Sunday, January 8, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2016

Here we arrive, then, at the annual tradition of narrowing the hundreds of films released and seen in a year to 10 or so. I have never come up with a satisfactory answer for why this is done. The closest I can come is this: Only the crazed and obsessive among us will approach seeing even half the films released in a year, and providing a top 10 or 20 allows those burgeoning but busy cinephiles to focus on a well curated selection of the year’s best offerings. Why order the list – a practice against which no less an authority than Roger Ebert once tried to rebel? Simply, if one sees only one or two movies in a year, start at the top and move down.

Our basic purpose defined, then what does this specific list mean? Almost every one of these films could be found on other lists out there – and there are a few I turn to more often than others such as the BFI Sight and Sound poll and the National Board of Review. Left for me to consider, then, is what if anything this specific list in this specific order means about me. I do not know if I am the most easily knowable person, but were one to try, he could do no better than a list of films I think are important. So as much as I wish this to be a guide for you, dear reader, to the movies I hope you seek out, it is a guide to me as a person and what I feel about the world right here and right now.

Before we get to the list, five other films you could do worse than spending two or so hours with: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a man who lived and breathed it; Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, an anti-war protest film disguised as a horror movie set in 1980s Tehran after the revolution; Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a bracing, comprehensive study of black America’s struggle from its roots in slavery through the present; John Carney’s Sing Street, a beautiful ode to youthful rebellion and the uplifting power of music; and Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a quiet, meditative film that celebrates the strength of a single voice (or a pair of voices in unison) amid the din and clatter of hatred and bigotry.

10. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach

What I, Daniel Blake comes down to is this: Systems will not help us; only people will help us. I am defining help broadly here as anything that improves our lives. No system ultimately can improve our lives as much or as efficiently as the people around us. Loach’s film, from a tremendous script by Paul Laverty (their second Palm d’Or winner together after The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006), is undeniably angry, fed up with austerity and bureaucracy and governments that care more about self-perpetuation than governing, but at its core, it is a deeply human story about small kindnesses.

Daniel (Dave Johns, a comedian in his film debut, though he has been on television and stage for years) is a widower with a heart problem. A carpenter by trade, his doctor tells him he cannot return to work as the strain on his heart would be too much. However, after a government physical, the state tells him he is fit to work and he will not receive his medical benefits. He goes on unemployment, but the strict rules for earning unemployment benefits – including using computer skills he does not possess – leave him without the means to support himself.

While he is in the employment office attempting to arrange his medical appeal, he overhears Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two forced from their residence in a homeless hostel in London due to squalid conditions. She is being railroaded by the same system as Daniel, and he has had enough. It is one thing to push him around, he determines, but he cannot sit by and watch it happen to someone else. He befriends her and her two children, and they form a makeshift family, out of necessity, yes, but primarily out of an innate desire to be kind to one another.

There are no easy resolutions in this film because the adversities experienced by these characters are real, and they are happening all over right now. People who want to work cannot for reasons medical, family, or elsewise, but the state does not see reasons, only statistics, only another jobless person to burden the government. This is what bureaucracies do – they reduce people to numbers in a formula, then remove humanity from the equation. Systems cannot tolerate humanity because they cannot understand it, so it falls to us, the people, to show to each other what no system can – compassion and kindness.

9. Jackie, directed by Pablo Larraín

The greatness of Jackie lies in a triptych of elements coming together to form a masterful portrait of perhaps the defining moment of the 20th century: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. No single moment provides as clear a schism in the American experience as that fateful split second Nov. 22, 1963, when a man pulled his trigger and shook the world. We have seen the assassination on screen before in countless ways from countless angles but never in this way from this angle with this director, this script, and this star.

It does not take long to realize you are in for a different experience. From the first moment Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s grainy footage washes across the screen, Jackie becomes an eerily subjective rendering of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the White House. Often shot in extreme close-ups, the visual language of the film suggests a woman who must suffer the constant bombardment and invasion of a nation’s interest but who is smart enough to use that to her advantage. At first, Jackie seems overwhelmed, but at last, she seems – and is – powerful.

The script by Noah Oppenheim smartly zeroes in on Jackie’s mental state in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. This narrow focus gives Larraín the freedom to make the film about the first lady’s subjective experience. Oppenheim takes this historical figure and finds what made her relatable and beloved while showing the calculation that went into establishing the Jackie O aura. Her concern for her husband’s legacy – at one point, she asks her driver his knowledge of another president who died in office; he has none – gives her a goal to focus on amid her grief. In so doing, she helps define one of the most enduring legacies in modern history.

Through it all, there is Natalie Portman as Jackie. I discussed her performance in depth yesterday in my Top 10 Performances column, so I will only briefly touch on it here, but suffice it to say, the film would not succeed without Portman’s stunning work at its center. Most great performances are like wonderfully written prose – precise, detailed, and nuanced. Portman’s Jackie, while full of precision, detail, and nuance, is closer to poetry, flowing seamlessly in and out of ideas and drifting along a rhythm of her own making. It carries us along, and by the end, we are thankful for the ride.

8. Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Little in this life makes me as happy as being surprised at the movies. It does not happen often anymore. I am too inquisitive about films. I want to know what they are about, how they are regarded, what went into their development, all before I see them. So, even with great films, every other film on this list in fact, I had some idea going in they would be great, that I would appreciate them. Moana hit me like an arrow from Cupid’s bow. I had no idea it was coming, but I fell in love.

In every department, this is the best non-Pixar film Disney has produced in a long time. Beginning with the absolutely stunning animation, Moana pulls you in via a wordless opening sequence in which we meet the title character and learn her relationship to the ocean. The water effects alone impress, but the character designs, the small, in-world details, and the wonderful depth of explorable space all add up to the kind of rich experience rarely found in children’s movies.

The soundtrack, composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, is gloriously realized and endlessly hummable. Songs like the opening number “Where You Are,” “We Know the Way,” and “You’re Welcome” demonstrate a fluidity with verse, daringness with style, and facility for arrangement lacking in lesser animated musicals. The show-stopper, “How Far I’ll Go,” a solo effort by Miranda as performed by Moana voice actor Auli’i Cravalho, belongs in the pantheon of great Disney songs with “Bare Necessities,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and “Let It Go.”

