Monday, June 29, 2015

2015 in Movies, 40-48

Day 4 of 366 of internship comes to a close tonight; I just came from the most benign duty I've ever had in med school, and in OB-Gyne at that! The first week of this year's Virgin Labfest is done, and I will be repeating the entire crazy marathon this week. 

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"Clouds of Sils Maria."
(Juliette Binoche's Maria von Trapp moment.)

40. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her (2013, dir. Ned Benson)

The first thing you need to know about "Eleanor Rigby" is not that it has absolutely nothing to do with The Beatles (apart from a brief explanation on nomenclature by the eponymous character played by heir to Meryl Streep's throne Jessica Chastain), but that it has three versions. It was originally designed to be a film in two films, if that makes any sense; there is essentially one story, but the telling is through two perspectives--"Him" and "Her." Then, last year at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein, who possesses the uncanny ability to transform himself from gift of heaven to spawn of the devil in a split second, supposedly decided to force the creation of a hybrid--"Them"--that, among other reasons, it may attract more viewers with its more reasonable running time (true: "Them" clocks in at a "normal" two hours, while "Him" and "Her" each run for a little more than an hour and a half, which means the original version would have made for screenings that lasted more than three hours, and we can only imagine how not good that would have been on dear old Harvey's pocket). Thus, the one that received wide commercial release ("Them") and the one that went to specialty art houses ("Him" and "Her" as a back-to-back double feature). 

Having said all that, "Him" and "Her" viewed back to back is a beguilingly transporting experience, like having eyes to two vastly different brains and seeing a slice of time two different ways. It is easy to call "Eleanor Rigby" a gimmick, but few can approximate the purity of emotion and intricacy of character work on display here. Chastain and McAvoy put in their best, most complex and transparent work to date, even when the language can get absurdly un-naturalistic ("There is only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me," says McAvoy to Chastain). Be warned, however: These virtues are diminished, dissipated, lost in "Them"; the bits and pieces I gleaned from skimming through this far inferior product were enough to tell me that, so I decided not to endure it in its entirety at all.

41. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

I liked this movie. I enjoyed it, actually, and even laughed one too many times. Not an appropriate reaction, some might say, because "Wild" was obviously packaged as a search-for-your-lost-soul tearjerker Oscar bait--and that description is not wholly undeserved. I found Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club" last year irritating; "Wild" left me moved and entertained. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I have come to associate with a certain feeling of annoyance for no specific reason, dazzles here. She carries the entire weight of this movie's ambition to be among the Academy's anointed ones with the barest and most understated of performances. No unwarranted showboating here, even when she's losing a toenail (my favorite part!) or losing a boot, then throwing away the other boot (my second favorite part!). And Laura Dern, as Reese's mother, is also good; alas, she should not have gotten that Supporting Actress nomination, because if we're going to start giving away nominations to throwaway parts, Viola Davis in "Eleanor Rigby" should have been first in line. 

42. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater)

The high school experience is truly a unifying one, whether you're a slightly overachieving kid dealing with math quizzes, impromptu speaking contests and the editorship of the campus publication in a Chinese school in Southeast Asia, or a young Brit lost in the timeworn halls of an elite prep school, or any of John Hughes' characters. In this Linklater, we are thrown right in the midst of the last-day-of-school hysteria. Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck both make appearances, and we go along for the drunken, drugged nightlong ride with these gang'o'rascals. Nothing "big" happens; nobody dies, gets hit by a car, gets sent to hospital, gets arrested, gets shot, gets raped. Linklater shows how it really is with these nights back then, and this astutely captured sense of normalcy is the gift of this movie.

43. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)

This is the funniest film I've seen about black culture--smart and literate as it is entertaining. Which got me thinking: Why indeed are we so fascinated by black culture? "They wanna be us," intones one character at a black-face party inspired by real events. I'm saying this as an Asian, and therefore non-partisan, homie.

44. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

My third time to see this: I don't know that a more perfect movie was released last year. Say what you will about the man and his films, but there's no one quite like David Fincher these days. And since I have now seen all of this year's Oscar nominees, my should-have-been Best Picture roster, hewing as close as possible to the flavors of the season back then: the original five--"Boyhood," "Selma," "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Whiplash"--plus my three other picks--"Gone Girl," "Nightcrawler," "Wild."

45. Love Is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, surrounded by a gorgeous ensemble, in what to me was the year's best onscreen "love story," in a manner of speaking. Not to over-highlight the gay connection, but do find a way to also watch Andrew Haigh's "Weekend."

46. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)

In the future, I hope to run into Juliette Binoche in a foreign land, that I may totally fanboy over her. In a just world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" would be a serious Best Picture contender, and its two actresses up for awards. It makes "Birdman," a terrific film about an actor in existential crisis, look like a high school project. I would also like to take this opportunity to once again declare my love for Assayas' "Summer Hours."

47. '71 (dir. Yann Demange)

That sequence where Jack O'Connell's character accidentally gets separated from his platoon and races for his life in the maze of brick walls and narrow alleyways while being chased by deranged Irish Catholics got me thinking about what prods young men like him--the inexperienced, who must have previously thought of war as child's play, a game of guns and ammos in a field of broken dreams where they might fully unleash their suppressed masculinity--to join the army and risk their lives for "love of country." Aside from money, obviously. To pass the time?

48. Snowtown (2011, dir. Justin Kurzel)

"A masterpiece," the critics said, but all I could really think of while watching this was how disgusting and/or helpless and/or pathetic the characters were. Perhaps helplessness is an acquired taste among viewers; you see someone do nothing in the face of injustice, and you still sit there, complacent and comfortable, unfeeling to that nudge in the gut that seems to say, Hey, don't just fucking sit there, do something. Perhaps in real life, you must really be one to do nothing in the face of injustice. And that's why empowerment is a necessity.  

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