Film Preview: THE CONTENDERS (MoMA’s Film Series at the Hammer Museum)

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by Tony Frankel on December 23, 2015

in Film,Theater-Los Angeles


For the past eight years, the Film Department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art has scrutinized releases, searching for the select few films from the previous twelve months which qualify for the end-of-the-year screening series known as The Contenders. Whether mainstream movies, independents, foreign-language films, documentaries, or art-house sensations, this intelligently and brilliantly curated multi-flavored program offers films that resonate far beyond a film festival appearance or theatrical release–if they manage to find their way to a commercial screen at all. From structure to subject matter to language, the multi-factor importance of these movies has them presciently endorsed for their lasting impact on the cinematic art form.

Last year, L.A.’s Hammer Museum partnered with MoMA to offer Angelinos this renowned exhibition. I attended many of the events and they were simply mind-blowing. Not only were the projections superlative and the audiences respectful, but the intelligent discourse after the screenings was alone worth the price of admission–one of my favorites was the great Roger Corman’s Q&A with Ana Lily Amirpour (photo below) after the showing of her A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night–a fascinating picture I may have missed were it not for this series.

Roger Corman and Ana Lily Amirpour attend The Contenders at The Hammer Museum Los Angeles Screening and Q&A of 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'

Beginning Jan. 6, 2016, and running through Jan. 20, a stellar line-up of ten films will be shown at the Hammer on the big screen, often accompanied by intimate conversations with actors and filmmakers (all artists, naturally, are subject to change). Discover why these prestigious museums believe that these influential, innovative films will stand the test of time. Whether bound for awards glory or destined to become a cult classic, each film is a contender for lasting historical significance. This year’s program is organized by Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, and Sean Egan, Producer, Film Exhibitions and Projects, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

No need to listen to the PR hype machines, cull through reviews, or ask friends for advice. Based on previous selections, The Contenders is the most trustworthy source for the must-see films of the year. Whether controversial, frustrating, exhilarating, inspiring, or all of the above, these pictures are perfect for the average filmgoer or any true cinephile. By supporting this program, it’s hopeful that the Hammer will one day be the size of MoMA’s program—which includes almost 30 films this year.



Wednesday, January 6, at 7:30 pm
Beasts of No Nation
2015 | USA | 137 min | Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts-of-No-Nation-Poster-1-202x300“Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation uses recent sectarian conflict as the basis for a timeless story, immersing us in the joys, fears, and resilient spirit of one remarkable boy. In an unnamed African nation, young Agu’s world of happiness and security is upended suddenly in the maelstrom of an unnamed civil war. After seeing his family killed at the hands of a military junta that has overthrown the country’s government, Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) flees his village. Lost in the jungle and nearing starvation, he is captured by a rebel faction, the Native Defence Forces, led by the charismatic but lethal Commandant (Idris Elba, recently seen at the Festival in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Under Commandant’s control, Agu is forced to fight battles and commit acts beyond his comprehension. Yet, throughout, Agu clings to his fragile humanity.” (Toronto International Film Festival program notes.)

A Q&A with director Cary Fukunaga follows the screening,
moderated by MoMA’s Rajendra Roy.

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Thursday, January 7, at 7:30 pm
The Hateful Eight
2015 | USA | 182 min | Dir. Quentin Tarantino

hateful-eightQuentin Tarantino revisits the Western following Django Unchained (2012) in grand fashion with this latest Ultra Panavision 70 spectacle. Set some years after the Civil War, the film opens with a lone stagecoach racing across a forbidding wintry terrain. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is on his way to collect his reward for capturing Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a notorious gang criminal. They encounter two unlikely strangers along the way in the middle of a blizzard: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter and former union soldier, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), self-proclaimed new sheriff of the town where Ruth is to collect his prize money. Mutual suspicion ensues but the four end up traveling together and finding refuge in a stagecoach stopover where four mysterious individuals, played by Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, and Tim Roth, await their arrival. Sizing each other up, the characters slowly unmask one another’s secrets. The initial calm gradually explodes into a grisly bloodbath. Who will be the last one standing? Shot on 65mm film stock and released initially on the almost-obsolete super widescreen 70mm projection format, complete with an overture and intermission, The Hateful Eight brings back a bygone era of cinema when movie-going was a glitzy event.

