“Under the Dome” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

One of the most important films of the last year is one that most Americans don’t even know exists. Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome” was a call to action for Chinese viewers much the same way “An Inconvenient Truth” was for the American public a decade ago. Hopefully, it will fall on more receptive ears.

What is the film itself? Chai connects the dots between pollution, the Chinese government, and a range of health concerns, addressing a live audience. This is interspersed with some remarkably brave (and often risky) investigative journalism into China’s polluters and corrupt bureaucracy. She exposes a range of government regulations as effectively toothless, and highlights both key departments and individuals who have been left powerless by the government to enforce the law.

Where “An Inconvenient Truth” focused on a holistic scientific view, “Under the Dome” bites into a far more journalistic approach. It’s more boots on the ground than PowerPoint presentation, and it has a more accessible emotional undercurrent because of it. This makes the film more immediate and gives us some of the best journalism of the past year: the film includes at least one midnight trespass into a factory and a sting operation organized with police.

What makes the film work is Chai’s own story – her daughter was born with a tumor and she worries about the health effects of growing up in China. Chai also connects it to her long history as a reporter, seeing landscapes change before her eyes and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of local industrial economies. Chai creates a story that is about China as a whole and about her own personal concerns as both a reporter and a parent. This makes “Under the Dome” a very human documentary.

Though a great deal of information is conveyed, the film isn’t dry. Chai does a masterful job of telling the story of how corruption is a bureaucratic invention just as much as it is a symptom of greed. It’s not just about fixing something that’s broken; it’s about changing entire ways of life.

Chai released the film at no cost. Within three days of its February 28 release, “Under the Dome” had been viewed 150 million times. Chinese censors took action – on March 2, 2015, Chinese media was instructed to stop reporting on the film. In less than a week, the film was completely removed from Chinese websites, after more than 300 million views.

It’s still freely available in many other countries, including the U.S. You can watch the entire film on YouTube at the top of this article, all at once or in episodic chunks. Either way, I encourage you to do so.

Under the Dome smog

“It Follows” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I called “It Follows” the best American horror film in decades. I stand by that. I also said it’s what Franz Kafka would write if he were into sex horror.

The set-up’s simple: Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He has something and now it’s passed onto her. Instead of a disease, we’re talking about a slowly stalking, horror-movie monster that will one day catch up with her. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on by sleeping with someone else. The monster always stalks the most recent victim, and works its way down the line, from most recent to originator.

It’s a horror villain passed along as an STD, and a metaphor for…what, exactly? On the broadest level, it’s an STD public service announcement, but it also speaks to how we deal with sexual assault as a society. It addresses the roles of women within the horror genre. It confronts the voyeurism with which society often responds to incidents of sexual violence.

In fact, in the way it goes about this last detail, I slightly prefer it to a film I’ll write about tomorrow – “Ex Machina.” Both films deal with sexual violence, trauma, and seek to confront male viewers in ways we usually aren’t, but where “Ex Machina” recreates a version of total possession in excruciating detail, “It Follows” manages to speak to this while giving its characters a little more power to fight back against these concepts.

(In fact, the films came out within a month of each other and will forever be fused in my mind because of how they invert and confront a genre that’s often used sexual assault as a set piece. They make challenging yet complementary companion pieces, though together that’s some harrowing viewing.)

“It Follows” can be tough to pin down because the details in its world intentionally disagree. While the plot’s tight, the world around the characters doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. The movies they watch are from the 1950s, the cars they drive are from the 70s, and technology veers from the 80s to current. Different characters feel plucked from different eras, and even dress and subtly act like it. Jay is the heroine from 70s horror films, while her sister Kelly arrives from the 90s and their friend Yara would feel perfectly at home in today’s movies. Meanwhile, the musical score recalls the soundtracks Goblin once wrote for Dario Argento in the 70s.

This intentional confusion of details means that everything begins to feel fuzzy, as in trying to recall a dream. In fact, in my review, I said the film is like “watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.”

I still can’t think of a better way to describe “It Follows,” except to say that as a horror film, it delivers. Rather than the trend of being scary in outright ways, of making you jump or recoil, “It Follows” relies on anticipation. It’s a film about dread, not about jumping out of your seat, and it builds its tension to an incredible degree. It’s a throwback of a horror film fused with modern intentions, and it’s the best of both worlds.

It Follows poster

Images are from It Follows and Da Font.

