The Abridged Barnesyard

THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2016

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned nearly 200 published movie reviews in 2016.  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets swept into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.  You can also revisit Best of Barnes 2014 HERE and Best of Barnes 2015 HERE.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

*Safe in Hell/Three on a Match (posted on 2/28/16)
The mot juste: “Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and difficult to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants, and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story…you were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?”

rsz_safe-in-hell-20120213-162318-large*Francofonia (posted on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “A docu-narrative discombobulation of historic footage, new footage, reenactments, photographs, pixellated Skype sessions and drone shots, Francofonia is just too punishingly cerebral and preciously meta-textual to fully embrace, but there’s also too much going on in Sokurov’s head to ignore his tenuously connected ravings.”

*Office (posted on 5/4/16)
The mot juste: “The entire film is dominated by gigantic, geometrically intricate sets that feel like IKEA showrooms arranged by Jacques Tati, or a Busby Berkeley version of the stage play from Clouds of Sils Maria.  Offices, board rooms, apartments, dive bars, fancy restaurants, hotel rooms, gymnasiums and 24-hour convenience stores are all rendered as a series of vertical lines, Mondrian prisons that dwarf and mock the petty manipulations of the characters.”

*High-Rise (posted on 5/12/16)
rsz_office-01The mot juste: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

*A Monster with a Thousand Heads (posted on 5/25/16)
The mot juste: “You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.”  Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards.  Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie.”

*Chevalier (posted on 6/9/16)
rsz_high-rise2The mot juste: “Tsangari seems less interested in satire than in digressive dawdling, and while she probably achieved exactly the sterile tone that she wanted, a lot of Chevalier plays like Kubrick on horse tranquilizers, empty and benumbed.  God help me, but I was longing for a revved-up American remake starring Seth Rogen and Ed Helms by the end of this thing.”

*Three (posted on 6/30/16)
The mot juste: “With his constantly moving camera, square-jawed themes, propensity for action and seamless movement between genres, To recalls muscular old-school greats like Howard Hawks and William Wellman, but he also possesses the ability to gracefully juggle an infinite number of narrative balls, even in the center of a chaotic shootout.”

*Little Men (posted on 8/12/16)
rsz_three-2The mot juste: “With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and while Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to get a rise out of me.”

*Lo and Behold… (posted on 8/18/16)
The mot juste: “It’s hard not to get a little incredulous when Herzog waxes all end-of-days about soccer-playing trash cans, or when he lingers with horror on an extremely frail robot unscrewing an empty jar (“Soon it vill be unscrewing youuuuu,” he seems to whisper).”

*The Handmaiden (posted on 10/27/16)
The mot juste: “It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.  I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.”rsz_maxresdefault

10 BEST IN PRINT (ordered by publication date)

*The Revenant (published on 1/7/16)
The mot juste: “The film works as a visceral experience, yet on the whole The Revenant is a frustrating mess. There is a change jar of messages regarding the pitiless beauty of nature and the savagery of man, but Iñárritu only knows how to lay it on thick, so it amounts to a lot of puffed-up finger-wagging. More than anything, Iñárritu excels at hectoring and exhausting his audience, and The Revenant is no exception—he’s good at grinding you to a nub, and not much else.”

*Anomalisa (published on 1/21/16)
The mot juste: “From its gorgeous opening shot of a commercial airplane gliding through a birth-canal sky, the camera pulling back to reveal the inside of a different plane, the film captures the fluidity between the real and the surreal, and between insides and outsides.”

rsz_thumbnail_23485*I Saw the Light (published on 3/31/16)
The mot juste: “And here we go again, unfolding and assembling the timeworn critical arguments against bad biopics as though they formed some sort of ghastly memorial quilt. At this point, is there anything more tiresome than critics bemoaning the hoary conventions of musical biopics? Believe me, I return to this dry well without any enthusiasm, but as long as studios insist on recycling this inane movie mold like editions in some Godforsaken Franklin Mint collection, I will continue to meet their perfunctory with perfunctory.”

*A Hologram for the King (published on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “Cracks in his facade begin to show almost immediately, but the entire film is obviously traveling on a monorail toward messages about embracing the real and letting go of your shit, so just relax.”

