I’m Having My Own Oscars: 2016

I still haven’t seen some of the major 2016 releases (Moonlight, I Daniel Blake, La La Land etc.), but I hope this list nonetheless provides some good movie suggestions. Anyhow, before you continue to the link where you will find a full list of my cinematic winners, here are some special mentions:

Most memorable animal performance: Marvin the dog in Paterson.

Scene most likely to make you cry from laughter: birthday party in Toni Erdmann.

Best coming-of-age scene: Estela trying to figure out how to use a tampon in California.

The most heartbreaking scene: Mina putting on a burka before going to beg on streets of Kabul in Mina Walking (special mention: dog trying to survive on a deserted island in Family Film).

Most emotional music scene: Ines performing Whitney Houston’s »The Greatest Love of All« in Toni Erdmann (special mention: music scenes in As I Open My Eyes).

Best film about Yugoslavia’s space program: Houston, we have a problem!

Most brilliantly bizzare scene of the year: Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse in Swiss Army Man.

Best LGBT film: The Handmaiden (special mentions: Don’t Call Me Son, Being 17, Closet Monster).

Film that proved Kevin Smith smokes way too much pot: Yoga Hosers.

Film that made me wish Seth Rogen will never make another animated film: Sausage Party.

Film that takes eroticism to a whole new level: The Handmaiden.

Film that dares to call Slavoj Žižek a »fishy philosopher«: Things to Come.

Best funeral scene: Captain Fantastic.

Best sweaters: Chevalier.

Film that everyone should see but probably almost no one will: Certain Women.

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Captain Fantastic (2016): power to the people, stick it to the man!

Deep in the woods and far away from American capitalistic society, plagued with culture of consumerism, materialism and narcissism, Ben Cash, a patriarch and a father, is raising his six children. Surrounded by nothing but trees, rivers and mountains, his family is living in an unconventional and self-sufficient micro-utopia, based in their unanimous and unconditional refusal of living in what they call “capitalistic fascism”. Refusing to live in a society controlled by money and material goods, they instead form a highly routinised, but entirely self-sufficient way of living, where nothing but demanding physical routines, exercising of survival techniques and extensive, in-depth learning of maths, physics, literature and philosophy fill their daily schedule.

Ben Cash, who is subtly transitioning between the role of an authoritarian patriarch and that of a gentle, understanding and maternal father, is openly contemptuous toward capitalistic society in which people are ever more aggressively ruled by corporations and where any sense of democracy and socio-environmental awareness is increasingly fading away due to narcissistic alienation of first world’s shopping mall population. It is due to him seeing just how powerless, alienated and numb people are, how unable to see anything beyond the newest fashion or trend and how disinterested in the damage that this increasing consumerism is doing to the planet, that he makes a choice of raising his children in complete isolation from all consumer goods, modern technology, popular music and trashy novels – something that, in turn, also means raising them away from institutionalized school system and religion, nationalistic ideology and patriotism, normative social conventions and socially-constructed gender roles. Their idyllic utopia is representing a world in which good education and the ability to argument one’s opinion is celebrated above all else – and where living in the heart of a wild and unpredictable nature is still considered the safest shelter from the monstrous, to humans and environment always damaging capitalistic system.

But when a tragic news about the death of their mother reaches their ideally constructed family life, they suddenly need to leave their safe-zone and step into the civilization; if only to attend her funeral on the other side of the country. And it is here, with them finally setting foot into chaotic everyday of American urban life, that we can observe first negative signs of their isolated upbringing. Bo, the eldest son who only recently came of age, finds it especially hard when he realizes just how insufficient his knowledge about life is, how difficult carrying a conversation with his peers with absolutely no knowledge about pop-culture references and how confusing to understand the difference between innocent flirting and falling in love for someone who has no experiences with girls whatsoever.

Captain Fantastic, easily one of the best films of the year, is therefore continuously playing with a question: is Ben truly the best father in the world, Captain Fantastic, who is effectively resisting to the system and is enabling his children the best possible alternate way of living? Or does his approach to parenthood also has a somewhat darker, problematic side that at times borders on abuse?

The film actively encourages us to think about the meaning of parenthood and about the role that each parent plays for his children – but it skilfully avoids to either idealize or criticise Ben’s unique vision of what family life should look like. He is a fascinating and superbly written (as well as acted) character that never fells into the trap of a good/bad parent dichotomy. As every person, but even more so as a parent, he is imperfect, he makes mistakes and has lapses in judgement, but all while trying to do the right thing at building the best possible life for his family.

Matt Ross’s feature, refusing to step on either side, therefore recognizes flaws and weaknesses in both lifestyles – in a hippie-inspired communal life in the nature, as well as in life infected by consumer capitalism that has spread through the rest of the Western civilization. Yet when we compare his parenting to that of his sister’s permissive, protective and infantilizing way of raising her kids, our idealistic protagonist still comes across as a somewhat better parent – one who treats his children with respect, who does not lie to them about the cause of their mother’s death and who sees them all as equal, no matter their age or gender.

This road movie, that at times comes across as a mixture of Into the Wild (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), definitely has quite an unconventional premise: how to sabotage their mother’s funeral and rescue her remains before she gets swallowed by the system to which she resisted all her live for the remaining eternity. But behind this simple, yet very unusual story, is a very straightforward critique of our society, as well as a film about what it means to be a family in a time when all that seems to matter is money and everything that money can buy.

