Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Best Films of 2016

Considering what a dreadful year this was, I was surprised and happy with the films that I saw including two made for television productions, one a film and the other a British detective series. In no order of preference.

La la land
So just how good is La La? Well it’s pretty damn good but sadly not great. The movie is fun for sure and it looks great, bright colors, lots of neon flashing in the L.A. night time, palm trees, fake everything and a fairy tale story of a young man and young woman meeting cute just like Fred & Ginger, Mickey & Judy and Gene & everyone use to do back in the golden olden days when Hollywood was still Hollywood and much of the joy and pleasure that Americans got was through the movies.

florence foster jenkins
As the film opens Florence is searching for a pianist to accompy her in her private lessons given to her by her protective but deceiving singing coach. Almost immediately they find the right pianist a Coseme McMoon played to perfection and more so by Simon Helberg. The looks on his face when he first hears Florence sing is a master class in comic timing and acting and he is superb.  A standout scene for me is the racuous outrageous party where Hugh does a wicked jitterbug with Nina Arianda to “Sing Sing Sing” that is one of the memorable moments in this very good movie year of 2016.  Preston Sturges would have loved it.

The film opens with a horrible rape and assault on Michele at her lavish home, and the aftermath of this assault makes up the bulk of the film with sides, slides and detours into other areas of Michele’s life including her very testy relationships with her mother, son and ex-husband, not to mention her father who is in prison for crimes almost too horrible to think about let alone mention.
The lead is played by the great Isabelle Huppert who come February might find herself holding an Oscar in her hands. The film is twisty and complex with many references and knowing nods to Hitchcock, Chabrol and Bunuel, and even the music might remind some of the Bernard Hermann scores that he did for Hitch.


The film travels time to tell the story of a young African American boy Chiron who grows into a young man through the performances of  3 actors who are all wonderful, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. There are three pieces to this story of Chiron who is battling his inner and outer demons on a rocky road that in the final chapter gives us some hope for his solace and redemption.  Any more plot from me would take away from your pleasure of discovering this small gem for yourself, but I will say that anyone not moved by the diner scene near the end of the film with the great Barbara Lewis singing “Hello Stranger” does not deserve my friendship.

The Night Of
The film is loaded with nice touches and details including Turturro’s terrible case of eczema on his feet and his touch and go with the victim’s cat. There are also terrific bouts of great supporting performances especially Jeannine Berlin as the prosecuting D.A. and Glenne Headley as a high powered big time lawyer who finagles her way into stealing Turturro’s client. Fans of The Wire will recognize several of the actors from that show playing roles similar to the ones they did on that series, and also good is the music the dark and moody cinematography that was actually filmed in New York City and not in Toronto or Cleveland that give the show a real New York state of mind feel and the realistic art direction that for once presents New York City apartments as they really are. Tangy and worth seeing.

Don’t Think Twice
Although not the laugh fest that I was hoping for, Mike Birbiglia's cozy and comfy comedy "Don't Think Twice" should bring smiles and yes some laugh out loud moments for you. Set in Hipsterville , which is sometimes known as New York City it tells the story of a group of 6 friends who are part of an improv troupe trying to make it big or at least stay afloat in the rough and tumble world of comedy/theatre. The troupe is made up of some very nice and real characters, all with flaws but generally nice people who are quite capable of jealousy and fangs especially when it comes to competing for a spot on the long running comedy show Weekend Live better known in the real world as Saturday Night live. Some of the stuff is a little too pat, and the ending is too gooey and smiley for me, but Gillian Jacobs imitations of Katherine Hepburn and Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under The Influence" had me howling and is alone worth the price of a ticket. Clever and knowing with lots of winks the writer, director and actor Birbiglia should have a fine career judging by this little peanut of a movie.

Love and Friendship
Very funny beautifully acted and produced comedy of manners and romantic conspiracies and confusions set in Austenland (Jane Austen that is). Directed by Whit Stillman with his usual jaundiced eye but affection for the upper crust that usually lands on the privileged young lads and ladies of Manhattan in the late 20th Century. Here we are dropped in the 18th Century where we watch the marvelous Kate Beckinsale nicely costumed and coiffed play the mating game for all its worth. At first I was confused, all those characters and plots thrown at us left and right, but I soon relaxed and had a lot of fun with this almost 18th century screwball comedy. Beckinsale is Lady Susan recently windowed and on the dole and make so to speak and looking for a new husband in all the right places not only for herself and also for her smart, lovely and charming daughter who has ideas of her own.  The film is pretty to look at, but not overdone which I think had more to do with budget restrictions than with inspiration. Gossip, secrets revealed, personal letters passed back and forth, servants listening at closed doors and a wacky dance also add to this delightful cool surprise treat for the hot summer months, and who knew that Jane was so damn funny.

