Sunday, 15 January 2017

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2016







While 2016 may not have been as good a year as the previous two, it nevertheless had more than its share of magical films. Magic and mystery are two key elements of this year’s films, which include a surprising number of Hollywood productions, though a solid majority are indie films. Here are some other observations to note:
  1. Missing from the list are two of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year: Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, both of which I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival. These are excellent films, deserving most of their acclaim, but their flaws were of the kind that prevented me from being as engaged with the story as I should have been. While Moonlight is missing, two other African-American films are in my top seven.
  2. Two of my favourite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve and Jeff Nichols, have their third straight films in my top ten.
  3. Three of my top fifteen films took place in the 1950’s and two were set in 1951. 
  4. As noted below, two of my top six films reminded me (a lot!) of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  5. Films that just missed my list include A Monster Calls, Miss Sloane and Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King.
  6. I have not had the opportunity to watch Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson, which may very well have made my list. 
  7. Three of my four favourite films of the year feature a female protagonist. While I saw a number of films in 2016 directed by women, none of them made my list. Men still direct over 93% of all films made and the overwhelming majority of films still have male protagonists (Star Wars is doing its best to change this, but not, in my opinion, in the most helpful way).
As I continue to watch more than 90 new films a year, I will continue to include fifteen films in my list (besides, each of these films received four stars from me). Here’s the list, counting down from fifteen:

15. A Man Called Ove - Hannes Holm’s sad tragic film about a cantankerous 59-year-old widower who tries repeatedly to take his own life so he can join his recently-deceased wife, is the funniest film I watched this year. Rolf LassgÃ¥rd is perfect as Ove and this moving Swedish gem has a lot to say about love, friendship and community. 

14. Creative Control - Benjamin Dickinson’s low-budget indie sci-fi flick (and quirky cautionary tale), filmed gorgeously in B&W, is full of flaws, but its insightful commentary on our drug-filled, work-obsessed, smartphone/Facebook culture and the dangers presented by our technological advances is so timely and so compellingly-told that I forgive its many flaws.

13. Snowden - Oliver Stone’s biopic about Edward Snowden and Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the NSA (and the CIA) is the most underrated film of the year (in my opinion). This is no doubt connected to the fact that Stone had to find financing in Germany (and had to film in Germany). Joseph-Gordon Levitt is outstanding as Snowden, one of the great heroes of our time, and I have little respect for critics who complain about Snowden’s one-sided presentation of the facts (there is NO other side to present).

12. Anomalisa - Charlie Kaufman makes some of the most quirky, unique and melancholy films ever made and this brilliant animated film is no exception. David Thewlis provides the voice for Michael Stone, the film’s protagonist, a personal-communication expert who has flown from L.A. to Cincinnati to give a talk and experiences a major existential crisis instead. There’s enough thought-provoking material in Anomalisa to fill five hours of discussion! Great stuff.

11. Indignation - This old-fashioned slow-moving period film from James Schamus, about a college student in Ohio in 1951, is simply my kind of film, full of intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue, terrific understated performances (Logan Lerman stars) and quiet humour. Indignation had my second-favourite scene of the year and it deserved more attention.

10. Captain Fantastic - Captain Fantastic struggles with some major credibility issues, but Matt Ross’s irresistible tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) trying to raise his children in the woods is so deliciously counter-cultural, has such wonderfully-drawn characters, and has such a funny, thoughtful and humane screenplay, that I enjoyed every minute of it. 

9. Hail, Caesar! - Joel and Ethan Coen have created another winner. This time, it’s a whacky wonderful satire about the golden days of the Hollywood studio system (1951), featuring an incredible array of delightful performances in a somewhat chaotic collection of scenes. I had a grin on my face from beginning to end. Great fun!

8. Pete’s Dragon - Who would have thought a live-action remake of a mediocre Disney animated film from the 70’s could become one of the most moving and inspiring films of the year? Not me, but Pete’s Dragon (written and directed by David Lowery) is pure movie magic, a slow, poetic family film with my favourite scene of the year (featuring Robert Redford). 

7. Fences - Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play from 1983, Denzel Washington’s Fences tells the poignant story of an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who’s trying to make sense of his life. Fences had the best ensemble acting of the year, with standout performances from Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson. 

6. Midnight Special - An underrated sci-fi flick inspired by one of my all-time favourite films (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is a tense, slow-moving mystery (as in ‘mysterious’, not a ‘whodunit’). Michael Shannon is brilliant as a father full of doubts and anxieties who is trying to protect his extraordinary son. 

5. Embrace of the Serpent - Easily the ‘best’ film I saw in 2016, only its obscure ending prevents me from placing it even higher on my list. Cio Guerra’s film about an Amazonian shaman’s encounter with two white men in 1909 and 1940 is an old-fashioned masterpiece full of wonder, mystery and magic, with stunning B&W cinematography and phenomenal performances by its indigenous non-actors.

4. Arrival - With one of the strongest, wisest and most compassionate female protagonists in the history of film (played brilliantly by Amy Adams), Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an elegant, insightful and poetic alien-encounter film, the second film on this list to remind me of Close Encounters. Complex yet simple, Arrival is about how we communicate with each other, how we make decisions and the profound love of a mother for her child. 

3. La La Land - Strangely enough, given its position on my list, I believe Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an overrated film. But I’m a sucker for old-fashioned musicals (an almost forgotten genre) and I loved every minute of this magical film, so I’m overrating it as well. Emma Stone is terrific as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling). Together, they must face a fundamental question about the meaning of life: is their relationship more, or less, important than their vocational dreams?

2. Chi-Raq - Spike Lee’s quirky, outrageous, in-your-face satire about gang violence in south Chicago just blew me away. Chi-Raq is based on an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata (by Aristophanes) about what happens when women deny their partners sex until the violence stops. It also refers to the true story of a women’s peace movement in Liberia in 2003 (as seen in 2008’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell). This magical mess of a film features rhyming dialogue, a narrator (Greek chorus) played by Samuel L. Jackson, a magnificent sermon by John Cusack and stars Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata.

1. I, Daniel Blake - Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s latest film (written by Paul Laverty) is about the potential in each of us to challenge the powers-that-be and be a good neighbour to the poor and oppressed people in our communities. In this unsubtle yet unsentimental masterpiece, Dave Johns plays a 59-year-old widower who discovers that potential in the midst of his own struggles. I, Daniel Blake is one of the most humanizing films I have ever seen, which is high praise indeed.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A Monster Calls



Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis McDougall) is 12 years old, growing up in rural north England, near a hill with a lonely church, a lonely graveyard and a giant lonely yew tree. Every night, Conor has a nightmare in which that hill implodes and he is holding onto someone’s hand as they fall into the abyss. As the hand lets go and the person falls, Conor wakes up, to a real world which is also a nightmare. His young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer and already plans are being made for Conor to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he fears and dislikes. Conor would rather live with his father (Toby Kebbell) in L.A., but his father doesn’t want that. Meanwhile, at school, Conor is bullied every day by older boys, and usually the victim of physical violence.

With all of this horror in his real life, Conor is not particularly frightened when the yew tree comes to life as a giant (and genuinely terrifying) monster (voice by Liam Neeson) and calls on Conor, telling Conor he will be returning each night to tell him a story. After three stories from the monster, it will be Conor’s turn to tell the monster about his nightmare. 

A Monster Calls is a simple tale beautifully told. Turning all that Conor (and the audience) have been taught about fairy tales, horror stories, redemptive violence, good guys and bad guys, and even superheroes, on its head, A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and directed by J.A. Bayona, tells the story of a boy and his pain and grief in such a wonderfully original way that it becomes a grand fairy tale of its own, one with universal appeal and application, while remaining focused on its sorrowful subject. The family and school relationships which make up that subject should have been fleshed out more fully and presented more compellingly, but you can’t have everything. 

It’s true that if I hadn’t agreed with the direction of its ideas, A Monster Calls would not have been as strong a film for me, but those ideas are rare enough to find in popular films aimed at a younger (not too young) audience. They deserve to be singled out for special affirmation. With great performances all around, a strong score, a dreamy cinematography which is perfectly-suited to the plot and wise writing, A Monster Calls is almost a classic and gets ***+ verging on ****. It will be hard to keep this profound and moving film out of my list of top films of the year. My mug is up and I recommend it to all (though I fear many people, including the young, may find the film boring). 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Fences



Wow!

