As I look forward to a promising end of the year in film (“Finding Dory,” Spielberg’s “BFG,” Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” a second Malick movie), I look back on an equally promising beginning. Here, now, are my five favorite movies that have received U.S. theatrical releases from January to June 2016. Barring perhaps one (No. 5), these are the types of movies that won’t get showered with Oscar nominations. Regardless, they’ll have a much longer, richer life in the years to come.
“Knight of Cups”
Terrence Malick, the most consistent of all the New Hollywood dinosaurs working today, tops his own previous two masterpieces (“The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder”) with “Knight of Cups,” an ambitious amalgamation of the two. This head trip through a rotten-to-the-core Los Angeles is a bold cinematic experiment on the level of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Godard’s “Week End” and Malick’s own “Tree of Life.” It has the most life-affirming imagery — rooted in Malick’s personal knowledge of seductive Hollywood success, of cripplingly alienating defeat, of the pain of the suicide of a loved one. Going in a different-but-similar direction from the heavy grandiloquence of “Tree of Life” and the nigh-inaccessible spirituality of “To the Wonder,” Malick makes his most accessible movie yet.
Christian Bale is a screenwriter, lost in his own funk. Cate Blanchett and Imogen Poots are some of the lovers that skitter around the periphery. He treats women and work as flippantly and arrogantly as the types we see in “Spring Breakers” and Scorsese’s overlong “Wolf of Wall Street.” But Malick goes a different route than those nihilist bonfires. A family tragedy occurs for Christian Bale, and he must go on a soul-searching journey through a hologrammatic Los Angeles to discover … something. He’s not sure, and neither are we.
It’s refreshing to see a movie this different and off the deep end. If you go into “Knight of Cups” expecting a plot, characters and coherent answers, you will come out cold and irritated. If you go in with no expectations, you’ll swear you’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Just respond like you would to a tightly improvised jazz combo: letting the images flow through you, past you, not caring whether something sticks or not. Eventually, out of the seeming chaos, a holy rhythm emerges.
Studio Ghibli gave American fans a surprise treat with their new English dub of an old, never-before-available-in-America classic: “Only Yesterday.” It’s a quiet story detailing Taeko, a 30-something Japanese woman struggling with her past and present selves during a trip to the countryside to visit some relatives. She “brings her fifth-grade self” on the trip. Fifth-grade: the year she discovered boys, the Beatles, periods and patriarchy. Taeko’s memories are reminisced with mixed feelings of sweet nostalgia (at experiencing so much that year) and sour bitterness (at having accomplished nothing today).
“Only Yesterday” (directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata) has a radical respect for the quotidian, the boring and the mundane. The simplest acts — Taeko’s family learns how to properly cut up a pineapple, a plucky farmer boy delivers dry-yet-passionate lectures on the importance of organic farming — are plucked from the plasma of time, gaining a relevancy and excitement rarely afforded to them in real life.
I’m sort of cheating, since this amazing film has already been out for over two decades. Ghibli released this in Japan in 1991, following the success of Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” However, 2016 marks its first appearance in America, with a theatrical re-release of the original (favorable) Japanese version and an English dub (with Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars” voicing Taeko). Besides this little technicality, I want a Studio Ghibli film to be in my top 10 for the year, so I’m shamelessly including it.
A limp and cliched disappointment, or an eye-opening treatise from Britain’s greatest working filmmaker? Guess which side I’m on.
Yes, “Sunset Song” — a period drama detailing the coming-of-age of a Scottish farm-lass in the 1910s — is the humanist film to beat this year, in terms of its huge heart and melodramatic splendor. Its progressive politics — a densely calculated attack on the patriarchy, a showcase for the eternal resilience of women of all cultures — are as inseparable as the crispness of character and framing that is the hallmark of Mr. Davies’ filmography.
“Sunset Song” is in the vein of Davies’ previous, greater (but no more emotionally affecting) masterpieces: “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992). They all explore themes near and dear to Davies’ soul: brutality of the patriarchy (abusive fathers), resilience of women (battle-axe mothers), coming out (Davies’ struggle with being gay), artistic escapism (through movies and popular music) and loneliness.
Davies is one of the most brutally personal auteurs who has ever picked up a camera. No stone ever seems unturned in the tumult of his early life that he so richly explores. And despite “Sunset Song”’s period setting, you know damn well he’s putting every part of himself into it. (No wonder this project took him nearly 10 years to develop.) Because he resonates so deeply with it, the personal connection shows in every vast, loving, awe-inspiring frame.
