Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Year in Movies – 2016

2016 was not an excellent year for this blog. It’s not because I didn’t see many movies that I loved – on the contrary, I saw some of the greatest movies of my life, and a fair volume of them – but, due to a growing number of more pressing priorities, my duties on The Back Row were neglected, and I didn’t get the chance to share those elated experiences here.

Just about everyone else on the planet has already released their round-ups of 2016, and I’ve had a look at each of the movie pundits’ choices for the top films of the year. The results have fortified my conviction that the best thing for cinematic tastes to be is unruly and uninhibited. What one first notices looking through these lists is that many films are being hailed in London and New York that we haven’t had the faintest whiff of yet in South Africa; this is just a distribution and scheduling discrepancy. But what one notices next is that, besides a few differences in ranking and an oddball choice here and there, pundits and mainstream media critics are making all the same choices for their favourite films, and those choices converge closer and closer each year. One is led to believe that many critics are just as susceptible to hype as mass audiences are, only their hype is generated at film festivals and press conferences, instead of being stoked by trailers and supplementary merchandising.

What struck me while I surveyed these consensus choices on the masses of lists and polls (which I’ve compiled for you at the bottom of this post) is that the objects of this hype so rarely align with what I would consider commendable artistic achievements. Few lists contain more than a single film that I loved, and many don’t contain even one. It’s not a huge surprise to me; I read the reviews of my favourite movies throughout the year as I saw them, and saw quite quickly that the movies in which one viewer locates rapture and daring, many others find only confusion and obscurity. What I consider the greatest film of 2016 – Terrence Malick’s Hollywood reverie Knight of Cups – was designated “rotten” on the website Rotten Tomatoes (as useless a cultural phenomenon as any website could be) with a score of 45%, and Woody Allen’s crime comedy Irrational Man scored 44%. In terms of mainstream movie releases, not many people went to see either of those two films, and not many that did loved them. This in itself doesn’t discourage me – Malick and Allen have long been working in ways that don’t rely on commercial success and critical adulation, and their careers will continue without hindrance – but it is dismaying to see how many people think a movie must be good just because of the number and stations of others who say that it is. True appreciation of the cinema, just as success in the various realms of one’s life, depends on your capacity for imagination and independence of thought.

For example, if you pay attention to the movie world’s movements and discourses, you’ll be seeing countless people laying wreaths on the altar of Damien Chazelle for his new release La La Land, and you’ll see the cast and crew of the film picking up numerous awards (I can say this with confidence, because that convergence of critics choices has resulted in making awards shows hopelessly predictable). We haven’t seen La La Land in South Africa yet, but when it’s released, the best approach would be to watch it without all that acclaim and those accolades in mind. Decide for yourself whether the movie fulfills your reason for taking a trip to a movie theatre, whether it’s the kind of fare that brings you enlightenment for your two hours spent in the dark, and whether its images are worthy of the art form of all the great and moving cinematic works of history. To some degree, this is what my favourites of 2016 have done for me.

I’ve limited these choices strictly to movies that had a theatrical release in South Africa during the year 2016. It makes the selection quite narrow, since we can’t rely on distributors such as Ster Kinekor and NuMetro to bring us all the great movie art of each year, and a lot of what we see has had to be scrounged for on DVD racks, streamed on obscure websites, or obtained in slightly darker, less legitimate ways. I don’t condone pirating, but when you want to see a particularly exciting movie, and nobody brings it to your continent, what are you to do? The links between morality and aesthetics can sometimes elude one entirely.

Christian Bale and Natalie Portman share a tender intimacy in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.”

The great revelation of the cinema of 2016 takes just that – morals, art, and the connections between them – as one of its many subjects. There is so much in Knight of Cups – such a wealth of ideas and experiences conveyed, and so rich a style to encapsulate them in – that it’s difficult to decide where to begin speaking about it. I wrote before that my initial experience of a Terrence Malick film felt like everything that a movie should be, and a host of new realisations of what a movie could be. Through the course of his career, Malick has invented a new cinematic language for the expression of his ideas, and the further he has developed that language and personalised it, the stronger he has polarised audiences. Many viewers object to what they see as a flimsy narrative and an indulgent, solipsistic ruminative style; in fact, the narrative is extraordinarily full and highly conceived, but spun out in entirely original and distinctive ways, and so there’s no earlier pattern audiences can hold his films against. The only way to go about watching and apprehending them is to surrender to them and to the sublimity of unique creations. Malick’s film-making is the best example there currently is of a cinematic counterpart to poetry; it’s steeped in scholarship and wisdom, and has much to impart to the viewers, but the experience of it is of something spontaneous and totally alive, and, as Francois Truffaut said, when writing of Nicholas Ray, “of course, everything is permitted in Hollywood except poetry.” Notwithstanding, Malick seems to be working at a quicker rate than he ever has before, with new projects being announced every other day. It increasingly seems a blessing that the industry refuses to recognise, with Malick bringing about the most exquisite work on offer at the moment – which the rest of Hollywood strives for but fails to achieve – in the midst of inordinate suffering, which the rest of Hollywood fails to acknowledge. Walking down Sunset Boulevard, Rick, the screenwriter played by Christian Bale, muses, “Look at the palm trees. They show what’s possible.” The stretch of the trees towards the heavens are a droll metaphor for Malick’s work; surrounded by superficial glamour and a spiritual ennui, he shows what’s possible.

