Cinema Isn’t Dead: My Top 10 Films of 2016

Have you heard the refrain that cinema is dead? Because it seemed to pop up in the cultural press with rather alarming frequency throughout 2016. From the Huffington Post to the New York Times (where critic A.O. Scott aimed to debunk all the dreary hypothesizing), the topic of film’s longevity as an art form was a hot topic of conversation this year. Even directors Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, whose legendary Taxi Driver remains incendiary and incisive 40 years after its release, criticized the new output from studios and the increasing trivialization of the multiplex this year. (Both filmmakers’ most recent efforts, released late in the year, couldn’t capture many eyeballs. Their opinions will likely remain unchanged.)

One can blame a dire summer of filmgoing, which featured the usual glut of noisy sequels and unnecessary spin-offs without giving mass audiences much in the way of a fresh pop blockbuster (like 2015’s Inside Out or Mad Max: Fury Road) or plucky indie success. (Fewer than a million people in North America saw Swiss Army Man or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, both wildly entertaining efforts.) One can also blame the major studios, which, to incentivize profits and minimize risk, have largely trimmed the projects in the middle – ones usually aimed at adults that cost a fraction of sure-fire blockbusters or way more than cheap genre tricks. One can try to blame the exceptionally high quality of many television programs, although virtually none of the shows crowned by guilds and academies this year (like The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Americans) have anything close to the big audiences of hit movies.

However, 2016 was only a difficult year for the cinema if your moviegoing diet consisted of a few processed choices, which felt more like obligatory duties due to one’s investment in a franchise or studio (Batman v. Superman; The Jungle Book; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). This was the year when a superhero movie gloated about its R-rated credentials (Deadpool) and managed to outgross most of its PG-13-rated genre compatriots. This was the year when a bright family entertainment (Zootopia) and a dimly lit alien invasion flick (Arrival) both found staying power in theatres by relating directly to the sociopolitical zeitgeist, even if their sums were less than the films’ many unique parts. This was the year where horror fans gave the box office a jolt, picking original choices (Don’t Breathe, The Shallows) over stale leftovers (Blair Witch, anyone?).

And these were just the big studio successes. On the art-house circuit, newer distributors like Bleecker Street (Eye in the Sky, Captain Fantastic), Broad Green Pictures (Knight of Cups), The Film Arcade (Don’t Think Twice) and The Orchard (Christine) had stellar outputs that indie film lovers could eagerly anticipate. The stream of hot festival purchases by A24, Magnolia, and Sony Classics, among the other usual suspects who crowd repertory theatre schedules, enlivened the year when mainstream studio filler could not.

We’re heading into an Academy Awards where most of the big contenders are likely to be a collection of niche titles that built up an audience after weeks of limited release-play and exorbitant festival buzz. (Odds are good that only one or two of the six major studios will be represented among the slate of Best Picture nominees.) This is not a sign of cinema’s diminishing quality, but of the dropping quantity of moviegoers cognizant of the more fascinating films of the moment. The list below, a compendium of Canadian, American, and foreign fare, does not contain a single title that grossed more than $50 million at the North American box office – a shame, especially when one considers how essential many of them are as enrapturing, audio-visual experiences, meant to be watched off the largest screen. Cinema certainly isn’t dead, but those seeking greatness may have to dig a little deeper to find the gems.

Here is a list, in descending order, of my top 10 favourite films of 2016. It is not the definitive list, though. Cannes favourites like Paterson and Toni Erdmann are still a few weeks away from theatrical release in my current city, while new efforts from auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, Asghar Farhadi, Michel Gondry and Kelly Reichardt have eluded my sight as well. Nevertheless, I saw 139 films from the past year, and narrowing down those offerings to just 10 was not easy. (12 worthy honourable mentions will follow this list.)

Enjoy, and I’ll see you at the movies.

10. Off the Rails

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The best non-fiction film I saw at the Hot Docs festival this spring, Adam Irving’s powerful portrait centers on Darius McCollum, a man obsessed with New York City transit. McCollum would like nothing more than to be employed as a conductor – he knows the routes perfectly and has even stolen trains and buses, impersonating their drivers. But he has also gotten caught more than 30 times; with each subsequent arrest, McCollum’s dreams slip further away. The subject, who is black and has Asperger’s, explains that his skin colour and health struggles have exacerbated the negative attention he receives from the press and city authorities. Irving’s doc reveals the boundless humanity of its funny, friendly, articulate subject, while dancing through tough topics – racism and mass incarceration, for instance – with ease. Endlessly fascinating, Off the Rails is like a feature-length version of the finest “Humans of New York” story.

9. The Neon Demon

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s absorbing look at the world of fashion is a film that, appropriately, begs to be looked at. (Its icy, glittery soundtrack, courtesy of Cliff Martinez, is a perfect aural counterpart.) The horror-comedy-backstage drama focuses on Elle Fanning’s Jesse, a pale-skinned beauty who comes to Los Angeles to make it as a model. Her sharp ascent attracts a close friend (Jena Malone) and a pack of plastic enemies (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), who always seem ready to pounce on the fresh meat. Tales of young arrivals in L.A. striving for fame are nothing new, but Refn’s aesthetic (bursting between minimalism and excess, just like the city he films) and Fanning’s layered performance, which constantly hints at Jesse’s darkness, intoxicate. With such overwhelming opulence and a few shocking bursts of, ahem, body horror, The Neon Demon reaches the same trance-like power as its protagonist. Just try taking your eyes off of it.

8. Hell or High Water

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Finally, a runaway indie hit that earned its success. David Mackenzie’s drama about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both superb) robbing banks in financially despondent West Texas and the two Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, a dynamic duo) on their heels captured a post-Recession zeitgeist with clarity and surprising humour. The screenplay (from Taylor Sheridan, who made this list with Sicario last year) makes adept use of the setting, finding heart in the cash-strapped and suspicious locals who interact with the main characters. The dialogue crackles, and a few expertly staged action sequences arrest our attention. But the four main performers, each indelible and indispensable, find original ways to play with these archetypes (such as Bridges’ sheriff a week away from retirement and Foster’s take on the loose cannon ex-convict). Textured and thematically rich, Hell or High Water is a contemporary Western that feels like an instant classic.

7. Silence

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The final entry in Martin Scorsese’s unofficial trilogy about faith, Silence is an astonishing feat of filmmaking and one of the purest explorations of religious struggle to ever come to the screen. Based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel, the Japan-set epic follows two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who are trying to find a religious leader (Liam Neeson) who may have apostatized amidst the mass persecution of Japanese Christians. This is a deeply moving – and depending on one’s tolerance for depictions of suffering and more leisurely pacing, difficult – film, which takes Scorsese’s longtime interest in Catholic guilt and anguish, and amplifies these themes. The intricate period details, bravura images (courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto) and expressive performances recall the finest works from Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Beyond these technical proficiencies, Silence’s many moments of quiet gravity stick with you. A passion project several decades in the making, this 160-minute drama has been mostly ignored by audiences, even with a recognizable ensemble and director. You may not have much time to rectify these sins: it will not be in theatres for long and demands your patience and attention.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

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Like Silence, Kubo and the Two Strings is set in Japan many centuries ago. But whereas Scorsese’s epic is contemplative, the newest film from the stop-motion masters at Laika dazzles endlessly – probably more than any animated feature in recent memory. A paean to the power of storytelling, this adventure follows Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy with magical powers who cares for his ill mother and entertains the nearby village with his stories and sorcery. After mischievous spectres (Rooney Mara) threaten the boy, Kubo goes on the run to reclaim three sacred items to defeat them, with the help of two sidekicks: wizened guardian Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the sly, Herculean Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s latest, helmed by studio staple Travis Knight (in his directorial debut) is busy with plot but also bursting with imagination. (It takes more than one viewing to catch all of the symbols and visual details.) Kubo’s action sequences thrill with furious pacing, and inspire awe with a seamless blend of handmade puppetry and digital splendor. Beyond its captivating images, though, the adventure’s big emotional stakes and mature insights about coping with loss make it resonate with an undiminished power.

5. Moonlight

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The sophomore feature from director Barry Jenkins has the depth and delicacy of a great James Baldwin work, as it explores themes around black bodies and masculinity. This triptych, adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, examines pivotal chapters in the young life of Chiron, as he grows up in the Miami projects to a drug-addled mom (Naomie Harris). The three iterations of this character – played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – have a different stature and physicality, but share a terseness, curiosity and melancholy that thread into a seamless whole. The thoughtfulness of the writing, which looks at how young black men adopt poses and patterns based on their social milieu, is graceful. The performances, from a conflicted drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) to a friend of Chiron hoping to mend regrets from a decade earlier (Andre Holland), astonish. Each shot of Moonlight is gorgeous, with James Laxton’s camera offering a rich sense of place, while using varying shades of stormy blue to capture the changing (or unchanging) moods of the protagonist. Like the taciturn hero, Jenkins’ film drifts between hardness and softness, enthralling us with a character both angry and vulnerable who doesn’t always know how to express these feelings. It is a shattering and unforgettable character study.

4. The Handmaiden

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Perhaps the fastest 144 minutes one can possibly have at the cinema, the new erotic thriller from Park Chan-Wook is steamy, subversive and overwhelmingly satisfying. The filmmaker transfer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from Victorian London to pre-WWII, Japanese-occupied Korea. There, the young, innocent Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to work for Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-Hee, out of place at Hideko’s sumptuous mansion, has a plan to seduce her employer and steal the family’s fortune. To spoil any more of the mind games, temporal trickery and sexual exploits would rob much of the film’s tantalizing fun. The South Korean auteur, no stranger to skirting the wishes of the censors, is in full command here. Every scene is trimmed to its most precise, while the plush mise-en-scène – this film deserves every production design award that may or may not be thrown its way – demands the widest screen. But technique and style does not trump the substance: even with many lascivious asides, there is real, palpable feeling behind The Handmaiden‘s two main performances.

