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.

2016 Year End Report: 20-11

Anyone of these films would not be out of place on my top 10 list - in particular from 14 on up.
20. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)
The Austin Wright novel that Tom Ford adapted in Nocturnal Animals could not have been the easiest to adapt – it has a very literally structure and style that if you don’t quite just right, will quite simply not on screen. I don’t think Ford pulls it off effortlessly – you can see the strain in his effort at times – but mostly, he does it brilliantly. The film tells multiple stories – with fictions layered inside fiction – one involving a husband and father (Jake Gyllenhaal) who watches as his wife and daughter get kidnapped by a group of backwater psychos (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – and has to rely on a strange lawman (Michael Shannon) for help. The other involves Susan (Amy Adams), the ex-wife of Tony (also Gyllenahaal) – living a high class, empty LA existence of fashion, money, style and excess – who is reading the book he wrote (the kidnapping story). The film is a knowing mixture of genres and styles – half out of touch Hollywood Liberal, half dimwit Trump supporter – deliberately provoking a response from the audience, leading them to an inevitable conclusion – and then, simply not providing it. The film is brilliant and flawed, mesmerizing and messed up. There is a no way a film like this could ever be perfect – but it is unforgettable.
19. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Certain Women is one of the year’s quietest films – as you would expect for the latest by the wonderful Kelly Reichardt. It tells three, mildly interlocking stories about women in the Midwest, dealing with their lives – casual misogyny, loneliness, crumbling marriages, etc. – and does so without a hint of melodrama. The first story – starring Laura Dern as a lawyer with a client who will not listen her (but will listen to a man) – has the most plot, but even that is low-key. The second story, about a couple who wants to buy some sandstone from an elderly man, who always planned to use it, and never got around to it, is perhaps a little too quiet, too subtle. The finale one is of the best of the year (if the whole movie were as good as this segment, this would easily make the top 10 list) – and tells the story a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone, in one of the great performances of the year) who develops a friendship with her teacher (Kristen Stewart) – which leads her to do something she didn’t expect. Reichardt’s films are always quiet, always low-key – always feel like not much is happening, but grow in your mind for weeks afterwards. Certain Women – like Meek’s Cutoff, Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy – is beautiful, subtle, heartbreaking filmmaking.
18. Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez)
The best “pure” horror film of the year, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is intense and scary right from the start. The story of three young people who break into the isolated house of a blind veteran – supposedly because he has hundreds of thousands of dollars inside – is brilliantly executed by Alvarez. He favors long takes, tracking shots, showing us the lay of the land inside the house early, and then using it to great effect later on. The sound design is perhaps the best of the years – everything heightened for maximum effect. Jane Levy is in fine form as the “survivor girl” in the film – sympathetic, even though she’s there to rob a blind guy – but Stephen Lang gives perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year as that man – at first sympathetic, than downright frightening. The movie takes a few wild turns in the final act – does it go too far? Perhaps – but overall, this really is a brilliant horror film – and one of my favorite movie going experiences of the year.
17. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is one of the year’s most ambitious films – a full scale, made directly for the screen musical like this isn’t seen very often, let alone one that pulls it off this well. The film is anchored by two wonderful lead performances – Ryan Gosling as a character who in other hands may have been an insufferable asshole, is instead instantly charming, and Emma Stone, finds new bits to play as the ingénue looking for stardom. They carry the movie through a few of its rough patches. Strangely, I think if the music was a little stronger, and if Chazelle were better able to hide the obvious enormous effort of the production (musicals are always a ton of work – but watch Astaire/Rodgers or Gene Kelly – they make it look like they aren’t trying at all), this would be even better. As it stands, it’s still wonderful – and I have nothing but admiration for the wild, crazy ambition it took to pull it off.
16. Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The consensus seems to be that the Coens latest is minor Coens – and perhaps it is, since many of their films have found their way onto my top 10 list over the years, and this sits just outside it. Still, it’s impossible to overstate the pure joy I get out of this film- a brilliant homage to, and send up of, the studio era in Hollywood – a lighter side of Barton Fink perhaps, that still manages some thematic heft in its Christ-like story at its core. Coen comedies often take more time to find their audience then their dramas – and I find it hard to believe that people won’t be quoting this one for years to come (“Would that it were so simple”, “Squint into the grandeur!”). Coen regulars like Josh Brolin – in the lead role – and George Clooney – adding another Coen buffoon to his resume – are in fine form, as is its cast of stars – but no one is better than Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle – a seemingly dimwitted star of cowboy pictures, who turns out not to be so dumb after all. There’s no denying that Hail Caesar isn’t as good as the Coens last film – Inside Llewyn Davis is my pick for film of the decade so far – but it’s more Coen magic, then I’ll probably watch approximately 100 times.
