Director: Denzel Washington
As Fences begins, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is shown to be a man who ceaselessly chatters to anyone who will (and often will not) listen. He is good-humored and a hard worker, but is undeniably fueled by both bitterness and stubbornness—qualities that alienate him from his grown son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), whom Troy comes to resent as an extension of own deep set self-hatred. If Washington’s performance in these early scenes is impressive, Fences is at its most powerful when it becomes clear just how small of a man Troy really is—his attempts at justifying his actions reveal Troy to be little more than a scrambling, desperate coward. As Troy’s stature is reduced, the film’s focus shifts from Washington’s grandiosity to the quiet tenacity of Viola Davis, whose few eruptions provide the film’s most memorable and enduring sequences. If she is a remarkable presence throughout, she sneaks up and runs away with the film by design—that is, if Fences begins by introducing what appears to be the largest of men, it is actually a film about those who maintain their dignity and outlast him. By the end, the film doubles back on its deconstruction of Troy’s flaws and the resulting sentiment feels unearned, even as it creates the film’s most interesting contradictions. Washington mostly stays out of the way as director—the film’s “staginess” is especially distracting when the off-stage action is kept off-stage for the adaptation—but Fences works if it is to be taken simply as a showcase for two of the great screen talents of their generation.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Jackie is an unusual biopic in that it is about the constructed historical legacy of someone other than the film’s subject. In the wake of her husband’s death, Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) must make arrangements for a funeral that will cement his legacy among the greatest presidents—her motivations for doing so are left intentionally vague, arising out of a sense of duty and adherence to structure and finally developing into something perhaps more complex. The film makes an interesting double feature with Neruda, Pablo Larraín’s other major release last year, in that each film concerns itself with public image and not necessarily truth Larraín’s relationship with the truth seems both cynical and honest—that is, does truth lie in a tangible reality, or is it constructed from memory and the necessity of creating a personal narrative out of chaos? If Neruda was almost mythical in scope, Jackie is conversely hermetic, mostly staying close to Jackie. The major plot developments involve her coping processes more than they do exterior forces. Jackie’s ever-changing strategies for the funeral and Portman’s tightly-wound, nervous performance give the film’s dealings with grief a terrific rawness, and Mica Levi’s unorthodox score accents the sense of emotional disorder that follows in the wake of horrifying trauma.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
On the one hand, Elle is a film about systemic misogyny. The eponymous heroine (Isabelle Huppert) is met with hostility nearly everywhere she goes, compounded by the fact that her father is a convicted serial killer who unleashed a series of murders when she was a young girl. Through that lens, Huppert’s Elle becomes a subversive feminist hero, embracing and making a mockery of misogyny through her mastery in creating sexually violent video games. The way that Paul Verhoeven treats the question of desire, however, complicates the material tremendously. It is a film wherein a rape victim begins to exert her will and dominance through her invitation for repeated occurrences. The act itself is never not horrifying—even when the attacker becomes confused and frustrated as the power dynamic seems to be shifting—and yet Elle’s submission to violence and simultaneous refusal to be a victim suggests a tenuous distinction between the character’s arousal and her experience of trauma. Verhoeven is not condescending towards these contradictions of pleasure, with his mockery of the video game industry maintaining the suggestion that fantasies can be equally truthful and irredeemable. The film’s content and quality of subversion might have upset even the most open-minded viewers were it not for Huppert’s irresistible gravitas, who characteristically demonstrates a woman who is utterly unapologetic in her worldview and limits of desire.
Director: Maren Ade
As the eponymous alter-ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)—a downtrodden father attempting to reconnect with (and perhaps bring humanity back to) his daughter (Sandra Hüller)—navigates corporate social gatherings, he finds himself oddly accepted. If he’s not taken at face value, at worst he’s seen as a joke that is not quite understood. Similarly, Toni Erdmann isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny in its early-goings. When Winfried arrives at a family function in Gene Simmons make-up, the absurdity of the image is dampened by the exasperated reactions he receives (evidently, those around him are sick of his style of humor). The beautiful thing about Toni Erdmann, however, and perhaps the greatest claim for the necessity of its length, is that the viewer feels both the film and Winfried himself winning them over as time passes. Perhaps its due to Hüller’s terrifically complex performance or simply a response to the climactic series of masterful comic set pieces, but more likely it is the resiliency of the goofy humor that wears down the viewer. Winfried’s false teeth and ridiculous wig becomes themselves acts of protest in the face of efficient corporate business practices. In his passive mockery of the world his daughter is invested in, Winfried reveals that her true humiliation doesn’t come through his insistent involvement in her life, but the corporate world she is a part of. As a narrative, Toni Erdmann is no different than the familiar trope of a person attempting to maintain a successful work/life balance. But as a comedy of estrangement, the film works because it is never mushy, and if the characters come to grand realizations, it’s more complex than the expected sense of renewed intimacy that comes through in the closing moments. In its resolution, Toni Erdmann is both sweet and defiantly opaque, staying true to its persistent tonal complexities.
