20th Century Women, American Honey, Arrival, Best Of, Certain Women, Don't Breathe, Fences, Jackie, Kubo and the Two Strings, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, Paterson, Rogue One, Silence, The Handmaiden, Toni Erdmann, Top Movie Moments
In continuation of my previous post on the Best Movie Moments of 2016 from the first half of the year, here are the remainder of my favorite scenes, shots, montages, and the like from the second half of 2016:
House Tracking Shot – DON’T BREATHE
So far I haven’t gushed too much about specific camerawork on this list, and that surprises even me, as it’s something I nerd out over quite frequently. Let this be a little bit of remedy for that. Sometimes there are moments of incredible standalone artistry in films that can’t quite match up to it in other areas, but they still offer a showcase for a particular talent. Such is the case with Fede Alvarez’s DON’T BREATHE, a mildly entertaining exercise in confined horror that keeps trying to ante-up its bizarre circumstances with diminishing results. All told, one viewing was enough. There’s so many things I have no need to see ever again (I’ll particularly never look at a turkey baster in the same way), and don’t get me started on how one character is literally named Money. But while the occasionally marvelous use of silence slowly wears off, the creativity of cinematographer Pedro Luque is a constant delight. During a frightful encounter in complete darkness, Luque seems to have taken a page out of Roger Deakins’ work on SICARIO and a similar moment in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to create some spooky thrills. His best work, however, can be seen in the three burglars’ entrance and exploration of the blind man’s house. Shot in one continuous, unbroken shot (though clearly stitched together with CGI), he introduces and establishes the environment skillfully, giving every important object and aspect its due time as they move through each room. It’s a clever choice, if indebted to similar shots in film, but it pays off hugely as the scares and shocks play out and we can appreciate its narrative significance. It’s a shining example of Luque’s skill, and hopefully it’s an opportunity to draw the attention of significant filmmakers who might give him a chance on something more substantial. (Watch the shot)
“If you must blink, do it now!” – KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
In a year full of diverse animated features, Laika’s stop-motion adventure is, without a doubt, the prettiest. It’s not hard to see how its gobsmacking sumptuousness earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects against stiff competition. Although you could easily be forgiven for watching both this and Disney’s MOANA and pondering how eerily similar they are in their formulaic and fairly predictable plotting, the ingenuity of the imagery and compositions that compliment KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS‘ narrative is in a league of its own. When we’re first introduced to the title character, he entertains everyone in the nearby village with his storytelling prowess and his apparent magical abilities as a musician. Playing his shamisen to manipulate origami into acting out the story, he tells the tale of a samurai warrior’s journey to defeat his sworn enemy, the Moon King. The enraptured crowd revels in the thrills of the samurai’s continuously inventive tactics to defeat the Moon King’s numerous henchmen, including a gigantic chicken. And it’s gorgeously and seamlessly animated. Sure, it’s a particularly meta device, but one that makes the film better off for it. The origami mimic the animation style, the samurai’s episodic triumphs mirror the paths and conflicts to come, and it ultimately flawlessly captures the power of storytelling. I can’t think of any film in recent memory that not only renders with beauty the joy of hearing a story, but also the positively exhilarating experience of telling a story well and sharing it with others. Truly, that’s what film is all about, and this scene encapsulates that captivating and enchanting quality beautifully. (Watch the scene)
Hello, Stranger – MOONLIGHT
I could write about Barry Jenkins’ quietly powerful and deeply intimate masterpiece for pages. Pick out practically any scene, moment, or shot and I’d love to just feel it, examine it, and discuss it. It’s hard to choose just one. It might be different tomorrow, or even in an hour, but the one that’s continuing to move me at the time I’m writing this is the reunion of Chiron and Kevin at the diner in the film’s third act. Though the journey of this conflicted and complex friendship is painted vividly and sensitively up until this point, you could lift this scene right out and it would contain everything you needed to know about who these two men, these wounded souls, are. That’s really a testament to the sheer perfection of every single element at play and how it’s delicately orchestrated and conducted by Jenkins himself. The setting and the circumstances are riddled with significance, and cinematographer James Laxton richly frames it all with stunning layers and enormous depths of color. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay is wonderfully restrained with dialogue that is superbly and meaningfully sparse. The performances by Trevante Rhodes and André Holland are nuanced, subtle, lived-in portraits and every action, glance, or gesture communicates volumes while the editing lets their interaction breath, ebb and flow in its naturalism. And to cap it all off, the tune of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger”, played on the diner’s jukebox by Kevin, hauntingly and poignantly speaks the unsaid truths and honest feelings that linger in their silences. All together, it’s the story of a moment and the story of a history, and what a remarkably, achingly human and timeless quality that is to behold. But that’s just one of many in the emotional symphony that is MOONLIGHT. (Watch part of the scene)
First Contact – ARRIVAL
Denis Villaneuve is a master of mood, tension, and the unspoken terror and excitement that lives in the space of the deep breath before the dramatic plunge. There’s just something in the air that registers in the compositions and camera movements he employs with his collaborators. In ARRIVAL, the steady buildup to the meeting of the humans and the mysterious otherworldly beings is filled to the brim with palpable anxiety, curiosity, fear, and intrigue. Villaneuve is aided in this by the striking, crisp, and gorgeously stark cinematography of the masterful Bradford Young, and each new shot choice introduces a perspective that alters and enhances the reality in ways that are breathtaking. The sounds of the machinery on the lift clash uneasily with the pulsing, eerie, weirdly-alive chords of Johann Johannsson’s score, and the orange of the hazmat suits contrasts superbly with the texture blackness of the environment. The light sources inside the suits cast ghostly shadows on each face, and the choice to show repeated glimpses from inside Louise’s (Amy Adams) suit chillingly places us directly in the action, her steady breathing almost coming from inside of us. Shot to shot, moment to moment, we’re constantly becoming disoriented while we attempt to adjust to this unearthly atmosphere. Everything is so carefully, confidently, and modestly done in a way that’s remarkably transportive and immersive, while completely devoid of the flashiness and overloaded CGI messiness present in so many other films that pull us out rather than draw us in. It’s all impeccably put together throughout, but my favorite image comes at the very beginning, where the object/ship is just within arms reach of the team. As they move under it, fingers glide gracefully and gently graze its surface in a way that feels like both a first contact and a strangely loving caress. It’s almost like that feeling of touching new life, and how that irrevocably changes you. A poetic image for a poetic film. (Watch a condensed cutting of the scene)
“I feel like I’m fucking America!” – AMERICAN HONEY
There’s much that’s distinctive about the works of British auteur Andrea Arnold, including her singular visual style, her free form and organic observations of society’s most beaten and vulnerable, and her sense of the intensely personal and present. Perhaps a little less apparent, though nonetheless potent, are the thematic threads that tie these honest and freehearted yarns together. Arnold seems intrigued by stories of individuals who are isolated and trapped, physically and emotionally, and the journeys they make in their desire to break free from what confines them. Swapping out her native land for a glimpse at the heart of America, AMERICAN HONEY is a portrait of Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood who impulsively joins a group of misfits traversing the country and selling magazines. While the initial high of escape wears off, she finds herself once again caught in a system of regulations and restrictions. On one particular outing, she runs off with a group of questionable middle-aged males in an attempt to make a sale, only to be tracked down by her hot-headed partner, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Frustrated by her abandonment of him, and concerned for her safety, Jake pulls a gun on the men while fleeing the scene with Star in their convertible. Star’s irritation with Jake’s rashness gives way to a certain pride when she announces that the sales she got from those men she made honestly, and as the power and liberty she feels as a result of her actions takes hold of her, she stands up in the stolen car and shouts, “I feel like I’m fucking America!”. It’s an instantly iconic image, photographed immaculately by Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s go to cinematographer, as Star’s newfound freedom is personified in her embrace of the wind rushing past her and the vivid sky above. She begins to sway as the music on the radio moves her, now unencumbered and invigoratingly free. It’s a stirring, yet fleeting emotion that lives specifically and solely in that place and time, in those few frames, and a shining example of the natural, inimitable, one-0f-a-kind sparks that Arnold and Ryan excel at capturing. It’s also immortalized in one of the best posters of the year.
“…I wasn’t gonna see you again” – CERTAIN WOMEN
Kelly Reichardt’s adaptation of a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy is a thing of simple and unconventional beauty. Focusing on separate, intersectional glimpses into the lives of three different women, it plainly and movingly uses the seemingly mundane and habitual as a means to examine the complexity of life, and life as a woman. Though it features understated sequences with strong performances from the likes of Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Jared Harris, it is the work of breakout Lily Gladstone in the film’s third act that is perhaps its greatest triumph. As Jamie, a ranch hand left alone to tend the horses during the winter months, we see her quietly go through her daily routine in seclusion and solitude with only the animals to keep her company. It isn’t until, on a whim one night, that she follows a bunch of cars to the school and finds a night class on education law taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), and finally connects with someone. As time passes, Jamie continues to attend the class and interact with Beth, despite her lack of interest in the actual subject. One night, she even brings one of the horses to the school to give Beth a horseback ride to the diner. Their conversations and time together begin to open Jamie up in subtle ways, and Gladstone plays them with subdued expressiveness and affecting sensitivity. But once Jamie discovers Beth will no longer be making the four hour drive to teach the class, she immediately travels through the night to find her. Searching desperately to locate Beth all morning, she finally meets her once again in the a parking lot outside her law office. Jamie’s heartbreakingly vulnerable admittance that she drove all the way there because she was afraid she’d never see Beth again is met by quite possibly the most crushing silence on film in 2016. Words can’t really do justice to the pain, anguish, and regret that wash over Gladstone’s face in the seconds that exist in the wake of that honest confession. Without a response, Jamie leaves, and on the way home, she falls asleep behind the wheel. Her truck slowly drifts off the highway and into a vast, empty field. It’s a quietly effective moment that compliments a remarkable performance in ways both poignant and reflective.
“What does a man really want?” – THE HANDMAIDEN
Park Chan-Wook’s latest is, without any doubt, the most erotic film of the last year, and while there’s plenty of explicit content throughout, it’s in the moments of ever increasing sexual tension that THE HANDMAIDEN is at its most riveting. Adapted from a novel set in Victoria Era Britain, Chan-Wook’s choice to alter the setting to Korea under Japanese rule appears to have provided the material with refreshing context, depth, and unexpected humor. Told in a three-act structure, the perspective changes with each new act, revealing complex motivations and emotions in every character as they’re shone in a new light. Revisiting the same scene more than once might be blatantly repetitive in some circumstances, but here it’s the most intriguing device in Chan-Wook’s storytelling toolbox, and re-watching a previous encounter with new knowledge and understanding provides incredible payoffs, particularly for a story about con artists. One such interaction that encapsulates the eroticism and the narrative ingenuity impeccably features Japanese heiress Lady Hideko’s (Kim Min-Hee) request that Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a pickpocket posing as her servant, join her in her bed so she may confide in her the fears she has in marrying the Count Fujiwara. Told from Sook-Hee’s perspective, the closeness and intimacy of the conversation builds on the already established budding attraction between the two in ways that are soft and sensual, until the conflicted Sook-Hee decides it wouldn’t hurt to give the naive Hideko a brief education. Yet, despite being tasked with duping this woman, the allure of Hideko becomes harder and harder for her to ignore until she is making passionate love to her, assuring her that her future husband will do the same. It’s absolutely steamy, yet also delightfully amusing in its progression, and even a bit touching. An hour or so later, once we’ve returned with Hideko’s perspective, even more layers unfold and reveal themselves, and the audience’s new viewpoint and well earned engagement gives myriad returns. The innocence and inexperience may not lie where we initially perceived it, or even where we might observe it an hour later. The constant shifting of accounts is perhaps the most gratifying and pleasurable quality of this psychological sexual thriller, and that’s an impressive feat. The scene also acts as a lovely reminder that, when two people begin to fall in love, they both have their own version of how it all happens. It’s always complicated.
