The best of film 2016: The ballots

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The best of film 2016: The ballots

Star Trek Beyond (Photo: Paramount Pictures)
Star Trek Beyond (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

As usual, our list of the best movies of the year has been mathematically assembled from the ranked favorites of a small number of contributors—the six writers who worked the review beat all year long, bringing you graded takes on everything playing in a theater near you. (Okay, not everything.) Below, we’ve presented six individual top 15 ballots, annotated with superlatives, including some words on the “outliers,” a.k.a. the movies that made one contributor’s list but no others. Because while we may vote as a group, we’re no hive mind; we each have our own perplexing, infuriating opinions for you to decry in the comments section below.


A.A. Dowd

1. Manchester By The Sea
2. Moonlight
3. Paterson
4. Green Room
5. La La Land
6. The Handmaiden
7. Toni Erdmann
8. Louder Than Bombs
9. Hell Or High Water
10. Don’t Breathe
11. Krisha
12. Everybody Wants Some
13. Weiner
14. Silence
15. Jackie

Outlier: Don’t Breathe

Photo: Sony

This year, if you see just one claustrophobic, tense-as-hell thriller about desperate people trapped in a mundane space by a gun-toting psycho with a vicious dog, make it Green Room, which thankfully cracked our top three of the year. But if you have time for two such thrillers, Don’t Breathe is totally worth a watch, too. The second feature from writer-director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) subverts the home-invasion genre by making the invaders the hapless heroes and their seemingly helpless mark—a blind old man—a force of unstoppable rage and resentment. Alvarez exploits the sensory impairment of his villain for one suspenseful set piece after another, demonstrating a strong command of his craft while investing the mayhem with some sly subtext, both economic and moral. Mostly, though, Don’t Breathe is just an exercise in pure, sustained intensity, kicking into high gear around the 15-minute mark and then never letting up until the final frames. It would actually pair quite well with Green Room. Just keep some Xanax on hand for that nerve-destroying double bill.

Most overrated: Loving

Photo: Focus Features

In a year of so much public hate and normalized intolerance, no movie that argues, simply and warmly, for the right of two consenting adults to spend their lives together can be entirely dismissed. But shouldn’t said movie do a little more than that, too? With Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols chronicles the famous Supreme Court case of Loving V. Virginia (which legalized interracial marriage nationwide) almost entirely through the life experiences of the long-suffering defendants, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga). In theory, that’s an honorable approach. But Nichols, whose superior Midnight Special opened earlier in 2016 (and made our aggregate list), is so committed to capturing the noble ordinariness of his subjects and their lives that he zaps the story of urgency. The result is a well-made, well-acted, and well-meaning bore, like a creaky courtroom drama with not just the courtroom but also the drama removed. If it changes any minds about marriage equality, its existence will be justified. But even that won’t make it vital cinema.

Most underrated: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

Photo: Netflix

The horror renaissance continued unabated in 2016, as films like The Witch, The Invitation, The Eyes Of My Mother, Under The Shadow, and my outlier choice above, Don’t Breathe, brought increased respectability to this frequently disrespected genre. But one of the year’s most singular horror movies, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, still slipped through the cracks. Maybe it was the unwieldy title. Maybe it was the fact that the movie, an immersive sensory experience, went straight to Netflix. I’d wager the real reason Oz Perkins’ one-of-a-kind ghost story was slept on or even disliked (average grade from the A.V. Club comment community: C+) is that it’s entirely out of step with contemporary horror conventions and trends. It’s an exercise in pure unsettling atmosphere—one so off-kilter that it seems downright haunted itself. A small cult following, as opposed to widespread popularity, is probably apropos for something this rewardingly unusual. Still, I hope Perkins’ even-stronger debut, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, gets a better reception in 2017, when A24 finally releases it. If it doesn’t, I guess I have my underrated pick for next year’s ballot.

