Loving, The Fits, Florence Foster Jenkins, Fire at Sea, Things to Come, Toni Erdmann
As the year end approaches, I embark on my annual struggle to try and catch up with all of the critically acclaimed movies of the year that are now being released digitally or hitting theatres outside of major markets. As I watch these in relatively rapid succession, I will be doing a series of roundups like this with short reviews of some of these films that definitely require and deserve much broader discussion.
Writer and Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Bill Camp, and Nick Kroll(?)
In a busy year for Jeff Nichols, he released two fairly divisive films. Midnight Special lost many (including me) with it’s vague ending, and Loving lost many (and gained many) with its incredibly laid back style. There is a lot to admire in the film, the two central performances are quite good, and it has the textured look of many of Nichols films that helps transport you to the time and place. However the almost anti-conflict approach of the two sort of unwilling heroes hampers the story just a little. I admire what Nichols attempts with the film, showing ordinary folks rebelling against injustice by just living, but that does take a lot of the dramatic wind out of the film’s sails. It lets the mind wander and can leave you a little cold in the end.
The Fits (8)
Writer and Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Starring: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, and Antonio AB Grant JR
For a debut feature, this film feels incredibly assured. Director Anna Rose Holmer does not feel the need to give any easy answers to the story and leaves us with a great discussion piece that has some moments of genuine emotional impact. As this is perhaps the least known, the film follows the impressive Royalty Hightower as a young tomboy learning boxing at the local community centre. She then finds herself fascinated with a dance-troupe run by older girls and tries out before a series of mysterious seizures begin to strike the troupe. The film is as mysterious as it sounds as we see this situation play out from the perspective of these young girls. Its a terrific little ride to go on with some important things to say about growing up.
Florence Foster Jenkins (6)
Director: Stephen Frears Writer: Nicholas Martin
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Hellberg
Perhaps the most inexplicably critically acclaimed on the list, Frears’s film is broad and simple and has a perplexing supporting performance from Simon Hellberg who along with Nick Kroll, appear to be channeling The Brothers Solomon with their wide-eyed, smiley, and creepily soft-spoken performances. Both actors are perfectly capable performers so I’m mystified why they have both provided such uncomfortable performances that only serve as distractions in their respective films. The film despite it’s simplicity hits all of the correct notes and is an adequately good time. There is a touch at depth with Hugh Grant’s character who deals with a very delicate situation, however that is not examined as deeply as it could. He also gives the strongest performance of the film, Streep is great but her role is more showy and does not have the same complexity as Grant’s. Its a reasonably good time, but besides the terrified chill left from Hellberg’s creepiness, it will pass from memory pretty fast.
Fire at Sea (8.75)
Director: Gianfransisco Rosi
Speaking of passing from memory, Gianfransisco Rosi’s languid and intermittently shocking documentary is bound to never leave. Rosi explores the refugee crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa by juxtaposing the regular life for its residents, and the regular arrival of tired and tortured refugees. The sequences spent with the refugees, and those tasked with their rescue, are some of the more powerful and emotionally resonant scenes I have seen all year. The only flaw in the film is perhaps the inordinate amount of time spent exploring regular life on the island. It is interesting to a degree, but those sections could stand to be tightened. One thing that is definitely consistent throughout, however, is the incredible camera work by Rosi himself. Every shot is framed for maximum beauty and maximum power. It is an impressive feat for a documentary to achieve.
Things to Come (8.5)
Writer and Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, and Roman Kolinka
In her decade as a filmaker, Hansen-Løve is becoming one of the more well received filmakers working in cinema. Her latest work after last year’s acclaimed Eden, follows Isabelle Huppert’s upper-middle-class philosophy professor as she works her way through personal tragedies that seem to be piling up on top of her. This is a form of laid-back that I think works much better than in Loving. Huppert is an innately fascinating person to watch, seeing her as the near polar opposite of her standout performance in Elle, it is interesting to watch this woman who seems to have had answers and comfort all of her life as she struggles when all of this is taken away. With a cute (literally) parallel symbol of her loss of control in her mother’s cat Pandora, there is a lot of beautiful detail built into the film. It ends without much of a climax, but there are a couple moments in the closing minutes that make you think about the incredibly unfathomable nature of the lives of others. This is a film that feels like it understands people, and the key to that is that you can never really understand.
Toni Erdmann (8.5)
Writer and Director: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, and Michael Wittenborn
The most critically acclaimed movie of the year, and one of those to which I was most looking forward (along with Jackie, Silence, and Paterson which it looks like I will not get the opportunity to see in theaters either). Toni Erdmann stands as a bit of a disappointment from the boundless critical adoration that has been heaped upon it. This does not mean the film is bad, it’s a very nice story of a father trying to reconnect with his daughter and trying to teach her not to take life so seriously, and the daughter, an uptight professional, fights back. There is a lot of interesting work beneath the surface about modern Europe, and the cruelty of laisez-faire corporate capitalism that ads a little more heft. Sadly I don’t connect to it the way many others have. Its a funny story, and an incredibly fast three hours, but it does not strike me as an outright masterpiece. This might be another case of the expectations hurting the reception of a film, it is definitely very good, and may even be great, but I do not think this is an all-timer. Two things that will likely stand out a little longer are the performances of the leads, Simonischek’s older man refusing to accept the seriousness of life, and Sandra Huller who can only accept it are perfect foils.