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The Best There Is At What He Does

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I don’t know why I held that torch out for so long but ever since the marketing for director/co-writer James Mangold, producers Simon Kinberg and Laura Shuler Donner, and star Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the beloved X-Men character Wolverine titled Logan after his common (but not birth) name, I really really thought we’d be going for a father-and-daughter road trip type of movie like Alice in the Cities (really most Wim Wenders pictures) or Paper Moon. And indeed Logan is on the run alongside a young ward by the name of Laura who shares his abilities (Dafne Keen) and a now older and more jaded psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who also announced this would be his final turn in the role) broken by Alzheimer’s and it does have a sort of focused on the tired American landscape that makes a lot of sense for the film to receive all the comparisons to a Western that it has been getting (and kind of fishing for given how often Shane pops up as a plot point). But that means nothing! Nothing at all when Keen – wonderful as she is in the role – is not anywhere near verbose as Tatum O’Neal.

Unfairly stupid expectations aside, Logan is absolutely the best of the Wolverine solo series that begin back with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green accomplish that by pulling the same “Steal Mark Millar’s general idea but leave his shitty plotting and writing behind” strategy that made Captain America: Civil War a decent movie and the sparseness and restraint of that attitude makes it the most grounded film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The crux of the story is that in 2029, the X-Men are no more and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan takes care of the mentally deteriorating Xavier with the help of mutant sensor Caliban (Stephen Merchant) when Laura falls into their laps with Xavier’s invitation and a squad of mercenaries named the Reavers headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) come bringing hell back into their lives in their hunt for Laura. Logan begrudgingly agrees to take Laura halfway across the country and while there is a bit more mythological fleshing-out (especially round the third act) than I am letting on, I don’t think that matters.

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This is essentially a better version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to me, sharing all of its strengths like an interest in trying to make the film a solo story (without the weakness of being afraid to give Logan the main anchor of the story) or the absolute restraint and low-key design of the whole film (without the weakness of looking boring or indistinct). And what really sells it to me on its R-rating (even despite more f-bombs than I think necessary and a moment of nudity that’s totally gratuitous for the sake of “hey, this is an R”) is how it’s also willing to function as a modernized version of that aforementioned Shane as Logan attempts to express to Laura the regret and weight that his violent disposition has brought to his soul. This is something Jackman and Stewart are able to jump unconsciously given how long they’ve spent inside the skin of these famous characters and, from the reactions I’ve heard before even catching the film, fans are only more willing to give gravitas to the finality of this movie’s existence to tie up the Wolverine story. And as contrived and cliche and predictable as the revelation of Logan and Laura’s connection is, the two work together so well in energy and tandem that it just seems right to find out the things we find out. Keen could easily steal the show and yet somehow opts to stay in the back of Jackman’s own development of the character. And the violence is intense and harsh enough to push Logan’s world-weariness to the edge. Hell, the movie is even stopping during its long road movie structure to have a subplot function as Wolverine’s personal Shane moment helping a family of modern homesteaders against the angry armed land barons (albeit the end of that particular subplot is extremely mean-spirited even by the standards of Logan as a film).

I guess, what I’m trying to say is when Logan, Xavier, and Laura are on the road (and it does feel more like “on the road” – thanks to Stewart’s persuasive performance being on the leisure side of the trip – than “being chased” like they truly are) is when the movie is at its best and I could have done with another hour of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last as its third act and climax turns more towards the superhero movie tropes it spent 2 hours desperately avoiding by giving YET ANOTHER PERSON involved in Wolverine’s experiments and having a very poorly edited battle. It is the very worst sign when I have all my eyes on the screen and yet completely miss the moment the main antagonist was killed. And yet the movie is wise enough to utilize its last few shots to end the saga on its best note and to lay it to rest in a manner that your mind is precisely on that final beat and the mood it sets in you as you walk out the theater.

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The Heart of the World

It’s International Woman’s Day in the world and I’ve been playing around for a while with this sort of post idea so if I may – under the limited time I have – I’d like to take you on a very cursory journey through the history of film by way of women who have heralded landmarks in the industry. (Also, I swear I’ll have the Logan review tomorrow night, Get Out and The Lego Batman Movie within the week, don’t yell at me).

Let’s start on the right foot, with somebody who essentially started off taking control of her art like all the other artists.

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Actress Mary Pickford essentially became in charge of her prolific silent film career early on (within three years in fact) and eventually to a point that she was de facto producer for $10,000 a week. And this landed her a seat when it came to the monumental creation of United Artists, a studio created for the sole purposes of maintaining the control and integrity of the future works of such peers to Pickford like Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks.

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Speaking on D.W. Griffith, one such filmmaker that was heralded highly as a contemporary in the early days of American filmmaking was Lois Weber. While she was not the first female director or writer (that largely being credited to Alice Guy-Blache, who worked with Weber in American Gaumont Chronophones), the output of Weber’s work is overwhelming numerous (sadly, almost all of them lost – though one that is retained, Hypocrites, is a masterwork) and the highly moral attitudes of Weber’s work and her willingness to push the envelope on attitudes of female nudity, religion, and experimentation with split-screen, narrative length, and sound lends to a career that left so many fingerprints in cinema’s evolution.

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Later on, as Metro Pictures was growing, one of the biggest figures within its walls was the great screenwriter June Mathis heading the story department and later one becoming one of their first executives as they became a powerhouse in the film industry. How influential was she, you say? To the point that she had the biggest hand on the production of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of the most essential Hollywood films.

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… aaaaaaand none of Leni Riefenstahl, BYE!*

*I mean, ok, she did change the game on documentary filmmaking and how the aesthetic can be used to powerful persuasion but she also was a… yeah…

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Before even trying to came the actors’ contract system like she did, Olivia De Havilland was already an immortal face in Hollywood history in her association with such big bombastic and ambitious productions such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind. But then in 1943, when Warner Bros. tried to add six months to her almost-expired contract as was common, she challenged this practice and the studio in court and won, breaking herself out as a free agent and setting precedent for actors to charge for their own projects like Pickford before her. And rather than waste that freedom on remaining a romantic epic ingenue, De Havilland pursued challenging roles that demanded of her like The Snake Pit and The Heiress, suddenly turning her career to the ever more-interesting.

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Do you have eight Oscars? Edith Head sure does and earned that record by her awareness of mood and culture as demanded by the productions such as in The Hurricane and yet making it so low-key that you don’t realize how she visually codes her characters until AFTER the dress has left the screen.

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Including faces of the golden age of cinema would not be complete without possibly the most recognizable face in Japanese cinema that isn’t Mifune Toshiro. The eternal Hara Setsuko maintained her longevity as mainstay of the legendary Ozu Yasujiro‘s pictures on family and life. After he died, she mysteriously receded from the acting and the public eye (her death wasn’t reported until months after the fact), but she was never forgotten by the cinematic world.

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If any editor could be considered an auteur in the field of cinema, history favors Dede Allen as that particular figure, being trusted with multiple filmmakers in the New Hollywood era to experiment with audio overlaps and jump cuts among other flourishes, essentially trying to make the film pop rather than dedicate her work to continuity. The result is among the most memorable elements of the likes of the finale of Bonnie and Clyde and the overall patient tension of Dog Day Afternoon.

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Another female filmmakers whose documentaries are the lifesblood of personality and authorship would come by within a few 30 years, though with a start in narrative features. When the French New Wave began changing the game on cinema, standing on the Left Bank camp of the movement was Agnes Varda who brought in a feminist voice to the heavily male crowd of filmmakers with films such as Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, playing with structure and style but turning away from the self-gazing New Wave focus on cinema as subject to give a lens into the marginalized (she and her husband Jacques Demy make up my favorite New Wave filmmakers just behind Alain Resnais).

Mid 1970s, Los Angeles, Pam Grier

When blaxpoitation began really turning over the world in the 1970s, Pam Grier stood out over all the big masculine black heroes as a presence of attitude, power, and hard-boiled grit, never playing any less than an assertive ass-kicker in any form for her American International Pictures productions. That while still taking full autonomy and authority of her sex appeal and using it as a weapon like the likes of Theda Bara and Louise Brooks before her.

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Now back while Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were “killing” New Hollywood Cinema in the late 70s, who do you think was behind them the whole time making sure they were properly organized? Producer Kathleen Kennedy, the co-founder of Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment, associating with the filmmaker ever since its founding in 1981 and then by 2012 becoming attached to LucasFilm as its president, thus becoming the brand manager for Star Wars and essentially one of the most powerful people in Hollywood or at least moreso than you could already be when you’re the producer of E.T. and Jurassic Park.

