I suppose it’s wrong to suggest I ever fell out of love with the movies. But coming into this year I was beginning to worry if the movies still had to ability to level me they way they did when I was first falling in love with them as a teenager.
If you love movies, that period of discovery, when you consume every classic and discover films you love hidden away in the shadows, is an insurmountable time of joy. It sets a standard that the movies can’t possibly live up to afterwards. I discovered The Godfather, On the Waterfront, Spirited Away, Pulp Fiction, and Fargo within a few months of each other. Not even the best year of new movies can match that. I don’t expect them to. What I hope for in any year is for two or three to burrow into my soul and fit snugly and stay there. I want movies I’m still reacting to the next day, that I want to write about the next week, that I want to talk about the next year. In recent years, I haven’t found many new films that sparked that feeling. Snowpiercer bowled me over. 12 Years a Slave made me distraught. Beasts of the Southern Wild engulfed me in its endless shower of sparks. But far more movies that I thought I’d love inspired more admiration than adoration. Going to the movies lost that feeling that once drove me to the cinema every week: the possibility of falling in love with something new.
I don’t know or care how film critics and historians view 2015 as an overall year for movies. All I know is that four films this year made me feel a range of emotions that I had not in a long, long time.
Before this year, the last time I felt awe in a movie theatre was when I saw The Tree of Life. Malick’s vision of of immense scope and visual poetry leveled me, made me feel tiny in the face of its ambition. I left the theatre feeling almost a divine fear, of having witnessed an conversation that was cosmic in its intention. Think Mucha’s Le Pater engravings and you’ll have an idea.
Making the audience feel awestruck is so difficult to achieve in this modern age of filmmaking where any image can be conjured. It’s not simply enough to make us think “how did they do that?”, since that’s a question we rarely ask anymore. Directors have to commit to a vision that we have never considered and create images we never could have imagined. With Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller did just that. The film is an art museum of Miller’s own creation, only every new piece injected a dose of adrenaline into my heart. Every shot had the potential for something beautiful, something harrowing, something simply wonderful in its own regard. And yes, at times I wondered, for the first time in forever, “how did they do that?”
The last time I felt sorrow in a movie theatre was when I went to see 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece of historical immersion held the horror of slavery where no movie before had dared; in front of our eyes, unrelenting, without a moment to let us catch our breath. It defied the convention of a kindly white character to let our white ancestors off the hook. It had the effect of watching a documentary. It was searing, visceral, confrontational filmmaking. It worked. I trembled where I sat. I tried not to look away. At times, I faltered.
This year, I felt that again. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight reopens the wounds of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, and rightly so. Some wounds should never be salved, lest we forget their horrors. It does so without sensationalism; it disappears into the world of investigative journalism, letting us discover the horrors of the Church’s cover-up in real-time with the characters who are writing about it. The film has come under some fire for dismissing some of the crucial investigative work of Boston Phoenix reporter Kristen Lombardi, criticisms that are fair. But as a work of art, it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, for how deftly and respectfully it examines a crisis on unimaginable scope and evil, and how it had such a monumental emotional effect on me. At times, I wanted to look away, but there was nowhere to look. There were only faces on a screen, reacting in real time to horrors that had already happened.
One of my all-time favorite films is Only Yesterday, a forgotten little gemstone by Isao Takahata for Studio Ghibli. It is one of the best films about growing up and coming to terms with adulthood ever made. I first watched it in the attic of my home in the summer of 2004. It was not available in the United States at the time, and for my birthday my parents had purchased it from Japan on DVD, and then gotten me a region free DVD player. I watched it with three other films they got me: My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Whisper of the Heart. Few weeks have ever been so formative to my movie education. All those films are wonderful. But Only Yesterday holds a special spell over me. Its balance of tones, its insight into the little driving forces of human emotion and how oddly specific memories are make it one of the wisest of all movies. I see myself in it, even though I am definitely not a 27 year old Japanese woman, because in focusing so intently on the world of its protagonist it finds truths that anyone can find in their own lives. Movies like this help foster empathy. They are a calming salve. I return to Only Yesterday every few years, when I need it. It’s always there for me.
I think I will be returning to Brooklyn in much the same way. In telling the story of one Irish woman immigrating to America, it reminded me of years of stories my own mother told me. Like Only Yesterday, it held a mirror to my soul and I saw truth and beauty in that. It never goes for the throat. There’s a moment in the film where a man stands up during a Thanksgiving dinner and begins to sing and old Gaelic tune. Everyone on screen stops and reflects as the song transports them, for a moment, back home. Brooklyn has the same effect on me. Movies like this are rare and precious, and particular from person to person. Like a keepsake, I will seek it out when I need it.
