Plastic Pattern People

Most Anticipated Films of 2014

image

Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson

Knight Of Cups/Austin Music Scene Movie/Voyage of Time - Terrence Mallick

Night Moves - Kelly Reichardt

Two Days, One Night - Dardennes Brothers

Nymphomaniac - Lars von Trier

Gone Girl - David Fincher

While We’re Young - Noah Baumbach

Elena - Petra Costa

Foxcatcher - Bennet Miller

Theory of Everything - James Marsh

Boyhood - Richard Linklater

Untitled Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig - Public School Project

99 Homes - Ramin Bahrani

The Cobbler - Tom McCarthy

How to Catch a Monster - Ryan Gosling

Men, Women, & Children - Jason Reitman

Magic in the Moonlight - Woody Allen

Macbeth - Justin Kurzel

Winter Sleep - Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Mr. Turner - Mike Leigh

Eden - Mia Hansen-Love

The Assassin - Hou Hiao-Hsien

Carol - Todd Haynes

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence - Roy Anderson

Sils Maria - Olivier Assayas

Maps to the Stars - David Cronenburg

A Most Wanted Man - Anton Corbijn

Midnight Special - Jeff Nichols

The Rover - David Michod

Birdman - Innaritu

Noah - Darren Aronofsky

Best Documentaries of 2013

image

  1. The Act of Killing - Joshua Oppenheimer
  2. Cutie and the Boxer - Zachary Heinzerling
  3. Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley 
  4. First Cousin Once Removed - Alan Berliner  
  5. Blackfish - Gabriella Cowpertwaite
  6. At Berkley - Fredrick Weismann
  7. The Square - Jehane Noujaim
  8. Let the Fire Burn - Jason Osde
  9. The House I Live In - Eugene Jarecki
  10. Gideon’s Army - Dawn Porter
  11. God Loves Uganda - Roger Ross
  12. 20 Feet from Stardom - Morgan Neville
  13. After Tiller - Martha Shane
  14. Dirty Wars - Rick Rowley
  15. Room 237 - Rodney Ascher

Best Narratives of 2013

image

  1. Blue is the Warmest Color - Abdel Kechiche; Just Before Losing Everything - Xavier Legrand [Short]
  2. Upstream Color - Shane Caruth
  3. Her - Spike Jonze
  4. Inside Llewyn Davis - Coen Brothers
  5. Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach
  6. 12 Years a Slave - Steve McQueen
  7. The Great Beauty - Paolo Sorrentino
  8. Nebraska - Alexander Payne
  9. Wajda - Haifaa Al-Monsour
  10. Mother of George - Andrew Dosunmu
  11. Short Term 12 - Destin Cretton
  12. Bastards - Claire Denis
  13. To the Wonder - Terrence Malick
  14. Mud - Jeff Nichols
  15. Fruitvale Station - Ryan Coogler
  16. Fill the Void - Rama Burshtein
  17. Museum Hours - Jem Cohen
  18. The Hunt - Thomas Vinterberg
  19. Like Someone in Love - Abbas Kiarostami
  20. All is Lost - JC Chandler 
  21. Beyond the Hills - Cristian Mungiu
  22. Post Tenebras Lux - Carlos Reygadas
  23. The Grandmaster - Wong Kar Wai 
  24. Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine
  25. Manakamana - Stephanie Spray
  26. A Touch of Sin - Jia Zhangke
  27. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet - Alain Renais
  28. Reality - Matteo Garrone
  29. The Past - Asghar Farhadi
  30. American Hustle - David O. Russell 

Best Narratives of 2012

               image
  1. Holy Motors - Leos Cerax
  2. Amour - Michael Haneke
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin 
  4. The Kid with the Bike - Dardennes Bros.
  5. Monsieur Lahzar - Phillippe Falardeau
  6. Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson 
  7. The Deep Blue Sea - Terrence Davies 
  8. We Have a Pope - Nanni Moretti
  9. The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson
  10. Footnote - Joseph Cedar
  11. Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell 
  12. Take This Waltz - Sarah Polley
  13. Starlet - Sean Baker
  14. Goodbye, First Love - Mia Hasen-Love
  15. No - Pablo Larrain
  16. Tabu - Miguel Gomez
  17. Rust and Bone - Jacques Audiard
  18. Zero Dark Thirty - Katharine Bigelow
  19. Beyond the Hills - Christian Mugjieu
  20. In Another Country - Hong Song Soo
  21. Neighboring Sounds - Kleber Mendonca Filho  
  22. A Late Quartet - Yaron Zilberman
  23. Tomboy - Celine Sciamma
  24. Francine - Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
  25. The Intouchables - Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano  
  26. The Fairy - Dominique Abel et al. 
  27. Attenberg - Athina Rachel Tsangari 
  28. The Turin Horse - Bela Tarr 
  29. Nuit #1 - Anne Emond
  30. Elena - Andrey Zvyaginstev
  31. Oslo, August 31- Joachim Trier
  32. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Nuri Bilge Ceylin  
  33. Argo - Ben Afleck 
  34. Lincoln - Steven Spielberg
  35. Keep the Lights On - Ira Sachs
  36. The Forgiveness of Blood - Joshua Marston 
  37. Sister - Ursula Meier
  38. Barbara - Christian Petzold 
  39. Anna Karenina - Joe Wright
  40. Teddy Bear - Mads Matthieson
See my favorite documentaries of the year here.

