo. While it may be scant on special features, the label's release of The Last Detail was easily my favorite TT release this year, beautifully showcasing Hal Ashby's masterpiece, one of the best (and most overlooked) films of the 1970's, and placing it in its proper historical context.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "Dekalog"

Over the course of 10 hours and 10 films, Krzysztof Kieślowski explores the nuances and potential moral gray areas of the Ten Commandments. Each hour dealing with a different commandment, this sprawling epic examines religious moral absolutes with an eye for their inherent contradictions and potential for missing the context of certain situations. As with any anthology, some segments are stronger than others, but the combined impact of the 10 films is staggering.

Connected only by one quiet observer (and one overlapping plot), Kieślowski's Dekalog is a towering achievement, one that takes an ancient code of morality and places it in a modern context in ways that are both surprising and thought-provoking. There's nothing else like it in modern cinema.

DEKALOG I

Taken individually, each entry in Kiewlowski's Dekalog represents one of the Biblical Ten Commandments. In Dekalog I Kiewlowski explores the first commandment - "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other God but me" - through the eyes of a young boy, Pawel, and his father, Krzysztof, a university professor. Krzysztof does not believe in God, instead relying on science to provide all the answers of the universe. His sister on the other hand, a devoted Catholic, has a deep and abiding faith. After the death of his mother, Pawel begins to question the meaning of life and the existence of the afterlife, torn between these two figures in his life, before a tragedy and a possible message from beyond the grave changes everything.

DEKALOG II

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

A woman whose husband is possibly near death, seeks absolution from his doctor, her upstairs neighbor. She is pregnant, it turns out, by another man - a man she intends to marry if her husband dies. If her husband is to live, she wants to have an abortion, but may sacrifice her long-desired ability to have children.

That is the kind of moral catch-22 at which Kieślowski excels, but he goes one step further here. The doctor, as it turns out, suffered the loss of a wife and child in the war, many years ago. Dekalog II is a slow reveal, one that barely even acknowledges the Commandment on which it is supposedly based. And as a result, it's one of the weaker entries in Kieślowski's Dekalog II. But it does feature some of its most striking imagery. The shot at the end of the bee struggling to escape from a jar of compote as the woman's husband clings to life might be one of Kieślowski's most indelible visual metaphors. Otherwise, the emotional minefield at the center of this film feels strangely unexplored and even inert.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

DEKALOG III

"Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy."

At Christmas mass, a man notices a former flame in the congregation. She approaches him afterward, and implores him to help her find her husband who has mysteriously disappeared. Lying to his wife, telling her that he is going out to find his stolen taxi, he heads out into the night with his former mistress on a journey that will lead them all over the city in search of her missing husband. More than that, however, it is a journey through the past, and their own unrequited feelings for each other, living out the lives that could have been.

Dekalog III constantly feels like it's about to fly off the rails, flirting with absurdity far more than any other of Kieślowski's films. As their night begins to take increasingly wild turns, the true nature of their outing is revealed, and it is here where Kieślowski begins to blend the Ten Commandments that give each entry in the Dekalog their theme. If remembering the Sabbath Day is the official focus, then why does it deal so much in infidelity? Dekalog III begins to masterfully blend the commandments together, synthesizing them into one beautiful whole. The intersectionality between them comes more sharply into focus in the third entry, showing how not keeping one commandment leads naturally into breaking another. And another. And another. Break one, and the whole system collapses. If the Dekalog is meditation on the Ten Commandments as a roadmap to life, then there is no greater argument for that than Dekalog III, one of the series' most potently crafted entries.

DEKALOG IV

"Honor thy father and thy mother."

The fourth film in Kieślowski's Dekalog examines the complexity of parental relationships through the eyes of Anka, a young woman who is tormented by an unopened letter left behind by her dead mother. One day, she forges a similar letter and shows it to her father, telling him that he is not her real father after all, and admits to a strange lifelong attraction to him. 

