September 14, 2016
Come September, I’m worn out creatively. Drained of life. The soul crushing monotony of Summer movie season is winding down and by now, there hasn’t been a single movie worth watching in theaters in nearly half a year. (Ok, that’s a bit of hyperbole. “The Lobster,” “Swiss Army Man,” “A Bigger Splash,” “The Witch,” and “Everybody Wants Some” were all truly great.) However, I feel a bit like the proverbial man wandering through the desert, desperate for some manna from heaven.
Then, September comes along. Venice, Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals all showcase the movies coming out in the proceeding months that will finally breathe creative life back into the film industry. However, there are a million noisy “fall movie preview” articles out there. So this one is really self-serving and is a list of the movies that I will be seeing. That generally means arthouse, indie and foreign films with sub-$10 million budgets that most or people don’t care about. But I do. I really, really do.
To the list! In no particular order….
The Handmaiden: Dir. Park Chan-Wook
Park Chan-wook is the South Korean auteur known for his genre-bending, very violent revenge films like “Oldboy” and the criminally underrated family-from-hell flick “Stoker.” So who else would you like directing a slice of psychosexual period drama with dashes of crime, violence, ghosts, and S&M thrown in for good measure? But also, that trailer is…. just so good. As David Ehrlich from IndieWire put it:
Porn for people who love Park Chan-wook, PORN for people who don’t. Since then… I cannot stop thinking about this wonderful, pervy, three-tiered layer cake of bawdy sapphic brilliance. It has problems out the [Trump voice] *everywhere,* but a greater bouquet of virtues than many were willing to recognize out of Cannes. One of the best films of the year. Well, one of the *most* films of the year, anyway.
I. Am. So. In.
Moonlight: Dir. Barry Jenkins
Mark my words, “Moonlight” is going to be the movie that everyone is talking about come Oscar season. Barry Jenkins previously directed an achingly tender portrait of African American connection in “Medicine for Melancholy.” However, all the reviews coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival say this film is absolutely next level, a powerful milestone in black cinema, heaping praise and superlatives on the film in plenty. As Eric Kohn from IndieWire puts it:
“Moonlight” is a deep tragedy that’s told in passing glances. Rich with evocative images and tender exchanges, writer-director Barry Jenkins’ treatment of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” is a beautiful drama that manages to be both epic and understated. “Moonlight” explores the plight of a young black man across three eras, searching for his place in the world while struggling with his gay identity under the burdens of class and a broken family…. Such an eye-opening entry in the ever-neglected arena of black cinema arrives at a critical moment — the tail-end of the Obama era, when diversity has become a keyword and discussions of racial turmoil have reached a fever pitch. “Moonlight” transforms rage and frustration into unadulterated intimacy. In this mesmerizing portrait of a suffocating world, the only potential catharsis lies in acknowledging it as Chiron so deeply wishes he could. Despite the somber tone, “Moonlight” is a beacon of hope for the prospects of speaking up.
Jackie: Dir. Pablo Larrain
Produced by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, “Jackie” is a daring nontraditional biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy in the direct aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain, who previous directed the sensational Spanish-language films “The Club” and “No.” Also, not to go unnoticed, it also has a soundtrack from Mica Levi, whose unsettling score to “Under the Skin” was easily one of the best of this young century. Take Guy Lodge from Variety’s word for it:
Eschewing standard biopic form at every turn, this brilliantly constructed, diamond-hard character study observes the exhausted, conflicted Jackie as she attempts to disentangle her own perspective, her own legacy, and, perhaps hardest of all, her own grief from a tragedy shared by millions. Provocative and entirely unsentimental in the speculative voice given to its subject’s most private thoughts on marriage, faith, and self-image, and galvanized by Natalie Portman’s complex, meticulously shaded work in the lead, “Jackie” may alienate viewers expecting a more conventionally sympathetic slab of filmed history. But in his first English-language project, Chilean director Larraín’s status as the most daring and prodigious political filmmaker of his generation remains undimmed.
