Top Twenty Films of 2016 (#15-11)

15.) Paterson

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dir. Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson takes a cue from James Joyce in crafting an epic story about mundane, daily life. Granted, the subject of the mundane and ordinary are given the poetic treatment. If it weren’t beautifully poetic, Ulysses would be as pleasing to read as passing a kidney stone. Here in Paterson, ordinary household objects are focused upon as artfully as possible. The film spans a whole week in the life of a bus driver, Paterson, in the city also named Paterson, in the movie also named Paterson. Throughout the week, not much occurs at all. But not much occurs at all, so beautifully.

Paterson is about the quiet observations throughout the week that the bus driver collects during his routine. Every day follows generally the same script: the same beats happen, the lunch is packed, the dog is walked on a leash, Paterson drinks a beer at a bar every night, but it’s in the small changes that become easily noticed. If everyday you make the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the minor differences will stick out more clearly. Maybe one day there looks like a face in the bread. Maybe one day the peanut butter looks like sand dunes. Maybe one day the jelly dribbles down the bread in a way that would stick out to a poet like a muse’s giant thumb. It’s these small details like the stubborn mailbox that keeps leaning over, or the dirty puddles that reflect the old buildings above that lend themselves to the poetry that Paterson scribbles in his journal.

The bus driver, Paterson, writes around a single poem per day. Poetry oozes out of him whether he wants it to or not. He gets a pack of new matchsticks and carefully observes every detail about it, turning it into a great love poem:

We have plenty of matches in our house
We keep them on hand always
Currently our favorite brand
Is Ohio Blue Tip
Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand
That was before we discovered
Ohio Blue Tip matches
They are excellently packaged
Sturdy little boxes
With dark and light blue and white labels
With words lettered
In the shape of a megaphone
As if to say even louder to the world
Here is the most beautiful match in the world
It’s one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem
Capped by a grainy dark purple head
So sober and furious and stubbornly ready
To burst into flame
Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love
For the first time
And it was never really the same after that

All this will we give you
That is what you gave me
I become the cigarette and you the match
Or I the match and you the cigarette
Blazing with kisses that smolder towards heaven

His poetry is lovely, and I learn they were actually written for the film by a poet named Ron Padgett. But the film itself is not simply a matter of strapping together a bunch of unrelated poems. The film has quiet and deep wisdom about living life as a poet. With all of these wonderful moments around him, why let the poetic moments go to waste without the chance of being recorded? And if you only record in a single notebook and not give the world a chance to read it, then writing these down is no different than writing on water. It’s still beautiful, but it’s temporal and will disappear like all things.

 

14.) Manchester by the Sea

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dir. Kenneth Lonergan

Manchester by the Sea is a film that finds humor in deadly serious situations. You know that little voice in your head that tells you that you probably shouldn’t laugh at that sound of a cry that Great-Aunt Margie makes at a funeral? It’s as if this film deliberately chooses to find every horrible moment like that and goads you to laugh at it. For example, there’s a moment in the film in which a deeply personal tragedy strikes, and the ambulance is called to put a person into a stretcher; the stretcher keeps fumbling and breaking with the timing and cadence of a silent comedy, like the ghost of Buster Keaton was toying with it from beyond the grave.

The film is deeply funny in the face of intensely emotional tragedy. It’s cathartic with a deeply warped sense of humor. And at the center of this seriously warped comedic drama is a performance by Casey Affleck that is likely to win him the Oscar this year. He gives a performance in a film that could have easily gone to straight to the Hallmark Channel if improperly enacted. It’s a story about the relationship between an uncle and his nephew who are both trying to overcome personal loss. The central drama deals with a father grieving for his dead children, while simultaneously the teenager is grieving for his own dead father. In this situation, the easiest, and perhaps the emptiest artistic decision would be to have these two grievers find each other and fill the roles missing in the lives of each other. But that’s not the case, here. The filmmakers are too perceptive for taking such an easy road. Grief is more complicated than that. It’s as if the filmmakers took a traditional Nicholas Sparks ending in which grievers find solace in each other and instead the filmmakers have decided to begin this story as soon as the credits start rolling for that other drama. What exactly happens the next day after one of those tearfully happy endings? What is life like the next week? Next month? It probably wouldn’t be too sunny. Like the pervasive coldness of a Bostonian winter, the drama here is icy cold, but deeply real, but made bearable with some hot coffee from Dunkin Donuts and a cheerful Boston attitude.

