Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Quotes of 2016

This is my favorite feature to write each year. Screenwriting and screenwriters fascinate me. The best scripts evoke emotions and themes it is possible even the writer did not see. A film is the sum of its component parts, among which one is the screenplay, but that screenplay is made up of its own components – lines, characters, directions – that mean so much more together than they do apart.

The Top 10 Quotes feature began with a decidedly narrow focus, attempting to identify individual lines within scripts that best summarized or exemplified the themes at the cores of their films. This approach lacks a broader context. As much as the cinema is an escape, it is increasingly difficult – although, perhaps it was always impossible – to view a film without considering it through the prism of the real world. So, while each of these lines is wonderfully evocative in its own right, each also reveals a grander emotion or theme that informs the world beyond the screen.

10. “You only have to forgive once” from The Light Between Oceans, written by Derek Cianfrance

Rachel Weisz in The Light Between Oceans
Adapted by writer-director Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans poses a series of devastating moral dilemmas and proceeds to follow each to its painfully logical conclusion. Every decision has the potential to destroy the lives of every person that decision touches. It is a complex and beautiful film that begins as a portrait of the lengths we will go to spare our loved ones pain but ends as a treatise on the value of forgiving those who have caused us pain.

Hannah (Rachel Weisz) loses her husband and infant daughter in a boating accident. As she attempts to put the pieces of her life back together, she is shattered all over again by the well-intentioned machinations of the lighthouse keeper Tom (Michael Fassbender) and his wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). They are three good people faced with awful choices who all suffer greatly because of each other.

With every right to seethe, to lash out in anger, to hold on to her grievances and grief, Hannah remembers the words of her late husband: “You only have to forgive once.” It takes her time to take heed fully of this maxim, but when she does, the disorienting blur of the film’s ethical morass comes into sharp focus. The only idea in which we can find moral certitude is forgiveness, an action of which we are all capable, no matter the slights or transgressions committed against us.

9. “You haven’t seen the rubbish” from The Dressmaker, written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan

Now, if you will permit me to swing 180 degrees in the other direction, I present director-co-writer Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker. This is a strange, cynical, angry film featuring a pair of brilliant performances in the mother-daughter pair at its center Molly and Tilly Dunnage (Judy Davis and Kate Winslet, respectively). It argues persuasively for a world in which some people and places are like trees rotten at the root that should be chopped down before their spoiled fruit can sicken anyone else.

Tilly, a London dressmaker in the haute couture industry, returns to her small hometown in rural Australia decades after an incident in which she was blamed for the death of a small boy – mind you, when she was just a child as well. She arrives initially to do penance, to have the town forgive her and welcome her back through her work. Molly, who became a town pariah in her daughter’s exile, rightly tells her there is nothing that can be done. The town will use her, judge her, and spit her back out, as it has done to Molly.

Tilly learns this lesson the hard way, over and over, but unlike in her childhood, she is no longer defenseless against this town or its people. She sets in motion her revenge, and as she leaves town on the rail – this time, by choice – the largest fire the Outback has ever seen burns on the horizon. The train steward suggests someone has overdone it with their rubbish fire. Tilly responds, “You haven’t seen the rubbish.” By this time, we in the audience have seen the rubbish. It is fiercely nihilistic, but as evidenced by the world around us, some trash needs to burn.

8. “A first lady must always be ready to pack her bags” from Jackie, written by Noah Oppenheim

Natalie Portman in Jackie
Director Pablo Larraín gifts us here with a biopic unlike any you have ever seen as Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), yet to become Onassis, tells the story of the defining tragedy of her life in her own words days after the event has taken place. She is a wreck of a woman, destroyed by what has happened to her but caged by the expectations of a nation and a repressive upbringing.

Even at her most vulnerable, she cannot bring herself to say what she means, and when she does, she denies having said it. She hides her pain beneath the veneer of propriety. However, when she slips and lets out a truth, it is as though a crack has opened up in her façade, and before she can plaster over it, she has given us a brief glimpse into her life and her experience in spite of herself.

