Beyond the Blockbusters
Nine noteworthy movies of 2016
A quick peek at the top 10 box office champs reveals five superhero pictures, four animated flicks featuring talking animals and two franchise spin-offs. Disney, now the owner of Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar, reported the first $7 billion year in movie history, having produced the top four highest grossing films of 2016.
But exit this spandex-choked freeway onto to the cinematic side streets and you’ll find yourself in a surprisingly diverse movie landscape. Although the major studios didn’t produce a particularly wide variety of movies in 2016, the independents and mini-majors delivered enough surprises and quality product to demonstrate that cinema isn’t dead — yet.
Trauma and Grief
Given what seemed to be an overwhelming number of celebrity deaths this year and a presidential campaign that sunk to new lows of decorum, it seems fitting that so many of the best movies dealt with the darker side of the human condition.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight follows a fatherless boy through three traumatic periods of life in a deeply moving story of sexual identity and coming of age. It is a film built on silences and dreamlike, pivotal moments where time seems to stand still. It’s also deeply committed to telling its story visually and dramatizing internal emotional states through external settings and nonverbal actions. For me, it was one of 2016’s greatest reminders of the power of the moving image.
Pablo Larraín and Noah Oppenheim’s Jackie is as mannered as its title character. That’s not a criticism, and it was no doubt difficult for Natalie Portman to find that sweet spot between impersonation and interpretation in portraying Jackie Kennedy, who always seemed to be hiding behind a mask of demure, poised precision. The filmmakers help Portman along with a structure of flashbacks and flash forwards, using the famous first lady’s TV tour of the White House and a fictionalized post-assassination interview to fill in details of the tragedy and its aftermath as she fights to protect her husband’s legacy. An indulgent sequence where Jackie swills booze in a solitary dance of grief and costume changes while listening to the soundtrack of Camelot strains credibility. It left me exhausted, but possibly for the wrong reasons.
Lion, based on the nonfiction book A Long Way Home, charts the emotionally charged journey of Saroo, a 5-year-old boy separated from his family in Northern India, who is eventually adopted by foster parents and relocated to Tasmania. As a young adult, he is flooded with cryptic memories and becomes obsessed with finding out where he came from and if his parents are still alive. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) plays the older incarnation with a pained sensitivity and an internal fire that inspires superb emotional fireworks with co-stars Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman. The direction is hypnotic, offering up images both beautiful and harrowing, supercharging the moments when characters finally speak. The emotional swings in the final sequence had everyone around me in tears.
City of Angels
Not every movie made in Hollywood is set in Hollywood. For a century now, Los Angeles has stood in for a generic “everycity” or doubled for someplace else. But there is also that strain of “L.A. movies,” where the city is a character, representing both dreams and nightmares of aspiration, ambition and reinvention.
La La Land is the most recent swing at the musical genre and eschews both the minimalism of 2007’s Once and the “maximalism” of 2001’s Moulin Rouge. It embraces a delightfully old-fashioned, MGM style in its show-biz tale of an actress and musician finding love and fighting for success in Hollywood. Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling both have bumpy starts to their first numbers (maybe on purpose?) so that despite breaking into song, they aren’t pitch-perfect, which adds an interesting edge to the proceedings. The film’s impressive opening song and dance number on a crowded freeway announces its old-fashioned strategy. But about halfway in, the film abruptly drops its music and derails — asking us to accept this stuff as real human drama. The film miraculously recovers the instant everyone starts singing again.
Knight of Cups is another Hollywood tale, but one of self-absorption and existential crisis. Director Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) uses an improvisational style, multiple camera formats, stream-of-consciousness editing and the 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress to tell the story of a burned-out screenwriter’s spiritual awakening. Christian Bale gives an almost silent performance as he moves through a series of relationships with eight characters, each represented by an archetype from the tarot. Bale is the titular “Knight of Cups,” and actors in his orbit include Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Cate Blanchett and Antonio Banderas. Though not to everyone’s taste, I was mesmerized by its dreamlike feel and totally content to let it take me where it wanted to go.
The Neon Demon is the love-it-or-loath-it movie of 2016. Art-film genre provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn, whose low-budget Drive delighted and shocked audiences to the tune of more than $75 million, serves up a hypnotic, perplexing mix of modern fairy tale, horror movie and rising-star story. Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old aspiring model, arrives in Los Angeles and soon finds herself the new “it” girl. Hubris and horror ensue. Critics called it all style and no substance, but I think there’s a sly tale here of body obsession, female objectification, chauvinism and ruthless ambition that takes several unexpected (and one truly tasteless) turns. The score by Cliff Martinez had me from its first pulsing ‘80s-flavored synth beat, and a wonderful, scary turn by Keanu Reeves provided unexpected thrills. That said: You have been warned.
The thriller has been enduring hard times, generally relegated to either action chase pictures (Jason Bourne) or borderline torture porn (Green Room). 2016 boasted several offbeat thrillers that all pack a punch.
Elle is director Paul Verhoeven’s return to the sexual thriller he popularized with The 4th Man and Basic Instinct. Isabelle Huppert gives the hands-down best performance I saw this year as the victim of a sexual assault who is determined to get on with her life. Plagued by the mystery of her masked attacker’s identity and her own traumatized psychological backstory, moving on is a far more complicated than she (or we) expect. The film revels in ambivalence, going out of its way to undercut every emotion or allegiance of character. The result is wickedly perverse, darkly funny and troubling. This is a movie that doesn’t care if you like it — or maybe dares you to.
Chan-wook Park is known for his darkly ironic themes and perfectly composed frames. His film Oldboy still remains his best known film, but The Handmaiden may give it a run for its money. Based on Sarah Waters’ thriller Fingersmith, Park relocates the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It follows a young pickpocket named Sook-hee, who becomes a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress as part of an elaborate criminal con. To say anything else would be the real crime, because the twists, turns and darkly ironic erotic thrills are what make the movie such a great ride.
The Witch is best viewed in a dark room without interruptions. It’s not the kind of movie where you can easily slip in and out or pause for a snack break. Its magic works like a trance; a quiet, deliberate spell of creeping claustrophobia in wide-open spaces. Set in the 1600s and subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” it concerns a Puritan husband and father who has been banished from the church over a religious argument. He settles with his family on the edge of a forest, and soon after, their infant child mysteriously disappears. Wracked with grief, the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is drawn into a mystery involving a witch said to live in the forest and a demonic presence named Black Phillip. With its Puritan dialogue and long stretches of silence, the movie demands your attention as it works its creepy way to an unexpected finale.