Saturday, February 18, 2017

JOSEF VON STERNBERG'S ANATAHAN (1953)



One of the most unusual, and unusually moving swansongs in cinema history, Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (a.k.a. The Saga of Anatahan) returns to American screens this spring in a new restoration which seems destined not to only buff up the movie’s obvious visual splendor but also its standing as an essential and fully engaged work of a master Hollywood stylist rather than simply a curious end post to a remarkable career.

In the early ‘50s Sternberg was coming off two movies made for Howard Hughes—the gorgeously sublimated cold-war adventure Jet Pilot (finished in 1950 but cut extensively by Hughes and held up for release until 1957) and Macao (1952), on which Sternberg and Hughes clashed again, resulting in the director’s replacement by Nicholas Ray. Disillusioned by Hollywood, Sternberg, a long-time devotee of Japanese culture, capitalized on his separation from Hughes and began investigating the possibility, one he had been pursuing on and off for over 15 years, of producing a film in Japan with Japanese producer Kawakita Nagamasa. For the duration of World War II that collaboration remained an impossibility, and according to film scholar Sachiko Mizuno in her formidable and richly researched essay "The Saga of Anatahan and Japan" it was delayed further by Kawakita’s status after the war as a class-B war criminal, which meant a three-year ban from working in the Japanese film industry.


Sternberg became fascinated by a story he’d read in the New York Times about Japanese WWII survivors who had been discovered living on Anatahan, one of the remote islands comprising the Marianas archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Since he and Kawakita had talked about a Japanese-U.S. co-production that might in some small way address the futility and stupidity of war, the story of what happened on Anatahan seemed like a natural proposition. As quoted in Mizuno’s essay, Sternberg addressed his motivations and desires for the movie:

“The reason why I decided to make a film adaptation of the Anatahan incident was not because the incident is pertinent to the Japanese nor because it happened to non-American people.  How do human beings behave in the most unfortunate situation?  This point is what I am most interested in.  It doesn’t matter what kind of racial background these people have.  This great story is almost as great as Robinson Crusoe… I am a humanist, and I love Japan.  I will never make a film to displease the Japanese people.”


Pointedly, Sternberg felt little obligation to hew strictly to the historical facts of the incident, and that decision is at the root of the movie’s extraordinary empathy, and Sternberg’s innate sense of how style can emerge and serve a work that in other hands might have had a more obviously documentarian texture. Rather than staging the trials of the shipwrecked Japanese naval crew, and the couple they find already living on the island, with “you-are-there” immediacy, the director placed his cast of largely inexperienced Japanese actors on lush jungle sets which on their face might have no more topographic verisimilitude than the average episode of Gilligan’s Island. Yet it won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Sternberg’s more appreciated work with Marlene Dietrich that the thick atmosphere of foliage and terrain to which the sailors must adapt, and especially the marvelously observed detail of the house in the trees which serves as the castle of “queen bee” Keiko (Akemi Negishi) and her abusive but also strangely submissive husband Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), would be so seductively exploited by Sternberg for every ounce of expressive, oppressive beauty. There are moments when Sternberg’s camera creeps through the jungle in hypnotic pursuit of Keiko in which it seems to be under the same spell as that of her mesmerized male subjects. Attuned as we are by the play of light and shadow amongst the leaves and the dense humidity of the atmosphere which is, of course, informed by the intense sexuality of Keiko’s hold over the men, that forbidding foliage takes on the same erotic qualities as the shadow-draped parlors of Dietrich’s mysterious seductress Concha in The Devil is a Woman (1935).

Sternberg also employs another device which might be seen as distancing but in fact serves exactly the opposite purpose. The entirety of the dialogue spoken by the Japanese cast was left deliberately untranslated—Sternberg was obviously confident that the humane universality of his intended point would transcend barriers of language. But the director further augments that point through first-person narration, read by Sternberg himself. To hear an English-speaking non-Japanese relating the nuances, circumstances and poetic implications of the harrowing experience of these survivors, their warring impulses of desire, political and sexual manipulation, and their waning hopes of survival, is to absorb Sternberg’s strategy of achieving a commonality of experience. This is to say nothing of the unexpectedly powerful emotional response to a situation which the movie evokes and from which American audiences at the time might have found themselves intellectually as well as emotionally withdrawn.


