So often the best works of art, the most grace-filled and transcendent, are nearly impossible to describe in such a way that more than handful of people will be drawn to see them. Walter Kerr, the theatre critic for the N. Y. Times, wrote that a “true work of art is suitable for contemplation;” that is, you can see it, read it or listen to it again and again and it remains timeless, always able to hold a mirror your soul.
None of the films on my list are studio blockbusters; none of them are sequels; none of the stars (except, perhaps, Tom Hanks) guarantee ticket sales. All are worthy of repeated viewings; all are suitable for contemplation; none more so Silence.
There is a story told about the great Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler. Standing in the back of the concert hall during the premiere of one of his last works, Mahler is purported to have said, “I wish I could be alive in 50 years when the audiences will have learned to hear my music.”
The works of great artists are not simply entertaining; they are challenge the audience to and require its full engagement.
Visual and aural works that we regard today as masterpieces—the Impressionist painters, for example were, as often as not, ridiculed and dismissed by a majority of critics and viewers alike when they were first introduced.
Stephen Sondheim (now regarded, according to NY Times critic emeritus, Frank Rich, “as the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American theatre”) received praise for his intricate and witty lyrics during the early years of his career while, at the same time, his music was often dismissed as non-melodic and “un-hummable”. As with Mahler, it took quite a while for audiences to be able to hear the beauty and variety in his musical scores.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a flat-out masterpiece, to my mind, his finest film. It’s not simply entertainment; it is great art and, as such, makes great demands, as do the works of Mahler and Sondheim. (To begin with, it is 2 hours and 41 minutes long!) It’s a glorious achievement; simply incomparable; I plan to devote more time to Silence in a later blog and I plan on seeing it a few more times beforehand.
I’m not putting Silence on my Best List or my Favorites List. It’s in a class of its own.
My best list begins with:
How’s this for a description? A week in the life of a Paterson, NJ bus driver who wakes up at the same time every morning, looks lovingly at his sleeping wife every morning, eats cheerios for breakfast every morning, drives the same route every day, takes his dog for the same walk every night and stops for a beer at the same bar every night. And, oh yes, the bus driver, whose name happens to be Paterson, is a poet. I hope I didn’t oversell it. What the movie is about, in fact, is Presence- the presence that the artist’s soul brings to every seemingly mundane encounter. There are two oft-quoted lines of dialogue in Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece, Our Town:
EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
Bus-driver Paterson, played by Adam Driver (who is equally unforgettable in Silence), in the best performance by an actor I’ve seen this year, is just such a poet. The miracle of this movie, is that we see the banal ordinary details of a daily routine through the eyes of a poet and conversations, we might never have listened to, and incidents, we might never noticed, are transfigured into moments of luminous beauty.
Emily Dickinson begins a poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died”. Paterson, too, would have heard and remarked upon the singularity of this one buzzing fly.
The eloquently beautiful, perfectly realized Moonlight is like Silence and Paterson, also the work of a visual poet. Act One: a spindly little African American boy with no father and a drug-addicted mother, is taken under the wing of a drug dealer (Oscar-worthy, Mahershala Ali) and taught how to swim. Act Two: the same African American boy, now an adolescent, is bullied by some class mates and betrayed by another. His premeditated and cathartic expression of rage, as he wreaks vengeance on the bullies, leads to his incarceration. Act Three: the protagonist, now a hulk of a young man, out of jail and literally armed to the teeth, risks reconnection with the classmate who betrayed him and, in the last moments of the film, rises from the dead as surely as Jesus did.
Manchester by the Sea
Manchester bythe Sea, is, if anything, an even harder sell than the first two. Casey Affleck, in a heart-breaking virtuoso performance, plays a loner custodian, living anonymously in a basement apartment, who is called back to his hometown, Manchester-by-the Sea, to be the guardian of his late brother’s teenage son. For Affleck’s character, the ghosts and demons that inhabit his home town make it hell. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, working with a cast that, besides Affleck, includes the astonishing Michelle Williams as his ex-wife, and a pitch-perfect ensemble achieve an artistic alchemy that defies reason and words.
Manchester by the Sea
Little Men a big film—filled with big, contemporary, and complex challenges, masquerading as a “little art house indie.” It covers parenthood, marriage, single parenting, friendship, the fragile economy, ethics and loyalty, artistic dreams and ambitions—realized and thwarted—immigration, a father’s legacy, and the budding of adolescent sexual identity. Director, Ira Sachs seamlessly weaves together all of the subjects we are faced with every day as we strive to be “good people” and creates from them a wondrously intricate whole cloth. In addition to Mauricio, the cast includes Greg Kinnear (so reliably good, it’s easy to forget how good he really is); two remarkable performances by newcomers, Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz: a cameo by Alfred Molina; and, best of all the great Chilean actress, Paulina Garcia (think the Meryl Streep of Chile) as an immigrant single-mother, a seamstress trying to provide for herself and her son. Ms. Garcia brings a dignity and ferocity to her portrayal that makes it one of the best of this or any year.
