Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
We asked our contributors to pick their favorite films and performances of the year to date. Here’s how they responded.
This year has thus far been pretty terrific. I highly recommend "April and the Extraordinary World," a thoroughly winning animated fantasy based on French illustrator Jacque Tardi's graphic novel. And "The Final Master," dialogue-centric martial arts movie by the tremendous Chinese filmmaker Xu Haofeng ("The Sword Identity," "Judge Archer"). And gosh, "Louder Than Bombs," a fantastic domestic melodrama (starring Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, and Isabelle Huppert) about trying to protect people who refuse to accept it. Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Dave Eggers's not-quite-science-fiction story "Hologram for the King" is pretty decent. The Coen brothers' star-studded Hollywood satire "Hail, Caesar!" is hysterical, light, and so well put together. And both of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2016 releases—"Cemetery of Splendour" and "Mekong Hotel"—are amazing, surreal meditations on ... you know what, just see those two, they're impossible to reduce to a couple of sentences. And then see "My Golden Days," "The Witch," "The Mermaid" and "Eisenstein in Guanajuato" too. Also "My Big Night." And "Kill Zone 2." Don't forget "Triple Nine." I could go on.
I’ve seen two four-star quality films in 2016: Jeremy Saulnier’s precise, punk rock mad house “Green Room,” which I felt was going to give me a heart attack even just with its dialogue between a terrified Anton Yelchin and a dominating Patrick Stewart; Frida and Lasse Barkfors’ “Pervert Park,” which I saw originally at Sundance 2015, but was not wholly amazed by its presentation of a community of rehabilitating convicted sex offenders until I reviewed it last month. Both of the films were able to place me square in the middle of intense personal experiences, fully crafted by wildly different visions and narrative methods with the same degree of impact even days later. They're both head-first filmmaking at its best.
In my eyes, it’s been a far stronger year for documentaries than narratives. “Mavis!” “A Beautiful Planet,” and “Trapped” were all 3-1/2 star films that brought a great amount of perceptive and awe to their various subjects, the latter film by Dawn Porter, about dwindling abortion clinics in America, having an especially must-see urgency.
With Sundance 2016 in my rear view mirror, I can also say that the film year is just getting started, with a few more must-see titles to be released: "Wiener-Dog," “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Southside with You” and “Spa Night." I can't wait to see whether the rest of the world agrees with me that these are incredible films, that whether for causes of full entertainment or fascinating perspective, the world needs.
ANGELICA JADE BASTIEN
With “Lemonade,” Beyonce proves the ways a star and a black woman can synthesize her own image as an auteur. The 100 minute film is at once a moving portrait of matriarchal inheritance, a political statement on the status of (southern) black women in American culture, and masterpiece. It does what every great film should: it gets under your skin, challenges preconceptions, and fully entertains.
With segments directed by powerhouses like Khalil Joseph and longtime Beyonce collaborator Melina Matsoukas, the poetry of Warsan Shire that acts as connective tissue, surprising musical guests including Jack White—Beyonce proves she’s able to shepherd a project of immense scope and audaciousness in her image.
Her performance uses her impressive physicality to show vulnerability, anger, and transcendence.
“Lemonade” exists within two important cinematic traditions. It’s another film in the canon of black female filmmakers like “Daughters of the Dust” and “Eve’s Bayou." It’s also a sly update of the women’s pictures genre that made auteurs out of actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The occult, a powerful emotional arc, lush imagery and the joy that black women find in communion with each other is the engine for “Lemonade." But more than that the film is a lyrical, baroque, blistering tone poem that moved me in ways nothing has come close to this year.
All too often "politically incorrect" is used as a deflection against bigotry of some sort or other. The term applies not only benignly to writer/director Shane Black but as a badge of pride. “The Nice Guys” is a calmer Black than his rudest, though still plenty rough around the edges, delightful in its misbehavior, and just the kind of meta-neo-screwball-noir that no one else but Black even dares attempt, let alone master. It's the best thing Ryan Gosling's done in years, and he and Russell Crowe work beautifully together. I'd watch a dozen more movies with the two of them running around breaking things while Gosling's daughter (Angourie Rice, every bit as good as the leads) plays Penny to their collective Inspector Gadget. “The Nice Guys” was basically custom-made for me, and I certainly appreciate the effort.
