Best Docs 2016 – Update

When I wrote my recent post on the best documentaries of 2016, I hadn’t yet seen three films that I thought would have made my list based on what I’d heard about them.: Fire at SeaI Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’ve since seen them, and was duly provoked and amazed. Here are some of my thoughts.

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fire-at-sea-poster3Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, director)  Thousands of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from African nations in recent years. Many of those who survived were brought to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Fire at Sea is an impressionistic account of this situation. It’s definitely not a conventional documentary. Except for brief on-screen details about Lampedusa at the beginning, the film provides no information about what it shows us, other than to show it. There are no voice-overs or interviews. It’s interesting that I have no problem with this approach when it’s a Frederick Wiseman film, but with this one I did at first. However, it differs sharply from the Wiseman approach in that shots are artfully composed and even staged at times. This is not exactly cinéma vérité. I’m not saying this style can’t work, because in this case I think it does. I’d heard about Fire at Sea for months, but had passed up numerous opportunities to attend press screenings. When I finally saw it two weeks ago, I had an ambivalent reaction. I didn’t like it, but felt I should. It’s stayed with me; there are scenes that are hard to shake. The interview below with the director at the New York Film Festival has made me more open to the film as well.

Fire at Sea has been critically well-received; it won the Golden Bear — the top prize — at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and is up for an Academy Award this Sunday in the Best Documentary Feature category. Meryl Streep, who chaired the Berlin Festival jury, described Fire at Sea as “…a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Who am I to argue with Meryl Streep?

Here is a post-screening interview with Gianfranco Rosi at last year’s New York Film Festival, moderated by Dennis Lim.

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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, director)  Haitian director Raoul Peck has fashioned an extremely important, necessary piece of work, a document that’s just as timely today as it was when James Baldwin was writing the powerful words we hear throughout much of the film. After we saw it, I watched the Civil Rights Roundtable again, which had been broadcast the same day as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Baldwin was a participant in that program, and I remembered how strong his voice had been. The words we hear in I Am Not Your Negro are taken from an unfinished work by Baldwin titled Remember This House, and are spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. There is also archival footage of Baldwin on talk shows, speaking at colleges, and elsewhere, along with news footage of the Civil Rights struggle. He speaks as honestly and directly on race as anyone I’ve heard. He puts it right in your face. Baldwin closed out the Civil Rights Roundtable with this stunning statement:  “The nature of the problem is so complex that one can’t simply say ‘jobs’ or ‘schools’ or ‘houses.’ It’s a whole complex of things. Jobs alone won’t solve it; schools alone won’t solve it. It’s in the social fabric. It isn’t anything, it’s everything. The first step has to be somewhere in the American conscience. The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent the nigger. I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. The world decides that you are this…for its own reasons. It is very important for the American that he face this question… that he needed the nigger for something.” This is from 1963. I mentioned how timely Peck’s film is, over 50 years later, which is somewhat depressing, though in the film Baldwin  says he has hope.

I Am Not Your Negro was shown at last year’s Toronto and New York Film festivals. It had an Oscar-qualifying release last December, and officially opened on February 3, 2017. It’s still playing here in New York City at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. It broke house records at both theaters on opening weekend and continues to do sell-out business. I was at Film Forum a week ago to see another film. The lobby was crowded with what I assumed were high school students. They were there on a class trip to see I Am Not Your Negro. I thought this was great. A film like this can start a dialogue or continue one, which can only be good. It’s extraordinary that three of the five films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category of this year’s Academy Awards have race as their subject: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’d like to see all three win, but that can’t happen, so I’ll be happy if just one of them does.

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o-j-made-in-america-posterO.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, director)  We saw this two weeks ago in a single eight-hour screening with two intermissions, in at 11:00 am, out at 8:00 pm. It was shown last year on ESPN in five parts, which is probably a more civilized way to view it, but I liked the idea of total immersion. It’s a monumental achievement. If it was just about the O.J. trial, that would be one thing, but it uses O.J. and the trial as a springboard to examine issues of race then and now. It’s of a piece with 13th and I Am Not Your Negro.

Having watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story mini-series last year, the story of the crime and the trial was fairly fresh. What was new to me in O.J.: Made in America was the story of O.J. Simpson before and after that trial. I’ve never followed sports, so the footage of Simpson in action during his football career was jaw-dropping. His skills were supernatural. I probably knew him more from his Hertz commercials and his role as the hapless Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. His life after the acquittal becomes increasingly tawdry, culminating with his arrest and conviction in Las Vegas following an attempt to retrieve at gunpoint memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.

"If it doesn't fit..."

“If it doesn’t fit…”

Hearing the verdict - F. Lee Bailey, O.J., Johnnie Cochran

Hearing the verdict – F. Lee Bailey, O.J., Johnnie Cochran

O.J.: Made in America interweaves archival footage and new interviews with most of the surviving participants, including Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, Mark Fuhrman, and many others. The Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of the police officers involved provide background to the mood of the African-American community during the O.J. trial. A huge amount of material is edited together to give a coherent picture of all that happened. The resonance with current events is unmistakable.

Here is Ezra Edelman talking about O.J.: Made in America in a directors’ roundtable discussion hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.

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Fire at Sea is available for streaming from Amazon. I Am Not Your Negro is still playing in theaters and will be available on home video on June 13th. O.J.: Made in America is available for streaming from Amazon and Hulu. – Ted Hicks

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What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2016

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billions-posterBillions (Showtime)  Paul Giamatti plays Chuck Rhodes, a U.S. Attorney obsessed with taking down hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damien Lewis. It’s nice having Lewis back after seeing him on the first three seasons of Homeland. For me, there’s something unpleasant that Giamatti frequently brings to his roles, and that’s definitely the case here. So I’ve been pulling for Axelrod to get the better of Rhodes, even though Axe is a ruthless, entitled rich guy who does whatever he wants and mostly gets away with it. It’s a compelling series with a great cast and a twisty story line. The second season premieres on Sunday, February 19th.

