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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017 12:09 am

A delightful mixed bag of movies

Chuck’s top 10 of 2016

Ben Foster as Tanner and Chris Pine as Toby in Hell or High Water.
PHOTO COURTESY CBS FILMS

 

There were two dominating factors in American film this year – Disney Studios and animated features – and it should come as no surprise that the success of one went hand-in-hand with the other. Never before has one studio controlled the overall global box office as the Mouse House did in 2016. Once the dust settles, they are likely to have seven films among the top 10 grossing movies of the year (Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Dr. Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Moana). As of this date, these films alone have taken in a cumulative total of just over $2.2 billion. Let that number sink in for a minute and understand that this will continue to climb as Rogue and Moana are still in wide release.

This outcome was inevitable. Since purchasing the rights to all properties created by Lucasfilms (Star Wars, Indiana Jones) and acquiring Marvel Films and their ambitious roster of superhero movies, in addition to their own slate of animated features, Disney has been poised for box office dominance and it doesn’t show any signs of releasing its grasp anytime soon. Thankfully, most of what Disney and its subsidiaries produce are quality films. This leaves the rest of the studios to pick up the scraps, Warner Brothers being in the best shape with their own emerging stable of superhero films (Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad) and the beginning of the Harry Potter spinoff series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

What this means is that the steady stream of superhero epics and animated features will continue for the foreseeable future. Never before have there been so many major animated releases in a calendar year (14), while advances in digital technology have blurred the line between fantasy and reality to the point where one is indistinguishable from the other. Disney’s The Jungle Book is the most impressive (frightening?) example of this. The lush jungles, rocky outcrops, toppled buildings and every animal it contains was created on a computer with the film being made on a soundstage in Hollywood. The only real thing you see on screen is young actor Neel Sethi who, all things considered, gives one of the best performances of the year when you consider he was acting in a virtually empty environment.


Of course, with the success of such big-budget high-concept movies, aimed at the widest audience possible, that makes it harder to find smaller budget, more narratively complex films at the multiplex. But, with the litany of streaming services and viewing platforms at the consumer’s disposable, a host of fine movies are at hand, as long as you don’t mind giving up the movie-going experience and watch the film from the comfort of your own home, something more and more viewers are opting for.

There were films I liked that you didn’t (The Finest Hours, Hail, Caesar! Criminal, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Legend of Tarzan, Florence Foster Jenkins, Kubo and the Two Strings), movies you liked that I didn’t (Ride Along 2, Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Jason Bourne, Bad Moms, Suicide Squad, The Secret Life of Pets), and those no one liked (Jane Got a Gun, Zoolander 2, Gods of Egypt, London Has Fallen, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, Warcraft, The BFG, Blair Witch, Inferno, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Rules Don’t Apply).

One of the most positive aspects of the year was that there was a consistent flow of good films from January to December. While studios tend to backload their rosters – saving their quality product for the end of the year for awards consideration – this year’s crop was surprisingly weak. In compiling my list of top 10 films of the year, only two entries were released in December, with nearly half coming out during the first six months. I’d be hard-pressed to identify a recurring theme in these 10 films, signaling just how eclectic these selections are. This is good, as variety is the spice of life and here’s hoping this continues in 2017.

Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie’s blistering indictment of the modern American economic landscape was perhaps the most timely film of the year. It took an unflinching look at the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and the extent to which those scraping by will go in order to survive. A never-better Chris Pine and Ben Foster are brothers who set out to pull off a series of bank robberies in order to get the funds to save their mother’s farm, while Jeff Bridges is the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger on their trail. The barren landscape of its East Texas setting perfectly mirrors the lack of opportunity for those who live there, while the film’s skewed moral compass speaks to realistic concerns rather than moral imperatives. The last scene between Pine and Bridges is a master class in understatement, a moment that resonates far beyond the end credits.

The Lobster –
Movies as quirky and intelligent as this dark comedy from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos are few and far between. Colin Farrell, giving a surprisingly poignant performance, is a man who’s been taken to a secluded hotel and is given 45 days to find his soulmate. If he fails, he will be turned into an animal of his choice. The need for love and the extent that we go to attain it is at the core of the film, as is the fear of commitment and being alone. That being turned into a lobster proves to be a more viable option that risking heartbreak or loneliness speaks volumes about the director’s outlook.

