The studios' Oscar-hopefuls and festival darlings are about to ramp up and drop into theaters but before those make waves and suck up all the attention, I wanted to shout out some of my favorite films so far of the year.
AFTER THE STORM
Somber and dryly funny Japanese film about a faded writer turned private detective and compulsive gambler (Hiroshi Abe) who is struggling to deal with divorce and the gradually dwindling connection he has with his young son. Kirin Kiki as the protagonist's mother delivers a sly and moving performance. Known for his astute and thoughtful direction, the movie is helmed by Hirokazu Koreeda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking).
"I would say that After the Storm is much more informed by my personal life than my other movies. Much of it is based on memories of myself as a child. And then there’s the “How do I portray this?” approach, which is based on several things in Japanese tradition: the house, the way in which tatami is depicted. There’s a whole tradition of this and I certainly see myself as fitting in that history, the history of Japanese drama. I particularly relate to the films of Mikio Naruse and Shinichi Kamoshita, a person whose work I watched very much as a child, a director of family dramas for television. He’s about 80 now. And I feel more and more that I’m exploring Naruse, and feeling Kamoshita’s influence, in terms of how to create drama." -Hirokazu Koreeda
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are both excellent and engaging as the real-life dueling tennis stars. Alongside them are a game, eclectic ensemble in this rousing and touching sports drama based upon the famed and socially significant 1973 match. A crowdpleaser, yes, but one that rounds out its characters with insight and compassion and pays attention to detail in artful ways (Linus Sandgren's elegant photography and Mary Zophres' spot-on costumes are just some of the tech highlights).
"I think [the movie] caught the essence of the time, the essence of my life, and what I was dealing with. I think the movie caught the essence of what Bobby Riggs was going through, too. I think they caught the essence of what we were dealing with on and off the court — off being probably more interesting in some ways, I think. I thought Steve Carell did an amazing job of capturing the different layers of Bobby, and the authenticity and accuracy of him as a human being. And I think Emma captured who I am. It's kind of eerie actually. If I have my head down, not watching, just listening to the dialogue, her voice sounds exactly the same [as mine]. I don't enunciate well; she got it just right. And she got the phrasing, the tempo, all that in my speech patterns. She must have worked really hard on that." -Billie Jean King
Extraordinarily atypical of the traditional rah-rah war film, director Christopher Nolan and editor Lee Smith shape the complicated story of Dunkirk through separate points-of-view. It has the burnished look of a traditional picture but it's a bizarre piece, with a lucid, mostly dialogue-free narrative. It's also strangely distant from the subject matter with gorgeous visuals shot on 35 mm and a thrumming Hans Zimmer soundscape. The sense of wide-spread suffering is overshadowed by themes of isolation, small scope incidents of violence and the coalescing of disparate lives.
"It was very carefully orchestrated. Literally the film was always designed to be the third act of a movie. You drop into the action from the first frame, no backstory. There was no let up in the sense of dread, just this burning desire for survival without all of the exposition and the dialogue that would normally be attributed to a World War II film. We didn’t have the ability to crosscut between the war room and the generals and all of the traditional stuff you’d have in a war movie." -editor Lee Smith
At 88, Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for his acid westerns like El Topo, is frankly still doing whatever he pleases in his late career with this daring and vibrant autobiographical tale of his life in Chile. It's a messy movie with occasionally beautiful and sometimes garish visual imagery. Sometimes brash and brazen and occasionally a sentimental, meditative sojourn on mortality.
"I am not speaking in reality of myself... I am mixing art creation with real life... I'm not working with rationality, but with emotionality, to show the viewer his or her capacity for sublime feeling… in this case of me and my family, it is a public display of family therapy. And that is real. Not the film." -Alejandro Jodorowsky
Jordan Peele's perceptive, funny and masterful horror film is the best, complex and layered of the genre since The Silence of the Lambs. But it's also just a flat-out great picture overall, with a great ensemble and technical bravura--brimming with Peele's sobering, witty and ingenious ideas. As we watch young Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) stuck in the woodsy, remote enclave of his girlfriend's (Allison Williams) seemingly genial family, peculiar incidents begin to stack up until the twisty, breathtaking climax that cements the picture as one of the most subversive popular entertainments of the decade so far.
"The gestation period for this idea kind of spanned several years, and I think one of the most important milestones in that process was just realizing that every true horror, human horror, American horror has a horror movie that deals with it and allows us to face that fear, except [that] race in a modern sense, hadn't been touched. It really hadn't been touched in my opinion since Night of the Living Dead 50 years ago. Maybe with the film Candyman. That to me, I just saw a void there. So it really started with this notion of like, this has to be possible, let's figure it out." -Peele
Absorbing doc weaves in and out of the lives of various passengers as they ride along the Empire Builder. A celebratory documentary, skillfully assembled and a fitting swan song for legendary and groundbreaking filmmaker Albert Maysles.
