Friday, December 23, 2016

The Best Films of 2016

I kind of hate writing this introductory scrawl (does that term work? Maybe? Whatever) for my year-end best list because hardly anyone reads them. You’re here to see what my selections are. Well, as long as you’re not reading: 9/11 was an inside job.

Was 2016 a strong year for movies? Yes, but most years are good. Considering how many movies are released nowadays there have to be some great ones. Was it a down year for blockbuster/franchise films? Yes it was. The summer months were an especially putrid time for them.  Outside of the latest “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” installments there really weren’t any blockbusters to get excited about. And even the better selections didn’t come close to reaching the heights of last year’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”(hell, that movie might be the best blockbuster in ten years, fifteen years even).

That being said, it doesn’t really matter in the long run because there were more than enough quality small to midrange movies released to fill the void, especially during the fall awards season. Say what you will about the relevance of awards shows but without out them we would have fewer adult dramas and more superhero flicks (we’d be up to “Iron Man 10” by now).

All in all, I finished the year with one hundred and sixty two films (playing theatrically in 2016 for the firs time) in the bag; a good number considering I spent half the year finishing college and working a part time job, limiting my weekly intake of new cinema. I saw pretty much all the films I needed see in order to provide the greatest sample size possible. Though I couldn’t see everything. Most notably, Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Silence” isn’t screening in Seattle until 2017. I’m bummed. I’m not saying “Silence” would have made this list but considering how much I love Scorsese and the mostly positive reviews that have come out so far, I would say it had a good shot.

OK, I’ve talked enough. On to the list!


The Witch (Robert Eggers)

In a year full of quality horror, “Robert Egger’s New England folk nightmare reigns supreme. “The Witch” does everything a great horror film should do—slow burn structure, creates a pulsing, breathing atmosphere of dread and paranoia instead of relying on jump scares, and uses gore sparingly. Though maybe the best thing about “The Witch” is that if you remove the supernatural element (there is indeed a Witch fucking shit up in a tangled patch of forest not far from a Puritan family’s homestead) it would still be a terrifying, multilayered character driven drama about contested faith, religious oppression and familial disintegration. In other words, the Witch herself isn’t the most terrifying aspect of the film. It’s easy to jolt a horror loving audience for a night but it takes more skill to craft an engaging, thought-provoking story and three-dimensional characters to make the horror more palpable.

Through his obsessive, painstaking attention to period detail, first time director Eggers brings the grim and gritty realities of 16th century New England to life, adding yet another layer of terror to the equation. The cast, comprised mostly of unknowns, is strong across the board and the film builds to an unsettlingly beautiful, potentially controversial finale that suggests making a pact with the devil may be more empowering than giving yourself to God.


Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Barry Jenkins’ coming of age tale is sublime. “Moonlight” is universal in its focus on issues of identity and sexuality. And Jenkins conveys this universality in a graceful and understated manner. Though it also tells of a very specific experience—the life of an African American male growing up in the inner city. Better yet, Jenkins portrays this experience in a fresh and unexpected light, challenging the clich├ęs and stereotypes (perpetuated by the media and politicians) associated with inner city life and African Americans at every turn. Jenkins uses the three-act structure in an exciting and innovative way, focusing on three significant chapters in our protagonist Chiron’s (played by three different actors) life, making this an epic and intimate portrait of black queer masculinity.

Ultimately “Moonlight” provides a vibrant, much needed perspective that needs to be seen. This is a film I can confidently recommend to pretty much everyone.


La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Damien Chazelle’s romantic comedy/musical is a delightful nostalgia fueled time. After “Whiplash” and now “La La Land,” the thirty one year old director has a knack for making movies that leave you moved and energized. However, the film’s focus on the agony and anxiety of pursuing a stable career in a creative field, along with the egotism and stubbornness that often holds young artists back from achieving success hit home for me in sobering and sometimes painful ways. It was the most unexpected and the most impactful aspect of this colorful love letter to old films and Jazz.


Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

British director David Mackenzie’s first American feature is an elegant slow burn (modern) Western about a pair of bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hot on their trail. It’s a movie that’s so relaxed in pacing and tone but angry and urgent in terms of subject matter. The film’s central crime narrative emerges out of an atmosphere of economic depression and collective resentment towards the U.S. banking system. “Hell or High Water” also features one of the better acting ensembles of the year. Even the bit players (an old lady working at a steakhouse, a diner waitress) make a noticeable impact-- adding flavor and dimension to the West Texas setting.


