Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 10 Best Movies of 2016

Before we get to the top 10.  Ones that were amongst my favorites and I felt worth mentioning.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Yes, Streep is unsurprisingly good.  But the most interesting character is portrayed by Hugh Grant, who gives the best performance in the movie.

The Jungle Book

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this adaptation.  The animated Disney version is a classic with some now at least borderline questionable scenes in sensitive modern times.  (That's not always bad).

Director Favreau has King Louie now sing "Someone like me" as opposed to "An Ape like me," etc. (The song is considered racist by some, as portrayed in the original film).

But what Favreau was not concerned about was violence in a kid's movie.  This is some heavy stuff that might stay with a kid longer than Apes dancing in tutus.

Unsurprisingly Murray and Walken are two standouts.  Scarlett Johanasen is great as (hopefully the world's largest snake) Kaa.   Idris Elba's Shere Khan is one of the best villains of the year and newcomer Neel Sethi holds his own amongst the animal stars


On paper this is a brilliant adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Director Denzel Washington smartly keeps the performances the focus.  While "its just a play put on film," can be seen as a weakness in direction, it feels likely the proper decision.

And yet, something feels slightly off to me.  It is a great, well maybe very good movie.  But why it is not a masterpiece I can't quite place.  Maybe it is simply very good and that should be celebrated enough.  Maybe it feels a bit too much "Of Mice and Men" and "Death of a Salesman" at times.  It sums up that quote of "It is so very good you are mad its not great."

But Viola Davis should easily win the Oscar.  She should thank her skipping her Claritin D in her acceptance speech.

Hacksaw Ridge

"I humbly ask that you join forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and on-going contribution to our collective art without shame."       -Robert Downey Jr.

Well it is about time.  Just maybe Mel Gibson has now been let out of his movie purgatory.  And that is great news because he reaffirms here that he is a significant director.  One whose voice deserves to be heard.  Gibson has now directed five movies.  Four are very good and one is a masterpiece.  And one of the very good, won a bunch of Oscars.

Hacksaw Ridge is not a masterpiece, but it is proof Gibson still more than knows what he is doing.  Gibson is not the most subtle of filmmakers.  Though ironically The Passion of the Christ actually contained a few examples of this, Gibson is about as subtle in his filmmaking as is his public persona.  Normally when it comes to directing this has served him well.  

Going "Full Gibson" is something I kind of missed.  However, why this strong film is not better in my opinion, is that Mel did not go subtle enough in a few spots.

The father of Desmond Doss in this movie is less a character than a caricature.  It is an unfortunate thing when so much of this film goes so right.  Picture Kramer from Seinfeld's depiction of "Sorosis of the Liver" and you pretty much have the father character here.

I like to imagine through a clerical error, that Mel was hired to direct the latest Nicholas Sparks film.  Not wanting to let them down, he shows the studio execs dailies from only the First Act.

"Wow Mel!  This is just what we wanted!" they exclaim in delight, all the while Mad Mel stifles a giggle, as he can't help himself and whispers, "screw them, let's make it a war movie."

Vince Vaughn is expertly cast as Sergeant Howell.  Teresa Palmer is great as Dorothy and Andrew Garfield is wonderful as our hero Doss.  (Garfield has had a heck of a good year).  Take your pick which performance to give him an Oscar nomination for.

Gibson received a 10 minute standing ovation at the first public screening of this film.  I guess a minute for every year he was gone.  Fantastic and well deserved.  Lets get the next film out before another decade goes by.



Robert Zemekis is a director I can't quite wrap my head around.  He is obviously very successful and has made many good movies.  I'm just not convinced how many great ones he has made.  I would put Allied as maybe the closest to great he has done since Cast Away.

Flight contained many wonderful scenes but then kind of fell apart by the end.  Allied is more held together throughout.  It is like a modern day Casablanca story, and it's no coincidence they are actually in Casablanca for part of the movie.

The star of Allied  is without a shadow of a doubt Marion Cottilard, as she is in just about every movie she has ever been in.  She is wonderful in pulling off the "is she or isn't she?" intrigue.  She is easily one of our finest working actresses.  And if I got to stare into those eyes every day, the answer to the film's burning question would be of little concern to me.

