Tag Archives: Girlhood

What Were the Best Films of the 2010s?

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

The best films of the decade will be wildly different for everyone. Naming them is a way of highlighting what you value and anchor to. It might call attention to a movie someone else hasn’t seen, or that they don’t see the same way as you. The films on lists like these show us something about ourselves.

Sometimes the films named anticipate a movement that follows, or interpret one already happening. Other films are simply unique, and unlike anything else. Is the perfect war film superior to a challenging and flawed film that’s utterly unique and does what no other film you’ve ever seen before has? The answer to that is going to vary by critic, by viewer. The reasons for that answer are more important than the answer itself.

These are the films that stay with me, that I think about on random days because they’re close to me. There are elements in some of them I haven’t fully figured out. The viewing experience may have been going on for years because I still haven’t stepped out of that beautiful moment after the credits are over and I consider the way each sits like a presence beside me.

10. “Selma”

written by Paul Webb
directed by Ava DuVernay

“Selma” isn’t a biographical or historical film. It’s a war film. It communicates the process and procedure of meaningful protest. It follows the strategies the groups involved created and reacted to. It engages the architecture of successful protest and the work that goes into it at the ground level. It’s not a film about individual icons, though it features them. It’s a film about real, flawed people who fostered and empowered community to make change.

“Selma” measures its sacrifices as both countless and deeply personal. Each is unknowable as even more mount, and each is world shattering for the people left in its wake. It’s an exercise in perfect direction and tight character acting. It doesn’t stylize its era and it spends time with smaller roles to show you the impacts and emotion of that moment in time.

(Read my original review.)

9. “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz

The third film chronicling a troubled and unsatisfactory marriage, “Gett” is a movie that erodes you just as it does its main character. Struggling against her country’s religious laws, Viviane Amsalem (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) spends years in court trying to obtain a divorce from her husband.

He refuses to grant her one, and even when he does the conditions are his alone and subject to change. The film is simply presented, relying on its very real performances. Among many other things, “Gett” is an incredible examination of communicating desperation through restrained and even dulled emotions. It’s a film that, inside one courtroom, portrays a consistent resistance to the normalization of being treated as sub-human and without rights.

8. “The Secret of Kells”

written by Tomm Moore & Fabrice Ziolkowski
directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)

“The Secret of Kells” designed its animation to look like the illuminated manuscripts that monks would spend years designing. The story it told concerned some of those monks attempting to finish the Book of Kells and then save the manuscript before invading vikings pillage their abbey. It doesn’t help that a god of death is lurking in the woods, but a helpful faerie does her best to help.

It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works as a beautiful fable and the Celtic-styled animation is often overwhelming, stunning, and evocative. The film achieves an experience of calm and wholeness that matches the best of Hayao Miyazaki.

7. “Interstellar”

written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan

This is one of the two big event films on the list, and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. As a high-concept science-fiction film, it sits comfortably alongside predecessors like “2001”. What’s unique about writer-director Christopher Nolan is that in his best moments, he melds high-concept to event filmmaking. That “Interstellar” also succeeds as an adventure film is incredible.

It’s also a movie that finds hope buried under layers of hopelessness. It presents a world that’s given up, that lies to itself to maintain the illusion that it’s not clearly dying – a world that becomes more and more familiar with each passing day – and it shows us an optimistic story of finding a way through. That way through is demanding, it takes generations, and it asks for work and sacrifice.

(Read my original review.)

6. “Under the Skin”

written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer
directed by Jonathan Glazer

“Under the Skin” is an art film that nearly all my friends hate. I love it. It’s a chaotic and lurking work that follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) as she picks up lonely men and consumes them. You try to understand her and her burgeoning interest in becoming human – or at least experiencing human things.

The specifics of the Michel Faber novel on which it’s based are thrown to the side in favor of a multitude of potential readings. In fact, director Jonathan Glazer allowed his crew to design and score the film according to their own individual interpretations. A movie can so easily go careening off into disaster with that approach – and some would say this one did.

For me, however, it’s a disturbing work of inverting horror. It asks you to identify with a predator, making it inaccessible as it should be but coaxing you into the work of attempting to do it anyway. Then it confronts you with the idea that this is the work you’ve been doing. That might seem like a betrayal or trick on the movie’s part, but so much of our society has been built on normalizing and shielding predators that we’ve now elected one. Maybe we could have used a few more movies like this one.

(Read my original review.)
(Read my interview with author Michel Faber.)

