It's that time of year again. With that, let's get to it:
STILL HAVE TO SEE: Paterson, Nocturnal Animals, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch, The Love Witch, Christine, Hell or Highwater. Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Kubo and the Two Strings, a bunch of others....
HONORABLE MENTIONS: This year we got to behold the tense, hypnotic grief of Karyn Kasuma's The Invitation - the blunt, absurdist treatise on relationships that is The Lobster, the surprisingly progressive-minded joys of Neighbors 2 - the easy-breezy, tapping joys of La La Land - and the sincere schmaltz that gives light to the brilliant forgotten visages in Hidden Figures.
MOVIE THAT WOULD'VE MADE LIST IF WASN'T MADE BY LOVELY FRIENDS: Disney's Pete's Dragon.
MOVIE THAT WOULD'VE MADE LIST IF WASN'T COMING OUT NEXT YEAR: Julia Decournau's Raw.
Usually I do away with absurdity of ranking stuff, but this year my brain couldn't help but break my favorite films up into three tiers, mostly just as a way to talk about personal distinction.
With that, the list:
3. BAD BLACK
I wrote about Wakaliwood earlier this year and I could not be more enamored with what Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey and his team are doing. It's not just the mere fact they are even able to make films in the slums of Uganda, it's that they are making films that are hilarious, self-aware and genuinely entertaining. I am not kidding when I say The Fantastic Fest screening of Bad Black was genuinely one of the best theater experiences of my life. And I am also not kidding when I say the movie has the funniest line of the year. But what makes Wakaliwood so special is that they are capturing the same spirit of adventure and creativity that all kids have, that special time when they jump into their backyards and cobble together props and start making films. In a world where Hollywood is trying to artificially create magic through endless piles of money, Wakaliwood actually creates magic through gumption and love.
3. TRAIN TO BUSAN
A complete surprise, this is probably the best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead. And the genius of it comes not in some deep inversion of the genre, but instead through the constant, purposeful execution of great tension and rich character-based storytelling. To that, the less said the better. Just see it.
3. UNCHARTED 4
A video game? Really? Well, the proof is in the proverbial pudding. There are so many visual thrills and artful transitions to the opening chapters of this game, but the cinematic verve hits us not with some sweeping vista, or cool action scene, but instead a deceptively-simple cutscene that just so happens to have one of most intimate looks at a marriage that was put together this year. I mean it when I say it's a scene with the kind of nuance and subtle acting performances that I haven't seen in mainstream movies in ages. And throughout all the shoot 'em up and puzzling that follows, the cut-scenes keep coming back to you with surprising depth and grace. The whole thing actually inspired me to write about the merits of cinematic gaming on the whole. But to the point of listing it here? Well, as media lines continue to blur, the distinctions matter less and less. We know good cinema when we see it.
3. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
I don't know how this keeps happening, but everyone keeps missing these Jorma Taccone masterpieces, myself included. I had every intention of seeing this opening night and then... just didn't. So consider it a forehead-slapping moment when catching up later with the gag-to-gag funniest movie of the year, but also one with a surprisingly wry commentary on ego and friendship in showbiz... but yeah, it all comes back to the gags. God, the TMZ segments. Perfection.
You hear a documentary is "crazy" and usually your brain assumes that it is going to be very specific dip into the personal psychosis of the person who makes up the subject matter. So what I did not expect from this doc is one of the better broad portraits of online abuse tactics, systematic injustice, how the rich wield bureaucratic power with impunity, all while staring into the id of what gives rise to people wanting to foster such abuse in the first place. Because while the film's villain is always being chased from afar, the portrait of them and the complexes of repression, along with the heart of the deep-web/"in it for the lulz"/gamer-gate psychology is one of the most compelling I've seen. And for a movie that technically drops its biggest bombshells early on, it's depth comes in the intimacy of understanding that this menace of course comes from the simplest of human experiences.
2. THE NICE GUYS
Shane Black is getting better. The seeming effortlessness of his dance moves belies the intense intelligence and guile at the heart of his storytelling. Because it can't feel this smooth without being deadly precise. Crowe carries the film on his affable, gruff shoulders, but holy crap is Gosling a revelation. His knack for dead-pan physical comedy is a damn gift. But please don't skip out the weighty thoughts the film has on its brain. For the speech about how you "can't beat Detroit" is one of the better meta-commentaries on what kills empires that I can think of. After it was over, I couldn't help but be an Oliver... "more please."
2. GREEN ROOM
Saulnier is so good at effortlessly and invisibly flipping the script on us, isn't he? Like Blue Ruin before it, Green Room chucks aside all pretense to sitting on its butt and letting bad things happen and instead reveals itself as a guts-first chess match. Even Patrick Stewart defies expectation and trades in the lure of scenery chewing fireworks for a quiet intensity that still unsettles me months after. The depth of the story is told in a million little details that most filmmakers would forget in favor of bombast.
2. HAIL, CAESAR!
We take the Coens for granted. It's an incontrovertible fact. Because if a new filmmaker had made this movie, we'd be lauding the dawn of a brilliant new voice (let alone wondering how it got made). But when it's the Coens? We just smile and nod, always expecting some kind of tangible brilliance to strike us right there and then as we watch. Which so often means we miss the subtle brilliances at play in all their work. This is especially true of Hail, Caesar!, a film about the joys, motives, and absurdity of filmmaking itself. I feel like I could point to so many moments in this film as proof of brilliance. There's the incredible religion discussion, Alden's star-making turn as the aww shucks Hobie Doyle, the nifty detail in the way Laurentz scolds but still makes Hobie's performance work anyway. But most of all, there's the way Brolin smiles as he watches "Merrily We Dance," which tells the whole story right there. Is it good to do something that is hard, but worth doing? Well, it is if you love movies.
2. TONI ERDMANN
Few movies have as strange and rambling way about them as Toni Erdmann. If I had to describe Maren Ade's story approach it would be 60% Alexander Payne 30% Abbas Kiarostami and 10% Harmony Korine. But such designations are meaningless. She is herself and herself alone. And she has brought to life this profoundly-weird and weirdly-profound comedy. One that spends most of its time as drama, but also has three of the funniest scenes I've ever seen, but also also has a few of the most cut-to-the-bone existential moments of the year, too. While it may be a "simple" film about a father-daughter relationship, it has more devastating insight to the psyche of happiness than most of us would like to admit. But even then, it's the film's unique approach to its story that still sticks with me all these months later... for it's a film that knows there's much more to say after the moments where other movies usually cut and move on.
It is almost a disservice to say that Martin Scorsese's Silence is one of the best meditations on faith and religion in years, but there just haven't been many films that dived into that subject matter quite like this one. As a confirmed catholic who never really believed, I was continually struck by the film's complexity, compassion, and deeper understanding of the power and pratfalls of faith itself. Going in, I also sort of had worries about depiction, what with goofy anglos playing Portuguese and the many potential worries in depictions of Japanese culture, and there may be moments that falter, but of course I should have trusted that Scorsese is going to be after something far more complex than what's on the surface. Almost every detail hides a deeper, smuggled idea. I can certainly imagine people will take this and fit it to their own persecution, but it equally can apply to the persecution complex. All the concerns of cultural relativism wash away when we see the larger structure. For it's a film about Evil. Power. Repression. Pride. Suffering. And the way these are constants of society. And in the end, its statement about eviscerating pride and quelling suffering is one that I find beautiful. I think it's one of the best films about religion ever made.
Sometimes I wonder if this movie was made on a dare. But that's Verhoeven for you. You won't find anyone more willing to walk on razor wire. Of course, the key difference that makes him capable of doing it is the fact that he's never once trying to be offensive. He's just willing to juggle the grenade of offensive subject matter in the first place. But let's be frank: this is sort of a rape comedy. It is also a movie the sort of depicts falling for your attacker. It is also not those things at all, because, lest we always forget, depiction never means endorsement. But, yes, I will happily acknowledge there are inherent pitfalls to this film's approach, especially in a cinematic world where rape is mostly used as a shortcut and cinematically abused. As such, there is no point I can argue against anyone's objections to the film itself in terms of its place in a larger cinematic culture. But I can talk about what the film is actually saying. For through the lens of this razor-wire approach, along with the single most masterful performance of the year from Isabelle Huppert, the film adeptly guides us through constant a stream of sexist indignation and humiliation that all women have to face. And as much as Huppert can chide it off and try to flip the script and try not to care, it is about her struggle and obstacles to do so with all its entire focus. In that, what Elle hopes to be is a deeply human examination of all the ways women accept, rebel against, and are eaten alive by such misogynist indignity. And ultimately it is about the non-perfect ways we can transcend it. Like the film's heroine, Elle is trying to stare directly in the face of misogyny itself and mitigate nothing.
