Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 3

Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham in Happy Christmas

(Catch up on what I'm doing here and here. And yes, I recognize that these are getting longer.)

21. Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Touré, Girlhood - The complaint writes itself and is practically rhetorical: "Why'd Boyhood get so much attention and Girlhood so little?" To be fair, Céline Sciamma's study of four Afro-French teenagers, and of one in particular, won't open in the U.S. until hopefully next year. At that point, many of my readers will have their best shot at nullifying this objection by buying lots of tickets and endlessly chatting up the movie.  Once that comes to pass, we can all admire first-timer Karidja Touré's artful projection of vibrancy and heartache in the lead role but also the sinuous rapport of all four actresses at the center of the film, playing characters who are often but not always lifelines for each other. The relations synthesize most gorgeously during their exuberant, full-length, indigo-lit sing-along to Rihanna's "Diamonds" but their spirit, as bruised and boisterous as the song, courses through the whole film. Sciamma taps into it deftly and created the context in which it could thrive, but she couldn't access it and we couldn't savor it if her actresses hadn't conjured it.

22. Everybody in Goodbye to All That - Maybe they really do make this kind of movie all the time in France, but it's nonetheless remarkable when an American filmmaker understands character this way: not just as a carefully sculpted centerpiece, dominating a table to which spectators and fellow actors dutifully pull up a seat, but as a porous environment, a weather system, a loosely bonded atomic cloud through which motives, desires, personalities, ideas, and situations pass and accumulate. That's how writer-director Angus MacLachlan approached Otto and how Paul Schneider plays him, with a relaxation and a sense of ongoing discovery rarely connoted by adjectives like "impeccable," which Schneider nonetheless deserves. So do the other members of the cast, most of whom are women. Melanie Lynskey's brave and angry wife, Ashley Hinshaw's friend with benefits, Anna Camp's hot-and-cold churchgirl, Heather Graham's simmering old flame, Audrey Scott's believably all-seeing daughter, and especially Heather Lawless's resilient free spirit: these are not just refractions of Otto, but permeable, evolving creations of their own, as Otto is, and at no cost to their dramatic coherence. Smaller parts rendered by Michael Chernus, Amy Sedaris, and national treasure Celia Weston are just as indelible. They don't just honor the personalities implied by the script.  They contribute to an idea about life that the script hopes to promulgate: that we're all making it up, co-creating, but hopefully not lying.  Men and women alike, they are all midwives to this insight, expert and utterly un-arrogant.

23. Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas - "He's only saying it because they're friends," some readers will grouse. "He's only saying it because we're friends," one particular person might be saying, with typical, self-effacing modesty. "Oh my god, for real," say actual spectators of Happy Christmas and Goodbye to All That, who know the truth. Lynskey is the only well-known actor I can also call a friend; the filming of Happy Christmas, not far from my home, was the occasion for finally spending real time with her.  But private sympathies aside, her project choices consistently incline toward ensemble pieces, and when we're all lucky, not just her, these are the effects. Happy Christmas gifts all its actors with roles that draw off past personas (Kendrick's chipper edge, Lynskey's dejection and carefully tended hope, Dunham's jovial listening and self-ironization) while nudging most of them into new territory (Kendrick's a mess, Lynskey's a mom, and I did say most of them).  For a certain kind of indie audience, this is an irresistible cast. The comfy scenes, including a hilarious post-credits stinger, where these three bat around ideas for the Lynskey character's next book have the punchy whiff of the actresses simultaneously creating and goofing off. But they aren't playing themselves, and this isn't all a joke: witness one of the film's best moments, where Kendrick's and Dunham's characters pose genuine queries to Lynskey's about motherhood; she is gratified but also made nervous by their too-quick glorification of her role and her choices.  Name the last movie where this many women asked this many rarely-broached questions and evoked such multi-dimensional investments and responses on all sides, spoken and not.

24. Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, Ida - One of the year's smallest films (quiet, Polish, black and white, barely 80 minutes) is also one of its biggest stories. Foreign-language films barely ever clear $1 million at the box office anymore, even the ones considered hits, aggressively marketed by deep-pocketed mini-majors. Ida made about four times that, before it amassed prestigious prizes or awards buzz, which Music Box Films wouldn't have had the money to instigate or sustain.  This is a genuine word-of-mouth hit, and yes, it's lovely to look at, and yes, Holocaust stories have a loyal audience, but the film's appeal would never have spread so widely or lasted this long without the taciturn duet between the two Agatas, young and fawnlike Trzebuchowska and older, more disabused Kulesza. My predilection for woman-centered stories is showing more strongly than ever in this installment, but the world has corroborated me here, by which I mean, we're all corroborating each other. Ida's narrative has memorable incidents and the courage to play as a kind of whispered detective story, but it also reminds us that simply looking at a woman's face or listening as two women talk (and don't talk) is as solid a foundation as any movie needs.  The world is round, people!

25. James Gray and Harvey Weinstein, The Immigrant - Ha ha. Kidding.

25. Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan, Interstellar - Like Gargantua, the collapsed sun at the core of the story (if I've even got that right?), Interstellar can seem either empty or overfull, depending on your criteria. It keeps pulling ideas and narrative frames into itself, with the paradoxical effect that not enough can happen. I both gawped at the film and felt somewhat agog at seemingly obvious errors in scale or judgment. Zimmer's score belongs in both categories. At moments, especially an emergency space flight, he resorts to some familiar bombast; even when he doesn't, Nolan allows the music to be mixed too loud. Those things said, I thought the melodies and instrumentations were often lovely and just as often fresh. Zimmer hadn't sounded this way in a while, if ever, and that's not a pure coincidence. Director and composer have testified to Nolan's overt request that Zimmer break familiar habits and challenge himself for this project, which is all about limit-testing.  It's also about going so far afield that you wind up right back home. That's not unfair as an assessment of the music, but I didn't mind. I like watching frequent collaborators nudge each other in uncomfortable directions. Maybe they fall short of full reinvention, but so do most of us (especially at New Year's). You're lucky if, as part of the effort, you create something as beautiful and unusual as Zimmer did.

26. Samir and Family, Iraqi Odyssey - I look at my own copious notes from 36 movies at last September's Toronto Film Festival and can barely decipher my words, or what they meant. Imagine trying to recover a century's worth of multi-generational, multi-continental family history, institutional and intimate, about people living and dead, some eager to talk and some less so.  And doing so on behalf of an audience who cannot be expected to know anything about Iraqi history, no matter how urgently our own history is bound up with theirs. All of this Samir brings off brilliantly in his public and private self-study, an epic that will show up eventually on U.S. screens if there is any justice whatsoever. When you see it, you'll not only marvel at how so many members of the Aldin family wound up in Baghdad, Moscow, Paris, Lausanne, Berlin, Melbourne, Beirut, Buffalo, Kuwait, and back to Baghdad, and at the convoluted reasons why, but at the intensive sifting that Samir and his relatives must all have done—through their own pasts and each other's—in order to produce this capacious, endlessly compelling document. It took over a decade to make.  You can give it your three hours.  You'll want to. (And let me seize this occasion to again thank Rasha Salti, the very best of TIFF's many talented programmers, with arguably the hardest job, for many of my best experiences over three years of attending that festival.)

27. Eliza Hittman and Gina Piersanti, It Felt Like Love - As a finished film, It Felt Like Love felt very daring to me but also disconcertingly familiar: bits of Fat Girl, entire scenes and tropes from Fish Tank, etc. I'm not alleging any direct lifting. To the contrary, I imagine Hittman has eagerly absorbed those movies, as have many of us who care about the lives of young women, and that she has devoted herself to narrativizing some all-too-common experiences of teenage girls in many parts of the world: relentless self-scrutiny, dangerous self-doubt, headstrong behavior, breath-catching vulnerability. It's no coincidence when patterns repeat across this territory. It's also no discredit to the bravery of the storytellers, in particular that of the writer-director and her intrepid actress, who show us so poignantly what Lila craves and what she doesn't understand, implying so potently what might or might not happen to her.  Beyond the guts to tell this story, you'd need stainless-steel skills to talk a novice actress through this performance, or to supply a filmmaker with the characterization on which her entire film rests. As it stands, and whatever my gripes, it's a significant and sobering achievement (rent it), and it feels like only the beginning.