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I won’t say I wouldn’t be doing this sort of stuff if Pauline Kael weren’t around (especially when we don’t entirely see eye-to-eye), but she’s certainly one of my favorite critics for a reason and an outstanding influence to me. Her personal tone in her writing, the high opinionated emotion behind it, made me realize just how possible it is to contain my thoughts and feelings about cinema and to keep it a fair balance between the academic and the emotional.

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You’d have a harder time trying to find a career more short-changed despite all she’s done for Hollywood than the great Elaine May who had proven to be such a natural at the complex art of comedy until suddenly audiences decided Ishtar was so bad it disqualified all her previous masterpieces like The Heartbreak Kid. Audiences are stupid. Fuck you, audiences.

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Before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to snag a Best Director Academy Award (snatching it away from her ex-husband James Cameron no less, but with no hard feelings), her action-heavy genre work like Near DarkPoint Break, and Strange Days made damn clear that she had her own finger on how to make films rugged enough to make the gender of its filmmaker invisible, suddenly becoming a clear signal to the possibility of women to play rougher than boys. When suddenly her films became a window to present day issues like in The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty, and the upcoming Detroit Riots film, her maturity as a storyteller showed as well, suddenly taking on restraint towards a subject without succumbing to conformity.

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UCLA graduate Julie Dash was one of many African-American voices at the very front of the L.A. Rebellion, based in Black American stories and cinema. After her short film Illusions made her a staple of independent filmmaking in America, her masterwork Daughters of the Dust became the first feature by an African-American woman to get a theatrical distribution, thereby kicking open the door for another marginalized group to be heard in the industry.

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If Bigelow comes across as unstoppable in her success, Penny Marshall covers even more commercial ground than Bigelow could hope to aim for (though Bigelow clearly was not aiming that way with her filmography), becoming the first female director to break the $100 million profit barrier with Big and then doing it AGAIN with A League of Their Own in 1992 (which remains the highest-grossing baseball movie, adjusted for inflation. A SPORTS MOVIE FOCUSED ON WOMEN is the highest-grossing baseball movie. Yeah, boi.)

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To date, there is only one female filmmaker to have won the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival and it had to be one of the best films ever gracing that festival – nay, the world – to break that mold. Jane Campion‘s The Piano and its ensuing success (also earning her a screenwriting Oscar and a nomination for Directing) made Campion an eminent face of Oz/Kiwi cinema and gave her a prominence in the arthouse world like Varda, Chantal Akerman, Liv Ullmann and Claire Denis before her while being just as incisive on society and gender politics as her predecessors.

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You know why Quentin Tarantino’s movies are so fucking good? Because Sally Menke edited them with such a brilliant thumb on what makes pacing and style in her cutting. Wanna know why the last few Quentin Tarantino films have felt longer than they should have been, Menke sadly died way too abruptly and unfairly. Perhaps the most important collaborator in the career of one of America’s most recognizable filmmakers.

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Last, but not least, Alison Bechdel is not really a big figure in film, as her main claim to fame is moreso making one of my favorite graphic novels Fun Home (which in turn was adapted to one of my favorite stage musicals). But she essentially brought about in recent years a rubric known as the “Bechdel Test” that tested gender representation in filmmaking and while it’s by no means an objective measure, it brought about a lot more self-consciousness about the usage of women in storytelling that a lot more attempts to throw them into different roles than those expected due to their sex and for that I’m always for.

And that’s about it. There’s a great deal of more prevalent women in film history that I had no chance of getting to without overwhelming myself, but I hope I illustrated well enough how they weave themselves into this industry and make damn sure their footprint is seen while being involved in some of the most important work you could catch on a screen. Happy International Woman’s Day! Don’t be awful!

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The Day…s After Oscar Commentary

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Y’all know the usual excuses on why I’m late on this so I won’t bother. But I gotta give some attitude and response to the ceremony and the wins, so first thing…

There is no way I am going to count how predictions I got right. Shit was pretty low, like in the early teens given how easily everything went against expectations in a most logical way (I am very very miffed that I just gave in to peer pressure when submitting my prediction for Best Actor most of all). We’ll just recognize that I did not get most things right, especially the Best Picture winner given that great big plot twist ’round the end with the gaffe. I did get 3/4 Acting Categories right on (I weep for Huppert’s lack of an Oscar), both screenwriting, and Chazelle’s directorial win. It’s just a damn shame that Jenkins and company didn’t really have enough time to savor their win and present their speeches (especially given La La Land‘s producers all gave speeches before they revealed the win). And while Jordan Horowitz was 100% gracious as opposed to the producer who finished his speech right before adding a “we lost, by the way” to the end and yes his actions are worthy of laudability (especially in this day and age), I hope it doesn’t get used to overshadow Moonlight‘s accomplishment and what it represents.

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What Moonlight represents is why I’m pretty glad it won Best Picture, even if my vote was on La La Land and Manchester by the Sea before Moonlight. Even if my favorite film won Best Picture, the Oscars would never have been any objective qualitative measure for film and it’s always been more about exposure (which is part of why #OscarsSoWhite was a thing, though not as much that Creed and The Hateful Eight were snubbed for some very worthy nominations over… Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl?). I don’t want to just fix everything down to “political messages” because that implies that Moonlight isn’t already a great film in its own right, but I don’t have a problem with political messages when I… frankly agree with them (petty on me, but I’ll call you when I care). Moonlight is a 1.5 million dollar budgeted movie made by two young black men inspired by their early life, based on school assignment by one of them that he didn’t even finish, portraying issues with masculinity and identity involved in the life of a black gay man shot in Liberty City in Miami. This is not the sort of movie you’d expect the Academy to be even willing to touch until the hype became so powerful they heard it out and nominated it. And that’s as far as the dream went for most people (myself included) until suddenly Moonlight won. This is only a stepping stone, rather than the endgame, to have more LGBT and black cinema recognized in Hollywood, but what a stepping stone. To say nothing of what it promises for aspiring young filmmakers (who also happen to be from Miami, hello there!). Don’t let that sort of accomplishment be stifled down by anything – the gaffe, the next win, the “politics”, whatever – Moonlight deserved the win and its win is a landmark.

Besides which, we don’t need another movie about movies winning in the same decade as The Artist and Argo.

This is likewise why – while I think Toni Erdmann is obviously the better film (y’know given that it was my number one movie of the year) – The Salesman‘s win and Farhadi’s subsequent message to the Academy and America was an essential necessity that I’m glad to have witnessed on TV. It was my favorite moment in a ceremony that I kind of enjoyed.

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Ay, I enjoyed the Oscars and Jimmy Kimmel’s job hosting. Even the more problematic spots like his Moonlight happy endings joke or implying that “there should be two winners” during the gaffes came from a eager sense of trying to make everybody in the room happy. That didn’t stop him from dishing out receipts against Mel Gibson very early on the performance and somehow Gibson was a good sport (though he probably would have dug his own grave reacting any other way). Certainly his ever-going feud with Matt Damon didn’t get old to me, especially during the presentation of Best Original Screenplay (given by Damon to his own production Manchester by the Sea and good friend Kenneth Lonergan) where Kimmel goes and plays Damon right out of the ceremony. Or even right before “Presenting the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Ben Affleck and guest.”

It was a lot more relaxed than I was expecting out of a ceremony that was coming on the tail end of a horrible political climate and somehow got out clean despite having Gibson (and his crazy faces to his Oscar-winning editor – “Wait we had an editor?!” probably went through his mind) in the room. To say nothing of the absolute lowest point of the Oscars… having Brie Larson hand Casey Affleck the Best Actor Oscar is completely tasteless. Larson’s status as a feminist and having just won her own Oscar for a performance of a sexual assault victim having to hand an award to a man with the accusations Affleck did should say it all. And the outright silence about Affleck was expected but disheartening. But still, I’m not going to pretend Affleck didn’t give my favorite performance on the slate (sorry, Denzel… any other year, you replaying Troy Maxson would have been the best – at least Davis got her damn due as Rose) and while there’s the obvious answer that Larson could have declined, the action of having the previous Best Actress winner present the Best Actor award has been a tradition of the Oscars for a long while. If she had backed-out, in the environment we’re in, people would start spraying vitriol against her for “virtue-signalling” and being “ungracious” and generally being the fucking worst. In any case, Washington was the favorite by a sliver to win and I’m sure this was expected by Larson but not anticipated. It’s a messy thing that I don’t think has a clear answer, but it doesn’t erase that bad taste out of my mouth by any means.