Best Documentaries of 2012

              image 

  1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi - David Gelb
  2. Searching for Sugar Man - Malik Bendjelloul
  3. The Invisible War - Kirby Dick 
  4. Thcoupitoulas - Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
  5. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present - Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
  6. Chasing Ice - Jeff Orlowski 
  7. The Imposter - Bart Layton
  8. This is Not A Film - Jafar Panahi
  9. Trash Dance - Andrew Garrison
  10. Detropia - Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
  11. Samsara - Ron Fricke
  12. The Queen of Versailles - Lauren Greenfield
  13. Five Broken Cameras - Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
  14. Girl Model - David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
  15. How to Survive a Plague - David France
  16. Under African Skies - Joe Berlinger 
  17. Crazy Horse - Frederick Wiseman 
  18. Marley - Kevin Macdonald
  19. Bully - Lee Hirsch
  20. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - Joe Berlinger
  21. Louder than a Bomb - Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel 
  22. Bay of All Saints - Annie Eastman 
  23. We’re Not Broke - Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes
  24. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry - Allison Klayman 
  25. Seeking Asian Female - Debbie Lum
  26. West of Memphis - Amy Berg 
  27. Ballplayer: Pelotero - Ross Finkel et al. 
  28. The Central Park Five - Ken Burns and Sarah Burns
  29. Low and Clear - Kahill Hudson and Tyler Hughen 
  30. The Flat - Arnon Goldfinger
  31. Side by Side - Christopher Kinneally 
  32. The House I Live In - Eugen Jarecki
  33. The Gatekeepers - Dror Moreh 
  34. Battle for Brooklyn - Suki Hawley
  35. The Green Wave - Ali Samadi Ahadi
  36. Portrait of Wally - Andrew Shea 
  37. A Man Vanishes - Shohei Imamura 
  38. Planet of Snail - Yi Seung-Jun 
  39. Beware of Mr. Baker - Jay Bulger
  40. First Position - Bess Kargman
See my favorite narratives of 2012 here

Lift: a short film by Justin-Dane Roberts and Geoff Cooper.

DIFF 2012

image

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick

Definitely the most important film I saw at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival, The Invisible War is filmmaker Kirby Dick’s expose of the rape epidemic in the United States military. Dick’s film traces the stories of five courageous women as they recount the horrors, psychological damage, and injustice associated with being raped while serving their country.  

Dick uses his seasoned skill as a director to peel back the layers of the military’s cover-ups, dismissals, institutional chauvinism, and, in many cases, the outright stonewalling of the film’s women, as they fight not only to realize justice for themselves, but to bring light to these despicable and ongoing violations of human rights.  The Invisible War—which won the Silver Heart Award at the festival this year—pulls no punches. It is a timely documentary that will be recognized as one of the year’s best.  [A+]   

Atomic States of America, directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce

How safe is nuclear energy? Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s documentary, which competed in DIFF’s Environmental Visions category this year, seeks to answer this question while putting the myths surrounding nuclear energy to rest and revealing the extensive negative consequences of nuclear power.

While maintaining a position of healthy skepticism, Argott and Joyce carefully dissect and discuss the issues of power that underlie U.S. energy policy.  Using various case studies from across the country, the directorial duo makes a satisfying case for caution in regards to nuclear energy.  While they don’t count it out, or dismiss it entirely as a viable source of clean power, the filmmakers conclude that given current technological limitations, we should chart a course that avoids over-reliance on nuclear energy sources.  In the end, their well-founded conclusion rings academically true.  [A]

Girl Model, directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

Girl Model is a compelling look at the Russian model industry, where extremely young girls risk everything for the chance to be picked up by Japanese modeling agencies.  David Redmon and Ashley Sabin explore the dark side of a secretive industry that is constantly placing itself on a moral pedestal for “lifting young girls out of poverty.”  As Girl Model proves, the industry is largely, on the contrary, an institution of exploitation that breeds the potential for trafficking and slavery.

The central figure in all of this is ex-model, now recruiter, Rachel Blais. Obsessive, egocentric, odd, and arguably amoral, Blais makes for an intriguing, if eerie, subject. Listening to her endless justifications and self-promotion allow the viewer some uncomfortable moments, but Redmon and Sabin manage to bring it all together in a subtle and tasteful denouement.  [A]

The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton 

In 1994, a 13-year old boy disappeared from his home in San Antonio, TX.  Three years later, international authorities in Spain thought they had finally tracked him down. Unfortunately, they were mistaken.

Bart Layton’s fascinating documentary is the story of a young Frenchman who somehow manages to convince the grieving Texas family that he is their long lost son. While it may sound hard to believe, The Imposter weaves a convincing tale that moves with the force and excitement of a great mystery. It was definitely one of my favorite films of the festival.  [A]  

Patriocracy, directed by Brian Malone

One would pretty much have to keep one’s head buried in the sand not to know that there is political gridlock in Washington. We the People are frustrated with a brand of American politics that is increasingly polarized and partisan for partisanship’s sake. Brian Malone’s new film, Patriocracy, attempts to tackle these issues and offer solutions for fixing the problem.  Unfortunately, the issues addressed are more complex than one documentary, or set of suggested reforms, can ameliorate.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the subject matter, Malone does explore the issues at hand with a keen eye, and I appreciate his valiant effort.  His film includes in-depth interviews with expert political scientists, commentators, and activists, all of whom strive to pinpoint answers that will help put our government on a path to progress. Though its conclusions are perhaps overly simplistic, we should not fault Patriocracy for having this much-needed discussion.  [B+]    

Wolf, directed by Ya’Ke Smith 

With room enough on my schedule for just one narrative feature this year, my interest was peaked when I heard about Wolf. Often hard to watch, Smith’s film is about a young African American teenager named Carl, who is molested by his preacher. Upon finding out, his family’s faith in god, society, and each other is shaken to its core. When his mother and father try to set things right, they run into significant obstacles—the most notable of which is Carl’s mutual affinities for his abuser.

