Last week I set out to watch as many films in cinema as I could. By that I mean not any multiplex film, but only films that premiered at different festivals (Sundance, Cannes and Venice) earlier this year, some of which were briefly screened in town, many of which have not yet been released in theaters worldwide.
“Roma” | Netflix
So what did I see? Roma, Burning, Ash Is Purest White, First Man, A Star Is Born, Blackkklansman, The Man who Killed Don Quixote, Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows), Leave No Trace (the latter, the ninth, is also a 2018 release, but I watched it on DVD).
Before getting to the films I liked the most, I want to say a few words about two of the films I didn’t get to see (they were sold out early on) and which are also two of the films I was most looking forward to. I am sure they would have been included in my list here. The first one is Shoplifters, this year’s Palme d’Or winner, but that’s not the reason I expect it to raise up to my expectations, but because I like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films (Our Little Sister (2015), for example, which is a graceful observation of family life that reminded me of Ozu’s films). The good news is that Shoplifters will be soon launched in cinemas. The other one is Capharnaüm (Lebanon), directed by Nadine Labaki, which unfortunately I don’t know how soon I will be able to watch. The film, set in Lebanon and reportedly using a non-professional cast, is about a boy who rebels against the life imposed on him by others and who launches a lawsuit against his parents.
Of all the films I’ve watched this past week, Blackkklansman is by far the most overrated. It failed hard my expectations. The film is based on the remarkable true-life story of the black 70s police officer Ron Stallworth, who masterminded the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, talking to Klansmen on the phone and sending in a white officer when face-to-face meetings were needed. But on screen, unfortunately, the story is caricaturesque, it makes fools of the KKK, and if Spike Lee’s intention was to take across the message that racism is still pretty much the reality in America, I’m afraid it didn’t reach the audience it intended to reach. Because I don’t believe that comedy is the way to approach this subject. And because of that farcical tone of the movie, I thought the footage at the end of the film – a series of images from the white nationalist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, and the aftermath, including President Donald Trump’s infamous remarks and images of the car that plowed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a girl – made the least sense of all.
The Man who Killed Don Quixote was a disappointment, too. I believe even some of Terry Gilliam’s long-time fans (which I am not) found the film confusing and incoherent.
Liao Fan and Zhao Tao in “Ash Is Purest White” | MK2 Films
Ash Is Purest White
Ash Is Purest White was one of the films that clearly stood out for me and one of my favourite movies of the year so far along with La enfermedad del domingo (Sunday’s Illness), which I saw a few months back. Directed by Jia Zhang-ke, Ash Is Purest White is a winding tale of love, disillusionment and survival that can also be identified as a portrayal of the evolution of contemporary China, a theme often occurred in the director’s films. Zhao Tao (the director’s longtime repertory player) is riveting in her role. She plays Qiao, the girlfriend of Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a young and good-looking jianghu. The two characters transmit such a strong connection and deep understanding of each other that surpasses words. And when Qiao is betrayed by Guo Bin, she shows resilience and remains unflinching in her pursuit of him. I am not sure if he shares her feelings in totality, but I think that, beyond that culture of masculinity, he does. And it’s incredibly thought-provoking how their love story feels timeless rather than ephemeral. It makes you wonder about life itself.
“Roma” | Netflix
The winner of the Golden Lion in Venice this year, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since Gravity (2013). A visually groundbreaking spectacle shot by Cuarón himself in pellucid black-and-white, the film is an autobiographically inspired, richly personal story, gentle and stoic at the same time, set in the Mexico City of the 1970s; a portrayal of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil. It is clear that every shot, every scene, every character was carefull composed.
The director returned to Mexico to make the film, his first in his native language since Y tu mamá también (2001). “I always wanted to make a film and be comfortable with it when I finished it,” Cuarón told IndieWire. “With Roma, I was satisfied with it when we finished. I was very happy with it, and that’s because it’s the first film I was fully able to convey what I wanted to convey as a film. It’s a story in many different shapes and hints of emotions that have been present since the moment I wanted to be a director.” All that said, the film is special from another point of view, as well. Not only was it carefully promoted (very little of the film was revealed until it premiered and even since then, very few images have been made public), but it will continue to be so. It will be released in select theaters, so having been able to watch it on the big screen (it was produced by Netflix) felt rewarding in itself.
Ah-In Yoo, Jong-set Jeon and Steven Yeun in “Burning” | Pine House Film
Burning, by Lee Chang-dong, is an adaptation of the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami. The story follows an aimless poor, young writer, Ah-In Yoo as Lee Jong-eu, whose existence in turned upside down by a chance encounter with a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), especially after she leaves on a trip to Africa and comes back accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich and mysterious young man with a Gatsby vibe (Fitzgerald’s novel is actually referred to in the film by the chatacters). There is one particular scene that stayed with me, undoubtedly one of the most memorable of the year. The three characters are gathered at Lee Jong-eu’s parents’ farmhouse. They spend the evening on the porch and watch the sunset on the music of Miles David and suddenly time seems to stop, and this strange love triangle, basked in the golden hour light, regardless of class provenance and everything else, seem at peace with one another. An unconventional thriller that focuses on character study and which, in my case, represents a great introduction to the filmography of the Korean director (I am yet to discover his other works).