5. “Life of Pi”

written by David Magee
directed by Ang Lee

Few films try to tackle the meaning of faith. Far fewer actually engage it without focusing on proselytizing or idolatry. “Life of Pi” tells the story of a young survivor stuck on a life raft with a tiger. The second of the two event films on this list, it’s patient, heartbreaking, and utterly human.

I hate frame stories – they’re a terribly used concept across movies. Yet the idea of a journalist going to interview the survivor as an adult allows Irrfan Khan to recall his story in ways that build both emotional and logical anchors (Khan has a solid and overlooked argument for greatest actor of his generation). Doing so creates a remarkable moment of self-questioning in the audience that makes the frame story a valuable way of describing and explaining hope and faith.

4. “Sicario”

written by Taylor Sheridan
directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Sicario” is a stalking thing. It’s a movie that’s a nightmare, a film about FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). She’s tasked to an ill-defined covert operations team in order to legitimize its actions across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s all standard spy fare so far, right? The film itself begins like a mystery and descends into a murk of threat and erasure.

It’s controversial in some circles of critics of color because of the way it poses Mexico as a war zone for the drug trade. The presentation in the film is definitely somewhat overblown. I find value in how the film illustrates the way the United States feeds the drug trade and installs leaders who are no less violent – but whose violence simply aligns with and feeds the financing of our own.

The villain in the film isn’t ultimately Mexico in any way. The villain is U.S. imperialism. What’s powerful in the film to me is one woman simply trying to do her job, and how the overwhelming nature of that imperialism increasingly dissolves the values that she imagines she’s risking her life to uphold. As I put it in my review, “It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters”. For my money, it’s Blunt’s best performance.

(Read my original review.)
(Read my Best Film of 2015 piece.)

3. “Girlhood”

written and directed by Celine Sciamma

I once called “Sicario” the best film of 2015. I don’t know that I was wrong – it’s very close by in this list. The movie that’s stuck with me ever so slightly more, however, is my runner up that year – Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”. I’ve found that many “bests” in years past have shifted slightly – this list itself might look entirely different in a decade’s time.

“Girlhood” itself is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t deal in the usual trials and tribulations of maturing. It follows a group of high-school girls in France. Most of them are Black or of Middle Eastern descent. The film deals with trans identity. It covers the silence of women before groups of men. It shows the path of maturing in a far different light than in the safe, stereotypical, low-risk, middle class ways that most coming-of-age tales cover.

It’s a film that shows growing up as a constant struggle to find or create safe harbor in a world that doesn’t provide it for everyone. It is inspiring, emotional, evolving, it feels all the more real when very light touches of magical realism are used, and there is a full scope of emotion to it – from the joy of community to the isolation of survival.

(Read my Runner-Up of 2015 piece.)

2. “Stories We Tell”

written by Sarah Polley & Michael Polley
directed by Sarah Polley

“Stories We Tell” is a complex family documentary that covers extensive meta territory. Filmmaker Sarah Polley was curious about stories that she might not be her father’s daughter. She delved into her own family’s history to profile her late mother, interview her mother’s lovers, her own family, and to research who exactly she was, what stories shaped her, and which were truthful.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that Michael Polley – her mother’s husband and the father who raised her, serves as narrator for it. He’s also interviewed, and his calm and acceptance of the entire endeavor is another layer to be…not examined, but simply sat with and understood.

The film reveals piece by piece, but it’s never a mystery so much as it’s a contemplation of lives lived, of what a person understands about someone they love and might also fail to understand about them. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, and stands out as something truly and quietly unique in all of film.

1. “The Milk of Sorrow”

written and directed by Claudia Llosa
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)

“The Milk of Sorrow” is a Peruvian film that traces how trauma shapes future generations. It follows Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose mother passes away in a remarkable first scene. Fausta’s mother was raped in a civil war, and her stories and experiences of this have shaped Fausta’s view of the world. She passes through it quietly, timidly, shying from a hundred normal things that she reads as potential dangers.

Fausta’s also made shocking decisions for her own health that make no sense, but that are framed by paranoia, superstition, fear, and how trauma has infused itself into folklore. The film is a reserved piece of magical realism that traces in one character how trauma echoes in a society – especially among its indigenous communities.

The cinematography is stark and beautiful one minute, rich and full of motion the next, yet another argument that Natasha Braier is without a doubt the cinematographer most overlooked by the Oscars this last decade. Writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film operates on two levels: a quiet, obvious, and patient one on the surface, and one that exists below that in the muted suppression of panic that deals with anxiety, shame, and betrayal.

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“Girlhood” — Best Films of 2015, Runner-Up

by Gabriel Valdez

“Girlhood” opens with a football game. Despite being a French-language film, it’s American football, not soccer. Both teams are composed entirely of women. It makes no sense within the context of the film’s story. It doesn’t seem that a disadvantaged school in France would feature a women’s football program. What’s really going on?

