|I, Daniel Blake|
|A Monster Calls|
|Live by Night|
I judge the December releases a bit more strictly. Put a film out now, you’re telling the world you think it’s award material. Accordingly, close calls tend to get rounded down to the next lower star rating rather than rounded up to the next higher. Quick capsules on eleven Christmas offerings, none of which came close to penetrating my best list.
Based on the short stories “Destino,” “Pronto” and “Silencio” by Alice Munro, Pedro Almodóvar’s lushly shot (by Jean Claude Carrieu) and scored (by Alberto Iglesias) “Julieta” casts a hypnotic spell of remembrance, regret and reverie. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte excel as the title character in, respectively, middle age and young adulthood.
Ken Loach’s tendentious “I, Daniel Blake,” a political choice for this year’s Palme D’Or surely more than a cinematic one, so desperately begs sympathy for its title character (a solid Dave Johns) that you come to resent it. He’s a carpenter who loses his job after suffering an on-duty injury, and finds himself caught in a bureaucratic Catch-22: he’s been deemed medically unfit for work, but can’t collect benefits unless he actively seeks it. Loach devotes much of the film to Daniel’s kind interaction with Katie (creditable Hayley Squires), a young single mother of two whom he meets at the unemployment office. (Again with the Cult of the Single Mother.) What seems to elude the progressive Loach, who’s made my top ten several times (“Hidden Agenda,” “Bread and Roses,” “The Angels’ Share”), is that his preferred policies perpetuate Daniel’s red tape nightmare. Several scenes, including one in particular that has been singled out for praise elsewhere, ring false, and in the end Loach allows himself a polemic (in the form of a handwritten eulogy for one of the main characters) that is itself a nightmare – of on-the-nose writing.
Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers” isn’t great sci-fi, but its basic premise holds enough interest to draw you in. You (Chris Pratt) and a few thousand fellow Earthlings are on a luxury spaceship on a 120-year voyage to the closest inhabitable planet. You’re supposed to sleep through it, but your pod malfunctions 30 years in and suddenly you’re the only one awake. Can’t communicate with anyone (except the robot bartender, played by Michael Sheen), can’t go home, not gonna make it to Homestead II. Do you wake up the beautiful girl in the adjoining pod (Jennifer Lawrence) even though it means effectively killing her? Kinda cool, huh? And the eye candy is first-rate no matter your predilection. Too long and ultimately forgettable, but if it’s the inflight movie, you could do worse.
Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” succeeds in cinematizing the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013 and the manhunt for the terrorist brothers who perpetrated it. As Tommy Saunders, Mark Wahlberg makes an effective – if divinely omnipresent – amalgam of several real-life cops (a profession, incidentally, whose heroism we can look forward to celebrating properly over the coming years). The coda and end titles significantly enhance the movie’s emotional impact.
J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” joins “Pete’s Dragon,” “Queen of Katwe” and “The Eagle Huntress” in an especially good year for non-animated family films that hit the mark for both kids and parents. Lewis MacDougall gives an uncommonly unself-conscious performance as young Conor O'Malley, who's bullied at school, whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, and whose uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) seems to care more for material things than for him. As the clock flips from 12:06 to 12:07 each night, a large yew tree comes to monstrous life and, voiced by Liam Neeson, tells Conor three stories, after which he must tell a fourth. The stories are cinematized via painterly animated sequences, and introduce Conor to the concept of irony and the thought that others' motivations may not be readily apparent. It's so hard to play sick in the movies, and Jones - so luminous opposite Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything" - pulls it off without a trace of pity. Weaver also does credit to a part that could have gone wrong in lesser hands. Neeson has become something of a self-parody in countless disposable action flicks; as with Robin Williams in "Aladdin," this voice work frees him to reconnect to his best self. "A Monster Calls" culminates in a gripping and deeply moving climax that has the wonderful quality of appearing inevitable in hindsight. Bring Kleenex; audience members of all ages sniffled so loudly (and, I think, unexpectedly), it became a bit of a running joke in the theater.
Ben Affleck continues to demonstrate his directorial prowess with another large cast drama, the sprawling gangster saga "Live by Night." Maren Ade's German father-daughter practical joke comedy "Toni Erdmann" contains a lot of laughs, but in the end lacks both the ring of truth and the almost erotic transgression of its obvious forebear, Lars von Trier's great "The Idiots." Avoid like the plague "Why Him?," with a played-out James Franco as the obnoxious tech-gazillionaire boyfriend of Bryan Cranston's Stanford-attending daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch). This is the kind of comedy where you're supposed to laugh at parents' confusing "vaporizing" for "vaping" and not knowing the word "bukkake," and their young son's use of the term "double dicking." Cranston is one of the most important actors working today, so to see him in this paycheck part is truly painful. Only Megan Mullally survives relatively unscathed with a game turn as Steph's mom. Sweet and unobjectionable if devoid of surprise, Theodore Melfi's "Hidden Figures," a worthwhile look at the African-American women who contributed mightily to NASA's signal achievements with their work in mathematics and computer science, is elevated immeasurably by the winning, abundantly human performances of Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, and especially Taraji P. Henson. The white parts are thankless and mostly villainous. Finally, if you're in just the right mood for it, Jim Jarmusch's quiet and largely uneventful "Paterson," with a never-better Adam Driver as a bus-driving aspiring poet, may entrance you. At its best, it finds the poetry in the quotidian. Finally, an affectionate thumbs down for "20th Century Women," with Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann in a sometimes very funny, frequently false, ultimately inferior version of the classic mother-son relationship between Frances McDormand and Patrick Fugit in the still-21st-century-best "Almost Famous." Trapped among all the liberal virtue-signaling and repetitive parenting back-and-forth is a special comeback performance by Greta Gerwig and good work by longtime fave Billy Crudup.
Now, it's on to the best and worst of the year in film, including documentaries, noteworthy performances and my complete star rating guide to over 250 of the movies of 2016.