As they return to their secluded home in the middle of nowhere, safely distanced from the aggressive system that at all cost tried to suck them into its depth during their roadtrip, they quickly slip back into their daily routine, but with one important change: Bo, who has outgrown the idyllic utopia his father has built for him and his siblings, leaves the captain’s crew to continue his adventures, broaden his horizons and experience life in foreign countries. Since there is always a limit to what our parents can teach us, there usually comes a time when we need to part ways and go on our own path, to make our own experiences. Their communal self-sufficient way of living cannot go on forever, as each of them will eventually need to leave the nest – but what is important is that they will set their feet into the real world with a completely unique, different set of eyes, free of any hate or prejudice, but full of knowledge and hunger to learn. Bo’s departure therefore gives us nothing but hope that he is off to keep on fighting the good fight; as he chooses to keep on living his life outside of the system, following his own rules, living by his own principles. Or as Bo and the youngest of the six conclude their dialogue: “Power to the people!” “Stick it to the man!”

The Basics:
Directed by: Matt Ross
Written by: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso
Running Time: 118 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 9

Arrival (2016): the most humanist sci-fi film of the past decade

Science fiction is a genre too often misunderstood as something entirely fictional and futuristic. But if we dig deep and undress the carefully constructed metaphors (such as the presence of aliens, monsters and human mutants) we will find that the foundation of such films is always a commentary on our contemporary world. Somewhere under the surface, between the lines, science-fiction is always addressing our political, socio-economic or environmental situation, tapping into our collective fears and with a cathartic ending reassuring us that, no matter what dangers the humanity faces in a certain socio-historical moment, everything is going to work out just fine. Whether it is a sci-fi movie from the Cold War era, influenced by the nuclear threat and fear of communist Russia taking over the world, a post 9/11 alien-invasion movie that taps into people’s fear of terrorist attacks, or an environmental catastrophe movie from the early 2000’s when the reality and undeniable threat of global warming entered into our collective consciousness – there is always an important correlation between a science fiction story and an era in which it was made, even if such films do not always approach these subjects in the most impartial and non damaging way. But this is where Arrival so extraordinarily stands out from alien films that we have seen in the past, proving itself to be one of the most outstanding and humanist science fiction films of the past decade.

Denis Villeneuve, who is proving himself to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking “mainstream” directors with films such as Enemy (2013) and Sicario (2015) under his belt, remains faithful to his slow-pacing tone, extremely rich symbolism and multi-layered (as well as non-linear) story that makes every further re-watch an extremely insightful and rewarding experience. He takes his time building up the story and it is not until the end (if not until the second viewing) that we can fully apprehend (and appreciate) this film’s brilliance and the powerful, unique message it delivers.

As a series of pod-shaped crafts (that seem to be greatly influenced by the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey) lands on earth, hovering just above the ground in 12 different locations, everyone starts to wonder what is going to happen. And while most people immediately turn to fear and start to panic (as many of us would when confronted with something unknown; something for which we have no means to understand), the fact remains that nothing is actually happening; there are no attacks, no attempts at taking over the world. They simply arrived – but why? And why are they staying here?

Instead of preparing to attack and destroy the mysterious objects, the military contacts two established scientists in hope that they would manage to establish a communication with extraterrestrial species living inside of each craft. A linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are therefore brought to the site and introduced to heptapods living inside, but the usual science-duo gets an interesting twist by Banks being the who ends up calling all the shots and taking over the control of the situation. Amy Adams does a stellar job at portraying this brilliant and daring character that, even though is portraying a woman in power, does not end up being a stereotype of a woman who found herself lost in a man’s world and is desperately trying to stay there by acting like one of them. Dr. Banks instead has all the best qualities from both sides of the gender dichotomy spectrum: she is highly intelligent, rational, brave and uncompromising, but she is also intuitive, understanding and emphatic, which is why she has the least trouble in reaching out to foreign species and beginning a communication even though she does not speak their language.

Since their vocal communication is incomprehensible, she focuses on their written components; on symbols that resemble an ancient ouroboros – a symbol representing an infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, of life and death. But little does she knows how learning this new language will help her entering into a whole new dimension of thought and how it will ultimately change her whole life: her perception of time, the whole meaning of her existence. It is here that the film enters into the field of linguistic relativity – into a theory that believes that the structure of a language in which we were born and which we speak shapes and affects our world-view and cognition. With each new language that we learn, we gain new knowledge, we enter into a new reality, and as a result we start to see and perceive the world differently.

By fearlessly engaging with the unknown Banks enters into a whole new reality and gains knowledge she never thought was within her reach (or even existed). Everything she needed to do to gain access to it was to open her eyes, her mind, her heart – and this is where the main beauty of this film lies. It is not enough to simply learn about existence of other cultures, languages, religions, traditions. It is not enough to unreflectively learn the information, the history, the grammar. We need to really absorb a different way of seeing; of seeing beyond of what is known, of what feels comfortable and safe. We need to not only acknowledge, but really see and understand everything and everyone that is foreign and unknown to us. No matter where we come from, of what is our nationality, gender, race, religion or sexual  orientation – we all have a lot to learn from one another, for we all see and experience the world differently.

If we watch the film closely we can see that this simple message is there from the very beginning: from the first time that Baker and other members of her team enter the craft, it is as if they are approaching a window that will give them knowledge to a new dimension. And if we look at the shape of the craft when shown from afar, we can see a vague resemblance to a contact lens; to something that brings our gloom reality out of the blur and helps us seeing the world more clearly. To something that provides us a new eye-sight, a new perspective, a new world-view, and with it a new level of consciousness, connectedness and collectivity.

The Basics:
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisseres (based on the short story by Ted Chiang)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8