The film’s strongest elements are its subject matter and stunning cinematography; its weakest are its actors. As a low-budget, independent film flush with newcomers, I am willing to cut it some slack. Unfortunately, slack can only go so far. A story this compelling needs high-caliber actors that can bring the writing home. Wolf is a powerful tale that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.  [B]        

We’re Not Brokedirected by Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes

We’re Not Broke is a documentary bathed in timeliness and relevance.  In light of our most recent economic downturn we, as a people, have faced budget shortfalls, a mounting national deficit, and the vicious rhetoric of austerity politics. The subsequent budget debate (and shenanigans) that came to a head in the summer of 2011 led to, among other things, a downgrade of the United States’ AAA credit rating. In this climate of budget alarmism, middle-class incomes have plummeted and unemployment has remained stubbornly high. Despite this reality, corporate profits have broken all-time records and the wealth of the upper 1% of Americans continues to expand exponentially.  

It is against this backdrop that Directors Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes introduce their film. They trace the arrival of the aforementioned economic paradigm by illustrating how our elite-controlled institutions have been molded to benefit the wealthiest among us, at the expense of the rest of us. Bruce and Hayes knock down the rhetoric of budget hawks, free market fundamentalists, and Tea Party radicals that has, until recently, inundated the airwaves and carried the day.  

Specifically, Bruce and Hayes point out how U.S. tax policy has been made incapable of capturing much-needed revenues that are stored by corporations in “secret,” offshore tax havens, through the use of devious statutory tricks. This idea becomes the crux of the film. Because corporations profit from their extensive use of public resources and human capital, it is only natural that they pay back to society their fair share in taxes.  According to the filmmakers, if we could but capture some (or all) of this hidden revenue, our society could shore up the deficit, balance the books, and have funds left over to reinvest in our people.  But we can only do this if we first realize that we are not broke.  [A]     

5 Broken Camerasdirected by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

Another competitor in the Silver Heart category at DIFF, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s heartfelt film, 5 Broken Cameras, illustrates the pressurized relations between Israel and Palestine. As Israel continues to expand its settlements into Palestinian territory, local people have taken it upon themselves to defend their homeland. While a few have unfortunately turned to violence, one man, Emad Burnat, has continually strived for nonviolent resistance against Israeli agressors.

As Emad and his friends dedicate their bodies in efforts to control and keep cherished spaces, he films the progress of his small band of peaceful revolutionaries. One by one, his cameras, which become physical metaphors for his conflict-ridden psyche, are destroyed—purposefully or inadvertently—by Israeli soldiers.  Against all odds, Emat keeps filming. The result is rewarding.  

5 Broken Cameras is an homage to nonviolence and the resilience of the human spirit. Thanks to people like Emat, there is hope for peace.  [A]          

Last Call at the Oasis, directed by Jessica Yu

Water is the central topic of Jessica Yu’s debut film, Last Call at the Oasis.  In many ways piggy-backing on the excellent 2008 documentary F.L.O.W., Yu’s filmraises awareness about the depletion of our most essential natural resource.

As our climate continues to warm, our water is contaminated by commercial ventures, and demand for water increases, we are edging closer to a period where water will become the earth’s most coveted resource. Yu explores the ins and outs of the water crisis with poignance and grace. The design, editing, and cinematography utilized in the film stand out as its strongest qualities.  

Though the film is pretty, some of the ideas presented seem commonplace and come off as something we’ve heard before. This causes the film to become tedious, and in some cases, overstated. That being said, I do appreciate one very novel idea that is forwarded in the film. That is, the idea that it is not inevitable that the coming water crisis has to end in war and conflict, as oil and other natural resource conflicts often have. Because the lack of water affects all of us equally, the shortage could potentially lead to a series of human compromises and rational negotiations.          

Featuring academics and philosophers, Michigan environmentalists and California farmers, Last Call at the Oasis is a clarion call to protect our water reserves and discover innovative new ways to supply our earth for years to come.  [A-]     

Documentary Shorts

The collection of shorts I saw at this year’s DIFF was one of the best shorts programs I have ever seen. Interestingly, the two highlights of the program for me both happen to deal with love.  

The first film, The Love Competitioncenters on The Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, which hosts the world’s first annual “Love Competition.” During the competition, seven contestants have five minutes to neurochemically love someone as hard as they can, while neuroscientists visually monitor the chemical levels in each of their brains.  The results are surprising.

In some ways, Love Hacking echoeThe Love Competition, and it does so beyond their shared theme. Love Hacking shows how a romantic relationship can itself be a kind of friendly competition between two people—especially during the dating stage—as lovers jockey for positions of affection, given and received. The film tells the story of a robot inventer who falls in love with a Nepali woman over the internet and journeys to her home country to meet in person for the first time. Their virtual relationship quickly becomes a reality as the two marry the following day, under a volley of endearing awkwardness.  [A+]   

SXSW 2012

Tchoupitoulas, dir. Bill Ross and Turner Ross

An homage to the power of place and a paean to the wonders of childhood, Tchoupitoulas is an impressive documentary that moves with the emotional subtleties of a narrative.  In Tchoupitoulas, directing duo Bill and Turner Ross, who released 45365 in 2009—an expose on life in Sidney, Ohio, showcase their continued interest in geography.  More specifically, the Rosses explore the way in which a particular place can be a lasting influence on human development.

Filming from sunup to sundown on a single night in the French Quarter, Bill and Turner Ross construct a poignant portrait of three brothers who embark on a forbidden adventure under the mystique and magic of a New Orleans night.  Told predominantly through the perspective of William, the youngest of the boys, the film is refreshingly nonlinear.  Not in the sense that there is no coherent plot, but in the sense that any story present in the film is made consciously secondary to its rich imagery. We watch quietly as the boys wander the dark streets; we grin to ourselves as they stumble upon cabarets; we tag along as they poke their way through the bowels of a decrepit river boat.

