Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.
Saturday, 20 January 2018 13:02

Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.

Published in Films

Dennis Broe introduces his top ten films, ten noble efforts, and a few duds from 2017.

First a caveat. My filmgoing is in Europe so there are some fluctuations in openings between the American and European markets. So Moonlight, for example, last year’s Oscar winner, is on my list for this year. More important though is that this list often functions as an advocate, urging that films which have not reached the U.S. market, like Raoul Peck’s Young Karl Marx, get an opening. The list is also an advocate for powerful films that are dumped with little fanfare on the American market and get lost amid the steam of American indies and foreign films which are released each week and are barely reviewed compared to Hollywood fare. Worth noting also is that three of the top 20 films opened on Netflix rather than in cinemas, making the streaming service a major site of global distribution, now rivalling the major studios.

Top Ten Films

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s dark fable and leading Oscar contender set in the bowels of the Cold War, in a dank secret laboratory. It's also a stunning cross-species love story with brilliant performances that begin with Sally Hawkins mute cleaner, who assembles a band of misfits to challenge the military-industrial machine. It harks back in Del Toro’s work beyond Pan’s Labyrinth to his earlier even more politicized Francoist children’s tale The Devil’s Backbone with a musical number with hard-won quality which exposes the pure fluff of last year’s La La Land.    

 DB the shape of water

A Ciambra – Martin Scorsese executive-produced this coming of age Roma story set in the impoverished Calabria region of Southern Italy, and which is that country’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film. This is a bitter tale of the multiple betrayals necessary for the boy to attain manhood in poverty. Critical not only of Western treatment of immigrant communities, but also of the hierarchical system of ethnicities pitted against each other that now marks life in the West. A companion to Scorsese’s own earlier films on a similar topic - Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets.  

This is Congo – The year’s best documentary not only recapitulates in stunning detail the colonial and continuing history of the West’s devastation of the country in order to continue to have access to its mineral wealth, but also traces the individual devastation in its following of a Congolese hero who opposes the mercenary breakdown of the country but finally succumbs himself to government collusion in this giveaway. A stunning effort by filmmaker Daniel McCabe who has taken the time to know intimately the country, the region, and his lead character.

DB this is congo

Angels Wear White – Vivian Qu, producer of the Chinese masterpiece Black Coal, Thin Ice is director of this seaside story of the layers of corruption which allow a government official to remain unprosecuted for underage assault. Qu details lovingly both the ingrained opportunistic buying off of witnesses and the slow decision of the lead worker to come forward, followed by a masterful shot of her having to leave her job trailing the oversized statute of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood icon whose symbolic imprisonment within a male system mirrors the girl’s own. Superb and unrelenting exposure of the compromises that are de rigeur in a society where too often human relations are ruled by money.    

Western – Seen at the New York Film Festival and still to open in the U.S., this German film by Valeska Grisebach, produced by the director of the similar-themed Toni Erdman but better and tougher than that film, is set in rural Bulgaria and details the prejudices of a West German construction crew against their Eastern neighbours. A former mercenary challenges their assumptions but shows himself to be consumed as well by the supposedly superior technological gaze of the West, a gaze which is exposed as not all-knowing but rather all-exploiting.

 Okja – Netflix financed Boon Joon-ho’s charming, touching fractured fairy tale about the viciousness of the meat industry as a young Korean girl falls hard for the giant genetically engineered pig a corporation has deposited with her family. Stirring action scenes from Boon Joon-ho, for my mind now the world’s best director, after Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. And a double performance from Tilda Swinton as alternately the smiling and then the malicious face of corporate slaughter, commanding the butchering of masses of Okjas, a death scene that goes on every day in the world’s abattoirs.

 DB okja 

Loveless – Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to Leviathan is in its own quiet way even more bleak than the previous film, only here the subject is not post-Soviet breakdown but instead the consumer society, triumphing in the evacuation of the state and its more quiet devastation of the psyche’s of the divorcing couple who are so busy with their gadgets and positioning themselves for promotions that they have utterly neglected their son. The cold, cruel Russian winter here functions as a metaphor for the chilling of humanity in the wake of the penetration of global capitalism. Devastatingly sombre but accurate critique.

