Right Here, Right Now: The 2016 Catch-Up Edition

No rest for the weary as the end of the Chicago International Film Festival signals a time to catch up on the numerous films that have made their way to theaters during the fest’s two week run. 

Ashton Sanders in a scene from Barry Jenkins' Moonlight {Photo: A24}

Ashton Sanders in a scene from Barry Jenkins' Moonlight {Photo: A24}

Currently screening at numerous Chicago locations following its CIFF bow earlier last week is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (Highly Recommended). Overheard at a CIFF screening as the “black, gay Boyhood”, the reductive byline offers a fleeting sense of the startling permanence of Jenkins’ work. Like with Linklater’s film, the cumulative details figure into the Moonlight’s indelible powers, inspiring some of the most richly composed imagery you’ll find in contemporary American cinema. 

Utilizing a triptych narrative, we follow a young boy’s passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Each chapter is acutely realized as a careful self-examination of identity, whereupon Jenkins provides insight on the modes in which black, gay males confront the cultural backlash of their sexuality within their community. Perhaps not the rigid political study that it could have been, Moonlight is primarily a visceral exercise accentuated by Jenkins’ stunning formalism; informed by filmmakers like Harmony Korine, Hou Hsaio-hsien, and Wong Kar-wai (among others), it’s one of the most visually lush and evocative films I’ve seen in some time. Given its media notoriety as an Oscar-contender, Moonlight operates in stark contrast to the largely white, male hegemony that dominates the conversation at this time –it’s a film that I’ll gladly champion to win all the awards. 

Addison Timlin in a scene from Zach Clark's Little Sister {Photo: FORAGER FILMS}

Addison Timlin in a scene from Zach Clark's Little Sister {Photo: FORAGER FILMS}

Screened briefly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater and currently available on iTunes is the Joe Swanberg-produced Little Sister (Highly Recommended). I highlighted Addison Timlin’s stellar central performance back in September, but neglected to express what makes Zach Clark’s film so expertly unique. And given the rather lukewarm reception it has received in major markets, I can only hope that audiences can give this film a chance. 

Little Sister’s peculiarities pile on quickly, with its 2008 setting – specifically highlighting Barack Obama’s ascent to the Presidency – functioning as an integral component to its wry vision on the dualities of spirituality and liberalism. Timlin as Colleen Lunsford is a novitiate, on her way to becoming a nun, living as a North Carolina transplant in New York City. Colleen is summoned by her mother to return home, as Jacob (Keith Poulson), her brother, has returned from service from the Iraq War. He returns with significant battle wounds, suffering from burns all throughout his body, and remains at home as a hermit. What follows could have been a banal modulation on every other Sundance coming-of-age narrative that sees its protagonists revisit their past. Instead, Clark’s study on nostalgia is periphery to how his study on the cumulative contradictions that shape and define our worldviews. To borrow from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, Little Sister ends up being the cinematic equivalent of the lyrics, “I wouldn't trade one stupid decision for another five years of life”. 

Sonia Braga in a scene from Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius {Photo: VITAGRAPH FILMS}

Sonia Braga in a scene from Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius {Photo: VITAGRAPH FILMS}

One of the best films of 2016 screened for just a brief week at Chicago’s Landmark Century Theatre, and in an ironically appropriate move, was picked up for a few days at Regal Webster Theater. That film is Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (Essential).

For non-Chicago residents, imagine your local arthouse theater projecting a Brazilian film for just a few screenings a day for a week, only to see it pop up at your local multiplex among films like Boo! A Madea Halloween and Ron Howard’s latest. For a film that largely deals with the encroachment of large corporate entities on modes of tradition in one of Brazil’s larger metropolises, this move unexpectedly feeds into the thematic totems that make Aquarius such a vital piece of work.

The film is centered on Sonia Braga’s unimpeachable performance, the best of the year, in a role that you’d imagine someone like Gena Rowlands’ would’ve taken in the 70s and early 80s. Braga is Clara, a retired music critic, living along the coast of Recife. She leads a life of simple pleasures, first seen emerging from beach waters as if a Bond girl, before taking refuge in her apartment with her prized collection of vinyl records. Yet she lives alone in her small walk-up building, with developers buying out all the other tenants. Being the lone holdout, the various developers, including a particularly smug young man named Diego (Humberto Carrão), passively attempt to force her out.

Like with Filho’s previous film, Neighboring Sounds, there’s an outright political component to Aquarius; a commentary on the encroaching globalization facing Brazil and the subsequent degradation of human rights that comes with an increasingly powerful corporate state. But Filho’s sensibilities rest so much on character and place that he strips away concerns of didacticism in place for an insightful study on the tokens that we hold onto with the passage of time. The film tellingly opens on a sequence earlier in Clara’s life, during the 1980s, where she hosts a party in the building celebrating her Aunt Lucia’s birthday. Briefly fixating on Lucia, Filho tells a story involving an antique cabinet, spurring a flush of memories that overwhelm Lucia. It’s the key to appreciating the film, where the value of the material is given unexpected value with the passage of time and experience. Developers hoping to strip away a neighborhood of that character can never understand that, and with Aquarius, Braga and Filho convey that sentiment without a hint of pretention. It’s a gift of a film, something to be prized and cherished.