|Red Rock West|
The worst film I watched for the first time this month was Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, which did a thorough job of making me sick of the Rolling Stones song of the same name. While the footage of the Stones at work on the song is interesting, showing a band at the height of its powers stumbling towards greatness as they record different parts, try things out, and gradually hammer it into the rock classic that we all know, the other half of the film, which consists of interminable vignettes focused on Godard's interest in Marxism, revolution, and radicalism, is the worst kind of masturbatory self-indulgence from a director who isn't exactly a stranger to masturbatory self-indulgence. There's some lovely tracking shots in there, though, if you're into that sort of thing.
Right, let's get to the top ten for October.
1. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer's previous documentary about the genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966, felt like a complete work. In giving the men who helped slaughter millions the chance to tell their story, Oppenheimer gave a unique insight into the minds of mass murderers with an intimacy and intensity that was unnerving. The Look of Silence doesn't alter The Act of Killing's wholeness, but it does provide a vital companion piece by offering the oppressed the same level of freedom afforded to the oppressors. Oppenheimer follows an optometrist as he talks about his older brother, who he never met because he was killed during the genocide, and interviews the men who killed him.
Much like Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, Oppenheimer's film is a rigorously structured interrogation of a central question, except this time we know what happened and who did it. The interviews between the man and the killers become more of an inquiry into what it takes to commit horrifying acts of violence, what it takes to live with them (and the family members of the victims) for decades, and whether the next generation of Indonesians will ever be able to understand the horrors committed fifty years ago, considering that the people who carried them out are the same people writing the history books.
2. Grandma (dir. Paul Weitz, 2015)
Lily Tomlin is a goddamn national treasure. She's a hugely talented and effortlessly funny actress who has done fantastic work for decades without compromising who she is or altering her style all that much. Whether she is working in wacky comedies like All of Me, scrappy Robert Altman movies, or a glossy network drama like The West Wing, she is always recognizably herself. That undeniable individuality is on full, brilliant display in Grandma, a hugely enjoyable, unabashedly feminist comedy-drama about a grandmother who spends a day trying to help her granddaughter (Julia Garner) scrape together enough money to pay for an abortion.
That sounds like it could be pretty bleak, but Weitz's screenplay, which structures the day around episodes with slightly portentous titles like "The Ogre", makes it into an acerbically funny, ultimately moving examination of not just the relationship between its central pairing, but also between the grandmother and a host of other people in her life, including her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), her ex-lover (Judy Greer), and an old friend/flame (Sam Elliott) with whom she has a complicated past. The film in general is not afraid of complications, and while some of the scenes feel a little forced, either comedically or dramatically, the way it deals with how different waves of feminism interact, the weight of the past, and the strength of women is masterful.
3. Outrage (dir. Ida Lupino, 1950)
The depiction of rape in film and television these days is pretty dire, since sexual assault is routinely treated as a cheap plot device with little attention paid to the impact it can have on the victim. The inability of modern writers and directors to handle the subject is thrown into even sharper relief by Outrage, a film old enough to draw a pension, which deals with the trauma of rape better than the overwhelming majority of stories being told now. Mala Powers stars as a young woman who is assaulted by someone she knows (and who we are introduced to right at the start of the film, so there's no doubt about who did or why they did it), and whose life begins to fall apart afterwards, both because of the lingering trauma of her experience and because of the inability of the people in her life to understand what she is going through. Lupino operates flawlessly within the limits of melodrama, allowing the heightened timbre of the genre to accentuate the roiling, complicated emotions of Powers' character, while still delivering a story which is unflinching in its examination of the horror of rape. Even if the ending offers hope for Powers' future, it fully grasps how much her experiences have changed her, and will continue to affect her for the rest of her life.
