THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
- A Bigger Splash (Dir. Luca Guadagnino)
They say that the difference between love and lust is that of an ocean vs a pool. Either way, it’s all to easy to drown in both. This is a gorgeous piece of new wave cinema from Luca Guadagnino that reminded me of how detail-oriented filmmaking with a master of craft can elevate simple yarns into all—time experiences. It can be argues that there’s little to no substance regarding this hedonistic, Euro-flavored chamber piece, but my goodness, I drank up every frame and movement. Shapeshifter Tilda Swinton plays Bowie-like rock goddess recovering from recent vocal surgery. She and her documentary filmmaker boyfriend played by Matthias Schoenaerts head off to a small island getaway off the coast Italy to unwind and do as couples do. Suddenly their little vacation gets interrupted by Tilda’s lustful ex-lover & producer with his mysterious daughter played by a steely Dakota Johnson, in tow. Shenanigans ensue. Old wounds are opened, the cast wear outfits ripped out of any fashionista’s dream look book; every moment carries layers of meaning and subtext and by the end we climax into cinematic euphoria.
“A Bigger Splash” a mesmerizing vacation that somehow oscillates between sublime and stressful. Either way it demands your attention You emerge from it restive and itchy, as though a movie screen could give you sunburn, and the story defies resolution. Penelope, the youngest of the group, remains the hardest to fathom, and provides a final twist. None of the four could be described as affable. Yet they all feel so real so brimming with life. They somehow feel as alive in their lethargy as they do in their restlessness. Even with Tilda Swinton’s Marianne inability to speak beyond a whisper she constantly enunciates through gasps and gestures to convey that perfect storm of earthy desire and soulful reflection complaint. The isle is full of noises, and they won’t die down. Every little little detail of the filmmaking from shots, to music and to pacing coalesces into an ecstatic cinematic experience. It’s so easy for A Bigger Splash to leave you drunk or buzzed on its energy, so so please, bring a designated driver if you choose to go out after.
- The Fits (Dir. Anna Rose Holmer)
Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer has made one of the most stunning debut films ever. It combines the modes of coming-of-age film with the structure of a tone poem to create a largely metaphorical art-horror piece. The Fits feels…new. It’s such a strange, powerful and quite wonderful motion picture hard to pin it down to classify it in regular terms but it’s undeniably beautiful.
In the movie we a tween tomboy played by newcomer Royalty Hightower with dreams of joining an award-winning dance troupe at her Cincinnati community center. However, something crazy happens, her the other kids get seized by unexplained spasms.
What happened? Is there a bug going around? A gas leak? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the whole film is about our heroine’s difficulty to connect with the other girls, who seem to know much more than she does about well…everything. Holmer simply is not interested in logical explanations and instead focuses on an empathetic portrait of a young girl struggling to herself out and the world and people around her.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)
The studio, Laika is keeping the art of stop motion alive in the era where every other animated production is done on computers. While their earlier films Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls showcased their undeniable skill with a rare to see artform, they tended to fluctuate wildly in terms of story and storytelling quality. Kubo might just be their best film yet.
Kubo is at it’s heart a mythical parable about how we deal with loss, grief and death. We follow the title character, a young boy with one eye and a gift for manipulating origami figures with the songs of his guitar. After losing his mother to his demonic extended family, Kubo begins a quest with a magical talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) to assemble his late father’s mystical armor to stop his grandfather, the Moon King from claiming him forever.
This is a grand epic in the tradition of Eastern and Western folklore filled with sword fights, supernatural creatures and familial values. Not only is this Laika’s most visually stunning motion picture, it is also their most introspective. It cuts to the heart of how even in passing away, our loved ones are still with us so long as we keep our memories of them, their stories, alive and well. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most brilliant animated pictures of the decade and not just 2016.
- Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins) TIE La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
One of the powers of cinema is the ability to transport us into the dreams and thoughts of whoever made the movie you are watching. I can think of no movies that exemplified this more than any other in 2016 as Moonlight and La La Land.
In the case of the La La Land we see filmmaker Damien Chazelle express his musings on success vs happiness, dreams and sacrifice and the ups and downs of relationships all utilizing classical cinematic grammar which aren’t around that often. We follow a coffee shop waitress (Emma Stone) with dreams of becoming an actress in Hollywood. Just as she’s ready to give up she meets a struggling musician (Ryan Gosling) with dreams of opening a Jazz club to share his passion for the music to others. Theirs is perhaps every bit an iconic romance as the classic motion pictures it quotes from.
Chazelle punctuating or beginning whole chapters of his movie with big song/dance numbers, dreamy 35mm colors, visual nods to Singin’ In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg all of which Chazelle pulls to cast a unique spell. The movie’s pleasures may be on the surface but that opens it up for anyone from all walks of life to enter in Chazelle’s beautiful yet often melancholy meditation. La La Land is a movie about romance that slyly transforms into a romance about the movies. It is a dream you may not want to snap out of, a time/place and a state of being that feels equal parts fantastical and heartbreakingly real.
