Thursday, January 14, 2021

Best and the rest of 2020

Best and the rest 2020

Yeah yeah yeah

Sick of essays mourning the disaster that was last year? Same.

Let's get with it.

WW84--ah he he he. One of the biggest misfires of the year, and despite the high definition digital camerawork one of the gauziest movies of the year--gauzy action sequences, gauzy plot mechanic, gauzy villain (you're not even sure why he does what he does, he has to keep explaining it to you), gauzy heroine. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), wooden as in the first movie, can't seem to be bothered to shake herself awake through much of this one--though the one moment when she does (in a street corner, walking away from the love of her life) you probably wish she didn't bother. Jenkin's action sequences mostly involve a golden lasso filched from a Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, and various bodies villainous and heroic swing around in mid-air as if the director hadn't the foggiest how bodies in rest and motion should behave. Rumor has it a third WW will happen--can they finally rope Kathryn Bigelow in to direct, or don't they have enough money in the world to tempt her away from making real films?

Mank--well, not really; felt I had to address this title too before moving on. I like a lot of David Fincher's late work--think Mindhunter is very good and Zodiac a flatout masterpiece--but Mank is pitched between a too-careful recreation of 40s filmmaking (complete with cigarette burns and popping sounds) and a sterile digital approximation of one. The story--by David's father Jack--proposes Herman Mankiewicz as a closet leftist who writes the script of Citizen Kane as belated revenge on archcapitalist William Randolph Hearst. The joker in the pack are the words 'writes the script'--apparently Jack and David subscribe to Pauline Kael's largely discredited assertion that Mankiewicz alone, without the help of Welles (and John Houseman), wrote the script. As history it's questionable, as biopic risible, as an example of what '40s filmmaking was capable of--well, you're better off watching Citizen Kane.

Wolfwakers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)--mind you I loved Moore's previous works: Secret of the Kells was an illuminated book come to glorious life, and Song of the Sea had a bittersweet adult sensibility that I appreciated, one that recognizes some broken families will never fully heal. Wolfwalkers feels different; the animation is still gorgeous but the story--of a young lass who befriends a wolf girl seeking to awaken her sleeping wolf mother---makes the kind of soppy in-your-face attempt at direct emotional appeal that reminds one of the worse of Disney, or Pixar. Of all of Moore's works to date the closest to being a dog.   

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--George C. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's play is appreciated best as a small-screen visualization of August Wilson's play: sumptuously produced, beautifully cast, adequately directed. Viola Davis is a force of nature as the eponymous Ma: demanding ice-cold cokes, constantly playing brinksmanship with her record producers, belting out one showstopping song after another--but the real revelation is Chadwick Boseman abandoning his noble Black Panther persona to play Levee Green, the talented self-destructive trumpeter barely hanging on to his position in Ma's backup band. 

I'm Thinking of Ending Things--Charlie Kaufman plays metaphysical mind games as well as anyone, and on occasion hits emotional paydirt: the melancholy tang of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the brave Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) standing out in a sea of uniform faces in Anomalisa. I'm actually willing to follow Kaufman pretty far up the recesses of his convoluted ass but it would help (in the case of Eternal Sunshine there's Michel Gondry's fluid filmmaking, in Anomalisa there's the intricately detailed sets and puppets) to give me something to look at, instead of enigmas and mysteries halfheartedly staged and shot. 

The Invisible Man--Leigh Whannell's slickest script (not a fan of of his gimmicky Saw franchise), this shift in focus from the eponymous man to his emotionally abused wife is great fun, despite the clunky plotting and inconsistencies (Looking at you O swiftly vanishing splash of white paint!). Helps in no small measure to cast Elisabeth Moss as the aforementioned wife: no one plays forged in terror to emerge steely-strong the way Moss does.

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley)--blasphemy! How dare they do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's beloved Oscar winning classic? First of all Oscars are a meaningless ritual; second, Hitchcock's classic isn't all that--too much interference from producer David Selznick, the master of middlebrow filmmaking (Hitchcock would do better six years later, with Notorious); third, Wheatley's interpolations and smooth seductive style do make some kind of sense, until the disastrous Club Med ending. O well, there's always Daphne du Maurier's book. 