Ryan Gosling in “First Man” | Universal Pictures, Dreamworks
The most pleasant surprise of all the films I watched this past week was Damien Chazelle’s third motion picture, the stupendous feat First Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Admittedly, I am a fan of Chazelle’s films (I sang my praise for La La Land here), but biopics are just a genre I am not particularly keen on. But I should have gotten used to the director’s way of doing things differently by now (I didn’t even like musicals (no, not even the classic ones) until I saw La La Land). For First Man, Chazelle teamed up once again with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong, and I am sure this collaboration is bound to become one of those prolific actor-director partnerships. Ryan Gosling delivers a beautiful, subdued, implosive performance, and Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet, is magnificent in her role, one of the best of the year. It’s such an intimate, humane story, and that makes all the difference. It’s about loss, tragedy, sacrifice and failure. There is no American glorification of the nation’s space heroes here. It’s first and foremost about a human being, not about the first man on the moon and his monumental achievement. That’s the beauty of it.
I also recommend you listen to the Fresh Air episode where Terry Gross interviews Damien Chazelle about the film – it was what prompted me to watch it in the first place and had a good feeling about it when I heard the director saying they wanted to keep the special effects to the minimum, which they did; you don’t even notice the special effects, it’s just movie making craftsmanship.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace” | Scott Green/Bleecker Street
Leave No Trace
The indie film Leave No Trace premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year and was part of the Directors’ Fortnight line-up at Cannes. This is actually the only movie of the ones listed here that I didn’t watch at the cinema, but on DVD. I do not know whether it will be brought to cinema here. I always keep an eye on the films launched at Sundance and Debra Granik’s film is a subtle, moving wilderness story of a man (Ben Foster in another great performance after Hell or High Water, one of my favourite films of 2016) who takes his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie who makes an authentic, understated, confident role), to live with him off the grid in a nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. Leave No Trace conjures up memories of Captain Fantastic, another one of the best films of 2016, and questions the very meaning of home and homelessness, connection and solitude, without being a sentimental comment (and that’s part of what makes it so good) on conventional and alternative societies. And it is sublimely directed. Every frame, move, look, sound, or stretch of silence advances the plot in some way.
Bárbara Lennie and Javier Bardem in “Todos lo saben” | Memento Films Production
Todos lo saben
Although I didn’t like Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows) quite as much as some of Asghar Farhadi‘s previous films, like A Separation (2011), Le passé (2013) – my favourite from the director so far – and The Salesman (2016), I liked it nonetheless, starting with the strong family bondage depicted and Farhadi’s powerful and accurate directing (the wedding scene has such cinematic beauty). Another strength was the ensemble of the actors, playing their roles maturely and uninhibitedly: Penélope Cruz, and especially Javier Bardem and Bárbara Lennie, who is simply one of my favourite actresses of the moment, having performed in some of the best films of the past years, like Contratiempo and the afore-mentioned La enfermedad del domingo.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born” | Warner Brothers
A Star Is Born
I have read mixed reviews about Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born (also launched at Venice), including from my own readers. But, much to my surprise, I liked it. The film may seem and may very well be the remake of a remake of a remake if you want (the original being William Wellman’s (1937), followed by George Cukor’s (1954) and Frank Pierson’s version from 1976), and I have been pretty vocal about my opinion on remakes and sequels over the years, but Cooper managed to make this story new and fresh again. Not only that, but it is probably the best version of all four (I am yet to watch the Fredric March-Janet Gaynor film).
I liked the way he captured those music sequences and the passion of the two protagonists on stage, Bradley Cooper himself and Lady Gaga – the energy, the passion, the feeling. And I know that everybody is talking about Lady Gaga as the revelation of the movie, but, no, I don’t agree, this is an actors’ duet, they are in this together, they are both in love not only with each other but with each other’s talent and that’s the beautiful part, you see it in their eyes when they sing together. And that’s also what I believe Cooper brings in – his character’s talent does not seem just something of the past, as in the case of the previous films – without feeling like a vanity reel. I don’t think that is the case at all, I simply think it’s a very well written and very well performed part, and although Lady Gaga is undoubtedly good (although her role felt a bit underdeveloped and if there is something I would reproach Bradley Copper for, this would be it), it’s his performance that impressed me the most and I’m really glad it confirms his talent as an actor. I wish the film didn’t give in to that superficial, shallow pop singing when Ally finds success, but it might have had a point, if only to make it very suggestive towards what’s happening in the music business nowadays.