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Best of 2020

Last year The Last Black Man in San Francisco took home the #1 spot on our annual Top Ten list, and we still stand by placement of that elemental experience over Bong Joon-ho’s architectural Parasite. Given the choice between a) pole position on a Motion State list and b) an Academy Award for Best Picture, well, hopefully Bong Joon-ho’s not too crushed.

Of course, as is nearly always the case, another 2019 release arose on our radar shortly after publication that would have upset the rankings significantly: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a stunning film that sort of existed as both a messy humanist experience and a meticulously-crafted work of precision. Portrait would’ve bumped Parasite to #3, sending Bong Joon-ho into utter desperation, banging on my door at 2am, pleading for another chance.

2020 was weird because…well, we won’t get into all of that. But let’s get out ahead of it this year: through lockdowns, release delays and cinema closures both temporary and tragically permanent, the moviegoing experience was different enough that the following list should be considered with a few grains of salt. I only got to about half the number of films I watched in 2019, and many of the films appearing on other Top Ten lists — notably Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, Pablo Larrain’s Ema, Sean Durkin’s The Nest, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, and a dozen others — simply weren’t available in my area.

Nonetheless! Before we get to the good stuff, please remember to visit our new Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters; we’ll be expanding this section of the site throughout 2021 in an effort to give back to these strongholds of cinema art.

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Beau travail (1999)

War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.

Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.

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Small Axe: Mangrove (2020)

As a White Dude with a full deck of privilege and a shitload of unlearning to do when it comes to an effort at anti-racism, I acknowledge that there’s always going to be imperfection, at best, in my understanding of the Black Experience. Too many people like me use that as an excuse to not even try, of course, preferring the comfort of a bubble in which ignoring racism is hardly ever recognized in and of itself as a racist act. As a White Dude, part of me resides inextricably in this bubble regardless of my physical location. There’s quite an echo in here. And while I do recognize that ignoring racism is itself a contribution to racism — of course it is — I’m still undoubtedly one of those unthinking contributors. And admitting this puts me no closer to our aforementioned understanding. Nine out of ten attempts to place myself outside of the bubble are too weak to even perforate it, and the tenth is a noble failure.

Amongst those measures of not-enough is the discovery, experience, discussion and championing of Black Art. This is too easy and not impactful enough to be considered “putting in the work” for us White Dudes, or to count as allyship in any meaningful sense. So I’m gonna sound really, really desperate to make a grand point here when I turn heel to assert that it’s also not nothing, because not nothing is hardly the bar we should be striving to clear. But when discovering, experiencing, discussing and championing something as vital as Mangrove, even this most passive engagement can result in challenging questions of the sort that are typically drowned out in the din of the benighted bubble.

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Sound of Metal (2020)

“Deaf culture is too big to represent,” says Sound of Metal writer/director Darius Marder. He obviously refers to being represented in its entirety, something no culture can hope to be endowed with over the course of a short two-hour film. That comment comes from the Q&A tied to the Independent Film Festival Boston‘s presentation of Sound of Metal as the Centerpiece of their Fall Focus series, though the film first premiered at TIFF last year (the IFFBoston Q&A is archived on YouTube here and is recommended after you see the movie). Marder, a first-time director, has very consciously depicted a specific subcommunity within deaf society, focusing on one of many, many such citizenries. And yet he’s done so with such artistry that Sound of Metal may teach the hearing community more about deaf culture on the whole than a narrative film ever has.

Though you wouldn’t have seen his name under the Directed By credit before (apart from his 2008 documentary Loot), Marder’s collaboration with his writing partner Derek Cianfrance resulted in The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012. The Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper crime thriller boasts one of the most original approaches to a traditional three-act structure you’re likely to find, and in a way that approach can be viewed as precursor to the structure of Marder’s directing debut. And that debut has been a long time coming: when Marder and Cianfrance first met more than a decade ago, one of the stories they discussed was Sound of Metal. Cianfrance, who has also directed Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans and the stunning HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True, serves as producer on Sound of Metal.

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Minari (2020)

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari follows the Yi Family, a Korean quartet immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They settle in California at first, but Jacob (Steven Yuen) grows impatient with city life. He’s desirous of an expanse of land to call his own, of a family farm, of that elusive thing people sometimes call the American Dream. So he uproots the family and moves to rural Arkansas, where fifty acres of the best dirt in America await. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is far more pragmatic, and she has trouble envisioning the farm of the future behind the dilapidated mobile home of the present. Meanwhile, their children David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) are at first simply along for the ride, fascinated by the fact that they now live in a house that has wheels.

Chung’s semi-autobiographical film — presented last night by Independent Film Festival Boston — may have the trappings of films you’ve seen before, but none of those are likely as heartfelt as Minari. By focusing less on the cultural adjustment of the Yi Family into their Arkansas community and more on the dynamics of the family itself, the story avoids the clichéd Big Ideas that mire so many indie films. Themes of racism and class struggle are certainly in play, but they’re secondary to the family drama. It could almost be called a chamber piece if it didn’t take place on such a wide expanse of land.

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The Paper Tigers (2020)

The Paper Tigers screened as a part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival last night, a fest which also boasted a strong documentary slate this year with the likes of 76 Hours, The Donut King and A Thousand Cuts. Between those and the likes of the Centerpiece Narrative Coming Home Again, BAAFF’s varied offerings mostly skewed toward the dramatic and the serious. Not unheard of for any film festival, of course, but more often than not the diamond in the rough is the oddball film that seems most out-of-place with the hyper-critical festival crowd. The Paper Tigers is that film for this fest, and even in a virtual capacity the kung-fu comedy was a standout.

