Zach's Top Five Top Five Screen Classics of 2016
Did anyone else feel a little bit like Christine Chubbuck by the end of the year? I mean, in general and not in regards to what Chubbuck chose to do shortly after the still frame below. Speaking honestly, I do feel that 2016, to an extent, beat the shit out of me. First literally, when I found myself running from a speeding car in rural Utah that would catch up to my friends and I. The aftermath of the incident that occurred on the drive home from Sundance gave us all a chance to respectively pause and consider mortality in a more tangible way than we were accustomed.
As the months passed, so too did many of our heroes... and it hurt. The mounting number of fallen public figures struck most as eerie and the collective notion that year 2016 was vexed seemed an amusing, healthy-enough way to deal with a genuinely surprising abundance of tragedies. I took it in stride without literally humouring some notion of a curse and lived my life, made my dollars, kept a roof over my head and carved out time to make a few funnies and fit in dreams. Then, as Death Year came to a close, without my being able to put my finger on exactly when it started, I found myself a full-fledged curmudgeon by the year's end, taking too much displeasure in things like people's over-enjoyment of the insanely happy La La Land, in conjunction with their put downs of other musical achievements, like the dazzling Hail, Caesar! as unremarkable.
I was pleased that a film as powerful as Moonlight was getting so much attention, but uncertain whether I had my bad attitude to blame for being skeptical of its lavish praise. I want to believe that Moonlight's inevitable acceptance into the Academy Awards will have nothing to do with how stupid the Academy looked last year, but it's also possible that I've become a Grinch-like pessimist. I found myself lashing out in weird places like the Cineplex Facebook page where I unnecessarily expressed my disgust at the length of their “feature presentations” holiday short that preceded every award hype film.
On the lighter side? ...I did take solace in the good that 2016 provided. For example, here is a massive list of things that made me very happy and stimulated my brain and heart throughout the year. Since it was also a landmark year here at ScreenAnarchy, considering this time last year there was no such thing as ScreenAnarchy, as a sort of salute to the future, which I am welcoming with desperately open arms, the following list will review my favourite content across the vast array of screens. Here are five top fives reflecting the gamut of good screen times during, what I suppose we can now refer to as, last year... for now. Here's to turning a new page.
Before we dive in, here are list of wonderful works that you will not find celebrated in the following top fives. Please celebrate them on your own time. They deserve it! And so do you, dog sarnit.
Weiner, Amanda Knox, Gleason, Jim: The James Folly Story, One More Time With Feeling, Supersonic, Certain Women, Team Foxcatcher, The Handmaiden, Krisha, Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown To Off The Wall, Toni Erdmann, Moonlight, Paterson, Westworld, Reggie Watts: Spatial, The Get Down, The Night Of, Vinyl, Under The Shadow, The Wailing
Prologue: The Internet
When I said I'd explore all screens, my initial hope was to include five Web-series or Internet things as well. A good example would've been Bret Easton Ellis' wacky O.C.-like lust-bath, The Deleted, which begins so superficially it's almost unwatchable, but descends into a madness that I was surprised to find myself really digging. But since I'm already making you click on far too many squares (my inner Grinch wishes to remind you that no one has a gun to your head) I'm using one square to applaud one very special piece of 2016 art by a brilliant anonymous (as far as I can tell) editor.
In a campaign full of horrendous slogans like Make America Great Again, perhaps the worst of all was the ignorant appropriation of Pink Floyd's The Wall with buttons and shirts bearing the album's cover, only instead of the proper title, they read, “build the wall”. A more ironic misreading I cannot think of, other than perhaps Trump's own championing of Citizen Kane as his favourite movie.
Leave it to the Internet to right many of the world's unjust wrongs. The answer to the bastardization of The Wall came in the form of someone whose name I cannot find to credit, but whoever they are, s/he is a clear admirer of the story penned by Roger Waters and one with an expert handle on the material. Faithfully inspired by the real story of The Wall, which tells of a rock star who grows so out of control with stardom that he isolates himself from the world until eventually adopting the Nazi rhetoric that killed his father, DT: The Wall is a deconstruction of inheritance, power, capitalism, capitulation, and mega-stardom like no other and one that apparently fits Trump like a glove.