Those who accuse critics of not going to the movies just for fun may be put back by just how many of them name John Carney's “Sing Street” amongst their favorites of 2016. The filmmaker's fascination with telling love stories through the creation of a virtual album is more than just "his thing." The passage of time that can be marked through our own experience with music (or film for that matter) can trace our own identities and transform us from the young minds in step with a snappy beat to adults who truly understand the lyrics. “Sing Street” is very much like that; a worthy companion piece to Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” in which music becomes an expression of what we do not always understand but in which we find the hope to do someday. It is a majestic and funny coming-of-age story complimented with a soundtrack that demands not only our tapping and clapping but our attention to the part of the human soul where the words accompanying the beats originated.
The only film I want to talk about is “The Witch.” Not just here and now, but possibly for the rest of 2016. For one, I can't help but admire the incredible risk the filmmakers took in telling this story with so much restraint. It's the tiny cast of actors; the stark, pervasively grey landscape and the characters' equally bland earth-tone garments; Black Philip's whisper; and how the tension gradually closes in on Thomasin. Of course, that leaves room for the film to blow up in other areas, especially with the jarring, dissonant soundtrack; Caleb's dramatic death; every witch scene, and the very witchy ending.
A bit like “The Babadook,” “The Witch” is a very female story about the terrors that are not innate to that gender, but that are certainly imposed upon it. Thomasin goes from being an innocent child to a temptress and destroyer, even if she's blameless to the very end. Robert Eggers really understands the structure of folktales, which gives him the prowess to deconstruct them. He knows that at their core, they were stories told by and to women, with their concerns and issues woven into each tale's symbol system. That it comes across without feeling overbearing makes “The Witch” a great, entertaining, terrifying movie. If this is how horror works now, more please!
It only took 25 years (and was worth the wait), but Isao Takahata's beautifully animated "Only Yesterday," the empathetic story of a young woman trying to reconcile the lessons of her childhood with the reality of adulthood, finally received a theatrical release in the United States. Two Hollywood sequels, "The Conjuring 2" and "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising," surprised me greatly, with the former once again displaying the craftsmanship necessary to produce a really good scare and with the latter examining double standards and gender politics without losing its ribald sense of humor. "Weiner," a documentary about the disgraced politician by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, offers an inside look at a campaign, a man, and, maybe, a marriage falling apart, and Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation" explores the effects of grief as a way to transcend the film's mystery (and, later, thriller) premise. Grief is also at the heart of "Louder Than Bombs," Joachim Trier's study of a father and two sons attempting to piece together meaning from a jumble of incomplete memories.
"Krisha," the debut feature from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, is a deeply felt look at a woman struggling with her demons, as well as with the consequences of them, at a Thanksgiving family get-together. The computer-animated "Zootopia" created a convincing, thoughtful allegory of social politics through a world populated by animals (The controversy surrounding the film seems odd to me: Since when did we start expecting a direct, one-to-one relationship between fable and reality?). The ferocious, relentless "Green Room" confirms that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is in the process of becoming one of our more effective and considerate filmmakers when it comes to exploring the repercussions of violence, and "Embrace of the Serpent" plays a haunting game of call-and-answer, as two scientists meet a native shaman of the Amazon at two different periods of industry and imperialism. The highlight of the year, though, is John Carney's "Sing Street," an equally delightful and insightful look at the pangs and limitless possibilities of adolescence. The film may only be about "this kid, a girl, and the future," but that's just a simple way of saying it's about everything that matters.
My two favorite 2016 releases, Chantal Akerman's "No Home Movie" and Wang Bing's "'Til Madness Do Us Part," both enter the void. (The Wang film, made in 2013, opens in New York on the 8th.) Akerman documented the last few years of her mother's life. It's not apparent except in retrospect, but she also chronicled the last few years of her own life; just as "No Home Movie" made the festival circuit last year, she committed suicide. The images of deserts and empty rooms that fill her film taken on a deeper, more metaphorical significance. But Akerman was an artist driven to wanderlust; "'Til Madness Do Us Part" depicts the patients involuntarily committed to a Chinese mental hospital. Wang gives the spectator very little context; his closing credit crawl would be a helpful introduction, but he clearly doesn't want to make things easy. The hospital looks worse than many prisons; it seems to combine the old Soviet system of incarcerating the politically unruly in mental institutions with the contemporary American tendency to allow the mentally ill to commit petty crimes instead of treating them before their problems become more serious. Yet there's more hope and resistance in Wang's film than you'll find in "No Home Movie," taking the surprising form of a pervasive homoeroticism. It ends with a male couple holding hands. In the inhuman world of "'Til Madness Do Us Part," that's the closest anyone comes to love.