The primary marvel of Anatahan, as it turns out, is that empathy which Sternberg teases out of his subject. Ironically, that quality, as much as any of the formal stylistic devices he employed, might be at the core of the movie’s difficulty in reaching and being absorbed by audiences and by history. American audiences certainly might have been expected to resist a film made so soon after the official resolution of World War II that explicitly insisted upon the vulnerable humanity of Japanese soldiers, and by extension the Japanese citizenry, and critics at the time weren't exactly welcoming either. (Los Angeles Times critic Philip Scheuer dismissed the film upon its release as “a curiosity among motion pictures that may have some esoteric interest but that to this itinerant filmgoer is largely a bore.”)

But Sternberg’s master stroke is how that humanity is defined and sustained throughout the film, how it informs even the basest and most indefensible actions of the people who find themselves in the increasingly untenable position of finding a way to survive their experience, much less gaining even the slightest understanding of it. The film ends with a sequence in which the seven survivors emerge from an airplane back onto Japanese soil, and as they make their way toward the camera, smiling, the parade is interrupted by a shot of Keiko observing from a shadowed distance, accompanied by the voice of Sternberg as narrator: “We are home at last, and if I know anything about Keiko, she too must have been here.” Keiko then observes another parade, as each of the dead men approach the camera with grave expressions quite in contrast to the survivors previously seen, her haunted remembrance of those, including Kusakabe, who did not come back, while the distant echo of a samisen and an Okinawan folk song fade into memory on the soundtrack. Similarly, though the experience at the heart of the Anatahan incident may have faded into the mist of history, Sternberg has insured that the valuable lesson of humanity learned in its retelling has not. Like the strings of that samisen, Anatahan continues to reverberate.



(Anatahan is currently playing is Los Angeles through February 21 at the Cinefamily and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center through February 22, and is scheduled for further engagements in Seattle, Austin, Cleveland and Toronto in March and May. Playdate details and more available at the Kino Lorber Web site.)

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

NOSTALGIA AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE



Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.

When the poster for American Graffiti (1973) asked the question “Where were you in ’62?” it was marketing a trend, spiked by the increasing popularity of the theatrical musical Grease, for audiences of a certain age to look backward to a time when life wasn’t ostensibly so complicated, when your life was still out there waiting to be lived, to a time when America hadn’t yet “lost its innocence.” The demarcation point for that alleged loss is often assigned to the upheaval of grief and national confusion experienced in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, so it was no accident that the setting for American Graffiti’s night of cruising, romancing and soul-searching was placed a little over a year before that cataclysmic event. The interesting thing about Graffiti was the aggressiveness with which that nostalgia for that “simpler time” was sold. It may well be that generations before had pined for the days of their youth, but baby boomers were probably the first to have that longing packaged into pop culture, ready to be consumed.


The marketing for Graffiti itself now looks a little on the quaint side, sans the relentless of the multimillion-dollar campaigns routinely unleashed by studios these days. Promotion of the movie rode primarily on savvy marketing to theaters and, most of all, a hit soundtrack album packed with ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll, stitched together aurally with bits of dialogue and the howling of Wolfman Jack, the movie’s mysterious presence on the airwaves. The album even came with liner notes which touted the movie’s significance both as a work of cinema and as generational experience. And the whole campaign was so effective that when the movie played at the local drive-in in my hometown it sold out an unprecedented seven-day engagement (most movies ran a maximum of four). All my friends, teenagers in the early ‘70s when the movie came out but who were only three or four years old during the time in which American Graffiti is set, loved the movie’s freewheeling attitude and we hastily adopted small-town cruising as a social model for extracurricular fun. Admittedly, the loss of Kennedy didn’t hit we who were still in diapers when the shots rang out in Dallas as much more than a bittersweet postscript, but I’d wager for most of us the movie, even though crafted as a look backward, felt more like one that was about facing possibilities than telegraphing tragedy.


Near the end of the ‘70s director Philip Kaufman adapted Richard Price’s first novel, The Wanderers, which dramatized the same time period as Graffiti, only from the grittier, more racially volatile perspective of gangs in the Bronx. But whereas George Lucas’s movie may have benefited from its relatively narrow focus (one night, one group of friends), Kaufman never figured out how to cohere Price’s episodic structure, and the resulting film, despite some beautiful directed sequences (there’s a sublimely comedic strip poker scene about halfway through that is one for the ages), is tonally all over the map, moving through fits and starts, thin characterizations and inexplicable mood swings. The resonant connective tissue that might have bound the movie’s broad takes on racism, sexism and the boorish fraternal bonds among the central gangs in the story feels like it has gone missing, and consequently the obligatory cultural signposts which provide the movie’s bittersweet coda— the Kennedy assassination, and then a stumbling upon Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a coffeehouse— has power but also feels more forced than genuinely resonant. 

By the time The Wanderers was released to a largely indifferent marketplace in 1979 the commodification of nostalgia that Graffiti capitalized on had already given rise to the popularity of groups like Sha-Na-Na and TV shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which harkened back to “the good old days” with barely a notion of the social upheaval and strife that characterized the strongest moments of The Wanderers even more than the pop music and fashions did. Grease would also have already had the relatively raw complexities of its original incarnation buffed away on the journey to Broadway and its hit 1978 movie version. And that sort of homogenized cultural commodification, looking back from a generation’s distance with very selective vision at recent decades past, is still a very active template. It’s now practically hard-wired into the way American movies approach social and pop culture history, the phenomenon on the ‘80s-centric Stranger Things being but only one recent example.


But wherever that line of demarcation is drawn— at the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, the Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas, the massacre at Kent State, or somewhere else-- all that business about America’s “loss of innocence” should be troublesome to anyone who has any awareness of history, either in a national or a cinematic sense. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knows anything about the history of slavery in this country, or the horrifically desperate times endured by Americans during the economic collapse of the Great Depression from 1929-1939, or the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II, to mention only three examples, even entertaining the notion that America ever had much in the way of innocence to lose. Take a look at any juicy example of pre-code Hollywood moviemaking (1933’s Baby Face, for example) and ask yourself just how innocent the country seemed. Yet despite the plentitude of evidence to suggest that Hollywood films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s routinely ignored by omission matters of race in American society or, worse, gave ugly or otherwise embarrassing glimpses into the reality of racial division, they could also be trenchantly, sometimes even subversively observant when it came to poverty and other aspects of (white) social reality.


Recently, partially as a respite from the nonstop barrage of depressing news coming out of my TV, radio and phone, I sat down in front of a sparkling HD print (transfer? restoration? unsure of the proper terminology here) of Gold Diggers of 1933 recently procured by my DVR from Turner Classic Movies. My current interest in/hunger for anything Busby Berkeley had been tweaked by the taste I’d indulged on New Year’s Eve via the compilation doc That's Dancing! (1985), and as I hadn’t seen GD33 in perhaps 30 years I eagerly settled in for some kaleidoscopically choreographed escapist fun. And as I watched it I began to really understand something about the entertainment of the day that had always been somewhat academic before—the reality that audiences in the ‘30s used to flock to extravagant spectacles like this as a way of taking a 90-minute retreat from the oppressive reality they faced the other 1350 minutes of the day, in exactly the same way Gold Diggers of 1933 was functioning for me in that very moment.

Yet for being an ostensible bit of fluff, the movie is still surprising in the way it jumbles fantasy with sobering social consciousness right out of the gate. Berkeley kicks off the movie with a staging of “We’re in the Money,” featuring a young and sassy Ginger Rogers knocking out the tune amid images of glittering lucre and the usual lavish extravagance of a typical Berkeley production number. Two minutes in and audiences are immediately reminded of the movie’s historical context, situated as it was four years into the approximately ten-year run of the Great Depression, and that teeming coffers of cash were the last thing people who came to see this picture in 1933 had at their disposal. Those folks wouldn’t have needed reminding of their dire straits, of course, and that’s one of the things that’s bold and striking about this “frivolous” entertainment, that it openly acknowledges and engages with the troubles of the world while managing to conjure a sublime and comforting bubble of escapism at the same time. (This thematic refusal to shy away from real life is, of course, a hallmark of Berkeley’s work across the board.) 


That the movie ends not with optimistic affirmation and a neat tying-up of the its various romantic entanglements, but instead with its Broadway show’s big finale, “The Forgotten Man,” a spectacle dedicated to the dirt-scratching trials of a citizenry, faithful in the previous war, but bedeviled and ignored and brought down by economic disaster, might be even more remarkable. The number is powerful, of course, weightier than the content of the rest of the show staged by the cranky producer played by sourpuss nonpareil Ned Sparks, and it amounts to a curiously solemn note on which to wrap up such an otherwise effervescent picture, one that was hardly likely to have inspired much happy whistling as audiences headed out the doors from the theater lobby and back to their considerably less sparkling lives. 

Even so, in presumably much the same way as audiences in 1933 must have embraced it, I somehow found encouragement to be taken from seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 which went beyond the emotional bump to be gleaned from its glittering charm, sassy performances and eye-popping staging, and this at a time when we’re not four years into a national crisis but, relatively speaking, more like four minutes into one. Busby Berkeley’s audiences, who would soon enough face the specter of Hitler once they got some dough back in their pockets, somehow managed to appreciate a dose of social reality mixed in with their singing-and-dancing fantasias. It was a sobering and heartening realization that the appeal of Gold Diggers of 1933 could and did go beyond simple longing for days when times (if you believed most movies) were simpler and more appealing. Busby Berkeley managed to honor the real economic concerns of everyone who might have seen it in its time while also suggesting that it was okay to let go of their concern, if only for a little while. This was what movies could do a little over 30 years after they were born. Eighty-some years later I’m left to wonder, with generous doses of optimistic anticipation in counteraction with the inevitable dread, how our great popular artists, the ones we know already and the ones who will hopefully emerge, will address or otherwise synthesize the realities of our suddenly up-ended world in the enlightened age of Trump. 

But if Busby Berkeley could spotlight the conscience among some of the brightest confections studios of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to offer, then Hollywood’s overall selective ignorance when it comes to dealing with race should be seen as even more maddening and disgraceful. For every appearance by Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life; 1934) or Ethel Waters (Pinky; 1949) or Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life; 1959), there were far more regrettable misuses and abuses of performers like Butterfly McQueen (Gone with the Wind; 1939), Fred “Snowflake” Toones (Remember the Night; 1940, The Palm Beach Story; 1942) and of course Stepin Fetchit to offset any illusion that Hollywood was regularly affording anything like basic dignity to people of color on the silver screen.  And once again, given the none-too-faint reverberations of white supremacist philosophy informing the actions of the new president, it’s worth wondering, what does the popular nostalgia for classic movies mean in a time when the insistent battle cry of the Trump campaign, and now the Trump administration, is to somehow make America great again? That campaign slogan has always had an air of insidiousness about it: When exactly, not unlike how the nation supposedly lost its innocence, did the moment occur in which America cased to be “great” in the first place? Because clearly that slogan has regressive implications for blacks and Asians and Native Americans and gays and transgender people that are markedly different, and a whole lot less sunny and optimistic, than might be the case for white Trump supporters, so pinpointing that time carries with it a lot of very scary weight.

Last year, during the outrage of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the attempts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ensure ongoing expansion of racial and ethnic diversity among its membership, some friends and I were exchanging thoughts on the situation via Facebook. The tenor of the conversation was outrage over complete lack of color among the 20 acting nominees, as well as resistance that was being registered in some quarters to the changes initiated by AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in order to promote not only diversity within the Academy but also within the nominees. For what it’s worth, this is a duty which I felt then, as I do now, belongs more squarely on the shoulders of those in power to green-light projects who must be convinced that a movie which wants to tell, say, the heretofore untold story of three black women and their roles in the NASA space program and John Glenn’s successful Earth orbits in the early ‘60s, would have popular appeal across several different demographics. (Thank you, Hidden Figures.)

However, during the conversation one of my friends wondered openly about the obsessiveness of some of the devotion to classic movies embodied by the popularity of Turner Classic Movies. What if, he suggested, the nostalgic reverence for pictures from the period predating the ‘70s, when a period of “blaxploitation” cinema gave way to a more open, confrontational engagement with racism and a more multicultural attitude apparent in casting and storytelling that can be seen in present-day cinema from all over the world, was speaking to something less pure and virtuous than the commonly held “values” concomitant with the notion of a period of “American innocence”? What if underneath at least some of that nostalgia for the relative and perceived simplicity of classic Hollywood fare was a longing for a day when race wasn’t much a subject Hollywood cared to address, when black and Asian and Native American faces (or caricatures) appeared in sinister, subservient, or otherwise demeaning roles if they appeared at all, when darkies and Japs and redskins in the real world knew their place and to stay there?


At the time, before Trump’s campaign had emerged as anything much more than a weird circus attraction (or distraction), this notion seemed to me kind of alarmist, and maybe just a little bit paranoid. But the question has stuck with me over the past year, and it’s prompted me to consider my own appreciation of classic Hollywood with yet another refraction through my usual critical prism. It’s hard for me to imagine that the folks I see every year crowding the hallways of the Chinese Theater complex in Hollywood for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival are there in any way to celebrate a time when white folks just weren’t often required to acknowledge or deal with “the Other” in our big-screen entertainments, except of course on terms that served to reinforce our various societal comfort zones and our prejudices. But then again, it’s hard for me not to imagine, by actively campaigning and clamoring for a time when America was once “great,” when progressive movements that have, under previous administrations, made life considerably better for POC and LGBTQ communities and, by extension, everyone else didn’t exist, that people who supported Trump aren’t at least tacitly advocating for a return to a happier time when whites didn’t have to worry about their dominance in society being constantly undermined by all those folks crammed in the margins. (And of course for many such advocating is way beyond tacit.)

No, nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be, not when the world seems suddenly more unstable than ever, when Trump and white supremacy-spouting advisors like Steve Bannon are calling the shots and sycophants like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan seem bent on clearing the decks so that their shared agendas might most easily be pushed through. So what does it mean in 2016 to look back with longing on a classic Hollywood period which more than ever seems like such a different world than the one we find ourselves warily navigating through right now? What does our nostalgia for this period in our national and international cinema actually mean? I’m not at all certain I know the answers to those questions, but as with any meaningful and right-minded inquiry I won’t ignore the need to look for them, and I’m exceedingly glad that someone has had the consciousness to even ask.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933



Over the weekend, exhausted by creative setbacks and the nonstop barrage of depressing news coming out of my TV, radio and phone, I sat down with my father-in-law in front of a sparkling HD print (transfer? restoration? unsure of the proper terminology here) of Gold Diggers of 1933 which was recently procured by my DVR from TCM. My interest in/hunger for anything Busby Berkeley was tweaked by the taste we got on New Year’s Eve via the compilation doc That's Dancing, and I hadn’t seen GD33 in perhaps 30 years. As I watched it I began to really understand what had always been somewhat academic before, that audiences in the ‘30s used to flock to extravagant spectacles like this as a way of taking a 90-minute retreat from the oppressive reality they faced the other 1350 minutes of the day, because that was exactly how it was functioning for me in the moment.

Yet for being an ostensible bit of fluff, the movie is still surprising in the way it jumbles fantasy with sobering social consciousness right out of the gate. Berkeley’s staging of “We’re in the Money,” featuring a young and sassy Ginger Rogers knocking out the tune amid images of glittering lucre and the usual lavish extravagance of a typical Berkeley production number, immediately reminds the audience of the movie’s historical context, situated as it was four years into the approximately ten-year run of the Great Depression, and that teeming coffers of cash were the last thing they had at their disposal. Audiences in 1933 wouldn’t have needed reminding, of course, and that’s what striking about this “frivolous” entertainment, that it openly acknowledges and engages with the troubles of the world while conjuring a sublime bubble of escapism at the same time. (This thematic refusal to shy away from real life is, of course, a hallmark of Berkeley’s work across the board.)


That the movie ends not with optimistic affirmation and a neat tying-up of the its various romantic entanglements, but instead with its Broadway show’s big finale, “The Forgotten Man,” a spectacle dedicated to the dirt-scratching trials of a citizenry, faithful in the previous war, but bedeviled and brought down by economic disaster, might be even more remarkable—the number is powerful, of course, weightier than the content of the rest of the show staged by cranky producer Ned Sparks, and it amounts to a curiously solemn note on which to wrap up such an otherwise effervescent picture, hardly one to inspire much happy whistling as audiences headed back out to their considerably less sparkling lives. 