Lastly, there is always Star Wars. I don’t know or care if Star Wars: The Force Awakens is my favorite film of the year. I could give you a long list of reasons why it doesn’t measure up artistically to the films I have listed above. But I could do the same for the original films. One beauty of the movies is that they can make us feel many ways; so long as they make us feel, they are doing something wonderful. I have seen The Force Awakens three times, and each time has been, simply put, delightful. Yes, it is nostalgic. We need to stop thinking of that word as pejorative. It doesn’t simply hearken to a simpler time; it achieves what movies that once brought us joy did themselves. It tells a simple, universal story. It gives us lovable characters played by completely charming actors. It gave me the thrill I used to feel being told a good bedtime story as a child. It gave me the sensation that only science-fiction and fantasy can achieve, the out of body experience of being completely transported into its world. This is a film that can be nit-picked to pieces to find its “true and proper” place in the Star Wars canon. I, for one, refuse to play these games. I can’t remember the last time a movie filled me with so much joy.
PS: I need to thank my readers for bringing this blog to life for me this year. I’ve been writing on it for four years now, and this year was the first that I consistently put out writing that I was really proud of, and I have to you guys to thank. Special thanks to Anna at Film Grimoire and Jay from the Assholes Watching Movies crew for their terrific feedback AND the exemplary work they do with their own blogs. Here’s to falling even more in love with the movies in 2016!
I saw myself in Brooklyn. Not my own story. I am not Irish. I am not a young woman, nor was I alive in 1952. I doubt I would ever be played by Saoirse Ronan. The events in Brooklyn don’t much reflect my own life. But watching the film I felt the warm familiarity of stories told to me by my mother. She was not officially an immigrant (she was born in Georgia to an American father and a Filipina mother and grew up in the Philippines) but her stories were often filled with the same feelings of loneliness and discovery that are at the heart of Brooklyn. Thirty-nine years ago, she was in Montreal with the University of the Philippines classical chorus as they went on a world tour. Their bus had a minor accident. Everyone got off. Seizing the opportunity for a totally new life, she never got back on. I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done that. If I have any children, they will owe their existence to that decision. At some point in the bloodlines of most of the people who live in this country, someone came here from somewhere else. Brooklyn is a pure and lovely story of a young woman making that decision. In its specificity, its details, and in a magnificent performance by Saoirse Ronan, it finds depth and truth. Like the films of Ozu, it holds a mirror to our souls.
More than seven hours after finishing The Hateful Eight I am still working through how much I actually liked it. Some negative reviews I’d read called this film dull, a slog, overlong and underplotted. I disagree. Perhaps it’s my anxiety that makes me feel that way; the first act screams for speedy exposition and Tarantino provides none, preferring instead to have its ever-growing cast of characters converse, their prejudices and grudges on their sleeves. As an anxious person, the fear of a conversation going south fast is a real one to me, and it’s the tension from conversation after conversation where characters would much rather be shooting than speaking that sustains the first half of this three hour film. Tarantino is nothing but gratuitous, and never more so than with dialogue.
The second act of the film features so much bloodletting that at one point it has to double back on the plot just to explain how the violence erupted to such an unbelievable extent. Again, Tarantino is nothing but gratuitous, and his love of violence is nearly that of his love of talking. Heads are blown off. Bodies are riddled with bullets. At one point, some characters suddenly begin to upchuck pure blood. I’ll let you see how they begin to do so, if you are so inclined.
So there’s lakes of blood and rolling hills of dialogue. That’s standard Tarantino. What separates his other films? What elevates the best and holds back the rest? Well, my top three of his are Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Inglorious Basterds. There’s no Kill Bill comp to The Hateful Eight; that film was Tarantino luxuriating in two styles that were in his wheelhouse. They were his purest expressions of joy. Pulp Fiction stands apart from the rest of his filmography thanks largely to the precision with which it told stories that felt like they should be spiraling out of control. It was like being in a stunt car with a master driver. Again, there’s no comparison here. The Hateful Eight is neither as narratively brazen nor precise as Pulp Fiction; its aims are more lofty than high-octane.