In that regard it should be no surprise I see Moonlight as a perfect complement to Chazelle’s dream.
On paper the movies have nothing in common but director Barry Jenkins’ uses of modern cinematic techniques to create a mood poem on one individuals struggle to self actualize isn’t that far removed from Chazelle’s use of classic cinema to tell his coming of age song. In the broadest sense, Moonlight could be called a movie “about being black” or “about being gay” or even “about being raised in the drug-ravaged Liberty City neighborhood of Miami.” But writer-director Barry Jenkins treats identity as more of a prism to show explore the nuances that come with growing up and finding ones self. Using three distinct vignettes, set years apart, Jenkins examines the complicated urges and influences within a young man, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen and Trevante Rhodes as an adult), who meets friendly dope-pusher (beautifully played by Mahershala Ali) offers the kid some guidance. Later an affectionate classmate helps awaken his sexuality. And finally as an adult he comes to reckon with the storm of confusing feelings he has about who he is, his life and those around him.
From moment to moment, Moonlight takes to a small scale to explore large feelings that on paper seem so specific but plays in a way where it becomes remarkably easy to empathize with Chiron and everyone on screen. Barry Jenkins himself, has fun with a few cinematic quotes such as Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and In the Mood For Love but also David Gordon Green’s George Washington all to create a work that is wholly singular and deeply personal to him and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight is beautiful, sometimes heart-wrenching but also, in some ways deeply empathetic and optimistic. Our lead, Chiron, may not know what lies for him in the future, but he can finally be at peace with who he is. Maybe we can too.
Both movies are modern masterpieces in how they use their chosen form to extrapolate what each respective filmmaker has on their mind and are equally skilled at transporting us into their hopes and dreams via cinema.
- Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Silence was sorely missed by far too many movie goers and with good reason. It is arguably director Martin Scorsese’s most difficult and challenging motion picture to date. It carries with it the not only the weight of the tumultuous history it is choosing to explore but also a decades-long journey to the screen. Martin Scorsese has openly spoke about his conflicted relationship with his own Caholicism and Silence, perhaps more that his own controversial The Last Temptation of Christ cuts right into the heart of of that push-pull relationship many of religious people often wrestle with today.
Less skilled filmmakers would perhaps mutate scenes of Christians being tortured and executed into a self righteous violence porn & spectacle. Instead Scorsese’s movie opts to quietly take on the burden of their internal suffering. The weight chiefly stems from the movie’s depiction the often damming void of unanswered prayers that consumes the cast. We follow a Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as his faith is tested time and time again along with his fellow Jesuit Father Garrpe (Adam Driver). The two of them were sent to Japan in search of his mentor (Liam Neeson), who was rumored to have disavowed Christianity (or apostatized) and taken a Japanese wife to live as a Japanese. As the priests are confronted with abject poverty and an oppressive government that condemns Japanese Christians to live in fear, the two have their faith shaken to the core.
While Rodrigues gets top billing in this epic of internal crisis, oppression and martyrdom, the movie perhaps more belongs to a layered performance of a good-hearted but weak-willed Christian by Yosuke Kubozuka and also the brutal but refined officials played by Issey Ogata and Tadanobu Asano, whose long and intricate discussions of religion and culture with Rodrigues form the movie’s intellectual backbone. Scorsese offers no easy answers here: only hard questions. Many of the priests’ wanderings have the underlined tone of exposition and what at first appears to be yet another colonialist/orientalist narrative; but as Rodrigues closes in on Ferreira the movie morphs into a spectacularly dramatic and bitterly ironic theatre of cruelty that both exalts and questions central cultural and religious myths and hypocrisies. Is it arrogant to believe ones beliefs and faith is the only way? Can an idea flourish without being imposed to another? How is religion or any power structure/system used to provide solace to individuals? How is it used to exploit and oppress masses? Silence plays like Scorsese’s own searing confession. Virtually devoid of comic relief and persistently bleak, Silence isn’t a fun film to watch. But it is a powerful one. It might be an important one too.
The Full List:
25.) The Shallows *tie* Hell or High Water
24.) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition
23.) Popsatr: Never Stop Never Stopping
22.) Morris from America *tie* Hunt for the Wilderpeople
21.) Swiss Army Man
20.) Our Little Sister
19.) Certain Women
17.) Your Name.
16.) Mountains May Depart
15.) The Handmaiden
14.) The Edge of Seventeen
13.) Manchester by the Sea
10.) The Neon Demon
9.) Songs my Brother Taught Me
8.) Things to Come
7.) The Love Witch
6.) American Honey *tie* White Girl
5.) A Bigger Splash
4.) The Fits
3.) Kubo and the Two Stings
2.)Moonlight *tie* La La Land