26 February 2017

Best of 2016

I have, for THE paper of record in Sonoma Valley, already given you my top ten wide release films from 2016. But there is an alternate best of list, a superior and updated one, below. And it's not too difficult to separate out the pretty good from the more or less unwatchable in 2016—the real challenge would be to parse the extremely narrow margins amongst the bottom 10 (or 25). I am, however, not brave enough to revisit my thoughts on Warcraft v. Suicide Squad v. Marvel Horseshitiverse: Civil War v. Batman v. Superman v. the sweet sleep of death.

As the Hollywood productions I watched continued to enervate and enrage with their lack of ideas, I tracked the demographics among the filmmakers of 2016 movies released in Sonoma, CA (where the wine and people are slightly better than those in Napa). To use a horrifying neologism, I briefly tweetstormed on this topic. I assumed women and people of color would be underrepresented but how can it be this bad? Directors of films released in Sonoma (which I think is a reasonable representation of small town, one-AMC-Theater-only America) are 94% male and 89% white. It's a disgrace. Films and performances by non-white, non-men are, as usual, overrepresented on my year end list but that does little to rinse the bitter taste.

Here's hoping that 2017 holds more directorial efforts from the Solanges of the world and fewer from the Zack Snyders.


Best Supporting Actor

The best idea is probably to copy Manohla Dargis and give all five noms to the supporting actors in Moonlight, but I pretend to use original thought on the WTT. I always appreciate a madman spouting aphorisms, so love to Alessandro Nivola in The Neon Demon: "True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it, she would be nothing." It pleased me to no end that antagonists on The OfficeJohn Krasinski and David Denman—are superbros in the good(!) Michael Bay film 13 Hours. And John Malkovich is a great scenery snacker in Deepwater Horizon. But it all comes back to Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. He is not just the best of the year but one of the best for all time, a role that fills me with wonder. Come back to me Juan!


Best Supporting Actress

Chloe Sevigny
is a perfect supporting actress for any movie but especially in a Whit Stillman film like Love and Friendship. Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are marvelously sharp in Hail, Caesar! but slip away too quickly. I'll give a random shout to Aubrey Plaza for embracing exactly how awful Dirty Grandpa is and delivering every leaden line with disgusted gusto. But the most excited I was for a supporting actress in 2016 was Janelle Monáe in Moonlight and Hidden Figures—she vivified the screen with her snap and verve. Hopefully much more to come from her—I suggest a film on yoga.


Best Actress

Credit to Blake Lively for her excellent use of her jewelry to stitch wounds in The Shallows,
Samantha Robinson for her delirious embrace of Anne Biller's vision in The Love Witch, and Amy Adams for her ultra-linguistic brilliance in Arrival. And, because it's too hard to select between the harrowing continental performances of Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann and Isabelle Huppert in Elle (they both seem the only actresses who could play those very difficult parts), my best actress is Sasha Lane in American Honey. My longterm affection for nonactors stems from performances like this, the pleasurable wildness of an actress, a director and an audience seeing something new together. My sense is that Ms. Lane herself wasn't sure what she was selling in certain scenes: magazines, sex, her own charisma.


Best Actor

First a nod to Christian Bale for putting up with whatever dizzy shit Terrence Malick was doing in Knight of Cups. Michael Shannon (still holding the belt for favorite domestic WTT actor) proves in Midnight Special he's continually awe-inspiring. But the real race is for best facial hair, wherein Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter is a glorious, braided option, Colin Farrell's Lobster character has the most depressive mustache you'll ever see and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water sports a delicious mustache to beard muddle that recalls, well, Colin Farrell in Miami Vice. But the nod goes to Tom Hanks in Sully—in film after film he is as immaculate as Chesley Sullenberger's neat white pushbroom.


Best Pictures 

See also: Arrival, Loving, Midnight Special, Hell or High Water, Ixcanul, Elle, Zootopia, and, if you're very patient, Knight of Cups and Neon Demon.

10. The Lobster - In this highly credible satire, "The City" is patrolled by uniformed men demanding marriage paperwork and, if you don’t have it, you’re sent to "The Hotel," where you’ll find a mate or be turned into a wild animal of your choice. The Lobster is the logical extension of our current mania for the polite emptiness of online dating, where couples are pressed together by algorithms and every dream vacation destination is deadened by the tepid prose of glossy airplane magazines. In the movie at least, those who break free spend an uproarious time on the lam, in woods filled with people they used to know, now in the form of a camel or flamingo.

