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Friday
Jan132017

Silence

Who was it who taught the bible-thumpers that the true meaning of God is love? -- Michael Powell on Martin Scorsese 

The profoundly moving Silence is a film about the subject Martin Scorsese has been probing from the very beginning of his career: the nature of faith in a complex world. It is over two-and-a-half hours long: Scorsese often goes long. (When I saw Casino, the theater put the lights up before the film was even over, which I considered an outrage.) It's sometimes heavy. And yet, as I let the beautiful filmmaking play over me, it didn't feel nearly as long as some 82-minute Hollywood insults to the heart, soul and mind. Scorsese's been my favorite director ever since I first became seriously interested in cinema, so I let this movie get me on its wavelength: the beautiful sound design, with its chirping crickets and lapping waves; Thelma Schoonmaker's sublime, cliché-subverting editing (right off the bat you notice they're playing with shot/reverse shot conventions); Rodrigo Prieto's exquisite cinematography. Scorsese's exhilarating, nervous quick-camera style, when it emerges, is like an old friend, and he co-wrote the script with one of his oldest friends, one-time critic Jay Cocks. The picture's duration worked on me. I concentrated, and as it unspooled the film began to have an oddly meditative, almost hallucinatory effect. 

As everyone knows who has read Paul Elie's excellent feature in the New York Times magazine, "The Passion of Martin Scorsese," Silence is one of Scorsese's dream projects, like Gangs of New York and The Last Temptation of Christ. Like those, it's deeply felt, cherished even, and slightly unwieldy. It is based on the 1966 novel "Chinmoku (Silence)" by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese convert to Christianity, which spoke deeply to Scorsese when he first read it in 1989. The resulting film is a deep, rich experience, and a sometimes taxing one. These most personal, long-gestated entries in his canon attain a kind of greatness because of their flaws, not in spite of them. 

Silence concerns the fate of a prodigal Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). He's a Christian missionary in seventeenth-century imperial Japan, when such men and their followers endured brutal persecution. As Elie recounts, Catholics "were forced to apostatize by stepping on the fumie — a piece of copper impressed with an image of Christ." When we first see Ferreira, he is being forced to bear witness to the torture of Christian converts. The tormentors give him a choice: he may save the lives of the converts and end their suffering, if he will step on the fumie and apostatize. Elie puts his finger on the central paradox with which the film asks us to grapple: "The priest profanes an image of Christ, and yet the act was an act of faith."  

The movie's first section takes place years after the opening scene, and the story unspools in the form of letters written by young Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who sets off on a quest to Japan to find out what has become of Ferreira, accompanied by another young priest, Father Francisco Garrupe (Adam Driver). Ferreira was the young mens' mentor. Throughout their adventures, an utterly dissolute peasant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) keeps turning up. A former convert, he stepped on the fumie to save his own skin, betraying his own family, who themselves went to their deaths rather than renounce their faith. He's a weak, cowardly man, as opposed to the brave underground Christian martyrs, like the leader played by 83-year-old Yoshi Oida, or the young woman played by Nana Komatsu. He even betrays Rodrigues to the shogunate authorities, resulting in his imprisonment. Yet after every betrayal, he returns simpering to Father Rodrigues, begging for his forgiveness. And every time, Rodrigues gives it to him. What, then, is the way of true Christianity? Is it martyrdom? Or is true Christianity to be found precisely in forgiveness for the people who do the bad deed? 

At the prison camp, Rodrigues meets the shogunate's menacing Inquisitor Inoue, played with wicked sly humor by Issey Ogata (Yi Yi). The Inquisitor can debate the fine points of Christianity and Buddhism; in pointed parables, he rightly points out the link between imperialism and the missionary project. From the Inquisitor's point of view, the shogunate's sadism is a form of fighting back against a colonial assault on Japanese culture. With a malevolent grin, he tells Rogrigues he can save the lives of the converts--after all, he says, they suffer because of you. He need only step on the fumie and apostatize. This is utter anathema to Rodrigues: he won't do it. In his wooden-barred cage in the yard of the prison camp, he witnesses Christian converts told they may avoid torture by stepping on the fumie. Some do and some don't. Under torture, human beings may doubt their beliefs. God remains silent in response to Rodrigues' prayers and in the face of suffering. Indeed, there's a reading to be made of the film as a Holocaust metaphor. Why wasn't God watching?    