2. THE HANDMAIDEN
Chan-Wook Park's formalist control is awe-inspiring. The movie whips around from beat to beat with both perfect focus and delightful insight, taking an epic tale of twists, turns and betrayal and making it feel intimate and lived-in. There's so much to say about the genius of every little choice in the film (particularly in how funny it is), but the thing that most sticks is the way it impressively juggles a central hypocrisy of criticizing the overt pornographic impulse of hyper-sexuality, the male gaze, and abject control, all while simultaneously making a straight-forward, sex-positive movie about a same-sex relationship that, yes, fully titillates in that same regard (I mean nobody scissors that much, but hey it's the movies). For which, it might be the most adept cinematic example of having your cake and eating it too? But perhaps this topical juggling is not as miraculous as we all think, because I can't help but argue it's the same simple thing with all stories we tell: the sex is meaningful when the love is too.
I did not expect to cry for twenty straight minutes. That says it all really. And I cannot think of a better movie to come into the picture post-election. So much has been made of the film's beautiful treatment of our need for communication and the quest for knowledge in the modern world. But if we can get super spoilery, I loved how much the alien's mission was based on resonant simplicity of "further down the line, we will need your help." That's a good way of thinking about it: simple in all the right ways. But my personal favorite thing about Arrival is how it breaks a long-troubling sci-fi trope. Because I feel like I've seen the premise "if you knew your future, it would fuck you up so bad!" like a thousand times and that sentiment never felt right to me. Because it's a tacit, almost lame interpretation of human behavior. For if there's anything we've learned about humans, it's that they always look at something life-changing in the eye and then go "well, I still have to buy milk in the morning." So I loved when the film eviscerated that notion. Because in knowing her future, it is essentially the same dilemma as being stuck in the past. All humans have is "now" and fighting to stay in the now. We can only cherishing that which is here with us. We can be present. For it is in the present, that it is all the more clear that all knowledge is a gift.
2. SING STREET
For the entire running time, I could not stop smiling. For John Carney hits pay dirt once again in what could simply be called "The Commitments with kids," but it's more than that. Most of the joy is in so many of the little details. The brilliant transitional editing. Songs that are hilarious lyrically but also catchy as hell. But don't mistake it for being breezy. It not only tackles teenage hardship, but does so in the most honest way. I'm hard pressed to think of movies that better capture what it's like to be young and reckless and aspirational and making bad art and stripping off your old self and the pretensions and discovering that you are actually yourself. That you maybe even have things to say. That's the real call to adventure. So remember... This is your life, so drive it like you stole it.
I tend to have a good resistance to hype (if I'm being honest, it mostly comes from not really caring what people have to say or think until I see the damn movie). But I kept hearing all these jaw-dropping amazing things about Moonlight coming out of the festival circuit, and I won't lie, as the first 2/3 of the movies spilled across the screen I felt I was watching something solid, but unsure where this transcendent film was that I kept hearing about... But of course, that transcendent film arrives with the start of the incredible last act. What's so lovely is that this merit is not created with bombast and fireworks, but in achieving a quiet brand of intimacy that makes every character's line, gesture, and glance feel like it carries the weight of the world. And the whole time, as you watch these two stare and shoe-gaze, you are implicitly waiting for "the line" from Chiron. The line that will opens up worlds... And when he says it... You feel the weight of an entire life lived, every notion of love and solace, and the realization of how every human being deserves those very things. It is here that you know every moment in this film matters more than anything. Every bit of it necessary. Every bit of it perfect... Moonlight is complete.
2. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Great films bring you into worlds. A lot of people falsely think that means fleshing out some rich fantasy mythology or some shit, but really it means bringing you into a person's world. Which many films do admirably. But what makes Mike Mills remarkable is the way he seems to bring you into everyone in his films. Nowhere is this more evident (and purposeful) than in 20th Century Women. I've loved both of his prior films, but now every one of his stylistic inclinations feels... oh how to put it... on target. As if all dalliances are being ingrained into the very fabric of the story being told. Every cue, every inclination, every observation now radiates onto the screen with deep, resonant meaning. Which is a lovely, complex way to bring us into the story of these lovely, complex people. But most obvious of all is the way this film stands as a lovely parental companion piece to Beginners, one that happens to give us Annette Benning's career best performance. I don't know what else to do but gush, for it's a film filled with brilliant human observations in every damn scene, while simultaneously knowing not to offer trite aphorisms for our deeper wounds and aspirations. It's a movie that truly understands that sometimes a shrug is the best answer. More important is simply being there. And in the end, it may seem like Mills brought us into his world, but really he brought us into our own.
1. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
"I have that sweatshirt in my closet. I wear it when it's cold."
I kept thinking that as I watched. It was just one of the infinite details that feel uncanny in how close Manchester By The Sea hits to my life. This is what happens when they literally film a movie where you grow up. My father was principal of X high school for 20 years then moved to that other X high school. I can't tell you how many times I drove along 128 and saw that exit sign. Or fished right at that spot right there. Or that I worked at the campground right near there. Or how many sad nights there were at the Beverly Hospital. Or wondering where the fuck I was in Essex. And god, I can't tell you how many nights I spent in houses that looked just like that, ones that are older than most American cities. I can't tell you how many awkward teenage fumblings you have in wooden, creaky rooms, which all seemed disjointedly decorated with modern posters. You spend your life in places with stone-walled basements where you can discover literal prohibition cellars just when you're fucking around with your friends. You see messy clothes on the ground and plates everywhere, because they're houses filled by real people.
This is the world where your life took place.
There's an added specificity to being a Northshore Kid. You don't see it when you're young because you're just "in it." You're too busy thinking about your dumb band or the person you have a crush on. You don't know that things that will either take you away from there or keep you there. You're definitely not thinking about the saltiness that gets passed down. The unemotional, internal mode of operation. Nor the inevitable sadness you can't see looming just over your head. It all comes with the understanding that the Southshore and Quincy might as well be on the other side of the world. But it's something that becomes more acute when you go to a fancy pants Boston school and suddenly every rich kid who lives in the safety of the red and green T lines starts calling the orange line "the ghetto line" and you can only think to yourself "... but that's my line." It comes with the sudden realization you don't have any money and the kids around you spend more money in a week than you made in your entire summer of back-breaking labor where you literally shoveled shit. And then gets exacerbated when one of them says off-hand and unaware of you that "every society needs someone to shovel their shit." It comes with the realization people sue each other over bar fights instead of the northshore understanding that all this is permissible. All these realization makes you angry at first. You think the salty way you grew up is what makes you tougher, better, more able the face the hard parts of life. But that's bullshit. Because it's all part of not realizing what's actually better for us, like maybe realizing people shouldn't punch each other in the face. Now, when I think about the Northshore, tragedy hangs over everything. Because everyone you know is just keeping their trauma underneath. All because that's what you're supposed to do. It's all part of the reason I find the romanticization of Boston movies to be total bullshit. Occasionally you get asked about the The Town and people jest "Do you know any bank robbers??" And suddenly you think about the kid who threw a stink bomb at you in 5th grade and that story ends when he gets attacked by police dogs after trying to bump off a CVS for some oxy. It's not romantic.
It was never romantic.
All of this biography is offered because the intimate details of this world hang over every single aspect of Manchester By The Sea, which is yet another Lonergan masterpiece. I don't really feel like discussing why at length, largely because it's so supremely evident in the movie itself, but safe to say that Affleck does his career best work when he's somehow already done his career best work in Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (though I'm very aware there's other discussions to be had there). But everyone pulls off little miracles in this film. Michelle Williams. Gretchen Mol. Kyle Chandler. And good god, is Lucas Hedges remarkable. But the most undeniable thing about this film is Lonergan's impossible ear for/understanding of human beings. He continues to make films so accurate that it suddenly seems like he's the only filmmaker who has ever dealt with real-life teenagers. Or even really dealt with real life.