I’m a huge fan of making films based on great plays. Fences, directed by, and starring, Denzel Washington (one of my all-time faves), is one of the best adaptations ever. The play, written by August Wilson in 1983, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. 

Fences is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and virtually the entire film takes place in and around one particular house in a lower class (i.e. African-American) suburb, which is the home of the Maxson family: Troy (Washington), his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their seventeen-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy, now well into his fifties, used to be a baseball player in the Negro Baseball League and still resents the fact that he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Now he works as a waste collector for the city. This wouldn’t provide enough income to live in such a decent-sized house, but Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) was wounded in WWII and Troy is being paid to look after him, which he does.

Troy actually has two sons. His older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is a musician who wants nothing more than for his dad to watch him play someday. Cory is a star football player in high school, but Troy refuses to sign any paperwork that might help Cory get recruited by a college. Having had such a bad experience in sports himself, Troy wants something better for Cory. This, of course, results in deep resentments on Cory’s part. Meanwhile, Troy’s co-worker and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) stands beside Troy no matter what. As does Rose, up to a point. It’s not easy to stand beside Troy because he’s got a lot of issues and knows how to hurt everyone around him (he also scares people by talking about his experiences with Death, with whom he talks regularly).

The acting of the above-named actors is nothing short of phenomenal - one of the best ensemble performances in the history of film. Washington and Davis are sublime and deserve Academy Awards. Washington’s direction is also perfect for a play like this. The cinematography, especially when you consider the limited space at play, is spectacular, and the score is fine. 

The best thing about Fences is the wonderful dialogue that comes fast and furious and always rings true, even when it sound almost like poetry. Fences is a sad and profound story about a man struggling with, and trying to make sense of, his past, his present and his future. Troy is not a very sympathetic character but it’s possible to identify with him nonetheless because of Washington’s great performance and the brilliant writing. 

I liked Fences much more than Moonlight (the other African-American film looking for awards this year and the favourite of critics) and it’s a guarantee that it will be in my top ten films of 2016 (coming next week). **** My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



My low expectations for Rogue One were nowhere near low enough. Sigh.

Leaving aside the ridiculous level of gun violence, a primary feature of Force Awakens which  would have made Obi-Wan Kenobi cringe in horror, there was - oh wait - there’s nothing left! Sigh.

Seriously, let’s forget about the endless violent action of these last two Star Wars films (after all, one has to assume some level of violence in the word “wars”) and talk about what bothers me most about these films, namely the utter lack of originality and imagination, resulting in an overwhelming sense of boredom. Force Awakens was just a poor remake of the original 1977 Star Wars, with a plot so unoriginal I almost gagged at points and lost much of my respect for J.J. Abrams. Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is basically a remake of all the Star Wars films, with a little plot thrown in about how Princess Leia actually received the Death Star plans back in the first film. Sigh.

What makes all this same old same old (if I see another rebel fighter-pilot scream, I’m going to scream) so pathetic is that these last two films (especially Rogue One) have completely neglected the heart of the first six Star Wars films - the one thing that held those films together and made the original two films so magical - namely the creation of a universe governed by a spiritual power called the Force that “surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” Yes, there is a blind man who represents the power of the Force in Rogue One, but that power is used almost entirely for violent action purposes, undermining the entire point behind the Force in the first six films. For this reason, I actually like the Star Wars prequels better than the last two films. Sigh. 

Oh yeah - the plot, such as it is: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sees a message from her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), describing a flaw he built into the Death Star and the need to find the plans to the Death Star and put them in the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Jyn finds a group of rebellious rebels (including Cassian, played by Diego Luna, and his droid, K-2SO) and sets out to do just that. We all know she will succeed, because we know the beginning of the original film, but how she does it (other than with endless gun violence) does offer some surprises.

