And I’m officially supposed to be retired…
In 2016 I was ousted from the comfortable shelter of the highbrow Seattle film media. Like a great, esoteric tortoise I had been ripped from my hallowed shell of cinema cronies – the radiant cinephile dialect only intelligible between snappers – while everything I had written over the course of eight years had been sanitized from the internet in the blink of an iPhone. The indiscriminate slumlords of Examiner.com had decided to sell shop and cut their losses – which I can appreciate, must have been enormous – and with their demise, I found my own blessed martyrdom from this heinous business, from that cursed online content dump that had allowed me a toehold in an industry I had only had daydreams about being involved in before.
The cliched outsider who had crashed the gates to get inside the big party was now outside again. On his own. Off the sainted press list. Crudely writing in the third person perspective as all creatures damned by society and social interaction soon find themselves engaged in… Neither terrapin nor scholar, my identity as a large, shaggy, social media troll (Facebook – never Twitter) returned to me with a profound sense of absence vanquished. I had never considered myself a good critic. Or at least a good critic of art. I was – and still remain so – an ideas man.
If art has any good ideas, why I’m its man.
And yet there is so little in what we watch I would call art, let alone good art. So little of how we react to it I would deem admiration. We hand out grades. We see so many freaking movies a year any other course would swallow the rest of what we have for lives. Which is why, I believe wholeheartedly, these Top 10 lists matter. This is the only forum where the critic can put his stamp on an industry that, if we’re being honest, gives very little back on the returns they expect. The lion’s share of entertainment writers make no money, are treated to free screenings, sometimes only a few days before wide release, and work their stadium-seating-molded butts off writing 1,000 word dissections very few people take the time to actually read (check the grade, dismiss as pessimistic, move on) for films most might stream some odd weekend on their smart phone. This work is the definition of a labor of love.
Still, love drives mankind to bigger and bolder madnesses.
Madnesses like sitting through 250 new movies a year just to select ten to make a public declaration of taste and tenancy. Personal madnesses like leaving the comfort of streaming movies on my Playstation 4 from the swaddle of my couch to return to the sit-up-straight world of the movie house, and financing this blog just so I wouldn’t break my twelve year streak of not running a Top 10 list – a Top 10 list for this most carcinogenic year of 2016, (RIP David Bowie, George Michael, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Kimbo Slice, Anton Yelchin, Gene Wilder, Prince, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Carrie Fisher, Carrie Fisher’s mom, and finally, cuddly crack cherub and former mayor of Toronto, Robert Ford) the year of my consecrated and seemingly illusive retirement.
These movies, citizens and denizens of our shared cyberspace, were my favorite movies of 2016:
10. DHEEPAN – Directed by Jacques Audiard
“Come home.” – Yalini
Jacques Audiard won the Palm d’Or for this film, but that isn’t the reason that it’s here. I’ve grown into something of an Audiard-phile these last few years, and that may be as big a reason as anything else. The truth is Audiard understands the scope and compression of humanity. Dheepan isn’t any different. This is the story of three complete strangers – man, woman, and child – quite literally pressed into a ready-to-ship family fleeing a nation of war crimes and poverty. Again, as he did in A Prophet, Audiard is using immigration and the Parisian underworld (well, off-off Parisian underworld in this instance) to tell an intimate story from within the chaotic amalgamation of many tribes and tongues. Here we find a handyman trying to patch a tenement project together while it’s steadily being torn apart by an open drug market. An ex-soldier’s backslide into territorial skirmishes and perimeters, and finally, open combat. Dheepan never panders as commentary on social injustice or indulges itself in tragedy. Instead it’s a success story of sorts. (as was, I’m convinced, A Prophet) A film concerned with personal legitimacy – about redefining what a family consists of and that illusive harbor called home. A most sacred place. One worth fighting to preserve.
9. SING STREET – Directed by John Carney
“Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don’t need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan? You need to learn how not to play, Conor. That’s the trick. That’s rock and roll. And THAT… takes practice.” – Brendan
If we’re speaking in terms of pure personality, there wasn’t another movie in 2016 that had more, that was stocked with more, that generated more. The time period in Carney’s latest musical/dramedy is set during the early 80’s and is technically pre-Commitments, but Sing Street still feels like a successor to Alan Parker’s 1991 film. My favorite images from this movie all involve Conor – Sing Street’s lead vocalist and junior artisan, trapped somewhere between the Renaissance and apple-cheeked pubescence – leading his band mates into the hostile territory of Synge Street Catholic school – home of farmhands, bullies, and potential rapists – hair teased, tossed, frosted, and then stripped and revarnished nearly nightly under the onslaught of MTV’s fashion and style influences, completely owning each new identity as cultural outlier. The records and videos he’s consuming with his older brother Brendan (indeed, one of the best written characters in any film in 2016, and the type of public housing rock messiah blatantly absent from Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!) find immediate impact in nearly every avenue of his life. Of course there are problems at home, and problems at school, and problems with an older girl well out of his league by several strides, but his commitment (there’s that word again) to music and muse is no less genuine – no less potent. Packaged with a killer soundtrack and enough heart to bring world peace back into vogue, Sing Street outperformed every other movie centered around music in 2016.