But Inglorious Basterds? There’s a decent comp, I suppose. It too was dinged by some critics for the reasons I loved it most: its willingness to sit back and let characters talk their way into corners where no one could escape without shooting. Tarantino’s dialogue has never been more musical. In Christophe Waltz he found the best acting companion to his words since Samuel L. Jackson spoke of shepherds and evil men in Pulp Fiction. Compared to this film, The Hateful Eight’s seams begin to show. The cast of characters here are almost too easily categorized into types, like the suspects in an Agatha Christie novel. You have two bounty hunters, one a white mountain man who always keeps his charges alive and watches them hang, the other a black cavalryman who always shoots them in the back. You have a man who claims to be a sheriff, another who clearly was a Confederate general, a drifter, and an odd Englishman (one of my favorite Western tropes, I admit). They are assembled at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of inn where stagecoaches can find shelter during a storm. Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave are nowhere to be seen. And that blizzard is on everyone’s ass. It looks like they’ll be holed up here to two or three nights. And did I mention the bounty hunters are toting a fugitive with a $10,000 bounty on her head?
The story eventually does become a whodunit, after blood begins to spill and no one quite knows why. It just takes a long damn time to get there. As I said, the length isn’t itself a problem. It’s that by the time Tarantino doubles back on the narrative to tell us extra details, it becomes anti-climactic. The rug is pulled too many times. In Pulp Fiction, all that narrative cross-cutting provided endless delight with each new piece of insight. Here, it feels more like plot stuffed in the footnotes. With Inglorious Basterds each big scene was a self-contained marvel of building tension. Despite the single, enclosed setting of The Hateful Eight, there’s nothing contained about either of its acts. At times this is thrilling; characters mix and match with varying degrees of loathing. At the center of it is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). A black former soldier-turned-bounty hunter, the characters he get along best with still drop the n-word copiously. Never mind the Confederate general and the son of a Confederate commander who are both in the same room.
Tarantino, long criticized for the copious use of racial epithets in his films, almost defiantly unloads here. In fairness, he is not simply being the equivalent of a teenager on reddit, gleefully reveling in puerile offense. He is going for something here. Not so much a grand statement as an attempt to honestly explore this very specific scenario; a racial powder keg in an ugly era that often brought out the worst of white America. But this is the second stab Tarantino has made at looking at race in 19th Century America and I’m not convinced he has the narrative touch to reconcile this material with his love of grandiose escalating thrill. Django Unchained stopped being entertaining the moment it looked honestly at its subject matter in the eye. In trying to make me cheer at the end it lost me. The Hateful Eight is much more specific in its narrative approach; it is about these characters, and how they interact upon meeting in this film. It has no desire to earn raucous applause. Even so the way the script uses racial slurs for laughs in one sentence and venom in the next strikes me as both self-aware and, well, obnoxious. This material shouldn’t be solemn (Tarantino should never be), but it would benefit from being less obvious in its braggadocio that it thinks it’s getting away with something.
Still, this is a film that almost demands to be seen. Tarantino’s borderline fetish for traditional filmmaking may be a bit overbearing, but with the visuals he concocts here with cinematographer Robert Richardson, by god, I think he has a point. The 70mm print is luscious. From the snowy vistas the open the film to the deep crimson blood spurts that end it, every shot enveloped me in a way that can’t be faked. If Tarantino’s scripts are his kinetic playground, this film at least is his directorial tribute to the classic form of the Hollywood Golden Age. Lighting, framing, and a sense of place are all paramount here. Tarantino zeroes in on characters’ actions and scoops up details in ways that unexpectedly ratchet up tension. Consider how one character slowly plods through “Silent Night” on the piano as two others converse on the other side of the room. The piano becomes the third party in the conversation, like a host blissfully unaware that its guests are about to have a knife fight.
The Hateful Eight is the most deliberately challenging film Tarantino has made. For that reason alone, it deserves credit he might not get for the times he has stuck to his guns and made exploitation fare (no matter how well he does exploitation). In some regards, he aims high and hits. I still think Ebert’s quip that “Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one” applies 21 years after he wrote it in his review for Pulp Fiction. The Hateful Eight is not yet that bad one. I’m fairly certain that, when it settles in my cranium, it will be a good one. I like Tarantino’s music. Through this one’s dissonance, I can still hear the melodies that keep me coming back.
The sports movie is typically a middle-floor, low-ceiling genre. Follow the formula (Down on their luck protagonist rises from the bottom of their sport to the top with the help of an unconventional coach) and the film will likely go down easy, but it will rarely feel triumphant. Many of the most acclaimed sports films aren’t really about their sport; Raging Bull is a portrait of a self-destructive, violent man; his occupation is secondary. Bull Durham is a romantic comedy about a man who never game up on his dreams long after they have passed him by and a woman who happens to love baseball above all else. The results on the field never factor into the plot.