All of Jackie plays like a series of dramatic ironies. In John and Jackie’s happiest moments, we know what is to come, but so does Jackie, who is narrating the story for us. As a result, everything is tinged with the pain of hindsight. However, in saying, “A first lady must always be ready to pack her bags,” Jackie is not speaking solely of her tragedy. Such is the truth of the president and the first lady – the White House is not their home. It belongs to the people, and the people can take it back whenever they see fit. By election, term limit, or assassination, one way or another, you are leaving that home, and your mark on it will be impermanent at best – a lesson best remembered by the president, as well.

7. “I can’t beat it” from Manchester by the Sea, written by Kenneth Lonergan

As a portrait of grief and grieving, writer-director Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has few equals. It nails the ever-present whirlwind of pain, anger, guilt, and longing in ways other films would be afraid to engage. In its honesty and brutality, it shocks the senses, and for an audience unprepared for such raw emotion, it unnerves.

After the death of his brother, Lee (Casey Affleck) returns to his hometown to care for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The experience is made more painful for Lee by the constant reminders of the personal tragedy that forced him to leave town in the first place, including ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). He fights and he claws to bring himself back from the abyss, to honor his brother’s wishes, and to find some connection, solace in family.

Finally, with the weight of the past, present, and an uncertain future crashing down upon him, he breaks down at the dinner table, telling Patrick, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” It is the most emotionally naked moment in a movie that traffics in such sentiment, and it is all the more daring for taking us to such a dark, unforgiving place. We want everything to be okay for Lee, for Patrick, for Randi, for ourselves. When a film tells us sometimes it will not be okay, it is distressing, but it is truthful. Sometimes, things are not okay.

6. “What place is there for a weak man in this world?” from Silence, written by Martin Scorsese and Jack Cocks

Andrew Garfield and Yosuke Kubozuka in Silence
To some degree, almost all of Scorsese’s films are about strong, self-possessed people, be they mobsters, comedians, waitresses, or taxi drivers. Their conviction and righteousness – as defined by their own perspective – is unwavering, and this assuredness carries them down a path, usually to their destruction. How remarkable and refreshing then that Scorsese’s best film in years explores the path of the weak, the wavering, and the wondering.

Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are Jesuit priests in a nation, Japan, where Catholicism has been outlawed. The atrocities they see force them to question their faith in a god who would allow such things to happen to his believers. They are plagued by these questions and the guilt these questions inspire. They should be pillars of the faith for a people whose every breath is belief and every action is praise.

It takes the weak-willed Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who sells out the fathers, his faith, and his god at every turn, to show Rodrigues the truth. His actions test the boundaries of forgiveness, but he is sincere when he asks Rodrigues where he belongs in this world as a man with no conviction. Kichijiro’s weakness calls out for a strength of faith he does not possess and which only Rodrigues can provide him. The weak have just as much a right to this world as the strong.

5. “Sometimes, we’re asked to do things that are beyond us” from Midnight Special, written by Jeff Nichols

A March release that was unfairly forgotten amid the sturm und drang of the year, Nichols’ tender ode to the early science fiction of Steven Spielberg is ripe for rediscovery. The writer-director described the film as his reflection on being a father, and those origins shine through in every second of the relationship between Roy (Michael Shannon) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

Shannon is typically excellent as a father trying to help his young son escape a religious cult that believes he is a prophet of god. Despite all the fantastical science fiction elements, at its core, this is a chase film. Roy and Alton are fugitives, looking for help wherever they can get it. At one point, they trust the wrong man, who tells Roy, “Sometimes, we’re asked to do things that are beyond us.”

His failure costs all of them deeply, and this is his manner of explanation. However, it is undeniably true as Roy and Alton can attest in the middle of a plan for which they are ill-equipped. At some point, most of us will be asked to perform a task beyond what we think is possible, either because of means or motivation. Some will succeed and some will not, but the only failure is not pushing ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of, which is how Roy and Alton end up where they do.

4. “No one ever listens to him, so why should he listen to them?” from I, Daniel Blake, written by Paul Laverty

Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, and Briana Shann in I, Daniel Blake
Director Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning drama is a deeply infuriating investigation of the ravages of austerity and the failure of governments to care for their citizens. It functions as a primal scream against a system built to lock people out, and yet, it strikes a deeply human chord in its depiction of good people who simply want to do right by each other, the bureaucracy be damned.