Patti Cake$ – The year’s best American indie is a working class, multi-ethnic La La Land, what that film promised in its opening but then abandoned, here fulfilled in a Jersey story of an overweight rapper in love with the music. The film acknowledges multi-levels of prejudice within the industry, but in its own way reinvents the purity and emancipatory potential of a music that has been too long simply bought and sold. The triumph comes through a cross-racial working-class pairing that in its honesty is as unusual in American film as it is in American society.    

Get Out – This horror film about the depth of racial prejudice in the United States manages to hit all the points of the genre, while injecting humor into the situation and remaining unflinching in its depiction of the deep-seated fears and hate at the heart of supposed enlightened American upper middle class. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut about a mixed race couple is a true Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the age of Trump, where the veneer of liberal hypocrisy has been replaced by rage. Excellent genre filmmaking and then so much more, proving as did last year’s Last Train to Busan that the horror film may be the modern genre vehicle par excellence for expressing the terror and misery of late capitalism.

Young Karl Marx – Raoul Peck has here constructed a Marx for our times. He disdains the usual biopic formula of emphasizing the most overtly dramatic moments which might have culminated in the young Marx’s participation in the European revolutions of 1848 and instead quietly details how Marx and Engels began to break with more traditional staid socialisms, which would become the utterly sold out socialism of today, to conceive instead of international working class revolt culminating in their Communist Manifesto. What Peck has created here is a politically engaged intellectual bio-pic projected across Europe, encompassing in its language French, German and English, a stunning advancement for the genre. 

DB young karl marx

Ten Noble efforts

Cairo Confidential – This Egyptian noir, released in the U.S. as the more obliquely titled The Nile Hilton Incident, details its reluctant cop hero uncovering layers of wrongdoing in the Mubarak government on the eve of the Arab Spring, corruption that is now even more widespread under the new dictatorship, supported again by the U.S. of course.

Wind River – Taylor Sheridan’s Hell and High Water was a caper film about dispossession in the Texas Panhandle, and he is back again this year with this even more focused tale of murder on an Indian reservation that in its way predicted energy company mistreatment of the protestors at Standing Rock.

 DB wind river

Mudbound/Moonlight – Both were excellent historical recountings of African-American experience. The first, picked up by Netflix after being boycotted by the major studios at Sundance. It's set in Mississippi in the 1940s, and is astounding in its quiet depiction of sharecropping exploitation. The second describes three generations in drug-addled Miami ,as the neighbourhood collapses under the weight of this penetration, and as its lead character both confronts his gayness and survives in the only economy left to him. A more socially penetrating Brokeback Mountain and that most unusual rarity, a deserving Oscar winner.  

Sweet Country - Warwick Thornton’s aboriginal Australian 1920s Western, detailing the utter disdain of the settler population for the country’s indigenous peoples. It manages at the same time to portray the way that population attempts to if not fight back at least preserve its dignity, while proving itself far more caring than its exploiters, as the aboriginal fugitive saves the life of Brian Brown’s parched sheriff.

The Villainess – South Korean derring-do, as a female assassin wrecks a rival gang in the opening, is domesticated by Korean intelligence only to be betrayed by it, and then wreaks her revenge on both the state and the gangs and smiles wickedly at the end as she is taken. B-filmmaking at its finest.

Taxi Sofia – Bulgarian film, otherwise titled Directions or Posoki. Multiple stories of taxi drivers, including the opening of one pushed too far by the banks, recount the devastation wrecked by the unleashing of a pernicious and greedy capitalism in that country. Tarantino-esque in its rapid outbreaks of violence, but with more of a social conscience.

Our Time Will Come - Ann Hui’s depiction of the gradual coming of political age of the Hong Kong resistance to the Japanese during World War II, and in particular of a school teacher who surpasses her male guides. It has echoes of Jean Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows about French wartime resistance, but outdoes that film in its more unbridled validation of the potential of a political awakening.

