Remember back in August or September when people were talking about how 2016 seemed like a down year for film? That seems kind of silly now. My top 10 list this year contains 14 movies and one Honorable Mention. I waited a little while to put it together and I am glad I did because I think the Oscars cast some of these films in a new light.
In any case there’s only so much you can say in an intro to a list like this so, as they say in the biz, let’s cut to the chase.
Director Andrea Arnold met Sasha Lane at a spring break party in Florida. It would be easy to call Arnold lucky for literally plucking off the street the perfect person for this role, but after her beautiful work with another relative unknown, Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, I am beginning to think Arnold has a talent for casting. In either case, Sasha Lane is perfect. Existing on the razor’s edge between girl and woman she melds she creates a character that reads as both youthful and world-weary; young and wise; bold and confused; fierce and tender. And she delivers this through her movement, expression and silences. Her dialog is sparse.
The narrow Academy ratio gives the film a home movie feel as we follow a group of nearly homeless youth across middle America as they try to sell magazine subscriptions. It’s a hangout movie; a coming of age story; a road trip. Arnold treats seriously a group which rarely receives such respect but so sincerely deserves it.
I wrote at some length about Arrival here, so rather than re-hash those points, let’s talk about Amy Adams and Oscar snubs.
Amy Adams should have been nominated for Best Actress [sic] for her performance in Arrival. She is one of a handful of people in the world that could have communicated Dr. Louise Banks as empathically, clearly and subtly as she did here. The other nominees did fine work (especially Isabelle Huppert, who should win) but the Academy not recognize Adams’ performance speaks volumes as to what Oscar voters value.
Like our favorite athletes, Adams doesn’t look like she’s trying. She just is and in so being reveals greatness. But when you watch Emma Stone in La La Land or Natalie Portman in Jackie it’s very easy to point to a handful of scenes and say “Gee whiz, she’s really acting real hard there”. There is something tangible and obvious to point to that looks like Academy Approved Good Acting ™️. Adams is certainly capable of this kind of performance. If you can stomach watching American Hustle again you can see for yourself.
But she knows and Villeneuve knows that she is capable of something deeper and more meaningful. Maybe the Oscars will catch up some day.
Between Chevalier, Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (infra) it is becoming harder to ignore that something fascinating is happening in Greek cinema. Directors Athina Rachel Tsangari (Chevalier) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) have together created a perplexing and alienating cinematic language that throws our own social dynamics and modes of interaction under a harsh light, transforming the painfully familiar into the outright bizarre.
Deceptively simple, Chevalier concerns six men across all ages of adulthood taking holiday on a boat in the Aegean Sea. Nearing the end of their trip and bored with their typical divisions, one man suggests playing a game which will determine who is “The Best in General”. And thus begins an absurdist interrogation of our masculine assumptions and traditions.
Much like the rules of western masculinity, the rules of the Chevalier game can be generously described as nebulous. Participants rate each other on everything, including the manner in which they sleep (drooling is bad), how often one brushes their teeth (twice a day is not often enough), stone skipping and ring tones (default is best). The film features a literal dick measuring contest.
Tsangari isn’t simple concerned with masculinity’s toxicity and performativity. She also interested in its arbitrariness. By being explicit about the fact that there are rules but cagey about what they are Tsangari shows us that the point for these men is not the rules themselves but simply having some method of quantifying and ranking themselves, to the point of self-debasement. This is her ugly truth and it hits like a truck.
I wrote about Hail, Caesar already so I won’t belabor my points. However, I will add that, perhaps more than any other director(s) currently working, the Coens suffer from their consistency. Since 2007 they have directed seven (!) movies all ranging from good to timeless masterpiece so now when they release a movie like Hail, Caesar they not only have to overcome the critical prejudice against comedies, in order for the film to receive its proper attention it must also stand out in a field which includes No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Fargo.
Suffice it to say, if any young director had come along early in their career and produced Hail, Caesar they would be on every best-of list in the country.
The Handmaiden was the best movie of the year.
I know many people have not yet had the opportunity to experience The Handmaiden because as a foreign film it had a limited release and a relatively brief initial theatrical run. Therefore, I will avoid spoilers.
