(Editor’s Note: Three years ago, Carmen Petaccio and Taylor Sardoni exchanged 15,000 words of email correspondence about the ten most notable films of 2013. No one was ever able to determine why, and now they’re at it again. You can read Part One of this year’s exchange by clicking these words, Part Two by clicking these words. This is the last part for 2016, thankfully.)
Sardoni Selects 2: An Exhaustive Email Exchange: Part Three
Sardoni: Isn’t all of life women dealing with incompetent men? (Editor’s Note: No. Heil Trump.) Maybe that’s just my life. This year, we have two movies that tackle the subject of “forbidden love,” the first being Loving, a sensational film about what was, in retrospect, a very unsensational relationship. The movie chronicles a part of American history that makes you shudder, but it does so in the most subtle fashion. Like the couple it portrays, Loving is quiet and non-confrontational on the volatile subjects of race and politics, and shows incredible restraint in its depiction of the court case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This is what makes Loving such an accomplishment: it argues its point without arguing at all. Looking at Jeff Nichols’s short filmography, Take Shelter is hard to beat, but Loving is right behind it in terms of the filmmakers’s already impressive oeuvre. Few directors can move as seamlessly between genres as Nichols, and he’s leading the pack in terms of the next great American auteur.
The Handmaiden, another tale of forbidden love, couldn’t be further from Loving in style and structure. On paper, this is a film that could have come across as combative, but on the screen the final product is fluid and composed. The Handmaiden asks then answers the question: What if the creator of The Vengeance Trilogy directed a period piece? Park Chan-wook always tries to rile audiences spiritually, sexually, and sometimes scarily, but his films never fail to keep the viewer transfixed. While Loving focuses on the silent moments between quiet moments, letting its central relationship slide subtly into place, The Handmaiden plays at every imaginable volume, leaving the audience to make sense of the noise. Even if you’re ahead of the narrative in one scene, you’re bound to be left behind by the next. And yet, the film is never frustrating; it’s extremely inviting: the cinematography, costumes, and locations all come together, revealing a director having as much fun playing with the audience as we are having fun watching him play. Great filmmakers deploy a “twist” to reveal deeper levels to a story, not just to trick the viewer, and The Handmaiden accomplishes that feat as well as any recent film in memory. Though they each delight in their own way, the strengths of The Handmaiden and Loving were all the more welcome in a weaker year in film.
CP: I couldn’t agree more with your reading of Loving, a film that masterfully marries its content and form. If a less considerate filmmaker directs that movie, it’s a pedantic courtroom drama, either heightened to parody by Aaron Sorkin or reduced to genre exercise by whoever directed Black or White. Loving, meanwhile, probably spends less than two minutes of screen time in an actual courtroom, opting instead for a drama that originates from the psychologies of its two main characters, Richard and Mildred. Nichols lets those psyches dictate both the plot and style of the film, which convey the story with an almost frustrating reluctancy, consigning history to the background as the profound, mostly unspoken bond between the characters moves to the fore. Even the climactic judgement in their favor happens offscreen, with neither Richard nor Mildred in attendance. There are films that subvert conventions of the medium loudly, but Loving does so at a delicate whisper, for two genres to boot. More than an inversion of the courtroom drama, it upends the common belief that history is shaped by a select, superhuman few. History, it argues, can also have humble origins. Here are my favorite Jeff Nichols movies, ranked.
1 Take Shelter
3. Shotgun Stories
4. Midnight Special
There are maybe a dozen directors worldwide who represent a genre unto themselves, who construct a separate set of personal conventions that exist independently from the conventions of cinema as a whole. Park Chan-wook is one of those directors, and, as in Loving, part of the joy of watching The Handmaiden derives from following how Chan-wook steers bravely toward and away from the established idea of the Park Chan-wook genre. His last movie, the direly under-appreciated Stoker, was the first that he didn’t also write, a fact that seemed to free him to concentrate on direction and shot composition, two of The Handmaiden‘s greatest strengths. The elaborateness of the cinematography matches that of the plot, while the violence is (relatively) more subdued and, surprisingly, coupled with moments of true intimacy; only the surest hands can thread shifting needles. To recite the emergent theme: The two women at the center of The Handmaiden are slave in every facet of their lives to the asinine desires and structures of men, erotic and economic and otherwise. That they must extend themselves to such impossible lengths to escape these structures mirrors the lengths to which Chan-wook goes to realize their story. Like his characters, Chan-wook seeks to break the chains of a sinister, overbearing man. He just happens to be his own captor.
We have three more films to discuss, all of which, like Loving and The Handmaiden, concern characters imprisoned by their era: The VVitch, Green Room, and Hell or High Water. What would you rather be: a possessed puritan, a balding bank robber, or someone named “Imogen Poots”?
TS: I have to agree on your Jeff Nichols list, and I quite liked Mud…
Film can act as a backdoor to unvisitable worlds, other times and places entirely, and these last few films all carry viewers to a variety of far flung settings, periods, and styles. Neither Green Room nor Hell or High Water tries to reinvent their respective genres, but both are incredibly satisfying nonetheless. We lost so many great artists in 2016 that the death of Anton Yelchin was somewhat lost in the shuffle, but he was such a creative performer, ready to adapt to whatever his role called for. His brutal performance in Green Room ranks right up there with my favorites, alongside his parts in the understated drama Like Crazy and the charming comedy Charlie Bartlett. The absurdity and improbability of his accident lends an unfortunate dimension to the violence on display in Green Room. The movie drips with sweat, scum, and blood, yet right underneath it all is a polished film built on tension and character development. Jeremy Saulnier, the director, showed real chops in his previous film Blue Ruin (four more color-titled films and he will complete the illustrious ROYGBIV!) and with his latest he only reaffirms his promising skill as a filmmaker. The claustrophobic tension in Green Room is palpable, like a pressure cooker brought to the point of explosion. As an avid horror fan, no movie surprised me more this year.
