Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2016 Year End Report: Top 10 Films of 2016

One of the strongest top 10 lists I have had in year.

10. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is one of the most interesting biopics I have ever seen. The film focuses on the week after JFK’s assassination, as his wife – played, brilliantly, by Natalie Portman, clearly suffering from PTSD, has to somehow find the strength not only to move on and tell her kids about what happened, but also secure her husband’s legacy – all the while she grieves for him, and is angry at him, as she knows theirs was little more than a sham marriage. Strangely, the only time Larrain’s film flashes away from this time period, is when it goes back to a TV special, where Jackie gives a tour of the White House to a reporter – although that is linked as well. For Jackie Kennedy, she know that appearances are what matter – what you read and see on TV is more important to defining someone’s legacy than what they actually did. This is a dark film, brilliantly well made, often using horror movie aesthetics to tell this deep, dark story. A haunting film – and one I think will only get better as you revisit it, time and again.
9. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
When I saw Green Room in the spring when it came out, it seemed like an excellent horror film/thriller, superbly directed by Jeremy Saulnier – an almost unbearably intense 95 thrill ride that just keeps turning the screws tighter and tighter until you cannot bare it. And it is still that – few films this year are as meticulously crafted for maximum impact like this. But, in the wake of Trump’s election, Green Room has taken on a new resonance for me. It is a sadder film (it’s also sadder because its star, Anton Yelchin, died this year – and it’s tough to see him in pain in this film, given what we know about his death). This is a film about being young and idealistic – and completely sure you know everything you need to know about the world, and then getting out and seeing just how hard, cruel and ugly it is. The punk band that is confident enough to walk into a room full of Neo-Nazis, and sing a song entitled “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, think they are protected by some sort of society – and perhaps, normally, they would be. But they don’t count on walking in on a murder scene – and they don’t count on the Neo-Nazis doing whatever it takes to protect their own. Saulnier is one of the best up-and-coming directors around – his previous film, Blue Ruin, already confirmed that. This one takes it to the next level. A brilliant film that was difficult to watch the first time – and perhaps even more so the second.
8. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
One of the quietest films of the year, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a real world fantasy – about a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey – a once thriving industrial town, which has fallen on hard times. Adam Driver plays the title character who takes comfort in his routine – waking up at the same time, walking the same route to work, listening to his boss complain, driving the same bus route, coming home to his wife and her artistic ambitions, walking the dog to the bar, where he has one drink and heads home. He gets flustered when things get him off of his route – and you cannot help but notice pictures of him during his time in the Marines, which perhaps offers a key to him. His one outlet is poetry – he reads a lot of it, and writes his own, in a small notebook. His poems capture the beauty and mundanity of real life. In lesser hands, this film would be about a man in a rut who needs to break out and live his life – but Paterson seems happy in his life, happy with his wife and friends – happy living in his own head, with his own poetry – which he doesn’t bother to share with anyone other than his wife. Perhaps living in your head isn’t that bad afterall. Jarmusch has been making quiet films like this for more than 30 years – and this is one of his very best.
7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Barry Jenkins’ striking film Moonlight is beautiful and tender – a story told in three acts of a young African American named Chiron, growing up in Miami. In the first segment, he’s under 10 and often left alone by his mother (a brilliant Naomie Harris), slowly slipping in crack addiction. He finds a kind hearted mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali) – a drug dealer, who sells his mother crack, and while that’s something between the two of them, they bond anyway. In the second, Chiron is in high school, picked on because he’s quiet (and gay – although he cannot even admit that to himself, let alone anyone else) – his mother has fallen deeper into addiction – but he finally meets one friend. In the third, again about 10 years later, Chiron has grown up, but built walls around himself and his identity – he doesn’t let anyone in. Then, he gets a call from that same kid he once knew, and his world opens up – just a bit. The film is visually striking – each segment has its own visual look, while still being a part of a whole. The acting is brilliant – it’s the best ensemble cast of the year – and the movie is quietly devastating in its final act. Jenkins film has become the most acclaimed of the year – and it’s a well-deserved, for a brilliant film, by a filmmaker who I cannot wait to see more for.
6. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, starring newcomer Sasha Lane as a teenager from middle America, who runs out on her family and joins a group of travelling magazine salesmen. It is, in many ways, the perfect film to usher in four under President Trump – a film about that shows the hopelessness and poverty for its characters, who may well be taken in by someone like Trump and his platform. Yet, if that makes American Honey sound bleak, it really isn’t that at all – the film portrays young love – or more accurately young infatuation, contains a great soundtrack – which Arnold often pauses on, to watch the crowd of teenagers, crammed into a white panel van, singing along to. It’s about the dangerous situations the main character gets herself in – without ever quite realizing it. The film is three hours, and largely plotless, but it doesn’t really need a plot. It’s about the romantic notion of life on the road – but also how gross that can be. Lane terrific in the lead role, tender honest, sweetly naïve at first – it’s the best debut performance of the year. Shia LaBeouf has never been better than he is here as her trainer – and object of her infatuation – and Riley Keough is great as her boss. American Honey is the film that I nominate – along with Green Room – as being the ones to perfectly usher in Trump’s America.
5. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
