My Top 10 Movies of 2017

From travels across the stars and home renovations of biblical proportion, to a different kind of hormonal craving for flesh.

Another year, another list that I’ll probably regret immediately, partially because I still haven’t seen so so many of the movies I want to see from last year, and partially because I’m sure that I’ll see some of these a second time and demand a recount. I did manage to catch a fair chunk of my hit list though, and some distinct patterns emerged, with a full five sci-fi movies making the list (including three that could be characterized as space westerns), three horror movies, and two maybe-autobiographical dramas about asshole artists. And while I’m sure there are tens (tens!) of gems I haven’t seen, there was plenty of magic I did manage to catch.

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Rotten Tomatoes 49%, IMDb 6.5)

Apparently I made one very good choice in how I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: I didn’t bother seeing it in English, instead settling for a German-dubbed showing where I understood maybe 10% of the dialogue. Based on the mainstream reception to the movie, I think the remainder was pretty unnecessary. Valerian‘s visual inventiveness and childlike sense of fantasy joy require no translation, setting its space-agents off from one wacky scenario to another and casting Ethan Hawke as someone named Jolly the Pimp. It was a huge flop, of course, but if someone is still willing to give Luc Besson a hundred million dollars to mess around in space again, I’m there.

Recommended pairing: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.7)

We’ve reached superhero saturation. When 2008 gave us two high-quality comic book movies in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it felt like lightening striking twice. Now, well, that seems to be the definition of summer movie season. And it’d be so much easier to hate if most of the movies, particularly the Marvel ones, weren’t so damn good. Sure, they’re all products, but Spiderman Homecoming and Wonder Woman were both fantastically polished entertainment, and while they missed the mark a little for me, Logan and Thor Ragnarok managed to play with the formula in some very clever ways. The only one this year to really provide on both fronts was also one of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no doubt indebted to its predecessor, but if the first was a much-needed change-up to the Marvel formula, the second shows how that same formula can be used to give low-budget charm a big-budget sheen. Director James Gunn relishes in some gross-out tendencies and over-the-top violence that would fit in more at a midnight showing. We’re still a far cry here from Batman Returns-levels of auteurism, but dammit, its a hell of a start.

Recommended pairing: Sure, Batman Returns.

8. Gerald’s Game (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 6.7)

Man, do I wish the last five minutes of Gerald’s Game didn’t exist. The epilogue to this tense, single-location Stephen King thriller nearly turned me against the movie. But the ninety minutes beforehand can’t be overlooked, providing the single nastiest scene in any movie I saw this year and delicate moments of quiet, visual terror that stuck with me after I turned out the lights. Netflix has been trying its hand at bringing in big names and big budgets, but the best film it produced by far last year was this well-crafted, small-scale nailbiter.

Recommended pairing: The Ring.

7. Raw (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.0)

Like Valerian above, I wasn’t able to watch Raw in English, settling for French audio and German subtitles, hence the lack of a writeup. But Raw told its graphic coming of age story with such visual flair that it enraptured me all the same. At its base, Raw is an effectively nervy cannibalism story, but it sells it through specific links to sexual awakening, the college experience, and familial role models. And it uses its colour palette and soundscape wonderfully, the former perhaps no more starkly than a moment where a blue-and-yellow painted face has a sudden vicious splash of red added.

Recommended pairing: It Follows.

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Rotten Tomatoes 87%, IMDb 8.2)

Can I just say “It was really pretty” and be done with it? It’s obvious from the trailer that Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, adding to the original’s unmistakable sci-fi noir aesthetic with sweeping vistas and a dusty, forgotten Las Vegas, complete with a half-functioning Elvis hologram. But many mistook the original for a solely technical achievement when it came out, only later (after many edited releases) being recognized as a significant work of storytelling as well. At almost three-hours long, Blade Runner 2049 packs in enough sci-fi gristle to chew on that a second viewing is probably necessary for me to form a solid opinion on whether it reaches the same heights. But damn if I’m not looking forward to sinking myself back into it to find out.

Recommended pairing: Her.

5. The Shape of Water (Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.7)

If Pan’s Labyrinth was Guillermo del Toro’s perfect dark fairy tale, The Shape of Water is his adult fairy tale, fully awake with life’s complications but surprisingly and unabashedly fantastical. It delivers visually from frame one and carries itself with a grace that doesn’t immediately scream “fish-man romance”. It’s pulpier elements are carried out with flair (the fact that its an often-violent cold-war noir half the time is a little underadvertised), but it manages to provide real heart to its silent central duo, giving us the Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon dance sequence we never knew we needed along the way.

