Aquarius, The Witness, The Eyes of my Mother, Little Men, Embrace of the Serpent, and Manchester by the Sea
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.
Note, if you can’t tell by the ratings these films are receiving, this has been a very rewarding catch-up.
Writer and Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, and Fernando Teixeira
Once the favourite for Brazil’s Best Foreign Language nomination, Aquarius was said to be ousted for political reasons. This is due to the very clear and unrelenting attack on the corporate assault on a Brazillian citizen as they attempt to tear down the apartment she lived in all of her life so they can build a large condo complex on the prime real-estate it currently occupies. This is the main plot of the film, but what the film really is, is an exploration of an incredibly strong-willed and fascinating woman. Sonia Braga is phenomenal as the besieged music critic who is simply trying to live out her days in peace when she is set upon by her landlord’s ambitious, young, american-educated Grandson. Nepotism definitely comes back more than once in this film as it highlights oligarchy and what is essentially class warfare. The film is a beautiful journey through this period in Braga’s life, and we get to see glimmers of memory thoughout. There is a lot about the importance of memory and the sentimentality of objects. It’s quite the film.
The Witness (8.25)
Director: James D. Solomon
The Witness follows Bill Genovese, younger brother of the famous Kitty Genovese, the victim behind the infamous murder where 38 witnesses supposedly saw and did nothing. This story has spawned endless academic studies on the bystander effect and other sociological ideas, but is it true? Bill spends years trying to uncover the facts of the case to find out if his sister’s grizzly murder was truly witnessed by nearly 40 people who sat idly by and did nothing. The journey is shocking, sad, and surprising. It is an important lesson about the inherent flaws in human-run media, and the telephone game that can transform a story. Solomon is also smart to not only follow Bill’s investigation, but to go a little behind the investigator and see how drudging up this history has affected the Genovese family, the siblings who all still deal with the trauma of their sister’s murder. It’s a gripping documentary with some beautiful animated flourishes, and easily one of the best films of the year.
The Eyes of my Mother (7.5)
Writer and Director: Nicholas Pesce
Starring: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Olivia Bond, and Diana Agostini
After seeing this film on many best of the year lists, as well as on some ‘overlooked of 2016’ lists, I thought to check it out. The images associated with the articles showed some stunning black and white photography that gripped me. What I got was certainly something gripping in the most uncomfortable way. The film follows a young girl in desperately trying to make a life when she is very clearly psychotic. It’s a deeply disturbing film and an incredibly inventive horror piece. I know it’s not necessarily new for a horror film to place the monster, so to speak, as the protagonist, but I have yet to see such a deep exploration of a damaged mind (note that my horror repetoire is pretty shallow though). It’s a short jolt, and leaves you a little shaken, but it’s worth it.
Little Men (7)
Director: Ira Sachs Writers: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, and Alfred Molina
After being thoroughly impressed (and crushed) by Ira Sach’s previous film Love is Strange, I was excited to see Little Men. There are few filmakers who make movies like Ira Sachs, his work is so heartfelt and so honest. Little Men does not have the same punch as the previous film, but there is still something fascinating in the tale of two best friends who may be driven apart by a lease battle between their parents. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and difficult film. It doesn’t grab you, and despite mostly quality performances, the child actors’ believably wanes which hurts the film. The film is also hurt by the creation of a very simplistic antagonist in Greg Kinnear’s sister, it is an unfortunately easy way of taking the blame off of Kinnear’s character so he can stay clean. It’s an unfortunate simplification of an otherwise wonderfully complex and difficult situation.
Embrace of the Serpent (8.75)
Writer and Director: Chico Guerra
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Yauenku Migue, and Brionne Davis
After hearing praise for this film for almost a full year, I finally got around to watching Embrace of the Serpent. I was expecting an ‘arty’ odyssey, which I was not necessarily opposed to, but it takes a little more to get into the mood for them. This turned out to be a top quality odyssey adventure exploring a world of Amazon tribes I had never seen before. It is fascinating, well performed, and absolutely beautiful. Guerra takes us through visiting the impact of modernity on these native tribes in a number of different settings, and they become increasingly bizarre and breathtaking. It is an incredible film and easily one of the best of 2016.
Manchester by the Sea (8.5)
Writer and Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Kyle Chandle
Manchester by the Sea is a difficult film to discuss. It’s subject matter is obviously fairly heavy, it is about grief. However Lonergan’s intelligent and heartfelt film is able to discuss the weight and difficulty in a tone that does not always crush, and sometimes even lifts. It’s a beautiful study of a man trying to deal with long held grief and how returning to Manchester for his brother’s death may bring it all back. It’s a delicate film full of imperfect people doing their best, and that is refreshing even if it is an emotional trip. There is something actually surrounding the film that has become more difficult to discuss.
What is most difficult to talk about is that Casey Affleck gives what is most likely the best leading male performance of the year, however it is difficult to give him due praise due to recent sexual assault accusations that have come out (not to mention his behaving like a jackass in general). The cast is outstanding, Lucas Hedges is a big surprise in his debut, Michelle Williams is great as always, and Kyle Chandler continues to progress as a quality character actor. However the towering figure in the film is Affleck, a man closed off from the world and his own emotions. He shows a numbness of a man who has buried his sadness as deep as he can, but the earth will always move to uncover it. We see it unearthed here and there and it’s heartbreaking. I am conflicted on how to handle praise for this great performance in light of these terrible abuses. It’s difficult.
It does not, however, mar the experience of the film, it is outstanding. I mention the term ‘texture’ often when describing films, this, to me, means the film has a feeling, a sense that this is a real world you can almost reach out and touch. Manchester has that in spades. Such a simple camera style, and a pallid color scheme highlighting the freezing Massachusetts winter give the film a sense of memory, like we’re watching a series of old family photographs from a disposable camera. That may sound bad but it’s simplicity and familiarity are great positives for a film that is so much about family, loss, and memory.