For all the awful and rot the final act of 2016 has brought us, one small glimmer of cinematic hope was revealed last month with the news that Hayao Miyazaki was coming out of retirement and working on another film for Studio Ghibli. Now, following not far behind, we have the theatrical rerelease of a long overlooked effort from the studio (and the first not directed by Isao Takahata or Miyazaki), the 1993 TV movie “Ocean Waves.” And while “Ocean Waves” never really comes close to reaching the glorious highs that the studio is known for (“Spirited Away,” “Castle In The Sky,” etc.), it is nonetheless a gorgeously realized and deep emotional film of quiet elegance and the fierce longing of youth, and certainly one worth catching again at your local arthouse.
Few performances this year were equally as fun as they were sorrowful, and Jeff Bridges’ essential turn in the western “Hell Or High Water” managed to roll both delicate sentiments into each and every line of his dialogue. Bridges — who has made scene-stealing something of a habit of late — is nothing short of masterful in David Mackenzie’s dusty Texas thriller. The film does an excellent job of grounding all its unbridled emotions in each of the four central characters, but Bridges’ Marcus, a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, winds up, time and again, pulling the rug out from everybody else with his searching eyes; his natural ease; and the deep, unsettling fear buried in his silences. What seals the deal, though, is Marcus’ relationship with his younger partner, Alberto (an excellent Gil Birmingham), who serves as the butt of Marcus’ dull wit, but who he so clearly depends upon, who seems almost to be his last remaining tie to the world. Needless to say, when that tie is severed, and Bridges falls to his knees in disbelief, our hearts were broken, and his vengeance, his sudden willingness to turn against the laws that defined him, made chillingly good sense.
To be fair, “The Dark Horse” is not exactly underrated by those who have seen it. James Napier Robertson’s film, which was released in 2014 in its native New Zealand, has racked up a considerable critical consensus, and for good reason. Still, the film was criminally underseen and thus criminally forgotten. Following the real-life Māori speed chess player, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), who suffered from severe bipolar disorder and went on to found a celebrated chess club for underprivileged kids called The Eastern Knights, “The Dark Horse” is an understated, emotional powerhouse of a film. Compassionately realized, and grounded by a towering, tender performance by Curtis, it’s a film that simmers with a manic energy that never boils over (despite all the melodramatic potential). And for a film about chess, it never overuses the metaphors, nor does it ever give way to its crowd-pleasing premise; for all Genesis manages to achieve, never does the film downplay the reality of poverty or the emotional severity of depression. Instead, “The Dark Horse” casts a light on the capacity for genius in everyone and the good buried in even the darkest places. Check it out, mate…
An exercise in catharsis, the long-awaited follow-up to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s operatic “Margaret” is a study of the unrelenting nature of grief and the way it haunts, heals, rallies, and returns; the way, ultimately, it colors the minutiae of life. ‘Manchester’ is cathartic in much the same way that writing and directing the film was, according to Matt Damon, meant to be for Lonergan: an act of defiance against the paralysis of grief. Centered around a brittle, awards-worthy turn from Casey Affleck, ‘Manchester’ revels in the ugly details of life — the uncinematic moments — and tells a story of a shattered man learning (barely) to live again after an unbearable tragedy. It’s far from an original tale, but in Lonergan’s perceptive hands, and with the outstanding performances he coaxes from his supporting cast (especially Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges), ‘Manchester’ transcends its more familiar trappings to become a searingly imperfect film: because perfection has no place in a representation of grief and the tornado mess it wreaks. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, ‘Manchester’ is utterly human, a delicate film that succeeds in its lack of a pointed, easy epiphany; in its deep love for its characters; and in its pitch-perfect portrayal of the tender, graceless yet charming disorder of life.