Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Favorite Movies of 2016

A couple years ago one of my students introduced me to this site called LiveLeaks. He loaded a video of a man loitering under a street sign in Brazil. Suddenly a convertible rumbled up to the curb. A gang of hooded figures sprang from the vehicle and began chopping at the man with machetes. It was bloody and it was disgusting. I have never revisited LiveLeaks.
I have had a love affair with the horror genre since before my mom allowed me to watch the movies, but I’ve never understood the fascination some people have for gruesome, true-life videos. One of the most famous recordings of real-life carnage has possibly never been seen by anyone outside of the few people present to hit record and a couple safeguarding lawyers.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a television newswoman struggled with depression while competing with her co-workers for air time. With an inspired mind and keen wit she focused more on human interest fare than the sensational reporting being pushed by the higher-ups. On the morning of July 15, Christine intro’d a segment titled Suncoast Digest before reading a prepared statement: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first. Attempted Suicide.” Christine pulled a handgun from below the desk, placed it to her head and pulled the trigger.
Every review you read about Christine is going to highlight the performance of Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, and for good reason. She is amazing. She delivers the greatest performance of the year. She didn’t have to study choreography or acquire an accent, but she approaches the role with grace and empathy. Her glassy-eyed-look, the bewilderment that is permanently etched in her brow instills a compassion in viewers that lingers days after viewing.

You can’t casually look at a Nicolas Winding Refn picture. You don’t offhandedly pick one of his movies off the marque. You have to be of the proper mindset. You must be prepared for a visceral attack on the senses. He barrages you with sensational color schemes and assails you with hypnotic soundtracks, astonishes you with recurring imagery and enchants you with symbolism and mise en scene.
We meet sixteen-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) lying on a vintage sofa doused in blue light, her neck coated in blood, flashbulbs playing across her face. It is a grotesquely beautiful image and one that speaks to Winding Refn’s demented world view. Modeling agencies crave Jesse, professional photographers bow down to her, other models envy her. She is a “diamond in a sea of glass.” Will she survive the cutthroat industry that has crushed so many dreams before hers or will it eat her up?
Midway through the film, Jesse is bestowed the honor of closing a major runway show. As she steps on stage, she is illuminated by a blue light reminiscent of the setting that opened the movie. It is a glaring, neon blue characteristic of graphic novels and gaudy nighttime entertainment. As Jesse’s deer-in-the-headlights gaze gives way to a look of sheer confidence, the lustrous blue is replaced by a lurid red. Jesse steps up to a diamond-shaped mirror and comes face-to-face with her double. The transformation is complete. She presses her lips to the glass and tongues her reflection in an erotic fashion. She has fallen in love with herself.
During the final act the narrative becomes muddled and Winding Refn’s penchant for violence and gore rears its head. He has never been a squeamish guy, choreographing extravagant death scenes each time he steps behind the camera. Mads Mikkelsen ripped a man’s throat out with his teach in Valhalla Rising, Ryan Gosling smashed a man’s hand with a hammer in Drive, Vithaya Pansringarm pierced a man’s eyes and ears with needles in Only God Forgives. But in The Neon Demon, Winding Refn’s affection for horror reaches new heights. Torsos are flayed, eyeballs are ingested, sanguinary fluid is flung at the screen with aesthetic delight.
Winding Refn is often guilty of putting style before substance. That’s his m.o. He utilizes spectacular set pieces and shocking imagery not to propel the story, but to astonish the audience. The Neon Demon may be unconventional, but it is a visual symphony of color and carnage that blosters Winding Refn’s thrillingly stylish oeuvre.

