The Quiet Earth (1985)

thequietearth-title.png

Ahhh, to be the last person on Earth – in a certain light, doesn’t it sound kind of enticing? You could drive a Lamborghini through a fruit cart, just for the hell of it. See the Mona Lisa without waiting in line, touch it, even deface it. Sure, crushing loneliness and existential despair would eventually set in, but for a time (unless someone else showed up) you’d experience a perverse thrill of absolute freedom.

In The Quiet Earth, Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) is a defense contractor who wakes in a country hotel room to find himself utterly alone in rural New Zealand. Driving toward the city he finds crashed cars and still-steaming dinners, the drivers and diners nowhere to be found. Upon reaching Hamilton, he finds the city devoid of its 150,000 or so inhabitants. Zac may have an inkling of what happened – his company just took part in a worldwide missile defense experiment, fronted by an American firm, which may have done something to alter the sun, or time and space as we know it.

garbagetruck.png

Zac soon abandons any pretense of figuring out what happened and indulges in juvenile delights – trains, steamrollers and mannequins are involved – eventually finding himself mired in despair and increasingly unmoored from reality. But (as the presence of other actors in the main title credits suggests) he may not be completely alone.

Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth is exactly the sort of underseen gem the Discoveries section of this blog was made for. If you have a taste for thoughtful or left field sci-fi, or simply enjoyed the antics of the The Last Man on Earth's early episodes, this is worth your time, if only to see where the seeds were laid for that Will Forte show, I Am Legend and other lonely end-of-the-world tales. 28 Days Later and I Am Legend showed us what an empty London or New York City might look like, and there's no shortage of rural post-apocalyptic stories (The Road, the Mad Max films) – but there are much fewer depictions of empty medium-sized cities like Hamilton, New Zealand. This setting actually feels the most shocking, more so than the too-easy creepiness of the abandoned countryside or the exaggerated spectacle of an empty metropolis. Hamilton is the sort of place usually forgotten by film and TV – it lacks the desolation of the Outback, the charm of the small town or the glitz and grime of big cities. It's a place with plenty of vitality and life, but mostly of an ordinary everyday kind. Maybe it's because my own hometown (Madison, Wisconsin) is of a similar medium size.  But to see this sort of comfortably active, banal city inexplicably emptied of people feels especially alarming and poignant.

hallway.png

The Quiet Earth isn’t just an elliptical depiction of someone coping with the end of the world (though there’s plenty of that). There is a fun bit of science and technology fantasizing to explain what may have happened, but the explanation rests on a core of character development. Those who may have survived are there for a specific, sad reason, and The Quiet Earth becomes a quirkily distilled study of how human longing connects or keeps people apart. We all orbit the sun, anyway – the film opens on a lurid, searing shot of the rising sun, and ends on a fantastical, ambiguous image with haunting implications.

dance.png

With its dolly zooms and other stylistic diversions, lack of clear resolution and stark widescreen compositions, The Quiet Earth (a New Zealand production) feels like part of the Australian New Wave, itself an echo of the New Hollywood movement. In modern terms this feels not unlike the sort of quiet, odd little post-apocalyptic film Taika Waititi might make if he were so inclined (and now that I type this, I wish he would). For the time being, The Quiet Earth will do nicely.

 

Top 10 Films of 2017

 

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Columbus, Blade Runner 2049, Personal Shopper, The Lost City of Z, The Florida Project, The Beguiled

BrigsbyBear.jpg

10. BRIGSBY BEAR

With the Winter Olympics still fresh in memory, Dave McCary's Brigsby Bear brings to mind a bronze medal-worthy performance. There may be no thrilling surge to the finish line, no triple axel, no half-cab quadruple backflip, but what is done is distinctive and executed so admirably it deserves recognition. Saturday Night Live cast member Kyle Mooney stars as a man who discovers his entire life has been a lie and a con, including a beloved piece of pop culture around which he organized much of his existence; in an act of both desperation and celebration, he goes about trying to recreate this thing, with the help of some new friends. To be more specific would spoil the impressively weird premise, but Brigsby Bear can be seen as an ode to creativity and a nod to the ways our identities are fundamentally wrapped up with our favorite art. Brigsby Bear balances expertly between sweet and twee, and subverts "fish out of water" cliches by taking surprising and truthful turns. Mark Hamill is very good in a rare non-Luke Skywalker performance, and the film manages to end in just the right place. Brigsby Bear is unexpectedly moving and nails its moderate ambitions.

