It’s a been a long time since I’ve concocted a post for your viewing pleasure, but every year I feel compelled to at least declare my love for a handful of films. I usually list my favorite films in order but each year I find that listing them in order not only feels a bit arbitrary but the list usually evolves months later. For instance, in 2011 I had Alexander Payne’s The Descendants as my number one film. Over the years, I’d argue Moneyball has taken over the throne, as Payne’s human tragicomedy lost a bit of its glow. So, this year I figured I would list my favorite films in alphabetical order. As is the case every year, there are many films I missed. Toni Erdmann and Elle are films my eyes didn’t get the pleasure of viewing. Same with Jeff Nichols’ Loving, Star Wars: Rogue One (I’m sorry), I am Not Your Negro and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. I hope I can catch up with the aforementioned films at some point, but now I divert my attention to 2017. But not before my list obviously…
Films Near Greatness:
The Best Films:
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is nothing short of spectacular. Like all great forms of science fiction, it uses an otherworldly premise as a tool of deconstruction and exploration. In Arrival a perceived alien invasion helps Villeneuve explore the significance of language and its infinite forms, as well as the patience needed for creating coalescing conversation. For as profound as the film can be when dissecting the role language plays in our triumphs and tragic misunderstandings, it has a melancholic emotional core that deepens by the film’s end. Beyond its unearthly plot points, Arrival is a universal tale about love and acceptance, facets we would lovingly grasp if not for the betrayal of our tongues. When the film nears its end, and we’re emotionally distraught, the film offers us a simple question: are we willing to see, hear, and feel what’s being communicated to us? Or are we fearful of what it may mean? Arrival miraculously forces us to decide.
Ridiculously snubbed by the Academy Awards in the Best Documentary category, Cameraperson is arguably one of the most poignant films of the year. Serving as a visual memoir of sorts for director Kirsten Johnson, who has served as a cinematographer for many documentaries, Cameraperson stitches together a tapestry of stirring images from her career. Pain, beauty, and life’s unshakeable flow are captured and preserved through poignant juxtapositions, luscious cinematography, and heart wrenching testimonials. At times the images Johnson shares with us are so intimate they feel voyeuristic in nature. From indelible images of buildings that once served as rape houses in Herzegovina to a newborn desperately gasping for breath, Cameraperson establishes not only the beauty in the mundane and inhumane, but also the distinct distance between a filmmaker and their subject.
The Edge of Seventeen:
In case you don’t remember, bursting through puberty and into adulthood isn’t entirely an enjoyable experience for all involved. Hollywood typically doesn’t let us forget, but they remind us with haphazard tales predicated on over the top debauchery and pubic hair jokes (maybe not so much this). But every once in a while a coming of age film comes along that feels authentic, like a hidden memory ripped from our brains. Enter in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, an acerbic, cynical, and foul-mouthed dissection of one girl’s life unraveling just as it’s supposed to begin. In the lead is the criminally underrated Hailee Steinfeld. She is beyond tremendous. Her quick wit and emotional control allows the film’s wild swings in tone to come across as measured and impactful. She is especially wonderful playing against the sardonic Woody Harrelson, who plays a teacher without pretension. The Edge of Seventeen, with all of its humor, emotion, and poignancy, is a borderline cinematic miracle.
I can’t imagine watching the death of a loved one play out in front of me. There’s something cruel about watching a life slip away mercilessly. In Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, we are present for the moment when Jackie Kennedy attempts to hold in the tattered brain matter of her husband after a bullet rips through his head. Playing out as both a waking nightmare and heavenly dream, Jackie elegantly captures the first lady’s fractured psyche in the wake of her husband’s assassination. Watching the grieving process unfold, especially through the damaging performance of Natalie Portman, makes for an uncomfortable but necessary watch. Adding more weight to the proceedings is the theme of lasting legacy, as Jackie wrestles with how her husband will be remembered with the world pressing forward. If this sounds too depressing, take comfort in Larrain and Portman’s ability to extract Jackie’s poise in the face of uncertainty, further cementing her legacy as a bastion for hope.
