Countdown: The 25 Best Films of 2016

by George Wolf

Yeah, I know I’ve got two number 25’s….I was told there’d be no math.

25. 20th Century Women 

What a joyous conundrum this film is. Set in 1979, the film looks on as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) maneuvers the troubles of adolescence, societal sea change and his loving if enigmatic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening).

Perhaps the biggest surprise in 20th Century Women is the humor – the film, like life, is peppered with laugh out loud moments that help make even the barely endurable pain of adolescence enjoyable.

Writer/director Mike Mills falls back at times on a punk rock undercurrent that creates a wonderful energy as well as a thoughtful theme for the time in history and in Jamie’s life, because it’s about, “When your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it.”

It’s a line that’s almost too perfect, as this cast is almost too perfect. This seems to be the quiet wonder of  Mills: he puts his own complicated, insightful and emotionally generous writing into the hands of genuine talent.

Good call.

 

25. Sully

Carrying a true American icon both in front of the camera and behind it, Sully lands with a smooth craftsmanship as fitting as it is inevitable.

Director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks build the tension quietly, maintaining a consistent tone of understatement that makes the spectacle of Capt. Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” all the more breathtaking.

Not every scene embraces subtlety and not every line finds its mark, but Sully does, because it approaches the story precisely the way Sully himself seemed to approach his job. It’s a film that is modest, prepared and professional, with important moments that rise to the occasion.

 

24. Elle

Elle is a flummoxing, aggravating, possibly masterful piece of filmmaking that will leave you reeling.

A misanthropic tale with a complex – even befuddling – moral core, Elle explores the aftermath of a brutal rape. No matter what you expect to happen next, the only thing you can predict is that clichés will be upended.

Raising more eyebrows, the creative braintrust behind the film is entirely male: director Paul Verhoeven, novelist Philippe Djian, and screenwriter David Burke – who, interestingly, specializes in true-life horror films, often succeeding in humanizing the serial killer (Dahmer, Gacy).

To articulate the film’s frustrating turns would be to give away far more than is appropriate. Suffice it to say, the deeply flawed heroine (an incredibly good Isabelle Huppert) makes baffling choices in a story that chastises a culture that promotes rape while simultaneously encouraging rape fantasy.

Or does it?

It is quite possible that Huppert is the entire reason Elle works – but somehow, it does.

 

23. 10 Cloverfield Lane

More of a second cousin than a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, J.J. Abram’s-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic thriller. No found footage. No shaky camera. No perturbed kaiju.

First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension as the film progresses, finding the creepiness in even the most mundane domestic activities, as an award-worthy performance from John Goodman reminds us monsters come in many forms.

 

22. Midnight Special

Know as little as possible going into this film because writer/director Jeff Nichols is a master of the slow reveal, pulling you into a situation and exploiting your preconceived notions until you are wonderfully bewildered by the path the story takes.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.

 

21. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story peppers the action with welcome humor and continually reminds viewers of the film’s place – chronological and geographical – in the saga.

One or two of the tricks up director Gareth Edwards’s (Monsters, Godzilla) sleeve come up short, but the majority land with style. With his team of writers and a game cast, he takes us back to the height of the Empire’s smug attitude – their belief in their right to silence those who oppose them and dictate to a voiceless population with impunity.

It’s a clever, thoughtful slice of entertainment that adds depth to the Star Wars franchise as it deftly salutes those who sacrifice for hope.

 

20. Southside With You

Even if you knew nothing about the characters involved, Southside With You would be a sweet, smart, refreshingly grown up romance. It does nothing more than follow two people over the course of their first date.

But these people are Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama (Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers – both terrific) during a very hot Chicago day in 1989, and writer/director Richard Tanne, in a confident feature debut, finds plenty of resonance in an otherwise uneventful afternoon that changed the course of history.

 

19. The Eyes of My Mother

First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie, three act spell of lonesome bucolic horror.

Shot in ideal-for-the-project black and white, The Eyes of My Mother often reminds you of any number of horror films. Where Eyes differs most dramatically is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.

 

18. 13th

Director Ava DuVernay follows her triumphant Selma with an urgent dissection of mass incarceration in the United States. Informative, stirring, and heartbreaking, 13th is an essential history lesson.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V66F3WU2CKk

 

17. Arrival

Amy Adams is as reliable an actor as they come. Thoughtful and expressive, she shares a tremendous range of emotions without uttering a sound.

