Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 has been a great year for documentaries. It has given us an embarrassment of riches, from the political, to the historical, to the experimental. They've examined the lives of movie stars, singers, artists, murderers, religious fanatics, and every day, normal people. Documentaries have the power to transport us not just to other worlds, but illuminate the world we live in. They offer unique perspectives into reality where narrative films can't necessarily go. I could easily have listed 10 more documentaries in addition to these, but these are the ten that have stuck with me the most this year.

(Laurie Anderson)

Artist Laurie Anderson uses the life of her beloved dog, Lolabelle, as a lens through which examine the nature of death, love, and the post-9/11 paranoia that changed our world. Heart of a Dog is a rapturous, impressionistic work that is dreamlike and yet hauntingly familiar. Anderson's philosophical musings are funny, sad, profound, and heartbreaking. It feels like she's going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, like a terrier chasing a mouse, yet it remains endlessly engrossing. As a personal testament, as a piece of experimental film, as a work of art, Heart of a Dog is a constant wonder. Anderson's lovely and amazing film is a wholly new kind of a documentary, one that transcends the conventions of its form and captures a rarefied essence of stream-of-consciousness thought. It's like something cooked up in a dream, meandering, slightly delirious, nonsensical yet pregnant with deep and almost unfathomable meaning. It's an incredible film, a heartfelt testament to life and death that manages to pack life's biggest questions and the very essence of the 21st century into a breathtaking 75 minutes.

(Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his explosive documentary, The Act of Killing, with another examination of the cruelty of the military dictatorship of Indonesia through a completely different lens. In Act of Killing, Oppenheimer never directly challenged his murderous subjects, allowing them to tell their stories in their own way, in some cases leading a devastating kind of clarity. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer takes a Indonesian citizen whose brother was brutally murdered by the military junta for being a suspected communist, and follows him as he confronts his brother's murderers face to face. Feels like a natural extension of Act of Killing without being a retread. It dares to stare into the face of evil, and the result is a chilling portrait of human cruelty and the power of self delusion, but also about the cathartic power of forgiveness. Essential stuff.

(Stevan Riley)

Using hours upon hours of audio recordings made my Marlon Brando, Stevan Riley's new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, pieces together an impressionistic portrait of the enigmatic actor, a man often considered to be the greatest actor of all time. Brando is no less an enigma by the time the film ends, but that is as it should be. Brando's musings on life, on acting, on his career, are both fascinating and obfuscating, managing to simultaneously provide insight into his thought process and worldview, while also muddying the waters just as much. Riley weaves a deeply engaging tapestry of Brando's words into a powerful new work of art, a towering paean to a towering man. Yet it is neither hagiographic nor biographical. Listen to Me Marlon reaches for the essence of the man, and emerges as a beautifully mysterious, maddeningly cryptic, yet endlessly engrossing work of art, not unlike the man himself.

(Frederick Wiseman)

In his latest documentary, Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Jackson Heights, a New York neighborhood considered by some to be the most diverse neighborhood in the Unites States. From Churches, synagogues, and mosques, gay pride parades and transgender support groups, wealthy, poor, migrant workers, driving instructors, and ladies' knitting circles, Jackson Heights hums with a vibrant sense of multiculturalism. Here, Wiseman observes citizens coming together to better their community, workers making their daily wage, marginalized groups protesting for their rights, and every day people living out their normal lives in a place that serves as a microcosm of modern America. Wiseman is a master of observation, leaving no detail unexplored, he immerses us in this world so that by the film's end we feel as though we have actually spent a day in Jackson Heights. There's something joyful and even hopeful about In Jackson Heights, as we watch such disparate groups co-existing in such a small place, supporting and helping each other along. This is the heart of America, and in Wiseman's steady hands, it becomes a celebration of our diversity and our strength, showing civic action as the backbone of our democracy. It's refreshing to see such cooperation in our highly divisive, politicized times. Essential stuff.

