Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2016 Year End Report: Best Films 33-21

These are all fine films – catch up with them if you can.
33. Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino)
The best Canadian film I saw this year, was Andrew Cividino’s debut about a long, lazy summer in North Ontario – where three teenage boys get themselves into trouble. While that sounds like a familiar story – and in some ways it is – it doesn’t really explain the subtle power of Cividino’s film, which explores issues of class and sexuality, in that confusing time – where two poor cousins become friends (by proximity more than anything else) with a shy rich kid, who, of course, ends up doing to worst thing of them all. Sleeping Giant is about those seemingly small decisions that have far reaching consequences – about how toxic masculinity is ingrained early, and never really goes away. This small film has been virtually ignored – and unseen outside of Canada. See it.
32. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hang Sang-soo)
I’ve been slowly discovering the work of Hong Sang-soo over the past few years – mostly being utterly charmed, by his low-key comedies, that sneak up on you by being surprisingly perceptive. My favorite of his work that I have seen is Right Now, Wrong Then – a movie that tells the same story, with slight variations, and completely different results, twice in a row, both running about an hour in length. Yes, in many ways, the film is a stunt – and yet it’s such an interesting one, one with so much humanity and humor, that I loved it just the same. A visiting filmmaker is in a small town for the night to present his film the next day. He meets a young woman, and they spend the day – and into the evening together. It’s not really sexual – it’s something deeper than that. Right Now, Wrong Then felt like a throwback to the more heady days of foreign art house films – and a welcome one at that.
31. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
I have a feeling that Everybody Wants Some is going to be better remembered in about a decade than it is right now. Like Dazed and Confused, to which this is a “spiritual sequel”, Everybody Want Some is a deceptively simple film – one of those film that feels incredibly lightweight as you watch it, but continues to grow in your mind long after it ends. It’s about the first weekend in college for a star high school baseball player – a weekend full of drinking, sex, baseball and a lot of male bonding – and ends with him falling asleep in his first college class ever. Dazed and Confused saw the 1970s with clearer eyes than most films do looking backwards – not matter how nostalgic the film was, it still recognizes that for the characters in the movie, it is a miserable time to be a teenager – just like always. Everybody Wants Some is a somewhat gentler film than that – more soft around the edges, and feel good nostalgic. It’s not one of Linklater’s best films – but it’s a good one for sure.
30. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
For the protagonist of Kelly Fremon Craig’s underseen teen angst comedy The Edge of Seventeen, being a teenager sucks. Her father died a few years before, her mother doesn’t understand her, her one friend has started sleeping with her golden boy older brother who she despises – and the boy she likes doesn’t know she exists. From here, Fremon Craig spins a hilarious, honest, misanthropic look at life as a teenager with a great performance by Hailee Steinfeld in the lead, and fine support from Woody Harrelson, as her teacher who both likes and hates her. The film is quick witted and funny, without being overly cute or smug – honest enough to admit that the main character is both part of the problem, and getting screwed over. Most teen comedies are disposable – this one isn’t.
29. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)
In Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous A Bigger Splash, four ridiculously attractive, rich white people bounce off each other, engaging in petty squabbles and flirtations – and sex – in nearly every combination imaginable – all while ignoring the real world concerns around them. To be honest that last part – brings in immigration and refugees in the end feels a little strained – but for the most part, A Bigger Splash is an entertaining film in which rock star Tilda Swinton and lover (Mathias Schoenarts) retreat to their Italian villa – and host Ralph Fiennes, Swinton’s former producer/lover – and the young daughter, Dakota Johnson, he just found out he had. All four performances are great – Swinton does it all with no vice, Fiennes has never been so  free-wheeling, and Johnson is both sexual, and completely naïve – a little girl playing grown, while Schoenarts broods silently as well as possible. The film isn’t quite the triumph of Guadagnino’s last film – I Am Love – but it’s still a winner.
28. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
It’s nearly impossible to defend Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon as either a plausible film, or a film that accurately reflects the fashion industry, as it is purportedly trying to do. The film is ridiculous, over-the-top, violent and sexual, with great performances, stunning visuals and music. It is a film that takes one bonkers turn after another – especially in the last act, in which what we thought was the main character and her antagonist both disappear, and yet the film keeps right on going to one of the memorable, grotesque finales you will ever see. I think it’s fair to question whether Winding Refn will ever reach the perfection of Drive again – but I love that he’s so fully committed to his violent, sexual fairy tales – and that at the very least, this is way better than Only God Forgives.
27. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
I liked the original Cloverfield just fine – even if it was one of the catalysts to the found footage genre, which hasn’t been particularly great over the years – but this spinoff (sequel, prequel, shared universe object, whatever) is much, much better. For most of its runtimes, it is a brilliantly effective, Hitchock-ian thriller – with a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) kidnapped and held in a bunker by a paranoid madman (John Goodman) – who claims he saved her from whatever the hell happened outside, but then again, he may just be crazy. It’s another great performance by Goodman – arguably the most underrated actor in the world (seriously, name a single bad performance he’s given) – who is volatile, and swings between violent, and almost naïve, and by Winstead. When the ending of the film comes, it’s not just an excuse for special effects – but an actual extension of the films themes – and completes Winstead’s journey. The film is thrilling, scary, intense and humorous – and really one of the best times I had at the multiplex all year.