The setup is a familiar one: once-famous kung-fu prodigies Danny, Hing and Jim are now middle-aged has-beens, more likely to injure themselves in combat than anyone else. But when their former master Sifu dies under suspicious circumstances, the washed-up Three Tigers have to reunite for one last fight. Insofar as the setup is Da 3 Bloods or Expendables Minus Guns, Tigers collects the “one last job”, “past their prime” and “getting the band back together” tropes and deploys them within the traditional bounds of the kung-fu comedy, throwing in an equally familiar absentee father subplot for good measure.

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Time (2020)

Time is not the type of documentary that could have been directed by anyone. Sure, it could have. Most documentaries are exactly that, and to be fair there’s something to be said for an unobtrusive, understated approach to nonfiction filmmaking. Here, the subject matter is so relevant and the central “character” is so compelling that the documentarian in the director’s chair could simply have flicked the camera on and pointed it at Fox. Time would likely still be an essential watch. But Garrett Bradley, in directing only her second feature, does so much more in bringing Fox and Rob Richardson to the screen.

After a robbery they committed in desperation in the 1990s, wife and husband Fox and Rob are separated when Rob is sentenced to 60 years — without parole — for the crime. They already had one child at the time of Rob’s incarceration, and Fox was pregnant with twins at the time. In the ensuing twenty years, Fox not only raises her boys and makes a career of speaking publicly about her experience, but fights tirelessly to secure Rob’s release. Throughout it all, Fox maintains a video diary for her husband, charting the growth of their children and the struggle for their family’s reunification over two long decades.

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Rafiki (2018)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire set the film world alight last year. It didn’t succeed quite in the culture-shock storm-the-box-office fashion of other non-English language features like Parasite, probably because Portrait‘s power wasn’t unlike that of a secret: it never relied on making a big splash (narratively or even externally) to make the intimate feel universal. Everything about that film seems secretive, not least of which, obviously, is the forbidden romance between its two leading women. Consigned to privacy in isolation together for a limited amount of time, the fragility of their secret lends a sense of doom to the film’s loveliest moments. Part of the brilliance of Portrait was this: these lovers are on a literal island away from the norms of society, and yet are still forced apart in the end by those very same norms.

The lovers of Rafiki have no such refuge, apart from the private moments they make for themselves amidst the Nairobi bustle. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), in fact, lead individual lives that are likely more public than most. Kena is the daughter of a prominent politician seeking election in the coming days. She spends much of her time in the same haunt preferred by the vicious town gossip, who hardly even seems to recognize privacy as a concept. Ziki, meanwhile, is also the daughter of a politician — the one running against Kena’s father, of course — and spends much of her time dancing with her friends around town. Her floor-length multicolored braids are not those of someone who appears to shy away from the spotlight.

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A League of Their Own (1992)

Just last week, 30-year-old Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to coach on the field during a Major League Baseball game. It’s a noteworthy milestone for its empowering inclusivity, and Nakken acknowledged that her role forever means that “girls can see there is a job on the field in baseball.” It’s also noteworthy, of course, that things like this shouldn’t have taken the better part of a century to come about in America, though that unfortunate reality shouldn’t overshadow the positive progress inherent in Nakken’s achievement. The glass ceiling is still intact, perhaps, but there’s a meaningful new chip in it.

When — not if — that ceiling is finally good and shattered, we might also look back on Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, which brought to light the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the ’40s and ’50s. Now recognized as the forerunner of women’s professional sports leagues in the U.S., the AAGPBL was conceived as a societal distraction, more or less, while a sizable number of male American ballplayers were off at war. Four teams were formed, which eventually expanded to ten teams, and what might have been a single-season distraction grew and grew to a legitimate sport.

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Face Off: The Harder They Fall (1956) and Cinderella Man (2005)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In The Harder They Fall, sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in a moral conundrum. He’s covering the boxing phenom Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), an absolute barn of a fighter who’s touring across America on an unprecedented winning streak. The conundrum? Toro can’t actually box worth a damn. The glassjawed giant has been set up by his manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) and had all of his fights fixed, though that particular fact is kept secret from Toro himself. Benko’s scheme ensures that the audience has a built-in perception of this fighter, that Toro’s reputation — even if it’s engineered behind his back — will equal dollars in Benko’s pocket. People love a clear-cut hero, an undeniable winner, and Benko forms Toro into exactly that. But Eddie’s not convinced, even if the blissfully-ignorant Toro seems to be having the time of his life in this heroic role. Shouldn’t the athlete himself have some say in how he’s portrayed to the world?

As Bogie’s last film, the noir-ish drama is of a piece with many of his other movies. Eddie isn’t at all riding around gallantly on a noble white steed, nor is he above making a quick buck off a media frenzy now and again. But as his relationship with Toro grows, Eddie softens and soon realizes he has to champion the athlete in response to a ruthless media and Benko’s managerial machinations. It’s not the Quintessential Humphrey Bogart picture, but The Harder They Fall is still deserving of a place amongst his filmography. And as a sports drama, it’s refreshingly not your classic scrappy underdog tale. A string of famous boxers lend some credibility by making appearances throughout the film, too, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Max Baer.

Continue reading Face Off: The Harder They Fall (1956) and Cinderella Man (2005)