I’m fortunate to know a group of people as passionate about film as I am. They’re students, programmers, filmmakers, screenwriters, bloggers, critics, and journalists. In this space, when I reference people I know whose opinions I respect (and who often hold positions contrary to my own), that’s who I’m talking about. The debates and conversations are always enriching.
As the year is wrapping up, I’ve invited them to contribute to Flaw In The Iris, and a few have kindly taken me up on it.
These are the questions I asked:
1 ) What are five features you enjoyed in 2016?
2) Name a film that was under-appreciated or under-seen, and why it deserves to have a higher profile.
3) If there was something you didn’t see enough of in 2016, what would you like to see more of in films in 2017? Or maybe a filmmaker who you miss? A cinematic wish for next year.
The other day I met with Zack Miller. He’s a programmer and volunteer at Carbon Arc Cinema, and at the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, which is returning in 2017. His writing has also appeared at The Focus Pull, and he can be found at Letterboxd. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for space:
Flaw In The Iris: Given that we’re still a month out from having had a chance to see all of the year’s films, I figured just asking for you to choose five seemed like a reasonable number. But you tend to choose more than that for your End Of Year list on Letterboxd.
Zack Miller: I put together a very loose grouping. It hovered around 50 the last two years. Anything that has any sort of redeeming quality, really. I feel like a list of 10 or 15 can be very insular. You end up picking all the cinephile favourites. When I expand to a list of 50, it allows me to capture stuff that wouldn’t have made my top 10. One example this year is Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 or even Top 20 List, but as I’m tracking to the end of the year it’s in the running for my loose grouping of faves.
FITI: I like being forced to make a decision to choose a small number, a representative selection. But I also have honourable mentions list, and a separate list of lesser-known films that came in under the radar. When I total all of those, I’m probably in the 20s, so I guess I’m doing the same thing you are, to some degree. But now I’m gonna ask you to provide only five of your favourites.
ZM: The first that comes to mind of the five is Cameraperson, Kristen Johnson’s sort-of documentary. It is a documentary, but it’s also a collection of documentary footage. That one absolutely floored me. I wound up writing about it for the Carbon Arc blog. We screened it after the American election and I was a little down on those results. This was a booster shot of humanity. It’s incredibly well put together. Usually essay-type films, they usually don’t resonate with me, but this one really did. It’s best of class.
FITI: I really liked it too. It’s funny, I don’t write much about documentaries on Flaw In The Iris. I enjoy them, but I don’t see nearly enough, so I guess I’m just not as confident in covering them. But, yeah, it was really something. I was amazed at how she was able to create an emotional through-line with such disparate imagery. OK, and what else?
ZM: I really enjoyed Love & Friendship, the Jane Austen adaptation from Whit Stillman. I don’t know if there’s been a more perfect marriage, in terms of literary adaptations, of source and executor. Maybe No Country For Old Men (Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers), that would be a close second for bringing a sensibility in harmony. Stillman and Austen, it’s probably the funniest comedy I saw this year. It has such a snappy script, and some great visual jokes, too. Great performances. One of the funniest performances of the year I think is Tom Bennett. He was also probably the only saving grace of the new Christopher Guest film, Mascots. Have you seen that?
FITI: I haven’t, but I haven’t heard many good things.
ZM: If you’re a Guest completist it’s worth the watch, but it’s definitely minor key Guest. But Bennett is great in it.
FITI: I’m with you on Love & Friendship. Given Stillman’s trilogy of chamber comedies from the 1990s, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days Of Disco, it’s kind of amazing it took him so long to get to Austen. Or maybe any drama about repressed Brits. He’s perfectly suited. And I love that he worked with Kate Beckinsale again. Most people know her these days as a cat-suited Underworld star, but it’s great to see her again doing this kind of thing. So, what else is on your list?
ZM: Paterson. The new Jim Jarmusch film. Absolutely stellar. It’s a little bit tautological to describe it as Jarmuschian, but the rhythms he finds in editing and dialogue… he’s the most naturalist of the non-naturalist directors—he has a surreal bent to his films, but nothing is off key. Everything just flows. I tend to more writerly kind of films, but to just sit and watch Adam Driver write was pretty gripping. All the flare Jarmusch put in, like having the Moonrise Kingdom kids.
FITI: Yeah, I loved that, too.
ZM: There was a reference to Iggy & The Stooges, a nod to his new documentary. And the way he uses the colour blue, it really stands out in my memory,
FITI: I loved how entertaining it was in the celebration of the mundane. That it takes place over a week of repetitious activities. Driver’s character’s life is in some ways is so ordinary, but he recognizes so much beauty. And, of course, his poetry, which we see in text on the screen. At first I wondered if I’d be into it, but it’s actually quite lovely. My only concern about Paterson, whether I’ll consider it for my list, is that I try not to include films if I’ve only seen them in festivals. So if it gets a theatrical release after, say, the end of January, I might save it for consideration in 2017. But that’s just my personal choice.