Dekalog IV takes the 4th commandment and turns it on its head, exploring the moral gray areas present beneath the moral absolutes espoused by the Ten Commandments. Kieślowski creates quiet drama out of potentially lurid subject matters, and imbues it with a kind of Freudian curiosity rather than sensationalism. It's a powerful meditation on ambiguity, things left unsaid, and what it means to be a parent.

DEKALOG V

"Thou shalt not kill."

The fifth entry in Kieślowski's Dekalog is perhaps the most stylistically distinct of the ten films. Gone are the drab grays of the anonymous Polish apartments from the previous films, replaced by vivid green filters by the great cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. It's a striking contrast, and right off the bat we know we're in for something different, every frame awash in a sickly green than seems to throw everything off kilter.

Dekalog V follows two men, one a young man accused of a random and senseless killing, and the other, his idealistic young lawyer who is crusading against the death penalty. We know the man is guilty of the crimes, and so does his lawyer. His struggle is against what he sees as yet another senseless crime, the slaying of the murder as revenge rather than true justice. Dekalog V is perhaps the most incisive film in the series, perhaps why it was expanded into its own feature film, A Short Film About Killing (also featured on the Criterion Blu-Ray). Kieślowski hauntingly explores the 5th commandment not just as an admonishment against the man who committed the murder in the first place, but as a condemnation of a state that thinks that two wrongs somehow make a right.

DEKALOG VI

"Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Kieślowski would go on to significantly rework Dekalog VI into A Short Film About Love (also featured on the Criterion Blu-Ray), but in its shorter form here, it remains one of the highlights of the director's gargantuan masterwork. It recounts the tale of a teenage postal worker whose unhealthy obsession with a neighbor unexpectedly leads to a chance at love, until the encounter turns sour, flipping the film on its head as the jaded neighbor is forced to do her own soul-searching for her own understanding of love. 

Kieślowski has a knack for taking what seems like a straightforward morality play and turning it on its head, and Dekalog VI is no different. It plays on our expectations and prejudices to craft a nuanced portrait of romantic and sexual attraction. It arrives at quite a different conclusion than does A Short Film About Love, striking a much bleaker, less ambiguous tone in its final scene. But as is typical with Kieślowski, things are rarely ever as they seem, and he leaves Dekalog VI open to just enough interpretation to leave a question mark hanging over the end. Still, its outlook on love is hopeful, even if its view of human nature isn't. Dekalog VI understands that love can be just as destructive as it is healing, and its characters discover both sides in just under an hour.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

DEKALOG VII

"Thou shalt not steal."

"Can you steal something that's yours?" Majka, the character at the heart of Dekalog VII asks, after having kidnapped her own daughter from her mother, who raised them both as her own after Majka became pregnant as a teenager. The seventh entry in Kieślowski's Dekalog is remarkable in its un-remarkableness, handling a situation not uncommon in cinema with a kind of quiet grace. Like the other films in the series, Kieślowski explores the moral grey areas in the Ten Commandments, and while Dekalog VII doesn't feature the same cinematic power of some of the films that precede it, there is a tenderness here that is hard to deny.

DEKALOG VIII

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

The main character in Dekalog VIII is an ethics professor, which is apt considering that most of the Dekalog  is centered on tackling ethical quandaries that arise from supposedly clear cut Ten Commandments. In her class she meets a young woman she turned away during the Holocaust, potentially sending her to her death in order to protect her own life saving operations. Her excuse? She was not willing to compromise her own religious values by lying. 

This is one of the most painfully complex films in Kieślowski's Dekalog. It's also the only one to directly reference any of the other films, using the plot of Dekalog II as one of the ethical issues discussed in the class at the beginning of the film. Most of the drama stems from conversation rather than action, but it's all so riveting. This is where Kieślowski's concept really shines through the most, where the lie at the center of the film becomes something that was good for many people, but bad for a certain few. Which was the right course? In the world of the Dekalog, the truth is never black or white, and in the eighth installment of his massive cinematic work, the truth can be equally beautiful and deadly at the same time.

DEKALOG IX

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."

