Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2016

You can find 11-20 here. These are my Top 10 Films of 2016

1. Arrival - I first read Eric Heisserer's script ARRIVAL about three years ago and found it to be a remarkable piece of writing that broke so many "rules" but was far and away better than anything else I'd read that year. I also felt like translating that script to film was going to be an incredible challenge, particularly in the execution of the film's big twist. Damn if the result doesn't look effortless and the result is an ending that lands on you like an emotional haymaker.

Through this first contact with aliens story, we explore how humanity deals with the unknown, through our worst impulses and best. I've heard this described as "competency porn" and I agree. After a Presidential campaign where educated people were dismissed as "elite" by masses who championed their own ignorance, it was good to see a film that championed science and problem-solving. And for all that to be legerdemain while the REAL question of the film snuck up on you? Masterful. I'm hoping I'll have time to write a longer piece on ARRIVAL, but this was the best film of the year.

2. OJ: Made in America - I've previously reflected on my fascination with the O.J. Simpson case, but director Ezra Edelman comes at it from an angle I'd not seen before. O.J.'s rise to football fame is juxtaposed with rising tensions between the L.A. black community and the police. Airing across five nights in two-hour blocks, so much groundwork is laid that it took until Night 3 to reach the murders. That gives the trial a context it's never had before, particularly after seeing O.J. work hard to separate himself from the black community, and then turn around and play the race card in pursuit of an acquittal.

In the same year that saw The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it was difficult to imagine the trial exploration feeling fresh, but every moment is captivating, particularly the recollections of former jurors. The final segment of the documentary covers O.J.'s post-acquittal downfall in jaw-dropping detail, with more footage and stories you're unlikely to have seen. It's 467 minutes that leaves its mark on you and never drags.

3. Swiss Army Man - "The farting corpse movie" is probably how you've heard of this film, but it's so much more than that. A suicidal man trapped on a desert island comes upon a corpse that has surprising utility for the stranded man. That's only the start of the weirdness, and soon the corpse is talking to him, asking him questions about life and love. Writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have crafted one of the more bizarre films of the year. I'll be honest - this is often the kind of shit I mock, but the Dans (as they are called) succeed where many other fail because the emotions of the story are real. We find ourselves relating to this lost soul who seems to be animating this corpse in his mind. Because of that empathy, a late-film twist really pulls the rug out from under the audience.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane - And now we go from a film I never could have conceived to the kind of film I really, really want to make some day. I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers where the claustrophobia is like a pressure cooker for intense acting among a small cast. I've seen and read a lot of "captive woman in a basement" thrillers, so I know all the pitfalls here. The script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle manages to avoid every exploitation trap and cheap scare.

John Goodman gives one of his best layered performances as a guy who keeps us off balance the entire film. Is he dangerous? Is he a decent man who's gone a little off kilter due to PTSD? Is he lying to keep Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character captive or is he telling the truth about the attack that's forced them into his bomb shelter? Goodman walks a difficult tightrope through the entire film until he's forced to show his hand. Director Dan Trachtenberg's next smart move was casting Winstead, who's able to hold her own against Goodman and make her role more than the victim that the situation could cast her as. Some people really don't like the ending, but I think it's the perfect payoff to all the suspense Goodman's claims generate. This is a genre premise done exceptionally well.

5. 13th - Ava DuVerney's comprehensive documentary is an incredible piece of work that draws a straight line from how the Reconstruction Era's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, paved the way for mass incarceration of African-Americans. Following that path, we trace the entire history of racial inequity in America. The film's most powerful moment comes during a montage where Republican candidate Donald Trump's rally speech about longing for "the good old days" when protestors would be beaten is juxtoposed with police assaulting civil rights protestors in the 60s.

6. Moonlight - Most of my list is made up of high-concept films, issue-oriented movies, or stories that are so unusual and bizarre that they can't help but make an impression. And then there's MOONLIGHT, which isn't quite any of those, but instead is a rather moving story about a young fatherless African-American boy who has the odds piled against him. His mother's a junkie, the guy who becomes a surrogate father to him is a dealer, he's bullied at school, and he's dealing with the fact he's gay. There are a hundred ways to write this wrong. It's almost literally one cancer diagnosis from "cloying indie movie awards bait BINGO." And yet... there's honest emotion to this. We're drawn into Little's story in a way that makes him a person and not just a martyr to whom bad things happen. Writer/director Barry Jenkins sticks a difficult landing here.

7. The Jungle Book - I hate 3D. It's more often just a way to jack-up ticket prices and almost never enhances the storytelling in any meaningful way. There are only three films where I believe it truly added value: Avatar, Gravity... and The Jungle Book. It was a constant mind-blowing experience to watch this film and remind myself that just about everything on screen but the boy was created in a computer. Everything in this movie looks photo-real, and director Jon Favreau stages everything in a way that only further convinces us that this jungle is a real place that exists.

When I was a kid, The Jungle Book was one of my favorite Disney cartoons. Looking back, that seems odd. The story's pretty slight and the musical numbers have a couple good entries, but are less frequent than other films. Justin Marks's script brings a little more structure and weight to the film than the source material, but the real secret weapon here is young Neel Sethi as Mowgli. There are veteran actors who are thrown by the process of acting against a green screen, but the way Neel interacts believable with CGI animals, you'd never guess this was his first feature role. (Read my interview with screenwriter Justin Marks here.)

8. The Shallows - A lot of what I said in the 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE review applies here. This is the ultimate "chase your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her" movie. Blake Lively plays a surfer who gets stranded on a reef far from shore... and in the path of a great white shark. Writer Anthony Jaswinski provides the survival techniques that are a staple of this genre. (Think THE GREY, but with a warmer climate and a female lead.) Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes the most of the beautiful scenery and the entire film is quite gorgeous. Better still, he wrings every last drop of tension out of Lively's struggle to outwit the shark. I wish we got more of these low-to-mid-budget thrillers like this and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

9. The Edge of Seventeen - Sign me up for whatever writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig does next. This is another film that puts character first and doesn't give a damn if we find them unlikable. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a troubled and often abrasive teen who's rendered with so much empathy that most viewers will likely see some of their own teenage selves in her. Even as she's pushing away and alienating the people closest to her, we understand why she's doing it and we find ourselves rooting for everyone else to just back off and cut her some slack. It feels raw and honest to the point where it can stand with the best of the John Hughes catalog. This is another one that's not a high concept story, but its three-dimensional characters linger with you long after the movie has ended.

10. Hell or High Water - I have a theory that Chris Pine is not so much a Leading Man, but more of a "Michael Keaton in a Tom Cruise body." HOHW finds a way to make that work for this story of two brothers pulling off a spree of bank robberies to save the family farm. The writing lesson for this one? Have smart protagonists and face them off against smart antagonists who seem capable of beating them. I'm not usually one for westerns, but this one had my attention from the start and knew just how to pace itself.

1 comment:

  1. knew just how to "pace" itself. No judgment: everyone makes typos.

    I will watch all these films, because I respect your opinion. Now I will read your 11-20