Josh Brolin butters up Scarlett Johansson in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”

Proceeding more or less chronologically, the rest of my selection of films I loved in 2016 begins with Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ fantastic pastiche of the classical Hollywood system and its output. It brings in gleeful sequences of a host of classic genres – the Bible epic of the title, a water ballet, a musical, a western, a drawing-room comedy – only to lampoon them and undercut the earnest artifice of their production. The film is filled with the more primal kinds of pleasures of the movies – George Clooney declaiming noble oratory, Scarlett Johansson dancing elegantly in a tight wetsuit, Channing Tatum mugging for the camera in a song and dance routine, Alden Ehrenreich crooning in a cowboy costume beneath a bright full moon on the western frontier, great gags and wisecracks, and sumptumous, elegant costumes and sets – and extends those pleasures with an elaborate and cheery reflexiveness, gazing at the scenes behind the cameras and the machinery behind the painted sets. The film is both a satire of the methods and attitudes of classic Hollywood as well as a reverent celebration of the glory and faith of the cinema. The Coen brothers pull large and enlightening stunts, such as illustrating the stifling and menacing sexual mores of the time, while honouring the great queer auteurs of cinema history through gay coding; Channing Tatum dances with an all-male chorus in tight white uniforms and bright young smiles, while Ralph Fiennes insinuates rumoured closeted directors. The campiness re-awakens a marvellous tradition of gay innuendo and erotic symbolism, and transforms it into political satire. This satire is accompanied by the Coen brothers’ excellent caricatures of communist writers undertaking clandestine operations to advance their cause through the propaganda machine of Hollywood. Though American audiences recoiled at mentions of the dialectic, this viewer took exceptional pleasure at the introduction of real communist rhetoric to mainstream movies in the form of a fantastically camp burlesque.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper light up the canvas once more in David O. Russell’s “Joy.”

A keen sting of deep, inner personal pain is loaded into Joy, the biopic by David O. Russell of the American inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano. What Russell actually conjures is an extraordinarily moving instance of film-making in the first person, with the performances, shots, scenes, and entire plot seeming to come right out of his own experiences. Joy’s journey to her eventual success is riddled with conflict and struggle, and mirrors Russell’s own journeys in his film-making career. The subject of the film is a re-awakening of innate talents, a deeply entrenched vision, and a heedless drive to create. Joy’s success in business is connected to, and dependent on, her own burgeoning self-awareness and self-realisation, and the dramatic resolution and conclusion is so satisfying because it’s so hard won – not only through the details of the story but in the essence and fervour of Russell’s cinematic artistry. Joy’s private visions find public expression, and the results are thrilling and overwhelmingly moving. The deep devotion and dazzling invention of Russell’s film-making bring about true movie joy as few other biopics ever could.

Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey consider the mysteries of life in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.”

In the classical Hollywood evoked by the Coen brothers, many big-name directors could be depended on to provide one new movie a year or more. Nowadays, the only star auteur with such a prolific output is Woody Allen. Due to felicitous scheduling, 2016 brought us two Woody Allen films, the effervescent and transluscent Café Society, and the (to my mind) even better Irrational Man. Allen’s films have become especially thin and transparent on the surface in this late phase of his life and work, all the better to allow the audience to see the vast philosophical ideas he wishes to convey; he wishes to express as much as he can and as quickly as he can, while he still has time (though in good health, Allen turned 81 last month). Irrational Man takes on the tone first of an intimate emotional portrait, and then of a crime drama pastiche, with Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey alternately working through the miseries and frustrations of life, and falling into place in the unfolding of an unusual murder. Allen’s films hardly resemble real life in its naturalistic details and minutiae at all anymore, and Irrational Man is built up on blatant abstractions of plot and character (which the phenomenal actors animate with their overwhelming vitality) that Allen uses to illustrate his ideas. The drama eventually brings in a great tangle of conundrums and ironies, and the prospect of unravelling them is as fearsome and mighty as Allen has ever conjured.

Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, and Dakota Johnson greet the start of a sultry holiday in Luca Gaudagnino’s “A Bigger Splash.”

