Jeff Nichols has – with Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud – emerged as one of the most unique voices in contemporary American cinema. His films, especially SS and Mud, are intensely focused on what it means to be a man in the south and the role violence plays in defining southern masculinity. Mud focuses on two boys – Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) – who agree to help a hiding fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) reunite with his lover, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The film interrogates the notion of romantic love – as both Ellis and Mud find themselves intoxicated by women whose affection is compromised and conflicted – and how violence becomes their unproductive means of coping with rejection. After a great run in 2012, McConaughey continues to surprise. Here, he uses his swagger to mask a vulnerability we rarely see from him (while also providing an odd meta-commentary on his proclivity to be shirtless). I’m hesitant to write more about the film, as the film’s richness stems from its sense of place and its characterization of men stuck in a world that is equally Mark Twain, David Gordon Green, and Terrence Malick. It is not that the narrative is full of twists and turns, just a delicate, organic, assured touch that deserves to be seen before it is subject to dissection. Quite simply, there’s something magical about this one.
2. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s sci-fi mind bender Primer (2004) was one of the gems of the first decade of the 2000s. His sophomore effort, Upstream Color, continues to establish him as one of the few talents in American cinema that can fuse big ideas to experimentations with film form. To try to summarize Upstream Color is an exercise in futility but I’ll give you a taste. A man (Carruth) and a woman (Amy Seimetz) are drawn together after they are both drugged by a thief using a psychotropic worm. The worm allows the thief to use the power of suggestion to rob them blind and leave their lives in shambles. However, a byproduct of the process is that their consciousnesses and, by extension, identities are porous, shared with one another and a pack of pigs (I told you it was futile) who have since been infected by the worms. It’s a minimal narrative that is entirely about tone and feeling and less about answers to the science fiction the film puts forward. While this may frustrate those looking for classical narrative (or even the more definitive world established in Primer), it ultimately serves the film’s purpose, which is to explore and embody psychosis. In most experiences (be them in art or the real world), we can tell a person is insane by how they react to the context they inhabit. For example, a man running down the street in his underwear appears to be crazy because everyone else around is wearing clothes. In Upstream Color, there isn’t any context, both for the episodes of the narrative and the characters. What makes the film such a melancholy and paranoid experience is that these people know something is generally wrong and want to fix it but, because of their shared consciousness, find themselves confused as situations start off normal (a man telling a woman a story about birds) and slowly veer into the existentially horrifying (the woman tells the man the same story about the birds and they do not seem to realize that they’re stuck in this feedback loop in which their condition magnifies their condition). Carruth masterfully captures this sensation in the film’s form, using an ambient soundtrack and elliptical editing to lull us into a temporary state of stability before pulling the rug out from both his characters and the viewer. The best way to describe Upstream Color is as the experimental film version of the insane asylum sequences in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995): the sands of reality shift slowly and abruptly, making us feel trapped and on the verge of discovering the final piece in the puzzle (it’s a film that begs to be watched repeatedly).
3. Persistence of Vision
Richard Williams is most remembered for his groundbreaking animation work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) in the late 1980s. Working with director Robert Zemeckis, Williams seamlessly bridged live-action cinematography with Williams’s adaptive animation (Williams told Zemeckis, “I’ll be your pencil” and went on to win two Oscars for his contributions to the film). Surprisingly, William’s work on Rabbit only scratched the surface of what he was aiming for with his magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler, an animated epic that went into production in 1964 and stayed in production for nearly thirty years. The long production time on Cobbler was due to a multitude of factors. The filmmaker was constantly striving for greatness in all aspects of the production (he and Stanley Kubrick would have been fast friends), re-writing the screenplay at numerous stages of the production, spending obscenely large amounts of time and money on seconds long sequences, and balancing the film with the company’s other projects like commercials (the film was self-financed…for the most part).
Williams’s notoriety in the late 1980s brought him the attention of Warner Bros., who expressed interest in capitalizing and releasing Cobbler. When it was finally released as Arabian Night (1995) by Miramax, it came and went with little recognition, butchered to the point that the filmmaker refuses to discuss the film at all. Yet, the most frustrating factor in the tale that Persistence of Vision tells is Williams. His vision to craft a masterpiece causes his to trip over himself at each turn (he actually calls it the “epic ego trip of Richard Williams” at one point) and, even if the results provided some of the most dazzling animation to ever grace the screen, his methods were far too unorthodox (despite working on the film for so long, he neglected to storyboard the final sequences!). This Kickstarter funded doc has a few minor problems in that it stays pretty close to the animators – never breaking out to interview historians, critics, or industrial insiders about the wider industrial and formal context – and that the barrage of smaller clips from William’s unrelated work go under-cited (filmmaker Kevin Schreck shows us a lot of clips of commercials and cites them at the end. I would have loved to see the title and year on screen with them just to get a better idea of what was happening when). Yet, the documentary (produced without the participation of Williams) gives us the Burden of Dreams (1982) or Hearts of Darkness (1991) of animated film. Instead of being analogous to Orson Welles, Williams comes off as a Terry Gilliam figure: a visionary whose inability to play by any Hollywood rules made the fate of Cobbler all but a foregone conclusion.
4. Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon’s contemporary staging of Shakespeare’s comedy is one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences of the summer season. Filmed on the cheap within the rooms of his own house with his stable of character actors and actresses, Much Ado About Nothing takes the opposite aesthetic approach of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996). While its black and white cinematography is stylish in its own right, Whedon allows performances and staging to upstage any excessive exercises in film style. Shakespeare’s comedy about the traps of love and thickheadedness of men finds a perfect core in Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof’s Beatrice and Benedick. They play vulnerable yearning crusted over by pessimism extremely well and, in the film’s lightest moments, have an incredible comedic gift for timing and physical action (such as the eavesdropping scenes). Their renditions of the characters, when coupled with the cinematography and music (especially the film’s version of “Sigh No More”), produce a hell of a classical rom com and the perfect cinematic counter-programming to the glut of blockbusters out there.
5. Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers is what would you get if late 1960s Jean-Luc Godard directed a film with Disney Channel regulars. That is to say that I can’t imagine a late-teens Selena Gomez fan going into the film and enjoying it. It’s a subversive, pitch black commentary on youth culture in which a group of young girls (Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) rob their way to the sunny, drunken, beaches of Florida. Spring Breakers juxtaposes a dazzling, montage driven style with gun shots, blood, and rapper/gangster Alien (James Franco)’s crib (the film’s Britney Spears robbery sing-a-long is a perfect encapsulation). Like The Rules of Attraction (2002), it quickly makes its “shallowness of the youth” thesis obvious while hiding it under the candy coating of a music video. While the commentary isn’t terribly deep, it takes Girls Gone Wild to its audacious conclusion.
Movies I Still Need to See: Before Midnight, Frances Ha, Stoker, Stories We Tell
Worst Films: Evil Dead, A Good Day to Die Hard, Identity Thief.