3. The Stairs

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If the movies are like a machine that generates empathy, as the late Roger Ebert once wrote, then few films this year worked with as much capacity as Hugh Gibson’s affecting doc about recovering drug addicts doubling as counselors in Toronto’s Regent Park. The Stairs was a hit at TIFF and recently won Best Canadian Film by the Toronto Film Critics Association. There is a reason why the city’s cultural scene has gravitated toward this stirring portrait of men and women trying, step by painful step, to improve their circumstance. Gibson, who made the film over five years, focuses on three unforgettable subjects: motor-mouthed Marty, straight-shooting Roxanne and blemished bruiser Greg. These subjects open up to the director with ease, eager to share their moments of trial and triumph. Gibson’s grace and assured hand as a storyteller ensures we never pity these subjects, but are grateful to witness their generosity and hear their tales of light and darkness. The Stairs widens our understanding of a subject and milieu often hidden away from mainstream society, and the result is as powerful, compassionate and funny as any documentary in years.

2. 20th Century Women

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Writer/director Mike Mills outdid himself with his newest film, an expansively warm and disarmingly funny drama inspired by his mother and sister. 20th Century Women focuses on five lost souls sleeping underneath the roof of a large Santa Barbara home in need of restoration, circa 1979. Dorothea (a wistful, winning Annette Bening) feels the gap growing between her and her only son, hormonal 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, achingly sincere). She enlists two other lodgers – Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young artist grappling with feelings of mortality, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s frank confidante who sleeps over every night but wants to remain “just friends” – to help Dorothea look after the boy. Mills’ screenplay is full of vibrantly alive characters, who reveal as much in irreverent comments as back-story vignettes, presented with period photographs and voice-over narration (like in his previous film, Beginners). The central mother-son relationship is piercing in its emotion, with both actors finding binds in this dynamic that feel thrillingly authentic. Bening gives a career-best performance as a woman finding her world on a tilt, as her son swings farther away from her, while Zumann is just as superb. Meanwhile, the film’s three feminine anchors – tough, tender, textured, and trembling with fear at what the future holds – glow with a humanity (and sly hilarity) that one seldom sees on a screen anymore.

1. The Lobster

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Explain the plot of The Lobster to anyone, and the reaction is usually fascination and/or bewilderment. Set in a dystopian society where single people are pariahs, we follow the recently divorced David (a glum, paunchy Colin Farrell), who enters a seaside hotel with the purpose of finding a match. The contours of this resort stay are, however, strange: if David cannot partner up with someone within a couple of months, he will be transformed into an animal and released into the wild. It doesn’t take long for this deadpan comedy, from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos, to tickle and taunt viewers with its seemingly bizarre premise. However, the film’s sly social commentary about the pressures and pitfalls of attaining romantic love are hard to ignore. The first half, set within the resort walls, is full of dry, off-kilter comedy. However, it is in The Lobster’s latter half, where David finds friendship with another near-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz), when an unexpected poignancy adds urgency to the drama. The film’s various absurdities and comic set-pieces are a hoot until one realizes how rarely removed they seem from the conquests of those trying to find genuine love and companionship in the twenty-first century. By embracing the weirdness, Lanthimos and co-scribe Efthymis Filippou have created a satire of sustained brilliance, one that moves from brutal comedy to heartbreak without ever wavering in tone or losing its ingenuity.

And now, 12 Honourable Mentions:

The Club; High-Rise; La La Land; Love and Friendship; Manchester by the Sea; Miss Sharon Jones!; Neruda; Ninth Floor; Sand Storm; Sing Street; Weiner; The Witch

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Review: The Neon Demon

The new film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn begs to be looked at, which is appropriate for a thriller centered on the world of fashion. As one would expect of a Danish filmmaker who cares less about character development than aesthetics, which here alternate from minimalism to excess with a quick flash of colour, his latest is garnering jeers and cheers at equal measure from cultural critics. At its Cannes world premiere, an audience member yelled the F word at the director’s wife at the moment her name appeared before the credits. (The film is dedicated to her.) But division is expected with a film that so unnervingly charts its own sadistic path, with a story that can be best summed up as a familiar showbiz tale. Here, the style doesn’t trounce the substance: the style is the substance.

The Neon Demon (Rating: A-) focuses on 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an orphaned runaway from Georgia who has her sights on becoming Hollywood’s next top model. Her pale skin and gentle voice bring to mind old stories of ingénues searching for stardom, but Fanning’s performance constantly hints at something darker. Jesse is quiet and petite, looking not too dissimilar from the virginal princess Fanning embodied for Disney’s Maleficent two summers ago, but there is poise in her stance and an assuredness in her voice. (Other critics have complained about Jesse’s sharp shift from innocence to experience, although a second viewing of Refn’s film highlighted the character’s subtle command from the very first scene.)