Da 5 Bloods -- Spike Lee's Vietnam War movie corrective has five veterans go back into Nam to recover lost CIA gold. The film is didactic and self-indulgently loud, the filmmaking characteristically exuberant; what lifts the proceedings to another level is Delroy Lindo's performance as a MAGA hat-wearing King Lear, haunted by ghosts he can't exorcise. 

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds--Werner Herzog's documentaries and fiction features have always had a starry eyed faraway look, the awareness that beyond the horizon is something different, perhaps better; his eyes have never seemed starrier (though we never see him onscreen) than here, his oddball wideranging documentary on meteorites. The rocks themselves are fascinating: Herzog serves them up as an array of exotic erotic aliens, spiked and pitted and barbarically beautiful, like the throbbing glowing crystalline virus in The Andromeda Strain only real, and friendlier. Just as fascinating are the creation myths and death rituals and stories people form around these rocks--for every traveler from outer space, it seems, people create even stranger explanations for the visit. 

Babae at Baril (Girl and Gun)--Rae Red's sophomore feature looks at the film's eponymous situation (a girl kneeling down, staring at a revolver with a heart sticker along the handle) and sketches an interesting psychological portrait not just of the girl but of any number of people who come into possession of the handgun. More interesting still is Red's direction--stylish, dark, funny. Coming from a family of legendary filmmakers you expect the talent to rub off; now this kind of nepotism I like. 

Japan Sinks (Masaaki Yuasa)--I've heard the complaints: the plot is too coincidental, the animation in certain episodes wretched, this isn't the Yuasa we know and love. To which I say: it's as coincidental as life itself (if you don't agree you need to read up on probability); it's what Yuasa managed with the budget given him by Netflix; and Yuasa's style morphs radically with every production (if you haven't learned this by now you aren't a fan).

Beyond that is a mood captured of these pandemic times: of empty streets, and the constant search for basic necessities like food and water; of families clinging together for survival; of the paranoid chill inspired by a casual stranger's passing. Easily Yuasa's most emotionally potent work, and a perfect metaphor for this disaster of a year. 

Emma--and sometimes you don't want grim and realistic; sometimes you want the effervescence of Jane Austen. As interpreted by photographer and first-time feature filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, Austenland is a series of constantly shifting fireplace screens and stunningly shot tableaus, through which waddle a gaggle of scarlet-robed Margaret Atwood handmaidens. This is comedy of the highest order, with Anya Taylor-Joy--she of the Margaret Keane eyes--at one point flicking open a carriage screen panel so sarcastically you can't help but giggle. 

Is it better than Amy Heckerling's Clueless? Well no; that transmuted Austen's shallow but precisely observed world of early 19th century England into purest Beverly Hills bling--a triumph of reimagination, and my favorite Austen adaptation. This has a style and spirit all its own, though, and I'm frankly seduced.

A Thousand Cuts -- Ramona S. Diaz's film tile can refer to the slow bleeding death of any number of things: of Philippine democracy, of press freedom, of the news organization Rappler and its head Marie Ressa, the tiny fragile-looking heroine of this sobering documentary. Watching the film one notices this about the beleaguered but as-yet unbowed opposition arrayed against President Duterte: many are women, and considering the jefe's very vocal very loud very frequent threats to either murder or rape or eat his opponents, quite brave in continuing to voice their criticisms. Other than The Invisible Man which I consider more a clever thriller than anything genuinely unsettling I can think of no other titles that qualify as examples of the horror genre, possibly because in 2020 we have all supped full; this then is my one horrorshow choice.  

Fan Girl --Antoinette Jadaone's updated more darkly comic take on Lino Brocka's classic Bona, with real-life celebrity Paulo Avelino extravagantly slandering himself in an act of (presumably fictional) self-flagellation. Avelino is the draw, but Charlie Dizon's is the breakout performance: her performance here electrifies as she walks the line between pathos and comedy. Jadaone's script gives both actors the chance to shine, her direction shifting fluidly from showbiz realism to fangirl fantasy and back, sometimes within the same scene. 

