Friday, December 30, 2016

My Favorite Movies of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1

As part of the special year-in-review portion of a music magazine I subscribe to, one unlucky writer was given the thankless task of trying to tie the disparate albums, songs, artists, trends, and events of the year into a single piece that explained What's Happening Now!! The results were mostly strained, a forced attempt to put incompatible fish in the same aquarium, but I was unexpectedly touched by the last paragraph. The writer wrapped up by saying that for the first time in years, thanks to the combination of Brexit and Trump and an uncertain ecological future and prominent losses both personal and cultural, the strongest music in 2016 felt like a shared community project defending human dignity and life instead of a collection of separate, unconnected voices. I feel the same way about the movies that hit me the hardest this past year.
Robert Warshow, a writer I admire, wrote, "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man." Yes, his early-20th-century imagination couldn't encompass a world where women were also critics, but don't throw him out with the bathwater. It's still a good two sentences. (BTW, I highly recommend a collection of Warshow's reviews and essays called The Immediate Experience.) I had a tough year, so I went to the movies a lot, and I saw a lot of strong films, old and new. I say "favorite" films instead of "best" because I'm just one guy, and "best" is a definitive, pissing-on-my-territory word that serves little purpose in this context. With a few home video exceptions (because they didn't screen theatrically in my city of Austin, Texas), here are the movies I saw on the big screen that made me feel the most like a real human being and the least like a trash can or an ATM or a kid getting pelted in dodge ball. Disappointingly, most of them seem to have been lost in the zeitgeist shuffle, overshadowed by the loud and the pompous.
Potential contenders Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) and Silence (Martin Scorsese) remain unseen because they won't open in Austin until 2017.

My favorite movies of 2016 (in alphabetical order)
Surprisingly, I have 16 favorites (18 if you count the Gomes trilogy as three separate films) and 8 runners-up I liked almost as much.

Arabian Nights Vol. 1: The Restless One/Arabian Nights Vol. 2: The Desolate One/Arabian Nights Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (Miguel Gomes)
This feels like a new kind of political filmmaking, ambitious and personal and risky and bursting with ideas. Borrowing the structure of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, writer/director Gomes explores the impact of economic recession in Portugal, the resultant government austerity cuts and job losses, and the effects on everyday life through a dizzying combination of fantasy, political documentary, lowbrow comedy (including dick and fart jokes), social realist drama, satire, music, dance, and the competitive world of trapping finches and training them for birdsong competitions. The tone, mood, and genre change often, but the three connected films never feel uneven or unbalanced, and the varied soundtrack is full of great music while the cinematography pops with beautiful colors. I've never seen anything like it, not even the other Gomes film I love, 2012's Tabu.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
I don't know where to begin describing this dreamy, cryptic Thai film about soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness housed in a temporary medical clinic inside an old elementary school in a rural village, taken care of by nurses who develop psychic bonds with the sleeping men. Weerasethakul's films are subtly but spectacularly visual, narratively mysterious, and admirably unhurried, full of tactile sensation and supernatural poetry. Simultaneously uplifting, meditative, and creepy, this film made me feel both pleasantly and sadly off-balance.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
I like all of Reichardt's movies, but this one is way up there for me with Old Joy and Meek's Cutoff. In Certain Women, Reichardt adapts three short stories by Maile Meloy about women in a small Montana town: a lawyer (Laura Dern) with an impossible client, a married woman (Michelle Williams) in a strained and tense family dynamic with her husband and teenage daughter (who have an easy rapport she doesn't know how to share) and what happens when she and her husband try to buy some sandstone from an elderly acquaintance, and a young, shy, and awkward ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) (my favorite performance in a movie full of great ones) trying to make friends with a young, shy, and awkward lawyer from Livingston (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class in town. The characters in the three stories are loosely connected, but Reichardt has a light touch and avoids the heavy-handed coincidence and symbolism that directors too often rely on to force connections between characters in multi-story adaptations. Reichardt's movies love and respect landscape and silence and the complex relationships people have with their physical environment, and she trusts her audiences to notice details, looks, and expressions and fill in the spaces that are left open. Reichardt gives all her characters (even the most flawed and irritating) her full empathy, and it's an honest empathy without the sentimentality or forced comfort that too many movies use to lie to us about life's pain.