There is a tendency to resist the genre of melodrama with all its “cliched” trappings. There is a pig-headed assumption that all melodrama is cheap, syrupy, laughable, needlessly tragic. But Davies (a piercingly insightful critic and skeptic, but never an easy cynic) has nary a dishonest bone in his entire body. He knows the ins and outs of love. Personal experience enhances every delicate, poetic scene. A must-see.
“Love & Friendship”
This is how you do a Jane Austen adaptation, folks. Well-to-do ladies scheming to snag a good husband — at any cost. Aristocrats being catty and smashingly posh. A highly-polished, literate screenplay that pops with wit and Whit (Stillman, that is).
“Love & Friendship” is based on a little-known Jane Austen novella called “Lady Susan,” published posthumously in 1871. This delightful night at the cinematic opera — about a widow (Kate Beckinsale) and her American confidante (Chloe Sevigny) searching for a husband for the widow and her daughter Frederica — is the newest blast from Mr. Stillman, the director of four other home-runs (“Damsels in Distress,” “The Last Days of Disco,” “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona.”)
The fun of watching a Stillman film lies in the ways his upper-class characters morph and distort America to make it English. Especially in “Love & Friendship” — where Kate Beckinsale throws serious shade with every third and fourth word out of her mouth — the Stillman hero uses the power of the pen to navigate the treacherous waters of whatever strange locale they happen to be plopped in. Whether it’s two Americans in Barcelona, two best girlfriends on the dying disco scene, or two modern women in 18th-century England, Stillman’s characters consider sardonically delivered sarcasm the key to success.
The best thing about “Love & Friendship” is the perfectly-cast actors. From a goofy nitwit of a suitor who seems shuttled in from some lost Monty Python sketch (Tom Bennett) to a hysterical lady whose gold-plated tears throw us into hysterics (Jenn Murray), every person is utterly convincing in their role. Not only do Stillman’s actors sell the punchy irony of each exceedingly well-written line, they never linger or dawdle on anything they say. They snake out their lines with a Howard Hawks speed and an equally Hawksian lack of self-awareness. By delivering their lines in the same flat, nasal tone, the immensely talky screenplay (which could easily turn into a gratuitous and masturbatory nightmare in the hands of a lesser director) is always light, sprightly and delicate.
This unstable comedy in the vein of screwball comedy master Preston Sturges is a film that has to be seen twice to really appreciate. When I left the theater, I felt so perplexed and flummoxed by what I had just seen. It took a 30-minute Uber drive and another hour-long Caltrain ride of constant, nonstop talk with a friend to sort out how I felt about this most unusual film. Even now, though I consider “Hail, Caesar!” to be a step below the revolutionary heights of something in its league like “The Big Lebowski,” I’m willing to hail “Hail, Caesar!” as one of the most insightfully brilliant attacks and tributes to the Hollywood movie-machine that I have seen.
The Coen Brothers are a squirrely bunch of filmmakers. Audiences and critics can agree on their unqualified masterpieces (“Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, “No Country for Old Men”). But no one can agree on the follow-ups to the masterpieces: those esoteric, polarizing, divisive chestnuts that are tough to crack (“The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Burn After Reading”). The latest iteration of this fun ping-pong back-and-forth is “Inside Llewyn Davis” (the masterpiece) and “Hail, Caesar!” (the chestnut). The latter has been attacked on the grounds of being scatter-shot, pointless, arbitrary, messy and unfocused. (I might add that they said the same things about David O. Russell’s beautiful “Joy.”)
But these criticisms don’t get to the heart of the film, which thrives on its own ambling arbitrariness. It’s supposed to be this scatter-shot. It’s an exciting film because of its constant jitteriness. Our stomachs never settle to one mood as the Coens pile up comedic insanity in a rough and disheveled fashion equal to Preston Sturges’s ’40s masterpieces of loony comedy (“Sullivan’s Travels”).
Go into “Hail, Caesar!” expecting loads of absurdist fun. Despite the lukewarm reaction, my guess is that people will come around to “Hail, Caesar!” just like they came around to “Big Lebowski”. A delay in praise is expected of the weird Coen movies, and “Hail, Caesar!” is no exception.
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected].