Okay, I know every week I come on here and give you the big “boy, it’s quite a spread this week” but seriously, it’s quite a spread this week: two of the year’s best documentaries, one of last year’s best studio pictures, two charming new indies, and shiny new Blu-ray upgrades for a pair of rock-solid ‘70s star vehicles. Get out your credit card, with my apologies.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold: “My aunt Joan grew up on stories of the doomed Donner party.” That’s the voice of Griffin Dunne, the sometimes actor, sometimes producer, and sometimes director behind this very personal portrait of the brilliant essayist, novelist, and screenwriter Joan Didion. And yes, she is his aunt, married for decades to Griffin’s uncle John Gregory Dunne, so there’s an uncommon intimacy in these interviews; they’re drawing not just on her memories, but their shared history, and that shorthand allows Dunne to get to some emotional truths that another documentarian might not have. He supplements those informal chats with additional interviews (with fellow writers, editors, friends, and family), as well as excellent archival footage (home movies and television interviews, mostly). But its most enduring image is that of her bookshelf, each new and iconic work lined up right up next to the last one, a body of words that remains staggering – and The Center Will Not Hold’s finest quality is that, like last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, it knows there’s no such thing as too much of this writer’s work.
ON AMAZON PRIME / HULU
Arrival: One of the very best films of 2016, a big, expensive-looking science fiction film about alien invaders – but a film of ideas, about communication and humanity, and one whose honest engagement with notions of livelihood, memory, love, and loss elevates it far above the likes of, say, an Independence Day sequel. And yet, due not only to the persuasiveness of its effects but the dexterity of its storytelling and the wonder of its approach, it is as thrilling as any summer blockbuster.
ON DVD / VOD
Person to Person: Dustin Guy Defa’s New York comedy/drama includes a murder mystery, a theft, intrepid reporters, and all sorts of other commercial elements, which the writer/director gleefully implodes: the “investigation” is delightfully clumsy, the cub reporter is shy to a point of ineptitude, and the big chase scene is a low-speed bicycle pursuit with a bebop score. It’s a weird little movie, is what I’m saying, but full of delightful performances, colorful characters, and little arias of searching dialogue. And the grimy 16mm photography couples with the throwback music cues to create a tone and vibe closer to the oddball New York movies of the early ’70s — screwy pictures like Born to Win and Where’s Poppa, where everybody’s a little fucked up, and the movie loves them in spite of that. Maybe even because of it. (Includes interview and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Hermia & Helena: There’s a wonderfully intimate, handmade quality to this slight, sweet romantic drama from writer/director Matías Piñeiro. The freewheeling narrative concerns a young Argentinan woman (the luminescent Agustina Muñoz) on a fellowship in New York City, though the script wanders back to the life she left in Buenos Aires, the romance she’s found in NYC, and her search for her biological father. That description makes it sound more orderly and schematic than it is, though; this is a charmingly off-the cuff movie, less concerned with ticking plot boxes that capturing the unselfconscious artiness and romance of youth. It’s a movie that embraces you with its kindness and warmth, and when it’s over, you’re tempted to reach for the remote and press play again. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and short films.)
Dawson City: Frozen Time: This cinematic excavation story from writer/director/editor Bill Morrison pulls a clever bait and switch right off the bat: it begins as a conventional documentary, explaining how a treasure trove of long-thought-lost silent movies were unearthed in the title city (up in Yukon territory, in Canada), with dramatic discovery footage and talking-head interviews. And then that style is abandoned altogether, in favor of dreamlike music, on-screen text, and films of both newsreel and narrative stripes. Most surprisingly, Morrison decides to tell not just the story of the films (though there’s plenty of that – and not just of film as an art, but film as a substance), but of the place they were found, and the people who inhabited it. In other words, the three hundred-plus movies rescued from the ground are just the hook; this is the story of a modern city, and beyond that, a microcosm of contemporary urban life. (Includes interview, original film reels, and trailer.)
Scarecrow: Perhaps it’s that it came so early in their careers – just a year after The Godfather, and two after The French Connection – but the only on-screen team-up of Al Pacino and Gene Hackman doesn’t produce the kind of fireworks that, say, Pacino’s scene with De Niro did in Heat, or Hackman’s with Dustin Hoffman in Runaway Jury. Nor does it try; director Jerry Schatzberg (who directed Pacino’s first major film performance, in The Panic in Needle Park) aims instead for a low-key, rambling character study, following two sad sacks as they hitch their way across the country and develop something resembling a friendship. It is, in many ways, a quintessential ‘70s drama, subverting expectations and taking risks, and arriving at some quiet but revelatory truths. (Includes vintage featurette and trailer.)
Junior Bonner: Within five months in 1972, director Sam Peckinpah released two collaborations with star Steve McQueen. One of them, The Getaway, was the biggest commercial success of the director’s career; this was the other. The story of a traveling rodeo rider who ain’t what he used to be, Junior is an ideal vehicle for both Peckinpah’s expressionistic portraiture of complicated masculinity and the talents of Mr. McQueen, who gives a breezy, lived-in performance (and has never looked better; the director of photography is the great Lucien Ballard, and his breathtaking photography is nicely rendered by KL Studio Classics’ impressive Blu-ray transfer). Robert Preston isn’t entirely convincing as a cowboy patriarch, and save for the big ending, Peckinpah has some trouble making the rodeo action compelling. But he captures the sights, sounds, and smells of small-town rodeos, parades, and dances with a documentarian’s verisimilitude. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and trailers.)