26. Indignation (James Schamus)
James Schamus’ Indignation is easily the best adaptation of a Philip Roth novel ever to reach the big screen. Not that it’s much of a horse race - this year’s American Pastoral, which is awful, is an example of how they frequently go so terribly wrong. This film, starring Logan Lerman as a young New Jersey Jew, who heads to college in Ohio – and butts heads with the administration, and gets involved with a “damaged” woman – leading to ruin – is intelligent, funny, extremely well-acted and written. In addition to Lerman, Tracy Letts is great the Dean, who, while never getting angry, completely destroys Lerman, and Sarah Gadon is excellent as the young woman who he can never see clearly, because he cannot get out of his own head. Perhaps one of the reasons why Schamus succeeds where so many others fail is because he picked the right Roth novel – something slightly more suited for the screen. But whatever the reason, Schamus delivers a great Roth adaptation – and that’s quite an accomplishment.
25. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
The Witch is one of the great debuts of the year – and one of the great horror films. Set in 17th Century New England, it can take a few minutes to into its groove – considering writer/director Eggers use period accurate dialogue that provides some distance to the characters. Yet, gradually, the film builds its tension, and becomes truly horrifying. The story of a family who is already breaking apart at the seams due to the parents’ religious fervor, and the oldest daughters’ budding sexuality, is put even more to the test because there really is something out in the woods trying to mess with them. The film is a slow burn horror film – it may bore people who want more action and blood – but it builds to a truly terrifying climax. Not only that, but it is meticulous made – with some of the best cinematography, sound design and production design of any film this year. A new classic of the genre.
24. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
If Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart doesn’t quite live up to his previous work it’s because the film really is only two-thirds of a masterwork, with one third merely being very good. The famed Chinese director continues his exploration of the effects of capitalism and globalization on his country – this time focusing on one family, in three time periods 10-15 years apart. In the past, Tao Zhao has to pick between two men who are in love with her – a poor miner and the man who owns the mine, in the second segment, the consequences of those decisions are still being felt – divorce and parenthood are there, as is death. In the third – in the future (and in English, which may be why it’s clunkier than the rest), the son has pretty much forgotten his roots, and his life. Mountains May Depart is not as good as Jia’s masterpiece A Touch of Sin (or several other Jia films like Platform or Still Life) – although it is undeniably another fine feature in Jia’s ever expanding, ever impressive body of work. He may never have a true breakthrough in North America – seriously, if A Touch of Sin didn’t do it, I don’t know what will – but he continues to be a vital presence in world cinema.
23. Loving (Jeff Nichols)
In Loving, writer/director Jeff Nichols takes what could have been a very on-the-nose, inspirational “Oscar bait” movie (I hate that term, but you know what I mean) – and instead delivered something far more subtle and down to earth than that. This is the story of the inter-racial couple who eventually took their case to the Supreme Court for their right to be married. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the Loving couple are down to earth normal people – who quite simply, just love each other, and want to be left alone to raise their kids in peace. Nichols has become America’s premiere filmmaker of the contemporary American South in the last few years, but strangely, he had not addressed race until Loving – but it was worth the wait. This is one of those films that sneaks up on you – but refuses to leave you once you’ve seen it.
22. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The first Jeff Nichols film of the year, Midnight Special was kind of ignored when it opened earlier this year – and while it’s not a perfect film, you have to admire its ambition. Michael Shannon gives a great performance as a father who kidnaps his special son from the cult who worship him – and has to drive him across country, for reasons now one is entirely clear on. Joel Edgerton is his buddy, willing to risk everything for the mission, and eventually they are joined by Kristen Dunst as the boy’s mother. Nichols is clearly heavily influenced here by early Spielberg, although the film is more grounded than Spielberg perhaps ever got. The special effects laden finale seems to be where Nichols loses some viewers – and that’s too bad, because it’s actually rather mesmerizing, and thoughtful. And the film has a genuine emotional core in its story about parents loving their child no matter what. The film may not have the simple perfection of a film like Take Shelter or Mud (or, hell, Loving) – but its wild ambition is something I cannot help but admire.
21. Fences (Denzel Washington)
It’s clear that as a director, Denzel Washington wanted to preserve as much of the August Wilson’s brilliant language as he could when turning the playwright’s celebrated work into a movie. As a result, I know a lot of people have thrown the dreaded word “stagey” at Washington’s film. Yet, while there is no doubt the film is based on a play – I do think Washington finds any number of interesting ways to shoot the film – not to mention the fact that he gets amazing performances out of his entire cast – himself included, making his Troy Maxon into a flawed, scary, cruel, funny, friendly man – a wealth of contradictions to love and hate. Better still is Viola Davis as his wife – who sees her world collapse – and strikes back, hard, against it – destroying a little bit of the fantasy world Troy believed himself to be living in. Yes, Fences is clearly a stage to screen adaptation – but I think it has a lot in common with the best that genre has to offer – back in the 1950s and 1960s – when they did this often – and brilliantly.

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