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Brooklyn (2015 Top Movies, no.6)

Brooklyn premiered at Sundance, right at the beginning of 2015, to a strong reception that guaranteed it a major distribution deal (one of the biggest to ever come out of the festival). I cite this not as a proxy for its quality, but to wonder: could anyone have predicted how suddenly relevant the film would become between then and now? It released wide in late November, at the end of a long, eventful year that would bring a surge in immigration (see: the news), followed by all the political clippings that entails. Additionally, this is the first entry I’ll tackle with a real standing in the Oscar conversation (I really did have it at this spot, and was halfway through writing this post when it was announced as a PGA nominee), and the timeliness won’t hurt its chances. Of course, this is all digression with no bearing on the movie itself, but it may be what led me – and hopefully others who’d otherwise overlook it – to truly linger on the film’s message after the final reel, and what makes its emotional core all the more enthralling.

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There’s a good chance you’re among those who intend to see this film but are still patiently waiting for the chance, so fair warning: read no further than this sentence to remain unspoiled. For Brooklyn is that rare low-key parable whose simplicity belies its stature, managing to be a sweeping, invigorating epic absent any of the typical interventions common to awarded dramas. The film’s focus is not to tackle a social issue, nor to examine a controversial persona, nor to publicly unearth some historical secret. It may still accomplish all of those things depending on your mileage, but its mere goal is bringing to life a story worth telling and a place in time worth reliving. Based on a novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, the center is Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl moving from Ireland to New York in the post-war years, hoping to find and build a new life as she leaves behind the family she loves. New York’s 1950s-era immigrant chapter is gorgeously recreated (only four days of the American scenes were shot on location), with all its grounding imperfections in the familiarly-recounted settings of yore. From Eilis’s shabby boarding house to the bustling schools, diners, shops and Irish churches that become fixtures of her world, everything is more than picturesque; it feels vividly lived-in.

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Dimly lit roads and buses form the transitive tissue of her every day, but are kindled warmer when they become the space for courtship from a lively Italian boy (Emory Cohen) who begins accompanying her on the way home from class. This eventually leads to a memorable day for the two at Coney Island, yet their standard evening commutes through the city, filled with inconsequential conversation, are no less absorbing and cinematic. And, along with the production, that is of course due largely to Brooklyn’s stunningly natural cast, every member so convincingly at home in its world, from Eilis’s shopkeeper bosses to the boarding house owner to the baffling accounting teachers of her night-school. There’s no need for any of them to lean on artificial inflections for the sake of dating the period, nor do they require beats of spectacle or turns of phrase to stay in our minds. They all simply are, their sincerity and reality second-nature. It’s such modern sensibility that further elevates John Crowley’s filmmaking, infusing the classic with the new, and imprinting the young, flawed, progressive setting with a nudging touch of the city and community that it will eventually become.

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Then we cross the midpoint, and, with its single dramatic development, the film sets into motion a second half that feels almost like an entire second film – not in terms of overstaying its welcome (the epic breezes along), but in how both halves are founded with equal depth. Circumstances bring Eilis back to Ireland to deal with family affairs, and the return to her hometown (this time shot mostly on location), to our amazement, becomes as realized a recreation as New York. And that shatters us, as we see Eilis captivated by the notion that, if she so chose, she could willingly undo all she made for herself in America and come home to rebuild again. Viewed at a distance, this is probably the most expected direction for the film to take, but it is no less involving and no less devastating the more the prospect becomes lushly potent, anchored on a wonderful seaside getaway set opposite Eilis’s date at Coney Island.

 

We can feel the tearing struggle brewing within Eilis, even as she keeps it silently contained and, crushingly, allows her life in America to fade into memory. It can justifiably be said that this is a plot with no true antagonist, nor even any party forcing Eilis to choose one side over the other, and so it is Eilis herself, arguably, who stands as the only character threatening to break morality and create her own conflict. That’s beautiful. That’s incredible. It’s a masterful narrative triumph and a towering ode to classic storytelling in a classic tale, the kind that has become a rarity in this day and age. Brooklyn is a film about home, and in its course becomes a welcome homecoming for the golden days of cinema in all their grand tradition.

