Thursday, January 5, 2017

Noteworthy Performances of 2016

Here (in chronological order and either quoted verbatim or paraphrased) is what I wrote about some of the actors who created great movie moments in 2016:

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Complete Star Rating Guide to the Films of 2016

Documentaries are denoted with a (D).

The Ten Best Documentary Films of 2016


It sounds strange for a working documentary cinematographer to label a collection of her footage a "memoir," but Kirsten Johnson does just that in the wittily titled "Cameraperson," a must-see for any lover of film. Carefully curating video from films such as Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning "Citizenfour" and Johanna Hamilton's terrific "1971," Johnson takes us to postwar Bosnia; a Nigerian maternity ward; a Yemeni government ministry; a controversial boxing match in Brooklyn; and myriad other places around the world. Though she appears onscreen only for a few seconds herself, we hear her throughout, interacting with both her subjects and her directors and assistants. Johnson raises profound questions of artist and subject, background and foreground, agency and passivity, the objective and the narrative. Rather than compiling a series of self-contained episodes, she cuts from one to another as she sees fit, occasionally interweaving video shot at her family's farm in Wyoming, where her (late) mother was coping with Alzheimer's. I love, though, that Johnson ends with a seemingly random street scene in Monrovia, Liberia, where her camera follows one person until another catches its eye, and another, and another. Because "Cameraperson" is so personal, it is universal.

#2-#10 (in chronological order):

Mark Craig's biodoc "The Last Man on the Moon," about astronaut Gene Cernan, who served on several Apollo missions, including Apollo 17, which left lunar soil 44 years ago. Cernan makes an eloquent and self-aware raconteur; his stories and some truly amazing video footage left a lump in my throat and a look of awe across my face. Cernan admits to "selfishly" prioritizing the space program over home and family (his then-wife tellingly remarks, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home"), but we all owe him and his colleagues a debt of gratitude for the gift of wonder they gave us at enormous risk to themselves.

The water works flowed freely in Louise Osmond’s soul-stirring documentary “Dark Horse,” about a fading Welsh mining town in which the barmaid, twinkle-eyed Jan Vokes, formed a loose syndicate of patrons who put up ten pounds a week to breed and train a racehorse, which they named Dream Alliance. Dream started slowly but found his stride and won several major races before a devastating injury threatened to end his career. The horse is a beauty, but “Dark Horse” is really the story of a group of commoners, whose way of life was slowly dying, finding a respite from their struggles and crashing the beautiful people’s turf. Only the hardest of hearts will be unmoved.

James Solomon's "The Witness," in which Bill Genovese goes behind the New York Times headline to find out the truth about his sister Kitty's 1964 murder -- supposedly seen by 38 people, none of whom (the story went) intervened or telephoned authorities -- that became an emblem of bystander apathy in the city and in America. Bill - through rigorous research and by asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers - exposes both the agenda-driven reporting and editing of the Times and the sloppy complicity of other media outlets, including "60 Minutes," that for decades took the Times' story at face value. Just as compelling as the journalistic aspect of "The Witness" is its necessarily incomplete but rich portrait of the lovely Kitty Genovese, whose lesbianism was an open secret at the bar she managed, and of the effect of the saga on Bill, who lost both legs in Vietnam, determined not to be the sort of onlooker the Times had portrayed.

Jin Mo-Young's "My Love, Don't Cross That River" - the highest-grossing independent film of all time in its native Korea - is one of the simplest films I've ever seen, and I mean that as high praise. Its subjects are the nonagenarian couple Gye-yeul Kang and Byong-man Jo, married seventy-five years, who share a small, semi-secluded home with their two dogs, walk into town to shop, get into snowball fights, throw water on each other like kids in a pool, bemoan the chores that used to be so easy and relish those they can still complete. The first thing you need to know is that they're so cute you just want to eat them. (Photo at That's also the second, third and fourth things you need to know. The 86 minutes of "My Love, Don't Cross that River" are filled with life, laughter, and tears, as when one of their children apologizes to him for not being a better son, or when she picks out long johns for the six (out of twelve) children they lost in their youth. There are essentially Korean elements to this story, but mostly there are universal truths about love, family and the importance of getting up to occasional mischief. One or two instances of playing to the camera and a final shot held a moment too long are the only detractions from a funny, sad and deeply moving movie experience.

