Saturday, October 01, 2016

Movie Journal: September

Hell or High Water
Oh shit, a movie journal that's more or less on time! That's what happens when you go on holiday for a few weeks and have a little bit of time to actually put one of these things together!

Said holiday did eat into my film viewing for the month, however, since I watched a relatively paltry 27 films in September, four of which were rewatches. For the record, those rewatches were of Pan's Labyrinth, which I watched for Shot/Reverse Shot purposes; The General, because I've been on a Keaton kick lately and wanted to revisit it for the first time in a decade; Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, just because; and The War Room, which for some reason I find myself revisiting every four years. (I also wanted to refresh my memory in advance of watching the Documentary Now! pastiche of it, "The Bunker", which was unsurprisingly perfect.) All four were great, for very different reasons.

Of the new to me films I watched this month, the worst was Cimarron, the 1931 Western which is only really notable for winning Best Picture that year. As a film, it's a drab epic of American expansionism which covers 40 years but feels like it takes 50 to watch. There's a few fun, eccentric performances in the mix, but Richard Dix and Irene Dunne make for pretty boring leads, and their strained marriage isn't a strong enough backbone to sustain a movie that's light on substance or fun.

(X-Men: Apocalypse ran a close second for worst film of the month, but I'm going to write a review of that later because I feel like its shittiness can't be easily summarised in a single paragraph. Make no mistake, though: it's pretty bad, and would be the worst X-Men-associated movie if the first Wolverine film wasn't there giving it a low bar to clear.)

Enough of the bad stuff, here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in September, 2016.

1. Jacquot de Nantes (dir. Agnès Varda, 1991)

Varda's documentary about Jacques Demy is a profound act of love from one artist to another. Mixing together interviews with Demy conducted in the months prior to his death from AIDS in 1990, clips from the many great films he directed, and recreations of key moments from his childhood, Varda offers a pretty comprehensive rundown of Demy's early life. But she also draws out connections between his life and his work, using bursts of colour to represent the moments in Demy's war-torn youth that would inform films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Donkey Skin, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. It's a rare movie about an artist that manages to convey something of their process without being insultingly simplistic.

2. Straight Time (dir. Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

Crime caper that doubles as a character study of a convict (Dustin Hoffman) who, freshly released from prison, tries to go straight, only to be thwarted by his condescending parole office (M. Emmet Walsh, making for a low-key great villain). After being erroneously sent back to prison, then released again, Hoffman goes on a veritable spree with the help of Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton.

The two robbery scenes that punctuate the second half of the film are the story in microcosm: they're unadorned, shot without music, and they draw tension from Hoffman's obsessive performance and the eerieness of shattered normality. It's a movie which entertainingly and tragically illustrates how hard it is for Hoffman's character to stay on the straight and narrow, and which escalates from that first minor slip up in ways which are both stark yet authentic.

3. Weiner (dirs. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)

The ongoing saga of Anthony Weiner has gone in some new, distressing directions even in the short time since I wrote my review of this documentary, which does detract from the energetic fun of the film (while also making its guarded comeback coda look even more ironic). It's still a fascinating and entertaining doc, even if the actions of its subject make it increasingly hard to watch without discomfort.

4. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie, 2016)

The film that finally proved that Chris Pine is a good actor, or that he is at least capable of a passable Timothy Olyphant impression. Mackenzie follows up his blistering prison drama Starred Up (one of the best films of 2014) with another excellent genre film, this time a neo-Western in which Pine and the perennially underrated Ben Foster play brothers who travel around Texas robbing banks, pursued by gruff US Marshal Jeff Bridges and his exasperated deputy, Gil Birmingham. Its subtext about the ways in which ordinary people had their lives destroyed by the banking crisis is so blunt that it's just text, but the performances are so great, the sense of place is so intoxicating, and the action sequences are so brilliantly staged that it gets away with its obvious social commentary. It also gets points for including an act of violence so sudden and shocking that everyone in my screening gasped, which is an achievement in its own right, and for featuring the greatest selection of sassy waitresses you're likely to see all year.

5. Everything is Copy (dirs. Jacob Bernstein and Nick Cooper)

It's hard to make a personal documentary without courting self-indulgence, and it's dangerous to invoke Citizen Kane because you'll look like a pretentious dick, but Everything is Copy manages to avoid both pitfalls with a deftness worthy of its subject, the writer and director Nora Ephron. Taking its title from a favourite phrase of Ephron's - one which she in turn inherited from her mother - about how every experience is raw material for writing, Bernstein and Cooper tackle the biggest question surrounding Ephron's death from cancer in 2012: why did a woman who turned many of the biggest and most painful moments of her life into art keep her illness secret almost up to the moment it killed her? The answer to that question is ultimately not that satisfying (though how could it be, given the enormous weight behind it?) but it's a powerful engine which allows the film to interrogate and explore her work, her life, and the many collaborators and friends she encountered along the way.

6. Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944)

Being more familiar with George Cukor's comedies, it was something of a revelation seeing him create a tense, eerie thriller about a woman being slowly driven mad by the people she trusts most. Ingrid Bergman is fantastic in the lead, jumping fearlessly into emotional territory and giving a performance which feels uncomfortably raw for a studio movie. Angela Lansbury, meanwhile, is a fun scene stealer as the world's most intimidating maid, particularly when she gets to be overwhelmingly sexual towards Charles Boyer, playing Bergman's CLEARLY EVIL husband.

7. Jezebel (dir. William Wyler, 1938)

Being a film about a ruthless Southern belle who will stop at nothing to get the man that she wants, Jezebel is reminiscent of Gone With the Wind, but minus all the stuff that makes Gone With the Wind terrible. It's a short, sharp, occasionally nasty character study driven by a great Bette Davis performance.

8. Nick of Time (dir. John Badham, 1995)

There have been bolder and more innovative attempts to make a movie that unfolds in real time, but I'm not sure there are any that have as much fun with the concept as Nick of Time does. Built on a Hitchcockian premise (if Hitch had done a tonne of speed), it follows an ordinary man (Johnny Depp, back when his presence in a movie wasn't an instant cause for alarm) whose daughter is kidnapped by a pair of sinister agents (Christopher Walken and Roma Maffia) who tell him that he has to assassinate a politician within the next hour and a half, otherwise they'll kill his daughter. From there, Depp (whose character tragically is not called Nick) has to think of a way out of an impossible situation, with nothing but his wits and the help of Charles S. Dutton as a shoeshine stand operator.

It's very pulpy, but delivered with real aplomb by Badham, who doesn't waste a second of the film's slender running time. There's also a real sense that every actor knows exactly what kind of movie they are making and they play up to the heightened atmosphere wonderfully. Walker's performance in particular needs to be seen to be believed.

9. Duelle (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Surreal, suspenseful metaphysical noir which doesn't concede much in terms of explanation, but is so heavy with intrigue and atmosphere that it's a pleasure to lean in to try to figure out what's going on. I'm not sure I could tell you what the hell happened in it (something about two magical beings who use ordinary people to try to destroy each other?), but I certainly had a great time watching it.

10. The Little Foxes (dir. William Wyler, 1941)

Another Wyler-Davis collaboration, though this one is less caustic or focused than Jezebel, and ultimately comes across like Arrested Development without the peppy music. Bette Davis plays a Southern socialite who plots with, then against, her greedy brothers to try and get ahold of her husband's money in order to build a mill, an arrangement which would finally offer her some wealth independent of her marriage. It only gets more convoluted and biting from there as the three siblings and other assorted family members become pawns in a game of chess that has clearly been going on for years.