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Saturday, January 14, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Selma (2014)


Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
Country: United States/United Kingdom

Taken together, Ava DuVernay's Selma and 13th act as a compelling thesis on the power of words and images. The one (13th) making the case for the power of words, specifically regarding how they can be used as a tool to safeguard power in the hands of those who have always had it, the other making the case for the power of images to do the work that words simply cannot, specifically to make real and urgent issues that feel intangible to those not personally suffering their effects. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great speaker, but it took the images of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge being broadcast across the United States and to the rest of the world to finally galvanize the sympathetic but complacent into seeing that the voting rights movement was not a "black issue," but a human issue. The impact of images is at the heart of the story that the film is telling, but it's also a key to the film's success. Viewing the story of the Selma to Montgomery marches not from the lofty heights of power and the perspective of politicians, but from the ground and the perspective of those suffering the indignities and pain of racism, DuVernay creates powerful, bracing visuals that allow Selma to sidestep the trap that many historical/biographical films tend to fall into. This is not a reverent but dryly academic examination of "An Important Thing That Happened," but a work of passion and great impact.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Top 10 Week: Films of 2016

#10: A Bigger Splash

It's hard to know what to make of Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash at first glance. It's a film where many of the important events take place off screen, that seems determined to look just off to the side of the story rather than directly at it. The film is as shrouded in mystery as the characters are exposed (this may very well be the "nakedest" mainstream movie of 2016). It's only when it gets to the end that you begin to see it for what it really is, which is a story about how the wealthy and privileged can run roughshod over everything around them while the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are treated like the real dangers to society. An opaque film to be sure, A Bigger Splash is the kind of work that grows on you with subsequent viewings.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Top 10 Week: Performances by Women in 2016

#10: Judy Davis, The Dressmaker

A character known as "Mad Molly" sort of demands to be played in a scenery chewing way, and that's exactly what Judy Davis does in The Dressmaker, but in a skilled fashion that not a lot of actors can pull off. Few can go "big" while still being sincere and grounding the character in some emotional truth, but Davis does it with her portrayal of a woman who was basically driven crazy, robbed of everything that mattered, outcast and treated like the town joke, left to languish in filth. The turnaround she makes during the course of the film is subtle, built incrementally scene by scene by Davis as her character redeems herself and helps give her daughter the power to give their hometown exactly what it deserves.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top 10 Week: Performances by Men in 2016

#10: Jack Reynor, Sing Street

As the older brother who knows everything worth knowing but who has descended into a rut he can't extricate himself from, Jack Reynor steals the show in Sing Street. Gifted with a great monologue towards the end, Reynor rises to the occasion and provides the film with fire and vitality, so much so that the spiritual victory of the finale, which sees the protagonist and his love interest ride off into the sunset, feels like it belongs more to Reynor's character than to anyone else.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Top 10 Week: Scenes of 2016

#10: I'm Back, You Bastards, The Dressmaker

Like an anti-hero in a classic western, but dressed like a femme fatale in a classic noir, Kate Winslet's character in The Dressmaker steps back into her dusty hometown, sets down her suitcase, lights a cigarette, and makes the above pronouncement. Though the film then takes a bit of a detour, making it appear as if it's going to be something else, it eventually comes back to the acid promise of these opening moments in a fashion as grand and flamboyant as everything else in the film.