Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix)

Here's a film that you're not likely to see reviewed anywhere else (of course, you might have a hard time finding it too...). If you like your comedies absurd and deadpan, but also clever and somehow managing to both existential and light - this is a comedy for you.

It's a story about a man who is stuck in a family rut in which obligations and expectations allow for no change and a woman who is determined to avoid love, with its obligations and expectations. OK - you can see where it's going....

I will describe one of my favourite scenes. The police in a sleepy little town are gathered around a lunch table, all discussing their captain (who is present and the protagonist of the film), trying to make sense of why he is so frustrated (after he had just had a little outburst). He occasionally adds a comment, but they are assuming that he has too little self-awareness to contribute much himself. The policeman who has the most insight is opposite the table from the captain and just happens to be dressed in only his socks (because the "revolutionary nudist" that he had been interviewing refused to speak to a clothed officer), but that is completely ignored in the scene and, after all, he is modestly protected by the table. There is also romance and the hope of liberation. It is very French and very odd. I hope you find it. ***+ and a delightful mug held high.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Walter's Top 25 Films of the Decade (2010-2019)

OK – I've tried and have given up writing an understanding or justification of how I determined this list. The truth is that it’s just a gut feeling that is strikingly mis-aligned with the annual lists along the way (several #1s don’t show up, for example). So the bottom line is that I find this terribly hard to explain and comparing different genres of films when summing up a decade feels even harder than doing the same in a single year. All that to say: “I have no justification for this list or its order, and I might change it all around tomorrow.” It’s just what feels right to me right now, and I recommend all of them (but also many that I have omitted, of course).  Here we go:

25. The Way – We walk along the Camino with Martin Sheen and the company he picks up along the way with humour and a reflection on life’s priorities along the way.

24. Pride – Can a common human cause overcome the barriers between two very different groups of people? Let’s hope so.

23. Calvary – a hard but potent look from a different perspective on a messed up church with messed up people and good within.

22. Even the Rain – This is an unusual film, that uses a “film within a film” to make a point of how we stay caught in old patterns.

21. Lady Bird – a smart, well-made, witty look at high school life.

20. Selma – I need to re-watch this as my memory is fading, but it felt like a powerful reminder of an important moment in history. I ask myself why there are so many zillions of movies about wars and relatively few on historical moments like this.

19. Brooklyn – This doesn’t sound strong enough, but it just feels like a classic.

18. The End of the Tour – As I once called it: a mutually vulnerable conversation between two intelligent young men. Some would be bored, but I found it stayed with me.

17. Incendies – A challenging and unique story aimed at helping people re-think the cycle of violence.

16. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Good, thoughtful fun in Kiwi style.

15. The Salt of the Earth – a documentary on the life and photography of Sebastião Salgado, whose work documents the humanity of forgotten people and forgotten corners of the world.

14. Ex Machina – a sci fi thriller that strikes me as one of the most effective at pointing out the inherent mistakes in the way AI is sometimes being seen and pursued.

13. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – beautifully made film that manages to combine passionate intensity with a deeply human appreciation for all sides of conflict.

12b. Take Shelter - Somehow almost missed this one and so had to wedge it in. A fascinating drama about when the lines between mental illness and what's needed start to blur.

12. Never Look Away – After his masterpiece thirteen years ago (The Lives of Others), here is a film that shows again this director’s brilliance and ability to provoke deep questions.  

11. Ad Astra – To be honest, I already want to watch this again to remind myself of why I was so impressed. Imagine a film that in the same stroke guts the way both thoughtless Christians (waiting for a saving apocalypse) and thoughtless materialists (looking to space for salvation) place their hope in the wrong place.

10. Les Miserables – Just re-watched this for the first time in years and it sailed up the list again. Still magic.

9. Monsieur Lazhar – For a comedy, this film starts hard, but this provides poignancy for the beautiful story of the immigrant protagonist.