Inspired not only by Floyd's opera, but perhaps even more importantly by the haunting Alan Parker cinematic adaptation, DT: The Wall spends each song imaginatively honouring its theme as it applies to both original story and appropriation alike, using selections of archival materials to paint a parallel portrait of empire and celebrity. Regardless of your politics, you have to admire the meticulous command of what must be an endless supply of archival materials exhibited by this filmmaker. DT: The Wall's genius concept and awe-striking execution is one of the most intelligent found footage visions I have ever seen. Welcome to the machine.
Top Five Rockumentary #5
In honour of my first podcast, Music On Film, which is one of the good things that I can say occurred in 2016, I'd like to get things started with my Top Five favourite Rockumentaries - one of my nearest and dearest genres.
With a great understanding of everything transpiring around him, Danny Fields saw where he could be of help to incredibly raw unseen talents and helped the shit out of them. This was of course after he dropped out of Harvard Law - booooring, choosing instead to thrive on foreign sounds to his ear. Danny found his purpose in the burgeoning rawness of rock and roll - to appreciate it. Gravitating towards punk in all its origins, Danny found passion in the antagonism of electric Dylan, the brazenly intrepid musical exploration of The Grateful Dead, and eventually, the aggressively poetic Jim Morrison.
It’s a story that until lately hasn’t been told nearly enough, aside, of course, from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s essential aural history on the Punk movement, Please Kill Me. Danny lived to see that others got their due and now, thanks to Brendan Toller, he is getting a little of his, whether he wants it or not. The film is available on VOD now, but all the way back in March of 2015, when the film premiered at SXSW, I had the great privilege of chatting with Toller and embarking on an epic chat with Fields that spanned so much time, the interview warranted a naming: The Danny Tapes. I’m also happy to report that from Harvard Law classes to Andy Warhol’s Factory to Max’s Kansas City to CBGBs and on, Danny is still the coolest guy in the room.
Top Five Rockumentary #4
Eight Days A Week
Ron Howard tracks the entirety of The Beatles' short lived career as live musicians, during which they were faced with the pressure of being the most famous people of all time... more famous, even, than say, Jesus Christ, as John Lennon suggested to a British reporter. Funnily, it was rockumentary #5's subject, Danny Fields, who would break the story of Lennon's sacrilege in his Datebook Magazine, potentially causing the blokes to cease touring all together and start them on a tumultuous pathway that would inevitably break up the band... Just kidding. Danny Fields didn't break up The Beatles.
It's easy to see from virtually any of the tour footage in the film - the unprecedented hordes of screaming girls, the riotous interest, the hyper amounts of energy being thrown their way – the public life of The Beatles could only end in destruction. They were a ticking time bomb. When they sang “Help”, they really meant it.
The Beatles gave so much to society; an endless wealth of wisdom and melody. They deserved to be treated like kings, but in a greedy pop landscape, eight days a week was not enough to show they cared. Thanks to their incredible body of music and rich personas in conjunction with the bizarre hysteria surrounding these four young boys, The Beatles is one of the most fascinating tales of the 20th century. And yet, few people have done as good a job with any portion of their career as Howard this year.
Top Five Rockumentary #3
Jim Jarmusch + Iggy Pop = best fan-film of all time. Seriously. This movie is so incredibly cool, from the priceless wealth of classic footage of Iggy breaking his body so to entertain the people of Detroit, while the Ashton brothers smash out their instruments, to the DIY hero interviewer himself and his cool approach to the art of the q&a, to the one of a kind answers from key members of the story and key members only – just the band and Danny Fields! - this film is as badass as The Stooges and that's about as good as you could hope for in a film that, by default, comes with huge expectations.
This is a good place to shout out Jarmusch's second five star film of the year, Paterson, which is just shy of my top five. After seeing it at TIFF, I wrote “Paterson is the zen yin to Jarmusch's punk yang. Adam (bus) Driver cooly navigates another low key tale of mundane beauty.”