Rodrigues begins to fear his stubborn refusal to apostatize might have to do with his own selfishness and vanity. He worries that he is losing his mind, that he has a Messiah complex. With his shaggy mane and mad mien, Garfield gives the character a John-the-Baptist-in-the-wilderness desperation. He gazes into a stream and sees Christ's face in his own: narcissism defined. Is not the sin of pride the worst sin? His calling is one in which he is meant to have humility, yet he can't get past his own ego. 

Again, this feels profoundly personal for Scorsese. A few years ago he said, "I feel closer to Jesus now. I feel closer, but again, people have said that this is me seeing myself in Jesus. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that if you can see yourself in God, because it's your attempt to come to some sort of terms with God. It has to start somewhere. It has to start on some level. It starts on the lowest level, which is ourselves, and tries to get to the highest level, which is God." 

The spirituality of Silence is front and center, as in Kundun. Its Christian imagery is explicit, as in The Last Temptation of Christ. That is to say, it's not one of Scorsese's modern-dress versions like Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead or Mean Streets, where, to paraphrase Scorsese chronicler Mary Pat Kelly (referencing Isaiah), people search for the Holy Way in the "burning sands" of the streets of New York. As Elie puts it, The Last Temptation of Christ was about "Christ's doubt-ridden struggle between his human and divine natures." Sometimes he couches the theme in metaphor, but nearly all of his films are about that in one way or another. "The right way to live has to do with selflessness," Scorsese has said. "But Jesus' last temptation is very human. The human side of all of us doesn't want to suffer." 

At one point Rodriguez falls into extended, hallucinatory fits of prayer. In an astonishing moment, Jesus breaks his silence and speaks to him. (Maybe you will say that it's an inner voice.) I will not reveal what He says, only that it illustrates one of Scorsese's most deeply-held convictions: that Jesus understands our suffering. 
 
At such moments, Scorsese makes questions of faith alive and beautiful even for me, a doubter. 

The scene in which Rodrigues finally meets ex-Father Ferreira is remarkably acted. Now a Buddhist, he has built a peaceful, fulfilling life for himself in Japan, with a wife and family. Rodrigues regards Ferreira as a traitor to everything they ever stood for, indeed as a Satan-like tempter. They debate some of life's basic questions. How are we to act, to live? Ferreira begs of Rodrigues to step on the fumie. Show some compassion. Renounce your faith, and end this suffering. Neeson and Garfield are tremendous: you can see the very foundations of Rodrigues' world rocking. He steps on the fumie. What follows is a moving coda told from the point of view of a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, relating the curious story of the apostate priests he once knew in Japan. Rodrigues lives out a quiet family life, always publicly denying Christ, stepping on the fumie whenever asked. It all leads up to a final shot which I hope people will see and talk about for a very long time to come. 

As far as my own spirituality is concerned, I'd characterize it by saying I try to be humble in the face of the numinous. I grew up Methodist--not, in terms Scorsese might recognize, "tortured Catholic." (Nicholas Pileggi speaks of "all those bloody saints and all that absolutely sanguinary Southern Italian Catholicism that Marty is a part of. Everybody's house has pictures of Jesus opening his chest with a bloody heart pounding.") I would not call myself a Christian today. Yet there's a vision of humanity in religious art like Silence that very badly needs to be shared with the world. It has to do with the mysteries of love, compassion and beauty. Irregardless of religion, human beings struggle with faith and doubt every day. With Silence, Martin Scorsese has given me another signpost on my own journey.

In thinking about this review, I drew on the following fine volumes: Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly and Masters of Cinema: Martin Scorsese (Cahiers du Cinema) by Thomas Sotinel. I also looked at Nick Pinkerton's interview with Scorsese in the January-February 2017 Film Comment and Paul Elie's feature "The Passion of Martin Scorsese" in the New York Times Magazine.

