Saturday, December 31, 2016

Favourite Work by Some Still-Living Artists of 2016

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women was one of the most memorable
performances of the year for me.
2016 was a year in the arts filled with public conversations about diversity of many kinds. Race. Gender. Awards. Salaries. These conversations explored important concerns about the way we live. People spoke up, wrote articles, disclosed personal experiences. As the year moved towards its end, this discourse seemed to be drowned out by politics and the waving of flags of fear -- if not actual, then symbolic. By December we were grieving all the great artistic voices that were lost this year. I grieved too, though my candidates did not always make the lists: the powerhouse singer Sharon Jones; the gentle Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook. We do need to lament: artists feed our imaginations and without imagination there is no civilization. However, I have decided to focus instead on the still-living artists of courage, talent, integrity and humour who inspired me in 2016 and whose voices, still with us, offer us inspiration for the year ahead.


Lone Scherfig's Their Finest

I have always admired the capacity of Lone Scherfig to climb inside lives and let us occupy them as if we had always been there. Italian For Beginners opened this door, though I think her greatest film is one of her least known, the exquisite Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. Their Finest, the film she made in 2016 and which I saw at TIFF, has now knocked these aside for me. Scherfig is Danish but makes her movies in the U.K. and therefore her films observe culture with an offshore eye. I loved this story of a woman screenwriter during WWII who is hired to push out 'the slop' (female dialogue) in morality boosting war films. In a time of war, people are still trying to carry on somehow, including the artists who make films, and 'the slop' is not sloppy at all, but part of what keeps an exhausted nation going. So my gathering of inspiring work from 2016 begins with a movie about movie artists. Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Rachel Stirling and others beautifully navigate the line between lives lived and lost, and how love grows in the ruins. This was my favourite film of 2016. We should see it in theatres in 2017. This trailer captures much of the movie's heart.


The Guardian's Shakespeare Solos

One of my favourite internet series of the past year was The Guardian's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with the commissioning of soliloquies by some of Britain's leading actors. Joanna Lumley's Viola/Cesario from Twelfth Night was my runaway favourite. Lumley brings a wonderful freshness to this speech which every young actress has trotted out at some point as an audition piece. All of these short videos offer some new or cinematic insight into the Bard. I was also quite moved by Zawe Ashton's 'All the world's a stage' which alternates between an internal and external series of observations on a very modern world as the actress moves along a street, observing humankind in the 21st century. A beautiful celebration of the timelessness of the literature.


Seana McKenna in As You Like It at the Stratford Festival

Seana McKenna in the Stratford Festival production of As You Like It.

I had the chance to see this same speech from As You Like It in the Stratford Festival's very unconventional and highly entertaining production directed by Jillian Keiley. There too, the speech and the role were given to a woman, renowned Canadian actress Seana McKenna. I loved the choice to make McKenna's Jaques a contemporary war photographer whose melancholy is rooted in a world-weariness from all he has seen. It was a plunging insight into the character and helped give depth to the decision he makes at the end of the play to go and be with wilderness monks, a way of both stepping away from and toward humanity. I loved other productions at Stratford as much as this one: Shakespeare in Love, Macbeth, Bunny and A Chorus Line were some of the jewels of the season.


Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women

Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in
Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women
Kelly Reichardt's lyrical and poetic Certain Women was another of my favourite films of 2016. This director of Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff turned a quiet corner of accomplishment with her deeply felt portrait of four women's lives in rural Montana as they each seek something they cannot quite have. As I wrote in my review of it, so much of this pastoral romance is about observing women at work -- and in the case of Lily Gladstone's character that includes handling horses, and whisking across snowy fields on a motorized cart chased by a beautifully frantic dog. There is an inertia and a static sensibility in this world: lives are stuck. Meanwhile a river of quiet emotion moves underneath, animating the town and the plains beyond. When a character falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into a snowy field, we feel not so much a sense of danger, as of a life in which the desire for passion is quietly running out of fuel. The delicate encounter of Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone's characters offers one of the film's most affecting portraits of how we become attached to someone, even platonically. One of the most vivid cinematic moments I take away from 2016 is when Lily Gladstone's character drives away from seeing Stewart near the end of the film. We have all had those moments, but Gladstone's silence and Reichardt's intentional dwelling with this character much longer than most narrative films would, brings her emotion deep into our own hearts. An earlier sequence when they ride on a horse in a snowy night, with only the gentle clopping of hooves, was also stunning. This film does not seek out our expectations as an audience. Instead it invites us to meet it in the everyday places of love and loss. Don't miss it when it comes into wide release (which it hopefully will). Here's a taste.