There was no stranger film this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster – a dystopian satire about a future in which if you are not paired up in a romantic relationship, you will be transformed into the animal of your choice (it’s nice that they let you choose – and you’re also allowed to be gay, so that’s forward thinking of them as well). The film stars Colin Farrell – who in the first half, goes to a hotel in which he has a few months to find his perfect match, and in the second, completely abandons that society, to live in the woods with a group who completely bans all romantic coupling of any kind. The switch at the half way point is crucial in the film – if you think you’re watching a film about the ridiculous way in which society insists on coupling each other up – you’re right! – but then the film rubs your face in the other side as well. The Lobster is really a satire of extremes – of mandates and banishments that limit your choices but strict adherence to the rules. It brilliant, funny, disturbing and 100% original – a big step forward for Lanthimos, already one of the most original voices around with Dogtooth and Alps – the fact that’s he’s coming to TV, with Colin Farrell, fills me with glee.
4. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is one of the director’s most overtly religious films – it completes the loosely connected trilogy started with 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and continued with 1997’s Kundun – but it really is a culmination of his career to this point, touching on the themes that has driven his work for nearly 50 years now. The film is about a pair of Jesuit priests who in the 1630s travel to Japan to try and find their mentor – who apparently cracked and renounced his faith when threatened with torture – and to spread the word of God to the residents there. Andrew Garfield gives a great performance as one of the priests – who both cares deeply about the Japanese people he is there to serve, but also, never quite sees them as human. Eventually he will be captured, and held by the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) – who doesn’t want to torture him, and turn him into a martyr – but would rather break him. The film is hardly a white savior epic – Garfield’s priest is no saint, and Adam Driver’s priest even less so – and while the Japanese are capable of torture, they are also capable of so much more – and even the Inquisitor has a point. Silence is a beautifully mounted film – you won’t see more stunning cinematography this year – but it’s also a tough film to endure – there is torture in the film, and long stretches of, well, silence, when we are invited for moments of introspection alongside the characters. The film is unlike anything else made in 2016 – it seems like a classic film, but not one out of Hollywood – it has more in common with the work of Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer or Robert Bresson. The film may have been underrated this year – but it will last.
3. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is the year’s best comedy – and one of the most ambitious films of the year as well. It’s a nearly three hour comedy about a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, where the two spend time needling each other when the father shows up at her job in Bucharest unannounced – eventually posing as a businessman himself. I heard one critic describe the film as Homer Simpson visiting a grown up Lisa – and that’s not a bad description. The film crams so much into its run time – misogyny, feminism, globalization, depression and that’s just for starters – that you would think that the final product would feel overstuffed, yet it never does. That’s because writer/director Maren Ade keeps the focus on these two characters, who are so carefully observed and brilliantly acted by Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek that no matter what is going on, it feels natural. The whole film is brilliant, but Ade goes for broke in the last hour or so – and has one great sequence after another. Ade’s last film, Everybody Else, was brilliant – one of the best break-up films in recent memory. It took her far too long to make a follow-up – and you wouldn’t expect a comedy from her. But she made one of the great ones of the decade. A masterwork.
2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
No film wrecked me emotionally this year more than Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck gives the performance of the year as a man who has pretty much completely shut down since a tragic accident that was his fault. He lives alone, in a cruddy apartment, and works as a handyman for several buildings in Boston. He’s good at his job, but quiet, and more than a little bit of an asshole if pushed. He is forced back into the world when his brother dies, and names him as the guardian of his teenage son – a role he doesn’t want, but cannot exactly say no to – at least not right away. The film is about grief, of course but Lonergan knows how there is humor in even the darkest situations, and often the film is quite funny – which I think makes the emotional revelations hit even harder when they do come. Affleck is amazing – his performance ranks amongst the best of the decade so far, a quiet, understated performance that sticks with you. Michelle Williams makes her few scenes as Affleck’s ex-wife count – they are as emotionally devastating as Affleck’s best scenes are (in fact, they may be Affleck’s best scenes, the two playing off each other beautifully). This is a deep, knowing film – Lonergan’s best film to date, and an absolute masterpiece.
1. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
Was there a more relevant film this year than O.J.: Made in America? I don’t think so – this film, an 8 hour documentary about the life of O.J. Simpson takes hours to examine the man – and the country and times that produced him – the Watts riots, the Civil Rights movement, etc. that Simpson largely stayed away from – and his entire career, and superstardom – before even getting to the crime that has made O.J. Simpson infamous. That it finds new ways to look at that crime – including the most graphic description ever of what happened, including photographs, making the audience reckon with the crime in a way that we haven’t before (because it’s all about OJ, not the victims). It also provides an outline of police brutality in America – specifically L.A., putting this trial, and crime, in its proper historical context – something no one was able to do at the time. It’s an in depth look at the trial – the strategies, the gamesmanship that went into it. And finally, it’s a sad look at the man Simpson became – desperately holding onto fame however he could get it, and the almost Keystone Cops-type crime that landed him in jail. O.J.: Made in America is about this tragic figure of course – but it’s also about so much more. If Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is the greatest documentary of all time (and it is) – this belongs on the tier right below that in terms of docs. If Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is the greatest film ever made about race relations in America – than this challenges that masterpiece for the throne. I don’t really care how you classify O.J.: Made in America – as TV or as a film – it’s clearly the best thing I saw this year, and worthy of this number 1 spot.

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