Recommended pairing: A full playthrough of Bioshock.

4. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.5)

The Last Jedi is the only movie on this list I had the opportunity to see twice, and it turned out to be a very important second viewing. At first, I took The Last Jedi to be narratively innovative but lacking in big moments or a sense of adventure. But the second time, it struck me that I was looking for big moments in all the wrong places, because we get tons of them, from the way the film uses silence to a beautiful, haunting effect, to the incredibly striking paths of red sand under layer of salt leading to a line of AT-ATs that have never looked more imposing, or the sheer audacity and thoughtfulness of its arc for Luke Skywalker. The chemistry of the leads that carried The Force Awakens is what I expected to keep carrying this trilogy, and The Last Jedi shows that this generation has so much more to offer.

Recommended pairing: The Road Warrior.

3. Phantom Thread (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 7.9)

Phantom Thread, being a film about silk and lace, has a quiet and delicate look from the outside. But it quickly proves to be much more, succeeding as a chamber drama about social power struggles but also as damn funny entertainment that you want to crawl into and live inside for a while. Also, its as much about breakfast as it is about fashion, which is a surefire way into my heart.

Recommended pairing: mother!

2. Get Out (Rotten Tomatoes 99%, IMDb 7.7)

Get Out is the perfect horror movie for an alternate-universe 2017 where the new cycle isn’t swamped by barely-disguised white supremacy, where it was pretty easy to live in the suburbs and assume that we were basically in a post-racial society. Get Out‘s commentary is still slick and highly relevant, but perhaps less subversive than it would have been in that other timeline. Regardless, the commentary is what everyone who saw Get Out was well primed for. What I was less prepared for was how masterfully Get Out is crafted, legitimately scary and consistently tense. Jordan Peele got his training in parody, but Get Out is incisive and original.

Recommended pairing: The Invitation.

1. mother! (Rotten Tomatoes 69%, IMDb 6.7)

mother!‘s divisiveness must have been expected in the editing room. If you don’t find its wavelength immediately, it’s either a confused mess or an over-obvious sledgehammer. For whatever reason, mother! grabbed me early and didn’t let go, providing by far the most visceral response I had to a film this year. Part of the fun was teasing out each and every analogy it lays out (very, very bluntly), but this distracted me just enough that when its final act came crashing down, I was unexpectedly carried away by the sheer mayhem of it all. It’s an incredibly forceful tour de force from Aronofsky, and love-it-or-hate-it, its the least compromising wide release in many years.

Recommended pairing: Phantom Thread.

Honourable mentions to the synchronized mayhem of Baby Driver, the slow-motion disaster of The Beguiled, the cocaine-fueled fun of American Made, the sheer oddity of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the underrated crowd-pleaser Battle of the Sexes, the Southern gothic Mudbound, and whatever was going on in Colossal.

I still really need to catch up on lots, but at the top of my list are Good TimeThe Big SickThe Villainess, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Projectand A Ghost Story. If there are any you want to champion, yell at me in the comments!

Oh, and all reviews, 2017 or otherwise, can be found here.

I really, REALLY enjoyed Phantom Thread

A beautiful, hilarious movie about egoism, dresses, and breakfast

Hey everybody, just an FYI, Phantom Thread is very very good and if you have a chance you should see it. Oh I know, that trailer makes it look like a pretty dry British drama about dressmaking. If you didn’t catch that the director was Paul Thomas Anderson, of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood fame, you’d be forgiven for writing it off as the beautiful, sparse, dull Oscar bait of the year.

But guys, for real, go see Phantom Thread.

First off, there’s a very strong argument to be made that Phantom Thread is the best romcom of the year. It’s mannered enough to be a bit of a surprise, but it’s a viciously funny piece of work. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is allowed nowhere near the glorious scenery chewing of There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York, but rather *just* unhinged enough to give the whole piece some bite. Also, his name is Reynolds Woodcock, and people mention the “House of Woodcock” in haughty huffs often, and its never not funny.