 

Details:

Director: John Crowley; Writer: Nick Hornby; Director of Photography: Yves Bélanger; Editor: Jake Roberts; Composer: Michael Brook

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jane Brennan, Julie Waters, Jim Broadbent, Jessica Paré

Country: Ireland, United Kingdom, Canada co-production

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Dope (2015 Top Movies, no.7)

Is it wrong to vote for Dope as the most purely entertaining movie I saw last year? Possibly. Here’s the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a black male high school senior who’s intelligent, talented, prolific, and miraculously clean of any taint from the crime-ridden neighborhood he grew up in. Partly because, by virtue of him and his only friends being geeks who’re into “white shit” (like skateboards, TV on the Radio, and Donald Glover), the dealers would rather beat him up and steal his bike than sell him dope. On the bright side, he has straight-As, high SAT scores, and an upcoming interview with a Harvard alumnus. So his principal naturally tells him that he doesn’t have a shot at getting into Harvard, that he needs to quit writing creative college applications that stand out from the crowd, and that his profile should highlight growing up poor and never knowing his father. Malcom frowns and quietly accepts the indictment, clearly – and deservedly – more tired of the cliché than we are.

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Then he wakes up one day and innocently finds a gun and a bag of dope in his backpack at school (of course), followed by a threatening phone call from a drug dealer demanding he hand everything over or get his punk ass beaten up (of course), which pulls him deep into a spiral of – well, you know how it goes. Or the way it usually goes in movies. Except that when this happens to a white kid, it’s a comedy, and when it happens to a black kid, it’s a tragedy. Meaning that it’s going to screw up Malcolm’s alumni interview (scheduled later that day), his chances of getting into a good college, and the rest of his life. If only he could be a white kid right now, huh? It’s the unspoken use of that enraging fictional truth (all the more poignant for being real life-reflective) that really draws us in, and brings the overriding threat to Malcolm and his friends up to a whole new level.

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The message would be horrifying – it should be horrifying – but damn it, director Rick Famuyiwa (an entirely new name to me, I’m ashamed to admit) makes it all so electrifying. The script seems to cackle as it pulls out one clever beat after the other; I already feel bad about spoiling the Donald Glover joke, but don’t worry – that’s the distant tip of the stack, and I won’t go into any more details of one of the year’s most outrageous plots. There are conversational sidebars peppered through both main and incidental characters, with topics ranging from Obama, Legend of Zelda, the “N”-word, Coachella – all knowingly Tarantino-esqueTM, yet with their own sly, edgier groove. Going round the table, the editing’s slick, the track selections are a nerd-shaming dream, the score has my personal vote for best original song, and the geek-inspired fashions that permeate the film are startlingly hip. The relatively-untested Shameik Moore (his first feature film role) leads the energy with a soft, exacting performance, complemented well by Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and a hilarious guest role from Blake Anderson. They’ll keep you invested in wanting to see something good come out of this for everybody, only to break your heart whenever a chillingly stereotypical plot turn rears its head.

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It’s in strangely similar spirit to 2014’s Dear White People, teasing you with elements that should cause instinctive discomfort, yet baiting you to forget them and enjoy every minute of its rock-solid, superbly written programming – which makes the set-up punches to your guilt nerve all the more effective. But while Dope may not immediately feel as angry, direct, on point, or aggressive as Dear White People was, I’m willing to bet my possibly-ignorant ass that it’s just as subversive (and important) a takedown of the tired double-standard, if not moreso. That the subtext happens to be layered in through the humor, music, and occasional gratuity we associate with more exploitative films speaks all the better to its applaudable daring. And, yes, it makes for a damn fine piece of entertainment. Again: that song.

 

Details:

Writer and Director: Rick Famuyiwa; Director of Photography: Rachel Morrison; Editor: Lee Haugen; Music: Germaine Franco

Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Blake Anderson

Country: United States

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015 Top Movies, no.8)

Oddly, this may be the movie on the list that I found the hardest watch. Not for the explicit sex between the 15-year-old main character and her mother’s boyfriend (there’s much juicier stuff coming down the line, rest assured), which director Marielle Heller treats with smartly offhanded regard. What gets me is how closely this hits the mark on one of the secrets of growing up: that no matter how you do things, or what you aim for, you’ll do something wrong.

