Thursday, November 03, 2016

Movie Journal: October

Queen of Katwe
It's the most wonderful time of the year...

No, not because Christmas is just around the corner (though that is a plus) but because it's awards season! Good films are finally coming out again! After what has been one of the more dispiriting summers in recent memory, the next couple of months look phenomenal and the slow drip of interesting, challenging movies started in October, as reflected by this month's list, which is less reliant on non-2016 films than usual.

In total, I watched 22 films this month, 21 of which were first time viewings. The lone rewatch was of James Whale's Frankenstein, which I hadn't seen in about a decade, and was even more haunting and gorgeous than I remembered. Karloff's performance as The Monster is one for the ages, not merely because he's convincing as a hulking mass of murderous potential, but because he also makes The Monster's fear as he's trapped in a burning building feel palpably real.

The worst film I watched was Finian's Rainbow, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the 1947 musical about an Irish couple (Fred Astaire and Petula Clark) coming to America, pursued by a Leprechaun (Tommy Steele, in what may be the most grating performance ever committed to celluloid) and interrupting the lives of a small town while singing terrible, forgettable songs. Also, there's blackface for some reason. A thoroughly dispiriting watch, though it's weirdly inspirational; Coppola was only four years away from making The Godfather, after all, so anything is possible.

Without any further ado, let's talk about the best films I watched in October, 2016.

1. 13th (dir. Ava DuVernay, 2016)

This year has been a quietly incredible one for Netflix's original documentaries. Sure, there's been plenty of mediocre offerings - in large part because they produce so many of them - but the good or great ones have been remarkable. If the success of Making a Murderer at the end of last year was a watershed for the network when it comes to offering engrossing docs driven by a personal vision, 13th represents a high watermark.

Starting with a  clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted", DuVernay's film argues that the prison-industrial complex, which has placed millions of Americans behind bars and disproportionately affects black Americans, is an evolution of the same system that started with slavery, evolved into Jim Crow, and eventually implicitly racist legislation like the 1994 Crime Bill, Three Strikes rules, and mandatory minimums. Anyone familiar with the justice system or American history will recognise bits and pieces of the mosaic DuVernay assembles, but the power of the film lies in how she puts those pieces together, and how she draws out the clear parallels between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s with Black Lives Matter, and places recent high-profile police shootings in a broader context of institutional violence against black people.

13th is a stunning work of history, social commentary, and filmmaking, and one of the most emotionally shattering experiences I've had this year.

2. Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

I've been meaning to watch this low-budget science fiction film for years and was finally compelled to after watching the film that landed at number five on this list, since both are creepy ensemble thrillers in which a dinner party augers terrible things for the attendees. In this instance, a group of friends gather for a party just as a meteor is passing overhead, at which point things start to get very weird. Saying anything more would spoil the surprise of what is an exceptionally well-executed idea, one which relies on a sharp script and good performances to sell a story that plays like Primer crossed with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

3. I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck, 2016)

I read James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time", his 1963 book-length essay on race, religion, and the unfulfilled promise of Emancipation, over the summer and instantly fell in love with his command of prose and politics. Unsurprisingly, the news that a documentary based on an unfinished manuscript - a memoir called "Remember This House" about Baldwin's experiences with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X - instantly shot to the top of my must-see list, and it did not disappoint. Mixing archival footage of Baldwin (one of the most captivating speakers of the twentieth century) with readings by Samuel L. Jackson (giving a deeply moving performance), Peck crafts a haunting portrait of Baldwin's life, one which, thanks to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, doubles as a retelling of the period between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King's death. Like 13th, it's a great work of history, sociology, and cultural critique.

4. The Mummy (dir. Karl Freund, 1932)

Despite loving the Frankenstein movies (or at least the first three), I had never dug deeper into the Universal monster catalogue until this year, when I decided to fill in some blindspots in preparation for an episode of Shot/Reverse Shot. Of the films I watched, this was undoubtedly the best. Like Frankenstein, the film hinges on a great turn by Boris Karloff, this time as the recently resurrected Imhotep. However, it could not be more different from his turn as that other iconic monster. Karloff's soft-spoken performance makes him seem disarming, right up until he starts using his powers to kill and manipulate the archaeologists who discovered his mummified body and read the wrong scroll. On top of that, the film is gorgeous (Freund cut his teeth as a cinematographer on some of the key German Expressionist films) and has an eerie beauty that makes up for its lack of big scares.

