Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Best (and Worst) Films of The First Half of 2016

The July 4th weekend can mean only one thing: Jordan on Film’s recap of the best and worst of the first half of 2016. I assign a film to the year in which it first receives a weeklong theatrical release in Los Angeles.

My top four (in alphabetical order):

-- Gavin Hood’s engrossing “Eye in the Sky,” from a brilliantly conceived and structured screenplay by Guy Hibbert. A no-muss-no-fuss drone attack targeting top-level terrorists planning a suicide bombing in Nairobi is put on hold when a nine-year-old girl enters the periphery of their compound to sell her mother’s bread. The attack will now require the approval of both Britain’s and the U.S.’ executive branches. Hood builds exquisite tension as one bureaucrat after another military officer “refers up” to someone higher on the chain. Looking around, I saw the audience leaning in, completely immersed in the most intractable dilemma of the movie year.

-- Arriving just in time to crash the party, Gary Ross’ fresh and fascinating “Free State of Jones” brings a little-known slice of American history blisteringly to life. Eschewing the portentousness of most such films, Ross and his players (Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali) bring a lived-in quality to the story of a Southern medic who, inadvertently finding himself accused of sedition, forms a ragtag retinue of fellow farmers and slaves and holds the Confederate army at bay for several years. Full of things I hadn’t seen before, “Free State of Jones” is verdant, variegated and verisimilitudinous.

-- In Stéphane Brizé’s naturalistic and keenly perceptive “The Measure of a Man,” Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid-off factory worker, takes a job in security at a hypermarket, where he helps to nab shoplifters as well as cashiers who fail to scan items or apply customers’ coupons to their own purchases. Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes last year, a savvy and sophisticated choice. Not in recent memory has a performance been so un-showy or an actor seemingly so unaware of the presence of the camera. This French import has much to tell America about the fundamental decency of a working class forced into a future of new indignities.

-- Danish director Tobias Lindholm follows the thrilling “A Hijacking” with the Oscar nominee “A War,” reuniting with leads Pilou Asbæk (as Claus, a company commander on the ground in Afghanistan) and Søren Malling (as the attorney who defends Claus on charges of murdering Afghan civilians after making a heat-of-battle decision that saves one of his men’s lives and earns their exaltation). Charlotte Munck is also superb as the formidable judge advocate prosecuting Claus. Here is another delicious dilemma that asks each of us what we would do in the moment. It’s the sort of film you can see with friends and then talk about all through dinner.

My next six (in alphabetical order):

-- Luca Guadagnino’s decadent “A Bigger Splash,” with mesmerizing performances by Tilda Swinton as a rock icon giving her vocal cords the month off during an Italian island getaway with drop-dead-gorgeous boyfriend Matthias Schoenaerts, and Ralph Fiennes as her lustful-for-life ex-producer and –lover, who crashes the party with a smoldering beauty of his own: his daughter (Dakota Johnson), whose visage conceals as many secrets as daddy’s logorrhea bares. Guadagnino masterfully creates moods out of changes in the weather, idiosyncratic choices in image composition, and a carefully curated soundtrack that mixes classical with classic rock.

-- The Sally Field star vehicle “Hello, My Name is Doris” follows in the path of last year’s lovely “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Here’s another wise and winning film about a woman of a certain age, elevated by a nom-worthy performance from a beloved actress who gives all of herself to the role: Doris from Accounting, who daydreams about a relationship with the much younger new art director (utterly adorable Max Greenfield) and returns to an apartment cluttered with her late mother’s personal effects. While feel-good, “Doris” makes us acknowledge the creepiness of which we’re capable in the heat of a crush. Field’s daring and vulnerable turn pays off richly.

-- Trey Edward Shults announces himself as a major talent with his intense and accomplished debut, “Krisha,” about a chain-smoking, middle-aged trainwreck of a woman (Shults’ aunt, Krisha Fairchild) battling alcohol addiction and mental illness and losing. As Krisha’s tenuous holds on sanity and sobriety falter over a holiday weekend, Shults films from her perspective, often in perpetual circles, the dissonant notes on the soundtrack an uncomfortable yet apt aural representation of her fragile state. Hard to watch but impossible not to, “Krisha” is brutal, right-up-against-the-mirror stuff reminiscent of the work of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes.

-- The first movie in a generation worthy of the imprimatur of John Hughes, John Carney’s “Sing Street” evinces Hughes’ kinship with smart and sensitive teenagers, empathy for a first love that feels like the most important thing in the world, and understanding of how adolescents use music to set themselves free and convey feelings too strong and unfamiliar for the spoken word. It takes us back to a time when a girl with big hair could fill the screen like nobody else, and a (catchy but credible) soundtrack of original songs mattered as much as the movie itself. Strangers made friends exiting the theater, sharing the joy “Sing Street” had brought us.

-- Dennis Hauck’s “Too Late” – with “Eye in the Sky,” one of only two films I’ve seen twice this year – is hands down the coolest movie to come down the pike in ages. It bleeds cool. Shot (and screened exclusively) in 35mm, “Too Late” comprises five single-take scenes, each 22 minutes in length, assembled out of chronological order, about a private dick (John Hawkes) and a young woman with whom he spent a night three years earlier, telling her to call him if ever in trouble. She is, and she does. More than a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, “Too Late” offers an incisive vision of L.A.’s uniqueness and the most soul-satisfyingly crackerjack dialogue this side of Tarantino.

-- I’ll split the last spot between the two best documentaries of the first half of 2016: James Solomon’s “The Witness,” a damning exposé of the New York Times’ agenda-driven reporting and editing on the murder of Kitty Genovese and the sloppy complicity of generations of journalists in (wrongly) taking the Times’ story at face value; and Jin Mo-Young’s “My Love, Don’t Cross That River,” a simple portrait of a Korean couple married 75 years, filled to brimming with life, laughter, tears and universal truths.

The worst film of the first half of 2016:

-- Lots of contenders, but the picture I’d least like to see again (that’s my criterion in this category) is probably “Hardcore Henry,” a first-person video-game simulation shot on Go Pro cameras, in which the never-seen-from-the-front protagonist wakes up in a world of sadistic doctors, ruthless arms dealers and power-mad scientists. Everybody’s shooting at him – and vice versa – except a chap named Jimmy, who, as played by the mystifying Sharlto Copley, is about as much fun to be around as your local crackhead. The dialogue consists of monosyllabic grunts, and the plot? There is no plot. If the dreary-to-look-at and painful-to-listen-to “Henry” presages the future of film, include me out.

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