It is July. It is hot. It is raining. And it is also the halfway point of 2016. You know what that means?!? I have seen a LOT of movies in the last six months. Good and not so good. Original and some remakes. Sublime and bloody. Fortunately, I always find and watch enough interesting films to write about!
Cinema is an important visual medium that should never be taken for granted. It provides a voice for the unheard. The best films don’t even have too many words – the words are written on the faces of characters that we would never look twice at.
In a time when too many lives are being lost and taken, let me recommend the 10 best visions of life, so far in 2016, that cinema will never let us forget. (Click on the movie poster to watch the trailer!)
10. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (KINO LORBER; On DVD & VOD)
Look. Feel. Experience the life of a post-colonial Indian family in South Dakota through the eyes of a young girl. Good storytelling isn’t about plot, it is about the people. In Chloe Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, you come at the story, such as it is, as a visitor from the outside world, picking up information as the movie goes along. Shot in a documentary-style, we learn about these characters, and their actions define who they are but their choices result in consequences that will test this family. This is how you write a great film. 8.5/10
9. The Jungle Book (Disney; Coming to DVD & VOD Soon)
Once in a blue moon, a big budget studio film will defy low expectations (especially the low bar set by remakes) and produce a transporting spectacle that brings Rudyard Kipling’s characters and narrative to life in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Every inch of this movie: from the sound design, layered characters, cast’s voice performances – particularly Lupita Nyongo’o (Mowgli’s wolf-mother) – and remarkably lifelike computer animated visuals, makes The Jungle Book a special gem. 8.8/10
8. Midnight Special (Warner Brothers; On DVD & VOD)
Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2013) marked writer/director Jeff Nichols as a genuine revelation. This is a filmmaker that tests his viewer’s patience and rewards in bruised and astonishing beauty. With Midnight Special, Nichols has confirmed full auteur status and his new film has been receiving comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols’ uncommon knack for breathing dramatic integrity and emotional depth into genre material along with a hypnotic score by David Wingo, make Midnight Special a likely future classic. 8.8/10
7. Green Room (A24; On DVD & VOD)
This is the type of horror story you see on the 10-pm local news. A naive punk rock band is forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature, Green Room. We don’t know anything about these skinheads except that they’re bad people – a white supremacist / anti-Semitic gang of bad people, led by a creepy Patrick Stewart, to be exact. This new wave of horror cinema (upcoming article!) is reflecting on a very real threat that our world needs to prepare for. Next level filmmaking, protagonists that we root for, and a completely heart pounding stand-off, makes this film something to enjoy and think about. RIP ANTON YELCHIN 9/10
6. Everybody Wants Some!! (Paramount; On DVD & VOD)
Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to one of my all time favorite classics, Dazed and Confused, did not disappoint by a long shot. Everybody Wants Some!! centers around a group of college baseball players days before their first day of class. “Time” has always been Linklater’s strength. The audience always knows when the movie will end but it’s to the precise skills of this writer/director that everything in between in illustrated with his characters’ wild, free-flowing affection and moments of existential critique on brotherhood. Glen Powell is the standout here as the loud-mouthed Finnegan (the entire young ensemble is actually pretty incredible). I’ve already seen this film twice and I can’t wait to watch it again! 9.2/10
5. Finding Dory (Pixar/Disney; In Theaters)
No other major studio, in my opinion, can even compare to the inventive and creative team working for Pixar. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Dory is the best sequel that one can ever hope for to his 2003 animated masterpiece, Finding Nemo. Actually, I made a very passionate case in the past for Ellen DeGeneres to get serious awards consideration for a Supporting Actress nomination in Finding Nemo. She ended up receiving a nomination from the Chicago Film Critics Association, but unfortunately the Academy doesn’t hold a voice-over performance in the same light as a live-action one. In Finding Dory, DeGeneres makes this case loud and clear and DESERVES a Best Actress nomination from the Academy. Yes. An Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Degeneres has the funny bits down, but it’s in Dory’s quieter moments that [she] breathes a soul into her little blue character: Speaking barely above a whisper, she registers wonder, trepidation and, occasionally, heartbreaking sorrow. Stanton has crafted such a loving and complex character in Dory, and DeGeneres’ performance provides something even more haunting than the writing suggests. This is writing and acting of the highest order and it doesn’t hurt that Finding Dory is also one of the funniest films of the year. 9.5/10
4. The Witch (A24; On DVD & VOD)