With his latest, Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve puts her skills to use to quietly display everything from wonder to terror to hope to gratitude as her character struggles to communicate with visitors.

People looking for explosions and jingoism on a global scale need not attend. In its place is a quiet contemplation on speaking, listening and working together. While that may not sound like much excitement, it’s about as relevant a message today as anything we can think of.

 

16. Krisha

Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.

And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.

It’s a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.

 

15. The Handmaiden

Mesmerizing director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) mesmerizes again, with this seductive story of a plot to defraud a Japanese heiress in the 1930s. Gorgeous, stylish and full of wonderful twists, The Handmaiden is a masterwork of delicious indulgence.

 

14. The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.

Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.

 

13. Green Room

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint.

What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

 

12. O.J.: Made in America

ESPN’s 5-part “30 For 30” documentary examined much more than just a football star’s fall from grace. It is an exacting, expertly blended spotlight on race, class, oppression and privilege. Made in America, indeed.

 

11. Zootopia

With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.

It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.

 

10. Loving

Like Barry Jenkins’s miraculous Moonlight, the latest film from Jeff Nichols offers a needed, optimistic reminder that progress is not dead and the ugliness of hatred need not win – even when it looks like it has already won. Here the writer/director quietly shares the triumphant story of the couple whose Supreme Court case made interracial marriage legal in the US.

In 1958, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married. Richard was savvy enough to have the ceremony conducted in D.C., but upon returning to their rural Virginia home, the two were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Nichols conducts the effort with an understatement that gives certain small moments and images true power. Never splashy and far from preachy, Loving sits with an otherwise ordinary family and lets their very normalcy speak volumes about the misguided hate that would separate them.

The approach does give the film a lovely intimacy,  and it reminds us that progress, though often ugly in its pursuit, can be won.

 

9. Jackie

Director Pablo Larrain disregards traditional biopic structure and reshapes it to hypnotic effect in Jackie, a complex portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as she struggles with the shock and grief of her husband’s assassination.

Anchored by a committed, transfixing lead performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie emerges as a surreal character study layered with the intimacy of a soul struggling to balance public demands with private resentment.

With one of history’s most famous women as his subject, Larrain wisely narrows his focus to these watershed moments, adding unspoken gravitas to the film through what we already know about the rest of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. In the whirlwind of November 1963, she had a husband to honor, children to reassure, and a future to guard.

With Jackie, Larrain and Portman deliver a meticulous, visionary statement full of both vital history and raw humanity.

 

8. Fences

Denzel Washington is an Oscar contender in about one of every three films he makes – Fences is clearly one of those special performances.

As a director, he’s chosen to focus on the African American experience – August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning stage play being the strongest effort yet.

Troy Maxson – a 1950s garbage man with a lot to say – is a character that feels custom-made for Washington. Larger than life, full of conflict and bullshit, bravado and stubbornness, Troy is a big presence. He fills up the screen, he fills up a room, but it is Viola Davis as his wife Rose who offers an emotional and gravitational center to the story.

Together she and Washington boast such chemistry, their glances, smiles and gestures articulating a well-worn, bone-deep love. Their time together on screen – which is a great chunk of the film – is an opportunity to watch two masters riff of each other for the benefit of character and audience alike. The result is in turns heart-warming and devastating.

True to the source material, Washington’s direction feels very stage-bound and theatrical. But in most respects, Washington’s delivery – faithful as it is to the idea of the stage from which it leapt – retains what is needed about the sense of confinement allowed by the few sets and locations. There is no doubting this play’s bonafides, and Washington honors its intimacy and universal themes.

 

7. The Jungle Book

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

 

6. The Witch

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.

Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

 

5. Hell or High Water

Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.

Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.

Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.

Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.

A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.

 

4. The Lobster

Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.

The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.

The entire ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.

It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.

 

3. Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea will put your emotions in a vice and slowly squeeze, buffering waves of monumental sadness with moments of biting humor and brittle affection. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a film so deeply felt it can leave you physically tired. A very good kind of tired.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are sure Oscar contenders as Lonergan sketches a narrative without regard for any strict linear structure, and the dense fog of grief surrounding the characters becomes palpable, anchored in Affleck’s tremendous performance.

Lonergan’s entire supporting cast is stellar, highlighted by an unforgettable Williams. Despite limited screen time, Williams conveys the pain beneath her character’s facade, finally airing it in a shattering scene with Affleck so full of ache and humanity you’ll be devastated, yet thankful for the experience.

