Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

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For a film as surprisingly dense and multi-faceted as Personal Shopper, it is first important to consider exactly what comprises the work. It is at once a subtle exploration of grief and a glimpse into the unknown, a thriller at times bordering on horror and a relentlessly lowkey experience that borders on parodying the cliches of a normal viewer’s notion of a French arthouse film, and a movie that both embraces and rejects what ultimately becomes the film’s driving principle: spiritualism. Yet it manages to reconcile these differences to some degree or another, and the credit must be given to two incredibly well-matched collaborators: director and writer Olivier Assayas and his new muse Kristen Stewart.

It should be noted that this is Assayas’s second film with Stewart, following his previous film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). There, Stewart played the assistant and essential foil to Juliette Binoche’s veteran actress, but in this movie she stands alone, quite literally by herself for much of the narrative. Her character is Maureen, a personal shopper living in Paris for a diva model named Kyra who is often heard (through handwritten notes) but only seen in one short sequence. Maureen is also an amateur medium, introduced in the opening minutes wandering the home of her recently deceased twin brother in the hopes of receiving a sign from the other side.

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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Considering his cemented status in film culture as one of the great American directors, David Lynch has had a far more divisive, controversial reception from film to film, often for good reason. The cinephiles who mostly know him from his three most popular films Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive (though even Eraserhead doesn’t fit neatly into the “most popular” designation) would likely be shocked to see the fragmentation of Lynch’s oeuvre, a nervy bundle of obsessions, hang-ups, and looming iconography that infects everything from the immensely straightforward (The Straight Story) to the near-abstract (Inland Empire). Speaking as an avowed Lynch fanatic, his movies always conjure an ineffable mix of pity, fear, and absolute awe within, but perhaps no film in his filmography illustrates that more hauntingly than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

It is difficult to designate one film in such a contentious oeuvre in this manner, but it seems more and more apparent with each passing year that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s ultimate film maudit. Infamously, it was booed viciously during its premiere at Cannes, and Quentin Tarantino declared that Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass”, a statement echoed by many during its initial release. It had sunk to the bottom of Lynch’s filmography, long regarded as the least of Lynch’s “uncompromised” works (which only leaves out his even more misunderstood adaptation of Dune) until recently, when it underwent a drastic reappraisal and is regarded by a small but vocal contingent as one of the legendary director’s finest works.

[SPOILERS FOR THE TWIN PEAKS SHOW FOLLOW]

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In Praise of and Disapproval Towards the 89th Oscars: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) and The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)

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There is nothing quite like the Oscars in the cinephile community, or even the public consciousness. True, the viewing audience has declined steadily over the past few years, and the small but significant foothold of movies as entertainment has waned more and more in the light of prestige and not-so-prestige television, but the Academy Awards remain a sort of galvanizing force for the film community. To invoke an often touted if shallow comparison, they are the Super Bowl of film, a chance to celebrate the best that the world of cinema has to offer.

Of course, the Oscars rarely if ever feature the best of even Hollywood film, let alone American or world cinema. However, there is always value in seeing what Hollywood chooses to reward and what it chooses (on purpose or accidentally) to ignore. Two of my favorite films of the past year, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, happen to typify these two extremes in strange and fairly wonderful ways.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

When John Wick burst into theaters in 2014, it was immediately hailed as one of the best, most tightly made action films of the decade, and for good reason. Its combination of standard genre elements with an unusually sleek and confident stylization made it an irresistible gem, especially when factoring in a surprisingly strong element of world-building in its construction of a world filled with assassins and a perfectly attuned Keanu Reeves as the eponymous master assassin. John Wick: Chapter 2 adopts at once a similar and entirely different approach, expanding the first film’s relatively narrow scope and dialing the violence up to an even more absurd degree, without sacrificing much the original’s sense of weight and yes, bliss.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up almost immediately after the first, complete with a directly connected prologue, featuring an amusingly louche gangster played by Peter Stormare and full of escalating car crashes and fistfights (the trademark gun fu of the series is purposely delayed for maximal effect until the end of the scene). After this vehicular mayhem, the film mostly settles down for its first act, as John Wick attempts to retire again, only to be thrust back into the world by a blood oath he had previously made. Said oath requires him to go to Rome to carry out a contract on a high-ranking crime lord, which leads John down a rabbit hole full of conspiracy and betrayal.