Finally, it is a winning story about a young girl with drive, ambition, courage, and talent, the kind of character rarer at the cinema than she ought to be. At every turn, the film is charming, exciting, and simply delightful, but its ending, which I will not reveal, is its true masterstroke. Where nearly every film of this kind before it took one path, Moana takes another, and rather than celebrate the destruction of something evil, it embraces and revels in the creation of something good.

7. The Handmaiden, directed by Chan-wook Park

This film is why words like “sumptuous” were invented. Adapted by Park and Seo-kyeong Jeong from Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” The Handmaiden is a twisting, twisted tale of love, passion, deceit, and betrayal told against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. If I told you everything contained within this film, you would not believe me. There is even a chance you will see the film and not believe what you saw.

Con artists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, lesbian love affairs, insane asylums, and a library of every type of pornography imaginable – Park stuffs his film to bursting with so much lurid and illicit subject matter one could almost miss its studious formalism, its impressively byzantine narrative structure, and its outright beauty. Almost. For as much sex and sensuality as is trotted out, The Handmaiden is never prurient. The camera does not ogle these women, so neither do we.

Tae-ri Kim plays Korean con artist Sook-Hee, employed by “Count” Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to insinuate herself into the life of heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) in order to steal her fortune. She becomes the wealthy woman’s handmaiden, and the deeper and more intimate their relationship grows, Sook-Hee becomes less able to discern whether she is still pulling a con, genuinely falling in love, or being conned herself. The performances by all three actors are brilliantly mannered and cleverly insane.

By the time Park pulls the rug out from under the audience at the end of the elongated first act, he has so thoroughly brought us into his world we would let him do anything. This is good because the rug will come out at least twice more. As reveal after reveal and false reveal after false reveal pile on top of one another, your jaw drops at the sheer audacity of the strategy, and you are ultimately thankful for a movie that treats you as smart enough to keep up.

6. Weiner, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

I saw this movie at the end of May, by which time we were all hopelessly enmeshed in the presidential election cycle and unbelievably had more than five months still to go. It still does not feel quite over, does it? My sneaking suspicion is it never will. It is a fine mess we made of democracy, a lovely theory but which has proved unsustainable. The writing was always on the wall, though, and in Kriegman and Steinberg’s probing (forgive me) political exposé, it is spelled out as clear as ever.

The First Fall of Anthony Weiner took place right around the time I began my journalism career. I had been told for years through school I should seek another profession, by friends, family, and well-meaning advisors. Journalism is dying, they said. There will be no jobs. Well, I have never had a problem finding work in the industry, but its death sure as hell came just the same. It is not a physical death or even a financial one – though that is occurring, too – but rather a spiritual rot at the core. The initial sexting scandal of the Democratic congressman from New York surely was not the first sign of a problem, but just look at its resonance now.

This documentary is a chronicle of the Second Fall of Anthony Weiner, when he ran for mayor of New York City and promptly got himself embroiled in another scandal. The film is a tale of hubris and dumbfounding illogic. Weiner is a deeply flawed man who could not get himself together for even a brief period, but as much as he may seem like a villain, particularly next to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife, Huma Abedin, he is no such thing. The villain, if there must be one, is us.

Who are we, so quick, so ready to judge? And what is it that we are judging exactly? Weiner was a hypocrite who was unfaithful to his wife. He was not the first to fit both those categories and will not be the last. His public profile made him a figure of ridicule and scorn, and ridicule and scorn him we did. Mercilessly. We chewed every bit of meat off the bone, and when there was none left, we ground the bones into dust. It was disgusting, every second of it. I do not defend the man’s actions, but I also refuse to point my finger and laugh. There is nothing funny about the end of civil public discourse, and it is not by chance the Third Fall of Anthony Weiner coincided with the rise of the current president-elect. It was not chance at all. It was a failure by all of us to recognize the design.

5. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

The same themes explored by Loach and Laverty in I, Daniel Blake are taken here to their logical extreme by director-co-writer Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou. After we have removed humanity from our systems, what is there left but to remove it from ourselves? Lanthimos and Filippou craft a darkly funny satire that becomes less funny and less satirical the more you consider it until finally you are left with nothing but the dark.

In a world that is not too far in the future, the state determines humans belong in heterosexual pairs. Those who do not find a partner within a given set of time are transmogrified into the animal of their choosing. The metaphor is clear: The state defines humanity by couple-hood, without which we are simply beasts. It does not take long for us to meet a group of humans rebelling against the system, forced to live in the woods like … well, like the wild beasts they would otherwise become. They are militant in their singleness and fierce in their enforcement of individuality. Once again, the metaphor is clear: The rebellion becomes that against which it is rebelling.

If it were this simple and this clear cut, it would be entertaining and enlightening, but it would not be transcendent. The Lobster transcends because it introduces us to David (Colin Farrell) and the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel  Weisz). They are good people trapped by their systems – he by the state and she by the rebels. Within all of this, they somehow find each other. Thus, the film ceases to be a battle between two diametrically opposed ideologies but a battle against ideology itself.

David and the Short-Sighted Woman, played to perfection by Farrell and Weisz, wage a private war against the world. Theirs is the kind of intense personal connection meant to be crushed by these systems because it is the ultimate expression of their humanity, for which as we discussed above, systems have no circuitry. The film’s ultimate question, and its darkest, becomes whether two people molded by the system have the strength and power to end it. The film may not provide a clear answer, but one need only look around in our world to intuit what it might be.

4. Fences, directed by Denzel Washington

Fences is a movie so good we almost do not deserve it. That it exists at all is a wonderful gift to the world. Whose gift, then? First and foremost, it is from playwright August Wilson, who adapted his script for the screen. Wilson uses the English language the way Renaissance masters used a canvas or, in the parlance of his characters, the way Hank Aaron used a bat – gracefully, elegantly, effortlessly. Fences is an invitation by Wilson to understand this country and its people a little better by sitting on the porch and chatting with them, by walking a mile in their well-worn shoes.

It is also the gift of its director, Washington, for being smart enough and talented enough to know when to stay out of the way of the material and what he can do to enhance it on the screen. Not every great actor can be a great director. Some may not even be good directors. It takes a certain skill, an ability to see the larger picture. Actors, so trained to focus on detail and nuance, can easily miss the greater themes calling out for exploration. Washington does not make this mistake, and in the film’s final resplendent moment, he reveals just what a talent he is behind the camera.