Vitaliy Manskiy's all-access North Korea documentary "Under the Sun." The government responded to Manskiy's film proposal by providing the script and subject for what they intended as a favorable portrait of 8-year-old Zin-mi and her parents as they prepare for her induction into the "Korean Children's Union" on the "Day of the Shining Star" (Kim Jong-il's birthday). But Manskiy kept rolling as the government handlers demanded scenes be re-shot with more patriotism, more applause, more plastered-on smiles. What emerges is a picture of indoctrination from birth to death and from morning to night. At school, Zin-mi and her classmates learn absurd historical stories about the ruling family dynasty and recite praiseful poems and anti-American invective ad infinitum. At home, they eat under portraits of Kim Jong-un and Kim Il-sung. This is what happens when a policy of equal outcomes inevitably morphs into totalitarianism, and it is heartbreaking. In the perfectly chosen final scene, Zin-mi begins to cry. Her teacher tells her to wipe her tears and think of something good. "I don't know what," Zin-mi replies, before reciting yet again her vow of eternal fidelity to the generalissimo.

In "Tower," Keith Maitland uses the rotoscope animation style pioneered by Richard Linklater in 2001's "Waking Life" to recreate the events of August 1, 1966, when a sniper took up position atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 and injuring 33. The result is a work of great power and immediacy that might just restore your faith in humanity.

"The Eagle Huntress," about a thoroughly winning 13-year-old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan who aspires to be an eagle hunter even though the role has always been handed down from father to son. Her father Nurgaiv flouts the "wisdom" of the traditional elders, seeing no reason why his daughter should not perpetuate the family legacy and every reason why she should: she's a natural. The film features heart-stopping cinematography high up in the Altai Mountains, and a heart-soaring through line involving an annual competition among local eagle hunters. If it occasionally falls prey to cinematic cliché, questionable filmmaking ethics or overly Americanized subtitles, it's still one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

Finally, enthusiastic recommendations for a pair of feel-good documentaries: "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened," about Stephen Sondheim's and Harold Prince's legendary 1981 flop "Merrily We Roll Along," and the kids (including Jason Alexander) who saw their dreams die after 16 shows; and "On the Map," about Tal Brody and the Maccabi Tel Aviv team that shocked the world by winning the 1977 European Cup basketball championship. A great moment for Israel and Jews everywhere.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Worst Films of 2016

Here, in chronological order, are some of the titles that made 2016 appreciably worse than recent years at the movies:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #1

I've seen each of my top four films multiple times, but the one I keep coming back to - the one I love most - is Jeff Baena's "Joshy," without doubt the best movie set in my old stomping grounds of Ojai, California. Josh (Thomas Middleditch) came home from work on his birthday, chatted with his fiancée, went to the gym, and returned to find she'd asphyxiated herself with his belt. Well, he can't get the deposit back on the Ojai house he'd rented for his bachelor party, so he invites his friends to drive up and join him for the weekend anyway. There's Eric (Nick Kroll), the party animal; Adam ("Listen Up Philip" director Alex Ross Perry), the wet blanket; and teddy bear-ish stoner Ari (Adam Pally), the emotional core of the group. Unbeknownst to the others, Eric's also invited his buddy Greg (Brett Gelman), a center-stage type introduced in one of a dozen memorable scenes that unfold in delightfully unexpected ways.

The first night, Adam wants to play a "co-op game" with complicated rules nobody understands. Instead, they go to the one bar in town, where Josh and Ari talk with Jodi (Jenny Slate), a fellow tourist who's celebrating her birthday with friends. (Slate is simply phenomenal here: adorable, sensitive, game. It's the kind of performance Anna Kendrick gave in my top film of 2014, Joe Swanberg's mumblecore gem "Happy Christmas," which I called so winning the screen fairly shimmered with her incandescence. I didn't love Slate's showcase film "Obvious Child," but now I can't wait to see more of her.)

Adam cuts in. He managed to get a few bars of cell reception and called his longtime girlfriend, who unceremoniously dumped him ("Ten years of my life down the shitter"). He also mentions that Eric (the guru of Yelp and TripAdvisor) found a casino nearby, and Josh's eyes light up: "There's a casino near here?" The ways men avoid dealing with emotional trauma are Baena's primary interest here, and the understanding he shows of repression's insidious allure (and occasional benefits) is penetrating. Adam, of course, pooh-poohs the casino idea at first: "Nobody wants to stay at home and [muttered] have bed time?" "HAVE BED TIME???" Ari asks, and I still haven't stopped laughing over that line. It's one of the funniest of the year.