One thing I can not decide is how good Brad Pitt is in this.  I would not go so far as to call his performance bad. It's not that exactly.  I think his underplaying you can chalk up, at least in part, to a spy having to be that way to stay alive.  But I think it is summed up well to describe Pitt as a "wonderful character actor stuck with a leading man's face."

And if you look at his best performances, they are almost all character actor type roles.  He does these wonderfully.  Down to how he holds his water bottle in Burn After Reading, or  attempts to convince a Nazi he is Italian in Inglorious Basterds.

He is great in the father role in The Tree of Life but that is also a supporting role.  He is not the protagonist.  Take note casting directors.  Pitt is a character actor.  Stop making him a leading man.

  Knight of Cups

In another life, I have given wine tastings to people.  When we get to the reserve section, I sometimes joke that this is the moment where we are allowed to act pretentious, which is half the fun of drinking good wine.

Knight of Cups is that best reserve wine on the list.  It is complex and not for everyone.  But the more familiar you get with it you wanna share a bottle to talk about all the flavors and aromas.

I'd suggest drinking it more than once.

When you give it another taste, you experience flavors like Kierkegaard and Plato and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Terrence Malick assumes his viewers are either familiar with such references, or willing to seek them out.  And if you are not willing, I also do not think he cares.  Part of the success in what make Malick's films so great, is his ability to make films for himself first and foremost.

"Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven as only creatures can.  But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth, there it took an earthly body, and now while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there and the nature of these is to try to raise the earthbound soul into heaven."

Nocturnal Animals

Ford's second movie and first in 11 years shows the Fashion Designer exhibiting substance over style.

I think.

This is the movie that might a few months from now be completely off my list.  Or it might end up closer to the top just like the movie above. I warn here about upcoming spoilers, though I could describe the entire movie and most people would go "huh?"  It is not only the plot that is a spoiler, but the different interpretations of that plot.  It is a genuine David Lynch type riddle but with an actual answer.

I think.


I will say the themes Ford touches on are male/female roles and just what it does to a man to be looked at as weak.  To be told to give up your dream and focus on something more defining of a husband role can feel like a sort of rape.

People have made a big deal out of the first scene.  Which is showing scantily clad to completely nude obese women dancing in slow motion; often holding some sort of fireworks as if it is the 4th of July.  We see this is some sort of art exhibit and Susan (Amy Adams) is in charge of the exhibit but doesn't think much of the display herself.  What is a film director who is also a fashion designer telling us by this?  A statement on art and fashion in general?  On America?  Are the lines of who is grotesque about to be blurred?

Ford depicts rednecks in this film in what struck me as about the most offensive depiction of poor white people since Deliverence.  Though it is the Jake Gyllenhaal character, Edward, a writer, who is writing these characters as his ex-wife Susan reads the story.  The characters in the book within the film are representations.

Edward writes a character (Tony) that watches his wife and daughter literally snatched away from him as he is too weak to stop it.  It is not for lack of budget that Gyllenhaal plays this character in the movie as well.  Edward is his character, Tony.  He sees himself as weak because Susan told him he was.

It is also not coincidence Isla Fisher plays Gyllenhaal's fictional wife.  I used to get her and Adams confused regularly.    

Edward uses his book (dedicated to Susan) as not a thank you at all, but as a giant middle finger.    Not only did Adams emasculate him via not supporting his career, she emasculated him personally by aborting their child.  But he is also admitting if he was only stronger he could have stopped it, just as Tony should have found a way to stop it too.  The novel is his way of telling her, "this is what you did to me, this is what I think of you." By the Tony character being weak until the very end, Edward admits to a large degree he was in fact not strong enough.

Is there more to it than that?  Sure.  I think Tom Ford has other thoughts.  And I don't think they are too kind to Susan.  Ex:  The "death scene" from the novel we see depicted is then seen in another form above her head in a piece of artwork.

It's not a film for everyone and maybe at times not even for me.

But I'm still thinking about it.



Yes I get it but what about her husband and the father of her child?  Does his feelings not matter for anything?

This is called a feminist pro woman movie and even a pro-life movie.  I get all that and agree with all of them.  But it sure doesn't feel like a pro husband/father movie.  Let's talk about that.

