Last Ten Films: Unknown Pleasures

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

 

My last ten films seen between July 27 and August 23, 2015, with number ratings out of 10.

Tangerine (Baker, 2015) 9/10
Boogie Nights* (Anderson, 1997) 9/10
Irrational Man (Allen, 2015) 5/10
Brazil* (Gilliam, 1985) 10/10
The End Of The Tour* (Ponsoldt, 2015) 8/10
The Trip To Italy* (Winterbottom, 2014) 7/10
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Pennebaker, 1973) 6/10
Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015) 6/10
Mistress America (Baumbach, 2015) 7/10
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015) 10/10

*indicates that this was at least a second viewing

Two exceptional new indies bookend this list; both may very well end up in my year-end top ten.

I’ve seen enough coming-of-age films to contribute to a Chlotrudis poll about them, but I’ve seen nothing quite like The Diary of a Teenage Girl: funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, it’s also a period piece, set in 1976 San Francisco. And, it kicks off with a whopper of a revelation: 15-year-old protagonist Minnie (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is not only twenty years older but also her mother’s (Kristin Wiig) boyfriend.  Divulging this news via a diary recorded in her bedroom on cassette tapes, Minnie’s not ashamed of what happened, but clearly transformed: you sense the thousands of hormonally charged emotions rushing through her as she both carefully considers while also allowing herself to be swept away by the newness and immensity of it all.

In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller fluidly and inventively incorporates animation into Minnie’s world. An aspiring comic book artist, Minnie’s drawings often leap off the page and onto the screen, creatively depicting the realms of her imagination and how it co-exists with her reality. Which gets complicated as she continues her clandestine affair with Monroe, for her emotional maturity hasn’t yet caught up with her recent sexual liberation. Exacerbated by an unstable, overly permissive environment (Monroe, her mother and assorted friends often hang out at home drinking, dancing and snorting lines of cocaine), Minnie wants to be bold and free, but is she ready to take responsibility for her actions? Heller lets this all play out refreshingly without judgement or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. However, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.

Skarsgård is ideally cast as a slacker/loser who is nonetheless nice to and fully aware of his desire for Minnie (however misguided it is) while trying, not always successfully, not to exploit or take advantage of her. Although somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars, Wiig steps into the fun mom role with ease, while Christopher Meloni has a few good, acidic moments as her intellectual, withholding ex-husband. Still, this is rightfully British actress Powley’s film. Both charismatic and convincing, she manages to make Minnie a believable American teen (she was 21-22 during filming) and has a winning enough persona to create a distinct young heroine for the ages (think of Thora Birch in Ghost World, or even Ellen Page in Juno). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, this uncommonly perceptive coming-of-age tale is highly recommended for anyone going or having once gone through puberty, regardless of gender, sexuality or era.

Tangerine

Tangerine

 

Tangerine, Sean Baker’s so-microbudget-that-it-was-shot-on-an-iPhone (though it looks good enough that you’d never guess) feature appears to be a throwback to indie film’s golden age (‘80s Jarmusch, but also New Queer Cinema) in that it seems like it came from out of nowhere to saturate the festival and arthouse circuits (it has quietly grossed $600K in six weeks). It’s far more modern than that—innovative, actually, in how naturally it presents its two male-to-female transgender leads, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Some may balk that they’re both playing prostitutes (respectively named Alexandra and, ahem, Sin-Dee), and at first, the film can barely keep up with this motor-mouthed duo as they seem to invite drama and create chaos wherever they go.

Happily, within 10-15 minutes, Baker and his leads establish an identifiable, endearing rhythm as they traverse L.A.’s seedy sidewalks and parking lots and the corner donut shop which serves as the film’s home base. The story centers on a single day-into-night search for the girl rumored to be sleeping with Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome). Then, Baker introduces a parallel narrative involving Armenian cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian) whose path intersects with the leads intermittently until both strands eventually, fully align with an extended screwball exchange back at that donut shop.

The film succeeds largely in part of Baker’s direction of his cast. From the start, you pick up on Taylor’s and Rodriguez’s chemistry; both are also strong enough to carry scenes individually–especially Taylor, whose karaoke performance is a highlight (she could easily achieve Laverne Cox-level fame with a higher-profile role). Karaguilan maintains his protagonist status even as the film reveals increasingly less savory facets of his character. Ransome’s Chester is like an older and slightly (but really not much) wiser iteration of the actor’s best-known role, fuck-up Ziggy from season 2 of The Wire. For all its zesty trash-talk and colorful situations, Tangerine is more or less about friendship—how you’ll put up with a friend, remain loyal to them, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad. Remarkably, Baker emphasizes these points in the final two scenes not with cloying sentimentality but via a lived-in bond between Alexandra and Sin-Dee that feels honest and earned.

*****

As for other new titles: preferable to While We’re Young but certainly no Frances Ha, Mistress America is as scattered as Greta Gerwig’s more ambitious-than-talented New Yorker, although it’s at least pleasantly fizzy, like that Whit Stillman film she starred in a few years back. Based on her droll turn here, I’d bet on Lola Kirke maintaining a more interesting career than her older sister Jemima (currently saddled with the worst-written character on Girls). Best of Enemies is indeed best when showing clips from the Buckley vs. Gore debates but occasionally fumbles when it tries placing them in a meaningful context. The End of The Tour mostly held up to a second viewing, but this time Segel’s Wallace seemed a little more novel than real; I’m not really aching for a third viewing. Despite Joaquin Phoenix’s and Parker Posey’s decent effort to fit into the Woodyverse, Irrational Man is a lukewarm Hitchcock pastiche that doesn’t catch fire until the final climactic scene (and even then, not worth sitting all the way through for).