I don’t think there’s anything else that I have a real reaction to besides the fact that Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress), Piper (Best Short Film – Animated) and The Jungle Book (Best Visual Effects) were all the most deserving wins of the year by far and that it’s a shame this was the lowest viewed ceremony in a long while because I also think it was the best in a long time. Incredibly loose (especially when they brought over the tourists and “Gary from Chicago” stole the show in a way you couldn’t possibly script) thanks to Kimmel and all, definitely as evidenced by the congratulatory attitudes of the Moonlight and La La Land cast and crew despite their fan camps trying to turn them against each other (and still… there’s no way La La Land is racist rants won’t keep going and going). We could only hope more awards shows have their frontrunners giving as little a shit about their awards potential as these guys, the reward of which being both Jenkins and Chazelle’s classy fashions are displayed for all the world and both are young filmmakers with practically carte blanche for whatever they want to do next. From the ashes of 2016…

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Predictions for the 89th Academy Awards

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Yeah yeah yeah, I know I’m pushing it doing these the night before but I had a lot to do. It’s not like we don’t already know what’s gonna win, this is almost certainly the most straightforward season in a long while.

BEST PICTURE

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

Will Win and My Pick: La La Land

If we’re going to entertain any fantasies, it will be that Moonlight had the best chance of winning, but the Oscars are still old white people who get icky over homosexuality (Brokeback Mountain, never forget). Props to Cheryl Boone Isaacs for the changes she made, but that shit doesn’t happen overnight. In any case, the La La Land hot takes are getting so fucking tiring that I’m gonna be happy to be drinking the tears of its haters as it sweeps the Oscars and that’s while acknowledging that I’m really not over the moon for any of these nominees.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Damien Chazelle – La La Land
  • Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

Will Win and My Pick: Damien Chazelle

Once upon a time, I would have entertained the idea that we would have our first black Best Director win, but it looks like shit’s gonna be really simple here.

BEST ACTOR

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington – Fences

Will Win: Denzel Washington
Should Win: Casey Affleck

Maaaaaaaaaaaaaan, this one has me split. Like torn in half. Casey Affleck has been SWEEEEEEEEEPING until the SAG award was taken by Washington. And 12 of the last 13 winners of Best Actor won the SAG award as well. Now, normally my rule of thumb is to go by the logic “The Academy hates black people”, but everybody is so confident that Washington’s win + the baggage of Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment allegations means a win for Washington and so I’ve witnessed it enough to be peer pressured.

BEST ACTRESS

  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Will Win: Emma Stone
Should Win: Natalie Portman

Once upon a time, the prospect of Huppert winning on the tail of her Golden Globes surprise made me giddy as a schoolboy and then that BAFTA win brought me back to reality.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Will Win and Should Win: Mahershala Ali

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Will Win: Michelle Williams
Should Win: Viola Davis

Nobody in their right mind would dispute these predictions.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Damian Chazelle – La La Land
  • Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthimis Filippou – The Lobster
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
  • Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

Will Win: Kenneth Lonergan
Should Win: Lanthimos/Filippou

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Luke Davies – Lion
  • Eric Heisserer – Arrival
  • Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight
  • Allison Schroeder & Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
  • August Wilson – Fences

Will Win: Jenkins/McCraney
Should Win: Wilson

Hate on me later, but you can’t beat Wilson even if you try. In any case, you don’t get to being the closest horses to La La Land without taking SOMETHING home with you, I’d like to think, and I’m sure the industry has long decided Lonergan is due for something even in this year’s young man’s game.

And I’m so happy McCraney is getting a statue. MacArthur Genius AND Oscar Winner (and perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda can join him later that night).

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

Will Win: Zootopia
Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • 13th
  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America

Will Win: O.J.: Made in America
Should Win: 13th

Locked like chastity belts and I ain’t happy about with of them, but whatever.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE

  • Land of Mine
  • A Man Called Ove
  • The Salesman
  • Tanna
  • Toni Erdmann

Will Win: The Salesman
Should Win: Toni Erdmann

Once upon a time, my favorite movie of the year had so much love behind it that it was locked for that win and then Trump went and acted a fucking prick with his horrible immigration ban that prevented the ever-so-talented Asghar Farhadi from attending the ceremony. And now it’s pretty awful clear that the Academy wants to stand by with people and make a statement. It may involve awarding a lesser (but still great) film, but I’m behind it. Excuse me, while I cry for Toni Erdmann in my shower.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
  • Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
  • Mica Levi – Jackie
  • Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka – Lion
  • Thomas Newman – Passengers

Will Win: Hurwitz
Should Win: Levi

Lemme put it this way… if La La Land – the fucking Best Picture frontrunner that’s a musical – doesn’t win this award, it probably won’t win Best Picture. Y’know, given its status as a musical… y’know.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • “Audition (The Fools That Dream)” – La La Land
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls
  • “City of Stars” – La La Land
  • “The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story
  • “How Far I’ll Go” – Moana

Will Win: “City of Stars”
Should Win: “Audition (The Fools That Dream)”

Yeah, remember when I said Miranda might join McCraney as an Oscar-winning MacArthur Genius? That ain’t happening, but it would be impressive and I wouldn’t be upset to see it happen. Still, like I said… the Best Picture frontrunner is a musical.

BEST SOUND EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Will Win: Hacksaw Ridge
Should Win: Sully

BEST SOUND MIXING

  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: 13 Hours

This is generally where war movies and musicals win their due, especially when they’re both Best Picture nominees. I mean… this will be the most garbage of La La Land‘s wins and the only one where I’ll be mad, but whatever.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Doctor Strange
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Will Win and Should Win: The Jungle Book

Miracle of modern science that one, though all of these picks are stellar.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Greig Fraser – Lion
  • James Laxton – Moonlight
  • Linus Sandgren – La La Land
  • Rodrigo Prieto – Silence
  • Bradford Young – Arrival

Will Win: Sandgren
Should Win: Prieto

Ehhhhhhhhhhh……..

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

  • A Man Called Ove
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad

Will Win and Should WinStar Trek Beyond

We don’t wanna live in a world where we say Oscar Winner Suicide Squad. Next.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: Hail, Caesar!

We are entering the year of the La La Land.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: Jackie

MOAR BLUD FFORE LALALAND.

BEST FILM EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

Will Win and Should Win: La La Land

AVAST! THE PRIZE!

BEST SHORT DOC

  • 4.1 Miles
  • Extremis
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

Will Win: Joe’s Violin
Should Win: 4.1 Miles

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

Will Win and Should Win: Piper

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

Will Win: Ennemis Interieurs
Should Win: Timecode

I’ve seen these so now I have only a slighter idea what I’m doing.

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Who Could It Be Now?

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Have you guys seen that movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers? You know, somebody witnesses people acting strange and suddenly it feels like he’s the only true person around and everybody else is eager to consume him in their conformity. I really really really fear being Kevin McCarthy in that sense while somehow there is a revisionist attitude about the once-deemed-“future-Spielberg”-then-deemed-hack director M. Night Shyamalan (who ironically badly attempt a riff on Invasions‘ concept with The Happening), something that one would not have felt possible partly because it felt like The Last Airbender actually made every single person in the world mad, but also because I like to have enough faith in my fellow man to assume they’d recognize a bad movie when they see it. Now I haven’t seen The Visit, but it has a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and if the fresh-rated Split is the movie that somehow convinces people Shyamalan has made his first out-and-out good movie since The Sixth Sense (though I know Unbreakable has a very devoted crowd and I can understand it, but I really don’t subscribe to it being more than an interesting mess worth-watching)… man was that faith abused.

Shyamalan’s script opens on depicting the sudden kidnapping of three high school girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) from Claire’s birthday party. Given how Casey is visibly separated from the other two in multiple shots (including a very showy and early use of shot geometry that uses wall striping to divide them in the same shot), it’s very obvious that she’s not actually good friends with the two, but that’s not of as much interest to the film as the man who kidnapped them. Suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, Kevin (James McAvoy) has 23 apparent personalities sitting inside of him but warns the three girls and his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), during their suspiciously impromptu visits of an imminent 24th personality emerging known as “The Beast”.