There are also lovely and tender scenes between Ari and Jodi, who went to the same summer camp as kids and consider the possibility of pursuing a relationship; a terrific scene in which Josh's friend Aaron (Swanberg) stops by with his wife and four-year-old son, whom Eric promptly offers cocaine; a great scene involving Isadora (Lauren Weedman), a sex worker whom Eric invites over to bring Josh release; and a tonally incongruous but riveting scene with Lisa Edelstein and Paul Reiser as the late fiancée's parents, who continue to harbor unfounded suspicions about Josh's involvement in her death. And so many more. Great scenes make great movies, and "Joshy" is full to brimming with them.

I've watched "Joshy" four times so far, and each time I find new moments to treasure, as when Greg explains he can't share a bedroom because he has sleep apnea and his mask makes him sound like Bane from "The Dark Knight": "Hello...Would you like your dick sucked?" As the group clinks their second toast "to nothing," Adam murmurs almost inaudibly, "That's a terrible, terrible Bane." (If I were king, both Perry and Slate would score Oscar nominations.) Josh does break down once, toward the end of the weekend, venting his resentments with realistic imperfection, then drying his eyes and asking Adam whether he wants to play the game they still haven't gotten to: "If you do," Adam answers warily, and Ari just stares at Adam with a look of stunned stupefaction. (Pally's performance is a marvel of comic incredulity; I'd give him a nom, too.)

I know nobody saw "Joshy," and I haven't seen it on anybody's list. Mumblecore - with its mostly young, white, financially stable characters - isn't in vogue anymore, and there were some bad examples of the genre this year too: "The Intervention," say, or "My Blind Brother." But as I bookend my list with the second of two great mumblecore titles, I implore you to give it a look. I love everything about "Joshy": the trailer; the gospel soul classic "Like a Ship," to which Baena sets the closing credits; even the non-ending ending which, when I think about it, is perfect: no messy feelings? Okay, then, no manufactured catharsis.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #2

David Mackenzie's West Texas-set "Hell or High Water" - from an Oscar-worthy script by "Sicario" scribe Taylor Sheridan - offers two sets of mismatched travelers: bank-robbing brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), the loose cannon, and Toby (Chris Pine), the laconic and level-headed one who wants to steal just enough, and in small enough increments, to prevent the foreclosure of their family farm; and the cops chasing them: Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot weeks away from forced retirement, and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), his part-Native, part Mexican partner, who bears the brunt of Marcus' politically incorrect yet hilarious ramblings. Special mention should be made of two actresses who play waitresses: Katy Mixon, who hasn't seen anyone like Chris Pine come along before, and Margaret Bowman, who in an instant-classic scene bellies up to Marcus and Alberto at a joint called the T-Bone and asks, "What dun't you want?" You can order whatever you'd like, but you're getting a steak, medium rare, and either green beans or corn on the cob. So…what dun't you want? Bridges deserves an Oscar for his work - he owns the picture, and just keeps improving with age - and Pine shows dramatic acting ability to go with his magnetic looks. The brilliant ending leaves you thinking long after the lights have gone up. This is one of the very best and certainly most entertaining films of 2016.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #3

Gavin Hood's engrossing "Eye in the Sky," from a brilliantly conceived and structured screenplay by Guy Hibbert, posits this premise: a British colonel (Helen Mirren) has been tracking Kenyan terrorists for five years. They've congregated at a compound in Nairobi to carry out a suicide bombing presently. Believing this development shifts her operation from capturing to killing the terrorists, Mirren instructs an American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) to drop his payload. Just as he's about to do so, a nine-year-old local girl enters the periphery of the compound, selling the bread her mother has baked to passersby. What Mirren had envisioned as a no-muss-no-fuss targeted attack will now require the approval of two countries' attorneys-general, foreign secretaries, and military officers - each of whom seems all too eager to "refer up" to a higher rung in the chain of command. 

Hibbert ratchets up the tension to the point of exquisite exasperation, giving each participant the opportunity to make his or her case, encompassing considerations from malleable collateral damage estimates to the relative political fallout from killing the young girl or allowing the bomber to leave the compound and possibly kill dozens of innocents. He also juggles an enormous cast of players, from Alan Rickman (in his last performance) as a lieutenant general who wants to take care of business and get back to his daughter to Barkhad Abdi as an intelligence operative who remotely controls a beetle-shaped camera to obtain video from inside the compound. I looked around the audience and saw men and especially women leaning in, completely immersed in the dilemma. With the clock continuing to tick and a decision coming to a head, you could hear groans of frustration as this or that official passed the buck. Here is one of the most captivating films of 2016.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #4

Dennis Hauck’s “Too Late” is the coolest movie to come down the pike in ages. It bleeds cool. It’s the kind of movie you groove on the first couple times you see it, but even then you know it’s gonna be part of your collection – part of your life – forever.

