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The Standout Films of 2016

snowdenstill

Still from “Snowden.”

As most of you probably know, Netflix no longer bothers with the offbeat films I tend to review, either as DVD or streaming. Since my reviews cover documentaries, foreign films and American indies that tend to be shown in art houses like New York’s Film Forum, I always regret that my readers living in cities or towns where there is nothing but Cineplexes are forced to choose between multimillion dollar movies about space aliens or Judd Apatow comedies.

The good news is that Amazon and ITunes have picked up the slack. Although I hate Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook just as much as the next person, I am glad that these types of art house films can now be seen in the same year they premiered for between $3.99 and $5.99 in these venues.

I tend to avoid identifying “best of” movies or directors after the fashion of the Academy Awards and only take part in New York Film Critics Online yearly awards meetings because members are expected to take part. This week’s Golden Globe awards ceremony pretty much sums up why the whole thing turns me off. Although I managed to sit through “La La Land” that walked off with the lion’s share of the awards, I found it far less interesting than the narrative films listed below that were diametrically opposed to Damien Chazelle’s sugar-coated retro-musical.

The twenty films listed below were among the best that I saw this year but I would be loath to sort them in order by preference rather than alphabetical order. Competition of this sort always turned me off whether it is for the Nobel Prize (good for Dylan to avoid the tuxedo and gown spectacle) or even for the Isaac Deutscher Prize. I wonder sometimes what Trotsky’s biographer would think of Marxists competing with each other for a £500 prize. Or Leon Trotsky for that matter, who is history’s greatest loser in some ways. I tend to identify with losers so I guess I’ll never fit into an American society that now has its President the host of “Apprentice” where “losers” are humiliated for failing to come up with some “winning” strategy for selling junk of the sort that Trump’s Empire is built on.

All of the films below can be seen on Amazon streaming and probably ITunes, although I haven’t checked that out. By and large, they are released to both platforms at the same time. That is why, interestingly enough, that Amazon is not part of the menu that comes with Apple TV, Tim Cook’s rip-off of the Roku box.

Needless to say, none of the documentaries likely made it to cities and towns that lacked an art house. Most of the narrative films are those that were also released in such theaters with a few exceptions made for two films that deserve being singled out: “Free State of Jones” that I consider a political and artistic breakthrough and “Snowden”, Oliver Stone’s best work in many years.

Finally, I include a brief excerpt from my review of the films with a link to the full review.

NARRATIVE FILMS

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux) (France)

Set in Tunisia in 2010, Leyla Bouzid’s characters are educated and middle-class but it is easy to extrapolate from their privileged frustration what made street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolate himself in December of that year.

The main character is an 18-year old female named Farah (Baya Medhaffar) who lives in a large and comfortable apartment in Tunis with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) who is elated by the news that her daughter has been accepted into medical school. Her father Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) works as a mining foreman in a distant city only because a job closer to home would necessitate joining the party of dictator Ben Ali, an act that would compromise his principles and self-esteem.

Farah’s main interest, however, is performing in night clubs as the lead singer of a rock band that is an eclectic mix of traditional harmonies and hard rock using both electric guitars and the oud, a string instrument that has been around for 5000 years. And most importantly, they are protest musicians singing about the country’s inequities. Since a large part of the film consists of them in performance, it is a little bit like a musical drama. The music was composed by Iraqi Khyam Allami and the lyrics were written by the Tunisian writer Ghassan Amami.

Don’t Think Twice (USA)

The premise of the film is that improvisational comedy groups, including Second City and its counterpart The Improv in New York, were a kind of minor league that prepped up-and-coming actors for jobs in the big league—Saturday Night Live specifically. Once you became a SNL superstar, the next step is to become an egotistical asshole like Chevy Chase, an old friend of mine from Bard College who was part of The Improv.

The sketches performed by The Commune are “observational” in character. When a show begins, the group’s emcee invites an audience member to respond to her question “Has anyone had a particularly bad day?” That leads someone to volunteer that they spent the day hunting for an apartment in NY and only being able to afford one with a bathtub in the kitchen. The improvisation leads to an insane bidding war by cast members over a slummy apartment with one offering two million dollars, not that far-fetched considering what has happened along Avenue A in the past twenty years.

Fatima (France)

Opening tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center is a French film titled “Fatima” that is a subdued and sensitive study of an immigrant Algerian cleaning woman trying desperately to provide both material and spiritual support for her two daughters. Unlike most narrative films, the plot does not revolve around some sensational incident such as a crime that drives the action forward. Instead, it consists of the quotidian but gripping crises that the family confronts with the mother Fatima (Soria Zeroual) soldiering on.