Where Green Room traps its viewers, Hell or High Water leaves its audience stranded in a vast, harsh landscape. In a film that features two of the best young-ish actors(Chris Pine and Ben Foster), Jeff Brdges still manages to shine. The characters are as memorable as any of the chases and shootouts, which are directed with insane amounts of precision and control. And its appeal doesn’t discriminate: this is a film for you, your dad and mom, your grandparents. It feels very of the moment and, at the same time, like a rediscovered classic, which only sounds hyperbolic if you haven’t seen the movie. Like Green Room, Hell or High Water features top-notch directing, incredible individual and ensemble performances, and stories so of the times that they will stand the test of time.
No other film in 2016 gave me the chills as much as The VVitch (vvhich will be referred to as The Witch from here on out, to give my autocorrect a break). Though it wasn’t the strongest year overall, 2016 was a great year for horror. Look at the list of major releases: The Conjuring 2, Purge: Election Year, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, The Shallows, The Blair Witch, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Under the Shadow, The Eyes of My Mother, The Wailing, Nina Forever. Of the top horror films (the first eight listed above), the average Rotten Tomatoes scores is ~73%, with only Purge: Election Year (which you could argue has shifted more to the action genre) and The Blair Witch (which people need to lay off of) scoring “rotten.” For a genre that’s often dismissed out of hand, the money and acclaim that these films raked in is insane. What I’m trying to say is that, in a super competitive year, The Witch stood head and shoulders above its competition. The ludicrous attention to period detail. The originality of repurposing historical documents as dialogue. The use of setting as a malevolent force. It’s divisive, raw, and completely flawed in my opinion, yet I wouldn’t change a single second of The Witch.
Real talk: most of the screenwriting work I’ve been getting for the past two years has been low budget horror/thriller. As you know CarCar, I was the seven-year-old who’d rather watch Hitchcock alone than play outside with other kids, so the work isn’t completely in line with my passions. But when a film like The Witch comes along, I feel a new hope for the scripts I have going into production this year, that horror can demand (and deserve) the attention that other genres receive. Maybe it was the general horror of the year, but this terrifying, dark tale of supernatural possession…gives me hope? It’s the hope that film can still make people stand up and take notice and engage with others who are willing to listen. What does that say about me?
CP: Well, if you’re still able to feel hopeful after the past year, I’m profoundly jealous. I chose to group together our final three films–Green Room, Hell or High Water, The VVitch–because, despite their profound formal and narrative differences, each follows characters that inhabit an oppressive, violent, seemingly inescapable reality. (You know, like ours.) Whether it’s white supremacy (Green Room), corporate greed (Hell or High Water), or religious orthodoxy (The VVitch), the seemingly dormant societal pathologies that animate these films all came snarling back to vicious life by years’ end. Now the incoming president’s Senior Advisor is a neo-nazi, Mike Pence wants GM to build tiny hearses for fetuses, and the very same people who collapsed the American economy in 2008 unilaterally control it at the highest levels. Worst of all, the Golden Globes nominated Deadpool, a soulless fantasia of 4Chan humor, for Best Picture. Deadpool! You’re more than welcome to stay and hope, but I’m going to live deliciously in the woods with Black Phillip.
Like Midnight Special, the second-best Jeff Nichols film released in 2016, The VVitch is an allegorized tale of troubled parenthood, of what happens when a father must raise a child completely unlike himself. While a handful of directorial decisions undermined the clarity of Midnight Special‘s message, a parable of philistines sending their kid to art school, every artistic choice in the The VVitch serves to strengthen both its fictional world and the very real horror at its core: the terror of a parent helpless to protect his children from the corruptive powers of the world. Within that tension are still more tensions–religious and secular, spiritual and corporeal, enslavement and freedom–and The VVitch draws all of them out without proclaiming allegiance to a side. The film can be read alternately as a daughter’s descent into secularism, or a daughter’s emancipation from conservatism; the ostensible simplicity of its setting and stakes belie an intricate argument about faith, loyalty, and the violence humans are willing to exact and endure to assure themselves that they are in the right. Trite as it is to say, the failings of Americans in the seventeenth century are no less present in the twenty-first. We rail against one cage only for the chance to lock ourselves in another.
Both Green Room and Hell or High Water are set in the present day, but each of their particular conflicts, given the degenerative cultural moment, now carry a ring of the speculative, of fictions destined to become regular fixtures of our reality. These are brutal, ethically murky films for similarly characterizable times, and both present a shared, straightforward solution to the complex problems of today: When they go low, also go low. In Green Room, the only effective way to combat violence is a greater violence, as the only response to institutional criminality is personal criminality in Hell or High Water. To quote McGowan, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” And along the same lines, What’s the killing of a nazi compared to being killed by nazi? Much preferable, I’d argue. All told, the two films feature a single major character of color, Alberto, the vaping Comanche Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water, but both explicitly detail how racial dynamics continue to operate, constructively and destructively, as a lingua franca for Americans. Racial hatred unifies the neo-nazis in Green Room as racist humor bonds Alberto and his partner in Hell or High Water, and it’s vital to note how fiction acknowledged the enduring reality of racism as millions of actual clowns came together to deny it. When evil goes low, the good must go even lower. A major award show nominated Deadpool for Best Picture; we all live in the gutter now. Beyond the ten movies we’ve discussed, I see little reason to hope. I’m too busy worrying about being killed by nazis.
Taylor & Carmen’s 10 Notable Films of 2016
Manchester By the Sea
Hell or High Water