A Q&A with director Quentin Tarantino follows the screening.

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Friday, January 8, 2016, at 7:30 pm
2015 | Ireland/Canada | 118 min | Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

room_posterOn his fifth birthday, Jack wakes up and begins his morning ritual of greeting the various objects and fixtures in the squalid shed he and his mother inhabit. At first it seems that the two live in poverty, until it becomes clear that they are captives in a hidden building whose door combination is known only to their captor. The uneasy feeling that follows this realization remains throughout the film. Ma is gentle with Jack, but she has carefully schooled him to believe the outside world is wicked, perhaps to save him from the same longing she continues to suffer many years after her capture. Room cannily poses questions about parental responsibility, freedom, and the ambiguity of survival.

A Q&A with actor Brie Larson, director Lenny Abrahamson,
writer Emma Donoghue, and actor Jacob Tremblay.

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Monday, January 11, 2016 at 7:30 pm
99 Homes
2014 | USA | 112 min | Dir. Ramin Bahrani

99-homes-113274-poster-xlargeFew people were familiar with the expression “under water” before the mortgage crisis that very nearly toppled our economy and destroyed countless lives. Ramin Bahrani, who in earlier films sensitively captured the life of a Pakistani-born street cart vendor (Man Push Cartand coming of age in the auto-body repair shops of Willets Point, Queens (Chop Shop), here relates a Faustian saga of greed and corruption in Orlando, Florida, as a predatory real-estate broker (a chillingly charismatic Michael Shannon) forecloses on a bankrupt construction worker (a morally shaded Andrew Garfield), and then lures him into working in his shady business.

Speakers to be announced.

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Cate Blanchett in CAROL - photo by Wilson Webb

Tuesday, January 12, at 7:30 pm
2015 | Great Britain | 118 min | Dir. Todd Haynes

CAROL PosterWhen Carol Aird walks into the life of a demure shopgirl, young Therese Belivet, it’s to buy Christmas gifts at a department store. But there is no mistaking that first encounter for anything other than a true coup-de-foudre. Epically gorgeous and irresistibly suave, Cate Blanchett as Carol joins the ranks of great actors such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who defined for certain eras, in particular roles, what it meant to be a true movie star. Rooney Mara keeps perfect pace as the love-struck Therese and we experience their passion and pain as viscerally as we might have in first reading Patricia Highsmith’s ground-breaking novel The Price of Salt, upon which Todd Haynes’ brilliant film (and Phyllis Nagy’s script) was based.

A Q&A with director Todd Haynes follows the screening.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016 at 7:30 pm
2015 | USA | 88 min | Dir. Sean Baker

tangerine-movie-posterShot on Apple 5s smartphones fitted with widescreen adapters, Baker’s remarkably impressive low-budget feature was inspired by the street life of the LGBT community in West Hollywood. Over the course of a single day at Christmastime, transgender prostitutes Sin-dee and Alexandra struggle to maintain their friendship as one pursues her unfaithful pimp and the other a singing career. Meanwhile, a bisexual Armenian cab driver cruises the neighborhood for fares and sex, as his suspicious mother-in-law closes in on his secret life. Shot on location around Santa Monica Boulevard’s unofficial red light district, the film’s dramatic comedy and endearing characters are grounded in the matter-of-fact reality of the contemporary sex trade.

A Q&A with director Sean Baker follows the screening.