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

Friday
Jan062017

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls is a shattering, sometimes cathartic adaptation of the beautiful Carnegie Medal-winning fantasy-drama novel for young adults by Patrick Ness. He wrote the screenplay, and the film is a mostly harmonious union of his vision and that of the film's Spanish director, J.A. Bayona (The OrphanageThe Impossible). Bayona's filmmaking is marked by a certain slickness and tremendous raw heart. Together, they've shepherded the heart of this tale to the screen, keeping it a tough-minded, heartbreakingly honest piece about faith, stories and grieving. The story, inspired by an idea by the late novelist Siobhan Dowd, herself taken away by the monster of breast cancer at age 47, is set in an English town, where a furious, scared 13-year-old boy, Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his young single mum (Felicity Jones). She is dying of cancer. Behind their house is a small hill on which stands a church, a graveyard, and an ancient yew tree.

Conor awakes at precisely 12:07 from a heart-stopping nightmare to find the tree, transformed into a massive monster, is now standing in his backyard. "Its voice rumbled low and loud," Ness writes, "with a vibration so deep Conor could feel it in his chest." Who but Liam Neeson, then, could voice the monster for the movie? Given the right sound system, you'll feel Neeson's voice rumbling right where Conor does. Hurling Conor about, the monster bellows that he has come to tell him three stories. Then Conor must tell him a fourth, and it must contain his truth.

We might be tempted, then, to see the monster as metaphor--for Conor's mum's illness, or for his anger, or even his encroaching manhood. In fact, the monster is neither metaphor nor dream. In the book, when Conor asks him to name himself, he bellows, "I am Herne the Hunter, I am Cernunnos, I am the eternal Green Man." That is, he is a creature of "the old ways," the ancient magic, come walking.

When his mum's illness gets so bad she needs to be hospitalized, Conor goes to stay with his non-traditional grandma (Sigourney Weaver), an active career woman who strikes him as bossy. Looking him in the eye, his mum has insisted it's okay for him to be angry. "And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard." Destruction's satisfying, as he discovers when, with the monster as his proxy, he demolishes his grandmother's museum-like sitting room and her treasured clock. This brings us to one of the great moments in the book, preserved in the film: grandma, speechless upon discovering the carnage, proceeds to pull down the last remaining standing object in the room, a display cabinet, herself. The monster is again Conor's surrogate when he beats the bully Harry (James Melville) to a pulp. When he must go see the head mistress, she's played by Geraldine Chaplin, whose presence has graced all three of Bayona's features.

For as much as the movie adaptation leaves out (readers will notice that the character of Lily, Conor's estranged friend, is excised altogether), it adds a crucial dimension: it makes Conor a young artist. Together, he and his mum draw and paint, and she teaches him that "the life is in the eyes." (They also watch films together in their living room, such as the 1933 monster movie King Kong--and by "films," I'm talking projector-and-celluloid). Making Conor an illustrator is also a bit of an homage to Jim Kay, whose kinetic black-and-white illustrations were so essential to the novel. It's a way of making illustration a key part of the film experience, as well. 

To depict the stories the monster tells Conor, the filmmakers deploy full-color animation by Barcelona's Headless Productions. These have a nice handmade, cutout collage feel. The monster's stories are fables of human complexity and adult contradictions. The first story is about a queen who is both "a good witch and a bad witch," and a prince who is both "a murderer and a savior." The second, a parable of selfishness, concerns a parson who owns a yew tree, and an "evil-hearted" apothecary who covets it for its healing properties. (After nothing else works, mum's doctors try a medicine made from yew trees. She holds out hope it could be the thing that heals her. "Belief is half of all healing," she says. "Belief is the cure, belief in the future that awaits.")

The third tale has to do with Conor's seemingly masochistic craving for punishment. (His horrible nightmares are born of what he considers a shameful secret.) As Bayona showed in The Impossible, he's riveting at handling characters swept up in great disasters, and the big set-pieces here, such as the nightmare finale, show what he can do as a conductor of apocalypse and nightmare. He always makes sure the special effects are in the service of life-and-death human stakes. 