And from there, the movie plays the most obnoxious waiting game ever with nothing of consequence happening beyond exposition being laden over and over in discussion. There’s a large amount of narrative deadwood between the moment the girls are kidnapped and the climax (that’s not entirely true, there’s escape attempts but they literally bring the plot right back to point A). Shyamalan clearly wants to ape as much of Hitchcock as he could and that comes through in part from one scene introducing one of the three most present personalities, maternal and sophisticated English woman Mrs. Patricia, in a shot of McAvoy in a doorframe in a dress. The other more annoying and present way is adapting the infamously bad psychiatrist scene from Psycho into half of a movie with every scene between Fletcher and Kevin as a great long exposition dump of what DID is and how Kevin suffers from it.

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This feels like a result of both Shymalan’s appeal for gravity and a sort of social responsibility from such an exploitative premise about mental illness. And you can’t have your cake and eat it when scenes like the reveal of Mrs. Patricia kind of plays for chuckles at most. At least McAvoy gets to show-off his range with Kevin and he’s not all that bad at playing off surface level stereotypes, but it’s clear he’s better at playing personalities that fit his type (the unnervingly menacing pervert Dennis, flamboyant fashion enthusiast Barry) than personalities that don’t (Mrs. Patricia, obnoxious child Hedwig). He can be a revelation at times. A central scene where we’re suddenly witness to the subtle presence of a personality disguising himself as another is one of the strongest moments in the whole film, just a close-up as McAvoy’s face shifts. Other times it seems he wants to camp for a bit – and a crucial scene where he clearly doesn’t and his body language still camps – and I don’t think this is the proper sort of material for camp at all.

There’s no getting around the idea of what Shyamalan wanted to do and it’s sort of a SPOILER, so I will leave this here to SPOILER ALERT anyone who intends to watch Split, but the blunt fact is that Split is a movie that is concerned with trauma, particularly related to sexual abuse, but in a manner that’s alarmingly fatalist in a fashion it mistakes for inspiring. The presentation of the sexual abuse of a character being a fortunate deus ex machina for his/her mercy (and the trauma of an early parental death for another to spearhead the climax and his.. shall we say evolution) is similar to the “everything happens for a reason” attitude present in Shymalan’s Signs, only it’s infinitely less tasteful to present somebody’s rape as his/her contrived resolution to not being murdered than the death of a spouse. And this is throwing aside that such an attitude has very reprehensible implications about the attitudes of the characters that make up its body count, all of them female, two of them barely being allowed any inner life in the script beyond being scared for their lives, all of them feeling punished for actively attempting to save themselves as opposed to the survivor’s sedation.

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That extremely ugly undertone is a large part of why I hated Split, despite it not being a complete waste. The opening kidnapping scene is such an impressive clockwork of tension and restricted visual information that I was willing to believe the hype until the rest of the movie proved he had butter fingers when it comes to tone and concrete shoes when it comes to narrative momentum. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey on paper has one trait and yet Taylor-Joy proves herself to be able to use that trait as an anchor for her own emotional arc into the film and acts spades over McAvoy. And frankly the climax is an impressive stretch of existential terror, using the spacing of one hallway and making it feel like an ambiguous abyss in one shot and like a vessel for immediate danger in another in grotty greens that really turn the flick into horror film mode and sell its ridiculous premise for a bit longer than I expected it to get away with.

I guess it’s clear that Split has it’s good moments still there that show the man who made The Sixth Sense is still semi-capable, but the bad vastly outweighs the good and good’s in such jagged portions anyway that it feels like… well, I might make a joke about feeling like Split had split personalities, but I’m not an asshole. Unlike Shyamalan.

(P.S. I’m pushing my word-limit regiment but I’m sure I’m expected to talk about the credits scene. All I have to say is… if you remove it, you get the exact same movie except without that scene and it’s very telling. That and the whole thing is so artless that while it was reportedly something planned before Split was even a thing, it feels like Shymalan’s last cry for desperate reappraisal. Given the acclaim and hype that scene received, it worked. Ugh.)

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Relationship Goals

Ah Valentine’s Day is here and I’ve been wanting to make this sort of post for a while so forgive my timing in line with with this kind of imperious Hallmark card holiday that corporatizes love (because I’m that kind of dude) and I shall eschew my intro to behold…

MY TOP 5 MOVIE CHARACTER COUPLES

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Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man (1934)

A couple practically lifted from original novel author Dashiell Hammett’s own relationship with Lillian Hellman, I must admit that when I read the book I was pretty underwhelmed by its charming dialogue or the incidental aspect of its mystery. But give these lines over to William Powell and Myrna Loy, a couple so good at their repartee that audiences believed they were actually romantically involved. And could you blame with such verbal chemistry, with hit after hit back and forth between sipping martinis. Frankly reading the book is too slow, The Charles’ aren’t exactly straight out of His Girl Friday, but they’re an infectious pairing right down to the presence of their dog, Asta.

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Annie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) in Gun Crazy (1950)

I’m sure everybody has their preferential screen-couple that’s a gun-toting law-breaking pair on the run – Bonnie and Clyde, BadlandsTrue Romance, Natural Born Killers, etc. – and here’s mine. Does it end badly? Certainly. Is Annie manipulating Bart? Well, yes and no. This isn’t exactly the most attractive couple, but the spark they have for each other is real (and really dangerous) and Bart knows there isn’t much better holding out for him. Besides, sharing a proficiency with guns is still something. For all the women-demonizing we can hold the noir genre out for, there’s still the fact that if there isn’t a sexual charge between their leads, the idea of the femme fatale all goes to hell and the sexual symbolism of the pistol can only go so far (and Cummins takes it very far). In the end, this is possibly the only noir screen couple that can pull off that seductive charm better than anything the legendary Barbara Stanwyck ever did.

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Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) and Emmi (Brigitte Mira) in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

For all the Fassbinder scholar knows that Salem was a violent brute to many (including Fassbinder, who was his boyfriend at the time of shooting), it’s bittersweet how he could tone his flaws down to present such a tender romance between him and the just as incredible Mira. Just looking at a picture, it’s easy to see what’s alienating about their romance in the 1970s (making it just as radical as Fassbinder wanted it to look), but there’s also nothing about the two of them in motion together that doesn’t move the viewer like any other Douglas Sirkian romance. Than Salem and Mira are able to portray humans ignoring how schematically the movie attempts to be a social study of culture shock, xenophobia, and the difficulties of life in Germany for an elder woman and a foreigner and only mix those into the pot of their chemistry is only the better.

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Jeannie Bueller (Jennifer Grey) and Garth Volbeck (Charlie Sheen) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Just like we knew Charlie would end up. It’s brief as hell but it’s the most naked kind of sudden young jumping into each other’s faces that 1980s teen cinema would have, right down to Volbeck (and I swear I’m not making up the character name) somehow having enough skeeved out wisdom to tell Jeannie what’s up with her and her brother. There’s no reason for them to be making out by the end, but it’s funny to me.

Man, why couldn’t my holdings be like that?

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Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in the Before series (1995-2013)

Ah, Jesse and Celine. Every nine years, it is a privilege to be in their company as we watch how their interactions with each other and the world around them evolve and function over a 24 hour window. Find what they’re trying to hide, what they can’t communicate, what they know and what they think they know. And sometimes the look is optimistic in the future for them, sometimes it’s uncertain, sometimes it’s cynical and they always seem to map perfectly onto their age and onto each other. I dunno, I feel like I’m rambling but the Before series (Linklater’s masterpiece in my opinion) feels like watching Brief Encounter without having dry your eyes afterwards from the fact that they’ll never be able to meet each other again… and with the accident of falling in love with each character just as well.

And there you have it. What are your favorite screen couples? Are you gonna get lucky tonight with your significant other? I don’t wanna know!

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STinG’s Movies of 2016

 

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2016 has basically been a year where most of the movies I’ve found to end up on my Top Ten, especially in the top four slots, have had more personal resonance to me than any of them really being overall perfect crafts of cinema. Which is a nice way of saying 2016 was a year that was… conflicting. It was so severe to me in life outside of movies that I ended up digesting a lot more movies simply out of comfort. Emotional exhaustion is not a good state in which to qualify a whole year of movies, but man… there were slim pickings to begin with, even when I was being kind and enjoying works I didn’t expect to like.

