Matt’s Top Ten of 2016
10. 20th Century Women
Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical character dramedy might be the most resolutely pro-feminist artwork to ever totally fail the Bechdel test. Of course, you don’t need me to mansplain to you how the Bechdel is an imperfect metric of a film’s female-empowerment quotient (the opening of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” technically passes, for example) but really, basically every single conversation held by 20th Century’s estrogenically-animated triumvirate—Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning—is either explicitly or implicitly about caring for the film’s sensitive male adolescent protagonist Jamie, the 16-year-old Mills avatar played by Lucas Jade Zumann. But Jamie isn’t the subject of 20th Century Women any more than the glowing suitcase is the subject of Pulp Fiction. 20th Century’s women are defined not in relationship to Jamie, but in their response to him—and even then only in part. Mills has a painter’s eye, spicing up his nostalgic late-‘70s-set coming-of-age story with a wide variety of tasteful formal quirks to create a complete work that’s equal parts eclectic and familiar, personal and universal. 20th Century Women also falls into what’s increasingly become a favorite sub-sub-subgenre of mine: the low-key indie movie about primarily nice and well-adjusted people, who mostly just need a small nudge here and there to get back on the same page. What better company is there during such an unprecedented time in human history? All hail the gynocracy.
9. Green Room
Brutality is an underrated filmmaking tool, particularly in violent genre movies. Luckily, Jeremy Saulnier knows from brutal. Just take a look at all of the carnage on display in his third directorial effort, the economical-yet-hyper-violent punk rock thriller Green Room. This downbeat tale of the world’s unluckiest hardcore band (and the neo-Nazis who aim to machete them to death) is in every way a worthy successor to the siege movie canon of yesteryear, from Rio Bravo to Assault on Precinct 13. Just as in his masterful 2013 revenge noir Blue Ruin, Saulnier constructs a series of impossible scenarios for his bloodied-and-befuddled protagonists to navigate in surprisingly clever ways—each situation a tiny riddle to be solved, with limited resources and a ticking clock. Simply put: once the heads start rolling in Green Room, they don’t stop; the horror of the escalating violence carried off with tremendous skill by a cast including two Star Trek alums (Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin), Maebe from Arrested Development, and Imogen Poots, possessor of the world’s most delightfully-voweled name that also functions as a complete sentence. Green Room is a masculine movie and an adolescent movie, but not an immature one. Saulnier knows what makes genre tick, and where the bodies are buried. And sadly, it’s more important now than ever to join together and scream: Nazi punks fuck off!
8. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’ve always had an extremely visceral response to watching Sam Neill onscreen due to the actor’s strong physical resemblance to my own father. But happily, the cantankerous survivalist that Neill plays in director Taikka Waititi’s spirited outdoors adventure yarn Hunt for the Wilderpeople represents only a fraction of the elder Warren’s gruff irascibility. Hunt finds Neill’s “Hec” absconding into the bush with Julian Dennison’s rotund foster child following a series of escalating misunderstandings involving child protective services and the New Zealand police. Thus marks the second instance on my list (after Swiss Army Man) of an ill-suited odd couple desperately trying to make their way to safety through the wilderness (but just between you and me, I’d much rather hang with Hec and Dennison’s Tupac-loving Ricky Baker than Paul Dano’s icky Peeping Tom.) Being lost in the forest never seemed like so much fun, as the not-so-dynamic duo bumbles and fumbles from Points A to B, all the while learning to love and appreciate each other in ways that feel earned and authentic. Waititi (whose What We Do in the Shadows made my Top 10 in 2014) has just the right touch, moving a complicated story along economically without feeling rushed, and letting the tale’s humor and performances shine. Seek Hunt out—you won’t be disappointed.