8. THE JUNGLE BOOK – Directed by Jon Favreau
“Kid, that’s not a song. That’s propaganda.” – Baloo
Can we talk about Neel Sethi please? A runty New York no-namer (no Wikipedia entry yet for this kid) forced to helm his first major role in a Disney-Dollars motion picture adaptation of a beloved animated feature, with only his imagination and a green screen stage for company, who seemed to be having so much fun pretending Mowgli’s world was real we couldn’t help but believe in it with him. The real value of this live action production of The Jungle Book is that Favreau never allowed Mowgli to degenerate into a pawn of the jungle, but instead he gave the kid the lead in his own story. I hesitate calling this iteration of The Jungle Book “live action” because we really, really, really need to give the animation team that invested so much vitality, life, and character into this film their much deserved due. The Jungle Book 2016 is the magic Walt built Magic Kingdoms out of. Casting Christopher Walken in the role of King Louie by way of Coppola’s Colonel Kurtz was a minor stroke of genius. This is easily the most confident work of Favreau’s career.
7. 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI – Directed by Michael Bay
“That can’t be the last call. That can’t be the last call ’cause I’m sitting up here and I’m thinking about some other guy raising these girls…” – Jack Silva
Sorry Moonlight and La La Land, but ultimately the heart wants what the heart wants. And this year the heart wanted a Michael Bay movie. The truth is I’ve never liked anything by Michael Bay – this includes his jock-schlock classics, The Rock and Bad Boys. Nor am I in subjection to the current contagion of “Bay-Panic” contaminating the film assessment industry. I’m not a Republican. Neither am I a Democrat. I guess these confessions are mandatory if you find yourself on the right side of a movie about a hot-button locale like Benghazi. I think it took an ego as titanic as Michael Bay’s to get this story out of the political tar pit its been in since Election 2012, and get it finally released into movie theaters nation wide. Americans were gifted the heroic tale of of six private military contractors (paycheck soldiers, not conscripts) who went into a war zone alone, when they didn’t have to, with no back-up for four hundred miles, when they didn’t have to, to liberate the American Embassy from a city-scale assault of the compound, when they didn’t have to, and absolutely nobody in entertainment wanted to tell it. Say what you will about his politics – or his hair – Michael Bay’s latest film has a presence and intensity missing from anything else in his filmography. Obviously he can’t completely bridle himself, and 13 Hours is much more popcorn than, say, Zero Dark Thirty, but far less sugary and sentimental than Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi is exactly the right mixture of beefcake jingoism and gory melodrama that made Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down a rousing hellhole worth marching into.
6. ARRIVAL – Directed by Denis Villeneuve
“Am I the only one having trouble saying “aliens?” – Dr. Banks
The more expansive and existential our science fiction grows, the more introspective these stories become. In Chris Nolan’s dubious science fiction epic Interstellar mankind travels to the other side of the galaxy just to find himself. (trapped inside his farmhouse wall?!) Denis Villineuve takes a different tack, his aliens come to us, but the results, I would argue, are much more sophisticated, and in the end, much more special. Villenueve casts his alien callers as something out of H. P. Lovecraft. Large multi-tentacled godlings bearing a language you’d have to see for yourself to believe. The biggest surprise about Arrival is learning that this visitation – with its focus on communicative barriers, and barriers of every other kind, including those between the same species – is just dressing for the goose. This is a movie about a mother. About a child. About mortality. About love being bigger than language, or land, or outland. I’m not too proud to admit that the final ten minutes of this film thwacked my cerebellum copiously. I left the theater ears ringing and mind reeling. What I once thought was a terrible idea – namely making a sequel to the near perfect Blade Runner – is now one of the most delicious prospects of 2017. I think I’m finally ready for Blade Runner 2049. Obviously science fiction needs more Denis Villeneuve.
5. DON’T BREATHE – Directed by Fede Alvarez
“Now you’re going to see what I see.” – The Blind Man
Ask yourself if Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a war movie? Or is it a thriller? Is Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear a political film? Or is it a thriller? Is Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe a horror movie? Or is it a thriller? The term thriller doesn’t necessarily need be a downgrade. In fact thrillers – when done well, as is the case here – are usually the most immediately engaging entertainment our hard earned money can buy. With some of the most outstanding payoffs. Shot with a journeyman choreographer’s fanatical attention to geography and detail, (that turkey baster though…) Don’t Breathe recalls David Fincher’s Panic Room, but set in the graveyards of the Detroit housing mass-migration and with much more gristle and nerve milling throughout. It’s a true technical achievement. An exercise in tension-craft experienced not often enough in this industry. A cat-and-mouse potboiler where we’re not always certain who our insistent allegiances lie with. The cat? Or the rat? And which is which?
