Friday, December 01, 2017

Movie Journal: November

Awards season is in full swing, so I've spent most of this month frantically trying to catch up on films I missed earlier in the year, or ones that are only now starting to make the rounds. It's one of my favourite times of the year, as well as one of the most exhausting, since the conversation about what are the best movies of the year hasn't been winnowed down to four or five names yet. There has been a little winnowing, admittedly, but besides from Get Out, Lady Bird and Call Be By Your Name, there aren't that many movies that are completely dominating the conversation or feel like locks for Oscar nominations.

Before we get to the best movies I saw in November, let's dispense with Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, easily the worst movie I watched this month and one of the worst movies I've seen all year. I went in hoping for it to be good, since the story of Tonya Harding could make for a great character study, and its mix of ambition and class is so quintessentially American. Plus, Margot Robbie is a bona fide movie star and it felt like a great vehicle for her (her performance is admittedly very good). At its best, the film recalls the blistering faux-hagiographies of Goodfellas or Chopper, but for the most part it displays the kind of purposeless kineticism that has characterized some of David O. Russell's more recent work; a lot of fidgety energy, constant voiceover and beyond blunt musical choices that add up to nothing of any real value. Good Allison Janney performance, though.

10. Marjorie Prime (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2017)

In adapting Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Almereyda doesn't do much to disguise its stage bound origins, but there really isn't any need to break out material this heady and intricate: setting it anywhere other than a beach house would just be a distraction from its ideas. Lois Smith stars as an elderly woman named Marjorie whose son-in-law (Tim Robbins) has purchased an AI programmed to look like a younger version of her dead husband (Jon Hamm). As Marjorie interacts with the AI, sharing stories from "their" life together and explaining what her real husband was like, the film explores notions of memory and identity in a way that could feel artificial or airless in a conventional setting, but becomes electrifying thanks to the science fiction conceit. As the focus shifts to explore Marjorie's strained relationship with her daughter (Geena Davis), it becomes one of the year's most quietly affecting movies.

9. Postcards From the Edge (dir. Mike Nichols, 1990)

I'd been meaning to watch this adaptation of Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel about her struggles with substance abuse and her relationship with her mother for years and it did not disappoint. Meryl Streep is great as the Fisher stand-in - witty, acerbic, brilliant but fragile - while Shirley MacLaine makes for a great pseudo-Debbie Reynolds, evincing a mix of genuine affection for her daughter and a ruthless competitive streak. The sort of effortlessly great movie that the much-missed Mike Nichols could knock out of the park every once in a while.

8. A Quiet Passon (dir. Terence Davies, 2016)

When I found out that one of my favourite filmmakers was making a movie about the life of my favourite poet, starring one of my favourite working actors, it was pretty clear that I was going to at least like A Quiet Passion, but I was still bowled over by how good it is. Rather than tackling the life of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) the way that a film about a significant literary figure would normally, Davies crafts a remarkably austere and brittle movie about a woman of immense gifts who gradually retreated from the world, and which makes the brutally unsentimental argument that posterity really doesn't count for anything when you've seen everything you love fade away. A biting movie hidden under the prestigious veneer of heritage filmmaking.

7. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes, 2017)

It's sometimes surprising when a movie becomes divisive, not because the movie in question is unimpeachable or anything, but because it seems so innocuous that it's hard to imagine people getting worked up about it. Take La La Land from last year; I personally didn't like it because I thought it was a bad musical, but I also didn't take umbrage with people liking it, and was taken aback by how sharply divided people ended up being about the movie.

That being said, I can totally understand why people hate Wonderstruck. With its dual narratives taking place fifty years apart, one of them shot like a silent movie, and both focused on precocious kids wandering around New York, it's more than a little precious. There's a level of sappiness to it which is otherwise absent from Haynes' work, and that could totally rub people the wrong way and I get it. I also, however, cried pretty consistently throughout the last twenty minutes, and found it to be a really cathartic and lovely experience.

6. Lucky (dir. John Carroll Lynch, 2017)

The death of Harry Dean Stanton can't help but hang over Lucky, one of his final movies and a rare opportunity for the character actor's character actor to play a leading role, since it was already so focused on aging and fear of death. As Lucky, a cranky nonagenarian atheist whose routine is thrown off balance by a minor health scare, Stanton gives a performance that is at once graceful and abrasive. He lets us feel every single day of his long life in every creaking movement, and each step carries a sense that it might be his last, but then he just turns around and tries to pick a fight with someone fifty years his junior. It's a movie in which any given scene can just as easily feature Stanton musing quietly on mortality, mumbling to himself as he grapples with the crossword, or screaming "cunts" at no one in particular. Director John Carroll Lynch, an immensely fine actor in his own right, gets great performances from his cast, including a delightful encounter between Stanton and his Alien co-star Tom Skerritt, and a series of short, warm and funny scenes between Stanton and frequent collaborator David Lynch, who plays one of his drinking buddies. It's the best possible version of those terrible movies about crotchety old people who get a second lease of life, largely because Lucky doesn't get a new lease on life, he just thinks deeply about the one he already has.

5. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees, 2017)

The one significant problem I have with Dee Rees' excellent epic about race and racism in post-World War II Mississippi is that it feels about half an hour too short. In an age where every movie feels like it could use at least ten or twenty minutes trimmed off, Rees' lyrical film, with its multiple point-of-view characters, elliptical narration and expansive vision is the sort of thing that really needs time to breathe, and to let its tactile qualities seep into the audience. For its first two thirds, it's a pretty rapturous, if at times brutal and heartbreaking, experience, but the denouement feels a little hurried. As it stands, it's merely a brilliantly acted, visually stunning, and deeply affecting film that stands as easily one of the best films of 2017.

4. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

I'm a sucker for Guillermo del Toro, and have been since I took two incredibly skeptical friends to go and watch Hellboy on opening weekend (I loved it, but they remained pretty skeptical afterwards) and then felt compelled to follow him wherever he would take me. The Shape of Water is the movie I've been waiting for him to make for years; a lush fairytale that makes full use of his powers as a visual storyteller. While nominally a riff on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, at least in terms of the design of its central "monster", it's the kind of heartfelt love letter to outsiders that has become his stock in trade over the years. This variation on that theme is deepened considerably by a silent performance from the always great Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaner at a government facility who becomes fascinated by the amphibious man (del Toro regular and prodigious physical performer Doug Jones) being held there by shadowy national security types led by a rarely more menacing Michael Shannon.

3. The Beaches of Agnès (dir. Agnes Varda, 2008)

In what was at one point planned as her final film, pioneering French director Agnés Varda gives herself the same treatment she gave Jacques Demy with Jacquot de Nantes by producing a documentary/memoir which mixes art and life until no border between the two exists at all. The biggest difference between the two films is her own centrality to the storytelling as its subject: Demy was very ill during the production of Jacquot de Nantes so he was only glimpsed briefly. Varda, meanwhile, is onscreen for pretty much the entirety of The Beaches of Agnés and she is a great subject; funny, playful, but also achingly raw when she talks about the friends and loves who can’t be with her, she manages a delicate balance between opening her heart for the world to see, and staying removed enough to comment insightfully about her pain. The fact that it wasn’t her last film makes it seem like an even better tribute to her unstoppable creativity than it was nine years ago.

(It also features the best animated cat in movie history, voiced by a relentlessly hostile Chris Marker.)

2. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

As someone who was a pretty self-obsessed teenager in the early '00s, a lot of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's first solo directorial work, range uncomfortably true for me. In her use of editing to move abruptly from scene to scene, often starting mid-conversation, she perfectly captures the unique myopia of someone unable to look past their own hangups to realise that the people around them have serious problems to contend with. Yet Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is not vilified for being self-centered or causing accidental pain to those around her, nor is she excused for kind of being an asshole. Gerwig's humane approach to her characters gives them all a sense of reality and inner life, even when they only prove tangential to the story of Lady Bird's sexual and emotional development. It's also funny, sharp and boasts a fantastic supporting cast, of which Laurie Metcalf (as Lady Bird's mother) is the undoubted highlight. Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet and Beanie Feldstein are no slouches, though.

1. Strong Island (dir. Yance Ford, 2017)

In ways both big and small, this deeply personal documentary, in which director Yance Ford revisits the murder of his older brother William in 1992, is one of the most wrenching movies I've seen all year. In a macro sense, it tells an all too familiar story of a young black man being gunned down by a white man who then pleads self-defense and gets away with murder. Ford's focus is on one specific crime and its impact on a small group of people, but it's a heartbreaking synecdoche for the ways in which systemic racism destroys black lives twice over: once by ending them, and once again by depriving them of justice. On a micro level, Ford captures in uncomfortably intimate detail the impact that William's death had on his family and friends, at one point vocalizing his own pain by letting out a howl of anguish that becomes distorted into a nightmarish soundscape. Ranks alongside Dear Zachary as one of the most purely upsetting documentaries about grief.