The 19th film from Pixar studios, Coco, takes liberally from the animated masterpieces that have come before it. Outliving one’s usefulness is here, as it has been in the Toy Story films. A magical moment of Proustian recall evokes personal favorite Ratatouille. A theme of reunion runs through Coco, as it did in Finding Nemo/Dory and The Good Dinosaur. This kind of connection to Pixar’s artistic past is anything but a crutch, especially when Coco itself is dedicated to keeping the past alive. This applies to the characters within Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s beautiful film and to Coco itself, another Pixar masterwork that slots in next to the studio’s many other highlights.
Olivier Assayas’ lengthy resume has been barely tapped into by this viewer, but what’s been seen is admired and sometimes loved. Summer Hours is one of the best films of the 21st century while Clouds of Sils Maria features exceptional acting from its main trio of actresses. One of those actresses, Kristen Stewart, returns to work with Assayas in Personal Shopper. Clouds of Sils Maria was one of several recent films that have established Stewart as a serious artist, obliterating the stink of the Twilight saga. Personal Shopper is another entry in her critical ascendance. Assayas has a habit of returning to the same actresses in his work, and while Personal Shopper can be irritating in its worldview for this skeptic, the partnership between the director and Stewart is plainly one that is working out for both of them.
In Margot Robbie’s brief career, she’s played the wife of a camera-addressing unreliable narrator and she’s had a memorable camera-addressing cameo. In I, Tonya, she gets to be the camera-addressing unreliable narrator, bringing as much desperate passion to the role of Tonya Harding as her former screen-husband Leonardo DiCaprio brought to Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Besides sharing Robbie’s presence, those two films have much in common, from the incriminating finger it points at the audience to Craig Gillespie’s aping of Martin Scorsese’s propulsive style. Scorsese is constantly in the margins of I, Tonya, but this is no kneecapping insult to a master’s patented form. I, Tonya has a big heart towards its real-life inspiration and its cinematic one as well, a combination that sits comfortably next to the derision and disgust the film holds for this peculiar tale’s less sympathetic characters. Of course, whether or not Tonya Harding herself is a sympathetic character remains an open question.
The last Churchillian England film of 2017 leaves behind the you-are-there intensity of Dunkirk and the propaganda efforts of Their Finest for the lonely seat of power in the last European state to actively withstand Hitler’s Germany. Darkest Hour puts the viewer in Winston Churchill’s head as he takes command and is immediately confronted with the potential annihilation of much of the British army, stranded across the channel in France. Joe Wright’s film is a visual study in leadership and how intensely isolating it can be. Led by Gary Oldman’s Churchill, Darkest Hour deigns to show the heroic amounts of courage, alcohol, and political will that must be expended even in something as self-evident as resisting Nazi’s.
The stakes for the heroic activists in David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague are life and death. Composed of archival footage from the 80’s and 90’s, France withholds who’s going to be alive when the film ends. Some of the more prominent leaders of Act Up, bright and vivacious in the past, don’t see their quest through to the end. The story of the LGBT men and women and their allies who spent years advocating for their community in the hunt for a treatment for HIV and AIDS is one of passion and protest and theatricality, but it’s primarily a story of people becoming capital-C Citizens, of motivated individuals, their brains and their hearts working as one, marshalling all the knowledge available on a subject and bludgeoning the unwieldy apparatuses of government and big business into tragically-belated action. This is a civics success story, but one built on the 8.2 million bodies who died before a reliable and safe treatment for AIDS could be put into practice. How to Survive a Plague contains the best and the worst of America, a bravura journalistic masterpiece that retains its anger 22 years from when its historical timeline ends.
