Wednesday, January 11, 2017

MY FAVORITE FILMS OF 2016

It's hard to believe another year has come and gone. So that also means it's time to look back at the year in cinema and reflect on which films had strongly made a lasting impression upon me. I came to realize there were quite of few extraordinary films that I saw in 2016 which made the selection process a little challenging (which is actually a good thing). Here are my favorites of the past year, in no particular order, that left me in a thrilling state of pleasure, desolation and amusement:

"MOONLIGHT"

Barry Jenkins wrote and directed "Medicine for Melancholy", a lovely, very low-budget romantic drama involving an African-American couple back in 2008. It was a revelation and one of my favorites of that year. I couldn't wait to see what he would do next. Well, it took a ridiculously long eight years but Mr. Jenkins is finally back and his latest drama manages to be even more impressive. "Moonlight" tells the story of Chiron, quiet, troubled and possibly gay, beginning when he was boy, then through his teens and up until he is a young man. With him being bullied relentlessly at school and his mother (Naomie Harris) falling deeper in to crack addiction, Chiron (played seamlessly by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) finds guidance and solace from an unlikely source; a local drug dealer (an excellent Mahershala Ali) who teaches him the way of the world with kindness and generosity. Poignant and unpredictable, "Moonlight" is a remarkable coming-of-age story handled with insightful artistry.

"MANCHESTER BY THE SEA"

Despite Sam L. Jackson's snap judgement to dismiss this drama as simply "award fodder", "Manchester By The Sea" really is an exceptionally well-made and moving film. The unexpected death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) brings Lee (Casey Affleck) back to Boston to deal with his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) who has been left in his care. He had departed from his hometown to escape a tragic past and this visit forces these long-buried painful memories to the surface. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has spent much of his time writing for the stage largely due to the difficult time he had with his second feature as a director "Margaret". Let's hope the rapturous praise for this outstanding film will allow him to make another very soon.

"THE LOBSTER"

I saw "The Lobster", the delightfully weird romantic-comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos ("Dogtooth"), at the AFI Fest back in 2015. But it wasn't released in the U.S. until 2016 otherwise it would have certainly found a place on this list that year. With being single a crime, David (Colin Farrell) is sent to the Hotel where he has only has 45 days to find a new partner otherwise he will be turned in to an animal of his choice. After deciding upon a lobster, he sets out to find someone yet many strange people and situations stand in his way.  Then there's the "loners" who hide out in the woods where guests at the Hotel can hunt down with a tranquilizing gun, earning them an extra day in their search. "The Lobster" is one movie that works much better to simply experience than try to get too caught up in the details.

"INDIGNATION"

Most people probably have not even heard of "Indignation" let alone actually seen this powerful film but they really should. James Schamus, the long-time screenwriter and producer ("The Ice Storm", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Brokeback Mountain") and one-time head of Focus Features, made his debut behind the camera with a 2008 Phillip Roth novel and has crafted an exceptionally captivating and deeply moving drama focusing on class, religion and sexual repression. Set in the 1950's during the early part of the Korean War, Marcus Messner (brilliantly played by Logan Lerman), a Jewish, middle-class young man begins college in Ohio, in part to put some distance between him and his overbearing parents (stage vets, Danny Burstein and Linda Emond) in New Jersey. He becomes enchanted with a beautiful and wealthy blonde student (Sarah Gadon) but her highly unorthodox behavior throws him while he clashes with the school's dean (Tracy Letts) over the emphasis of religion in academic life. A tragic and complicated story beautifully translated by a first-class film maker.



"LA LA LAND"

Damien Chazelle's romantic musical fantasia, "La La Land" is a wonderful valentine to that city of desires, dreams and heartbreak; Los Angeles. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress looking for a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianst who dreams of opening his own club. After a slightly hostile first encounter, they warm to each other and fall in love. But their challenging careers create tension in the relationship. With original music and lyrics from Justin Hurwitz, Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, Chazelle has paid loving tribute to the classic Hollywood musical but has brought his own modern and colorfully unique spin on the genre. Stone and Gosling have a marvelous chemistry and make a perfectly imperfect song and dance team.


"THE 13TH", "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO"

These two fascinating documentaries compliment each other with insightful and thought-provoking observations in to the current state of race relations in America. African-Americans and the U.S. criminal justice system is the focus of Ava DuVernay's disturbing "The 13th". After slavery was abolished with the signing of the 13th Amendment, there was an exception made for a punishment for a crime. This doc reveals how systematically over time the "war on drugs" has been used to incarcerate a growing number of African-Americans while keeping them locked up for an excessive period of time.

"I Am Not Your Negro" uses James Baldwin's uncompleted novel about his close relationships with fellow influential figures of the civil rights era, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as a starting point. Then director Raoul Peck takes the eloquent and astute writer's words (with an effective voice over by Samuel L. Jackson) and archival television footage to examine his views on the complicated social and political issues regarding race in this country. It also looks at how, in many different ways, there's has still been very little progress made on this subject to this day.



"THE HANDMAIDEN"

Park Chan-wook, the South Korean film maker best known for his ultra-violent action thrillers laced with black humor like "Old Boy" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", has softened his approach (somewhat) with his latest, "The Handmaiden". Inspired by the Victorian era novel, "Fingersmith", the director has reset his story to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930's and told in three parts from different perspectives. A wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) is the mark for a con man (Ha Jung-woo) and his young accomplice (Kim Tae-ri). However, nothing is what it appears to be with unexpected twists, shocking turns, some steamy bedroom antics and a brief moment of gruesomeness makes this one of the most intriguing and well-written romantic dramas of the year.



"THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN"

"The Edge of Seventeen", the razor-sharp and hilariously funny teen comedy from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, fits perfectly next to other classic coming-of-age comedies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", "The Breakfast Club" and "Mean Girls". Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a highly dramatic senior who rushes to her high school teacher (Woody Harrelson) to proclaim she's going to kill herself. Then she proceeds to tell him all of the entangled and embarrassing events that has lead to this moment. Some of this includes her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) suddenly dating her older brother (Blake Jenner), her difficult relationship with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and she has a big crush on a fellow student (Alexander Calvert) who doesn't know she's alive while another classmate (Hayden Szeto) has his own secret crush on her. This little film surprises with plenty of charm and wit.



"20TH CENTURY WOMEN"

Much like his last film, "Beginners", writer/director, Mike Mills finds inspiration from his family with "20th Century Women" which the lead character is loosely based upon his mother. Set in 1979, Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (Annette Benning), a divorced, chain-smoking, radical mother feels she can't properly guide her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in to manhood on her own. She decides to ask for help and that comes from two other modern-thinking women; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a fuchsia-haired, punk-loving photographer and Julie (Elle Fanning), a young, sexually-liberated, free-spirited friend of her son. And there is a male figure in the home, William (Billy Crudup), Dorothea's handyman and occasional lover but Jamie doesn't really connect with him. This film thrills with it's eccentric sense of drama, romance and humor.

Honorable Mention: "10 Cloverfield Lane", "Arrival" (and this would have made My Favorite list except for my trouble with the ending), "City of Gold", "Jackie", "Lion", "Louder Than Bombs", "Loving", "Midnight Special" (I had the same problem with the ending of this film), "Paterson", "Weiner Dog", "The Witch", "Zootopia"