26 February 2017

Best of 2016

I have, for THE paper of record in Sonoma Valley, already given you my top ten wide release films from 2016. But there is an alternate best of list, a superior and updated one, below. And it's not too difficult to separate out the pretty good from the more or less unwatchable in 2016—the real challenge would be to parse the extremely narrow margins amongst the bottom 10 (or 25). I am, however, not brave enough to revisit my thoughts on Warcraft v. Suicide Squad v. Marvel Horseshitiverse: Civil War v. Batman v. Superman v. the sweet sleep of death.

As the Hollywood productions I watched continued to enervate and enrage with their lack of ideas, I tracked the demographics among the filmmakers of 2016 movies released in Sonoma, CA (where the wine and people are slightly better than those in Napa). To use a horrifying neologism, I briefly tweetstormed on this topic. I assumed women and people of color would be underrepresented but how can it be this bad? Directors of films released in Sonoma (which I think is a reasonable representation of small town, one-AMC-Theater-only America) are 94% male and 89% white. It's a disgrace. Films and performances by non-white, non-men are, as usual, overrepresented on my year end list but that does little to rinse the bitter taste.

Here's hoping that 2017 holds more directorial efforts from the Solanges of the world and fewer from the Zack Snyders.

Best Supporting Actor

The best idea is probably to copy Manohla Dargis and give all five noms to the supporting actors in Moonlight, but I pretend to use original thought on the WTT. I always appreciate a madman spouting aphorisms, so love to Alessandro Nivola in The Neon Demon: "True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it, she would be nothing." It pleased me to no end that antagonists on The OfficeJohn Krasinski and David Denman—are superbros in the good(!) Michael Bay film 13 Hours. And John Malkovich is a great scenery snacker in Deepwater Horizon. But it all comes back to Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. He is not just the best of the year but one of the best for all time, a role that fills me with wonder. Come back to me Juan!

Best Supporting Actress

Chloe Sevigny
is a perfect supporting actress for any movie but especially in a Whit Stillman film like Love and Friendship. Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are marvelously sharp in Hail, Caesar! but slip away too quickly. I'll give a random shout to Aubrey Plaza for embracing exactly how awful Dirty Grandpa is and delivering every leaden line with disgusted gusto. But the most excited I was for a supporting actress in 2016 was Janelle Monáe in Moonlight and Hidden Figures—she vivified the screen with her snap and verve. Hopefully much more to come from her—I suggest a film on yoga.

Best Actress

Credit to Blake Lively for her excellent use of her jewelry to stitch wounds in The Shallows,
Samantha Robinson for her delirious embrace of Anne Biller's vision in The Love Witch, and Amy Adams for her ultra-linguistic brilliance in Arrival. And, because it's too hard to select between the harrowing continental performances of Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann and Isabelle Huppert in Elle (they both seem the only actresses who could play those very difficult parts), my best actress is Sasha Lane in American Honey. My longterm affection for nonactors stems from performances like this, the pleasurable wildness of an actress, a director and an audience seeing something new together. My sense is that Ms. Lane herself wasn't sure what she was selling in certain scenes: magazines, sex, her own charisma.

Best Actor

First a nod to Christian Bale for putting up with whatever dizzy shit Terrence Malick was doing in Knight of Cups. Michael Shannon (still holding the belt for favorite domestic WTT actor) proves in Midnight Special he's continually awe-inspiring. But the real race is for best facial hair, wherein Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter is a glorious, braided option, Colin Farrell's Lobster character has the most depressive mustache you'll ever see and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water sports a delicious mustache to beard muddle that recalls, well, Colin Farrell in Miami Vice. But the nod goes to Tom Hanks in Sully—in film after film he is as immaculate as Chesley Sullenberger's neat white pushbroom.

Best Pictures 

See also: Arrival, Loving, Midnight Special, Hell or High Water, Ixcanul, Elle, Zootopia, and, if you're very patient, Knight of Cups and Neon Demon.

10. The Lobster - In this highly credible satire, "The City" is patrolled by uniformed men demanding marriage paperwork and, if you don’t have it, you’re sent to "The Hotel," where you’ll find a mate or be turned into a wild animal of your choice. The Lobster is the logical extension of our current mania for the polite emptiness of online dating, where couples are pressed together by algorithms and every dream vacation destination is deadened by the tepid prose of glossy airplane magazines. In the movie at least, those who break free spend an uproarious time on the lam, in woods filled with people they used to know, now in the form of a camel or flamingo.

9. Cameraperson - We need many more cinematographic memoirs. Kirsten Johnson, who has lensed dozens of documentaries (including motherfucking Citizenfour), here collages footage from many of her projects, much of it absolutely hair-raising. For a somewhat disorienting 20 minutes, the sequences seem unconnected but a pattern emerges as the film marches ahead with incredible storytelling of genocide in Bosnia and Darfur and almost unwatchable scenes from a makeshift maternity ward in Nigeria. It is an excellent film, and a test of even my voyeurism.

8. La La Land - I give this more points for sparking so many angry spats amongst jazz people, musical people, people who hate mansplaining in all its forms (so, many of my friend groups). Regardless of where you stand in the standoff between Gosling vs. Legend for the future of jazz, this is the throwback to classic Hollywood we pretended The Artist was in 2011. As with Whiplash, when director Damien Chazelle swings, he swings hard over and over, until his arms get tired. Seeing a Los Angeles where the old movie palaces are shut down and the big band halls have transitioned to samba and tapas places, Chazelle reveals his burning passion for jazz and classic cinema. La La Land is jammed with song and dance, rash technicolor displays and literal flights of fancy. Charming actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone often wear looks that show they can’t help themselves—they've made something special.