"After many months of negotiating permission with Amtrak, our small crew was given full access to film on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. We took three round trips from Chicago to Portland/Seattle and back, finding all of our subjects spontaneously on these trips. Our Story Producer Martha Wollner and an Associate Producer were tasked with canvassing the train as soon as we boarded, and they would begin meeting passengers and getting a sense of who might be interesting on camera or at least willing to participate. They would then pass along the passengers’ info and location to one of our four to five cinematographers who would also themselves meet passengers as they explored the train. Sometimes we’d be able to record several hours of someone’s story and sometimes we’d only have captured several minutes of footage before the passenger had to disembark at their stop." Co-Directors Lynn True and Nelson Walker
I was surprised how much I loved this shaggy, ramshackle NASCAR heist yarn. Much is owed to Channing Tatum's charismatic lead and Adam Driver's eccentric supporting turn as his one-armed brother. The blend of droll comedy, and slowly-paced observation with energetic slapstick works well under Steven Soderbergh's beautifully-attuned direction.
"If it weren’t different enough, then I don’t think it would have appealed to me. It fit in this place where I was excited by the inversion that was necessary. They have no technology, no money. They are not criminals. One of the biggest differences between Logan Lucky and an Ocean’s film is in the Ocean’s films they’re already criminals. They’re already con men. This is their world. They’re multi-generational recidivists. And here you have to watch a group of people kind of learn... how to put a job together. There are a lot of trust issues involved because some of these people know each other and some of them don’t. -Soderbergh
Writer / Director Oliver Assayas has a way of hooking us in with dreamy imagery and taut plot-lines that often unravel in unexpected, quizzical ways. Entertaining, slick ghost story / thriller / psychological drama with a bewitching lead turn by Kristen Stewart.
"On Personal Shopper, I was like, "oh man, this is going to kill me, I can tell." I have experience with loss. I don't have experience with mourning death. I think there are few catalysts that send you unanswerable, existential questions that are very necessary. But not satisfying because there's no resolve, but they're very necessary to move forward. It's either traumatic, traumatic events such as death and loss on a grand scale, or extreme physical anxiety. I'm so physical that I'm often times really limited by it, and it starts a thought process for me that absolutely is the same one that Maureen has, which is, "is this fucking real? I don't even know if I can go on, I might actually just not be able to go on." So that, I knew, is painful and scary, and the only way that we could do it for real is if you abandon all of your default facets, and you actually become honest about how incapable and unknowing we are, rather than relying on all of these constructs that you've built in order to move on. It alienates you immediately, you become like a foreigner in the entire world." -Stewart
A QUIET PASSION
I gasped early on with a brilliant use of time lapse in the portraits of family members (the luminous photography is Florian Hoffmeister) and for the remaining run time, I was entranced. This unhurried, aching Emily Dickinson biopic features a mesmerizing Cynthia Nixon, not to mention great supporting players (especially Jennifer Ehle and Joanna Bacon). Directed by Terence Davies; his rich and witty script pierces.
"When I’d written the script, I thought, “We’ve got to have that 10, 15 minutes, however long it goes, to introduce all these people, but also to lay down the template of the film, the nature of her relationship to religion and her family.” But it couldn’t have been a long, gradual “they grow up and get old” — it would have taken too long and we simply didn’t have the money, it was as simple as that. So what is the simplest way of doing it? When I looked at the photographs, the simplest way to do it was track in on them as they aged. It was succinct — and it was cheap. There were just two tracks, one when they were young and one when they were old. When we did it, we told the actors, “You mustn’t blink.” We did Cynthia last, and she said, “Sorry, I’m a blinker.” I said, “Well, try your best.” And at the end of the track on her, she just half-blinked." -Davies
A good pairing with another humanist documentary--In Transit--Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands bring us to Uncertain, Texas. Lush, green and beautiful-looking, we meet a scattering of townspeople hanging by a thread as the socioeconomic and environmental changes continue to shift. It's a poetic, metaphorical film, with deep insight into redemption, American poverty and the human condition.
"The biggest challenge in making “Uncertain” was that for a really long time we didn’t know what the film was about exactly. We knew is that we had these great characters, with extraordinary stories in an incredible place. Our instinct was to keep filming. We could feel it, but we couldn’t explain what the story was. It was about a year into filming when it really started to cohere. Oh the irony of making a film called “Uncertain” and being uncertain what your film was about." -McNicol & Sandilands