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Bosch (Amazon Prime)  I love this one. One of the reasons I signed up for Amazon Prime was to see this series. Season 1 had already been released and season 2 was about to be. I ended up watching them back to back and got that satisfied feeling I get when I see something that works on all levels. I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s crime novels about LAPD detective Harry Bosch for years. I had a problem when I first heard that Titus Welliver had been cast as Bosch, because he didn’t fit my image of the character from the books. It didn’t take _V9A5813.CR2long bosch-harry-irvingfor Welliver to wipe out any doubts I’d had. He’s perfect. I first recall seeing him in Brooklyn South, a cop series from 1997-98, and then Deadwood and The Good Wife, as well as Sons of Anarchy. The entire cast is excellent; it’s especially nice seeing two actors from The Wire (still my favorite series of all time), Lance Reddick and Jamie Hector. Reddick, who’s also been in the series Fringe and the John Wick films, is Deputy Chief Irvin Irving. He’s been totally convincing in everything I’ve seen him in. Hector is Det. Jerry Edgar, Bosch’s partner. Their conversations, natural and very real, reflect the excellence of the writing. Bosch was developed by Eric Overmyer, who was previously involved with Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, The Man in the High Castle, and The Affair. These are serious credits. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Amazon Prime, which season 3 scheduled to be released on April 21st. Below is a trailer for season 2, followed by the complete first episode of the first season.

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doctor-thorne-posterDoctor Thorne (Amazon Prime)  Written and executive-produced by Julien Fellowes, this is an adaptation of a novel by Anthony Trollope. The involvement of Julien Fellowes makes comparisons to Downton Abbey unavoidable, though Doctor Thorne is set in the 1850s, 60+ years before Downton begins. And with only four 45-minute episodes, it’s pretty light on its feet. With a large cast of characters and numerous complications, it’s also deeply satisfying. Tom Hollander as the title character is the moral center of the story, a truly decent and extremely patient man. Ian McShane plays Sir Roger Scatcherd (great name). Whenever I see McShane I always think of his iconic Al Swearengen from HBO’s Deadwood (2004-2006). He’s played a lot of larger-than-life characters since then. They suit him well. Fellowes introduces each episode. His avuncular presence makes you feel that nothing too terribly bad is going to happen. You want it to end well, and it does.

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Goliath (Amazon Prime)  I like this series as much as I do Bosch, and for a lot of the same reasons. It’s just so well done from top to bottom and side to side. Co-created by David E. Kelley (L.A. Law, Boston Legal, Picket Fences, etc etc), Goliath concerns Billy McBride, a down and out lawyer in Los Angeles, played to perfection by Billy Bob Thornton, who frequently has roles where he looks like he just stepped out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. McBride, despite a dependency on alcohol, cheap motels and bars, decides to go up against the powerful law firm he founded with his former partner, Donald Cooperman, where he was once a star. Cooperman is played by William Hurt in a performance that gives new definition to the term “creepy.” This is the last thing McBride wants to do. He’s comfortable with his tattered life, but he gets a taste for the fight and digs in his heels. There’s an aspect to this that reminds me of Better Call Saul, but Goliath is its own thing. Billy Bob Thornton received a Golden Globe for his performance. The series got a lot of attention and will probably return for a second season, though that hasn’t been verified yet. In the meantime, all ten episodes are available for streaming. Below is a trailer followed by the complete first episode of the series.

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homeland-poster4Homeland (Showtime)  We finally caught up with Homeland. Friends had told me repeatedly how great it was. We didn’t have Showtime when it premiered in 2011. We got Showtime a couple years later, but I wanted to see Homeland from the beginning, so we kept putting it off. Finally enough was enough. This past December we bought the first four seasons on DVD, which we burned through in a couple of weeks. We loved it. If you get on the ride, it’s totally addictive. Showtime ran the entire series earlier in 'Homeland' takes filming to Cape TownJanuary in a run-up to season six, so we recorded season five and watched it in a couple of days. Now we’re watching season six the old fashioned way, one episode a week at a time. I think the series lost some snap with the departure of Damien Lewis at the end of the third season, but it’s still extremely good. The show clearly revolves around Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson, but Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) has been my favorite character since he first appeared in season three. Mandy Patinkin is great as Saul Berenson, and F. Murray Abraham is quite scary as Dar Adal. Even his name is scary. So everyone was right, Homeland is terrific. We were late to the party, but we’ll stay to the end.

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Luke Cage (Netflix)  Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, this is a series based on a character from Marvel Comics that’s darker and grittier than you might expect. All three series are set in a “real” world where some people have superpowers. Luke Cage was the first black superhero to headline his own comic book in 1972. What sets Luke Cage apart is that it presents a very black-centric world. The action takes place mainly in the Harlem of today. Except for the fact that Luke is bulletproof and has super strength (the result of illegal experiments performed on him while he was in prison), the stories, people, and relationships are very much real-world. The excellent cast includes Mike Colter as Luke Cage (previously seen as Lemond Bishop on The Good Wife), Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Treme, Moonlight, Hidden Figures), Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson (repeating her role from Daredevil), and Frankie Faison (another graduate of The Wire).