Oh yeah, there’s also the “rom” part. This movie is billed as a chamber-drama battle between Woodcock and his mistress Alma, and it very much is that. But even as their duel of manners escalates from toast-scraping and putting too much butter on the asparagus to, well, more nefarious means, there is an undercurrent of care beneath it. This is a twisted love story as far as love stories go, but it is very much a romance. In a strong way, it’s a mirror of this year’s mother!, which explored living with a man who holds their work to a higher importance than their home life, but instead of making the woman in the relationship a reactionary character (necessary for mother!‘s wackadoo metaphor), Phantom Thread is just as interested in Alma’s agency, and even more interested in what each character gains from the other rather than them individually. Throw in Cyril, Woodcock’s sister and partner/fixer, for Alma to jockey for power against and casually utter lines like “I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor, understood?“. Cyril is the best.

Oh, and speaking of toast scraping, as much as this is a movie about dresses and romance, it’s also a movie about breakfast. It’s a love story that starts with an order at a countryside diner. It’s a movie that taught me what Welsh rarebit was. It’s a movie where the sound design poured into a spoon hitting a saucer should’ve been nominated for a goddamn Oscar (the wondrous score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood thankfully was). The dresses are very good, don’t get me wrong, but the catering is excellent.

A

Phantom Thread (2017)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

The Shape of Water is fantastically, darkly graceful

A brutally violent, lusciously gorgeous film about a sexy fish-man

Within the first five minutes of The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ mute maid Eliza sets a timer, hops in the bath, and masturbates. The film has been marketed as an adult fairy tale, and the first part of the statement can’t be ignored. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a raunch-fest about fish-sex. But unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which was an adult fairy tale from a child’s perspective, The Shape of Water is distinctly mature through-and-through, a brutally violent, quietly introspective, and lusciously gorgeous delight. It also happens to feature a sexy fish-man.

Even if said sexy fish-man doesn’t work for you, there’s no denying how stunningly beautiful this film is, with oversaturated blues giving Eliza’s apartment the feeling of an aquarium and neon greens (or is that teal?) frequently blanketing the players. In many fantastic ways, the art design evokes Bioshock‘s Rapture, particularly when combined with its cold-war setting and record-box soundtrack. In a touch that could be viewed as cheap if I had a heart of stone, Eliza lives above a cinema, and The Shape of Water definitely earns the La La Land/The Artist movie-about-how-great-movies-are slot at the Oscars. But it does so in little ways, such as Eliza and her neighbour Giles performing a small couch dance routine, before paying it off in a big, spectacular moment.

The bloody violence might turn some off, and indeed ventures into fairly rough territory at times. Michael Shannon brings a lot of intensity to a fairly one-note heel, finding new dimensions of depravity in every act. One could also fault Del Toro for spending too much time with his side characters, but he paints Giles, Dmitri, and Zelda with a fine enough brush that I wouldn’t want to see them excised even if they occasionally feel extraneous. But the heart lies within Eliza and The Creature, whose sensitive puppy-dog attitude never feels manipulative. If this kind of fantastical twist is what movie romance needs, I for one welcome our new sexy fish-man overlords.

A-

The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Three Billboards should have gotten more than melodrama out of Ebbing Missouri

Three Billboards isn’t interested in great tragedies nor police violence, but maybe it should have been

In a three-act structure, the second act tends to be the one where the good stuff is. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri takes this to heart, beginning well after the murder that incites the action takes place and after the failed investigation has all but folded. Feeling the world is moving on from her still-burning rage, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular billboards, personally shaming police chief William Willoughby* (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of cancer and has perhaps the most screenwriterly name ever devised. The billboards scandal ripples throughout the town, perhaps nowhere more than in the police station, where the short-tempered, racist, and punnily-named deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gets angry seemingly on Willoughby’s behalf. But the driving background behind each character, from Hayes’ tragedy to Willoughby’s illness to Dixon’s racism, are all established quickly, sometimes awkwardly, through dialogue to cut to the chase. Director Martin McDonagh isn’t interested in great tragedies nor is he particularly interested in police abuse. He’s interested in how communities function, how defensive they can be to social upset, how putting their members into boxes begets violence. But maybe a bit of interest in the former would have helped.