“Girlhood” doesn’t care about your expectations, that’s what’s going on. The film, about four young women growing up, cares about its characters and it will fiercely defend them. In a movie that feels as remarkably real as this, if a football game suddenly needs to happen, or the lights go out upon a first kiss, it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s real to the characters. What’s remarkable about “Girlhood” is how protective director Celine Sciamma is of their experiences.

Everything in “Girlhood” is real, until a particular feeling requires that it stop being real. What else is more accurate to the world of a child? These moments may only happen a handful of times in “Girlhood,” and they are usually understated, but they are special.

“Girlhood” is a film about safe harbor – the lack of it at home, the ways we learn to stand up for ourselves and others, the moments we step into our lives utterly alone and scared because of it, how we learn to create our own safety amid the worst of life. It presents moments where fantasy doesn’t always take place, but characters somehow always strive for fantastic ideals anyway. Sometimes they do so blindly.

After that football game, we see the group of high school-aged women walk home at night. They split into groups, fewer and fewer as they each get closer to home. Bands of men wait for them, to leer, to harass. At first, the women talk so much you can’t make out a word…but when they near the men, they all fall silent. It seems a simple thing, but Sciamma handles it with a deft hand. It’s the silence and its nature that feel overwhelming. In the face of it, hearing so much you can’t keep track becomes a comfort.

The strength of “Girlhood” is that it’s a coming-of-age film that feels experiential. It puts you in every moment, lets you inhabit it alongside its characters. The moments in between major events mean as much as the moments when something crucial is happening; they reveal how a character understands and fits into her world.

The French title of “Girlhood” is more accurately translated as “band of girls.” It may’ve been translated the way it is to take advantage of the similarity to last year’s critical favorite “Boyhood.”

I had a problem with “Boyhood” that Alessia Palanti stated better than I knew how. She wrote in her review, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class, familiar, life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

The problem with “Boyhood” wasn’t just cultural. It was the nature of it. It was nostalgic, not experiential. It didn’t feel like life as it was lived, but rather life as it was remembered. “Girlhood” feels like life as it’s lived, and it mixes in the greater fears and hopes of everyday living because of it. This is my runner-up for film of the year.

Girlhood poster

Images are from Variety and PSU.

 

The Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015: Terrorist Meryl Streep, Lightsabers & Time Travel

Mad Max Fury Road Tom Hardy

by Gabriel Valdez

The top ten is a mix of big-budget movies and independent-minded films, but two of my top three films feature women directing. This is the kind of thing I think most lists miss when they just stick to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Marvel everything. Now, I’ll spoil something – I list Star Wars here – big surprise, but Most Anticipated lists can’t just be the big stuff. They have to mix it up.

You’re not showing anyone anything when you only talk about what they already know.

I don’t want to launch into a diatribe about criticism, but the industry really is threatened by a mass consensus attitude that demands championing anything popular beforehand for the clicks, and then tearing it down afterward for the clicks. And then the industry has the gall to turn around and criticize Hollywood for its lack of imagination.

Moving on:

Hateful Eight

10. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

When I stepped into the theater for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, I thought to myself, this is the final straw. This is where Tarantino steps up and proves he’s about something more than celebrating style, or the place I can finally bury having to be concerned about him. Coming off the night-and-day halves of Kill Bill and the well-filmed but utterly needless Deathproof, I was really hoping for an excuse to bury him. By the time I walked out, I felt like I’d been sucker punched.

Tarantino’s always been capable of making you laugh even while sending chills up your spine and making you feel guilty about it, but those skills could often find themselves drowned under the weight of his pulp. There wasn’t a balance. His films could really be about something one minute and then waste that opportunity the next. But with Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has hit his stride, creating dramas within satires where the message shapes the film around it more than the style. Rarely have audiences packed theaters to see films that make them this uncomfortable. There’s no reason to believe Tarantino will falter at this point, especially in a Western packed with villains. I just hope he’s able to maintain the balance he’s found, and doesn’t fall into old habits. His old habits made good films, sure, but his new habits make great ones. November 13.

9. STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

I know, this should be #1, right? Cause Star Wars.

Count me disillusioned by the prequels. Count me wary of how they’re splitting up the Star Wars universe into the Marvel film-a-year approach. I actually like the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, as I’ve written before, and the first trailer looked fantastic.

I’m just a bit worn out. For a franchise that hasn’t had a new movie in 10 years, it’s omnipresent. There’s something to be said for: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Star Wars hasn’t been absent. It’s like the guest you invited to your holiday party is still camping out on your couch. And the holiday party was in 2005.