Which makes it surprisingly hard to watch in a movie about grief, loss, and the inevitability of mistakes. I keep thinking about how other filmmakers may have tried to amp up this story, but Lonergan understands restraint better than anyone. Which means it's yet another film you'll have to defend to people who think cinema has to feature glaringly showy cinematography to be considered a masterpiece, or even be an emotional one. A charge to which I'll endlessly call bullshit. It's a thought that can only be applied when thinking of a film as a checklist, or that you can only be emotional when you are cinematically-manipulated into it. No, it's a film whose entire power actually rests in such restraint, for wanting moments to simply be what they are. That knows that what it is showing is difficult enough and every ounce of normalcy will just make the reality all the more haunting. The truth is hard enough. Which is precisely what makes this a film where you well-up a few times during it, but then spend the next 24 hours crying because it's just with you now... So much so because the film has the courage to say something brutal.
It says that mistakes aren't just about the moment, the intent, or the reality... they're about the cost.
And with that cost, every cacophony, good deed, fault, want, need, and fear in your life ends ups mattering because they come together in the moment of exacerbation. The problem is not that you are rescued by your goodness, instead your goodness is part of a deeper betrayal of the mistake itself. This is something Manchester By The Sea understands so completely. There is the popular adage that "you are not your mistakes" and you can cling to that notion, but most people need you to be your mistakes because, well, your mistakes are what you have to do with them, if that makes sense. So it's all they really need to understand to move forward, especially those most caught in the blowback. But then things take on such life beyond you and the truth and understanding gets lost. There is only the cost. And sometimes it all seems so deep and irrevocable that you'll want to blow your brains out, because it's the only obvious thing you can do. You simply exist at the brutal nexus, and normal is impossible when you're in it. You can try to accept, transcend, deal with those emotions. You can try to own and engage and fix. Maybe you just want to do right and fix it. You can think to yourself, this is just hard, but beatable. You can repeat "you are not your mistakes." But maybe you are. Especially when living with them just feels impossible. So finally, Lonergan just had the courage to say the devastating thing that we are afraid to admit...
There are some mistakes you can't beat.
1. SWISS ARMY MAN
"People aren't supposed to talk about this stuff."
Like Manchester, Swiss Army Man is also a film about loneliness, depression, suicide, and the nature of longing. It tells us this right from the onset, as the film opens with Hank (Paul Dano) as he is attempting to kill himself. But then, he looks up and sees a body on a beach. Dead. Lifeless. There. Hank runs to this corpse, who he will later named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), and from here we go on to discover all of Manny's power-farting, wood-chopping, water-dispensing powers galore. These things will make up so many of tactile, surface delights the movie, but things change when Manny begins talking and trying to find out who he was when he was alive - thus asking basic questions of how life works and what's happening as his body begins having boners and all that. Luckily, Hank lets us into the conceit: "I thought my life would flash before my eyes, instead there was you." ... Yup, Manny is Hank's inner-self/voice.
And thus the film turns into a remarkable journey of how we socialize vs. how we talk to our inner self. At times Manny is our deeply-inappropriate physical self, a reminder that we are just sacks of boner-having, farting meat. And at other times he's the raging subconscious id. Our wants, desires, hopes, dreams, and the rueful admission that we so need to be loved. For such is the basic truth of longing. But from the point they begin to interact, the film is essentially the conversations we have with ourselves when we are depressed, when we feel we don't belong, and when we don't want to exist. But soon Hank starts to realize that engaging with this multi-purpose swiss army man not only helps him remember the life he wants to get back to, but is actually his practical way back towards civilization. And it almost sounds like a cliche, but their journey is one of the most direct, off-kilter, honest, and beautiful explorations of what it means to be human.