i-called-him-morgan-venice.jpg

9. I CALLED HIM MORGAN

Sometimes jazz frustrates me. I don't just mean jazz music, but the entire culture surrounding it. Jazz culture can feel like a self-mythologizing echo chamber, oblivious to those who haven't fully bought in. Even the most sordid corners of jazz history – the overdoses, the many varieties of abuse, the tragic car crashes and mental illness – are filtered through the seductive clink of martini glasses, the stylish crease of a felt hat, the romantic haze of tobacco smoke backlit by neon. Jazz greats are exalted as mystics and spiritual conduits; their improvisations are transcribed with holy reverence (I say this as a musician who has written, played and studied my fair share of jazz music). It's a joyful art form, but these trappings can feel like disingenuous and off-putting bullshit. Jazz documentaries, in particular, can come across as mythology porn, a stream of legend-affirming anecdotes and proselytizing talking heads (see this year's Chasing Trane). Kasper Collin's I Called Him Morgan is the first film I'm aware of that steps outside the mythology and fully grounds the classic jazz era. It feels like real life. How Collin managed this remains a mystery to me, but I'm thankful the film exists. Lee Morgan was a gifted trumpeter, perhaps most heard as a sideman on John Coltrane's popular album Blue Train, who also held tenure in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and pursued a fruitful solo career (his tune "The Sidewinder" is a jazz standard). In 1972 at age 33, Lee Morgan was murdered by his common-law wife Helen Moore at Slugs' Saloon, a jazz club in New York City's East Village. I Called Him Morgan is structured around an interview with Moore recorded shortly before her death; musicians and friends of Morgan's discuss the man and his life and the impact of his tragically early passing. It's only now, as I type this, that I realize I Called Him Morgan might also be considered a "true crime" documentary, but perhaps that's because it avoids the sleazy exploitation and guilty after-effects of that genre. In many ways I appreciate I Called Him Morgan for what it's not, but it also features one of the most haunting images of the year: 1960s home movie footage of snow falling at night, illuminated by a street lamp in a quiet New York City neighborhood. It's a simple and poignant reminder of the ordinary, sometimes sad reality beneath the myth.

wot2.jpg

8. WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE'S THOUGHTS

This may be seen as a cheat World of Tomorrow Episode Two is not a feature-length film. But this 23-minute animated short is undeniably one of the best things I saw last year. Animator Don Hertzfeldt, twice Oscar-nominated and famous for his artful use of stick figures, has made another thrilling, funny, and mind-blowing sci-fi short centered around little Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt's daughter Winona Mae) and her clones. Read my full review here.

thelma.png

7. THELMA

The past few years have seen a welcome uptick of smart, sensitive horror films which use troubling fantasy as a vehicle to explore real-world anxieties. The Babadook served as a satisfying metaphor for coming to terms with grief and unwanted responsibility, while being scary as hell in the process. It Follows and The Witch are both exemplary coming-of-age horror films, and in 2016 the Iranian film Under the Shadow, which uses a djinn to represent the demons of an oppressive Islamic society, made my list of favorites. And so Thelma's only crime may be timing, being seen as merely the latest in a string of thematically-strong horror films, when it's arguably one of the best. Thelma is a Norwegian teen who leaves her stifling religious household for college, and after developing feelings for another girl, discovers an inexplicable and devastating power within herself. Joachim Trier's Thelma feels like a Scandinavian indie film first, with supernatural, horror and erotic elements woven in, but occasionally its terrifying implications explode into reality. The coming-of-age metaphors are easy to suss out, but Thelma goes a few layers deeper while Trier exercises impressive directorial judgment. A couple of Thelma's scenes (one on a boat, in particular) will be seared into my memory for a long time to come.