Rocky was, and always has been, different. It’s a rich, character-driven drama, that is absolutely dependent on the sport it’s about and its outcomes. Boxing provides Rocky Balboa the first chance he has ever had to do something he can be proud about. By building the story around boxing, and filling it with characters as wonderful and human as Rocky and Adrian and Micky and Paulie and Apollo Creed, Rocky gave its climax a sense of stakes far greater than any sports film before it, and just about all sports movies since.
Enter Ryan Coogler and Creed. In his positive reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, Alan Sepinwall said both films were essentially remakes disguised as sequels. I gently disagree; they are a passing of the torch. They harken back to the originals time and time again, because the creators, like the audience, like to be reminded of what we love. But the core of both films (I’ll review The Force Awakens later) is fresh, driven by robust new characters and returning faces with decades of untold stories in their eyes.
There’s something to Michael B. Jordan. A weightiness to his face, to how he carries himself, that expresses so much non-verbally. You know how sometimes you can guess someone’s personality by their body language? Jordan injects that into his characters. We see in Adonis Creed a weight and weariness he has never been able to shake, that he relieves now then by driving to Mexico to box in dingy clubs.
There are two shots in this film that aim to be remembered, and they both succeed. The first occurs after we see Adonis fight for the first time, after he has quit a lucrative job at a financial firm. He is watching his dad’s fights on YouTube. As someone who has often relied on Youtube to explore the history of this sport, this brought a smile to my face. He then projects the video onto his wall, and punches alongside his father, bobbing in and out of the ring. It’s an audacious image, the type that would be too much if it weren’t so thrilling. More than that, it establishes the sport as inseparable from the narrative. From this moment on, we are invested in Adonis’s journey. Coogler and Maryse Alberti, that magnificent French cinematographer, are just getting started.
The other shot that stands out should earn Alberti an Oscar nomination all on its own. It is an unbroken shot of a bout between Adonis and another much-hyped young fighter from Philadelphia. Tracking shots tend to do two things: call attention to themselves in a way that creates tension (we know the shot will break at some point, we just don’t know when) or to help us disappear into the rhythm of the scene. This shot does both. As the camera spins around the fighters and the ring, we are well aware that it isn’t making the manic jump cuts that we’re used to in boxing films. On the other hand, the ferocity of the fight, and how the camera weaves into its fabric, becomes all we can see. Boxing has never been this vicious and physical on screen. Even the geysers of blood and spit from Raging Bull feel like stylistic flourishes to the punishment here. When the fight is over, we’re exhausted. I’ve never seen so thrilling a depiction of any sport on screen before.
I’ve avoided talking about the plot because, well, it does follow the beats of Rocky. That Creed is so good shows how minor the plot can be in the scheme of making good movies. Adonis is a terrific character. And the inclusion of Rocky Balboa as his trainer feels organic, right, and not at all like fan service. Rocky’s story isn’t done yet, and this story isn’t just a rehash of his that have come before. The faces are new and interesting. The style is fresh. The action is thrilling. The plot, as before, is simply holding everything else in place. It’s the everything else that made Rocky great. So it goes with Creed.
This piece will delve into the topic of sexual abuse, which Spotlight, an extraordinary film, addresses head-on while fully respecting its victims. This is a very sensitive topic, so this is a warning if this is a subject you don’t want to read.
I have heard many comparisons of Spotlight to All the President’s Men. On the surface, the comparisons make sense. Both films are about the need for journalism as a champion for decency in the face seemingly insurmountable opposition. Both films approach their stories with an unobtrusive visual style, the camera moving only to show us the lay of the land (or, more often, the newsroom), with non-stop dialogue and performances tilted firmly towards realism over showiness. But Spotlight, I think, is the better film. It is more vital and vibrant. Its subject matter demands it. All the President’s Men is about a farcical presidential scandal, and the presidency desperately failing to cover its tracks. Spotlight is about an epidemic of unspeakable evil, hidden successfully for decades by people throughout the world in positions of influence and power, as the number of victims mounted and found their pleas ignored at every turn. At one point, a character in the film calls “the lucky ones” those who still have their lives.