Even so, in presumably much the same way as audiences in 1933 must have embraced it, I somehow found encouragement to be taken from seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 this weekend which went beyond the emotional bump to be gleaned from its glittering charm, sassy performances and eye-popping staging, and this at a time when we’re not four years into a national crisis but, relatively speaking, more like four minutes into one. Busby Berkeley’s audiences, who would face the specter of Hitler once they got some dough back in their pockets, managed to appreciate a dose of social reality mixed in with their singing-and-dancing fantasias. This was what movies could do a little over 30 years after they were born. Eighty-some years later I’m left to wonder, with generous doses of optimistic anticipation in counteraction with the inevitable dread, how our great popular artists, the ones we know already and the ones who will hopefully emerge, will address or otherwise synthesize the realities of our suddenly up-ended world in the enlightened age of Trump. 

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And while we're talking about Gold Diggers of 1933  and satanic influence (we were, weren't we?), please be gratefully reminded of this flat-out brilliant piece by Richard Harland Smith on why the obvious sequel to that Busby Berkeley classic is not Gold Diggers of 1935 but instead... The Exorcist. As Richard puts it, "To say that a message was not intended is not to say that a message was not received."

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

KNEEJERK REACTIONS TO THE OSCAR NOMS AND THE FINAL WORD ON 2017



Even when you live in Los Angeles, as I do, if you’re not in the network of critics groups and press screening and screener DVDs it can be a challenge to keep up with everything you tell yourself you have to see before attempting an informed roundup of the year currently in the rearview mirror. And I also try to not let more than a couple of weeks of the new year go by before checking in, regardless of how many of the year’s big presents I have left to unwrap, though in past years I have not lived well by this dictum—let’s just say that if I’m still posting stuff on the year’s best after even Oscar has thoroughly chewed over the goods, as has happened in the past, well, I’ve overstayed my welcome.

2016 was, in most ways, a disaster of a year, but in terms of setting your glazzies in front of some high-quality cinema it was anything but, and it might have been better than most of late. The pickings were so good that rather than subject myself to the masochism of a strict roster of 10 choices, when I published my list two weeks ago, I allowed my list to expand into a Top 13, followed by a “Next 10” which during the average year would have easily been good enough to make the top echelon, and then an even longer list of other movies that I thought were varying degrees of keen.

Well, since the initial posting of my choices I’ve managed to see seven other films—Florence Foster Jenkins, Gleason, Hidden Figures, Love and Friendship, Paterson, Silence and Train to Busan (on tap for a Saturday night just past my deadline, Jackie)—three of which, had I seen them two or three weeks ago, would have caused me to thoroughly rearrange the scenery in the penthouse of my list. And since I’m not quite through bloviating about the year past just yet, let me give you a taste of my ch-ch-ch-changes.

 

Ted Melfi’s Hidden Figures is the sort of popular movie that will likely be just as well thought of 30 or 40 years down the line as it is today, a picture which honors its subject and its true-life African-American female protagonists with confidence and a sharp eye for historical context instead of pandering to the mainstream through synthetic trickery, audio-visual overstimulation and over-the-top histrionics. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the very best sense of the term.


In Silence, Martin Scorsese and co-scenarist Jay Cocks have crafted a sublime, demanding meditation on faith, colonial imperative and the complexities of East-West relations that reveals its genuinely spiritual nature through its engagement with the internal ambiguities and struggle of perspectives that can inform even the most genteel pursuit of religious fulfillment—it’s of a piece with the complex vision of faith that informs Scorsese’s other great religious films, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ. And Andrew Garfield’s tortured repose as Fr. Rodrigues can well be imagined as the end point in a journey that links this 16th-century seeker with the self-doubting Catholic impulses of another of Scorsese’s wandering flock, Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in Mean Streets.  


But best of all is undoubtedly Jim Jarmusch’s sublime Paterson, a movie in which every unobtrusive moment seems to matter. I’ve always run hot and cold on this director’s brand of analog-only, deadpan observation—Stranger Than Paradise, Night On Earth and Dead Man are better than fine, but I find movies like Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes close to insufferable, the nadir being The Limits of Control, in which the director precisely locates the dead zone of his title and practically disappears in a black hole of Eurotrash cool. But Jarmusch’s next movie was the dazzling, achingly muted Only Lovers Left Alive, and the analog-only sensibility of the vampires in that film feels strangely of a piece with this new work, and it looks an awful lot like a masterpiece to these eyes. Paterson isn’t so much a hipster’s evocation of the working-class as it is one imbued with a poetry which illuminates, with a precision that’s never precious, the modest and poetic pursuits of its title character, played by Adam Driver, a Paterson, N.J. bus driver also named Paterson. (The movie has an offhanded fixation on twins that remains as ephemeral as its overall effect is overwhelming.) The Italian poster for the movie features the catchphrase “La bellezza spesso si trova nelle piccolle cose,” which translates to “Beauty is often found in the little things,” which is a lovely distillation of Paterson’s, and Paterson’s beating heart, the story of a man who searches for, and eventually finds, a measure of fulfillment in work, and in love, and simply by keeping his eyes and ears and soul open to the wonders of the everyday.

