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.

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