The Night Of  (HBO)  Created by writer Richard Price and director Steve Zaillian, this limited series follows a young Pakistani-American college student from his arrest for the murder of a young woman, through his time in custody at Rikers Island, the subsequent trial and after the verdict. Anyone familiar with the work of Richard Price — the novel Clockers, writing episodes of The Wire, to name two of his many credits — won’t be surprised at how precisely detailed The Night Of is. He goes deep. The show takes its time; it’s in no hurry to get where it’s going. Along the way we get a sense of the profound and likely permanent changes experienced by someone caught up in the criminal justice system. Innocent or guilty, he’ll never be the same.

the-night-of-turturro-in-chinatownThe cast is excellent. Riz Ahmed is the student, Nasir “Naz” Khan. Ahmed is seemingly everywhere these days. I remember first seeing him in Nightcrawler in 2014. Last year he was in Jason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and so far this year he has a recurring role on the final season of Lena Dunham’s Girls. John Turturro plays his defense lawyer, John Stone, plagued throughout by excema on his feet and ankles. Stone knows he’s an ambulance chaser, but he’s smart and stubborn; he wants to do right by Naz. This role was originally intended for James Gandolfini when the series was first in development. When he died, Turturro took the part. Michael K. Williams (The Wire again!) plays Freddie Knight, an inmate at the-night-of-bill-camp2Rikers who’s kind of the mayor on the cell block. He helps guide Naz through his long days there, though he has his own agenda. A revelation for me was Bill Camp as Dennis Box, the homicide detective on the case. I’ve seen him for years in supporting roles in feature films and on TV. I didn’t always know his name, but I do now. Recently he’s appeared in Midnight Special and Loving (both directed by Jeff Nichols last year), Jason Bourne (2016), and the series Manhattan (2014-2015). His Dennis Box is in dogged pursuit of the truth. All the circumstantial evidence points to Naz. It seems like a slam dunk, but something doesn’t feel right to Box. This isn’t exactly a feel-good story, but it’s really great.

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people-vs-oj-simpson-posterThe People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)  Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, this award-winning mini-series is nothing less than riveting. The series follows the prosecution and defense of the “trial of the century.” The writing and production are top-notch, with a great cast to bring it to life. Sarah Paulson is excellent as prosecutor Marcia Clarke. Courtney B. Vance is equally strong as defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran. He’s the leader of the so-called “dream team,” which includes John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, and Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck. Co-counsel for the prosecution is played by Sterling K. Brown; I was unfamiliar with him, but he’s a revelation in the role. The one weak link for me in the casting is Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. He lacks the physical stature and charisma to be convincing as O.J. I’m more certain of this having recently seen the eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America. Gooding Jr. is a good actor, but he just doesn’t compare to the real thing. That aside, The People v. O.J. Simpson is a great series, well worth seeing. All ten episodes are currently available for streaming from Netflix.

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last-week-tonight-posterWe’re regular watchers of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS), and Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO). We sorely miss Tonightly with Larry Wilmore, which was abruptly cancelled last year by Comedy Central for reasons I’m still unclear on. John Oliver and Samantha Bee are our favorites. He’s very sharp, impassioned, and extremely funny. She’s all that, and fearless. Both were regulars on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart years. Bill Maher can be off-putting; he’s a bully at times and his jokes have a sledgehammer quality. But we watch him every week regardless. Of course, in these post-election times, the humor on these shows has a very dark strain, not so much ha-ha.

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The following titles are carry-overs from last year.

americans-season-5-posterThe Americans (FX) — Season 5 premieres March 7th

Better Call Saul (AMC) — Season 3 premieres April 10th

Bloodline (Netflix) — 3rd and final season release date TBA

Dicte (Netflix) — Season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix

Downton Abbey (PBS) — Last year was the 6th and final season

The Fall (Netflix) — No word as yet on a 4th season, but season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix

Grantchester (PBS) — Season 3 premiere TBAhouse-of-cards-poster3

Grace and Frankie (Netflix) — Season 3 will be released March 24th

Happy Valley (Netflix) — 3rd and final season release date TBA

House of Cards (Netflix) — Season 5 will be released May 30th

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) — Season 2 is currently streaming

Masters of Sex (Showtime) — Last year was the 4th and final season

Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime) — Season 3 is currently streaming

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) — Season 5 will be released June 9th

Penny Dreadful (Showtime) — Last year was the 3rd and final season

Silicon Valley (HBO) — Season 4 premieres April 23rdveep-poster

The Simpsons (Fox) — 28th season is currently airing

The Strain (FX) — 4th and final season premiere date TBA

Transparent (Amazon Prime) — Season 4 release date this Fall TBA

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) — Season 3 will be released May 19th

Veep (HBO) — Season 6 premieres April 16th

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Too much to see. Just keep watching. – Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2016

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13th, By Sidney Lumet, and The Witness are my top picks for 2016 documentaries, but the rest of the titles on my list are very strong as well. Note that I have not yet seen O.J.: Made in America( a nearly eight-hour study of O.J. Simpson directed by Ezra Edelman), Fire at Sea (directed by Gianfranco Rosi), or I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck from writing by James Baldwin). By all accounts these are excellent and would likely be on my list. Also note that the descriptions for a number of the titles below were included in a post I did last June called “Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries,” which can be accessed here if you’d like to see the additional titles I wrote about.

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13th (Ava DuVernay, director)  The importance of this film cannot be overstated. Its starting point is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865 that emancipated slaves. It states the following: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any other place subject to their jurisdiction. The film is densely packed with information and it took me awhile to understand how the “except as…” qualification in this amendment was used to imprison vast numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-American (and still are). We learn that while the United States has five percent of the world’s population, it has a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the highest rate of incarceration on the planet.

I was stunned to learn about the practice of “convict leasing,” which provides prison labor to outside parties. Sounds a little like slavery to me. This is one of many revelations in 13th. It covers so much ground and ties it all together in a way that’s kind of staggering. If you haven’t seen this, you really should. It’s available for streaming from Netflix.

Here is a panel discussion on 13th hosted by the New York Film Festival last Fall. 13th was the first documentary to open the NYFF in 54 years. It has also been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category this year.

