The Best Things in Cinema from 2016
20TH CENTURY WOMEN
You know when you’re looking out the window of an airplane as it takes off, staring down at the thousands of tiny ant cars on the freeway and the rows upon rows of houses stretching to the horizon, and you think to yourself, “Every single one of those is a person. Every single car and house is a complete person living out their own life, where they’re the center of the universe and they don’t even know I exist…”? You know that thought? …What makes Mike Mills an extraordinary filmmaker is that he doesn’t just take the time to make one central character in his film feel like a real person; he gives every single character an entire lived history. In 20TH CENTURY WOMEN you can feel the memories, desires, insecurities, and second guesses bubbling inside every member of this Haley’s comet of a cast. And what makes the movie transcendent is that even with everyone’s weird, fucked up warts and mistakes in full view, you still want to give everyone in the film a giant hug, and just stay with them for as long as it takes, until they get it all figured out. I don’t know why it feels so rare to experience such unapologetic human warmth coursing through a whole film; all I know is I left 20TH CENTURY WOMEN and went into the bathroom at the cinema and just cried and cried.
David Ehrlich for Indiewire said, “asking Hideaki Anno to make a Godzilla movie would be like Sony hiring Don Hertzfeldt to make the next James Bond movie.” I fucking love that, because it gets at the heart of why this film feels so transcendently original; I’m not familiar with Anno’s previous work, but watching SHIN GODZILLA you get the feeling it must have been made by someone with a real penchant for burning down institutions. No matter how goofy you find this movie, I simply didn’t experience anything else as bracingly, breathtakingly unfamiliar in cinemas this year. You literally spend the first 30 minutes going, “Wait — is this the movie? Is this how it’s going to be the whole time??” In fact my chief complaint is that Anno didn’t push his approach further; the degree to which SHIN GODZILLA’s final third starts to resemble more of a “normal” movie — just a little bit — actually comes as a major letdown.
TRAIN TO BUSAN
This had to be the most narratively perfect movie of 2016. It’s a white-knuckle, stand-up-and-cheer monument to the truth that you can make a great movie by doing nothing original but doing everything right. All of the stock characters are perfectly realized, every set piece is breathtakingly executed, and every micro-moment is pitch perfect. It’s been a long time since a suspense thriller got me laughing out loud —in sheer delight — not once but time and again, as it introduced successively more and more ingenious “ohhhh SHIT!” moments of peril. Plus Ma Dong-Seok is just so goddamn likeable.
Christ. I honestly don’t think there has been a more complex film to try to read in, I dunno, a decade? Here is a story with all the intricacy of Kieslowski or Farhadi’s A SEPARATION, directed by a confirmed satirist and possible misogynist, which may be about power more than it is about rape, and that practically demands the social and gender position of the viewer as an instrument to its interpretation. There’s no question this is a remarkable film; but as to whether it’s a moral film… I think discussion has to be the trial, and the verdict I’ll leave to someone other than this particular straight white male.
Natalie Portman’s performance in JACKIE
At one point while watching Pablo Larrain’s very Van Sant-esque film, I pulled up a Youtube video of the real Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and held my phone up next to the TV. Then I said out loud, “Holy shit.” Natalie Portman’s acheivement would have been impressive if all she had done was nail the mimicry, à la WALK THE LINE. But she actually makes Jackie a fully flesh and blood creature, and a woman of staggering dignity and conviction. It’s absolutely insane that this performance will go up against Isabelle Huppert’s on Oscar night and that only one of them will win.
I, DANIEL BLAKE
In 2014 it was LEVIATHAN; in 2015 it was DHEEPAN; now here is 2016’s stirring allegory about social strife and those left behind by greed and culture. Ken Loach’s admirably on-the-nose film wants to be a neo-realist parable for the ages, but can’t quite help indulging the greater demons of its own didacticism; even so, it contains at least one scene of such simple, devastating power it reduced every single person in my cinema to uncontrollable sobbing. Yeah, me included.
LA LA LAND
God bless Damien Chazelle. God Bless him for the look I like to imagine on the faces of the money men, every time he walks into their offices after wiping the indie box office and awards season floor with his latest wildly unlikely success story, after they shake his hand and say, “So, now you’re going to make us a normal movie…right?” and he just gives them a coy little fucking smile... I don’t know what he’s cooking up after LA LA LAND, but if he ever signs on to direct a Marvel movie I’ll punch him in the face.
Is this the ne plus ultra of cinema as pure texture? Andrea Arnold’s epic ramble thinks it’s a complete movie, but it’s really just 2.7 hours of some of the most mesmerizing, propulsive, freewheeling, effervescent filmmaking I’ve ever seen, arranged in more or less random order and with no particular lesson that I can glean. I acknowledge there’s a difference between this film’s A point and its B point; I’m just not sure what that difference means, and I’ve heard enough interviews with Arnold and her star Sasha Lane to be convinced that they don’t really know either. But damn, how alive is this film! Even though it’s a trifle, I would gladly spend 2.7 hours pinwheeling across the country with Lane again, if only for the chance to pretend, for a moment, like I ever had anywhere close to as much raw, youthful ebullience as she.
Now that’s how you make a documentary. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s expertly constructed political horror film, like Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH two years ago, was of no interest whatsoever to me. Then a critical mass of respected people insisted “No dude, trust me, just see it.” So I did. And they were right. Here is a documentary that makes you gasp at the intimate access given, that never slows down or feels dull or aimless, never tries too hard, never goes too far. The whole thing feels effortless. And, watching it now, it also takes on a sickening resonance, wherein Weiner’s grinning optimism, in the face of what he more than anyone should have known was a doomed enterprise, comes to feel like a mirror of our great national confidence, which was so grotesquely shattered on November 8th.