dunkirk.jpg

6. DUNKIRK

The most terrifying film image of 2017 may be that of a Messerschmidt fighter plane, as seen from the ground, banking and leveling off toward a group of huddled, helpless soldiers with the promise of machine gun fire. Dunkirk, about the rescue of almost 400,000 Allied soldiers trapped on a French beach by the Nazis, might be Christopher Nolan's best film; it's certainly his most mature. The conceit of multiple timelines unfolding in a week, a day, an hour is realized with just enough intricacy – a few events are seen in all three timelines, inviting multiple perspectives, but unlike Inception, for example, this doesn't feel like a gimmicky challenge to the intellect. It draws you in, adding dimension by placing you experientially inside the fog of war. The aerial dogfight sequences, filmed with real WWII-era planes, are probably the best ever made; Tom Hardy's taciturn pilot emerges as the soul of the film, and the ending scene of a plane gliding over the beach at sunset is breathtaking. I was fortunate enough to see Dunkirk projected on 70mm film – Nolan is one of only a few major filmmakers (Spielberg, Tarantino) still loyal to film – which emphasized that Dunkirk is first and foremost a magnificent moviegoing spectacle. The downside is that it simply can't have the same impact when viewed at home, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. This is one to watch on the biggest screen possible – turn out the lights, turn up the speakers and prepare yourself.

good-time-cover-2.jpg

5. Good Time

Robert Pattinson's post-Twilight career has turned away from mainstream Hollywood in favor of interesting character roles in smaller films (the same might be said of his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart; see honorable mention Personal Shopper) – his twitchy simpleton in The Rover and drunk geographer in honorable mention The Lost City of Z are just a few examples of his recent great work. Pattinson gets his first real leading role in Good Time, and he's electrifying as the charismatic, small-time New York City criminal Connie, who's on a desperate bid to bail his developmentally-disabled brother Nick out of jail after a botched bank robbery. Pattinson joked in an interview that the Safdie Brothers' Good Time might also be titled Panic: The Movie, and he's not wrong. We follow Connie as he makes a series of bold improvisations that brilliantly manipulate and exploit those he comes into contact with, buying him a little bit of time in the short term but making long-term consequences more and more dire. Some of the film's public-set scenes, such as when Connie and Nick burst into a Domino's Pizza to hide stolen cash, were filmed surreptitiously, lending the film an authentic live-wire quality. Connie's intentions toward his brother may be honorable but he's essentially a sociopath, so we're not exactly rooting for him, and the tension is built not around if he'll be caught, but when. But there's a thrill in seeing just how long he can keep this dark odyssey spinning. Good Time is often an uncomfortable watch, but the crackling energy and pacing and Pattinson's performance make it an unforgettably wild ride.

phantom-thread-movie-image.jpg

4. PHANTOM THREAD

Phantom Thread might actually be the best film on this list, but like many Paul Thomas Anderson films (The Master, There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love) it seems to grow in hindsight and require repeated viewings – I suspect another viewing could easily raise my ranking of it. Phantom Thread begins like a Merchant Ivory film or an especially handsome Masterpiece Theater outing – an immaculate, character-driven period piece – and morphs into something much more rich and perverse than you could have predicted. By the time you realize this you're too bowled over, too wrapped up in the House of Woodcock's tactile world of hand stitching and tape measures and antique lace, to be bothered that you've been expertly hoodwinked. Daniel Day-Lewis and newcomer Vicky Krieps are oustanding, as is Lesley Manville in a deliciously steely supporting role. If there's a fourth standout, it's Jonny Greenwood's score, which ranges from beautifully sparse melancholy (familiar from his band Radiohead) to the blooming lushness of 19th-century parlor music (Schubert, Debussy, Fauré and Oscar Peterson also make notable appearances in the score). A heady, sensual tour through London's couture fashion scene and the dead ends and workarounds of romantic relationships.