We Still Have To Close Our Eyes--John Torres, maddeningly enigmatic as ever, taking footage from Lav Diaz, Dodo Dayao, and his own films, and fashioning a no-budget dystopia where 'remote avatars' take over the bodies of people and teach them how to ride motorbikes. Well that's the idea; in the wrong hands--in the Philippines everything falls into the wrong hands--the bikers (or convicts, or at one point children) do worse. Cops rove the streets, seeking these rogue controllers; at one point men push a motorbike out of the way while the rider, lying broken on the ground, stares lifelessly at the camera. All done in under thirteen eerie evocative minutes.

Midnight in a Perfect World (Dodo Dayao)--I thought Violator one of the best of recent horrors; I think this sophomore effort proves that the originality and self-assured talent of that debut was no fluke. This time Dayao proposes a Philippine society of the future that works fairly well, clean rivers, on-time public transportation, and all. Only why are there 'blackouts' from which two or three people at a time disappear? And why are the creatures (Aliens? Interdimensional visitors a la Lovecraft?) so insistent on giving us a happy contented existence, producing healthier meatier versions of ourselves?

Lahi, Hayop (Genus Pan)--Lav Diaz using his spare storytelling style to tell an allegorical tale, of evolutionary development (or the relative lack of) and how we as a species have not progressed much further past the apes. A withering statement on present Philippine society.

First Cow--liked Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff well enough; a gently eccentric Western that doesn't even get to its first medium shot till a few minutes into the film and doesn't get to its first closeup (of the film's putative star, Michelle Williams) till nearly the film's end. The film reminds one of John Ford's Wagon Master though Reichardt doesn't seem much interested in emulating Ford; her concerns are stranger, otherworldly almost. 

The film First Cow most resembles I'd say is McCabe and Mrs. Miller: the entrepreneurial spirit in a beautifully desolate Northwestern town, the random characters assembling seemingly out of nowhere--and wait is that Rene Auberjonois muttering to himself in the sidelines? Again, Reichardt seemingly taking off from yet another old master (of more recent vintage) her concerns and obsessions remaining stubbornly her own, in an elegantly told deliberately paced narrative. 

Don't know what it is about the Slavic sensibility--the bleak wintry landscapes, the equally bleak personalities, the long history of war repression suffering--that I seem to respond to them best, at least this year, under these circumstances. Hence my next two choices--one Russian, the other Czech--both in my book the very best of 2020:

The Nose or The Conspiracy of Mavericks--Andrey Khrzhanovskiy's fifty-year quest to realize Nikolai Gogol's bizarre short story onscreen, arguably the longest in all of cinema (only The Other Side of the Wind with its 48-year gestation period comes close), has resulted in this: an often hilarious wildly imaginative yet somehow timeless (critics would say anachronistic or worse yet inconsistent) work of art. I say the animation--using a mix of stop-motion and cut-outs--is breathtakingly done, with a whirling dizzying satiric spirit matched only by Shostakovich's whirling dizzying satiric music. 

The Painted Bird--Vaclav Marhoul's adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel has been compared to Elem Klimov's searing Come and See, but where the latter is a propulsive straight-ahead film about the atrocities inflicted by Nazis on the Belarusians, the latter is a sprawling sometimes meandering narrative that goes on for nearly three hours. The horrors of Come and See revolve mainly around the Nazis with their distinct style of sadism: well-equipped, industrially efficient, marked by touches of black humor; The Painted Bird sketches a darker vision of the world, where Slavic peasants are also capable of cruelty--they just don't have the resources to get things done as quickly, though they do have the imagination to improvise something as ingenious. Come and See's Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) gave an extraordinary performance of nearly unrelieved intensity, his increasingly warstressed face one of the most indelible images in recent cinema; The Painted Bird's boy (Petr Kotlar) has a more mysterious presence: both in the thick of it yet above it all, acting as both the film's troubled protagonist and its cooly ironic commentator. Come and See made my jaw drop, often in dismay; The Painted Bird provoked the occasional belly laugh. Not sure which is the more disturbing more valid reaction.  

(First published in Businessworld 1/8/21)

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