ZM: Yeah, absolutely. I guess my looser classification tends to towards eschewing release year issues almost completely. There’ll be stuff on my list that was probably a 2015 release, and few that will be 2017 releases. I figure the list will live on beyond the end of the year, so people can still refer to it as things open.
FITI: That is a great way of approaching it. So, what else?
ZM: American Honey was a high point for me. I’m a big fan of Andrea Arnold films anyway, but this one is her first American film. She dove into the heartland, and took on that sense of place. Hillary and I were talking about it, and she brought up something I hadn’t noticed about the film. There were some through-lines I did notice, like the use of animals. These young adults are very animalistic in their behaviours, but Hillary mentioned that almost all the shots of them travelling have the road extending before them. They don’t look backwards. That’s something that’s so simple and elegant that I wish I had noticed, but it’s also the sort of thing that makes me want to go back and watch it again. The movie does have that forward momentum, propelling you though. Did you like it? I recall you thought it was a bit long at two hours and 45.
FITI: Yes, but I still enjoyed it. I liked that it was in a tradition of films that capture a youthful zeitgeist. It’s got more in common with Easy Rider than it does with a lot of other movies coming out today. An American restlessness. And with the tradition of European filmmakers coming to the United States and seeing it from an outsider’s perspective. Somehow capturing a truth about the country in a way that’s wonderful, like Wim Wenders did.
ZM: I’ve mentioned to a few people that it feels like a mumblecore film without the navel gazing. It’s about these stagnating adults trying to find their way in the world, but it’s not like a Joe Swanberg film, or anything Lena Dunham has done. It may have to do with that outsider perspective.
FITI: And number five?
ZM: Moonlight. It’s really starting to pick up steam in the awards circuit, pulling significant upsets over La La Land so far. But it’s a truly moving film. It’s distilled emotion, almost. It’s a lot more ephemeral and a lot harder to pin down because you can’t just point to a style of directing or writing. It’s funny to call something so small and focussed an experience film, but I think that’s what it is. The visuals, the use of pink and blue lighting, is fantastic. The triptych that’s it’s divided into, each are self-contained but echo in the others. You almost feel like you could watch them in any order, and be left with the same effect. It’s one I’m still thinking about pretty often. And I’ll throw out two honourable mentions: One is Werewolf, by Ashley MacKenzie, the local filmmaker. I had to get a mention in there. It’s so astounding as a Canadian film, and an Atlantic Canadian film. It just floored me. And the other on my list is contentious as to whether this can be an option on end-of-year lists or award shows: Lemonade. Beyoncé’s visual album. It’s a highly collaborative effort, in songwriting and directing and cinematography, but the final product is astounding. It’s pushing the boundaries of what a film is.
FITI: Anything you want to mention that you think not enough people saw that they should?
ZM: Moonlight is one to see on the biggest screen in the darkest room. I do hope that Toni Erdmann makes it onto screens here. I know it’s a strong favourite for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, which might give it a chance. Another pretty big price tag in terms of its running time, but definitely worth it.
FITI: I can’t think of another movie this year that surprised me as much in the last 20 minutes. So funny.
ZM: Oh yeah, and as absurd as it gets, it’s still very earnest. Almost no winking at all. Really human reactions.
FITI: Maybe Sausage Party was the only other one.
ZM: And that was all winking.
FITI: Any hopes for the new year in cinema?
ZM: Yeah, I definitely think that in terms of representation on screen, things are changing. We definitely got a few this year, like Moonlight, and in TV shows like Atlanta. It’s awesome, my favourite show of the year. But I want to see more work from black people, from people of colour, and from women, especially. I did the 52 films by women this year, The Year Of Women in film, I think they were calling it. I think about 25% of what I watched was new, within the past five years or so. It seemed to reach a bit of a fever pitch, but only 5% of films released this year were directed by women, so that can definitely improve. I’d like it to reach a point where you don’t have to make a huge effort to see films by women, by black people, or by Native American directors.
Another thing I’d like to see is more diversity of voices in the critical side, too. In the new year I’m going to try and be more mindful of where my own voice isn’t needed. Use what little platform I have to boost the signal of other voices more qualified to comment on certain things. There are many people with more interesting opinions than myself. That’s not self-denigrating, I think I sometimes have good things to say about movies, but I know that there are others who can say it better.