“Tangerine” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I cannot champion this film enough. “Tangerine” is not only the best comedy of the year, it’s also one of the most groundbreaking independent films you will ever see. The comedy about transgender sex workers in Hollywood was shot for $100,000 entirely on iPhones. It’s beautifully written and everything about it communicates a care and feeling not just for how the whole film comes together, but for how these characters are presented and learned and loved via the storytelling.

Thankfully, it doesn’t make comedy of people who are transgender. It doesn’t make comedy of people who are sex workers. Their experiences can be comedic in the same way stories about any difficult job can be, and though the territory becomes tremendously sexual at points, there’s no judgment on the part of the film. The comedy comes from character, and it arises from the endearing natures of the people whose lives we’re watching.

“Tangerine” walks an almost impossibly fine line between that comedy and something much more touching – a story about people who are struggling, surviving, sacrificing something day after day in order to capture even just a moment of their dreams.

Unlike most films about transgender characters, “Tangerine” cast transgender actors in its roles. Both Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor had also worked as sex workers before. Yet the story that plays out isn’t gimmicky. It doesn’t rely on these factors as many films feel they must in this territory. “Tangerine” simply takes place in this world, one that’s rarely opened to audiences in a way that feels real instead of patronizing.

“Tangerine” doesn’t feel repainted to be more palatable for a mainstream audience. It just is what it is. It’s heartfelt, it presents the most complex and emotionally accessible friendship I saw in any film from 2015, and Taylor in particular delivers one of the best performances in the last few years.

“Tangerine” also speaks to the way that daily life erodes us no matter what we do. One of the most beautiful parts of “Tangerine” is that it presents very real stories about who we are versus how we repress and present ourselves because of the expectations the world has for us – but it doesn’t do this through its transgender protagonists as you might expect.

Instead, this is explored through almost every other character. Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) already know who they are. Despite the way the world might look at them, they know what they want and they head straight for it. It’s the world around them that feels confused and limits them through its own habits of self-denial.

“Tangerine” is incredibly funny, it taps into emotion realities most films wouldn’t dare touch, and it’s a stunning feat of independent filmmaking.

Tangerine movie poster

Images are from Girls on Film London and Indiewire.

“Predestination” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

Robert Heinlein’s “–All You Zombies–” has long been considered one of the most impossible short stories to adapt into film. To reveal why would be to give the twist at the heart of the story away. Even to say that is to pretend its twist is a gimmick, instead of the very pulse that drives the film.

“–All You Zombies–” was the seminal time travel story in science fiction for decades. It was decked in controversy and a “who cares” attitude. It was the defining moment in Heinlein changing sci-fi from mere adventure tales into questions that uncomfortably probe the nature of how we’re built as a society, the judgments we adhere to simply through habit.

“Predestination” counts alongside “Gattaca” not just as the most important films Ethan Hawke has starred in during his career, but as films that exemplify what science-fiction is at its very best. And though Hawke’s performance is varied and exceptional, it’s Sarah Snook who stands out as remarkable. Again, to delve into it too deeply would be to ruin something special.

“Predestination” isn’t some small film that came out of nowhere either. The Australian Film Institute awards are the equivalent of the United States’ Oscars. “Predestination” was nominated for nine, winning four of them.

I’d highly recommend searching it out. It’s not hard to find via streaming or renting, and the film’s rhythm and mystery are second to none. This is the greatest mindbender of last year.

Predestination poster

Images are from Nerdist, Telegraph, and Coming Soon.

“Lost River” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

We grow up. We lose what we were taught was stability. The world falls out from under us. The fairy tales we love risk turning from possibility to desperation as we retell them. “Lost River” is difficult to describe. It is Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. It is not loved. It has a 5.8 on IMDB and a 42 on Metacritic. Take from that what you will. Few films have ever demolished me like this one.

“Lost River” turns the idea of post-apocalypse via mortgage crisis into a story that bridges magical realism, Italian giallo horror, and 80s small-town fantasy.

It follows two families left behind in a crumbling suburb, abandoned houses being torn down around them. Its younger characters yearn for the fantasy of the films they watch on TV; its older characters increasingly adopt fantasies of violence as their outlet. Each finds sustenance enough to carry on – not for themselves, but for those next to them, for those more helpless than they are. Yet there are also those who use the shock of failure and bankruptcy to take what they want – they are men who seek to dominate and turn the ruined environment others suffer into their own predatory fantasies.