Entertainment (Rick Alverson)
A bizarre, jarring hybrid of the '70s road movie, the '60s and '70s European art film (particularly mid-period Antonioni and early Wenders), surrealist horror in the David Lynch mode, '90s and 2000s alternative comedy (Neil Hamburger, Tim and Eric), Bressonian distance (lead actor Gregg Turkington says he based his performance on the donkey in Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar), and the loneliness and indignity of the life of the traveling performer (in this case, Turkington as his Neil Hamburger alter ego), Alverson's film uses distance and boredom as aesthetic choices, making the film a difficult, challenging watch, but it's also funny, heartbreaking, frightening, and way too relatable if you're an alienated human who keeps trying to connect, with poor results. This may be a real horror show if you're a traveling musician, comedian, truck driver, salesman, etc., but I was hypnotized by it. Entertainment is a lot more than just a collection of its influences, and I greatly admire its willingness to alienate the audience for its own good. Great soundtrack, too.

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
I wasn't expecting to like this one as much as I did, for a variety of reasons. I grew up a terrible athlete who loved music, movies, and books in a town obsessed with sports and suspicious of art, so I have a somewhat unfair but extreme aversion to all sports, intense sports fans, and jocks. The trailer for this film is so atrocious and misleading, failing to capture the atmosphere and tone and instead presenting it as a dumb comedy about macho jocks getting hit in the balls and trying to score. And, as much as I like Linklater as a director, the only two Linklater films I don't like are his remake of Bad News Bears, which foregoes most of the seedy, hilarious charm of the original film for a bunch of dull scenes of kids playing baseball, and Inning by Inning, his documentary about University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido, which is such a for-baseball-fans-only kind of film that I felt unable to connect as a viewer who was tragically born without the human sports gene. All the marketing blather about this one being a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused wasn't blather at all (though I still hate the phrase "spiritual sequel"). This is a lovable companion film, a warm, plotless ramble through the last weekend before the fall college semester at a state school in 1980, told through the perspective of the baseball team, in particular a freshman pitcher just moving into one of the two baseball houses. The cast of mostly unknowns have a great rapport and are all distinct personalities, and the movie is a generous, funny, personal remembrance of a great time in Linklater's life and further proof that he's a gifted chronicler of American youth. He's one of the few modern directors who can use nostalgia for good, not evil. And when you finally see these guys play baseball two-thirds into the film, it's a great moment.

The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
This two-and-a-half-hour fever dream of Russian-doll and reverse-Russian-doll stories-within-stories is probably the funniest and most ridiculously inventive movie I saw this year. It's like Guy Maddin poured every last bit of his subconscious into a pot, put it on the stove, and turned the burner up all the way. I can't figure out why this movie was mostly treated as minor Maddin when it played to me like a summing up of his entire career. Is it because it's so long or because he used Johnson as co-director to help handle the wild ambitiousness of it all or because individual pieces of it were broadcast on the Internet first? I'll never understand. I laughed pretty much continuously, sometimes at how funny it was and sometimes in awe of the visual audaciousness of the damn thing. I think it's a masterpiece, so cram it with walnuts, those of you who don't.

Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch)
This one's a sentimental choice, because it's a pretty straightforwardly traditional documentary, using talking head interviews, old footage and photos, and some animation, but the subjects and the director are close to my heart, and it captures parts of what I love about the Midwest that generally get overlooked by those who denigrate it as "flyover country." (Until recently, I had a theory that geographic prejudice was the last prejudice that was socially acceptable to air in public, until Donald Trump's candidacy proved me wrong.) In his only appearance in the movie before he gets out of the way and lets the band tell its story, Jarmusch calls The Stooges "the greatest rock and roll band ever." Now that's some hyperbole I can agree with. When I first heard The Stooges' 1970 album Fun House at the age of 18 after years of reading about it, I knew I'd heard my favorite rock and roll record. It's still my favorite, with Raw Power and The Stooges running closely behind. This is such an affectionate tribute to such a great band that was never given the appreciation it deserved in its prime, and James Osterberg, the man called Iggy Pop when he's onstage, is a smart, modest, straightforward, and hilarious storyteller and observer of life. I also like how Jarmusch recognizes The Stooges as The Stooges and not as a preamble to the Iggy Pop story. There is nothing about Iggy Pop's solo career here (though that would be a fascinating documentary, too). This is the story of a band.

Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
This Coen Brothers film was poorly served by its trailer, which made it look like one of their big, elaborate screwball comedies in the Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein (generally, my least favorite type of Coens film), and in the way the studio treated it like reeking garbage, not giving any advance screenings to critics and dumping it in the late January/early February release date graveyard generally reserved for turkeys and disasters. I'm not sure why they had such little faith. It's great. Hail, Caesar! is closer to A Serious Man than screwball comedy, and it has affinities with Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski as well, though the overall worldview is a little less harsh. Josh Brolin plays a decent man, a movie studio head in the 1950s whose Catholic guilt is eating him up because he's been lying to his wife about quitting smoking. He's set upon by bad luck and misfortune involving kidnapped movie stars, gossip columnists, religious decency boards, competing yet somewhat sinister job offers, Russian spies, socialist screenwriters, etc., and he quietly and exasperatedly tries to do the right thing while maintaining his dignity. It's a funny film with tinges of sadness and melancholy and an honest love of classic Hollywood, with meticulous and beautiful set design and cinematography that nevertheless give the performers and the audience room to breathe. These guys have been on a hot streak lately. I hope it continues.

The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park)
Hot damn! Movie sex is usually ridiculous, exploitative, or dull, but this movie's on fire with some genuinely sexy business between the two women leads (Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim), and that's just one of its many virtues. An elaborately twisty thriller set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea and full of ornate doll's-house visuals, stunning closeups, deliriously complicated psychological revenge on terrible men, incredible bookshelves, mind-blowing weirdness, and an approach to shot composition and camera movement that feels both classic and modern, South Korean director Park's cinematic return to his native country after his American film Stoker is a successful reunion.

Lemonade (Beyonce and various co-directors)
As a white guy, I know this may look like self-congratulatory performative ally liberalism, but I'm counting this linked collection of music videos that I never saw in a theater, only on DVD, as one of my favorite movies of the year because it is. This is a genuinely moving, exciting, cohesive piece of cinema by and about black women, and that doesn't happen often enough and should be celebrated when it is. Our culture desperately needs more of it. I like movies about sad white guys as much as the next sad white guy, but I was excited this year to see good and great works of art without white people in them (or if they did show up, they were extras or in the background). If I, a sad white guy, is sick of seeing so many white people on film all the time, I can't even imagine how sick of it you are. One of Beyonce's visual inspirations here is Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, which I write about in the film society and re-release part of this post, and it's pretty serendipitous that I saw both of these films for the first time in the same year.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
Probably the most auteur-driven film on the list, Anna Biller wrote, directed, edited, and co-produced The Love Witch. She also wrote the music, created the costumes and production design, decorated the sets (including hooking throw rugs), and was the art director. She worked on the screenplay for seven years. All that, and she gets to read ostensibly positive reviews that categorize the film as camp and kitsch, a retro goof. It's not. There are some genuinely funny moments and lines in The Love Witch, it looks absolutely spectacular (the '50s and '60s-evoking lighting and rich, deep primary colors are particularly appealing), and the acting is stylized in ways that may disarm viewers uncomfortable with anything but realism, but it's a serious and tragic story about the ways women are damaged by a society that promotes the experiences, preferences, and comfort of men while devaluing these same things for women. Instead of kitsch and camp, Biller's film is formally closer to Hitchcock and Fassbinder and classic Hollywood, with an aesthetic appreciation of glamour. This is a pretty amazing transformation of purpose, resolve, hard work, pain, and imagination into art.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
One of the few movies on my list not lost in the shuffle, Moonlight is getting some seriously good press and award attention, which is surprising because, unlike most films that get award and mainstream press attention, it's genuinely great, has a visual reason to exist, is subtle instead of bombastic, and is a film by and about black people that is not about the historical past (the only black subjects our racist mainstream film culture tends to notice so it can pretend like these aren't still modern problems) and is instead a personal piece of art that turns the messiness of life into visual poetry. There are so many things to love about Moonlight: its unconventional narrative structure, the beautiful performances (including the amazing Janelle Monae, who does so much with a small, quiet part), great music on the soundtrack meaningfully placed in the narrative, the physical sense of place and light and water and faces looking at each other, a heartbreakingly honest conversation at a dinner table between a little boy, a man, and a woman that might be my favorite piece of ensemble acting this year. Like Certain Women, and unlike a lot of other movies, Moonlight's characters are people of few words. Too many movies have hyper-articulate characters saying exactly what they mean in exactly the right words or conversations that artlessly explain what should instead be shown. Moonlight's characters are primarily introverts struggling to get out what's inside or burying it under a front. They convey information with glances, expressions, body language. The real story is told with a raised eyebrow, a nod, a smile, a hand placed on a shoulder, a plate of food lovingly prepared and plated, a phone cradled in a bed.