Top Five Rockumentary #2
Hip Hop Evolution
Shad traces the origins of Hip Hop from its Bronx birthplace at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue with DJ Kool Herc (pictured above) to its essential disco fusion on the Harlem dance floors with lyric-spitting party DJs. Not long after, there's the frustratingly opportunistic story of Hip Hop's first #1 hit, introducing the counterculture to the world, care of The Sugarhill Gang and that's just episodes one and some of two. The constantly fascinating four-part mini-series is an absolute treat every step of the way, as is every chapter in Hip Hop's origin story.
Top Five Rockumentary #1
Frank Zappa: Eat That Question
I'm choosing Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question as my favourite rockumentary of the year because it brings something new to the table. It does not fall back on the classic talking heads method to tell the unique story of Zappa. It does not utilize voice over narration. It does not even necessarily boast of never-before-seen footage for those seen-it-all fans. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the interview clips used to tell Zappa'a tale are readily available on YouTube, and yet, somehow, Eat That Question is the most unique, original rockumentary of the year. In ETQ, the only person speaking for the inventiveness of The Mothers of Invention is Zappa himself, always talking to press and always explaining himself and defending the right of art to intelligently antagonize. Zappa generally addresses reporters and a public on a lesser page than himself, but is always well spoken with a sardonic wit that can be found all over his catalogue and offerings.
In the gorgeous opening credit media montage, Zappa explains to one interviewer, “Well I don't think anybody has ever seen the real Frank Zappa, because being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody else. It's two steps removed from the inquisition.” And yet, ETQ's experiment of showing chronological interviews of Zappa articulating his position over time to new faces, in many cases out to objectify his controversy while overlooking the actual merit, is as good a source as one could hope for in tracking down the real Frank Zappa. Even in moments when Frank seems lost in translation, though it's saddening to see his growing exasperation over time, Zappa remains constantly hysterical, never ceasing to amaze in his snappy answers to stupid questions. As a result, the film is less the tired biography and far more the message... and the music... and the bullshit he had to endure so to provide us with both, even if most of us are incapable of receiving it.
The best thing that I learned? Bobby Brown was a slow dance hit in Norway! ...since the Norwegian swooners couldn't understand the lyrics.
Top Five Episodic #5
Crisis In Six Scenes
I am possibly the last person in the world right now who is willing to pay Woody Allen a compliment and I'm pretty damn far from willing. My biggest fear is that readers will close this list right here and now in defiance of what they perceive as an apologist. This is untrue. I will say that it has been very difficult to be a Woody Allen fan in the last three years in a world that presumes his guilt. Last summer, I saw posters for Cafe Society defiled with disgusting allegations of which I need not rehash. I've also read reviews claiming that his latest offering, Crisis in Six Scenes is unwatchable drivel.
I am not presuming Allen's guilt any more than I am presuming his innocence (maybe a little more, given the severity of the allegations). The only stance I can confidently take at this juncture is that in 2016, Woody Allen is not guilty of making terrible art, as he's also been accused. Cafe Society is really only a few steps down from works of his considered beloved, and I can say with confidence, that had Crisis In Six Scenes been released five years ago, I'd unabashedly be singing its praises.
So, if you'll allow me, I'd like to pretend that art CAN be divorced from the artist for a moment and state that Allen's first foray into episodic content is at once fresh and, more importantly, classic. When people try to tell me that Allen hasn't touched the quality of anything he did pre-millennium, I always point to Anything Else, which features one of Woody's last starring roles in his own film. In AE, Allen, the high strung, fearful, conflict-disoriented Jew we watched grow from his runs-with-Cello screwball roots to the beguiled middle-aged hypochondriac, enters the onset of his golden years, and if you know anything about Woody Allen, you know that's trouble. If you found him un-anoyingly comical throughout this whiney evolution, you'll rejoice as the insecurely daunted Chaplin reaches geezer mode to hilarious effect in Crisis.