The Nice Guys

I'm so tempted to slip this into my Top 10 list I know I'll probably regret not doing so.

I realize this film is uneven.  But it has such a joyful element of risk taking.

Patton Oswalt called this his "New Big Lebowski." I'm hopeful that like that film, it grows in reputation over time.  Though not as consistent throughout as that cult classic example, The Nice Guys, when it works.... which is most of it... works so very well.

Gosling and Crowe have fantastic chemistry together.  And kudos for only occasionally playing it safe towards the end.  Even then nothing is tied up as neatly as you typically expect.  Much respect.

Top Ten

10.  Hell or High Water

This movie is both a blatant Cormac McCarthy/No Country For Old Men ripoff and something that feels fresh and original.  Being Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors, I'm ok with that. Like La La Land, borrow from the best.

Jeff Bridges is always great but the pleasant surprise of this film for me was Chris Pine. Not saying he is a weak actor, he is far from it.  But I think this is easily his strongest performance.

The loose canon older brother is a bit tired by this point, and even Ben Foster is no John Cazale.  But if I criticize every character I've already seen before (Jeff Bridges character is near retirement.  No really) I would have no list and there would be no movies.

What has been done before is forgiven when you see how well it is done here.  Enough social commentary to satisfy either staunch Republican or liberal Democrat.  A near pitch perfect last scene.

9.  La La Land


My key to appreciating La La Land is to not look at it as a musical exactly.  Of course it is, but yet it isn't quite somehow to me.  Part of why I say that is there just doesn't feel like there is enough music in it to be a proper musical.

This is director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) doing a jazz rendition of a musical.  As Ryan Gosling's Sebastian explains to Emma Stone's Mia, "It's conflict and compromise.  It's new every time."

That line is significant because it describes their relationship that is about to begin, as well as the ending of the film.

This is not a musical, it is a Chazelle version of one.  Which is to say its something you haven't quite seen before (at least lately), with a very healthy dose of what you have (each dance scene is a nod to a past film. Singing In The Rain,  Swing Time,  An American In Paris, etc).

Chazelle goes long stretches between songs.  Stretches where we are beat up emotionally.  Possibly even more than watching Nazi's chase the Von Trapp Family Singers.

But if I look at it genre aside, what am I left with?  I think a wonderful little movie with moments of whimsy and great performances.  It is far from perfect and people can argue just go see the other films it pays homage to.  But beyond the "If I can make it there," type movie cliches, it contains some moments that should also be recognized.  Like how Stone and Gosling (who at this point have developed maybe the best on screen chemistry of any actors their age) are really really great here.  Or how Sebastian does something utterly selfless for Mia and is never recognized for it; never explains himself and it goes unsaid by anyone just what he did for her.  We don't get a sister character to show up and tell Mia later on, "Oh by the way he did that whole thing for you."  It goes not only unsaid but maybe even unnoticed completely.

When Sebastian says to Mia "You like Jazz now?" Mia answers with a soft and unconvincing "Yes."  But Sebastian does not register it as unconvincing.  Because her yes is the answer to a different question.  In the way Emma Stone is able to convey this, is for me as much reason she would deserve to win an Oscar for this role as the Audition Scene.

In nearly every movie I see, I can think of at least one line that makes me cringe.  Whether it be more than one soldier telling Desmond Doss how he had him wrong using the exact same line.  Whether it be the order Brad Pitt's commanding officer gives a group of soldiers at the end of Allied.  Whether it being the end of Sully when one of the investigators at the hearing happens to mention the engine results just came in conveniently at this very moment.

When it happens and when it doesn't is a kind of theme for my list this year.

My favorite part of Chazelle's screenplay is what he left out.  Or as Lisa Simpson would say when explaining Jazz, "You have to listen to the notes he's not playing."  

8.    Hail, Caesar!

Coen Brother films are like a paper cut.  If paper cuts were pleasant.  You can leave a Coen Brothers film and think "Meh, that wasn't much," and then over time marvel at little details and moments they pepper with their films better and more uniquely than nearly anyone.

The below scene is one of the best discussions on basic theology I have seen on film.  Done within 2 minutes and with humor.  Somewhere Martin Scorsese saw this scene and started tearing his hair out.