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Titular girl Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) lives with her recently-divorced mother (Kristen Wiig). Perhaps under the spell of depression, mom has fallen back into the bohemian lifestyle, having friends over every day to smoke pot and party with. Minnie doesn’t hate her for it; but the spell doesn’t seem to lift, not even after her mother finds a new boyfriend in Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Soon both Minnie and her younger sister grasp how rudderless and messy their lives are going to be. Much has been said (in film and otherwise) of teenage turbulence, and the strange pressure to make the choices you’re supposed to make, without really knowing what they are or why. But Minnie has no role models to take after: her mother, whether or not she’s sober, seems reluctant to show the affection she used to. Her comically-rigid father (Christopher Meloni) can’t see past his own neuroses. Her best friend and confidant, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), brags about promiscuity, then breaks down together with Minnie when faced with blowing boys they’ve just met. And – as stated above – she’s secretly having sex with Monroe, throwing any chance of responsible guidance from him out the window. So she takes charge of herself, guidance be damned, and it’s in Powley’s unflinching exuberance to make something of her life that the film earns its presentation as a comedy (at least in part). She makes choices that we know will lead nowhere good, and yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to cheer on her boldness, then neither can we bring ourselves to judge her – or even come up with choices we’d know in our hearts to be better.

 

But in the midst of her cheerily self-inflicted chaos, Minnie finds something special: a penchant for drawing, inspired by an unseen female cartoonist she adores (the film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, which, though recently back in print, I haven’t read). It’s not the kind of thing that Kimmie, her mom’s stoner friends, or even the tamer kids in class would find cool, but it pulsates her, and she privately keeps at what will show as genuine talent. This is used by the film as a device to mix animation with live action, with Minnie’s drawings taking life as moving cartoon cut-outs.  Refreshingly, the script never undercuts this as escapism; it is simply worldview, not fantasy. Though it quickly leads the film’s visual style, the vivid color and lanky energy bringing flavor to the (intentionally) drab, dry footage of an increasingly dull reality, Heller is careful to keep it in reserve.

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The cartoons are neither idealized nor flattering of their subjects, which often includes Minnie herself. All the more, then, does this provide her a positive grapple with her headspace, from body-image issues to her brazen libido. Under her skin, she knows all these are secondary to what really bothers her: the feeling that, despite so much of her carefree life spent mixing with all variety of people – and lovers – she can’t shake the awful, desperate sense that she’s lonely. Not everyone grew up in luckier circumstances than Minnie, but I’m guessing many who get to watch this film did (myself included). Does it really matter, though? It’s almost natural to feel adolescently rudderless, never sure what you’re supposed to grow into, or even what you want to grow into. There are harsh lessons that Minnie learns, borne of her choices; lessons that no one, not even a regular household, could have prepared her for, and by the end of things, we know she’s found a painful solace, held together by force of will, that will keep her whole.

 

This is the first feature film directed by Marielle Heller, and that floors me. A rough parallel can be drawn to 2009’s Fish Tank, a similarly-astounding, independently produced sophomore effort from Andrea Arnold that shares superficial plot elements. It’s a favorite of mine, and one of the great films of the past decade, but I might carefully admit that Heller’s achievement here is more impressive (I’ll leave an outright judgment between the films themselves for another day). The broad tonal spectrum is tightly woven, the stylistic turns are tacitly restrained, and the cast brims with unmistakable depth that we can’t break away from. Rarely do we see a director this assured on her or his first outing, and I’ll follow her next project even if it ends up as challenging a watch to me as this one was.

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And it needs to be said: it’s one of the rare films directed and written by a woman, based on source material by a woman, and starring a largely female cast. That (aside from it being one of this year’s best films) it is also very easily the best comic book movie of the past few years (and acknowledged by critics as such), in a period when said medium has Hollywood in its pocket, in the same year that Fun Home dominated the Tony awards…that’s a spectacular triumph for all parties involved.