Sticking to fearsome mightiness on the screen, hardly any actors currently working could come close to the Scottish indie star Tilda Swinton, nor are any of them as reliable in their depictions of queer individuals’ interest in exploring sexual and gender identities. A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Gaudagnino, is not explicitly a gay movie, but the currents of sexual mischief, smoldering erotic intensity, gender blurriness, and opacity in the complexity of identity all pull the film into the traditional coves of queer cinema. Swinton, in the company of Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson, embodies the most alluring transgression in the sweltering heat of Mediterranean luxury. Little more can be said about the film by me, since I doubt I quite understood it all myself, but what other movie could offer both a shimmering tribute to David Bowie and the vision of Ralph Fiennes gyrating to the Rolling Stones, with Dakota Johnson getting the clothes to melt off of Schoenaerts’s body? Is this not precisely what the art cinema was invented for?

Blake Jenner and Glen Powell join their teammates for a night of ill-advised drinking in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

If anyone could get an audience even deeper into the vein of strutting, shameless idleness than Gaudagnino, it would be Richard Linklater. His latest effort, Everybody Wants Some!!, eschewed the stifling limitations of his more acclaimed works (the Before series and Boyhood), in his stuffy, naturalistic mode, and approaches his very best work, and some of the most exciting and transportive films of recent years (such as one of my very favourite films, Bernie). Though, like A Bigger Splash, the film invites one to consider the erotic possibilities at hand, it doesnt sear with the same restiveness and illicit titillation; rather, it swings and swaggers through a college campus and gets absorbed in the physicality – both hard at work and deep in play – of the college athlete. Linklater displays a rare expansiveness and uninhibited freedom in his filming here, simultaneously engrossing us in the action and the mood, and holding it up to sharp and careful scrutiny. There’s a disarming cheer to the film, while the students open themselves up to fizzing new possibilites and experiences, that fades into a subtle melancholy realisation of the seriousness to come.

Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon mug for a White House photographer in Liza Johnson’s “Elvis & Nixon.”

The seriousness of real life was then brought up and jabbed at by Liza Johnson in her comic fictional story behind a true event, the famous photograph of the King with President Nixon in the Oval Office. Elvis & Nixon is rooted in pathos: Elvis Presley, in a decline from popularity and his height of success, and resentful of the what he views as a degenerate 60s culture, volunteers to aid President Nixon’s campaign in the war on drugs, and wishes to be sworn in as a federal agent. Michael Shannon plays Elvis with a sly sense of cool and bluster in startling range of ordinary contexts and situations, that highlight the extraordinariness of Elvis’s personality. The true joy, however, is Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Richard Nixon; it shies away from Frank Underwood’s horrifying knowingness, and the mannerisms veer away from impersonation, to cohere into a singular worldview. Johnson stages the action and the story with a delicate attention to gestures as well as to visual and tonal balance, and uses the absurd comedy to offer striking and memorable insights into two overfamiliar historical figures.

Sally Field and Max Greenfield fangirling in Michael Showalter’s “Hello, My Name is Doris.”

Michael Showalter’s enchanting comedy Hello, My Name is Doris is made up of a quirky setup, with howls of anguish beneath its bright cheer and simplicity. Sally Field’s Doris is an ageing bookkeeper, completely out of her depth in her fast changing work environment at a hip media company. She’s unmarried and childless (a tender backstory colours in her past), and the film opens with her mother having just died, with whom she has lived her entire life in her house on Staten Island. The socially awkward, whimsical Doris, endowed with an astonishingly elaborate and fanciful imagination, is burdened with her solitude, until she bumps one day at work when she bumps into John, played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield, the young, handsome new director in her office. Doris’s instant infatuation and unorthodox methods to insinuate herself into John’s life keeps the tone comic with a hard-earned sentimentality, and Showalter blends this with wit, reveries, and painful emotional drama. Within the perky antics is a perplexed fury and outrage at growing old and irrelevant; the best thing about the movie is that it offers no answers.

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks fret in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.”

As with Knight of Cups, there is too much for me to say about 2016’s other great release by a veteran master: Sully, directed fiercely and starkly by Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks plays the hero pilot with a terse gravity in a shocking post-9/11 drama, which – somehow, remarkably – takes a true life story of a miracle rescue, and turns it into a tragedy for the hero. The shock is in how easily the miracle could have been a great calamity, and how readily a team of federal investigators contrives to depict it as one. Eastwood reevaluates post-9/11 cynicism, as he films the fated flight with a terrifyingly immediate sense of danger. His film movingly depicts Sullenberger’s modest insistence that he was just doing his job, as well as the courageous cooperation of the flight crew, airport staff, emergency rescuers, and the passengers and citizens themselves. Throughout, Eastwood boldly thrusts attention toward what comes after the flight: the horrible media distortion of events and personalities, and the scepticism of the investigators, and, through this, Eastwood delivers his own consummate vision of film-making itself.