In that opening scene, Jesse is dressed as a scream queen, reclining on a couch; her arms, neck and torso are painted red, transforming her into a woman whose throat had been slit. While washing the (fake) blood from her arms, she encounters Ruby (Jean Malone), a makeup artist who introduces the new arrival to town and vows to protect her from ulterior motives of the men who control the business. Jesse’s natural purity also horrifies her competition, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who make the most of their pithy one-liners. They still boast about their looks, even as they turn an envious eye toward Jesse, afraid of the jobs the new girl will snatch from them.

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Jesse’s ascent quickens once she signs with a top agency. In this pointed sequence, Christina Hendricks – who played Fanning’s mother in the overlooked Ginger and Rosa – sizzles as the agent, nonchalantly explaining that Jesse will have to say she is 19 to get gigs. (“18 is too on-the-nose,” she quips.) The young woman also moves up after drawing the attention of photographer Jack (a steely Desmond Harrington) and a debonair fashion designer (the scene-stealing Alessandro Nivola). But Jesse’s quick rise only makes her a bigger target for the industry professionals who see the teenager as fresh meat.

Los Angeles, as expressed through Refn’s lens, is unmistakably abstract. Most of The Neon Demon takes place in vast, empty spaces, from the cavernous, colourless warehouses used for fashion shoots to the vacant lot of the Pasadena motel where Jesse dodges the sniffs of the rascally owner (played to peak perversion by Keanu Reeves). The lack of bodies and movement throughout the cityscape further emphasizes Jesse’s increasing power over her domain. A scene with boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noé’s Love) plants Jesse in focus against a blurry city backdrop at night, suggesting her reign over the town. In that moment, a full moon glimmers from off to the side, nudging the story toward its horror influences.

Those nods to the genre are pronounced throughout. The predatory nature of the fashion industry is a motif that winds its way into the dialogue, written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. (In one early scene with the models, where they chat about lipstick colours, Ruby asks whether or not Jesse is “food or sex.”) A sharp change from more vampire-inspired stories is the inordinate number of times the characters are seen looking into mirrors. The Neon Demon also wavers between the male and female gaze, although this balance exists because monstrousness lurks within characters from both genders.

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But Refn’s thriller isn’t much of a scream, due to deliberate pacing. The filmmaker unpredictably steers us into dream sequences and prolonged moments of soul-searching as characters stare in the aforementioned mirrors. While there is little plot, there is much character information being unpeeled in these extended sequences, accentuated by terrific performances. Fanning is perfectly cast, able to provide both the strength and vulnerability Jesse relies upon to navigate the industry. In one hypnotic sequence, done from a realm of fantasy, a trip down a runway brings Jesse face-to-face with a sinister-looking alter ego, bathed in bright red; here, the two halves of the women, sharply deviating at first, start to blend together. (In that scene especially, the actor’s dark stare evokes a young Jodie Foster.) Jena Malone is also very good in a small part. A scene of graphic sexuality involving her character, which will make some audience members squirm, begins as shocking and morbid, although Malone offers Ruby some tragic grace notes that gives the act more purpose.

The performances ground what is, for the most part, an audiovisual masterpiece. Cliff Martinez’s icy ambient score, creeping to different volumes and twinkling in an increasingly disorienting way, complements the unsettling depiction of show business. One could describe the sharp high notes of the music similarly to how one character labels Jesse: as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” As photographed by Natasha Braier (The Rover), every scene looks perfect – even too perfect, apt for exposing the artificiality of the pictures for which the characters pose. With its saturated excess and intricate musical score, this is a film that deserves a big screen.

The Neon Demon is hypnotic and, despite its lack of plot, overwhelmingly opulent. Those that lament the film’s close adherence to two subgenres – the vampire film, the backstage drama – do not give the screenwriters enough credit for mixing the two together. Some of the symbolism here is obvious, but there is also something exhilarating in the way Refn ties together numerous genre-centric visual cues. (Some of the dialogue, meanwhile is consciously trashy and on-the-nose: subtlety is not Refn’s strength, nor should it be.) While the film skewers its subject with delicious abandon, there is something enchanting about the glossy, glittered-up visual sense. Just try taking your eyes off of it.

Column: What We Talk About When We Talk About Blockbusters

The Harry Potter film series, with all its ups and downs, its hormonal mood swings from film to film and director to director, its prestigious British ensemble doing their best to distract from harried pacing, had several poignant and thrilling moments. But its most resonant scene was, in this writer’s opinion, one that didn’t even appear in J.K. Rowling’s books.

It happens about one third of the way into the seventh film, the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and longtime friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are alone in a tent, bored and sitting on opposite sides of the space. They aren’t acknowledging each other after a hard day, when friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) left their company. During the day, they are on a quest to save the Wizarding World. At night, they feel more than alone. The tent fills with a thick silence; the only noise comes from a Nick Cave song playing on Hermione’s radio.

Harry approaches Hermione and offers his hand. She hesitates before grabbing it. As she stands up to face him, the music leaves its diegetic space and expands onto the soundtrack. Harry leads his friend to the middle of the tent with both hands. The viewer’s first response, assuming you have seen onscreen seductions before, is that this is a prelude to sex. This is one of the only instances where Harry and Hermione have been alone together in the series, and the sustained quiet from both characters provides a heated tension. Instead of embracing Hermione, though, Harry begins a silly, childish dance. In one second, the series had flirted with an erotic, adult sensibility. The next, it returns to the innocence that Chris Columbus captured in the first two Harry Potter films, made when the actors weren’t even teenagers.

