It’s the most wonderful time of the year. When people bring good cheer and I’m still home making lists like Santa would do. I do this to myself voluntarily. Or maybe because a different person a year actually wants my opinion on the movies made on any year. You’ll see which ones here.
Lemonade (Beyonce Knowles, Kahlil Joseph, everybody). This is a pop star becoming an artist. Here she presents her manifesto where she wrestles with both rage and compromise. And both are legitimate reactions to realizing that she lives in a world that still treats her like a child. A world that isn’t hers. This collaborative TV special de resistance evokes auteurs both male and female, white and black. She also incorporates and gives a spit shine to certain aspects of America’s forgotten cultural mosaic. Previous writers have criticized her for allegedly stealing her songs. And perhaps this is the most punk rebuttal she or other (female) musicians have given. By wearing her influences on her sleeves, she reminds us that that tired notion of singular authorship is invalid.
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson). This serves as a memoir. Here, she gathers moving images from documentaries she shot, co-directed and directed. Yes, we at first see a methodical portrayal a person getting the shot right. She clears some weeds out of the ground with her bare hands, she wipes car windows. But we get a sense of the person doing these things without seeing her face most of the time. A person who keeps herself intact despite capturing humans enduring the worst moments of their lives. Critics and writers apply film’s shamanistic qualities to the actors or subjects in front of the camera. Channeling pain. But Johnson reminds us that the people on the other side have that otherworldly experience as well.
Moana (John Musker and Ron Clements). “An Innocent Warrior” is a song that collaborator Opetaia Foa’i wrote about the tragic death of 19 Tuvaluan girls. But as used in this context, it reminds the audience that this mere Disney film is about loss. And it does so without most of us not understanding the song’s language. It just echoes what the film presents in front of us. A lost heart, an exiled demigod (Dwayne Johnson), a people who have forgotten certain aspects of their culture. The titular teenage girl (Auli’i Cravalho) naive enough to think that she can put everything back together. And we ask ourselves “What does she know”? But we might have to listen to people like her before we lose everything.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi). Waititi channels both Kubrick and Morricone here. Uncle Hector (Sam Neill) is the grumpy symbol pure whiteness and of old school (‘toxic’) masculinity. Ricky Baker is both the reluctant sidekick but he’s also the central figure in a symbolic tug of ideological war. Will forces corner him into a ‘civilized’ and presumably white upbringing or retreat into his homeland? There are racial gray areas complexities are very apparent here. And since this is a Taika Waititi film, we’re seeing these issues clearly but with his signature irreverent humour.
Sing Street (John Carney). This is the story of a boy Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) growing into a man. A story where they show the ending in the beginning. Or that ‘beginning’ gets a context deeper than immigration statistics. It’s about that immigrant’s brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), the one who has to tragically stay in his hometown. Sadly but dutifully clearing the way for his younger brother to set forth. Or how I’ll like and forgive anything that depicts psychological complexes brought on by Catholicism. Yes, it’s about all of these things.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins). One critic has vulgarly called the adult version of Moonlight‘s protagonist Black (Trevonte Rhodes) as a ‘gang banger’. Most people make such assumptions when it comes to black men. But thankfully Jenkins’ film allows unexpected meekness to his characters that some people do see in black boys and men. It shows the complexities in raising a child to become an adult and how certain individuals affect each other’s futures. And how that process of evolution is a dialogue and a relationship, where characters see and misinterpret each other. Afraid of certain aspects of one another that might not even be there. In short, the duality of black male queer experience that is both relatable to others yet frustratingly and understandably elusive.
Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg). Sorry ’bout it, but there’s just something about snappy proletarian dialogue that gets to me. Ripped from the headlines of half a decade ago realness. Berg puts the classic bomb under the table, or in this case the ocean. Then he makes his characters talk on top of it with a rhythm that surprisingly unshowy and lacks vanity. His characters live real lives and endure through workplace drama. Then of course, he escalates with both elegance and a sense of the gravity that the characters must be feeling.
Christine (Antonio Campos). Antonio Campos sets the tone by showing us scenes with characters working these machines. This is a period piece after all, transporting us through technology. These machines, clunky like they are in the 70’s, whirring and whizzing and clacking. We’re slaves to these objects, using them to create. Their routine sounds fool us into thinking that they can help us make something to impress others. But they never do. That’s the fate of the film’s doomed titular character Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall). Unfortunately, she’s a character whose quirks and principles turn against her. I love nostalgia but this film is also a good counterpoint for sepia toned glasses.
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve). The heptapod aliens in Arrival offer interpreter Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a weapon. Unsurprisingly, it’s the similar gift Denis Villeneuve gives us in this film. As we see here, he makes storytelling seem that revolutionary. He also posits a debatable way of perceiving time and fate. Yet it’s another to give those concepts an emotional weight. The credits rolled I found myself asking how I would receive such an offering. How to endure the heartbreaks of both future and past, simultaneously presented.
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan). This is about characters you grow to love and understand. This is also a comedy, a manifestation of Freudian dysfunction on screen. You read that. We see a supposedly normal and well-coordinated hockey player in Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges). But after his father (Kyle Chandler) dies he becomes a full blown sociopathic girl juggler. And yet he can barely move without hurting himself. His uncle and reluctant guardian Lee (Casey Affleck) is also reeling from his own unspeakable tragedies. He also tends to hurt himself and others. Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) makes this a triumvirate, a recovering addict barely able to function at lunch. Clearly her son’s mother. What I also like about this is its proletarian insularity. Thankfully, these characters do talk these issues out without having some shrink swoop in and save them. Adds an authenticity to the proceedings.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle). Saving the best for last. I couldn’t help but love its fusion of whimsical exuberance and irony. It’s a fantasy world with two real people in it, and sometimes that’s enough. Director Damien Chazelle brings together the right ingredients for such contradictions to work. Here we have protagonists Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They sing like normal people. They dance like those are the last moves they’ll ever make. And speaking of dancing, Mandy Moore – not the singer – style really helps here. She was never the best choreographer in “So You Think You Can Dance’ and I pray for her colleagues. But I’m a convert of her style now which adds to much to the film. Simple, fluid, dirrty with two rs.
- Genre: Action, Animation, Comedy, documentary, Drama, Musical, Sci-Fi
- Directed by: Antonio Campos, Damien Chazelle, Denis Villeneuve, John Carney, Kenneth Lonergan, Kirsten Johnson, Taika Waititi
- Starring: Amy Adams, Auli'i Cravalho, Casey Affleck, Emma Stone, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Julian Dennison, Rebecca Hall, Ryan Gosling