Allen plays grumpy old man, S.J. Munsinger (not to be confused with J.D. Salinger – Think Emmet Ray), an obscure author living a cozy geriatric life in the mid-1960s with his wife, Kay, played by the wonderful, Elaine May. Although he is liberally-minded amidst the turbulent decade, Munsinger's world is rocked when Kay receives a late night visit from a young activist fugitive, played by the young and radical, Miley Cyrus, in search of a pad in which to fall out.
Though Munsinger's political beliefs theoretically align with those of his unwanted revolutionary houseguest, he is far too uptight to rebel and only grows more agitated by the snowballing presence of communist ideals in his household, as more and more of their friends succumb to an education in guerilla warfare. Like something out of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World or perhaps, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, the culminating implosion of Munisger's political comfort zone erupts into one of the most refreshingly classic screwball finales of late.
Top Five Episodic #4
News of a missing girl brings out the worst in a community of selfish millennials. Sometimes this takes the form of cloying concern over social media wherein the poster leaches onto the attention of the tragedy by victimizing herself as 'the grieving friend'. Other times it makes for sickening public displays of grief at social mourning functions, like the one pictured above, in which a tribute choir tastelessly sings “Since You've Been Gone”. They're called Choral Fixation.
Wet Hot Michael Showalter is among the TBS show's co-creators (along with Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers) and is an executive producer as well, and though he only penned one of the series' ten episodes, his sense of humour radiates throughout the entire season. Huge compliments, of course, still go to the writers and cast for delighting me at every juncture of their self-centred mystery.
Top Five Episodic #3
Maria Bamford is nuts and there is such a beautiful method to her madness. She's been portraying her difficulties for some time in her live act with a manic routine that's genius in its veiled honesty. She has a way of coming off as so much saner than the characters she encounters - every one a wonderful parody of normalcy - and it's high time we see some of them come alive.
Pam Brady, a pivotal voice in the early years of South Park, helps Bamford's first TV outlet Lady Dynamite mentally capture the misadventures of the comedian on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as Bamford attempts to navigate a career in an industry loonier than she is. That she remains the sanest person in Hollywood is a joke that only gets funnier throughout.
With the assistance of a stellar cast of cohorts – namely her incredibly funny competing agents played by Fred Melamed and Ana Gasteyer and her mother, played by Mary Kay Place, Lady Dynamite is simultaneously one of the realest and most batshit crazy shows on Netflix. This makes it by far one of its best.
Top Five Episodic #2
One of the great joys of watching Atlanta is discovering how each episode will be uniquely different from the last; whether it will abide by familiar narratives or fly off the wall in a wonderfully experimental fashion. The most excitingly avant garde example of this comes in the form of an episode dedicated entirely to an absurdist daytime talk show with a Charlie Rose like backdrop (I'm told it parodies The Tavis Smiley Show).
In between segments of our protagonist's rapper cousin getting bombarded for his language while being exploited as a hot topic PC debate, Donald Glover, who wrote the episode, features a slew of fake commercials cutting down the worst of our culture in a way that only Atlanta has proven capable. The mock spots are reminiscent of Spike Lee's Da Bomb and Tommy Hillnigger ads in Bamboozled, and Glover wears the satire well, demonstrating that he can be as biting a writer. But even when the show exists in more conventional terms, the plot concerns and dialogue feel no less innovative.
Top Five Episodic #1
Horace and Pete
If Horace and Pete were a film it might be my favourite of the year. But of course, not only is it not a film, H&P is so fervently television – live television to be exact – that it draws a medium that's always struck similarities with theatre, closer than it ever has before, to the art of live drama to dizzyingly moving effect. Consequently, television has never been so powerful. Each member of this A+ ensemble has his/her moments of bone chillingly stellar acting and that includes C.K. himself, who has proven himself one to never flinch away from frightening new territory. He doesn't stick with what works.
The show is demanding and feels as empty as a hole. And there's a tangible sense of the void permeating the air of the century-old tavern, shepherded into a new age by Horace and Pete's racist ancestors. The only one left (Alan Alda) still fondly recalls 'the good old days' and often tells of the boys' humiliations from their youth.