8. Locke – I enjoy films that pull off holding my full attention with a very limited setting – in this case, entirely within one car ride. Brilliantly done, reminding me of an old favourite, Phone Booth.

7. Short Term 12 – Everyone should hug someone who works with kids “in care” after a film like this. Brie Larsen and a great cast makes this work so well.

6. Gravity – This only made #9 the year it came out, but it has crept up and up as I’ve found myself drawn back to it and appreciate it more and more each time. The director somehow creates a deeply reflective symbolic journey that is also an adrenaline ride. I wish I had caught it on the big screen.

5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Creatively made film about a transformative encounter between a journalist and a man with love and integrity.

4. Captain Fantastic – Enjoyable, thought-provoking and unique film that struck a chord in me.

3. A Man Called Ove – I admit that I’m still biased by the fact that I saw this in an amazing independent little theatre in Brunswick, ME, sitting on a couch. And that it felt like a small moment of healing after seeing Trump elected. A funny and serious story about the healing of a curmudgeon.

2. Spotlight – I didn’t see this in time to make my list the year it came out. But I love investigative journalist films, and this one was very well done.

1. Of Gods and Men – I can’t remember another time when I so much wanted to show a film to so many people. A beautiful and challenging true story that is captured perfectly in the spirit of the community it represents.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Vic's Top 40 Films of the Decade (2010 - 2019)

During the past decade, I have been able to watch more than twice as many new films as I watched in the previous decade. In addition to that, I feel the last decade was, overall, a better decade for film. I therefore feel justified in increasing the number of titles in my Top Films of the Decade list from 25 to 40. 

Before I list my top 40 films of the last decade, here are eleven observations about this decade:
  1. My best year for film was 2014. There are six films from 2014 on my list, including my favourite film of the decade and five of my top 25. Honourable mention goes to 2016, which has three films in my top nine. 
  2. The worst film of the decade (for me) is also from 2014: American Sniper.
  3. My favourite director of the decade is Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has three films in my top 24 and a fourth (Sicario) that came close to my top 40. Terrence Malick, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch and Alfonso Cuarón each have two films on the list.
  4. The best actor of the decade (in my opinion) is Joaquin Phoenix, who stars in only one film on my list (Her), but who gave terrific performances in many other excellent films (You Were Never Really Here, The Master, Inherent Vice, The Sisters Brothers, Joker, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, The immigrant and Irrational Man).
  5. Two of my top three films are made by the McDonagh brothers (one by John Michael, the other by Martin), which seems rather remarkable.
  6. Ethan Hawke stars in three films on this list. Tilda Swinton, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Ryan Gosling and Willem Dafoe appear in two films on my list.
  7. Eleven films on the list feature a language other than English.
  8. Only three of the films are made by women, but that’s an improvement over the previous decade.
  9. I won’t name them all, but there are more Hollywood films on the list than I would have anticipated.
  10. Only Richard Linklater, Tom Tykwer and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck have films on both of my top-of-the-decade lists.
  11. Looking at genres, the overwhelming majority of these films are dramas. Notable exceptions are the eight science fiction films (20%) and three musicals.
Here’s my list of favourite films released between 2010 and 2019, counting down from 40 (note that the indicated year of release may not match the year it appears on my top-ten lists):

40. Embrace of the Serpent (2015) - This old-fashioned masterpiece by Cio Guerra, about an Amazonian shaman’s encounter with two white men (in 1909 and 1940), is full of wonder, mystery, magic and stunning B&W cinematography. 

39. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) - Marielle Heller’s film about the growing friendship between Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and a journalist (played by Matthew Rhys) in 1998 is profound, moving and wonderfully humanizing.

38. Looper (2012) - This violent sci-fi film by Rian Johnson challenges the myth of redemptive violence in a radical (if controversial) way, aided by terrific performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. 

37. Roma (2018) - Perhaps the ‘objective’ best film of the decade, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece views life in 1970 Mexico City through the eyes of a young Mixteco maid. The B&W cinematography is sublime.

