The year on screen so far – 2016

The Wolfpack, dir. Crystal Moselle

This documentary film is incredibly haunting and stayed with me long after I saw it. I wasn’t prepared for how close to home it would hit, so unwittingly, I watched it on a flight from Europe to the U.S. I cried through a good portion of it, prompting some wary looks from fellow passengers and flight attendants. And I rarely cry, not just for movies, but for anything.

It’s a story about a band of brothers raised in total social isolation by their tyrant alcoholic father in the midst of New York City. Not allowed to set foot outside their home during their entire childhood because the streets of New York are “dangerous and full of evil people” waiting to corrupt their souls, the brothers turn to their father’s movie collection as their sole source of both entertainment as well as education, re-enacting their favorite scenes and learning entire dialogue scripts (which they transcribed) by heart. Things take a turn when the second oldest brother, at age 15, defies his father’s orders and starts going outside into the ‘real world’ to explore it, prompting the rest of his brothers to follow suit.

Getting such a candid glimpse into the pathologically sick mind of the father and into the lives of the dysfunctional family he’s created provokes nothing but raw emotion. This family’s story is so strange, that it stretches your consciousness just trying to comprehend something so beyond the pale. “I guess you could say he was overprotective,” quips one of the brothers. The boys do not paint their father as a monster, but rather expose him as a megalomaniac.

My parents were not tyrants and I had a relatively happy childhood as an only child, but I was brought up to believe that evil people lurked around every corner and that my innocent soul was constantly in imminent danger of being corrupted. I think my mother was happiest when I stayed at home. It took me a long time to shake a feeling of dread and anxiety, not just every time I stepped out of the 500-meter radius from my house, but also over my future out in the world. “I remember being scared of going out into the world,” says one brother.

My father never worked a day in his life and justified it in exactly the same way that the brothers’ father does in the documentary. He used to voice lofty beliefs about freedom from working for the Man, proclaiming himself an all-knowing guru. When the brothers explained that their Dad didn’t believe in working for a living because it meant “being a slave to society,” it painfully rang a few bells. (My father has since modified his views and regrets some of his decisions.)

What is maybe the most astonishing aspect of this story is how articulate, intelligent, kind and thoughtful these boys have grown up to be. It would almost suggest that education by movies is not the worst thing that can happen to a child, especially to these children, who grew up in an alternate reality that they themselves created in response to their confinement. This story actually has a happy ending.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
– Kahlil Gibran

Spotlight, dir. Tom McCarthy

The reason this movie works, and is well worth watching, is that it avoids being bombastic and loud about its highly explosive material, which is sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. McCarthy approaches his subject matter the way The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists approached the scandal they uncovered: with calm precision, and yet not without emotion.

Emotions do run high in this film, but they remain contained because they’re filtered through the perspective(s) of the journalistic team. There is no triumphant glee in exposing systemically endorsed depravity, only a bitter-sweet mix of sadness, anger, and righteousness that comes from doing right by somebody, because the ultimate focus of the story is not on the Catholic Church, but on its victims.

The Witch, dir. Robert Eggers

I’ve reviewed this movie extensively in an earlier post, so I won’t go into it again here. Having recently re-watched it, I can only confirm what I’ve already said: it’s one of the best psychological horrors ever made, and one of the top five films of 2016. My expectations for director Eggers’ future endeavors are now impossibly high.

The Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), dir. Ciro Guerra

It’s easy to connect the dots between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and this Colombian masterpiece. If Conrad’s book is a condemnation of the British colonial experiment in Africa, and Coppola’s film is a condemnation of the American war experiment in Vietnam, then The Embrace of the Serpent is the extension of Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” to the big business’s wholesale occupation and destruction of the Amazon forest and its native tribes.

Quiet and meditative like the gliding of boats along the Amazon river, Guerra’s film is bursting with poetic imagery, and yet the lushness of the rainforest is subdued by the use of black-and-white cinematography. It provides a dreamlike, almost psychedelic backdrop for a story of greedy imperialism and cultural appropriation.

Guerra subverts the trope of the wise shaman, the Last Mohican of his people, by giving us an old man who has lost his spiritual mission and whose quest to retrieve it mirrors that of the white scientists searching for a sacred healing plant. The shaman’s emotional disorientation, as he reluctantly agrees to act as a guide for the two scientists, also quietly refutes the white-man perspective of Joffè’s 1986 The Mission, which Guerra deliberately takes under advisement.

As journeys into the heart of darkness go, this one is emotionally very rewarding, largely thanks to the warm and fascinating character of the shaman in the midst of it.

Midnight Special, dir. Jeff Nichols

I would watch anything with Michael Shannon in it. The intensity of his screen presence, of those haunted but not unkind eyes, is always on the verge of hijacking the plot of every movie he’s in. In the rare moments when he smiles, it’s like the evening breeze at the end of the summer, when the days start to get shorter – you shudder lightly and reach for something to cover yourself with.

Midnight Special is a bit of an outlandish movie, even by sci-fi standards, but very clever in slowly revealing the motivations and personal histories of its mysterious main protagonists. It could’ve easily given way to cheap sentimentalism and oh-so-obvious Jesus Christ parallels, but both young Jaeden Lieberher’s (as the gifted/cursed main character) and Kirsten Dunst’s (as his mother) subdued, controlled performances nicely counteract Shannon’s emotional intensity, which harks to his turn in Nichols’ earlier film Take Shelter.

It reminded me a little bit of 1997’s Contact, mostly because of its quiet but sustained meditation on science vs. religion, which viewers from both sides of the fence are likely to find palatable.

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