As the brothers attempt to make sense of this mysterious, adult world, William—an amateur philosopher and full-time dreamer—illuminates the voyage with stream-of-consciousness narration that is nothing short of profound.  

Using stunning cinema verite, Bill and Turner Ross have constructed a powerful documentary that helps us recall our own memories of childhood.  Through the eyes of William and his brothers, we are allowed to relive our adolescence, while gaining remarkable insights into the lives of people in a place that we may never have the privilege of visiting.   [A+]

Francine, dir. Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky 

Realism is a wonderful thing.  In Francine, Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky—a married, filmmaking partnership, use their documentary background to construct a marvelous narrative that communicates to its audience in crisp, nonfiction-like frames and rich, aural projections.

Starring Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter, Frozen River)Francine is the story of a downtrodden, middle-aged woman who has just been released from prison. Using what little money she has been given by the state, Francine finds a place to live, looks for a job, and slowly re-immerses herself into a world of stimuli; she actively pursues sensory opportunities she has been deprived of as a prisoner.

In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Francine, wandering the streets of a blue-collar town in upstate New York, comes upon an amateur metal band playing a free show in an empty field.  As the headbangers around her do their thing, she sways to the music in a trance-like state.  Eventually, we notice tears flowing from closed eyes, down her cheeks.

Cassidy and Shatzky, who were present during the Q&A, disclosed their intention of creating a film about a woman who is motivated primarily by stimuli, and the way in which these stimuli affect her emotions.  In Francine, we have such a character.  Between her obsession with animals, her reckless search for love in all the wrong places, and her impulsive approach to a life of freedom, Francine’s fragile mental state becomes apparent.  We conclude that prison has taken its toll on her; that the corrections system has claimed another victim.

Francine is often hard to watch.  We cringe with her reactionary choices and we cry with her in her darkest hours.  But Cassidy and Shatzky have, nonetheless, created a beautiful film.  One that speaks to the literal and metaphorical consequences of prolonged confinement.   [A]

Trash Dance, dir. Andrew Garrison

Andrew Garrison’s brilliant, heartfelt film, Trash Dance, documents modern dance choreographer, Allison Orr, as she rides out with and tries to persuade employees of Austin Department of Solid Waste Services to collaborate in a public dance performance.  Not only was it the most enjoyable film I saw at SXSW this year, it is the only film I have ever seen receive a standing ovation.  

Garrison’s film displays Orr’s creative processes and the way in which these processes relate humanistically to the people she works with.  Orr’s vision, which was to utilize the natural tasks of the “trash crew” to create a magnificent work of art, is altogether profound and beautiful.  We watch as the film explores the usual frustrations that are associated with any major production, the grueling time table under which production was to be completed, the unique atmosphere of collaboration used to move the work forward, and most importantly, the rich personalities of the workers that make the show—and the film—all that it is.

Facing budget shortfalls and critics, Orr and the “trash crew” prevail.  The final product is breathtaking.  Incorporating 16 trucks, 24 people, and drawing a crowd of over 2,000, the show is a complex collection of poignant movements, featuring a crane solo that will make you cry.  ”Trash Dance” is an opportunity for people of underprivileged communities to directly experience, and participate in, art—many for the first time.

More than anything else, Trash Dance is a welcomed validation of a class of people that is often stigmatized and marginalized.  A group that goes virtually unrecognized on a daily basis.  The film humanizes “garbage men” and provides meaningful evidence for the absolute necessity of those who perform the essential labor in our society.   [A+]           

Waiting for Lightning, dir. Jacob Rosenburg

The name Danny Way may not mean much to you.  At least, it didn’t mean much to me prior to seeing Jacob Roseburg’s skateboard documentary, Waiting for Lightning.  An ex-skater himself and childhood friend of Way, Rosenburg crafts this glowing portrait of the professional skateboarder, with an eye keen to the complexities of his rather turbulent life.  For this reason, Waiting for Lightning is more than a cliche “skate video.”  It is a poignant, informative biopic about an incredibly interesting individual.  

Way grew up in Vista, California, with the skate craze roaring around him.  Seemingly from infancy, Way would roll around on a skateboard, trying to keep up with his older brother, Damon.  By the age of 11, Danny had won his first contest.  By 14, he was skating semi-professionally.  Besides his raw and almost unbelievable talent, Way has always garnered superhuman bravery and extraordinary toughness—almost as if he does not have the instinct for fear that the rest of the human race has.  

This personality trait is perhaps what has allowed him to become the first skateboarder to attempt a 900, the first (and only) person to drop in from a helicopter, the inventor of a giant, wooden behemoth aptly titled the “mega ramp,” and, despite having a broken foot on the day of the event, the only person ever to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard—the stunt that Waiting for Lightning is structured upon.

Before Way found fame, he suffered a life of loss, abuse, and marginalization.  As Rosenburg’s film opines, skating was, and continues to be, a kind of extreme catharsis for him.  Way skates to forget, every day more dangerous than the one before, pushing himself so that every stunt is bigger and wilder than the last.  In true documentary tradition, Rosenburg has produced a compelling, human story that gives his audience a unique glimpse into a little-known world.   [A]        

Brooklyn Castle, dir. Katie Dellamaggiore 

Brooklyn Castle is an intimate look at the challenges and triumphs of junior high school chess players at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, New York.  An inspirational story in its own right, director Katie Dellamaggiore has woven her film into an intricate thematic tapestry with application to a whole host of other life situations beyond chess.

In Brooklyn Castle, we are introduced to I.S. 318’s national champion chess team and many of the players that make the team what it is.  We learn of their struggles, their strengths, their sparkling personalities, their life goals, and their talent; we become familiar with the teachers who coach them and the parents who support them.  Facing economic crisis and unprecedented budget shortfalls, the team struggles to remain afloat.  Thanks to dedicated parents and school administrators who realize the importance of chess to academic health, I.S. 318 chess team largely manages to plug along, winning remarkable contests, improving their individual rankings, and proving themselves on the national stage.