John Hawkes – he of the just-battered-enough face – stars as Mel Sampson, an L.A. private dick who, as the movie opens, hears from Dorothy (Crystal Reed), a young woman he spent one night with three years ago. He told her to call him if she was ever in trouble, and she is. She saw some photos she shouldn’t have – of the owner of the strip club where she dances – and fears for her life. Rightly, as it turns out. I’d do you a disservice to relate any more of the plot, which reveals itself over five single-shot scenes – each 22 minutes in length – that Hauck assembles out of chronological order. One takes place atop Radio Hill across from Dodger Stadium, another at a home in the Hollywood Hills, a third at the aforementioned strip club and a bar down the street, the next at a drive-in theater outside of town, and the last at the Beverly Hilton.

Putting them together – linking all the internal self-references – lends itself to repeated viewings. So does Hauck’s vision of L.A., which is as incisive as any in memory. He gets what makes L.A. unique: the number of different cities it is at once – demographically, geographically, culturally – and Angelenos’ unique ability to navigate those intersections. He’s also written un-self-consciously crackerjack dialogue for Hawkes and a varied cast of actresses (most notably Dichen Lachman). You sit up in your seat when you hear dialogue this sharp; it satisfies the soul.

Hauck insisted on shooting “Too Late” on 35mm film, necessarily limiting its box-office prospects. (After one screening, he joked that for the video release, he’d come to your home with a projection reel.) Besides the rebellious coolness of the choice, it gives the movie a classic look. It’s from 2016, but not of it.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #5

In Stéphane Brizé’s naturalistic, brilliantly perceptive “The Measure of a Man,” Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid-off factory worker, takes a job in security at a large supermarket, where he helps catch shoplifters and colleagues 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 so seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera. The film may be French, but it couldn’t be more apposite to contemporary America.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #6

I assign a film to the year in which it first plays a weeklong run in Los Angeles. Accordingly, a foreign Oscar nominee from one year that only comes to town theatrically the following year will appear, if anywhere, on the second year's list. Hence, in the sixth spot, Denmark's “A War,” from Tobias Lindholm, director of the thrilling “A Hijacking,” which put similarly themed same-year release “Captain Phillips” to shame. He reunites with co-lead Pilou Asbæk, who plays Claus Pedersen, a company commander on the ground in Afghanistan. After one of his men is killed while on a patrol, Claus undertakes regular patrols, even though commanders typically leave that duty to subordinates. Meanwhile, back home, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny, first-rate) has her hands full with a daughter and two sons, the older of whom has begun acting out at school. (The child actors are terrific.) When Claus makes a decision in the heat of battle that saves a soldier’s life, his men exalt him as a hero, but the brass second-guess him and bring him home to face trial for the murder of Afghan civilians. The proceedings pit Søren Malling (the other co-lead of “A Hijacking) as Claus’ attorney against Charlotte Munck as the formidable judge advocate prosecuting him. Both actors are superb. “A War” is so intense that in each of its three fora – the war theater, the household awaiting Claus’ return, and the tribunal – there are scenes after which I had to exhale. It has that wonderful quality we saw in 2014’s “Force Majeure” of putting you in a series of ethical dilemmas and demanding to know what you would do in the moment. It’s the kind of movie you can see with friends and then talk about all through dinner. The first great film of 2016, chronologically: "A War."

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #7

Brad Furman's "The Infiltrator" has it all: a smorgasbord of suspense, action, riveting drama and laugh-out-loud comedy. Bryan Cranston cements his status as one of our more important working actors as Customs agent Bob Mazur, who's offered retirement but instead volunteers to go undercover as money launderer Bob Musella in an attempt to get close to Pablo Escobar. John Leguizamo plays Emir Ebreu, Mazur's rookie partner, who likes to fly by the seat of his pants. Their relationship echoes that of John Ashton and Judge Reinhold in the "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise: high praise indeed. After Mazur sends home a prostitute purchased for him by one of Escobar's men, citing a purported fiancée (he's long married, his wife Evelyn played by Juliet Aubrey), no-nonsense boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) assigns him one: equally green agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).

