Better late than never.
Not a good year for America, as you already know, but a good year at the movies. It took a while for me to catch up with the stuff I wanted to see, making this list get delayed and delayed. Hopefully the movies I saw in that time make the list worthwhile.
Now that that’s clear, let’s get to it.
#15: Little Men - Imbued with such charm and style, I really don’t see how you wouldn’t like Little Men, a tale of adolescent friendship that is intercepted by a real estate dispute between parents. It’s delightful from the very start, combining humor with reality and heartfelt with heartbreaking. Thinking about it now just makes me smile.
#14: Loving - In times of Trump, travel bans, and police brutality, a movie like Loving is what America needs. It’s mundane, real, barely even a biopic except for the small quirk of the average couple featured here being the one that took their battle to legalize their interracial marriage to the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. And yet that barely even matters in the end; what does matter is “I love my wife.” If Loving can make more people in the world realize this, then it’s the movie of 2016.
#13: Everybody Wants Some!! - Was there a better time in the movie theater this year than Everybody Wants Some!!? Those two exclamation points in the title sum it all up; it’s three days before college starts for a bunch of baseball players, the !! of life before the … of life. And yet it’s not just a party to be had: we see blooming romance and bromance, baseball playing (which is entertaining even if, like me, you’re not a fan of the sport), jamming in cars to “Rapper’s Delight,” and general hilarity. And while it seems like a “bro” movie, it’s nice to see one that transcends the stereotype.
#12: Tower - While it may sound like a gimmick to animate a documentary, Tower uses that gimmick to startling effect. This film is intense and striking, but yet every bit as engaging as watching history play out before you in live action. And sadly, this documentary about a school shooting at the University of Texas stays relevant; in fact, it just keeps getting more and more relevant.
#11: A Bigger Splash - With a simple storyline of a couple vacationing that is interrupted by their insane friend and his new daughter, A Bigger Splash manages to be both fascinating and fun, a balance that many movies do not bear to risk for fear of alienating their audience. This film is unapologetic in the best way, refusing to hold your hand and hoping you have the energy to keep up with it. I was totally in from beginning to end, seduced by the gorgeous landscape and the fantastic performances from every single cast member. Each character here is an enigma to be studied and thought about for a long time to come, and the different dynamics between each person fit the same bill. Plus, Ralph Fiennes dances with style.
#10: Cameraperson - For the first 15 or so minutes of Cameraperson, I was confused. The film jumped back and forth in time and location, didn't provide any context, and isolated me in a way that made me feel stupid. There’s not much plot to speak of: this memoir of director Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer is a loose and meditative piece. As the film went on, however, dots started to connect as each individual story connected to me emotionally. Slowly, I saw the common themes: the violence vs. the beauty, the long tangents that Johnson can go off on, the humor and reality embodied so well here. It's a list that will increase on multiple viewings because this film is just that smart. There’s so many scenes that are among the best of the year, and I can’t seem to get them out of my head.
#9: Paterson - Poetic in more than just the main character's writing, Paterson is a complete joy. Following Paterson, a poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, over a week as he drives his bus every day and comes home to his eccentric wife, the film is hilarious, real, and by the end, the world is so comfortable that you want to dive right back in. Simple is the obvious way to describe this film, but I want to throw out a different word: exquisite.
#8: Certain Women - I don’t know if you have heard of Lily Gladstone, but you better remember her name, especially if you’ve witnessed her incredible work in Certain Women. That’s not to say the rest of the cast -- Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern -- aren’t outstanding, but this newcomer to the silver screen outshines them all. Just like Certain Women itself outshines pretty much all other anthology movies. Each of the three stories is as interesting as the others, as quietly engaging as almost anything else this year. It’s strong women putting up with idiots for two hours, and I couldn’t have loved it much more than I did.
#7: I Am Not Your Negro - Without analyzing or interpreting his words, I Am Not Your Negro convinced me that James Baldwin is one of the smartest people of all time. His eloquence is an understatement, and so director Raoul Peck doesn’t need to state it as he charts the creation of the rough draft of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. Even as a person who hates disruptive audiences, the applause that came after Baldwin’s most rousing monologues were welcome. That applause was necessary, in fact; how could you not clap after every single word uttered by the man? The profound power that I Am Not Your Negro has is the reason why you should see it, as well as its insane relevance.