 

13.) 13th

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dir. Ava DuVernay

There is a clause within the 13th Amendment that remains largely ignored. It is written, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Amendment freed the slaves, but how did that clause go by unnoticed for so long? “Except as punishment for a crime?” It sort of acts like a back-gate for slavers to circumvent abolition. Such is the topic of Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th.

The film chronicles the circumvention that the former slavers used from the early days of Reconstruction. It covers how the South largely used the forgotten clause in the 13th Amendment to put many freed slaves back in chains simply by doing mass arrests on empty charges. Chain gangs were used to rebuild the South after the Civil War, while simultaneously finding a way to bypass the new laws banning slavery. The film then chronicles how this oppression morphed throughout the years. It tells of the chain gangs, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights victories, and the subsequent rise in prison populations due to the War on Drugs. The film largely argues that Nixon’s strategies to win the South over was done through euphemistic language that unfairly targeted African Americans. It takes some pretty big swipes at the Reagan years and the Clinton years for pushing forward new legislation that crippled impoverished communities.

The film makes a powerful and focused argument that follows how the oppression of slavery and Jim Crow evolved into a prison industrial complex. Felons are denied the right to vote, and they miss out on many jobs, grants, and opportunities. Being a felon is like being a second-class citizen who is denied of many rights. And while the film covers such a large area of overview, it never feels like it is sprawling. Instead, the film always singularly focused on the common theme of oppression as it morphs like a chimaera throughout the years. This is a deeply important documentary and available to watch on Netflix.

 

12.) Love and Friendship

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dir. Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship is based on an unfinished novella written by Jane Austen, yet it feels unlike any Jane Austen adaptation you will ever see, aside from the ones with zombies. While most Austen classics feature young and sweet protagonists who are unwilling to be married off so quickly, here is a protagonist, older, cunning and keen on marrying her daughter off to ensure she is well off. The heroine here, played by Kate Beckinsale is bitingly witty, and is sharp like a viper’s teeth in a garden of relatively naiive Edeners. Love and Friendship is almost like a parody of a Jane Austen story; it’s like someone took Sense and Sensibility and replaced the Dashwoods with Game of Thrones characters.

There is something quite fascinating about Love and Friendship in how it gets us to root for such a manipulative person. First of all, Beckinsale’s Lady Susan character knows exactly how to prey upon the gullible and use them like pieces on a chess board. There’s a bit of a Frank Underwood vibe she has going for herself. With her degree of cunning she could run for modern Congress. Or in her case, Parliament.

The film takes place in an era far before the typical Jane Austen story. It takes place in England during the 1790’s. Women’s suffrage is hundreds away, and women are expected to be complacent wives in large manors like dolls in dollhouses. I think the reason why we root for a character like Lady Susan is that she is a chooses not to be a victim of her circumstances. She is a widow in a patriarchal society. Without a means to find work, she does what she has to in order to ensure her livelihood and her daughter’s livelihood are kept intact. Her deep intelligence serves as a reprimand to her backwards society of egg-headed gentlemen who believe that men should rule over women because of some false notion that all women are fragile and prone to hysterics. It’s a nice catharsis to see these dupers themselves be duped. For those enjoying Jane Austen with deconstructive sensibilities, Love and Friendship is an extremely sharp comedy.

 

11.) Hail, Caesar!