 

Details:

Writer and Director: Marielle Heller; Director of Photography: Brandon Trost; Editor: Marie-Héléne Dozo and Koen Timmerman; Music: Nate Heller

Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, Madeleine Waters, Christopher Meloni

Country: United States

The End of the Tour (2015 Top Movies, no.9)

Details:

Director: James Ponsoldt; Writer: Donald Margulies; Director of Photography: Jakob Ihre; Editor: Darrin Navarro; Composer: Danny Elfman

Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg

Country: United States

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At age 46, author David Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished 3rd novel as the capper to one of the most highly-regarded bodies of modern literature. The End of the Tour sets us 12 years beforehand, when Wallace reached an unexpected high from the success of his 2nd novel, Infinite Jest. Here, the author (played by a marvelous Jason Segel) is interviewed on the last leg of his book tour by then-Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, in a certain-to-be-underrated performance). The publisher wants the inside story on Wallace, and to Lipsky’s surprise, the genial writer may just give it, albeit slowly. On the surface, this is a simple reenactment of real-life conversations (the full account was published by Lipsky as the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself in 2010) between two enthusiasts of literature and pop culture; a perfect tonic for both fans of subdued cinema, in the vein of My Dinner with Andre, or, on the flipside, followers of the modern podcast. It could’ve been 2 hours of film without conflict, and that would’ve been fine for book and art lovers.

 

Except there’s something else Lipsky wants even more than he wants the story. He wants to learn what it is that separates a giant like Wallace from the countless other all-too-forgettable struggling novelists out there (himself included). He’d never ask it aloud, but wants the answer to the worst query in journalism: where does Wallace get his ideas? At each sit-down, Lipsky casually brings up an observation about the author, masked as minutiae, but knowingly sensitive enough to prod him for a revelation. Each time, Wallace does the unprecedented; he actually answers with a sincere, open-wound secret, but it never seems to be what Lipsky expects, taking them further and further away from the discourse – and the image of Wallace – he has in mind. If that makes the film sound like a thriller, it isn’t; Margulies’ script remains simmeringly casual throughout, drawing the two leads closer but never losing their apprehensiveness. Also of credit to this are the performances themselves, under Ponsoldt’s assured direction, with neither role unbalancing the other.

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Eisenberg brings one of his most carefully-measured efforts to the table, slipping the right temper of unease and frustration in between the infectious thrill of getting to bond with an idol. That thrill soon builds – maybe too quickly – into an undeserved confidence, as it so often does between men. Then other parties enter the picture, and the unease threatens a bit too unevenly in Wallace’s direction. By the time things come to a head, there is a tragic strain to the casual familiarity we saw the two develop. Ironically, it may be in the fallout that Lipsky gains the answer closest to the one he’s looking for.

 

As to Segel’s performance? More than a convincing approximation of the author, he breathes effortlessly as the unfairly-complex figure that Lipsky cannot seem to unravel, a mix of delicate sincerity, sophisticated patience and childlike reservation. Molding his Wallace role in line with the eccentric artists of the biopic genre (see this year’s Love & Mercy, which, if I get around to it, I’ll have on my “other” list) would’ve not only been easy, but potentially award-drawing. He digs instead to the author’s realness, and every revelation not only rings true to himself, but feels right to us.

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“It’s two people in a room. If you’re going to do […] entertainment that doesn’t have just two people talking, you’re missing the whole essence of what’s human.” Anyone passionate about storytelling, regardless of which influences are drawn, can lose themselves in the beat of two people who simply talk to each other about things that matter to them. Lipsky didn’t get what he wanted, but Wallace left him with something invaluable – including enough enigma to keep him (and us) questioning.

The Tribe (2015 Top Movies, no.10)

(Let’s hope I actually see this through. Partly as an exercise, I’ll be writing up my Top 10 films of the year, posting 1 a day from January 1st to January 10th. Based on my timezone, the Producers Guild of America nominations for the 10 best films of 2015 should be released around January 6th, while the Directors Guild of America will announce their feature film nominees January 13th, which should make the timing fun for me.

