The countdown continues…again!
- The Neon Demon (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Neon Demon is haunting, mesmerizing, blisteringly stylized, and equal parts nasty and beautiful. The mind behind the now-classic Drive and the masterful Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn, crafts a lurid modern day ghoulish fairy tale that explores modern obsession w/ beauty, superficiality and womanhood. The Neon Demon is a blunt & obvious but poisonous jab at the pretentious glitterati – those who must pour over every inch of art to squeeze out a higher meaning. We follow the 16-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning in her best role to date) as she navigates the cutthroat world of modeling, a cruel system where women nearing their ‘expiration date’ collude to cannibalize the Next Big Thing. Her name may be first but the picture truly belongs to Jena Malone (Saved) as the mysterious makeup artist who develops a bond with our doomed Snow White; but more importantly Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Jesse’s would be competition in a twisted update of All About Eve by way of Showgirls and Death Becomes Her.
It’s easy to dismiss The Neon Demon as a pretty but glib and vulgar attempt at satirizing the selfie generation, and our virulent addiction to ourselves. However Refn’s clever direction, Cliff Martinez’s spine-tingling score, Natasha Braier’s hallucinatory photography and a sharp script co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham elevate this pulp yarn into an alluring nightmare for the ages. Ultimately The Neon Demon is equal parts a screed on exploitation but also a treatise on the contemporary struggle to find real nourishment in what we consume.
- Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Dir. Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao’s debut feature, one of the best films of the year, is about family and loss in a year filled with so many hard-hitting contenders (like Manchester by the Sea). It explores family bonding through mourning and learning from each others’ experiences through the eyes of an eleven-year-old Native American girl JaShaun Winters and her brother John, who struggle with surviving on their own, forgotten while their older brother sits behind bars in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When their father Carl dies in a fire, the twenty-five children he fathered with nine women gather at his funeral, reuniting a fractured family.
Ultimately an allegory for the story of America itself, the spectre of Carl Winters casts a shadow over the next generation via his often contentious involvement in their lives or through his early abandonment. Local culture is mixed with modern music and images of the America outside the reservation, painting a portrait of a people grasping at fading traditions seven generations removed from Wounded Knee. As JaShaun tries to help her community whatever little way she can while her brother is all but ready to escape with his girlfriend for a fresh start. Like our country and its history, Songs My Brothers Taught Me presents no easy answers but presents us with shifting portraits of the times, places and cultures of a people trying to do their best with whatever hand fate dealt them. Songs my Brothers Taught Me is nothing if not a humanistic meditation on how decades of history affects the development of our very souls.
- Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Nothing ever lasts forever in French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films. That has been the thread that ties her entire oeuvre together, and in her career she has proven time and time again to be incapable of making a bad or boring motion picture (knock on wood). Things to Come takes her oft-explored theme of life’s fleetingness to a masterful conclusion as we follow Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert): a teacher who watches her life get stripped down piece by piece in the midst of losing her job, her husband leaving her and their two kids and the passing of her mother. Past films by Mia Hansen-Løve would make such matters the climax before leaving us on a small note of hope but this movie begins here and circles back to a saga of growth and re-invention. This movie finds celebration, not mourning in how the difficulties of life are offset by the way life inevitably always moves forward. Isabelle Huppert is simply marvelous in her best role this year (I was not a fan of her collaboration with Paul Verhoven, Elle) as she finds the inspirational space between vulnerability and defiance.
- The Love Witch (Dir. Anna Biller)
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch *looks* like a time capsule from the 60s but as you delve deeper into the movie you find it defies easy description. A powerful case for the value of singular visions, Anna Biller wrote, directed, and designed this masterful oddity. That last detail is notable since everything about this movie depends on its look. The Love Witch is psychedelic fairy tale in jaw-dropping Technicolor. This lighthearted self-aware horror dramedy follows an unbelievably foxy witch (Samantha Robinson) with a habit of concocting, sometimes fatal, love potions in her quest to satisfy her narcissism and desire to know true romance. More than just a throwback, like the much more mainstream La La Land, Biller’s movie is about utilizing older film modes and grammar to make potent contemporary commentary. Have fun unpacking this layered film which moves through what would be cheap camp horror with a thoroughly modern feminist sensibility that’s as shattering to 2010s expectations as works like Xena, Buffy and Scream were back in the 90s. This subversive genre piece is a deceptively smart referendum on romance and womanhood wrapped up in a delicious valentine of the grindhouse flicks of yesterday. It’s a very strange and very specific kind of movie so I would recommend this only for more daring movie goers and fans.
- American Honey (Dir. Andrea Arnold) TIE White Girl (Dir. Elizabeth Wood)
Making a movie about contemporary youths is a tall order for any filmmaker these days. Trends and culture move as the speed of light and there’s really no one “definitive” way to create a portrait of any of us young adults of today. And yet…these two movies directed by Andrea Arnold and Elizabeth Wood, respectively read to me as two of the most brutally honest but also lively and colorful dioramas about my generation ever. If movies have a “pulse” American Honey and White Girl move at beats that would put most concerts to shame.
Andrea Arnold’s dynamic and empathetic vision of young, weird, middle America, American Honey, is a sprawling road film that transports us through wealthy suburban cul-de-sacs to poverty-stricken trailer parks with cities just out of reach. Newcomer actress who should now be cast in everything, Sasha Lane, plays Star: an impulsive teen who leaves an abusive home to sell magazines before joining a group of “young adults” she meets dancing to Rihanna in the middle of Kmart, including rat-tailed heartthrob Jake (Shia LaBeouf who still looks like a teen, even in his 30s let’s be honest). Accompanied by one of the best music selections put to film in my lifetime(it is so rare for a film about my generation to use music most of us *actually* listen to) our group drives through the highways of middle America sharing their stories in between swigs of beer, vodka and hits of a cigs and joints. These kids all represent patches of the quilt that makes up the modern American middle and lower classes. By allowing her actors to improvise organic, loosely constructed scenes American Honey feels almost like a blend between tone poetry and documentary. This movie is a hypnotic experience brimming with energy and humanity.
At the same time Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl is almost a complimentary experience that is equally potent. This directorial debut that is carried by young University student Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) caught in a sort of purgatory between two interrelated and immiscible New York worlds she doesn’t grasp: the upper class publishing industry and its drug-fueled parties, and the underclass of drug pushers on her street corner. When her lover gets locked up, she sells his cocaine stash in order to pay for legal fees and support her endeavors. Her odyssey pushes her deeper into the dichotomy between her upper-class status and the under-class role she has adopted irrevocably changing her into an unwilling bridge in this tale of two cities. If Arnold’s movie was about discovering yourself in rural America, Wood’s movie is about how we can lose ourselves to the urban sprawl.
Not since Spring Breakers have I seen movies so at once mesmerizing and sickening and so…authentic feeling (a paradox given the root of “art” in the term “artificial”). American Honey and White Girl pulsate with unrivaled youthful energy. Each one portraying uncomfortable visions of a generation still defining itself in a modern frontier.