#6: Jackie - It’s unfortunate that Jackie only received acclaim for Natalie Portman’s admittedly wonderful performance. This is a haunting, intriguing tale, one that manages to be subtle for such an on-the-nose storyline of Jackie Kennedy immediately after her husband’s assassination. It’s a work of art, one that takes a historical figure and turns her story into a character study while never exploiting her misery for cheap tears.
#5: The Fits - The fact that Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature was The Fits is a miracle. Every single frame of the film is composed, cinematic and beautiful. Royalty Hightower, in another incredible debut (this time as the lead character Toni), gives her character a subtle reticence as she tries to fit in with a girls’ dance troupe as the girls begin to suffer from an unexplained epidemic of shaking fits. The ending of the film is jaw-dropping and chilling. At 72 minutes long, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t watch this precise, powerful debut feature.
#4: Elle - Isabelle Huppert’s performance in Elle is the best of the year. Her character, Michèle, is so utterly unbelievable as she reacts to a violent rape by doing nothing, yet Huppert makes me believe. Actually, Elle in general is unbelievable: it’s messed-up and provocative, but also funny, visceral, and completely unpredictable. It’s an absolute enigma of a film, an unforgettable ride.
#3: Moonlight - “Moonlight. You guys won best picture.” The unbelievable words spoken by La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz as the unbelievable ending of the Academy Awards played out were enough to get me off of my couch, whooping and cheering at the fact that an independent drama inspired by the films of Wong-Kar Wai and Claire Denis about a gay black man at three stages of his life had just won Best Picture. Not just that -- it’s the fact that Moonlight is all of those things and it’s still so damn good. Watching the trailer of Moonlight invoked more emotion in me than many films can do in two hours. The direction here is the best of the year, as Barry Jenkins fills every frame with power and beauty. Every scene has its own charms. Nicholas Britell’s score is exceptional. But I should stop talking -- it’s one thing to talk about Moonlight and another to experience it.
#2: Toni Erdmann - There’s no experience in a theater I’ve ever had like Toni Erdmann. The delightful German comedy starts off small, an intimate drama about a father struggling to reconnect with his corporate daughter and crescendos to a climax that had my theater rolling on the floor. And even when the laughter died, it came back as people giggled quietly. That’s how infectious this film is; a single giggle caused an eruption of raucous laughter. Then we collectively cried at an intimate little moment that was a perfect climax for the three hours. We sat for so long together, slowly being enraptured by this film’s perfect little world, and the perfect payoff caused us to bawl. I’d say watch Toni Erdmann, but you need at least 10 others in the room with you to experience my feeling - pure, indescribable bliss.
#1: The Lobster - The Lobster is hated by many. Friends, family, peers, and many other people related to me in some way have told me about their absolute distaste for Yorgos Lanthimos’ off-kilter dramedy about a dystopian world where you are shipped to a hotel to find a partner if you do not have one. It’s certainly not for everybody. But The Lobster is my favorite film of the year because it has everything that can make a film great -- romance, humor, emotion, ambiguity, thought, beauty, wit, blah, blah, blah. You may regret seeing The Lobster, as many have told me they have, but I guarantee a good conversation will come out of it.
FULL LIST IN REALLY LOOSE ORDER:
SOME OF THE MOVIES I WISH I SAW BEFORE MAKING THIS LIST:
There’s a scene in 20th Century Women when Dorothea (Annette Bening) tries to confront her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) about his troubles. He strikes back at her with her own troubles: her loneliness as a single parent, her smoking habits. She’s dumbfounded, rightfully so, and she tells him that he can’t talk to her like that. He’s her son and she’s the mother.
Too real. It’s an issue in my own life, talking back. Sorry, mom. Sorry, dad. But that reality, conjured in that scene, is the perfect example of why 20th Century Women works: this specific story tells a universal one. There’s a moment in here, somewhere, that will hit you the way that moment hit me.
After this confrontation, Dorothea decides to enlist the help of Julie (Elle Fanning), a friend of Jamie’s since childhood and the current target of Jamie’s affections, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a boarder in their home and a feminist punk artist, in order to help her understand and raise Jamie. This idea doesn’t appeal to Jamie, breaking up their relationship a little bit more. Slowly, though, Jamie opens up to the idea, and begins to learn from the three women.