Three Billboards has been marketed as a black comedy, but never finds an even tone, oscillating drastically between wallowing in melodrama and poking fun at bumpkins. Sometimes this tonal whiplash works: when Mildred’s violent ex-husband escalates a situation only to have it defused by his young girlfriend cluelessly asking for a restroom, McDonagh keeps the scene going for a hilariously uncomfortable amount of time. At another moment, a sudden intrusion of Willoughby’s illness during an interrogation provides the most intimate moment of the film. However, while a few of the performers find the right nerve to strike (notably the now-ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones and Samara Weaving), many others never quite find it. Some, like Peter Dinklage’s alcoholic salesman, serve one scene and otherwise hang out on the margins, which does give the town a nicely lived-in feel. But others, notably Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s far-too-young and implacably accented wife, feel air-dropped in from a movie-of-the-week. Compared to McDonagh’s fantastically odd and dark In BrugesThree Billboards is just too sincere to read as comedy.

Three Billboards commits to its second-act focus in the end, arguably cutting to black pre-climax. But before it gets there, it engages in some acts of forgiveness that have caused a fair amount of controversy, of which a lot of digital ink has already been spilled. A lot of it comes down to whether a certain act is read as redemption or a step forward, and for my money the film engages with the difficulty of redemption even after attaining self-awareness. It builds up a racial element only to unharmoniously sweep it under the rug, but it rather frankly asserts that atonement isn’t simple. The parallels it draws between its two most broken characters are legitimately interesting, although handled less-than-deftly. Thanks to the character of Ebbing itself, it’s certainly not a boring ride to get there. It’s just not as riveting as the material could have been.

C+

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Lucas Hedges
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

Raising a glass to Green Room, Hell or High Water, and more

For a year that seemed as long as 2016 did, it already feels like it was an eternity ago. In addition to the feeling that glitz just isn’t as enjoyable as it was twelve short months ago, maybe that’s why awards season feels a bit less enticing this year; 2016 happened a lifetime ago, can’t we just put it to rest?

Regardless, there’s a feeling that the movie year truly ends and begins anew with the Oscars. Most of what is in theaters now are the breakout dramas of 2016 that are finally being released to cities other than L.A. and New York, or whatever the studios decided wouldn’t sell in more competitive months. After February, movies get judged as part of 2017, rather than the scraps of the previous year. And by February, thanks to delayed wide releases and conveniently leaked screeners, schmucks like me get a chance to finally catch up on the more elusive films of the previous year. While I didn’t see everything I wanted to, there were nine movies that felt a cut above the rest.

(I set the cutoff at the point where I felt comfortable not giving a shoutout to a film, although there are honorable mentions at the end)

(Oh, and all reviews and ratings, 2016 or otherwise, can be found here)

9. Green Room (RT 90%, IMDb 7.1)

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Green Room is a perfect example of what to do when suddenly given a bigger budget. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a low-budget work of wonder, and Green Room uses its extra money to beef up the cast, but maintains its predecessor’s mastery of tension through claustrophobia. Green Room is absolutely brutal stuff, but continually engaging and suspenseful rather than gratuitous. I’m incredibly excited for whatever Saulnier comes up with next.

8. Manchester by the Sea (RT 96%, IMDb 8.0)

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At what point is a movie just too damn sad? Manchester by the Sea toes that line, coming very close to plain misery porn, but finds enough humour in its ludicrously dark premise and Casey Affleck provides enough humanity to keep it from falling into absolute melodrama.

7. Little Sister (RT 95%, IMDb 6.3)

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A small-scale family drama that ends on a photo montage may seem a bit trite, but Little Sister does a fantastic job of examining how we assign stereotypes even to those we are closest to. It helps that its small cast is plenty charming, and its central brother-sister relationship is just the right kind of feel-good.

6. The Witch (RT 91%, IMDb 6.8)

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The Witch is an exercise in atmosphere, mood, and restraint. Taking a lesson from Jaws, the monster is seen early and then rarely afterwards; even when the monsters finally make a tangible impact, they do so often just off camera. But the way The Witch shows a family tear itself apart on paranoia, akin to an actual witch hunt, is a thing of unsettling mastery. The period setting adds to the consistently unnerving nature of the film, tapping into the eeriness of the woods for a constant sense of unknown danger.