A couple's relationship is put to the test after he discovers that he is impotent and can no longer perform in bed. This leads her into an affair with a younger man, further pushing the man toward the edge. Dekalog IX starts out as one of the more internally focused of Kieślowski's Dekalog, but it ends up as one of the most harrowing of the ten films in the series. The moral dilemma Kieślowski presents us with feels more clear cut than some of the others (at least as far as exploring the fallacies of the Ten Commandments is concerned), but like most of his work, you understand the predicament in which the characters find themselves. It culminates in perhaps one of the best endings of the series.

DEKALOG X

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."

After 9 hours of misery and pain, Krzysztof Kieślowski ends his epic Dekalog with a comedic tale of two brothers who are out to complete their late father's stamp collection, plunging them headfirst into the cutthroat world of stamp collecting, with increasingly high stakes results. Kieślowski finds great comedic traction in the ridiculousness of their plight, but also manages to reach an emotional denouement that brings the entire series to a satisfyingly hopeful close.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Top Ten Films of 2016

1
THE WITCH
(Robert Eggers, USA)
"Its masterful blending of the sacred and the blasphemous makes it not just a great horror film, but perhaps the first true horror masterpiece of the new century."

2
JACKIE
(Pablo Larrain, USA)
"In a post-fact world, Jackie speaks to the power of American myth-making, and like its subject, it's a bold, beautiful, mysterious, and altogether obfuscating work of art."

3
O.J. MADE IN AMERICA
(Ezra Edelman, USA)
"This is an American tragedy writ large, an engrossing, maddening portrait of our country that holds an uncomfortable mirror up for us to examine our own national flaws."

4
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
(Ciro Guerra, Colombia)
"An often transcendent work of art, a haunting elegy for a forgotten way of life, and a requiem for its secrets that now reside only with the dead, reaching a spiritual crescendo that recalls “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” journey "beyond the infinite.""

5
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
(Travis Knight, USA)
"It is a celebration of a beautifully flawed world, of hope, family, and that which unites us, as well as a repudiation of negativity, division, and fear."

6
LA LA LAND
(Damien Chazelle, USA)
"There's a beating, aching heart at the core of La La Land so full of yearning and hope and sheer unadulterated zest for life that it becomes the perfect antidote to the year that was 2016."

7
THINGS TO COME
(Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
"A film of beautiful moments, adding up to a disarmingly devastating, and yet surprisingly hopeful, whole."

8
PATERSON
(Jim Jarmusch, USA)
"Jarmusch finds great power in the idea of the blank page, and in the life-changing power of words, and he does so in the most subtle and deeply beautiful ways."

9
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
(Tom Ford, USA)
"The film's mix of high and low brow, obscenity and elegance, create something nearly transcendent - a stylish portrait of the heart-wrenching pain of love gone wrong and human desire for vengeance."

10
TONI ERDMANN
(Maren Ade, Germany)
"It's a strange and original charmer, and one is almost never quite sure what to make of it, but it congeals into such a lovely and poetic piece of work that it demands to be revisited just to enjoy the lyrical way in which Ade ties all its seemingly ridiculous elements together. Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying, and in 2016 of all years, never have we needed to hear that more."

Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Top Ten Scores of 2016

It's that time of year again! In preparation for the publication of my annual list of my top ten films of the year, here is my list of the best film scores of 2016. Special shout-out to TV scores for GAME OF THRONES and STRANGER THINGS, as well as Austin Wintory's score for the video game, ABZU (which would make the top 5 easily if I included video game scores).


1
ARRIVAL 
(Johann Johannsson)

While the prominent use of Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" may have been what audiences remembered the most from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (subsequently resulting in the score's disqualification from Oscar consideration), its circular rhythms and use of human voices to convey the idea of communication and competing languages make Johannsson's score the year's most accomplished musical work. No other score this year comes close in terms of originality and intellectual construct. It's a shame that its use of tracked music disqualified it, because it absolutely deserves to be recognized by the Academy for its daring achievement.


2 
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
(Alexandre Desplat)

Alexandre Desplat continues to probe why he is one of the best film composers working today. He's also one of the busiest, which makes the consistent quality of his work all the more impressive. While he also turned in terrific scores to 7 other films and a TV series this year (which may be why he had to bow out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), it was The Light Between Oceans that really stood out. Desplat took Derek Cianfrance's melodrama and found its lyrical soul. You'll find no melodies more beautiful in any other score this year.




