The Ancient Woods
(Mindaugas Survila, 2017): Although it hasn't had an official US release yet (and won't until this summer), this Baltic state nature documentary has been rattling around Europe for the last few years and is currently available on back channels in the states. Calling it a "nature documentary" is a bit of a misnomer though. While the subject is the forest life in Lithuanian woodlands, it is far more artfully crafted than your typical Animal Planet or Mutual of Omaha production. Shot in stunning high definition, Mindaugas Survila's ten year in the making film lacks the narration--there are no spoken words here at all--that typify the genre. Instead, the director lets the remarkable footage speak for itself. We're never lost in the material whether it's the stirring of the smallest life in the snow, a battle between pheasants, or a group of fledglings greedily gulping down a smorgasbord of amphibians their parent brought back for them. Ultimately, there's no new ground broken here as we have decades of material that can only be built off of, but it unarguably carries out the genre in a far more poetic manner than anything that came before it.
Goltzius and the Pelican Company
(Peter Greenaway, 2012): Ever since he eschewed his minimalist experimental early format, Peter Greenaway has operated with a signature visual style full of preternaturally crafted scenery, ludicrous plot, and ample nudity. The director carries on this time tested aesthetic in this early modern tale of a group of print makers eager to gather the patronage of Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham) to fund the production of an erotic illustrated edition of the Old Testament. The Margrave orders Hendrick Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr) to entertain him through a series of vignettes, which the Dutch entourage happily stage on platform that constantly rotates 360 degrees. The troupe act out different aberrant sexual behavior from the Bible ranging from Lot's drunken threesome with his daughters, to David's spying on Bathsheba, to the dance of the seven veils. All participants are fully nude with no body hair. This may sound anachronistic, but public grooming styles--from fully shorn to fully grown out--has varied throughout Europe over the centuries. To be fair, I honestly don't know what it was like in northern Europe during the time the film took place. It would be facile to label the film an artifice constructed merely to display an abundance of flesh. Like the rest of his works, Greenaway seeks here to capture the elusive connection between representation and the human form that has preoccupied Western artists for at least the last three thousand years. From a purely aesthetic point of view, this is a fascinating work, but those seeking deeper narrative contrivance may walk away disappointed.
Like Father, Like Son
(Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013): Well-to-do businessman Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) receive a shock when they attempt to register their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomaya) for kindergarten. The overbearing father finds out that his child's blood work does not match either parent, and its eventually uncovered that somehow their biological child was switched with another newborn boy before they were discharged. The affected families meet up and are overcome by a dilemma: should they keep the child they've raised for the last six years or should they switch children to match their biological families. What follows forces Ryota to come to terms with his short comings as both a father and a human being. We've known since Nobody Knows
that Koreeda can get some great performances from child actors, but that's about the highlight of the film. His cinematography is rather staid even by his typical standards, and Ryota's emotional journey felt too easy by far. It's not a bad movie, but it's far from the director's best work.
(Sean Baker, 2012): This one isn't an orphan, but I promised therewillbeblus that I'd catch up with it before the final vote.
My final Sean Baker film of the decade to catch up with stars Dree Hemingway as Jane, an up and coming porn actress who's weighed down by her druggie burnout roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve) who's failing out of the industry. One day Jane purchases a thermos from an elderly woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) at her yard sale, and is shocked to discover thousands of dollars inside of it. She initially tries to return the money to Sadie, but when that doesn't work out, Jane finds a way to insert herself into the life of the older woman. It’s a credit to Baker that he avoided the Hot Girls Wanted (a production that actual sex workers typically revile) sensationalism of the porn industry, and instead present it as just another job that you have to do without fucking up. Melissa may fit the "damaged goods" stereotype of women porn performers, but there's enough daylight between the portrayals of her and Jane so as to not paint the industry with a broad brush. The relationship between Jane and Sadie--the main focus of the movie--was probably the least successful aspect of the film for me. If Jane had been fully prepared to return the cash early on, then her later attempts to keep it and establish a guilt based friendship don't exactly make much sense. I'm also still confused as heck by the final seen.
It's good, but I liked Tangerine
and The Florida Project
a whole lot more.
(Amanda Lipitz, 2017): Director Amanda Lipitz introduces her film's three main leads--Cori, Tayla, and Blessin--against the backdrop of its Baltimore's setting's reaction to the police murder of Freddie Grey. Whatever intentions Lipitz had about making a documentary about coming of age in the era and environment of Black Lives Matter is quickly abandoned for a conventional and rather jejune portrait of a trio of girls as they balance their time between their step team and their college plans. It doesn't help that I've never been much of a fan of dance films be they fiction or nonfiction, and the monotonous routines we get here merely reinforce my judgment about the medium. Others may get more out of it than I did. The preparations for college were the far more interesting narrative thread for me. One girl had the grades, but lacked the financial resources to go to her dream school of John Hopkins. Another had spent so much of her previous years goofing off that she had a D average, but still fought for her school's support in placing her. There have been some great documentaries about the lives of teenage girls. All This Panic
immediately comes to mind. This isn't one of them though.
Tout le monde a raison
(Emmanuel Mouret, 2017): Catharine (Flore Bonaventura) and Adrien (Adrien Michaux) are dating, when she tells him that she possesses an infallible sixth sense that allows her to know if her boyfriend is being unfaithful. She claims that she doesn't follow clues or pick up hints. Instead, she has some sort of extrasensory perception that tunes her in to her partner's infidelity. Upset at the apparent irrationality of his girlfriend's claim, Adrien unloads the information on Beatrice (Adélaïde Leroux), the romantic partner of his best friend. Together Adrien and Beatrice contrive to prove the unreliability of Catharine's sense by trapping her into coming up with a false positive. Clocking in at just 24 minutes, it’s an entertaining trifle, but nothing too substantial. I enjoyed it for what it was, but I'm not changing my list over it.
(Hong-jin Na, 2016): Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) is a portly and minimally competent police officer in a South Korean suburb. The way that Na Hong-jin begins with this bumbling doofus makes the horror of the gruesome crime scenes that come next all the more shocking. A man covered in inexplicable boils sits handcuffed and catatonic after butchering his wife and a pair of bystanders. Soon more murders pop up. Jong-Goo begins dreaming of a man-like creature eating people in the woods. A nude woman shows up outside of the police station during a power outage, only to reappear the following night as an uncontrollable mad person covered in soot. Worst of all, Jong-Goo's own daughter breaks out in boils and starts acting out violently. Convinced that the town has fallen to the demonic powers of a supernatural force, the doting father will stop at nothing to save his daughter. I really enjoyed this film even though I didn't feel like its tonal shifts worked out well. I would have preferred it if it had been either a serious thriller or gone all in on its campy undertones. As is, it walks a line that drags it down a little too much.
All films were chosen at random. I'm going to try and get at least one more slate of viewings in before voting ends.