36. Boyhood (2014) - Filmed over twelve years, Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking gem provides us with a unique and moving cinematic experience as we get to watch family members naturally grow and change.

35. Paterson (2016) - The inimitable Jim Jarmusch gives us a film about an ordinary week in the life of an extraordinary bus driver (and poet) that is full of ideas, symbols, empathy, humanization and the joy and necessity of creativity in everyday life.

34. Never look Away (2018) - The director of my third-favourite film of the last decade, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns with another haunting glimpse into Germany’s past, this time with the intense, gorgeously-filmed story of a young painter.

33. Monsieur Lazhar (2011) - Philippe Falardeau has given us an inspiring, deeply moving and thought-provoking story about an Algerian immigrant (played by Mohamed Fellag) who starts teaching at an elementary school in Montreal when a popular teacher takes her own life.

32. Take Shelter (2011) - This spellbinding and timely psychological drama by Jeff Nichols, about a loving young family struggling with the effects of mental illness, features awe-inspiring performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

31. The Way (2010) - This funny, inspiring and beautiful film about lonely people searching for community and God on the Camino de Santiago (the Way) was made by Emilio Estevez and stars his father (Martin Sheen) as an older man who decides to embark on the pilgrimage. 

30. The Ghost Writer (2010) - Roman Polanski’s quiet, atmospheric and intelligent political thriller about a man hired to ghost-write the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Blair?) features excellent grey cinematography to match the paranoid mood.

29. Gravity (2013) - This breathtaking sci-fi film from Alfonso Cuarón, about death, God and being human, stars Sandra Bullock in her best role as an astronaut trapped in orbit.

28. Ad Astra (2019) - This grand space adventure by James Gray actually focuses on the internal struggles of an astronaut (perfectly played by Brad Pitt) who is suddenly confronted by his long-lost father (played by Tommy Lee Jones).

27. Her (2013) - A wise and prescient sci-fi romance from Spike Jonze, this film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (voiced beautifully by Scarlett Johansson).

26. Green Book (2018) - Peter Farrelly’s controversial film addresses racist attitudes without tackling systemic racism, but this is a minor complaint in a film which so brilliantly and compellingly presents the story of two men who can (and do) learn much from each other on a long road trip.

25. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - My favourite Wes Anderson film is an intelligent and quirky comedy adventure full of superb acting, clever dialogue, luscious cinematography and pointed satire (of authority, governments and attitudes toward immigration).

24. Incendies (2010) - This haunting, insightful and expertly-crafted film from Denis Villeneuve tells the story of a woman who struggles for dignity in a Middle-Eastern world torn apart by religious violence. 

23. The Florida Project (2017) - Willem Dafoe’s performance as a motel manager is superb in Sean Baker’s jaw-dropping humanizing film about a young mother struggling to bring up her precocious six-year-old daughter while living day-to-day in a motel.

22. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - Denis Villeneuve’s spectacular, intelligent and captivating sequel to the classic sci-fi noir is almost as good as the original, with Ryan Gosling brilliant as a replicant who begins to wonder what it means to be human.

21. Tangerines (2014) - A profound but simple meditation on humanizing the enemy and the absurdity of war, this Estonian/Georgian collaboration from Zaza Urushadze tells the story of two neighbours in rural Georgia (the country).

20. Annihilation (2018) - Thoughtful sci-fi at its best, Alex Garland’s riveting film about five women who walk through a shimmering wall to explore the mystery that lies beyond (after men had failed) is a slow-paced intense nightmare that took my breath away.

19. A Hidden Life (2019) - Terrence Malick’s latest work of gorgeous cinematic poetry tells the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector in WWII with voiceovers that are full of theological and philosophical reflections.

18. Les Miserables (2012) - The critics were not impressed with Tom Hooper’s filming of the classic stage musical, and flaws abound, but having actors sing ‘live’ is incredibly moving, and Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne are absolutely terrific.

