Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Movies of 2016

2016 is gone, but many of the films are still out or ready to be enjoyed on demand. Here are my thoughts on some of the bigger, commercial ones.

Note: as of this writing I have yet to see "Fences" or "Lion", both of which are supposed to be wonderful.

Arrival - 5 stars
Nutshell: A thinking man’s sci-fi film of alien communication leading to manifold perspective changes.  
With an opening that rivals “Up” in its unexpected, concise, and utterly heart-grabbing setup, scribe Eric Heisserer’s “The Arrival” proves that original, adroit storytelling is king.  What follows is a woman’s discovery of aliens, communication, and a new way of seeing the world.  Amy Adams is breathtaking as the woman whose world is turned inside out and it is through Heisserer’s words and director Denis Villeneuve’s visuals that our world—and that of the film itself—is turned inside out as the pain, beauty and mystery of life become clear in the film’s final reel…as utterly unexpected as the opening. 


Jackie - 4 stars
Nutshell:  Bold performances and direction make a painful tale soar.  

The days surrounding Jackie Kennedy having her husband’s head blown apart in her lap are made immediate and harrowing by Pablo Larraín’s masterful direction and Natalie Portman’s ambitious portrayal. Claustrophobic camerawork—normally abhorrent—is not only appropriate, it’s uncomfortably effective, making us see things as Jackie does:  from a state of shock, nightmarish, everyone in our faces.   The white house tour and interview framing devices are utterly unnecessary but the latter provides a nice Billy Crudup performance. The film is not for everyone: many will be put off by the artistic choices made, but I salute them.  Sometimes film needs to be uncomfortable: we should never be comfortable with murder, with loved ones ripped from us, with lives torn asunder.  If nothing else, “Jackie” reminds us of that.

Other People - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Funny and moving tale of a writer’s return home to help his ailing mother.

Rarely is a movie about a death so funny.  But it’s honest, wonderfully offbeat humor, provided by writer/director Chris Kelly and given sincere life by a top-notch cast, headed by a feisty Molly Shannon and a sweet Jesse Plemons.  Plemons’ character has lost his latest career chance, his relationship with his lover and now must deal with losing his mother.  It’s enough to make anyone wonder about life; Kelly and Plemons let us share all the emotions and questions without obvious, manipulative tearjerker devices.   You’ll still likely tear up, but you’ll laugh far more.  One could hope for nothing more from life…or a movie.

Rogue One - 3 stars
Nutshell:  Stealing plans of the Death Star takes too long, but provides fun along the way.

A highly uneven film experience from the start, which eschews (and seems to snub) the traditional scrolling prologue; no matter the reason, it disappoints right at the top.  The lead characters are rather one note, one flaw yawns, but some of the supporting characters shine bright—especially K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and Chirrut Îmwe played by Donnie Yen, whose overdue appearance finally brings some life into the film.  (Though we could have been spared the awful, creepy CGI Peter Cushing.  Just yuck.) The last reel provides a spectacular and exciting (if overlong) battle and so everyone leaves generally satisfied.   Better than Episode One, nowhere near Episode Four.

Hidden Figures - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Thoroughly winning tale of three history-making black NASA women.  

Fascinating and frothy tale of three African American women in NASA who each provided skills to help launch the first successful space missions.   The visual details are spot on and the acting is delicious perfection across the board, but the real treat is writer /director Theodore Melfi’s hand who, with co-writer Allison Schroeder has fashioned a film that tells all three women’s stories in a totally engaging way, offering a sincere reminder of the ugliness (and absurdity) of segregation and the importance of math and science--all with hefty doses of humor and heart.  It’s what great movies were meant to be.

LALALand - 3 stars
Nutshell: A musical of eye-popping panache trapped in a tepid tale.  

There’s no denying the movie magic that writer/director Damien Chazelle’s LALALand embraces and offers up in abundance.  But it’s all flash with little substance: bold and visually stunning cinematic elements consistently dazzle the eye but only sporadically capture the heart.  The cinematography, art direction and lighting all create endless delights, but the score is mostly forgettable and the story is stale.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling shine bright, though--the most when the camera is doing the least…and when allowed to do more than the breathy whisper-singing that proves tiresomely tame juxtaposed to the loud visuals.   That tameness makes the film not unlike an L.A. summer day: bright, glorious sunshine--but often with a dull layer of haze.

Moonlight - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Utterly original trilogy of one man at three stages of his troubled life.  

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins scores a win with this beautifully acted tale of a boy becoming a man amidst less than perfect circumstances.   Ironies abound:  a drug dealing stranger provides a better sense of home than the boy’s birth mother; a first love becomes a forced bully; the biggest, muscle-bound man has a tiny broken child inside.  The damage of drugs echoes the damage of homophobia; the desire for a safe harbor becoming the thing we all have in common.  Nothing is preachy, nothing is prettied-up, nothing is pretentious: it’s just an unapologetic, open window into one man’s journey.


Deadpool  5 stars
An anti-superhero is born and turns to the snark side; stylish, funny shit ensues.  Ryan Reynolds is gold.  So is the writing and directing.  A giant middle finger to all those tiresome superhero movies.

Manchester By The Sea  - 2.5 stars
Superlative acting can’t save this torpid tale of man who's dead inside having to deal with his brother’s literal death and the care of his now fatherless teenage nephew. 

Kubo and the Two Strings - 5 stars
The best, most original animated film of the year.  Blows away all the cutesy, derivative stuff.