Saturday, January 07, 2017

Movie Journal: December

Hidden Figures
Unsurprisingly, since December coincides with the end of year list-making and awards-voting seasons, I spent most of the month frantically trying to catch up on films that I had missed, or which I finally had a chance to see thanks to expanded theatrical releases or screeners. I watched 28 films in December, the overwhelming majority of which were 2016 releases, with very few older films getting a look in. As a result, there's a lot of overlap between thes list and my Top 25 Films of the Year, which was radically reshaped throughout the month as I tried to see as much as possible.

The worst film I watched in December was Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. I was a big fan of Ford's A Single Man, which I found to be an aesthetically gorgeous and emotionally rich study of grief and loneliness, and while Nocturnal Animals was, if anything, an improvement in terms of achieving a better balance between story and style, the story it's telling is utter horseshit. A multi-stranded, multi-fictional narrative about an art dealer (Amy Adams) who receives a book written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), the violent plot of which she suspects is a form of revenge for past wrongdoings, it's a film whose overwrought cynicism winds up being completely laughable thanks to Ford's unceasing ponderousness. There are some good performances - Michael Shannon, unsurprisingly, is fantastic as a character in Gyllenhaal's book - but it's all in aid of a pointlessly mean movie which doesn't even find fun in its meanness.

Among the crush of new releases, work and Christmas, I found time to rewatch two Coen Brothers movies which I had underestimated on first viewing. First, Burn After Reading, which I didn't like when I saw it in the theatre back in 2008 because it felt aimless and incomplete, two of the main reasons why I liked it this time. It's not their funniest movie or their best comedy in terms of structure and intent, but it's a charming bit of nonsense filled with great actors having a lot of fun. Taken out of the original context - i.e. coming mere months after they won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for No Country For Old Men - it's much easier to enjoy as a lark, a way for the Coens to unwind after making such a heavy drama. It also felt weirdly appropriate to watch a movie in which two of the most repeated refrains were "The Russians?" and "What the fuck?!"

I also watched Hail, Caesar! which I started an hour or so before midnight on New Year's Eve, so it was the last film I watched in 2016 and the first I watched in 2017. Unlike Burn After Reading, I enjoyed Hail, Caesar! on first viewing, but came away from my second with an even greater appreciation for it. Like the earlier film, its story is pretty superfluous to the jokes, but what becomes more apparent with each viewing is how lovingly the film views its motley crew of film industry types, and the appreciation it has for their skill and craft. From Eddie Mannix's (Josh Brolin) ability to somehow keep a studio running (even if it requires threats and manipulation) to Hobie Doyle's (Alden Ehrenreich) knack for lasso tricks, it's an oddly touching tribute to people who find comfort and fulfillment in their work, even if the work itself doesn't amount to much more than gossamer.

Let's dig in to the good stuff. Here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in December of 2016.

1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)

My favourite film of 2016, Jenkins' movie is a poetic study of sexuality, masculinity and identity that maintains a delicate balance between his lyrical style and an earthy focus on everyday experiences. The ensemble cast is phenomenal, with Naomie Harris, probable Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, and Janelle Monáe being especially fantastic as the adults helping or hindering young Chiron through his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

2. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

My fifth favourite film of 2016, and one which infuriated me by complicating my longstanding dislike for all of Villeneuve's work. A thoughtful, emotionally devastating work of science fiction whose plaintive calls for communication and understanding feel especially poignant in a year defined by hatred and misinformation.

3. Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

My eleventh favourite film of 2016 and one of the year's most distinctive documentaries. The way Johnson weaves together offcuts from documentaries she shot for other directors - including Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War and Citizenfour - and her own home movies serves both as a playful deconstruction of documentary filmmaking itself, and as a meditation on how the line between art and life can be so painfully blurry.

