As regular readers of Journeys in Darkness and Light know, I don’t see all that many “new” movies, certainly not enough to justify a Best of 2016 list that actually means films released in 2016. Instead, I’ve listed the films I saw this year for the first time covering the years 2000 to the present, which includes a few 2015 and 2016 titles. I hope you find something to discover.
Arrival (2016) Denis Villeneuve
Regal Waugh Chapel Stadium 12 & IMAX (1:58)
I’m still not ready to discuss this tremendous film. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think it’s very, very good, based on an incredible short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” I hope to see it again soon and absorb a little bit more of it. In the meantime, look for lots of awards and nominations to (heh) arrive.
The Assassin (2015) Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Netflix streaming (1:45)
Possibly More than any other film on this year’s list, I want to revisit The Assassin. It is spectacularly photographed, absolutely beautiful in scope, and at the same time, extremely slow-moving, but I believe the slow pace has been carefully considered and planned.
The story is actually something of a martial arts film set in 8th century China. Maybe if I knew more about that time and place, I would’ve had more of a connection to the film. Its slow pace, combined with my ignorance of the period, made for a somewhat frustrating experience. Yet I believe that director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is challenging us with this film regarding how stories are told and watched. I am challenged to see it again.
Bone Tomahawk (2015) S. Craig Zahler
Bridge of Spies (2015) Steven Spielberg
Walt Disney DVD – library (2:21)
I had hoped to write a longer review of this film and perhaps I will when I view it again, but for now I’ll only note a few things. Based on actual events, Steven Spielberg’s latest film gives us Tom Hanks (right) playing James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer hired to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, left, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) against charges of spying for the Soviets. All Donovan has to do is go through the motions. Everyone knows Abel’s guilty, but Donovan wants to do his best no matter who he’s defending.
One of the most fascinating elements of the film is Tom Hanks and how we view him. Here’s an actor who’s been immensely popular for over 30 years, playing a man whom everyone in the film hates, not because he’s defending a Russian spy, but because he’s trying to win a case defending a Russian spy. I can’t remember another film in which Hanks was hated, persecuted, and threatened, which makes Bridge of Spies a real eye-opener. There’s much more I could say about this film that works on many levels, but that will have to wait until I’ve seen it again. If you haven’t seen it, you should. People who say that Hollywood has forgotten how to deliver good, solid entertainment are mostly right, but here’s one of the exceptions.
Calvary (2014) John Michael McDonagh
Cop Car (2015) Jon Watts
Universal DVD – library (1:28)
Cop Car is one of those low-budget surprises that you’d probably have missed if it hadn’t starred Kevin Bacon. You might have missed it anyway; lots of people did. It’s a pretty good movie and could’ve been a great one, the kind you’d never, ever forget, if only…
Well, let’s get to that later. Two young boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are walking through a field, taking turns experimenting with curse words. Climbing through a barbed wire fence, they soon come upon an abandoned cop car. They dare each other to touch it, then to open the driver’s door and get in, then to…
To tell you any more would be cruel. Let’s just say that the boys get a little carried away and the cop whose car this is (Kevin Bacon) is out doing something he shouldn’t be doing. The film contains wonderful tension, some great acting from the two boys (Freedson-Jackson’s first film, Wellford’s second), and a good performance by Bacon. Unfortunately the film suffers from a terribly weak ending, but it’s still worth seeing. Director Jon Watts has previously made short films, TV movies, a horror thriller called Clown (2014) and is being catapulted into the big time directing Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). He’ll certainly have a bigger budget than what he had with Cop Car, but even though that film had a pathetic showing at the box office (a dismal U.S. gross of $128,000), enough people saw it and were impressed with it to land Watts a big gig. Cop Car is definitely worth a look. Thanks to my friend Kristina over at Speakeasy for recommending it.
The Drop (2014) Michaël R. Roskam
Fine Dead Girls (2002) Dalibor Matanić
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) George Clooney
Warner Home Video DVD (1:33)
One of the best films from 2005 is probably one of the least remembered, having to go up against movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Walk the Line, Capote, Munich, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Cinderella Man. Although it was nominated for six Oscars, not many people remember – or at least talk about – Good Night, and Good Luck. But they should.
I think the reason why the film isn’t discussed more is that Americans don’t like to be told what they’re doing wrong or that they’re becoming lazy and stupid. Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn, above) opens the film by telling the assembled guests at a tribute dinner in his honor in 1958 that both journalism and television have for the most part lost their ability to do good and have instead settled for escapist entertainment. (Hmm… What do you think Murrow would think about the current presidential campaign coverage?)
Then we back up to 1953 as Murrow and the CBS newsroom seek to expose the truth about Senator Joseph McCarthy and his tactics to root out Communism within the government, all the while fearful that pressure from corporate sponsors and the network itself might stifle the show’s efforts.
The performances are superb, but some audience members thought the actor playing Senator McCarthy was too over-the-top. They didn’t realize that they were seeing actual footage of McCarthy. Another “Hmmm….”
Green Room (2015) Jeremy Saulnier
Lionsgate DVD – library (1:35)
After watching Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin a couple of years ago, I knew he was a director worth watching. I think Blue Ruin is probably the better film, but Green Room is certainly no slouch.
The late Anton Yelchin plays Pat, the bass player in a punk band who’s having trouble finding gigs. They find a gig in a remote club near Portland, Oregon, a venue that turns out to be a neo-Nazi skinhead club. But that’s just the beginning of their troubles. When Pat accidentally discovers that a murder has taken place at the club, he and his bandmates are held hostage by the club’s owner, Darcy Banker, a character that provides Patrick Stewart one of his strangest, most disturbing roles ever.
I’ll have more to say about the film after a rewatch, but if you haven’t seen Green Room, I’d recommend it, although there are two scenes I’ll make sure not to watch next time.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
The Mesrine Films (2008) Jean-François Richet
Phoenix (2014) Christian Petzold
If forced to pick the absolute best film I saw in 2016, it would be Phoenix.
Spotlight (2015) Tom McCarthy
Universal DVD – library (2:08)
Although I’ve only seen one other film by Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, 2007), his track record is remarkably good: The Station Agent (2003), Win Win (2011) and The Cobbler (2014), a film Leonard Maltin praised, but lamented that almost no one saw. (I must see it soon.)
But plenty of people saw Spotlight. Or if they haven’t, they should. The film is a celebration of journalism, a profession that almost everyone who has ever been quoted (or rather misquoted) in a newspaper at some point reviles, at least to some degree. Watching Spotlight almost makes you want to go to journalism school or at least to do some investigative freelance work.
The story is familiar, one whose ending we already know: the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal exposed the Boston Globe in 2002. The film owes much to two other works about journalism, All the President’s Men (1976) to a large degree, and Zodiac (2007) to a lesser degree. Both films contain a far different level of suspense than Spotlight. That’s not to say Spotlight doesn’t contain suspense; it certainly does, but in a far more subdued and subtle way.
The cast is exceptional and if Oscars were presented for Best Ensemble Cast, this group would win hands-down. We’ve got Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery, and while none of them can be considered the “lead” in the film, taken as a unit, they’re impressive. So is the film.
That’s it. Tell me what you watched from recent years that you liked.