It's a world where everything's long since gone to shit and only getting worse. But at least they're in a watering hole – one they call home. H&P's is not just their family's watering hole, it's the communal hole for all their neighbours to drown their sorrows into and it always has been, only things were never quite as bleak as they are in 2016, when/where the stench of decay now fills an air of disappointment.
Yet C.K.'s Horace is, despite all, an optimist in his unflinching desire to face issues head on... even if they seem beyond his grasp. In the end, it's a pleasure watching siblings played exquisitely by C.K., Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco wear the great disappointment; forging on to salvage a sense of family. Thanks to all involved, this show, in all its various episodic incarnations, is the realest, most powerful fiction of 2016.
Top Five Cult #5
There is much joy to be had in watching Rogen & friends' terrible food puns and self aware schtick. But what starts as a guilty pleasure grows rather clever in its Veggietales-esque allegory for purpose and belief, while still retaining its tongue in cheek humour. Groaning has never been such a pleasure!
Top Five Cult #4
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe
This film is just plain scary and that's not a compliment I'm able to pay many horror films of late, much to my great chagrin. Therefore, what a treat it was being in the hands of director, André Øvredal from the moment his heroes - a father and son coroner team, played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch - receive a mysterious corpse with illogical physicalities. The less I say the better.
Top Five Cult #3
Dog Eat Dog
Paul Schrader's ultra-violent new film, Dog Eat Dog, starring a badder lieutenant, Nicolas Cage, and hyper-batshit Willem Dafoe, isn't just another crime film; it's every crime film.
With Dog Eat Dog, adapted from guru of grit crime fiction novelist Eddie Bunker's insider book, Schrader not only adapts the author's hard boiled style, but also just about everyone worth a damn who's ever contributed to the last century of crime pulp; in an effort to ride the post-new wave of what the Taxi Driver writer refers to as the 'post-rules era', where once you accept the notion that everything upon everything has been done, anything is permissible.
With a singularly manic, kinetic momentum, Dog Eat Dog indeed hits the ground running, and keeps you glued to the screen as it transcends cliché after cliché, dosing the familiar world of crime fiction with bad acid until its inevitable, serenely fatalistic, bloody finish. If you can stomach the experience, it's a trip you won't forget. For a genre done to death, Dog Eat Dog is hysterically brutal and delightfully, sickly unpredictable.
Top Five Cult #2
The Greasy Strangler
Good God! Where to start in discussing Jim Hosking's feature debut, The Greasy Strangler? Let’s try the plot. Um… Okay, The Greasy Strangler is about a father-son relationship: Big Ronnie and his chip off the old block, Big Brayden, roommates who mostly spend their days leading a walking disco tour through the sleazy streets of Los Angeles. It would be more fair to say that the tour is led by Big Ronnie, who one imagines was boogie oogie oogie king in his day.
All is more or less well until one day, the norm is rocked by a sexy disco cutie, who upon participating in the tour, takes an immediate liking to Big Brayden. Not to be outdone, Big Ronnie vies for the beauty’s attentions and attempts to steal her from his son. Considering that Ronnie and Brayden live together, this conquest turns out to be more than a little awkward for Ronnie - not so much for Brayden, who conducts himself as though he’s cock of the walk. When a series of disgustingly greasy murders begin to transpire, it is not outside of the realm of feasibility that the killer might just be Ronnie’s old man.
Yes, this is the plot of The Greasy Strangler, but it goes a long way from evoking the queasy exuberance of watching the film. It may be the greasiest thing you will ever see, but if you can stomach it, The Greasy Strangler is also one of the funniest films of 2016. Enter at your own risk. Hopefully, you’ll be able to take a shower afterwards. I took three.
Top Five Cult #1
Antibirth is just as cracked out as its mysteriously pregnant, junkie protagonist, Lou, played by a pre-Netflix resurrection, Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne has been a favourite actor of mine since I first saw The Slums Of Beverley Hills and few projects since have offered her such a fitting vehicle for her chops as Antibirth. It's a comedic delight to watch her inhabit director, Danny Perez's, grotesque world of abject abstractions, ambiguous creatures, and doctored reality.