No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Akerman's final film before her suicide last year at the age of 65 is probably not a good entry point into her large and impressive filmography, but it's one of my favorites of the year for a lot of reasons, most of which I only understand emotionally and can't put into words. I think real engagement with this film depends on a familiarity with her other work because No Home Movie feels like an extended conversation with these other films, a sort of summing up of her style, subject matter, obsessions, history, and life. She may not have known this was going to be the last one, but it feels like a conclusion, a period on a sentence. A sort of documentary/essay film/home movie/avant-garde landscape film hybrid that is not quite any of these things, No Home Movie is made up of footage Akerman shot in her mother's Brussels apartment in the last months of her mother's life, as well as footage of landscapes Akerman drives through, Skype conversations with her mother, and shots of empty rooms. No Home Movie is a heavy one, but it's not without humor, warmth, and beauty.

One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik)
Speaking of heaviness, this black-and-white 3D documentary by the underrated New Zealand director Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly) is a sensitive and expressive look at the creation of art in the wake of devastating loss. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had just begun recording the album that became Skeleton Tree when Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur died in a fall. After returning to the recording process, Cave very hesitantly and cautiously asked his friend Dominik to shoot a film about the making of the record as a way to promote the album without having to do any press interviews. He only wanted to talk about the loss of his son and its impact on his music once, to a friend, and let the film speak for him so he wouldn't have to be asked about it over and over by journalists. And maybe not even that. He wasn't sure he'd talk about it at all. Dominik gave Cave and his family the option to cut anything they were uncomfortable with and to put the film on a shelf forever if they chose. I'm glad they decided in favor of release. Dominik's finished product is an empathetic gift to anyone working through grief as well as a fly-on-the-wall document of the intuitive and instinctual collaboration between musicians who have played together for years, and his inspired use of 3D, which sounds like such a crass and horrible technique on paper, is immersive and beautiful, the silvery black-and-white dreamily expressive. Cave and his wife, clothing designer Susie Bick, are so vulnerable and honest, and their willingness to share their pain and anguish and subsequent embrace of life is a kindness toward anyone in the audience going through similar grief.

Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
British filmmaker Terence Davies began his career with two autobiographical masterpieces about his childhood (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) before turning his attention to literary adaptations (The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea). The connections between these two phases are a keen eye for shot composition, a fascination with the first half of the 20th century, and a sensibility that is both modern and nostalgic. Davies has a yearning, old-fashioned romanticism for the popular and unpopular culture of the early 20th century (a Liverpool native, he thinks The Beatles are the worst thing to happen to music), but growing up poor and gay with a physically abusive father in '40s and '50s postwar England has given him a clear eye for the harshness, brutality, and economic and sexual inequalities of the era that most nostalgists ignore. Davies' films owe a lot to classic Hollywood, early 20th century literature, and pre-rock popular music, but that romanticism exists alongside hard truths, violence, the pain caused by wounded and abusive fathers and husbands, and frank sexuality. Sunset Song, an adaptation of a novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is about Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) and how her deep connection to the land she farms gives her the strength to survive a violent and unpredictable father (Peter Mullan), a pacifist husband ruined by World War I (Kevin Guthrie), and a town that often misunderstands her. I've read that the Scottish accents aren't accurate, and the movie was filmed in New Zealand instead of Scotland, but from my distanced vantage point, Davies has constructed a beautiful piece of classical filmmaking with an uncommon sensitivity to the passage of time and how it can be a friend or an enemy, due to a combination of outside forces and our own choices. Davies shot the outdoor scenes on 70mm film and the indoor scenes digitally, which gives a nice thematic contrast between the two locations without beating the audience over the head with a message.

Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
Long after the media attention he received in the late '90s for Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness has mostly disappeared, Todd Solondz has continued to make hilarious, uncomfortable movies that just keep going deeper in their formal adventurousness, melancholy, and desperation. The second film on my list to owe a debt to Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, Wiener-Dog borrows that film's structure as it follows the same wiener-dog from owner to owner. Those owners are played by Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. Delpy and Letts are wealthy, creepy, ice-cold suburbanites with a sensitive little boy; Gerwig is Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse as an adult, now a lost soul working in a veterinary clinic; DeVito is an unpopular film school professor, both delusional and sympathetic, who can't find any takers for his most recent script; and Burstyn is an elderly woman tired of life who names the dog Cancer. Without announcing anything of the sort, Wiener-Dog feels like a State of the Union, full of sad, angry, lonely, disconnected, and separate people, some full of false hope, others incapable of appreciating what they have, everyone ignorant of what connects them to each other. That sounds like a downer, and it should, but this was also the second-funniest film I saw this year. Granted, you have to have a certain kind of humor to appreciate this film's long, slow-motion, tracking shot of dog diarrhea in a gutter photographed by one of the greatest living cinematographers, Ed Lachman, but if you have that kind of humor, you are a kindred spirit.

Honorable mentions
Some pretty solid runners-up this year.

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Kaufman's second film as director after Synecdoche, New York is a stop-motion animation co-directed by animator Johnson, and the decision to use stop-motion was the right one for this story of a traveling motivational speaker (David Thewlis) trapped in a world where everyone he meets speaks in the same voice (Tom Noonan on multiple duty) until he finally hears a woman with her own speaking voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the hotel. I liked the conceit, I loved the animation, I'm a Kaufman fan, and the three actors doing voice work here are three of my favorites, but I couldn't connect with Thewlis' character and wished Leigh had been the focus. Still, it's strong stuff that didn't get enough attention.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
Excepting festivals, this never played theatrically in Austin, so I had to see it on DVD. Maybe the theatrical experience would have bumped it up a notch. This is my least favorite Wheatley film, but it's still pretty damn good and a big leap in ambition and composition, and it probably takes on a whole new resonance now with the election of Trump. This might be the future.

Into the Inferno and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)
A pair of documentaries, the first streaming on Netflix, the second given a theatrical release. I got to see them both in a theater, thanks to an Austin Film Society screening of the Netflix movie. I'm not sure why the visually marvelous volcano documentary Into the Inferno got the small screen treatment and Lo and Behold, which is about the Internet and primarily consists of interview footage with old white guys, wasn't considered more suitable for streaming, but I don't work in film distribution. The Herzog of the present day has a shtick, particularly in his documentaries, that consists of him playing up the "Werner Herzog" character, but it always amuses me, and he always captures strange moments, incredible images, and the joy of curiosity. Into the Inferno is especially good, with lots of photogenic volcano eruptions and some truly mind-boggling footage of North Korea. Herzog got to film in North Korea thanks to the charismatically lovable volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who steals the show here.

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Nothing more and nothing less than a very strong drama, with a good script by director Lonergan, a lot of great performances, a real sense of place, and a respectful and honest portrayal of working-class people with lots of tiny details that mainstream movies tend to ignore. (Speaking of ignoring, I don't really know how to write about Casey Affleck's settlement of two sexual harassment cases in the context of his work as an actor in this film. I love him as an actor and have since I saw him in To Die For 20 years ago (I still think his brother Ben is a mega-snooze, though), but I believe the women, who have nothing to gain except credit for the work they did and a whole lot to lose, and I'm disappointed that yet another movie dude I admired most likely did something inexcusably shitty.)

Midnight Special and Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols released two movies this year that on the surface don't seem to have much in common with each other or his past work, but are definitely part of the same family. Midnight Special is a sci-fi thriller that pays tribute to the same late-'70s/early '80s Steven Spielberg/John Carpenter/Stephen King touchstones that the TV show Stranger Things did in a more heavy-handed way, but Midnight Special got a fraction of the attention because modern culture is obsessed with TV and treats film like a pile of garbage, even though the "new golden age of TV" is a myth, binge-watching is bad for the soul, and movies will always be better than TV. (Rant over. PS: I watch a lot of TV and love many shows, and I did enjoy Stranger Things.) Loving is a based-on-a-true-story drama about Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial married couple who were arrested in Virginia for miscegenation and successfully took their case to the Supreme Court in 1967. It used to blow my mind that interracial marriage was still illegal in several states just 10 short years before I was born, but we elected Trump, which reminds me that this country has always been racist and insane and pathologically mean-spirited. I hate most based-on-a-true-story movies because they tend to be corny, preachy, visually bland, full of overcooked phony-baloney period details (for example, a film set in 1955 will only have cars from 1955 and only play music from 1955 and the production design will be exaggerated super-'50s), and overly pleased with themselves, but this is a quiet, subtle, lived-in film. What these two seeming departures have in common with Nichols' first three films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud is a character-based focus on working-class Southern and Midwestern families, a visual intelligence, and the mighty Michael Shannon. They both barely missed the list and were tough to cut, but I had to do it for the sad reason that they're just really good instead of great.

My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
French director Desplechin's semi-autobiographical tale of teenage memory and first love is full of great individual scenes and moments but doesn't have the wallop or lunacy of his greatest work, and I was occasionally irritated by the male characters' attitudes toward the female characters. Still, there is magic scattered here, including a great party scene, and I love how Desplechin understood the chaos of being 13-21 and how remnants of those chaotic years remain lodged inside us permanently.

Disappointments
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
I'm a fan of Ti West's horror films, but his first western is an entertaining but mostly pointless exercise in retro style without retro substance. It's enjoyable but almost immediately forgettable, with the wild exception of John Travolta. Travolta seems like the last person on earth who would be good in a western, especially at this late date when he seems to pick roles based on whether he can wear a bad wig and grow unfortunate facial hair, but he's fantastic in this movie. This is absolutely worth watching while eating tacos on a drunken weekend night, especially if you like westerns, but pretty thin soup otherwise.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
I think I've run out of patience for Malick's bird's-eye-view floating camera, ponderous inspirational quote voice-overs, and diaphanous twirling women in skirts and am resigned to the fact that the guy who made Badlands and Days of Heaven is gone forever. This is pretty much the same film as To the Wonder, which I rated too highly based on past Malick love. I probably enjoyed this one more because I prefer Christian Bale to Ben Affleck and the Los Angeles locations are more visually  stimulating than the Oklahoma suburbs of the previous film, but it's pretty much the same goddamn movie. This film has value as a collection of documentary images of parts of Los Angeles that are rarely seen in Hollywood movies, but it fails as a narrative, and Malick's women characters are so poorly written, which is odd because they used to be so great. I do give it points for being weird as shit and obviously intensely personal, but I just can't connect anymore.

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant)
I'm going to say some mean things about this movie, so let me preface it by saying that I love Gus Van Sant, and I will always love Gus Van Sant, but he is probably the most inconsistent director I can never stay mad at. This may be the only time I write these words, but thank God this barely played in theaters. It never came to Austin, so I recently watched it on DVD, and holy shit, is it bad. The Sea of Trees makes Van Sant's previous worst film Finding Forrester look like a cure for (insert favorite terrible disease here). When Van Sant writes his own scripts, his movies are amazing (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), but when he directs the scripts of other writers, the results are a game of Russian roulette with minutes in your life you'll never get back. Sometimes it works (To Die For, Milk), but more often, it doesn't.  The Sea of Trees is cloyingly sentimental, stupid, dull, and racist in an ignorant but not mean-spirited way (at any rate, Van Sant should worry that two of his last three films feature an imaginary yet inspirational Japanese man who saves a suicidal American, though I'm comforted that he was a director-for-hire on both films and not the creative instigator). He will make more great films in the future, and more terrible ones. That's the Van Sant way. I can forgive even his worst films because his good films have built up a lot of goodwill in me (but not Good Will Hunting, that's another Van Sant film I don't like, which reminds me that I saw it on a date in college with a woman who was kind of a bad person and who briefly but strategically caused a lot of chaos and drama in the lives of me and my roommates, but I probably deserved at least 30% of that poor treatment, and I can't stay mad at anybody except Republicans). In conclusion, I love you Gus Van Sant, but sometimes you make it hard to love you.

My list of my favorite film society and repertory screenings is coming in another post because this one got out of control. 
 

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