This is intense material. Jones and Weaver leave their hearts on the floor, transmitting all the fierce, complicated love of the parent-child bond, as well as the rage and anguish that it should be torn asunder--that they are powerless to write a different ending to their story. The young MacDougall is called upon to be not just peevish, but to find the truth in the material, and he does it. He is the boy who must learn that "stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn't expect." 

Those of us who've been around for a few years, certainly a few more than the target audience for A Monster Calls, will admire how it shepherds its young adult audience, with great care and honesty, across the emotional terrain we know they will face in life, with all its mysteries and dangers. "Your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day," the monster tells Conor. "Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary." So how do you fight it, Conor asks? The answer comes back: by speaking your truth, even when you're afraid of what people might think. And we fight back with stories, which allow us to process those painful truths, contextualize them, sometimes even forget them for a little while. This is what our books, our films give to us. "Stories are the wildest things of all," says the monster. "Stories chase and bite and hunt." They can also heal.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

Sunday
Dec182016

WHITE CHRISTMAS and THY FATHER'S CHAIR (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

For CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote up the Music Box's annual revival of WHITE CHRISTMAS, as well as an excellent new documentary, THY FATHER'S CHAIR, coming early in the new year. You may read these, along with a rerun of my LOVE ACTUALLY review, here

Wednesday
Dec142016

My Favorites of 2016

This year I read Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe's Éric Rohmer biography, perhaps 2016's most essential book about film. Musing on the great director, I fell to flipping through The Connoisseur's Guide to the Movies (1985) by James Monaco, a great Rohmer appreciator. Monaco writes of Pauline at the Beach (1983) that it is "infused with the same human intelligence that makes Rohmer's films taken together a unique and superior body of work. For twenty years he has been celebrating the better part of ourselves--our ability to think and act ethically and morally--while at the same time he gently parodies our excesses in this regard. His films are not only infectious comedies, they are also restorative tonics."
 
In the Age of Trump, we must somehow renew the spirit of human intelligence in Rohmer's work. Will we Americans hold on to our ability to think and act ethically and morally? Have we already lost it? Not all of my favorites of 2016 celebrate "the better part of ourselves." Quite the opposite in some cases, and in any event that isn't always the function of art. Not always. Still, I've a hunch that in the years to come, we'll need the ones that do celebrate the best in us more than ever.  
 
Here's my top 10 features of the year, followed by my top 10 documentaries, followed swiftly by a big ol' block of text where I give some love to a plethora of pleasing 2016 prospects.
 
(By the way, I wasn't able to make the critics' screening of Toni Erdmann. Wise friends tell me it's only the best movie of the year, and  I have every reason to suppose they're right.)
 
Top 10 Features
 
1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) Quite simply the finest American film of the year, it merits all the hosannas. Read my review here
 
2. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho) The legendary Sonia Braga gives one of the year's most indelible performances in Kleber Mendonça Filho's film. A vivacious 66, Braga plays a vibrant, prickly retired critic who is recalcitrant enough to refuse to give up her beloved apartment to placate an oleaginous young developer. She's the lone holdout insisting that generations lived and loved in her apartment, and it shouldn't be squandered for a fast buck. To what ends will the developer go to get her out? If cinema's the art of flitting between moments of human truth, this movie never misses them. And it has my favorite finale of the year.  
3. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) As it follows the stories of certain modern women in the great wide West, the film's feeling of emptiness and loneliness, the grays of those vast, barren spaces, seeps into your bones. There's some kind of quiet resilience at this movie's core. I'm haunted by the way Kristen Stewart looks at Lily Gladstone in that parking lot. A Reichardt film makes you realize how rarely we see people in movies who behave like, well, real people.
 4. The Handmaiden (Chan Wook-Park) Measured debauchery. I marveled at the intricate narrative and the handsome photography boasted by this erotic revenge-drama/period romance. Extended coyness builds to giddy sexual discovery as three devious characters, two women and a man, swindle each other in a sumptuous mansion in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the seemingly innocent Lady Hideko, Kim Min-hee gave the second of two fine performances this year (see Right Now, Wrong Then below). There's always a secret flitting about those eyes, that smile. Kim Tae-ri and Ha Jung-woo round up this cast of scoundrels.
 5. Aferim! (Radu Jude) From Romania comes an unforgettable vision from director Radu Jude: it's Wallachia, 1835, and the plague is on the land. Two comic characters--a blustering, pedantic constable and his pubescent son--cross the country on horseback, searching for a runaway Romani slave. The ending features an appalling act, but this was the only picture that did for me this year what Aleksei German's Hard To Be a God did last year: it created an entire world that somehow felt like an alien dimension even as it remained recognizable as a version of this one. 
6. A Bigger Splash Luca Guadagnino's darkly atmospheric film features unforgettable work from Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson as a group of more or less corrupt characters whose latent passions bubble dangerously on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. There's real joy in Fiennes' work as a dessicated rock 'n' roll manager. It's about food, sex, all that Italian stuff, as well as a certain kind of emotional larceny. "Environment is essential," Guadagnino told "T," the New York Times' style magazine. "I like anything that has to do with form and space. But I am also a humanist. That's the mixture." Even better than that, Guadagnino relates a great story. Years ago, when his dream of working with the sublime Swinton (long a personal favorite of mine, and his) came true, she said to him, "We are going to be partners in crime and the crime is cinema." Indeed! Here's some of the delicious fruit of that partnership. 
7. Elle (Paul Verhoeven) Funny: this was supposed to be controversial, yet it's been almost universally celebrated. This darkly satiric drama/thriller features a sly performance by the great Isabelle Huppert as a truly odd duck, a sadomasochistic rape victim who owns a company that makes video games involving loosely-veiled rape fantasies. Thinking about this movie's crazy sexual politics invites dialectical dizziness. Like nothing since the rape scene in Pulp Fiction, the film plays with shifts in power dynamics. By the end, this woman almost makes a writer want to put quotes around that word "victim." 
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo) For about an hour Hong Sang-soo tells a bittersweet story of a shy film director, in town a day early to speak at a rinky-dink film festival, who meets a girl (Kim Min-Hee, also tremendous as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden). They spend the day together, visiting her apartment to see her paintings, going to a diner, getting drunk and visiting friends. Then, Hong retells the story for about another hour, from a subtly different angle. It's a simple story about the complexity of want and the simplicity of pleasure. Like the cinema of Éric Rohmer, it's about the human heart. As in Rohmer, Hong's film reveals nuances of friendship and love. It's about the reach for closeness and the falling short.  
9. Cemetery of Splendor Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Zen dream surpasseth plot summary. If you like his work, you'll like this. You may have to be the kind of filmgoer who resonates with something "Joe" (the director's nickname from his days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) once said: "Sometimes you don't need to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty." Somehow, a line from Sjón's novel From the Mouth of the Whale comes to mind as a review: "How is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights, and run errands?"
 
10. The Witch (Robert Eggers) With its Faustian themes, the movie touches on anxieties rooted deep in gothic-fable haunted, Puritan-based America. It's a nightmare about a budding girl in 17th-century, sin-fearing, Scarlet Letter-era New England. Witches and Satan ride with each other in the night, scuttling through the haunted woods. The young woman's nascent sexuality and power blooms through the cracks of her girlhood. Will she sign her name in Satan's book? A deal with the devil is the dream of being free. "Wouldst though like to live deliciously?"  
 Top 10 Documentaries
 
1. No Home Movie
The final work from the great Chantal Akerman is about her lifelong quest for identity. Though no one ever truly knows why someone else commits suicide, as Akerman apparently did, we can surmise she never found a place where she could truly be comfortable in her skin. The film interweaves interviews with her dying mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, with footage of the undulating hillocks of the desert of Israel, taken from a train. "Mommy, tell me a story," Akerman says, by way of attempting to get her mother to stay awake. Her very long takes study the geography of her mother's apartment. She is interested in spatial and rhythmic tensions, and in visual and aural textures--hard reflective surfaces, the blacks and splashes of color found in shadows and windows, the way walls and other vertical forms create masking effects. It's quite a sensual experience. I think of the roar of the wind in the desert rushing over her mic, the hum of the seashore, the thrum of the train.
 