Together, they set out to and do become friends with Escobar's top lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). One false move at any time could spell a slow and painful death, a reality that heightens the tension to an exquisite peak. Meanwhile, Bob's aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis) wants to tag along with them and pose as a moneyed Miami matron for a lark. The supporting cast is uniformly first-rate - Kruger in particular is one to watch - but the movie belongs to Cranston, who has us on his side from the jump with an alive performance that brings out the wry comedy in the well-paced script penned (I was enchanted to learn) by the director's mother, Ellen Brown Furman. After Kruger plays a daring and unplanned gambit during a dinner with the Alcainos, Roberto compliments Bob on his bride-to-be. Cranston's subsequent line reading - he takes a moment to process what's just happened, then replies, "She's remarkable" - alone is worth the price of admission. Add to his work the atmospheric cinematography by Joshua Reis and original music by Chris Hajian and you have a movie that delights the eyes and ears and stirs the heart and mind.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #8

Regular readers know what a premium I place on brevity and economy of storytelling, but occasionally a long runtime does lend heft and grandeur to a film. Such is the case with Andrea Arnold's 162-minute road epic "American Honey," featuring a career-best Shia LaBeouf and magnetic newcomer Sasha Lane, about life at the margins of America and the daily decision whether (and for how much) to sell oneself.

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #9

In thinking back on Gary Ross’ Civil War-set “Free State of Jones” I’m struck by how many things in it I hadn’t seen before. Gritty and anything but sedate, it’s not a standard war movie with carnage at its center, though there are relatively small battles at gruesomely close range. Ross uses the war as a backdrop to bring a fascinating slice of history blisteringly to life.

Matthew McConaughey – a couple years removed now from the incredible run (“Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “Mud,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” others) that led me to pronounce him the most interesting working actor in Hollywood – plays Newton Knight, a medic for the Rebel army who leaves the battlefield to bring the body of his nephew, Daniel (“Mud’s” Jacob Lofland), home and finds himself accused of sedition. That this misapprehension precipitates Knight's becoming a folk hero of the anti-slavery movement is typical of the movie's offhandedness, a welcome change from the portentousness usually associated with its genre.

A friendly slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights") secretes Newton away across a mangrove swamp impassable by the Confederate cavalry. The sea-foam green of the swamp - its surface seemingly solid rather than liquid, so that Rachel and Newton appear to be rowing on the same material Scarlett Johansson encased her victims in in "Under the Skin" (2013) -  is perhaps the most memorable of hundreds of eye-popping visuals in the movie. Not since Tanya Hamilton's Black Panther remembrance "Night Catches Us" (2011) has a film been so vividly variegated. 

Without trying hard, Newton amasses a ragtag retinue of slaves and fellow farmers. Among the slaves is Moses (Mahershala Ali, here kicking off a career-making year), whom we meet wearing a hideous four-pronged neck shackle that's as uncomfortable and haunting a symbol of slavery as I've seen. (I spent several scenes unable to focus on anything else.) After emancipation, Moses will lead the drive to register the new freedmen to vote, culminating in a memorable scene in which dozens of black men are first turned away from the polls, then allowed to vote (albeit at gunpoint), only for all but two of their ballots to be switched from Republican to Democrat.

Among the many fresh and compelling aspects of "Free State of Jones" is its understanding of the role of women in the antebellum and postbellum South. Jill Jane Clements has a small but memorable role as Sally, a publican and unofficial liaison between Newton's band and the Confederate lieutenants and colonels after his hide. Mbatha-Raw delivers on her long-touted promise with a living performance that transcends the stereotype of slavely saintliness. Rachel and Newton grow ever more intimate during the movie, and a scene in which he takes her to a hotel and she stares at and, at length, dares to touch a pretty bed made up just for her is truly lovely. 

Keri Russell plays Newton's first wife, Serena. Late in the movie, the Confederate army has burned down Serena's house and Newton and Rachel let her stay with them. Each woman recognizes and accepts - wordlessly - her new status. On the front porch, Serena cossets Rachel's new baby. "You're the only one who's made him stop crying," Rachel smiles. The scene never descends into fireworks, but, far from a missed chance, to me its casualness and quietude was riveting.

I'm sad that the critics missed the boat so badly on "Free State of Jones." The diagnosis from some quarters of White Savior Syndrome is so facile and pissant as not to merit rebuttal. This is a true story of incautious courage by women and men, black and white. It is as beautiful and brutal to behold as Steve McQueen's deserving Oscar winner "12 Years a Slave," with which it would make a great double bill. Both have corn as yellow as the sun stuck in their teeth, and cotton stuck to their souls.