Besides the usual triumphant emotions associated with watching young people succeed, Brooklyn Castle helps us understand how passionate, dedicated, and impressive these kids really are.  They work hard and, more often than not, their hard work pays off.  Even in defeat they are characterized by marked sportsmanship and grace.  There is much we can learn from their examples.

Brooklyn Castle falters only is in its repetitiousness.  Towards the middle of the film, we begin to feel like we have heard all the information before; we start to get bogged down with the tediousness of the editing, the one-note nature of the narrative structure.  To her credit, Dellamaggiore is only trying to be thorough.  For that, she should be recognized.  Despite this minor criticism, Brooklyn Caste is a rich portrait of the next generation.  Refreshingly, these kids give me hope for our future.   [A-]   

Bay of All Saints, dir. Annie Eastman 

The most political of all the films I saw at SXSW this year, Bay of All Saints, is a somber look at the injustice of poverty, the failure of traditional economic institutions, and the resilience of the human spirit.

In Bahia, Brazil, generations of impoverished families have resorted to living in “palafitas,” a network of makeshift shacks built on stilts in a rising tide of garbage over the ocean of All Saint’s Bay.  Though nearly all of the people here work, their meager wages do not amount to enough to afford rent, much less property, on land.  Because the ocean is a public good, these families have become squatters over the water.  

Years ago, the International Monetary Fund, in the name of decency, justice, and public health, allocated funds for the state of Bahia to build public housing for the people over the water.  This measure would have allowed for them to be humanely moved and provided with sanitary places to live.  Unfortunately, the state has yet to build the promised housing.  Some allege bureaucratic inefficiency; others point to corruption.  The truth is that it is likely a combination of both.  When the state, in 2009, issued a decree that they would be evicting this community and destroying the palafitas, the people rose up and, to this day, they continue to fight for the protection of their homes and the welfare of their families.

Filmed over six years, Eastman’s film is a lyrical portrait of three single-mothers as seen through the eyes of Norato, their mutual refrigerator repairman who was born and raised in the palafitas.  We follow Norato as he makes his usual rounds, checking in and catching up with his friends.  We find Norato to be a kind and loving man, who offers help without being intrusive; he is charitable without expecting anything in return.

We also find that the community in the palafitas is remarkably organized, democratic, and to a large degree, matriarchal.  When the state threatens their removal, it is because of the female leadership that the community acts.  Eastman’s film captures the resulting tension and struggle in the sharp cinema verite of a distinguished filmmaker.  That Eastman is not a filmmaker by trade speaks volumes about her accomplishment.

Out of all the Q&As I had the privilege of attending, the one following Bay of All Saints was the most rewarding.  After three or four questions, Eastman was attacked by a rather combative man in the back, who proceeded to accuse her of exploiting the palafitas dwellers for her own gain.  After she promptly dismissed his claims by informing the audience that she is “still in the red” and that she has not, to this point, “made a dime” on the film, another man stood up.  

This time the praise was warm and complimentary.  The man was from Bahia and his mother had grown up in the palafitas.  He praised Eastman for making the world aware of the injustice that was taking place in his home country.  The second take on Bay of All Saints is the one which rings true.   [A] 

Best Documentaries of 2011

image

1. The Interrupters - Steve James 

2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Werner Herzog

3. General Orders No. 9 - Robert Persons

4. Into the Abyss - Werner Herzog 

5. Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest – Michael Rappaport

6. Crime After Crime - Yoav Potash

7. Better This World - Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway 

8. Pina - Wem Winders

9. A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front - Marshall Curry

10. Project Nim - James Marsh

11. Being Elmo - Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

12. The Last Mountain - Bill Haney

13. The Arbor - Clio Barnard

14. Where Soldiers Come From - Heather Courtney 

15. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 - Goran Olsson

16. Semper Fi: Always Faithful - Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert 

17. Incendiary: The Willingham Case - Steve Mims

18. How to Die in Oregon - Peter Richardson

19. Nostalgia for the Light - Patricio Guzman 

20. Tabloid - Errol Morris

21. Buck - Cindy Meehl

22. Senna - Asif Kapadia 

23. Elevate - Anne Buford

24. Kumare - Vikram Gandhi 

25. Louder than a Bomb - Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

26. Bill Cunningham New York - Richard Press 

27. Fambul Tok - Sara Terry

28. Hell and Back Again - Danfung Dennis 

29. Undefeated - Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin 

30. Bombay Beach - Alma Har’el

See my picks for Best Narratives of 2011 here

Best Narratives of 2011

image

1. The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick 

2. A Separation - Asghar Farhadi 

3. Pariah - Dee Rees 

4. The Artist – Michael Hazzavinicus

5. Meek’s Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt

6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - Apichatpong Weerasethakul