4. The Armor of Light (dirs. Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes, 2015)

Not only one of my favourite films of the month, but one of my favourite "older" film discoveries of the year, it's a great documentary about faith and personal growth. It's so rare to see people in real-life change their viewpoints in the drastic way that Rob Schenck does, going from pro-gun alongside other conservative evangelical leaders to passionately anti-gun when he realises that it fundamentally clashes with his pro-life beliefs, and Disney and Hughes do a wonderful job of capturing the different stages of his intellectual and spiritual evolution.

5. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Helmer, 2015)

My fourteenth favourite film of 2016, and easily one of the year's most unusual and distinctive visions. A movie which reimagines adolescence - and specifically black female adolescence - as an existential horror film in which acceptance - represented by a dance troupe - can lead to violent seizures, but one in which those seizures may actually be desirable parts of a rite of passage. (Or maybe it's not about that at all, since the movie is so oblique that you can get a lot of different interpretations out of it.)

6. American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2016)

My sixteenth favourite film of 2016. Not as good as Fish Tank, which tells a similar story in a more concise way, but a gorgeously shot, amorphous and enveloping movie which places the personal journey of self-discovery of a young woman (Sasha Lane) against the beautiful, sometimes desolate expanses of the Midwest.

7. Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)

When I was younger, I was pretty dismissive of movies described as "middlebrow" by critics. (Though, in my defense, that's not the most appealing of sobriquets.) While I still tend to be wary of any film that seems to have been made with awards in mind, particularly biopics and adaptations of "serious" literature, or which aim for the kind of broad acceptance that requires the sanding off of any and all edges, I've learned to consider them on a case-by-case basis, since there's value in telling a capital-I important story in an accessible way, even if it's not the most formally or narratively daring approach.

Enter: Hidden Figures, one of the best examples of an uplifting, mainstream Hollywood movie that I've seen in years. Melfi's film tells the story of three African-American mathematicians working for NASA (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, making her second appearance on this list) who were crucial to the success of John Glenn's mission to orbit the Earth. It's a sparky, energetic movie with a great ensemble cast, one which avoids the pitfalls of being stodgy or feeling like homework, but what sets it apart is its nuanced depiction of racism in 1960s Virginia.

While there are moments of overt prejudice depicted, for the most part it's about institutional racism, and how people who would never consider themselves racist - such as the characters played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst - still did and said racist things because they were born into a fundamentally racist society, and believed in preserving the status quo that had existed for decades. The film also manages to subvert the White Saviour archetype by having Henson's boss (Kevin Costner, doing great work) tackle segregation in NASA facilities not because he's the only one who can see that it's wrong, or because he has a great moral revelation, but because he discovers that having separate White and Colored bathrooms hurts the efficiency of his team. It's a fantastic film that has only grown in my estimation as time has passed.

8. Miss Stevens (dir. Julia Hart, 2016)

My seventeenth favourite movie of 2016. Could have easily been one of those insufferable indie dramadies that comes out of Sundance with a lot of buzz then is promptly forgotten about, but ends up being a gentle and deeply felt movie about believably broken people trying to do their best.

9. Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2016)

My twenty-first favourite movie of 2016. Probably Nichols' least cohesive film to date on account of its uneasy blend of intense character drama and odd science fiction thriller, but the cast manage to bring a lot of emotional realism to an at times ill-defined concept, making a story that could be cheesy or incomprehensible into an affecting story about faith and parenthood.

10. Fences (dir. Denzel Washington, 2016)

It always feels churlish to point out that an adaptation of a play feels like an adaptation of a play, but boy, does Fences feel like an adaptation of a play, at least for its first twenty minutes or so. The cast's breathless delivery of August Wilson's dialogue, mixed with attempts to "open up" the story by having those conversations happen in a couple of different locations, makes what should be scene-setting feel intensely stressful. Once the film settles down, the story of a garbage collector (Washington) and his strained relationships with his wife (Viola Davis) and children in 1950s Pittsburgh develops a compelling rhythm of its own. It's a showcase for powerhouse performances from superb actors, one which overcomes its early hiccups to become a fascinating study of inter-generational conflict in one family about what it means to be a father, a man, and black in America during a turbulent, changing time.