David Oelhoffen’s bleak film set at the cusp of French-Algerian war begins in a one-room schoolhouse amidst the North African landscape. Viggo Mortensen’s Daru is teaching young Algerian children about French geography, a particular set of knowledge probably less pertinent than others for rural kids under France’s colonial yoke. Daru, an ostensibly charitable man still teaching from a Euro-centric standpoint, is revealed to be a man tentatively accepted by both sides but not fully at home in either. His European blood gives him a pass from the French masters, but his sympathies and preferences lie with the Algerians. Though he fought with both during WWII and maintains close multicultural friendships, the days of straddling the fence are coming to an end. Far From Men forces its characters to choose sides despite all evidence speaking to the impossibility of such a choice.
In Spirited Away, the most critically acclaimed film in Hiyao Miyazaki’s extensive and oft-praised career, the most powerful and memorable image isn’t of wonders like a multi-armed spiderman operating a bellows or a dragon fleeing from a swarm of paper birds. These, and many others, fill Spirited Away, but an early shot wins out. It’s simply a broad-shouldered man, shot from a low angle, walking confidently forward. Through the eyes of pre-teen protagonist Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragai), daughter to the man, the whole world is captured in her gaze as she watches her father lead her into an unknown future. Her parents can lead her to the enchanted spa she finds herself stuck in, but she has to be the one to get out of it. That shot is so self-evidently loving, that it is enough to want Chihiro to escape a truly incredible place, one of cinema’s great fantasy locations. It’s the fulcrum on which the film is balanced, and it powers Miyazaki’s masterpiece as surely as that aforementioned spiderman powers the spa.
Genius animator Hayao Miyazaki stretches his pacifist muscles in Howl's Moving Castle, a film produced and released during the run-up to and execution of the Second Gulf War. Outspoken in his opposition to military adventurism, Miyazaki puts anti-war critique side by side with magical scarecrows and obese witches. His best films, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, get their considerable power from small-scale emotions and a healthy helping of awe. Howl's Moving Castle retains these attributes but slightly muddles them with allegory and some jumbled storytelling.
In The Lost City of Z, well-regarded American director James Gray takes a page from legendary German director Werner Herzog. There's a fair amount of Fitzcarraldo in Gray's jungle-trekking protagonist Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), though Gray takes a far kinder view than Herzog towards the purpose of the onscreen mission. Where Herzog's favored lead, Klaus Kinski, was impossible to believe as a pure-hearted character and therefore was never cast as one, Gray's choice of Hunnam gives him a straightforward hero trekking towards his own glory and plugging away at the small-minded beliefs of his fellows. The Lost City of Z loses something in that uncomplicating, but still leaves the viewer with plenty to chew on. In this decades-spanning adventure, Gray weaves a dense tale of obsession, regret, and pride under the umbrella of imperialism.
Pixar's semi-regrettable trend towards sequels continues with Finding Dory. I say semi because though one wishes the hallowed animation studio would create original content like Inside Out, these sequels (with the exception of Cars) have been fun and entertaining, if not profound and singular like some of their best work. Like Monster University, Finding Dory builds on the original's universe, introduces memorable new characters, and manages to tug on the heartstrings. As animation goes, it rests in the higher part of the middle of the genre. It's more thoughtful than its loud and colorful counterparts, but its content to be solid where others shoot for excellence.
Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's male stripper romp, provided not only a star-making turn for Channing Tatum, but also kicked off the McConaissance, as Matthew McConaughey leaned so far into his persona as a bongo-playing sex fiend that he came out the other end having rediscovered how to pick good projects. The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, begins with Tatum's Mike out of the sex game and having fulfilled his dream of starting a furniture business. He gets a call that McConaughey's Dallas has died, and after traveling to what he thinks is a funeral, it's revealed that Dallas has not died, but left the country to pursue international success. This ruse establishes how low the stakes are going to be for the remainder of this film, a place where the financial scrambling and dehumanization of the original is replaced with a full embrace of good-time bro's having a good time. The result is a film that is as much fun as the original, but one with no lingering presence.
Stop-motion studio Laika cements their place as one of the top creators of animation with Kubo and the Two Strings, their fourth and most visually impressive film thus far. Though they release at a slower rate than Pixar, their only rival at this point, they have perfected the same universal, all-ages appeal while having a stronger overall batting average. With Kubo, Laika goes for spectacle without sacrificing emotional impact, making this a technical and creative achievement on par with any other 2016 release, animated or otherwise.
Colombian director Ciro Guerra isn't going down a commercial route with his film Embrace of the Serpent. Filmed in black and white with dreamy, intersecting narratives that don't reveal themselves well into the story, Guerra is keeping the casual viewer at arm's length. Any initial wariness should be set aside, because Embrace of the Serpent is a rich, complex, and rewarding film that is absolutely worth enduring its surface-level difficulty.
In a year bombarded with half-baked sequels and pedestrian rehashes, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a pleasant surprise. It’s no masterpiece by any means, but when it comes to creating characters I cared about and telling a self-contained story while still laying pipe for future installments in the new franchise, “Fantastic Beasts” gets the job done.
Animation champ Pixar has seen its reign threatened by competing animation studios, but in 2015, they shored up their position as producers of sophisticated fare for the whole family. Their summer release, Inside Out, was a critical and commercial hit, while their fall release, The Good Dinosaur, received modest reviews and was the lowest performing film in their history. Despite the let-down, The Good Dinosaur does a simple thing well. It's nowhere near the most novel plot Pixar's ever been responsible for, but its familiar story utterly entranced this viewer. There's room in cinema for bald rehashes, especially when they are done as well as they are in Peter Sohn's film.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.