The photography of Jo-Anne McArthur

Those horses in Certain Women are lovingly cared for by Gladstone's character. But what about the millions of animals who are treated cruelly by humankind? This issue has galvanized me since I first saw Liz Marshall's The Ghosts In Our Machine which I reviewed on this blog in 2014. That film's focus is Jo-Anne McArthur, a photographer, activist and writer, whose illumination of the suffering of animals has had a deep impact on my own life. I now support her work as an artist on Patreon and invite you to do the same. Her first book, We Animals, which is also the name of her organization, documented animal suffering, and her next book due out in 2017 documents animals in captivity. Entitled Captive, it seems as if it will continue what Jo-Anne does best, which is witness. Jo-Anne's work is never passive, always looking to broaden our perspectives, and yet I have always sensed that her presence with the animals is a companionship of solidarity and accompaniment. She is trying to teach us a new language of empathy so that we won't just have the fleeting sensation of it and instead learn to ground ourselves in it and move for change. She is a great inspiration to me and hopefully to you too. Find out more here.


The TIFF Instagram One-Minute Shorts Contest

It was a fantastic idea for TIFF to collaborate with Instagram in inviting filmmakers the world over to tell a story in under a minute. Taking advantage of Instagram's recent move to video format, TIFF's call brought out the best in filmmakers young and old and from all walks of life in all parts of the world. I had so many favourites from this series but will offer two in particular. Arshia Shakiba's Wedding Guests observes a Syrian wedding inside the walls of a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. Breathtaking composition within a very limited frame drew me to this one instantly, besides how its content spoke to the year's most pressing international headlines. You can watch it here.
I was also moved by Women Only, by Tabassom Habibzadeh and Erfan Almazi, which offers a snapshot of the 'women only' car of the Teheran subway in Iran. The faces tell a dozen unspoken stories, causing us to wish that Abbas Kiarostami had not died this year and could help to tell them. Perhaps Jafar Panahi, who remains under ban from filmmaking in Iran and whose The Circle profiled the lives of women in prison in Iran, is the film's spiritual godfather. The subway car is an eloquent symbol of a different kind of cultural prison, and being on a train ride carries a theme of waiting for change. If you haven't seen these, take a moment to watch them as well as many others.


Enrique's Shadow by 'Jacinta'

Social media feeds. They seem to be an endless stream of the brilliant, the mediocre, the sacred and the profane. Our eyes glaze as they gaze across headlines and images, fleetingly engaged. But this graphic novel-styled short story by a woman named only "Jacinta" pulled me in right away. The story follows the author's mother's struggle to find out what happened to the son who 'disappeared' suddenly one day in Colombia. Produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, this online novella is meant to help draw attention to the work that organization does with the families of the missing. The simple storytelling, the rudimentary but skilled drawing, the agony of the mother all filled me with deep sorrow but also with hope. The enduring faith of this family and their struggle to live with a gaping hole of darkness each and every day reminded me of the stories of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Canada. If you haven't seen it, this link takes you to the entire story. Take a moment to listen with your eyes.


Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe

The year began with outrage at the missing performances of black actors in the annual Oscar nominations. In 2017, there cannot possibly be any doubt about awards honours. Moonlight, Fences, Loving and others are all gifts to us of brilliant storytelling that plunge us into the heart of specific eras almost to the hour on the clock. Since these have been well-served by critics, I am turning here instead to Mira Nair's biopic of Phiona Mutesi, who became one of Africa's greatest living chess champions while still in her teens. In Queen of Katwe, Nair walks the thin line between hardship and victory on a well-traveled road in movies without landing in over-simplification or cliché. Mutesi is Ugandan and the story was shot and takes place there, where Nair also now makes her home. Something about that integration made the cultural shifts of the film's narrative work: we can be in one of Uganda's worst slums and also travel into other countries and worlds as our heroine gains ground. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o are perfect in their roles as coach and mother, and newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona with a naive and gritty determination. One of the best parts of this movie, however, is its tail credits sequence. One by one the actors are pictured and then joined by the real-life people they played. It was a perfect end to a joyous ride.