Washington the actor has also given us this gift, along with Viola Davis and co-signed by the rest of this superb cast, small enough I will list them all here – Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney. Most of these actors had the benefit of appearing in the stage revival, including Washington and Davis, so familiarity and facility with the material is a given. However, to translate that familiarity from the stage to the screen takes a special talent, which is possessed by every one of these brilliant performers.

African-American life in this country has never been and will never be easy. Hell, life in this country is not easy, but to start from a place of systemic disadvantage makes it near impossible. The film’s main character, Troy Maxon, is not afraid to call out the systems that have held him and his family down for generations that have passed and generations still to come. Bigotry and racism must have a name to be fought, and we must be willing to call them by those names when we see them. This is Fences’ greatest gift, and we should cherish it, but we must also be willing to learn from it.

3. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins

Some movies are about transformations. Others are transformative. Moonlight, inspired by the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is both. It would seem impossible to walk out of Jenkins’ beautiful tone poem without thinking a different way about the world and our responsibility in it. The trick of the film is to bring the margins and its marginalized people to the foreground, to show you their lives as they experience them, and to force you to question everything you thought about what it means to grow up poor, black, gay, or all three.

When first we meet the 9-year-old Little (Alex R. Hibbert), he is precisely that, physically diminutive and small in the eyes of the world – his peers, his mother Paula (Naomi Harris). It takes a chance encounter with the local drug lord Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to give him even the first hint of self-worth. All of these people exist on the outskirts of a society that would rather they just disappear, but Moonlight serves as a reminder not just of their existence but their value.

In a remarkable narrative gambit, we jump forward seven years in Little’s life to when he becomes Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his teenage self, who is full of anger at the way the world has treated him and feeling the weight of a developing sexuality he does not understand. Kevin (played in the film’s first act by Jaden Piner, the second act by Jharrel Jerome, and the third act by André Holland) is Chiron’s closest friend along the way. With an abusive mother and a now-absent father figure, Chiron turns to Teresa and Kevin for comfort and compassion. When Kevin betrays him, it sets in motion the events that will lead to Chiron becoming the man we meet in the third act, Black (Trevante Rhodes).

Act III is Jenkins’ biggest gamble and greatest achievement. It is here where he diverges from the play, which featured only the first two acts, and forges his own path. It would be a disservice to the film to reveal any more, but in its final stretch, Moonlight overturns every preconceived notion we might still have had about Little, Chiron, and Black. It demonstrates humanity in ways rarely shared on screen, showing him to be flawed but worthy of love, guarded but open to connection, but most of all, like the rest of us, complex and real.

2. Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese

Every film takes a different path to the screen, and some are more harried than others, but for a film like Silence, it is a miracle it even exists. Scorsese spent decades trying to bring Shûsaku Endô’s novel to the big screen. Beset by production delays and embroiled in lawsuits, it seemed a longshot ever to come together, but Scorsese is no stranger to long-delayed passion projects. This is the director, after all, who spent nearly 30 years trying to make Gangs of New York. If anyone could put his vision down on film, it would be Scorsese.

So he has, and in such a way as to make every minute, every second spent fighting for its realization seem worth it. The evidence of the master filmmaker’s passion is in every frame of Silence – the moody, fog-filled photography of its early passages, the spare but evocative set design of later sequences, and the languid pace, not often associated with Scorsese’s films, that allows viewers to soak in every luscious moment. This is certainly the director’s most beautiful film since Raging Bull, which is not a fair comparison because their forms are dictated by their functions, which are so very different.

If Silence were only a magnificently mounted project, it would be worthy of Scorsese’s efforts and the nearly three hours of an audience’s time it demands. However, it is also the most richly layered and doggedly inquisitive film Scorsese has ever made. As a lapsed Catholic brought up in a devoutly religious home, Scorsese has wrestled with questions of god and faith his entire life, thus he is the perfect director to adapt Endô’s work.

The film follows a pair of Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), on a mission in 17th century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed and practitioners of the faith are hunted down and forced to deny their beliefs on pain of torture and death. The story allows Scorsese to explore questions such as what faith means, who is worthy of forgiveness, whether the eponymous silence is proof of god’s absence, and what right men have to speak on behalf of god. Silence is a film that must be viewed and viewed again and again even to scratch its surface. Its thematic depth and aesthetic pleasures, however, make a daunting endeavor an experience to treasure.

1. O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman

Take a good look at that picture above. There is a good chance you recognize it. Some of you just said to yourselves, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” You probably know a lot about that image and could tell tales of your life directly related to it. Contained within that moment, which is the culmination of many smaller moments, is everything about us, our society, and the world we have built. It is our cultural Waterloo, after which we could never engage with anything the same way again, much to our detriment.

Some will cry foul at the inclusion of O.J.: Made in America on this list, let alone at the top, suggesting that despite its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and its limited run in theaters, it is a television show. I might respond by saying with the proliferation of Netflix original movies, video-on-demand, day-and-date releases, and the like, what even constitutes a “proper film” anymore is up for debate. If such matters concern you, simply cross this film off the list and make due with a top nine.

However you wish to define it – TV show, miniseries, film – O.J.: Made in America is the defining chronicle of our times. It takes the landmark O.J. Simpson murder trial and expands its scope, extrapolates back through time until the portrait is not of a controversial football player but of the United States itself. And it is a damning portrait the film paints.

Nobody comes out clean in this. O.J. Simpson is no hero. The Los Angeles Police Department is criminally corrupt. The prosecution is laughably inept. The defense is brazenly manipulative. The jury is willfully dismissive. The media are cravenly pandering. The world is gleefully entertained. The Trial of the Century was a freak show in a hall of mirrors. We came to gawk and saw only ourselves, but with the image distorted, we could not recognize our own faces, so we laughed and pointed anyway.

Had O.J.: Made in America focused solely on the trial, it would have been an intriguing, entertaining document, a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. Instead, Edelman’s grander focus turns the trial into the denouement of a Greek tragedy set in motion long before any of the players could have known what was to come. Our world now is simply the epilogue of this story, and we are all scarcely more than bit players in the greater narrative.

