December 28, 2016
This was yesterday. I struggled to think of a connection, but there is one. Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977); Patrick Stewart in Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2016); Maria Callas in Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969).
December 27, 2016
Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969). The achievement, as I see it, is to put you not just in an ancient world (that seems relatively easy) but in the ancient mind, and its startling otherness. I can’t think of anything like the early sequences Pasolini stages in his imaginary Colchis, these elaborate and bloody ceremonial sacrifices in bright, dry landscapes.
December 23, 2016
Elvis & Nixon (Liza Johnson, 2016). Does it bother you if a historical figure is played by an actor who bears no resemblance? Michael Shannon looks nothing like Elvis Presley – a skinny, black-haired, insomniac speedfreak, his Elvis looks more like Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch – and he suggests an inner life more tortured or complicated than we usually expect of Presley. Such is Shannon’s gift. This slight and generally mediocre film imagines the circumstances surrounding a famous, or famously strange, photo of Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in 1970, when he reportedly offered his services as an undercover narcotics agent. Kevin Spacey plays Nixon as a kinder, gentler Frank Underwood – his right-wing paranoia is nothing compared to that of the King’s, whose side of the story dominates. But one brief reflection on the psychic burden of being a surviving twin is as deep or memorable as it gets. This cartoonish Elvis mostly muses in cryptic silence. The sadness is interesting but is it Elvis’ sadness?
December 15, 2016
Arrival is better on a second viewing, once you know what its time structure is telling you. I said it bit off more than it could chew, but actually we need to see it twice at least to digest it. On your first viewing, it is a cerebral story about aliens, the military and language. The second time, it becomes more intimately focused on motherhood and even courtship: you notice when time leaks in and why, you notice the subtlety of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner’s physical performances, the growing closeness. The first time, I remembered the dark outlines of the alien ship and the powerful score and sound design; the second time I remembered the water on the lake and the years passing, all the Malickian stuff.
December 11, 2016
THE 10 BEST
1 The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015).
A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Lars Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep. And it was even timely in ways no one could have expected: in a year of Satanic child-abuse conspiracies in the basements of pizza restaurants, maybe it’s useful to go back to the source of America’s founding Puritan terrors.
2 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016).
The funniest film of the year is nearly three hours long and German. Peter Simonischek in wigs and false teeth is the disruptive father who acts as a mischievous prankster within the carefully controlled professional life of his daughter (Sandra Huller), a German businesswoman in Romania. The comedy unfolds within the drab non-places of EU commerce: hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, serviced apartments.
3 The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016).
As though Dario Argento and Kenneth Anger had collaborated on a far-too-beautiful horror film about a Los Angeles modelling world that apparently chews women up and spits them out. There are elements of Lynch as well in its Hollywood occult gothic – you might wait for someone to say “this is the girl”, Mulholland Drive-style. Watch this as the second half of a double bill with Terrence Malick’s esoteric LA film Knight of Cups.
4 Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015).
People leaving and arriving, crossing roads, half-hidden, seen through car windows or behind the wheel: this marvellous and subtle Todd Haynes film of a Patricia Highsmith novel both opens up the mystery of romance and lets it remain enigmatic. Haynes’ rock biopics (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Superstar) turned lives into complicated mysteries to be solved or not solved – the same may apply here.
5 Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, 2016).
Just as Haynes adapts Highsmith, Pedro Almodovar adapts Alice Munro and produces his most mature and melancholy film so far. These are stories about estrangement and forgiveness that allow Almodovar to demonstrate once again that he is a subtle master of film narrative who can move effortlessly between different iterations of characters, times and locations. Tendencies towards camp are entirely suppressed.
6 The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015).
Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams.
7 Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016).
Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness.
8 Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016).
You didn’t make the mistake of thinking Verhoeven had mellowed, did you? This remarkable rape-revenge story, with a mesmerising performance from Isabelle Huppert, is the wildest thing he has made since … we probably have to say Showgirls, but we would rather say Starship Troopers.
9 Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016).
Better than Stranger Things, more intimate than Arrival. This under-rated film is so deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and it contains Michael Shannon’s most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols. Watch in a double bill with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
10 Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015).
Laurie Anderson’s deeply immersive essay film plays like a complicated dream about death, family and memory. Despite what it is about, and the person it never directly addresses, it feels joyful at times and even hopeful. That rare commodity.
Honourable mentions: Anomalisa, Arrival, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I, Daniel Blake, Knight of Cups, One More Time With Feeling, Paterson, Son of Saul, 10 Cloverfield Lane.
1 Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
2 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
3 Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
4 Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5 River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)
6 Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)
7 Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
8 Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)
9 Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)
10 Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009)
11 Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010)
12 Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)
13 Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
14 Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
15 Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
Some of these were seen for the first time (Chimes at Midnight at the NZFF) and some were revisited (River’s Edge nearly 30 years after seeing it at probably the Paramount, Wellington).