Top Five Documentary #5
The Shining Star Of Losers Everywhere
This spot should probably go to Weiner or Gleason or Jim or James Baldwin, though I have yet to catch up with I Am Not Your Negro, but I figure I'd rather shine light once more on a 20 minute doc I caught at Sundance with the best damn title I ever did hear. It's pretty funny that this short is being presented by ESPN considering that makes the sports network one of my favourite documentary production houses of the year.
Shining Star is about a Japanese racehorse named Haru Urara. There is nothing remarkable about this horse - far from it. Haru is a loser. He can’t win a race to save his life and his life as a racehorse does in fact depend on it. What happens next makes this short doc a must see.
Top Five Documentary #4
Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story
My introduction to the former child-prostitute poet savant, JT LeRoy, was through the Asia Argento adaption of his second autobiographical book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, shortly after its release. I was enthralled with the story and language and bought the DVD as soon as I could. It wasn't until the Toronto documentary film festival, Hot Docs, last year, when I saw the film, The Cult of JT LeRoy, that I learned that not only is there no such person as JT LeRoy, but that the whole pop culture phenomenon was now being viewed as one of the all-time biggest literary hoaxes. It was especially surprising considering The Cult Of JT LeRoy, at the surface, seemed to be a by the book documentary about the artist that only accidentally stumbles upon the truth. The film's mid-point shock is one of the great surprises I've had in a theatre. The rest of the film captures the anger and betrayal felt by the public as well as the director, who must've also felt somewhat duped by the situation.
I liked that film, and because I basically had just seen it, I didn't rush to see Author: The JT LeRoy Story. That proved to be a big mistake. What I didn't see coming was that instead of situating the film with the indignant public, Author, disinterested in playing the hoax for shock, takes the timid mastermind behind the LeRoy persona, Laura Albert, for its protagonist and, far more insightfully, walks us through the unique-in-their-own-right experiences of an author who is only able to achieve literary catharsis through authorial displacement. Not only does the film help rightfully expose Albert as the true literary talent she was initially taken for, it convincingly makes the argument that JT LeRoy is the most fascinating pseudonym story you could ask for.
Top Five Documentary #3
I really love when documentaries play like mysteries and this one is ticklingly bizarre. It helps that the Philip Marlowe filmmaker, David Farrier, is quite likable. The less you know going in, the better, so I shall leave it at that.
Top Five Documentary #2
Since Holy Hell director, William Francesco Allen, only graduated film school a short three weeks prior to joining the 'meditation group' that would engulf the next 22 years of his life, there is a miraculously massive wealth of footage detailing the courting process of being seduced by a relatively sane cult-like utopia, to the emersion in said cult-like utopia - an “anti-cult' they liked to say - to the inevitable realization that said group you've joined has just robbed you of your life and left you utterly mind-fucked.
It's as fascinating a story as you're likely to see about the phenomenon of cults, fully equipped with a rise, tipping point, and a bizarre fall that leaves good, naive people cosmically suckered, lost, and broken. Since the organization spent much of its time amidst idyllic climes – Park City, Austin, Hawaii - the scenery beautifully compliments the disturbing imagery of idolatry.
Top Five Documentary #1
O.J.: Made In America
The O.J. Simpson trial was a symptom of many, many uniquely American things. So many that the effects are still being felt today in ways we cannot fathom. It was a turning point for African America, but not exactly the one that they were hoping for; desperate for. In this sense, O.J.: MIA is as much about the culminating burden of a partial justice system and the selective culture it favors as it is about the televised trial of the century, which was so accidentally entertaining in its big-top presentation of law and order, that it can now be seen as a prototype to the modern cesspool of reality television.