The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

A devious and delirious three tiered erotic thriller/female empowerment drama, “The Handmaiden” is one of the most exciting, unpredictable and visually stunning films of the year. This is the first film from Korean director Park Chan-wook that I’ve loved pretty much from start to finish (sorry, the incest angle in “Oldboy” doesn’t sit well with me). Just when you think you have the story and the characters figured out Chan-wook puts up his hand and says: “Yeah…no…but I admire your confidence!” I won’t say anymore because the less you know going into this wild genre concoction the better.


The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

“The Nice Guys” is the bumbling seventies set noir-comedy Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” wanted to be and should have been (for the record, I still like that movie). Action movie maestro Shane Black seamlessly mixes buddy cop comedy with hard boiled-ness while Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make for one of the funniest movie duos of the year. While the final mystery in all its unraveled glory (involving both the auto industry and the adult film industry) isn’t totally satisfying I feel like that’s the case with most Film noir, even the best ones. To me, noir  is more about the journey than the end result—the repartee between the characters, the vibrant urban environments, hunting for clues and the sense of danger lurking around every street corner. “The Nice Guys” executes all of those elements to a near perfect degree with the added bonus of screwball humor. Also, the child character (played by Angourie Rice) is actually useful and not just a background prop or a kidnapping victim. Yes, that counts for a lot.


American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

Andrea Arnold’s shaggy, freewheeling American opus (clocking in at two hours and forty three minutes) is difficult to categorize: part coming of age drama, part road trip movie, a romance, as well as an unflinching portrait of Poverty in the American Heartland (specifically youth poverty). However what touched me the most was the film’s focus on family. At the center of “American Honey” is a loose, ragged collection of misfits and outcasts that form a tightknit tribe. The communal scenes (long car rides where the group sings along to various songs) emit a strong sense of warmth and togetherness.

It’s not easy to watch and our tribe faces their fair share of danger along their journey, yet the film isn’t nearly as bleak as it could be. Dourness can be just as cheap and manipulative as sentimentality and Arnold shows restraint, opening the door for hope. Newcomer Sasha Stone is a revelation as the film’s central runaway and “American Honey” features Shia LaBeouf’s best performance by far.


Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

For a movie filled with so much grief, tragedy and familial estrangement Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is absolutely gripping-- like a thriller. Through its deliberate style that organically reveals plot points and character details (without over explaining) I was unable to take my eyes off the screen, even as the dourness accumulated. The film also contains an undercurrent of humor to warm the film’s chilly demeanor. Lonergan knows that even in serious and tense situations humor can find its way in, as a defense mechanism for social discomfort, or as a coping device. Though he isn’t careless—he knows when to sprinkle in bits of offbeat humor to ease tension and tempers and when to dial it back. Casey Affleck, as the emotionally scarred protagonist, is powerfully understated. In case you needed further proof of how talented Ben’s younger brother is.


Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)

“Swiss Army Man” is perhaps 2016’s weirdest cinematic offering. It’s the movie in which Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse companion to Paul Dano’s stranded man (literally and figuratively). Weirdness is welcome in an industry populated by a lot of watered down franchise films but weirdness for the sake of weirdness can only take you so far. Luckily “Swiss Army Man” has plenty of heart and charm, and the weirdness actually services the plot and powers the action forward. Yes, the farting corpse serves a purpose. “Swiss Army Man” is a small film that reaches magnificent, sometimes profound heights and manages to pack a lot into its hour and ninety-five minute run time.  It’s a wildly funny, endearing, exploration of love, friendship, loneliness and depression.

(Oh, and Radcliffe is very good as the farting corpse, maybe his best performance. Sorry “Harry Potter” fans).


The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)

I had this film sitting comfortably at slot number fifteen (in my top twenty five of the year) and only very recently did I bump it up here. Look, “The Edge of Seventeen” doesn’t reinvent the teenage movie wheel but it’s goddamn charming and easy to watch. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay is funny and honest in the way it handles adolescent angst—sympathetic with an undercurrent of “OK, stop whining and get over it.” Hailee Steinfeld is simply magnificent—easily her best performance since “True Grit (though if I’m being honest, that’s a low bar. She’s been in mostly crap). If the Best Actress race wasn’t so crowded I think she would be more than deserving of a nom. Without her snarky energy, this movie is left with a pretty sizable void.

Steinfeld and Craig craft a mopey teenage heroine that’s both relatable and kind of annoying. OK, really annoying at times. But we were all like that at her age. (If you want to tell yourself otherwise, be my guest). The problems that young Nadine is going through are significant in their own way and therefore generate sympathy from the audience. Though she also learns that the world doesn’t revolve around her and her problems are fairly insignificant in the context of most things. Not a new lesson by any means but a valuable one that’s worth reiterating.

(Side note: Holy cow is Woody Harreleson good as her apathetic but actually kind of caring English teacher. When Nadine comes to him saying she’s going to commit suicide by throwing herself off an overpass, he responds by reading a note planning his own fake suicide to mock her. This is the best he’s been in a while.)

Another Fifteen

When you’ve consumed those ten try these on for size. You won’t be sorry you did.

1. Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia)
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
3. Jackie (Pablo Larraine)
4. Viva (Paddy Breathnach)
5. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
6. The Wailing (Hong-Jin Na)
7. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
8. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
9. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
10. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)  (Read My Full Review Here)
11. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Love (Read My Full Review Here)
12. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
13. Sing Street (John Carney)
14. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
15. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine)

Thanks for reading, see you next year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fences Review (2016)

I think we can all agree that Denzel Washington has been consistently strong for a while now even when the movies themselves haven’t been very good. Washington has primarily been in mediocre action films of late (“The Magnificent Seven,” “The Equalizer,” etc.) but he manages to bring a sense of authority and charisma to each one, always making him compelling to watch. He makes the most of his characters even when the writing isn’t there to support them.

In “Fences” (an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play) Washington is given a juicy, nuanced role to sink his teeth into, resulting in his best acting work in years. As the working class husband/father Troy Maxson, Washington’s performance is one of unfiltered swagger and bombastic charm. Though Washington also cuts deeper, revealing a flawed, world-weary man fraught with insecurity and bottled up emotional trauma.

Troy is a man who loves to talk. In a film that’s driven by dialogue his voice can be heard the most, sometimes not allowing others to get a word in. Whether it’s politics, race, his job as a sanitation worker or baseball he has seemingly unlimited opinions to spout. Troy has a knack for spinning compelling yarns, like when he playfully tells a familiar story about his three day struggle with pneumonia to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), making the experience more dramatic than it probably was. It’s captivating to watch. If you were you to run into him in a bar you could listen to him to talk all night.

However, through all his talk, through Troy’s need to dominate whatever conversation he’s in, an aggressive, abusive personality reveals itself. He can be downright cruel and self-absorbed. He routinely criticizes others, tells others how to live their lives, without acknowledging his own shortcomings. Troy seems unable and unwilling to connect with his two sons, or anyone from that generation. He prides himself on being a blue-collar worker and uses that status to flex superiority over them and others, seeing no meaningful lifestyle outside of learning a skill and getting a manual labor job (one son wants to play college football, the other is a struggling musician). Overall, Troy is unable to move outside of his experience and point of view. It’s his way or the highway.

Yet it’s a hell of an experience. Troy’s aggression and stubbornness comes from a place of shame and fear—in regards his own turbulent family upbringing and his racial identity. He is after all a black man living in 1950’s America and though we never see any blatant racism we don’t need to. The context is there, in every passionate word he speaks. In the way a friendly conversation about baseball turns into a weighty, emotionally charged discussion of racism in American athletics. Troy’s loud and hostile exterior thinly veils a deep seeded vulnerability; it’s how he’s been able to keep his head up in these harsh times.

Washington’s multilayered performance of energetic highs and aching lows (inspiring both frustration and empathy.  Troy is highly imperfect but he isn’t a one-dimensional monster) is the beating heart of the entire picture.

The rest of the acting in “Fences” is aces, particularly Davis. Rose’s personality is much more timid than her husband’s and at first she comes off one dimensionally passive—the loyal and submissive wife/mother. Though as the film goes on, the character gradually becomes more explosive and emphatic. While still understated in comparison to Troy, Rose blossoms into an assertive three-dimensional character, with her own set of problems and unwilling to take Troy’s verbal abuse (and later infidelities) lying down. She’s one of the few characters that calls him out on his selfishness and thoroughly dresses him down at crucial moments. Rose holds her own, firmly and consistently reminding Troy that she’s there too. Yet she never fully sheds her compassion and loyalty towards Troy, recognizing that vulnerability in him and finding the good.