Think I'm overreaching?  Maybe.  But then so is this guy.  And I'm not.

7.   Lion

The biggest tearjerker on my list, but I think it earns those tears.  And it has maybe the cutest kid in any movie I have ever seen.  Before watching Sing the other day, my wife had to nearly leave the theater because of the trailer for a dog movie.  I think if she watched this she would be in intensive care.

The First Act is hard to match and I am not sure they ever actually do.  But even if it lags a bit, it picks back up and we get a moving conclusion that does not feel over the top considering the subject matter.

6.  The Edge of Seventeen

Once a year or two we seem to get a really good "teen movie."  And I suppose that is true of many genres.  Many stink and then come awards season more good ones turn up.  But I do genuinely think (despite the fact I'm way past the age of the target audience) that there are less great films made in this category than others.

They don't trot these out late in the year, they come out earlier and if they are great like this one, performances are forgotten.  Which is a true shame because in a better world Hayden Szeto would be getting Oscar consideration for supporting actor.  Hailee Steinfeld proves True Grit was no fluke. She is fantastic.  Steinfeld is actually SO good, that instead of finding out more about her, I want to know nothing.  I don't want to know her eating habits or her political views or who she shows up at parties with.  I want to just know this performance.  And see the one that comes next.

And has Woody Harrelson gone from Woody Boyd to pothead to national treasure?

Talking about those lines that irk me again.  The end of this movie had one all lined up on a platter.  It was not exactly a bad line, just an expected one.  It was a hanging curve-ball and I knew they were gonna swing for the fences.  And then they didn't.  And I love them for it.

When "OK," is one of your very favorite moments in a movie all year.

5.  Hunt for the Wilderpeople

So many ways this film could have gone wrong.  And yet it never does.  It feels like Director Taika Waititi pulled off a magic trick.  At times it feels like the best Wes Anderson film he never directed.  And is even better than most he has.  But it is also very much owned by Waititi.

To pull this off, so many things must go just right.  I'm not sure the exact same people could remake it and it be just as good.

And that is much of the joy in watching it.

4.  Manchester By The Sea

When I made my Top 10 All-Time Greatest Films list some time back, I included the movie Tokyo Story.  I know some people are curious as to why that movie is so highly regarded, in the sense it does not have obvious groundbreaking camera shots like Citizen Kane (though it does contain some, just more subtlety).  It does not have any great twist or MacGuffin like Kane.  It is not over the top in your face brilliant like 2001.  It is just a fairly simple story well told.

But it is so well told.  From acting to directing and on down the line.  It is like so many other great dramas you have seen, just better somehow.  I have a similar feeling about Manchester By The Sea. No I'm not putting it in quite that high regard, but Manchester is just one of those films that seems to be clicking on all cylinders better than most.  It is not one big or two big things that makes this film, but a thousand small ones.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called Manchester By The Sea, "the funniest film about grief ever made."  I think a lot of people won't see it that way, and just see it as a heavy mother of a movie.  But there is truth to what he said.  Subtle touches like EMT's not able to properly get a gurney into an ambulance. A lesser filmmaker would have had a character yell at them or point it out.  Lonergan has no one say anything, which shows his confidence in the scene.  It is the right decision in a movie that makes most of the right ones.

The script is yes sad, but not in a manipulative way.  The ending is realistic yet deserved.  Actors John Krasinski and Matt Damon came up with the very basic idea of the movie, in which director Kenneth Lonergan then wrote the entire script.  Damon was originally supposed to star but stepped down, letting Casey Affleck take over.  Damon is a fine actor that would have done a serviceable job, but he could not have captured here what Affleck is able to.

"I can't beat it," is through him, honest and heartbreaking and real.

3.  Silence

I will start with a bit of a confession.  I'm not a huge Martin Scorsese fan.  That is not to say I am not aware of his ability.  He has made some amazing films.  It is just that most of them do not get me in any emotional way.  Most to me I see as technically impressive and then rather quickly forgotten. Even Goodfellas, the poster of which graced the wall of most guys my age in our late teen years, I saw once, felt, "that was well done," and never had any desire to see again.

