Sunday, February 26, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part Two)

AND NOW! We move on the more marquee categories - the actors, actresses, writers, and directors who made my favorite contributions to their films in 2016.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Little Prince
The Handmaiden (WINNER)
Everyone and their mother has attempted to adapt Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince to film, but this was the first that truly captured the spirit of the novel, with the stroke of genius of making it as much about the act of reading The Little Prince as it about the plot itself. Elle is yet another example of why we should call a novel "unfilmable" at our own risk. Arrival's screenplay plays its hand so subtly that the big reveal both is and isn't a total surprise - a pretty neat trick! Moonlight's words are pure poetry, but never sound writerly. But how anyone could read Sarah Waters's Fingersmith and make The Handmaiden, which aside from completely changing the time and place of the novel, is actually even crazier than the novel, is mind-boggling.


Hell Or High Water
The Lobster (WINNER)
Manchester By The Sea
The Witch
Even setting aside the perfect use of period language in The Witch, it unfolds at a perfect pace for maximum scariness. Zootopia may be a little bit TOO on the nose, but damn if its insightful political commentary doesn't play like gangbusters, as does its clever comedy (sloths at the DMV!). Hell or High Water has the year's tightest, most quotable script, if not the most groundbreaking. Kenneth Lonergan continues to prove that he understands human beings and how they grieve better than just about any other writer with his near-perfect script for Manchester By The Sea. And in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos found a perfect vehicle for his pitch-black sense of humor and deadpan, with an allegory that will touch anyone who has ever been single deeply.


Mahershala Ali, Moonlight 
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
Alden Ehrenrich, Hail, Caesar!
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash (WINNER)
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By The Sea
Lucas Hedges brings a great "real-kid" quality to his performance, and his nervous breakdown is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. We can feel Mahershala Ali's presence long after his character is gone from Moonlight, such an indelible character does he create in such limited time. The rhythms of Tom Bennett's speech patterns in Love & Friendship are completely unlike anything else I've ever heard - a truly original comic creation that left me needing to pause and replay his scenes after I had stopped laughing. Alden Ehrenrich would make this list even if the only scene he had was "Would that it were so simple," but he does so much more. But his scene partner Ralph Fiennes truly outdid himself in A Bigger Splash, playing one of those annoying people who always has to be the center of attention, and gets it through the expenditure of lots of energy and volume. It's a tour de force you can't look away from, even if you wanted to.

Olivia Colman, The Lobster
Naomie Harris, Moonlight (WINNER)
Lupita Nyong'o, Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon, Other People
Michelle Williams, Manchester By The Sea
Everyone in Manchester is always doing their best work when in a scene with Michelle Williams. That's not an accident. Whatever emotional impact the film has, it's all due to her performance. Lupita Nyong'o gets to show lots of range in Queen of Katwe as the titular chess prodigy's young mother, and she tops even her great Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, telling us all we need to know about this woman just by the way she walks. Olivia Colman is the perfect vessel for Lanthimos's deadpan dialogue as the Hotel Manager; thanks to her, you'll never look at a toaster the same way again. Even though her character is dying of cancer, Molly Shannon makes sure she comes alive, bringing her natural good humor to bear, equal parts defense mechanism and genuine good feelings. Pity poor Naomie Harris, though. Were Viola Davis not fraudulently competing in this category at the Oscars, her fierce, raw portrait of an addict mother at three stages of her life would likely have swept awards season, and justifiably so.
 Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Connor Jessup, Closet Monster
Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington, Fences (WINNER)
Jessup lets us see the genuine fear and longing battling it out for dominance in his sensitive portrait of a damaged gay teen coming of age. Ryan Gosling does it all in La La Land - sings, dances, plays piano - and he does it all with the same effortlessness that marks his off-the-charts chemistry with Emma Stone. Grant's bottomless charm goes a long way towards making St. Clair a sympathetic character, but he's also sneakily funny as Florence's devoted husband/failed actor.  Jack Nicholson sure has big shoes to fill in the godforsaken Toni Erdmann remake, since Simonischek is so effortlessly sympathetic and weird simultaneously. It's a tricky balance that he pulls off to perfection. No one this year can touch Denzel's Troy Maxson, though. He's a true force of nature in Fences, swinging the entire world over to his axis wherever he goes. This is the best he's been in ages, and it's not like he's ever been one to phone it in.

Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Viola Davis, Fences (WINNER)
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
The opening and closing close-ups of Krisha Fairchild's face are astonishingly precise - and the rest of her performance as a recovering alcoholic whose return home does not go as planned packs quite a wallop.  Isabelle Huppert has the trickiest part of the year in Elle, but thankfully the character couldn't be better suited to her gifts, and hot damn does she deliver as a woman who isn't sure what she's feeling, or even what she should be feeling, after getting raped. Jessica Chastain gets to sink her teeth plenty of scenery as the year's ultimate "nasty woman", and since she never lets subtlety get away from her entirely, it's a perfectly satisfying four-course meal. Natalie Portman was born to play Jacqueline Kennedy, but her portrait of a first lady in mourning isn't just about her perfect voice and looks, it's about the modulations in her speaking tone that speak volumes, and in how hollow she goes behind the eyes as she moves through her grief. But no one this year gave a more volcanic performance than Viola Davis in Fences. She's so disarmingly fun and flirty with her lout of a husband in the opening scenes that when the big snot-filled breakdown monologue comes, it's like a tidal wave hitting the audience. As she unleashes the full force of her pent-up anger and fear and love and grief, and stands up for what she deserves, it's not just Rose Maxson doing so - it's every woman who has ever been taken for granted and taken advantage of, for every woman who has suppressed her own hopes and dreams for a man, for every marginalized person who has watched and patiently waited and suffered in silence as others simply took what they wanted. She is all of us. And we will not be ignored.

Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden
Damien Chazelle, La La Land (WINNER)
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Pablo Larraín, Jackie
The totality of Larraín's vision for Jackie is absolutely stunning. Would that all biopics could be this focused and powerful. Barry Jenkins made Moonlight one of the most thematically, visually, and sonically beautiful films ever. No one else could have made The Lobster, one of the year's most unique films in terms of plot and tone, and Yorgos Lanthimos shepherded every single element together to make something completely singular. The Handmaiden is one of the most demanding films of the year - it's also one of the most purely enjoyable, so fleet on its feet and so willing to go where few other films would dare. Park Chan-Wook also makes sure all the technical elements are impeccable. Damien Chazelle made La La Land a technical dazzlement that feels entirely current despite using a form and technique rooted in the past. It's a perfect blend, reinvigorating the musical by going to places modern-day audiences aren't used to going. This was his dream project, and you can see the thought and care put into every frame.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part One)

So many movies are released every year that it's nearly impossible to see them all within the confines of January 1 - December 31. So I usually give myself until the Oscars to see everything. After all, that's when the year in film truly ends, right?

Anyway, I'll post my Top Ten (or whatever it is this year) tomorrow, on Oscar day. But for now, let's look at all the other things Oscar will be awarding tomorrow. Starting with the tech categories...

 Closet Monster
The Dressmaker (WINNER)
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Handmaiden
Sing Street
Florence Foster Jenkins is the showiest of these, what with all the period styles and sick makeup for Meryl, but there's careful attention paid to the differences in class and how people of different social strata present themselves. Sing Street gets to the performative, shifting nature of identity that occurs in adolescence in fun ways. The Handmaiden is mostly here for the wonderful hair creations that sit atop Lady Hideko's head - each one some new gorgeous marvel. Closet Monster and The Dressmaker both have makeup as central to the story. Closet Monster's looks appropriate for a talented teen, but The Dressmaker wins for how it underscores the film's central themes about the power of outer transformation.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - TV EDITION: Superheroes/Super Powers

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling everyone a bit about them!