The best film I've seen so far this year is "Sonita," Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami's exhilarating documentary about an Afghan rapper who rebels against the forced marriages imposed by her culture. My second favorite happens to be another film about the absurdity of conformity, Yorgos Lanthimos' brilliant satire, "The Lobster." Following that would be Tobias Lindholm's shattering study of moral ambiguity in our modern era, "A War," which was already nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar but didn't receive a U.S. theatrical release until this past February. Next is the spellbinding thriller, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" (out July 15th), which marks the directorial debut of Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) and features a performance from Kiernan Shipka that is guaranteed to haunt your nightmares. Rounding out my top five would be "Sunset Song," Terence Davies' staggeringly beautiful romantic drama that is sorely deserving of a Best Cinematography nod during next year's awards season.
Though 2016 doesn't have quite as many highlights as 2015 did during its first six months, there are still enough great films to fill a top ten list. Number six is Nanfu Wang's courageous documentary, "Hooligan Sparrow," the very existence of which is miraculous, considering how the footage was in danger of being confiscated. Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush's "Zootopia" also deserves special mention considering that it's my favorite non-Pixar animated feature from Disney in two decades, a refreshing antidote to the inflammatory rhetoric of our current election. I also loved Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's "De Palma," which has already motivated me to revisit several of the director's classics. Dylan Gelula delivers another of the year's finest performances in Karem Sanga's sublime coming-of-age film, "First Girl I Loved." And last but not least is Robert Eggers' "The Witch," a gloriously atmospheric meditation on the horrors of repression.
I can't remember a year in which I've seen so many bad films. There have been good and maybe one or two great films along the way, but the ratio has been skewed to crud this year in a way that feels unfortunately unique. It doesn't say good things that two of the best movies released in the U.S. in 2016 are Japanese animated films made in 1973 and 1991, those being "Belladonna of Sadness" and "Only Yesterday."
Beyond that, I'm going to keep my powder dry, save for the observation that, of the maybe two dozen movies rattling around in my notes as potential best-of-the-year pictures, the only one that even comes within SWINGING DISTANCE of having anything to do with "mainstream" is Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!!" In the meantime, I recommend "The Fits."
I'd heard all the buzz but nothing could quite prepare me for the awesome oddness of Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster"—not even having seen the director's Oscar-nominated "Dogtooth," which I loved (and which Ignatiy and I talked about on "Ebert Presents At the Movies..")
"The Lobster" is peculiar and precise—the Greek filmmaker is a master of tension and tone, a tricky feat to pull off given the complex subject matter. But because the world he's created is so austere and detached, it makes the shocking moments pop that much more, often giving the film a welcome air of absurd humor. "The Lobster" takes place in a near future where coupling up is a societal mandate, and where singles must spend 45 days in a hotel adhering to a strict series of rules to find a mate, or risk being turned into the animal of their choosing. (Colin Farrell's character says he'd like to be a lobster—hence the title—and his reasoning is inspired.) But while Lanthimos' film is strange and startling (and definitely not for everyone), it ends on a note that's surprisingly romantic and even vaguely hopeful. Farrell is at his most vulnerable here, and he has great chemistry with Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux as the two strong women who help determine his fate. Give it a try and dig in.
When “Everybody Wants Some!!” was described as “a spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused,” I was expecting a endearing mix-tape movie with party scenes and an impeccable cast of mostly unknowns playing quirky characters. It has all that but it reminded me more of writer/director Richard Linklater’s more existentially ambitious films like “Waking Life” (still my favorite he’s done so far), the “Before” trilogy, and “Boyhood.” Though like “Dazed and Confused” it takes its title from a song that places us immediately in the year (1980) and setting (weekend before classes start in an unnamed Texas university), “Everybody Wants Some!!” (two-exclamation points) starts upending our assumptions right from the beginning, as the central character, starting his freshman year, shows himself to be self-aware, confident, and knowing right from the start. Wait, what? Aren’t all college movies supposed to be about freshman who have to achieve that over the course of the film?
