Monday, January 9, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

The last year has not been very good. The movies have been all right – the first five on this list are unquestionably masterpieces – but life has been uneasy. For me, it’s been a long year of broken computers, horrible cinema audiences and even worse politics.

I think I know what I need to do this next year. Be a little less guarded, and try to open myself up in real conversations with people. Tell people what I mean more, and, when appropriate, what they mean to me. I’m not very good at this. As they say in My Dinner with Andre, “We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.” I feel like that. Like my whole life is a series of regurgitated responses and I’m not really saying what I mean. I also want to absorb the content of things more. Take a few more chances. Let’s hope the New Year brings that.

I sometimes find myself at a distance from a lot of movies – they’re not affecting me like they used to. Most of that has to do with the distractions. Here are the films that broke through the noise.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for all of these films.

1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

There are so few good films about religion – particularly ones that ask questions rather than give answers. In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a powerful question is posed: is it right to renounce one’s faith if such an act ends the suffering of others?

In the seventeenth century, two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), travel to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced Christianity under torture by the Japanese. Upon arriving in Japan in a search for Ferreira, the priests give hope to a village of persecuted Japanese Christians, but it’s not long before Rodrigues is captured and held before the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). The Japanese demand that Rodrigues step on an image of Christ and renounce his faith, and in return, they will release the persecuted Christians they hold captive.

If renouncing his religion means suffering will end for so many people, isn’t that the right thing to do? Is it selfish to cling onto faith when the only person you’re saving is yourself? And is the Christian gospel something truly to be shared in every nation? These are some of the many questions Scorsese asks here.

The character of the believer plagued with doubts has been seen before in Scorsese’s work – namely in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) struggles to accept his position as the savior of mankind. If Jesus is both God and man, then he must be susceptible to man’s temptations – that is the conceit behind The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, in Silence, you have a Christ-like figure tested again and again, and though he succumbs to a kind of defeat by the film’s end, his faith is still there – hidden, dormant, silent.

Andrew Garfield makes every moment of doubt and uncertainty real for us – he’s likely to get nominated for Best Actor this year for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, but he should be nominated for this film.

This is the most austere, serious picture Scorsese has ever made. The explosive camerawork, rapid-fire editing and brilliant use of popular music – which are among the qualities that first drew me to the filmmaker as a young boy – are absent here. The questions the film asks are so pure, the suffering of its lead characters so intense on its own, that any kind of kinetic, whiplash-inducing filmmaking would betray the subject matter. Don’t think for a second that I’m dismissing either style – after all, Scorsese’s last film, the exhilarating The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), is the best film of this decade – although Silence may very well give it a run for its money.

This is the film Scorsese has wanted to direct for nearly thirty years, and it’s understandable why it was so difficult to make. Based on Shûsaku Endô’s novel, the subject matter of Silence is unlike anything else being released in Hollywood’s current climate, particularly with this kind of budget and such a wide release. It was awe-inspiring to hear the silence in the cinema as it played – there was a real reverence for the passion of this filmmaker and his images onscreen (I hope everyone is as lucky to get this cinema experience – sadly, I doubt that will be the case, as today’s audiences are conditioned in such a way that people won’t know what to do with a film as meditative as Silence). Scorsese recently said he hasn’t watched much in the way of current cinema because the images don’t mean anything anymore. Here, they mean something.

His films, as Thelma Schoonmaker once said, are all about immersing the audience in a particular world and making you feel it. Here, you feel the inner torment of Rodrigues at every turn, but there is also an interesting remove here that I haven’t often seen in a Scorsese picture. Many scenes unfold with a straightforwardness that suggests a viewpoint other than the two priests – almost a divine presence observing these events and remaining silent throughout the suffering.

The silence in the title ostensibly refers to the silence of God as Rodrigues and others endure their pain. But there’s another kind of silence near the film’s end – the silence of the priests who give up their devotion to God. And yet, in the final haunting image of the film, we see how in their silence, there is a kind of prayer all its own.

There is a character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who lies, betrays and watches his own family murdered while he rejects his faith and still lives. It’s an ongoing joke in the film that he constantly wants to confess to Rodrigues after he’s yet again done something wrong (in one instance, betraying Rodrigues and leading him to the Inquisitor).

But near the end, once all of the priests in Japan have renounced their faith and Christianity is spoken of no more, he is the only one to mention Christ to Rodrigues. Despite his constant wavering of faith, Kichijiro, in a way, brings Rodrigues’s awareness back to Christ.

And there is another question. Who is the nobler sufferer? The one who refuses to abandon his faith, or the sinner who apostatizes, again and again, and yet seeks forgiveness and continues to believe despite his sins?

Silence is a monumental achievement – the best film of the year.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to Margaret (2011), one of the greatest and most unheralded films of this decade, was always going to be one of my new favorite movies. But Manchester by the Sea overwhelmed me beyond my expectations with its raw power and heartfelt exploration of grief. There’s a sequence midway through this movie that goes down as one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.

I also really responded to the film’s lead character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) – someone who, by his own admission, can’t beat his depression. He’s so disturbed and haunted by his past that, try as he might to be an outgoing person, ultimately he can’t fight against it.

The film does not end with failure, but with an admission that some people simply can never be the same. It’s in this way that the film understands grief in a more mature and honest way than most other movies out there. Both Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), grow in unexpected ways, but their needs are incompatible. Patrick needs a guardian after the death of his father, but Lee simply can’t move back to his hometown – there will always be too many ghosts.

Even though the film is a slightly more contained character piece than Margaret, it is still bursting at the seams with fascinating supporting characters and a rich sense of location. At the center of the film is Affleck's lead performance, which is on another level from any other I've seen this year.

The scene in which he visits Kyle Chandler's body is so affectingly quiet and restrained - it's just one moment of beauty in a film full of them.

Here are a few more: the moment in which Affleck gently packs the pictures of his children one-by-one, after tossing his other belongings carelessly into a box. Hedges walking into the bedroom and staring at the pictures. Hedges visiting his father's body – so brisk and almost comical compared to the earlier scene with Affleck visiting the body. The scene with Affleck and the microwave - just staring at it, considering his past. Lonergan just knocks it out of the park, again and again, with these small, specific moments.

As usual, Lonergan builds a world of unbelievably complex characters with inner lives that extend far beyond the picture. I am in awe of him and what he has accomplished with this film, Margaret and You Can Count On Me (2000).

And it's worth mentioning that the flashbacks are as well implemented as I've seen in a film. They're quick and sudden, and so perfectly placed in the overall narrative, offering context and heartfelt backstory to the lives unfolding in front of our eyes. Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful film, and in a different year, it would have placed at the top of this list.

3. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

The feeling of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! lingered with me days after seeing it. It’s a deceptively powerful film, perhaps because underneath all of the good times and hard-partying, there’s a profound sadness that’s only revealed when it’s all over.

I'm amazed how similarly the film works as Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood (2014) - there's really not much melancholy in the movie itself, but the experience of watching it and then leaving the cinema allows the sadness to slowly seep in afterward. Suddenly, you realize you can’t hang out with these guys anymore, and you want the good times to continue. The film’s cumulative power is so much bigger than I realized during the casualness of its individual scenes, and it isn’t until the final quiet moments of the picture, right before Let the Good Times Roll by The Cars starts playing, that the full impact of what you’ve seen hits you.

The moment that best hints at this sadness in the film is during the team’s baseball practice, in which Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) is quietly called off the field by the coach, told he has to leave the team, and shakes the coach’s hand (it’s later revealed he’s thirty years old and fudged his transcript to get back onto a college team – he simply wants to relive his glory years).

“Here for a good time, not a long time,” Willoughby says to the others in a down-to-earth manner as he’s called off the field, echoing the film’s tagline.

The other guys don’t know how to react, and we’re quickly whisked away from the potentially melancholy moment by the ridiculously bad sportsmanship of Jay Niles (Juston Street). It’s a technique that recalls something Martin Scorsese does in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), where Jordan Belfort briefly comes face-to-face with one of the deeply disturbing consequences of his lifestyle (a co-worker’s suicide) and then immediately brushes it aside and moves on to the next fun thing. These movies don’t want to linger in the melancholy, but we’re always aware it’s there, bubbling just beneath the surface.

In a strange way, Everybody Wants Some!! both doubles down on the partying in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), and yet it’s somehow even more nostalgic and elegiac than that movie. It captures what you wish college was like, in its most idealized form.

