The textured moral world of Russian novels is alive and well in cinema, if Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is any indication. Zvyagintsev adapts the biblical story of Job to a Russia dominated by the kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin, an able stand-in for a capricious Old Testament god if ever there was one. Evoking deeply-felt character dramas like Kramer vs Kramer at the same time it constructs a fetid swamp reminiscent of Chinatown, Leviathan is a step up from Zvyagintsev's previous film Elena and one that marks his work as a must-see, if a must-see that requires some mental bracing.
The easy line, and one I erased on a first draft, on Equity is that Anna Gunn, having played a critically beloved but widely and unjustly despised character on Breaking Bad, gets to take her own shot at anti-heroism. In actuality, there's no comparison between Gunn's terse, by-the-books investment banker character and the man she was married to on TV. One yells at an assistant in an imploding situation while the other contracts with neo-Nazi's to stage the simultaneous murders of a dozen men. Equity, an underseen financial drama by Meera Menon, brings those differences in perception to the surface. The female equivalent to violence and megalomania in male characters surely isn't a curt demeanor or a wariness about who could potentially supplant you in your competitive field. Why did I go straight to thinking of Naomi as an anti-hero instead of a protagonist?
It's usually a good thing when a film evokes a physical reaction. Feeling exhilarated after Fury Road or Creed or wrung out after Spotlight or Manchester By the Sea are surefire signs of a film's greatness. Conversely, there's the headache that throbs after seeing something particularly irritating, and that brings us to David O. Russell's Joy. Russell's popular renaissance, now definitively over after a consistent, Shyamalan-esque decline, has always included heated arguments and characters shouting over each other, but what was authentic in The Fighter has become intolerable in Joy. Where once there were recognizable characters and scenarios, now there are hideous misanthropes and overwrought melodrama. The only thing that's stayed consistent is the age-inappropriate casting of Jennifer Lawrence, this time as a single mom turned inventor and home-shopping magnate. Joy is a complete misfire that hopefully frees Lawrence from Russell's orbit.
My first experience with the work of Paolo Sorrentino came in the beginning of 2017 with his gonzo HBO series The Young Pope, a delightfully campy, often nonsensical sojourn into a campy, often nonsensical organization. I don't see any reason Pope Francis wouldn't have LMFAO playing while putting on the papal tiara, as Sorrentino's pope does, or that the real Vatican Gardens don't have a kangaroo hopping around freely. Sorrentino's auteurist mind was a fun place to hang out in for a period of time, and there's no reason the same expectation shouldn't extend to his film work. In Youth, the Italian director applies his overwrought dialogue and oddly-beautiful interstitial scenes to another cloistered area, this time a swanky spa and hotel for the rich and famous.
My Life As a Zucchini is a perfect example of the 'sad kids are sad' subgenre of films, a subgenre that consistently work on me. There's no better place for this than an orphanage, where Claude Barras' stop-motion film is set. However, this is no misery porn. My Life As a Zucchini might focus on adorably-animated children recovering from abuse or abandonment, but it's also a tribute to resiliency, to the ability of the young human mind to incorporate the bad into its gray matter but nevertheless seek out the joyful at every opportunity. The French have a long tradition of bittersweet films about childhood, spanning from Francois Truffaut to writer Celine Sciamma's other work, and Barras' beautiful tale fits squarely in that tradition.
Director Paul Verhoeven had his greatest success with the kinds of films that teenagers love, but then they watch them again with more mature eyes and realize that beneath all the gore and comedy, a master satirist is at work. Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers all fit this mold, where Verhoeven used genre trappings to reel in his audience and then wallop them with black comedy and social insight once they're in the boat. In hibernation since Starship Troopers, Verhoeven roared back to life in 2016 with his masterpiece, Elle, a film that is no longer entertaining any mainstream appeal and is instead lampooning the violent male impulse that he had so gleefully indulged in.
Denzel Washington might be the greatest actor of all time, per the similarly named podcast, and Fences doesn't detract from that lofty claim. As a director, though, he's closer to earth. Adapted from an August Wilson play, the Denzel-directed film might as well be a play. It rarely ventures out from the 1950's Pittsburgh home its central family lives in, and the big and melodramatic roles are better suited for the stage. Cinematically, Fences isn't blowing anyone away, leaving the performances and the writing. The latter can be on-the-nose and occasionally wields a big sledgehammer, but otherwise feels true and lived-in. The former is what Fences brings most to the table, as this is an acting feast. Starring Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom have played their characters on Broadway long before the film's production, are both chewing up scenery and finding subtlety in an unsubtle drama.
Early in Kenneth Lonergan’s latest opus, Manchester By the Sea, tortured protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shown in happier times, fishing with his young nephew Patrick and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). While Joe steers, Lee teaches Patrick how to hold the line and what to do if he gets a bite. Lee describes the moment of catching a fish as pure happiness, but Lonergan withholds an image of this moment, because this isn’t that kind of film. There are pure emotions in Lonergan’s shattering film, but happiness isn’t one of them. The kind of film that sits on one’s chest long after the end credits roll, Manchester By the Sea is nigh-unrecommendable for any but the emotionally prepared. Its earnest and successful attempts at humor only serve to make the grief stand out that much more in relief. For those willing to tough it out through a veil of tears, the reward is one of 2016’s very best films, a slice of life drama that is familiar with despair but unwilling to wallow in it, that knows what misery is but is not miserable.
Tom Ford returns to the cinema with another frosty protagonist masking a roiling inner life. After Colin Firth suppressed his grief in A Single Man, Amy Adams tamps down her guilt in Nocturnal Animals, a similarly and predictably stylish film from the fashion maven. Adapted from the book Tony and Susan, Ford crafts a story within a story, interlocking narratives of the hollow pursuits of masculinity and accumulation.
In Born to Be Blue, Ethan Hawke gets away from the philosophical and the verbose characters he plays in Richard Linklater's Before trilogy or Boyhood. By stepping into the shoes of jazz musician Chet Baker, Hawke is a series of desires, whether those desires be for credibility amongst his peers, companionship with women, or the crystal-clear need for more heroin. He doesn't question and he doesn't interrogate. He knows he's been given certain gifts, like a preternatural ability with the trumpet and an effortless cool, and he's going to make the most he can out of those advantages, if not for that other chemical dependence thing he's been saddled with. Robert Budreau's film came out in a year where Hank Williams, Miles Davis (who appears here as one of those peers), and Nina Simone all got biopics, and having only seen this one, it's likely the best of the four. Budrow and Hawke combine for a startlingly fresh take on the biographical genre, one that surprises at the end instead of trailing off with the perfunctory standing ovation and epilogue text. Hawke isn't waxing poetic about love and destiny, like he's done so well before, but his Baker creates one of 2016's most indelible characters and one of its best performances.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.