7. Weekend - Andrew Haigh 

8. Incendies - Denis Velleneuv

9. Beginners - Mike Mills 

10. La Quattro Volte - Michelangelo Frammaratino

11. The Mill and the Cross - Lech Majewski  

12. Shame - Steve McQueen 

13. The Future - Miranda July

14. Poetry - Lee Chang Dong 

15. Win Win - Tom McCarthy

16. Drive - Nicholas Wending Refn

17. Margin Call - J.C. Chandor 

18. Certified Copy - Abbas Kiarostami

19. The Descendants – Alexander Payne

20. 13 Assassins - Takashi Miike 

21. Jane Eyre - Cary Fukanaga

22. Take Shelter - Jeff Nichols  

23. Mysteries of Lisbon - Raoul Ruiz

24. Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin

25. Moneyball - Bennett Biller 

26. Melancholia – Lars von Trier

27. Even the Rain - Iciar Bollain

28. Hesher - Spencer Susser

29. Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen

30. Hugo – Martin Scorsese

31. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson

32. Warrior - Gavin O’Connor

33. Of Gods and Men - Xavier Beauvois

34. Carnage - Roman Polanski

35. Circumstance - Maryam Keshavarz

36. Kinyarwanda - Alrick Brown 

37. Life, Above All - Oliver Schmitz

38. Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki

39. Putty Hill - Matthew Porterfield

40. Alps - Yorgos Lanthimos

See my picks for Best Documentaries of 2011 here

Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action (2011)

image

Pentecost, dir. Peter McDonald, Ireland, 11 MINS

Conceptually and writing-wise, Pentecost is about as golden as it gets when it comes to shorts.  This clever comedy could easily be subtitled “the little alter boy that could.”  Having recently made an embarrassing mistake at mass the young man (pictured here), the central character in Pentecost, is “benched.”  Due to an “injury” sustained by one of his alter boy “teammates,” his robe-wearing “coach” gives our hero one last chance to prove himself.  After a pep talk in the “locker room,” the alter boys are ready for “game day.”  The pressure is on.

McDonald’s film is funny, sarcastic, and incredibly entertaining.  It pushes conceptual boundaries and manages to blend two very different traditional, psychological settings (sporting events and religious ritual) in a coherent and hilarious way.  [A]      

Raju, dir. Max Zahle, Germany/India, 24 MINS 

Raju, the second film in this year’s set of live action shorts, is a serious look at a serious problem.  A German couple makes their way to India, looking to adopt a child.  After going through the necessary procedures, an adorable young boy, Raju, becomes theirs.  The couple remains in India for a few days to sight-see with their new son.  On one of their outings, Raju disappears.  As they search desperately for their son, the couple soon realizes that they are part of the problem.

Zahle’s film is beautifully photographed and well-produced.  In just twenty-four minutes, we are taken on an emotional journey, complete with excellent character development and a story arch that many feature films would envy.  [A]     

The Shore, dir. Terry George, Northern Ireland, 30 MINS

The Shore is the uplifting story of two boyhood friends—Joe and Paddy—who were separated for twenty-five years by “the Troubles.”  When Joe finally makes it back to his homeland, his American daughter (who accompanies him on the trip) decides it is time for her Dad to reconcile with Paddy.  While hesitant at first, Joe gives in.  As Joe finds redemption for the wrongs he has done, the results are equal parts touching and surprising.

Director Terry George has carefully crafted a poignant tale of friendship, love, and political reconciliation.  Again, like its immediate predecessor, Raju, it is hard to imagine we are watching a short film.  The character development is wonderful and the comic relief is believable and welcomed.  The Shore is an inspirational argument for the possibility of healing old wounds.  [A]     

Time Freak, dir. Andrew Bowler, USA, 11 MINS

Time Freak's greatest strength is the quality of its writing.  Andrew Bowler has created a wholly original, yet vaguely familiar, concept film that riffs on the dual ideas of neurotic inventer and time travel.  

Having finally completed his greatest invention, our curly-haired central character, “Stillman,” decides to try out his new time machine.  Instead of traveling to Ancient Rome, however, he gets stuck traveling throughout “yesterday,” trying to make right all of the situations he got wrong.  When a friend finds out that he has been making himself crazy with the idea of “what could have been,” he decides to put a stop to it. 

Time Freak reads like an independent student film, but it is funny, lighthearted, and enjoyable.  [B+]

Tuba Atlantic, dir. Hallvar Witzo, Norway, 25 MINS

The last film in this year’s Oscar-nominated live action set is Hallvar Witzo’s Tuba Atlantic.  Probably the best-produced of the group, Tuba Atlantic is a dark comedy about death and reconciliation.

When seventy-year-old Oskar finds out he has only six days left to live, he decides he must put things right with his brother who lives in New Jersey.  As an eccentric hermit who loathes sea gulls, the authorities feel Oskar is in need of some end of life assistance.  They send Inger, a “public death angel,” who arrives to help Oskar work through the emotions of his final days.  Though Oskar is annoyed by her at first, Inger becomes Oskar’s last friend.  She helps him with his day-to-day “chores,” tries to counsel him as much as he will let her, and eventually, helps him revive a massive, amplified tuba that Oskar intends to use to signal his expatriate brother in the United States.   

My main criticism of Tuba Atlantic is its depiction of Oskar’s senseless killing of sea gulls—which I found rather off-putting and completely unnecessary.  I understand that Witzo is trying to paint Oskar as a grumpy eccentric, but driving a big blue tractor around his property for no apparent reason and using a giant, electrified tuba to communicate internationally with his long lost brother strike me as weird enough.  The sea gull killing is superfluous and over-the-top. 

Tuba Atlantic is moderately ridiculous, but thematically, it is quite profound.  We feel for Oskar and we gain an understanding of death as the universal uniter.  [A-]  

How to Die in Oregon (2011)

image

In 1994, Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize physician assisted suicide.  At that time, only Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands had legalized the practice—making Oregon’s decision a brave, if controversial, one.  Peter Richardson’s new documentary, How to Die in Oregon, tells the story of those who are most intimately involved with the practice today: terminally ill Oregonians, their doctors, and their family and friends.   

Using various anecdotes and sensitive investigatory methods, Richardson crafts an objective film that exquisitely explores all of the relevant emotional and intellectual intricacies of the issue, at both the policy and practical levels.  The result is something deeply affecting, with implications for policymakers, as well as fresh interpretations of the practice.