It’s #9 on my list, so I’m excited to see it, but…I think we could use some space before all that, Star Wars. It’s not you, it’s me. Wait, that’s not right, it’s totally you. December 18.

8. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Finally, the return of Mel Gibson to the franchise that made him what he was (minus, you know, the racist stuff). In Mad Max, Gibson reprises his- wait, what? He’s been replaced? God, who could they get to replace Mel Gibson in one of the most iconic roles ever created?

It couldn’t be. No, it’s not possible…. They wouldn’t.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been told that Mel Gibson has been replaced by, er, Tom Hardy. It may come as a shock to you, but I’ve also been informed that I am being replaced by Tom Hardy. As it turns out, we will all be replaced with Tom Hardy by the end of the day. In fact, everyone in the world is now being played by Tom Hardy, with the exception of Werner Herzog, who managed to stave off the transformation with a vial of Klaus Kinski’s bone marrow he tag locked in the jungles of Peru in 1979. On the state of things, Herzog commented that he was “unperturbed but sleepy, with the energy of dreams.”

OK, with five roles in four films on this top 40, you wouldn’t think Hardy has the time, but Tom Hardy and space-time are apparently one and the same. (We’re going to have to re-dub a lot of Star Trek episodes now.)

Actually, Tom Hardy looks like a perfect fit in Mad Max: Fury Road. Watch the incredibly colorful trailer (how do so many post-apocalypse films forget that the natural world is so colorful?) and you’ll even notice how well Hardy picks up the subtle gestures, glances, and weary looks of Gibson.

In summation, Tom Hardy is the best, I’m looking forward to this just a smidgen more than Star Wars, which for whatever reason committed the unending shame of not casting Tom Hardy, and long live our glorious leader Tom Hardy. May 15.

7. TOMORROWLAND

You’ll notice I’m getting the 3 most important big-budget films of the year (to me, at least) out of the way right here, and Tomorrowland is the one that really makes me hope. The director of Pixar animated classics “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird tells the story of a young girl (Britt Robertson) who joins an inventor played by George Clooney to travel to a place outside of space and time (I’m sorry, outside of Tom Hardy) in order to to try to set the world right. It feels like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Amazing Stories. If the trailer’s any indication, it will have a great deal to say about the troubled times in which we live. May 22.

6. KNIGHT OF CUPS

Terrance Malick makes amazing films that force you to consider your lonely place in a vast universe. And then he holds onto them for years and years until everyone’s forgotten he made them. Knight of Cups looks like it’s Malick’s take on the genre of excess, starring one of the most ridiculous casts of the year (Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley). Nobody quite knows what to expect. The trailer is pure insanity, and only makes you less sure of what to expect. Such is the way of Malick. December 11.

5. PREDESTINATION

Robert Heinlein is perhaps the greatest science-fiction writer to have ever put pen to page. His most controversial and challenging short story is called “-All You Zombies-”. It’s a story about time travel and influencing the path your former self takes in life. It’s simple to understand, but narratively audacious. It is a masterpiece of storytelling about identity.

It is impossible to film. I mean, there are things that are hard to film, and then there are things that are impossible to film, and then there’s “-All You Zombies-”.

The Spierig brothers aren’t the first directors you’d choose to film something like this. They previously directed moody vampire story Daybreakers, a solid genre piece that unfortunately goes overboard in its last 10 minutes. Still, they have rare style and a relationship with just about the only actor I’d ever trust to play this role – Ethan Hawke. The sheer audacity of adapting this tale is what shoots this to the top of my list. If you’ve read the story, you damn well know why. But if they can pull this off, if they can make it what it ought to be or even come close, it will be the kind of film that makes you unable to move when the credits finally roll. January 9/Out now/Probably going to have to wait until DVD.

4. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

One of the best and most overlooked films of the past few years is Mud, a coming-of-age tale that recalls Steven Spielberg’s early work, only featuring rural Arkansas and Matthew McConaughey instead of aliens. Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows it up with the story of a father and son on the run after the son develops powers. He’s cited John Carpenter classic Starman as his inspiration. Looking at Nichols’s filmography, including Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he has yet to take a wrong step.

Most new American stories feel too generic, too in-service to a brand-name Americana that doesn’t feel real. Nichols’ stories emerge from a classic Americana closer to Jack London, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain. The stakes are simple and personal, the stories organic and unexpected, the world around you wide open, thick with character and atmosphere, and yet always seen through a personal bubble you can never quite escape. He is one of the most important filmmakers just now breaking into the industry.