Manchester by the Sea: Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan might be the best director you’ve never heard of. He’s made just two movies, the last of which, “Margaret,” spent over six years floundering in post-production and a legal quagmire when he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the financier on the the final version of his cut. That would kill most movies, but when he finally won a meager release of his cut, it was hailed as a masterpiece. So anticipation for his follow-up, “Manchester by the Sea,” is beyond high and reviews have been soaring. Variety’s Justin Chang says:
The persistence of grief and the hope of redemption are themes as timeless as dramaturgy itself, but rarely do they summon forth the kind of extraordinary swirl of love, anger, tenderness and brittle humor that is “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander to confront a past tragedy anew. That rather diagrammatic description does little justice to Lonergan’s ever-incisive ear for the rhythms of human conversation, as he orchestrates an unruly suite of alternately sympathetic and hectoring voices — all of which stand in furious contrast to Casey Affleck’s bone-deep performance as a man whom loss has all but petrified into silence. Giving flesh and blood to the idea that life goes on even when it no longer seems worth living, “Manchester” may be too sprawling a vision for all arthouse tastes, but Lonergan’s many champions are scarcely the only viewers who will be stirred by this superbly grounded and acted third effort.
American Honey: Dir. Andrea Arnold
British director Andrea Arnold’s 2009 movie “Fish Tank” is a truly special, nuanced, gritty portrait of a 15-year-old girl growing up in the blue-collar poverty of public housing and crime, dreaming and yearning for more than the life in front of her. Arnold makes deeply human, intensely specific, and electrically vibrant portraits of cultural subcultures. Her newest film, “American Honey,” looks to be the same. The film follows an young adult with not much life ahead of her who sets out on the road with a group of misfits with little agenda but to travel, party, and experience life. It also stars the criminally underrated, always insane Shia LaBeouf. Why not take it from Guy Lodge again:
Mere minutes into “American Honey,” her scrappy, sprawling astonishment of a fourth feature,Andrea Arnold hits the audience with a song choice almost too perfect to work. As a girl’s gaze meets a boy’s across the packed aisles of a Midwestern Walmart, the euphoric EDM throb of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “We Found Love” hijacks the busy soundscape, setting a love story emphatically in motion by the time he hops up to dance on the checkout counter. “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song’s chorus ecstatically declares, over and over, as well it might — does it get more hopeless than Walmart, after all? It’s a gesture so brazenly big and romantically literal that it can’t help but have your heart, and it’s such an early, ebullient cinematic climax that Arnold dares repeat it two hours later, cranking up the song again in a more fraught, nervous context. Like much of what the director risks in “American Honey,” she shouldn’t get away with it, but most defiantly does…… Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical, “Honey” daringly commits only to the loosest of narratives across its luxurious 162-minute running time. Yet it’s constantly, engrossingly active, spinning and sparking and exploding in cycles like a Fourth of July Catherine wheel.
Arrival: Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Okay, I lied. I said “only movies with sub-$10 million budgets,” but Canadian helmer Denis Villeneuve’s heady sci-fi flick “Arrival” may approach three times that amount. However, it was produced and financed independently of the studio system and therefore has a shot at being, you know, actually good. Villeneuve previously made “Sicario” and “Prisoners,” both fantastically acted, gorgeously shot, beautiful films of ugliness; the violence of drug cartels and the abduction/murder of a child, respectively. Here, along with with always compelling Amy Adams, he tackles the “aliens come to Earth” sci-fi sub-genre in a cerebral, emotional way. No giant metropolitan cities being reduced to rubble, no alien battles, no over-the-top CGI. It’s ultimately a film about communication and the things that bond all of us together; those both of this world and not. Bryan Bishop from The Verge says:
The extraordinary success of Arrival is that it combines its bravura style and grand sci-fi questions with tremendous emotional intelligence and a heart so full it’s ready to burst. It’s a film that dares us to look ahead, to open ourselves up to vulnerability and sacrifice, and to take chances and engage with the world around us, no matter what dire consequences we fear may be just around the corner. That transcends genre or even medium. It is simply art, and at a time when so many seem intent on walling themselves or their countries off from one another, it’s exactly what we need.