One daughter has just entered medical school and is deeply stressed by the workload. Like the children of many struggling Arab-speaking immigrants in France, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) is the family’s hope for success even though the odds are against her. When she and her mother show up to see an apartment near medical school that Nesrine hopes to rent, the landlady takes one look at the mother’s hijab and tells them that her son forgot to give her the key–an obvious excuse for refusing to rent to Muslims. As evidenced by the racist attacks taking place over the “burkini”, France is a hostile environment for such immigrants.

Free State of Jones (USA)

The film tracks the battles between Knight’s militia and Confederate troops sent in to smash them and restore law and order in Jones County. Before each battle, Knight rallies the troops in speeches that are a mixture of scripture and Jeffersonian yeoman values. His commitment to racial and social equality continues even after the Civil War is over. He takes the side of former slaves as they exercise their right to vote even after it becomes obvious that the South will remain as oppressive as ever. His only recourse is to live among people, both Black and white, who share his values in the outskirts of the village of Soso in Jones County. If Mississippi and the USA for that matter choose segregation, he persists in building counter-institutions that correspond to his democratic and anti-racist values including the right of people to love each other whatever the color of their skin.

Green Room (USA)

Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” opened at theaters everywhere today and will surely be on my best five films of 2016 when NYFCO’s awards meeting convenes in December. Saulnier was the director of “Blue Ruin”, a 2014 film that led me to nominate Saulnier as best new director that year. Like “Blue Ruin”, “Green Room” is an ultraviolent art film that puts Quentin Tarantino to shame. Like his feckless “The Hateful Eight”, Saulnier’s film takes place in a confined space, even more constricted than Tarantino’s blizzard-besieged cabin. It is the proverbial green room, a place you have probably heard mentioned on late night talk shows where a guest hangs out until it is time for them to go sit on the sofa next to Johnny or Dave or whoever.

The green room in Saulnier’s film is in the basement of a music club in rural Oregon owned by a neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker played by Patrick Stewart in an obviously outrageous bid at casting against type. I can’t say that it is entirely successful since Stewart is just a bit too familiar from Star Trek and the X-Men films. If you had never seen him before, that’s not a problem but the role would have been ideal for someone like Dennis Hopper or Michael Shannon quite frankly.

In Order of Disappearance (Norway)

In the first few minutes of the film, his son who works as a baggage clerk at a local airport gets abducted by drug dealers who mistakenly believe that he is in cahoots with another worker who has been a cog in their cocaine smuggling machine. After they learn that he has stolen a large part of their latest shipment, they force the two into their car and kill Nils’s son while the other man escapes. In order to throw the cops off their trail, they overdose Nils’s son with heroin in order to make it seem that he was only a junkie. When Nils shows up at the morgue to identify the body, he is told that his son accidentally killed himself through an overdose. He tells them, “My son was not a drug addict”, thus setting into motion a story that is nominally a somber tale about revenge.

Defying expectations, this is not a typical tale of a father taking on killers heroically after the fashion of Charles Bronson. It is instead a black comedy of the sort that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of making. It has Nils executing one gangster after another but often played for laughs. If you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” and remember how Bruce Willis blasted a surprised John Travolta with his own gun as he came out of the toilet after taking a dump, you’ll get an idea of what “In Order of Disappearance” is like but ten times funnier, at times evoking a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon.

Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil) (France)

Opening at Sunshine Cinema tomorrow in New York, Michel Gondry’s “Microbe and Gasoline” is a terrific mash-up of a road movie like “Easy Rider” and the teen comedies of John Hughes done in a neo-French New Wave style. Now who can resist that? Microbe is the derisive nickname fellow students gave to Daniel, a 14-year old boy, on account of his height—or lack thereof. Gasoline is the nickname, once again derisive, given to his best friend and classmate Théo, whose clothes have such an odor, the result of tinkering on engines in his father’s junk shop.

The artifice that makes the film such a pleasure is that the dialogue of the two lead 14-year-old male characters is not written as if it came from such youthful mouths. Indeed, for the most part it is like listening to adult sophisticates in the early comic films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut even though they are rooted in the painful experiences of young teens.

Parched (India)

Director Leena Yadav’s characters are the lynchpins of a melodrama but they are also representative of how women are victimized in a brutally sexist society either in the village depicted in “Parched”—a woman’s prison without bars—or India’s biggest cities where gang rape is a common occurrence.

