Getting closer and closer to the end! It was a pack of some really good ones this week, which shows why I really can’t make my top ten without seeing as much as possible from the whole year. Missing out on Shoplifters (and Free Solo, to an extent) would have been a crime. Next week should be my last reviews for 2018 (or at least enough to finally make my ten best- there may be some stragglers included in the first batch of 2019 next month). Enjoy!
HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING * * * (Dir. RaMell Ross)
An entirely different kind of documentary, a near experimental film that challenges an audience to appreciate the brief glimpses into the lives of black people in Hale County, Alabama, along with some striking imagery, fashioned together in a way that doesn’t necessarily tell a story but provides you with intimate moments nonetheless. RaMell Ross makes his first foray into documentaries, as a prologue tells you that he took his camera out when he moved to Alabama to coach basketball and teach photography in 2009. From there, the camera does the work for us, as we are treated to the barest moments in the lives of several people just briefly introduced with names that flash by on the screen (toddler Kyrie steals the show) as Ross catches them playing basketball, giving birth, moving, driving, being pulled over and simply living life in a mostly impoverished rural area. These moments capture joy, grief, boredom, hopefulness, disdain, and show the beauty and ugliness of the every day, but the most striking images are of a bonfire blowing smoke through the trees, a half moon lit up in a phosphorescent glow, and a brief look at an old plantation home juxtaposed with black and white minstrel footage. There’s a kind of poetic realism in Ross’s look at the Black Belt in the South, an abstract yet intimate vision of a part of America rarely seen in films or television. It’s worth seeing for these cherished snapshots of real life happening outside your typical vantage point.
THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN * * * (Dir. David Lowery)
Is it possible for a movie to exist solely as a paean to the everlasting cool of Robert Redford? David Lowery certainly gives it a shot with this laconic, laidback, smooth tribute to the man, the legend, the icon. And why not? Certainly his very presence alone is enough to carry a movie, no plot necessary. He does get the barest threadbones of a story, that of a career criminal named Forrest Tucker who just loves robbing banks, and now at the ripe old age of 74, wants to continue doing just that. Of course he’s not a violent criminal or anything. He’s a “gentleman” bank robber, who flashes his never used gun and smilingly asks for the money, a scenario in which everyone always obligingly offers it. Wouldn’t you? Senior citizen or not, if Robert Redford, still smooth and charming as ever, politely asks you to hand over the loot, you’d do it. Sure you would. Set in 1981 (purposely as a throwback to the height of Redford’s own career I think), Tucker and his occasional partners in crime (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) are pursued by a not exactly dogged, but interested and half admiring detective (Casey Affleck) across several states, while Tucker pursues a romance with Sissy Spacek, a local widow who seems to have no problem with his occupation. She won’t commit any crimes herself, but she’s lived a life and is charmed by him too. Their budding romance is the sweetest and most natural part of the movie, as the cop’s pursuit is a bit halfhearted. Casey Affleck looks on the verge of falling asleep in every scene and only comes alive when he and Redford come face to face- you can practically feel his giddiness at just sharing the screen with him. But that’s how we all feel, isn’t it? Redford’s star presence and near seven decade career is one to be revered, and if the reports are true that this will be his final film role, he could not have gone out with any more fitting a salutation. The movie is as cool and unbothered as he is, and will ever be.
FREE SOLO * * * 1/2 (Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)
If part of the purpose of documentary filmmaking is to capture real events as they occur, then the last act of Free Solo is a miracle in and of itself, having been caught on film at all. One of the most dangerous activities known to man is free soloing- the act of mountain climbing without a rope. One of the most successful athletes in this field is Alex Honnold, a 33-year-old climber who agreed to have a film crew follow him as he trained to make the climb up El Capitan, a rock formation in Yosemite National Valley, and become the first human to free solo it successfully. The film gets some pretty stunning footage of the mountains and cliffs alone, but does not shy away from the ethics of even making a movie about this activity- as co-director Jimmy Chin says on camera, this is a massive risk, as there’s a better than even shot they will capture the death of their subject, which they and he know well before going into this. But the movie is also a character study of the kind of person who would want to partake in these death-defying climbs, and Alex himself provides an eccentric oddball portraiture of what we suppose it must take to be a successful climber. He’s rigid and unemotional, robotically focused and mostly fearless. He acknowledges that El Capitan is scary but he doesn’t seem to feel fear of anything and attempts only minimally to imitate the human emotions of people he sees around him. His girlfriend Sanni tries to be supportive in the face of his void, emotionless state of being, but you can’t help but wonder how much more she can put up with. All of this makes for fascinating viewing for the first two thirds, but the real achievement of the movie is the gripping final act, as you watch a miraculous feat of human daring captured on film. Anyone will feel the heart pounding anxiety and unbearable suspense, despite knowing that this film would probably not have been released in the event of a tragic ending, like most free soloers eventually experience. The fact that it didn’t leaves you feeling in awe of what you’ve witnessed, like the filmmakers themselves, and thankful that they (and Alex’s) luck held out in reaching and preserving the glory for all to see.
SHOPLIFTERS * * * * (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
At its core, Shoplifters is a movie about empathy. It asks you to empathize with a family of six- a mom and dad, two kids, an aunt and a grandma, all living together in a house barely big enough for one, all struggling to survive in the kind of abject poverty we all recognize and wish we didn’t. This family does whatever it takes to make it, and holds each other together through the rough patches (which are daily), and even if the dad teaches the kids his only skill, shoplifting, as a survival tool, can you blame him when you look at what they’re up against? Family stays together, takes care of each other, helps each other. But what constitutes the meaning of the word family? To the outside it looks like a unit, exactly how I described it. But as this extraordinary film progresses, various layers unfold that reveal piece by piece exactly what sort of “family” this really is and challenges you to ask yourself if the assumptions you held about families still hold in the face of an upside down reality. Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made a humanist masterpiece in Shoplifters, the kind of film that will grab anyone by telling a universal story with empathy for each fully realized character. The performances given by this ensemble cast are natural and so authentic you feel yourself becoming absorbed in the lives of these people and believing in the lies they tell themselves to strengthen the bond between them, even as it flies in the face of the moral clarity we pretend to hold dear. Is it right to do what’s wrong for who you love? Is it wrong to create your own universe of rules and morals that apply to a select few and then abide by them as long as the rest of the world doesn’t see you doing it? These questions sneak up on you in a film that settles deep in your bones with the kind of impact rarely achieved and reserved for that of a master storyteller. It’s by far one of the best films of the year.