Midnight Special stars Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard. November 25.

(Since there are no trailers or promotional images, I’ve posted the trailer for Nichols’s Mud up above. It’s some of the best two hours you can spend watching a movie.)

Suffragette

3. SUFFRAGETTE

Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter as terrorists? Tell me more. They play Emmeline Pankhurst and Edith New, respectively. They were the leaders of Britain’s suffrage movement, which fought for the right of women to vote during the turn of the 20th century. The state condemned them and reacted brutally to their battle for real democracy. The movement turned underground and spent years organizing, enduring and provoking extreme violence in turn.

This is written by BBC mainstay and The Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan, and directed by a hugely promising up-and-comer: Sarah Gavron. It also stars Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s eery to think that, in many democratic countries (including the U.S.), women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. September 11.

Crimson Peak Wasikowska

2. CRIMSON PEAK

Guillermo Del Toro is the best horror director working today. With Crimson Peak, he’s stepping into new territory. Telling what he calls a “ghost story and gothic romance,” the film stars genre wunderkid Mia Wasikowska as a young woman who marries a man who isn’t quite what he appears to be. That man is played by everyone’s favorite Loki, Tom Hiddleston.

The prospect of seeing these two play off actors like Jessica Chastain and Doug Jones (who has played more Del Toro creatures than any other actor – think of him as Del Toro’s Andy Serkis)…it’s all too enticing to put anywhere else but right near the top of this list. October 16.

1. GIRLHOOD

To quote Alessia Palanti on her review of Boyhood, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class familiar life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

Palanti concluded her review by asking for a Girlhood version of Boyhood.

I’ll answer her with a quote from Daily Beast critic Molly Hannon in her review for Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood: “Sciamma’s film effectively captures the painful realities of young African-French girls living in the French projects who are marginalized by society, mistreated by their families, and preyed upon by unscrupulous characters. The girls only have each other, and it is their banded friendship that empowers them, gives them the security they crave while also giving them a safe place to remain young.”

Before we go on, the film Girlhood has nothing to do with the film Boyhood. It’s more accurately translated as Gang of Girls, but this would carry unfortunate connotations in English. Girlhood is not #1 on this list to riff on Boyhood or be snarky. Yet the comparison is there because of the Americanized title, so let me tell you why it’s number one by telling you why Boyhood doesn’t make my year-end lists: because I can’t see any of the characters in Boyhood really caring that much about the characters in Girlhood. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, it just means they enjoy a certain privilege not to have to face responsibility for what’s outside the ken of their own lives.

They’re able to participate in rites of passage that don’t necessarily engender healthy people, and yet those rites of passage are celebrated as part of being an average, normal American. There are moments of Boyhood that don’t ring true for people who faced those moments from a different perspective, or simply declined to participate in them.

So why is Girlhood first on my list when it will also present a perspective I have not inhabited? These are the most popular comments to the trailers for Girlhood on YouTube. I apologize for the language, but these are direct quotes:

“Niggers being niggers….. that’s all.”

“I wonder how many wigs are in this movie.”

“Might I dare to suggest a slight change in title to Hood Girls.”

“So they made a movie out of black female flash mobs. So what. Who cares. I don’t.”

“That weave tho…smh.”

“fucking racist negroes taking over France”

Boyhood is a fine film but, to me, it carries with it the luxury of not caring. There’s an Americana to it that is lovely and sentimental, but also narcissistic and illusory. Give me instead the film that takes that luxury away, that offers me a perspective that feels real and unique instead of averaged and branded as “normal.”

Girlhood arrives at a time when civil rights are at issue once more both in the United States and in France, when police violence is untenable in both, when here the voting rights that formed the very core that marchers died for (as was recounted in 2014’s Selma) have been undermined on the state level and by the Supreme Court, and after years of France similarly legislating lesser lives with lesser rights for minority groups including French-Africans.

What film do I want to see the most? I want to see the most technically accomplished, yes. I want to see something emotional, no doubt. But more than anything else, I want to see something that takes on the world unafraid, that can tell a story and make a point, that makes me face the worst of the world and still find beauty. What movies do just a hair better than any other storytelling medium is put you in somebody else’s shoes, give you access to seeing the world and thinking of it from another person’s perspective, so that you might come out a little differently than you went in. Of all the movies on this list, Girlhood is the one that makes me feel like it could be all of those things. January 30.

That’s the list! I’ll put up a recap in coming days, so you can see everything #40 through #1 lined up together.

In the meantime, if you missed #40-31, didn’t see #30-21, or want to know what #20-11 are, I just linked them all in this sentence. Behold, the magic of the internet.