Take a look around and see the evidence of this on every newsstand, on every television channel, in politics, in civic interactions, in the worsening hell of our social discourse. Yes, the culture died on that day in 1994 when a retired football player on trial for the brutal murder of two people failed to put on a pair of gloves. That much seems self-evident. Edelman takes on the noble task with his film of trying to explain why. I think the answer is right there in his title: This is who we are, made as we are, in America.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Performances of 2016

Much of this list speaks for itself – and in the many words written below – but I would be remiss not to point out the top two performances below come from the same film. They are, taken together, remarkable in such a way as to exist beyond the bounds of a list such as this. They represent two of the finest actors in the business delivering some of the greatest lines ever written in a way that nearly breaks the form. I discuss them individually below, but in truth, they cannot be separated. They are dependent on one another in the way the Earth is dependent on the sun. Make of this what you will.

Before we get to the top 10, here are five more performances worth your time and attention: Annette Bening in 20th Century Women; Rachel Weisz in The Lobster; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving; and Ralph Fiennes in The Big Splash.

10. Tom Bennett for Love & Friendship

The world of Jane Austen, as filtered through the lens of writer-director Whit Stillman, is one of high class and high manners, of subtlety and sobriety, so leave it to Stillman to splash a character like Sir James Martin across the screen. As played by Bennett, Martin is a dolt of the highest order, his profound ignorance matched only by his guileless good humor.

He marvels at peas – yes, the vegetable – praises the 12 commandments then is shocked to find out there are only 10, and is delighted to have realized the name of the estate at which he is staying is Churchill and he need not have searched for a church on a hill. Staying firmly within the Stillman tradition of rapid-fire dialogue and sharp satire, Bennett pitches his performance to just the right level of absurdity as to stay believable but transcend into hilarity at the drop of a hat.

9. Sandra Hüller for Toni Erdmann

Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is remarkable for many things, not the least of which its success at turning a serious condemnation of sexism in the business world into a three-hour farce littered with humor and pathos. Its star, Hüller, carries the weight of both ends of the story. She must be a woman marginalized within her office, frustrated by her obvious talent being overlooked, but she must also exist in the absurdist comedy world Ade creates. Hüller is more than up to the task.

For evidence of this, look no further than Hüller’s much discussed, rightly lauded performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” somewhere after the midpoint of the film. By this time, she is exhausted by her father’s shenanigans – and plain exhausted and overworked – but somehow, she lets him talk her into performing for a group of strangers at a party. Hüller’s slow build from reluctant participant to hammy belting is a thing of beauty. She is a joy to watch, as is this film.

8. Ben Foster for Hell or High Water

If Foster were not so good at playing live wires and loose cannons, I would say it was time for him to move on to something else, but he just is that damn good. This is a bit reductive, of course, as Foster has shown plenty of range throughout his career, from early work on Six Feet Under to The Messenger. However, it is the wild, unhinged characters, capable of anything at any moment, equal parts frightening and seductive, for which Foster will always be best remembered.

He reaches perhaps the apex of that kind of character – though never count out Foster for finding new levels of insanity to portray – as Tanner Howard in David Mackenzie’s widely loved western cops-and-robbers saga Hell or High Water. As a bank robber just recently out of prison but fighting alongside his brother for a just cause, Foster imbues Tanner with enough heart that no matter where the script takes the character – and it gets plenty dark and violent – the audience never loses sight of his true purpose. He is a man who wants to do right, but his only path to it is through wrongdoing.

7. Isabelle Huppert for Elle

How many actresses get to this point in their careers – more than 100 credits to her name, international acclaim, a storied career working with some of the most brilliant directors around – and choose to do a movie like this? Only Huppert, I imagine. Only Huppert could take such a risk on a Paul Verhoeven vehicle about rape, revenge, fantasy, and womanhood. Only Huppert could have the courage to play a sexual assault survivor as both victim and pursuer. Only Huppert could play a woman facing down the demons in her soul, as well as the evils that surround her. Only Huppert.

After making her onscreen debut in 1971, Huppert has spent a lifetime taking chances, and she has never shied away from the ugly, dirty, angry side of the characters she plays. Her character in Elle, Michèle Leblanc, is often cold, cruel, and calculating, and Huppert makes us sympathize with her without softening her. She is allowed to be strong and confident without worry for what others will think. It is a radical and bracing portrait of femininity few actresses would dare tackle. In fact, I can think of just one.

6. Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea

Affleck has been among the best actors of his generation for some time. He has not exactly been prolific of late, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in quality, never failing to deliver authentic, lived-in performances whether in ensemble heist comedies like the Ocean’s series or in dark, impressionistic thrillers like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or The Killer Inside Me. Reports of his treatment of the women he has worked with, including multiple claims of sexual harassment, cannot be ignored, but the work stands apart from that.

As Lee Chandler, grieving as much for the life he could have lived but did not as for the death of his brother, Affleck delivers a typically on point portrayal of pain, anguish, and fear. Lee has shut himself off from the world so long, he no longer knows how to reach out and connect, even when he knows he must. For his sake and the sake of his family, he tries over and over again to bring out something in himself that must have been there once – we see it in flashbacks – but he is fishing in a river that has run dry. Affleck expertly sells the weight of this struggle in his body, his voice, and his whole being.

5. Mahershala Ali for Moonlight

Moonlight is broken into three distinct acts, each showing a different stage in the life of a boy growing up in Miami. Ali appears only in the first act, but the monumental force of the character he and writer-director Barry Jenkins create brings into being the rest of the events of the film. Moonlight is predicated on its ability to challenge the assumptions we make about others, and nowhere is that more clear than in the character of Juan, the gentle drug lord who takes a scared young boy under his wing.

Juan does not seek to mold the boy into anything. He simply shows him kindness, which in this world is enough of a miracle. Ali, probably best known for his work on Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage, does not force his will onto the character. There are no big, showy moments, no actorly affectations. He lets Juan flow through him so naturally and gracefully it simply sweeps the audience along.

4. Natalie Portman for Jackie

Jacqueline Kennedy is an icon, her place in the public imagination firmly entrenched. As an icon, she is an ideal to which people aspire, an inspiration, a shining example of the best of who a people can be. Yet, she was also a person, a woman, a wife, a mother, whose life was marred by tragedy and whose grief was felt on the grandest stage imaginable. The world is quite familiar with the icon, but Portman’s daring, subtle, and sublime work in Jackie shows us the person.