Regarding the rest of the film, Washington (who also directs) embraces the theatricality of the material. Everything in “Fences” is communicated through acting and Wilson’s energetic, roughly poetic dialogue. Washington’s camera sits quietly and passively like a curious observer (capturing the action primarily in medium shots) allowing the performers to do their thing and the writing to speak for itself. It’s a strategy that largely works because the performances and dialogue are so enthralling.

Though sometimes Washington’s faithfulness to the theatrical style and structure holds it back as a film. With most of the action confined to the family house, things can feel too stagey and static when it doesn’t need to be. It’s as close as you can get to theater onscreen short of filming a live theatrical performance. Considering the story takes place in Pittsburg, Washington could have explored that urban atmosphere a little more; the few instances where we see the characters interacting outside of the home give the film some much needed movement and sense of place. The picture could have benefited from more. It would have been great to see more of Troy at his job--that off-screen meeting between he and his white boss about becoming a truck driver, for example. There’s not much of an adaptation process, which isn’t seriously detrimental but it keeps “Fences” from being a great cinematic experience.


Passengers Review (2016)

Directed by Morten Tyldum, “Passengers” is a glossy and silly Sci fi hybrid (part romance, part disaster flick) starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as sexy space travelers who get stranded in space. And then fall in love. And then have to avert a mega disaster, while looking all sexy. It’s fascinating, sometimes entertaining, sometimes corny and ultimately… an infuriating misfire. Its final act is simply horrendous, sullying the rest of the picture and leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.

In deep space we’re brought aboard The Avalon; a state of the art, self-sufficient travel vessel (a space cruise ship if you will) transporting over five thousand people to a distant colony. Since the journey will take one hundred years, all the crew and passengers are currently in Hypersleep. But oh no! Due to a malfunction, passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken up ninety years early and is left alone. These opening fifteen minutes or so are solid; resembling an outer space set “Cast Away.” Jim takes advantage of all the ship’s luxuries and technology while also feeling a crushing sense of loneliness and depression. Being stuck on a travel vessel, knowing that you’re going to die before you reach your destination would be difficult to process.

Tyldum effectively conveys the utter helplessness Jim feels, even while aboard this high tech vessel. Despite all the technology, the robots and computer programs designed to cater to his every need, Jim is very much alone. Even a wisecracking bartender Android played by the delightful Michael Sheen can’t fully replace the companionship of another human. And while the smart computers can be accommodating and relay facts about the ship and the mission they can’t provide any real answers to Jim’s predicament. The question: “why did I wake up so early?” is answered with “our Hypersleep pods almost never breakdown.” Yeah, thanks. “Passengers” is about the limits and failures of technology. It can destroy us just as much as it can help us.

After a year in solitude, Jim finally gets a human companion in the form of Aurora Lane (Lawrence). The two strike up a friendship (I mean, what else are they going to do?) that eventually turns to romance. Pratt and Lawrence have decent chemistry together although the love story often comes off schmaltzy rather than genuinely romantic, their courting feeling forced rather than organic.

Speaking of schmaltz, “Passengers” encounters its fair share when it attempts to be more of a serious drama. The script by Jon Spaihts is rife with clunky and corny lines of dialogue that read like taglines from a motivational poster. Moments that should be poignant and moving are overly melodramatic and unintentionally hilarious-- like when Jim floats out into space (while attached to a rope) and, as he looks on at the awe-inspiring galaxy, he sheds a single tear. No doubt missing his home, his fellow humans! Pratt is part of the problem; while his comedic instincts are effortless (he’s doing the same goofy, cocky shtick he’s done multiple times before) his dramatic skills are still underdeveloped. His overacting usually takes you out of the film. “Passengers” works best as a playful space rom-com with Jim and Aurora flirting, pretending to live the life of luxury, making the most of their time together.

However these flaws seem almost insignificant in comparison to the narrative nosedive the picture takes in the third act. The problem stems from a dark and icky plot point near the beginning of the picture (involving Aurora) that drastically alters the situation and paints Jim as a creepy character. The problem isn’t the twist itself but the way Tyldum and co. handle it, or rather the way they don’t handle it.

When Aurora finds out what Jim did it predictably sends her into an angry, emotional spiral. Though instead of exploring Jim’s deed and its negative repercussions in a deep and thoughtful way, the film suddenly pivots into a rushed and incoherent disaster film wherein Jim and Aurora have to save the ship from certain doom. The whole section feels strained and desperate —as if the producers came in at the last second and demanded that the picture have an epic, explosion filled finale. The camera work is disorienting and the editing is choppy. More importantly, it’s a cheap and insulting way of sidestepping this important plot point/issue. Even more frustrating, “Passengers” has the nerve to revert back to a sappy, upbeat romance during its resolution. One final attempt to avoid the issue.