9. Cameraperson - We need many more cinematographic memoirs. Kirsten Johnson, who has lensed dozens of documentaries (including motherfucking Citizenfour), here collages footage from many of her projects, much of it absolutely hair-raising. For a somewhat disorienting 20 minutes, the sequences seem unconnected but a pattern emerges as the film marches ahead with incredible storytelling of genocide in Bosnia and Darfur and almost unwatchable scenes from a makeshift maternity ward in Nigeria. It is an excellent film, and a test of even my voyeurism.

8. La La Land - I give this more points for sparking so many angry spats amongst jazz people, musical people, people who hate mansplaining in all its forms (so, many of my friend groups). Regardless of where you stand in the standoff between Gosling vs. Legend for the future of jazz, this is the throwback to classic Hollywood we pretended The Artist was in 2011. As with Whiplash, when director Damien Chazelle swings, he swings hard over and over, until his arms get tired. Seeing a Los Angeles where the old movie palaces are shut down and the big band halls have transitioned to samba and tapas places, Chazelle reveals his burning passion for jazz and classic cinema. La La Land is jammed with song and dance, rash technicolor displays and literal flights of fancy. Charming actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone often wear looks that show they can’t help themselves—they've made something special.

Beyond the words in my review of the film I can report something else as important: the two times I saw La La Land and got to the audition scene, I had chill run straight up my spine. Right or wrong, if I had the chance, I'd stand up right now, walk to the theater and watch it again.

7. Manchester by the Sea - Casey Affleck proves a thousand times better than his brother at playing a damaged man, featuring in one of the best films of the year while Ben cast his steely gaze at whatever it was in the last Batman flick. Given the brutal plot summary of Manchester by the Sea, it's surprising that it’s also the most laugh-out-loud funny film of the year. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan provides a savagely hilarious script, including a very funny cameo for himself, yelling at the good Affleck. As a bonus, the film doubles as motivation to drink less, despite daily provocations, in 2017.

6. I Am Not Your Negro - This documentary goes well beyond journalism to get to the truth, challenging viewers to wrestle with the deaths of Martin, Malcom and Medgar as written in the unpublished notebooks of James Baldwin. Eschewing talking heads, I Am Not Your Negro is all Baldwin footage and prose, with some contemporary clips cut in, from Ferguson and elsewhere in the disintegrating United States of America. The material is strong enough that it forces Samuel L. Jackson, who narrates, to tone down his histrionics and smolder, to be as lucid as Baldwin was eviscerating the iniquities of our nation.

I remain proud that the place I work made this film happen and that one day Raoul Peck walked in the door and I got to shake his hand and tell him his film is better than O.J.: Made in America. It's a film about genius rather than notoriety (and thus has no chance to win the Best Doc Oscar).


5. Toni Erdmann - This is a rewarding, very long comedy about work that almost reaches the delightful pain of the British Office or Lars Von Trier's The Boss of It All. The aforepraised Sandra Hüller and magnificent Peter Simonischek are an indelible daughter/father pairing in this film studded with shockingly funny deadpan moments, including a tender shot of semen-spattered petit fours. Directorial marvel Maren Ade accomplishes the astonishing feat of shooting a scene as great as the one in which Hüller bangs out Whitney's "The Greatest Love of All" then somehow tops it later in the film (using a costume as fine as Octave's bear suit in The Rules of the Game).

(Also: it is an official WTT prediction that the Kristen Wiig/Jack Nicholson Hollywood remake will be one of the ten worst movies ever made.)

4. American Honey - In making the combustible American Honey, Andrea Arnold (director of WTT-favorite Fish Tank) embedded herself with many nonprofessional actors and one merely unprofessional one (Shia LaBeouf, rocking a most alarming pigtail). The best of her finds, picked off a beach in Miami, is of course Sasha Lane, who brings startling passion to her role. A whole crew of hustlers is shot hazily in vans and cheap motels—this is a meandering road movie lensed across the South and Midwest, places deep in the American twilight full of poverty and grace and bad tattoos. Arnold knows how music can make or break a moment and when Rihanna’s "We Found Love" blasts across the Walmart checkout aisles it's a fitting hymn for the film and for our time.