Yes, there are a lot of parties and a lot of sex and drugs. But the women are not objectified or exploited by the characters or the camera. And I loved the way the guys had to keep going back to the house to change their clothes before each outing: a disco, a “kicker” bar, a punk concert, a party given by the drama majors. The malleability of the various personas they were trying on as they were discovering what it was like to be on a team where everyone had pretty much been the star of every team he’d been on through high school was skillfully portrayed. And the exploration of the competitive tension between wanting to stand out and knowing that the only way to do that is to work seamlessly with the team was lightly but thoughtfully explored. I loved the discussion of the possibly imaginary scout for the majors who could be hiding anywhere. And I love the so crazy-it-just-might-be-true idea that the character played by Wyatt Russell may be the same breakthrough role that was played by Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused.”
Best Superhero Film: “Captain America: Civil War”
Marvel is far ahead of not only DC, but all of the "brand" industries, including Disney and Pixar in producing socially conscious, complex films that manage to still satisfy the appetites for popcorn. They make everyone else look like dinosaurs trying to make things bigger without making them better.
There are other films I have loved, and I could write a dissertation on “The Nice Guys” and why it’s one of my favorites—but choose to focus on three first features and how amazing they are:
Three of the most impressive and memorable films thus far in 2016, "The Witch," "Krisha," and "The Fits," were first features for the directors, Robert Eggers, Trey Edward Shults, and Anna Rose Holmer, respectively. Each film was low-budget (bare bones, in some cases), and all are shining examples of how much one can do if one has a good idea and the courage and know-how to make the vision become reality. Each film has a careless disregard for preconceived ideas, and each fearlessly breaks all kinds of rules. The movies are so fearless, in fact, that they call into question the concept of "rules" in the first place. Who makes these rules? Why not break them all, and see what happens? There are horror elements in each film ("Krisha" is one of the scariest films of the year), but each slips outside the boundaries of the genre in startling ways (which, not surprisingly, makes them even more frightening.) It's common to bemoan the blockbuster focus of the industry, the empty tentpole-films of the summer season, and all the rest. But surrounding the bread-and-butter franchises is an entire world of singular and strange little films, personal and uncompromising. These are thrilling films because they stroll into a landscape of accepted clichés and re-treads and re-boots and unimaginative plot-twists and say, "Nope. I won't be participating in that. At all. Let me show you something else."
Four wildly different movies impressed me most in 2016 thus far, each offering its audience a different kind of immersive journey. Here they are, in order of my preference:
Radu Jude's "Aferim!," shot in glorious black-and-white CinemaScope, proved to be a sort of "Two-Lane Blacktop" of 18th century Wallachia, recreating a world of feudalism, slavery and historical tumult every inch as frightening as "12 Years a Slave" and even more devoid of and discernible rule of law than "Game of Thrones." The shocking finale, pitting a real-time castration of a serf against the previous 90-or-so minutes of florid, highly stylized talk, left me devastated. Among other things, "Aferim!" sports the funniest and most idiosyncratic dialogue this side of Rian Johnson's "Brick."
Ilya Naishuller's "Hardcore Henry" is the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush: this non-stop action extravaganza not only gives Sharlto Copley a glorious opportunity to goof around in dozen different guises, but flaunts the most innovative use of p.o.v. cinematography since the days of early Brian De Palma (not to mention "Lady in the Lake," which is quoted directly). The dingy Moscow underworld setting, filled with icky night clubs, post-industrial wastelands and deglamourized big-city streets, adds to the overall freshness and makes one shudder at any thought of a polished, gentrified, NYC-based remake that's bound to come up sometime soon.
Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" was a surprise, given how much I disliked "I Am Love". Just like that film, the new one is ritzy, high-end trash—a cheap paperback bought out of airport boredom—but there's also a remarkable attentiveness to emotional and physical detail that becomes almost hypnotic. Not much happens in the film (until everything happens at once), but the slow-burning quality Guadagnino achieves (backed by some fine, Nicholas Roeg-inspired editing) is highly immersive and adds an extra luster to Ralph Fiennes' performance as an annoying prick suddenly revealed as a gentle, recoiling, desperate lover.
Many people chided "10 Cloverfield Lane" for its abrupt, last-reel gear-switch, but the more I think about it, the more I like how gutsy it is. John Goodman should scoop a Kathy Bathes-shaped Oscar for his supreme role as a psychopathic captor (or is it fatherly caregiver?) to two young people in the middle of nowhere, and few films in recent memory can boast such skillful use of suspense as this one. Given who produced it, it's no surprise you can feel like you just binged on a season of "Lost" as you leave the theater, but still: no movie scared me this effectively in 2016.
