film fatales #49: mustang (deniz gamze ergüven, 2015)

Deniz Gamze Ergüven graduated from film school in 2006. Nine years later, Mustang became her feature debut as a director. Of this time, she has said, "If I had the body and the voice of an alpha male, it would be easier. It took nine years from leaving film school until Mustang was screened at Cannes, and those years were demoralising. It's difficult not to be affected. You work for the minimum, to have your roof and four walls, so you can write. It's not super fun." Because of this, or despite this, Mustang is a confident film, one that won numerous awards, at Cannes and elsewhere, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The performances by the five young girl leads are very good ... they interact quite naturally as sisters, even though only one of them had acted before. I usually give credit to the director when that happens.

The girls aren't always recognizable as individuals. though ... I kept forgetting which one was which. (Ergüven has referred to them as "one body with five heads".) They made a bigger impression as a group. The best scenes are when the sisters are alone together. The narrative is dramatic, unflinching in exposing the oppressions of patriarchy at the core of Turkish society. It wasn't unanimously praised in Turkey. It is noteworthy that  the director was born in Turkey but raised in France. The film was submitted to the Oscars as a French film.

The score by Warren Ellis has gotten much praise; I confess I don't remember it, good or bad. What I will always remember is those five sisters. Ergüven tells the story solely from their perspective, and it's effective. The film is often compared to The Virgin Suicides, which makes surface sense but perhaps exaggerates the two films' similarities. (In an excellent analysis of the two movies, Beth Winchester writes, "This comparison isn’t unfounded, but to compare the two is an easy option and coasts over not just the importance of the factors that make them similar, but the crucial differences that ultimately make them two distinct stories rather than an original story and a rehash that came 15 years later."). #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


a couple of other lists

My favorite films from 2018. I am always behind on current movies ... of the 109 movies I saw this year, only 14 are from 2018. But here I go.

Black Panther is my favorite movie of 2018. Runners-up, in alphabetical order:

Honorable mention:

And, to compensate for always being behind, my updated list of favorite films from 2017. The top seven, in alphabetical order:

And honorable mention:

 


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 14.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)

10:
In the Mood for Love
Performance

9:
The Ascent
Black Panther
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dunkirk
Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Five Easy Pieces
Moonlight
Mudbound
My Neighbor Totoro
Pickpocket
Strong Island

8:
American Honey
The Babadook
Before Sunrise
Day for Night
Dressed to Kill
First Reformed
Gaslight
Gertrud
The Guilty
Gun Crazy
The Incredible Shrinking Man
India's Daughter
Listen to Me Marlon
Local Hero
Logan
The Look of Silence
A Matter of Life and Death
Memories of Underdevelopment
Private Life
Sorry to Bother You
The Spirit of the Beehive
Springsteen on Broadway
Supercop
The Thin Man
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Widows
Yellow Submarine

7:
Avengers: Infinity War
The Big Sick
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
The Brink
Cat People
Crazy Rich Asians
Creed
Darkest Hour
Divines
El Topo
Flying Down to Rio
Grand Hotel
Hell Is for Heroes
Hereditary
Hidden Figures
Horror of Dracula
Icarus
If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Lost City of Z
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Man on the Moon
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Knew Infinity
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Morvern Callar
Ms .45
Nothing Sacred
On Body and Soul
Personal Shopper
Set It Off
Seven Days in May
The Square
Syndromes and a Century
Tarzan and His Mate
The Time Machine
Tropical Malady
Venom
Watchmen
Zombieland

6:
Atomic Blonde
Bo Burnham: what.
The Circle
Colossal
Diamonds Are Forever
Dogville
The Dressmaker
The Equalizer
The Equalizer 2
A Girl Like Her
Glastonbury Fayre
Holiday Inn
Hostiles
The Lion in Winter
Miami Vice
Murder on the Orient Express
Spring Breakers
The Spy Who Dumped Me
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael

5:
Behave Yourself!
The Black Scorpion
The Day of the Triffids
Dishonored Lady
Enemy
Margot at the Wedding

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)
2018: 109 (7.2)


film fatales #48: private life (tamara jenkins, 2018)

The title is a bit ironic, given that the two main characters, a married couple in their 40s played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, have what passes for their private lives exposed to seemingly everyone they know. The couple, Richard and Rachel, are artsy professionals (Richard once ran a theater group before owning an artisan pickle company, Rachel is an author) who have been thinking about having kids for quite a while. Their efforts are what turn their private lives into public ones ... seemingly everyone they know has advice on what to do next, plus the process of trying to have a kid gets pretty invasive at times. Denis O'Hare has a nice supporting role as a gynecologist who spends much of his time looking inside Rachel, and along the way we learn, as everyone else already knows, that Richard only has one testicle.