3. Cemetery of Splendor - This film has recently increased in my estimation after a rewatch, perhaps because it is about soldiers who sleep continuously for months (they are, one character patiently explains, fighting a dream war on behalf long-dead kings in another dimension). If only I could sign up for four years of peaceful slumber in quiet Thailand adjacent a glowing neon tube floating through sherbety colors that ease my nightmares. As one character reads in a journal, "Our problem is that we think too much...at night we call these dreams." Even when the soldiers wake, it is not exactly into the real world, but a space in limbo, where deities step down from their daises and give skin care tips to mortals. I was so moved by a sequence where a nurse walks through a former palace of deceased kings that is now a ramshackle park—where a beautiful stone pillar once held a glittering roof, there is now a tree with an orchid growing on it. Director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul is a genius who helps his audience practice stillness—if we open our minds the way his characters do, we can see glittering floors of pink stone instead of dead leaves on the ground.

2. My Golden Days - Director Arnaud Desplechin is, to borrow a phrase from this film, mon amour adore. Here he's made a madeleine from an adult Paul Dédalus (played by Mathieu Amalric with his usual resplendence) to his younger self (Quentin Dolmaire), who is madly in love with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The young actress, faced with the daunting task of becoming Emmanuelle Devos in Desplechin's earlier/later film My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument, owns from the moment we see her slow dancing with herself in a crowded party. In ten seconds, we are ready to buy Paul's line to her: "Have you ever been loved more than life? It's how I'll love you." The rest of the film is their passion, mostly told through their letters, which are given as wonderful direct addresses to the camera. And, as the strains from the score to Vertigo float in, I felt an old, melancholy ache—perhaps we are in love in this life just once.

1. Moonlight - No points for originality here. But it speaks to the brilliance of Barry Jenkins that the critics' choice and the Oscar favorite and the WTT pick are one and the same this season. I hope this remarkable film, eye-catching on the first viewing and rewarding across many more, is the start of a needed response to the whiteness of the Hollywood whale. After most other images from this year are forgotten, there will be the magnificent Mahershala Ali holding that boy in the water—so, so blue.


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I ended last year's column by saying "2016's gonna be great." Jesus Christ. I hope I meant that ironically. In 2017 we're all gonna die. But perhaps the pictures will be pretty.


27 April 2016

Off White

[I had to cut a section from an essay for publication but would hate for my love of Brian McKnight to be lost to the world. It is reproduced below.]

Half an Ativan is not enough—I still think I’m going to die as we rattle down the runway.
Since I last flew, Virgin America has failed to renew their license on Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” so I cannot listen to it during takeoff. I’ve paid the premium to fly Virgin not for the mood lighting but because I can be listening to that song at the moment the wheels leave the runway—I have never yet died while it is playing.

That the music video for the song involves a plane crash is such a ridiculous coincidence that I must have sublimated the fact when I picked my to-die-to anthem.

It has an easy chorus to repeat if you picture yourself as a nervous child who has severe issues with memorizing numbers. My right hand holds the armrest as hard as I can without the knuckles whitening and my left hand grips my right forearm. I raise the fingers as I count up, mouthing silently.

“One, you’re like a dream come true,”

I listen too carefully for moment it feels to me the engines stop pushing us up and we float out.

“Two, just want to be with you,”

I would like to be in the middle seat next to She.

“Three, girl, it’s plain to see / That you’re the only one for me,”

When She rides her bike on nights when it’s too cold her fingers go white on the handlebars and for her it’s almost always too cold.

“And four, repeat steps one through three,”

Sometimes She gets home and sends me a picture so I see what She means.

“Five, make you fall in love with me.”

I write out the reply oh, I want to hold them then erase the line with the last vestiges of will. At least I am not coating my arms and back with cold sweat—thanks for that, half an Ativan. I pick up a copy of White Girls I can’t read and watch the plastic window shade, the color of clouds at 35,000 feet.

“It’s unbelievable how I used to say that I’d fall never.”

More here.

01 February 2016

Best of 2015

In 2015 I got a gig writing for THE paper of record in Sonoma valley and boy has that established for me that Hollywood is worse than I thought...and the requirement to watch the biggest releases each week impacted my ability to write on the WTT about other, better films (thankfully, the gig has not impacted my ability to make excuses about not writing). That said, read all my reviews! I'm working up a lather now and getting stronger even if the films aren't--bet on it.