3
LA LA LAND
(Justin Hurwitz)

An over the moon pastiche of jazz, Broadway, and classic Hollywood musicals. Absolute heaven.




4
MOONLIGHT
(Nicholas Britell)

Nicholas Britell captures the heart of Moonlight's young protagonist, giving each of his different iterations a unique theme, then beautifully tying them all together in the end. Haunting work.




5
JACKIE
(Mica Levi)

Mica Levi's woozy, punch-drunk compositions sound like they're the score inside Jackie Kennedy's head, taking us on a journey into the inner workings of a grieving mind trying desperately to cling to her dignity.


6
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
(Abel Korzeniowski)

Abel Korzeniowski's lovely, classically minded scores continue to impress me, each time ending up on my year end list (A Single Man, W/E, and Romeo & Juliet were all #1 in their respective years). While Nocturnal Animals shares similar qualities with his previous work, there's no denying how effective (and how devastatingly beautiful) it is.



7
SWISS ARMY MAN
(Andy Hull & Robert McDowell)

Maybe the year's most unusual score (and film), Swiss Army Man is an a capella wonder, coming off like a score hummed by a child as they play in their backyard. As the characters conjure their own score to their own internal adventure, Andy Hull & Robert McDowell's music is always right there with them.


8
THE HANDMAIDEN
(Jo Yeong-wook)

As dark, melodious, and grand as the film itself. Park Chan-wook's erotic thriller is buoyed by Jo Yeong-wook's sensuous melodies.


9
THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER
(Scott Walker)

While the film is a bit of a mess, Scott Walker's bold, bombastic score to The Childhood of a Leader fills in the gaps that the film leaves behind, recalling the pomp and circumstance of Russian and German propaganda.


10
THE BFG
(John Williams)

John Williams remains a personal favorite, and while The BFG may not rival his classic works, its hard to deny the impressive intricacy of its writing for woodwinds, or its simple sense of childhood wonder. Even at 84, the maestro's still got it.



HONORABLE MENTIONS
Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass (Christopher Wong)
Pete's Dragon (Daniel Hart)
Rogue One (Michael Giacchino)
The Jungle Book (John Debney)
The Monkey King 2 (Christopher Young)
The Witch (Mark Korven)
Elle (Anne Dudley)
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dario Marianelli)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (James Newton Howard)
The Red Turtle (Laurent Perez Del Mar)

Friday, December 09, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

As he had done with war movies in his breakout hit, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman set out to make a revisionist Western that completely upended the conventions of the genre in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Altman chose the source material, "McCabe," by Edmund Naughton, for its conventional Western structure, in hopes of using those stereotypical western tropes to fashion a brand new vision of the American west.

The result is unlike anything else in American cinema, a wholly organic and lived-in film that seems to have appeared through the fog of time. Altman intentionally exposed the negatives, giving the film an ethereal, otherworldly look (beautifully rendered on Criterion's gorgeous new Blu-Ray), as if everything we are seeing is viewed through a slight haze. The cinematography of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, along with intricately detailed production design by Leon Erickson, create an evocative sense of time and place, transporting the audience into another world.

Warren Beatty's McCabe is about as far from the archetypal western hero as you can get. He's a smooth-talking businessman with a self-styled reputation as a deadly gunslinger. But at heart he's little more than a mealy-mouthed coward, constantly hiding behind smooth talk and a ridiculously over-sized fur coat. So when a major out-of-town business shows up at his new brothel, co-founded with English madame, Mrs. Miller, with the intent to buy, McCabe is thrown into an impossible situation. The businessmen will not take no for an answer, and McCabe finds himself presented with a choice - stand up for little guy against a monopoly and face death, or do as he has always done and run away.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a fascinating upending of the romanticism surrounding the American west and its ideals of masculinity. It's also a startlingly relevant critique of American capitalism, as big business devours small businessmen with ruthless effeciency. If they can't buy out the competition, they will destroy it at all costs.