Director Ezra Edelman is so unafraid of the scope of his subject that no topic is spared to bring the tragic epilogue of the civil rights movement to the screen in a digestible, necessarily long yet concise package. The film effortlessly moves from the days of OJ's football glory years, spent ducking an image of the black athlete, being used by advertising companies to exploit his demographic, to a man who very likely ended his stint of spousal battery by murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson.
The gang-like brutalizing of Rodney King was the last straw for a fed up community and, in its wake, people were not going to see another black man go down in a white system. They were so hungry for justice that it allowed for the false martyrdom of a man who refused to contribute to their own cause. So deep were the wounds of continuing historic injury that O.J. got off for a crime he blatantly committed and the verdict was seen as an African-American victory.
O.J.: MIA expertly guides us through these points and countless others then concludes with a post-verdict episode that might just be the best of the lot in its exploration of karma. Edelman's epic is indeed a fascinating, intricate and lucidly tragic story that could only happen in America and that makes it essential viewing.
Top Five Fiction #5
I am still blown away by Matt Johnson’s NASA-abusing mockumentary, Operation Avalanche. I know I’m not the only filmgoer growing increasingly sick of the found footage genre, but nobody is using the platform with as much originality and meta-intelligent justification as Johnson. He has managed to find a golden line between uproarious lampooning and rich substance resulting in a piece of historical fiction that evokes the era’s best aspects of cinematic satire and paranoia.
Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, the same buddy coupling as in The Dirties, play characters so sharply wide-eyed, they land positions in the C.I.A.'s A.V. department in the mid-60s, and unsurprisingly get far more than they bargained for when they set out to create footage so powerful, it could single handedly win the space race and unite the nation’s pride – the ends justify the means, right? I won't spill any of the wonderfully faithful ways in which the Zapruder team play with the era of 60s conspiracy and distrust, and the methods they apply to achieve what surely must be the best making-of doc around: Slam! Boom! Right to the moon. I will say, I am incredibly awed by the meta-intelligence of Operation Avalanche and the way it demonstrates that a genre is only as good as the films in its roster.
Top Five Fiction #4
The best performance of the year easily goes to Rebecca Hall, who is the movie Christine. The film has great direction and a better script, but still, the whole thing falls in her lap. Hall elevates the film from excellent to breathtaking with a vulnerability that makes you long for a world as pure as her intentions deserve. The television landscape in which Christine exists is far more interested in tales of “blood and guts” than her naive human interest stories and disappointment is getting her down; the type of unfulfilled promise that has always made Chubbuck reluctant to engage in the world, never being able to trust anybody with both her heart and body.
It’s a shockingly sad story told truly, thanks to the emotional reality Hall brings to the news desk. It's also one of the best films concerning the complexities of operating with depression that I've ever seen; whether through Christine herself and her heartbreaking failure to live up to her sense of purpose or the undaunted social sphere around her who mean well, but cannot fathom her frame of mind. Not all problems are solvable with a bowl of iced cream.
Top Five Fiction #3 (Tie)
It's been a year full of disturbingly overrated and underrated films alike and perhaps the biggest casualty of the latter is the latest offering from The Coen Brothers - a February release with a middle finger aimed at awards season. I feel (hope) that time will remember Hail, Caesar! much in the same regard we now view The Hudsucker Proxy. At the time, Hudsucker was panned as “lesser-Coens”, but it didn't take long for audiences to catch up with that film's genius. I hope the same will go for HC, but in this day and age of cinematic insignificance, who knows?
In any case, the film deserves to be seen as the third instalment of the Coens' L.A. trilogy, as I find it fun to consider. HC takes place in the same uniquely Coen universe, not long after the Hollywood of Barton Fink and many, many years before the same L.A. streets are to be one day inhabited by Dudes, Donnys, Jackie Treehorns, and fucking nihilists. The Coens' latest sunshine mishap beautifully epitomizes the classic Hollywood dream machine as a sort of capitalist factory, wherein an underbelly of pre-McCarthy communist screenwriters sneak propagandist subtleties into major Hollywood films for actors – Gods among men and women – to preach to the world.