4. THE NICE GUYS – Directed by Shane Black
“You know who else was just following orders? Adolf Hitler.” – Holland March
Because there’s no screenwriter alive that’s elevating smart-assery to the level of high art like Shane Black is committed to achieving. In The Nice Guys irony and sarcasm aren’t just distancing mechanisms, they are the heart and soul of LA culture – at least as it’s being interpreted by its biggest fanboy caricaturist, Shane Black. Ryan Gosling starred in two Los Angeles fairy tales in 2016, this film and Damien Chazelle’s tony musical La La Land. I firmly believe that between the two, The Nice Guys, even at its most acidic, is the more optimistic movie. Being the heavyweight champ of the buddy-film, Shane Black assembled something of a dream team for this project. A pudgy, punchy Russell Crowe finds himself tagging along with struggling single parent/social drinker Ryan Gosling, as the two men attempt to solve the murder and the quasi-mystical resurrection of a porn star, find the missing daughter of LA’s top cop, as well locate an underground skin flick that has the Detroit auto industry up in arms. Not that any of the plot matters much, over the course of two hours decadent parties are partied at, jokes hit their marks, poorly aimed bullets hit theirs as well. Collateral damage in this film is extensive. Even Holland March acknowledges: “I’m saying I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.” As a bonus teenagers are exploited, shot, and thrown through windows. Thank you Mr. Black.
3. GREEN ROOM – Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
“Music is shared live. It’s time and aggression, you gotta be there. And then it’s over.” – Pat
Is it apropos to call Green Room this generation’s Straw Dogs yet? Saulnier has the same precarious infatuation with violence that Sam Peckinpah bore. Neither fully romantic, nor anything in the way of contempt either. But something more akin to amenability and a reverence for the archaic. Bloodshed has been a constant companion of the species, it’s a fixture of our history and mythology – our music and cultural upheavals as well. Which is the palette Green Room draws its paint from. Saulnier’s punk rockers-versus-skinheads movie is primitive and outrageous and weirdly relaxed in tone for how out of control its central situation spirals. But it’s sincere and chivalrous and kind of mesmerizing as well. Green Room is, above all else, pure experience. Uncluttered. Loaded with punk rock angst, white anger, and murder most terrible. That it closes on a dying pit bull – an attack dog we’ve seen maul the throats out of some of our favorite members of The Ain’t Rights band – planting his head on the chest of the corpse of his white supremacist trainer, and in that act of affection, genuinely earns our clemency – speaks to the indiscriminate complexity of the piece. Like the punk music it exemplifies, Green Room may seem surface and perfunctory – a brief racket of anxiety and violence – but its impact is no less significant. You will be missed Anton Yelchin.
2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
“I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too.” – Randi Chandler
Neither a film about healing or a film about full concession, Manchester By The Sea at least does the honorable thing by its viewers – it neither defines the term limits of sorrow and mourning, nor does it offer any clean fixes. This is a motion picture about human hearts in a state of near permafrost. (the preoccupation with our long lost older brother’s corpse being forced into deep-freeze at the morgue, until the New England ground thaws and softens enough to bury the body wasn’t lost on this viewer) Which isn’t to say that this is an exercise void of relief. On the contrary, just because we’re going to embed ourselves in the miserable aftereffects of tragedy and death doesn’t mean we need not have a sense of humor about it. And though Casey Affleck’s (don’t mess this one up Academy Of Arts And Sciences) handyman Lee Chandler internalizes everything, and we wish desperately that he would leave his anesthetized state of self-flagellation and at least engage someone in something closely resembling casual, meaningful conversation – no shouting – this isn’t that movie. The point being that maybe some wounds can never be healed. This is on every film critic’s list this year, or at least it should be if they take their work seriously. An American heirloom.
1. THE LOBSTER – directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
“Now the fact that you will turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down. Just think, as an animal you’ll have a second chance to find a companion. But, even then, you must be careful; you need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.” – The Hotel Manager
My very favorite film in 2016. One can only wonder the level of agony and emotional quarantine the two writers (Lanthimos, Filippou) of this script had subsisted on during what must have been several hellish relationships and breakups throughout their lives. Few films on human husbandry are as deadpan as The Lobster. (Wes Anderson has never been this cottonmouthed) Nor are they this brittle, excruciatingly frank, or this crushingly funny. We find ourselves in a fictional society formerly unknown in cinema. Not a dystopian state yet, but far from utopian as well. This is a frigid, flaccid culture where love has been savagely stunted, but relationships are absolutely mandatory, else a terrible price be exacted. (the single have 45 days to fall in love or the government mandates they be turned into an animal of their choosing) Courting is heavily regulated. Being single is absolutely prohibited. Nobody is happy. Neither the alone nor the coupled. Obligation to be involved in some sort of relationship is key to the greater domestic solvency. The singles find themselves living guerrilla existences in the forests – hunting rabbits and plotting terror attacks against the hitched. It’s a kind of E-Harmony horror picture, but sort of tender too. Even after only a few viewings I find myself standing at the open hatch of The Lobster – a great vault of a film – knowing that every future screening will grant me further access toward deciphering its charade, toward exhuming new fragments of clever minutia and humor. As for now I can only confidently claim to have extrapolated this much from Lanthimos’s movie: If The Lobster is a metaphor for the follies of human coupling, maybe life is best spent as a dumb animal after all.