An interview with Ava DuVernay in Film Comment can be accessed here.

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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Ron Howard, director)  An incredible amount of fun and nostalgia overload. There is a lot of footage here I’d never seen before. A moment I particularly liked was a shot of Ringo beating the hell out of the drums, his hair flying. There are some present-day interviews with Paul and Ringo, but the heart of the film is in the performance footage. The film took me back with a rush of feeling.

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sydney-lumet-photo-collageBy Sidney Lumet (Nancy Buirski, director)  There have been a number of documentaries recently that have been treasure troves for film buffs. I’m thinking of Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015), De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015), and now Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet. This is a major addition to films that focus on individual directors and actors and their filmmaking process. In both De Palma and By Sidney Lumet we have two directors just talking and taking us through their careers and process, illustrated with clips. For the Lumet film, Daniel Anker shot 14 hours of interviews over several days in 2008 in a project initiated by Susan Lacy of American Masters. Anker passed away in 2014. Nancy Buirski was approached to make a film out of his footage. The result is spellbinding. Lumet is a fascinating storyteller, enthusiastic, articulate, and direct. There’s an intimacy to the  way he speaks that drew me in close. I was completely engaged. The clips chosen by Buirski expand on Lumet’s remarks. What struck me was that Buirski let the clips run at some length, which gave a greater sense of the scenes they were taken from, and the work Lumet had done. An interview with Nancy Buirski about the making of By Sidney Lumet can be accessed here.

When we saw By Sidney Lumet last October, Nancy Buirski was in the theater for a Q&A after.  Christine Lahti, who acted in Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), was also there to talk about what working with him had been like. I hadn’t realized it then, but Buirski had made The Loving Story (2011), an excellent documentary about an interracial marriage in the South in the late 1950s, which became the basis for Jeff Nichols’ equally fine feature, Loving, released at the end of last year (currently available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon). She’s a producer of Nichols’ film as well.

By Sidney Lumet played theatrically last Fall and was aired on American Masters (PBS) earlier this January.

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Cameraperson (Kirstin Johnson, director) This is a film that snuck up on me. I first saw it at a press screening last March. That was nearly a year ago, but I recall that Cameraperson, which is very much first-person for Kirstin Johnson, skipped from location to location and subject to subject in a way that initially seemed scattershot to me. This is footage that Kirstin has shot on various projects over the years. The film loops in on itself, returning again and again to the same locations. The accumulation of all this detail finally comes together in a powerful way. The sense of humanity it reflects is very strong.

An in-depth article about Cameraperson in the September/October 2016 issue of Film Comment can be accessed here.

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Danny Says (Brendan Toller, director)  “You could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened.” This was written by Charles Curkin in the New York Times in 2014. It may seem like an extravagant statement, but Danny Says shows why someone would say that. Danny Fields was manager and publicist in the music industry in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Along the way he managed the Ramones and worked on behalf of the Doors, Lou Reed, Nico, the Modern Lovers, MC5, the Stooges. He wrote about the scene for Cream magazine. Danny Says vividly takes us through this. I moved to New York City in 1977 when the downtown music scene was in full flower, so this flashback to that time and place was a real rush. Danny Fields, who still walks among us, is an irrepressible raconteur, an amazing story-teller. He’s a dynamic character and was a key figure on the scene. And the music will knock you out.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank (Laura Israel, director) My previous post on this terrific film can be accessed here.

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.

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Gleason (Clay Tweel, director)  Steve Gleason, a former professional football player for the New Orleans Saints who retired in 2008, revealed in 2011 that he had ALS, known as Lou Gherig’s disease. With he and his wife Michel expecting, Steve began making a video diary addressed to his unborn son. He wanted his child to get to know who his father was before he got sick. The film includes these video entries. Gleason is powerful and moving, but basically clear-eyed in its presentation. It’s not sentimental, but is filled with feeling.

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Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.”

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Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and that she had a line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.

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Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he utilizes Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

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William Burroughs & Howard Brookner

William Burroughs & Howard Brookner

Uncle Howard (Aaron Brookner, director)  This is an affectionate and engaging study of the director’s uncle, Howard Brookner, who made Burroughs: The Movie in 1983, a highly-regarded film about William Burroughs. In 2012, much of Howard’s film archive (prints, outtakes, sound tapes, etc.) was found to be in William Burroughs’ apartment on the Bowery, known as the “Bunker.” Much of Uncle Howard shows us Aaron’s retrieval of the archive materials, aided by director Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound for the Burroughs documentary. Plus there’s lots of footage of Burroughs, who is always interesting to be around.

Howard Brookner is a gentle, appealing presence here. He died of AIDS in 1989, three days short of his 35th birthday. I hadn’t known anything about him before seeing Uncle Howard, and though the film leads us to his death, it’s a gut-punch when it comes. There’s a real sense of loss. He had a great quote taped to his refrigerator door: “There’s so much beauty in the world. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.” I love that.

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Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him. ** Since originally posting this, it came out that Weiner was still sexting. This is still a terrific documentary, but I’m no longer willing to cut him any slack. He’s sick. What a shame.

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The Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, as if written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.

Judith Trojan wrote at length about this film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when The Witness was recently shown on the PBS series Independent Lens. You can read that here.

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These films are all available for streaming or rental from various sources. – Ted Hicks

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“The Red Turtle” – On the Beach

red-turtle-poster2Almost by accident I saw The Red Turtle last Friday. I’d initially gone to the Museum of Modern Art to see Modesty Blaise (1966), a spy spoof directed by Joseph Losey, starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, and Dirk Bogarde. I’d seen it once when it was first released, but remembered virtually nothing about it (though I had the idea that its approach was similar to the 1960s U.K. television series The Avengers, which I’d liked a lot). About thirty-five minutes after Modesty Blaise started, the screen went black with a pop. A few minutes later there was an announcement that there would be a delay of five to ten minutes. I rarely walk out of films, but this one wasn’t working for me at all, and this was all the excuse I needed.