Seven years ago director Andrea Arnold employed a fifteen-year-old krumper to lend audiences a glimpse at lower class life in East London with Fish Tank. Now she leans on a troubled runaway from Oklahoma to provide us a look at a decaying American Midwest in American Honey. Orphaned by a meth-addicted mother, Star (Sasha Lane) hits the road with a group of traveling salespersons she meets in a K-mart parking lot. Together they traverse brown fields, gray cities and archetypical neighborhoods in search of hope, freedom and unsuspecting ass clowns willing to purchase magazine subscriptions.
Like Larry Clark (an Oklahoma native himself) before her, Arnold uses unknown actors to capture a narcissistic youth coming of age in a callous world. It is charged, incisive and captivating. It is especially impressive because it feels so authentic, as if pieced together with behind-the-scenes footage from an Outward Bound excursion for at-risk youth.
The picture opens with Star picking a defrosted chicken from a supermarket dumpster. She locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who invites her on a trip to Kansas. Star feigns toughness but her dreadlock hair and tattooed body are betrayed an innocence in her eyes. She is beguiled by Jake’s promise of liberty and his enigmatic appearance, his rat-tail hairdo and suspenders as off the wall as the concept of selling magazine subscriptions. The two become sales partners, their work occasionally broken up by gritty trysts in a car or in a field.
LeBeouf is a tour de force. Jake provides him the opportunity to fully engage that crazy side of himself highlighted on TMZ and the Ellen Show. When critics write of Oscar snubs this season, his name should sit atop the list.
Arnold regular Robbie Ryan shoots the couple in a winsome style, his free-form approach and poetic compositions effectively capturing a sense of time and place. We see foreclosure signs and dismembered buildings, the dilapidated trailers of people devoid of healthcare but with plenty of drugs. There’s a scene that witnesses Star setting a turtle free in a lake. Though unable to swim, she hops in after him. She emerges refreshed and rejuvenated. Perhaps as a new person. These scenes don’t just depict powerful emotions, they make them felt by viewers.

All this plays over a powerful hip-hop soundtrack. Songs like Found Love and I Like Tuh set a tone and provide energy to the adolescent frenzy on display.

Kelly Reichardt is a bold talent. Her Certain Women is a dull film and one that many viewers will struggle to get through. It’s also the 2016 release most likely to appear on a college syllabus a dozen years from now.
The movie observes the lives of women residing in the beautifully mundane state of Montana. A lawyer (Laura Dern) attempts to assuage a disgruntled client (Jared Harris) upset with a workers’ compensation settlement; a young couple (Michelle Williams and James LeGros) work to ameliorate their deteriorating marriage by building a new home; a ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) develops a crush on a young lawyer called Beth (Kristen Stewart) who teaches adult school in her home town. All three deal with the ebbs and flow of everyday life in a manner that is subdued and very real.

Certain Women is filmic realism at its absolute best. It’s the most authentic examination of the human condition since Boyhood. Reichardt understands people; she’s an expert at portraying the subtleties of life. She interprets potentiality better than anyone: what would actually happen in certain situations. She does not pander to audience sentimentality. She is not confined by any sense of film grammar. There are no great themes at play, no lessons to be learned, no cathartic moment. When Jamie learns that Beth has quit her teaching job, she immediately hops in her truck and drives the four-plus hours it takes to get to Beth’s town. After a sleepless night in her truck, she spends the morning driving from one law office to another hoping to locate her friend. Upon spotting Beth in a parking lot, Jamie confesses she couldn’t live with the idea of not seeing her again. Beth nods and enters the building. In what was the most monumental moment in cinema all year, Jamie drives slowly past Beth standing just inside the glass door of the building and Beth doesn’t even turn to acknowledge her.

Divorced music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) decides to make an unannounced visit to Bucharest, Romania to visit his hardworking daughter. At first, Ines (Sandra Huller) appears happy in her work as a business consultant, however, further inspection reveals her to be quite discontented. Enter Toni Erdman, Winfried’s flamboyant doppelganger. Cloaked in long hair and fake teeth, Erdman canoodles with Ines’s coworkers and whoops it up with her friends. Initially irritated by her father’s attempts to assuage her pain, Ines soon finds tranquility in his crazy antics.
Toni Erdmann is brilliant. Expertly crafted and wonderfully performed it’s every bit as good as the trailers claim. It is a subtle, quietly humorous and emotionally true character study that delves expertly into familial relations and the things that truly matter in life.
There’s a scene in the film where everything becomes clear to Ines. It is her birthday and she is preparing to celebrate with coworkers. She decides last minute to change outfits, but her zipper gets stuck making it difficult to remove her dress. She rips off the garment and tosses it to the side; answers the door in the nude. Her father has been wearing costumes throughout the film but she’s the one who has been in disguise. She informs her partners that it is a naked party to build team unity. Some participate, others get turned away. Her father, not knowing the situation, shows up dressed as a mythical beast. The scene could have been a disaster: a phony mass of indefensible cheesiness that could have destroyed the film’s finely-tuned domestic spirit. But it works. Tremendously so. Its balance of humor and pathos result in a truly emotive experience.
The movie concludes with Winfried at his mother’s funeral. For the first time we see him as a real person. He has exited the fantasy. His daughter pops in his fake teeth, throws on one of his mother’s goofy hats. The transformation is complete.