It all culminates in one of Altman's finest set pieces - an improvised showdown in a surprise blizzard, that may be one of the most striking finales in all of American cinema. Of course, this showdown is everything the typical shoot-em-up Western finale is not. It's almost eerily quiet, played without music (we had become accustomed to the film's haunting use of Leonard Cohen songs up to this point) Altman's place in the New American Cinema of the 1970s cannot be overstated. His loose, hangdog style, the overlapping dialogue, his almost lackadaisical indifference to plot conventions (the main "plot" of the film isn't introduced until halfway through), were revolutionary. And while McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a box office bomb in 1971, it remains one of of the towering cinematic works of the decade.  A bleary-eyed, hazy evocation of the American west as seen without Hollywood's rose colored glasses. It has become a cliche to say that "they don't make 'em like this anymore." But in this case, the old cliche is wholly appropriate. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one-of-a-kind.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster 
  • New making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew New conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell 
  • Featurette from the film’s 1970 production 
  • Art Directors Guild Film Society Q& A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen 
  • Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond 
  • Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro 
  • Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review | "The Eyes of My Mother"

A horror film of a different kind, Nicolas Pesce's extraordinary film debut is a deeply disturbing and chillingly conceived piece of work. Set on a rural farm in Portugal, The Eyes of My Mother tells the story of a young girl named Francisca, whose mother, a successful surgeon, is murdered before her very eyes. After her father captures the killer and ties him up in their barn, Francesca decides to take care of her new friend, by becoming the surgeon her mother always dreamed she would become. As the years roll on, Francesca's victims mount, as she desperately searches for a real, human connection the only way she knows how - dissection.

Shot in eerie, evocative black and white, The Eyes of My Mother feels like a feminist twist on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the killer discovers that the "final girl" is even more of a monster than he is. There's a certain surreal quality to it all, even if there aren't any overtly surreal elements. Pesce dispenses with filmmaking basics like establishing shots to set-up locations, and cuts away from scenes at moments that feel intuitively wrong, often showing us the aftermath of important actions rather than the actions themselves.

A scene from THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Pesce intentionally avoids the story's inherent violence, focusing instead on its consequences. He is more enamored with the ordinariness of Francisca's life around the ghastly events that have come to define it. Imagine Psycho without the murders, instead focusing on Norman's life with his mother, where the infamous are almost an afterthought. The result is jarring and somewhat disorienting, yet we never feel as though we are ever in less than capable hands. Pesce's unique choices create a certain dreamlike quality, of interconnecting scenes held together by gossamer strands of logic, veering quickly into a world of nightmares.

You'll find no jump scares here, no things that go "bump" in the night. The Eyes of My Mother is a haunting slow-burn of a film, one that eats its way under the skin with sadistic precision. Everything about it just feels off somehow, and Pesce's insistence on showing the prelude and the aftermath of the violence rather than the violence itself gives us the feeling that we're bearing witness to something we're not supposed to see. Each shot is framed like a photograph, a snapshot into the mind of someone who is deeply disturbed, but feels as if their life is completely normal. Yet underneath its otherworldly beauty is something sick and twisted, a shocking examination of madness that is unlike anything we've seen before.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER | Directed by Nicholas Pesce | Stars  Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak, Will Brill | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, December 2, in select cities.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "The Squid and the Whale"

Anyone who doubts that we are currently living in a new golden age of cinema need look no further than this year's Criterion Collection releases. Ignoring the films that were released as part of their partnership with IFC Films, Criterion has released five films from the 2000s on Blu-Ray in this year alone - Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), Stig Björkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and now Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).

You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedy as unrelentingly dark as The Squid and the Whale, an acerbic look at the dissolving of a family set in New York in 1986. Clearly a deeply personal work for Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale examines the deeply toxic effects of two parents warring over divorce proceedings on the children caught in the middle. In this case, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is unflinchingly loyal to his father, Bernard (Jeff Bridges, never better), a pompous author turned college professor whose writing career never took off the way he believed it should, while young Frank (Owen Kline) is more drawn to his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), a softer spoken aspiring writer whose open nature has been just as destructive to her family as Bernard's arrogance.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The selfishness of these two parents is on full display, too concerned with scoring points against each other to notice that their children are in pain. Walt has turned his father's sense of intellectual superiority into a mask for his own feelings of inadequacy, plagiarizing a Pink Floyd song at a school talent competition and dismissing his new girlfriend's tastes to build himself up. Frank, on the other hand, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen on library books and lockers around the school, acting out in increasingly troubling ways that remain invisible to his warring parents, who continue to use the children as pawns in their own short power struggles, where "it's MY night" becomes a familiar joint-custody refrain that trumps both child's wishes.

Yet despite the acidic tone, The Squid and the Whale is a disarmingly funny film, one that offers a wealth of insight into the modern American family. Baumbach writes with often scathing wit, but it comes from a place of love for these people, for this place, for this family. He is not belittling them, he is mourning them. As they tear each other apart for their own selfish ends, they can't see past their own needs long enough to realize that deep down they really do care. Baumbach's humor here is bruising, we laugh often because we are shocked at the characters' behavior. But it all feels so painfully real that it's hard to shake. Baumbach doesn't delve into histrionics, each character feels fully formed, each a product of a life lived long before the film begins. There's an almost organic quality to it all (it was shot on purposefully grainy Super 16 film, beautifully rendered by the new Blu-Ray), like home movies we shouldn't be watching. We laugh that Bernard crashes his son's date and talks them into seeing the racy Blue Velvet instead of more family friendly Short Circuit, but there is a underlying melancholy to it all, an understanding of the great damage being wrought in the name of love. It's a powerful work, a film whose humorous exterior belies a deep understanding of family dynamics that continues to resonate today.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)

On Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on November 22.
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Robert Yeoman and director Noah Baumbach, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD 
  • Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interviews with Baumbach and actors Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, and Laura Linney 
  • New conversation about the score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips Behind 
  • “The Squid and the Whale,” a 2005 documentary featuring on-set footage and cast interviews 
  • Audition footage 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 2005 interview of Baumbach by novelist Jonathan Lethem

Friday, October 28, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Cat People"

Val Lewton made a career out of turning trash into treasure, taking lurid horror titles given to him by B-movie hucksters and making them into first rate dramas. He tackled "Jane Eyre" in I Walked with a Zombie, while turning his eye toward deeper psychological issues beneath a veneer of horror.

Cat People has very little to do with its own premise - about a Serbian immigrant whose native superstitions lead her to believe she is a descendant of Serbian witches who turn into bloodthirsty panthers when aroused. Whether of not she actually turns into a literal panther is beside the point here, because Lewton (with the help of director Jacques Tourneur) isn't making a horror movie, he's making a psychologically astute study of the fear of female sexuality.

Irena is a woman afraid of intimacy, having been told that any arousal will lead to death. This can be read as a metaphor for religious sexual oppression, but it can also be read as a condemnation of society's denial of women's sexual agency. Irena is not in control of her own sexual desire, and to gain any control of it is to lose control of her own life.


It's no mistake, I think, that the ultimate symbol of female sexuality here is a cat, one that will devour any man who dare arouse it. Freud would have had a field day with this film, and honestly it's amazing that this actually got made within the studio system in 1942.

The film is ultimately marred somewhat by the presence of a studio mandated appearance by an actual panther at the end of the film (an unnecessary conclusion against which Lewton fought), removing some of Tourneur's chilling, shadowy ambiguity. But even with that moment of thudding literalism, Cat People remains one of the most sexually and psychologically astute films of its time, tackling female sexuality in a way that was unheard of at the time, and in many ways still is today.

Lewton would later produce a 1945 sequel, Curse of the Cat People, with director Ray Wise, a film which is arguably a superior work in its examination of childhood anxiety. But there's just something undeniably magnetic about Cat People, and it has never looked better than it does in the crisp new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It's a classic chiller that deserves a fresh look, and Criterion gives it the sprucing up it so richly deserves.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon 
  • Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979 
  • New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien