Friday, December 22, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Movies

Frantz (2016), directed by François Ozon, screenplay by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo.
Based on the film Broken Lullaby (1932), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on a play by Maurice Rostand.

Nothing about Frantz seemed promising. First and foremost it was written and directed by François Ozon, whose dramas tend to the lurid: transgressive sex and sudden death are recurrent themes. So we were not expecting subtlety or nuance. But we were wrong: Frantz is stunning. As a measure of how unformulaic and original it is, every time I mentally predicted the next narrative turn, my prediction was wrong. Paula Beer, as a German war widow, and Pierre Niney, as the French soldier wracked with guilt over his role in her husband's death, offer understated but compelling performances. And no, it doesn't go there. Or there either. Highly recommended.

Julieta (2016), directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar. Based on short stories from Runaway by Alice Munro.

The plot is about estrangement between parents and children. As with most Almodóvar movies, though, the film is less about the twists and turns in the story than about a series of emotion-packed moments rendered with the hyper-real acuity of a dream. Julieta offers an ensemble of compelling actors; as ever with Almodóvar, the performances of the women are especially powerful, particularly Emma Suárez and Adriana Uguarte as the older and younger Julieta. This is one of Almodóvar's strongest films, rivalling Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999).

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Zucchini, 2016), directed by Claude Barras, screenplay by Céline Sciamma with contributions from Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro, and Barras. Based on the novel by Gilles Paris.

The title and the animation style may lead you to believe that this is a heartwarming movie about cute kids. In fact, the subject matter—children who have been orphaned, abandoned and neglected (or worse)—is harrowing. As in puppet theater, the animation style allows us some distance from the bleak material, and paradoxically enables us to enter fully into the emotional world of the characters. This approach could easily have gone wrong, but Barras gauges the tone unerringly (amazingly, this is his first feature film).

À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931), directed and written by René Clair.

In a 1931 essay entitled "The Talkies Talk Too Much," René Clair wrote,
I am dreaming of the conflict between the visions of a man's soul and the mechanization of life which daily grows more potent. I visualize a dreamer, a romantic, a vagabond, and I want to set him in my film against a background of tremendous mechanism. [1]
The dreamer, the romantic, the vagabond is Emile (Henri Marchand), who finds himself at every turn at odds with efficient, automated and soulless modern society. À nous la liberté remains Clair's great masterpiece. For my full post on the film please see Rene Clair's early films part 4.

The Bishop's Wife (1947), directed by Henry Koster, screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici, based on the novel by Robert Nathan.

For many, the cast will be reason enough to watch (or re-watch) The Bishop's Wife. Amazingly we hadn't seen it until this year. A bishop (David Niven) beset with difficulties in building a new cathedral prays for help, and his prayers are apparently answered. An angel (Cary Grant) appears and offers assistance—but he focuses his attention on the bishop's neglected wife (Loretta Young), children and parishoners, not on the cathedral. Despite the Christmas setting and Grant's celestial role this is not a cloyingly sweet holiday movie; each of the main characters experiences an important moment of (sometimes anguished) choice.

Indian films

Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), directed and written by Satyajit Ray, based on a story by Tarashankar Banerjee.

On a crumbling ancestral estate, a once-proud family's last patriarch (Chhabi Biswas) tries desperately to keep up appearances. Over the years a major symbol of his family's wealth, power and refinement has been the now-neglected music room, which hosted legendary entertainments. He decides to mount a final night of splendor in the music room, despite the ruinous expense involved. The decline and fall of the hereditary aristocracy would be a theme that Ray would return to, but never more hauntingly than in Jalsaghar.

Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

There are a number of classic narrative devices that recur in Indian films: tragic courtesans, forbidden love, maternal self-sacrifice, endangered children, reunions between long-separated lovers, reunions between long-separated parents and children, actors playing double roles, and courtroom scenes, to name a few. Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus. For my full appreciation of this film, please see Mamta.

Honorable mentions (in reverse chronological order):

  • Get Out (2017, directed by Jordan Peele)
  • The Handmaiden (2016, directed by Park Chan-wook)
  • The Eagle Huntress (2016, directed by Otto Bell)
  • Queen of Katwe (2016, directed by Mira Nair)
  • Sing Street (2016, directed by John Carney)
  • The Dressmaker (2015, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) 
  • I Married A Witch (1942, directed by René Clair)
  • Un Carnet de Bal (Dance Card, 1937, directed by Julien Duvivier)
  • Le roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936, directed by Sacha Guitry)
Biggest disappointments

A Quiet Passion (2016), directed and written by Terence Davies

Perhaps our expectations were too high. And it must be said that the recreations of 19th-century clothes and interiors are beautifully filmed. But writer/director Terence Davies' tone-deaf script makes the poet Emily Dickinson at times sound smug and self-satisfied, which does not match my perception of this supremely self-questioning artist.

There is no doubt that Emily's deep strangeness and intensity could be disconcerting: her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (inexplicably absent from the film) wrote after an in-person visit that she "drained my nerve power. . .Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But Davies' Emily is often deliberately rude and dismissive of others. Despite an excellent cast featuring Cynthia Nixon (Emily) and E & I favorites Jennifer Ehle (her sister Lavinia) and Jodhi May (her sister-in-law Susan), Davies' black-and-white dichotomies lack subtlety, to say the least. As I wrote in my full post on A Quiet Passion, "Perhaps the next time that Terence Davies wants to make a period film he should let another Davies—Andrew—write the script."

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Difficulties of the heart, 2016), directed and written by Karan Johar

Of course, a Karan Johar film is going to be slick and manipulative. But usually it is also affecting. And a cast filled with favorite actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Anushka Sharma and Ranbir Kapoor promised watchability, at least. But Ae Dil Hai Mushkil features shallow characters who are too busy moping about what they don't have to appreciate their lives of fabulous privilege. As with many another Karan Johar film, the characters are rich; but here that wealth feels like it so insulates them from real-world cares that they have to invent some of their own. Also, even for someone like me who delights in spotting filmi allusions, there were too many. As Beth Loves Bollywood quotes from Uday Bhatia's review, "[KJo's celebration of his own career] is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential." Finally, since when does a Karan Johar film feature bad music? We didn't last an hour.


The Crown (2016, created and written by Peter Morgan)

This was the first of two series we watched this year featuring the dilemmas of young women suddenly thrust into positions of power. Although Claire Foy doesn't actually look all that much like Elizabeth Windsor, she makes you believe that she does by employing familiar gestures and vocal intonations. Her performance is very affecting, but she also shows the hidden steel inside the uncertain young woman (as when she interferes to break up the romance of her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) with the divorced royal equerry Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles)).

The Crown is the sort of series that tries to create a sense of drama by accompanying shots of people walking down a hall or cars driving down a road with foreboding music. And the petulance of Prince Philip (Matt Smith) over his subordinate role can grow tiresome, as it may have in real life. But the jockeying for power in the last days of the government of Winston Churchill (a scene-stealing John Lithgow) and the constant strains on familial and household relationships—not to mention the lovingly recreated 1950s gowns and hairstyles—make for engaging viewing. We're very much looking forward to Season 2, reportedly Foy's last before another actress takes over in the role of Elizabeth.

Victoria (2016, created and written by Daisy Goodwin)

Speaking of fabulous gowns, Victoria is filled with them, along with amazing interiors and beautiful carriages. It's also filled with scheming relatives, upstairs-downstairs contrasts, and not-very-convincing CGI cityscapes.

On the death of her uncle King William, the 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is crowned Queen, to the displeasure of her mother the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming), her mother's lover Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), her uncle the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth), and the Tory Party leader the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles). She is guided through the treacherous political waters by (and begins to feel more than monarchical gratitude towards) the widowed Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell). And soon Victoria must make the fateful choice of a husband.

There's a certain falling-off of dramatic tension after Victoria marries her cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and in the first episodes featuring Albert he is a bit whiny. Victoria also has rather annoying theme music by Martin Phipps, performed by Mediaeval Baebes. Nonetheless, these are minor issues that detract little from the series' many pleasures. The second season is scheduled to be released on DVD in January.

Biggest disappointment 

To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters (2016), written and directed by Sally Wainwright

This is a curious joint biography of the Brontë sisters. Curious, because it leaves out hugely important parts of their lives. As an example, one of Charlotte's formative experiences was her sojourn in Brussels at the Pensionnat Heger in the early 1840s, first as a student and then as a teacher. There she fell in love with the married Constantine Heger, a passion that she maintained for years afterwards. That love was represented in her novels: directly in her first novel The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) and in Villette (1853), and indirectly in Jane Eyre (1847; Heger was clearly one of the models for Rochester).

But the series begins after Charlotte's return from Brussels, and as a result the parallels between her life and her work are absent. So, too, are major figures such as Heger and Elizabeth Gaskell (a close friend of Charlotte's and her first biographer). We don't see her father Patrick's notorious rages, or his furiously negative response to Arthur Nicholl's proposal of marriage to Charlotte in 1846.

Instead, the series focusses to an excessive degree on Branwell, the Brontë sisters' dissolute brother. It is no surprise when he dies—his self-destructive impulses have been made all too apparent—but it is a surprise when his death is followed shortly by those of Emily and Anne (who up to that point have not seemed to be ill at all). As a result of this imbalance the series might well have been called Branwell. Too much crucial material about the the Brontë sisters' lives is absent: dare I say, rendered invisible?


I Am Not Your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck, written by James Baldwin

This film was drawn primarily from Baldwin's own writings, narrated by Samuel Jackson, and from photographs and footage of Baldwin. Although the focus is mainly on people and events from the U.S. civil rights struggle in the 1960s, Baldwin's writing speaks urgently to the present moment. We can only wish that he was still alive to speak truth to power. Essential viewing.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years (2016), directed by Ron Howard, written by Mark Monroe

Ron Howard has tracked down amazing footage of The Beatles playing live in their formative years. We are able to watch (and share the band's disbelief) as in a matter of months they go from playing basement bars to being pursued everywhere by cameras, reporters and mobs of frantic teenagers. We also witness their astonishing growth and development as musicians and songwriters under conditions that are anything but conducive to change. Don't look for evidence of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, who are absent from the film; it picks up in 1963, after Ringo joins the band, and ends with their retirement from the stage in 1966 (with a brief coda of the band's 1969 rooftop concert). It's an amazing story that never gets old, and Howard largely lets footage shot at the time tell the story. Pure pleasure.

More favorites of 2017:

  1. Quoted (with slight modification) in Celia McGerr, René Clair, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 101.

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