 

I required all films in this list to meet only 2 basic criteria: a) those I personally saw over the year 2015 (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and The Big Short are notable awards season releases that I held off on seeing, and won’t magically be included if I end up seeing them over the next few days), and b) those that are dated as 2015 releases by their US distribution date. For the uninitiated, the 2nd criteria is to allow for inclusion of films (especially those produced outside of the US) that, while screened or under very limited release in 2014, were largely inaccessible to most viewers before 2015. There are a number of films I’m excited for that I would’ve loved to consider for this list, like Viva, Dheepan, and Sunset Song, but the cutoff has to come somewhere.

 

Oh, and while I’d call any of the films that made my Top 10 immediate recommendations for anyone (yes, I’m sparing you the inclusion of Irrational Man), this is still purely a favorites list, and not a ranking of quality, with my preferences being as personal as they get.

 

So onto the first entry. See heading of this post)

 

Details:

Writer and director: Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy; Director of photography: Valentyn Vasyanovych; Editor: Valentyn Vasyanovych

Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy.

Country: Ukraine

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I’ll try to keep spoilers for the movies on this list to a minimum, but this first entry could already push me to detail a few critical scenes. A simple description of The Tribe wouldn’t do justice to how well I believe it works under its experimental face, as the “hook” – 120-minutes with no dialogue, no soundtrack, and no subtitles, or any discernible text to guide you through the plot – folds seamlessly into the narrative from well within the first act.

 

Set at a boarding school for deaf-mutes, all characters in the film communicate through sign language, with no source allowed to us for literal interpretation (unless you know how to sign. Director Slaboshpytskiy didn’t). Wide shots are used for almost the entire running time, with faces often obscured, leaving us with no clear expressions to read from the characters. Oh, and it shifts genre gears, going from juvenile angst to crime to romance (or at least passionate lust). And if you’re the socially conscious type, you may distract yourself with the need to know whether or not the movie is tackling something topical.

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The key is none of these turn out to be hurdles, and all contribute to the engagement. We follow a newly arrived student at said-boarding school, who, after a few days of being pushed around, decides to fit in by accepting an initiation into the resident mafia. Soon he proves his thuggish worth, and joins them out on nights of street theft and pimping out their fellow schoolgirls to truckers. But even as the plot lends itself to violence (there’s an impressively choreographed schoolyard brawl shortly into the film, kept spartanly bloodless) and sex, it’s the mute conversations that never fail to steal your attention. The camera’s distant perspective (shot mostly in unbroken takes from steady vantages) proves no less personal than close-ups in a speaking film, as it allows latitude to an almost-feral depiction of sign, with fierce, kinetic gestures from the vigorous cast. You’ll stop trying to guess at what the exchanges mean, and simply trust in their body language, even as they turn towards the unsettling.

 

Later in the film, the protagonist convinces one of the mafia girls (and not-too-hidden object of his desire) to have intercourse with him. As he bends in to kiss her she shoves his face away, denying any more than casual sex. They proceed to screw, and again, we are spared of any vocal cues (no, not even the usual emphatic moans). Yet what begins as something dispassionately animal slowly, strangely gains a sheen of tenderness through their physical rhythm, both sides opening to their nakedness and urge, until it’s no surprise to see them consummate what was at first denied. Later still, we follow the girl to a different kind of scene altogether, and watch as she bares herself just as nakedly to another party, but to a far more gruesome purpose. If you can view this scene without turning away, more power to you. Otherwise, you may need to cover your ears, as well, as this is the one instance where Slaboshpytskiy breaks his rule and allows the girl to audibly wail for minutes that will feel longer than they are. It doesn’t matter that he keeps it bloodless; the gravity is more than delivered.

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If there is a societal message here (apparently under debate, according to press releases), it’s arguably secondary. The setting and medium uncover truths of primeval violence and base instinct, festering in the many marginalized communities that may be overlooked or left neglected throughout the world, regardless of age or class. Or maybe even in those we simply choose to call sanitized, knowing there’s more animal to them than we pretend. Perhaps it’s prevalent in the deaf community, or perhaps it is not, but there’s enough reason to believe it can manifest anywhere. And it feels more potent in The Tribe than in any film I’ve seen this year.