20th Century Women nods to the 70s without ever feeling overtly nostalgic towards them. There’s little drops here and there -- the wonderful musical choices throughout, Abbie dying her hair red after watching “The Man Who Fell to Earth” -- but the film is less focused on that, thankfully. Instead, it focuses on five people, including the so-far unmentioned William (Billy Crudup), another boarder at Dorothea’s home. The film gives each character a certain amount of time to shine with a use of switching voiceover narration that feels fun and unique.
The humor of 20th Century Women is key to the film’s charm. While I found the beginning to be a little lacking in that department, the second half delivers the humor in droves. There’s so many fantastic bits in here, perfectly timed and delivered in each worthwhile performance. And while there are serious themes here -- being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, an inability to connect with people romantically --the film balances these moments effectively and never feels jarring doing it.
Mike Mills’ direction is imbued with style, containing fast-motion and psychedelic scenes which reflect the punk era that Jamie is living in, while still being playful and never too serious. His screenplay is dense, touching on many issues, while still being organized and rooted in a perspective.
I want to see 20th Century Women again. It’s fun and quick but yet insightful and caring, leaving me very touched by the end. See it. Or, rather, see it with your mom.
Star, the main character of American Honey, isn’t what the title implies. She lives a life with people who blast hip-hop music on the road, wear Confederate flag attire, scream along to crappy rap songs with lyrics like: “you still sell dope? Are you cleaner than a bar of Dove soap?” The more apt title would have been American Idiot. But the film works in the way it makes you care about Star, even if you completely hate the choices she makes.
As the film begins, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) abandons her home, leaving behind two children she’s been looking after and her creepy father. We hear about them once more in the course of the approximately 162 minute running time, as Star completely forgets about them and lives a life on the road with around 20 20-something miscreants, who travel the United States, sell magazines, and party. The leaders of the group are Krystal (Riley Keough), an untrusting and unlikable manager, and Jake (Shia LeBeouf in an energetic and endearing performance), who seduces Star with his boyish charm.
If my plot summary of American Honey doesn’t make the movie feel like it’s leading somewhere, you’re somewhat correct. This isn’t the kind of sweeping film that you may expect in a nearly three-hour picture; rather, it’s a character study of someone who slowly and subtly changes over the course of the movie. That’s the main problem with American Honey: I don’t know if there’s enough change in Star’s character to justify the running time. But director and writer Andrea Arnold always makes scenes good, even if their point often feels repetitive. Each character in the giant white van that Star drives around in feels lifelike and thorough, even if they’re not given the same screen time that Star has.
The film’s soundtrack ranges from perfect to a little on-the-nose, similar to the way that the genre of music ranges from pop-rock to country to hip-hop. There’s scenes that add complexity to how the characters are feeling through a song choice and scenes that spell out intent immediately, such as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” playing right as Star and Jake first meet. A good side effect of the choices, though, is that even if I wouldn’t like the music in real life, the movie makes me like it here through the sheer pleasance that the characters singing along to it can have. And pleasant is an understatement to describe the film’s luscious, gorgeous cinematography, brought out to great effect by Robbie Ryan. Every single scenario that Star is put in, ranging from run-down motels to isolated oil fields, always look wonderful. It’s some of the only true artistry in the film.
And yet the love I feel for the movie’s look is not shared for the movie in general. It’s a little too meandering, too removed from its characters, and too long. But there’s greatness lying in here, greatness that I felt for a while but that slowly drifted away. An occasionally artistic and often fun look at America that, in the end, feels hollow and without insight. Still, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
See TONI ERDMANN.
Most of the time, I wouldn’t be so frank, but with this movie, I have to be. It’s in German, nearly three hours long, requires a little bit of patience, and won’t be playing for long. If I’ve turned you off with those statements, please stick with me.
TONI ERDMANN follows a practical joker named Winfried and his daughter, Ines, a woman caught up in the scheme of the corporate world as she works on an outsourcing project in the oil industry. And when I say caught up, I mean it: she almost completely ignores her father as he visits her for a few days while she works in Bucharest. Eventually, Winfried leaves, only to surprise his daughter later as he shows up in a wig and false teeth, claiming to be a life coach named Toni Erdmann. Will the strange joke somehow work?