(Debra Granik)

Sometimes a film comes along that completely restores your faith in humanity. Debra Granik's warmly observant portrait of Ron "Stray Dog" Hall, a biker and Vietnam veteran, is at once a celebration and examination of the American heartland. It's also a subtle yet disarming indictment of how our veterans are often neglected by our government. Yet Hall and his buddies never forget their own, riding across the country to attend funerals, memorial dedications, and supporting each others' families. You'll find no political grandstanding in Stray Dog, no talking heads or interviews, instead Granik merely observes, creating a powerfully rendered meditation on the American family, no matter what form that may take, and the essential goodness of human beings. This is what great documentary filmmaking is all about.

(Patricio Guzmán)

Director Patricio Guzmán uses water as a metaphoric lens through which to tell the story of Chilean natives, whose ancient relationship with the ocean has been all but lost through systematic subjugation by colonial occupation, in a genocide that lasted well into the 20th century. Lyrical and heartbreaking, The Pearl Button is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that is both a celebration of a lost culture (only 20 direct descendants of the Patagonian natives remain), and an elegy for a forgotten genocide that is arguably one of the most ghastly in the history of the world. Yet through Guzmán's unique lens, the history of the natives becomes a kind of ethereal reflection of the universe, irrevocably changed by colonialism and western invasion, moving through the glistening waters of the Chilean coastline like ghosts. Guzmán's placing of the natives' struggles in cosmic perspective makes the film an interesting companion piece for his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light. While the metaphor gets lost in its grandiosity at times, The Pearl Button is nevertheless a deeply moving experience, that tells a story as timeless as the sea itself.

(Alex Gibney)

Alex Gibney's disturbing look inside the Church of Scientology is an explosive expose of the infamous religion's nefarious brain washing tactics. Gibney takes a devastating look at L. Ron Hubbard's brain child, from its origins as a money making scheme for Hubbard to the massive, cult-like phenomenon that it is today. It's hard not to be reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and just how close it was to Hubbard's actual life and the teachings of Scientology. Plus, the revelation of the church's true beliefs about Earth being an alien prison planet where frozen bodies were dropped off into volcanoes by the galactic overlord Xenu, releasing alien spirits into the world that are the source of all human suffering (all of which had been famously detailed by "South Park") seem all the more damning here. Going Clear is a frightening and essential doc about the human need to believe and belong, and the power of denial, even if the face of evil and oppression.

(Liz Garbus)

Liz Garbus' deeply incisive portrait of legendary blues singer, Nina Simone, examines her life and career through her own words and through the recollections of the people who knew her best. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fascinating look at a brilliant artist, brought down by her own demons (and a more militant streak during the civil rights movement) and then resurrected from the ashes. Simone's singular voice shines through at every turn, and the film both pays tribute to her genius and highlights her failures by posing the essential question - "what happened?" I found this more compelling and more moving than AMY, which is very similar in both structure and theme. But the many layers of Simone's rise and decline, from political (race, gender, militancy), to personal (abusive relationships, mental illness), I think are far more intriguing, and Garbus' direction strikes a fine tonal balance between reverence and inquisitiveness.

(Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)

Riveting documentary chronicles the 1968 debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, as they publicly clashed on ABC during the Republican and Democratic conventions in a heated match of wits and cultures. Best of Enemies presents these debates as a touchstone that eventually led to our current, hyper-partisan culture, where commentating and opinion has replaced reporting and presentation of fact. But even more fascinating, the film is a portrait of two men whose hatred of each other gave them an almost symbiotic relationship, where the identity of each one was inexorably linked to the other. It's compelling stuff, and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville make it work on multiple levels even with its brief, 85 minute run time.