5. Hell or High Water (RT 98%, IMDb 7.7)

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

One of the best qualities a film can have is a colorful and interesting world that nonetheless feels like something you could just walk right into. Hell or High Water does a remarkable thing for a neo-Western, in that it hits all the right Western vibes, but still feels distinctly modern. There’s a big hat and a great one-off scene with a cattle wrangler, but it mixes Western themes and modern rural issues into something entirely of its own. It also stages some of the finest bank robbery scenes this side of Heat, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

4. The Invitation (RT 89%, IMDb 6.7)

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Who would have thought that, aside from Manchester by the Sea, the most intriguing film about pain and grief last year would be a horror flick? The Invitation takes a setup mired in loss and turns it into a slow-burning, gut-churning suspense. It effectively asks what we would do in the same situation, asking when suspicion should turn into worry, when worry should warrant action, and what social capital might be associated with action. More than any other movie this year, in a year full of great horror movies and thrillers, The Invitation left me squirming.

3. The Handmaiden (RT 94%, IMDb 8.1)

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The Handmaiden is, at its heart, a fun heist romp. Its premise is sheer pulp, and it knows it. Hell, a major set of the characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and Park Chan-Wook has made a masterpiece of exactly that. Its unabashedly erotic and unforgettably stylish.

2. Moonlight (RT 98%, IMDb 7.9)

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Moonlight is exactly as good as the reviews say it is, and if there is justice in the world, it will walk away with Oscar gold tonight. In a world where identity politics has become a dirty word, Moonlight at once takes intersectionality incredibly seriously and deconstructs it. The main character, Chiron, is black, is gay, is poor. But this isn’t a shortcut for awards or for pity. “Who is you Chiron?”, he’s asked in the third act. “I’m me,” he responds, even if not completely sure what that means. Moonlight explores what self-identity even is with plenty of visual and narrative style, calmly low-key while being innovative in all respects.

1. The Lobster (RT 89%, IMDb 7.1)

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While movie worlds may be the most entrancing when they feel tangible, like in Hell or High Water, they’re the most fun when they hold a warped mirror to the real world. The Lobster puts its satire on thick; no one would call its take on couples culture subtle. But it is sharp and multifaceted, inviting drunken dissections that can go on for at least the length of the film itself. It’s also one of the damn funniest deadpan black comedies ever made; poor Biscuit Woman alternatively makes me wince and laugh just thinking about her. For all its batshittery, The Lobster was the best time I had in theaters last year.

Honorable MentionsGhostbusters, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, La La Land, Don’t Think Twice, Tickled, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Into the Forest, Sleeping Giant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Christine

Haven’t Yet Seen: Paterson, Jackie, Elle, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, 20th Century Women, Tower, Cameraperson, The Witness, Captain Fantastic, OJ Made in America, The Saleman, Toni Erdmann, Krisha, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Silence, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings

Some scars never heal in Manchester by the Sea

It isn’t supernatural, but nonetheless, ghosts wait around every corner in Manchester

In a way, Manchester by the Sea is a lot like the most depressing version of Stephen King’s IT imaginable. While the very concept of hometown is often romanticized or ridiculed, Manchester by the Sea and IT both focus on the scars that can be left on an area by the horrors that occurs there. Both treat hometown like more of a haunted house than a safe haven. IT collects realistic childhood trauma from bullies to abusive fathers to lost siblings and allows them to manifest as a literal monster. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is less fanciful, but nonetheless, ghosts wait around every corner in Manchester, reminders of those whose loss never fully heals.

Manchester by the Sea’s plot is sprung into motion by one death, but its another tragedy that looms over the film. This is, bluntly, a movie about death and grief, about the wounds it opens in those left behind, and about the responsibility that comes with continuing on. Manchester by the Sea is an almost unbearably depressing. In one sequence midway through the film, a dramatic score is added not to heighten the emotion, but seemingly to dull it; to let it play out in silence would be too devastating. It makes heavy use of flashbacks not to reveal twists, but to provide detail and emotional clarity. Occasionally, that means revisiting fishing trips with those who passed. Oftentimes, that means revisiting moments of shame and guilt that have no way of being properly atoned for anymore.

But Manchester by the Sea undercuts its melancholy with playful moments. Most of these come from Patrick, whose father’s death sets the story in motion. Played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick walks a fine line between whiny and wisecracky, and comes out as one of the more down-to-earth depictions of being sixteen put on film. The movie also manages to claim the title of Funniest Funeral Smorgasbord Gag Ever, lest anyone try to steal it. But its all held together with Casey Affleck’s stoic performance as Lee, Patrick’s uncle and reluctant guardian. From the trailers, it is made to seem like Lee is reluctant to move to Manchester and care for Patrick due to responsibility issues; the reality of the film is nothing of the sort. Pain and guilt can be extraordinary motivating forces, and Manchester by the Sea explores them beautifully.