Williams’s small but mighty performance pierces the film’s admittedly male-centric worldview. The other female characters are more broadly drawn in negative lights, yet this reinforces the sad cycle of emotional immaturity in danger of being passed on to another male in the family. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a hopeful ode to breaking these barriers, and enduring in the face of the worst that life can bring.

 

2. La La Land

Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.

Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is also steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.

It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.

But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.

Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has been tough. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.

Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.

 

1. Moonlight

Saving the world is great, so is finding love, or cracking the case, funnying the bone or haunting the house. But a movie that slowly awakens you to the human experience seems a little harder to find at the local multiplex.

You can find one in Moonlight, a minor miracle of filmmaking from writer/director Barry Jenkins. With just his second feature (after 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), Jenkins presents a journey of self-discovery in three acts, each one leading us with graceful insight toward a finale as subtle as it is powerful.

Jenkins adapts Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” with astonishing sensitivity and artful nuance. Simple shots such as closing doors or hands on a sandy beach scream with meaning, as Jenkins is confident enough to let the important moments breathe, finding universal truth and beauty in the most intimate of questions.

The performances are impeccable, the craftsmanship precise, the insight blinding. You will be a better human for seeing Moonlight. It is a poignant reminder that movies still have that power.

Fright Club: Best Horror of 2016

So much great horror in 2016! We may not have had that much to be happy about last year – besides the Cavs national championship (hooray!!) – but at least we can celebrate one outstanding 365 days of horror.

Joined by Killumbus Horror’s fearless leader Bridget, we argue about what is and is not horror – and whether Neon Demon thrills or disappoints – plus a few words on scissoring.

10. Demon

Like the mournful soul that clings to poor bridegroom Piotr (Itay Tiran), Demon sticks to you. Director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s final feature (he ended his life at a recent festival where the film was playing) offers a spooky, atmospheric rumination on cultural loss.

Wrona sets the Hebrew folktale of the dybbuk – a ghost that possesses the living – inside a Catholic wedding, accomplishing two things in the process. On the surface, he tells an affecting ghost story. More deeply, though, he laments cultural amnesia and reminds us that our collective past continues to haunt us.

With just a hint of Kubrick – never a bad place to go for ghost story inspiration – Wrona combines the familiar with the surprising. His film echoes with a deeply felt pain -a sense of anguish, often depicted as scenes of celebration clash with unexplained images of abject grief.

9. The Love Witch

Wes Anderson with a Black Mass fetish and a feminist point of view, Anna Biller wrote/directed/produced/edited/set-designed/costume-designed/music-supervised the seductive sorcery headtrip The Love Witch.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson – demented perfection) needs a change of scenery. Driving her red convertible up the seacoast highway toward a new life in northern California, her troubles – and her mysteriously dead ex-husband – are behind her. Surely, with her smart eyeshades and magic potions, she’ll find true love.

Expect a loose confection of a plot, as Elaine molds herself into the ideal sex toy, winning and then tiring of her trophies. This allows Biller to simultaneously reaffirm and reverse gender roles with appropriately wicked humor.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.

Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biG8R1yGouY

7. The Wailing

“Why are you troubled,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?

Yes.

That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Na meshes everything together in this bucolic horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.

6. The Greasy Strangler

Like the by-product of a high cholesterol diet, The Greasy Strangler will lodge itself into your brain and do a lot of damage.

A touching father/son story about romance, car washes and disco, this movie is like little else ever set to film. Both men fall for one particular “rootie tootie disco cutie,” and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a marauder on the loose – an inhuman beast covered head to toe in cooking grease.

The brilliantly awkward comedy leaves you scratching your head. Every absurd character begs for more screen time, and yet, each gag (and you will gag) goes on for an almost unendurable length of time.

The result is ingenious. Or repellant. Or maybe hilarious – it just depends on your tolerance for WTF horror and sick, sick shit. Whatever else it may be, though, The Greasy Strangler is – I promise you – hard to forget.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPl1vcb4hao

5. Don’t Breathe

For his sophomore effort Don’t Breathe, director Fede Alvarez dials down the blood and gore in favor of almost unbearable tension generated through masterful deployment of set design, sound design, cinematography and one sparse but effective premise.

Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha to a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.