Another month, another TV Edition of Thursday Movie Picks, so my apologies if you were coming here looking for movie recommendations. They're not on the menu at the moment. Please, though, come back soon!

This week, we're looking at the small screen's superheroes. And it took me about five seconds to come up with my favorite:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) It's one of the stranger things in recent memory that an utter failure of a forgettable teen movie was later turned into one of the All-Time Great TV shows by the film's own writer. But that's just what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a butt-kicking California blonde who is a mystical "chosen one" who was chosen to rid the world of vampires (and other supernatural beasties). Setting our heroine's high school on top of something called The Hellmouth (trust me, it's exactly what it sounds like), was a stroke of genius, allowing creator Joss Whedon and his writing staff to externalize all the myriad internal adolescent issues we've all experienced as quite literal demons. And he set the template for every other great serialized drama that was on air after. All hail.
Favorite Episodes: "Hush" (S4.e10), "The Body" (S5.e16), "Once More, With Feeling" (S6.e7)

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher were the Clark Kent and Lois Lane the '90s needed, okay?!? This probably isn't a great show, really, but good lord I wouldn't have been caught dead missing an episode back when I was ten years old!

Arrow (2012-present) Darker and more emotional than your average superhero tale, this television adaptation of the Green Arrow comic was appointment television for a while for me, and not just because of star Stephen Amell's body of work. The hook (bilionaire playboy returns home after having been thought dead for years, bent on taking revenge on those who wronged his father and his city) is pretty irresistible, and the quality of each episode is outstandingly high. Complex characters and brilliant performances made me keep tuning in long after the storyline itself changed focus and lost my interest.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Shakespeare Adaptations

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If these posts seem like fun to you, play along! All you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme, and tell us a bit about them. Couldn't be simpler!

Oh, Wanderer.

You have no idea what you've wrought this week.

You see, I'm a bit obsessed with the adaptation of stage plays to film. And I'm more than a little obsessed with the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. Ever since I read a VERY abridged version of Romeo & Juliet when I was in fourth grade, I've loved him. I took several courses on him in college, and worked for an Off-Broadway theater company focused on Shakespeare and classic drama for five years. Shakespeare adaptations are kind of my thing. So I'm going to go a little bit crazy this week. Please, bear with me. There's LOTS to talk about.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Prodigy/Genius

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them - it's fun, promise!

I am sitting in my warm apartment watching the snow blow around outside, and I must admit that I feel very content. This is my favorite thing in the world, especially with a mug of hot cocoa (check) and a fire in the fireplace (not happening in a one bedroom in Manhattan, unfortunately). Next to movies, of course, which is why I haven't moved from the couch all day.

But it's Thursday, which means I have some picking to do! This week's TMP theme is geniuses. I'm not one, although I do have my moments! The point being, I should be so lucky to do something so brilliant as these people that I get a movie made about me.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) One of the greats. A movie about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a bona fide genius, and Antonio Salieri, an almost genius. The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1984 (which made it my favorite film sight unseen for a long time - I was born in 1984) is deliriously entertaining, one of the best films to win Best Picture. And F. Murray Abraham's performance as Salieri is one of the all-time great performances.

Searching For Bobby Fischer (Steven Zaillian, 1993) An ordinary man discovers that his seven year old son is a chess prodigy. He and his wife find a coach for the boy as he goes and plays in the park against random men. Except that in the hands of writer/director Zaillian, this is so much better and more complex than that plot sounds. This is easily one of the best films of the '90s.

Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) Will Hunting is a math genius, wasting his days as a janitor at MIT and his nights hanging out with his buddies on the south side of Boston. One day, a professor posts an impossibly difficult math problem in the hall, and Will solves it. Naturally, the professor wants to work with his brilliant mind, but Will has a lot of issues, so he must go to see a therapist (played by Robin Williams in an Oscar-winning performance). I love this movie so much. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and it's kind of amazing that they haven't written anything since, although it's clear from their performances here that they were always movie stars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Awards Contenders In Brief - Hell or High Water

True sleeper hits feel like a total rarity these days. So when a film becomes one, it feels like a bit of an event. David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water was a genuine sleeper hit this summer, which could have been because the Summer of 2016 was a pretty dire time for movies, let alone completely original stories, let alone westerns. So it's pretty big that this film stuck around like it did, made the money it made, and made it all the way to the Oscars with four nominations.