“Lost River” calls on a range of other films as influences – “Drive,” “Suspiria,” and even “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Christina Hendricks is awe-inspiring in her role. Saoirse Ronan is heartbreaking. Matt Smith is far more threatening and imbalanced than I thought the “Doctor Who” actor could ever play. Ben Mendelsohn is one of cinema’s most unheralded and creepiest character actors. Iain De Caestecker and Eva Mendes carry the heart of the film. I love the movies that feel like they break some part of me, so that I can rebuild that piece of myself with the hints of a new understanding.

“Lost River” is like a book I put down upon finishing its last page, yet can never fully leave. I need its characters to still exist, to still be moving forward and building their lives, finding moments to play, to look at the sky, to sing a song. They will live as people I love for as long as I remember the fairy tales and stories and myths that I’ve been told across my life.

There are books that I will never fully close, and there are movies where I’ll forever be caught between their last frame and the credits. For me to believe fairy tales still hold possibility, and stave off the loss life earns through attrition, I have to know that the people I grow to love in the stories that break and rebuild me are never fully lost.

“Lost River” will never be fully lost to me.

Lost River poster

Images are from Coyote Productions, Sensacine, and Coming Soon.

“A Most Violent Year” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.

His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.

Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.

As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”

“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.

a-most-violent-year-poster

Images are from Way To Blue, The Guardian, and Collider.

The Most Beautiful Primary

by Gabriel Valdez

Politics can be beautiful, damn it.

This beauty hides behind statistics and demographics and any number of political sciences that begin to make a voter feel inhuman.

So ignore those things for a minute. Ask what the philosophies being discussed really represent.

Are racial, gender, and community injustices root causes? Do they arise naturally, and then make the implementation of economic injustices necessary for the survival of those root causes? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Hillary Clinton champions.

Or is economic injustice the root cause that creates racial, gender, and community injustices, and uses the divisiveness of these as tools that feed the root cause of class indifference? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Bernie Sanders champions.

In other words, are racism, gender, and community bias something natural that we have to socially evolve away from in conscious ways in order to overcome? Is Clinton right?

Or are those things unnatural social constructs that are simply created and then preyed upon by economic injustice for its continuation? Is Sanders right?

That seems to be how the Democratic primary is breaking down. What are the real causes? What are the symptoms that distract us from them?

I fall squarely in the Clinton camp. Sociological studies have shown us that our biases are natural inclinations. That hardly justifies them. As a society, we’ve overcome many other natural inclinations that we deemed unwanted in order to continue existing as a healthy civilization. We consciously change our lives all the time, individually and as a society, in order to make our existences and interactions healthier.

(I mean, you’re reading this on a computer or phone that you got because it increases your efficiency at doing a number of daily tasks. We’ve already stepped irreversibly down the transhumanist path of social evolution, and we barely noticed.)

Either way, at least this dichotomy in thinking is at the core of the Democratic debate. Let’s bring demographics back into the discussion. You can see philosophy even in how groups of people lean one way or the other:

Those who’ve suffered racial injustice (people of color), gender injustice (older women), and community injustice (urban and failing industrial communities) to a greater extent than economic injustice tend to side with Clinton.

Those who’ve suffered economic injustice (young voters, low-income white voters, rural and current industrial communities) to a greater extent than racial, gender, or community injustice tend to side with Sanders.

Both candidates’ messages are evolving geographically as primary season continues, as they always do. But from the beginning, the fight for support has been over those who have been victimized most by the cross-section of these two separate philosophies of injustice:

Young voters of color have suffered the effects of severe racial injustice and the long-lasting economic impacts of the Great Recession.

Young women voters have suffered the effects of both aggressive gender injustice and those same economic impacts of the Great Recession.

And low-income white voters have suffered both the abandonment of the infrastructure of their communities and the disappearance of a reliable industrial economy.

These are the voters most “at play” for a reason, because they fall squarely between two philosophies of how to fix the world. And that they are being valued and spoken to and planned around is beautiful. It may be discussed in demographics and statistics and pop political science talking points, but the discussion itself – at its root – is about the construction of our society from the ground up.

I can’t remember anything like it in politics, anything that strikes so far down to the philosophical core of how societies choose to evolve. The arguments we have and the passion behind those arguments are very real and very crucial – these are not philosophies that share much middle ground, but they are philosophies that can and must be brought closer together.

That the Democratic primary is a discussion of social evolution is in itself a striking moment. Contrasting philosophies of social evolution are usually not the core around which any election evolves in this country, at least not since the Civil Rights movement and UFW agricultural strikes. While this primary is a very ugly one, when you can take a step back and boil down what’s really being discussed, it also might be the most beautiful one.

 

Movies and how they change you.

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