So, considering all that, and acknowledging that there are still many left to see, including the big Oscar contender Fences, here is are my final amended lists, now restricted to the “Top 10” and (you’ll see why) the “Next 11,” my 21 favorite movies of 2016:

THE TOP 10

O.J.: Made in America
Paterson
Silence
Moonlight
The Witness
Elle
One More Time with Feeling
13th
Hell or High Water
Krisha

THE NEXT 11

The Witch
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World and Zero Days
Loving
Indignation
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Don’t Breathe
Everybody Wants Some!!
Dog Eat Dog

And now, here are just a few random, kneejerk reactions I had on Tuesday morning in response to the announcement of the 2016 Academy Award nominations. (Feel free to click here for a full list of the nominations.)


Well, I wonder if #OscarNotQuiteAsWhite will have as much traction as #OscarsSoWhite did last year. For the first time ever, African-Americans are represented in every acting category, as well as in the screenwriting and directing categories. And for the first time ever, an African-American woman, Joi McMillon, has been nominated in the Best Achievement in Film Editing category, for Moonlight. It remains to be seen just what effect the Academy’s newly adopted rules meant to encourage inclusion and expand the diversity of the voting body will have on future scores of nominations—it seems unlikely that they would have significantly moved the needle on this year’s crop. But one thing seems undeniable—if movies with diverse casts are made, and they get sufficient distribution, and people actually seem to like them, then the possibility of honor on Oscar night will be evident every year. A year when Fences, Moonlight, 13th, Hidden Figures and Loving are out there is necessarily going to be a year tailor-made for celebrating the contributions of African-Americans. If those movies were not on studio rosters, or came out to public and critical indifference, then we’d likely be facing another year of dissatisfaction, resentment and criticism of the Academy. It seems that the onus of making sure we have a diverse pool of work from which to choose Oscar honorees falls not to the Academy, but to the industry itself to have more faith in filmmakers and green-light more projects which tell the stories of people who have been traditionally underrepresented on screens and during award shows. That said, when each year we can finally talk not only about African-Americans nominated in every category, but when Asians or Latinos or Native-Americans also so amply present, then we’ll know that real progress is being made.


Congratulations to Ruth Negga and Isabelle Huppert on Best Actress nominations for Loving and Elle, respectively! It’s great to see two actresses in terrific movies which were not otherwise nominated manage to fight their way through the noise and wrangle some recognition, especially actresses who have been so off the Oscar radar— Negga is a relative newcomer (I wrote something about spotting her in World War Z almost four years ago), so I salute what I hope will be the first of many nominations to come. But somehow, this is Isabelle Huppert’s first Oscar nomination…



So, 20 nominations for Meryl Streep now. The Academy’s love apparently knows no bounds. And make no mistake: she’s very good in the entertaining, if slight, Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s just unfortunate that including Streep means taking up a spot that would more righteously be occupied by Taraji P. Henson as pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. This has to rank, if one must rank them, as one of the year’s most egregious Oscar omissions.


Though it’s been brewing for a month or so, the official La La Land backlash can now begin. By the time the movie cuts a swatch through the PGA, DGA and Screen Actors Guild awards on its way to Oscar night, just about everybody will be sick of hearing about it and likely unembarrassed to say so. Even those who love the movie (like me) seem a little taken aback by the Academy’s historic endorsement—certainly for Best Picture I would pick Moonlight or Hell or High Water or Hidden Figures before I’d cast a first-place vote for this lovely movie. Oscar pools are going to play a bit tighter now—there’s the whiff of a juggernaut in the air, which makes La La Land the go-to choice in most categories, and the prospect of upsets at the actual awards show seem to be largely limited to the arena of who will do/say what during their acceptance speech, especially in regard to the regime currently occupying the White House. But even though it will reign supreme, I don’t expect anything close to a La La Land sweep on Oscar night. Off-the-cuff prediction: seven wins for Damien Chazelle’s musical.