It is a simple yet beautiful exploration of relationships and the correlation between success and happiness. It’s funny, it’s original and it’s one of the best movies of the year.

An inventive opening title sequence can suck a viewer into a picture before the story begins to unfold. The kaleidoscopic patterns that open Vertigo set a dizzying tone, the slow-motion zombie attacks that preface Zombieland set the stage for the chaos that follows, the glowing jack o’ lantern at the start of Halloween establishes an atmosphere of dread. Fashion designer-turned filmmaker Tom Ford knows a thing or two about attracting attention. He doesn’t use sweeping aerial shots to establish locations at the start of Nocturnal Animals, there are no motion graphics to set up the premise. Instead, Ford opens his romantic thriller with images of obese women stripped naked and dancing seductively amidst bizarre patriotic displays.
Enter Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a mod gallery owner in a decaying marriage with an unfaithful businessman (Armie Hammer). Her sullen state is compounded by the receipt of a novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. In the book, a Texan man, devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter to a deranged killer looks to an old-testament sheriff (Michael Shannon) to get revenge.
Nocturnal Animals is a gloomily gripping thriller, daring in its narrative and both hypnotic and unnerving in its approach. It unfolds with a ferocity not often matched. Even when Ford gets gimmicky, positioning Morrow in front of a painting with the word Revenge written in a dripping font, the movie remains steadfast.  There is a haze over the entire picture, a sheen that evokes a nightmarish quality. Seamus McGarvey infuses the picture with dread, his use of red hues indicating something evil hiding within the celluloid. Man there is something powerful about 35mm.

All of this culminates in the most satisfying conclusion to a motion picture this year. We all have delusions of being Charles Bronson. Someone hurts us, we imagine going all Kill Bill to get them back. In reality, we would sulk in our rooms and post a couple nasty comments on social media.

Paterson is one of the most enjoyable films of the year. It’s also one of those movies that gets better with each subsequent viewing, a picture that becomes a go-to when looking for a movie to eat up a few minutes of your day. You’ve got to sit on the couch for twenty minutes while waiting to leave for that appointment? Pop in Paterson. It’s witty, it’s poignant, it’s beautifully oblique. Adam Driver’s bus-driving poet may be subdued, he may be stoic, but he is easy to endorse. He’s a more optimistic Llewyn Davis.

He is a poet who enjoys cheerios, drinking beer and reading William Carlos Williams. There is a cadence to his existence, a rhythm that speaks to the vicissitudes of life. He drives a bus, quietly observing the world in his rearview mirror, writes poetry in his secret notebook, eats uninviting food with his wife, walks the dog and goes to bed.

There are references in the film to cultural icons linked to Paterson, NJ, the most significant being William Carlos Williams, a poet who wrote an epic collage about the city. I don’t pretend to keep great company with the poet. I’m somewhat familiar with his seminal works and their themes. Director Jim Jarmusch, however, is a devoted fan. He assents to his predecessor by suggesting a reciprocal nature between artist and environment. Both Paterson and Williams drew inspiration from the world around them. Williams’s goal with his Paterson poem was to show “the resemblance between the mind of modern man and the city.” Williams wrote about Paterson’s waterfalls, Paterson writes about his wife and being a bus driver. Similarly, Williams utilized shape poetry when creating works like, The Red Wheelbarrow. Paterson writes about the message conveyed via the arrangement of the letters on a pack of his favorite matches.

The correlation between the two artists is driven home by the appearance of several sets of twins throughout the movie. Paterson’s wife dreams of having twin children, a set of twins drink at the bar, a little girl who wishes to be a poet like Paterson has a twin sister. Each man, however, has an individual voice. Paterson has a wife that he loves and can’t imagine living without. A friend at the bar likewise has devoted his life to a woman. Paterson’s relationship is reciprocal in nature, the friend’s is not. Paterson writes about Sinatra’s “Swinging on a Star.” There are lines about being a mule or a pig, but the one lyric he recalls is, “would you rather be a fish.” There are many poets in the world, each of them has a unique voice.

Paterson is a beautiful movie replete with all the Jarmusch trademarks: a minimalist approach, deadpan humor, philosophical musings, repetition. There is very little in the way of cause and effect, not much of a moral clinch. Audiences anticipate a major problem. When Paterson’s bus breaks down, they believe they’ve reached it. Characters say what viewers are thinking, “the bus could blow up into a ball of flames.” But in classic Jarmusch fashion, nothing happens.

The best of the recent spate of witch movies, Robert Eggers’s The Witch follows croaky-voiced William (Ralph Ineson) as he tries to figure out if his children are victims of witchery or vessels for evil. You see, his infant son went missing while under the care of his eldest daughter, his oldest son has initiated a romance with a blue-haired biddy and the twins have taken to speaking to the family goat.
Each December/January, so much of my time is eaten up looking at these top 10 lists. I’m constantly disappointed by horror titles lauded as the best the genre has to offer. The Witch appeased me. The Witch appeased me quite a lot.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s bleak photography and Production designer Craig Lathrop’s austere imagery combine to create a haunting world that feels as if it could only exist in the realm of practical existence. As if they pieced together the picture from strands of found footage of an event intended to be forgotten. The attention to detail, from the dialogue, which was taken from actual 16th century journals, to the construction of the farmhouse and accompanying outbuildings, makes it difficult to believe anyone could thrive in such a setting, a witch notwithstanding.
Eggers creates an atmosphere that is relentlessly unnerving. The terror is slow to build but heavy when it hits. The witch is not a mysterious figure that appears only in shadows but a grotesque hag that bathes in the blood of children. The fact that she attacks in broad daylight is most unsettling. Even when she appears in the form of a furry bunny or a playful goat the mood remains unfazed.
There are issues of spirituality and gender roles lying just below the surface of The Witch, but Eggers goal is to scare the shit out of viewers with the regional tales of witchcraft that preoccupied his New Hampshire youth and he succeeds wholeheartedly.


Richard Linklater is a guy who has successfully oscillated between arthouse cinema and high-profile productions throughout his career. Still basking in the afterglow of the groundbreaking Boyhood, he seesaws back to more accessible fare with Everybody Wants Some, a sports comedy about a college baseball team coming to grips with the realities of adulthood in 1980s Texas. And he hits a homerun.

There is not a filmmaker more flawless in transcribing the trials of life than Linklater. His slice-of-life stories are often funny, sometimes frightening and always immersive. Viewers long for the romance depicted in Before Sunrise, desire the freedoms on display in Dazed and Confused and yearn for the curiosity of youth brought to life in Boyhood. His ability to recreate a time is uncanny. His ear for period talk and music, his eye for clothing and fashion is astonishing. As a former college athlete, I was transported to the University soccer field while watching Everybody Wants Some. I admit I wasn’t nearly as cool as the characters on screen, but I wish I was. The coach checks in at one point in the movie to relay two rules: no alcohol and no women in the house. That night the boys go drinking and cruising for chicks. The movie is perfectly nostalgic. It’s wistful, it’s subtle, it’s real.