As with most movie goers, there were stretches between these joyous films when my illusions fractured, and I consoled myself with glistening fragments of what was to be found in the movie houses of Pretoria. So it is that I hark back to the hilarious screechings and moanings of Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears’s rather cute (and that’s not entirely a good thing) comedic biopic of Florence Foster Jenkins, helpfully entitled Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as the sweet sensitivity of both Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. There were also the transfixing dream sequences of The BFG, though, unlike the usual movie dream sequences, Steven Spielberg depicts the literal capturing and crafting of dreams by the Roald Dahl’s giant. He blows them into children’s bedrooms at night and transports them for a few hours to other worlds – just as a Spielberg movie would. An altogether more agreeable bird noise than the ones produced by Streep were those of the falcons and avocets in Tim Burton’s adaptation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Burton remains the foremost cinematic master of suitable housing for peculiar children, and a masterful crafter himself of children’s dreams, both frightening and awe-inspiring. Finally, caught in the last days of 2016, I was dazzled by the immense pleasures of the latest Marvel product, Doctor Strange. Scott Derickson gives us giddy, gleeful visions of paranormal cataclysms, in which not only streets and buildings, but entire cities rise in the air, fold onto themselves, and twist and multiply in a cosmological kaleidoscope. The movie’s high-stakes games with time-reversal and out-of-body experiences are the source of a fun and magnificently exhilarating wonder that distracts sufficiently from the cardboard comic book plot.

To my unending chagrin, there were releases that I missed during the year, and that readers will be missing from the entries here, such as Pete’s Dragon, Love & Friendship, Queen of Katwe, Masterminds, Julieta, A United Kingdom, and Moana. With a movie industry that’s ever expanding, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch everything worthwhile. Fortunately, I’m alerted to films with 2017 release dates that we’re told, by those who have already seen them and are hailing them overseas, are vital entries on anyone’s calendar, and with which I can make up for my omissions. These include Manchester by the Sea (6 January), The Birth of a Nation (13 January), La La Land (27 January), Loving (3 Feburary), Moonlight (10 February), Fences (17 February), Hidden Figures (24 February) and Jackie (3 March). Dishearteningly, however, there remains a host of films of which we hear great things, but there appears no sign of release of them from any South African distributor. We’ll have to hold out for (and probably obtain in undesirably shady ways) the likes of Toni Erdmann, Elle, Paterson, Cameraperson, 13th, Kate Plays Christine, The Love Witch, Mountains May Depart, No Home Movie, Sunset Song, Mia Madre, Silence, and American Honey.

Though the South African film industry maintains its problems and frustrations for viewers who are eager for local fare to match the works that come over here from abroad, what is encouraging is that the growth of the industry, year on year, is perceptible and large. I caught a few movies that I enjoyed to varying degrees (but none that I loved outright), such as the great commercial successes Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, Mrs Right Guy, Noem My Skollie, and Vir Altyd. And, because of the rapid growth in the number of South African releases, I missed many more, which may contain the artistry to match my favourite South African film from last year, Necktie Youth. It is my resolute will to fortify this blog’s support of South African cinema in 2017 and after.

Let me know in the comments what films you loved and hated in 2016, and what you think of my picks, as well as what you’re most eager to catch in 2017.

Best Actor: George Clooney (“Hail, Caesar!”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Irrational Man”), Tom Hanks (“Sully”), Jesse Eisenberg (“Café Society”)
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”), Emma Stone (“Irrational Man”), Tilda Swinton (“A Bigger Splash”), Sally Field (“Hello, My Name is Doris”), Kristen Stewart (“Café Society”)
Best Supporting Actor: Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!”), Channing Tatum (“Hail, Caesar!”), Ralph Fiennes (“A Bigger Splash”), Matthias Schoenaerts (“A Bigger Splash”), Glen Powell (“Everybody Wants Some!!”), Kevin Spacey (“Elvis & Nixon”)
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (“Hail, Caesar!”), Cate Blanchett (“Knight of Cups”), Natalie Portman (“Knight of Cups”), Parker Posey (“Irrational Man”), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Blake Lively (“Café Society”)
Best Screenplay: “Hail, Caesar!,” “Joy,” “Irrational Man,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Elvis & Nixon,” “Sully”
Best Cinematography: “Hail, Caesar!,” “Knight of Cups,” “Irrational Man,” “A Bigger Splash,” “Sully,” “Café Society,” “Doctor Strange”

Other Best-of-2016 lists to read:
Indiewire (David Ehrlich) – Watch the video below the list

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