28. Maika Monroe, David Robert Mitchell, and Adam Wingard, It Follows and The Guest - You could describe both these films as horror-but-not-quite-horror movies. It Follows has one foot planted in dark comedy, even if it's as scary as The Babadook. The Guest is like a home-invasion thriller matched with a sexual-awakening drama, suffused with Hurt Locker chromosomes, Elm Street proteins, and comic impulses of its own.  It Follows was one of this year's best festival films, and I expect it to be one of next year's best commercial releases. The Guest is pretty good at being what it is, especially for the first hour. They're both eccentric enough that they'd require some dexterous communication from the writer-directors to their casts and crews, especially about tone and theme, and most of all to the young women at the center of each story. I was really impressed at the two actresses who managed to indicate specific personalities as the terrified target in It Follows and the whip-smart Final Girl in The Guest while also furnishing both films with the kind of blank-slate audience surrogate that horror movies often need, so we can project upon them. I was even more impressed to discover during The Guest's end-credit roll that they were, in fact, the same actress.

29. Viggo Mortensen and Lisandro Alonso, Jauja - I saw two Viggo Mortensen movies in Toronto. One was a mid-20th-century period film in which all his dialogue was in French or Arabic. The other was a fantasy film in period trappings, unfolding a couple centuries ago but also in a temporally amorphous Otherplace, akin to the floating space-bubble in The Fountain or the cosmic library in Interstellar. That last connection has occurred to Viggo, too, and his honesty alone is part of the reason we are dating. But even more inspiring is how he walks the walk, lending his skills and his marketable celebrity to visions as eccentric and insinuating as Jauja's, knowing lots of the audiences he attracts won't like it. Unless, that is, they hear him speak about it: Mortensen made clear at the screenings of both films, but especially Jauja's, that he is an articulate and fine-tuned collaborator on his projects and also humbly sees himself as a collaborator with his audiences, provided they're up for the sorts of challenges he himself enjoys as a filmgoer. It would have been easy for Alonso to direct Jauja in such a way as to emphasize the Stranger in a Strange Land aspect of putting his Oscar-nominated Strider through a surrealist colonial-dreamscape puzzle. It would even have served the story, the way Tom Cruise's incongruity and befuddlement served Eyes Wide Shut. But they both make tougher, nimbler choices than that, raising each other's very peculiar game. True, too, of Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen. Who knew he needed to move to Argentina and shoot the movie in a different aspect ratio than we're now seeing it in to achieve a new career peak?

30. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and Ho'onani Kamai, Kumu Hina - Hina Wong-Kalu is a Hawai'ian māhū, a culturally specific cognate for what we might call a transgender woman. She is also a kanaka maoli teacher, in which capacity she transmits stories, dances, songs, and ceremonial legacies to future generations of indigenous Hawai'ians, even amid the state's cultural homogenization as part of the U.S. Ho'onani Kamai is one of Hina's students, and currently the most adept performer and transmitter of the stories and routines she imparts. Kumu Hina is a gripping documentary about Hina's efforts to protect her culture and about the energy it takes to occupy a gender category that has a long history in Hawai'i yet continues to prompt misunderstanding, prejudice, and worse. There is power in every strand of the film, which is available for educational licensing, including the sweet but troubled partnership between Kumu Hina and her Tongan husband, who presents as a gender-normative male and whose friends don't necessarily know that Hina is a māhū. But I was especially moved by Hina's mentoring of Ho'onani, for whom I will not presume a pronoun (though the press notes suggest "she"), and who learns from Hina as a member of a group but also as a keenly attentive, uniquely invested individual. I have never seen any filmed portrait of Pacific islanders living outside the gender binary, and Kumu Hina would have made a strong impression on that basis alone. But the film's attention to cultural transmission and collective identity is more than equal to its study of gender trouble. They are, in fact, indivisible concerns of this moving study, which also works as an honest, To Be and To Have-style record of why it is hard and yet necessary to teach, and to learn.

Keep going to Part 4 and Part 5...

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Anonymous Dave S. said...

For this bit of the alphabet, I'll give a shout out to:

Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Olly Alexander, and Stuart Murdoch - "God Help the Girl". Could well be a one-off for Murdoch, and not the most auspicious filmmaking debut. But he does seem to have a way with actors, or these three had a way with each other, or some combination of things went right on set to project this kind of ease and affability. Other directors already know how much the camera loves Browning, but she gets to be more than set dressing here for once and does well with it. And I couldn't get enough of Murray in particular, who runs into scenes teeth first and channeling some kind of gangly, daffy upper-classness I still can't quite describe properly. Their camaraderie helps the audience through through the film's vaguer plot turns.

10:17 AM, January 01, 2015  

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