So Silence was, Rodrigo Prieto’s completely deserved nomination for Best Cinematography aside, virtually silenced, and the closest Rules Don’t Apply will make it to the Dolby theater on Oscar night is the Best Screenplay nomination for 20th Century Women, a movie which stars Annette Bening (also overlooked), who happens to be married to the director of Rules Don’t Apply. My friend Larry Aydlette had one of the best comments on this year’s Oscar’s I’ve seen so far, so of course I’ll steal it from him, paraphrased from memory: Warren Beatty and Martin Scorsese now know for certain that the ‘70s are over.


The Best Original Score nominees are among the most interesting, Oscar-unfamiliar names I can recall ever seeing gathered in any one category. Thomas Newman, who is fast becoming legendary for his inability to score a statue in this category, is nominated for the 14th time for Passengers, a movie apparently designed to be forgotten. The rest are a grab bag of talent who have never seen much in the way of the spotlight before, the highest profile of which, Justin Hurwitz for La La Land, will be the inevitable winner. But it’s encouraging that Oscar found room for Dustin O’Halloran (Marie Antoinette) and Volker Bertelmann for Lion, Nicholas Brittell (The Big Short) for Moonlight, and most especially for Mica Levi for Jackie—Levin also wrote the dissonant, unnervingly beautiful score for 2013’s Under the Skin.


From Most Hated Man in Hollywood to a Best Director nominee who snagged the honor without an accompanying DGA nomination, a feat even Martin Scorsese couldn’t manage—he won’t win, but Mel Gibson has to come away thinking it’s his year anyway.


Casey Affleck will probably win (although given his recent bad press and some high-profile and outraged reaction to his nomination, I’m not prepared to say he’s a lock), but all of the sudden Manchester by the Sea doesn’t look like the unstoppable force many thought it was going to be back in December. Its only other solid chance is in the screenplay category, where I’m hoping Kenneth Lonergan will be the victim of an upset at the hands of Taylor Sheridan and Hell or High Water.


Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t the first animated movie to score a nomination for Best Visual Effects—that honor goes to The Nightmare Before Christmas. But it’s an unusual honor nonetheless, undoubtedly a nod, as Nightmare’s was, to the painstaking craft of stop-motion animation, for which Laika Studios, the producers of Kubo  as well as Coraline, Paranorman and The BoxTrolls, have repeatedly distinguished themselves.


Finally, no group seems as absent of head-scratchers as the Best Documentary category. Life, Animated seems the slightest of the five, and it’s still remarkable. But from Fire at Sea’s singular examination of the refugee crisis, to the complex and illuminating examinations of race and American history at the heart of I Am Not Your Negro, 13th and O.J.: Made in America, the rest of the category is populated by movies that seem seized by this moment in American and global history. I know which one I would pick, and I think I know which one the Academy will pick, but that does not mean that anyone faced with it would find this one an easy choice. My hat is off to directors Gianfranco Rosi, Roger Ross Williams, Raoul Peck (and James Baldwin), Ava DuVernay and Ezra Edelman, and hell, to the Academy in this case, for keeping it real.


And while we’re here, congratulations also to the Academy for issuing this statement in regard to Ashgar Farhadi, Oscar-winning Iranian director of A Separation who is again nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category for his latest film, The Salesman:

The Academy celebrates achievement in the art of filmmaking, which seeks to transcend borders and speak to audiences around the world, regardless of national, ethnic, or religious differences. As supporters of filmmakers—and the human rights of all people—around the globe, we find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning film from Iran A Separation, along with the cast and crew of this year's Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country of origin."

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FOR FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING:

Freelance critic and journalist Kevin Courrier on the end of the Obama era and how the changing times are reflected in films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Southside With You.

Critic Charles Taylor brilliantly extrapolates Paterson's rich tapestry.

Odie Henderson, film critic for RogerEbert.com, on the power of 13th.

And finally, two from one of my favorite critics currently writing, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang: first, a typically thoughtful piece on how the Academy chose to honor the lesser of the two big religious epics of 2016, and then Chang’s original review of Silence, which he picked as the best movie of 2016.


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