Walking home, disgruntled because my movie plans had been disrupted, I stopped at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway in the 60s to see what was playing. The Red Turtle was starting in ten minutes, so I went in. I was aware of the title and had seen the poster,  but other than that, I knew nothing about it, except that the Japanese animation production company Studio Ghibli was involved. I’d seen Studio Ghibli films made by the great Hayao Miyazaki, and wondered if The Red Turtle would be anything like those. Then I saw on the poster that it was directed by someone named Michaël Dudok de Wit. Obviously not a Japanese name, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Not knowing what to expect isn’t a bad way to see a film, especially when it’s as wonderful at this one is. Without expectations or preconceptions, everything you see is a discovery. With that in mind, I’m going to say very little about what happens, except that it’s a story of a man castaway on a deserted island. We know nothing about him or even when this takes place. It’s timeless. There is no dialogue (though there is an evocative music score). Eventually he isn’t alone. I’ve probably said too much already.

The look of The Red Turtle runs counter to the currently popular Pixar-style computer-generated 3D animation. Michaël Dudok de Wit is a Dutch animator and illustrator based in London. He loves 2D animation. The Red Turtle looks like it was done in watercolors, with very simple, spare images. “I like films that are monochromatic,” Dudok de Wit says in an article in The New York Times. “It gives a purity and a simplicity to the image that I find very attractive.” The Times piece goes on to say “While he knew the feature would need dynamic landscapes and more color than his shorts had, he still wanted to keep the number of colors to a minimum. He asked his background artist to use one or two main colors and create variations on them in a scene. ‘It’s like in real life when there are days when all the colors are gray because the sky is cloudy,’ Mr. Dudok de Wit said. ‘That’s beautiful.'”

red-turtle-family-seaGhibli’s Hayao Miyazaki had seen Dudok de Wit’s Academy Award-winning short, Father and Daughter (2000), and was interested in working with him on Ghibli’s first international co-production. Dudok de Wit explains how he approached making The Red Turtle in an interview which can be accessed here.

There’s a sense of wonder in seeing this film that’s what I imagine it’s like having a parent read a fairy tale to you when you’re a child. The Red Turtle is a fable that has a deep respect for nature and the cycle of life and death.

Now you know more about The Red Turtle than I did before I saw it. But not too much, I hope. The film is currently playing in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. – Ted Hicks

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Here is Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2001.

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“Singin’ in the Rain” – Gotta dance!

singin-in-rain-title-numberYesterday I saw a 65th anniversary showing of Singin’ in the Rain sponsored by Turner Classic Movies at an AMC theater here in New York. It was great seeing it on a large theater screen in pristine digital condition. Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be one of the top two or three Hollywood musicals ever made. Audiences love it. Like Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), it transcends genre and is a simply great film, period. It’s a movie about movies; a satire set in 1927 Hollywood about the coming of sound and how filmmakers and actors struggled to make the transition. The comedy is fairly broad, but the story serves mainly to justify the musical numbers, which are amazing. All of the songs had been used in previous MGM musicals, with the exception of two new songs, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” written by Singin’ the Rain‘s screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

I have no memory of when and where I first saw Singin’ in the Rain, but I know the number that blew me away immediately was “Fit as a Fiddle.” It was jaw-dropping; I was transfixed by the energy, by the matching suits worn by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor that had a neon brightness, and by the dancing. I was like, how did they do all that? Here it is:

Singin’ in the Rain opened on March 27, 1952 at Radio Music Hall here in New York. Here’s a newspaper ad announcing it:

singin-in-rain-newpaper-adIt reportedly was not a smash when it opened, but has become one over the years, regularly appearing on best-films-of-all-time lists. I think what people respond to is the exuberance and joy of the musical numbers. Donald O’Connor is off the charts in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” He’s like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. O’Connor, a four pack a day smoker, had to stay in bed for several days following shooting this (which he had to do twice due to a camera malfunction that ruined the first day’s shooting). Here we go:

Debbie Reynolds, 19 years old at the time, had a background as a gymnast, but no dancing experience. Gene Kelly is said to have insulted her because of this. Fred Astaire, who found Reynolds crying under a piano, offered to help her with her dancing. I’ve seen numerous reports that Kelly was not a fun guy to work for. He was co-directing Singin’ in the Rain with Stanley Donen, and demanded things be exactly as he wanted them. There’s no suggestion of this on the screen. They seem like a happy family. I’ve always liked Gene Kelly, he’s my favorite screen dancer. But you can see another side of him in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). He’s cast against type as a sociopath and murderer. It’s especially bleak, even for film noir. Kelly is quite chilling, but that’s not how audiences remember him.

After that digression, back to Debbie Reynolds. The “Good Morning” number features Reynolds with Kelly and O’Connor. It took from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. to shoot. Her feet were bleeding at the end of the day, but you’d never suspect she’d had problems with dancing by watching it.

Here’s what François Truffaut wrote in his journals about this number, specifically an almost documentary moment with Reynolds at the end.