Under normal circumstance, I generally do not do mid-year list of the best movies I have seen so far—it is difficult enough to work up the traditional year-end list that I am professionally obligated to supply. Nevertheless, these are the movies that I have seen so far (excluding festival fare that is not on the release horizon as of yet and presented in the order that I saw them) that did give me enough pleasure to help forget enduring such monstrosities as “13 Hours,” “Me Before You” and the loathsome “High Rise.”
“Knight of Cups” (possibly the best of the year-to-date)
“A Monster with a Thousand Heads”
“Everybody Wants Some!!”
“Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words”
“10 Cloverfield Lane”
“My Golden Days”
“Pee-Wee's Big Holiday”
“The Measure of a Man”
“Love & Friendship”
“Captain America: Civil War”
“April and the Extraordinary World”
“The Nice Guys”
In other words, the first half of 2016 hasn’t been that bad and besides, I also got to see the majesty that is “Krull” in the glory of 70mm to boot.
Several of my favorite features screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center: “Aferim!," "Cemetery of Splendour,” “The Club,” "The Paradise Suite” and “Tale of Tales.” Elsewhere, I quite liked watching “Eye in the Sky,” “Green Room,” "Hail, Caesar!,” “The Lobster” and “The Sky Trembles and The Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers.”
It's been an almost too sad year already and film has only been able to provide a brief respite from the terrifying state of affairs in the US. To every silver lining a cloud. A new Terrence Malick is treated like a bridge too far from America's preeminent poet laureate of the cinema instead of the heartbreaking work of art it is. “Cosmos” is released only after its mad genius creator, Andrzej Żuławski, dies. A new Joachim Trier has Jesse Eisenberg twitching all over it.
But there's no qualifier needed to discuss a new Robert Greene. I like Robert personally, which makes it all the easier to talk about why his movies are essential and fascinating, each more beguiling than the last. Robert is trying to do something in nonfiction filmmaking that the form somehow didn't have done to itself in the ‘70s. He's trying to be its Ingmar Bergman, its Alejandro Jodorowsky, its Pasolini. And he's succeeding. He's delivering nonfiction from the suffocating, imaginary constraints in which it's lately clothed itself (try to remember a single exciting image or idea from the last ten highly lauded documentaries you've seen) and grammatically re-introducing the world to the works of Chris Marker, William Klein and Peter Watkins. “Kate Plays Christine,” which has played a number of festivals already and will play still more before hopefully enjoying a blockbuster arthouse run, is a fuming consideration of modern performance and what it means to look at women with a screen protecting us from their humanity. The ever game and always enthralling Kate Lyn Sheil slowly goes off the rails while preparing to undertake the role of Christine Chubbuck, the Floridian journalist who shot herself on live TV. Greene doles out just enough info for you to wonder how much of her work is performance or a performance of a performance. The grey area between real and unreal is Greene's home and everyone owes it to themselves to step inside. He's doing more for nonfiction than any other American filmmaker.
First and foremost, my 2016 has been a little unusual in that personal reasons have forced me to miss a large number of the theatrical releases (including new films by Terence Malick and Richard Linklater that I plan to catch up on this month when they hit Blu-ray) and several of the best movies I’ve seen at fests won’t be released until the fall, including Kenneth Lonergan’s stunning “Manchester by the Sea,” Robert Greene’s masterful “Kate Plays Christine” and Kelly Reichardt’s excellent “Certain Women.” As for what I’ve seen that’s been released or is about to be, I hold new films by Joachim Trier (“Louder Than Bombs”), Robert Eggers (“The Witch”), Terence Davies (“Sunset Song”), John Carney (“Sing Street”), and the upcoming work by Ira Sachs (“Little Men”) and The Daniels (“Swiss Army Man”) in high esteem, but my top films of 2016 are both examples of talented filmmakers using genre in ways that both feel reminiscent of the auteurs who influenced them and distinctly their own.
Take Jeremy Saulnier’s searing “Green Room,” which combines elements of John Carpenter and Michael Mann into a perfectly calibrated thrill ride in which violence has a visceral, notable impact and the way it’s used speaks volumes about the iterations of manhood the film presents. Unlike so many modern action movies, every time violence erupts in Saulnier’s film, the film’s trajectory changes. Saulnier is such a confident director, always staying one step ahead of us and forcing us to follow him around every bloody corner.