Arrival –
Smart science fiction is a rare commodity at the movies today. Smart science fiction films that move you are even more of a scarcity, which makes this film from Denis Villeneuve all the more remarkable. Amy Adams is a linguist still trying to cope with a personal tragedy when she’s called on by the government to help establish communication with a group of aliens that have seemingly appeared out of nowhere. What begins as a standard invasion film takes a remarkable turn as we discover that language and how we interpret it is based on our past experiences, while a third-act plot twist turns events on their head. This leads to a traumatic conclusion that examines how we deal with hope and grief. A profound statement wrapped in a genre package.

Moonlight – Barry Jenkins’ feature debut is one of the most impressive calling cards of the year. Working from a script of his own design, the film follows the maturation of a young African-American boy from the time he’s nine years old, through high school and finally as a young man wrestling with his sexuality. The role of Chiron is played by three different actors over the course of the movie, which takes a no-prisoners approach in depicting the sort of alienation young men of color like Chiron must deal with today. Harsh, yet ultimately hopeful, the movie’s simple final shot is one of the most haunting cinematic moments of the year.

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian and Emma Stone as Mia in La La Land.
PHOTO COURTESY SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

La La Land – Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is a tribute to those who passionately pursue their dreams and refuse to compromise in the face of failure. Emma Stone is an actress who longs to be a star, while Ryan Gosling is a jazz musician hoping to one day own his own club. Together they fall in love, nurture each other’s dream, and fight while dancing and singing in modern Los Angeles. The film really shouldn’t work, but the conviction of the two leads and a devastating conclusion make this a special motion picture.

The Witch – The other great directorial debut of the year belongs to Robert Eggers, who wrote and lensed this haunting horror tale about one young woman’s temptation to give in to her darkest desires. No other movie this year did a better job establishing a distinctive place and tone, as the woods that border the New England family in question becomes a character all its own. Paranoia and repression are the themes at hand in this story that would be right at home with the best work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Love & Friendship – For my money, the funniest movie of the year was this adaptation of an early Jane Austin novella. Yes, you heard me right. In the hands of director Whit Stillman, this biting comedy of manners contains subtle jibes, cruel comic moments, sly jokes and a hypnotic performance from Kate Beckinsale as the charming but ruthless Lady Susan Vernon, a widowed English socialite who manages to survive and thrive among the upper crust with her ruthless, cunning wit and a smile that would melt gold.

Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as Rose Maxson in Fences.
PHOTO COURTESY Paramount Pictures

Fences – Denzel Washington’s longtime passion project, a film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, is an incendiary screed on racism and the self-loathing it breeds. Directing as well, the veteran actor gives one of his most moving performances as the bitter Troy Maxson, as does Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, Rose, who proves to have the sort of strength her husband claims to have but could never attain.

Eye in the Sky – This English feature finds Helen Mirren as the commander of a drone operation that becomes seriously compromised due to a series of human factors. Split between the compound where her and her advisers are, a Las Vegas outpost where the drone operator (Aaron Paul) is housed and the Middle East target, director Gavin Hood expertly builds the tension. This simple operation becomes a moral litmus test for all involved when innocents end up in harm’s way. Alan Rickman’s last film, this is a sleeper that deserves a much wider audience.

The Handmaiden – The latest from South Korean director Chan-wook Park (Old Boy) takes a film noir plot and sets it in 1930s Korea where a con man sets out to marry a Japanese heiress, have her declared insane and then committed, so that he may get away with her riches. He convinces a young female assistant to ingratiate herself with the heiress so that she may gain her trust and put in a good word for him when he comes calling. However, things take a turn when the two women fall in love. Suffused with dark humor and containing intensely erotic moments, this is a movie that contains one surprise after another as it hurtles towards its satisfactory (in more ways than one!) conclusion.

Tied for 11th place
John Carney’s joyous ode to the age of punk rock Sing Street…the modern, dark take on a pulp icon, The Legend of Tarzan…Mike Birbiglia’s touching dramedy about the sacrifices necessary for show biz success Don’t Think Twice…Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins featuring Meryl Streep as a deluded well-meaning chanteuse and Hugh Grant as her protective husband… Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s revelatory documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

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