Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Written & Directed by Ciro Guerra
The story feels familiar, well-tread territory. A visitor from the Western world ventures into the dark jungles seeking knowledge, a cure, a remedy, wealth, and fortune. A strange and mystic native guides them through this exotic land, and it either ends in triumph or tragedy, the Westerner at the forefront of the story. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra takes this framework and subverts it, turns this into the account of the native with the Westerner becoming a background supporting figure. Guerra tells of two visitors to the same native Amazonian shaman, thirty years apart, but both men are seeking the same curative plant. Through these dual points in time, the audience can witness the decay of native cultures, ravaged by the effects of interlopers on their land.
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Written & Directed by Jayro Bustamante
It’s a deceptively told and shot tale, much like the camera pushing through the coffee plants, quietly and slowly, revealing secrets about our protagonist. Ixcanul is the story of Maria, a young woman, who is a Kaqchikel Mayan living the volcanic soil hills of Guatemala. She has been promised to Ignacio, the coffee plantation foreman for whom her father works. She secretly meets with Pepe, one of the workers, closer to her age and eventually gives up her virginity to him. Pepe half-heartedly promises to bring Maria along with him when he begins the daunting trek to cross the United States border. Of course, he slips away in the night, leaving Maria with a growing burden that will derail her parents’ plans for her.
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Son of Saul (2015)
Written & Directed by László Nemes
In the midst of the obscene and the profane does it make sense to eke out some small piece of the sacred? What value do rituals and beliefs have when confronted when the horrific abomination of humanity’s darkest hour? Do we need to shield these artifacts of faith, these dying flames from decimation? First-time feature director László Nemes chooses to film the story with an impressionistic style, almost every single scene so tightly focused on Saul, a Hungarian Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz. The background is nearly abstracted in nearly every scene, our protagonist being shoved along through a seemingly never-ending series of atrocities against humanity. Saul reaches out clinging to a practically useless ritual as a means to disconnect from what is happening around and to him.
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Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by John Crowley
The immigrant experience is familiar fodder for filmmakers, and New York City is often the setting for many period pieces about new arrivals to our shores. Brooklyn is the story of Eilish, an Irish woman who crosses the Atlantic to start a new life in America. She’s set up in a boarding house with a job at a large department store by her Catholic priest sponsor. Eilish struggles with homesickness but eventually works past it, helped by a burgeoning relationship with Tony, a young Italian man. Tragedy strikes back home in Ireland, and Eilish is forced to return with plans to go back to NYC. However, she finds new horizons available to her in Ireland that may change her plans.
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Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
Marieme is a sixteen-year-old black teenager living on the outskirts of Paris. She learns that her school’s guidance counselor is pushing for her to follow a vocational track as her academics don’t appear to be high enough for an academic one. Marieme knows the expectations of her mother, who works as a custodian, are that she eventually go to university. In this moment of frustration, the young woman finds friendship with a trio of girls. These young women are known for getting into brawls with other women in their neighborhood, and through them, Marieme feels like she has power in an otherwise powerless position in the world. Over the course of this year, she will move from being a child into a young adult and have to face the obstacles and struggles that come along with that territory.
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The Revenant (2015)
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
If you could combine the pantheistic mysticism of Terence Malick with the primal brutality of Cormac McCarthy, you would have The Revenant. Set in the year pre-American Westward Expansion, The Revenant follows Hugh Glass, a white scout guiding a fur trapping crew into the dangerous Shawnee territory. Glass mostly keeps to himself and fraternizes only with his half-Native son Hawk. It doesn’t take long for the trapping operations to come under attack and those men who survive the assault head down river to find a route back to the safety of Fort Kiowa. The full brute force of nature is on display as the planned escape doesn’t go, and Glass finds himself coming to the borders of life and death.
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steve jobs (2015)
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Danny Boyle
Heroes can often be rotten people behind the scenes. Steve Jobs, while often canonized as a saint of American industry and technology, was not a very nice person, especially to the daughter he denied for decades. When making a film about the creator of the revolutionary Macintosh computer, it would be easy to go the usual biopic route that displays all sorts of corny and cliched foreshadowing that can make the audience think themselves clever. Instead, writer Aaron Sorkin structures this film like a three-act stage play with each act being the minutes before one of Jobs famous unveilings. 1984’s Macintosh reveal, 1988’s embarrassing NeXT launch, and 1998’s glorious return to glory iMac announcement. There are repetitious refrains, almost like a piece of music, characters as themes returning in variation. All of this adds up to a brutally honest portrayal of Steve Jobs that doesn’t seek to frame him as a “great man” but a flawed man with some great ideas.
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Written by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Todd Haynes
As a gay person, Todd Haynes is always looking back to those times when his sexuality was not given a space to exist in the light much less even acknowledged as legitimate. He’s gone back to the turning point of the 1970s with the glam rock scene of Velvet Goldmine, explored the horrors across time of discovering one’s sexuality in Poison and with Carol he seems to have found a place where joy can be found yet still constrained by the mores of the period. Carol is an exploration of two women’s love affair yet should connect with all members of the audience who have found themselves caught up in their passions and were a complex mix of happiness and anxiety. This is a film about the effervescence of love, the frustrating intangibility of connecting with another.
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Written & Directed by Todd Solondz
I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a Todd Solondz film, but I have been continually fascinated by them. He is such a profoundly misanthropic filmmaker with an aesthetic that clashes with the darkness of his material. Wiener-Dog is his most recent film, and it won’t toss anything new at familiar audiences. The film hits on the same gripes Solondz has always ranted about: the soullessness of the middle class, the lack of art in cinema, the inevitability of our deaths. All of this is told in a bright, warm pastel palette complete with a soundtrack that creates a dissonance with the themes of the picture.
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Written by Annie Mumolo & David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
In 1990, Joy Mangano found that her life has not gone how she wished. As a little girl, she invented things and had such a creative mind. As a result of her parents’ divorce, her marriage ending, and an overwhelming tide of financial hardship Joy is at a turning point. A trip on her father’s girlfriend’s boat leads her to a serendipitous moment, the invention of a new self-wringing mop, with a mop head of 300 continuous feet of cotton with the ability to be detached and run through the washing machine. To make her invention a success it will take many risks and Joy ends up putting her neck on the line for a spot on QVC. However, she is a determined woman who will do whatever it takes to raise herself from a fate of mediocrity.
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