Despite the recent standout successes of films like Spotlight, La La Land and Moonlight, the past several years have been dark times for cinema. Last summer, droves of Americans willingly spent a collective $176 million to see a movie titled Ant-Man, not because of any particular affection for either ants or the second-tier superhero who obtains their powers, but because we were compelled to do so as a part of Walt Disney Studios’ master plan. See, a standalone film about a man who can shrink himself to the size of an ant probably wouldn’t do so well, regardless of how unassuming and charming the actor playing him was (and Paul Rudd is about as unassuming and charming as they come). But a film about a man who can shrink himself to the size of an ant that happens to be part of a larger so-called “cinematic universe”? Instant blockbuster.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December 2015, to say that it had to live up to high expectations would be a tremendous understatement. A decade had passed since the last live-action Star Wars movie was released, and the trailers had promoted the film as an exciting new take on the galaxy far, far away while also promising plenty of nostalgic moments, evidenced by the inclusion of John William’s iconic soundtrack and appearances from Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2. Although The Force Awakens was by no means a bad film, time and nostalgia made audiences and critics willing to forgive its more egregious flaws: mainly that it was a recapitulation of the Star Wars: A New Hope’s storyline albeit with superior special effects. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does not benefit from the same circumstances that surrounded The Force Awakens. The familiar glow of a lightsaber or an incredulous rendition of “I’ve got bad feeling about this” are not enough to satisfy fans anymore.
The episodic structure of Certain Women falls closer on the spectrum of ensemble pieces to the dark, flaccid mirth of a film like Weiner Dog from earlier this year rather than the rapturous display of interconnectedness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. However, this is not to say that Certain Women is a bad film. Rather, it is a film composed of three distinct parts — all whose plots intersect in very minor, trivial ways within the same state of Montana — that inherits a problem endemic to “multiple storylines” of this sort: some of the storylines are just much more interesting than others. The film commences with what is probably the weakest of the film’s three stories. A lawyer in Livingston, Montana, performed sufficiently by Laura Dern, is dealing with a disgruntled client attempting to sue his former employer, who later returns to his former workplace and holds a security guard there hostage.
From documentaries to animated flicks to art films to crime thrillers, the Arts & Entertainment writers’ picks for the year’s top films reflect the diversity of excellent movies this year. 10. Weiner
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg easily could have made a documentary that simply condemned former Representative Anthony Weiner. Yet, Weiner begins on a high note: the Anthony Weiner who appears at the beginning of the documentary is rejuvenated, remorseful about his sexting scandals and ready to fight in New York City’s mayoral race. The positive image doesn’t last long as Weiner, once again, descends into lying and defensiveness as more sexting allegations surface. Kriegman and Steinberg expertly elevate Weiner from an entertaining to a thoroughly thought-provoking movie by catching the moments when Weiner and the people around him reflect on his self-destruction.
Seoul Searching (directed by Benson Lee) starts in black and white, old reels and footage of Korea as a narrator gives a quick historical background to give us the setting for the film. After a devastating war, many Koreans left the peninsula in search of a better life, bringing their young children to America and Europe. As so often happens in immigrant stories, the children inevitably experienced a distinct loss of heritage and understanding of Korean culture. In an attempt to mitigate this, the South Korean government implemented a program during the ’80s to bring children of immigrants to Korea for a summer camp to learn about their Korean heritage. This movie revolves around a set of these kids — Sid (Justin Chon), Klaus (Teo Yoo), Sergio (Esteban Ahn), Grace (Jessika Van), Kris (Rosalina Leigh) to name a few — going to this camp.
With our attention more divided than ever by ubiquitous media, it’s easy to understand why some film critics feel the need to hyperbolize their positive, but by no means ecstatic, reactions so as to convince readers that the arduous journey to the theater might actually be worth it. However, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, screening twice this week at the Cornell Cinema, requires no embellishment; while other Kurosawa films such Seven Samurai and Rashomon occupy a higher perch on the Sight & Sound rankings, make no mistake, Ran is still among the greatest films ever made. Charged with the virtuosic kineticism evident throughout the Japanese director’s oeuvre, Ran, an appropriation of King Lear, skillfully combines the pathetic nihilism of its Shakespearean source with the violent feudalism of Japanese legend. As a contemporary appropriation of medieval tales, Ran is an enrapturing example of the immersive, spectacular possibilities of cinema. After decades amassing a large empire, 70-year-old Lord Hidetora Ichimonji abdicates his throne in favor of the eldest of his three sons, but not without providing the younger two with their own castles by which to support their older brother.
Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia (directed by Prof. Robert Lieberman, physics, M.S. ’65 ) starts with a rush of motion, the camera speeding up a flight of stairs with increasing momentum, panning out to reveal lush hills, stone steps and a vibrant earth that stretches on and on. Ambient music fills the theatre; the screen slips to a red backdrop, with the shadows of traditional dancers gliding about; a voiceover extracted from one of the many interviews speaks, introducing us to an eighty-minute documentary probe into Cambodia. Following independence from France, the Cambodia of the ’60s and ’70s was sucked into the Cold War when its neighbor Vietnam fell into civil chaos, despite efforts to stay neutral. What eventually emerged from the din and struggle for national survival was the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, an extremist Communist group led by Pol Pot, which proceeded to commit one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, claiming up to two million lives. Angkor Awakens is a poignant, revealing documentary in how it chooses to look at this highly volatile and violent time.
In 2006, a film called Crash took the Oscar for Best Picture home, prompting a surge of outrage. It is now best remembered as the punch line of jokes about unwarranted Oscar-winners and is perhaps more reviled than is necessary. Is it a bad film? No. But while it is only somewhat clunky and rough around the edges, it is not — in my humble opinion — superior to Capote, Brokeback Mountain, A History of Violence and even Cinderella Man.
Over the weekend, I found myself compelled to watch Netflix’s latest original content, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Acquired in a groundbreaking distribution deal this summer, Beasts is a bold choice for the service’s first piece of feature-length content. It tells the terrifying — yet all too relevant — story of a child rebel soldier named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah, in a brilliant debut) in a nameless African country, brought up under the brainwashing tutelage of his Commandant (Idris Elba). While I didn’t expect light viewing, Fukunaga is entirely merciless in his depiction of Agu’s harsh realities. The imagery is inescapable and unrelenting; the kind of stuff that keeps people up at night.