It starts as Hank essentially guides Manny (again, his inner voice) through the idea of memory, starting from the beginning with our most basic physical selves. How to own the idea that your body is not disgusting. That everyone poops, that your penis is a compass, that the puerile can connect us to the greatest truth of our deepest fears. It's like raising a toddler and moving through puberty. Again, Hank keeps saying "people aren't supposed to talk about this stuff," but it gets right at the ugly truth of that complex: how can we ignore and admonish the stuff that every single person on the planet can't help but do? Such hypocrisy creates an innate, paralyzing fear of existing in the first place. A feeling like we are all somehow doing wrong for our normal bodily instincts. This makes fear feel impossible, and so sometimes we simply have to deal with this in singing a song so you don't over-think things. But the deeper fear can't be ignored, can't it? For all these things are the lifeblood of depression, anxiety, and the fear of selfhood (which is really the fear of being wrong). And yet, as real as these fears are, Hank wants to be rid of them, to transcend them, to be a person. So we have to go deeper.
Hank starts trying to teach Manny how to be civilized; telling him to remember that we are all humans on a bus with a world going by. Manny even tells him: "this is the life you've forgotten" and soon they can't help but remember why life seems good - sliding into the not-so-hidden world of beauty, kindness, and joy. Thus hitting the rueful admission that all these things that we want? We want them because they really are beautiful. They really are. And it's no accident the film keeps coming back to the riff on the Jurassic Park theme, for it is in awe of everything: Buses. Landscape People. Music. Dancing. Joy. Even our farting butts and everything we have to offer. We long for these things because they are truly great. And this just reveals the reason existing is so damn hard: there really are great things out there and so often we cannot have them. Hank tells Manny: "I just wanted to give you all the things in life other people have, and all the things I thought I didn't deserve." There is no more insightful comment about living in depression.
Still, Hank continues his journey to self-actualization, and I cannot overstate the power of these two brave, heartfelt performances from Dano and Radcliffe, for their interaction essentially becomes a discussion about what we tell/hide from ourselves. It's about how we bargain away from the deeper truths of our worst behaviors. About how much of what we avoid comes from pain. They both bounce and fret: "I'm a scared ugly useless person." And it reveals a deep criticism of what we project love into on the outside world (ie it knows Hank's want is creepy and isn't trying to justify it), how we can long for what seems at a distance, just as we pine for what we've lost. But through their fighting and sticking up for themselves, they learn to have a sense of intimacy with each other. And as they push forward and almost fall apart en route to civilization, still bargaining and betraying each other, even ready to abandon each other... it all comes to the moment of an explosive kiss, where it all snaps into focus...
This is a beautiful, moving story about learning to love yourself.
For as much is there is a civilization, with all its beauty and things that will reward us, all we really have is ourselves. As the saying from Undertale goes: "Despite everything, it's still you." And the battles of depression and suicide are always the story of a dire war with oneself. But we're not supposed to talk about these things, right? Yeah, well, we have to talk about these things. We have to talk about them and sing about them from the rafters. We have to have the empathy and honesty and willingness to engage them. And it just so happens that this weird movie about a young man who befriends a farting corpse is as profound a treatment on the subject as I can think of. As Manny sails away into the ocean with that delightful idiot grin on his face, I knew I was watching a masterpiece about how we all have to take that self-love and no longer have fear to face the world as the ugly, farting, boner-having, self-lying, fallible sacks of meat that we really are.
For that, I am in awe.
* * *
In the end, Manchester By The Sea and Swiss Army Man are the yin and yang of the most painful part of existence: that is the "wanting to not exist." Both make no bones about it. Both offer no trite solutions. Both acknowledge the deepest, most troubling realities that come from even trying at all. Both even acknowledge the pain of "succeeding." But what is offered is the acknowledgment that all of this is real and valid. That it needs not just our sympathy toward it, but empathy. To understand that this stuff is not just something that could happen to us, it is us. To them, I cannot be thankful enough. For the first film made me feel less alone. And the second made me feel that most dangerous thing of all, hope. Not in the way it is a shining beacon, but in the way it is a flicker, one that is faint and perishable. But true.
So yeah, there are some mistakes you can't beat... But maybe you can. Maybe you can send your farting corpse triumphantly off into the water. Or maybe you can just go fishing. I don't really know the answer.
I just know we are all trying so damn hard.
And I just want you to know that I love you.