In paging through WTT "Best of" posts from years past (in a desperate attempt to put off work on this new post), the films sort of reorder themselves around the ones I've had the biggest urge to watch since. For 2015 I tried to rank less on what I consider the best in this moment and more on which films will obsess me moving forward. 

Best Supporting Actor

I have more clarity on certain subcategories of this section--the best costumes for a supporting actor goes to Isaach de Bankole in The Last Witch Hunter, the best supporting voice acting is Sam Elliott in The Good Dinosaur, the best ensemble supporting acting is a fierce competition between Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge in Far from the Madding Crowd and Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez in Magic Mike XXL. For some reason, Jeff Daniels' "Mark Watney is dead" line from The Martian still kills me, I don't know why. (I do know why. I wish Matt Damon were dead.) But the prize goes to Benicio del Toro, because his character in Sicario plays exquisitely off his Traffic statuette-winner and because he runs off and hides with the narrative in the last half hour of the film.


Best Supporting Actress

With apologies to Ilsa Faust in M:I5Lea Seydoux wins for the best supporting actress name--Madeleine Swann--in Spectre. The most surprising supporting actress turn belongs to Monica Bellucci in The Wonders--one cannot imagine the American analog of her fabulous guest appearance in a film about rural Italian beekeepers. Praise be the ensemble of Turkish Coppola virgins in Mustang--Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, İlayda Akdoğan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu and Elit İşcan--they are charm and wallop together. Lola Kirke is excellent smirks and turns of phrase against Greta Gerwig in Mistress America but really the only performance one sees is Kristen Stewart's in The Clouds of Sils Maria--her personal assistance to Juliette Binoche dominates the landscape and then recedes in the most affecting retreat of the year. 


Best Actor

2015 was a year of #hottiealerts. I must put order to my objectification, so, with apologies to Chris Hemsworth's faux Moby-Dick pecs In the Heart of the Sea and Jake Gylenhaal's phenomenal Southpaw abdominals, the best topless performances are by Michael B. Jordan in Creed (astonishing, truly astonishing that this film is left on the outside by the Academy) and Channing Tatum with so, so much Magic in his Mike. Shoutouts to the scruffier sex symbols Viggo Mortenson in Jauja and Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter working their way handsomely through various portals. But in Far from the Madding Crowd Matthias Schoenaerts' Gabriel Oak is that most special heartthrob: women want him, blogging men want to be in (much smaller sizes of) his impeccable shepherd wear. To paraphrase J. Lo to Clooney in Out of Sight: "you really wear that scarf." I'm just thankful that now all theaters have those high-backed seats so I didn't snap my neck swooning when Gabriel sorted all those bloated sheep and got tarps over the haystacks in the rain.


Best Actress

Salute to Angelina Jolie for directing and starring in By the Sea--her excellent work was dismissed as vacuous and narcissistic with a viciousness that would never apply to male actors/directors--but I'll long remember her face in the film, a gorgeously-photographed mask of pain. Another hat tip to Kristen Stewart in American Ultra, as the straw that stirs Jesse Eisenberg's drink. One wonders how in the world Charlize Theron wasn't nominated for Mad Max: Fury Road and if one had any hopes to save #OscarsSoWhite, it would have been noms for the extraordinary cohorts in Tangerine, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor--they burn that motherfucker to the ground. I must credit longtime WTT-enemy David O. Russell for wising up and getting everything (Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, plot logistics) out of Jennifer Lawrence's way in Joy--her role shares the same electricity as that of the not-be-denied Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr


Best Pictures

20-11
Spectre, By the Sea, In Jackson Heights, Mistress America, The Wonders, Jauja, Joy, Mustang, Timbuktu, Mad Max: Fury Road.

10. Tangerine - The first minutes of the film have a fantastic effect. My mind was full of questions like what am I watching? why is it shot like this? who ARE these people? what is HAPPENING?? Sean Baker directs this picture so aggressively it's probably as close as we'll get to a Ryan Trecartin film at a cinema near us. The aforementioned excellence of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is apparent in a flash--when her friend explains her boyfriend's been cheating on her she clarifies that she's "an upper hoe" and sets the narrative in motion. Rodriguez and her costar Mya Taylor drag the film by the hair through the streets of Los Angeles, which have never looked harsher or more beautiful than they do shot by iPhone, the day turning yellow and blue to orange and pink. Oh, and it's Christmas Eve in a city that's just "a beautifully wrapped lie." 