7. The Lobster
Just as in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s there emerged a genre of film that I personally have in retrospect dubbed “feature-length Twilight Zone episodes” (see: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls) so too is there an analogous modern-day subset of films I’d group together as “feature-length Black Mirror episodes.” And Yorgos Lanthimos’s cynical black comedy, about a dystopian world in which lowly singles are forced to either pair up or be transformed, via methods, into an animal of their choosing, definitely fits in well with Mirror mastermind Charlie Brooker’s bleak, absurdist worldview and chilly visual aesthetic. What the film isn’t: some sort of saccharine sci-fi parable about how love conquers all. Nor is it a strident defense of singledom. Lanthimos almost argues that there are, in fact, no good options—at least not for Colin Farrell’s pitiable sadsack and his peers, whose understanding of adult relationship dynamics seems beamed in from some kind of sub-adolescent foreign galaxy. No one makes it out of The Lobster with his or her dignity let alone personhood, literal or otherwise, intact. This really isn’t the movie you want to take your SO to before popping the question, or the movie to watch stag on Valentine’s Day. Just watch it with your dog instead.
6. Sing Street
There have been plenty of movies over the past 50 years made about outcast kids turning to music in order to reinvent their identity. But what makes John Carney’s Sing Street so successful is its specificity, both in the dourness of its early-1980s Dublin setting and in the depiction of the global telecommunicative paradigm shift spurred by the rise of MTV. This is the first let’s-start-a-band movie I’ve seen where the band in question begins making music videos before they ever perform live, and that takes their rapidly-shifting (and frequently hilarious, especially in smash-cut) aesthetic cues from of the Pops rather than the LP covers staring back from the dusty bins of record stores. Carney is also smart enough to avoid making young Conor’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) life too bleak or Sing Street’s—the titular band—music too good. This isn’t the origin story of a messianic rock star, or even that of a successful musician. Personally, I don’t think Conor is destined to become a famous pop figure. But I do think he goes on to be a full, happy adult having used music to plant the seed of adventure and self-actualization that will surely lead to a wonderful life. Rock on.
5. Swiss Army Man
Saying Swiss Army Man is “just a farting corpse movie” is a bit like saying 2001 is “just a black rectangle movie.” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s fantastical black comedy isn’t really about the fact of its titular, flatulence-spewing dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) as much as it uses it as a key to unlock a study of Paul Dano’s archetypical straight white Beta male, each blast of putrid methane rocketing out of Radcliffe’s decomposing anus to blasting yet another layer of Dano’s taciturn shell away to reveal a disturbed psyche snowed over by decades of loneliness and poor self-esteem. Swiss Army Man lives mostly inside its protagonist’s head, in a verdant Robinson-Crusoe-meets-Michel-Gondry fantasy realm where thoughts of suicide are staved off by the companionship and survival utility provided by a constant, grim reminder of man’s own mortality. The fact that “The Daniels” are able to wring so much optimism, humanity, and pathos out of such an unlikely high-concept is astounding; these are definitely two dudes worth watching. Add to that a haunting and hilarious a capella soundtrack performed by the leads, plus Larkin Seiple’s lush cinematography, and you have a modern, avant garde comedy classic not afraid to celebrate just how wondrous (and disgusting) the human body actually is.
Only Nostradamus could’ve predicted that one of this year’s darkest and most tense explorations of systemic corruption and criminal psychosis would be a documentary about YouTube tickle fetish videos. Sure, there’s something a little gross about the idea of po-faced masturbators huddled in the cold glow of an open Safari tab, furiously wrenching jizz out of their dicks to .mp4s of shirtless amateur wrestlers tickling each other for profit. But really, the tickling part of Tickled is just the beginning, as Australian TV journalist David Farrier (along with co-director Dylan Reeve) is quickly tipped—via an explosively vile and aggressive response to a simple media request—that there’s potentially a much bigger and more upsetting story to be told. What ensues is a nightmare of sexual blackmail, big business, and the corruption of the American aristocracy, with Farrier’s guileless Aussie investigator acting as our Nick Broomfield-ish guide down the rabbit hole, from sketchy video studios in the San Fernando Valley to Connecticut luxury condos. Tickled is equal parts nonfiction noir and corporate exposé, with a central mystery to solve and a big bad in severe need of comeuppance. I won’t spoil what happens, except to say that the film’s ultimate resolution is equal parts satisfying and unsettling. With Tickled, Farrier stumbled upon the story (and movie idea) of a lifetime. No joke.