*The Man Who Knew Infinity (published on 5/12/16)
rsz_rev-247-embedThe mot juste: “Instead of focusing entirely on Ramanujan and his life and work, the narrative is inexplicably framed as a flashback-memoir of Jeremy Irons’ twinkly-eyed professor G.H. Hardy, effectively turning Ramanujan’s story into one of those simpering, pseudo-inspirational, I-tried-to-tame-the-savage-beast-but-really-I-was-the-beast-and-he-tamed-me-whaaaaa cinematic aspirin tablets. Brown clearly identifies with Hardy the rogue imperialist rather than with the meager and rigorous Ramanujan, which is a problem.”

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (published on 6/9/16)
The mot juste: “At this point, it’s hard to imagine a subject less deserving of affectionate satire than the egos and excesses of the entertainment industry. It takes a knife as serrated and vulgar as David Cronenberg’s underrated Maps to the Stars to slice through that bubble of absurd privilege. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s likeable but limp music mockumentary, on the other hand, still has its comedic baby teeth, nibbling on subjects it should be ripping to shreds.”

rsz_1maxresdefault*Maggie’s Plan (published on 6/16/16)
The mot juste: “There are no real laughs in Maggie’s Plan, only chuckles of recognition at the rough cadence of comedy, acknowledgments of the empty spaces where we expect humor to reside. The twinkly acoustic guitar score from Michael Rohatyn feels programmed to accompany an open-air luxury mall stroll, just right for a film without any unexpected notes.”

*Snowden (published on 9/22/16)
The mot juste: “Stone, who co-wrote the film along with The Homesman screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, has had a lot of success in his career twisting and perverting the biopic form for his firebrand objectives. But if you had any hope that the hot-button recentness of the subject matter would rouse Stone out of a two-decade stupor, forget it—Snowden is one of Stone’s most numbingly prosaic films.”

*Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (published on 10/27/16)
rsz_jake-nocturnal-animalsThe mot juste: “On the one hand, Cruise deserves a lot of credit for staying in his lane and allowing these powerful women to take over his films, letting them flash the charisma and panache while he commits to steely-eyed terseness. But on the other hand, it only makes you wonder why these actresses aren’t headlining their own big-budget genre pictures instead of Cruise. I’m a lot more excited to see what Smulders does next than I am to see Cruise do the same thing again and again.”

*Nocturnal Animals (published on 11/24/16)
The mot juste: “Seven years later, Ford delivers his follow-up film, and it finally feels like he means business. The storytelling is both more refined and more brutishly personal, and the film strikes a balance between inscrutability and accessibility, between David Lynch-ian art horror and Deliverance or Death Wish-like exploitation. A Single Man was the work of a talented tourist; this is the work of a true filmmaker.”

The Year in Barnesyard – 2016 Mid-Year Review

rsz_the-witch-movie-reviewTOP 10 FILMS OF 2016 SO FAR

1) Three

MY TAKE: “A genre-hopping blast, the anonymously named Three works as part solemn morality play and part gonzo white-knuckle thriller, part huge-hearted ensemble dramedy and part pitiless three-hander, with an almost unbearable escalation of tension that explodes into one of the most insane action sequences you’ll ever see.”

2) The Witch

MY TAKE: “Undeniably disturbing and strangely elegant, The Witch creates its horror with such care that the film may be over before you realize it’s a tour-de-force genre classic.”

3) 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

MY TAKE: “I always suspected that the Transformers movies might be kind of great if you just removed Shia LeBeouf and all of the sass-backing robots. Suspicions confirmed.”

4) Love & Friendship

rsz_11maxresdefaultMY TAKE: “There is an almost perfect overlap between the sensibilities of Stillman and Austen, to the point that all of Stillman’s previous New York-based films now feel like reverse-engineered Austen adaptations.”

5) April and the Extraordinary World

MY TAKE: “Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat.”

