On Simple Stories Well Told

I watched a lot of films in 2017, and I found myself with a growing affection for simple stories well told. In today’s Hollywood, it feels like most blockbusters are all explosions and drama and excess. They’re full of fillers and, as director Eric Swiz puts it, they end up feeling like “movie-flavored” productions rather than real movies. There seems to be less and less emphasis on proper characterization and meandering stories. Instead, more and more emphasis is being placed on catching the attention of viewers, however fleeting that attention may be. Movies like Batman vs Superman and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feel like they were made to be trailers, not full stories. The goal is to get viewers to spend money on a ticket, not necessarily to make a movie that they will connect with. This makes it all the more surprising (and reassuring) when films like Moonlight make it to the forefront of the public sphere.

As I’ve grown more fond of these simple stories, I’ve noticed a common thread running through their reviews: they’re boring and slow and their endings are unsatisfying. To which I have only this to say: sometimes, so is life.

Boyhood

I wanted to start with an example that a lot of readers might have seen. This 2014 piece directed by Richard Linklater is a daunting 2 hours and 45 minutes, something that had me putting off a viewing until very recently. Nominated for a handful of Oscars and Golden Globes (and winning over 170 awards) this is nothing short of a meandering masterpiece. Within five minutes of this movie starting, I was utterly immersed. I didn’t look at my phone or eat a snack or do anything else except watch the film. Following the normal life of one normal boy, this story winds through 12 years of life, marking both pivotal points and unassuming events in his childhood. On the surface, it almost feels like nothing much happens. There are no deaths or spectacles or dramatic reunions, and you often feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there are relationships and conversations and evolution and this is what fleshes out a beautiful and subtle tale of growth. It is a quiet story, one that illustrates how much we change through the years and how our goals and dreams often change with us. It’s difficult to explain the magic of this movie and how deeply it connects with you as you’re watching it, but if you haven’t already seen it, I recommend it highly.

boyhood
Boyhood 2014) || Richard Linklater (Director)
Drinking Buddies

Featuring Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Jake Johnson, this might very well be one of my favorite viewings from 2017. It follows the stories of two intertwined couples over a short period of time and the impact they have on each other. It’s a romance film, but it’s not like the romance films that end up on the big screen. There isn’t a dramatic ending, there isn’t a knock-down drag-out fight, and there isn’t a cheesy soundtrack playing when people kiss. It’s quiet and emotional and believable, and it ends like it started: without fanfare or debacle. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the story, but it’s a very candid look at interactions and the human experience, and one that I can’t recommend enough. Bonus: it’s currently on Netflix!

drinking buddies
Drinking Buddies (2013) || Joe Swanberg (Director)
Spa Night

This 2016 Korean film is brilliant in a very quiet way. The use of negative space throughout the film heightens the overall mood by not using a soundtrack, completely eliminating physical touch, and even minimizing the main character’s self-expression almost to the point of removing it entirely. I think the strength of this movie comes from it’s day-to-day moments and how simple tasks and experiences can be both uplifting and heartbreaking. The movie ends with another average action in another average day, highlighting that in real life, many stories don’t have a happy ending or a neat resolution. This movie is so grounded in the challenges of day-to-day life that it is virtually impossible not to connect with it on one level or another.

spa night
Spa Night (2016) || Andrew Ahn (Director)
7 Chinese Brothers

Following the escapades of a struggling 20-something, played by Jason Schwartzman, this 2015 indie comedy was significantly more fun than I was expecting. A lot of reviewers were flustered over the fact that the film never referenced the title, but not only does the exact phrase show up, but where it shows up is a huge metaphor as to what this movie is all about. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch it. An excerpt from my Netflix review is as follows: “Not all films have to feature a grand adventure or a huge plot twist to be enjoyable. This may not be for everyone, but I found it to be a really enjoyable character study. A simple story well told, in many ways.” Bonus: the dog actor is Jason Schwartzman’s real-life dog!

7 chinese brothers
7 Chinese Brothers (2015) || Bob Byington (Director)
Imperial Dreams

This 2014 film starring John Boyega is heartbreaking to the nth degree. We watch a young man, just released from prison, desperately trying to make a safe and legal life for his son. The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything and demonstrates the crippling nature of a system built to work against you. There is a quiet grittiness and honesty to this story that crawls into your chest and wraps around your heart. You want so desperately for the main character to succeed at such a simple wish: to take care of his son. Your heart breaks each time another challenge is presented and he is made to feel that it is his own shortcomings that are stifling him. The bittersweet nature of the entire story feels hopeless in some places and awe-inspiring in others, but it is never anything less than honest.

imperial dreams
Imperial Dreams (2014) || Malik Vitthal (Director)
My Life as a Zucchini

This 2016 French stop-motion film has a run time of only one hour and six minutes– but I was misty-eyed long before that point. This story follows the life of a little boy called Zucchini who ends up at a French orphanage. I have long been of the belief that animated films are not automatically children’s films, and this is an exquisite example of that. Dealing with profound themes in a simple way, there’s a lot that can be found between the lines. In addition, the fact that it doesn’t make any attempts to fill up the run time is certainly one of its strong points. It’s a peaceful story about a tumultuous time, and is handled with a kind of delicacy that is very rarely seen. It is tender without being overly sentimental, and honest without being explicitly open. It was one of my favorite viewings of 2017 and I would be lying if I said I don’t think it deserved the Oscar over Zootopia.

my life as a zucchini
My Life as a Zucchini (2016) || Claude Barras (Director)

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