3. O.J. Simpson: Made in America
I *guess* this is a movie?? Whatever—content is content. And speaking of content, Ezra Edelman’s epic four-hour investigation into the epoch-defining O.J. Simpson saga is stuffed to the butt with it. But Made in America isn’t Hard Copy or A Current Affair. There’s no prurient lip licking; the celebrity sleaze angle is only present to the extent that such elements are known facts of the case. What Made in America actually is—to quote Boxer Santaros—is “an epic Los Angeles crime saga” stretching all the way back to the Watts Riots and beyond, unpacking the City of Angels’ uneasy (to put it mildly) relationship with its African American citizenry, especially as expressed by the brutal role of notorious civic bullyboys the LAPD. But Edelman’s investigation is two-pronged. The other mystery here is O.J. Simpson himself, a cinematic antihero as inscrutable and complicated as any alpha male this side of Charles Foster Kane. The portrait Edelman paints of Simpson is of the ultimate mass-media cipher: a talented, troubled man who created a persona of calculated blankness as a way of burying the violent creature that ultimately (totally, without a doubt) beheaded its ex-wife the unlucky actor-waiter who learned the hard way that customer service has its limits. O.J. Simpson: Made in America isn’t just a movie or TV show. It’s a novel, a textbook, and a dark shadow history and catalogue of the bloodlust oozing like ectoplasm beneath bucolic Brentwood lawns.
2. La La Land
What’s left to say about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land that hasn’t already been said by a hundred thousand auto-generated thinkpiece articles or the film’s scorched-earth decimation of the Golden Globes way back in the waning days of the Obama Administration? Turns out if you put two charismatic, obnoxiously attractive actors in a brisk, colorful musical about dreaming big and falling in love, people (me included) will turn out for that shit. But La La Land’s charms are deceptively hard-fought. For fully the first 15-20 minutes of the film, my spirits sank lower than a Julliard-trained jazz pianist forced to play Flock of Seagulls keytar. Starting immediately with the film’s abysmal, trying-to-hard dance sequence set atop the 105 Freeway, I thought oh no, no, no. I don’t like this at all. But then, the film chilled out and did absolutely everything right for the next two hours. Sure, many of the Chazelle’s observations about L.A. are year-one basic. But that doesn’t really bother me. La La Land takes idealism and translates it into immediately recognizable archetypes and romantic iconography—the simple star-stuff that built Golden Age Hollywood, and by extension the entire city containing it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s all set to a jaunty, Starbucks-jazz score that’s totally intoxicating, even as you recognize how inherently artificial it all is. But hey—that’s pictures, kid.
Moonlight is an intimate movie in every sense of the word. And like a lot of films unfolding on a small scale, Barry Jenkins’ soulful, self-actualization triptych reads an expertly minimal short story, one where every moment is perfectly calibrated for maximum efficiency and evocative impact. And as with all successful character studies indie or otherwise, Moonlight protagonist Chiron’s experience is so specific—queer, black, poor, Floridian—that the themes of the film actually become hugely universal. Some complainers out there have bitched that the film’s middle chapter stands in weak contrast to the first and third. But that’s nonsense. These nit-pickers are all just jealous that no one’s ever tried to jerk them off at the beach, or cooked them a nice plate of Cuban food. And Moonlight is as much a technical achievement as it is an emotional one, full of subtly expressionistic camerawork, pointed close-ups, and expertly orchestrated long takes. It’s also one of the best-lit and best color-timed (color corrected?) films of the year. In Moonlight’s wake, much has been said about how the Kodak film stocks of yore have been deficient in picking up a sufficient amount of information reflected off the surface of black faces. But the black faces Jenkins photographs in Moonlight, thanks to specially imported German lenses, are inarguably electric, even when those faces seem to change into something completely different every 30 minutes or so.