6) High-Rise

MY TAKE: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

7) Rams

MY TAKE: “Hákonarson’s last film was a documentary about an Icelandic country priest, and he brings the observational eye of a documentarian to Rams while exuding the quiet confidence of a natural storyteller.”

rsz_love-friendship-600x3738) My Golden Days

MY TAKE: “The details of the story aren’t particularly compelling, but Desplechin’s telling casts a spell that’s curiously thrilling, as the film seems to be constantly reinventing itself as it goes, mutating and evolving like an unpleasant memory.”

9) The Lobster

10) The Measure of a Man

MY TAKE: “Impotent resistance versus soul-sucking compliance in the bloody coliseum of capitalism; human dignity loses either way. ”

10 MORE GOOD ONES

Aferim!

Dheepan

Embrace of the Serpentrsz_johnnie-to-three-2016-zhao-wei-louis-koo

Fireworks Wednesday

The Jungle Book

Mountains May Depart

Neon Bull

Swiss Army Man

10 Cloverfield Lane

Tickled

TOP 10 2016 RELEASES THAT I STILL NEED TO SEE

rsz_960Cemetery of Splendor (GRADE: B+)

De Palma (GRADE: B)

Everybody Wants Some!! (GRADE: B)

Finding Dory (GRADE: B)

Knight of Cups (GRADE: B-)

Krisha (GRADE: A-)

O.J.: Made in America (GRADE: A-)

Only Yesterday (GRADE: A)

Right Now, Wrong Then (GRADE: B+)

Weiner (GRADE: B+)

rsz_hiddleston-xlarge_trans--3hvejul2wvjxejb3jwusshndml-fnbpvlkwcwvkdhwuAWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Teodor Corban, Aferim!

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby

Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Dheepan

Lea Seydoux, Diary of a Chambermaid

Antonio Bolívar, Embrace of the Serpent

Hedye Tehrani and Hami Farokhnezhad, Fireworks Wednesday

Geoffrey Rush, Gods of Egypt

Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!

Sally Field, Hello, My Name is Doris

rsz_rams-cannes-film-festival-2Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, High-Rise

Tom Hanks, A Hologram for the King

Noah Emmerich, Jane Got a Gun

Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence, Lamb

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia and John C. Reilly, The Lobster

Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship

Greta Gerwig, Maggie’s Plan

Kalki Koechlin, Margarita, with a Straw

Catherine Frot, Marguerite

rsz_the-lobsterVincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man

Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, The Meddler

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, Midnight Special

Zhao Tao and Sylvia Chang, Mountains May Depart

Juliano Cazarré, Neon Bull

Keanu Reeves, The Neon Demon

Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Rams

Christopher Plummer, Remember

Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan, Sunset Song

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

Salma Hayek, Tale of Tales

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lanersz_my-golden-years-cannes-film-festival-4

James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Wallace Chung, Wei Zhao and Louis Koo, Three

Woody Harrelson, Triple 9

Pilou Asbaek, A War

Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw, The Witch

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS AND LINKS

Top 10 of 2016 Power Rankings

2016 Unranked

2016 Catchup

The Barnesyard’s 2015 Mid-Year Review

THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2015

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned over 250 published movie reviews in 2015.  At an average of 300 words a pop, that’s about 75,000 words, or roughly the length of Catcher in the Rye (but where’s my National Book Award?).  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets dumped into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

The Duke of Burgundy (posted on 1/23)
The mot juste: “It’s tempting to label the all-female Burgundy as Strickland’s sex-movie-without-sex  B-side to his violent-movie-without-violence Berberian, especially since both films seem to encode their protagonists’ third-act psychological breakdowns into the DNA of their images.  But Strickland penetrates much deeper into the psyches of his characters here, finding the erotic in the banal, the banal in the erotic, and infinity and insanity between a lover’s knees.”index2

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (posted on 2/3)
The mot juste: “It’s fascinating to see a young Scorsese as a sort of James Mangold-ian director-for-hire, and you can feel him struggling against the limitations of studio filmmaking like a trapped bird, just as Alice frantically and helplessly flaps her arms against the sliding glass door of her suburban prison.  Scorsese takes an intensely personal approach to his films – if he can’t find himself in the material, he can’t envision the movie – and I love that this project forced him to forge an intense personal identification with a complex female character.”