Taking place mostly in the few days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Portman takes us into the mind of a woman who has been forever altered by her circumstances but refuses to be broken. The actress nails the mannered speech patterns and stiff gait of the upper-crust debutante, but the performance is not built on its imitations. It is built on the quiet, devastating moments in which Jackie is alone, looking at her tired visage in the mirror and wondering what could possibly come next for her. This is where Portman shines.

3. Colin Farrell for The Lobster

What a ride it has been to follow Farrell over these 20-odd years. He has been in enough bad films and disastrous flops to kill five careers, but he keeps coming back, and every once in a while, he gives us a gem like this. Though he has never seemed like a vain actor, Farrell has always projected an easy cool, a breezy charm that makes him easy to root for in his performances. There is none of that here. As the schlubby, awkward, near-sighted David, he inhabits the character so fully the entire movie-star persona he has cultivated just disappears.

At first, Farrell would seem an odd pairing with a director as iconoclastic as modern Greek master Yorgos Lanthimos, but as a man trapped within a dystopian bureaucracy, he embodies the perfect mix of vulnerability and resignation, hope and despair. Lanthimos creates a world that has beaten down its characters until they are empty husks, flat, monotone cyphers on which the system can project its own needs. Farrell commits to this risky characterization so thoroughly he brings the audience along into this disquieting world and makes us long for his release from it.

2. Viola Davis for Fences

If it is not clear by now, it should be made so: Davis is a national treasure. She is an actress of such skill and range as to elevate instantly whatever material she is given. Imagine then some of the greatest material ever written placed in her hands, and you will have some idea of what she achieves as Rose Maxon, Troy’s long-suffering wife. She has stood by him and shown nothing but kindness, patience, and grace, but she is not weak, far from it. She is the rock on which their marriage is founded, and her shock and anger at her husband’s misdeeds are as righteous as anything you will see.

Davis has been onscreen for 20 years and onstage longer. Her early roles included parts in several Steven Soderbergh films, as well as Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, but I suspect most of us first took real notice of her for her brilliant, shattering work in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. She has only one scene, but her impact is so great it leaves a void in the rest of the film.

She has gone on to great acclaim and notoriety with her television show, How to Get Away with Murder, and like all great actors of this era, she even joined a comic book universe for DC (Suicide Squad, remember what I said about elevating material?). She should probably already have an Oscar or two, and if she does not win for this performance, it will be a scandal. She is the heart and soul of Fences, its emotional center of gravity, and she makes it look as effortless as cooling a pie on the windowsill.

1. Denzel Washington for Fences

What else could this be but Washington in the role that should come to define the latter portion of his career? Washington might be the most consistent and consistently wonderful actor of all time. His carefully curated career is marked by excellent genre work, smart crowd-pleasers, and a handful of stone-cold classics. He is incapable of giving an inauthentic performance, and as much as his movie-star persona informs his screen presence, he never lets it inform his acting.

As retired ballplayer and garbage man Troy Maxon, the first half of the film is given over almost entirely to Washington reciting playwright August Wilson’s many stirring monologues. Washington finds every moment, every nuance, every turn of phrase and makes it his own. He hugs the curves of Wilson’s words like a racecar driver, steering into the littlest details and taking us along for the ride.

This obviously was a deeply personal project for Washington, who directs and stars in this adaptation not long after finishing his run in the Broadway revival of the play. As personal as it must be for him, though, Washington’s performance makes it universal. Troy is every one of us who longs for more than he has been given, but he is no mere symbol. He is a living, breathing human being, and that is thanks to Wilson’s words and Washington’s career-topping performance delivering them.

Check back tomorrow as we conclude our Year in Review series with Last Cinema Standing's Top 10 Films of 2016.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Quotes of 2016

This is my favorite feature to write each year. Screenwriting and screenwriters fascinate me. The best scripts evoke emotions and themes it is possible even the writer did not see. A film is the sum of its component parts, among which one is the screenplay, but that screenplay is made up of its own components – lines, characters, directions – that mean so much more together than they do apart.

The Top 10 Quotes feature began with a decidedly narrow focus, attempting to identify individual lines within scripts that best summarized or exemplified the themes at the cores of their films. This approach lacks a broader context. As much as the cinema is an escape, it is increasingly difficult – although, perhaps it was always impossible – to view a film without considering it through the prism of the real world. So, while each of these lines is wonderfully evocative in its own right, each also reveals a grander emotion or theme that informs the world beyond the screen.

10. “You only have to forgive once” from The Light Between Oceans, written by Derek Cianfrance

Rachel Weisz in The Light Between Oceans
Adapted by writer-director Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans poses a series of devastating moral dilemmas and proceeds to follow each to its painfully logical conclusion. Every decision has the potential to destroy the lives of every person that decision touches. It is a complex and beautiful film that begins as a portrait of the lengths we will go to spare our loved ones pain but ends as a treatise on the value of forgiving those who have caused us pain.

Hannah (Rachel Weisz) loses her husband and infant daughter in a boating accident. As she attempts to put the pieces of her life back together, she is shattered all over again by the well-intentioned machinations of the lighthouse keeper Tom (Michael Fassbender) and his wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). They are three good people faced with awful choices who all suffer greatly because of each other.

With every right to seethe, to lash out in anger, to hold on to her grievances and grief, Hannah remembers the words of her late husband: “You only have to forgive once.” It takes her time to take heed fully of this maxim, but when she does, the disorienting blur of the film’s ethical morass comes into sharp focus. The only idea in which we can find moral certitude is forgiveness, an action of which we are all capable, no matter the slights or transgressions committed against us.

9. “You haven’t seen the rubbish” from The Dressmaker, written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan

Now, if you will permit me to swing 180 degrees in the other direction, I present director-co-writer Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker. This is a strange, cynical, angry film featuring a pair of brilliant performances in the mother-daughter pair at its center Molly and Tilly Dunnage (Judy Davis and Kate Winslet, respectively). It argues persuasively for a world in which some people and places are like trees rotten at the root that should be chopped down before their spoiled fruit can sicken anyone else.

Tilly, a London dressmaker in the haute couture industry, returns to her small hometown in rural Australia decades after an incident in which she was blamed for the death of a small boy – mind you, when she was just a child as well. She arrives initially to do penance, to have the town forgive her and welcome her back through her work. Molly, who became a town pariah in her daughter’s exile, rightly tells her there is nothing that can be done. The town will use her, judge her, and spit her back out, as it has done to Molly.