15. Christine (Antonio Campos)
Antonio Campos’ Christine is a film that has continued to grow in my mind since seeing it at TIFF in September. The movie, about Christine Chubbuck, the Florida reporter who committed suicide during a live broadcast in 1973, is intense, scary and empathetic – looking at both the mental issues that Chubbuck suffered from as well as the outside forces that pressed in on her – and all women at that time. In the lead role, Rebecca Hall gives one of the year’s great performances in the title role – brittle, volatile, driven, and slowly driven mad – but the rest of the cast – Tracy Letts as her misogynist boss, Michael C. Hall as a Me Generation anchor, and especially Maria Dizzia, as an underling, who seems so nice, until she isn’t. Campos has been doing solid work for a while – chilling work to be sure, but distinctive – and Christine takes him to another level. A brilliant, underrated film that not enough people saw this year.
14. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Watching Paul Verhoeven’s controversial and incendiary Elle is like watching Verhoeven, and star Isabelle Huppert, do one of the most daring high wire acts of the year. This is a film that begins with Huppert being brutally raped, and gets more disturbing from there. For Huppert, this is one of the best performances of her career (I’m not sure she can top her work in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher – but this is as close as she’s ever going to get most likely) – as she plays a woman who is in control of every aspect of her life – beset with a bunch of weak-willed spineless men – her sniveling ex-husband, her lazy son, controlled by his girlfriend, her friend’s husband who she is sleeping with, etc. – who then finds one man in control – her rapist. What follows will be offensive to some (many? most?) but makes sense in the context of this one woman’s reaction. Huppert is brilliant, and it’s great to see a Verhoeven film again for the first time in a decade. With this, he does to European Art House cinema what he spent years doing to Hollywood films. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget Elle.
13. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hell or High Water became one of the year’s most relevant movies – a film where it was possible to see both Trump’s America, as well the opposite of that. It’s story of two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing banks – the very ones trying to foreclose on their home – is genre filmmaking at its finest by David Mackenzie – a journeyman director, who has quietly built up an impressive resume, with a great script by Taylor Sheridan. Pine and Foster fall into their roles easily – Pine the more subdued, Foster going characteristically crazy (in a good way) – and they are well matched on the other side of the law by Jeff Bridges, as a tired Texas Ranger, after one last big bust before retirement, and Gil Birmingham as his partner. The film sneaks up on you a little bit – yes, it makes its political point early – but for the most part subtly (it didn’t need to be literally written on a wall, but never mind). This is the type of film – part modern Western, part neo-Noir, expertly written, directed and acted that it seems like Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to make.
12. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Denis Villeneuve’s tour of different genres continued in 2016 (following interesting work in Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners and Sicario) – as he moved over to sci-fi – and to make the highest concept mainstream film that genre has seen in a while. Featuring an excellent performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is the story of a peaceful alien invasion – where humanity has to find a way to communicate with, but cannot get out of their own way, with their bickering and infighting. Adams is great as a linguist – who we first meet as she has to watch her daughter die after a long battle with a debilitating illness. She’s the one who knows figure out – through months of work – how to communicate. Arrival isn’t a movie with a lot of action – it’s an interior journey as much as anything, and asks some very heady questions of its audience, and yet its greatest strength is emotional – this is that rare film that makes you think and makes you cry at the same time. Villeneuve continues to be one of the more interesting filmmakers working today.
11. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
In terms of bonkers, gonzo genre films – things don’t get a whole lot crazier than Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – a two and half hour film, with twist upon twist about an Korean con-woman, brought in by a conman to be the Handmaiden for a rich, but sheltered Japanese heiress. Her job is to help him seduce her, so he can have her committed, and steal all her money. Things seem to be going according to plan, until the film twists, switches POVs, and restarts – and essentially does the same thing all over again (which it will do a final time as well). The film is set in the 1930s, and is one of the most visually dazzling of the year – the costume and production design are the best of the year, the cinematography wonderful, the score evocative, the performances pitched perfectly – going for high melodrama, well still maintaining some degree of believability. Whatever Park does, he goes all in – this is a violent, sexual, film that goes for broke, and doesn’t let down for a moment. It may just be the most purely entertaining film of the year.