Danny Collins (posted on 3/27)
index11The mot juste: “A teeming mass of quirks, tics, and inexplicable behavior, Danny’s family could have been assembled by a Sundance Film Festival selection committee.  There is the dewy-eyed but inwardly tough pregnant mother, the resentful but sensitive father hiding a Big Secret, and an adorably sass-mouthed moppet named Hope.  They come straight out of Juno’s Buyers Club of Little Miss Station Agents, and the contrivances stack up whenever they’re around.”

Albert Maysles films about Christo/Jeanne-Claude (posted on 5/8)
The mot juste: “Valley Curtain is a perfectly lean concept film, contrasting the safety and tranquility of the studio where Christo meticulously prepares his models and sketches against the unpredictability of the outside world where the final product is constructed. Working in windy conditions, a simple snag in the curtain endangers the lives of the wire workers, but the end result is a remarkable feat of engineering and blue-collar labor in the service of pure whimsy and wonder.”

images3
Paris, Texas (posted on 5/18)
The mot juste: “Wenders doesn’t have a particularly ostentatious style, but there is something dreamy and unreal about the way he lingers over the cinderblock hotel rooms, the stripped orange plastic of truck stop restaurant booths, the neon clutter of roadside signage, and the incessant hum of the freeway. He finds desolation not just in the desert, but in the new-growth trees of the L.A. suburbs, and in the cold, grey metropolis of Houston.”

Live from New York! (posted on 6/12)
The mot juste: “Superficial and self-serving insights abound (“The 70s was great! People used to go to New York to make it!”), anti-establishment hepcats like Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams and Al Gore attest to the show’s enduring satirical relevance, and every hard-hitting question about the institutionalized racism and sexism at SNL comes with its own readymade apologia and perfectly cherry-picked clip.  Also: 9/11, 9/11, the Twin Towers, 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, 9/11, and 9/11, and did we mention 9/11?”images5

Rosetta (posted on 6/26)
The mot juste: “Rosetta is a study in contrasts – she has the angelic face of a young girl but the broken posture and heavy gait of an old washerwoman; she’s fiercely independent, but in a way that seems more resentful than proud; she wants the unemployment benefits for which she’s ineligible but refuses to collect her rightful welfare; basically, she’s internalized the cruelty and caprice of capitalism.”

Testament of Youth (posted on 7/9)
The mot juste: “It’s an embalmed and humorless slog, an interior design spread masquerading as biography, nothing but a decorative pose of noble suffering. I’m tempted to compare the act of watching Testament of Youth to trudging through a wax museum of war movie clichés, but that makes it seem as though the film might be mildly entertaining. It’s more akin to becoming a wax figure for 129 of the most interminable minutes of your moviegoing life. My experience watching Testament of Youth was exactly how it must have felt like for Han Solo inside of the carbon freeze – a cold, numb, endless waking coma.”index6

The Mend (posted on 9/18)
The mot juste: “Where in the wide world of fucks did this crazy thing come from? First-time writer-director John Magary makes an exhilarating debut with The Mend, an NYC-based comedy of ill manners that exudes a weird, nervous energy from the opening seconds and never relents. I couldn’t shake this film – it persisted in my mind like an stubborn houseguest. It recalls the Coen brothers in its singularity of voice and tone, offering not a new cinematic language but rather a new dialect, simultaneously tense and liberated, gleaming the edge between fussy and shambling, and by the end you feel as though the film has chewed its nails down to the nub.”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (posted on 9/24)index6
The mot juste: “A series of mordant, magnificently composed blackout sketches shot entirely in a studio, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch feels like Schizopolis directed by Jacques Tati, or a less manic and navel gaze-y Holy Motors, or Stanley Kubrick’s lost Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy, or Monty Python punching up a Peter Greenaway script, or Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman flushing their meds for three months and collaborating on an art installation. I’m trying to say that it’s great.”

10 BEST PRINT REVIEWS (ordered by publication date – click the title to read my full review)

American Sniper (published in Sacramento News & Review on 1/15)
indexThe mot juste: “American Sniper possesses the sweep and scope of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but very little of that movie’s romantic grandeur. Eastwood is after something smaller and more personal—while Cimino turned the Vietnam War experience into myth, Eastwood undermines the legend of a contemporary American warrior even as he is creating it.”