Daniel (Dave Johns) is a carpenter who is not medically cleared to return to work in the wake of a heart problem. However, the government physician – who is not a doctor – contradicts this, and in the eyes of the system, he is not entitled to his medical benefits. As he fights for his benefits, he befriends a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), and her two small children, Daisy and Dylan (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan, respectively).

One afternoon with the children, Daniel tries to get Dylan’s attention but cannot. His sister observes, “No one ever listens to him, so why should he listen to them?” This is astute. The world has no time for the Daniels and Katies and Daisys and Dylans. It does not want to hear of their plight nor consider its role in creating it. The world consumes. It roars. So, why shouldn’t they roar back? Why shouldn’t we?

3. “There ought not never have been a time called ‘too early’” from Fences, written by August Wilson

Fences, Wilson’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is one of the greatest things ever written in the English language. It sings the lyrics of everyday life more crisply and clearly than anything that came before or has come since. It is a musical without songs, a dance without steps, a rhythmic flow of emotion and truth and beauty.

Denzel Washington brings it to the screen, and as a director, he mostly gets out of its way. As an actor, however, reprising his role from the recent Tony-winning Broadway revival, he leans back and rips into the material like a slugger on fastball. Though not written for him, the role of Troy Maxon feels like it was just waiting for Washington to come along and play it. The perfect marriage of actor and part.

Of course, it all begins with the character Wilson put on the page – the embittered ex-baseball player Troy, who feels the world owes him more than he ever got and knows he missed his chance in life because of racism, a poor upbringing, just plain bad luck, or a combination of all three. When he is told his playing career went nowhere because he came along too early, before Jackie Robinson and the Civil Rights movement as a whole, he lashes out. Why should there even have been a time of such inequity? Why, indeed.

2. “If I go, there’s just no telling how far I’ll go” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Pardon if so far this has been a dour list, but it was that kind of year, wasn’t it? What little hope there was to be found seemed to flash in and out of existence, like the flicker of a candle in a downpour. Miranda offered us two – his Broadway sensation Hamilton and the soundtrack to Moana. Much of the soundtrack is a series of collaborations among Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, but the film’s signature song, “How Far I’ll Go,” is a solo composition by Miranda, and it is glorious.

The same can be said of Moana, a Disney princess movie that has the courage not to be a princess movie, as stated even by the titular heroine (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) throughout the film. She is a wanderer, an explorer, which is similar to other Disney princesses, but unlike so many before her who journeyed to find love or to realize they were happy at home, Moana journeys because it is a part of her. She must, and the only question is right there in the title of the song: How far will she go? The answer is in the lyric: There is no telling.

It is as uplifting a message as you are likely to find this year: try, fail, try again, keep going, stretch yourself, and do not wonder about the destination, just go. I would say it is refreshingly progressive for a Disney movie, but in fact, it is a progressive message for any movie. So much of life is learning limitations, banging our fists against walls and our heads against ceilings. This should not be the case. Just go, and if you do, there is no telling how far you will travel.

1. “We made a legend out of a massacre” from I Am Not Your Negro, written by James Baldwin and Raoul Peck

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro
The history of the United States is a modern history of atrocity. From the natives who were already here to the slaves who were brought here to the immigrants who came here, the white European ruling class has used its power and influence to dominate, oppress, and terrorize. If we cannot agree on this fact, we will not agree on much else. That there is even debate is the sick result of a guilty party unwilling to admit guilt or even to admit there is something for which to be guilty.

Peck’s documentary, made from activist Baldwin’s unfinished book, is a deeply personal view of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, its implications for the world today, and its roots in the past. It is honest, unflinching, and unafraid to call racism what it is – a malevolent scourge that ignores what is human in all of us. To deny its existence is to reinforce its power. To deny its influence is to be influenced by it. It tears at the fabric of American life, making life impossible to live for Americans.

Schools cannot even agree today on what to teach about slavery. It is not brought up in polite society, lest we remind some sensitive soul of the indignities suffered by an entire people at the hands of someone else’s forebears. No, most want to believe slavery was the past. It was the Civil War. It was the Underground Railroad. It was a few songs to pass the nights on the plantation. “Swing low, sweet chariot.” It is a story. It is a legend. But in truth, it was and remains a massacre.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we count down the Top 10 Performances of 2016, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.

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