(Evgeny Afineevsky)

Evgeny Afineevsky's harrowing documentary puts us on the front lines of the 2013 revolution that brought Ukraine back from the brink of Russian control. Using on-the-ground footage taken from the scenes of the riots protesting the Ukranian president's withdraw from promised European Union inclusion, and violent clashes where policemen beat up peaceful protestors, Winter on Fire is a riveting look at democracy (and fascism) in action, as a people fight for their freedom against an oppressive police state. One can't help but draw parallels from Ukraine's struggle to the American "Black Lives Matter" protests, and while the stakes of those protests may be more abstract, one can't help but get a queasy feeling watching the protesters being brutally beaten. Afineevsky treats it like an action thriller, but this is more riveting than any Hollywood action film. This is real - and the blood, sweat, and tears of the Ukrainian patriots runs through every frame. It doesn't always need the dramatic music cues, it's dramatic enough already, but the final result is certainly inspiring, and the fly on the wall footage is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This puts everything Michael Bay has ever made to shame.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Time to start counting down the best in cinema from 2015, leading up to my list of the top ten films, starting out with my ten best scores of the year.

Movie scores are one of my favorite things, and mostly what I listen to when listening to music, so this is always one of the highlights of the year for me. 2015 was a strong year for scores, featuring new work from old masters and some great new work from previously unknown up-and-comers. My list contains some of both. What did I miss? Which scores would make your own list?

(Carter Burwell)

(Ryuichi Sakamoto)

(Daniel Pemberton)

(Alexandre Desplat)

(Thomas Newman)

(Ennio Morricone)


(Ludwig Goransson)

(Michael Giacchino)

(Fernando Velazquez)

BROOKLYN (Michael Brook)
WOLF TOTEM (James Horner)
THE 33 (James Horner)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

From The Dispatch:
There's something to be said for formula executed well, and Hooper takes a vital, necessary story about something that is still very foreign to many people and breathes into it a dynamic energy, using the constraints of a formula that makes an unusual story hauntingly familiar. It's an impressive feat that probably won't get nearly the appreciation that it deserves.
Click here to read my full review.
Harold Lloyd's final silent comedy, Speedy, is a zippy, fast paced romp about a young man trying to save the horse drawn carriage business of the father of the girl he loves. As villainous railroad barons conspire to take the cart and take over its tracks, Lloyd leads them on a series of misadventures, including a street brawl and a breakneck chase in a horse drawn carriage through the streets of New York. It's not a coincidence, I think, that Lloyd's final silent film is about a man trying to protect a traditional mode of transportation, only to give in at the end and accept that modernity is inescapable. After all, he was a man facing the end of silent film and the beginning of the sound era.

You'll find no such thematic weight in Speedy, though. At least not overtly. Lloyd always rejected the sentimentality of Chaplin and the droll cynicism of Keaton. Lloyd just wanted to have fun, and Speedy has it in spades. Lloyd's dynamic set pieces never quite measure up to his more famous contemporaries, but it's hard to deny their technical skill, especially in the white-knuckle climactic chase scene (which, it was recently discovered, led to an actual carriage crash and a cover-up).

Lloyd's "everyman" persona is appealing as always, and he makes the most of it here, sending him through a comedy of errors of a man whose irrepressible spirit can't be dampened, even after mundane mishap after mundane mishap. Lloyd was the comedian of the regular Joe, and Speedy, while not as technically accomplished as Safety Last, is a lively, spirited good time.

Criterion's new Blu-Ray edition comes on the heels of their recent releases of The Freshman and Safety Last, making Grandma's Boy the only major Lloyd film not available on Criterion Blu-Ray. Lloyd fans will find a lot to feast on here, but the real highlight is the inclusion of Bumping into Broadway, another New York centered Lloyd two reeler from 1919 that showcases more of his famous "Glasses Character." Lloyd may not be as revered by cineastes and historians as Chaplin and Keaton, but he has a warm-hearted, easy-going style that stands apart from those giants of silent comedy. The new Criterion Blu-Ray provides a window into his unique genius, revealing why Lloyd deserves a place alongside his more famous contemporaries as an enormous talent with a unique and singular voice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Special features:

