Snapshot Reviews: Moonlight, Silence, 20th Century Women

Although some considerable time has passed since my initial viewings of these movies, preventing me from confidently writing an individual post for each, I wanted to take at least a little time to highlight just what makes three of last year’s best films so great.

MOONLIGHT (2016)

Like all great poetry, Moonlight finds its universal impact and power in its specificity. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ story centers around Chiron, a young boy growing up in Miami in the 1980s, and the film functions as a coming-of-age story told in three chapters of Chiron’s life. Chiron’s struggles are specific to him, and Jenkins’ direction of all three actors who play Chiron is truly impressive, seamlessly connecting all three performances together in such a way that each chapter feels wholly Chiron, but that much has changed. Moonlight emphasizes the way circumstances mold us and change us; we are all many characters throughout our lives. The spaces and time-jumps between chapters cut to a drastically different Chiron. We still see “him” in the eyes and downturned look of a person weighed down by a drug addicted mother (Naomi Harris) whose love for him burns through all of her failures; of a person who has been beaten down, literally, for his sexuality and introversion.

I haven’t spoken of the formal elegance of Moonlight, and I should. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton capture evocative and impressionistic moments (such as a hand helplessly gripping at the sand as it runs through its fingers during a formative sexual experience), which hints at the influence of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai (especially in Moonlight‘s third act, which burns with subtle exchanges and glances). Often, Jenkins trusts the strength of his characters, of his actors, and their performances – expressions and eyes speak volumes about a character who speaks very little. As specific as Chiron’s story is, there’s a universality to his desire to find his place, to belong, to be held, to be loved.

SILENCE (2016)

Based on Shūsaku Endō’s brilliant novel, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a quietly powerful examination of faith under persecution. Set in 17th Century Japan, during a time in which Christians and Catholic Priests were routinely persecuted and tortured for their faith, Silence follows two Jesuit Priests on, essentially, a quest to both evangelize and find an elder Priest who was rumored to have apostatized.

Although torture and violence inevitably inevitably finds its way into the picture, Silence‘s true power lies in its stillness, its quietness, and its contemplative nature. Almost no traditional music score is used, giving even the most brutal moments a calmness and clarity that is emotionally crushing and thematically potent. The title speaks to the silence of God during times of torment, the silence and indifference of nature to the cruelty taking place (such as the waves, racking relentlessly against two Christians being crucified for their faith), and, perhaps most interestingly, the silence of Priests and others whose pride and doctrine acts obstructs mercy and compassion.

Father Rodriguez’s (Andrew Garfield, in a great performance) journey often mirrors that of Christ, and Scorsese creates some of the film’s most powerful images around this idea, but Silence is as much a story about Rodriguez’s knowledge and belief that he is following Christ’s footprints as it is about a Western religion’s struggle to find root in a land that has difficulty grasping it. We are all Judas, and the way Scorsese interrogates his lifelong faith so ardently while ultimately affirming it is alone worth the price of admission.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

We’re all used to the overuse slow-motion in film (for a masterful example, see Silence), but 20th Century Women makes a strong case for the utilization of fast-motion as a technique. Set in California in the year 1979, writer/director Mike Mills’ film follows an older mother (Annette Bening) and the other tenants of her large Victorian style home that she rents out, as she enlists their help in raising her teenage son.

Few, if any, films from 2016 can boast a screenplay as strong as Women‘s, which mostly exists as an anthology of character driven scenes connected by the shared plot of raising Dorothea’s son. All three of the titular women experienced vastly different cultural formation (the trio is rounded out by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning giving phenomenal performances), resulting in vastly different influences on young Jamie.

Several of the characters are fans of punk rock, and various scenes show moshing and frenetic dancing accompanying the frenetic music. Various driving sequences and flashbacks are sped up and colored differently, cut quickly, the hardcore dancing sped up to an impossible-to-follow speed. All of 20th Century Women is capturing moments in a single year of lives consisting of dozens, a time in which all of these characters happen to be together, their lives intersecting, influencing one another. That’s what the scenes leave us with – their impressions on one another. The fast-motion sequences seem emblematic of Women‘s overarching thesis about the impossibility to grab onto life as it passes. Dorothea is hopelessly, desperately trying to get a handle on her son who is quickly growing up (his maturation and knowledge expedited by Gerwig’s tutoring) and changing into a person she doesn’t seem to understand. She herself is afraid to act – flaky, even.

Gerwig and Fanning’s characters register similarly. Mills’ character and actor work is so masterful that we get a strong impression of these characters here and now in 1979, but like the punk rock smattered about and the fast-motion that’s difficult to keep up with, they morph and change into something we understand much less, something we can’t grasp, just like life as it races by. For a film that takes place in such a short amount of time, few films capture the weight of the passing of it like 20th Century Women. 

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