“Passengers” has good qualities, even great qualities but the disastrous third act and shoddy handling of what is deeply disturbing plot point greatly overshadows said qualities.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

La La Land Review (2016)

Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land” is a delightful, energetic motion picture experience. For those who thought Chazelle’s last film “Whiplash” was too intense will be soothed and seduced by this film’s easygoing, vivacious charm. From the very first frame—a retro version of the Summit Entertainment logo,  “La La Land” descends into a magical, heavily nostalgic romp. A love letter to old school Hollywood musicals and studio films in general. A love letter to the art of pure jazz, which is not relaxing background fair but a music genre rife with conflict and spontaneous ingenuity.

Los Angeles is transformed into a glamorous, sparkling dreamscape where there are still independent movie theaters that play nothing but old films and cozy coffee shops with live Jazz performances. The cinematography by Linus Sandegren is fluid and dynamic—the way the camera constantly swoops, glides through and spins around the film’s environment is dizzying and electrifying. The film’s color palette glossy and vibrant—the nighttime scenes have a beautiful, slightly mysterious blue tint to them, while the streetlights emit a warmly romantic glow. Chazelle has a knack for making films that leave you feeling buzzed.

And then there’s the magnificent onscreen duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Gosling plays Sebastian an arrogant Jazz pianist who wants to open his own Jazz club, while Stone is the wide-eyed aspiring actress Mia containing the usual Emma Stone spunkiness that provides the perfect foil for Gosling’s bumbling, self absorbed persona. The two struggling artists get entangled in an old school romantic comedy, they can’t stand each other at first but before long that tension gives way to affectionate ribbing, before their collective struggle in pursuing their dreams solidifies their romantic relationship (and also comes to threaten it).

Gosling and Stone have such effortless chemistry, their interactions containing an infectious screwball rhythm. Watching them walk and talk down an artificial street on a studio back lot (a self conscious ode to the mingling of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in “Annie Hall” or Jesse and Celine in the “Before” trilogy, among other famous romantic film duos), share a warm embrace via piano duet fills you with utter joy.

Though perhaps the most surprising and emotionally resonating thing about “La La Land” is the focus on the agony of pursuing a full time gig in an artistic field. Constant rejection and rotten luck (going all the way to a film audition only to be rejected within thirty seconds), the gut-wrenching feeling of going nowhere, those moments of private anxiety when you ask yourself: am I any good at this? Why do I even bother? And then the moment afterwards when you lift yourself out of that foul mood and continue on, fighting to do the thing you love. It’s an exciting, unstable, terrifying life of maddening persistence that (a life I currently find myself in) that Chazelle is clearly sympathetic towards.

That being said, Chazelle acknowledges the stubbornness and ego that can hold young aspiring artists back—being so committed to your dream, the exact vision of said dream that you’re resistant to change or adaption, and are therefore continually stuck in a rut. This is exhibited most clearly in Sebastian’s character, who loves pure Jazz and wants to play nothing but pure Jazz, who then complains about how Jazz is dying because he can’t open the pure Jazz club of his dreams. Chazelle takes opportunities to mock Sebastian’s snobbiness (and Gosling’s performance is self aware), by making him play in a tacky band that covers eighties new wave snythpop as a scut job, for example.

Ultimately you may have to modify your dreams as you grow up in order to make progress. At one point, one of Sebastian’s old school friends Keith (John Legend), tells him to stop talking about the “death of Jazz” and concentrate on the “future of Jazz” saying, “how can you be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist?” Being stuck in the past, being stuck in your fantasy, continually sulking about being unsuccessful, isn’t always productive. You may have to adapt your mindset, adjust your plan, allow yourself to go down other paths to follow your passion.

Chazelle is supportive and admiring of his dreamer characters as they pursue their wild visions (one of the songs is all about “those fools who dream”) but this other more critical/cautious view of aspiring artists is strongly felt

You may love “La La Land” for totally different reasons—it’s utter charm, the colorful music numbers, Gosling and Stone, the sweet and sourness of its romantic story etc. While I liked all these things, the picture’s focus on the rocky path of pursuing a creative endeavor (and the ego of the young artist) resonated with me on a deeply personal level; an angle I wasn’t expecting to find in this lavish, nostalgia fueled musical.