  • New 4K digital restoration from elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1992, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies director of program production Scott McGee 
  • In the Footsteps of “Speedy,” a new short documentary by Goldstein about the film’s New York shoot 
  • Selection of rare archival footage from UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Hearst Newsreel Collection of baseball legend Babe Ruth, who has a cameo in the film, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts
  • New visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film and narrated by Goldstein 
  • Selection of actor Harold Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd 
  • Bumping into Broadway, a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Phillip Lopate

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas-themed horror films aren't exactly a thriving subgenre, but there have been a few gems here and there across the years. There just seems to be something a little more perverse about setting a horror film during the usually cheerful Christmas season, which could explain why few filmmakers have dared to tackle it. 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night is perhaps the most famous (infamous?) example, along with 1974's Black Christmas (and its 2006 remake). Neither were great hits, although I stand by my assertion that Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the nastiest yet most psychologically astute slasher films ever made (the less said about its repugnant 1987 sequel, the better). So Michael Dougherty's Krampus is somewhat unique in the history of horror films.

Based on an ancient legend of St. Nicholas' demonic assistant who comes on Christmas Eve to collect naughty children and seek revenge against those who betray the spirit of Christmas, Krampus delves deep into Yuletide lore to deliver something wholly original, making it something of a breath of fresh air for horror aficionados.

The film starts off like many other Christmas films; a dysfunctional family is gathering to celebrate the holidays, everyone's nerves are frazzled, and oversized personalities are starting to clash after being crowded together under one roof. But everyone still loves each other, right? Not according to young Max Engel, who is so frustrated by his family's constant fighting and lack of holiday spirit, that he tears up his selfless letter to Santa and tosses it into the wind. Little does he know that this act will soon bring death and destruction down upon them, and this year instead of a visit from St. Nicholas, the Engel family is about to be visited by Krampus, who has come to spirit the ungrateful family away for their lack of Christmas cheer.

In that regard, Krampus is a spiritual thematic counterpart to director Michael Dougherty's last film, the Halloween cult hit, Trick 'r Treat, an anthology film about a vengeful Halloween sprite who seeks revenge on those who don't keep the spirit of Halloween. Krampus is a devilish good time from start to finish, blending elements of comedy, horror, and Christmas cheer into a slyly satirical look at just how far the modern iteration of Christmas, with its vacuous displays of greed and materialism (not to mention the imagined "War on Christmas"), has strayed not only from its original spirit of giving and goodwill, but from its pagan roots as a celebration of the winter solstice.

What's more, it never takes itself too seriously, yet plays its ridiculousness completely straight, sending out legions of killer toys, evil gingerbread men, and even an evil Christmas tree angel to torment the family at its center (scored with eerily retooled version of familiar Christmas tunes by Douglas Pipes). Krampus himself is an ingenious creation, using practical effects and puppetry rather than relying on CGI, giving the film the feeling of something out of the 1980s. It's refreshing throwback to see a modern horror film that's so creature heavy use CGI so sparing, but it really pays off, making Krampus a much more tangible (and frightening) figure in the film.

In the end, however, there's a surprisingly warm heart beating at the film's center, It slyly tweaks Chrismtas movie conventions while in essence being a celebration of the Christmas spirit and the importance of family, with just a hint of wicked gleam in its eye. I walked out of Krampus with a big grin on my face - it's good fun no matter how you look at it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KRAMPUS | Directed by Michael Dougherty | Stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony | Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

From The Dispatch:
"The Force Awakens" hums with the constant energy of a film trying desperately to please, and while it doesn’t always hit every note perfectly (I will be interested to see how they manage to explain the sudden appearance of Luke’s old lightsaber) it hits them with such gusto that it makes up for its faults. It feels good to have "Star Wars" back in the world, and "The Force Awakens" is a joyous return to the innocence and magic of that galaxy far, far away. 
Click here to read my full review.