Ex Libris – Frederic Wiseman returns in the best anti-Trump film of the year. It details, in these times of massive defunding of the state, the value of the New York Public Library in reaching not only minority populations but also standing as an educational bulwark against the rapid commercialization of all forms of learning for the city’s entire population.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – This Indonesian ghost-story, shoot-em-up, martial arts tale by Mouly Surya about a woman’s being set upon by bandits and her subsequent learning to protect herself and taking her revenge, taps rich sources of that country’s folklore. This film is an announcement of a major director on the global scene.    

What the Health – Netflix documentary on the damage wrought by the animal food industry, which downplays the harmful effects of sugar but makes a major contribution in its examination of the continuing damage done to the planet’s health and to individuals by the accelerating slaughter of beef and other animals. Wonderful example of advocacy filmmaking.

Five Turkeys for Christmas

Ismael’s Ghost – The years’ most pretentious piece of fluff from French director Arnaud Desplichin, a misogynist fable posing as a complex look at the creative process.

Private Life of a Modern Woman –James Toback’s validation of the supposed journey of an upper middle-class Hollywood actress toward enlightenment seems to instead just wallow in self-pity and privilege.

Jim and Andy – Worst documentary of the year, exposing unwittingly the shallowness and opportunism of Jim Carey, who attempts to claw back his career by supposedly exposing hidden footage of him playing Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon. A disgraceful defacing of Kaufman’s legacy. 

Au Revoir Le Haut or See You Up There –- World War 1 fable that is the opposite of The Shape of Water. It's a regressive tale that after a promising start ends up first dissolving the destruction of the war in a 1920s flapper haze and thenultimately validating it, as the industrialist who pushed the war is revealed to have a heart of gold.

Mother – “Torture the woman” Hitchcock commanded, and Daren Aronovsky follows that dictum by heaping abuse on Jennifer Lawrence in a haunted house tale that is supposedly about the creative process of her writer-husband, Javier Badem. It's really just an excuse for sadistic nonsensical escapades which one New York critic claimed was actually a comedy. You can lose your license for judgments like that.

Venice Film Festival 2017
Saturday, 20 January 2018 13:02

Venice Film Festival 2017

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

There are three main stories at this 74th edition of the oldest film festival in the world.

Venice as launch pad

The first is the increasing use of Venice as a launch pad for the Hollywood Academy Awards, with the streak of three straight Best Picture Winners broken last year as the Venice candidate – the oh-so-Hollywood La La Land – lost to an actual film deserving the best picture title Moonlight because of a change in Academy voters to include more women and minorities.

This year that voting contingent has been expanded further and so the Venice Best Picture contenders have taken into account that they may need to mix relevance with their more standard Hollywood feelgood fare, especially in this year of Trump.

The films they debuted on the red carpet of the Lido have in many ways attempted to expand the conversation while still focusing firmly on the largely white American middle class. Chiding that class for its isolation, it’s true, but also coming up against the limitations of having to speak in a language that class can understand.

db shape of water

Only one film actually transcends this limitation, and does so in grand style, making it this year’s lead contender for the Best Picture. That is Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War fantasy The Shape of Water, a film which in the blockbuster magical realist mode recalls Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth.

Water though actually harkens back to two other films of his, The Devil’s Backbone, a horror film set in the closing days of the fascist Franco’s Civil War in Spain which here equates the darkness of the American Cold War with those fascist times, and Hellboy, since this is also an intervention and rewriting of the superhero film with what initially looks like the monster from the Amazon, who recalls the Creature From the Black Lagoon, turning into a hero and the evolving monster becoming Michael Shannon’s maniacal and gangrenous Cold War Security head.

This is lead actress Sally Hawkins’ film. She plays a mute cleaner of a locked-down military facility who gets help in her quest to save what the military industrial complex calls a monster from an African-American female fellow worker. She stands up to her husband who is scared and hides behind the law, from a gay artist who tells the mute woman’s story, and from a Russian scientist.

This mermaid story in reverse, a rewriting of Splash from the female perspective, even features a musical number recalling La La Land. But here the musical number marks a much harder won triumph and a reprieve from the awfulness of the dreary Baltimore existence most souls were confined to in that bleak period.

db suburb

Two films that don’t quite succeed in transcending the limitations of their audience, but are well-intentioned, are George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. As does The Shape of Water, Suburbicon reworks the flattering idea that characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper were, despite all the racism and intolerance, charismatic builders of a new world.

Matt Damon, the star of both films, is a corporate chief financial officer slowly going to pieces, though he continues to retain his seemingly in control discourse of mastery as his world disintegrates. Here, late 50s middle America is revealed to be a place, like America today, of rigidly-confined, morally-bankrupt shysters.

The problem is that the Coen Brothers script eventually plays the material too broadly, and it moves from social satire to more blockbuster black comedy, losing all subtlety. A subplot involving a suburban rousting of a black family – complete with Confederate flag thrown in their window – resounds with the Virginia race riot,and reminds us that the supposed primitiveness of the late 1950s has in no way been transcended.

Downsizing, again with Damon as an American middle-class everyman, this time gently takes on both the destruction of the planet through global warming and the reduced expectations of his class, as Damon shrinks and enters a tiny gated community claiming to then be doing his part to save the world.

The tiny jokes are clever, as the film is a sort of Darby O’Gill and the Little People meets Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but the film seems like too little too late, as the Damon character finally realizes there is inequality even in his gated tiny world and eventually pledges to help right that wrong, but within the confines of the community. The transformation is touching but restores an image of the American middle class of essentially being “nice” people rather than a pampered class whose lifestyle and sense of entitlement is responsible for a global destruction that is now coming home to roost.

Far worse is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This follows the story of a priest questioning his values when confronted by an environmental activist, and reeks of a self-righteousness that is not only Schrader at his worst but Schrader combined with the pretentiousness of lead actor Ethan Hawkes, whose self-important projects are beginning to mark him as a Tom Cruise of the indie set. Can you say Vanilla Sky?

The film sees itself in the line of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest but can’t help end up being closer to the blockbuster pretentiousness of a King of Kings here scaled down to fit a low budget.

Even worse is James Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman, possibly the worst film of the festival which, like the Schrader film, uses the diary writing cliché – once a vibrant technique in French New Wave filmmaking – to here recount the privileged status of a Hollywood star. She is played lethargically by Sienna Miller, who has murdered her lowlife boyfriend, thrown him in a trunk and rationalizes the killing by claiming it has made her a more aware person. Far better actors traipse through her apartment – Alec Baldwin, Charles Grodin – but to no avail, as she continues her pop aphorisms which translate as the truth of the privileged and are more revealing about the snobby righteousness of this class then they are meant to be.

Venice as innovator

The second major story is the festival’s willingness to innovate along with its ecumenism. It is all things to all people, being able this year to absorb the Hollywood onslaught since, as one producer put it, low and mid-level U.S. production, like the films discussed above, now depends on the festival circuit and European festivals in particular for successful openings.

The trick is for mid-level Hollywood production not to dominate European films at Euro festivals. That the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction could be seen at the booing of the festival’s logo this year which was entirely oriented toward Hollywood with outlines of Freddy Kruger, Luke Skywalker and Gene Kelly dancing across Italian screens. This year though there are more and – so claims the festival’s director Alberto Barbera – better Italian films as well.

A major area of innovation is that Venice this year is the first major film festival to host a Virtual Reality competition, with 22 films varying from 6 minutes to Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Ling’s 56 minute first VR feature, The Deserted. The VR festival is being held on the island of Lazarretto Vecchio, once a hospital for quarantining plague victims.

It is now turned into a VR theatre where you sit with about 20 others, put on the goggles and headsets and watch. Tsai’s film, is a continuation of his aesthetic, sometimes called Asian Miserabilism, which is a pejorative description of films which champion the lives of the downtrodden.

Barbera has also absorbed easily both Netflix, Amazon and television, claiming that audiences have many ways of viewing, and refusing to discriminate among them, which is very different than the Cannes controversy over Netflix’ presence in the competition.