Kubo and the Two Strings:
I’ve always appreciated films aimed at children that didn’t come across as condescending when touching upon mature subjects. Up is one of the more definitive examples of this, as Pixar articulated the stinging pain life has to offer without sacrificing the film’s sense of wonder. Much like Up, Kubo and the Two Strings impressively crafts a tale of wonder born out of tragedy. Featuring unbelievably gorgeous stop motion animation (a notion that I believe should net it the Best Special Effects Oscar)the film’s imagination is boundless, transporting us to a magical world with beautifully etched characters and lavish set pieces. Helping us connect with our characters and their powerful journey is a wonderful voice cast, all of which imbue their characters with wry humor and melancholy. All told, Kubo and the Two Strings is a dark, creepy, and magical examination of life, death, and the power of storytelling.
La La Land:
There are few films released in 2016 that are as warm, as colorful, and as infectious as Damian Chazelle’s La La Land. Pegged as an Oscar front-runner, which has incited a great deal of backlash from internet mavens frothing at the mouth, La La Land is a sugary confection that not only pays homage to all the great musicals that came before it, but also etches its own place in cinematic history. Anchored by two irrepressibly charming performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land is a jubilant exercise but one that doesn’t necessarily drown out the raw human emotion the screenplay calls for in its waning moments. La La Land is also a technical achievement, with Chazelle’s camera whipping and dashing across the screen with great zeal and fluidity. From wonderful songs to transcendent direction, La La Land is a film that will leave you with a smile.
Yorgos Lanthimos is known for crafting films that turn societal norms inside out, almost in a viciously violent matter. In The Lobster, where single people must find a mate in 30 days or they turn into an animal of their choosing, Lanthimos has created his most romantic film without sacrificing his unique voice for the bizarre and macabre. The screenplay itself, up for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, is downright genius. It’s at once playful and revolting, making for an uncomfortably funny watch. Featuring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, among other wonderful performers, The Lobster serves as a maddening, pitch black comedy about society’s expectations for romantic normalcy, and the lengths we will or won’t go to preserve it. It’s the ultimate Rorschach test for one’s belief in romantic connection.
Manchester by the Sea:
Kenneth Lonergan’s morose character study is a film built around control. Save for one scene, emotional outbursts are limited. There are no moments of grandeur. What we’re offered instead are measured scenes where the actors are allowed to develop and unravel their characters in organic ways. The performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges never violate Lonergan’s prose, as they often imbue their characters with details and quarks the writing may not explicitly state. Affleck is particularly moving as a solitary loner seeking the fringe of existence as he travels back home in the wake of his brother’s death. His weathered face, sunken eyes, and defeated frame help us attach ourselves to a man in need of emotional refuge. The actor’s authenticity is heightened by Lonergan’s creation of the titular town, making us feel the brisk air of the Boston sea town. Yes, the film is deeply depressing but the tsunami of melancholy perfectly serves the film’s final coda : sometimes we can go back home.
Arguably one of the year’s most important films, Moonlight is a towering achievement both in craft and tale. The power of Moonlight resides in its ability to live in the isolated skin of its protagonist, a task that’s oppressive until the film’s quietly rousing finale. Directed meticulously by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight focuses on three distinct moments in the life of Chiron, an African-American male coming to grips with his identity. Caught in a suffocating environment built upon ferocious machismo, drug culture, and inescapable poverty, Chiron’s story is wholly engrossing and a tale worth experiencing. Boasting one of the year’s best scores, immersive camerawork that’s both alienating and gorgeous, and an unbelievable cast, Moonlight gives a voice to those being squelched by society’s worst tendencies.
OJ-Made in America:
OJ Simpson’s story was sufficiently played out by the time Judge Ito read the infamous verdict in 1995. That is until Ezra Edelman unraveled his dense, multilayered eight-hour opus on OJ’s ascension and tumultuous fall. Edelman unearths and highlights the chaotic events surrounding the murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, eliciting shock and dismay as we actively relive the tragic murders. But the murders and subsequent trial are only a fraction of Edelman’s massive documentary, as he incisively investigates the dispiriting racial tension boiling in Los Angeles far before OJ Simpson’s infamous trial. Edelman’s interest in painting a complete portrait of not only OJ but also the city of Los Angeles, triumphs and gaffes unmolested, makes OJ: Made in America one of the most compelling films from 2016.