Biggest disappointment: Blair Witch

Photo: Lionsgate

There were also, of course, plenty of not-so-great horror movies released this year. The new Blair Witch was far from the worst of them—it has some good gags, especially in its rollercoaster ride of a climax—but both the pedigree and the previews got my hopes up much too high for this belated sequel. After all, the film was orchestrated not by some anonymous task force of Hollywood hacks, but by two genuinely gifted artists, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. And the first teaser, which stealthily disguised the movie as some mysterious project called The Woods, stoked anticipation for what one pull quote referred to as “a new beginning for horror films.” So when Blair Witch turned out to be just another forgettable found-footage freakout—one without a fraction of the suggestive power of the zero-budget original—my letdown was probably disproportionate to the film’s run-of-the-mill mediocrity. But dammit, a Blair Witch movie from the creative team behind The Guest and You’re Next should have been awesome, not functionally jolting.

Most welcome surprise: Café Society

Photo: Lionsgate

I gave up on Woody Allen years ago. The man has been churning out dopey, first-draft comedies and derivative Dostoevsky riffs this entire millennium, tarnishing his creative reputation (his personal one is obviously tarnished in a different way) with each new movie, arriving with the clockwork dependency of bowel movements. Even the supposed comebacks, like Match Point or Midnight In Paris, strike me as well below the quality floor one could anticipate from Woody even in the ’90s. So maybe it’s just the low expectations talking, but Café Society struck me as Allen’s best movie in nearly 20 years: a perfectly pleasant period-piece trifle that slowly transforms into a melancholy meditation on time’s unstoppable passage. Casting helps: Jesse Eisenberg fills the surrogate-Woody role better than maybe any actor before him, and he has great chemistry with his regular costar Kristen Stewart. There’s also the beautiful luster of Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. Really, though, what it comes down to is an intangible sense of longing in the film’s second half, a quality amplified by Allen’s own aged voice as the narrator. Café Society is good enough to make me cautiously interested in his next project—or at least to have me rethinking the stingy B- I gave it.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

1. Elle
2. The Lobster
3. Midnight Special
4. Hell Or High Water
5. Moonlight
6. Sully
7. Toni Erdmann
8. La La Land
9. Silence
10. Three
11. Kill Zone 2
12. High-Rise
13. Paterson
14. Louder Than Bombs
15. Right Now, Wrong Then

Outlier: Sully

Sully

The feel-good true story of the Hudson River landing is a safe bet for a crowd-pleaser, which is probably why Clint Eastwood got away with turning it into the most conceptually daring film of his career. As a director, he’s always shown an interest in compromised men, but here he turns his attention to the internal conflict of a stubbornly decent professional who does the right thing at the right time and is immediately hailed as a hero. Todd Komarnicki’s script reframes the moment of crisis in nightmares, extended flashbacks, and, finally, a brazenly theatrical (and downright Brechtian) climax involving flight simulators. Plainspoken but persistent in its conception of duty and heroics, with notes of poignancy and absurd humor, it’s one of Eastwood’s most openly affectionate works (the rapport between stars Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart is terrific) and the best film he’s made in a long time.

Most overrated: Jackie

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Maybe my taste in highly artificial dramas about real-life figures dealing with crises and the media just runs counter to everyone else’s. Pablo Larraín’s much-ballyhooed Jackie, which made our list of the best films of the year, struck me as a misfire. It has certain strengths: a claustrophobic depiction of the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination, a largely understated supporting cast, and Mica Levi’s creepy score. But the inert interview framing narrative does no favors to the film or Natalie Portman’s straining lead performance, and Larraín’s attempts to convey the spirit of the era feels like watered-down Todd Haynes, minus the fascination with mystique, glamour, and forms that can make Haynes’ work enticing. But at least that’s better than Larraín’s dawdling impression of Terrence Malick; in its indulgent moments, the film threatens to turn into a parody of To The Wonder, complete with a Catholic priest (John Hurt) who seems to arrive with his own Steadicam. As they say, it’s “a film of ideas”—most of them at the draft stage.