Some of the stops on the road to parenthood are touching, some are funny, some are both. None of them work, until they finally decide to have an egg donor, and with that, I've probably already said too much. I'll leave the various twists to you, although Private Life is not a movie that relies on plot shifts to keep our attention.

What makes Private Life work is the "natural" presentation of the characters and their lives. Sure, we always know that Hahn and Giamatti are acting, but they slip so easily into their roles that we forget they are not real. Jenkins both wrote and directed Private Life, and so she gets the lion's share of the credit for the believable nature of her actors and their situation. It's not a screwball comedy, it's a low-key comedy (I refuse to call it a dramedy, but that's what it is) expertly pulled off by everyone involved. I appreciated the way Private Life is "real" but not bitter or spiteful ... these people have their issues, but they get along without devouring each other. I'm all for that devouring kind of movie, but I was glad this wasn't one of those. And the film ends on a perfect note of anticipation.

Private Life is too long, but one sympathizes with Jenkins' desire to get the details on the screen. Jenkins and Hahn are outside shots at Oscar nominations, if that's what you like to hear about. I doubt the movie is demonstrative enough to get that kind of awards attention, but it plays well for an evening with Netflix, and I mean that as a compliment.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #47: the dressmaker (jocelyn moorhouse, 2015)

Not much to say about this movie. The best thing is that it was easy for my wife and I to agree on when choosing something to watch. My wife has made a dress or two, of course. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis star, with Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving in support. Winner of many awards in Australia, where it was filmed. Jocelyn Moorhouse had produced films like Muriel's Wedding and directed movies like How to Make an American Quilt.

Yet there isn't a whole lot to The Dressmaker. The most positive review on Metafilter (Kimberly Jones in the Austin Chronicle) gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, and concludes "its treats are modest but genuine." Winslet is solid, Weaving is fun, and Judy Davis steals every scene she is in. Some of the tidbits in the IMDB trivia section are fun ... Moorhouse described it as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine", and who wouldn't want to watch that? (We also learn that "Shooting of the film was interrupted several times as wild emus interrupted the scenes.") After seeing The Dressmaker, I'm left with the feeling that it is a good movie to watch with a group where no one will hate it. And given the number of bad movies that my wife and I could have chosen, I suppose I'm thankful we ended up with The Dressmaker.

For a better Kate Winslet movie, try Heavenly Creatures.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #45 and #46: the ascent (larisa shepitko, 1977) and the spy who dumped me (susanna fogel, 2018)

Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.

The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.

I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)

This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.

The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


12 i missed, revisited

Ten years ago, following up on a meme of the times, I looked at "Twelve movies you haven't seen that you should have seen and are embarrassed to admit you have missed." Over the last ten years, I have managed to see all 12 (links provided when I could hunt them down ... a reminder that you can see every movie I ever wrote about on the blog here):

Tokyo Story.

Sunrise.

L'Atalante.

Children of Paradise.

Persona.

Ordet.

Contempt.

Andrei Rublev.

La Strada.

Pather Panchali.

Au hasard Balthazar.

The Mirror.

If I were to redo this meme, using the same methodology as before (basically, what movies from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They I haven't seen, ranked from the top), this is what I'd find. If I'm still around in ten years, I'll check again:

Sátántangó

Once Upon a Time in America

The Mother and the Whore

Hiroshima mon amour

Letter from an Unknown Woman

A Brighter Summer Day

A Day in the Country

Rome, Open City

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Histoire(s) du cinéma

Beau travail

Come and See

Ten years ago, I also listed the top 12 American movies I hadn't seen. Here is an updated version of that (the ones in bold are repeats from ten years ago):

Once Upon a Time in AmericaLetter from an Unknown Woman, The Crowd, Only Angels Have Wings, Meshes of the Afternoon, Love Streams, Lost Highway, Stranger Than Paradise, Man of Aran, Heaven's Gate, Chelsea Girls, The Dead.

Finally, since this is easier than it was ten years ago, the top 12 movies from the 21st century I haven't seen:

Russian Ark, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Turin Horse, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Inland Empire, Zhantai, Silent Light, Syndromes and a Century, Good Bye Dragon Inn, Holy Motors, Songs from the Second Floor, Still Life.

