Randall Frank Slocum’s must see films of 2016, a five part series.
As the year comes to a close, and theaters across the world transition from tent pole summer movies to films of serious award consideration, this humble reviewer offers his favorites from 2016, a year that seemed to suck in every possible way for many, except the movie business. These selections represent my ten choices for the Oscar for Best Picture. (In no order)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum,
The latest offering from the brothers Coen is in league with a series of prior Coen films that form the less appreciated entries into their canon. Films like Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, fine character studies and explorations of old Hollywood and society created within the framework of new Hollywood. This old Hollywood, where men chewed cigars, the studios owned stars, and the end product was produced quickly and efficiently or else, is both the object of adoration and scorn. It was a period of pure capitalist entrepreneurship. It was assembly line approach to popular entertainment. Who better to serve as the foil to those celluloid dreams and the false promises than Channing Tatum’s dreamy matinee idol turned Communist defector.
The film left me considering the idea of who “owns” creativity. Is it the creators or the patrons? Nowhere is the struggle more apparent than between the writers and the studios that produce, exploit, and under pay the creators of the films they profit from.
This injustice is the prime motivation of a group of Communist writers who kidnap George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, a hapless movie star who can deliver the goods but not always the lines. The kidnappers expose Whitlock to communist ideas, which by the end he seems to convert to despite having a gross misunderstanding of the exploitation of labor. The writers try to convince him he’s a cog in a machine. Although he interprets the Marxist remarks in oversimplified ways. All the while Brolin is more than dynamic as the studio head Eddie Mannix, an obsessive Catholic confessor who is trying to put out fires, and bring Whitlock back to finish the production of Hail, Caesar, the film within a film.
The writers group follows Marx and Trotsky to the letter, seeing the power of the movie star. They sign the ransom note from “ The Future”, an obvious call for change. They as writers may not be able to state their case, but a movie star has a platform to use their words to do just that. The public loves a star.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg and Steve Carell
This film seemed a nice pair with Hail, Caesar. It is a love story with no happy endings set in the world of happy endings, early Hollywood. Eisenberg is the latest to play Allen in an Allen film. His take is youthful and exuberant in his neurosis, and more vulnerable and naïve than many of Woody’s protagonists.
The metaphor for the studio system in Café Society is a love triangle between the upstart go getter Eisenberg, Stewart, and Stewart’s boss. The successful name-dropping agent and Eisenberg’s uncle Steve Carell. The establishment controls the game. And wins in the end.
While it may not be the most quotable or pithy of Allen’s work, it fits in nicely to his Old Master body of work, along with Match Point, Vicki Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. Café Society is a slightly above average offering from Allen, which makes it better than 99% of dramatic film today. His detractors would do well to study his format, eye for detail and production design, and commitment to story above all else, including laughs.
Stewart wins the show and maybe earns an Oscar nod. She seems plucked right out of the thirties for the part, which is exactly the point. The funniest moments Steve Carell offer document his unraveling and torment over his affair.
Like all great Allen films, the setting is completely foreign to most people. Most of us are not upper class Manhattanites, capable of world travel, the freedom to get mixed up in affairs, and have misadventures with only social consequences. Most of us don’t live in that world, but Allen has always been more of a window to it than a representative of it.
Another change in venue might mark another turning point in Allen’s future work. Once identified almost exclusively with New York City. He has of late had his ‘London”, “Barcelona”, “Paris” and “Rome” periods. For Café Society he has moved shop again. Perhaps he has forgiven the city where Annie Hall dumped him for good so many years ago over his plate of mashed yeast. But rather than appreciating the poetics of the city itself, Café Society is more concerned with a time and place that is long gone. Studio Hollywood. Café Society is a tragic love story that has the Spanish Villas and mansions of the old guard of Hollywood as a backdrop.