Chan-wook Park has unquestionably reached a new level as a director. From the opening moments he is in absolute control over the audience reactions and allegiances, which shift at least three times throughout the movie. The movie is at once sexual, tense, warm, political and mysterious. Feminist and feminine. But these different tones never conflict with one another and are always employed with purpose and clear intent, exactly where and when they’re needed.
And I have never seen a twist handled more deftly, recontextualizing the film without undermining the pre-twist messaging thus making the plot turn both critical to the movie but not the point of the movie, setting The Handmaiden apart from both Park’s earlier work with Oldboy and M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career.
I fear that saying more would ruin the experience. Just know that The Handmaiden is the most thrilling, unexpected and expertly crafted movie I have seen in some time. If you haven’t seen it yet, fix that.
Hell or High Water
Recently we’ve seen a minor western cinematic renaissance with movies like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Hateful Eight, and more independent films like Meek’s Cutoff and The Homesman. While all good films, none of dealt in any serious or direct way with Native American genocide and the violent invasion and occupation of Native American land upon which this country was built. This is a particularly important conversation within the western genre because so many early westerns functioned as apologia for this foundational American atrocity.
Hell or High Water does not entirely address this oversight, but it makes strides in that direction. Directed by Scottish native David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water is a modern western about a pair of brothers who rob the bank that holds the mortgage to their family’s land. The metaphor between the present day housing crisis and the historical invasion, displacement and slaughter of Native Americans is occasionally heavy-handed. Although the film wisely articulates these points most explicitly through an actual Native American character, a rarity in film.
But the film also makes subtler points. What is theft from a large bank compared to the left of homes and livelihoods? What is a few dead cops or cowboys next to the rape and elimination of a culture or entire economic class? How can you steal that which was never legitimately held? How can one invade their own home?
La La Land
La La Land has a lot of problems. The film is rife with thinly motived or outright unmotivated character decisions. The plot often moves forward due to forces from outside the characters are their needs and wants. Many of the disagreements which drive the narrative forward could have been resolved with a simple phone call or reasonably honest discussion. On a technical storytelling level, a person could tear this movie apart. As for the messaging there exist legitimate and important critiques of the ‘just follow your dreams’ ethos and I am glad that other people are making them.
However, those problems do not change the way I felt when I watched the film. La La Land is so joyful and sincere and earnest without being garish or cloying that it can over what in other films would be truly debilitating structural problems through sheer charm and goodwill.
I also appreciated that the film made the bittersweet point that our romances are not everything. We do not need to, and in fact shouldn’t, give up what our ambitions and desires to be with the one we love in the moment. That we do actually get other chances and it is ok to walk away from someone good and it is ok if it just doesn’t work out. Our romances and relationships are part of who we are and may always be dear to us but they do not define us. We get to do that.
About two thirds of the way through The Lobster Rachel Weisz delivers the following line, explaining the silent code she developed with her secret lover: “We had to be careful in the beginning not to mix up ‘I love you more than anything in the world’ with ‘watch out, we’re in danger’.” Like Chevalier above, The Lobster is an often off-putting, distancing film which uses its bizarre conceit –people who are single too long are turned into animals – to reveal to us a deeper truth about human relationships and feeling.
In this case, love is dangerous and when handled poorly can destroy a person, even when felt sincerely.
The Lobster exaggerates and makes explicit the arbitrary binaries the culture places on human connection. This is a world in which one can have either size 44 or 45 shoes; 44 and a half is not an option. Everyone is straight or gay. There is no bisexuality. You are either in love and wholly devoted to someone or you are a stranger. Mere infatuation does not exist.
But, of course, human love, courtship and sexuality is rife with the undefined or maldefined. In this way the film suggests that perhaps the animals really do have it easier. They don’t mess around with things like feelings and empathy.
Manchester by the Sea
I am so happy for Kenneth Lonergan. Margaret was a beautiful feast of a movie unfairly delayed and picked apart by studio heads until there was nearly nothing left for the public to experience. We are blessed that Lonergan survived that experience and gave us Manchester by the Sea.
This movie is a gift – a raw, pure, unfiltered examination of grief and guilt and loss that deftly avoids the pratfalls of other less thoughtful sad white people movies. Lonergan avoids these problems by simply doing the basic character work. Nearly every character in this movie, even those with relatively minor roles, feel as though they have a complete and considered psychology, a real working inner life. Every time the narrative movies, every important event on the screen is rooted back to these characters and what they want and the choices they make.
