The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 19606’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
The complicated story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion doesn’t seem to lend itself to a two hour film. It contains such thorny moralistic questions that shortchanging them risks doing a disservice to the truth of the event. Violent uprisings against slavery were surely warranted and just, but what kind of retaliation is justified, both by the rebels and the slaveowners when they inevitably reestablish power? Nate Parker’s film, the provocatively titled Birth of a Nation, is solely interested in the most obvious and least compelling facet i.e. the threshold of indignity and injustice before a pushback occurs. By making this choice, The Birth of a Nation becomes a rehash of other, better films about slavery and ignores the cloudier, demythologizing parts of this story that would’ve made Parker’s film into something more than an antebellum Braveheart.
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 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.
The epic to end all epics, Akira Kurosawa’s late-career masterpiece Ran spares nothing in the cause of blowing the viewer away with perfect frames and huge setpieces. The equivalent of Scorsese making Wolf of Wall Street in his eighth decade, Ran demonstrates that genius-level talents lose nothing of their energy and vision with age. There’s something to gawp at in every image, whether it’s the costuming or the acting or the composition. Even for a director with classics like Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai on his filmography, it’s not hard to imagine why the influential Japanese auteur declared this his best work. That Kurosawa was able to keep topping himself ensures his legacy as a titan on far surer footing than the doomed patriarch at Ran’s center.
Gender pay gaps, boys’ clubs, and blatant misogyny run rampant in Battle of the Sexes, a film that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the present day. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton turn their indie sensibilities to a famous sports incident, playing things largely straight where they’d earlier been more inventive. Little Miss Sunshine practically invented a new subgenre while Ruby Sparks undermined the trope of the manic pixie dream girl that so many indie films rely on. Battle of the Sexes isn’t breaking new ground in the same way. Instead, Faris and Dayton found a fertile piece of history and put charming actors in it. The film works because it can’t really fail.
Icon of American cinema Martin Scorsese began his career with Mean Streets and its protagonist's struggle to reconcile his lifestyle with his Catholism. In the intervening 44 years, Scorsese has repeatedly grappled onscreen with his own faith. The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun both centered on religious figures struggling with doubt, and his long-gestating Silence returns to this theme. On the shelf since the 80's, Silence is Scorsese at his most austere, appropriate for a film about 17th century Jesuit missionaries and far from the rollicking hedonism of his best known gangster work. Having long made personal films, Scorsese's latest is cerebral, punishing, and very much the work of a man in his twilight years, wondering about what, if anything, comes next.
An old-fashioned crowd pleaser that combines the Space Race with overcoming racial discrimination, Hidden Figures is a film that works in spite of the many reminiscent films that would shift focus from the discriminated to the observers of discrimination. There are no noble sufferers here, and no white characters that learn lessons at a black person's expense. Hidden Figures is dedicated to the lives of three women, each of which had a level of talent and a self-confidence that would not be denied by something as self-evidently silly as segregated bathrooms. Neither maudlin nor corny, Ted Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder tell a vastly undertold story with dignity, humor, and panache.
Jackie Kennedy gets the biopic treatment in Pablo Larrain's fascinating film Jackie, but the film wisely focuses only on the weeks after her husband was assassinated. As she (Natalie Portman) gives an interview to a reporter (Billy Crudup), discussing the seismic event and how she's dealing with the aftermath, Larrain flashes back to moments scattered throughout JFK's presidency, sketching out the first lady's philosophy and her ultimate goal of mythologizing her husband's memory. Larrain and his editor Sebastian Sepulveda weave the film's varied time periods together, and include a tense and visceral assassination scene, punctuated with gruesome sound design, that loses nothing from the viewer knowing how it ends. Anchored by a brilliant script by Noah Oppenheim and Portman's all-encompassing performance, Jackie is as multi-faceted as its protagonist, finding each of her personas and only catching a fleeting glimpse of her true one.
Having watched the decidedly unsentimental Holocaust film Son of Saul a week previously, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a stark antidote. A young boy drives the plot in Son of Saul, but in that case, it's a boy immediately gassed upon his arrival at Auschwitz, barely survives, and then is coldly smothered by the 'doctor' on staff who refers to the child as 'it.' Mark Herman's film, adapted from the book of the same name, makes his protagonist a child, but a child of the Nazi elite, the son of a death camp commandant. This is an odd choice, not unlike telling an offensive joke. If one is going to go out on that limb, the joke better be funny. Herman takes a big risk in telling this story from the side of the oppressors, a fatally flawed premise that could be redeemed if the story is worth it. Alas, this viewer could never get over the setting, though it's not like the premise's redemption is in the film in the first place.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.