Leaving the theater, I felt something I've experienced after some of the best moments of my life – when, after being surrounded by friends, the noise settles down and you slowly realize that that feeling won't return ever again – not that exact feeling, anyway. In a way, this feeling is what’s going to come over the characters in this movie in the near future. They’re all on their way to unremarkable adulthoods, and it’s doubtful the rest of their lives will live up to what they experience here.

The structure here is awesome – rather than cutting from one baseball practice to a wild party and then back to another baseball practice, we just get one long practice scene. By not cutting away from any one location too quickly, we get the most out of the hang-out feeling, like we’re really living in these scenes. Linklater and editor Sandra Adair give every scene breathing room – we’re not just jumping from one thing to another. And Linklater does such a good job of introducing fifteen central characters and helping us know and understand each of them.

And I’m amazed by how subtly Linklater is able to infuse a sense of melancholy throughout the movie. I think he partially does it through music, and by showing these characters charging ahead for their youthful goals that, sometimes, seem a little sad. Will they remember any of these frivolous games in ten years? Will any of this matter?

Take, for instance, the scene at the county-western bar, where the guys re-locate after Jay gets them kicked out of Sound Machine. One of them, Nesbit (Austin Amelio), rides the bar’s mechanical bull ferociously - and as the tune Driving My Life Away by Eddie Rabbit plays, I suddenly felt a great deal of despair.

It's something about the match between music, activity and the character's goal – he’s dead set on riding that bull as well as he can. And it made me deeply sad - for the character, for the thrills and highs we try to achieve every night as young people. It just reminded me of something. I don’t know what, exactly. Maybe it felt reminiscent of a time, place and feeling I've shared, and the truly insignificant goals we’ve all embarked upon that only distract from the larger loneliness of a given night on the town. That’s all here, in this one quick scene, with that song playing and Nesbit riding that bull.

Sometimes I think a movie is well made, but I resist connecting to it, or feel that it can’t be one of my favorites, because the characters aren’t anything like me, or the picture doesn’t mirror my own experience. But watching Everybody Wants Some!!, I was reminded that that’s not how great cinema works. Sometimes great cinema shows you what you wish your life could be, and makes you nostalgic for something you’ve never experienced. You respond deeply to the feeling of the picture without it necessarily reflecting anything in your life.

More than anything, this movie made me feel like I missed out. It’s what I imagine an alternate life could have been like, if I was just a little different from the way I am. A lot of what happens in the movie is almost like what my life growing up in Texas was supposed to be like. The characters in this film are the guys from my high school (in one case, quite literally), and I always felt a little left out of this kind of thing – which is why I want to make the version of this film from the outsider’s perspective (more on that in a different post). But Everybody Wants Some!! warmly invites you to be a part of the action for two hours. In Linklater's universe, we're all connected, if only for a short amount of time.

4. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

After seeing the film three times and finding each experience more rewarding than the last, there’s no question in my mind that La La Land is one of the most original and immensely lovable movies of the last several years. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) was one hell of a ride, but he outdoes himself here with a sprawling and ambitious musical that’s flat-out infectious in its energy.

What’s truly inspiring about La La Land is how impressive the film is on a technical level (those one-takes!) and yet how the visual wonders of the film take a backseat to the real feeling and emotion at the center of the picture. This is chiefly because the two leads are the endlessly charismatic and talented Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and also because the original music both elevates the story and creates a feeling that’s exalting, sad, joyous and wistful all the same.

La La Land is also, among many other things, tailor-made for aspiring artists. In fact, the ending outright acknowledges the way in which we remember and romanticize our days of aspiration. Just as Whiplash offered a complicated ending that elevated everything that came before it, so does La La Land end on a similarly complex note. The film also asks the heartbreaking question – what happens when nobody cares about your art?

In the end, there’s no way Stone and Gosling’s characters can stay together and both realize their dreams. But they’ll always have that formidable time together in their memories, and perhaps even remember it in the Hollywood version of their choosing – which is the bittersweet Casablanca (1943) ending the movie deserves.

I must say that Stone in particular is just luminous in this film – her charm has never been so effectively used. Although it’s tough to pick between her and Natalie Portman (Jackie – see below) for Best Actress, I think I’d have to go with Stone – it’s the performance of a lifetime.

5. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

I don’t have much to write about David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, other than what about that damn movie! I mean, how about that moment when Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) – spoiler ahead – leans over in horror as his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), is shot dead? They’ve spent the whole film teasing each other and trading casual barbs, and then suddenly, in that one moment, we see how much Alberto really means to Marcus. It’s just about heartbreaking.

Or how about that shot when Toby (Chris Pine) stays in the restaurant and converses with the waitress, while we watch his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), rob another bank through the window? I mean, how about that!

I loved this movie.

6. Fences (Denzel Washington)

Fences is a powerful, stirring adaptation of August Wilson’s masterful play, with two of the best performances of the year from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who once had great promise as a baseball player, but landed in jail instead. Davis is his long-suffering wife Rose, who stands beside Troy even as he begins a downward spiral.

Davis nearly brought me to tears with her performance here. I was reminded of why I loved this movie so much when she recently won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She called her own father “the original Troy” – he was a man who “groomed horses, had a fifth grade education, didn’t know how to read until he was 15.” But “he had a story and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it.”

Yes, his story does deserve to be told. Troy is by no means a perfect man, but he’s stuck in a strange time in 1956, having come after his deceased father, who worked in the cotton fields, but before his son, who will undoubtedly have more opportunities than Troy. He works hard, puts food on the table and has raised his sons with Rose to be good young men – and yet his aspirations and dreams have been thwarted, which has turned him bitter and poisonous. Watching his disappointment turn into a full-out breakdown is heartbreaking, and Fences does justice to this all-American tragedy. Wilson created something on the level of Death of a Salesman from an African-American perspective, and it’s unquestionably one of the greatest plays of modern American drama.

What I also admired about Fences is that it doesn’t hide its theatrical roots – this is unquestionably a play adapted for film. Yes, it has only a few locations, but there’s nothing more cinematic than well-blocked scenes making excellent use of their space, and Washington stages the film wondrously. More than anything, though, the words matter here, and they absolutely sear as delivered by Washington, Davis and the rest of the cast.

7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival still reveals its many layers after several viewings. I thought I had a handle on it after seeing it the second time, but even then, I seemed to miss a key component of its mystery. It’s a triumph of mood and atmosphere, but also of ideas, with its concept of non-linear time being rather ingenious.

Amy Adams is outstanding here as Louise Banks, a linguist carrying an unknown weight as she attempts to communicate with one of twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts that have landed on earth. Her depression seems to make sense to us given flashbacks early in the film – until we realize that the specifics of her grief aren’t exactly what she (or we) think.

I’ll dive deeply into one plot specific that still eludes me (again, major spoilers ahead). With the aliens granting her the ability to view time in a non-linear fashion, does that give Louise the power to change the future if she wishes? I didn’t think about this after seeing the film twice, but upon another viewing, someone pointed out that there’s a key line that suggests otherwise. I look forward to watching this film again and discovering more – it’s that kind of picture.

This is really the career pinnacle for director Denis Villeneuve, who, with Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2015) and now this film, has become one of the best and most exciting new directors in Hollywood.

8. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Jackie should be celebrated, first and foremost, for being light years away from the by-the-numbers biopic it could have so easily been. The film makes an American tragedy an experiential drama that feels like a nightmare, and does such a terrific job of dramatizing how traumatic the assassination of President John F. Kennedy must have been for everyone involved – particularly Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman).

There’s no question that Portman’s performance here is extraordinary – she gives us a real window into this private woman’s world. And yet there’s so much else to love about this movie that risks being ignored – the beautiful conversations between Jackie and her priest (John Hurt); the supporting performances from Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup; the haunting score by Mica Levi; and the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine, all of which add to the mood of this piece.

Even the blocking in this movie has an unreal quality to it. Characters will sit in one position, talking to one another, and then with a quick cut, they’ll be in a completely different position in the same room. These kinds of choices give the movie an ethereal quality that helps us understand what this experience may have been like for Mrs. Kennedy. Jackie is such an interesting, unusual film, and the bold choices it makes only compliment Portman’s extraordinary work in the lead role.

9. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

It's a miracle that a movie as contemplative as Knight of Cups exists in this day and age. Terrence Malick finds real beauty here in the decadence of Los Angeles, with locations as evocative as anything in his filmography (production designer Jack Fisk does amazing work, as always). Malick also benefits from having an incredibly strong, emotive lead actor in Christian Bale, who is fascinating to watch in every quiet moment of this film. He seems to relish Malick's style of filmmaking, inviting us to share his character's very real struggle without having anything close to a traditional scene of dialogue.

The scenes with Bale's father (Brian Dennehy) and his brother (Wes Bentley) are some of the best in the film. Cate Blanchett makes a memorable impression as Bale's ex-wife, in a sequence in which we come to understand so much about his character through his reactions to her work as a nurse.

It's interesting to see Malick film the modern-day emptiness of a heavily materialistic culture, partially because I'm so used to seeing the natural world represented in his films. This is only Malick's second non-period piece (after 2013’s To the Wonder), and I love seeing him capture our world in a way that emphasizes both the beauty and the trappings of a decadent wasteland.

Structuring the film in sections named after tarot cards fits so well with this story of a man on a quest to find meaning in his life and world. The experience of a hard-partying Hollywood player has never been put onscreen quite like this before, with so much contemplation as to what it all means and what role he's playing. There's a very memorable scene in which Bale's apartment is robbed and he's held at gunpoint. One of the burglars asks why there isn't anything of value in his home, and Bale doesn't have an answer.

As always with Malick, I found myself lost in Knight of Cups in a beautiful way, and I was made a little less aware of the current time and space around me. There's no way in his pictures to really know where we are structurally in the story, and so our minds are free to wander and take in the beauty of each moment. We simply exist in the space of the movie, and that is a wonderful thing.

10. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

I wasn’t sure what to put for #10. Should it be one of the films by two of my favorite directors – Clint Eastwood’s amazing, rock-solid Sully or Oliver Stone’s underappreciated Snowden? Or one of the two great films by Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Loving)? What about the funniest movie of the year, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, or Andrea Arnold’s hypnotic American Honey?

I’m going with an early-year favorite – Hail, Caesar!, the latest parable from Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s at once a loving tribute to the Hollywood studio pictures of the 1950s and also a riotous takedown of the wobbly rules that keep the studio system in place.

And, as always with the Coens, it’s about much more. Josh Brolin, as studio head Eddie Mannix, seeks advice from a priest in the beginning and ending of the film. He’s morally conflicted about whether to take a new job with a large salary in the airline industry, or to stay at the studio and continue the more difficult job of managing out-of-line actors and overseeing the day-to-day business of moviemaking. But whether he likes it or not, there is a future coming his way that he can’t control, and one whose influence he can’t always slap out of his actors – or can he?

The Rest of the Best

11. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
12. Snowden (Oliver Stone)
13. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
14. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
15. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
16. Swiss Army Man (Daniels)
17. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
18. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
19. Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
20. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
21. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
22. The BFG (Steven Spielberg)
23. Café Society (Woody Allen)
24. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
25. Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
26. The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance)
27. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
28. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
29. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
30. Miss Sloane (John Madden)

Other Movies I Loved and Admired:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone)
Rules Don’t Apply (Warren Beatty)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
The Hollars (John Krasinski)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood)
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)
The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker)
A War (Tobias Lindholm)
Bleed for This (Ben Younger)
Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass)
Triple 9 (John Hillcoat)
Sausage Party (Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon)
Elvis and Nixon (Liza Johnson)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
Money Monster (Jodie Foster)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards)
Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)

Best Director

Winner: Martin Scorsese, Silence

Runners-Up: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea; Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!; Damien Chazelle, La La Land; David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water; Denzel Washington, Fences; Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Best Actor

Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Runners-Up: Denzel Washington, Fences; Andrew Garfield, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Tom Hanks, Sully; Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Best Actress

Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

Runners-Up: Natalie Portman, Jackie; Amy Adams, Arrival; Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane; Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Runners-Up: Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Liam Neeson, Silence; Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie; Ben Foster, Hell or High Water; Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Runners-Up: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women; Lily Gladstone, Certain Women; Margo Martindale, The Hollars

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Manchester by the Sea

Runners-Up: La La Land; Everybody Wants Some!!; Hell or High Water; Hail, Caesar!

Best Adapted Screenplay: Silence

Runners-Up: Fences; Arrival; Sully

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