“In the three thousand films I’ve seen, the most beautiful shot is in Singin’ in the Rain. In the middle of the film, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, after a moment of discouragement, regain their taste for life and start singing and dancing in the apartment. Their dance leads them to leap over a sofa on which all three of them have to land seated side by side. During this dancing stunt over the sofa, Debbie Reynolds makes a determined and rapid gesture, pulling her short pink skirt down over her knees with a deft hand, so that her panties can’t be seen when she lands seated. That gesture, quick as lightning, is beautiful because in the same image we have the height of cinematographic convention (people who sing and dance instead of walking and talking) and the height of truth, a little lady taking care not to show her thighs. This all happened just once, fifteen years ago, it lasted less than a second, but it was imprinted on film as definitively as the arrival of the train at La Ciotat station. These sixteen frames of Singin’ in the Rain, this beautiful gesture by Debbie Reynolds, which is almost invisible, well illustrates this second action of films, this second life, which is legible on the editing table.”

Watch the clip again to catch this detail.

In the midst of Singin’ in the Rain is a musical mini-epic called “Broadway Melody.” It’s a huge production and is included in the film by the flimsiest of justifications. It’s a knock-out, though I don’t have the feeling for it that I do for the rest of the film. Still, Cyd Charisse as Kelly’s dance partner in this is a powerful presence, and she’s a good match for Kelly (even though she was taller, which Kelly made sure wasn’t seen). Charisse has impossibly long legs, which the movie makes sure we’re aware of.  See Exhibits A and B below.

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Of all the musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s joyous dance in the rain is what people remember if they don’t remember anything else. It’s the signature flourish of the film.

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Supplemental:

singin-in-rain-comic-book-coverA publisher called Movie Lore published a comic book version of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 to coincide with the release of the film. The complete comic can be accessed here.

A musical stage production was first produced in 1984 and has been revived over the years. It’s slated to be on Broadway again in 2017.

Film scholar Peter Wollen has written a monograph on Singin’ in the Rain for the excellent BFI Film Classics series. I haven’t read it yet, though a copy I ordered is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. This guy goes deep, so it should be pretty interesting.

Stanley Kubrick used the song “Singing in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell sings it during a home invasion where he and his gang beat the husband and he beats and rapes the wife (Gene Kelly sings it over the end credits). I love Kubrick, but the clip I have is just too ugly to include here.

Here’s a video of Debbie Reynolds talking about Singin’ in the Rain. I don’t know the source of this or what year it was, but it’s interesting to hear what she has to say.

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I’m sure you’ve all seen Singin’ in the Rain at least once, but if you haven’t, you really should. It’s bursting with the joy of movie-making. We may be in for more musicals now that La La Land is such a success, but it will be hard to match this. – Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2016

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If you don’t count the presidential election, 2016 was a very good year, for films at least. Out of the 346 features I saw last year (yeah, I know, get a life), here are the ones that got my attention. They’re in alphabetical order, but if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to say that Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, La La Land, and I, Daniel Blake are my top picks, though I think all the films here are very strong. The majority of these are not studio films, but are “smaller” independent productions. It’s also interesting that for twenty-three of the thirty-two titles listed, the director was also the screenwriter .

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, director) Cerebral sci-fi thriller (also a puzzle and a meditation) with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker trying to determine why alien spacecraft are poised over a dozen locations around the world. Adams is a top linguist enlisted to decipher the aliens’ language. I wish Jeremy Renner had been given more to do, but it’s Amy Adams’ movie, she’s its heart and soul. Arrival reveals itself slowly and in ways that don’t necessarily register until later. Time becomes non-linear; at one point an alien tells Adams that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. A second viewing would be helpful, but I haven’t managed that yet. From the director of Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), and the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049.

certain-women-posterCertain Women (Kelly Reichart, director & writer) The following description by Polly Kat on IMDb covers it well: “Certain Women drops us into a handful of intersecting lives across Montana. A lawyer Laura Dern tries to defuse a hostage situation and calm her disgruntled client Jared Harris, who feels slighted by a workers’ compensation settlement. A married couple Michelle Williams and James Le Gros breaks ground on a new home but exposes marital fissures when they try to persuade an elderly man to sell his stockpile of sandstone. A ranch hand Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to a young lawyer Kristen Stewart, who inadvertently finds herself teaching a twice-weekly adult education class, four hours from her home.” There’s nothing conventionally dramatic about the Reichart films I’ve seen. Her Wendy and Lucy (2008) with Michelle Williams is a good example; unsentimental but deeply felt, keenly observed and respectful of all her characters. Her films have almost always had women at the center.

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, director & writer) This is one of several titles on my list that has deeply humanist concerns. In Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, a man, woman, and her daughter form a family out of necessity to relocate to a France. The title character has a strong sense of what’s right, and he’s not about to be pushed around by the drug dealers and hoodlums who control the housing project where he’s been sent. In this time of refugees trying to find new homes in other lands, Dheepan is especially resonant.

Disorder (Alice Wincour, director & writer) Slow-burn thriller in which a French Special Forces soldier with PTSD back from Afghanistan pulls security duty in a house where everything is definitely not all right. An excellent French film with Matthias Schoenarts and Diane Kruger.

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, director & writer) Haille Steinfeld as a high school student struggling to find out how she fits into her life and Woody Harrelson as the teacher she confides in are excellent in this freshly observed coming-of-age story.

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, director & writer) A true mind-blower, this film is a trip in every sense of the word. Shot in crisp black & white, Embrace of the Serpent slips from 1909 to 1940 and back again, and again. In 1909, a German scientist enlists the aid of an Amazonian shaman to help find the yakuna, a legendary plant with healing and hallucinogenic powers; in 1940, an American, who has read the diaries of the German scientist, persuades the same shaman to help locate the same plant. At times Embrace of the Serpent has vibes of both Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You’ve got to see it for that to make sense. This film is disorienting in ways you’re not even aware of until you find yourself out in the lobby wondering what just happened. Embrace of the Serpent is a unique experience.