The opening scene of Mr. Richardson’s film is uncomfortable, yet powerful.  We, the audience, sit quietly from our cinematic vantage point while an older man, stricken with a terminal ailment, awaits the administration of a lethal cocktail that will “end [his] pain and finally let [him] rest.”  According to Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, a patient must be mentally aware of his or her decision and physically able to drink the medicine.  The man in the film is clearly able to do both.  Upon downing the cocktail and singing songs of comfort and peace, he lies back on his bed and prepares for the medication to take affect.  We watch reverently with his friends and family as he slips slowly into a coma.

Mr. Richardson’s opening scene riles our emotions and prepares us for what is to come: an emotionally grueling, but empowering 107 minutes.  We learn about the lives of various individuals who are contemplating using the law to die with dignity, their personal reasoning is explored, their respective medical situations are explained, and often, we see divergent family responses to the idea.  While controversial, and sometimes troubling, Mr. Richardson’s film explores the issue with great respect for his subjects.  How to Die in Oregon reaffirms the preciousness of life and the meaningful nature of death.

At the policy level, the film explains all sides of the issue.  We hear from activists and opponents; religious leaders and secular intellectuals.  On a personal, practical level, the film empathizes with those who suffer.  While we may not fully comprehend what it is like to be dying of liver or spinal cancer, we do understand that “Death with Dignity” provides a sense of control, comfort, and power for individuals who long for at least minimal influence over Mother Nature’s rigid laws; it is a tool that we too might want should we be faced with such an excruciating, unenviable death.

The most significant theme uncovered by Mr. Richardson is this idea of control over one’s own life.  While the end is inevitable for all living beings, the film, in its most essential sense, asks whether “having a say in the matter” should be a part of our rights as humans.  In doing so, two rough conclusions emerge.  The first is that dying with dignity—or exercising our right to control our own destiny in certain, continually agonizing situations—is, in fact, dying with dignity, rather than cowardly exiting this life (whether we choose to exercise this right or not).  The second conclusion is that allowing the practice does not encourage “suicide.”  On the contrary.  By providing a humane “out” for the terminally ill, people are often buoyed up with enough positive psychological reinforcement to cope with difficult, end of life experiences.  Simply having the option is a comforting thought.  

As a society, it is imperative that we hold a nuanced understanding of these conclusions.  Mr. Richardson’s powerful film helps guide us toward this understanding.  [A]    

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2011)

As a young man in 1960s New York, Phil Ochs set out to become the greatest songwriter of his generation.  Until he met Bob Dylan.  At that critical juncture, Ochs decided he would settle for second greatest songwriter of his generation.  While his status in musical history remains disputed, what Ochs indisputably did become was much more than a songwriter.  He was a revolutionary.  

In one of his most notable songs, from which Kenneth Bowser’s touching new film Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune takes its name, Ochs reveals his dedication to justice and unique insight on the human condition:

Show me a prison, show me a jail
Show me a prisoner whose face has grown pale
And I’ll show you a young man
With many reasons why
There but for fortune, go you or I

Here, Ochs helps makes sense of our chaotic, often unjust world by appealing to our human sense of empathy for others; he invites us to recognize that we should never take our place in life for granted.  Ochs’s legacy of human understanding, as well as protest music, activism, and political leadership has rarely been matched.  Despite this fact, very few people recognize his name today.  Kenneth Bowser’s filmsheds light on this influential and inspiring man, and in doing so, helps his legacy live on.

Greenwich Village in the early sixties was a place of artistic, political, and intellectual rebellion.  The Village’s notoriety as a center for avant-garde experimentation and sociopolitical discourse drew swaths of young creatives who were dead set on inciting vast change at the societal level.  Phil Ochs was engulfed in this emerging struggle and his career was all the better for it.  Central to his vision for progress was folk music.  Looking to legends like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Ochs began writing songs, attending lectures and poetry readings, and generally making a name for himself as one of New York’s premiere political musicians.

Early on, Ochs focused his musical message on the struggle for equality and civil rights in the South.  As a patriot, Ochs had become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of his country, which projected to the world an image as “the land of the free,” while actively oppressing a major segment of its population.  He wrote extensively about Dr. King and Medgar Evers, bus boycotts and freedom rides; he organized events and performed in places like Montgomery and Selma.

As the years passed, the civil-rights movement evolved into the anti-war movement.  Phil Ochs helped lead this revolutionary wave as well.  While many of his contemporaries began turning to folk rock during this era, Ochs stayed the course—rebelling simultaneously against the U.S. government for its war of aggression in Vietnam and against commercialism for its symbolic murder of creativity.  As we see from Bowser’s poignant portrayal of Ochs’s story, his struggle against the war would, in part, become his downfall.

After years of political assassinations, international atrocities, and brutal crackdowns on democratic actions by citizens of the United States, many folks in the anti-war movement became disgusted with the system as a whole.  They began turning to violent strategies, leaving song and demonstration behind.  Though Ochs disagreed with the conclusions of some of his contemporaries, his combined struggle against the war and for greater personal success took its toll on his belief in democracy, his career, and most significantly, his emotional will.  As a manic depressive, Ochs sought comfort in alcohol and started drinking heavily.  Even after the war in Vietnam ended in May of 1975, Ochs found little to be happy about.  Sadly, he slipped into an abyss that he was unable to conquer.

Bowser crafts his documentary with an eye for detail and an expansive sense of history.  Through intimate interviews with Pete Seeger, Christopher Hitchens, and others, we get a realistic feel for the man, his music, his political legacy, and his tragic, unfortunate end.  The film moves with a poetic flow that emphasizes Ochs’s music and cultivates a lasting respect for him as a person.  [A]       

Doctor Who

image

"Bow ties are cool," says Matt Smith’s iconic character, Doctor Who, when his unique fashion choice is challenged.  The running joke—and what his comrades in the series never seem to understand—is that bow ties are, in fact, in vogue.  

The Doctor’s hip fashion sense and personal eccentricity have been key factors in making one of Britain’s longest running television series a hit with younger audiences.  Campy, and often completely ridiculous, Doctor Who has been talked about regularly on this side of the pond since David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor in BBC’s 2005 revival of the series. While David Tennant did the role justice, Matt Smith’s tight-pants-wearing reincarnation of Doctor Who—the Eleventh Doctor since the series began, to be exact—has led to the show’s catching fire with a select American demographic.

You can’t help but like him. He’s cool.

Doctor Who is filled with aliens, Venetian vampires, lizard people, demonic young girls, dream doctors, body-snatched old folks, Vincent Van Gogh, and aliens. Did I mention aliens?  If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is.  And admittedly, I have a hard time getting into it. But Matt Smith, with his snappy dialogue and slick haircut, keeps bringing me back.  He makes the show fun to watch, even if it is a little silly. Okay, a lot silly.

Frankly, I tend to avoid the cinematic suspension of reality, but I am fine with it as long as it’s done well.  Even though Doctor Who doesn’t always get it right, there are episodes worth sticking around for.  For example, the first episode of the 2010 season is absolutely magical.  We are introduced to an adolescent girl named Amy Pond who is praying for someone to come “rescue” her from an ominous crack in her bedroom wall.  

From across the universe, Doctor Who’s time machine, “TARDIS,” lands in her garden.  What unfolds is a playful back-and-forth between the young girl and a spastic scientist with an enormous appetite.  The two become “friends,” but abruptly, the Doctor must leave.  He promises to return in five minutes.  Years later, the Doctor does return, but Ms. Pond is all grown up.  Rather disillusioned with her young adult life, she pleads with the Doctor to let her come away with him.  Hesitantly, he agrees and the two embark upon an adventure-filled tour of the universe.

Aside from its cheap thrills, melodrama, and unconvincing aliens, the show does boast some redeeming substance beneath its escapist veneer.  Themes such as humanity, love, peace, nonviolence, the bond of friendship, and regret are woven rather artfully throughout the series.  In one of my favorite episodes, Amy and the Doctor travel to France in the 1880s to help Vincent Van Gogh overcome some of his innate depression, derived primarily from his sense of failure and rejection as an artist.

While I can’t recommend any seasons prior to 2010—and I don’t even advocate the current edition as a show for everyone—I can provide an authoritative testament to the the show’s originality, its lightheartedness, its self-awareness, and its welcomed escapism.  If you’re feeling bored and need a laugh, give it a shot.  At the very least you may develop, or strengthen, your taste for bow ties.                           

Downton Abbey

image

Season One of Downton Abbey is the story of an aristocratic family, the Granthams, who are desperately trying to keep their estate in the family.  Faced with mounting social changes, a patrilineal inheritance system, the death of the intended heir, and an absence of male children, the Earl of Grantham must decide how the family will proceed.  Of course, he is not alone in his efforts.  He is joined by his snobbish, meddling, and viciously opinionated mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham; his competitive and spiteful daughters, Ladies Mary and Edith; his socially progressive daughter, Lady Sybil; and his American wife, The Right Honorable Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham.  Against this canvass of stuffy, conservative hierarchy, the paint of scandal, drama, and revolution are splattered.    

In addition to these underlying plot elements, we become intimately familiar with “the help.”  An army of butlers, maids, and kitchen workers are militaristically organized to keep the estate going.  Without them, we quickly see, the Granthams, who are unable to hang their coats for themselves, would be lost in the world.  The staff, while vastly more interesting and human than the Granthams, are caught up in their own drama and petty infighting.  Their place in the series solidifies the rigid class system that is so characteristic of the time, but also acts to reveal the coming democratic rumblings that will eventually, we hope, shake the foundations of aristocracy.

The most striking of Downton Abbey's many important themes is social evolution.  We watch Lady Mary as she struggles to come to terms with herself as a woman in a world still informed by tradition and patriarchy; we watch the noble Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham's disabled valet, try to keep his dignity in a society of lingering Gilded Age values and a lack of accommodations for those with infirmities; we sit back while women are stereotyped, power is inherited, and the exploitation of workers is justified with the quasi-monarchical rhetoric of “place” and “divine status.”  All the while sparks of change are becoming unable to ignore: there is talk of women's suffrage, Lady Sybil reveals herself as a burgeoning feminist, Grantham's Marxist chauffeur speaks of democratic principles, and then, of course, there is the general softening of the aristocracy as it is forced to see the world in a different light.

Downton Abbey has been criticized in a recent Newsweek article by Columbia University professor Simon Schama for “serving up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery,” which celebrates a class system that still pervades modern Britain.  While Dr. Schama is correct about the surviving class system, whether the series is a celebration or an indictment of said system is up for debate.  Just like all art, its meaning, for all practical purposes, is in the eye of the beholder. I agree with Dr. Schama that Downton risks glorifying authoritarian values and rigid hierarchy—and these elements probably do resonate with many members of the American pop culture audience, who remain obsessed with (and tolerant of ) the lives of the upper-class—British and American alike.  However, I see the series as a criticism of all that was wrong with the world prior to the first World War, and, in this age of diminishing social mobility, a reminder of what continues to be wrong with society today.

Despite its barely-noticeable anachronisms and questionable treatment of homosexuality,* Downtown Abbey is an exciting, well-written, and well-produced ode to a bygone era; an era that has been too-often overlooked by creatives in contemporary film and literature. 

*I still can’t decide whether to applaud the show’s writers for their realistic portrayal of gay life during a period that has been retrospectively deemed “morally superior” by the contemporary Right, or to deride these same writers for their effective stereotype of homosexuals as “troubled souls,” illustrated by Downton’s very dislikable character, Thomas Howes.