Focus (published in Sacramento News & Review on 2/26)
The mot juste: “In the moment, it’s an entertaining enough hustle, but scratch the paint and a lot of formulaic chintz starts to show. All of the cinematic “glamour”—the lounge-pop soundtrack and the subdued sky bar lighting and the Out of Sight jump cuts—look as phony as a three-dollar bill, just osmosis of style from dozens of better films. The whole thing unravels the second you step away.”images7

Wild Tales (published in San Antonio Current on 3/25)
The mot juste: “Wild Tales is the revenge film to end all revenge films, a glorious and bonkers blast of visual creativity and storytelling energy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. If the naughty-boy, early-1990s ouevres of Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino were somehow able to copulate, then Wild Tales would be their sick and beautiful sextuplet offspring.”

Far from the Madding Crowd (published in Sacramento News & Review on 5/14)
The mot juste: “If there’s a quibble with the film, it’s that you can occasionally feel it catch its breath, the sprawling narrative cinched too tight to accommodate an exactly 120-minute running time. It’s a testament to Vinterberg and editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) that the film moves with such relentlessness and precision, without a wasted frame or gratuitous flourish.”images8

Saint Laurent (published in San Antonio Current on 5/28)
The mot juste: “An exposed and soul-sapped Saint Laurent retreats into the narcotic comfort of prescription medication and the lifeless company of ennui-drenched, hard-partying sycophants. While the world outside goes through the wringer of social unrest, Saint Laurent remains sealed in a disco fishbowl ribboned with neon rainbow skies, a blaring temple to “bodies without souls”.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (published in Sacramento News & Review on 6/25)
The mot juste: “This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence. Every line, gesture, story beat and camera move might as well have air quotes around it, and yet Gomez-Rejon also insists on plying us with insipid life lessons. It’s like Juno on crystal meth.”index9

Magic Mike XXL (published in Colorado Springs Independent on 7/1)
The mot juste: “While Magic Mike elevated a trashy script by giving it the American Gigolo spiritual ennui treatment, Magic Mike XXL revels in trash, eschewing complex themes and character arcs in favor of low humor and a genial, let’s-put-on-a-show vibe.  Unfortunately, McConaughey didn’t make the return journey, and Magic Mike XXL desperately misses his mystical conviction, or any conviction at all for that matter.”

The End of the Tour (published in Sacramento News & Review on 8/20)
The mot juste: “Unsurprisingly, Jason Segel is getting awards buzz for his performance, but Jesse Eisenberg is even more impressive as Lipsky, the smirking Salieri to Segel’s awkward Amadeus, all needy, nervous laughter and simmering resentment. Their crackling chemistry is essential for a film that finds all of its action in conversation.”

index9
Creed (published in Sacramento News & Review on 11/26)
The mot juste: “Ryan Coogler’s alternately thrilling and deflating Creed marks Sylvester Stallone’s seventh go-round as Philly palooka turned heavyweight champ and Red scourge Rocky Balboa, and it’s easy to see why Stallone can’t quit this character. Despite his checkered background and violent vocation, Rocky stands as the one essentially decent character in Stallone’s entire filmography, all alone on a shelf in a gallery of smug jerks and grim authoritarians.”

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (published in Sacramento News and Review on 12/24)
images11The mot juste: “There’s a cozy familiarity to The Force Awakens—Abrams doesn’t set out to make or break myths, but rather to keep the old myths in circulation. He takes the same irreverently respectful approach to Star Wars that he took to his Star Trek pictures, recycling everything people loved about the originals and adding a half-twist. Abrams isn’t what you would call an “idea machine”—he takes an existing invention and puts a clock in it, and the contents of his magic boxes are never as interesting as the design of the latches.”

Barnesyard Revisited – “The Act of Killing”

Anwar-congoThe Act of Killing (2013; Dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer, w/ Christine Cynn and Anonymous)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

*This review originally ran on March 6, 2014.  It is reprinted in anticipation of Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up film The Look of Silence, which Daniel will review here on Friday.