A-

manchester

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Afflect, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, and Michelle Williams
Rotten Tomatoes (96%)

La La Land is a destination worth the journey

In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo.

Hot damn, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. Whiplash, the best movie of 2014, ended with one hell of a bang, a rebellious drumming extravaganza that hit an insane number of climactic character beats while also working incredibly well of sheer spectacle alone. Chazelle’s latest, La La Land, similarly sticks the landing, and its final ten minutes left me an absolute wreck. In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo. If you subscribe to the school of moments-make-a-movie, La La Land is probably the best picture of the year. But while the rest of the movie builds beautifully to that last hurrah, its less engaging than one might expect, with most of the musical numbers working just well enough and the plot mechanics feeling all too familiar.

La La Land opens with a big musical number, as commuters hop out of their cars in L.A. to sing a sunny ditty about their dreams to make it big, putting a smile on their professional anxiety. It’s a fun sequence, if not a bit over-hyped, but after that and an opening number for Stone at a Hollywood party, La La Land turns into much less of a theatrical musical than advertised. It wouldn’t be a Chazelle film without a reliance on music, but only on four or so occasions throughout does it call on its characters to sing (at least in a non-diegetic fashion; on a related note, word of the day: Diegesis). This might disappoint some of the musical theater fans out there, but it works for the film. In their first real meeting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get to connect through singing in an adorable and adorably rickety meet-cute (they aren’t quite Rogers and Astaire). But their second big coupley moment is entirely instrumental, and finds Chazelle at his most directorially creative. And it works perfectly for Gosling and Stone, who have an immediate chemistry that the entire film is built around. Stone in particular fleshes out a familiar character type in interesting ways, becoming the true beating heart of the film. Even though the title portends to be about Hollywood as a whole, the film is intimately focused on these two characters, to the point where the third-billed actor has maybe two minutes of screen time. The tight focus helps, as even when the movie loses its grip here and there, the core relationship at the centre is always believable and worth rooting for.

La La Land is nakedly in love with the past, and some of its more interesting moments come from mixing old-fashioned tropes with the new (such as key fob woes translating to spontaneous tap dancing). Chazelle also has occasional unromanticized streaks, letting his camera focus on the cracked sidewalks that could come from anywhere in the world (and, you know, that whole traffic jam musical number). But this is a movie where an attempt to modernize jazz is mocked (if not utterly dismissed), and Chazelle seems to take that sentiment to heart. While it modernizes some old tropes, it doesn’t reinvent them, and comes up a bit short of a revolution (which is a lot to ask of any movie, but the buzz around La La Land earns the request). It takes more time in the middle than it should, and by the end, maybe believes in the dream of Hollywood a bit too much itself. While not as optimistic as its cast of commuters, this is certainly a less cynical film than Whiplash was. But, once again, I keep coming back to that final act in my head. Even if its a bit of an uneven journey, the destination is an absolute triumph.

B+

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La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

It’s a bit of a trip to get to the conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

In its opening credits, featuring nude overweight women dancing with sparklers apropos of nothing, Nocturnal Animals tries to announce itself as BOLD and ARTISTIC, but mostly haughty. The scene, which in-universe is an art exhibit held by Susan (Amy Adams), is sure to immediately turn off many, coming across as degrading people who can’t live up to the physical standards of its attractive and thin cast (including Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, etc) and its fashion icon director, Tom Ford. Nocturnal Animals manages to turn this around over its two hour runtime, becoming more of a examination of (bordering on slam against) the sharks in the upper echelon of artists and fashionistas. It’s a bit of a trip to get to that conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

Nocturnal Animals operates as a fiction-within-fiction story, which isn’t necessarily clear from the trailers. Susan is sent a manuscript of a novel dedicated to her from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. We follow both Susan’s response to the novel and her memories of Edward, as well as the action of the novel itself, where husband and father Tony (also Gyllenhaal) whose family has a chance encounter on a lonely road in Texas with violent ends. The two stories seem disparate for a long stretch of the film, but eventually Susan finds that her relationship with Edward has informed the story in unflattering ways. While marketed as a psychological thriller with Susan as the target, Nocturnal Animals is more of a study of authorial intent, and how we carry the burden of how we mistreat and are mistreated by the ones we love. The story-within-the-story is a bit shallow on its own, but gains depth from the knowledge about its author that Susan provides.

There’s no denying, however, that the story-within-the-story is more fun to watch, mostly thanks to the performances of Michael Shannon as a shady detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a terrifying sociopath. Ford’s vision of Susan’s life is closer to his comfort zone, but his portrayal of rural Texas is surprisingly rich visually. However, even though Susan’s coldness is an important part of her character, Adams plays Susan as if she’s constantly walking through a dream in a fugue state, which works half the time and feels incredibly stilted the other half. While I love where it ends up (although the ending itself is sure to be divisive), some of Susan’s scenes are a bit of a slog until the pieces from the fictional narrative start to click. The Susan narrative of Nocturnal Animals may benefit from a repeat viewing knowing what to expect, but its second half rewards patience with its first.

B+

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rotten Tomatoes (72%)

SPOILERS and Stray Observations:

  • The opening sequence, which features an array of nude overweight women holding sparklers and seemingly celebrating America Itself, seems at first like a parody of elitist art, with Susan arrogantly calling it a mirror held up to society, but interviews with Ford suggest that it was meant genuinely (if not apologetically). However unnerving Ford’s original idea was (and however much his explanation makes it sound like he’s never met anyone with a waistline before), the fact that Susan would be the artist behind such an exhibit really informs her character in a not-too-flattering way. If Susan is the type to paint a group of people with such a broad brush, it fits that she’d also be able to paint a picture of Edward in broad strokes as well. Susan (and Ford) may have intended the exhibit to show the flaws in America, but it foreshadows the flaws and materialism in herself.
  • MAJOR SPOILERS (highlight to read): The casting of Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife is pretty sly, given her resemblance to Adams. It definitely feels like she is supposed to represent Adams at first, and her death represents the end of their marriage. But what I didn’t notice right away is that, were that the case, why is Tony still played by Jake Gyllenhaal? Tony’s wife is never supposed to be the ersatz Susan, but rather Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is the Susan stand-in the whole time (as is made clear by his mirroring of Susan’s words calling Tony/Edward weak). While I liked that the ending was an appropriate vengeance on Susan, the fact that Tony ended up dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound bodes poorly for what Edward was actually up to after sending the book to Susan.
  • Seriously, what was up with that jump scare on the baby monitor? Did that serve a purpose?

Loving is a subdued and unfortunately dry dramatization

While it avoids sappy and melodramatic pitfalls, Loving doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.

There’s an old stereotype about awards bait that goes something like dramatize civil rights trailblazers, collect nominations. Loving seems to fit into this category, as its the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple whose legal battle for recognition in Virginia led to a national end to race-based marriage restrictions. It’s the kind of political victory that nearly everyone today agrees was a fantastic thing, and gains relevance with the recent analogous decision for same-sex marriage and renewed focus on race relations. It even has a convenient double meaning in the title, which would be hilariously over-the-top were it not true and all. But it’s important to recognize that the title is Loving, not Loving v. Virginia. Direct Jeff Nichols has decided to tell the story of the couple, with the court case happening mostly in the background. This decision avoids most of the sappy and melodramatic pitfalls of awards season drama, but it doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.

The fact that it works at all is a testament to the tender performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton portrays Richard as something of a good-old-boy, handy and eager to provide for and protect his family, but full of genuine decency. The movie often returns to the image of Richard building houses for others as his job, contrasting with his frustration at not being able to build a house for his family. Mildred seems more passive at the start, although Negga’s performance never lets her seem unaware, but she shows more altruistic tendencies at the prospect of setting legal precedent. However, as the movie starts with Richard and Mildred getting married, there’s little done to sell the bond between these two people in the early going. While the performers make it work by the halfway mark, there’s nothing to invest us in the events of the early going aside from a historical sense of decency.

The movie portrays a marriage in a tender and subdued way, while not focusing much on the conflict. There is some spark of trouble in the second half, when Mildred welcomes media attention for the cause while Richard more wishes the world would vanish, but its understated to the point of subtext. Nichols standard Michael Shannon briefly shows up to inject some life as a photographer, but vanishes as quickly as he appears. The legal proceedings are secondary, which is likely a stealth blessing given that Nick Kroll shows up as the main attorney; Kroll bears a physical resemblance to the real Bernard Cohen, but doesn’t have range outside of “grinning jackass”. Despite the legal mountain to climb, Loving doesn’t present a human villain to personify the conflict, outside of Martin Csokas’ sheriff in the first half. His sheriff is an uninteresting condescending bloviating racist stock type, and essentially every other character with a speaking role in the film is sympathetic to the Lovings’ situation (although many, including Richard’s mother and Mildred’s sister, deem their devotion foolish), forcing us to frame the central conflict in terms of Lovings vs The World. Since we know going in that the Lovings are successful, there isn’t any urgency to the story. The moment that Mildred receives the news about the Supreme Court decision should be a major reason for cheer, but instead elicits are resounding meh.

Director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a rural storyteller with his previous films, such as Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. Each of those portrayed areas in the Southern USA with a distinct directorial voice, linking them together even though they had vastly different content, ranging from an examination of schizophrenia to a story about a super-powered preteen. Loving has some of Nichols’ eye, especially in its treatment of car culture, but at many times looks like the awards bait it desperately tries not to be (the cloying strings of the score don’t help). Its dedication to restraint and its lack of soapboxing is admirable, but there’s very little else to fill that space other than a time capsule of the way things was. His previous films have a knack for portraying people realistically, but the situations surrounding them made their plights more interesting. Putting realistic people in a realistic situation treated realistically turns out to be less interesting to watch than one might think.

C

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Loving (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas, and Nick Kroll
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

Moonlight is a gorgeous and compassionate study of self-identity

Moonlight is an utterly absorbing and beautiful film with unflailing empathy for its main character.

“Who is you” is the repeated refrain of Moonlight, the story of Miami-born Chiron told in three chapters corresponding to three ages (grade school, high school, and mid-20s). The answer is complicated. Chiron is shy. Chiron is black. Chiron is poor. Chiron is the son of an neglectful mother and absent father. Chiron is the target of bullies. Chiron is coming to grips with his homosexuality. Chiron seems to be a laundry list of melodrama and angst, but it’s to Moonlight’s great credit that it never loses sight of the fact that Chiron is Chiron. Moonlight is, more than anything else, a emotionally resonant and empathetic character study. The fact that is has beautiful cinematography, a tremendous score and soundtrack, and shines a light on a traditionally ignored segment of the population is all gravy.

Each chapter is titled for a moniker of the main character (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), and grapples with his self-identity. The three chapters can be roughly broken down into three epiphanies: understanding your world, understanding your self, and understanding how to accept and be honest about your self. Every side character is written solely in terms of their relation to Chiron (I can only think of one scene without the main character), including a drug dealer who becomes his de facto father figure and his friend Kevin, who greatly influences his fortitude and his sexuality. Despite Chiron being a person of few words, director Barry Jenkins’ camera and the performances of the three actors playing Chiron give us a complete, intimate picture, transcending the shallow stereotypes that appear on the surface, particularly in its third act. It seems ready to jump into yelling, violence, and melodrama at any point, but opts for restraint in nearly every case while still providing pathos and catharsis.

What pushes Moonlight from effective to extraordinary is its beautiful production. Jenkins’ frames are all a piece of art unto themselves, popping with slightly over-saturated colours (the full title of the original play is In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and you better believe they get that shot). There’s a lot to dissect in each image, and they paint a vibrant and distinctive world in spite of the often depressing material. The soundtrack is loaded with the kind of old soul and R&B that Kanye West made a career out of sampling, contrasting with the strings of the stunning original score. And the performances are fantastic from top to bottom, with Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali deserved locks for supporting Oscar nominations.

Moonlight is an utterly absorbing and beautiful film with unflailing empathy for its main character. It avoids the numerous awards-bait pitfalls, standing a singular and triumphant work. As a piece of visual art, Moonlight is worthy of study. As a gripping drama, Moonlight is entirely effective. As a time capsule of an era where identity has taken centre stage, Moonlight is maybe the most important and relevant film of the year.

A

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Moonlight (2016)
Dir. Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris
Rotten Tomatoes (98%)

  • Obligatory burn: Moonlight is the movie Boyhood would have been if Richard Linklater was a more interesting human being.