Tilly learns this lesson the hard way, over and over, but unlike in her childhood, she is no longer defenseless against this town or its people. She sets in motion her revenge, and as she leaves town on the rail – this time, by choice – the largest fire the Outback has ever seen burns on the horizon. The train steward suggests someone has overdone it with their rubbish fire. Tilly responds, “You haven’t seen the rubbish.” By this time, we in the audience have seen the rubbish. It is fiercely nihilistic, but as evidenced by the world around us, some trash needs to burn.

8. “A first lady must always be ready to pack her bags” from Jackie, written by Noah Oppenheim

Natalie Portman in Jackie
Director Pablo Larraín gifts us here with a biopic unlike any you have ever seen as Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), yet to become Onassis, tells the story of the defining tragedy of her life in her own words days after the event has taken place. She is a wreck of a woman, destroyed by what has happened to her but caged by the expectations of a nation and a repressive upbringing.

Even at her most vulnerable, she cannot bring herself to say what she means, and when she does, she denies having said it. She hides her pain beneath the veneer of propriety. However, when she slips and lets out a truth, it is as though a crack has opened up in her façade, and before she can plaster over it, she has given us a brief glimpse into her life and her experience in spite of herself.

All of Jackie plays like a series of dramatic ironies. In John and Jackie’s happiest moments, we know what is to come, but so does Jackie, who is narrating the story for us. As a result, everything is tinged with the pain of hindsight. However, in saying, “A first lady must always be ready to pack her bags,” Jackie is not speaking solely of her tragedy. Such is the truth of the president and the first lady – the White House is not their home. It belongs to the people, and the people can take it back whenever they see fit. By election, term limit, or assassination, one way or another, you are leaving that home, and your mark on it will be impermanent at best – a lesson best remembered by the president, as well.

7. “I can’t beat it” from Manchester by the Sea, written by Kenneth Lonergan

As a portrait of grief and grieving, writer-director Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has few equals. It nails the ever-present whirlwind of pain, anger, guilt, and longing in ways other films would be afraid to engage. In its honesty and brutality, it shocks the senses, and for an audience unprepared for such raw emotion, it unnerves.

After the death of his brother, Lee (Casey Affleck) returns to his hometown to care for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The experience is made more painful for Lee by the constant reminders of the personal tragedy that forced him to leave town in the first place, including ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). He fights and he claws to bring himself back from the abyss, to honor his brother’s wishes, and to find some connection, solace in family.

Finally, with the weight of the past, present, and an uncertain future crashing down upon him, he breaks down at the dinner table, telling Patrick, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” It is the most emotionally naked moment in a movie that traffics in such sentiment, and it is all the more daring for taking us to such a dark, unforgiving place. We want everything to be okay for Lee, for Patrick, for Randi, for ourselves. When a film tells us sometimes it will not be okay, it is distressing, but it is truthful. Sometimes, things are not okay.

6. “What place is there for a weak man in this world?” from Silence, written by Martin Scorsese and Jack Cocks

Andrew Garfield and Yosuke Kubozuka in Silence
To some degree, almost all of Scorsese’s films are about strong, self-possessed people, be they mobsters, comedians, waitresses, or taxi drivers. Their conviction and righteousness – as defined by their own perspective – is unwavering, and this assuredness carries them down a path, usually to their destruction. How remarkable and refreshing then that Scorsese’s best film in years explores the path of the weak, the wavering, and the wondering.

Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are Jesuit priests in a nation, Japan, where Catholicism has been outlawed. The atrocities they see force them to question their faith in a god who would allow such things to happen to his believers. They are plagued by these questions and the guilt these questions inspire. They should be pillars of the faith for a people whose every breath is belief and every action is praise.

It takes the weak-willed Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who sells out the fathers, his faith, and his god at every turn, to show Rodrigues the truth. His actions test the boundaries of forgiveness, but he is sincere when he asks Rodrigues where he belongs in this world as a man with no conviction. Kichijiro’s weakness calls out for a strength of faith he does not possess and which only Rodrigues can provide him. The weak have just as much a right to this world as the strong.

5. “Sometimes, we’re asked to do things that are beyond us” from Midnight Special, written by Jeff Nichols

A March release that was unfairly forgotten amid the sturm und drang of the year, Nichols’ tender ode to the early science fiction of Steven Spielberg is ripe for rediscovery. The writer-director described the film as his reflection on being a father, and those origins shine through in every second of the relationship between Roy (Michael Shannon) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

Shannon is typically excellent as a father trying to help his young son escape a religious cult that believes he is a prophet of god. Despite all the fantastical science fiction elements, at its core, this is a chase film. Roy and Alton are fugitives, looking for help wherever they can get it. At one point, they trust the wrong man, who tells Roy, “Sometimes, we’re asked to do things that are beyond us.”

His failure costs all of them deeply, and this is his manner of explanation. However, it is undeniably true as Roy and Alton can attest in the middle of a plan for which they are ill-equipped. At some point, most of us will be asked to perform a task beyond what we think is possible, either because of means or motivation. Some will succeed and some will not, but the only failure is not pushing ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of, which is how Roy and Alton end up where they do.

4. “No one ever listens to him, so why should he listen to them?” from I, Daniel Blake, written by Paul Laverty

Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, and Briana Shann in I, Daniel Blake
Director Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning drama is a deeply infuriating investigation of the ravages of austerity and the failure of governments to care for their citizens. It functions as a primal scream against a system built to lock people out, and yet, it strikes a deeply human chord in its depiction of good people who simply want to do right by each other, the bureaucracy be damned.

Daniel (Dave Johns) is a carpenter who is not medically cleared to return to work in the wake of a heart problem. However, the government physician – who is not a doctor – contradicts this, and in the eyes of the system, he is not entitled to his medical benefits. As he fights for his benefits, he befriends a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), and her two small children, Daisy and Dylan (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan, respectively).

One afternoon with the children, Daniel tries to get Dylan’s attention but cannot. His sister observes, “No one ever listens to him, so why should he listen to them?” This is astute. The world has no time for the Daniels and Katies and Daisys and Dylans. It does not want to hear of their plight nor consider its role in creating it. The world consumes. It roars. So, why shouldn’t they roar back? Why shouldn’t we?