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Thursday, January 14, at 7:30 pm
The Martian
2015 | USA | 144 min | Dir. Ridley Scott

martian2015-2In space, no one can hear you vlog. The great Ridley Scott (Alien) has his lead character alone in space again, and this time it’s Matt Damon as an American astronaut who has been accidently left behind on Mars after a mission disaster. Witty and well researched—the script is based on the popular 2011 novel by Andy Weir—the film plays like a survivalist Western conceived of by the smartest kids in science class. The cast is filled out by a dream-team of “thinking-persons’” movie stars (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Jeff Daniels) and was shot on one of the largest sets ever built. This is a film to make you root for the hero and believe in human progress and ingenuity; one could say it’s the most “uplifting” film of the year.

Stay tuned for additional special guest announcements.

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A Scene from Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's new movie, TAXI. Kino Lorber.

Friday, January 15, 2016 at 7:30 pm
2015 | Iran | 94 min | Dir. Jafar Panahi

TAXI_PosterIn a year that Iran dominated headlines, the country’s best-known cinematic dissenter offers his third film since the Islamic Republic banned him from movie-making in 2010. Equipped with a dash-cam and posing as a taxi driver, Panahi took to the streets of Tehran, his conversations with a series of passengers creating a microcosm of Iranian society. Within the confines of the car, Panahi dives into a self-referential exposition on the government’s censorship, surveillance, and imprisonment of its citizens. His niece, a schoolgirl tasked with directing a film for class is a consummate satirist in her struggles to understand what constitutes the “sordid realism” banned from films by the regime. Taxi is both an act of civil disobedience and a tragicomedy, with references to other films offering a certain levity (an incident with goldfish recalls the director’s own The White Balloon, the dramatic premise recalling Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten). Ultimately, the cinematic image affirms its determination to exist to against all odds.

A Q&A with artist Peter Sellars follows the screening.

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Spotlight Film Still

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm
2015 | USA | 128 min | Dir. John McCarthy

Spotlight PosterTom McCarthy directs a stupendous ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, in this adaptation of the Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of child molestation and a systematic cover-up in the Catholic Church. The film chronicles the eight months the Globe’s investigative Spotlight team spent uncovering the citywide web of institutions knowingly involved in the Boston archdiocese’s silencing of abuse victims and maintaining of the status quo over decades. Both the minutiae of journalistic procedurals and the feel of the early aughts are deftly rendered, including the efforts to keep the investigation alive after the extraordinary trauma of 9/11. While Spotlight has been compared to All the President’s Men, the film would be best viewed with an eye on the present day and the questionable amount of change within the church in the ensuing decade. The film is also a testament to both local and investigative journalism, which are being replaced with social networks and citizen media. Who is going to speak truth to power in the years to come?

Special guests to be announced.

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The Look of Silence Still

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 at 7:30 pm
The Look of Silence
2015 | Denmark | 103 min | Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

the_look_of_silence_1As an act of bearing witness, The Look of Silence has few peers in recent cinema. If its Academy Award-nominated 2012 companion piece The Act of Killing was a morally vexing portrait of war crimes that, even after many decades, remain celebrated and mythologized by their perpetrators—the film was a collaboration between Joshua Oppenheimer and numerous Indonesian crew members who had to remain anonymous to ensure their continued safety—then The Look of Silence gives voice to the victims of those horrific deeds of torture and murder. Under the pretense of conducting eye exams, an ophthalmologist confronts the men who took part in the brutal murder of his brother during the 1965-66 Communist purges, as well as its subsequent cover-up. Like so many other regions ravaged by war and genocide, grim truths hide in plain sight in a country unwilling to own up to its past. The Look of Silence offers a kind of imaginative empathy in a place that has been starved of it for generations.

A Q&A with director Josh Oppenheimer follows the screening.

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photos by Mireya Acierto

The Contenders 2015 Film Series
Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater
10899 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood
screenings January 6-20, 2016
for more info, call 310.443.7000
$15 General Admission per screening
$10 Hammer Members (for member info, call 310.443.7050)
purchase tickets in person at the Welcome Desk during Museum hours
or on line at the Hammer Museum

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