This is a scrappy film that gives you very little in the way of character development, backstory or scope. Instead, Alvarez focuses so intently on what’s in front of you that you cannot escape – a tension particularly well suited to this claustrophobic nightmare.

4. Under the Shadow

Our tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

3. Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.

It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

2. The Eyes of My Mother

First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie spell of lonesome bucolic horror.

There is much power in dropping an audience into a lived-in world – the less we know, the better. Pesce understands this in the same way Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and though The Eyes of My Mother lacks the cynicism, satire and power tools of Hooper’s farmhouse classic, it treads some similar ground.

Where Eyes differs most dramatically from other films is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.

1. The Witch

In set design, dialog, tension-building and performances this film creates an unseemly familial intimacy that you feel guilty for stumbling into. There is an authenticity here – and an opportunity to feel real empathy for this Puritan family – that may never have been reached in a “burn the witch” horror film before.

On the surface The Witch is an “into the woods” horror film that manages to be one part The Crucible, one part The Shining. Below that, though, is a peek into radicalization as relevant today as it would have been in the 1600s.

Beautiful, authentic and boasting spooky lines and images that are equally beautiful and haunting, it is a film – painstakingly crafted by writer/director Robert Eggers – that marks a true new visionary for the genre.

Dream Baby Dream

La La Land

by George Wolf

What an utterly glorious piece of filmmaking La La Land is.

Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.

Nostalgia? That’s hard to get right.

“That’s the point!”

So says Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a frustrated jazz pianist whose dinner music gig will soon be gone if he doesn’t stick to the approved playlist. He meets struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and the cutest couple in town contest ends quickly.

Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is again steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.

It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.

But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.

Gosling (displaying some impressive keyboard chops) makes Sebastian a natural charmer who’s “letting life hit me ’til it gets tired,” and trying to stay true to his old school ambitions. When a well-paying gig with a pop-leaning band comes calling (the publicity photo shoot is a scream), Gosling underplays Sebastian’s sell-out frustrations but never the resonance.

And good as Gosling is, Stone is luminous. She takes Mia from the plucky Doris-Day-next-door enduring a string embarrassing auditions to a nuanced young woman facing the realities of what her dream demands, and Stone has us at hello. This film has everything going for it, yet it still rests on Stone’s ability to find the perfect blend of wonder and authenticity. She does not disappoint.

Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has hit many of us ’til we’re more than tired, we’re damned depressed. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.

Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

Cinema Killed the Video Star

Assassin’s Creed

by Hope Madden

What does it take to make a worthwhile movie based on a video game? Because it isn’t just talent – Assassin’s Creed proves that.

Like Warcraft, Creed pits a genuinely gifted director against all that terrible cinematic history – from 1992’s Super Mario Brothers through the Resident Evil series to this year’s Angry Birds Movie – and comes up lacking.

Australian director Justin Kurzel quietly proved his mettle with an astonishing true crime horror film in 2011 called Snowtown. Last year, he teamed up with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – authentic talents if ever there were – for an imaginative and bloody take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

And now the three re-team, along with time-tested craftsmen Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling, to adapt the popular time traveling video game.

Fassbender is Cal, a death row convict secretly saved by the Abstergo science lab. There, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) will use him to channel his ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) – member of a shadowy team battling the Knights Templar for the freedom of humanity.

So, we bounce back and forth in time between a modern day SciFi story and a dusty Inquisition-era adventure. Cal struggles against his newfound captivity and the after-effects of the experiments; Aguilar parkours his way through ancient Spain, trying to keep the Templar from the apple that started all our troubles back in Eden.

If the problem here is not talent, what, then?

As usual, it begins with the writing. Kurzel works with his Macbeth collaborator Michael Lesslie, as well as ne’er do wells Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Allegiant, Exodus: Gods and Kings). They put together a story that’s as convoluted and bloated as it is superficial.

The cast gets little opportunity to do anything other than deliver dour lines with stone faces, each one developing less of a sense of character than what you would have actually found in the video game itself.

Kurzel’s no help, his mirthless presentation undermining thrills at every turn. When he isn’t bombarding the action with murky visual effects, he’s pulling the audience from the midst of a climactic battle and back into the lab to watch Cotillar and/or Irons look on with clinical interest.

Yawn.