Most underrated: Creepy

Photo: KimStim Films

I had the hardest time with the last few spots on my ballot. But let me draw attention here to a slept-on film: the eerie and darkly funny Creepy, which marks a return to form for Japanese writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Adapting a novel by Yutaka Maekawa, Kurosawa draws on his own well-established interests in unknowable evil and familiar genre tropes to create a narrative of dream logic—the story of a retired police profiler who finds himself simultaneously drawn into a cold case involving a missing family and into the suspicious behavior of his new neighbor. As the neighbor, Teruyuki Kagawa gives a performance that belongs in the pantheon of next-door creeps, coming across as a regular awkward guy one moment and an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers pod person the next. The film somehow grows more suggestive as it becomes more literal; eventually, it descends into an underground bunker that could easily be a mad scientist’s lair in a silent film.

Biggest disappointment: The Shallows

Photo: Sony

Unfortunately, the list of candidates for this one is very long; this was a really strong year for films, but it brought more than its share of letdowns. First on my mind would be Sunset Song. A very personal project for Terence Davies, one of the great living English filmmakers, it also happens to be a total bore. But I first saw Sunset Song last year, at the Toronto International Film Festival, which eliminates it from the running. Instead, I’ll go with the shark-attack flick The Shallows. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) has long struck me as one of the more creative and entertaining genre directors working on the lower end of the Hollywood budget, but his take on the survival thriller is hamstrung by unnecessary backstories and underdeveloped subplots. Still, I look forward to whatever he and Liam Neeson do next. According to IMDB, it’s an action movie called The Commuter.

Best welcome surprise: A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash

As someone who thought that I Am Love was attractive but vacuous, how could I have expected that I’d get sucked in by director Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up—a frenetic remake of La Piscine set at the Mediterranean hideaway of a recuperating rock star? The film may not work as a suspense piece, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the incessant attack of Guadagnino’s camera, which strikes every room and character from as many angles as possible, twisting itself in zooms, abrupt dollies, and barely motivated point-of-view shots. It feeds off the yin-yang energy of its two dominating presences: the largely mute Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock icon hiding out after throat surgery, and the motor-mouthed Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), her producer and ex, whose monologue about a ’90s Rolling Stones deep cut is a standout.

Mike D’Angelo

1. Toni Erdmann
2. Right Now, Wrong Then
3. Manchester By The Sea
4. Tower
5. The Witch
6. Paterson
7. Author: The JT LeRoy Story
8. Indignation
9. London Road
10. Everybody Wants Some
11. Aquarius
12. Divines
13. A Monster With A Thousand Heads
14. Weiner
15. Arrival

Outlier: Tower

Photo: Kino Lorber

Given that it happened half a century ago, Charles Whitman’s murder spree from atop the University Of Texas at Austin’s main building should have inspired a thoroughly conventional documentary, alternating between available archival footage and talking-head interviews with now-elderly survivors. Instead, Keith Maitland fashioned what might be termed a nonfiction re-creation, hiring actors to play the roles of victims and police officers—not just as the atrocity unfolds, but in the interview segments as well. Then he added an additional layer of distance by transforming both into rotoscoped animation. The result is a paradoxically intimate account of a horrific moment in American history, one that focuses almost entirely upon acts of courage and compassion (and in which Whitman himself is never seen and barely named). Our 2016 list includes no documentaries or animated features; Tower is the year’s finest example of both.

Most overrated: Moonlight

Photo: A24

My dearest wish—so far as this year’s movies are concerned, anyway—is that I could see what everyone else sees in Barry Jenkins’ almost achingly sincere three-stage character study. (Full disclosure: I served on a festival jury with Barry a couple of years ago and liked him enormously, which makes this more painful.) Even after watching Moonlight a second time, though, I still find it frustratingly thin and contrived. People seem awestruck that the three actors who play Chiron create a seamless performance, but the degree of difficulty is incredibly low, because Chiron is an utterly blank slate, devoid of any discernible interests and defined exclusively by perpetual wariness. What’s more, his journey from boyhood to manhood gets drawn in ludicrously broad strokes, from the shameless scene in which Chiron’s sole friend gets pressured into beating him up to a final chapter that recapitulates the first chapter, with Chiron having improbably refashioned himself into a gentler version of his childhood protector (Mahershala Ali, who’s genuinely terrific and sorely missed when he’s gone). Ultimately, I just didn’t believe much of Moonlight, which lacks the specificity that a truly great drama requires. It’s a portrait of a symbolic vacuum.

Most underrated: Remember

Remember

Atom Egoyan may never make another movie as great as Speaking Parts, Exotica, or The Sweet Hereafter, but at least he’s finally figured out how to craft satisfying trash. Remember’s log line is breathtakingly dopey: A Holocaust survivor (Christopher Plummer) suffering from dementia leaves his nursing home in an effort to track down and kill the Auschwitz commander who murdered his family seven decades earlier, even though he can barely recall his own name from moment to moment. Egoyan leans into the absurdity, treating the material more like an exploitation flick than the prestige drama that Plummer’s magisterial presence in the lead role would suggest. When the film was released in March, the alt-right hadn’t yet penetrated national consciousness; a key scene, featuring Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as a proud neo-Nazi, probably has even more of a disturbing charge now than it did in those comparatively innocent days.

Biggest disappointment: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!

The last time I failed to laugh much at a Coen brothers comedy, most other critics agreed that they’d whiffed. Unlike The Ladykillers, however, Hail, Caesar! was received quite warmly, so I’m not sure what I missed. Certainly, it’s my kind of movie on paper—Barton Fink is one of my all-time favorites, and I was chomping at the bit to see a feature-length riff on Fink’s hilarious skewering of 1940s Hollywood. (Both films are even set at the same fictional studio, Capitol Pictures.) But Hail, Caesar! feels surprisingly flabby and lazy, more like one of Woody Allen’s tired 21st-century gagfests than Joel and Ethan in their prime. Potentially fun ideas, like having Tilda Swinton play identical-twin gossip columnists, get utterly squandered, and the film’s intermittent genre parodies (Esther Williams, sailor musical) mostly fall flat. The main problem, I think, is that the Coens never quite decided whether they were writing a semi-serious character study or a cartoonish ensemble piece and wound up fashioning the blandest version of both.

Most welcome surprise: Nocturnal Animals

Photo: Focus Features

I’m coming at this category from a very specific angle: that of someone who was so bored by Tom Ford’s studiously somber directorial debut, 2009’s A Single Man, that he got up and left after about 40 suffocating minutes. Nocturnal Animals isn’t a great movie, but I’ll tell you this: I was not bored. Its story-within-the-story, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an everyman whose wife and young daughter are abducted on a Texas highway late one night, is far more compelling than its framing story, in which Amy Adams mostly reads an unpublished novel (which tells the abduction story; it was written by her character’s ex-husband, also played by Gyllenhaal) and looks miserably rich. But the nonstop tension of the former—aided by Michael Shannon’s typically memorable turn as a hard-bitten cop—compensates for the languor of the latter, and the two ultimately combine to form a thought-provoking treatise on art as personal vengeance.

Jesse Hassenger

1. La La Land
2. American Honey
3. Green Room
4. Arrival
5. Manchester By The Sea
6. Hail, Caesar!
7. Hell Or High Water
8. The Fits
9. Everybody Wants Some
10. Sing Street
11. Star Trek Beyond
12. The Lobster
13. The Witch
14. The Handmaiden
15. Certain Women

Outlier: Sing Street

Photo: The Weinstein Company

Look, I understand anyone having trouble forgiving John Carney for the irritatingly innocuous Begin Again, whose relationship to his charming and bittersweet Once is best described in Brain Candy terms: “Exactly like Stummies, but a much larger pill.” But he got it back big time for Sing Street, a heartfelt comedy about teenagers in the ’80s forming a band, casting about for influences, shooting music videos, and in one case, wooing a badass local girl. In place of Begin Again’s insufferably starry-eyed music-industry idealism (where the big innovation that gets record producer Mark Ruffalo jazzed up is selling an album for a pittance and spending nothing on promotion), Sing Street features characters who don’t really know what they’re doing, to results both hilarious—check out their music video costuming—and poignant, as with Jack Reynor’s older-brother subplot. It’s also the first Carney romance where (spoiler alert) people actually kiss at the end! It’s a feel-good movie that earns its goodness.

Most overrated: The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon

Photo: Disney

I was tempted to use this space to perpetuate my mini-feud about overrated movies with Ignatiy and cite Sully or Midnight Special. But I understood the praise for those movies, even if I didn’t love them as much as I wanted to. I’m less clear on why so many people fell for the charms of this year’s batch of Disney remakes. The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon are, admittedly, complementary in their strengths and weaknesses: Jungle Book is a beautiful technical achievement with no real reason to exist beyond its cutting-edge 3-D animation, while Dragon justifies itself as a huge improvement on its weak source material without making a great effects character out of its central creature. Neither are bad movies. But both of them, in the end, feel like lavish exercises in concealing a central hollowness. For every stunning sequence in The Jungle Book, there are moments of overemphasis from the cutesy kid actor or times when the movie sacrifices narrative closure for sequel-baiting. Pete’s Dragon is better acted and more self-contained, but its momentum frequently slows to a crawl, pausing for scenes of Robert Redford talking about the dragon where the movie could be depicting its personality instead. As ever, live action (or pretend live action) gets credit for pretending to be more real; Disney’s actual cartoons from 2016 have a lot more to offer than either of these experiments in IP recycling. Stop encouraging them!

Most underrated: Allied

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Allied wasn’t absolutely pilloried by other critics (our own Mr. Dowd gave it a totally fair B), but overall it earned decidedly mixed reviews and unremarkable box office returns upon its Thanksgiving release. It was easy to believe the non-hype; Robert Zemeckis’ last decade-plus has been characterized by some of his most stunning passages within some of his most uneven movies. So I was surprised to discover, when catching up with Allied, that it’s the fleetest and most entertaining Zemeckis picture in ages, a beautifully (yet unfussily) composed throwback with expressive mirror shots galore as Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard eye each other warily as World War II spies and spouses. The filmmaking is so assured that the movie’s emotional core landed for me even as I wasn’t sure if the story had entirely earned it. If Pitt finally quits re-fighting World War II after this, he’ll have gone out on a good note.

Biggest disappointment: Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man

I had enough warning about the shortcomings of this year’s Batman-related movies to lower my expectations, but I went into Swiss Army Man genuinely hoping for something great—and even more frustratingly, I got it for several stretches in the middle of the movie, when Paul Dano’s suicidal weirdo starts toting around Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse, forging a surreal and strangely touching friendship in the process. But much of this invention turns out to be the journey on the movie’s way to an ending that made me question whether the directing team known as Daniels knew what they were doing this whole time—or, indeed, whether they really understood how to make movies. Some of this peculiar learning-as-we-go quality makes Swiss Army Man refreshing in the moment, but its slow start and slower, tonally confused (heartfelt? satirical? snarky? ironic?) ending turned it from delight to disappointment before my eyes.

Most welcome surprise: Nerve

Photo: Lionsgate

I hadn’t even heard of Nerve until about a month before it came out (rare for a wide-release summer movie), and my expectations didn’t skyrocket for a film by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, though I liked their Paranormal Activity 3 and also their not being Nev. But this social media thriller packed more excitement, romance, and style than most of its bigger-budget summer competition; it’s the rare internet-based movie that doesn’t come across as insanely paranoid or instantly dated, maybe because the flashes of neon and New York locations ground the movie in a physical world even when it’s obsessed with a series of escalating, anonymous online dares. The charming Emma Roberts has been playing 18-year-olds for the better part of a decade, so it’s especially nice to see her notch one really good one before she ages out of those parts for good.

Noel Murray

1. Manchester By The Sea
2. The Handmaiden
3. La La Land
4. Moonlight
5. Green Room
6. Jackie
7. The Eyes Of My Mother
8. Paterson
9. The Fits
10. Hell Or High Water
11. I Am Not Your Negro
12. Under The Shadow
13. Arrival
14. Certain Women
15. Elle

Outlier: The Eyes Of My Mother

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Horror fans and art-film aficionados alike have struggled some with what to make of writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s debut film, which is disgusting enough for gore-hounds and pretty-looking enough for aesthetes, but which doesn’t push either the genre or prestige buttons especially hard. That, though, is exactly what makes this story of a lonely, psychopathic farm-dweller such a kick. At only 76 minutes, Pesce’s stark black-and-white nightmare lingers just long enough to leave a strong impression, without forcing itself into any confining boxes. The Eyes Of My Mother is ultimately a darkly alluring vision of one deranged human’s struggle to engage with others, and striking for how it keeps taking the most appalling narrative turns possible. Does it have a deeper point to make? Maybe not. But that doesn’t matter as much as how melancholy and uncomfortable an experience the movie is.