And Lonergan respects his audience enough to not explain through dialogue what these characters are thinking and feeling. He knows we can see it and feel it and figure it out. He has made a movie for engaged emotionally intelligent adults and he that’s how he treats his audience.
What else can really be said about Moonlight? It is expansive and personal. It is ethereal and crystal clear. This is a movie which can take a midnight handjob on the beach and make it feel transcendent and beautiful. Director Barry Jenkins does not set out to make the young black gay male movie. But in his detailed and affectionate telling of Chiron’s story the intimate becomes the universal. In a way, he explains blackness and gayness and maleness by underlining the plurality of those qualities. There is no single experience but we find common ground in our mutual uniqueness
Moonlight is a love story but not in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s the story of a man learning to love himself.
The Nice Guys
No one directs and writes children like Shane Black. His child characters are precocious and witty without being treacly or grating so, in that sense, The Nice Guys is kind of a perfect Shane Black movie. Angourie Rice’s Holly March is the ideal foil to Ryan Gosling’s inept, unethical and outright cowardly Holland March, a character who spends the bulk of the early portion of the movie complaining about kids these days and is then immediately upstaged at every turn by his teenage daughter who shows herself to be better both as a detective and as a person.
Black wisely sets this film in the 70s to both pay homage to early detective flicks but to also poke fun at meaningless nostalgia. Holland pines for the days gone by in the same way that any reactionary who isn’t please with their lot in the world pine for any era they did not get to experience personally, assuming that it would have been better and that what is going wrong now is due to lack of respect from today’s youth. For Black, in a refreshingly progressive move, the fault lies squarely with adults who may not be so nice after all.
“Drive It Like You Stole” not getting a Best Original Song nomination will never make sense to me and neither will people who don’t like Sing Street, a perfectly charming encapsulation of the optimism and joy of youth. John Carney knows when to go over the top, in sequences like “Drive It” but maintains the beating heart of the story. Lucy Boynton is absolutely charming as the love interest. Carney is smart enough to not just show us that our lead is in love with her but also why he is so we can fall in love with her too.
Silence had a budget of $40 million and has made $14.4 million at the box office. Risen had a budget of $20 million and made $46.1 million. God’s Not Dead cost a $2 million(!) and made $62.6 million. And the kicker, Heaven is Real cost $12 million and made $101.3 million.
Some of this is, of course, marketing. Most people didn’t hear about Silence, if they heard about it at all, until two weeks before it hit theaters. It got an oddly limited release and it was pitched as the grimmest kind of Oscar bait, which to a degree it was. But, setting those factors aside, Silence was a box office flop and garnered only a single down ticket Oscar nomination because of the type of Christians who go to movies like Heaven is Real and God’s Not Dead, which are precisely the people Scorsese is targeting with Silence.
For Scorsese, a devote and tortured Catholic, unexamined and unchallenged faith is worthless. Reveling in the self-congratulatory dreck coming out of the modern Christian film industry stunts spiritual growth. In Silence, Scorsese shows us (but doesn’t tell us) that even faith earned may not be worth it. Faith can help us keep our humanity and ourselves but faith can be harmful. Faith can be selfish. Faith can be paralyzing. For Scorsese these points are not just important but necessary. It is a shame the people who need to hear them most will never get the message.
Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man is a movie about learning to be a person and honestly asking yourself why you shouldn’t just commit suicide. It is also a movie about farts.
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe each give the performances of their careers as two new friends, one of them a flatulent corpse, grappling with the aching struggle that is honest connection with another human being and the absurd restraints we place on ourselves to prevent those connections and protect ourselves from shame and harm. That is to say, how can you trust someone who refuses to fart in front of you?
Here are other movies that I really liked or found interesting: Twentieth Century Woman, Toni Erdmann, Things to Come, Elle, The Neon Demon, Captain America: Civil War, Indignation, Green Room, The Witch, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Invitation, Love & Friendship, Kubo & the Two Strings, Certain Women, Paterson
Thanks for reading 2,700 words on some movies I liked. All feedback is welcome! Here’s hoping for a cinematic 2017 that