The Departed, though a good remake, is hardly worthy of all the Oscars it received.  Scorsese's Academy Award for that film is essentially a lifetime achievement Oscar given as a make up for being past over too often.  Most of his movies of the past 25 years, feel to me as work that qualifies as "good," while all gathering glowing reviews people wish they had been around at the time to write about Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

And yet here we are with Silence, a film Scorsese spent 28 years attempting to get made, and one that has gotten almost zero awards consideration.  This for a man that gets awards as soon as he announces a new project.

So why?  Why has this film been ignored?  What's so awful about this one?  Well, actually nothing at all.  Quite the opposite.  I will go ahead and say something that Scorsese fans will find apostate.  This is his best film in at least 27 years.  For me, 35.

Now before you get out the torches, I understand few if any will agree with me.  This is a slow paced film driven by voiced over dialogue. Its not about gangsters its about Christian missionaries in the 1600's.

I found it captivating.

"This is not the sort of film that you 'like' or 'don't like.' It's a film that you experience and then live with."
 -Matt Zoller Seitz

Andrew Garfield plays a missionary that goes to not only spread Christianity in Japan, but find his mentor and teacher, who has been presumed "lost" to the faith.  This is quite a bookend of performances for Garfield, playing the nearly never questioning his faith Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, to a Jesuit priest who questions if God really hears him.  Garfield is great, as is Adam Driver, who you wish had more screen time.  And Yosuke Kubozuka plays Kichijiro, maybe the most real character of many real ones, because his faith often felt most like my own.

The film raises theological questions.  Questions of what faith means in general.  Were these missionaries doing any good for the people they were there to save or only doing them harm?  What is the loving, "Christ like" thing to do when faced with a near impossible decision?  Who are the good and bad guys here?  Scorsese will not allow for a trite stock Hollywood answer.  And yet his ending felt tremendously satisfying.  Even if I am not sure I agree with some of his conclusions.

I have seen many videos with titles of how Silence is NOT a Christian film, and have read that many Catholics are not happy with it.  Sound familiar?  This is indeed not a Christian movie in the sense of God's Not Dead and the like.  This is a film that provokes thought and discussion, not another bad church endorsed movie that preaches to the choir.

And thank God for that

2.   The Witch

Sin.  No one can escape it.  Not even the best most puritanical.  For me, The Witch is the best true horror film in years.  Possibly the most disturbing film I've ever seen.

The script is taken at times word for word from transcripts of the Salem Witch trials.  Set 30 years prior, we are shown how maybe there was actual truth to it all.  But that's just one way to look at the film.  Because despite the best efforts of a family to be "better" than the ones they communed with before, maybe you can not run away from the Original Sin inside yourself.

First time director Robert Eggers has made a smart film that stands with if not above The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, of recent years.  Eggers is confident enough to cite The Shining and Bergman's Cries and Whispers as influences.

Anya Taylor-Joy gives a performance as Thomasin, that stands with Hailee Steinfeld's as unjustly overlooked.

Egger's is apparently working on a remake of Nosferatu next.  Interestingly enough, Werner Herzog's version (of course also a remake) is one of my very favorite horror movies.  While it seems like territory already well covered, I'm confident Eggers can bring something to the table worth seeing. He definitely did with his first feature.  

1.  The Lobster

The first time we see our main character, his wife of over a decade is leaving him for someone else.  And what the jilted husband thinks to ask about the other man is "does he wear contact lenses or glasses?"

This gives us an early clue for people in the world of The Lobster.  An assumed future that feels either a few years or  a few months away.  Where individualism is punished to the point of being a crime.

Loners are literally hunted.

Where being single is something you have 45 days to rectify.  Or...

People identify by things as seemingly trivial as glasses or nose bleeds.

"I have a limp.  That is my defining characteristic.  My wife also had a limp."  If you also have that characteristic, maybe we would be a good match.  That is about the extent of courtship, and people have over time had their personalities slowly stripped away, as we see in the wonderful plodding monotone depiction by Colin Farrell.

While I might agonize over which films to put in the Top Ten and which to leave out, my #1 choice has not been difficult at all.  This is the most original film I saw all year (and I saw one about a farting talking corpse)

A movie that is Dark Comedy.  Satire.  Drama.  Sci-Fi.  Suspenseful.  Touching.

The first English language Film by Greek Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a monster.  

Post a Comment