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It’s a sweet, goofy, tender moment of companionship between two characters that, in sum, reminds us of the testament of friendship so inherent to Rowling’s books. There’s also something unnerving about a film that has so many tasks to fulfill within the space of a single feature, mostly involving moving the plot along and getting the characters to requisite beats, deciding to settle in for something nearly silent. Without any words and no computer dazzle required, the scene offers the audience some solace.

The small scene registers within the grandeur of the stories. It evokes the span of the adventures, which began when Harry and Hermione were stoic, inquisitive 11-year-olds, and reminds audiences why we have loved these characters. The moment reminds us how close they are to adulthood before returning them to a place that is familiar to us.

As a 25-year-old, I don’t fit squarely within a “quadrant.” I’m right in the middle of two of them. The terminology for a film that hits a wide audience spectrum is “four-quadrant”: male, female, older than 25 and younger than 25. A “tentpole,” which refers to a massive blockbuster hit that the other studios have little choice but to schedule around, is supposed to engage all quadrants relatively equally. Any studio executive would espouse that the dream breakdown for a film’s opening weekend would be split male/female, and over/under 25. But, what about actual 25-year-olds? I’m the mean average age of the ordinary moviegoer, as studios have outlined.

While my love and anticipation for popcorn cinema has dwindled, I am not entirely over blockbusters. I still enjoy seeing a big-budget film with a bag of popcorn and a boisterous audience. I will go see Ghostbusters (July 15) on its opening weekend, and will probably do the same with The BFG (July 1), Sausage Party (August 12) and, ok, maybe even the inescapably-hyped Suicide Squad (August 5). I will also, dutifully, head out to the theatres and engage with characters existing within franchises that have entertained me for years.

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I am, however, worried about the expectations of film fans in the generation after me, whose conception of popcorn cinema will be starkly different than mine. Today’s blockbusters aren’t as effective as they are efficient: they can work as epilogues to the previous adventures, origin stories for new characters, and teasers for the journeys that await. Almost none of the big moneymakers at the multiplexes exist as self-contained narratives. As culture columnist Mark Harris has explained, “moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing.” It is hard to watch Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and ignore the efforts the filmmakers make in building anticipation for future DC Comics adaptations. (I also imagine it is hard to watch Batman V. Superman generally, as well.)

The Harry Potter books were a formative anthology for me, as a fledgling and soon-to-be voracious reader and, also, someone whose age closely mirrored those of the young characters as they came of age. I’m sure there are many that would consider the film adaptations to be as significant an experience. Amidst those moviegoers is, in all likelihood, a collection of studio executives – the ones who used the scale of the series and the immersion into loyal fan cultures as a paradigm to model long-gestating franchise films.

A mere 15 years ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, for my American readership) reached the big screen and handily dismantled the opening day and opening weekend records. (There may be some significance in the timing: it was a good-versus-evil fantasy adventure in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) The brand eventually marked some soon-to-be familiar trends: expansive cinematic universes that go beyond the threshold of a trilogy; extending the final installment to earn around double the coin for a single story; frequency of releases (Warner Bros. churned out 8 Potter films in under 10 years). Despite a few dips in admissions from their predecessors, the Harry Potter films maintained a strong consistency in their popularity from 2001 to 2011.

But despite the extra-textual trends the film set, when it came to the book-to-screen transition, not all of the magic was there. With such dense and beloved material meant to find a way onscreen, the adaptations were often either stilted, faithfully re-creating less urgent or important sections of the books, or rushed, keeping the budding spirit of the series intact despite some haphazard plotting developments that likely alienated those unfamiliar with Rowling’s books.

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It may seem odd for a blog devoted to contemporary cinema culture to spend so much room expanding on studio financial incentives. But, to speak of cinema culture today is, truly, to speak of potential blockbusters: films often “too big to fail” and too broad to falter in catering to the whims of an easygoing audience of those under 25. By the end of this month, nearly half of the North American box office intake for the year will have comprised from the ticket sales of just seven films. (Five of those seven, stunningly, are Disney releases.) Back in 2001, when Harry Potter was the highest-grossing film of the year, only six of the 25 biggest successes, box office-wise, were sequels. Right now, in 2016, 16 of the top 25 films of the year so far are follow-ups.

Today’s blockbusters aren’t all a sorry bunch, but they are not as much feats of inspiration and visual imagination as they are works of efficiency and managing expectations. Big films today put less of an emphasis on the hero’s journey than the process of fitting the journeys of many heroes on a screen at once. The result is an omelet of narrative chaos: you’re expected to know as much about the stories that came beforehand and then are forced to become aligned with characters whose epilogues will be stand-alone features.