Most overrated: Nocturnal Animals

Photo: Focus Features

While it’s much more entertaining than fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut film as a writer-director, A Single Man, this fall festival favorite is so overwrought and tightly controlled that it never allows viewers to groove on its essential trashiness. Based on an Austin Wright novel about a writer who uses a manuscript for a thriller to get into the head of his ex-wife, Nocturnal Animals has a clever story-within-a-story structure and good dual performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as both the author and his book’s protagonist. But star Amy Adams’ role calls on her to spend a lot of time staring thoughtfully in the distance after reading a passage from her ex’s tome, all while Ford piles on mean-spirited observations about the heroine’s crumbling upper-middle-class lifestyle. The whole movie feels engineered to get to its sick final twist, and while Nocturnal Animals does have a strong finish, the end never justifies the labored machinations that precede it.

Most underrated: Barry and Southside With You

Photo: Netflix

For some reason, even left-leaning film critics greeted this year’s two Barack Obama origin stories with an overly cautious “meh,” saying that both were too hagiographic and wouldn’t attract much interest if they weren’t about the man who’d become POTUS. But that’s the wrong way to think about Barry and Southside With You, both of which are small-scaled slice-of-life dramas made more distinctive by the accumulation of real details from one man’s remarkable past. Is it really so hard to believe that there’d be some interest in a character sketch about a mixed-race college student navigating a crumbling early ’80s New York, or a romance about two black lawyers spending a day getting to know each other in early ’90s Chicago, if the lead character in both weren’t a future president? If anything, the Obama angle may have made critics too squeamish about appreciating the kind of big-screen stories they ordinarily clamor for.

Biggest disappointment: The BFG

Photo: Disney

Roald Dahl’s whimsical, imaginative novel about an orphan girl and a “big friendly giant” becomes a heavy-footed, CGI-choked family film, complete with fantasy violence and fart jokes. Director Steven Spielberg squanders a poignant Melissa Mathison script and a game Mark Rylance motion-capture performance, delivering a movie that’s far from terrible, but which does lumber along like a lost mid-’90s artifact, from the age of the bloated blockbuster. Spielberg works so rarely these days that each year or so that he spends on a project like this (or The Adventures Of Tintin or Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull) is a year he didn’t spend making something great. The few moments of genuine wonder in The BFG don’t compensate for the picture’s overall turgidity.

Most welcome surprise: Star Trek Beyond

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Given the general dreariness of Star Trek Into Darkness, and the fact that J.J. Abrams was handing the reins over to director Justin Lin, there was little reason to expect much from the third film in this rebooted series. But co-screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung delivered a refreshing reminder of how fun and inspiring a Star Trek movie can be by telling a simple planet-hopping/supervillain-thwarting adventure story, anchored by plenty of scenes where the crew of the Enterprise gets to talk and joke and bicker. Add in sweet homages to the franchise’s past and overt paeans to hopefulness and teamwork, and this was far and away the most satisfying of 2016’s summer blockbusters: a ray of rainbow-colored light cutting through an oft-gray year.