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Forsaken (Jon Cassar, director) An old-fashioned western with a few twists. Kiefer Sutherland is a gunfighter returning home and trying to lay down his guns. His father, Donald Sutherland, is the town’s preacher who can’t forgive his son for the life he led after the Civil War. There’s a local bad guy (Brian Cox) set on acquiring as much property as possible by forcing ranchers off their land even if he has to kill them. This is a classic premise and you know Sutherland will be forced to pick up his guns before the end credits roll. There’s not much new here, but it plays out very well, with the added bonus of seeing Kiefer Sutherland and his father  together in a movie for the first time in their careers. Michael Wincott is especially good as a gentleman gunman for the other side.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, director) Fascinating film from the South Korean director of Old Boy that stops and starts over about a third of the way in, showing us what “really” happened from a different point of view, then flips that again as more layers are peeled away. It’s sexy and creepy, twisty and twisted, and feels totally original.

Here is a collection of clips from The Handmaiden, followed by a trailer.

Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, director; Taylor Sheridan, writer) I really love this film. I saw it again last month at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Contenders” series and it was a good as I’d remembered. My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

hidden-figures-poster3Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, director & co-writer) This is an important movie that tells the little-known story of African-American women with math skills working for NASA in the early 60s at the dawn of the space age. We see the challenges they face as women in a male-dominated workplace, as well as experiencing the casual racism of the period. There’s nothing innovative about the filmmaking — it’s very straight-forward and direct — but the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, and Kevin Costner are very strong, and the story is very resonant with today. Hidden Figures shows how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, director; Paul Laverty, writer) This is one of the best I saw. Ken Loach has been called a director of socialist realism, and while that’s an accurate description, what always comes through for me in his films is the sense of humanity that’s present in every frame. Loach, who will be 80 in June, has been working in film and television for 50 years. His commitment has never wavered. Films of his I particularly like are Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), and My Name Is Joe (1998). I, Daniel Blake ranks with his very best. The title character is a basic, decent man struggling to get through a snarl of bureaucratic bullsh*t designed to be as unhelpful as possible. Daniel, played by Dave Johns, spends hours on hold trying to reach officials who can’t help him anyway. We can all identify with that. Along the way he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two children, recently moved from London to Newcastle. Katie is also thwarted by a system filled with Catch-22s. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. It’s a beautiful film.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, director & writer) There was a lot of enthusiastic buzz for this film before it opened. I have to say, it delivers and then some. I was enjoying it well enough, and then there was a point about midway through — during an argument between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — when I realized with a rush that I was seeing a great movie. Stone and Gosling are wonderful. I’ve been a big Ryan Gosling booster since seeing him in Half Nelson (2006). Emma Stone is dazzling. La La Land hits you with positive energy. It’s like somebody juggling chainsaws and spinning plates at the same time. The filmmaking is very fresh and inventive. I had a problem with Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014). The music in that film was great, and the big drumming finale at Carnegie Hall was incredibly exciting, but I had a hard time accepting that a teacher as verbally and physically abusive as J.K. Simmons’ character could last for any length of time in a school. He was more like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I had no such reservations about La La Land. The music and dance numbers are great, and the bait & switch ending keeps your head spinning. This film justifies all the attention it’s been getting.

loving-posterLoving (Jeff Nichols, director & writer) Loving is the true story of the relationship between a white man and a black woman in Virginia in the late 1950s, a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most states. I’ve been a big fan of Jeff Nichols’ work ever since seeing his first film, Shotgun Stories (2007). Since then he’s made a series of exceptional works: Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special, released earlier in 2016. Nichols’ approach to filmmaking is low-key, minimal, unsentimental, and naturalistic.  Loving refines his style even further. The film is made up of the small, day-to-day details of living. There’s nothing melodramatic about it. Scenes of racial confrontation are largely absent. Richard and Mildred Loving, excellently portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, aren’t even present when the Supreme Court decision comes down in 1967 that legalizes interracial marriage. The same day we saw Loving, we also watched Nancy Buirski’s excellent documentary, The Loving Story (2011), which the feature was closely based on. Loving would make a great double-feature with Hidden Figures, as they both deal with crucial advances in civil rights.

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, director & writer) Before I saw Toni Erdmann, I would have said this was the best feature film of 2016. But it’s so close, the difference probably doesn’t matter. This is only the third feature from Kenneth Lonergan, after the stunning You Can Count on Me (2000) and the messy but amazing Margaret (2011). I can’t recall a film that deals with grief, loss, and responsibility to the powerful degree that Manchester does. Scenes in a hospital of people struggling to process the fact that someone has died are amazing. Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler is astonishing. You have to wonder how someone does that. Michelle Williams is equally good as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. A heartbreaking loss in their past was too much to bear. I especially liked C.J. Wilson as George, the partner of Lee’s brother Joe on their fishing boat. Lucas Hedges is also very good as Patrick, the nephew Lee is reluctant to take responsibility for following his father’s death. This is a heavy movie, though it’s also quite funny at times.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, director & writer) A deceptively simple story of the life of an African-American boy told in three parts; the first when he’s an adolescent; the second when he’s a teenager; the third when he’s an adult. None of these parts have obvious endings or resolutions. They just happen. Mahershala Ali plays a Miami drug dealer, Juan, but he’s not a stereotype. He takes the young Chiron, known as Little, under his wing and becomes a mentor of sorts, giving Little a safe space away from his crack-addicted mother (Naomi Harris). Janelle Monáe is Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, who also cares for Little. (Mahershala Ali has been turning up frequently. He and Janelle Monáe are in Hidden Figures. He’s been in House of Cards (Netflix) and the Marvel series Luke Cage, also on Netflix.) In parts two and three, Chiron has the growing awareness that he’s gay. All of this is dealt with in an understated way that feels very real. As with a number of films of 2016, there’s a profound sense of humanity at the core.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, director & co-writer) Based on the print ads and trailers I’d seen, I had no desire to see this film — it looked stupid — and wondered what Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were doing in it. Then I got an invite to a pre-release screening with Shane Black in attendence for a Q&A after, so I figured what the hell. I’m really glad I went, because it turned out to be great, a real kick. Crowe and Gosling are terrific in this violent comedy. Gosling channels The Three Stooges in a couple of WTF moments. Black began his career getting record amounts of money for his screenplays, beginning with Lethal Weapon in 1987. I’d liked Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a convoluted meta private eye thriller with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer that he wrote and directed. The Nice Guys has a similar vibe. It may not be high art, but it’s hugely entertaining.