3. “There ought not never have been a time called ‘too early’” from Fences, written by August Wilson

Fences, Wilson’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is one of the greatest things ever written in the English language. It sings the lyrics of everyday life more crisply and clearly than anything that came before or has come since. It is a musical without songs, a dance without steps, a rhythmic flow of emotion and truth and beauty.

Denzel Washington brings it to the screen, and as a director, he mostly gets out of its way. As an actor, however, reprising his role from the recent Tony-winning Broadway revival, he leans back and rips into the material like a slugger on fastball. Though not written for him, the role of Troy Maxon feels like it was just waiting for Washington to come along and play it. The perfect marriage of actor and part.

Of course, it all begins with the character Wilson put on the page – the embittered ex-baseball player Troy, who feels the world owes him more than he ever got and knows he missed his chance in life because of racism, a poor upbringing, just plain bad luck, or a combination of all three. When he is told his playing career went nowhere because he came along too early, before Jackie Robinson and the Civil Rights movement as a whole, he lashes out. Why should there even have been a time of such inequity? Why, indeed.

2. “If I go, there’s just no telling how far I’ll go” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Pardon if so far this has been a dour list, but it was that kind of year, wasn’t it? What little hope there was to be found seemed to flash in and out of existence, like the flicker of a candle in a downpour. Miranda offered us two – his Broadway sensation Hamilton and the soundtrack to Moana. Much of the soundtrack is a series of collaborations among Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, but the film’s signature song, “How Far I’ll Go,” is a solo composition by Miranda, and it is glorious.

The same can be said of Moana, a Disney princess movie that has the courage not to be a princess movie, as stated even by the titular heroine (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) throughout the film. She is a wanderer, an explorer, which is similar to other Disney princesses, but unlike so many before her who journeyed to find love or to realize they were happy at home, Moana journeys because it is a part of her. She must, and the only question is right there in the title of the song: How far will she go? The answer is in the lyric: There is no telling.

It is as uplifting a message as you are likely to find this year: try, fail, try again, keep going, stretch yourself, and do not wonder about the destination, just go. I would say it is refreshingly progressive for a Disney movie, but in fact, it is a progressive message for any movie. So much of life is learning limitations, banging our fists against walls and our heads against ceilings. This should not be the case. Just go, and if you do, there is no telling how far you will travel.

1. “We made a legend out of a massacre” from I Am Not Your Negro, written by James Baldwin and Raoul Peck

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro
The history of the United States is a modern history of atrocity. From the natives who were already here to the slaves who were brought here to the immigrants who came here, the white European ruling class has used its power and influence to dominate, oppress, and terrorize. If we cannot agree on this fact, we will not agree on much else. That there is even debate is the sick result of a guilty party unwilling to admit guilt or even to admit there is something for which to be guilty.

Peck’s documentary, made from activist Baldwin’s unfinished book, is a deeply personal view of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, its implications for the world today, and its roots in the past. It is honest, unflinching, and unafraid to call racism what it is – a malevolent scourge that ignores what is human in all of us. To deny its existence is to reinforce its power. To deny its influence is to be influenced by it. It tears at the fabric of American life, making life impossible to live for Americans.

Schools cannot even agree today on what to teach about slavery. It is not brought up in polite society, lest we remind some sensitive soul of the indignities suffered by an entire people at the hands of someone else’s forebears. No, most want to believe slavery was the past. It was the Civil War. It was the Underground Railroad. It was a few songs to pass the nights on the plantation. “Swing low, sweet chariot.” It is a story. It is a legend. But in truth, it was and remains a massacre.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we count down the Top 10 Performances of 2016, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Year in Review: Best & Worst of 2016

In year three of this annual Year in Review series, it occurs to me perhaps “best” and “worst” represent an inadequate way to analyze trends in cinema. To a degree, it is a matter of formatting. It was my initial mistake to try to bifurcate the film landscape in such a manner, to pass judgment by way of a subjective pro/con list.

With that in mind, this entry called out for a different approach this time around, a new format. In the interest of becoming more open-minded and considerate of other viewpoints – a condition sorely lacking in so much public and private discourse – here is the proposal: Point/counterpoint. Not a new idea, by any stretch, but with this twist – it’s just me.

I have assumptions and preferences like anyone else. Perhaps by challenging my own prejudices, I can come to a new understanding and point of view. That is the hope anyway, and not a bad goal for life outside the cinema as well.

Point: Home distribution models threaten the nature of the cinema

You do not need me to restate the mission statement of this site, which I have done a dozen times before, including yesterday in the introduction to this Year in Review series. A film is meant to be seen on the biggest screen, heard through the loudest speakers, and felt in the darkest room. The cinema is a transporting experience, allowing you to walk through dimensions, envelop yourself in new worlds, and leave behind the grievances of real life. Show me the living room that encompasses all of these and make it available to the masses, and I will tell you that is called a movie theater.

This is not a new problem, but it is an expanding one. The rise of Netflix and other video-on-demand services has made it possible to see new releases in the comfort of your home sometimes the same day as they become available in theaters. Being reasonable, I see the allure of a comfortable couch, a big-screen, hi-definition television, and surround sound. No one can be blamed for blanching at the cost of a movie ticket, the price of concessions, or any of the dozens of nagging annoyances that plague the theater-goer’s experience.

However, this devalues the medium. Going to the movies once was and still can be a glorious night on the town. There is no better way to spend an evening than with a good film, and the ritual of the cinema is as important as any other aspect of it – the sound of a ticket being torn, the smell of freshly popped popcorn, the feeling of sinking into a worn-out old seat, and the moment the lights go down and the image begins to flicker on that big, white screen.

Counterpoint: This model democratizes cinema, making it available to anyone, anywhere

Around March every year, once the Oscars have passed and release schedules firm up, I sit down and make a list of every upcoming movie I want to see in the next calendar year. I have spreadsheets with lists of films, directors, and release dates (as well as check marks for those I have seen) for every year going back to 2006.

When I first moved to New York City three years ago, I thought of those lists of release dates and how so many of the best films came with the same disclaimer: New York and Los Angeles only. I hated that disclaimer because it meant I would have to wait or, worse still, miss out entirely because I lived in a small, secluded college town, four hours from the nearest metropolis, let alone New York or Los Angeles. Moving here was a permanent reprieve from having to wait or miss out.

This is not true of most people. Large swaths of the population of this country live nowhere near a movie house even, never mind the kind of screens that might show the independent and foreign films that nurture an appreciation of cinema. Some of the best films of this year such as The Lobster, 13th, and Under the Shadow never played near many of my friends back home, yet they are experiences that cannot be missed. The theater remains the best place to watch a movie, but if the choice is at home on your television or not at all, then there is no choice to be made.

Point: It has been a great year for African-American representation and movies exploring black life in America

After enduring two years of #oscarssowhite controversy, the Academy has a chance to course correct in a big way, and not through some benevolent tokenism but rather due to the quality and volume of black voices and black stories in theaters this year. From Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to Denzel Washington’s Fences, as well as documentaries such as Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, powerful, comprehensive stories about the black experience in America found their way into cinemas.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences
Each stands as a damning document of struggle and oppression, a radical call for change and re-evaluation, and even in times as bleak as those we now face, an inspiring message of hope, survival, and transcendence. The central question of movies like these, as well as Loving, directed by white southerner Jeff Nichols, is whether we can do better than the generations that came before and whether we can leave a path for future generations to do better than we have.

Counterpoint: And yet, we still have not come far enough

Not one of those wonderful movies has made more than $32 million (Fences), which is good for 82nd at the domestic box office in 2016. The rise in strong black voices on screen and behind the scenes is a wonderful development, but it means little unless we can pack theaters and show financiers and distributors these stories are not only profitable but fill a gaping hole in the marketplace. Put plainly, audiences need to want these movies more or risk losing them.

Point: Documentary films this year provided a powerful, necessary lens through which to view our world

We already touched on O.J.: Made in America, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro, which address issues of race in America. In addition, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg documented the folly of our political system with Weiner, Josh Fox showed us a new outlook on an environment teetering on the brink of disaster with How to Let Go of the World and Love Everything the Climate Can’t Change, and Kirsten Johnson showed us the world as a set of puzzle pieces, waiting to be put together in a portrait of humanity, with Cameraperson.

In Newtown, Kim A. Snyder delivers a poignantly human take on the gun violence epidemic, while the prolific Werner Herzog gave us a pair of films (Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World and Into the Inferno) that made us question the very nature of human civilization and demonstrated how tenuous the grasp of society truly is. All of these are vital works that taken individually or as a whole, shine a light on who we were, who we are, and who we could be, answering questions it has never been more important to ask.

Counterpoint: To what end, the truth

Angela Davis in 13th
As a journalist, it has been clear for some time you cannot tell someone something he does not want to know. Throughout the 2016 election and certainly since, it has become fashionable to refer to this as a post-truth society. The proliferation of fake news and propaganda online and elsewhere contributes to a world in which facts are meaningless in the face of belief.

This is a country in which people believe the Sandy Hook massacre was a government plot to confiscate guns. This is a country in which the fact of global warming is debated while the planet rapidly dies. This is a country in which racism is denied as it is perpetuated and a history of systemic oppression is seen as just the way it is.

Powerful as these documentaries are – and many of them are perfectly constructed artifacts of a world gone mad – they lack the power to change hearts that have hardened and grown cold. In this, however, the fault lies not with the films but with us. Our blindness, apathy, and self-regard mean we will not notice when we are being led off the cliff but will grow ever more confident as we take the plunge.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we count down the Top 10 Quotes of 2016, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Last Cinema Standing’s 2016 Year in Review

No matter how it ended for you, no matter where things left off, and no matter how you felt about what transpired, 2016 was a trying year. It tried our patience. It tried our sanity. It tried our humanity. The average among us – and that is damn near all of us – tried our best, I like to think. We weathered the storms, savored the highs, and survived the lows. If you are here with me now, we made it through, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Last Cinema Standing took a backseat in 2016 to events both personal and universal. I did not write as much as I would have liked or hoped – nor as it turned out, as much as I needed. If this site is nothing else, it is a place for me to share with the world that which is close to my heart and to be a small part of that world. As always, I thank those of you who join me on this journey for your indulgence, your support, and your participation. Such things are not lost on me.

I began a new professional job in January 2016 as a copy editor and web writer for the sports department of the New York Post. While adjusting to my new circumstances – which included a shift to working evenings and late nights – I continued my tradition of breaking down the Oscars category by category. I wrote more on the Academy Awards race in 2016 than I did the previous year, and I wrote too much that year. This is a long way of saying I burned myself out early and what felt like irretrievably.

It is a rewarding job in many ways, and it does not escape me that to watch, write, and read sports as a profession is to live a dream most people would hardly dare imagine. I love it, but it has become increasingly clear it cannot be my whole life. Film is my first love, and I put it on the backburner this year, whether for reasons of fatigue, lack of focus, or divided energies.

I do not make New Year’s resolutions because life is a continuum without regard for the calendar, and we are all works in progress. However, when reflecting for this series on the past 12 months – particularly the past 10 – it is clear I have moved away from that which has made be happy and that in which I have previously found solace. Such will not be the case, I promise to myself, this year.

At the end of November, I proposed to my longtime girlfriend as we stood in the cold in front of the New York Metropolitan Opera House. We had celebratory drinks steps away at the Lincoln Ristorante, a flight of stairs above the Elin Bunin Munroe Film Center, the best place in New York City to see a film. You see, no matter the occasion, cinema is never far from my heart.

When you spend much of your life in the dark of a theater, it helps to have a partner there to share the experience. It is also helpful if that partner will drag you out into the light, which it is sometimes easy to forget exists. In these twin endeavors, I could not wish for a better partner in life and cinema than my fiancée. As supportive as one can be, she is that and more, and on my best days, my hope is I am able to return the favor.

This site began in earnest in July 2007 as a way to promote active engagement in the films we watch. Film is the only medium capable of showing us who we are as a people, of taking us outside of ourselves, and of demonstrating what the world is like for so many people we will never meet or know. Now, more than any time in the site’s history, these qualities of film are crucial to processing the world as it unfolds around us.

The mission of this site has never changed. For anyone who wants to understand this world a little better, Last Cinema Standing will be there with you in the dark of the theater, looking for a light that shows us what any of this means.