9. Far from the Madding Crowd - I covered the main points in my review but there are many additional things I love about this fast-paced and not-too-stately adaptation of Thomas Hardy. As previously discussed, this is an all-time great film for enthusiasts of scarves and cravats, the best I’ve ever seen in terms of neckwear style and variety (take a bow, costume designer Janet Patterson). In addition to the life-changing style of Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba is not slouch in a sterling blue milkmaid outfit, complete with kerchief, shot against a breathing couture cowhide. I also appreciate that Carey Mulligan sings a folk song that feels about an hour shorter than her “New York, New York” in Shame. As her Bathsheba explains of a most difficult year, “I seem to cry a great deal these days. I never used to cry at all.” Tell me about it lady. 

8. Macbeth - Here's another adaptation of concision--director Justin Kurzel took a lot out of the play but the snatches he left are indelible. "O full of scorpions is my mind!" he says and no contemporary actor has a more scorpion-dense head than Michael Fassbender. He is well on his way to developing the harshest crow's feet in cinema history and his Macbeth dispenses proper, proper violence. His handwash is blood, his war paint is ashes and his crown is tarnished gravestones. Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth matches his intensity, her face essentially a constant death frieze. The witches are hair-raising, the music chills. Kurzel took a green and grey Scottish expanse and turned it defiantly red and black. And as I turned another year older while writing this recap, I appreciated Macbeth's comforting speech about aging:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

7. The Assassin - The black and white opening movements of this film are so perfect I wished for time to stop; I wanted to ask the projectionist for the replay. I gasped and wrote furious notes to myself to look up the cinematographer: Ping Bin Lee (In the Mood for Love, of course). We're introduced to the Assassin in question as she deals death with remarkable naturalness, like a cloud passing across the sun, much more vivid for being so brief. Lee is the longtime lenser for Hou Hsiao-Hsien and, like their work together on The Flowers of Shanghai, this film uses the slightest of camera movements to ratchet the tension of palace intrigues. The set design is gauzy curtains and candlelight--seemingly peaceful, Lyndon-esque compositions interrupted by cuts like the flash of a knife. I often find myself back with the advice of the Assassin's mentor: "your mind is still hostage to human sentiment." 

(The 8 PM screening I attended is also my favorite theatre moment of the year. I was surprised at the relatively full house at the AMC Metreon but the turnout was all based on the title--throughout the two-hour run time, wuxia fanbois with strappy sneakers and ill-coiffed hair paraded out in huffy disgust. An auteur sneak attack!)

6. Carol - The biggest relief of the year. It was set up to be the one film to save all the shittiness that came before and so it did. Like all red-blooded Americans, I adore Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven and was impressed by how different Carol looks--it's less reminiscent of Douglas Sirk Technicolor than Robert Frank's black and white Americans. The acting is all so fine, with Cate Blanchett lionessing and Rooney Mara Audreying her tiny bangs and Coach Taylor behaving terribly because he had to be named Harge. The smeary interior of the Midwest is exactly the right amount of ugly, just as Highsmith would've wanted it, a slightly unfocused backdrop to the love story. And the formulation of the central relationship is ideal for me: a young artist is drawn resistlessly to an older lover whose art is her life itself. "Take me bed." My only problem with the film is that Carol is such an uninspired title. You know what's a great title? The Price of Salt.


5. Magic Mike XXL - Some of my feelings are noted here but it's nice to revisit the film because the Magic Mike franchise is my favorite argument. How do we live in a culture that insists on taking Avengers films seriously but dismisses Magic Mike as too shallow for serious discussion? People who deny themselves the pleasures of XXL are like this gas station cashier holding off on smiling as long as she can. In part two of what I hope is an endless saga, there are some excellent laugh lines, my favorite being Ken's on the the departed Dallas: "Don't say his name, don't give him that power." As a road picture, a lot of pleasure comes from the casual conversations the guys have, on their plans as they grow up. When not stripping, they work low-level jobs, from running a fro-yo truck to moving furniture--they are American dreamers. The pleasure-center release of the dancing benefits the recipients (who, in XXL, have a beautiful variety of body shapes and colors) as well as the entertainers. I’d say it’s still their day.