UNDER THE SHADOW
Here’s a different version of the “do nothing different, do everything right” approach. In this case, director Babak Anvari did most things right and basically nothing different — except one crucial thing, which is that he set this by-the-numbers, jump-scare-filled ode to James Wan in Iran during the 1979 revolution. (And no, this is not an Iranian film; it’s a British one.) That simple decision infects the entire undertaking with a profound sense of gravity and resonance that it almost doesn’t deserve, and makes a pretty good horror film into a great one. If even one xenophobic American horror fanboy sees this and gains a smidgen of sympathy for its Iranian single mother protagonist, then that is a tremendous acheivement indeed.
The first hour or so of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Two men sneak out of a motel in the dead of night, smuggling a boy who for some reason is wearing goggles. In a small, wood-paneled room, a group of Lynchian men watch the TV for news of the boy’s disappearance. They exit the room and we realize they’re part of some strange backwoods cult, where the members chant random numbers. The FBI arrives and interrogates the leader about an improbable leak of classified information. Back on the road, the two kidnappers are pulled over by a state trooper… And over the course of these opening 15 minutes in Jeff Nichols’ original sci-fi story, you find yourself leaning forward in your chair, getting pulled further and further in, thinking, in the best way possible, “Who are these people? What the fuck is going on??” It’s that sense of purposeful ellipsis, of really having to bite into the spaces between the scenes, that is Nichols’ hallmark, and it’s never been better than in this admirable thriller, which doesn’t self destruct until the agonizingly ill-conceived third act.
Respect, from a distance, for YOUR NAME
My guess is, if I were 14 and Japanese, this movie would have shattered my world. There’s no question it has that special something that most of the world’s biggest box office hits share — here it’s the transportive music, the gossamer lighting, and a serious understanding of what an Epic Moment should look and feel like — so if, for me, it landed just a few inches to the left of my heart, I’ll chalk it up to cultural mores, grown-up cynicism, and, shit, the fact that I watched it on a plane.
The first fight scene in Sammo Hung’s THE BODYGUARD
For the opening 35 minutes of Sammo Hung’s first film in 17 years, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s actually left his genre roots behind, and has set out to make a simple, quiet, Ozu-esque story about a soft-hearted retiree who takes in a troubled young girl from the neighborhood. But then a gang of leather-clad badguys show up to kidnap said girl — and you realize you’re about to get something far more fucking awesome: the sight of an overweight, elderly, senile Sammo Hung utterly beating the shit out of a bunch of leather-clad mafia guys. It’s giddy, ridiculous, and cathartic in a way you never knew you needed.
Considering 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE as an original property
A shitty thing happened to this movie in the course of its development: it got titled 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. Think about it. If you step back and imagine this film’s alternate path, the way it began life — as an original story that had fuck-all to do with Abrams’ 2007 monster flick — this should have been a breath of fresh air for indie cinema lovers everywhere. It should have been the film that breaks the franchise mold, the one that proves high-concept original stories directed by non-tentpole directors can make the big bucks. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it’s a hell of a fun time, and it could have been a small victory story; instead it got lumped in with all the other summer reboots and sequels simply because of its name. That’s a damn shame in my book.
The beat-by-beat mechanical intelligence of GREEN ROOM
In years to come I think GREEN ROOM’s status within Jeremy Saulnier’s oeuvre will fade — it’s too grim, not fun enough for repeat viewings or cult status — but it can claim one notable acheivement with me personally: no single location cat-and-mouse survival thriller has a higher success rate for me agreeing with the protagonist’s decisions, scene by scene, moment by moment, conundrum by conundrum. And I’m a huge fucking stickler for this kind of stuff. So at least you got that going for you, Jeremy.
What SULLY got right
Clint Eastwood’s movie is pretty lackluster, but I gotta give it a shout out because I think the central premise of its production — that everything which is fascinating and compelling about the 2009 “miracle on the Hudson” is what took place inside Chesley Sullenberger’s brain within the first 35 seconds after the bird strike — is dead on. An all-encompassing, Peter Berg-esque play-by-play would have been so predictable, and so lame. Or at least, even lamer than this movie.
I SAW IT, AND IT WAS GOOD, BUT IT DIDN’T, LIKE, GET UNDER MY SKIN, YA KNOW?
SWISS ARMY MAN
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
THE WORST THINGS:
I hated the trailer for COLLATERAL BEAUTY even more than I hated last year’s trailer for DEMOLITION. These fucking indulgent upper-middle-class pseudo-therapeutic catchphrases-as-character-development movies make me want to punch someone.
PATRIOTS DAY, which I didn’t see, sounds like it was marginally better than LONE SURVIVOR and DEEPWATER HORIZON, but I still think this trilogy is a travesty to American cinema and Peter Berg is a fucking asshole.
As a guy who thought OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN was pretty a’ight, (but nothing compared to the 90s glee of WHITE HOUSE DOWN), I was legit surprised by the unbridled, gruesome xenophobia on display in LONDON HAS FALLEN. With humdinger lines like “Why don’t you pack up your shit and head back to Fuckheadistan?”, this felt more like a bootleg propaganda DVD that would get passed around to new US Army recruits than, y’know, an actual movie.
AND THE “GODDAMN IT HOW DO YOU FUCK THAT UP” AWARD GOES TO:
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
NOTABLE TITLES I MISSED: