Here it is, the final batch of 2016 reviews. Savor them, because I’m not sure when I’ll be putting up more.
The first 9 films are ***½. The final three are ****.
- Rogue One – 77
I really should rewatch this and refine my feelings, but just as the film itself is a one-off, so too am I inclined to view it as a one-time deal. That’s not to dismiss it – though it bears the scars of its troubled production, and Gareth Edwards displays the same skill for assembling and largely wasting an impressive cast as in Godzilla. It does boast a lavish production, solid set-pieces, and a commendably tragic ending. But a miscast Felicity Jones (in a poorly written role), some dodgy CGI, and a certain lack of character hold it back from greatness.
- Silence – 81
Despite a glowing response in some quarters, this never caught on with the awards groups or viewing public, and sadly, I can understand why. It’s a faithful adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel, but as the book itself is unevenly paced, goes on well past the most logical end-point, and is of limited resonance to the non-Catholic viewer, that’s a mixed blessing. Scorsese can’t help but craft a beautiful film; it’s magnificently shot and designed. And the cast, especially Issey Ogata and Tadanobu Adano, turn in fine work. But the material only intermittently justifies their efforts.
- Chevalier – 82
Six men on a yacht decide to compete against one another in every level of endeavor, down to the most mundane. The premise could be easily adapted for an American remake (doesn’t Makis Papadimitriou remind you of Zach Galifianakis?), and the film itself would serve as a good introduction to modern Greek cinema for the uninitiated viewer; certainly it’s far more accessible than Dogtooth or even director Athena Rachel Tsangari’s own Attenberg. It may not be as good as either, and it may not fully capitalize on the possibilities of its premise, but it’s funny, relevant, well-made, and well acted.
- Manchester By the Sea – 83
Second time around, I appreciated it a lot more, seeing the greatness in (creepy bastard) Casey Affleck’s performance, the graceful blend of comedy and drama in Kenneth Lonergan’s script, and the moments where the writing and acting combined to make for truly compelling cinema – a film just about Affleck and Lucas Bridges running errands and bickering would’ve been fine by me, and the tragic central revelation packs a real punch. It’s still overlong, the female characters are still underwritten (the teenagers aren’t much better), and the ending still fizzles a bit, but there’s an awful lot to recommend it.
- Paterson – 83
My first Jim Jarmusch, and while it didn’t make a convert out of me, I was mostly quite pleased. It’s very smart at showing the world as Paterson would view it, noticing little details or picking up bits of speech, which he constantly digests and turns into poetry. It also evokes a kind of spirit which has love and generosity to spare, but resists being pinned down in some essential way. It’s poky at times, and there are moments which tip over into cutesiness, but Adam Driver is strong as Paterson and Goldshifteh Farahani is luminous as his wife.
- I Am Not Your Negro – 84
The best parts of I Am Not Your Negro are when James Baldwin himself speaks; he’s a magnetic speaker, fiercely intelligent and possessed of a wonderful voice, and his views on the place of the black man in modern America remain potent and relevant 50 years on. However, the excerpts of his writings on race, read by Samuel L. Jackson, are compelling in their own right. Held back by a certain lack of focus (and poor Medgar Evers is treated as something of an afterthought), but well worth seeing…but those who most need to see it least likely will.
- Loving – 84
Like Paterson, Loving is low-key almost to a fault, and like Nichols’ own Midnight Special, it tells its story elliptically, spelling out little for the viewer. But here, there’s a story (a true one) worth telling, and the results are far more rewarding (though, why omit the actual Supreme Court hearing?). The Lovings seem almost bemused by their impending place in history, and it’s a credit to Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga that we see them, not as oblivious, but as two people in love who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect that love.
- Neruda – 84 (added 2/22/17)
Pablo Larraín’s other biopic of 2016, it may not reach the heights of Jackie, but it’s an inventive and often impressive work nonetheless. A fantasia on Pablo Neruda’s persecution by the Chilean government and subsequent flight, with the added character of a shrewd policeman (Gael García Bernal)…who’s aware of his own fictitiousness. The line between reality and fantasy is frequently blurred by the clever screenplay, which ends on a note of strange poignancy…and dramatic satisfaction. Bernal is excellent, Luis Gnecco is quite good as Neruda, and Larraín directs it with great style (although there are dry patches).
- Sing Street – 85
In so many ways, it’s a wondrous film; incredibly likable, infectiously enthusiastic, with some of the best original songs written for a film this year (rivaled only by Moana), one of the better scripts, and one of the best overall ensembles. Could the script have given some of the supporting cast more to do? Could the triumphant finale have been tightened up for greater impact? Perhaps. But when “Girls” or “Drive It Like You Stole It” or “The Riddle of the Model” are playing, or when Brendan (Jack Reynor, terrific) discourses on life and music, joy reigns supreme.
- Arrival – 85
It’s not a film you can return to time and again. Once you know the twist, it’s a case of diminishing returns; you see how they telegraph the twist, and the weaker passages don’t grow more rewarding. But the first time around, it really does blow your mind when everything falls into place. And aside from that, it’s extremely well-directed, well-shot, well-mixed, has a fascinating and unique premise, and boasts a fine performance from Amy Adams that somehow didn’t get an Oscar nomination. It’s absolutely worth it the once. Just maybe leave well enough lone after that.
- A Monster Calls – 86
One of the more truthful portraits of childhood imagination and alienation I’ve ever seen, and a film which desperately deserved to be more widely appreciated. The final scenes honestly got me choked up, and while that may be because they echo (however faintly) my own experience, I can’t imagine they won’t move many others. It’s smartly written (a few plot holes aside), beautifully crafted, and perfectly played – Lewis MacDougall gives not just a superior juvenile performance, but a superior performance period, while Liam Neeson’s sonorous voice fits the Monster (as avuncular as he is terrifying) to a tee.
- O.J.: Made in America – 87
467 minutes, and it scarcely drags. A story most of us know far too well, and it never feels like it’s retreading old ground. Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary about O.J., the LAPD, American racism, the American justice system, domestic violence, and the pathology of celebrity culture is a sight to behold, yet there are times when you may want to look away – there are crime-scene images as disturbing as any horror film, and the subtly deployed score is truly haunting. The cumulative effect is one of heartbreak, not just for what happened, but for what might have been.
- Fences – 88
Has any film this year had better acting? August Wilson’s play might have been irresistible to its cast (and for good reason), but it was Denzel Washington’s direction that kept it from becoming just a play on film, that kept himself and his co-stars honest and playing to the camera rather than the cheap seats. His own thundering performance is the best he’s given in years, and Viola Davis is, if possible, even better. But then there’s Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Saniyya Sidney, all of whom are superb. And Wilson’s brilliant writing, of course.
- Jackie – 88
So you have Natalie Portman (not my favorite actress) playing Jackie Kennedy (not the historical figure I’d most want to see a film about). What does it say when the end result is the best performance I’ve ever seen from her, and one of the best films of the year? It says that Pablo Larraín’s direction is bold and intelligent, that Noah Oppenheim’s script is brilliantly structured and insightful, that the cinematography and score heighten the emotions to operatic levels, and that Portman made brilliant use of her affected style to bring to life Jackie’s ceaseless – and seemingly inescapable – affectations.
And that’s that.