2016 Year End Report: Best Films 33-21

These are all fine films – catch up with them if you can.
33. Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino)
The best Canadian film I saw this year, was Andrew Cividino’s debut about a long, lazy summer in North Ontario – where three teenage boys get themselves into trouble. While that sounds like a familiar story – and in some ways it is – it doesn’t really explain the subtle power of Cividino’s film, which explores issues of class and sexuality, in that confusing time – where two poor cousins become friends (by proximity more than anything else) with a shy rich kid, who, of course, ends up doing to worst thing of them all. Sleeping Giant is about those seemingly small decisions that have far reaching consequences – about how toxic masculinity is ingrained early, and never really goes away. This small film has been virtually ignored – and unseen outside of Canada. See it.
32. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hang Sang-soo)
I’ve been slowly discovering the work of Hong Sang-soo over the past few years – mostly being utterly charmed, by his low-key comedies, that sneak up on you by being surprisingly perceptive. My favorite of his work that I have seen is Right Now, Wrong Then – a movie that tells the same story, with slight variations, and completely different results, twice in a row, both running about an hour in length. Yes, in many ways, the film is a stunt – and yet it’s such an interesting one, one with so much humanity and humor, that I loved it just the same. A visiting filmmaker is in a small town for the night to present his film the next day. He meets a young woman, and they spend the day – and into the evening together. It’s not really sexual – it’s something deeper than that. Right Now, Wrong Then felt like a throwback to the more heady days of foreign art house films – and a welcome one at that.
31. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
I have a feeling that Everybody Wants Some is going to be better remembered in about a decade than it is right now. Like Dazed and Confused, to which this is a “spiritual sequel”, Everybody Want Some is a deceptively simple film – one of those film that feels incredibly lightweight as you watch it, but continues to grow in your mind long after it ends. It’s about the first weekend in college for a star high school baseball player – a weekend full of drinking, sex, baseball and a lot of male bonding – and ends with him falling asleep in his first college class ever. Dazed and Confused saw the 1970s with clearer eyes than most films do looking backwards – not matter how nostalgic the film was, it still recognizes that for the characters in the movie, it is a miserable time to be a teenager – just like always. Everybody Wants Some is a somewhat gentler film than that – more soft around the edges, and feel good nostalgic. It’s not one of Linklater’s best films – but it’s a good one for sure.
30. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
For the protagonist of Kelly Fremon Craig’s underseen teen angst comedy The Edge of Seventeen, being a teenager sucks. Her father died a few years before, her mother doesn’t understand her, her one friend has started sleeping with her golden boy older brother who she despises – and the boy she likes doesn’t know she exists. From here, Fremon Craig spins a hilarious, honest, misanthropic look at life as a teenager with a great performance by Hailee Steinfeld in the lead, and fine support from Woody Harrelson, as her teacher who both likes and hates her. The film is quick witted and funny, without being overly cute or smug – honest enough to admit that the main character is both part of the problem, and getting screwed over. Most teen comedies are disposable – this one isn’t.
29. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)
In Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous A Bigger Splash, four ridiculously attractive, rich white people bounce off each other, engaging in petty squabbles and flirtations – and sex – in nearly every combination imaginable – all while ignoring the real world concerns around them. To be honest that last part – brings in immigration and refugees in the end feels a little strained – but for the most part, A Bigger Splash is an entertaining film in which rock star Tilda Swinton and lover (Mathias Schoenarts) retreat to their Italian villa – and host Ralph Fiennes, Swinton’s former producer/lover – and the young daughter, Dakota Johnson, he just found out he had. All four performances are great – Swinton does it all with no vice, Fiennes has never been so  free-wheeling, and Johnson is both sexual, and completely naïve – a little girl playing grown, while Schoenarts broods silently as well as possible. The film isn’t quite the triumph of Guadagnino’s last film – I Am Love – but it’s still a winner.
28. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
It’s nearly impossible to defend Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon as either a plausible film, or a film that accurately reflects the fashion industry, as it is purportedly trying to do. The film is ridiculous, over-the-top, violent and sexual, with great performances, stunning visuals and music. It is a film that takes one bonkers turn after another – especially in the last act, in which what we thought was the main character and her antagonist both disappear, and yet the film keeps right on going to one of the memorable, grotesque finales you will ever see. I think it’s fair to question whether Winding Refn will ever reach the perfection of Drive again – but I love that he’s so fully committed to his violent, sexual fairy tales – and that at the very least, this is way better than Only God Forgives.
27. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
I liked the original Cloverfield just fine – even if it was one of the catalysts to the found footage genre, which hasn’t been particularly great over the years – but this spinoff (sequel, prequel, shared universe object, whatever) is much, much better. For most of its runtimes, it is a brilliantly effective, Hitchock-ian thriller – with a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) kidnapped and held in a bunker by a paranoid madman (John Goodman) – who claims he saved her from whatever the hell happened outside, but then again, he may just be crazy. It’s another great performance by Goodman – arguably the most underrated actor in the world (seriously, name a single bad performance he’s given) – who is volatile, and swings between violent, and almost naïve, and by Winstead. When the ending of the film comes, it’s not just an excuse for special effects – but an actual extension of the films themes – and completes Winstead’s journey. The film is thrilling, scary, intense and humorous – and really one of the best times I had at the multiplex all year.
26. Indignation (James Schamus)
James Schamus’ Indignation is easily the best adaptation of a Philip Roth novel ever to reach the big screen. Not that it’s much of a horse race - this year’s American Pastoral, which is awful, is an example of how they frequently go so terribly wrong. This film, starring Logan Lerman as a young New Jersey Jew, who heads to college in Ohio – and butts heads with the administration, and gets involved with a “damaged” woman – leading to ruin – is intelligent, funny, extremely well-acted and written. In addition to Lerman, Tracy Letts is great the Dean, who, while never getting angry, completely destroys Lerman, and Sarah Gadon is excellent as the young woman who he can never see clearly, because he cannot get out of his own head. Perhaps one of the reasons why Schamus succeeds where so many others fail is because he picked the right Roth novel – something slightly more suited for the screen. But whatever the reason, Schamus delivers a great Roth adaptation – and that’s quite an accomplishment.
25. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
The Witch is one of the great debuts of the year – and one of the great horror films. Set in 17th Century New England, it can take a few minutes to into its groove – considering writer/director Eggers use period accurate dialogue that provides some distance to the characters. Yet, gradually, the film builds its tension, and becomes truly horrifying. The story of a family who is already breaking apart at the seams due to the parents’ religious fervor, and the oldest daughters’ budding sexuality, is put even more to the test because there really is something out in the woods trying to mess with them. The film is a slow burn horror film – it may bore people who want more action and blood – but it builds to a truly terrifying climax. Not only that, but it is meticulous made – with some of the best cinematography, sound design and production design of any film this year. A new classic of the genre.
24. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
If Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart doesn’t quite live up to his previous work it’s because the film really is only two-thirds of a masterwork, with one third merely being very good. The famed Chinese director continues his exploration of the effects of capitalism and globalization on his country – this time focusing on one family, in three time periods 10-15 years apart. In the past, Tao Zhao has to pick between two men who are in love with her – a poor miner and the man who owns the mine, in the second segment, the consequences of those decisions are still being felt – divorce and parenthood are there, as is death. In the third – in the future (and in English, which may be why it’s clunkier than the rest), the son has pretty much forgotten his roots, and his life. Mountains May Depart is not as good as Jia’s masterpiece A Touch of Sin (or several other Jia films like Platform or Still Life) – although it is undeniably another fine feature in Jia’s ever expanding, ever impressive body of work. He may never have a true breakthrough in North America – seriously, if A Touch of Sin didn’t do it, I don’t know what will – but he continues to be a vital presence in world cinema.
23. Loving (Jeff Nichols)
In Loving, writer/director Jeff Nichols takes what could have been a very on-the-nose, inspirational “Oscar bait” movie (I hate that term, but you know what I mean) – and instead delivered something far more subtle and down to earth than that. This is the story of the inter-racial couple who eventually took their case to the Supreme Court for their right to be married. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the Loving couple are down to earth normal people – who quite simply, just love each other, and want to be left alone to raise their kids in peace. Nichols has become America’s premiere filmmaker of the contemporary American South in the last few years, but strangely, he had not addressed race until Loving – but it was worth the wait. This is one of those films that sneaks up on you – but refuses to leave you once you’ve seen it.
22. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The first Jeff Nichols film of the year, Midnight Special was kind of ignored when it opened earlier this year – and while it’s not a perfect film, you have to admire its ambition. Michael Shannon gives a great performance as a father who kidnaps his special son from the cult who worship him – and has to drive him across country, for reasons now one is entirely clear on. Joel Edgerton is his buddy, willing to risk everything for the mission, and eventually they are joined by Kristen Dunst as the boy’s mother. Nichols is clearly heavily influenced here by early Spielberg, although the film is more grounded than Spielberg perhaps ever got. The special effects laden finale seems to be where Nichols loses some viewers – and that’s too bad, because it’s actually rather mesmerizing, and thoughtful. And the film has a genuine emotional core in its story about parents loving their child no matter what. The film may not have the simple perfection of a film like Take Shelter or Mud (or, hell, Loving) – but its wild ambition is something I cannot help but admire.
21. Fences (Denzel Washington)
It’s clear that as a director, Denzel Washington wanted to preserve as much of the August Wilson’s brilliant language as he could when turning the playwright’s celebrated work into a movie. As a result, I know a lot of people have thrown the dreaded word “stagey” at Washington’s film. Yet, while there is no doubt the film is based on a play – I do think Washington finds any number of interesting ways to shoot the film – not to mention the fact that he gets amazing performances out of his entire cast – himself included, making his Troy Maxon into a flawed, scary, cruel, funny, friendly man – a wealth of contradictions to love and hate. Better still is Viola Davis as his wife – who sees her world collapse – and strikes back, hard, against it – destroying a little bit of the fantasy world Troy believed himself to be living in. Yes, Fences is clearly a stage to screen adaptation – but I think it has a lot in common with the best that genre has to offer – back in the 1950s and 1960s – when they did this often – and brilliantly.

2016 Year End Report: Introduction

I am hardly the first to say this, but it’s true: Every year is a good year for movies – it simply matters how wide you cast your net to find them. Some years, you can see some of the great films of the year simply by going to the multiplex every week. Two of my top five films of 2015 (Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road) were blockbusters by any standard, and another (The Hateful 8) went about as wide as you could imagine. The rest were the kind of films that start out in a few cities, and gradually role out – or don’t, as the case might be – they may never go beyond the major cities, and local arthouses, of which, there seem to be fewer and fewer. 2016 was different – most of the films on my top 10 list were not box office hits – many never really come to a theater all that close to me (luckily, while I live in Brantford, I work in Toronto – where I see most of these films) – or presumably many of you either. Quite a few of them struggled to find its audience. They will, eventually, one way or another – great films always do.
But I cannot help but think that the majority of people will see most of the year’s best films on a TV screen, and not a movie screen. Hell, my number 1 film of the year is one that very few even had a chance to see on a movie screen- I certainly didn’t, which means for the first time since 1997, I did not see my favorite film of the year on the big screen (that year, the film was Boogie Nights – and I wasn’t old enough to see it on the big screen). As studios increasingly focus on major tent poles, and sequels and prequels, and films in the same cinematic universe, there is fewer room on the screens for movies aimed at adults. This was been the case for a while now – a decade? More? Perhaps because I’m getting older though, it seemed to be more and more the case this year – where I either had to travel further and further to see certain films, or not see them at all on the big screen.
I’ve still managed to see most of the year’s biggest and best. When I look at my survey of 650 film critics top 10 lists, I’ve seen everything in the top 30 – missed just three of the top 50 - No Home Movie – which I keep meaning to rent from iTunes, and haven’t yet, I Am Not Your Negro, which will not open in Toronto until February – and practically nowhere else either, and Happy Hour – a five hour Japanese film, I’ll be lucky if I can ever see. Some titles in the top 100 I wish I could have seen, but still missed include Julieta, A Monster Calls, The Treasure, Gleason, Neon Bull, Sieranevada – films I was given a chance to see in Toronto and I, Daniel Blake, The Love Witch, Aferim, My Golden Days, The Salesman, Kaili Blues and Always Shine which as far as I know, weren’t.