With one exception, the men in “Parched” are monsters that defy conventional film-making strictures calling for complex characters even when villains. That being said, the women are deeply flawed themselves—a result of conforming to ancient customs such as arranged marriages in which the bride is often 14 years old as was the case with Rani, the film’s main character now a 32-year old widow. She is seen in the beginning of the film on her way to a nearby village with her close friend Lajjo to pick up a 15-year old girl named Janaki who was effectively “bought” for her loutish son Gulab through a dowry secured by a loan. Once the “bounty” is returned to her household, a hut really, she is expected to serve her son sexually and herself as a domestic servant.

Snowden (USA)

Like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and John Ford, Oliver Stone is a true auteur—a director who puts his unique stamp on a body of work defined by a particular theme and aesthetic. In Stone’s case, it is the story of lost innocence as the protagonist discovers essential truths about himself and the debased American system he mistakenly believed in. In “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon”, the hero is a young man who joins the military to defend freedom in Vietnam only realizing in the end that he was a hired gun for Wall Street as Smedley Butler once put it. Landing a blue-chip job in that “Wall Street”, a young stockbroker decides that jail and a loss of a lucrative career is preferable to robbing ordinary working people with a fountain pen as Woody Guthrie put it in “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Even if “JFK” trafficked in wildly improbable conspiracy mongering, it shared their basic message, namely that the military-industrial complex and the big banks are enemies of peace and freedom.

After a long drought, Stone has made the kind of film he became famous for. Like Ron Kovic, the real-life hero of “Born on the Fourth of July”, Edward Snowden came from a family that embraced rightwing patriotic values. His father was a Coast Guard officer as was his maternal grandfather who became a senior FBI official after leaving the military and who was at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.

The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché) (France)

The man referred to in the title of Stéphane Brizé’s narrative film is Thierry Taugourdeau, a 51-year old machine operator who has not worked in 20 months after his boss moved his factory to a third world country where labor was cheaper. In essence, Thierry is an Everyman for the world we have been living in for the past 25 years or so. He is played by veteran French actor Vincent Lindon who is the only professional in the cast. Everybody he interacts with are nonprofessionals who have the same kind of job their characters have in the film. A young and attractive female banker who advises him to sell his apartment so he can pay off debts is a real banker. A job counselor at the unemployment office who is more sympathetic to his plight but is incapable of matching him to a job that his skills qualify him for since all the manufacturing plants seem to have grown wings and flown to south Asia, Mexico or Eastern Europe is a real unemployment counselor.

The film is structured as a series of encounters between Thierry and those who enforce the rules of bourgeois society. In one scene that rips away at your guts, he has a Skype interview with the boss of a company that needs someone to work on a machine that he has had experience with but not the latest version. When asked why he hasn’t studied the procedures for the latest machine, Thierry explains that he couldn’t afford the instruction manuals. Since the boss is a millionaire, this excuse hardly matters. Why can’t everybody take the same kind of initiatives he did in becoming rich? He can’t help resist telling Thierry that his resume needs work. It doesn’t really make clear who he was—as if someone desperate to begin working again on a factory floor needs to prepare a CV geared to a management job. The interview ends with Thierry being told that there is only a slim chance of getting the job.

DOCUMENTARIES

At the Fork

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY.

Boom Bust Boom

If I were to mention that a new film opened today that consisted pretty much of economists discussing financial crisis, your eyes would glaze over, right? But when such a film is directed by Monty Python alum Terry Jones, that’s a horse of another color. (It is co-directed by Bill Jones who directed a documentary on fellow alum Graham Chapman and Ben Timlett who produced a six-part TV tribute to the group.)

So what you get is a wickedly funny but mind-expanding analysis of 2008 by economists both famous (Paul Krugman) and famous only to their comrades (Nathan Tankus) that is driven by the proposition that the capitalist system is inherently unstable.

Command and Control

The film is directed by Robert Kenner and based on a 2014 book by Eric Schlosser titled “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”. No, this is not Damascus, Syria (although people like Engdahl would likely jump to that conclusion) but Damascus, Arkansas, the site of a Titan II Missile Complex that had a disastrous fire caused by a minor accident on September 18, 1980.

A single Titan II missile in the Damascus underground silo had a 9 megaton H-Bomb warhead that packed an explosive power three times as great as every bomb dropped during WWII, including those over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its firestorm could cover 1000 square miles and a radiation plume much greater in distance.

Havana Motor Club

The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog is obviously fascinated by the computer scientists who come across as gee-whiz techno-optimists who clash with his own darkly absurdist vision of life even as he shares their breathless testimonies to the spectacular rise of the Internet. It is reminiscent of his near-obsession with the German-American jet fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down over Vietnam. In the 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”, he describes how Dengler became obsessed with flying after seeing Allied fighter-bombers destroying his German village during WWII.