Filmmakers don’t get much more confident than Jeff Nichols, whose “Midnight Special” is still my favorite film of the year to date (excluding Sundance). On its surface, Nichols’ film is a traditional sci-fi adventure in the vein of John Carpenter’s “Starman.” Underneath that surface resonates a study of the bond between father and son, as well as an examination of faith in the modern age. It’s unforgettable.
Given it only played theatrically at film festivals and most people will see it on TV, I’m not counting ESPN’s “OJ: Made in America,” but it’s an essential, unbelievable masterpiece of comprehensive, documentary filmmaking. And if I counted in on a list for the year in film, it would be #1.
Finally, I find that end-of-year reports often miss great performances from earlier in the year, so please don’t forget the following five acting turns in six months:
This year yielded up an embarrassment of riches on the festival circuit, many of which will be out later this year. But some of my best in-theater experiences so far have also been the most eclectic: tense horror in “The Witch” and “Under the Shadow”; high romantic farce in “The Lobster” and “Love & Friendship”; deeply moving depictions of girlhood in “The Fits” and “Sunset Song”; the wonder and sadness of “Midnight Special”; the hysterical, good-hearted “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”; and probably the king of them all so far, “Hail, Caesar!” What a time to be watching movies.
“A Bigger Splash” — A heaping helping of sun-drenched surf, steamy sex and sinister mind games Sicilian-style, performed by a fabulously in-tune and often nude foursome consisting of Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson and Matthias Schoenaerts—who has rapidly replaced Michael Fassbender as my favorite male import most likely to disrobe.
“Sing Street” — As someone who would gladly watch “The Commitments,” “Fame” and “School of Rock” on a continuous loop and nothing else for a week, this Emerald Isle garage-band fantasia was like a feast of musical sugar snacks for the ears.
“Hello, My Name is Doris” — I didn’t just like Sally Field’s pixilated and perceptive performance as a 60-ish marginalized data-entry drone with a taste for vintage wear who crushes on a much younger co-worker. I loved it to the moon and back with a side trip to Mars.
“Zootopia” — A Disney toon-noir stuffed with fur-bearing shenanigans that turns a honey of a bunny into a cop and takes a stand against stereotyping and intolerance? What’s not to like? And whoever decided that the sloths should run the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles better have gotten a raise.
“Maggie’s Plan” — After a recent weepy streak starring in “Still Alice” and “Freeheld,” Julianne Moore reminds us how fiendishly funny she can be as a frosty Danish professor who masticates her words with an oddly clipped accent that out-Shtupps Madeline Kahn’s Lili in “Blazing Saddles.”
“Hail, Caesar!” — Speaking of Mel Brooks, I spent much of this Coen brothers’ sour love letter to ‘50s Hollywood wishing that moviedom’s spoof-meister general had taken a crack at it instead. But much was forgiven after Alden Ehrenreich’s darling silver-screen cowpoke moseyed into view and twirled that strand of spaghetti around like a lariat.
Two of my favorite 2016 films are in the same approximate genre, yet they could not be more different. “The Witch” is an allegorical spine-chiller that’s set in the colonial United States. “Green Room” is a bloody horror-thriller that’s set in a grimy punk rock club. The former has colorful, mannered dialogue and a classical-tinged music score, while the latter is filled with profanity and a performance of Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks F**k Off.” These films may have different goals and styles, but they share some qualities, too. Directed by Robert Eggers and Jeremy Saulnier, respectively, they unfold with pitiless logic and an attention to character. They tap into base fears, creating a specific sense of dread. Neither Eggers nor Saulnier play by the usual rules of their preferred genre, so their work is both personal and refreshing.
My favorite performance of 2016 belongs to Tom Bennett, who played Sir James Martin in Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship.” Martin is nothing short of an amazing moron, the sort of dolt who says plainly obvious things with feigned curiosity and depth. Other characters stand there and take his absurd observations—this is Victorian England, and decorum gives them no other recourse—so Martin will never be disabused of his ignorance. Bennett’s performance is an absolute joy since he never, not once lets us think he’s in on the joke. I can’t decide whether I’d ever want to meet someone like Martin at a party. Maybe I could ask him questions, just so I could marvel at his answers, but then again he might make me want to shatter my ear drums. That speaks to Bennett’s unparalleled performance, and Stillman’s willingness to let him go for broke. A man like Martin could end up on the streets or running the country, and neither outcome would surprise me.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.