Maybe it’s impossible to capture the visceral thrill of gaming within the comparatively passive experience of cinema. Maybe the rich backstories of modern video games are only rich if you’re used to video game narratives. Hopefully the movies will get it right at some point, or at least they’ll stop wasting such incredible talent on such forgettable nonsense.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Lost & Found

Lion

by Hope Madden

Inspirational, true-life tales – however tailor-made they seem to be for a big screen presentation – can be tough to deliver with integrity. In fact, the more tailor-made they seem, the tougher it can be.

Director Garth Davis manages to hit most of the right notes with his cinematic telling of Saroo Brierley’s amazing journey in Lion.

At 5-years-old, Saroo (played as a child by the impossibly cute and talented Sunny Pawar) follows his older brother to the train station where they’ll scrounge what they can from between seats and on the ground. But Saroo wanders off, falls asleep in a train car, and by the time he gets off, he’s thousands of miles from home – alone in a train station in Calcutta.

What follows – told with surprising restraint and solid focus – are the details of his struggle to survive and, decades later, to find his mother.

The adventure is harrowing. Davis chooses wisely between the events to explore deeply and those to leave ambiguous. We glimpse things that are clearly menacing but not fully explained because we’re seeing them through the eyes of a bewildered child. The result is a dark sense of all that could have occurred, not a sledge-hammer about the lurid details Saroo couldn’t possibly have articulated.

Once the film moves to Australia, where the boy relocates with an adoptive family, Davis again shares enough details to give the film a memorable sense of authenticity. The now grown and well-cared-for Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with longing, guilt and a crippling concern for the pain his birth-family must bear because of his absence.

Patel deserves credit for a performance unlike the work we’ve seen from him in previous efforts. As a performer, he has tended toward painfully earnest representations, an over-actor who relies heavily on hyperbolic reactions.

Here, though, is a far more nuanced turn – one that benefits immeasurably by the chemistry he shares with Nicole Kidman, playing his adoptive mother Sue Brierley.

Dependable as ever to explore the depths of grief, Kidman conveys the conflicting emotions that, in their way, inform Saroo’s struggle. She’s surrounded by solid performances from a strong ensemble.

The film does make its missteps. The talented Rooney Mara is both underused and overused. Her flatly written character contributes little to the overall narrative, and yet the romance crowds a story that has more interesting things to say.

Faults aside, Lion dives into grief, guilt and love with refreshing honesty to tell the most unbelievable story in a way that echoes with a human connection we can all appreciate.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Post By Post

Fences

by Hope Madden

Denzel Washington is an Oscar contender in about one of every three films he makes – Fences is clearly one of those special performances.

As a director, he’s chosen to focus on the African American experience – August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning stage play being the strongest effort yet.

Troy Maxson – a 1950s garbage man with a lot to say – is a character that feels custom-made for Washington. Larger than life, full of conflict and bullshit, bravado and stubbornness, Troy is a big presence. He fills up the screen, he fills up a room, but it is Viola Davis as his wife Rose who offers an emotional and gravitational center to the story.

It doesn’t take much effort to pitch Viola Davis a ball she can hit out of the park. Denzel does just that.

As Rose – the force that keeps the family functioning smoothly – Davis quietly astonishes. She delivers every scene – from silly reminiscences to life-altering decisions – with the easy grace of a profound talent.

Together she and Washington boast such chemistry, their glances, smiles and gestures articulating a well-worn, bone-deep love. Their time together on screen – which is a great chunk of the film – is an opportunity to watch two masters riff of each other for the benefit of character and audience alike. The result is in turns heart-warming and devastating.

The two leads benefit from the remarkable support of the ensemble – longtime character actor Stephen Henderson and Russell Hornsby, in particular.

True to the source material, Washington’s direction feels very stage-bound and theatrical. But in most respects, Washington’s delivery – faithful as it is to the idea of the stage from which it leapt – retains what is needed about the sense of confinement allowed by the few sets and locations.

This is a respectful and powerful tribute to the late Wilson, the playwright whose on-stage Fences saw its 2010 revival starring both Washington and Davis. There is no doubting this play’s bonafides, and Washington honors its intimacy and universal themes.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Lost In Space

Passengers

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from romantic comedies, it’s this: as long as two people are attractive enough and have no entanglements – no jobs, no family, no social obligations to speak of – then only the most ludicrously contrived and easily surmountable of obstacles can keep them apart.

What if we applied this concept to SciFi? Well, if you can cast the two most bankable actors in Hollywood, you might be onto something.