After Robert Eggers won the coveted Best Director award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for his feature film debut, The Witch, I couldn’t stop thinking about what this movie could be. Then, A24 picked up The Witch for distribution rights and it became clear that this was no ordinary Sundance-horror film. A24’s marketing campaign for this movie was GENIUS, because they cleverly used different social media platforms for over a year until its theatrical release to reach a younger demographic. A24 only paid about $1 million for the rights of The Witch and thus far has grossed over $25 million in profits. Amen! Robert Eggers describes The Witch as a “puritan’s nightmare,” and what is so distinct about this film is that I can place this nightmare into any context – past or present. The Witch offers a thought provoking consideration of what the modern witch was and what it can still represent today. A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession. The best way to do a close analysis reading of a horror film is to take away the monster and in doing so for The Witch, we are left with an exacting look at the dissonance of human nature, specifically within the patriarchy of this family. The flawless ensemble of actors, spine-tingling score and Eggers’ distinct vision is what makes The Witch like no other horror film. 10/10
3. The Neon Demon (Amazon Studios; In Theaters)
When it got announced over a year ago that Danish-born auteur, Nicholas Winding Refn, was in pre-development for a horror film set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles fashion industry, I was highly intrigued. When I found out that Elle Fanning was cast as the lead and that Cliff Martinez was composing an original score, one could say I became quite invested in this film. The Neon Demon isn’t saying anything new about the beauty obsessed industry, but it’s Refn’s perspective and style as an artist that makes this film mesmerizing and unforgettable. It has been about a month since I saw The Neon Demon in theaters and there are images from the movie that I can’t seem to shake off. It premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival back in May and became the most talked about film at the prestigious festival. The reaction was completely polarized – impassioned boos and defiant applause. Glenn Kenny of The New York Times says “The Neon Demon is hot garbage,” while Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times proclaims the film as “a hypnotically beautiful object.” At the end of the day, it comes down to personal taste. For me, a film like The Neon Demon is why I go to the movies, because it’s a sensory experience. My mind, eyes, and ears were completely entranced from the opening sequence to the closing credits. Elle Fanning is completely transfixing as the title character, portraying innocence lost in the belly of the fashion beast. Then there’s that jaw-dropping third act that will have you howling and likely be remembered for years to come. For anyone who wants to go down the rabbit hole to a very strange wonderland, The Neon Demon is a bewitching little masterpiece. 10/10
2. Tale of Tales (IFC Films; On DVD & VOD)
Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the art house sibling to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Having never seen the work of Italian filmmaker, Matteo Garrone, I was astonished after seeing Tale of Tales that it took me this long to discover this talented director. The secret to this film is the deadpan seriousness with which everything is treated while casting a bizarre spell that is altogether seductive and special. Tale of Tales follows three different stories that intertwine in the same wildly imaginative world of kings, queens and ogres with the kind of lush production values for which Italian cinema was once famous. This movie is a strangely sublime and entertaining experience that reminds us that traditional fables don’t need injections of contemporary relevance to grip, stir and disturb us. I think if more European-produced films like this were made and intelligently distributed across the States, there could be a shift in what mainstream audiences consider to be “entertaining.” 10/10
1. The Lobster (A24; On DVD & VOD)
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language feature is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016. The Lobster is surreal, funny, sad, strange and beautiful. Lanthimos’ singular vision of 21st-century relationships is wildly original and absurd but is often very unsettling, even harrowing. The Lobster is a cynical look not just at society and its structures and strictures, but at love itself. However, the two protagonists, played to nuanced perfection by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, find each other in this wonderfully imaginative tale and create a love story of profound tenderness and originality. The Lobster, from its opening scene, suggests an allegory that defines itself subjectively to each viewer. This is true cinematic art – art that grounds surrealism in reality. I am so thrilled that indie distributor A24 was able to save The Lobster after its original distributor, Alchemy, went bankrupt. A24 is a studio that every filmmaker wants to do business with and is absolutely saving the film industry from the mindless diversions being produced and thrown into theaters. For the past four years, A24 has been cleverly mainstreaming art house films, proving that an indie, like The Lobster, can make money and provide the opportunity for the mass to see an unconventional and thoughtful film. 10/10
There are still plenty of interesting films set to be released in 2016, like Andrea Arnold’s Cannes-winning indie American Honey. Also, I still have not gotten the chance to see Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary, Weiner. 2016 is turning out to be an exciting year for cinema!
Look out for my upcoming posts!