So let’s talk about what’s good about Rogue One: That surprising ending, which I can’t reveal, since it’s the only real surprise in the film, is intriguing to say the least. In some ways, I suppose it was inevitable, even necessary, but still. But bigger than this was the racial diversity of the cast. Not a single major character is played by an English-speaking white North American. And while there are still far too many male characters (and thus too few female characters), at least the protagonist, for the second film in a row, is a strong young woman (though of course, the writers failed to take my previous comments about violent women into account). I actually liked Jones’s performance better than Ridley’s and I found the character of Jyn more sympathetic than Rey. For that matter, I found most of the characters in Rogue One more sympathetic than the major characters in Force Awakens (original characters notwithstanding), and the acting was perhaps stronger than in any of the other Star Wars films.

Speaking of original characters, let’s talk about bringing Peter Cushing back from the dead to play Grand Moff Tarkin. Reminding me of the marvellous 2013 film, The Congress, the idea that we can digitize actors’ faces (like Cushing’s) could spell the end of the need for future actors (we’ll just recycle the greats!). But seriously, I found Cushing’s presence too diverting. K-2SO was more positively diverting, though no C-3PO.

The score and cinematography were good enough as well. So Disney has done a number of things right with their new entries in the Star Wars saga, creating a truly multicultural universe and strong female leads, but, in the end, all I could see was a lot of mindless violent action used as a stupid excuse to rake in countless millions of dollars (and they sure got that right!). Because of my love for the original Star Wars film, I will not award a rating of any kind to Rogue One, my least-favourite film in the series. My mug, likewise, is nowhere to be found.

BTW: Why on earth do stormtroopers wear that ridiculous white plastic armour? A single shot of any kind in their direction, and they’re down (probably dead), so obviously the armour is useless. Which means it is only there to make it look like the good guys are killing pieces of plastic instead of real people, making the violence more palatable for children. Pathetic. Sigh. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

La La Land



Wow!

It would have been almost impossible for my most-anticipated film of the year to live up to my expectations. After all, I’m a huge fan of musicals, so when an old-fashioned indie musical gets rave reviews, I have to be thinking that it might become my favourite film of the year, if not the decade. There was no place to go but down, and down it went, with one disappointment after another. ‘But Vic’, you say, ‘you started this review with a “Wow”’. I did indeed, because, as disappointing as La La Land was, I still loved it and it’s still going to be in my list of ‘Top Ten Films of 2016’, which will be coming out in about two weeks. It will not, however, be number one on that list.

La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, begins magnificently with a song and dance number on the L.A. freeway during a typical morning traffic jam. If it could have kept up that kind of pace for the rest of the film, as Moulin Rouge did in 2001, then number one would have been assured. But after the first half hour or so, La La Land begins to fade, with far too few songs for a musical (in my opinion). 

Emma Stone plays Mia, who works in a coffee shop but dreams of being a film actress and spends her spare time doing auditions. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a small-time jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian meet at a low point in both of their careers and, of course, fall in love (no real spoiler there). The romance grows, but also falters, as Mia and Sebastian pursue their dreams, a pursuit which will have lots of ups and downs. I’ll say no more about the plot.

The key theme in La La Land is whether love is more important than this pursuit of one’s dreams. There is reason to believe the film is ambivalent in its response to this question, leaving lots of room for discussion, which is good, but there’s also reason to challenge the overall direction (regarding this theme) of this young filmmaker’s intelligent and original screenplay.

I’ve always admired Stone but her performance here is beyond terrific (one of the best of the decade) and she deserves an Oscar for this. Gosling was good enough but he failed to impress me (though the obvious chemistry between him and Stone made up for that). The singing of Stone and Gosling was, however, one of my disappointments. I’m not an expert on singing, but it was obvious to me that Stone and Gosling were not singers prior to the making of La La Land and it shows. 

While there were too few songs in La La Land, the quality of the music by Justin Hurwitz exceeded my expectations, as did the cinematography, which was nothing short of perfection. And the ending was, for me, exactly right and a pure delight. The secondary theme of nostalgia, portrayed through Sebastian's desire to save jazz (standing in for Chazelle's desire to save film musicals) was also critical to my enjoyment of the film.

Any attempt to bring back this almost-forgotten genre is going to impress me, regardless of how well it’s done. In this case, Stone’s great performance, along with La La Land’s focus on dreams and love, its marvellous cinematography, its beautiful music and Chazelle’s flawless direction, lift the film easily into my top ten of the year, despite my disappointments. This is what filmmaking is about - magic. A solid ****. My mug is up and I can’t wait to see it again (maybe next week!).