I had the chance to sit down with Austin Amelio at a convention this past summer. He was there to promote The Walking Dead (he’s Dwight – burned face, greasy hair, sissy-pus personality). We spent our time talking about Richard Linklater and the experience of working on Everybody Wants Some. Despite being a rather novice actor (he had only one feature credit prior to Everybody Wants Some), Amelio joked that he had already reached the pinnacle of his career. The celebrated director invited Amelio and the rest of the cast out to his Texas ranch days prior to filmming to “hang out.” They took part in team-building events that got them comfortable with one another and fully invested in the picture. I imagine the time at the ranch for the cast was similar to the training camp experienced by the characters in the movie. Either way, the result is another grand slam for Linklater and one more authentic experience for viewers.

My buddy moved to Texas a few years ago. Within weeks he was writing me with stories of beach bonfires, target shooting from moving vehicles and napalm parties. Hell or High Water takes place in modern day America, but it’s a part of modern day American that is as alien as the setting of The Martian.
Hell or High Water is an affectionate ode to the westerners of yesteryear. It’s also an accomplished depiction of loyalty and familial love. Bolstered by strong performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers who resort to robbery to save the family farm; and Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, the veteran lawman hot on their tail, the film is exhilarating from start to finish.
Written by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy’s Chief David Hale), the script sat atop the Black List in 2012 (list of the best unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood). Finally produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment following the success of Sheridan’s debut (the high-octane crime thriller, Sicario), Hell or High Water sees a change in pace for the promising writer. Trading epic storytelling and sensational set-pieces for a concise sense of plot and a verbal and visual lyricism, Hell or High Water is much smaller in scope than his previous effort. The level-headed Toby and his explosive brother rob banks then bury the getaway car on their ranch while the gray-haired detective searches for clues. This procedure occurs over and over, cameraman Giles Nuttgens capturing every action in-depth and in deep focus. The dusty plains and barren plateaus, foreclosed buildings and abandoned homes come to life. You can feel the heat, breath the dry air. The violent behavior of the men that inhabit this alien realm is irresistibly appealing.
Sheridan was born in Texas. I imagine he spent time investigating the rural scenery. He witnessed first-hand the effects of debt on that part of the world. He creates from a place of knowledge. His writing is powerful. Perhaps his greatest asset is his command of character and dialogue. This is best represented in a scene late in the film. Toby hands his son a beer. He says, “You may be hearing a lot of things about me and your uncle. Don’t be like us.” His son responds, “Whatever I hear, I won’t believe.” Toby retorts, “No, you believe it. I did all of it. Now you, you do it different. Ain’t you gonna drink [your beer]?” His son answers, “You tell me not to be like you and then you offer me a beer. Which is it?” Toby, “Good boy.”

A woman is raped in Elle. She then orders sushi: Hamachi and a holiday roll. She informs her friends at a dinner party just before the waiter returns with a Piper-Heidsieck. “Wait a few minutes before popping it.”

To call the characters in Elle immoral would suggest they act with a sense of malice. They do not. There is no moral defiance in their behavior. They are not immoral. I’d hardly call them amoral. They are post-moral: completely numb to standard principles. They just don’t give a shit. As we navigate through a world that sees sexual harassment brushed off as locker room talk and teenagers committing hate crimes live on Facebook, this is particularly consequential.

Director Paul Verhoeven, who’s most famous for his wildly subversive sci-fi flicks (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), has fashioned a twisted thriller reminiscent of the sexually-tinged giallos of the 1970s. Consider this: an alluring woman sees her glamorous lifestyle interrupted by a masked assailant who is propelled by a personal neurosis. Fashioned with revolting violence, avant-garde production design and post-modern ideals, Elle offers a grimy, sophisticated whodunit scenario.

Isabelle Huppert is frighteningly fantastic in the roll of Elle, the wealthy CEO of a video game company that develops material evocative of the works of Frank Henenlotter. “The orgasmic seizures must be more exaggerated.” She is an unusual character: entitled but not cavalier, seductive but not flamboyant. We shouldn’t like her but we do. We sympathize with her behavior. She doesn't sleep with her best friend's husband out of hatred or disgust. She does it because she feels like having sex and he's there. It's a curious way of looking at the world. It's also oddly appealing.

1 comment:

  1. Eloquently written reviews of some great movies. I always turn to your list to make sure I catch the important cinema that may have been missed by the masses. Thanks for sharing!