TONI ERDMANN is a meandering film. It’s about many things: the downsides of globalism, the treatment of women in the workplace, the uncommunicative divide that relatives may have. But it works, both because it’s such unfamiliar, weird territory (the American remake coming soon may have a harder time nailing this as it tries to play for the whole room) and because it’s funny. Not in a laugh-out-loud way, necessarily, but more in a quiet and amusing way. That is, until the end, which gave me the biggest laughing fit I’ve had in a movie theater this year. Maybe even ever.
And you have to see this in a movie theater, by the way. Sitting at home, where you can pause the film or watch it alone or be distracted by other devices is not the way to enjoy it. In a movie theater, you and other audience members are all in for the ride together, something necessary for a movie as peculiar as this.
What’s even more peculiar is how much it touched me by the end. There’s a moment that almost brought me to tears, and I don’t cry at movies. This scene worked so well because the story here is always intriguing. You don’t know where it’s going and you’re all the better for it. The two lead characters and their dynamic is one that is constantly changing, in a way that will surprise and delight you.
In fact, that’s what TONI ERDMANN will do: surprise and delight. Even if you’re not intrigued by the premise, even if the trailer doesn’t grab you, even if you’re not excited by the three-hour runtime, seek this movie out, preferably quickly since it won’t be playing for long. Yes, it’s strange. But that’s exactly why it’s one of the best films of 2016.
“La La Land” is tied with “All About Eve” and “Titanic” for 14 Oscar nominations, the most for any film period. About a month ago, I would be totally on board that train, but as “La La Land” garners more ludicrous statements from people (such as “best movie musical of all time”) I find my issues with it becoming bigger and bigger, especially after a second viewing in which the relationship between the main characters dwindled in charm. (I might write a second thoughts sort of piece, but read Amy Nicholson’s fantastic review for a similar opinion. Plus she writes it much better than I could). I know I shouldn’t let my opinion become affected by hype, but it’s hard not to when I feel that most of the people I know are overlooking other great films (both other movie musicals, such as its inspiration The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and other 2016 releases that I will mention soon) in favor of a pretty good one.
Of course, not repeating the #OscarsSoWhite issue from last year is a win, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a persistent issue. “Fences” (still have yet to watch), “Hidden Figures” (a surprisingly fun biopic), and particularly “Moonlight” are all in competition for the big prize. Last year, the closest thing we had to these stories was “Beasts of No Nation,” a movie steeped in controversy over both its portrayal of race and its release over Netflix, causing many theatres to boycott showings. The other movies last year featuring black characters/actors at the forefront -- “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” -- were never really given much light by other awards shows and therefore couldn’t carry over the weight. Luckily, the lack of diversity issue is gone this year, and hopefully (but probably not), it will never be an issue again.
Now for some categories I feel are worth mentioning and my quick takes.
The various actors portraying Chiron in Moonlight are all great, but Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash stole the show in both the film and maybe this entire category. Jeff Bridges, Dev Patel, and Lucas Hedges are all replaceable.
If I’m replacing Lion and Passengers, I’ll replace them with Loving (David Wingo) and Krisha (Brian McOmber), both films that take their central themes and project them into their scores.
Olivia Colman (The Lobster) and Lily Gladstone (Certain Women). Both subdued, subtle, and wonderful. Would replace with Nicole Kidman and Octavia Spencer.
I would have switched around some of the songs from Moana and La La Land on this list, but Sing Street ABSOLUTELY SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON THIS LIST.
Both Paterson and Everybody Wants Some!! conjured up extremely believable worlds. Those in favor of Hell or High Water and La La Land.
Both The Fits (Paul Yee) and The Handmaiden (Chung Chung-hoon) benefit from a subtle beauty that permeates the best photographed films of the year. Probably could have replaced Lion and Silence with these two.
Elle, Certain Women, Don’t Think Twice. Each bring humor, drama, and tragedy into their stories perfectly. Would take out Hidden Figures, Lion, and (reluctantly) Arrival.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) is one of the best directed films of the year, and it’s a debut feature. Jackie (Pablo Larraín) is also very noteworthy. Replacing them with Hacksaw Ridge (although you never know, I might love it) and Manchester by the Sea.
Tilda Swinton hardly says a word in A Bigger Splash, but she’s fantastic as usual. Krisha Fairchild might have played a really similar version of herself in Krisha, but damn, is she good at it. Would have replaced Meryl and Emma with these two.
Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Joel Edgerton (Loving), and Adam Driver (Paterson) all sell their respective work. Each manage to be funny, touching, and just lovely overall. With apologies to Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling, and Viggo Mortensen.
I’m just gonna act like the Academy and not consider films like The Lobster, Elle, The Fits, Certain Women, Paterson, Julieta, A Bigger Splash, The Handmaiden, 13th, Krisha, Little Men, and plenty of others, simply because they’re not the typical films you’d consider for Oscars. However, in the category of Oscar movies, Jackie and Loving are both extremely good examples of fantastic ways to make true stories become art. If we’re acting like this is five nominations, I’d remove Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Arrival, Hell or High Water, and Hidden Figures.
This took way longer than I thought it would, and is really long, but I enjoyed doing it. Please see some of the smaller movies that got nominated (in particular The Lobster, Elle, Jackie, Moonlight, and Loving), since if the Academy Awards have one good purpose it’s getting people to see independent cinema.
My grandfather was sitting in a restaurant on November 22, 1963, and eating with his then-wife when a waiter came over and told him that the President, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. “What, the President of this restaurant?” my grandfather replied. “The President of the United States,” the waiter responded. I don’t tell it nearly as well as he does, for he remembers it like it was the most important day of his life. In fact, everyone alive then does; it’s part of them for eternity, embedded in their brain whether they like it or not.
Pablo Larraín’s JACKIE is basically that story, except from the detailed perspective of the titlular character (Natalie Portman) who was sitting next to her husband when his head became target practice. Although primarily charting the event and its immediate aftermath, JACKIE also veers into an interview the former first lady gives with a reporter (Billy Crudup), a private conversation with a reverend (John Hurt), and the televised White House Tour that immortalized her serene nature. The constant cutting between these four settings is jarring, and admittedly a bit confusing: but boy, does it lead to a fascinating product.
Natalie Portman demands your attention as Jackie Kennedy. She captures exceptionally well the grace and elegance of the former First Lady’s public persona as well as the entrapped, subdued look of her private life. Her almost spot-on impersonation of Jackie Kennedy’s voice takes a little getting used to but becomes very natural. Portman isn’t the only one to turn in a great performance, though: Greta Gerwig plays a character who wants to be Jackie Kennedy, and as a result Gerwig impersonates Portman without ever becoming a caricature; Billy Crudup’s cold stature as the reporter is never too on-the-nose, and the pseudo-bond the two form is established with great care; Peter Sarsgaard disappears into his character, never looking to steal the scene from Portman. The ensemble works together extremely well, and there’s always an undercurrent to each relationship that makes the individual connections feel lived in.
The glamorous lifestyle we associate with Jackie Kennedy is rarely touched on during the course of the 100 minute runtime. Instead, the film entraps us in Jackie’s uncomfortable perspective. Up-close and personal, Pablo Larraín’s camera works in conjunction with Mica Levi’s low and off-putting score to share the protagonist’s horrible situation with the audience. Unlike most wide-screen movies, this film is shot in a square aspect ratio, boxing us in with Jackie as we realize that we’re not getting out of her head anytime soon.
The most fascinating part of JACKIE, though, is what we see of her when she’s alone. She seeks solace through drinking and smoking, she lounges around the White House while listening to the Broadway show Camelot; she’s essentially Jackie Kennedy without the gaze of a camera completely fixed on her (even though, ironically, there is one). It’s a detail that most would overlook, and yet it tells us so much about Jackie. She’s tired, tired of being the First Lady, tired of being a role model for young women everywhere, tired of the constant photographs. This is what the film is about: the unshakable eye of the media. Jackie’s public and private life work together to tell us that the media’s all-encompassing stare is not a healthy thing for someone. Jackie is rarely allowed to grieve, rarely allowed to not be the elegant Jackie Kennedy we know her as, rarely allowed to have a concern besides what the entire world will think. The whole world is watching her, and she can’t keep up with it without at least breaking a little bit.
JACKIE is more than what most are giving it credit for, more than a standard biopic that looks to garner acting awards during Oscar season. There are layers here that I haven’t even begun to unravel, details to be discovered on a rewatch. JACKIE is a wonderful work of art that takes a real life person and turns her life into a fascinating character study while never exploiting her misery for cheap tears.