Caroline Monnet's Tshiuetin

Speaking of Indigenous stories, Tshiuetin, which means 'north wind' in the Innu language, is Caroline Monnet's short tribute to the Indigenous-owned railway that runs from Sept-Îles to Schefferville through Québec and the western edge of Newfoundland and Labrador. This beautiful celebration felt to me like a re-framing of the coureurs-de-bois: Indigenous peoples travel on their own terms and carrying their own people and goods. The film's construction follows the train's conductor from behind as he moves through the cars one by one, pausing to speak with people traveling. The stories, the stops in places in the middle of nowhere where there always seem to be children ready to wave, the stations where skidoos with carts are there to meet the train -- all these were indelible images for me that invoked both the history of this great country and its ongoing struggles. A light of hope. Here's the trailer.


Annie Leibovitz' Queen's Birthday Photographs

Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with her grandchildren
by Annie Leibovitz (2016)
Queen Elizabeth II was the focus of inspiration in two forms of work that emerged this year. Annie Leibovitz, the great American celebrity photographer took an unprecedentedly beautiful series of portraits to mark HM's 90th birthday. The photographs hint at the relationships in the Queen's life. This particular image of the grandchildren gathered around her might have been (as a friend pointed out) a nod to Velazquez portraiture but also bears the signs of Leibovitz' continual defiance of expectations. Positioning the Queen in the centre, she frames her with dark furniture, mirrors and a clock that might speak to the timelessness and continuing history of royalty, and then offers a flat widening of focus with the contrasting pastel colour and humour of the young people. It subtly suggests that this monarchy has been different and these children, whatever their future (at least one will be a monarch at some point) are just like normal children gathered for a family portrait.
The second youngest, Mia Tindall, holding that iconic part of the Queen's persona -- her purse -- is the final dash of wit. Hard to imagine a more beautiful tribute.

Claire Foy in The Crown

Claire Foy as young Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown
Queen Elizabeth is also the major player in Peter Morgan's extraordinary Netflix series, The Crown, which also debuted in 2016 and is one of the finest series I've ever seen. Among a collection of powerful performances, I was very moved by Claire Foy's Elizabeth who over ten packed episodes moves from the quiet princess in love to confident monarch, able to make some of life's hardest choices and be publicly and privately judged for them. Foy's entire body becomes slowly more rigid as the weight of responsibility and the requirement to lose herself into the role of monarch take their toll. Yet she manages to always keep Elizabeth uncomplicated and relatable, registering a range of suppressed emotion -- something that is hard to do. Anyone can emote. But only good actors can express restrained emotion. It is such a contrast to the also-good Helen Mirren performance in The Queen, which relies on a strength rooted in an actor's persona as much as a character's. Foy will continue in the role in a second season currently underway and has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award.


Xavier Dolan's Juste la Fin Du Monde (It's Only the End of the World)

Almost every single critic at Cannes hated it, but the jury gave it the Grand Prix. And I myself thought Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World was one of the finest films this Québecois wunderkind has made. In fact, with this piece we can stop calling him the wunderkind, stop measuring him by his youth and mark a transitional moment in his maturity as an artist. The story of a man who comes home after a long time away to tell his family that he's dying, it continues Dolan's preoccupation with family relationships and their formative impact on the soul. Though an adaptation of the novel by Jean-Luc Lagarce, themes of family disintegration and reformation can be traced from this film back through Mommy to J'ai Tué Ma Mère. It was this maturity that struck me because it came hand in hand with a quieter, less riotous filmmaking style, as if the director knew his actors would bring the pyrotechnics to this one and he could just quietly observe. That said, there is no mistaking Dolan's visionary style. Several beautiful scenes, particularly one with Nathalie Baye and one with Marion Cotillard have stayed with me. Here's the trailer.



Have you met Rita? If not, you should. She's easy to find on Netflix. This Danish series about an unorthodox primary school teacher was actually produced between 2012 and 2015 but I didn't find it til this year, so I'm including it here. There is beautiful character work in the show, particularly with Rita herself, played by Mille Dinesen, as she dishes out the truth and lives into her vibrant sexual being with everything she has. What I appreciated about this series created by Christian Torpe, is how much we are allowed not to like her, even while being completely compelled and moved by her. She is a good teacher but often misses the mark as a parent despite loving her kids deeply, and there's something very moving about Rita's struggles with that. From the first title sequence in a bathroom stall where she corrects the spelling of graffiti aimed at herself, to some of the harrowing moments in the third series when her self-incurred losses catch up to her in the darkness of her rooms, Rita the show and Rita the character are mesmerizing. There is also a beautifully written and performed supporting character named Hjordis, played by Lise Baastrup, who was given her own five episode spin-off. I'll end the blog here, because the last image of Rita's family staring up at fireworks is a good way to say 'tusind tak' to 2016! Happy new year!

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