Two of the older titles I hadn’t seen since the late ‘90s: Brazil has aged as well as one could hope—one of the key films of the ‘80s, really, and seeing it on the big screen definitely heightened its impact. Boogie Nights is also still a blast, but it loses some steam in its second half (though not in the brilliant, startling “Sister Christian”/Alfred Molina sequence); I think I now prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s last three films to his first four, (which does not prevent me from wanting to see all of them again and again). The Trip to Italy, re-watched more for the scenery than the Coogan/Brydon banter remains solid entertainment for those who like that sort of thing; Ziggy Stardust succeeds less as a piece of filmmaking than as a document of David Bowie at his delirious peak, as fabulous as Liza Minnelli the previous year and as influential and original as David Byrne would prove a decade on in the cinematically superior Stop Making Sense.

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Top Fifty Movies of the 1990s: # 50-41

I began taking film seriously (i.e.—deciding to devote my life to it via a graduate degree) almost exactly in the middle of this decade. Consequently, my current list of favorite films from this in-flux period rambunctiously swerves between the impossibly highbrow and the disarmingly stoopid. And I can’t help but kick it off with one of the latter…

50. THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE
Out of the many, mostly superfluous movie adaptations of old sitcoms made over this decade, few were as sharply satirical and simultaneously affectionate as this loving deconstruction of the TV equivalent of highly processed junk food. So effective you may even prefer Gary Cole and Shelly Long’s interpretations of Carol and Mike to Robert Reed’s and Florence Henderson’s before Henderson herself pops up at the end.

49. THE IRON GIANT
Although he’s arguably surpassed it with his two Pixar features, Brad Bird’s gorgeous full-length debut is its own kind of masterpiece. It initially bombed because it felt so out of time with its understated tone and deliberate pacing; with the possible exception of Miyazaki, it has aged far better than any of its contemporaries.

48. DELICATESSEN
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature still presents such a rich template for everything he would subsequently do that one now almost finds it impossible to conceive that it was co-directed with Marc Caro. In a decade mostly deficient of whimsy and real anarchy, Delicatessen almost feels like a manifesto of sorts—a live action Warner Brothers cartoon, only stranger.

47. BOOGIE NIGHTS
Paul Thomas Anderson came off as a gen-x Robert Altman with this ambitious, hilarious, chilling epic spanning a most hedonistic decade in L.A.’s adult movie industry. Although a little too clever for its own good (something Anderson would rectify on later films), you can’t deny its excitable, somewhat insane ensemble (Marky Mark! Julianne Moore! John C. friggin’ Reilly! All of ’em cast as porn stars!).

46. RUBY IN PARADISE
Never available on DVD, Victor Nunez’s film risks becoming the decade’s lost indie classic (like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is for the 1980s). Probably a little too austere for today’s indieplex audiences, it suggests an intriguing alternate-world career for its young star, a never better Ashley Judd.

45. CLUELESS
The teen movie of the decade. Visually it hasn’t dated all that well, but that’s what makes it as much of an iconic time capsule as Grease or The Breakfast Club. Alicia Silverstone was never better (nor, sadly, was a refreshingly normal-looking Brittany Murphy). Even director Amy Heckerling could never replicate one-tenth of its wit and heart.

44. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
Practically mid-to-late ‘90s indie in a nutshell. Before Todd Solondz’s breakthrough film, you simply could not have a protagonist as geeky and put-upon and frankly infuriating and often deserving of all the shit life has given her as Dawn Weiner. Its sustained comedic awkwardness where you often don’t know whether to laugh or cringe anticipated The Office by a few years.

43. CITIZEN RUTH
For his first feature, writer/director Alexander Payne is a purely satirical Preston Sturges, a stance he’d successfully refine and deepen on his next few efforts. But it remains a delight, both for Payne’s scathing critique of both sides of the abortion issue and for Laura Dern, simply tremendous as an airplane glue sniffing lowlife whose usage as a pawn exposes the ridiculousness sometimes inherent in taking a side.

42. BOTTLE ROCKET
Some stand by this as the best thing Wes Anderson ever did, which I find ludicrous. It’s a first film—a unique, highly accomplished one that fully establishes the director’s voice, but a first film nonetheless, and one with building blocks for ideas and motifs Anderson would develop and alchemize in his next two films. Still, it’s a gas to see such a young Luke and Owen Wilson and perhaps not too absurd to consider that they’ve never been better.

41. BREAKING THE WAVES
Like Dancer In The Dark, this film is way too painful for me to revisit. I’ve only seen it twice in the late-90s but my memories of it remain vivid—particularly of Emily Watson, whose performance is one of the most shattering, sui generis I’ve ever seen. I can’t still can shake the childlike joy she expresses as she dances with her husband to Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding”; nor can I ever forget the film’s tragic, then oddly transcendent final fifteen minutes.