Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Best Movies of 2016: Part 2

I've already named 20 of my favorite films of the year, but now it's time to get to the true best of the best. From some Oscar frontrunners to indie darlings to a couple films most people probably haven't heard of, here are my ten favorite films from 2016.

#10: 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

One of the earliest film triumphs of 2016 was 10 Cloverfield Lane, which took a simple premise and a small but excellent cast and delivered one of the most compelling thrillers in years. After a car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in chains in a mysterious room. Her captor is an odd man named Howard (John Goodman) who claims that he has rescued her and that there's been a nuclear attack making the outside air inhospitable. The film keeps its audience guessing the whole time, and one constantly has to change their guesses as to what's actually going on as new information is revealed. The screenplay is a standout, but much credit needs to be given to the cast of Winstead, Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. Goodman in particular gave what I think is his best performance since The Big Lebowski, and I wish he was being pushed for awards consideration. His portrayal of Howard is central to the film's success. At times Goodman is delightful, at times creepy, and always compelling. Goodman makes bold character choices, and yet for as distinct Goodman makes him, Howard becomes a bit of a chameleon of circumstance. The same character can be seen as harmless or dangerous within the blink of an eye. It's reminiscent of Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning work in Misery and I wish Goodman's performance was being given the same recognition.

#9: Chevalier (dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Chevalier was never going to be a commercial smash, but it's easily one of the best films I've seen this year, and an instant arthouse classic. This Greek film follows six friends on a fishing trip who decide to compete in a disturbing game to find out who among them is "the best." Throughout the trip, they grade each other on everything, from the temperature at which they caramelize onions, to how attractive they look while sleeping, to how well they can assemble Ikea furniture, etc. And if this sounds like a dick-measuring contest, yes, at one point they do have a literal dick-measuring contest. The characters all represent certain degrees of traditional masculinity, from handsome alpha male Christos to the chubby and sensitive Dimitris. The film is at times meaningful, at times thrilling, and at times incredibly funny, with all characters showing surprising strengths and vulnerabilities. Examination of toxic masculinity is a common trope across many mediums, but Chevalier is one of the most original and fresh takes on the subject I've seen in a long time. The secret weapon of the film is undoubtedly director and co-writer Athina Rachel Tsangari, as I think having a female director leading the entirely male cast allows for far more insight than it would have had otherwise. For such a bold and out-there concept, the film is incredibly subtle and restrained.

#8: Remember (dir. Atom Egoyan)

In some parallel universe, the little-seen Remember was a huge critical success and was recognized as the powerful film that I truly believe it is. Technically a revenge film, the Remember follows Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), an old man who lived through the Holocaust who, in his old age, sets out to find and kill the Nazi who he believes murdered his family. The difficulty is that he has severe dementia and must rely on notes and prompts from his wheelchair-bound fellow survivor Max (Martin Landau, giving a rare and welcome performance in his later life). The way the film plays with memory and revenge makes it like a cross between Kill Bill, Memento, and Schindler's List, and it's absolutely fascinating to watch. Plummer does a wonderful job as the unlikely revenge-seeker whose old age proves to be both a hindrance and at times a surprising asset on his quest. I loved it as soon as I saw it, but some criticized it for exploiting the theme of the Holocaust for manipulative emotional impact. I truly don't understand this criticism at all. Rather than feel exploitative, the film actually felt incredibly relevant and showed how the horrors of that time still resonate today. One scene in particular, where Plummer encounters a current day neo-Nazi (played with frightening intensity by Breaking Bad's Dean Norris) was chilling on the first viewing, but would be even more horrifying in the wake of the U.S. presidential election. A modern fable, Remember is a powerful and worthwhile film that shouldn't have been so overlooked.

#7: Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

I'm of the mind that science fiction as a genre works best when its non-realistic premise is used to comment on very real issues. I think it's why so many science fiction films gain more recognition as time goes on than when they were first released. Like Blade Runner or Brazil, the timelessness of the work cannot be truly comprehended without some time having passed. Arrival is truly science fiction at its best. This film about an alien invasion ended up being one of the most poetic and heartfelt films of the year, offering valuable commentary on the nature of humanity, love, and the impact that individuals can have. Plus, it's easily the most compelling film ever made about linguistics, and features great work from the always outstanding Amy Adams. I don't want to say too much more about it, because so much of its impact is based in the subtle twists and turns the film has in store, but I'm so glad to see this movie getting deserved awards attention, which is still sadly rare for a science fiction movie.

#6: Mia Madre (dir. Nanni Moretti)

Movies that are about the making of movies tend to be a mixed bag. Some are cloyingly self-referential and alienating. But some can end up being insightful and powerful. The Italian film Mia Madre looks at an accomplished film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) who is struggling to make a movie while dealing with the failing health of her mother (Giulia Lazzarini). It's a film about the concept of art and artist, which is often touching and hilarious simultaneously. Buy does a really amazing job, playing a character who is falling apart at the seams and trying desperately not to let anyone notice. But the standout performance is from John Turturro. Turturro is a prolific actor who appears to be in every single movie ever made. And he always does great work. But this is my new favorite performance from Turturro. Here he plays conceited movie star Barry Huggins, an egomaniac who is starring in Margherita's movie. Turturro maintains a confident presence, while also being completely buffoonish--he disappears into the character. The film as a whole is a smart look at the movie industry, and a must-see for any fellow lover of the medium.