Yet, there is this incessant obligation among millions of moviegoers, myself included, to keep tabs on continually sprouting franchises. I was overjoyed and moved when watching Finding Nemo in 2003, so there is the duty to return to the same seas with Finding Dory, even as the Pixar formula becomes even more pronounced. (The less said about the abysmal The Good Dinosaur, the better.) I was a giddy nine-year-old when I saw the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, despite my minimal knowledge of the Marvel comic book universe. There is still enough investment in these characters to make me buy a ticket for the eighth film in the franchise. (A franchise that, I would argue, doesn’t contain a single truly awesome installment.)

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Personally, the need to remain invested in the efforts of franchises has less to do with my nostalgic interest in stories and characters, and more due to the creative presences that participate in these ventures. It’s hard to say no to an X-Men sequel starring one of my favourite actors, Oscar Isaac, as the villain. It’s hard to say no to a Captain America sequel from the same team that worked on The Winter Soldier, which could be the only great film to ever come from Marvel Studios. It’s hard to refuse a ticket to The Jungle Book, when the voice cast includes the scintillating talents of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o and Christopher Walken.

And, it’s not that all big-budget fiestas are soulless and empty. There are moments of grace and intimacy within this year’s blockbusters too. One of the best scenes of any film in 2016 involves Michael Fassbender’s Magneto as he grapples with a serious familial loss before deciding to unleash his mutant powers on a group of police officers. The sequence has a raw emotional texturing, plenty of atmosphere and some dark ideas about the use and abuse of power. It works thrillingly, although less effectively when surrounded by a flurry of other stories fighting for space within a 144-minute running time. The best supporting fixture in an ensemble vehicle is still in desperate need of a tale all his own.

Another favourite moment: the sharp cut from CGI chaos to Hope Davis sitting at a piano at the start of Captain America: Civil War, which is later revealed to be part of a fateful family memory for conflicted tech genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Throughout their adventure, directors Joe and Anthony Russo sharply shift between scenes of razzle-dazzle and emotional quiet. One would call it a creative choice, but with so much story ground for the film to cover, perhaps these disruptions are just the work of a hasty team of editors.

We should expect the average blockbuster to actually bust blocks, promising to dazzle us with movie magic and illusions of grandeur. But visceral excitement fades quickly, while an emotional capacity resonates. There is little to make us expect that studio temperaments toward elongating franchises will change over the next 10 years. But, would it be too much to ask for a few more silly, solemn dances when the storms of computer-generated extravaganza have dissipated?

Review: High-Rise

British cult director Ben Wheatley is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. You need a thick concentration and a good ear for thicker English accents to follow his early low-budget crime comedies, such as Down Terrace and Sightseers, which swerve from casual slang around the kitchen table to crass ultraviolence in minutes. At their best, Wheatley’s films are fascinatingly bipolar, the jokes so bleak and bitter it can take one a while to realize he is directing comedies. At their worse, his films are indecipherable and dull. (I find Kill List, one of his most critically revered thrillers, to whimper along interminably until a couple of bloody late-picture bangs.)

To understand and appreciate the filmmaker, though, one needs to realize that Wheatley’s hoarse anti-heroes work under a strange logic. Character motivations are often obscure, which can make the moment they set off on a killing spree (for instance) seem random, when in fact, it is the end goal all along. Wheatley’s new film, High-Rise (Rating: B+) is his most accomplished feature yet. It is also the filmmaker’s most commercially friendly, although that has more to do with the cast (which includes Tom Hiddleston), the scope (adapted from the ambitions of a J.G. Ballard novel), and the budget, a climb from his previous ventures. It also, unsurprisingly, operates on an internal logic that goes mostly unexplained, taken from Ballard’s text and applied to Wheatley’s macabre worldview.

The film takes place during the first three months of tenancy for Laing (Hiddleston) at a 40-storey high-rise building. He is a physiologist who decides to recover from a divorce by going to many parties in his building and summoning women to bed, instead of unpacking the hills of boxes that fill his apartment. Laing lives on the 25th floor, which means he quickly becomes a part of the social circle among the residents surrounding him, such as the neighbour above, aimless Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and her curious son, Toby (Louis Suc).

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Laing also befriends Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the genteel architect of the building whose blissful penthouse suite, with enough room for servants to tend to a garden and Royal’s much younger wife to go horseback riding, may as well be heaven on earth. Of the lower floors, Laing finds a friend in the very pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), the only soul in the building that looks just as miserable as him. Helen’s macho husband Wilder (Luke Evans) films documentaries and sees in the building a vital subject for his latest project.

Nevertheless, the characters remain less essential to High-Rise than the space, a looming beacon of modernist architecture that Wheatley often captures at oblique angles that, rightly, exaggerate its menace. The setting is mid-1970s, when Ballard originally conceived the source material. While the retro sets, character neuroses and musical cues (including one unexpectedly gloomy ABBA cover) capture the era, the aura of the comedy-thriller is distinctly postmodern. For a film that takes great joy in displaying splashy decade-centric signs, High-Rise doesn’t feel like a period piece.