The director of MOONLIGHT, Barry Jenkins, has a first feature called MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. I haven’t seen it. I just like the title because it describes what MOONLIGHT did to me: this film is my cure for sadness.
MOONLIGHT follows Chiron, a young man who lives in a rough neighborhood of Miami. We see him during three chapters of his life, during which Chiron is always shy and mainly unspoken. His crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) isn’t much help to his introverted nature. His homosexuality isn’t, either, an attribute which causes various people to harry and persecute him throughout his time on screen. Life isn't all bad, though: as an adolescent, Juan (Mahershala Ali) helps Chiron through various parts of life, while Kevin (André Holland) is a friend to the introverted Chiron as a teenager and as an adult.
“Who is you, Chiron?” It’s a quote that comes from Kevin, and it’s the key question that this film asks. Each of the three chapters here labels him Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Andre Holland). Little is the developing, tiny version of Chiron who we eventually come to understand in his high school iteration, labeled by his actual name. The final chapter, Black, is a stereotyped version of a black person that Chiron has shaped himself to be over time: he has golden grills, blasts hip-hop music while driving down the street, and even wears various bling items on his freshly bulging body, a literal suit of armor protecting him from the wave of discrimination constantly coming his way. Before this, though, Chiron is a skinny, feeble boy, with a slumped back and reticent personality. This is brought out in the first two performances by Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders respectively, with Trevante Rhodes embodying both “Black” and the Chiron that we know is inside this new persona. And yet we never fully understand Chiron: there is no narration, there is no attempted explanation of his personality or true nature, the closest thing being surreal dream sequences scattered throughout the film that give you a vague view of his mind. This vagueness, this subtlety, is awesome. How many films can we get where the main character himself is an enigma that can be the source of an in-depth discussion? To me, the closest we'll ever get to know Chiron is in his high school iteration; filled with humility and kindness, yet containing a sensual masculinity that will be sparked when needed.
Each aspect of Chiron is further brought out through Barry Jenkins and his wonderful direction. Imagery throughout develops character: Chiron can be trapped behind a fence, being yelled at by his horrendous mother, even walking down the street, and each image always evokes entrapment, while the images are still a wonder to behold on their own. Color is another key aspect of the film, most blatantly with the blinking light that varies in color, a motif that comes as a ten-second intermission between each chapter, but also through the luscious and vivid cinematography of James Laxton, the unsung hero of this film.
The score here is something idiosyncratic and new, yet it always lends to an atmosphere of wonder. The fast-paced rhythm of the string-like instruments, which are played in the high range, adds to a sense of melancholy while also being gorgeous. The music evoked a visceral reaction in me, one that had been building up as a result of the profoundly fascinating story. The plot moved me, but never felt exploitative of my feelings, as if it was playing me (most films would use Naomie Harris’s character, the drug-addicted mother, in an overbearing way to get us to feel sadness, but she’s mainly absent as she would be from Chiron’s life). There’s also a scene in here for everyone; talking to my father leaving the theater, we were both extremely moved by different scenes: me with a quiet and intimate sexual encounter, my father with a scene in which Chiron asks Juan the definition of an offensive word, boosted even more by Mahershala Ali’s brilliant performance. I would call both of these scenes the best the film has to offer, yet I feel that everyone will have their own favorite moment.
I feel like the best way to describe MOONLIGHT is to just describe the ocean, a place that seems to be Chiron’s ideal location in the world. It’s quiet, intimate, isolated, and yet always beautiful, especially in the moonlight entailed in the fitting title. This is a wonderful film, and a must-see.
Many worlds collide in Park-Chan Wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN. The old, vibrant mansion against the new and muted cityscapes of the early 20th century, the Korean and Japanese spoken here, the sometimes dark and brutal subject matter to the dry humor that Wook can excel at (see: Oldboy). Essentially, juxtaposition is key here. In some ways, this film is an indescribable one; it’s so many things at once. This is a ride, one that I don’t even want to describe much because this is a movie you should go into blind. But I’ll do my best.
The best character in THE HANDMAIDEN is Park-Chan Wook’s camera. It’s defined and rigid, fluid and omniscient, measured and constantly moving, flamboyant and timed for comedic effect, wide and even gorgeous. Meanwhile, this camera captures the fantastic production design, putting an absolutely enticing and breathtaking culture onto celluloid, all the while capturing the beautiful performances of Wook’s leading ladies.
Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee both give complicated performances that reflect the complicated plot, one in which Sook-Hee (Tae-ri) tries to scam Lady Hideko (Min-hee) into an insane asylum, taking the money and running away with her accomplice and planner, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), but not before experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts with Lady Hideko. This brief plot synopsis is just not enough to describe the intricacies of this three-dimensional narrative, one which involves not only twists and turns but an ingenious flashback structure. Subtext is also key here: this is a film taking place during the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, a time of oppression with a huge dose of melancholy. Park-Chan Wook uses this to meditate into complicated issues of feminism, sexuality, and a whole lot of creepy 1930s erotica. Yes, this is a perplexing film, but it’s also a wondrous and successful attempt to make an uncensored, exhaustive Hitchcockian fever dream into a hell of a time at the cinema.
But there’s a controversy here I need to address.
This is a contentious film because of its lesbian sex scenes, which were described as bloated, perverse and perverted. This is somewhat true; I never found the scenes to be quite “male gazey” as some would call it, mainly because this film is a lot about discovering who you are, including sexually, making the camera’s BRIEF focuses on the female anatomy be more about a repressed, uninvited sexuality than exploitation. However, the scenes are a little long, even if they are mostly filmed with wide angles and in a non-voluptuous way. In fact, this entire film, clocking in at 145 minutes approximately, is a bit bloated in the way it emphasizes points we have already gotten, especially in its protracted and occasionally repetitious montages. Its ending especially feels extended and familiar with each scene, making points already understood by the viewers more and more obvious as the third act stretches its welcome into a redundant conclusion.
THE HANDMAIDEN isn’t for everyone; the squeamish and homophobic should beware. But otherwise, this is an extremely entertaining thrill ride that will make your jaw drop in places but become an idiotic grin in others. (The so-far unmentioned score is also a strong part of this film’s somewhat off-putting yet delightful charm). An extraordinarily satisfactory experience. Catch it if you can.
The title of LA LA LAND hints at so much of the film you’re about to watch: LA stands for Los Angeles, the city featured beautifully here; la la is a song thing, hinting at the fact that this film is a musical; and when someone says you’re in la la land, it means you’re in a dreamlike state, just like this film. The rest of the film isn't necessarily as complex as the layered title would suggest, but LA LA LAND makes up for it with subtle nuances and details throughout that add to the larger facade here, one of upbeat and jaunty fun, while still retaining a visceral core that will affect you deeply by the end.
LA LA LAND follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who isn’t aspiring too well because casting people refuse to take any unknowns seriously, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of eventually starting his own jazz club but for now must settle for Christmas music in restaurants. LA LA LAND charts Mia and Sebastian’s slow but wonderful fall for each other, as well as the ups and downs of their relationship, mainly the conflict each person has when reality interferes with love.
Blue is the color of dreams in LA LA LAND. From the opening shot -- a pan down from the gorgeous blue sky of Los Angeles -- to the luscious blue lighting of jazz clubs and L.A. sunsets alike, Chazelle holds a precise control over his color palette that adds a certain beauty to the film, even more so when the red of reality is juxtaposed with this blue dream. And speaking of dreams, this seems like Chazelle’s dream project. His first feature, the student-film like GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, is basically a devolved version of LA LA LAND. His breakout film WHIPLASH provided him all the resources he needed to make this nostalgic picture, one that literally starts with the statement “filmed in CinemaScope.” In the digital age, this statement is somewhat of a lie -- but hey, can’t he dream?
This is also an extraordinarily romantic movie (please go to this film with a significant other of some kind, you won’t regret it); it romanticizes the Hollywood musical and the charm of modern love into an old-fashioned contemporary affair. There’s always love in the air, most obviously through the staggering chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third pairing as lovers), but also through the passion on display in almost every character. Sebastian speaks of jazz as if it is his one true soulmate, Mia is a passionate actress despite the job not always reciprocating her feelings, and Damien Chazelle’s direction is a love letter to cinema itself. In a grandiose, stylistic approach to the musical, Chazelle pulls out all his stops for a continuous series of long takes that flow with grace and elegance, in a way dancing to the rhythm that cinema can conjure up when done effectively, as it is here. This approach is so much fun to watch, and the precision with which Chazelle tackles both complicated dance numbers and the still, extremely well-written show stoppers lends to the film in such a wonderful way.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, despite not exactly being Broadway stars (theater friends I respect and admire who saw Stone during her Broadway run of CABARET weren’t very kind), make their singing and dancing work pretty well; still, great acting by both is their true power. Other stars make the most of small roles, ranging from John Legend to J.K. Simmons, who must really like this Chazelle kid after he got him his Oscar in 2014.
