Last Ten Films: What Happened, Movies?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between August 24 and October 23, 2015):

My Winnipeg* (Maddin, 2007) 10/10
Phoenix (Petzold, 2014) 7/10
Harold and Maude* (Ashby, 1971) 10/10
Sicario (Villenueve, 2015) 8/10
Freeheld (Sollett, 2015) 5/10
The Master* (Anderson, 2012) 9/10
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015) 8/10
Portrait of Jason (Clarke, 1967) 6/10
Back to the Future* (Zemeckis, 1985) 9/10
Steve Jobs (Boyle, 2015) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

I do not normally take sixty days to watch ten films; I could blame this drop in moviegoing on a deficit of interesting new titles (also, I already saw Grandma at PIFF and 99 Homes at TIFF), family commitments, and, of course, television. Can any recent indieplex title match Mr. Robot for style, originality and occasional batshit insanity? If David Simon’s six-hour HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero was released theatricality, it would place in my top ten films of the year. So, in all of September, I only saw Harold and Maude—one of my all-time favorites. This was my first viewing on a big screen with a large audience, whose reactions only further enhanced my appreciation of this singular cult romantic comedy.

Fortunately, as the weather worsens and Oscar season kicks in, I have more reasons to spend a few hours indoors in front of a movie screen. While Sicario is probably too violent and relentlessly bleak to gain much awards traction, it’s a near-great film featuring two very good performances that end up in a yin/yang symbiosis before the credits roll, with supposed lead Emily Blunt simply becoming less and less integral to the story which Benicio del Toro increasingly, effectively dominates. Still too bleak for me to want to sit through again, it’s the rare issue film that excels at establishing and sticking to its thesis until a logical, if harrowing conclusion.

Steve Jobs is the most guilelessly entertaining new film on this list; chalk up its rating to a trio of good, sure-to-be-feted performances: Michael Fassbender, steely and charismatic as Jobs; Seth Rogen, his near-tragic, Fozzie-bear-like Steve Wozniak a role he was born to play, and Kate Winslet, mesmerizing (although submerged in wigs and accents) as Jobs’ longtime marketing executive Joanna Hoffman. As someone repeatedly disappointed by Boyle’s post-Trainspotting oeurve, this is one of his better efforts; the tension between his cinematic flourishes and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s talky interludes is even sublime at times. Still, it loses points for being an emphatic crowd pleaser (read: more than a little corny and calculated).

Phoenix is an equally accomplished film with a different problem. Painstakingly constructed and beautifully written, this novel adaptation and post-World War II German gloss on Vertigo is Petzold’s solid follow-up to Barbara, with the song standard “Speak Low” cannily providing running commentary. However, it all hinges upon what you make of a rather implausible plot point. I enjoyed the film despite it, even if I couldn’t believe it. Still, it’s not implausible as to why Phoenix was made; I can’t say the same for Freeheld, a dramatization of an 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary short. Detailing the fight of a dying police detective to leave her pension to her female romantic partner, the short was timely and sobering; this film, on the other hand, seems little more than an excuse to give a few talented actors juicy parts. Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Michael Shannon (as Moore’s professional partner) are all terrific, but you’d expect them to be, and what surrounds them is superfluous if not stale, regrettably never fully coming to life.

The Netflix-only What Happened, Miss Simone? surely would’ve received some theatrical distribution in another time. Opening with footage from a scintillating 1976 concert (later released as Nina Simone, Love Sorceress), it then proceeds like your standard (if impassioned) film biography, but what a story (and what archival footage)! Garbus gives meaning to all of Simone’s contradictions and quirks and also emphasizes how underappreciated a talent she was in her lifetime. I wonder what Simone would’ve made of Jason Holliday, the gay, black prostitute/aspiring nightclub performer who is sole subject of Shirley Clarke’s long-hard-to-find avant garde classic. Simply placing the camera on him for a few hours and plying him with endless cocktails, Clarke certainly anticipated the “look-at-me-and-I’ll-(hopefully)-show-you-what-you-don’t-expect” notion that drives a lot of today’s reality TV; however, while intermittently fascinating, I found Portrait of Jason overall to be a slog—perhaps seeing it within a theater’s confines (as opposed to home DVR) would’ve made for a more effective setting.

As for the three rewatches here (not counting Harold and Maude), Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” holds up the best and is perhaps his most successful effort to gradually, beguilingly draw the viewer into his strange world (seeing it also stoked my anticipation for The Forbidden Room). Maybe The Master is not the game-changer I remember it being (certainly not on the level of There Will Be Blood), but I can imagine returning to it every few years without boredom. Back To The Future was seen in a theater on October 21, of course; influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today?