What follows is, as always, admittedly overkill. I rank the top 30 films (actually, top 33 this year), as well as having separate lists for best documentary, best animated film, best directorial debut and for the first time ever, best horror film. I also have lists of the best performances in each of the four acting categories, best ensemble cast, and my personal If I Had an Oscar Ballot. Finally, there are lists of the most disappointing and worst films of the year. In total, it’s about 50 pages of writing, totaling 31,000 words. I saw over 200 films this year – up slightly from last year, where I didn’t quite hit the 200 film mark – and still have much to see.
I’m happy with my top 10 this year – really, I would have been happy if anything in the top 20 made my final 10, which I take as a good sign of quality. There are films from some of my old favorites on my top 10 list – as well as some by some hopefully new favorites. It’s a solid list – as is every ranking on the pages that follow. And, as I say every year at this time, if you don’t like it – make your own list. Everyone else does.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Movie Review: Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
Directed by: Maren Ade.
Written by: Maren Ade.
Starring: Peter Simonischek (Winfried Conradi / Toni Erdmann), Sandra Hüller (Ines Conradi), Lucy Russell (Steph), Michael Wittenborn (Henneberg), Thomas Loibl (Gerald), Trystan Pütter (Tim), Hadewych Minis (Tatjana), Ingrid Bisu (Anca), Vlad Ivanov (Illiescu).
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is one of the great comedies of recent years – and also one of the longest at nearly three hours. That length is usually death to a comedy – most of which start to feel kind of played out at around the 90 minute mark, and can feel deadly if they hit two hours. And yet, in the case of Toni Erdmann’s, it’s length’s is one of its greatest strengths – as it really does allow you time to get to know its two central characters in detail – which makes the comic set pieces (and the last hour has two of the greatest I’ve ever seen) hit harder, both in terms of making you laugh, and making you feel something deeper for these two characters. The fact that Ade is able to pack so much more into its runtime – so effectively – actually makes you wonder how she was able to do it in just 162 minutes.
The story is about a work-alholic, 30 something year old woman, Ines (Sandra Huller) – a German, now living in Bucharest, Romania – and working on a presentation to keep a major contract with an oil company. Her lonely father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a teacher and a practical joker – he enjoys donning disguises – including ridiculous false teeth – and making everyone around him laugh – the problem being it seems like that isn’t very many people anymore. He shows up in Bucharest uninvited and unannounced – and Ines does her best over the course of a long, awkward weekend, to both do her job – and please her father. At the end, he supposedly goes home – but not really. He’ll show up again – now in disguise as “businessman and life coach” Toni Erdmann, complete with a horrible wig and even worse false teeth – and follow her around. She doesn’t exactly play along – but she doesn’t out him either to any of her friends or colleagues – thinking, probably rightly, that the truth would be worse for her than simply putting up with this vulgar idiot her father is pretending to be. Through the course of the movie, both of them do things designed to get other each other’s skin.
The film is mainly about this fraught, father-daughter dynamic – which is not something we see too much of in movies, which seem to like to stick along gender lines (father/son or mother/daughter movies are the norm). At first, the two of them seem so different – Winfried is more of a free spirit, who says and does whatever he wants, and just wants to have fun. Ines is all business, professional and courteous, more competent than most of the men around her. Yet, both of them are playing roles – under both of their very different demeanors, are two lonely, depressed people. They are both putting on an act for everyone around them at all times, and not letting anyone see them too closely. We see this play out in various ways throughout the film.
The fact that Ade can then add in a lot of other stuff to this father/daughter narrative is even more impressive. The film is a fairly clear picture of the misogyny still faced by many women in the business world – from the way Ines realizes she is taken more seriously at a work site when she shows up with her idiot father in his business man guise than when she was there before by herself, or the way she reacts to her co-worker and sometimes sex partner when he tells her that their boss told him not to fuck her too much, because he doesn’t want her to lose her edge (that scene by itself, is an understated comic gem). The film certainly doesn’t make Ines into some sort of flawless character either though – she can be downright cold and uncaring, not just to her father, but also to the workers who are going to lose their jobs if the company listens to her.
It’s all of this – the close observation of her characters and the world they inhabit – that makes the final hour of Ade’s film so brilliant. By this point, she has firmly established them – and then she completely lets lose in a sustained, ambitious go-for-broke finale that has a one-two punch of a rendition of one of the cheesiest pop songs in history, and a naked brunch, that you aren’t likely to forget. Then, she wraps it all up with a scene that while perhaps isn’t a particularly happy ending, its certainly something – and shows perhaps how both of these characters have grown, if only a little bit. This is one of the year’s best film.