The two Netflix entries though were subpar. Our Souls at Night reunited Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who have both been on the screen for six decades, in a film which though directed by the Indian helmer of the very good The Lunchbox failed to deliver on its concept. The very straightforward Fonda character knocks on Redford’s door and proposes that these two retirees, neighbours for years, begin sleeping together to bare their souls in what I guess amounts to ‘meeting cute’ for the geriatric set.

The problem is that they never do get to talking in a meaningful way and when the Fonda character does present a painful event that changed her life, it is quickly glanced over. She looks great on screen, more Barbarella than On Golden Pond, but her character is underwritten and shrill, while Redford’s restrained male is much more likable. A shame they couldn’t have been more equal.

The other main Netflix event was its production of the Italian Television Series Suburra where the first two episodes were screened. The series which, like the extremely successful Gomorrah, follows a book and a film, details a mob attempt at a takeover of a Roman beach at Ostia to turn it into a port for the importation of cocaine from the South.

The political manoeuvring involves the Vatican, the Rome government, and the local mob being leaned on by the Sicilian Mafia. The detailing of this plot is excellent but the series, in an attempt to expand the material and “skew young”, makes way too much of a blackmail attempt of a monsignor by three youths. They are all disaffected, as the unemployment rate among the young in Italy is 35%, but here their outre lifestyle is expressed in boring overbearing club music as heroic, rather than as what has been left to them. The series has a long way to go to achieve the casual and truthful cruelty of how the mob ruins lives and structures its economy in Gomorrah.

Venice as critic of the refugee crisis

The third story of the festival is the onscreen concern with refugees which in a way accounted for three of the best films of the first week. Eye on Juliet by Canadian director Kim Nguyen is a drone romance, a highly improbable linking of capitalist technology protecting Middle East oil pipelines and a woman trying to flee a stifling situation.

HF Horizontal Small

The artist Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow tracks the refugee question, as Europe closes its borders to those who are fleeing wars – from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria –
that the Western powers instigated. The film, often in exquisitely beautiful shots tracks the plight of those fleeing wars caused by climate degradation, or imperialist attempts to garner their home countries’ resource wealth.

A stunning overhead shot descends slowly on what at first look like ants and then we watch as civilians are rousted from refugee camps by Turkish forces, in a deal that Europe has used to hide the crisis. The film, where Ai Wei Wei uses his status as an art world superstar to call attention to the worse migrant crisis since World War II, could not be more timely. Apart from Trump’s renewed call for a US-Mexican Wall, the four Western European powers met last week and created a quota system which will limit Muslims from entering Western Europe, and the Italian police in Rome thuggishly dismantled a camp of Africans fleeing war and climate poverty.

thisiscongo screengrabs072

Finally, the very wonderful documentary This is Congo, which along with The Shape of Water is the best film so far of the festival. It explores through its tracing of four characters the troubled history of that mineral rich country, also a site of imperialist resource grabs, and refugee crises.

The film opens on verdant fields and cow pastures, as a young colonel in the Congolese army says he will return to farming when his job is done. We then follow him as he in honoured by the president Joseph Kabila, little realizing the honour is about beefing him up as he is sent into the danger zone of the mineral processing city of Goma where a rebel army has taken control.

His bravery defeats the mercenaries but he then falls victim himself to the Congolese authorities, and his story truly illustrates why wars have infested the country for so long. The colonial past is rehearsed as is the role of the West in Rwanda and Uganda in fomenting conflict and fragmenting the mineral rich eastern Congo.

The filmmakers also had access to the rebel leader who spouts revolutionary patter to disguise a naked grab for wealth; to a tailor who must flee the so-called rebels arriving in a refugee camp with only his sewing machine; and to Mama Romance, a mineral smuggler whose stones are used for weddings.

The country’s history is rich in betrayal since the American-inspired killing of the truly revolutionary leader Lumumba, and the film well illustrates both the quagmire the country is mired in and the indomitable spirit of its people to continue the struggle.