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Doctor Strange



The Avengers, and related superhero films in the Marvel universe, have not fared well in my opinion, with endless PG violence, endless pointless action, endless destruction and minimal plots. There has been the odd exception, like the first Iron Man film, but generally I think the film world would have been better if Marvel had never existed (though the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films would have been missed). 

Doctor Strange, however, is unique in the Marvel superhero film world, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing a super-intelligent hero who believes it’s always wrong to kill and whose arrogance is constantly being challenged by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in yet another utterly distinct role and look), leading him to learn that life is not all about him. This in turn leads him to a very unique showdown with the film’s super-baddie, in which Doctor Strange uses no weapons at all, but only the power of self-sacrifice (and a magic time-bracelet). 

Magic is what sets Doctor Strange apart, and almost all of the action scenes focus on magic, resulting in spectacular visuals which are much more enjoyable (on the whole) than any action scenes previously featured in Marvel films. As for the plot, it’s not as intelligent as it should be (there are many holes), but it’s mildly diverting, thanks to Swinton’s performance as The Ancient One and Cumberbatch’s always entertaining presence. The plot: Dr. Strange is an arrogant surgeon whose reckless driving leads to an accident that destroys his hands. To get those beloved hands working again, Dr. Strange seeks out the healing powers of The Ancient One, not realizing that magic is involved. Eventually, he allows himself to overcome his skepticism and learn, discovering that he is a natural.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way the story was told, wishing there had been much more attention paid to Dr. Strange’s journey toward becoming Doctor Strange. And the PG violent action may not have been endless but there was certainly more than I wanted to see. 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Doctor Strange much more than I had expected to (low expectations are always helpful). I appreciated an ending that wasn’t entirely sold to the myth of redemptive violence and I appreciated the performances of the two actors mentioned above as well as Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Dr. Strange’s fellow doctor, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, a fellow magician. So Doctor Strange gets a solid ***+. My mug is up for my favourite non-Spider-Man Marvel film.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Moana



Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars franchises (which, together with Disney’s animated blockbusters, have given Disney more box office sales in 2016 than any other studio in history: an unfathomable 8 billion dollars) continue to deliver the same old same old redemptive violence, showing no imagination whatsoever (okay, Doctor Strange was a little better - see upcoming review), but something wonderful is going on with Disney’s children’s films. Recent Disney films like Inside Out, Pete’s Dragon, Zootopia and Finding Dory have stayed far away from the kind of redemptive violence (e.g. killing off the baddies) so common in Disney films since the day Disney started (with Snow White in 1937). And now comes Moana, which comes very close to following in the path of Pocahontas, Disney’s most ethical animated film (though far from its best).

Of course, that’s already a spoiler, for which I apologize, but since that fact alone is the reason for my rating of Moana, it had to be mentioned. I don’t have any more spoilers, but do offer the following summary: Moana is about a young Polynesian princess (Moana) who decides to follow her grandmother’s advice (instead of her father’s) and leave the island where she and her people have lived for generations. Her reason for leaving is to find the demigod Maui and force him to return the stone he stole from the goddess Te Fiti. That theft has resulted in a creeping darkness spreading over all the islands, making it more and more difficult to find enough food.

Moana is a gorgeous film with the kind of strong female protagonist Disney hasn’t offered since Pocahontas (by this I mean a character who actually looks for ways to avoid using violence if possible in order to achieve her challenging goals, even when confronted with violence). This is a great achievement on its own and alone makes the film worth watching, and worth taking your kids to. But there are a lot of funny scenes and much good dialogue as well. Best of all (at least potentially) is the fact that it's another attempt at making an animated musical like Beauty and the Beast, though the music, as in Frozen, is somewhat disappointing, making one wish Alan Menken had written the songs.

On the downside, Moana also has some very stupid dialogue (especially by Maui) that wasn’t at all funny to me, and it had a scene involving coconut people which was completely ludicrous and unnecessary. That scene alone prevents me from awarding Moana four stars. But the ending guarantees that Moana gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. Don’t miss it.