Katie Rife

1. Moonlight
2. The Handmaiden
3. Arrival
4. Green Room
5. The Lobster
6. Silence
7. American Honey
8. Elle
9. Manchester By The Sea
10. Hell Or High Water
11. The Love Witch
12. The Fits
13. Toni Erdmann
14. The Witch
15. Kubo And The Two Strings

Outlier: The Love Witch

Photo: Oscilliscope Laboratories

In a perfect world, Anna Biller would be swimming in the kind of grant money that Cindy Sherman was getting back in the ’90s. But this isn’t and she’s not, so we only get a Biller film every half decade or so. (It takes a long time to sew all the costumes and make all of the sets and write and direct and edit and produce a movie all on your own.) The level of control in Biller’s newest, The Love Witch, is remarkable; from the mannered performance of its lead actress to the rich interplay of colors in its mise en scène, The Love Witch is designed to evoke an extremely specific period in cinema history and to subtly undermine its ideology through that very faithfulness. Biller plays with the idea of the femme fatale by making her a fool for love and her victims straight fools; early on in the film, someone tells Elaine (Samantha Robinson), “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” not yet realizing that that’s exactly what makes her so dangerous. Unapologetically feminine and wickedly subversive, The Love Witch is a treat for both the eye and the mind.

Most overrated: La La Land

Photo: Lionsgate

Everyone from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors’ Guild is gaga for La La Land, and I just don’t get it. In the abstract, reviving the Hollywood musical sounds like a great idea; I like basking in the Technicolor splendor of a song-and-dance spectacle as much as anyone else. But Ryan Gosling feeling sorry for himself because the steady professional gig that landed in his lap is jazz-rock and not pure jazz? Give me a break. That’s not real-life heartbreak; it’s a record store clerk rolling his eyes at your purchases. If Gosling was an excellent singer or dancer, that would help make up for his character’s more insufferable quirks, but—and I’m just going to say it—he’s not. Co-star Emma Stone is better equipped to handle the challenge, but even so, she deserves better songs; her big showstopper solo number at the end of the film is all verse and no chorus, a problem that persists throughout the film (or, more accurately, its soundtrack). Guess I don’t get jazz, or dreams, or whatever.

Most underrated: Queen Of Katwe

Photo: Disney

Queen Of Katwe’s biggest problem is that it’s too nice. It’s a feel-good family film that follows a standard biopic model, the kind of movie that grandparents are thrilled to be able to take their grandchildren to see. (It’s also based on the life of a Ugandan chess prodigy, just to complete the dorky picture.) But it’s also a beautifully made film (with Mira Nair at the helm, how could it not be?) that boasts a handful of great performances. Most notably, there’s Lupita Nyong’o, who takes what could have been a hopelessly clichéd character—the long-suffering single mother trying to raise her children in an African slum—and gives her strength and dignity without making her into a saint. David Oyelowo is great in it, too, as an engineer-turned-missionary whose struggle to stay positive remains mostly private. Neither of these actors are getting much awards buzz for their performances, presumably because voters don’t want anyone to know they’re the nerds who saw the chess movie.

Biggest disappointment: High-Rise

High-Rise

I keep waiting to fall head over heels for a Ben Wheatley movie, and High-Rise seemed like the one. Class warfare and ’70s aesthetics based on a J.G. Ballard novel, with Elisabeth Moss chain-smoking cigarettes while pregnant? Yes, please! Imagine my disappointment when this turned out to be yet another in a long line of Wheatley films that I get, but don’t particularly like. I get that the original novel intentionally makes inexplicable leaps forward in time, leaving big unanswered questions about how this community of the future devolved into primal chaos. But cinematically, that just translates into confusion for the viewer. I get that the extreme segregation between the higher and lower floors means that they live extremely different lifestyles. But tonally, this thing is all over the place. And I get that the novel and therefore the movie have something to say about class. But cinematically, that point must have gotten lost, because all I remember is Ken Russell-style baroque excess. Maybe next time. The trailer for Free Fire does look pretty good…

Most welcome surprise: Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship

Maybe it’s because of her association with the Underworld franchise, but to me, the name Kate Beckinsale doesn’t necessarily conjure up sparkling dialogue and caustic wit. (Yes, she was in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, but that was a long time ago.) Consider me thoroughly humbled, though, because Beckinsale’s performance in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship is an absolute delight. I’m the type of person who watches Game Of Thrones for the scheming, so I just loved Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a whip-smart widow in temporarily embarrassed circumstances who also happens to be skilled in the subtle art of manipulating British manners (and men) to her advantage. Able to turn the most formal nicety into a cutting insult, Lady Susan is one shady bitch—and I mean that as a compliment.

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