Movie Review: Julieta

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar.
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar based on the short stories by Alice Munro.
Starring: Adriana Ugarte (Younger Julieta Arcos), Emma Suárez (Julieta Arcos), Daniel Grao (Xoan), Inma Cuesta (Ava), Michelle Jenner (Beatriz), Darío Grandinetti (Lorenzo Gentile), Rossy de Palma (Marian), Susi Sánchez (Sara), Joaquín Notario (Samuel), Mariam Bachir (Sanáa), Blanca Parés (Antía), Priscilla Delgado (Antía - adolescent), Sara Jiménez (Beatriz - adolescent).
Pedro Almodovar is now one of the elder statesmen of European art house cinema – and like many auteurs as they age (he is 67 – making his 21st feature) – there can be a tendency to repeat your past triumphs. For some, that still works, but for someone like Almodovar – whose films used to be provocative – they can feel like he is trying too hard. We are probably a decade removed from his last great film – Volver (2006) – which came at the end of a seven year period that also produced All My Mother, Talk to Her and my personal favorite Bad Education – great films all. Since then, there has been the overheated Hitchcock homage Broken Embraces (2009) – visually stunning, but not as dramatically satisfying, The Skin I Live In (2011), in which Almodovar flirted with extreme horror, not very effectively for me (others, I know, are big fans) and the downright horrible comedy I’m So Excited (2013) – which is the worst thing I’ve ever seen from him. His new film, Julieta, is somewhat of a course correction – but an odd one in its own way. Like many of Almodovar’s films, the film is clearly inspired by the films of Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – the bold colors, the sweeping camera moves, Alberto Iglesias’ wonderful, Bernard Hermann inspired score – in many ways, you feel like you’re back with Almodovar in his prime. And yet, while Julieta looks like a classic Almodovar melodrama, the film never quite goes all the way over the top, the way he can (usually, brilliantly). While the film looks like his melodramas, in reality, the film stays more grounded in reality than his films usually do. This is, I think, because of the source material – a trio of interconnected short stories by Canadian, Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro. Munro’s stories are often more about the mundanity on real life – which is at odds with Almodovar’s style. It’s a combination that perhaps shouldn’t work at all – but somehow it does. It’s not one of Almodovar’s best – but it’s at the very least very interesting.
The film opens with Julieta (played by the stunning Adriana Ugarte) on a train – where she is going to start her new, temporary job as a classics teacher. On the train she meets two men – the first, an older gentleman who sits down across from her and interrupts her as she reads – saying he’s hoping they can keep each other company on the long ride. Julieta is (understandably) a little creeped out by him, and gets up to leave – ending up meeting, and flirting, with the younger, handsome Xoan (Daniel Grao). Tragedy strikes not long after their meeting – and the guilt that Julieta will feel informs the rest of the story. She will eventually marry Xoan – have a beloved daughter, Antia, but there is more tragedy in store. The framing device – and ultimately final chapter, has a now middle aged Julieta (played by Emma Suarez), searching for her daughter, who ran off years ago, and made it clear she wanted nothing to do with her mother.
I think the first two segments work better than the final one. In these segments, Ugarte is wonderful and truly stunning – her Melanie Griffith in Something Wild look in the first part is a beauty, and she somehow tops it later. It’s a passionate performance – and a wonderful one. It’s her first time working with Almodovar, but hopefully not her last. There’s another wonderful performance in these earlier segments – by Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Mrs. Danvers inspired maid. The third segment – where Suarez takes over for Ugarte isn’t quite as good. I don’t think that’s Suarez’s fault – she is very good in the role, and its nearly perfect physical casting (she looks like she could easily be an older Julieta) – but that part requires her to look so distraught and on the verge of tears for the whole time, that it really starts to get repetitive. Perhaps being familiar with the Munro stories doesn’t help – this is the only part that is really a mystery, and knowing the end (or non-end) that was coming doesn’t help things.
Still though, there’s no denying for me that Julieta is Almodovar’s best in a while – since at least Broken Embraces, and probably since Volver. Perhaps Almodovar needed his detour in horror and silly comedy that his last two films represented, to get back to doing what he does best. This is still somewhat of a departure for him – you expect the film to become overheated, for emotions to spill out all over the screen – emotions that match the explosion of color, music and style in every frame – and it never does. That’s an odd choice to be sure – but an interesting one.