4. Blackhat - I love Michael Mann left to his own devices. As I touched on in my In the Heart of the Sea review, Chris Hemsworth (like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice) is better as an exterior, a vacancy. Blackhat is a film about visions rather than words--characters speak in thick accents and shorthand with the meanings often glitched out. From Los Angeles to Hong Kong, they move through spaces that are like the inside of computers, prisoners tethered to technology, neon chips falling over their faces--even the gold chains on necks come to look like strings of data. Despite the abstraction of much of the film, Mann remains the best composer of gunfights ever, this time surpassing himself with a crosscut sequence where the bad guys retreat down a circular ramp as the good guys make right angle turns in a warren of apartment buildings. Mann features faces and locations no one else could find and set pieces no one else would conceive. I hope his next film bombs too so he can stay small, dirty, digital, violent--he's at his greatest at the edge of coherence.    

3. Sicario - While not a particular Denis Villeneuve fan before this film, I was thrilled with the look of the picture. There's a downright Mannian border crossing sequence and later a deep push into the realm of night goggles and body heat maps. Most of my praise is contained in the review I wrote at the time so I'll re-emphasize my appreciation for the good films and books that lend a better better understand the ongoing Ciudad Juarez apocalypse. Recently I've read Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World, the first chapter of The Story of Vincente and listened to Charles Bowden, all to say I'm more convinced than ever by the pitch blackness into which Villeneuve drops viewers. Critics of his film had similar difficulties with No Country for Old Men, in which many were put off by the surprise death of (the wonderfully resurrected in Sicario) Josh Brolin. But that's cartels, killing the protagonist of any counternarrative with their unslakable thirst for death.

2. World of Tomorrow - Across the 16 minutes of Don Hertzfeldt's short but capacious animated masterpiece, every frame is screenshot-worthy and every line is quotable. Emily Clone, speaking from the future to her much younger grandmother, Emily Prime, gave me both the hardest laugh ("I drew a snakeboy") and shared the darkest thoughts of 2016 ("I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss but sometimes, I sit in a chair, late at night, and quietly feel very bad"). As we watch World of Tomorrow, much like Emily Prime, we are enjoying ourselves and don't quite sense how serious it is all getting. As carefree 4-year old playing a carefree 4-year-old, the filmmaker's niece Winona Mae gives the best vocal performance...ever? Probably ever. The film is full of ideas, second to second, visual and intellectual and emotional ideas and I want all of it, I want to be it--learn it, love it, stream it, buy it. "I am very proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive." "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle."

(A quick hat tip to David Ehrlich for alerting me that I needed to see this. And, while we're here, his yearly Best of videos are one of the greatest gifts to cineastes--the 2015 version builds to a climax worthy of any film.)

1. Clouds of Sils Maria What I've come to understand is that the films I love best are the ones I must keep watching to try to understand--this is why Our Beloved Month of August and Certified Copy were perhaps underrated in previous years' lists. I saw Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria three times in theatres and there's still something just out of reach. 

The first act is an introduction to actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who consider whether Maria should take the role of aging Helena in a restaging of the play Maloja Snake--Maria made her name 20 years earlier playing Helena's young foil Sigrid. Of course she must say yes. The second act--an endlessly beguiling affair that takes place in the cabin where Maloja Snake was written--has Maria and Valentine running lines as Helena and Sigrid with no real clarity on where the play ends and their personal conflicts intervene, whether the tensions between them are written. The third act is back in tumult of life with the new Sigrid, Lohanesque paparazzi-magnet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), meeting and tormenting Maria/Helena with what is presumably excellent method acting.

All of this plays off of Moretz and Binoche and Stewart's real life notoriety. They ask themselves why an actress like Maria Enders (like Juliette Binoche!) would take a role in an X-Men film and their conversations about Hollywood compromises are not trivial--it feels like they are addressing the heart of my work, reckoning with the commercial pictures of 2015. More than any action film, these meta games had me on the edge of my seat with excitement. Stewart is so tremendous in this film (and in 2015 as a whole) that I want to watch the Twilight films. I cannot put that in starker terms. Binoche (revelatory as she shifts from slumping in a train car to glamming up for fashion photos) is the best selector of roles and directors alive. Moretz holds her own and even takes the lead in the best image from Cannes

Which role is Binoche? Sigrid or Helena? Helena and Sigrid? Can the present overwrite the past? Assayas makes the Maloja Snake eats its own tail. I will keep watching until I can tell you everything about the play within the play and movie within the movie and the actors within the actors--The Clouds of Sils Maria is my best obsession of the year. 


*

Remember: "Now is the envy of all of the dead." 2016 is going to be great--so cheer the fuck up.