#5: La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

There was no way I wasn't going to love La La Land. I love movies, I love old movies, and I love musicals. And La La Land is a movie about musicals that pays homage to lots of old movies and movie musicals. It's not difficult to see why this is one of the two films that's seen as an Oscar frontrunner (the other being my #4 pick) because it's just such a well-made movie. The design elements are all beautiful, and its message of the importance of dreams and aspirations will always speak to creative types. I will say that, while I did really enjoy La La Land, I wasn't completely blown away by it until the last fifteen minutes of the film, a sort of dream montage which reviews the story in a hyper-stylized fashion. Those fifteen minutes were truly magical, and it's the type of moment that all movies should aspire to create.

#4: Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

It's hard to think of a cinematic character study more complete than Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. Rather than being one film, Moonlight is essentially three films in one, each one focusing on the same character, Chiron, at different stages in his life. The three actors who play Chiron (Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult) work seamlessly to create a thoughtful and profound protagonist. Moonlight looks at serious and important issues, but in the end, it's always about Chiron, and that makes the film feel incredibly personal. Moreover, with the film's themes and acting are natural and understated, the design of the film is colorful and stylized, giving Moonlight true artistry.

Just see it. See it. Why haven't you seen Moonlight yet? Everyone agrees it is one of the best films of the year, so why hasn't everyone seen it yet? It's the fourth highest rated movie of all time on Metacritic. SEE IT! PLEASE SEE MOONLIGHT!

#3: London Road (dir. Rufus Norris)

This is a list of my favorite films of 2016, not the best films of 2016. Moonlight, for example, is a much better film. It's better made and will most likely resonate with more people. But, I just loved London Road and how completely strange and weird it is. London Road is, in some ways about the serial killer Steve Wright, who murdered five prostitutes in the town of Ipswich in 2006. But Wright isn't a character. Instead, London Road tells the stories of the people who lived on the same street as Wright, and how their lives were affected by these crimes. Even more interestingly, every line spoken by the actors is taken verbatim from news clippings and interviews done with the Ipswich residents both before and after Wright's arrest and eventual conviction. Even more interestingly, it's a musical. It's obviously not typical light-hearted musical fare, but at their best, musicals have the ability to speak to human emotions in a poetic way, and that's what London Road does for me. The brilliant music, which is inspired by the interviewees' vocal patterns, is discordant and Sondheim-esque, and captures the sense of nervousness that the residents of the town undeniably felt during this time. It's not going to be for everybody. I think director Rufus Norris did a great job adapting this stage show to film, and the production design and cinematography in particular are really cleverly done, but it's still inherently theatrical and some people are going to find that off-putting. I can imagine many people watching London Road just thinking "what the fuck am I watching?" But if you're like me and this premise sounds fascinating and right up your alley, you need to check it out. London Road can be incredibly rewarding, and its strange premise allows it to tap into a perspective I haven't seen on film before.

#2: The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook)

Probably best known to American audiences for his masterpiece Oldboy, prolific Korean director Park Chan-wook has truly hit it out of the park with his latest film The Handmaiden. This psychological sexual thriller tells the story of pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who under the instructions from a con artist named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), poses as the maid of the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) so that Fujiwara can steal her fortune. The Handmaiden is cinematic storytelling at its best. Chan-wook knows how to use the medium to its advantage, and both the screenplay and the camerawork reveal information only at the perfect time, so that you never quite know what's going on until the film is done. It's an exercise in power-shifts, and is truly thrilling to watch. Plus, it's one of the most beautiful films of the year.

#1: Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch) 

Looking over my favorite films of the year, there's a lot of spectacle. There are lots of musicals and horror films and thrillers and films which are grand and glorious and off the walls and truly leave an impact. Which is perhaps why Paterson stands out to me as my single favorite film of the year: because of how quiet it is. Jim Jarmusch's character study of a New Jersey bus driver with a fondness for poetry, is glorious in its simple elegance. The film takes place over the course of a single week, and allows us to be a fly on the wall in its titular character's life. Paterson, as played with beautiful calm by Adam Driver, is an observer of life, and as the week unfolded, I was amazed to realize how little conflict there was in the film. Even as dramatic moments occur (like the bus breaking down, or someone pulling out a gun in a bar), the movie manages to move on without incident. Even at arguably the most dramatic moment of the film, the great climax of the tension is simply Paterson calmly saying the words, "I don't like you very much." The result is a film that is relaxing, introspective, and wise.

The title of the film has at least three meanings. The most obvious is that it alludes to the fascinating main character. But it could also refer to the town of Paterson, New Jersey where the film takes place, as the setting is as much a character o the film as Paterson himself is. But it could also refer to the poetry collection "Paterson" written by William Carlos Williams. Poetry is a major theme of the film. Paterson is constantly writing his own poems in notebooks (the poems themselves were mostly written by poet Ron Padgett). But not only are there plenty of good poems recited in the film, the film itself is poetic in a way I've never quite seen represented on film before. There's just such a lovely beauty to the structure. Every moment, every image, is so carefully chosen. The scenes feel like poetic lines, the chapters of the film feel like stanzas. Every new scene felt like a gift--another moment to treasure. Other films this year were much louder, but the steady confidence of Paterson was truly extraordinary, and that's why it's my favorite film of the year.

So, those are my thoughts. How about you?  What films do you think are missing from my list? What's your top ten? Feel free to share in the comments.

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