LA LA LAND is an inspirational film. I went home after a lucky early screening and felt inspired to write about the film because it’s just so filled with love and heart. It made me love film even more. I’m willing to look past my nitpicks of some occasional lip-syncing issues as well as some on-the-nose dialogue that directs a potential criticism of the film -- being too imbued in nostalgia -- directly at us, because this is a film about pursuing your passions. It’s the best version of that, too; inspirational films are normally worn out after a day or two for me. I’m still reeling from the charm of this beauty, just as I was leaving the movie theater almost three weeks ago. Most films make me want to smile, but this one makes me want to dance.
For a mainstream release, Arrival is an extremely weird movie. An alien movie without a fast pace or blockbuster action scenes, it instead taps into your brain. In that respect, Arrival is awesome and should be admired by all, even despite something being a tiny bit lacking here.
Arrival starts with aliens arriving on Earth in the form of 12 different elongated spaceships. We see this from the perspective of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at an unknown university who is suddenly tasked with translating the newly arrived alien’s strange language, one that cannot be translated verbally but instead through circles with splattered marks around the circumference. This is juxtaposed throughout with visions that Amy Adams gets of her daughter, who died from cancer. As she gets closer and closer to communicating with these aliens, her mind changes in the way that everyone does when learning a new language; their brain starts to process things differently. In an ironic twist, each of the 12 stations located outside the alien ships slowly loses contact with each other, refusing to collaborate as a cause of their different methods of communication with the aliens. Some even start to look for a violent approach.
Despite co-stars like Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I only mentioned Adams because it’s truly her movie. The camera tracks her beautifully, rooted in her own perspective not only through the sequences of her daughter but also through simple camera placement; the film is less concerned with her face then it is with her back (and not the Sir-Mix-A-Lot kind), tracking her various walks at every chance it gets. This is just a starting point to the cerebral nature of this film, rooted in Louise's mind; as the film gets deeper into Louise’s head, we get deeper into our own minds as we think as hard as we can to uncover what’s going on, while the film never really backs down to give us a solid answer until the bizarre ending.
In fact, the film never really gives us an answer on most things which is greatly appreciated. Even the aliens are literally in a mist throughout the film, with their design not even telling much: their legs are long and skinny. Or are they legs? The pair of aliens entitled “Abbott and Costello” (a nod to the iconic “who’s on first, who’s on second, I don’t know who’s on third” bit, since the skit is largely involved around the miscommunication that is also present in this film) could actually be a pair of hands on some sort of B.F.A. (Big Friendly Alien). Or could it be..?
The director, Denis Villeneuve, is a master of mood; his previous film Sicario had a growing dread present throughout that made it one of the best films of 2015. In this film, his direction is discombobulating. The fear the characters have of an unknown life form comes through in full force, Dutch tilts and Hitchcockian dolly zooms aplenty leading the way for a tense and uncomfortable mood. The score by Johann Johansson adds even more to this effect in an eerie yet ethereal sound. The whole film feels like a roller coaster, but not in the usual way that metaphor is used: it has a kinetic energy and a loud wind screaming in your air as you yourself scream in anticipation and horror.
The problem, though, is something that no film can ever achieve perfectly for each audience member: it didn’t connect with me emotionally. While my brain was at work, my heart was beating normally. There’s none of those moments that truly made me emotional, even more so after the ending of the film gave me enough information for me to infer something and it kept on going, making what I had already figured out blatant and uninteresting. There’s also some lines in this film that stray into cheese territory, such as the trailer’s “now that's a proper introduction.”
Arrival is an intelligent film that, in a way, constructs its own language for you: it sets a mystery that you slowly put together through different puzzle pieces, slowly unraveling the whole picture through your interpretation. I may have some minor issues with it, but at the end of the day I’m glad that a mainstream release like this isn’t just popcorn fodder, teaching us while not being a Ted Talk and allowing us to apply the information we’ve learned practically, even if we have an answer sheet nearby.