In the titular location, dogs are seen as status symbols, while children are abhorred, as they get in the way of nasty, adults-only parties. The class dynamics essential to Ballard’s wicked satire are still omnipresent, expressed in ways both observant and obvious. The rich lounge casually in tuxedos in one scene, then partake in an orgy shortly after. Inhabitants on the lower floors become energized when they throw cake and other eats off their balconies, letting the mess accumulate on the luxury cars parked underneath.

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It isn’t long before order breaks down in the towering suburbs: people get vicious and violent in dimly lit supermarkets as they grab for the last remaining items; dogs drown in swimming pools; security or police presence is non-existent. Some may find the class warfare a bit too literal and the descent into mass mayhem elliptical. Others will just enjoy indulging in the strange plot turns and Wheatley’s off-kilter directorial choices, and forget less about the thematic foundations. These viewers should find much value in the production design, layered with character-related details. Wheatley situates the characters in spaces that express a trapped paranoia: Helen has her cluttered bedroom; Laing peers emptily into a hall of mirrors in one of the high-rise elevators; Toby views the violence and vulgarity through a champagne-hued kaleidoscope.

Amy Jump, the director’s wife, wrote the screenplay and had the challenging role of sculpting a narrative from Ballard’s text, which is more memorable for its gloomy language and social criticism than its plot dynamics. At occasions, she fails to let High-Rise stand as its own thing. The lack of dialogue in the source material ensures that some of the verbal character introductions are unwieldy and unnatural. Still, she does start off the film by adapting the novel’s bleakly funny opening sentence – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…” – so Ballard purists may forgive.

Regardless, several of Jump’s changes work. In relation to the novel, Jump’s screenplay gives more room, if not much more, to the depleted women of the high-rise. Meanwhile, the inciting incident from the novel – where a man commits suicide, tumbling from the top of the high-rise – moves to the middle here, ensuring we get a greater build-up of the socioeconomic tensions in the microcosmic space. (The scene, cutting between a drug-fueled dance party and the figure’s weightless tumble – the latter resembles the Mad Men opening credits sequence – sets the right tone for the unruliness and lack of tonal synergy in the film’s latter half.)

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Wheatley vividly renders this descent into chaos, presenting images that are both unsettling and intoxicating at once. He ultimately settles more with the former adjective, letting the characters’ ennui seep into the film’s colour scheme in the second hour, diluting the splashier tints from the first half. Meanwhile, Clint Mansell’s versatile score, heavy on minor keys, is just as adept at capturing the simmering moods and anxieties that pervade the space. (Some segments of the soundtrack are just tinny echoes, which evoke the rattles from a boiler room down the hall.)

The cast is uniformly good, with many portraying a similar yet distinct shade of urban dysfunction. The same enigmatic qualities that Hiddleston brought to the recent mini-series The Night Manager are here, although the British actor wears a less fashionable white dress shirt and black tie. As Wilder, the determined filmmaker who slowly loses his sanity, Evans gets the film’s most invigorated part. Aided by the strong, internalized performances, Wheatley ensures we watch in horrific amusement as the psychological pressures of the building compress to a breaking point.

As the high-rise dissolves into disarray, the director’s instincts sharpen. Wheatley traps the characters in rooms and costumes that acutely depict their damaged psyche. This spatial coherence ensures he can jump from upper floors to lower floors without letting the drama – or pitch-black comedy – become overly dizzying. That may be the director’s greatest talent here: he keeps playing with High-Rise‘s different tones, spaces and character moods, without letting the film’s structure topple into muddled mayhem. He is, in that way, a much more adept architect than Anthony Royal.

Hooked to the Silver Screen: David Bowie’s Music on Film

The marriage between a film sequence and a pop song can be intoxicating. Meanwhile, these in-tandem energies can be simply exhilarating when young characters run as a song plays, the camera tracking their leaps as a tune booms on the soundtrack. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting doesn’t start as much as burst forward to a thumping drumbeat, as Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton rushes down an alley. In Noam Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the camera glides gracefully above Greta Gerwig’s Frances as she sprints and twirls to the left through New York’s Chinatown, trying her best to keep the momentum up as she evades the sidewalk dwellers. In an inverse of that moment, in Leos Carax’ Mauvais Sang, a gymnastic Denis Lavant runs rightward in the middle of the night, bolting forward without abandon. A rowdy band of teens run and tumble through a labyrinthine mall in the heart of Berlin in Christiane F., as the police pursue them.

The spirit of these three quixotic sequences only reaches the same breathless intensity of the young characters due to the music that plays above these moments: “Lust for Life,” two takes of “Modern Love” and “Heroes,” respectively. David Bowie wrote all three songs, and performed the latter two. Millions are still coming to terms with the late artist’s demise in January. But as his songs, stratifying and singular, remain testaments of a genius and grandeur that seems impossible to replicate, Bowie’s music continues to make a mark on those who view the films that included his work on the soundtracks. His discography has been featured in more than 500 movies and television shows, according to the Internet Movie Database, including an overwhelming number since the turn of the Millennium.