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, director & writer) This is a touching and delicate Japanese film concerning three sisters who discover they have a half-sister, and embrace her as a member of their family. It’s a wonderful, smoothly told story with no villains. I first became aware of Kore-eda with Mabarosi (1995), followed by After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004), the glorious I Wish (2011), and Like Father, Like Son (2013). He frequently has children as protagonists and does wonders with them. His films feel very special.

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer) Paterson is a quintessential Jim Jarmusch film, quirky and dead-pan, with a sharp eye for odd detail. Adam Driver plays a character named Paterson, who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. He also writes poetry,paterson-marvin which we hear in voice-over from time to time. Sets of twins turn up frequently for no particular reason. The English bulldog Marvin is a silent observer around the neighborhood and in the house Paterson shares with Laura (Golshifeh Forahani), a self-styled designer of clothing and interiors, and aspiring singer-songwriter. Paterson gets up every morning, has breakfast, drives the bus, comes home, walks Marvin and hangs out in a bar, goes home and spends time with Laura. Along the way he observes life around him and writes poems about it. That’s pretty much it and it’s great.

The Shallows (Jaime Collet-Serra, director) A nasty piece of work about a woman (Blake Lively) being stalked by a shark while surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. It’s tightly wound, single minded, and sharply focused. After some initial doubts about seeing The Shallows, I was quite surprised at how good it was. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, this one comes along.

toni-erdmann-naked-inesToni Erdmann (Maren Ade, director & writer) This is my top pick for the year. We saw it the night before New Year’s Eve, so it’s still fresh in my mind. Astounding, amazing, unique, jaw-dropping, all that. Or, as my favorite blurb from the poster says, “It’s absolutely nuts!” It’s incredibly funny, but also serious and touching in its depiction of a frayed father-daughter relationship. Sandra Hüller is Ines, a driven corporate professional working for a consulting company trying to convince a company in Bucharest to outsource their work. Peter Simonischek plays her father, Winfred, who identifies himself as Toni Erdmann much of the time. Toni is a prankster, given to whoopee cushions, popping a set of buck teeth in and out of his mouth, and showing up unannounced in Ines’ life at the most inopportune moments. He’s an incredibly engaging character. An extended scene of Ines struggling to get out of a too-tight dress is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Toni Erdmann runs for  2 hours & 42 minutes, but doesn’t feel long at all. If it had kept going, we would have kept watching. It’s really unique, in a class by itself. Do not miss it.

Train to Busan (Yeon Song-ho, director & writer) Zombies on a train, everything just gets worse and worse and then worse than that. It’s unrelenting, high-octane, propulsive, amazing, and great. If you like this sort of thing — and you know who you are — Train to Busan is not to be missed.

20th Century Women (Mike Mills, director & writer) An award-worthy performance by Annette Bening as a single mother in 1979 Santa Barbara and a killer soundtrack are obvious attractions in this fine film from Mike Mills.  His previous feature was Beginners (2010), fwith Ewan McGregor playing a son whose father, Christopher Plummer, has come out of the closet at age 75. Beginners was great, but I think 20th Century Women is even better. Mills’ approach reminds me of Ira Sachs’ films, whose Little Men is also on this list.

The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardonne, co-directors & writers)  Like Ken Loach, the Dardonne brothers are deeply humanist filmmakers. Their earlier films, which include Rosetta (1999); The Son (1999); L’enfant (2005); and Two Days, One Night, are ample evidence of this. The Unknown Girl is no exception. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor filling in at a walk-in clinic in Liege. When someone rings the buzzer after a long day, an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), wants to let the person in. Jenny stops him, saying it’s already an hour past closing. When the person who rang, a young African immigrant woman, is found dead the next day on the bank of a river, Jenny feels responsible. She makes it her mission to find out who the woman was, so that she won’t be buried without a name.

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Other films I liked a lot last year include the following:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven, director)

Indignation (James Shamus, director & writer)

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)

The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, director)

Little Men (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer)

Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, director & writer)

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, director & writer)

Sing Street (John Carney, director & writer)

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, director) My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

I haven’t yet seen Lion, A Monster Calls, or Kubo and the Two Strings, all of which have received strong positive response. I’m sure there are others that slipped past me.

Many of these films are already available for streaming, rental, or purchase.

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travis-in-movie-theater2That’s all for now. See you at the movies! – Ted Hicks

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Happy New Year 2017: Duck and Cover

2016 has been a good year for films, but not so great otherwise. Too many people have died, famous and not so famous. The weird voodoo of the presidential election, which seemed to take place in an alternate Bizarro World universe, still defies belief, at least on my side of the wall. So we’re seeing Casablanca tonight at Film Forum, a great way to close out any year. Life goes on. And remember, we’ll always have movies.

casablanca-sam-rick-ilsadicaprio-gatsby-toast2three-stooges-drink-upcthulhu-trumpthe-fly-scream3seconds-hudson-on-guerney2happy-new-year-crosby-astaire______________________________________________________

  Stay tuned for recaps of my favorite feature films, documentaries, and TV & cable programs for 2016. In the meantime, here’s something to help get your heart started in the morning. Play it LOUD. – Ted Hicks

 

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