4. Red Rock West (dir. John Dahl, 1993)
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that "drama is life with the dull bits cut out." Well, Red Rock West is drama with all the dull bits cut out. Built on a simple noir premise - a man (Nic Cage) arrives in a town looking for work and is mistaken for somebody else - the script piles twist on top of twist, throwing a stream of small town crooks and prospective crooks at Cage as he tries to extricate himself from the mess he has stumbled into. If that wasn't enough, it offers the beyond wonderful sight of Nicolas Cage, the craziest American actor of his generation, squaring off against Dennis Hopper, the craziest American actor of his generation. It's very much an Alien vs. Predator situation, except we all win.
5. Wanda (dir. Barbara Loden, 1970)
Rarely has the term "documentary realism" been so completely appropriate as it is in the case of Wanda. Loden's sole feature as a writer-director is about as sparse and artifice-free as narrative cinema gets, and if you were to remove key elements of the plot - such as how Wanda (Loden) falls in with and becomes an accomplice to a bank robber after allowing her estranged husband to take full custody of her children - it would be indistinguishable from a Mayles Brothers-style documentary. It's a raw and unsparing look at the life of a woman slowly drifting to the edge of society, both through her own actions and the actions of those around her, and it paints an achingly sad picture of a deeply unhappy person with a degree of honesty that is rare.
6. Titus (dir. Julie Taymor, 1999)
Titus Andronicus is, by some distant, Shakespeare's bloodiest and silliest play. It's comparatively low on psychological insight, but scores much higher when it comes to mutilation and unwitting cannibalism. Julie Taymor treats the material with the right amount of reverence (i.e. slight) and uses it as a jumping off point for unfettered creativity. Ancient Rome becomes unstuck in time as Taymor and her team collapse millennia of human history to a single point; a world in which people wear Centurion armour but also cruise around in vintage convertibles, and where people use bows and arrows but also play arcade machines. The sensory overload grates at times, as should be expected in a film that is nearly three hours long, but the boldness of the vision and the ebullience of the performers (particularly Alan Cumming, who eyes the scenery with a hunger you'd expect from a beaver in a lumber yard) keep it fun even when the plot drags. It's also possibly the only film to make Anthony Hopkins' post-Oscar hamminess work to its advantage.
7. Junun (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2015)
I've already written and talked enough about what a delight Paul Thomas Anderson's short, sharp music documentary is, so I'll just say that you can still watch it on MUBI until November 7th. Seek it out, and enjoy the brilliant music.
8. Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan, 2014)
The comparisons between Appropriate Behavior and the work of Lena Dunham feel pretty reductive, but at the same time it's hard not to watch Appropriate Behavior - a story about a twentysomething woman stumbling through tragicomic sexual misadventures in Brooklyn - and not see some parallels to Girls and Tiny Furniture. But if there are broad similarities, the finer details could not be more different, since Akhavan's bisexuality and Iranian heritage inform her story in profound ways. Her arrested development and inability to come to terms with the end of a serious relationship becomes much more specific when viewed as a story about a first generation American trying to balance the expectations of her parents with those of the culture she has grown up in. It's also very funny, which helps carry its interrogation of some deceptively weighty subject matter.
9. Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)
I am a sucker for stories of aw shucks American decency, and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' fourth collaboration as director and actor is about as perfect an example of the form as you are likely to find. Like much of Spielberg's non-blockbuster films since 2005, it's a undeniably political work - in this case arguing that America's ideals, such as the right to a fair trial, are more important than its own national interest - which so excellently couches its arguments in character and story that it works seamlessly as entertainment. Hanks is at his most quietly iconic (though his depiction of a lawyer who served at the Nuremberg Trials as some kind of average insurance attorney is somewhat disingenuous), and his scenes with Mark Rylance, who plays a Soviet agent put on trial for spying, are some of the warmest and funniest Spielberg has directed (helped in no small part by the script, by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman).
It's better in its first half, when it deals with Hanks' legal arguments and his efforts to make sure that Rylance is treated fairly before the law. Once it moves to Berlin and becomes a John Le Carre story, it ironically loses a lot of its political edge, and even verges into broad caricature in its treatment of some characters. Even when it's less interesting, it's still an assured effort from a man who knows something about putting a movie together.
10. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015)
I liked a new Ridley Scott movie! This is a rare and precious occurrence, so let's savour it.