And really, if I'm being honest, it's pretty much perfect. Taylor Sheridan's screenplay is as notable for what it does as it is for what it doesn't do. It doesn't give us the whole story right off the bat, doling out bits and pieces of the plot throughout the entire running time. It doesn't provide any easy answers for us or for the characters, putting those that survive the main action (this is a western crime drama, you know there's gonna be some deaths) in a morally compromised position and not giving any real sort of closure. It also doesn't stay in one genre - it's a western, but feels modern; it's a crime story, but doesn't feel like a thriller; it's a slow, thoughtful drama, but it's also funny as hell. And it is perfectly paced. Sheridan, with help from director David Mackenzie, is also really good at social commentary - I don't think I've ever seen a film that so perfectly captures the desolate desperateness of America's more rural areas while showing exactly why conservative politics that put big business first are precisely what they DON'T need. This is easily one of the best screenplays of the year, an utter delight from start to finish.

But also, if I'm being honest, there's nothing particularly new or surprising here. Just a solid story told exceptionally well. There's a lot to admire in the performances - who would have guessed Chris Pine could make stoic masculinity so compelling? Props to the casting department, who made perfect choices all the way down the line - especially in how they slowly accumulate detail until it feels like we know these characters completely. It's an incredibly smart film that doesn't "feel" smart. It's just one helluva ride.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies About Artists

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

And now, back to your regularly scheduled TMP programming: MOVIES!

This week, we must pick movies about artists, specifically painters. I've tried to pick three movies as different from each other as possible for this, so... ENJOY!

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raúl Ruiz, 1978) Look, I could describe the "plot" of this to you, but that really would kind of be beside the point. It's ostensibly "about" an art collector who six of seven canvasses of a legendary 19th century French painter who creates extremely elaborate tableaux vivants of each of the paintings he does have in order to try and figure out what the fourth in the series (stolen long ago) might have been. But really, it's about art itself, how we create it, experience it, critique it, and look at it. It's a viewing experience completely unlike any other I've ever had, and yes you may find it unbearably pretentious, but I don't care.

Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002) A bit of a mess, but then, could a film about the great, provocative Mexican painter Frida Kahlo be anything but? At least Julie Taymor's biopic takes risks most films would never dream of in both form and function. And Hayek, who nurtured this project from conception to completion, is great fun to watch.

Tim's Vermeer (Teller, 2014) Sometimes, life gifts you with a perfect story: Penn Jillette, one-half of the famous magician duo Penn & Teller, had a friend named Tim who was obsessed with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, who many consider the greatest painter that ever lived. Specifically, Tim is obsessed with how Vermeer captured light so perfectly. So obsessed, that he builds a device that allows him to paint a perfect recreation of whatever is in front of him, like he believed Vermeer used. And Penn & Teller filmed it. It's an absolutely fascinating story, and watching it will make you view painting in a whole new light.

 "Vincent And The Doctor" (Doctor Who, 2010, S5E10) I didn't pick the long-running BBC program Doctor Who for our sci-fi TV edition of TMP last week, but I had to mention this episode this week, because it's one of my favorites. Our intrepid time-traveling Galifreyan and his spunky companion Amy Pond end up visiting Vincent Van Gogh, whose inner demons have been made thrillingly external as a scary black beastie. He is depressed because he is going through all these awful things and no one cares about his art, into which he pours his heart and soul. So in the end, just this once, the Doctor allows the person he helps to see his future, and this scene happens, and I turn into a puddle of tears. EVERY. TIME. Just beautiful.