One of the great, unique, often intangible and sometimes scary potentials of the film medium is the way that cinematic artifice can achieve something more profound than mere fact.  We usually talk about realism in the sense of grimy settings and handheld cameras, but the manufactured beauty of set-bound stylists like Hitchcock, Almodovar, Max Ophuls, and Vincente Minnelli supersedes a mundane depiction of reality and captures a more transcendent truth.

That’s why I would argue that Brian De Palma’s deranged rock-and-roll fantasy The Phantom of the Paradise is a more accurate depiction of the music industry than La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, or any other musical biopic.  In the same sense, John Frankenheimer’s surrealist political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which connects the veins of political corruption to a toxic heart of psychological deviance, is a more realistic look at politics than grim, stiff-necked dramas like Lincoln and The Ides of March.

Among so many other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed by Christine Cynn and “Anonymous” – a number of key credits here are listed as Anonymous) displays that power of film to transcend reality, even when it’s aiming to pervert it.  In the early 1970s, Indonesian death squads often run by street gangsters killed over one million innocent people under the guise of eradicating Communism.  Forty years later, not only have they gone un-persecuted for their crimes, they have achieved great wealth and influence because of them, and now seek to memorialize their “heroics” on film.

The main figure is Anwar Congo, a bright-eyed, snowy-haired senior citizen and former “movie theater gangster”/executioner whose great legacy was to create a more efficient method of slaughtering Communists.  Early in the film, he visits the scene of his murders, gleefully demonstrating his bloodless method of strangling people, and even spontaneously breaking into dance on his victims’ graves.  He intends to make a film glorifying his war crimes as heroic deeds, but after experiencing the naked self-discovery of performance, he revisits the same murder scene and can’t stop violently retching.

This artifice-as-honesty paradox is at the heart of the best sequence in The Act of Killing.  A neighbor of Congo, pulled in for a minor role in the film, tells the killers about discovering and burying his father’s corpse in the wake of the death squads.  Knowing that the cameras are recording him talk about his own life, he is self-conscious, and smilingly assures the killers that he only intends to offer research, not criticism.  When the cameras roll and that same neighbor assumes the role of a tortured “Communist”, the intensity of his performance grasps at something more genuine and personal than simple storytelling can convey.

The Year in Barnesyard – 2015 Mid-Year Review

imagesBy Daniel Barnes

IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

The best 2015 release I’ve seen so far is Don Herzfeldt’s 17-minute animated short World of Tomorrow.  It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work, equally hopeless and life-affirming, dire and playful and powerful all at once. See it tomorrow and send your clones back to thank me yesterday.

And now for my recap of the first half of 2015.  Links to my original Sacramento News & Review, CO Springs Independent, San Antonio Current, and E Street Film Society reviews are included wherever applicable.

* = indicates a film that never played in a Sacramento-area theater

TOP 10 FEATURES OF 2015

*1) The Duke of Burgundy

imagesMY TAKE: “It’s tempting to label the all-female Burgundy as [director Peter] Strickland’s sex-movie-without-sex B-side to his violent-movie-without-violence Berberian, especially since both films seem to encode their protagonists’ third-act psychological breakdowns into the DNA of their images.  But Strickland penetrates much deeper into the psyches of his characters in The Duke of Burgundy, finding the erotic in the banal, the banal in the erotic, and infinity and insanity between a lover’s knees.”

2) Mad Max: Fury Road

MY TAKE: “Oh, so that’s what it feels like to not blink for 2 hours straight. Ow.”

3) It Follows

MY TAKE: “The story touches on themes of venereal disease, rape, contagion fears, PTSD and more, while combining cinematic influences from zombies, ghosts, slashers, J-horror, conspiracy thrillers, exorcisms, Robert Altman, teen sex comedies, apocalypses, John Carpenter, chase films and the first five minutes of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening into something deeply unsettling and nightmarishly lucid. Imagine if Texas Chainsaw Massacre-era Tobe Hooper directed a Richard Linklater rewrite of Under the Skin.”

index4) Wild Tales

MY TAKE: “The revenge film to end all revenge films, a glorious and bonkers blast of visual creativity and storytelling energy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. If the naughty-boy, early-1990s ouevres of Pedro Almodovar (who co-produced the film with his brother Agustín Almodóvar) and Quentin Tarantino were somehow able to copulate, then Wild Tales would be their sick and beautiful sextuplet offspring.”

5) Timbuktu

MY TAKE: “Rest assured that [director Abderrahmane] Sissako cuts his searing social realism with significant doses of absurdist comedy and dreamlike beauty.

6) Far from the Madding Crowd

MY TAKE: “Far from the Madding Crowd may or may not be the equal of [director Thomas Vinterberg’s] The Hunt, but it’s probably the more impressive achievement — a beautifully mounted, fiercely intelligent, bracingly alive literary adaptation that remains an unabashed crowd-pleaser.”

index7) Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

MY TAKE: “It’s minimalist but moving, A Separation meets Anatomy of a Murder, a methodical and emotional process film fused with a potent legal drama, as well as a fascinating look inside a religious bureaucracy where male supremacy is written into law.”

*8) Results

MY TAKE: “A Sundance-era “that guy” with nearly 100 feature film credits in the last quarter century, Kevin Corrigan has always been an actor who speaks and moves to rhythms that only he can hear.  This barbed comedy from indie legend Andrew Bujalski is getting promoted as a Guy Pearce/Cobie Smulders rom-com, but the breakout star is Corrigan, getting one of his juiciest, Corrigan-iest roles in years, and giving a career-defining performance in exchange.”

9) Clouds of Sils Maria

MY TAKE: “The film explores the psychology of female role-play with depth and intelligence, and the performances are outstanding—Binoche brings her expected ethereal complexity, and Stewart cuts through her aura like vinegar through grease.”

index10) ’71

MY TAKE: “The violence is sudden and devastating and immediate—you feel it—and [director Yann] Demange navigates this 1970s urban war zone with the intensity and clarity of a born filmmaker.”

TOP 5 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2015

*1) Approaching the Elephant

MY TAKE: “The birth of democracy is the death of empathy. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Either way, I’m late for my vasectomy.”

*2) Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

MY TAKE: “Heroin is bad.”

index*3) I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story

MY TAKE: “An open and affecting look at the little white-haired man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – withdrawn, childlike, curious, and mercurial, not unlike his two iconic characters.”

4) Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

MY TAKE: “By allowing Shepard to become flesh and blood, it only makes his hate crime murder seem that much more personal, the outpouring of hate at his funeral that much more infuriating, and the “generation of advocates” that became his legacy that much more inspiring.”

5) Dior and I

MY TAKE: “In the wake of Project Runway, there has been a boom in fashion world documentaries, many of them simplistic and self-serving, and almost all of them structured in the manner of a reality show. Frédéric Tcheng’s Dior and I goes for something more ambitious and complex, a cross-generational dialogue about artistic authorship.”

10 MORE REALLY GOOD MOVIES THAT NEVER PLAYED IN SACRAMENTO

*Appropriate Behavior

*Ballet 422

*Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

images*Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

*Kung Fu Killer

*Maps to the Stars

*Mommy

*Predestination

*When Marnie Was There

*Wolf at the Door

JUST PLAIN AWFUL (The 10 Worst of 2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

MY TAKE: “We get it, guys—you hate women.”

Broken Horses

MY TAKE: “It’s hard to tell if the film is an unfunny joke or an earnest failure.”

Cake

MY TAKE: “A so-so Lifetime special and a pretty lousy film.”

*The Cobbler

MY TAKE: “GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!”

Entourage

imagesMY TAKE: “This isn’t a binge watch, it’s a purge watch.”

The Gunman

MY TAKE: “Not a particularly well-written film, but at least it’s also poorly directed, and wastes the time and talents of several world-class actors.”

*Like Sunday, Like Rain

MY TAKE: “Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day pops up in a few scenes as Meester’s no-good boyfriend, and of his performance I can only say: Adam Levine, I apologize.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

MY TAKE: “This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence.”

*Project Almanac

MY TAKE: “No gimmick in cinema past, present or future could make this tripe palatable. It exists solely to shill Red Bull and other demographic-appropriate products.”

Taken 3

MY TAKE: “The only thing “taken” here is the plot from almost every episode of Murder, She Wrote.”

Where Hope Grows

MY TAKE: “In a pile of manure, apparently.”

imagesTOP 10 MOVIES I STILL NEED TO SEE

*Buzzard

*Eden

*Hard to Be a God

*Heaven Knows What

*Inside Out

*Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

*A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

*Slow West

*Welcome to New York

While We’re Young

AWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Desiree Akhavan, *Appropriate Behavior

indexKristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Christopher Plummer, Danny Collins

Jack Black and James Marsden, The D Train

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, *The Duke of Burgundy

Salma Hayek, *Everly

Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenarts, and Michael Sheen, Far from the Madding Crowd

Gemma Arterton, Gemma Bovery

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

Karidja Troue, *Girlhood

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams

Maika Monroe, It Follows

Viggo Mortensen, *Jauja

Vincent D’Onofrio, Jurassic World

imagesPaul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, and Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy

Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicolas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road

Channing Tatum, Magic Mike XXL

Ayako Fujitani, *Man from Reno

Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, *Maps to the Stars

Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clement, Mommy

Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, *Predestination

Kevin Corrigan, Cobie Smulders, and Guy Pearce, *Results

Gaspard Ulliel, Saint Laurent

Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, *The Salvation

Jack O’Connell, ‘71

Ibrahim Ahmed, Timbuktu

imagesJemaine Clement and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, What We Do in the Shadows

Zsofia Psotta and Sandor Zsoter, *White God

Oscar Martinez, Ricardo Darin, and Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Milhem Cortaz and Leandra Leal, *Wolf at the Door

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS

*Top 10 of 2015 (Features + Docs)

*2015 Unranked

*2015 Catchup

*2015 Contenders (movies I rated 4 stars or higher)

The Abridged Barnesyard – “Little Richard” (2000)

index2Little Richard (2000; Dir.: Robert Townsend)

GRADE: D

By Daniel Barnes

*NOTE: This review was originally published on The Barnesyard in 2006.

Hollywood biopics are less filmed biographies than they are hagiographies — there is an assumption that every story should be “inspiring”, even if the subject is not.  In the TV movie Little Richard, the great rock-and-roll pioneer/scripture-quoting orgyist has his edges sanded down so severely he’s pretty much an effete, piano-playing neuter. We get some rock-and-roll, a tiny bit of scriptures, and no orgies whatsoever. The movie was executive-produced by Little Richard, which may explain the soft bulbs in the spotlight. Over-involvement by the subject and/or their families accounts for the gentile, quasi-inspiring treatment of most modern biopics, but the idea that the story of a poor kid overcoming the odds to reach super-stardom and spiritual fulfillment is more entertaining than watching Little Richard act like an egotistical, salvation-minded, lunatic-pervert for 90 minutes is a fallacy of the highest order.

The one-named actor Leon plays The Quasar, and although he looks a bit like Little Richard, his mannerisms suggest he’s playing a stock homosexual caricature in an “In Living Color” sketch. The film touches the bases of Richard’s life up through the late 1950’s — his poor childhood, his uncommon sexual leanings, his murdered moonshiner father, his musical apprenticeship, his eventual stardom and subsequent relapse into religion — but gives little indication of his character and the forces that drove him. When you take the bisexuality, the pimping, the complicated racial aspects (he felt betrayed and cheated by the white musical establishment, yet his music was always more popular with whites than blacks), and the orgies out of Little Richard’s life, his story is reduced to an extended cliché, and a poorly shot one at that.

indexAs in Walk the Line, the censored gaps are filled with concert performances (Leon lip-syncs) — The Quasar’s live shows were legendary, but Townsend shoots them with all the electric energy and excitement of a Madison, Wisconsin dinner theater production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. My favorite scene showed a pre-fame Little Richard scraping by as a dishwaher — he’s asked to take out the trash, and lugs what appears to be an empty can out to the curb. Apparently, the production wasn’t budgeted for GARBAGE; ironic, since so much of it appears onscreen masquerading as Little Richard’s life.