5. The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2015)

Like Coherence, albeit more artfully shot, The Invitation takes a simple premise - a man and his girlfriend go to a dinner party at his ex-wife's house - and mines every ounce of tension and unease out of it through little more than great writing and great performances. The end result is a tense and unnerving experience which feels like a less raw, more disquieting John Cassevettes movie.

6. Women He's Undressed (dir. Gillian Armstrong, 2015)

Although Women He's Undressed is an Australian movie about an Australian artist, the costume designer Orry-Kelly, it's also a quintessentially American one. In telling the story of how a young, gay man left his homeland for New York, ended up in Hollywood, then designed clothes worn by some of the most beautiful actresses (and occasional actors) in some of the greatest movies ever made, Armstrong's film is superb striving immigrant story. But thanks to its specific milieu, it's also catnip for the secret Hollywood history crowd, particularly when it describes Kelly's (probably sexual) relationship with Cary Grant, and delves into his Zelig-like ability to be seemingly everywhere. Kelly's story also offers plenty of opportunities for contemporaries and fans to comment on what his designs contributed to films like Jezebel, Casablanca and Some Like It Hot, offering genuine insight into an aspect of filmmaking which is so often ignored.

7. The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)

Moorhouse's fashion Western has received something of a drubbing from a lot of critics, and I can totally see why. It starts with Kate Winslet returning to the small Australian hometown she left decades earlier for mysterious reasons, lighting a cigarette, then saying, with pure femme fatale bile, "I'm back, you bastards." If you're not onboard for its specific melodramatic tone at that point, then the rest of the film - which features comedic grotesques, fabulous dresses, and two ridiculous deaths - then it's probably not for you. I fell in love with it from that opening scene, and was more than happy to go along for the weird, haute couture-meets-High Noon ride.

8. Queen of Katwe (dir. Mira Nair, 2016)

There may be no sadder film than a crowdpleaser which fails to find its crowd. Such was the case with Queen of Katwe, a Disney-produced, based-on-real-life movie about a teenager from Uganda (Madina Nalwanga) who manages to transcend the grinding poverty of her home life to attend international chess tournaments. It could not be more inspirational and accessible if it tried, it's visually ravishing (Nair does wonderful work differentiating the chaos of Katwe with the more controlled world outside purely through her use of colour) and it's anchored by a trio of great performances from Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. And yet, hardly anyone went to see it. A terrible shame, because it's a bubbly, funny, life-affirming movie that manages to avoid all the pitfalls that usually come with aspirational sports movies and Western movies set in Africa.

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi, 2016)

I must admit to being ever so slightly disappointed with this, but only because I loved Waititi's earlier, tonally similar coming of age movie Boy so much that it had an exceptionally high bar to clear. Setting aside my sky high expectations, it's a hugely enjoyable action-adventure comedy about a teenager (Julian Dennison) who goes on the lam with his foster father (Sam Neill) when child services threaten to take him away. Like Waititi's other films, it's a winning combination of wry deadpan, flashes of parochial weirdness, and genuine affection for its characters. It runs the risk of tweeness from time to time, but Waititi is so great at handling his specific tone that it settles for "aggressively charming".

10. Into the Inferno (dir. Werner Herzog, 2016)

When I heard that Werner Herzog had made a movie about volcanos, it sounded like the most Herzogian idea ever. It certainly fits the stereotypical image of him as a filmmaker fascinated with the points at which man and nature intersect, and how the latter can destroy the former. In practice, it's even more Herzogian since it is not just about volcanos as forces of nature (though there's plenty of awe-inspiring footage of their destructive power) but their significance in historical, cultural, and religious terms. Like the best of Herzog's documentaries, Into the Inferno manages to be both keenly focused and wildly discursive. It never loses sight of the looming lava dispensers that inspire and threaten in equal measure, but because mankind's relationship to volcanos is so long and multifaceted, it gives him enough space to explore just about any subject he likes. And he does it using that unique, equally charming and doom-laden voice.