Sunset Song
A gorgeous and heartbreaking new work by that poet of the cinema Terrace Davies. Set in the countryside and farm land of Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century and based on a beloved novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon a writer I’m not familiar with. The film is long and slow but visually it surprises and impresses with every frame and tableau like scene in telling the story of a young woman who is bright and lovely but terribly put upon by her awful father and the hard life of farm labor. The daughter and focal point of the story is Chris played beautifully by Agyness  Deyn who is known as a big time high class fashion model, and lovely as she is here, you would never think of her walking down a runway, she’s so comfortable and at home walking through the pastures and milking the cows. Davies who I think of more as a filmmaker than a director because he makes his films like an artist making a work of art and this film while severe at times is full of breathtaking images of the natural world which fill the wide screen (you must see it in a theatre) and then pulls us into the cramped spaces of their pleasant but peasant home all tight tidy and nice. Davies has a marvelous sense of place and time and an eye for minute detail and an amazing way with long tracking shots. In this film there is one that moves slowly across an abandoned battlefield that should leave you in awe and maybe tears. The film is also dense in dialogue and accents but happily there are subtitles, which are useful and not intrusive. I can’t think of another poet of film (the only other one that comes to mind is John Ford) who uses people in landscapes as well as he does whether the landscapes are urban or rural.  This film is a masterpiece.

Neon Bull
Gabriel Mascaro’s strong and beautiful new film set among the workers and caretakers of bulls in Brazil’s far-flung rodeos called vaquejadas. The film focuses on a group of workers who travel from place to place with the rodeo including the very handsome and sexy Iremar played with great conviction by Juliano Cazarrého who cleans the bulls and in his spare time designs and makes costumes and clothes that one of his female co-workers wears in her side show like semi strip dance act, you have to get a load of her in one get up in which she wears a horses head and hoofs. Iremar’s one big dream is to be able to save up enough money to buy a professional sewing machine one day. Iremar who drips sexuality is a deep and complex man, macho and bullish but also sensitive and creative. Everything here is raw, worn and run down, you can almost smell the dung that these workers are constantly shoveling and the smell of sex is also strong and in our faces and quite explicit including a gorgeous dimly lit scene of the male workers washing themselves in the nude with buckets of water that is like a painting come to life and an outrageous and very explicit scene in an textile factory late one night between Iremar and a very pregnant security guard. This was a strange and disconcerting film for me, like being trapped in some distant unknown land without a passport and a way to get out but difficult not to fall into its spell no matter how rough and ugly it is. And do I have to even mention that this is not a film for everyone.
Finally finished up the British series Luther starring the great Idris Elba as a brilliant police detective who always gets his man but not always his woman. The woman is a raging psychopath who is played to perfection by the equally great Ruth Wilson who is mainly known for her theatre work and is new to me. I breathlessly say that I am forever in love with this magnificent off center actress and for me when she disappears from the series I let out a huge sigh of disappointment, that's how superb she is. The series has it usual police cliches, the tough female DSI played by the wonderful and rarely seen Saskia Reeves, the token lesbian (this is becoming a definite pre-requiste on police shows), the corrupt cop,the young male rookie infatuated with Luther and on and on. The series seems to be swallowed up by grim and kinky serial killers, which makes it look like London is the raging serial killer capital of the world. There is a grimness about the series and its not for the faint of heart, but for suspense lovers it did get my blood flowing. Influenced by various sources including "Silence Of The Lambs" but better. See it for Elba and Wilson and for the flakiness of the stories.

Manchester by The Sea

Grief covers this film like a dense fog, so intense was the grief that I found it hard to watch at times. This is a very good film directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan who also made "You Can Count on Me" and what I consider to be a masterpiece "Margaret" his badly treated film of 2011. All concern hurt and grief, remorse and forgiveness. The film has several terrific performances especially Casey Affleck who will no doubt get the best Actor Oscar, and the film is also perfect Oscar bait, serious, very American and heart felt. I left the theater very depressed, thinking in the end nothing matters, especially material things and the ridiculous activity of making art. If you can't handle sadness right now I suggest you skip this film for at least now and slip a 3 Stooges disc into your dvd player


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