2. In Transit
The final film co-directed by legendary "direct cinema" pioneer Albert Maysles. It takes us aboard the Empire Builder train on its three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. We roll across the country in a kind of dream state, where time and space are suspended. Moving quietly between intimate moments of truth, Maysles' camera weaves a tapestry of Americans at turning points in their lives.
 
3. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog's meditative documentary on "one of the biggest revolutions we as human beings are experiencing": The Internet. Evolution or devolution? A flare from the sun, a hurricane, cyberwar: all could wreak havoc with the Internet, pitching civilization into chaos. Still, Herzog remains cheerful. After all, a company called Spacex is working on building ships to move humans to Mars. In my favorite moment, Herzog casts his eye across the beautiful skyline of Chicago. Noting that it appears "devoid of inhabitants," he muses that we must assume that everyone has left for Mars. Then, looking back on the city from the lakeside walkway leading to Adler Planetarium, he finds himself amongst "stragglers left behind": a group of monks in their orange robes, all gazing into their cell phones, as Elvis sings "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on the soundtrack.
 
4. Fire at Sea
A unique documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, a quiet work of humanism and a storehouse of powerful imagery. It's set on Lampedusa, an ancient, tiny Italian fishing island, which for years has been the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Syria and points beyond.
 
5. Francofonia
The word “documentary” feels too prosaic for Alexander Sokurov's elegant French phantasmagoria about the Louvre and war.
 
6. The Illinois Parables In 11 sections, Deborah Stratman's experimental, cryptic essay limns a kind of imaginative atlas of Illinois cultural history. It's loosely organized around the theme of exodus. Much of it surveys the Sourthern tip of the state, casting a bird's eye view over all that flat wheat prairie land. Street signs now read "Trail of Tears," marking the road down which Native Americans were removed to the west of the Mississippi. In Golconda, Illinois we see a mural at the Trail of Tears' Ohio River crossing. (This, incidentally--or not--was also the border where Jim Crow once began and ended: a black person crossing the Ohio River into Cairo, Illinois was now in a "free" country). In Nauvoo, Illinois we visit the starting point of the Mormon Trail, over which Brigham Young led the exodus of his people to Salt Lake City in 1846. Demonic organ plays over a painting of the burning Mormon temple, then we cut to a shot of the rebuilt building today. We see headlines about mysterious fires in Macomb, Illinois, and a young woman burns a hole in the wall with her eyes. On the soundtrack, readings from Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson's letter to President Van Buren float by. Expressionless men in suits illustrate audio from a press conference about the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicaago police, using hand gestures as if they're in an airline PSA about buckling up. This segment is shot in the style of old black and white TV news footage, and the men move through a kind of stage-set blueprint of Hampton's apartment, constructed in a locker room. From the skies, newsreel footage surveys the endless destruction and terror wrought by the tornado of 1925 which devastated Southern Illinois--the deadliest tornado in U.S. history. We visit a field that was once a nuclear research site where sits, abandoned, "a graphite cake filled with uranium raisins." The mood is wintry and sad. 
 
7. 13TH A powerfuly organized, cogently and devastatingly argued profile of the history of the criminalization of African-Americans in America. It unsparingly analyses a society that doubles down on its "war on crime," "war on drugs," and more and more prisons. Counter the European approach on just about every issue and you'll see how things are done in sane societies run in the interests of the people, as opposed to the wealthy and the powerful. But then, the prison-industrial complex and the obsessively race-based crimininalization of American life has been very, very good for the latter. Urgent viewing.
 
8. The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger 
A stimulating, moving four-part essay by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz about John Berger, whose book Ways of Seeing changed our relationship with art and culture. Berger is an art critic, drawer, storyteller, and, in the words of his great friend Swinton, radical humanist in the tradition of Spinoza. (He also co-wrote a film I treasure, Alain Tanner's 1975 comedy drama JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000.) This documentary takes place in Quincy, a peasant village in a valley of the French Alps where he moved in 1973 with his wife, Beverly. There is a vision of "the good life" here—of physical work and the intimate harmony of man and nature.
 
9. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise This inspiring film complicates Angelou beyond the courtly figure we know. Her poetry readings can be emotionally overwhelming. Written across her visage is fathomless pain. Then the storm breaks and, like the sun coming out, she flashes that great grin, toothy and defiant. The filmmakers shape often-riveting rare footage with an eye for the untold story, the telling image. What emerges is a portrait of someone who loved to laugh and was deeply serious at the same time. If at times its burnished approach threatens to immobilize its subject in amber, Angelou herself—so soulful, and, really, such a pip—never lets that happen.
 
10. Kate Plays Christine A thought-provoking (and just plain provoking) work of art by Robert Greene featuring actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play Christine Chubbuck, the newscaster who shot herself to death on live TV in 1974. It's an intensely ruminative process for Sheil. The movie is about people who choose a career in front of cameras, and their drive to be seen and recognized. It's a provocation that means to put us on the spot--not just us in the audience, but even Greene himself. The ground where fiction and nonfiction blur and overlap is such a rich vein for cinema, and Greene is doing it as provocatively as anyone.
 
Other noteworthy features:
* Wiener-Dog Todd Solondz (HappinessStorytellingPalindromes) is a purveyor of singularly dark comedies which he insists have a "moral center" even as "the act of laughing becomes a moral dilemma." His droll Wiener-Dog is one of his best. His perambulating little Wiener-Dog takes life as it comes, just like Robert Bresson's soulful donkey did in Au Hasard Balthazar. An innocent animal throws humanity's flaws and weaknesses into relief; The Family Fang Directed by Jason Bateman, this is an autumnal, bittersweet comedy about a sister and brother in middle-age, and the bond forged between them in the crucible of being raised by radical performance artists. Even as seniors, their parents still wage war-by-prank on the complacencies of capitalist/consumer society, though the culture has long since absorbed all such resistance. The Family Fang has a mystery plot, but it's wise enough to know that the real mystery is the human beings we love, who shaped our lives in ways too complicated to untangle; La La Land Damien Chazelle's musical romantic comedy means to be a joy, and is; Little Men It's about two boys' friendship against the backdrop of their parents' feud over gentrification in a New York neighborhood. Director Ira Sachs cited influences like Pialat and Ozu's "kids on strike" pictures; Under the Shadow Classic haunted-house movie tropes take on cultural specificity in Babak Anvari's Iranian horror film, in which Narges Rashidi's eyes telegraph bone-deep anxiety, fear and weariness; Wondrous Boccaccio This was Paoli Taviani and Vittorio Taviani's playful, vivid adaptation of a handful of tales from the Decameron. It’s Florence in 1348, the days of the Black Death. A group of young men and women hole up and, to pass the time, they tell each other stories. Some are comic, some tragic, and some just dirty jokes (in fact, this could use a bit more of the ribaldry of the Pasolini version). We humans don’t change fundamentally down the centuries, and this film is forgiving of what we are. My favorite line could also be its motto: "Try and enjoy yourselves as much as you can."; Swiss Army Man What a strange, jejune, original, exuberant movie from "the Daniels" (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). It's a magic-realist comedy/adventure about two guys trying to survive on a deserted island--only one of them's already a corpse. Positing a boner as the life force, the movie feels like it was made for the personal amusement of the people working on it, without worrying much about whether audiences would come along for the ride. For me, one of the year's unforgettable images is Hank (Paul Dano) riding Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) through the water like a jet ski, propelled by Manny's farts; L'Attessa Piero Messina's moving film boasted a fine performance by Juliette Binoche and made spine-tinglingly good use of Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for a Miracle"; Sunset Song Terence Davies was on a role, making two beautiful films this year. This was his exquisite, soulful, painful adaptation of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with Agyness Deyn as the warm-blooded, reflective, gangly daughter of a monstrous farmer. The scene in which she sings a wedding