Movie Review: Beware the Slenderman

Beware the Slenderman **** / *****
Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky.
By this point, I assume nearly everyone is at least familiar with the shocking “Slenderman” case – a true crime case that has already become infamous, even though the legal drama is still playing out. In 2014, two 12 year old girls stabbed their friend 19 times, and left her for dead in the forest – as then took off. Luckily, the victim survived her horrific ordeal. The two perpetrators - Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser – were quickly apprehended, and brought in for questioning. They don’t deny what they did, and don’t show any regret for it either – they say they had to do it. Why? Because of Slenderman – who would have killed them and their families if they didn’t kill for him. They were walking to his mansion in Nicolet National Park – where they would be his proxies.
Slenderman is, of course, not real. He is a digital age boogeyman, created in 2009 as part of a Photoshop challenge – who has taken on a life of his own since then. Stories have been passed around, changed, modified, etc. through many websites – there have been tons of artwork, and videos, showing Slenderman – mainly viewed as a kind of Pied Piper – leading our children away. In some tellings he is a monster –a child killer – and in others, he is more an object of sympathy – a bullied kid, who has grown up to become a protector of children. He is tall and thin – faceless, with tentacles coming out of his back. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary, Beware the Slenderman, examines both the true crime case that made Slenderman infamous – and the internet phenomenon itself.
This is one of the most chilling true crime documentaries I have seen (and I’ve seen a lot). The videos of the girls interrogations are so chilling because they seem emotionless – especially Geyser – who didn’t know the victim, and doesn’t even seem to fully understand why she had to do what she did. It is Weier who seems to know more about Slenderman – and tells it all to her interrogator. It was her who knew the victim – they had been friends (the victim was perhaps Weier’s only friend – until she found Geyser) – and while she got Geyser to do the actual stabbing, there’s no doubt that she encouraged all along – right up until the point she tells Geyser to “Go ballistic, go crazy” – and she does.
It’s also chilling to see all the internet artwork that Slenderman has inspired over the years – some of it seems like fairly standard stuff, some of it is downright ingenious, and creepy as hell – professional level special effects and Photoshop work being done. Through interviews with various experts – psychologists, folk-lore experts, Slenderman experts, etc. – she examines how the phenomenon grew, and how it consumed the girls, until it became their whole world. In order for something like this to happen, almost a perfect storm needed to be there – had the girls had more friends, it probably wouldn’t have happened, because they would have had outside influences. But the two, along with the internet, made a tight knit group – all of which reinforced their ideas, and led them down the path they go down.
The film also has interviews with the girls’ parents (the victim, and her family either declined to participate, or weren’t asked). Geyser has a schizophrenic father – and since her arrest, has been diagnosed with a childhood version of the disease, which may explain her lack of emotion. Both sets of parents seem like they were involved and caring – and although warning signs were missed (especially in the case of Geyser – who had artwork that should have raised major alarm bells) – you understand how parents don’t want to see their kids that way, and don’t think their 12 year daughter could possibly do anything that bad. The legal battle depicted in the film is whether or not to charge the girls as adults – which would mean they could go to jail for upwards of 65 years – or children, which means they’d be out at 18. Honestly, neither feels like justice – although I think this is a case where justice may not be possible. These were clearly two mixed up children – who didn’t fully understand what they were doing. And yet, at this point, they should understand it – and they still don’t seem to feel remorse. They need help, but what kind?
I have a feeling that Beware the Slenderman would be an even better documentary had it been made a little later- the legal drama is still playing out, so we don’t have the full story yet, and I don’t know when we will. Honestly, the movie feels padded at times – perhaps too many experts – all interviewed via Skype (and interesting, appropriate decision considering the online nature of Slenderman – but still a distraction at times). I also think there is perhaps a few too many instances of Weier’s parents (especially her father) try and convince the audience that he tried his best, and I’m not sure how I feel about the way Taylor Brodsky’s reveals Geyser’s mental illness – and that of her father’s (which comes fairly late in the film) – or introduces the warning signs for her that were missed. That felt a little cheap to me – a way to spring something on the audiences that wasn’t justified.
Still, I think Beware the Slenderman is mainly a fine doc – an interesting look not only at an infamous case, but on the internet phenomenon that inspired it. We’re only going to see more incidents like this in the future – which makes the film even more chilling.