The biggest production at Capital Pictures at the moment is Hail, Caesar, a story of the christ. In a world where everyone's looking for something to worship and none of the competing ideologies are quite as they're presented, Hollywood too offers a gospel and its scripture is made of celluloid. All you must do to reap its dreamlike rewards is to believe. With dazzling classic musical numbers, Coen-grade performances from wonderful characters, a laugh out loud screwball-funny script that is as hilarious on the third screening as it is the second, Hail, Caesar! is not only worthy of the Coens, it's some of their best material to date. Don't blame the author for not getting the joke.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Similarly, Linklater's spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused is not getting the love it deserves But that's okay. Linklater is no stranger to low key.
Top Five Fiction #2
I've spent a lot of time since first seeing and loving Nocturnal Animals defending my response and trying to articulate why it doesn't make me an asshole. I read Matt Brown's thoughtful piece on the film's not-so-subtle misogyny. I've also considered my friends' analysis of the film as the character study of a pathetic, petty ex – an ex-husband no less. I disagree. I think Nocturnal Animals, which offers a visceral look at devastating heartbreak, is far smarter than both interpretations.
It is certainly significant that our protagonist is male (though you can also argue that Jake Gyllenhaal in a double role is not the film's protagonist) and I agree that the film takes hubris as its theme, but I don't see how this is something worth attacking. The male struggle with what society deems 'manly' is indeed a double standard worth exploring and it's as real an experience as any. You're fooling yourself if you think the couple's issues aren't common enough to be literarily adapted in this way, regardless of whatever gender implications you may or may not wish to project. Yes Amy Adams is excellent as a strong woman who left her sensitive husband for an unfaithful winner, selling out her dreams of artistry in the process, but I really don't see this as a blanket judgement of women as sell outs.
The ex-husband author chooses to hash out his feelings of rejection through a fictional nightmare about a similar family in a not entirely unrealistic scenario. The ability of the man of the house to protect is put to a violent test by aggressors when his identity as a proudly sensitive pacifist fails him. In his worst dreams, the father's inability to 'man up' costs him his family. The reality, though far less violent, is not so different from the story's mirroring truth. Is the ex-husband petty to hash out his most traumatic heartbreak in fiction and send it to his wife? I don't see why he wouldn't be entitled.
Is the film wrong headed for having a female character who gets what she deserves for championing an alpha? Is the film's message that all women, no matter how open-minded they seem, nevertheless gravitate towards jerks? Certainly not. But some do, and I have no doubt that a breed of men behave the exact same way in their search for Mr. or Mrs. Right – an attraction to hubris in conjunction with an underlying distaste for sensitivity. It's certainly a type of person that I can relate to and I have little doubt that author, Austin Wright, knows him/her all too well, as does screenwriter/director Tom Ford, of course. The trick, as the film suggests, is to not let it beat you.
Nocturnal Animals is one of my all time favourite breakup mediations.
Top Five Fiction #1
Like the open road itself, AH effortlessly captures the feeling of running away and carving out your independence for the first time. It provides the freedom of listening to Mazzy Star on a vivid, careless day. And it offers an unlikely family by trapping you into their van and sucking you into their door to door, state to state odyssey. The jocks and jerks of the high schools that some of them dropped out of would probably classify our cast as losers, but as Leonard Coen might've told you, few things are more compelling than a beautiful loser.
I've loved Andrea Arnold since the day I went to see Red Road and this time around, I'm truly bedazzled by her tale of youths with nothing to lose, on the road and bonded by circumstance. The job is random – playing the magazine salesman – and anyone who's done it before can tell you that putting yourself out on this kind of limb can feel pretty degrading at times, but you can feel the cast's delight to be doing anything at all as long as they're travelling together without the semblance of a care, far removed from their former woes, united by regrettable back stories, booze, bongs, and new found priorities. The road is, of course, a rocky one, as any transition into family is, but through thick and thin, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, and a lot of time and distance, it's a pleasure to hang out with these misfits as they traverse the open planes of America, thorough oil fields, suburbs, Walmart, and arrive a tribe to be reckoned with.
American Honey is my favourite feeling of the year.