Beyond the words in my review of the film I can report something else as important: the two times I saw La La Land and got to the audition scene, I had chill run straight up my spine. Right or wrong, if I had the chance, I'd stand up right now, walk to the theater and watch it again.

7. Manchester by the Sea - Casey Affleck proves a thousand times better than his brother at playing a damaged man, featuring in one of the best films of the year while Ben cast his steely gaze at whatever it was in the last Batman flick. Given the brutal plot summary of Manchester by the Sea, it's surprising that it’s also the most laugh-out-loud funny film of the year. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan provides a savagely hilarious script, including a very funny cameo for himself, yelling at the good Affleck. As a bonus, the film doubles as motivation to drink less, despite daily provocations, in 2017.

6. I Am Not Your Negro - This documentary goes well beyond journalism to get to the truth, challenging viewers to wrestle with the deaths of Martin, Malcom and Medgar as written in the unpublished notebooks of James Baldwin. Eschewing talking heads, I Am Not Your Negro is all Baldwin footage and prose, with some contemporary clips cut in, from Ferguson and elsewhere in the disintegrating United States of America. The material is strong enough that it forces Samuel L. Jackson, who narrates, to tone down his histrionics and smolder, to be as lucid as Baldwin was eviscerating the iniquities of our nation.

I remain proud that the place I work made this film happen and that one day Raoul Peck walked in the door and I got to shake his hand and tell him his film is better than O.J.: Made in America. It's a film about genius rather than notoriety (and thus has no chance to win the Best Doc Oscar).

5. Toni Erdmann - This is a rewarding, very long comedy about work that almost reaches the delightful pain of the British Office or Lars Von Trier's The Boss of It All. The aforepraised Sandra Hüller and magnificent Peter Simonischek are an indelible daughter/father pairing in this film studded with shockingly funny deadpan moments, including a tender shot of semen-spattered petit fours. Directorial marvel Maren Ade accomplishes the astonishing feat of shooting a scene as great as the one in which Hüller bangs out Whitney's "The Greatest Love of All" then somehow tops it later in the film (using a costume as fine as Octave's bear suit in The Rules of the Game).

(Also: it is an official WTT prediction that the Kristen Wiig/Jack Nicholson Hollywood remake will be one of the ten worst movies ever made.)

4. American Honey - In making the combustible American Honey, Andrea Arnold (director of WTT-favorite Fish Tank) embedded herself with many nonprofessional actors and one merely unprofessional one (Shia LaBeouf, rocking a most alarming pigtail). The best of her finds, picked off a beach in Miami, is of course Sasha Lane, who brings startling passion to her role. A whole crew of hustlers is shot hazily in vans and cheap motels—this is a meandering road movie lensed across the South and Midwest, places deep in the American twilight full of poverty and grace and bad tattoos. Arnold knows how music can make or break a moment and when Rihanna’s "We Found Love" blasts across the Walmart checkout aisles it's a fitting hymn for the film and for our time.

3. Cemetery of Splendor - This film has recently increased in my estimation after a rewatch, perhaps because it is about soldiers who sleep continuously for months (they are, one character patiently explains, fighting a dream war on behalf long-dead kings in another dimension). If only I could sign up for four years of peaceful slumber in quiet Thailand adjacent a glowing neon tube floating through sherbety colors that ease my nightmares. As one character reads in a journal, "Our problem is that we think too much...at night we call these dreams." Even when the soldiers wake, it is not exactly into the real world, but a space in limbo, where deities step down from their daises and give skin care tips to mortals. I was so moved by a sequence where a nurse walks through a former palace of deceased kings that is now a ramshackle park—where a beautiful stone pillar once held a glittering roof, there is now a tree with an orchid growing on it. Director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul is a genius who helps his audience practice stillness—if we open our minds the way his characters do, we can see glittering floors of pink stone instead of dead leaves on the ground.

2. My Golden Days - Director Arnaud Desplechin is, to borrow a phrase from this film, mon amour adore. Here he's made a madeleine from an adult Paul Dédalus (played by Mathieu Amalric with his usual resplendence) to his younger self (Quentin Dolmaire), who is madly in love with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The young actress, faced with the daunting task of becoming Emmanuelle Devos in Desplechin's earlier/later film My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument, owns from the moment we see her slow dancing with herself in a crowded party. In ten seconds, we are ready to buy Paul's line to her: "Have you ever been loved more than life? It's how I'll love you." The rest of the film is their passion, mostly told through their letters, which are given as wonderful direct addresses to the camera. And, as the strains from the score to Vertigo float in, I felt an old, melancholy ache—perhaps we are in love in this life just once.

1. Moonlight - No points for originality here. But it speaks to the brilliance of Barry Jenkins that the critics' choice and the Oscar favorite and the WTT pick are one and the same this season. I hope this remarkable film, eye-catching on the first viewing and rewarding across many more, is the start of a needed response to the whiteness of the Hollywood whale. After most other images from this year are forgotten, there will be the magnificent Mahershala Ali holding that boy in the water—so, so blue.


I ended last year's column by saying "2016's gonna be great." Jesus Christ. I hope I meant that ironically. In 2017 we're all gonna die. But perhaps the pictures will be pretty.