Saturday, February 18, 2017

An Academy of One

What if all the Academy Award nominations were chosen by one person? What if that one person were me? Well, here's your answer...

(none of the shorts programs are included, I ain't got time for that)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Best of 2016

On top of 2016 being a pretty shitty twelve months all around, it also seemed that way for movies for most of the year. But after having caught up with a slew of movies during the last few months including into the new year, it turns out 2016 had its own fair share of greatness. Here are a few.

Before the top 10, an additional countdown of the best 16 (+1) movies of 2016...


26. Kaili Blues (Gan Bi)
25. The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)
24. Tower (Keith Maitland)
23. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
22. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
21. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)


20. Lemonade (Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles)
19. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
18. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
17. Sing Street (John Carney)
16. Pete's Dragon (David Lowery)


15. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
14. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
13. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
12. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
11. Silence (Martin Scorsese)


Honorable Mention:
Memories of a Penitent Heart (Cecilia Aldarondo)
I'll keep this one unranked because I'm close friends with one of the associate producers of the film, the story of how director Aldarondo tries to piece together the life and death of her uncle Miguel Deppa, a New York stage actor who passed from AIDS when she was a child. I'll just say that in the same way I'm not a huge fan of the personal essay, I'm also not often a fan of documentaries whose makers force themselves into their movies as subjects. But this is an example of the right way to do it, as Aldarondo gracefully weaves her own story of discovery with Miguel's story and how the issues of the past resonate, perhaps even more forcefully, still today.


10. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
If  Hirokazu Kore-eda isn't my favorite international director working today, he's certainly on the short list. His latest, about a trio of adult sisters living together who adopt the pre-teen half sister born of their estranged father who just passed away, continues his interest in exploring the dynamic within slightly broken families and the people within them who are just trying not to be broken themselves. Few directors are able to portray the fundamental goodness in people without sanctifying them as well as Kore-eda does in film after film. And few directors work with younger actors as well as him either.

9. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
A simple collection of three stories (get used to that mini-theme in this list!) about women simply navigating their daily existences. All of Reichardt's movies in some way or another deal with people (mostly women, but not always) trying to find grace amidst the brutality of the world's indifference to their own lives. Sometimes the best movies get better with time. No movie on this list has grown so much in my esteem or stayed floating in my head since its initial viewing than this one. I've thought about it a lot since then. Ask me about it in a few years and I assure you it'll be higher on this list.

8. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
"All things must pass," George Harrison once sang. This is something Chris, the heroine of Sunset Song, sure knows. Though embodied by the gamine former fashion model Agyness Deyn, Chris is of the land and earth, her waifishness belying toughness. She stands firm, her roots growing deeper and deeper, while the wind seems to blow away just about everything around her. Loss has become a too familiar escort through life, a fact she has accepted not with resignation, but resolve: "There are lovely things in this world, lovely that do not endure, and the lovelier for that."

7. Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

As with John Magary's 2015 debut The Mend (my #9 that year), Trey Edward Shults's first feature is a bold announcement of an exciting new voice in American independent cinema. Taking place on Thanksgiving entirely in one house, Shults captures an explosive and chaotic family reunion as the title character (played the real-life aunt of Shults) physically and emotionally collides with everyone who comes within her orbit. Yet the young director, who also co-stars in the film as a family member with a particularly estranged relationship with Krisha, always seems in control of the proceedings, that the cacophony is always precisely choreographed, and the madness of it all always focused. A really stunning achievement.

6. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Leave it to a foreigner to make the most American "how we live now" movie of 2016, the story of a dirt poor girl who joins a group of traveling teens, going door-to-door across the middle of America selling magazine subscriptions out of a van. This sprawling and somewhat episodic film is immersed in the underprivileged class and its desperation without ever really wallowing in it. It's a road movie, with all the narrative asides--the stuff between all the pit stops--left in. You get to know very little about these characters individually, even Star, our protagonist, or Jake her pied piper into this world, but maybe that's the point. Their dreams and desires seem to bleed into one another. It's American Impressionism painted by the outside observer.

5. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
You know how everyone's dad tells a groan-inducing joke, but you kind of play along because whatever it's just your dad, let him have it? Imagine that stretched over a 162-minute comedy and you start to get at what some of what it's like to experience Toni Erdmann. It's within that extra long running time (for a comedy in particular) though that Ade is allowed to subtly comment on women's struggle in the workplace underneath the more broadly rendered escalation of hijinks created by your own father.

4. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
When your movie's two biggest events involve a dog ruining an everyday item and a faux hold up with a toy gun that shoots foam bullets, you're not exactly dealing with the ebbs and flows of high drama--which is to this movie's credit. Paterson, as played by Adam Driver in perhaps my favorite male lead performance of year, finds his greatest satisfaction as an amateur poet. His joys are modest and found in the most mundane of places: overhearing conversations on the public bus that he drives, the solitary beer he drinks every night at the local bar as he walks his dog, the endless rotation his of wife's dreams (both literal and aspirational). And that calm, almost metronomic passing of daily life is this film's poetry, quiet and contemplative.

3. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

Park's sumptuous triptych, a melodrama full of crosses and double-crosses, explicit sex and implicit violence, belies any simple description. Maybe no other movie, even the few ranking higher on this list has more cinematic joie de vivre frame-for-frame. And yet, unlike those other titles, which sometimes seem to want to burst out of those frames (the opening frame of my #2 literally has to get wider before the movie can start), The Handmaiden is packed with such visual richness that it can simply luxuriate in its own beauty.

2. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
2016 was a musical year for me, having seen many Broadway and off-Broadway shows during three separate trips to New York. But the movie musical was a love of mine well before The Great White Way ever garnered my adoration. The movie musical has supposedly been dead for what seems like decades now but many successes over the past several years refute that notion easily. Many are misfires, specifically most of the screen adaptations of Broadway stalwarts. The few movies that attack the genre from its own slightly off-kilter angle are the real gems (such as the Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect series). But La La Land, the third movie from wunderkind Damien Chazelle, attacks the musical from every possible direction imaginable including directly head-on. Citing everything from the 30s RKO productions with Astaire & Rogers, to the classic MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, to the Demy/Deneuve collaborations of the 60s and everything before, after, and in between, Chazelle synthesizes all these influences into something, yes derivative and pastiche, but wholly of a piece. From its genuinely thrilling opening number to the bravado of its finale, it is a celebration of the things about which we all fantasize while also slyly being about the realization of the compromises we make in pursuit of such aspirations.

1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Midway through the third and final section of Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins takes a step back to show one character in the kitchen of a diner cooking a special meal for another character. It's tangential to any of the actual plotting and a diversion in any sort of classical sense, but it beautifully weaves into context the history of these two characters and the possible direction it might take going forward. And it is indicative of the larger tone he's going for in these sequences. It's a pause, a deep breath, that many of the characters in the movie so desperately desire. To say that Moonlight has a dreamlike quality isn't entirely accurate. Maybe it's more like your memory (the large jumps in time between sections would suggest as much), where each moment progresses with such clarity and specificity but the moment stands still and the intensity of each situation is as saturated in your head as the cinematography by James Laxton is on the screen.

Jenkins is of course helped by the strongest ensemble of the year, buoyed by three performances that chart the life of one character. All of them do so much by saying so little, particularly Trevante Rhodes as the oldest version of Chiron, whose body language not only suggests the character's vulnerability, but his self-inflicted sublimation. Another character asks him "Who is you?" The tragedy is that he's spent his whole never having the chance to actually figure that out.