17. Winter’s Bone (2010) - Debra Granik does an amazing job of character-development in her haunting film about a teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence is magnificent) in the Ozark Mountains who is looking for her missing father while looking after her younger siblings. 

16. Chi-raq (2015) - This magical musical mess of a film by Spike Lee is a quirky, outrageous, in-your-face satire about a group of women who try to end the gang violence in south Chicago the way Liberian women ended the war there in 2003.

15. And the Birds Rained Down (2019) - Set in the woods of central Quebec, this profound stunningly-beautiful French-Canadian film from Louise Archambault is about life, love, art, aging, memory and healing, with great performances by the older members of the cast (Andrée Lachapelle, Rémy Girard and Gilbert Sicotte).

14. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) - Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are wonderful as an old vampire couple in Jim Jarmusch’s slow-paced exquisitely-filmed (at night, in Detroit and Tangier) drama that provides a unique perspective on history and the dangers we are facing today. 

13. Victoria (2015) - This intense and mesmerizing thrill-ride about a young Spanish woman in Berlin who is accosted by a group of friendly young men in the wee hours of the morning was filmed in one shot (140 minutes long!) - an awesome filmmaking achievement.

12. Leviathan (2014) - Andrey Zvyagintsev’s passionate, profound and thought-provoking film about a man in northern Russia who loses everything (like Job) is a bleak and scathing indictment of the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

11. Pride (2014) - This humanizing and inspiring masterpiece by Matthew Warchus uses a phenomenal ensemble cast to give us one magical scene after another about a gay group in London supporting striking miners in Wales (a true story). 

10. First Reformed (2017) - Paul Schrader’s dark, intense and superb theological drama stars a first-rate Ethan Hawke as a pastor wrestling with God about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. 

9. Arrival (2016) - This elegant, insightful and poetic alien-encounter film by Denis Villeneuve gives us one of the strongest, wisest and most compassionate female protagonists in the history of film (played brilliantly by Amy Adams) as it tackles the subject of how we communicate.

8. The Tree of Life (2011) - Terrence Malick uses breathtaking cinematography and classical music to create a poetic theological masterpiece about the meaning of life, in this case the life of Jack (Hunter McCracken) growing up with his parents (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in small-town Texas.

7. Before Midnight (2013) - The third (and best) film in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ series stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the couple who help us think about life and love every nine years, offering wisdom along the way. 

6. I, Daniel Blake (2016) - One of the most humanizing films I have ever seen, Ken Loach’s unsentimental masterpiece concerns a widower who discovers the potential in each of us to challenge the powers-that-be and be a good neighbour to the poor and oppressed in our midst.

5. Cloud Atlas (2012) - If not for the redemptive violence (brought to us by Lana and Lilly Wachowski), this would be my favourite film of the decade. An astonishing achievement in filmmaking by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, this breathtaking and imaginative work of cinematic art tells six stories about challenging the domination system, while inspiring wonder, hope and a desire to both be more fully human and to make the world a better place.

4. La La Land (2016) - This magical old-fashioned musical (enough said) by Damien Chazelle, with a fantastic score by Justin Hurwitz, gives us a terrific Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling). 

3. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) - Martin McDonagh’s gorgeous, imaginative, humanizing and redemptive film stars Frances McDormand as an angry grieving woman in search of justice and Sam Rockwell as the angry incompetent police officer who wants her behind bars. Woody Harrelson plays the chief of police who offers them forgiveness.

2. Of Gods and Men (2010) - This profound work of cinematic art by Xavier Beauvois beautifully depicts the true story of nine French monks caught up in the Algerian Civil War of 1996, showing us what it means to love others and be a faithful follower of Jesus. 

1. Calvary (2014) - A sublime meditation on violence, forgiveness, the future of the church and being a faithful follower of Jesus (I sense a theme), this small Irish film by John Michael McDonagh stars a flawless Brendan Gleeson as a small-town priest losing the respect of parishioners as the church loses its relevancy. Not for all tastes.