That something is Passengers.

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are the pair of stupidly good looking actors playing Aurora and Jim, two of the 5,000 some odd hibernating passengers on a flight to Homestead II – a colony planet about 120 years from Earth. One convenience leads to another and they both wake up a lifetime too early.

To writer Jon Spaihts’s credit, his screenplay opens up many a moral conundrum. Between his existential questions and the film’s needed action sequences, Passengers feels like a good fit for director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters, The Imitation Game).

And yet, there is no easy out these two won’t take.

Big fans of Kubrick (clearly), Tyldum and Spaihts borrow not only from the obvious source of 2001, but even more liberally from The Shining – as well as one certain foreign film that will go unnamed for fear of spoiling the early plot twist.

Intriguing? Not for long.

Passengers also nabs bits and pieces from Gravity, Titanic and Alien (none of the good parts from Alien – although since Spaihts wrote Prometheus, maybe some of this should have been expected).

So it looks good. And the characters are likeable – troublingly likeable, which ends up becoming the anchor this film can’t escape. Potentially fascinating questions are raised, then abandoned, as if it’s too dangerous to risk upsetting some focus group who came to see love at light speed.

Pratt has no problem with likability, but he again finds it hard to veer from his comfort zone of Chris Pratt. This is even more evident next to Lawrence, who can always find small ways to craft a new character, even when hamstrung by a less than challenging script such as this.

You’ll get some how-do-you-do’s to sustainability and corporate greed, but by then the course for Passengers has long been set.

Look at these two! Don’t you like them together?

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Fright Club: Best Belgian Horror

Here’s our guess: you have no idea how much great horror comes out of Belgium. A lot! So much that we weren’t even able to talk about the excellent camp horror Cub or the bloody head trip that is The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – but we still had to mention them because you should see them.

But keep in mind – there are five movies from Belgium that are even better! And here they are!

5. Vampires (2010)

About 6 years ago, Belgiain filmmaker Vincent Lanoo made a hilarious (if blandly titled) mock-doc about vampires. Far darker and more morbid than the later Kiwi import What We Do in the Shadows (the first two film crews were eaten before they could complete the documentary; the final film is dedicated to the memory of the third crew), Lanoo’s film offers insight, social commentary and blood along with laughs.

The crew moves in with a vampire family with two undisciplined teens. The house also contains the couple who live in their basement (vampires can’t own a home until they have – make – children), and Meat (the name they’ve given the woman they keep in their kitchen). There’s also a coop out back for the illegal immigrants the cops drop off on Mondays.

Beginning to end, wickedly hilarious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqS_6nlctG8

4. Them (2006)

Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit.

Writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up.

Set in Romania, Them follows Lucas and Clementine, a young couple still moving into the big rattling old house where they’ll stay while they’re working abroad. It will be a shorter trip than they’d originally planned.

What the film offers in 77 minutes is relentless suspense. I’m not sure what else you want.

Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.

3. Alleluia (2014)

In 2004, Belgian writer/director Fabrice Du Welz released the exquisite Calvaire, marking himself a unique artist worth watching. Ten years later he revisits the themes of that film – blind passion, bloody obsession, maddening loneliness – with his newest effort, Alleluia. Once again he enlists the help of an actor who clearly understands his vision.

Laurent Lucas plays Michel, a playboy conman who preys upon lonely women, seducing them and taking whatever cash he can get his hands on. That all changes once he makes a mark of Gloria (Lola Duenas).

Du Welz’s close camera and off angles exaggerate Lucas’s teeth, nose and height in ways that flirt with the grotesque. Likewise, the film dwells on Duenas’s bags and creases, heightening the sense of unseemliness surrounding the pair’s passion.

Duenas offers a performance of mad genius, always barely able to control the tantrum, elation, or desire in any situation. Her bursting passions often lead to carnage, but there’s a madcap love story beneath that blood spray that compels not just attention but, in a macabre way, affection. Alleluia is a film busting with desperation, jealousy, and the darkest kind of love.

2. Man Bites Dog (1992)

In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the fictional documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.

There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes. They’re just documenting, just telling the truth. No doubt this is a morally questionable practice to begin with. But they are not villains – they are serving their higher purpose: film.

The film examines social responsibility as much as it does journalistic objectivity, and what Man Bites Dog has to say about both is biting. It’s never preachy, though.

Theirs is a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.