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Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Few foreign films from the international festival circuit have generated nearly as much buzz in the past few years as Toni Erdmann has. Debuting to raucous applause at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering the widest critical consensus at said festival in a long while, only to be completely ignored by the jury at awards time, Maren Ade’s film seemed destined to become legendary eight whole months before it was released in the United States. Of course, the nature of film discourse today inflates the reputations, for good or ill, of movies immediately after they show to any audience, but Toni Erdmann presents a particularly strange and more than valid case.

There are understandably equal amounts of truth and falsehood in what Toni Erdmann has essentially been distilled down to: a three-hour German comedy. This simple description goes some way in describing what the film is like and a long way in describing its appeal to critics and arthouse audiences. As many have noted, the premise—a father trying to cheer up and reconnect with his workaholic daughter—has a sort of broad appeal that belies the movie’s length and subtly rigorous construction. Indeed, the film is frequently bawdy and ribald, unafraid to go for the obvious or crass joke. But, at least for this reviewer, the film is much more on the dramatic side, teasing out the complexities of the central relationship in the modern world in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious.

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Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

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The adjective “artificial” might seem like a strange one to apply to a film based on actual historical events. But Neruda is a wholly artificial film for the better, fabricating not only its settings and scenes, but whole characters and plotlines. What emerges is something like a meditation on the artistic process and not, as might be expected, on the life and legacy of the famed and controversial Chilean figure Pablo Neruda.

It should be noted that Neruda is one of two Pablo Larraín films that premiered in 2016. The other is Jackie, the widely touted and fiercely debated biopic focusing on the week-long period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the lens of the First Lady. Starring Natalie Portman, that film is almost the polar opposite of Neruda, even though both are recognizably the work of the Chilean director. In contrast to the performance-driven ferocity of Jackie, Neruda opts for a much stranger and contemplative approach that utilizes all aspects in close cooperation to produce an equally strange (and arguably much more convincing) effect.

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Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

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There is no tiptoeing around the subject matter of Elle, a study into the ramifications of sexual violence seen through a particularly perverse lens. This lens is of essentially three people: the central character Michèle, Isabelle Huppert as the actress that plays her, and the director Paul Verhoeven. Together, the two collaborators create an indelible and often frightening world filled with constant paranoia and even more black comedy, all while the mystery—surrounding both the identity of the attacker and Michèle’s motivations—moves further and further along, culminating in a place both completely logical and totally unexpected.

In the first of many salvos, Elle quite literally opens with the sounds of Michèle being raped in her home by a masked assailant, who leaves behind a scene filled with broken objects. Michèle, however, demonstrates she is no mere object, quickly cleaning up the mess and ordering sushi in a manner that both feels like a subversion and a natural extension of the personality that Huppert has already crafted, almost entirely nonverbally. Interestingly enough, Elle remains consistently nervy, even utilizing a scene like one where Michèle bathes for maximum effect, as blood appears under the suds and she stares before quickly wiping it away.

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Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

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There is a famous quote by Alfred Hitchcock that posits, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” In a way, Paterson acts as both a reinforcement and a challenge to this idea. It is a film that demands to be considered in its totality, a strange but endearing feeling that combines an ever-so-slightly abstract approach with the mood of a hangout movie. But it is neither of these, nor is it a simple valorization of the artist. Rather, Paterson is a film about both the constant and the ever-changing natures of life, that emphasizes the similarities and differences in equal nature.