A-Ghost-Story.jpg

3. A GHOST STORY

David Lowery's A Ghost Story presents an effective litmus test early in the film. Rooney Mara (playing an unnamed woman) is mourning the loss of her husband (Casey Affleck). In a long and mostly unbroken shot, she proceeds to eat an entire pie out of the tin, as her husband's ghost – a classic Charlie Brown-style white sheet with eye holes – looks on from the edge of the frame. During my screening, one couple got up and left at this point, the woman exclaiming incredulously, "She's just eating a pie!" But I, and surely much of the audience who remained, found the scene painfully poignant. A Ghost Story is not at all a horror film in the traditional sense, but the existential wounds it opens are uncomfortable to examine. The white-sheeted ghost seems ridiculous in concept, but this simple iconography might actually be the least distracting option – the ghost's expressionless sheet and eye holes are effectively a blank canvas onto which we can project. The film has very little dialogue, with the exception of a scene in which Will Oldham holds forth at a hipster party, giving a monologue about life and existence, man, that might be total bullshit or might be kind of profound (it's probably both). An exchange between Casey Affleck's ghost and another ghost seen through a window is troubling in a way I can't articulate or forget. A Ghost Story won't work for everyone, but remains one of the most affecting films of the year for me.

call-me-by-your-name3.jpg

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

I've come to prescribe to the storytelling philosophy that highly specific stories are more relatable and compelling than those which actively try to be "universal." Last year's Best Picture-winning Moonlight is a strong example of this, and Call Me By Your Name is another. Few of us experienced our romantic and sexual awakening at a lazy, sun-dappled Italian villa in the 80s, whiling away the summer playing Bach on the guitar, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs and swimming in creeks and drifting between a gorgeous Italian girl and a handsome American man. Even fewer, probably, would have had a father as gentle, encouraging and understanding in these circumstances as Elio Perlman's father (Michael Stuhlbarg). But most of us have some similarly stirring period in our past that we recall wistfully, perhaps painfully, in a "Once upon a time..." sort of way. Call Me By Your Name embodies this feeling perfectly and universally. The romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), while understood by the characters to be potentially problematic, develops in a way that's largely free from the stigmatic restraints posed by Moonlight or Brokeback Mountain – it plays simply like a romance, not so much a Forbidden Gay Romance, and is all the more effective for it. All the performances are excellent, in particular Stuhlbarg, who delivers a wonderfully touching monologue (justifiably praised) near the end of the film. No film from 2017 felt more present on the screen, and no final image feels more lasting than Elio staring tearfully into a fire.

get out.jpg

1. GET OUT

At the moment, what more can be said about Get Out? Jordan Peele's social thriller sparked the biggest cultural conversation of the year, and for this white guy to attempt to add to the conversation at this stage would be folly (an observation not inconsistent with the film's message). Besides indicting the insidious racism of would-be allies, Get Out serves as a terrifically gripping and entertaining horror thriller. Peele sculpted Get Out from formative influences like The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, which represent one of my favorite sub-genres of horror – the "there's something strange and conspiratorial going on here and I'm the only one who sees it" movie. Daniel Kaluuya (familiar from Black Mirror and Sicario) is fantastic as Chris Washington, delivering an entirely convincing transformation from too polite to completely losing it; Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener and Stephen Root are unsurprisingly excellent as well. But even the smaller roles are wonderfully performed – a scene featuring Betty Gabriel as the strangely cold maid Georgina is one for the ages. Get Out may be a capital-I Important film ("the sunken place" is already firmly within the cultural lexicon), but even putting all that aside, it's simply the best time I had at the movies in 2017.