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dir. Coen Brothers

Hail, Caesar! is like a love letter to Old Hollywood. But being that the love letter is penned by the Coen Brothers, the tone fits somewhere between whimsical and warped. It has all the elements of a picture nostalgic for the old studio system of the fifties, showcasing the glamor, the prestige and the congratulations that Hollywood self imposes onto itself. But it also gives us glances of the falseness, the illusion: the glimpse of what is behind the curtain. You remember how a few years ago Birdman gave the studio system a scathing rant on how everything it does is meaningless? Hail, Caesar! is not necessarily in the same neighborhood as that, but Birdman occasionally flies by in orbit.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie without a kidnapping plot. The star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped by a group called “The Future,” who are demanding a ransom of a hundred thousand dollars. From here on out, the plot gets extremely convoluted in Coen fashion, and that’s what makes the film a delight to unravel. Navigating a Coen movie by plot is like trying to navigate a corn maze blind. The best way to unravel the complexities of the overarching storylines is by following the themes. The place to start is in a key conversation between Mannix and a group of religious figures; they discuss the theological depictions of Christ in their new movie, Hail Caesar! and the studio wants to know if the depiction of Jesus meets with their religious approval.

They argue. Jesus is God, but Jesus is the son of God. Depicting God goes against their beliefs. But as the Jewish rabbi puts it, it doesn’t matter how they portray Jesus, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is God. Is God angry as is commonly depicted in the Old Testament? Or is God loving as is commonly depicted in the New Testament? I’ve taken a Christology class at a Christian university, and I had a lot of questions going in, and a lot more going out. Trying to keep it all straight is like being in a theological war zone filled with heretical landmines of Apollonarianism and Arianism. But also don’t forget that Christ was fully God and fully man, and one person with two natures. It’s confusing. But it’s theological talk like this that rarely shows up in movies. But the further you dig into Hail, Caesar! the more you will start to realize that the film really does live up to its byline, “A Tale of the Christ.”

The film within the film, Hail Caesar! is a Ben-Hur-esque tale of a Roman emperor who encounters Jesus exactly two times. Just like in the original Ben-Hur, people seem to melt at the very presence of Jesus who is giving water. And by the end of the movie, long-winded speeches are spoken about how Jesus is truly the Messiah. I always felt that Ben-Hur’s depiction was essentially Christian-esque cotton candy. The crux and fulcrum of the movie was not about Jesus at all; it was about Charlton Heston exciting audiences with that chariot race. It was made to rivet and excite with expensive set pieces and flashy costume design. And then as a last-minute gift, the Christ is inserted at the very end to please the studied demographics, tricking people into believing that it was truly about faith the whole time. It isn’t. Hail Caesar! shares my criticism. Here we have the big speeches with Jesus on the cross, but we also get to see what goes on when the cameras aren’t rolling. There’s a P.A. who asks the actor on the cross what kind of food he’s to have. The actor playing Jesus doesn’t know. The P.A. asks if he’s a principal actor or an extra. “I…think principal.” That’s not a very confident response for an actor portraying Jesus whose in a movie that’s supposed to be about him.

The film draws several parallels between the body of the studio system and the body of Christ. Mannix takes on the sins of his principal actors, and washes away their transgressions. They are declared righteous in the image of the studio. When one actor is babbling on about how he met up with some communist friends who seemed to have attractive ideas, Mannix slaps this actor around and gives him a speech akin to something like, “Go and sin no more.”

Christ is a complex subject, and movies tends to simplify Christ into a holy Super Saiyan that radiates level-three aura. Hail Caesar! is about the theological paradox of Christ’s personhood, while drawing parallels across the board linking the body of Christ from the studio system to even the capitalist system. That’s probably not going to be the reason why most people will go and see it, for there’s another quality that I haven’t even gotten to. The movie is goofy. How can you not have a movie about kidnapping a movie star dressed in Caesar garb, involving a communist plot, a homoerotic dancing group of sailors led by Channing Tatum, a Western movie star who can make a lasso out of spaghetti, and a set of twin reporters both played by Tilda Swinton, and not make the movie goofy?

Next page

Or to jump to a page:

Part 1 counting down films # 20-16 can be viewed here.

Part 3 counting down films #10-6 can be viewed here.

Part 4 counting down films #5-2 can be viewed here.

Part 5 of the Countdown, film #1 can be viewed here.

 

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