Controversy isn’t something the Star Wars franchise courts. It is mass cinematic entertainment aimed at pleasing the widest swath of the population as possible. The quality might dip from entry to entry, but the online cognoscenti don’t write think pieces or really argue about anything much more than favorite segments and the role of nostalgia in Star Wars. The franchise’s Manichean simplicity is part of its appeal, as evidenced by JJ Abrams’ series reboot The Force Awakens and its competent aping of the then-38 year old original. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi takes Abrams’ new foundation and significantly alters it, making an entry into the long-running nonalogy that dares to be gray and have thematic statements beyond good and evil. Hugely controversial in its disdain for certain obsessive factions of the fandom, The Last Jedi is in open conversation with what Star Wars adherents can and should expect from their favorite series. That kind of meta layer doesn’t make for the most immersive experience, but there’s much to be admired from a Star Wars film with something on its mind.
It’s easy to dismiss The Shape of Water as that light fantasy movie about bestiality between a human woman and male frog-man. Even its Best Picture win doesn’t stop the jokes at its expense. In the spirit of accuracy, the dismissive stance is a factual statement, in that interspecies sex does indeed happen, but the fish-man also chomps on a finger. Why isn’t The Shape of Water the finger-chomping movie? Joyful director Guillermo del Toro’s most commercially and critically successful work deserves better than late-night jokes, because under its outre logline is a stunning and endlessly enjoyable film that reserves its greatest sympathies for cripples, bastards, and broken things (to borrow a phrase from George RR Martin) at the end of the conservative and stilted pre-60’s era. If that happens to include a lonely yet horny frog-man, then so be it.
The standard image of the phoenix rising from the ashes is that of the majestic creature soaring straight up, powerful and reborn with vigor to spare. Christian Petzold’s searing masterpiece invokes the phoenix in direct opposition to such an image. The rebirth that the film revolves around, in which a woman thought dead in the Holocaust returns to post-war Berlin, is tentative and guilt-ridden, bruised and scarred. There is no spreading of wings, because how could there be? Petzold engages in the myth of the phoenix particularly in how badly people want it to be true, that someone could experience trauma and immediately get back to their life. Like the best films surrounding the atrocity of WWII, Phoenix has little patience for that kind of romanticism, but it also avoids becoming a nihilistic dirge. Petzold, along with frequent collaborator Nina Hoss, finds ugly truths alongside powerful demonstrations of resilience, a cohabitation that is the essence of 20th century history.
The details of Buck Brannaman’s lifestyle are such that if he were a fictional character, no one would believe them. His childhood and his chosen profession are so inextricably linked that they would seem to spring out of the pen of a hack writer pounding away at Starbucks, taking a triumphant sip after tying up a character’s entire motivation. Cindy Meehl’s intimate documentary about Brannaman, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s titular character in The Horse Whisperer, works as well as it does because of its basic, elemental intuitiveness. Brannaman had a brutal childhood under the tyrannical rule of his abusive father. He gets taken in by a kind foster family and apprentices under a mentor who teaches him everything he knows about horsemanship. Brannaman’s specific history allows him to have a unique empathy for horses, having experienced the cruelty of physical punishment to get a creature to do what the holder of the whip wants it to do, and thus he can instantly diagnose and correct horse behavioral problems as if he were Doctor Doolittle. In Buck, Meehl frames this handy cause and effect circle as self-evident, and Brannaman embraces it as he tours the Western US, helping, in his words, ‘people with horse problems and horses with people problems.’
The Revenant made Alejandro Gonzalex Innaritu into a dominant Oscar force. It gave him his second consecutive directing award after the previous year’s Birdman, putting him on a pedestal with other back-to-back winners John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz. Who knows how cinematic history will remember any individual working today, but where Innaritu lands in comparison to those two is an interesting thought experiment. Ford is someone who mastered the Western and added immeasurable scope to his films while also communicating intimacy in his most famous shots, particularly his iconic end to The Searchers. Mankiewicz had some successes, particularly in All About Eve, but he’s also got his name on some huge blunders like Cleopatra and isn’t a guy that people think of first when rattling off the great directors of the era. Based on the thinness of the films that brought Innaritu his wins, it seems somewhat obvious that Innaritu will end up more like Mankiewicz. An exemplar of the maxim that Oscar wins aren’t given to the Best of something, but the Most, Innaritu’s The Revenant is a series of dares and tricks that becomes punishing and ostentatious and unnecessary long before its overlong runtime expires.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.