Director: Edward Buzzell
The latter half of the series of six Thin Man films moves further and further from their source—both in the sense of those involved behind the camera (W.S. Van Dyke’s passing in 1943 meant that the last two films were helmed by other studio hands) and in what they aspired for tonally. The penultimate entry, The Thin Man Goes Home, further explored Nick Charles (William Powell) by setting the narrative in his suburban childhood home, and the change of location and pace felt like a jump start for a series that threatened to grow tired. Similarly, Song of the Thin Man has new ambitions and is undoubtedly the most unique entry in the series. Unfortunately, if the idea is compelling on paper, the execution is largely lackluster. The conceit is that Nick and Nora (Myrna Loy) are now complete out of their element—the film, which takes place on gambling boats and jazz clubs, is effuse with contemporary lingo and youthful, hip faces. Whereas the married couple were always the suavest people in the room, Song of the Thin Man bravely casts them as out-of-touch. The thought of placing the 1930s pairing within the context of a radical new subculture is inspired, but it means Nick and Nora lack the charm and sophistication of the previous entries by design. The screenplay offers fewer memorable quips, and Loy in particular is hurt by having little to do (Loy’s dislike for the film is shown in the visibly disinterested look she has in nearly every scene). If the film meant to champion the older generation within the new subculture, it loses its mark—Nick and Nora are consumed by it, so much so that even Nick’s reveal at the end of the film is immediately overshadowed by the actions of one of the younger cast members. Song of the Thin Man is arguably the weakest entry in the series, however, it was an apt, bittersweet note to go out on, with Nick and Nora now settled into parenthood, so comforted by the security of their relationship that they watch the world pass them by.
Director: Richard Thorpe
The Thin Man Goes Home marked a significant shift in the series in its penultimate outing. While the film is often regarded as lacking the charm of its predecessors, it should be applauded for attempting to alter the formula that the previous four entries had relied on. For starters, this entry places Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in suburbia—a location far removed from the high society social circles that would make up the first few films in the series. It is also a location that allows Powell to bring a certain vulnerability to Nick that had not been seen up to this point. Nick, so desperately afraid of his father, attempts to kick his cocktail habit in order to please him. When he fails almost immediately (due to a comic miscommunication), he resigns himself to afternoons in t-shirts on a hammock until a murder kicks the plot into gear. Seeing Nick “regress” to a childlike state allows Nora more authority than in previous entries—her confidence in dealing with Nick’s parents is met by his anxiousness. If the film’s mystery is as messy as the series produced by this point (the appearance of a character named “Crazy Mary” (Anne Revere) reveals much about the level of thrills the film is dealing with), it is brilliantly tailored to bringing more to Powell’s Nick Charles, who in the previous picture had been treading water in his characterization.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
It is commonly accepted that plot is secondary to the character interactions between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in the famed Thin Man series. Fans are more apt to refer to the booze and banter than the specifics of any of the narrative machinations that culminate in the routine gathering of the suspects. It is consistently frustrating, then, that Nora often disappears from the films somewhere in the second act—if each Thin Man film is good in the beginning and end, everything inbetween is at the risk of feeling like a common subpar mystery. After the Thin Man, the best of the films by this point in the series, nicely integrated the problems of Charleses themselves with the murder plot (in that film, the case involves Nora’s extended family), whereas Shadow of the Thin Man simply finds its heroes stumbling upon a murder case involving a jockey. Moreover, none of the supporting characters leave much of an impression, and the murder plot itself doesn’t have quite the emotional impact (as in After the Thin Man) or creativity (as in Another Thin Man) of the previous entries. Powell and Loy are reliably a delight—there’s a terrific bit of comedy in the beginning of the picture in which Nora summons Nick back to their home using the sounds of a cocktail mixer—but the film strays too far from their relationship at the service of a rather dull mystery.