Disclaimer: I might never have seen Little Men, if I hadn’t found out that a former student of mine, from the 1960’s, had a featured role; his name is Mauricio Bustamante and he plays the “acting teacher.” He is splendid and I am proud! Very proud!
The collaboration between actress Amy Adams and director Denis Villeneuve is something to behold. Villenueve trusts Adams, and Adams rewards that trust (this is what artists do) with the most fierce and vulnerable performance (and that’s saying something) of her career. The journey of Adams’ character invites us to a consideration of the mystical realm —that which can be experienced but never completely articulated or understood. Jeremy Renner’s character bound by the limitations of science and reason cannot meet Adams in this hallowed place; and, over time (how much time?) she makes peace with it.
Hell or High Water
If you want to get inside the minds and hearts of the “forgotten” Americans who voted for Trump, “Hell or High Water,” is a good place to start. The film was marketed variously as a combination Western and cops and robber’s movie, a heist movie, a chase movie and a revenge movie. On the surface it’s all of these things, but just below the surface it’s an elegy for a lost America, an America before banks and corporations foreclosed on farms and ranches, evicting sometimes 3rd and even 4th generation descendants of the people who settled the land. Bank and corporate policy has left these properties to lie fallow; the sun has stripped the buildings of paint; weeds flourish where crops once grew.
The cast features Jeff Bridges, who’s beginning to sound a lot like Roy Rogers’ old sidekick, Gabby Hayes, just gets better and better; Ben Foster, a chameleon young character actor, is also transfixing as a short-fused ex-con; the surprise is Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movies and Prince Charming in Into the Woods) who divests himself of all traces of leading man veneer and anchors the film with his performance as a disillusioned, divorced family man trying to hold onto his dignity and make things right.
Hell or High Water
The Lobster is the weirdest movie I’ve seen in many years—and one of the most compelling! Rachel Weisz has never given a poor performance and she’s as good as ever here. Colin Ferrell, like so many super-handsome leading men, is much more at home being a nerdy character actor. His sly portrayal of the bespectacled, hang-dog ultra-depressed and unlikely hero ranks as one of his finest.
The film presents itself as an allegory but it’s more. It’s a timely illustration of the uncomfortable process of discernment. It’s a mirror image of who we are now in this age of untruth and unreason, in the age of DJT! What still counts as absurd? Do we surrender? Do we regress? Or do we fight?
Loving (set in 1967) is a quiet film about an explosive issue—inter-racial marriage—made all the more powerful by the understated performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as an ordinary married couple forced by circumstances they never asked for, to seek justice and peace. Australian actor Edgerton has made a reputation playing dark, threatening characters in such films as Black Mass, The Animal Kingdom and The Gift (which he also wrote and directed.) He’s virtually unrecognizable here as a crew-cut Virginian with hair the color of butter. He plays Richard Loving, a painfully inarticulate bricklayer who barely speaks full sentences. Nonetheless his body language and the subtle changes of facial expression communicate his character’s thoughts and feelings as powerfully as a Shakespearian soliloquy. Playing Loving’s African-American wife, Mildred, Ethiopian born actress, Negga manages, without ever raising her voice, losing her composure, or compromising her character’s natural reserve, to craft a portrait of a tenacious and fearless warrior whose sense of what is just and good carries her to a personal and moral victory that validates her marriage and legitimizes her family. Don’t miss this movie!
The Queen of Katwe
Why isn’t this movie on everyone’s best list? Maybe it’s because it’s a PG rated Disney family film. If you need evidence that the eyes are the window to the soul, watch Lupita D’ Yong’o’s performance as a widowed mother in The Queen of Katwe. Her love for her children, combined with the desperate realities of their situation, crucifies her on a daily basis. The three main actors, D’Yongo, David Oyelowo (brilliant as Martin Luther King in Selma), and newcomer, Madina Nalwanga, call us past doubt and fear to a faith that transcends reason and celebrates it. This is a life-affirming, inspiring, joyful film—family entertainment at its best.
The Queen of Katwe
Off to the side of the rotunda in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, you will find a permanent exhibition bequeathed to the museum by benefactor, Justin K. Thannhauser. Among the gallery’s treasures are 12 Picassos spanning from 1900 (when he was 19) to 1965 (when he was 84); he died in 1983.
What could this possibly have to do with Sully, Clint Eastwood’s 35th film as a director and Tom Hanks’ 47th film (if I counted right) as an actor.
Picasso’s earliest work in the Thannhauser Gallery is a painting in the style of Renoir or Toulouse Lautrec As you tour the gallery Picasso’s paintings become simpler and simpler, less and less like anyone else’s until they can be no one else’s but Picasso’s.
So it is with Eastwood’s directing and Hanks’ acting. There are no frills; no flashes; no extra strokes; their work is plain and unadorned with nothing to call attention to the work but the works themselves.
Like Picasso, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks, are masters, and Sully is a deceptively simple work of art by a pair of masters working at the top of their game. If either of these men makes a picture, just go see it.
Best Movies of 2016 Part 2 will be out next week on Tuesday.