1. Calvaire (2004)

Like you didn’t know.

Fabrice du Welz’s surreal nightmare has appeared on eight separate Fright Club podcasts. Why? Because we effing love it.

A paranoid fantasy about the link between progress and emasculation, The Ordeal sees a timid singer stuck in the wilds of Belgium after his van breaks down.

Writer/director Fabrice Du Welz’s script scares up the darkest imaginable humor. If David Lynch had directed Deliverance in French, the concoction might have resembled The Ordeal. As sweet, shy singer Marc (a pitch perfect Laurent Lucas) awaits aid, he begins to recognize the hell he’s stumbled into. Unfortunately for Marc, salvation’s even worse.

Du Welz animates more ably than most our collective revulsion over the idea that we’ve evolved into something incapable of unaided survival; the weaker species, so to speak. Certainly John Boorman’s Deliverance (the Uncle Daddy of all backwoods survival pics) understood the fear of emasculation that fuels this particular dread, but Du Welz picks that scab more effectively than any filmmaker since.

Plus there’s dancing!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hn3oba5HmH8

Good Thing Going…Gone

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

by George Wolf

“I got everything I ever wanted, and I never really got over it.”

It’s been said that life is lived forward, but understood backward. This sentiment sits at the heart of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, a poignant look back at a failed musical that carried the very same theme.

In 1981, director/co-writer Lonny Price was in the original Broadway cast of Merrily We Roll Along, a Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince production that started with middle-aged characters and worked backward in time, until each was just a teenager eager to embark on life’s journey.

Now, more than three decades later, those very cast members (including a 21 year-old Jason Alexander) are middle-aged, and Price (who you’ll remember as ‘Neil” from Dirty Dancing) brings them together to look back on their shared experience and how it affected the course of their lives.

The setup is so perfect you’d think opening this time capsule was planned from the start, except that Merrily was an unexpected flop, leaving all involved to pick up the pieces and move on.

Price’s project struck gold when he discovered boxes of old video covering the birth of the show. Meant for an ABC-TV project that never aired, the footage lets us glimpse men and women watching themselves as just kids, excited for the promise of a future that has now become the past.

The young actors are beside themselves with energy, incredulous that they’re working with Sondheim and Prince (“the Gods of Broadway!”) and nearly bursting with all the bravado and naivete of youth.

The feels come early and often, in an entertaining and well-paced package. The strength of dreams, the bonds of friendship and the pain of disillusionment all take their bows, as the lines between stage, documentary and the lives of those involved are blurred in bittersweet ways.

Broadway fans will find an endearing peek inside that life, but thirty-five years later, the film succeeds on that elusive universal level the musical was dreaming of.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

That’s No Moon…

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It is a Star Wars story, no doubt about that.

Familiar crafts and creatures are scattered about, buoyed with a stream of cameos that begin as clever and escalate to downright ovation-wothy. And, at the film’s core is a story of wayward fathers, longing children, and the paradox of “confusing peace with terror.”

Why this sudden pearl-clutching over the politics of the Star Wars universe? There’s been a “final solution” tilt since the outset (they are called stormtroopers, after all), and Rogue One takes us back to when the Empire’s prized Death Star had yet to be completed.

As an act of conscience, Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) designed the Death Star with that fatal flaw that is exposed when viewing the original blueprints. It’s up to Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) and her band of rebel fighters to capture that file and ensure daddy’s flaw is exploited.

Sure, we know how it all turns out, but connecting those dots becomes a thrilling, thoughtful bit of fun.

Jones makes a fine hero: brave, righteous and naive – or, perfect for this series.

She and Mikkelson join a full slate of very talented character actors – from the genius Ben Mendelsohn to the under-appreciated Diego Luna to the up-and-coming Riz Ahmed. They’re part of an adventure that butts up against the New Hope, bridging tales swirling around that far away galaxy.

Like JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story peppers the action with welcome humor and continually reminds viewers of the film’s place – chronological and geographical – in the saga.

One or two of the tricks up director Gareth Edwards’s (Monsters, Godzilla) sleeve come up short, but the majority land with style. With his team of writers and a game cast, he takes us back to the height of the Empire’s smug attitude – their belief in their right to silence those who oppose them and dictate to a voiceless population with impunity.

It’s a clever, thoughtful slice of entertainment entirely apiece of the Star Wars history. It’s also a reminder that there is always hope.

Verdict-3-5-Stars