 


    revisiting a cult classic

    I recommend The Babadook on a regular basis, especially as Halloween approaches, as I find it a superior horror film. I first saw it the year after it came out, and I'll mostly cut-and-paste what I said about it at the time:

    The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). ... You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. ... The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and [Essie] Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designer Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

    I was reminded of this movie a few months ago when I saw Hereditary. Both films are about grief, with strong performances by the lead actress. I prefer The Babadook, but your mileage may vary.


    film fatales #44: faces places (agnès varda and jr, 2017)

    This is the fifth Varda film I've seen, all within the time I've been writing this blog. I don't know what took me so long to get started on her work, and I'm puzzled why, even though I have loved every one her movies I have seen, she doesn't come immediately to mind when I think of my favorite directors. (For the record, the others of her films I have seen are Cleo from 5 to 7VagabondThe Gleaners and I, and The Beaches of Agnes.) The most recent of these movies, including Faces Places, have an impish quality that is quite appealing. Varda was in her 70s and 80s when she made those films, and the themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it.

    The film that preceded Faces Places, The Beaches of Agnes, was thought to be her last movie, but almost a decade later, she gave us Faces Places, co-directed by artist and photographer JR. The two of them travel the French countryside in a van that includes a photo booth. Villagers have their photos taken, and enormous prints come out of the side of the van, much like the photo booths in amusement parks. He then plasters the large photos on buildings, rock, anything, creating remarkable larger-than-life visions of the people. Seeing their photos on the sides of buildings, the villagers encounter a new way of looking at themselves. Varda is the one who picks many of the locations, and her fascination with the smallest items makes everything seem larger-than-life.

    Varda and JR make quite a team. You can't help wishing for more Agnès and less JR, but no one expected her to make another movie, and she was 89 when the film was made. And JR is a perfect companion, an artist in his own right whose ability to make artful magic out of everyday life is a good fit for Varda.

    JR spends the entire movie wearing a hat and sunglasses, and Varda presses him constantly to remove his glasses so she can see his eyes. (Eyes matter, here ... Varda is going blind, at one point getting an injection directly into her eye to help.) Near the end, Varda convinces JR to visit her old New Wave friend Jean-Luc Godard. When they arrive at his house, Godard has left a cryptic message for Agnès, but he is not there. She is clearly disappointed, as are we ... although the film focuses on "regular" people, we look forward to the appearance from Godard as a way to remind us of Varda's connection to the French New Wave. As the film ends, JR tries to find a way to give something special to Agnès, and suddenly, the obvious comes to him: he removes his sunglasses. We see his face as Agnès sees it, blurry, so that he maintains his mystery for the audience even as he makes a present for Varda. "I don't see you very well," she says, "but I see you." It's overwhelming, and Godard is forgotten for the moment. #339 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    film fatales #43: india's daughter (leslee udwin, 2015)

    A documentary about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, an Indian med student, India's Daughter fills its 63 minutes with just the right amount of information, never losing the feel of outrage and anger while connecting the act to the larger Indian society. We also see the enormous reaction of the people who weren't going to accept what had happened (along with the repressive actions of the state against those people).

    The people who support the traditional Indian ways come off the worst, none more than defense lawyer A.P. Singh, who states, "If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight." Even so, some have complained that just by allowing such people to air their thoughts, Udwin is giving them a platform they don't deserve.

    The film's title also exposes some of the problems with the movie. While it is specific to India, enough so that the Indian government banned the film, there isn't an effort to connect the problem to the worldwide presence of rape. You can only do so much in 63 minutes, and again, Udwin is being specific to the case in question and its ramifications for India, so I'm not sure this criticism is useful. More important, though, is the insistence, reflected in the title, that this is a movie about a daughter. As Tanvi Misra wrote:

    The film shows Jyoti as an abstract symbol. She is “India’s daughter”—mourned by parents, and appropriated by both a cause and its opposition for their respective agendas. She is split in the imagination of her country. For the rapists and their lawyers, she failed her daughterly duties and bore the consequences. “India’s daughter” is supposed to have guarded her own modesty, which is linked to the prestige of the family. She was supposed to have been virtuous and virginal, protected and defined largely by male relatives....

    The other narrative strain in the film ... talked about how “good” Jyoti was. She was a good daughter (she had asked for her parents’ permission to go out that night), a good student (she worked very hard), and a good friend. In this telling, she was ultimately a martyr—sacrificed to rally a country behind a cause....

    I’m not saying that all these things about Jyoti—that she was a good student and devoted daughter—are untrue. I’m saying that they don’t have to be true for the crime committed against her to be just as heinous. The film shows this “good girl” and “bad girl” rhetoric—“India’s daughter” is either, depending on who’s talking about her—but not much else. In the movie, she’s a 2-dimensional figure. But Jyoti, the person, was probably much, much more when she was alive.

    India's Daughter is compelling, and you can't help but be angry over what happens to Jyoti, and how Indian tradition reinforces misogynistic patterns. It's perhaps unnecessary to ask for more.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)