All the President’s Men entertained me. Spotlight shook me and summoned from my own past shadows I thought I’d long buried. I nearly walked out of the theatre at one point because I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack. I cried in the car driving home from the theatre. The tendrils of sexual abuse in the church barely grazed me in comparison to how so many of its victims suffered. My experience with it has haunted me for years, and I was one of the lucky ones.
When I was 15 a priest turned a confession into a half-hour attempt to get me to narrate his sexual fantasies. It was a half-hour of pornographic sexual humiliation disguised as saving my soul. Never mind that a tenet of confession is trusting someone to examine their own conscience and be honest. He wanted increasingly prurient details, and when it was clear I was befuddled, inexperienced, naive, and terrified, clear that his fantasies did not remotely line up with my experiences (which amounted to reading the SI Swimsuit issue, which was all I had to confess that day), he fed me the things he wanted me to say. If I said no for too long he would warn me that I had committed sacrilege and was bound for hell if I didn’t listen to him.
After more than half an hour of this, he suddenly muttered the absolution and sent me on my way. I left the confessional feeling filthy, like my soul was beyond saving, like I’d been dragged, my limbs bound, helpless and with no recourse.
This experience still haunts me. For years after the incident, I blamed myself for it, and thus for all the discomfort that followed. It profoundly altered my ability to talk and communicate about sex, which has ended relationships. When I’m alone with someone I sometimes get transported to that dark confessional, and hear his voice ringing in my ears. I still no longer express any deep feelings with ease.
And I know, despite all that, that I am absolutely one of the lucky ones. I had one, single incident, and it was entirely spoken words, not physical contact. Those 30 minutes in the confessional shaped me in ways that few 30 minute periods of my life have. And I was one of the lucky ones.
Somehow, for years it never occurred to me that what I experienced was abuse. Somehow, Spotlight galvanized my feelings about that incident in ways that nothing else has for 13 years. By realizing how much worse it could have been, I also realized that I was blameless that day. That a predator used me for his own enjoyment. That I did nothing to merit his treatment of me. I can’t recall the last time a work of art had such a deep, searing effect on me.
Director Tom McCarthy takes the best possible approach to this material. No attempts to deepen it; it speaks for itself. No flashiness. He assembles a remarkable cast and lets them disappear into the team of journalists that unearthed the horrors of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis.
I am often wary of movies that assemble a baseball-sized roster of A-listers. A huge cast of big names is not necessarily indicative of great material, or of scrupulous, careful casting. Spotlight contains a few A-listers; Mark Ruffalo is an Avenger, and Michael Keaton is making the most of his post-Birdman resurgence. But the point here is that none of these actors makes their parts about themselves. Some movies demand star presence. This movie demands acting that feels as authentic as possible. Every single actor in the cast achieves that. It’s a remarkable feat. I have never worked as a newsroom writer, but I’ve seen the Boston Globe offices and know a few Globe writers. The mood and tone feel right. The haggard bustle and functional wardrobe of tie-less button-down shirts and wrinkled khakis.
The Globe’s Spotlight team is such an institution in the world of investigative journalism that I wondered if they’d ever had a film made about them before. But even the Globe isn’t let entirely off the hook as the scandal unfolds; more than once, the team of Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are reminded that victims of priest abuse attempted to contact the Globe years before the events of the film, and were largely ignored. The Spotlight team only takes the story because a new editor, the previously LA-based Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes in with a fresh set of eyes and sees through the years of local, institutional benefit of the doubt that the largely Catholic (practicing or not) community has given the Church.
This story broke 13 years ago. It has lost none of its power. The outrage I felt at the end of the film was almost immediately replaced with grief and resignation. Before the final credits, a huge list of cities affected by priest sex abuse is shown. After being overwhelmed by the events that are unearthed just in Boston, this is a jolt back to reality. This happened, and it was protected with silence and complacency. Children across the world weren’t simply failed; they were preyed upon, and the Church went out of its way to keep them in harm’s way. Spotlight isn’t a showy film. Don’t mistake that for not having a heartbeat. It burns with fury. It just doesn’t shout it at you. Like good journalism, it digs deep and lays out its story. That story is as vast as the church’s policies on celibacy and history of secrecy, and as personal as a victim pausing after an interview and saying “you can use my name”. It lets the events speak for themselves. That’s the only way I imagine this story could be told.
Hey all. I’ve been very busy with other projects this month. I’m going to make it up to you in the next 24 hours with reviews of Spotlight, Creed, Brooklyn, Star Wars, and maybe more if I can think of ’em.