If you’ve seen that film, you will understand why Herzog seems just as fascinated with Elon Musk whose SpaceX company is building rockets that are intended to create a colony on Mars. Like Dengler, flight brings Musk closer to eternity or at least a taste of it. In explaining the need for colonizing Mars, Musk describes it as a hedge against something “going wrong” on Earth, the result of either a manmade or natural disaster. Will we have an Internet on Mars, Herzog playfully asks. With a cold smile, Musk says that we will after sending up a few satellites to circle the planet. One can hardly escape feeling that we are in the company of someone who would have made Aguirre blanch.

Peter and the Farm

Although he too is involved in organic farming, Peter Dunning is not likely to be mistaken for the typically laid-back and blissed-out farmers featured in just about every documentary I have seen promoting Green values.

He is the eponymous subject of “Peter and the Farm” that opens Friday at the Metrograph in New York. Directed by Tony Stone, the film consists of the 68-year old owner of a farm near Brattleboro, Vermont producing organic livestock going about his daily chores while the camera watches on. When he is not behind the wheel of his tractor or tending to dirty and menial tasks such as clipping a calf’s hooves, he is sitting at his kitchen table spilling out his guts to the film crew. With a psyche resembling Charles Bukowski much more than Henry David Thoreau, Dunning is a burnt-out case. He goes on farming even though it doesn’t give him much pleasure. Alone in the world, likely the outcome of his own prickly temperament, he is an alcoholic with nothing to live for–so much so that he keeps referring to the suicide he is planning for the benefit of the filmmakers who have descended upon his quaint and picturesque farm that has become a living hell for him.

Requiem for The American Dream

The film is structured as a ten-part meditation on the principles of money and power that make the USA a plutocracy. As is customary for Chomsky, there is much more of an emphasis on democratizing the system than in what Karl Marx called concocting recipes for a future society (a sorry feature of ZNet, where Chomsky is held in reverence.) Mostly what comes out of the documentary is a kind of prophetic denunciation of existing conditions that perhaps might owe something to Chomsky’s upbringing in an orthodox Jewish household.

Chomsky’s father was the principal of a Hebrew school and raised his son according to traditional Jewish beliefs. Although his parents identified with the New Deal, various cousins, aunts and uncles were further to the left. Within the extended Chomsky household, various opinions clashed with each other. Against this political backdrop, it was inevitable that he would come to identify with the left, especially since the radical opinions he heard all about him were reinforced by “seeing people coming to the door and trying to sell rags or apples” and ” travelling in a trolley car past a textile factory where women were on strike, and watching riot police beat the strikers”.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

(The four lesbians featured in this film have just had the charges against them dropped.)

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” mostly consists of interviews with the four women and their relatives as well as the lawyers who got involved with their defense. Among them is an old friend and comrade named Jeff Blackburn who was best known for his yeoman work in defending the 39 African-Americans in Tulia, Texas that were victims of a drug sting. At one point Blackburn states that trials such as these are not decided in the courtroom but in the world at large when a mobilization to change the public’s mind is mounted. That has been the case with the San Antonio Four, the Black men who were victimized in Tulia and before that all of the major political trials of the past 100 years when dedicated lawyers like Jeff, William Kunstler and Michael Ratner proved their mettle.

The Iron Ministry

“The Iron Ministry” is a documentary suffused with the social and artistic mission of the lab. It is the sixth in a series of Sniadecki films about China that use a cinéma vérité technique to allow ordinary Chinese to freely discuss their hopes and frustrations, in this instance passengers on its railway system who Sniadecki filmed over a three-year period. Like the train in “Snowpiercer”, the trains are class-divided. Armed with a modest camcorder and a crew of one, he engaged in small talk with the working-class passengers and allowed them to riff on a variety of topics, including what it is like to be a Muslim in China (these were Han ethnically, not the Uighurs of Turkic origin.) One man says that if the pollution and economic situation get bad enough, he will leave the country. Another group passes hard liquor around using a bottle cap—a female member being three sheets to the wind and quite funny.

They Will Have to Kill Us First

Directed by Joanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, is a profile of a group of musicians who were forced to leave the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after Ansar Dine (Arabic for defenders of the faith), a group aligned with al-Qaeda, took over. Now they are living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, or in other countries bordering Mali such as Burkina Faso. Drawn to Mali originally to cover the annual Festival in the Desert concert, Schwartz was introduced to Khaira Arby, the “nightingale of the north” who had sought refuge in Bamako. She was the person whose words about being denied the right to sing in her hometown Timbuktu serve as the film’s title.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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