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.

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