It is the electricity of Bowie’s genre-defying music that has ensured his voice rarely feels out-of-place on the silver screen. While his sound altered significantly between eras, many of his albums have a frenetic energy that still pulsates with a modern ethos. The music of The Rolling Stones – perhaps the only popular musical group with as much cinematic versatility as Bowie – is often a marker of age, a throwback to the roughness and rhythms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bowie’s music, in comparison, feels inherent to all times. It is easy to imagine “Sympathy for the Devil” blaring over the hedonism of a Scorsese opus, but a bit more intriguing to observe when a director lets the needle drop on one of Bowie’s tunes.

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Among the anachronistic rock tunes used in the medieval actioner A Knight’s Tale: Bowie’s “Golden Years.”

Just as Bowie threw curveballs with each personality (or is it fashion) change, filmmakers using the artist’s repertoire did so in admiringly unpredictable ways. After the grueling, near-three-hour journey that is Lars von Trier’s Dogville, it is a ghastly dark joke to have a full rendition of “Young Americans” play, winningly, over a closing credits packed with images of squalor and sickness. The lyrics inform the story we have just seen, arguably, more insightfully than the numerous scenes that preceded it. In comparison, in A Knight’s Tale, set in the midst of medieval England, a pleasant square dance scored to a fifed-up “Golden Years” then blends into the pop recording from centuries later. It makes sense that the woe of a German director and the whimsy of an American filmmaker sounds just like Bowie.

Bowie’s music is ageless, but it also feels timeless: for those unfamiliar with the chronology of his career, it is hard to mark when certain songs were recorded. Perhaps that is why his songs fit in with classic settings, although they don’t quite feel anachronistic. Unsurprisingly, the artist’s shifting identity mirrors the screen stories of people taking new personas. In The Imposter, the guitar chords of “Queen Bitch” fires up the soundtrack as real-life conman Frédéric Bourdin boards a school bus and becomes, in the eyes of his community, just an ordinary teen. Bloody crimsons add sheen to the moment of the heroine Shosanna’s transformation in Inglourious Basterds, but it is the purr of Bowie’s voice (on “Cat People”) that adds a toxic sensual charge to her change. Even Mad Men left a Bowie staple to one of its final episodes, as Don Draper (another man travelling under a false identity) escapes the big city for the open road, blasting off to “Space Oddity.”

That screwing around with identity can explain why so many of the characters that play his records in cinema are youths. “I feel infinite,” says the beaming teenage introvert played by Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as “Heroes” blares out the car radio. His object of affection played by Emma Watson is thrilled by the song, and proceeds to stand up through the sunroof and stretch her arms as the car throttles through a tunnel. In the original novel by Stephen Chbosky, there is an affirming “tunnel song” that the characters listen to as they drive through the space, but it goes unnamed. It makes sense that as the film’s director, Chbosky chose the life-affirming “Heroes.” However, the film loses some of its realism since the pop culture-averse characters don’t know the name or artist of the song when it plays. Who else could it be but Bowie?

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Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower uses “Heroes” in two pivotal sequences.

The scope of Bowie’s sound, whether the music is bold and brass like “Suffragette City,” or building hypnotically to a climax, as it does a minute into “Space Oddity,” is a natural accompaniment to the visual palettes of various filmmakers. As film critic Anthony Lane eulogized in The New Yorker in January, “His career, so conscientiously self-wrought, was more akin to that of a movie star than to that of a rocker, and it also suggested that he grasped the force of the moving image, and its fragile half-life, more acutely than many of those who bestride the dramatic profession.”

The versatility of Bowie’s stage creations, a collection of enigmas like the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust, meant that his lyrics could be adaptable to many tones. “Heroes” gives Perks and Christiane F. – a dark film about drug addiction that actually features Bowie, as himself, playing in a prolonged concert sequence – a fizzy burst of energy. Its lyrics also offer optimism to swimming dolphins at the end of the downbeat Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, as well as amusing banter between the love interests of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! A more melancholy version of “Heroes” plays over the dedications at the end of Lone Survivor, a requiem to the American soldiers who risked their lives on one fateful day.

More recently, one of blockbuster cinema’s greatest montages, from Ridley Scott’s The Martian, uses the aspiring glam cool of “Starman” to show the accomplishments of scientists, both on Earth and Mars, as they work on a viable rescue scenario for the stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon. The expository scenes playing underneath – starring much of the film’s wide A-list ensemble – do not have much flow or energy by themselves. It is the blast of Bowie that ties them together. (The fuse between the film and song also has a tragic sting: The Martian picked up a top Golden Globe on the same day Bowie died.)

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Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds. “Cat People” scores her transformation in the film’s final chapter.

Even his deep cuts, such as the aptly-titled “I’m Deranged”, opens David Lynch’s nightmarish Lost Highway. Others, in the case of “Something in the Air,” concludes both American Psycho and Memento. Bowie was an artist of continual reinvention and unparalleled variety; alas, it is no surprise that so many of his songs, the hits and the deep cuts, bring added juice to a rich selection of films and genres. His music fits these stories just as Bowie would have liked: elegantly, insightfully, and often unexpectedly.