song was one of the year's most enchanted. Next year will see the release of his A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon is the fiercely agnostic, independent Emily Dickinson. It's another film of charged quiet and candelit interiors where worlds of inner emotion swim. Believe it or not, its really funny as well, its bon mots truly bonHunt for the Wilderpeople Taika Waititi's tale of unlikely folk heroes. Chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "real bad egg," in the opinion of the evil social-services agent who dumps him at his foster home on the edge of the New Zealand bush. Soon, he's trying to outrun a manhunt with his foster dad Hec (a crusty, laconic Sam Neill, salty and great). I saw this three times in 2016 and it was just as fresh and funny every time. Splendid use of Nina Simone"s "Sinnerman" and dramatic deployment of Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan"; Sing Street To restore your faith in humanity, see John Carney's joyful coming-of-age romance about aspiring teenage singer/songwriters in the Dublin of 1985. A 16-year-old boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms a band with his friend (Mark McKenna), who likes to carry a bunny, and woos "the girl with mysterious eyes" (Kelly Thornton) against a backdrop of various forms of adult abuse and neglect. His hero, mentor and guiding cultural critic is his troubled older brother (Jack Reynor). I can't think of a film that made Karolyn and me happier this yearLemonade (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Kahlil Joseph, 2016) Beyoncé made a striking experimental "visual album" with political synedoches and imagery seemingly influenced by the likes of Matthew Barney, Stanley Kubrick, Julie Dash and Terrence Malick; Everybody Wants Some!! I'm not sure it would make my top 10 Richard Linklater films (okay, maybe just), but it's still warm, funny and smart; Green Room Jeremy Saulnier's nightmare, in which a young band finds itself trapped in a Nazi punk nightclub takes us into the belly of the "alt-right" white-supremacist culture energized by the rise of Donald Trump; The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki Juho Kuosmanen's first feature, touching and true, wise and warm, is a naturalistic, verité style black-and-white boxing film/love story. It's the story of the lead-up to Olli Mäki's (Jarkko Lahti) fight against Davey Moore in Helsinki in 1962 for the world featherweight championship. The American was defending his title; the modest, scrappy Olli was Finland's rather reluctant contender, with no appetite for the hype of himself as a national hero. The radiant Oona Airola is the heart of the film as the good-humored, playful woman with whom he falls in love. It's about image construction and the true meaning of happiness; The Conjuring 2 A smart, humanistic horror picture. Ghosts torment a family in a  working-class suburb of London. Its heart is the relationship of real-life couple the Warrens, a "demonologist" (Patrick Wilson) and a seer (Vera Farmiga). Director James Wan portrays them as utterly sincere and guileless. (In other words, he believes that they actually believe in ghosts.) These ghostbusters show what a marriage looks like as a partnership of equals. The fact that they're middle-American and Christian, as well as resourceful and intelligent, makes them, in a way, the rare Hollywood sympathetic portrait of Red State-types. You can also enjoy it for the way Wan moves the camera, his negotiation of tension and release, and how good he is with space. Things to Come Mia Hansen-Løve's wise film with Isabelle Huppert is all about questions of how to think and act ethically and morally. She's a tough-minded, well-liked philosophy professor of a certain age, exploring the silver linings of being cut loose.
 
Other noteworthy documentaries: Bill Evans/Time Remembered (Bruce Spiegel's stirring, haunting homage to the great pianist/composer); Weiner; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail; Miss Sharon Jones!; Sonita; Hooligan Sparrow; Two Trains Runnin'; Journey Through French Cinema; From This Day Forward; Ingrid Bergman: In Her own Words; Life, Animated 

Best Blu-ray release: Pioneers of African-American Cinema 
Kino/Lorber's box set curated by Jacqueline Stewart, a professor at the University of Chicago, is one of the cultural events of our time. 
 
Sunday
Dec112016

Love Actually (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I did a writeup for CINE-FILE Chicago on how I learned to stop worrying and love Richard Curtis' LOVE ACTUALLY. Check it out here, under Also Recommended.