The Films of 2016: Short takes (I)

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) – I can’t say I’m as over the moon about this one as a lot of other people are.  But it has its moments, namely an effective twist ending and a solid, unflashy performance from Amy Adams.  And I appreciated its willingness to imagine extra-terrestrial life as wholly non-anthropomorphic: Villeneuve’s aliens are like huge octopi with tentacles that unfurl like those of an anemone.  As far as movies in which the sci-fi elements are made to bounce off the main character’s psychological baggage go, it’s hardly Solaris (but then what is?)

The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller) – The retro costumes and art direction in this are so impeccable (it’s lovingly fashioned in the style of a late 60s/early 70s sexploitation horror movie) that I wanted to love the movie itself more than I did; it feels like a movie in which Biller is really trying to make points about gender, sex, and the fantasies that structure heterosexual love, and yet the layers of camp and irony are often so thick that it’s nearly impossible to know what those points are supposed to be.  Her hand is both too heavy and too light for the movie to really work as anything other than a feast for the eyes.  

Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang Soo) – Watching this I kept thinking of David Ives’ short play Sure Thing, in which a pair of would-be lovers keep replaying (and revising) the scene of their meeting, correcting their mistakes until they get it right.  Hong’s film is quieter but no less clever in its figuration of a relationship as a kind of obstacle course, set over the course of twenty-four hours in the lives of a Korean filmmaker and a shy young painter with whom he crosses paths.   

Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman) – In the past I’ve responded somewhat coolly to Stillman’s films, and his Regency-era comedy of manners Love and Friendship—brisk, sharp, and handsome as it is—left me similarly cold…though I very much appreciated the broadness of Tom Bennett’s performance as the most doltish of the film’s many bachelors on the make.         

Things To Come (dir. Mia Hanson-Løve) – It’s impossible not to see this film as the other side of the coin to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle: both films feature superb performance by Isabelle Huppert as middle-aged women navigating relationships with errant men, meddlesome mothers…and bloodthirsty cats.  But Things To Come is the yang to Elle’s yin, a film that regards its heroine’s plight with the gentleness and placidity of a summer breeze (as opposed to the bluntness of a weapon).  Huppert’s Nathalie is a woman in free fall, finding liberation and possibility in the wake of instability and crisis.  It’s difficult to say which of Huppert’s two performances this year is the better one; they, too, are two sides of a coin, both brilliant.

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