Taking place over the course of a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and burgeoning poet working in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson very quickly establishes a sense of routine to its central character’s life. He wakes up, walks to work and drives while thinking of new poems, then goes home and walks his dog Marvin to the bar. Rinse and repeat. But Jarmusch uses this loose but reliable structure in fascinating ways, not to evoke monotony but to allow for significant jumping off points, not just in the mood (which mixes the hypnotic with the comic) but in fairly interesting subplots, some of which take place over the course of the whole film and some of which are only present in one scene.

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Live by Night (Ben Affleck, 2016)

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It is often tempting to look at the possible influences that a particularly derivative-feeling movie has drawn on, to see the superior versions of a standard or rote narrative. Live by Night is no exception; to this reviewer the film almost reads as a clumsy marriage between Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in overall style and milieu, and Miami Vice, if Colin Farrell’s character was on the other side of the law. Yes, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dennis Lehane, but there is an undeniable urge to compare this limp, lifeless work to its better examples.

There are, of course, many other and better examples. Live by Night is an extraordinarily by-the-book gangster film set in during Prohibition, detailing the rise to power of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, who also directed and wrote the adapted screenplay) in first Boston and then Tampa. Herein lies the first fatal mistake of the film: Affleck structures the first third of the film that takes place in Boston as a kind of prologue, briefly introducing Joe lying in a hospital bed before moving back seemingly only a few months back in time. The Boston section as a whole is thus rendered moot, and the film feels too rushed to fully luxuriate in the urban grime that it attempts to evoke, especially in a mildly thrilling Model T chase.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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Boiled down to its essence, Silence is the story of two identically framed shots, both of which take place in the film’s first third. The first is of Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) striding across a beach, accompanied by members of a village in Japan almost wholly inhabited by Kakure Kirishitans (Japanese who worship Christ in secret) that welcome him and the spiritual services he provides with open arms. The second is of Rodrigues stumbling along the very same beach alone in disbelief, the wide and distant framing creating a sense of absence rather than a feeling of grandeur. Of course, no movie, and certainly not one of this magnitude and accomplishment, can be summed up in such a way, but it provides an undeniable contrast that mirrors that of the film of the whole. It is a constant struggle, orchestrated with nigh-impossible finesse by Martin Scorsese and company, between faith and doubt, destruction (physical and spiritual) and endurance, and a score of other eternal opposites. But it is never a simple conflict of East versus West or Christianity or Buddhism, nor does it ever succumb to any sort of extreme. It remains exceedingly faithful and yes, quiet, but in a way that feels irrepressibly moving and impactful, that continues to affect this reviewer days after, and will likely to shake me for years to come.

Scorsese’s confidence and his utter trust in the thematics at the center of his film (and the novel by Shūsaku Endō that it is based on) is such that the driving narrative force is all but absent during much of the film. After introducing the impetus for Rodrigues’s and Father Garupe’s (Adam Driver) perilous journey to Japan, the disappearance and possible conversion of their well-known mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the film purposefully moves in fits and spurts, never breaking away from Rodrigues’s perspective. Its flow is impeccable, as comfortable when it lingers on the Jesuit padres providing the sorely needed sacramental rituals as when they are itching to continue the search, to leave the outer villages and search among the grave dangers of the cities under the iron rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

This is an unexpectedly quiet and powerful aspect of Silence, occurring even before the unimaginable turmoil that dominates the latter two thirds of the film, the simple statement “We need you.” It is said in a moment of desperation by one of the villagers, but it feels as if it applies to every waking moment of the Kakure Kirishitans’ lives. For them, the arrival of the padres is almost literally life-changing, a return of hope for a hidden people who have been forced to use valiant imitations and a surrogate priest in the face of systemic suppression. It is a comfort born out of an immense hunger, where the gift of a single rosary bead or a handmade cross gives immeasurable satisfaction. Scorsese shows this with utmost clarity, with a profound empathy for their belief almost without reservation.

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