 

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

If you want to see Spaceman David Oyelowo bark through gritted teeth, “This dimension is eating us alive!” then Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie for you. If you ironically enjoy B movies that shamelessly leverage dead children for unearned pathos, then this is a movie for you. If you're eager to consume the latest acquisition absorbed by Netflix's slowly advancing Media Blob, ejected in front of an unexpecting Super Bowl audience like a tray of stale Grandma wafers, then this is a film for you.

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Eleven-year-old me would have loved The Gate. But eleven-year-old me didn't watch horror movies.

The closest I got was the occasional illicit viewing of Tales from the Crypt on HBO, which certainly qualifies as horror and could be pretty great at times. But actual horror movies – the ones whose VHS boxes lined the shelves of the Horror section at Mr. Movies, the local video store – were not a part of my life.

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Verónica had its Midwest premiere at the Cinepocalypse genre film festival, held at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film's director, Paco Plaza, is mostly known for the solid [REC] series. Unlike those films, Verónica does not use the found-footage conceit, though it’s apparently (and dubiously) based on a real-world case documented by police in 1990s Madrid, Spain.

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Not even the remote forests of the Austrian Alps could escape the Black Death. 

A young goatherd, Albrun, attempts to care for her plague-stricken mother during a harsh mountain winter, as superstitious local clans accuse them of heathenry. Two female goat farmers, living alone in a cabin in the Alps? In the Middle Ages, maybe this alone was enough to arouse suspicion of witchcraft.

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

I watched Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher by mistake. I saw something on TV when I was about 11 years old – a motorist spots a hitchhiker at the side of a rural highway at night. The hitchhiker, mostly hidden by shadow and rain, wears a trench coat and a hat, waving a briefcase over his head as if desperate for a ride. Not that you can really see his face, but as depicted, his features are sort of…absent.

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

1960 is an important year for horror. Four particular movies – Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday – pushed boundaries into the modern age while also showing the legitimate artistic potential of horror. The other films tell contemporary stories, but Black Sunday enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest of all gothic vampire movies.

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

As anthology horror films go, Cat’s Eye is one of the more decent entries I’ve seen. None of the segments are fantastic, but unlike most anthologies, all offer something memorable and none can be called a dud. The stories (all penned by Stephen King) are connected by a wandering cat, which seems to have a strange, unexplained connection to a young girl played by Drew Barrymore – he sees her image in a department store mannequin, then in a TV commercial, beckoning him to find and help her. Barrymore is a sort of connecting thread herself, playing different roles in the first and last acts.

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

As the story goes, famed director and producer Roger Corman was tired of making disposable films on a laughable budget. During the 1950s he’d typically produced two black and white films at a time, to be shown as a double feature at grindhouse theatres. But when approached by American International Pictures to make a horror film, Corman had a proposal: maybe this time, he’d make one film, not two, on a decent budget, and it would be shot in color. It would be a real film, he promised, respectable enough to show in mainstream theatres.

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

The Funhouse, a little-remembered follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stars Elizabeth Berridge (the future Constanze Mozart of Amadeus) as Amy Harper. Amy attends a local carnival with her boorish blind date and a few friends, and after seeing plenty of unseemly sights and smoking a few joints, the group decide to spend the night inside the titular funhouse. After they accidentally witness something terrible, a masked freak begins stalking and picking them off one by one.

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Six Favorites

What's this, you say – no Top 10 list? That may be the standard way to take stock of the previous year's movies, for professional and amateur film writers alike, but I had trouble with that approach. I'm yet uncomfortable with making a declaration of the best movies of the year, but I can certainly single out favorites and others I strongly appreciate for various reasons, so I'm sticking with a unique formulation of six clear favorites + ten more great ones.

Elle

(Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Elle  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)</h3>

A gray cat watches impassively as sickening sounds of assault are heard off-screen. An intruder flees, and it's clear Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) has been raped in her home. Michèle's immediate reaction is as affectless as her cat's gaze: she stands, momentarily collects herself and calmly sweeps up the shards of a broken vase. The police are not called.