2014 and 2015 had such excellent mainstream and popcorn fare and 2016’s summer was… absolutely middling. And one should never expect the prestige season to harbor anything that’s not peddling for Oscars, but the Best Picture slate obviously leave a lot for want when one truly gets a good look at it. When I literally have to dig for great movies to watch, I don’t… really complain because that’s how I do anyway, but I like digging for great movies anyway, but it doesn’t translate into a good year.

Let me put it this way: Mad Max: Fury Road and The Grand Budapest Hotel are moneymakers that people all over the world knew. This year… I dunno… maybe the only animated film on my Top Ten will be something y’all will recognize but so many movies people want to parade as high water marks like Zootopia and Arrival just seemed average to me. There was very little challenging cinema, nothing that was a true gamechanger to the field after our past two years.

Anyway, that’s enough Debbie Downing… let me slowly work my way up to the best…

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WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
5. Independence Day: Resurgence – You think maybe the fact that this movie retreads the same horrifically boring story beats of the first without Will Smith to pad it means people realize that original movie is terrible too. Guess not.
4. Batman: The Killing Joke – The comic book was already a very poor bit of storytelling that Alan Moore even knew was terrible, adding the random saturday morning cartoon at the beginning of the movie to pad its running time only ruined the structure of the film and ended up giving Barbara Gordon even less autonomy than she already had.
3. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party – Dinesh D’Souza’s ever continuing odyssey of how liberals make him the saddest. But, y’know, given he had a scene in 2016: Obama’s America where he BRAGGED about arguing there’s no systemic racism in America, I’m glad he finally recognized it was a thing. I’d assume as he tries to brand the Democratic Party on that.
2. Norm of the North – Holy shit, people think this is a good movie to show their children.
1. Yoga Hosers – Watched this to celebrate my friends being married by Kevin Smith himself. I would not let the man who made this movie marry me. There is nothing about this that felt like they were actually trying to make this movie.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
Readers are more than aware of how upset I am that The Birth of a Nation was found to be more of the vanity project of Nate Parker than an accurate portrayal of Nat Turner’s angry revolt against his oppressors, let alone the revolutionary portrayal of the blood that it takes to fight off systemic corruption and racism. Boy, do I wonder how fired that Fox Executive is. Remember how this was the front-runner to Best Picture early in the year?

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MOST “HUH” CASTING DECISION
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Lars von Trier’s Favorite Muse, Daughter of Serge Gainsbourg – has a role in Independence Day: ResurgenceBecause sure.

WORST MOVIE I’M LOVING ANYWAY
Gods of Egypt will never be taken seriously by anybody with its megazord battles and the inconsistent size of its Gods and I’m fucking fine with that. It’s a broken terrible video game of a movie with faulty mechanics. Plus Chadwick Boseman is just the best as a flamboyant Thoth as the expositional tutorial of a character.

BEST ACTION SCENE
Say whatever you will be saying about Captain America: Civil War (and I’m already hearing it), but the final fight scene between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky accomplished something no other Marvel film was ever able to do: give emotional weight (and physical weight) to just one man trying his hardest to kill two men he felt betrayed by and those two men trying their hardest not to die, aided by two of the best line deliveries Robert Downey Jr. ever gave in the role: “I don’t care… he killed my mom” and “So was I.”

FUNNIEST SCENE
The Mermaid‘s scene of police officers trying to continuously Liu Xuan’s description of a mermaid followed by their uncontrollable laughter at his tale feels like exactly the reaction I’d have to the story which made it super funny to me, right down to the ineptitude at drawing.

CUTEST SCENE
Come on, you know damn well you’d have made a movie calendar of a kitten like in Keanu if you had the chance. Relle accomplished all of our fantasies with his photoshoot scene and the results:

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BEST MUSICAL MOMENT
Green Room, I’ve been warming up to for certain. But it brought out the smile in me as a punk rocker who got jumped by skinheads in high school once and has always had a closed fist policy with Neo-Nazis to witness the Ain’t Rights open up their set on the inflammatory and direct Dead Kennedys’ classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. Enough to make this supercede a year of musicals that were pretty enjoyable – especially Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and La La Land.

BEST MOMENT
The pounding percussion soundtrack in the Exorcism scene of The Wailing brings such arresting momentum to the pain of the characters trying to deal with its presence and the unnerving bloody ritual that takes place adjacent to their exorcism only amplifies the intensity of the film from that moment forward til its credits. It’s a moment I could not forget and one I looked forward to when I rewatched the movie.

BEST SIA SONG FROM A MOVIE
Sia has been making rounds as far as even writing Rihanna’s song for Star Trek Beyond and as a unrepentant semi-closeted Sia fan that made me happier than it should be. As for my favorite, I have no clue what “Waving Goodbye” really has to do with The Neon Demon but it was the perfect salutation to the shitty year that was 2016.

BEST SONG
Speaking of Popstar, I will never ever ever ever forgive the producers for not submitting “Finest Girl (Fuck bin Laden)” as a contender of the Best Original Song Oscar. It’s certainly not a deep critique of imperialism or war nor does its mixing of politics and banal pop music very sensible unless it’s trying to insult some of my favorite artists… which is a bad move. But it IS an outrageously funny song in all of its absurdity.

GUILTIEST PLEASURE
The Barn looks like exactly the type of average, amateur, cliche-o-mat movie you’d pick up if video stores were still around. There’s very little exceptional about it. But it nevertheless has that earnest Halloween feel in spades and I had a lot of fun watching it. In any case, a lot of its flaws only heighten how much personality the low-budget horror film about friends having to open. And those monster costumes are hella fun.

FAVORITE ANIMAL CHARACTER
We got Black Phillip, we got the crabs from The Red Turtle, we got the cutest lil baby bird in Piper, the adorable cat in Keanu, and yet my biggest love goes out to the great “Steven Seagull” in The Shallows for being the perfect co-star to Blake Lively’s fight for survival.

FAVORITE CHARACTER AND FAVORITE BREAKOUT OF THE YEAR
It’s insane to me that a movie can be as kinetic as Anne Rose Holmer’s The Fits and yet have the director rather have trust enough in one character’s controlled chaos of body movement as Royalty Hightower’s portrayal as Toni to be the center of all that energy, even when it’s clear Holmer can frame like a motherfucker. In any case, Holmer is my favorite breakout presence in 2016 film and Toni – especially with the aid of being a fellow boxer – is my favorite movie character of the year.

BEST COUPLE
No offense to Ryan Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone, which is fantastic in La La Land as it is in the rest of their exploits, but my dawg… when he gets hit in the face by Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys, it’s love at first site in my eyes. Crowe is a obviously easy at being a dangerous brute in his sleep while Gosling does emasculated pain really really well. That scream when his arm is broken.

BEST POSTER
The Handmaiden‘s poster was something I KNEW I wanted in my room from the very beginning that I saw it…. all around with its re-enacting of the main tale of the story in cultural fashion.

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BEST SHOT:
From Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, Vittorio Storaro + Digital Cinematography =

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WORST SHOT
Because I will not rewatch Sea of Trees unless I have to, I will re-enact it on my computer:

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BEST SURPRISE
Listen, shark movies as a rule suck. Or at least, they used to as they were all just lesser versions of Jaws. But I did not expect The Shallows to be the breezy effective minimalist thriller that it was, only distracting itself enough for the audience to invest in Blake Lively’s survival and otherwise just a movie about fear of the shark’s ever fatal presence entrapping us in the middle of the beach for a good hour and a half.

BEST COMEBACK
I liked Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla more than most people, but I’m much more happier to see my favorite giant monster make his big return in Japan as the star of the latest episode of The Thick of It directed by Anno Hideaki, even if we insist on calling it Godzilla: Resurgence. Also the best use of titles in any movie of the year.

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BEST CAMEO
Speaking of Gareth Edwards, Rogue One has a lot of flaws that I won’t pretend are there but one thing even it’s detractors must admit: Vader possibly also had the SCARIEST NON-HORROR SCENE (OR PRESENCE) showing up at the end to mow down helpless Rebel soldiers trapped in a hallway with him, indiscriminately and violently. The moment that lightsaber flashed red at the end of the hallway, you knew you were finally getting the monster you hadn’t seen since 1980.

WORST CAMEO
Remember those flaws Rogue One had I was talking about? Vader’s first scene talking smack with Ben Mendehlson before making a James Bondian quip about force chokes. Could have done without that.

BEST LINE
“The noodles got soggy… I knew this job wouldn’t be easy.”
-Acting Prime Minister Satomi Yusuke (Hiraizumi Sei) in Godzilla: Resurgence (written by Anno Hideaki)

BEST POPCORN FILM
Sure, The Conjuring 2 is a little too long than it should be and it doubles down on being Christian prop hagiography (practically a plot point now with scenes discussing the “con artist” status of the Warrens). But that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective work of classical horror tropes made in the most digestible manner ever (James Wan showing how many 1970s horror movies he saw) and with just the slightest invention in how those scares and atmospheres present themselves as another compelling haunting case. And while the Amityville Horror scene could certainly be cut out of the movie with no harm to the product (and frankly recent events close to my family and community made the shotgun rampage hard to watch the second time around), it’s nevertheless a nice creepily-shot and made short film in its own right.

MOVIE I WILL RE-WATCH THE MOST
Knight of Cups is the first Blu-Ray of a 2016 release I bought at all and certainly already the movie I’ve been watching and re-watching the most. Bored rich white guy trying to find out why he can’t fuck his way into a soul is definitely the most basic story Terrence Malick has ever dealt with, but it’s nevertheless something with which Malick re-shapes into something barely recognizable as a traditional narrative (I’m not even sure it has a true chronology) and some of the most inventive cinematography work of all time. Emmanuel Lubezki got bored with his Oscar-winning lighting and decided to see what’s new to play with and it makes L.A. look like something not of this Earth.

MOST IMPORTANT MOVIE
So many pictures about race relations yet none of them are able to make their argument about their thesis as well as Ava DuVernay’s 13th, one that refuses to align with any of the candidates of the 2016 election (unlike D’Souza or Michael Moore) instead only to implore people become more read about the systems they elected in place and how they affect race in America horribly. Its pessimism is unfortunate, but its urgency is also unmistakable. Certainly more imperative a watch than I Am Not Your Negro or O.J.: Made in America (which… should not have the Oscar nomination it has. Not because it’s good but… guys… this is a tv show… guys?…).

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • American Honey – Andrea Arnold has followed in the footsteps of Wim Wenders to map the heart of America.

  • A Bigger Splash – A bunch of gorgeous superstar personalities all coming together to reveal not how empty their lives are, but how asphyxiating their desire for drama is.
  • Embrace of the Serpent – Imperialism destroyed by the presence of Karamakate.
  • Evolution – Kafka on the shore. Or at least his nightmares of what he’d find on that shore.
  • Hail, Caesar! – It’s the version of A Serious Man with Catholicism and Hollywood instead of Judaism and Math. A lesser version? Yes. But still hilarious.

  • Jackie – It’s just a potent mental presentation of grief and how it hurts to cover up enough of it to be a presentable griever, doubling as the hardest character study to cut into.
  • Knight of Cups – Like I said, I’ll watch it again and again.
  • La La Land – Fuck the backlash. Go home.
  • Love & Friendship – The movie Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale were born for.
  • Piper – Have I not mentioned how FUCKING CUTE that bird is?

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SPOILER ALERT – MOVIE MIAMI WILL EAT ME ALIVE FOR NOT HAVING ON MY TOP TEN:
… Moonlight.

AND NOW THE TOP TEN MOVIES OF THE YEAR

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10. Lemonade (prod. Beyonce, USA)

Sometimes you just have to admit you probably should have gotten to something sooner. All my friends who I trusted demanded that I get to witnessing the visual accompaniment to my favorite album of the year but I took until the last second and so this visually arresting work of social narrative might have just missed the Top Ten. It’s no secret that I love socially conscious work, even as cyclical as this might have been as a work, but the fiery passion of this visual album, mixed with its range of stylistic decisions (many of them in homage to previous cinema, including an unexpected callback to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror of ALL THINGS!) makes it standout amongst many of the social message pictures to have come in such a tumultuous time.

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9. The Eyes of My Mother (dir. Nicolas Pesce, USA)

Imagine if Tarr Bela decided he wanted to make a slasher film. The Eyes of My Mother is what you get, perhaps except with more intensity and gutwrenching visuals than the director of The Turin Horse would have wanted you to suffer through. Still the narrative patience (even for an 80-something picture, this thing honestly crawls to make you as uncomfortable with the imagery as possible) and some of the sharpest cinematography I have seen all year in crisp black-and-white landscape make on the pro-side of this very divisive film.

Also, I am extremely proud to have been name-dropped by former Dream Theater engine aka One of the Best Drummers Ever Mike Portnoy for recommending this movie to him (which I knew he’d love as a lover of sick films).

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8. The Wailing (dir. Na Hong-jin, South Korea)

And yet still The Eyes of My Mother is unable to take the top slot of best horror movie of the year when Na is able to give us an ambitious mix of small-town study, landscape cinematography showcase (which only adds to the creepy isolation of said town), domestic drama about the strains of a parent being unable to help his child in anyway, and damn impressive genre horror film. And none of these are exactly things other movies haven’t done before – hell, I’d exhaust myself listing movies that mix all four – but The Wailing is something that fires on all cylinders working to mix the four into a complex, devastating, and rich exorcism tale, certainly my favorite exorcism picture of all time. Coming from the same year as The Fucking Conjuring 2.

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7. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany/Belgium)

I honestly was always intrigued, but still very anxious about the concept of a film on rape where the victim is… shall we say, complicated. And yet Paul Verhoeven – a way too intelligent filmmaker for his own good – and Isabelle Huppert – an actress who lives for challenging roles that make her take her due from the viewer without cheating out brilliant performances – are a fucking miracle to work with, it seems. Shortly after being entertained as all hell by Love & FriendshipElle takes everything already great about that comedy of manners and turns it into one where we witness a true sociopath at the center and everybody except one figure in her life are just idiots for her to control and move around. And as uncomfortable as the film is, it works. It’s funny and it’s unapologetic for the idea that women don’t need to fit certain roles or be defined by elements or events around them. Which is probably how the central Michele is able to be such a moving figure regardless of how reprehensible her actions are.

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6. Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight, USA)

Laika has outdone itself… possibly. I didn’t see this movie in 3D, but nothing could hardly beat how perfectly Coraline utilized those dimensions to invoke the viewer into the wonder of its lead character. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship behind Kubo‘s ambitious designs – including the giant skeleton battle and the fight in the rain in the middle of the ocean – are impeccable enough to prove that Laika is still best-in-show of the big animation schools these days. Nevermind the tender sincerity behind its ideals on storytelling and grief and how the two can be intertwined to calm the soul enough that its extremely forgiving ending becomes the pitch-perfect emotional moment for the film to close on. I have not been so moved by an ending since The Grand Budapest Hotel and this time it was bittersweet rather than sobering.

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5. Francofonia (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, France/Germany/Netherlands)

There are some people who will say this is just a less impressive version of Sokurov’s breakout film Russian Ark, replacing the Hermitage Museum for the Louvre. To this people I say, get the fuck out of my face with that shit. Bruno Delbonnel shot this movie and when Delbonnel is shooting, you will definitely be looking at things with a brand-new eye no matter how familiar you are with the Mona Lisa. Not to mention that Sokurov just seems to have a lot more intellectual exercises to throw out in this picture, wrapped up by a historical recollection of the Louvre’s status during World War II that interests the WWII reverent in me. Nah, this is probably the denser picture out of Russian Ark, if not the more impressive film, and I feel like Sokurov’s puts more of his soul on screen here than his whole career preceding it.

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4. Cameraperson (dir. Kristen Johnson, USA)

So here’s where it really becomes obvious that I am into movies that have the personality of its filmmaker in spades and Johnson maybe labors that concept a bit too much in Cameraperson, but she also makes up for it by hiding her interests and voice behind a kaleidoscope of images of life in all possible corners of the world you can think of… all captured from a lifetime of trying to bottle lives in documentaries and movies. And in turning such a plethora of footage into an autobiography, it also ends up being a succinct portrayal of moviemaking in itself and what it brings out of the people who give their lives to telling stories, both as the subject and as the storyteller.

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3. No Home Movie (dir. Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium)

And as though the more depressing sister film to Cameraperson… I don’t know what this movie is doing on this list so high. It feels wrong. It is essentially the suicide note to one of the greatest filmmakers we’ll ever be blessed to have witnessed, as we had lost her near the end of 2015. But I do know, I have to talk about it. Because Akerman has made in No Home Movie one of the most painful portrayals of a heavy truth in life: that sometimes we feel lonely even around the people we love and that even that emptiness won’t make it hurt any less when those people leave us. A personal work that still in its dryness (and dryness is the name of Akerman’s career game) is able to feel pained to anybody who encounters this film.

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2. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/UK/Greece/France/Netherlands)

I mean, it’s cold and distanced so I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it was also extremely funny to me, impressively alien and surrounding without any re-design of the world we ourselves lived in, unsubtle in its insistence that relationships are impersonal and it’s just another demand from society that you sacrifice your identity, and I was in the middle of a breakup when I first saw it at the Miami Film Festival so I was open to such a jaded yet funny movie.

So, yeah, basically watch this when you just went through a breakup and it will be a goddamn miracle if it’s not in your number one.

THE NUMBER ONE FILM OF 2016 For STinG BEING…

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  1. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, Germany/Austria)

So, once again… when you see a movie at the perfect time, it’s gonna hit you no matter how hard you avoid it. I saw Toni Erdmann shortly after spending a good amount of my summer with my Dad and our relationship has been strained for a long while for reasons that are frank – we come from separate worlds and we don’t really know how to communicate at all, let alone with each other. Still that summer, in which my trip to see him wasn’t spurred by his presence in New York City where he resided for years but a separate emergency that was taxing on me, meant we spent a lot more time in each other’s presence than we had probably had since I was a kid. My Dad is not at all similar to Winfried, in fact, probably the polar opposite in every way.

Still, the story of two separate worlds of father and daughter having to fit together and find a way to conform one of these souls to the other’s worldview in order to save her from being overwhelmed by a harsh world (in Toni Erdmann‘s case, a social/business world that doesn’t take her seriously as a woman) is going to hit places for me that it probably would not have hit if it hadn’t happened after that summer. And I’m not going to pretend that’s the only reason this movie is at the top – it’s sharply written not only in terms of its relationships but its commentary on global attitudes, especially Germany’s two splits of old ideals and new ideals in the context of the world. It has two incredible performances at the center of that relationship between Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller. It’s goddamn hilarious, even if those scenes of hilarity are exactly the kind that make this the WORST movie to recommend to my dad. But I’m also not going to pretend this movie wouldn’t be this high without that context.

Again, when you watch a movie at the right moment… especially certain scenes at the right moment…

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You’re gonna be helpless in your response.

Anyway, that’s 2016 in a nutshell and here’s to 2017!

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Bad Blood

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This is it. I’m done.

Like for real. No more Underworld movies. I don’t give a fuck what Len Wiseman says to fix his ex-marriage to Kate Beckinsale. I don’t care that the final note of this films happens to scarily imply a sixth Underworld film. It makes no sense to continue it anyway.

It makes no sense for Underworld: Blood Wars to exist!

On a narrative schema, Underworld: Blood Wars has now ignored – once again – the concept of humans having a stake in this fight after Underworld: Awakening was all “now the humans know bout the monsters!” Much more severely than any of the other films, since while all the other movies at least have human characters popping their heads in to say “hey! we exist in this universe!”, Underworld: Blood Wars does not feature ONE human character for the first time in the franchise.

No sirree, it’s all on its vampire/werewolf Lycan war now since it’s trying to figure out a worthy final note for it to end on. And my problem with that is that we’ve had not one but TWO movies that insisted vampires vs. werewolves didn’t become a thing here until Viktor (Bill Nighy who appears in archive footage) and Lucian (Michael Sheen who I don’t think even appears in that capacity) had beef. Not only are Viktor and Lucian long dead by the time of this movie, all three of the vampire elders are out of it and yet this war still keeps raging on and on because… the producers thought 13 years was long enough for the characters to forget about that. I don’t even think Lucian gets mentioned by name in any of the sequels.

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I know it doesn’t do to linger on the mythology of the Underworld universe for logic or reason, but any excuse for the movie not to continue is a good one. Still it rolls on, this time all the way into the Eastern Europe covens of vampires and some mega-intelligent werewolf guerrilla leader by the name of Marius (Tobias Menzies) who is so good at his job he has the vampires scared. The Eastern coven is convinced by Semira (Lara Pulver playing the resident Eva Green femme fatale role) and Thomas (Charles Dance returning) to forgive Selene’s murder of Viktor so she can train them to fight werewolves, but this turns out to be a diversion for Semira to actually massacre several vampires (amongst them Thomas) and frame Selene and Thomas’ son and Selene’s buddy David (Theo James) for the betrayal.

Oh ho! Betrayal is the name of the plot game here, for this movie is devoted to acting like an extended episode of Game of Thrones where everybody betrays everyone and the choice of having a director of Outlander episodes, Anna Foerster, take the helm seems to promise that especially in its tone. Every single character is playing a game of Risk. Badly. In any case, what isn’t promised is the lack of color processing to blues, although it changes it up by adding a lot more angelic whites and greys when we meet the peaceful Nordic vampire cult and witness their special “resurrection” ritual that only adds more to the inevitability of Selene becoming the angriest Vampire Jesus around, what with her “can walk in the sunlight” blood and the blood of her non-present vampire-Lycan daughter Eve being the MacGuffin for every character.

The action is what any sane person comes for and this is a lot more sanitized than is necessary (although there is an interesting point where it almost turns into a feminist screed with Selene out-sparring the assassin trainer Varga, but that goes down the drain before the scene is over with his actions). It’s largely bloodless for a movie more dedicated to swordplay than the other Underworlds except for the final battle between Selene and Marius and that is the punchline to a battle too short to even realize it happened. It’s just as visually boring to look at as the other films and it doesn’t compliment the film that it all just happens to stop with a “whelp, we’re done fighting” for the whole franchise.

Just like me with this review now that I reached my minimum word count. I’m out.

It’s gonna take a long-ass while (and a lot of Whit Stillman) before looking at Kate Beckinsale doesn’t trigger me, but I did it. I’m done with this franchise.

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I’m So Woke, Dog

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I just want to get this over with, so if you find these next two reviews of the Underworld franchise on the short side of things then I apologize, but there are just so many more movies to talk about. In any case, it’s not like the next two directors up in the chairs, Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, made any huge effort to make Underworld: Awakening anymore watchable. Nor did the single weirdest slate of co-writers for the film – made up of franchise executive producer Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, Allison Burnett, and most unforgivable of all… the sci-fi legend J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI. They dragged the creator of Babylon-5 into this mess now.

But, of course, Straczynski is very good at what we might call “social sci-fi” and this story happens to do something a lot more interesting than one would think with a franchise about vampires and werewolves fighting… it begins to wonder how would humans really start to fray into the mix themselves. The obvious answer of which is “fear for their lives and begin hunting down both sides of the animals” and we get the most uninspired Matrix-ripping dystopian future tale around right down to the opening being an extended version of Trinity’s famous police battle.

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But anyway there’s a story tethered to this movie AND poor much better than this Kate Beckinsale tethered to the franchise once more as she returns as the scowling vampire without most of its vampire weaknesses Selene (maybe garlic, but, like… garlic doesn’t even get used at any point in this franchise). Now that every single human being hates her, she’s in a rush to escape the city with werewolf boytoy Michael Corvin who is played by NOT Scott Speedman, which is where the franchise has turned to Syfy production moment. They really are dedicated to implying Michael’s presence with every trick you could possibly use in the book, but it’s clearly not Speedman and they’re very quick to get him out of the picture before you can admonish the makers for it.

Getting him out of the picture meaning getting Selene captured and held by an evil scientist Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea, making another entry in the “better actor than this” hat trick) who intends to experiment on her because we’ve reached the point in the franchise where Selene has become the angriest vampire Jesus ever. When she escapes, the movie suddenly wants to be so much more of a mystery/survey of how people were affected by the vampires, but 89 minutes of runtime is not enough to explore what that demands and GOD I DO NOT WANT THIS MOVIE TO BE A SECOND LONGER THAN THAT.

In any case, it means that any mysteries – including who the young girl Eve (India Eisley) is that Selene and her sudden compatriot David (Theo James) runs into – are all wrapped up quicker than we can realize the movie wants to muse upon these developments. And the only worthwhile presence beyond the slowly waning persuasion of Beckinsale’s glare is Charles Dance playing his usual “authoritarian patriarch of high standing in society having trouble with his son (David being the son” act that he sleepwalks through (and frankly nothing about his performance here implies he’s not sleepwalking). Other than the underground vampire society Dance’s character and David live amongst, the movie just feels content to pick up and drop plots until it finally ends.

Where it puts all of its effort is on its look and that’s admittedly a little bit more interesting in concept based on the science fiction future aspects than gunmetal blue of all the other films. In execution… it’s a disaster. It’s the most expensive Underworld film to date and I would have put my hand to God that this was the cheapest of the bunch. CGI that feels a few f-stops away from the actual content of the screen, the wolves have little weight within the framing even when the dialogue is just short of begging us that “these are the biggest Wolves yet, please be scared”, dark laboratory boilerplate, and the silliest visual concept is how Selene and Eve can see through each other’s eyes in broken continuity cuts and color shades.

Underworld: Awakening is essentially a film franchise trying desperately to stand on its last legs because its creators don’t have the heart to put it down after so many creative misfires. Somebody ought to put this franchise out of its misery.

Or at least me.

Please.

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MICHAEL’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2016

2016 was a really good year at the movies, particularly for independent film. Summer blockbusters and year end blockbusters generally disappointed me, but independent films released February thru December (January is always a stinker of a movie month) in the US were more solid than usual. This is just an opinion piece, I’m not claiming these are objectively the best movies of 2016, just the best ones viewed through my chubby eyes. So all you La La Land fanatics and Nocturnal Animals lusters and people who thought Arrival defined 21st century science fiction and American Honey I-like-20-minute-stretches-of-film-where-people-just-sing-in-a-van fans can just calm the shit down.

10. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)

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An incredibly impressive debut feature from filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch was the most terrifying filmgoing experience I’ve had in years. And they did it all without a single jump scare. Using atmosphere and soft sounds, The Witch slowly builds to terrifying moments much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Written using authentic texts from the 1600s, The Witch features unfamiliar dialogue spoken by mostly unfamiliar actors (all of whom are excellent) that significantly adds to the creep factor.

 

09. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

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Viciously dark comedy about rape, gender politics and what it means to be a victim, Elle is a film that is almost impossible to describe without making it sound revolting. However, without giving anything away, it manages to be both intelligent and surprising, diverting our expectations of how a rape revenge movie or even just a standard thriller should play out. This is mostly due to an extraordinarily complex and nuanced performance by Isabelle Huppert, the year’s best.

 

08. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)

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I’m usually pretty weary of biopics, but Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is anything but a typical one. Less like Lincoln and more like The Babadook, Jackie chronicles the deteriorating sanity of Jackie Kennedy in the weeks following the JFK assassination. With extremely claustrophobic and almost surreal cinematography, accompanied by a manic score, the film feels like a lucid nightmare. Natalie Portman was amazing in Black Swan, but here she gives the most complex and powerful performance of her career.

 

07. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park)

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Completely unlike anything he has done before, The Handmaiden is Chan-wook Park’s best film since 2003’s Oldboy. Gorgeous cinematography and wonderful performances perfectly compliment an extremely layered and unpredictable narrative. It’s surreal, shocking, but never for a second unbelievable.

 

06. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)

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Speaking of “completely unlike anything he’s ever done before”, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water couldn’t be more different than his last film, the excellent but little seen Starred Up. That movie was about a horribly unloving and manipulative father/son relationship in prison, while this movie is all about fulfilling family obligations.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster give career-best performances as brothers robbing Texas banks to save their mother’s farm, while Jeff Bridges is wildly entertaining as the eccentric lawman hot on their tail. However, the real star of the movie is screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who provides some of the year’s best dialogue for wholly realistic characters.

 

05. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

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A technically perfect thriller from the new up and coming genre genius on the scene, Jeremy Saulnier. While not as “scary” as The Witch, Green Room might have it beat for intensity. How refreshing it is to see basically a home invasion movie with characters as clever and three-dimensional as real people. Featuring powerful performances from everyone involved. The stand-out is clearly Patrick Stewart playing a villain so mundane it will make your skin crawl.

 

04. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

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Hands down, the best comedy of 2016, Toni Erdmann is the hilarious, bitter-sweet story of a stressed-out workaholic (Sandra Huller) who’s distant practical joker father (Peter Simisischek) rolls into Bucharest to try to mend their relationship. When things don’t work out, he refuses to leave and follows his daughter to all of her business functions sporting a ridiculous wig and fake redneck teeth as his alter ego, Toni Erdmann. Maren Ade brilliantly balances the outlandish physical comedy sequences with poignant human drama. Huller and Simisischek’s amazing chemistry keep the proceedings real and relatable even when one has to don a nine foot sloth costume during what is possibly the funniest nude scene ever committed to film.

 

03. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonnergan)

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God, I wish I could write like Kenneth Lonnergan. I wish I could create characters that were so painfully real and weren’t profound every time they opened their mouths but were profound in how they just existed. I wish I could blend comedy and drama so seamlessly and resist the urge to provide my characters with absolute closure. Lonnergan displayed this talent in the underrated You Can Count on Me and the little-seen but severely flawed Margaret, but Manchester by the Sea is where all of it works perfectly. He takes you on a journey with Lee Chandler, and by the end you kind of feel like you are the guy.

 

02. OJ: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

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A staggering piece of work, this near 8-hour documentary chronicles OJ Simpson’s life in three parts — before the murder, the murder trial and after the murder trial. But it’s really about race relations in America and how a celebrity murder trial became a fight for civil rights. Never glamorizing OJ Simpson, the doc simply just attempts to understand him in the context of what was going on in the country at the time of his rise and fall. It’s one of the best documentaries ever made, and you can watch it on HULU.

 

01. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

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No film moved me more this year than Barry Jenkins’ beautiful, cerebral and ever so timely Moonlight. Rarely is something this effortlessly compelling and truthful. Perfectly acted by an amazing ensemble cast, Moonlight tells the story of a gay black male with three strikes against him, growing up in 1980s Miami while struggling to come to terms with his identity. Moonlight never offers any easy answers and while it has every opportunity to be saccharine or ham-fisted with its’ message it always resists the temptation in order to be honest. The Academy would be real fucking assholes to pass this one up.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

13th, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Midnight Special.

MOST OVERRATED:

Nocturnal Animals

MOST UNDERRATED:

Green Room

 

BEST DIRECTOR

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Maren Ade – Toni Erdmann

Damien Chazelle – La La Land

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Pablo Larrain – Jackie

Kenneth Lonnergan – Manchester by the Sea

 

BEST ACTRESS

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Amy Adams – Arrival

Sandra Huller – Toni Erdmann

Isabelle Huppert – Elle 

Natalie Portman – Jackie

Emma Stone – La La Land

 

BEST ACTOR

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Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Adam Driver – Paterson

Jesse Plemmons – Other People

Peter Simonischek – Toni Erdmann

Denzel Washington – Fences

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Moonlight

Mahershala Ali – Moonlight 

Ben Foster – Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea

Andre Holland – Moonlight

Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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Viola Davis – Fences

Naomie Harris – Moonlight 

Min-hee Kim – The Handmaiden

Molly Shannon – Other People

Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

adapted-screenplay

Arrival – Eric Heisserer

Elle – David Birke

The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park, Chung Seo-kyung

Moonlight – Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney 

Silence – Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

original-screenplay

 

Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier

Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan

The Lobster – Yorgos Lathinmos, Efthimis Filippou.

Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonnergan

Toni Erdmann – Maren Ade

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

cinematography

Arrival – Bradford Young

The Handmaiden – Chung-hoon Chung 

Jackie – Stephane Fontaine

La La Land – Linus Sandgren

Moonlight – James Laxton

 

BEST FILM EDITING

film-editing

Green Room – Julia Bloch

Jackie – Sebastian Sepulveda

La La Land – Tom Cross

Moonlight – Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon

OJ: Made in America – Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

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Arrival – Johann Johannsen

Jackie – Mica Levi 

La La Land – Justin Herwitz

Moonlight – Nicholas Britell

Nocturnal Animals – Abel Korzeniowski

 

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

ensemble-cast

Fences – Jovan Adepo, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Denzel Washington, Mykelti Williamson.

Manchester by the Sea – Casey Affleck, Anna Baryshnikov, Matthew Broderick, Heather Burns, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Kara Hayward, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Michelle Williams, C.J. Wilson.

Moonlight – Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monae, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders.

Other People – Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, Paul Dooley, John Early, Mike Mitchell, Paula Pell, Jesse Plemmons, Retta, Molly Shannon, June Squibb, J.J. Totah, Matt Walsh, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods.

The Witch – Lucas Dawson, Kate Dickie, Ellie Grainger, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw, Anya Taylor-Joy.