“There’s nothin’ there” – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
How does one even begin to describe what is possibly the most painful scene of the year? Playwright turned screenwriter and director Kenneth Lonergan has an uncanny ability to create pieces of art that reflect the messiness, brutal honesty, and tragic imperfection of humanity in all its broken glory. Grief is a deceptively challenging emotion to paint with because everyone’s process of grieving is different from the next. It’s being lost in an ocean of incongruous and ever shifting emotions that swell and retreat unexpectedly and without warning. The run-in on the street between Lee (Casey Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams) is the kind of confusing, conflicted struggle that springs from a history of intertwined love and sadness that have become inseparable. It’s the type of quietly overwhelming hurt that you can feel in your gut, in your chest, your lungs, heart, and soul. These two people have crossed paths on separate journeys and any attempt to bridge the divide that has grown between them is almost unbearable because the agony and anguish they’ve internalized and beaten down rises easily to the surface, and what they once were can never be regained. All of that is present in Affleck and Williams’ lived in, tortured performances and their naturalistic delivery of Lonergan’s overlapping, unglamorous, truthful dialogue. It’s uncomfortably real and raw in what’s spoken and left unspoken. Every silence is filled with layered meaning, and their increasing inability to look at each other communicates a thousand words. The spontaneity and surprising frankness of their admissions to each other strike chords inside us with their reality and relatability, and Lonergan allows it all to build to a point beyond unendurable. Their parting of ways is abrupt, unresolved, and leaves an emptiness and heartbreak that hangs in the air as Williams quietly lets out one last “I’m sorry” while the world just continues to move around her. Line for line, moment for moment, there’s nothing else on screen from 2016 that matches its searing reality. (Watch the scene)
Highway Pursuit/Confrontation – NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
I really wanted to like NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I really did. But despite being well crafted, designed, acted, shot, edited, and scored, all of that just can’t make up for a severely lacking screenplay that is at turns head-scratching, unnecessarily graphic, and downright infuriating. By the end, it hasn’t quite dipped below the surface, content to revel in somewhat juvenile ideas and concepts. However, there is a point early on where everything is so well melded together that you lose sight of all that. Two cars and two separate lives collide on the highway in the middle of the night in West Texas, and Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his family are forced off the road by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his gang of ruffians. From the moment Ray approaches Tony’s car, the air is thick with tension and the veiled threat of violence is lurking beneath the entire exchange. There’s no real escape from the trap that has been laid for Tony and his family, but the execution of its horror is expertly drawn out. Aided by the haunting and unsettling images created by the shadows cast by headlights, the reflection of tapping fingernails on the roof of the car, or the trails left by fingerprints on the lowered window caught by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s clever eye, the dread builds slowly with each passing second. The changing of a flat tire becomes a creepy power move by Ray that seals Tony’s doom for good. This scene is Tom Ford at his absolute best and most compelling as a filmmaker, employing all the tools available to him with confidence and something bordering on restraint. Of course, he’s aided by Gyllenhaal’s engaging portrayal of the feeble, powerless, desperate, and ultimately hopeless Tony who slowly realizes his worst fears becoming reality, though Taylor-Johnson almost derails everything by attempting the loudest, zaniest choices he can. Frightening and effective on its own, it’s just a shame the rest of the film didn’t follow in its stead. (Watch part of the scene)
Dream Ballet – LA LA LAND
There’s no getting around it, love it or hate it, admire it or despise it, LA LA LAND is at the heart of the conversation on film this past month. Like most perceived frontrunners, it’s embraced and torn down in equal measure. I’ll admit, I wasn’t immediately won over during much of its opening hour, but I’d be lying if I said I left the theater and didn’t feel like it had reached inside, grabbed ahold of my heart, and squeezed it until tears of mixed joy and sadness streamed down my face. I felt so torn apart by many moments that stung with harsh reality and touched with inventive beauty in equal measure, often at the same time. There are things that will resonate with everyone differently, and, for myself, I could have easily chosen the dinner conversation, or the concert scene, or the audition song, but there’s no denying that the final dream ballet was the biggest gut punch of them all. Having slowly peeled back the stylistic flourishes as the film progresses, when Mia and Sebastian’s eyes meet across the crowded room of Sebastian’s jazz club, it kicks off the film’s greatest collective homage as director Damien Chazelle pulls out all of the stops. The connection that starts it is chilling and moving, the long pause filled with surprising and unexpected sorrow, and the first notes of piano strike your own heart strings as the lights isolate them both in this time and place until we are whisked back to their first meeting. But this is a different world, a different reality, a place where the romance swells with Justin Hurwitz’s music, and we journey through their relationship the way they wished it had been, the way they both hoped and fantasized it could be. Each newly introduced piece of the production design is gorgeously rendered with expressionistic touches and Linus Sandgren’s swirling camera dances effortlessly on its own, following every step along the way. And once it has chronicled their storyline so far in all its dreamy, breathtaking splendor, it jumps to the real kicker. The silhouetted couple watch as a home movie montage is projected for them, and it opens up to the entire screen as we see them raising a child together, and the happiness and joy that’s brought them. Then they make the journey to the same jazz club together, sharing that moment, until it vanishes, evaporates, and they are where they started. That song is their story, their relationship, what it was and what it meant to them and how they romanticized it. It expresses all of the emotions they feel for each other, in the past, present, and idealized future. All their hopes, dreams, and wishes combined in one melody. Like any live performance, it exists in that moment, and when it’s over, it’s truly over. Yet it lives on in them, the way that the love you’ve felt and shared with someone always continues to be a part of you, and this wordless compilation of dance, imagery, and passion is all of that rushing back. It’s heartrending for them both, yet they find the chance to glance once again and let that joy for each other be expressed amidst their sadness. And that cocktail of conflicting emotions is just remarkably human. That’s the film I saw.
Death Star Plans Heist – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
There’s something astounding and awe-inspiring about the first time you see the Corellian Corvette race across the vast starry sky above Tattooine in the opening moments of the original Star Wars, and then to witness the stunning reveal of the monstrous Star Destroyer in pursuit. The conflict is immediate and intense, and though the only context we’re initially given is what’s stated in the infamous opening crawl, it’s undeniably riveting. Throwing you headlong into the action, it’s one of the best starts to any film in the history of the art form. It’s so compelling that, being a Star Wars fan from a young age, the desire to know what had transpired moments before has always lingered with me. It appears it stuck with Gareth Edwards too, as his depiction of the successful, but harrowing, theft of the Death Star plans might be the greatest action sequence of the last year, maybe even the greatest in the history of Star Wars, at least since the original trench run. Occupying almost all of the second half of ROGUE ONE‘s runtime, the assault on the Empire controlled stronghold on Scarif is a masterclass in action filmmaking. As the rebels unleash their daring plan and guerrilla tactics, Edwards is sure to give everyone equal weight and importance in the mission. Inter-cutting with expert precision, the film never loses sight of how interconnected each action and conflicted choice is. As the odds become increasingly stacked against their favor, Edwards ratchets up the tension with each passing moment, each tragic death. It’s a miracle we somehow forget where this is headed amidst the dire circumstances, and that’s a true credit to the filmmaker’s skill. And it moves effortlessly from the dog-fighting starships above to the explosive combat on the ground below to the high stakes heist happening within the citadel walls all while laying out a clear understanding of the geography, scale, and story of the immense battle. In Greig Fraser, Edwards found the ideal cinematographer to bring a gritty realism and startling beauty to this conflict we’re all familiar with. It’s images here like the Death Star peeking over the horizon, or the all consuming destruction reflected in Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) eyes, or the ignition of Darth Vader’s lightsaber in a hallway of darkness that assure us there are still new and wonderful ways to look at this universe. Speaking of Vader, the film moves with breakneck assurance up until the last possible moment, including a terrifying glimpse at the Sith Lord in action that plays like an homage to the confined horrors of Alien, as well as others. Touches like this are brilliant, but never overstay their welcome. Ultimately, it isn’t just the jaw-dropping action that is extraordinary, but also the emotional gut-punch it packs despite our knowledge of how it will end. That’s a remarkable feat on its own.
Camelot Sequence – JACKIE
I already touched on grief quite a lot when talking earlier about MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and while many cinematic stories of 2016 featured significant loss, the quintessential meditation on it, the true cry of anguish, the hushed reflection of emptiness was, for me, Pablo Larrain’s magnificent JACKIE. What could have been a straightforward, rote exercise in biopic filmmaking becomes a insightful, sensitive, empathetic stream of consciousness portrait of one woman’s world turned upside-down. When we experience the new devastating absence of someone close to us, it feels like the world should stop, and yet it keeps on moving. Someone said that to me this last year when I was experiencing several losses of my own. In this new existence without them, how do we find meaning? What do we do with ourselves? How can we move forward when we feel nothing is the same? There’s an inventive and honestly emotive piece of JACKIE that rendered that particular notion for me quite poignantly. Unable to sleep, and alone among the remnants of her life she must soon leave behind, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) turns on the record player, listening to the sounds of the Camelot recording as she wanders aimlessly through the empty halls and rooms of her living quarters of the White House. She puts on dresses as if she were preparing for some extravagant event, perhaps longing for a touch of the past that felt simpler, only to remove them and try another. She smokes, she drinks, she takes pills, and she searches desperately for some kind of relief or explanation or meaning. Throughout, Portman is at her most affectingly vulnerable and bare, completely stripped of any attempt to be guarded or closed off, as the sea inside her rises to occasionally leave tracks down her face. Alternating between close up and wide shot, we’re at times right beside her as if we could reach out and dry her eyes or embrace her shaking body, and at others observing the vast bareness of everything surrounding her. Finally, she comes to rest in the vacant President’s chair. The music stops, and the camera slowly moves in on a face that betrays the broken, lost, and tortured soul within. Beautifully captured and beautifully performed, my eyes were filled with tears as well.
Crucifixion by Water – SILENCE
There are essays to be written and day-long discussions to be had about Martin Scorsese’s 28-year passion project, but I will do my best to write only briefly. It’s true cinematic power and perhaps hardest quality to digest is its conflicted and contradictory nature. Like his soul laid bare across the screen, it acts as a mirror of the discord within all of us. Images like the lone figure of Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) dwarfed by the massive mountain rising behind him that, at the same time, suggest a world waiting to consume and destroy him and also a potential higher power willing to embrace him drive this concept home visually. The complex discussions and exchanges between Rodrigues and his mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), as well as countless others, compliment the concept philosophically. Ultimately, it’s a meal for the mind, heart, and soul combined that’s difficult to digest. And the other color on the palette is in the title itself. The film is boldly unafraid to grasp the unique peacefulness and agony of silence, employing it to maximum effect. For myself, the greatest marriage of these elements happens towards the conclusion of the film’s first hour. Japanese security officials, looking to make an example for any Christians in one village, strap three of the villagers to wooden crosses on the rocky beach so they may be slowly killed by the tide of the ocean. It’s an unbelievably cruel torture yet also a poetic martyrdom. As the waves crash against their frail frames, one by one, two of the men expire, leaving Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) to linger on for four days before dying himself. It plays out in complete silence except for the lapping of the waves, the prayers of Mokichi, and a few moments of voiceover from Rodrigues. The scene reflects much of the humanity of Jesus’ own suffering on the cross as accounted in the gospels, and Tsukamoto plays Mokichi’s emotional journey, his cries to God, his prayers for his companions, his soft singing, and his eventual acceptance with striking honesty. And the rising tide acts in turn as an overwhelming destructive force and a comforting opportunity for release. Mokichi’s battered body sinking into the ocean, dangling from the cross, enveloped by the water is one of the most absolutely haunting images of the year in a film littered with arresting visuals by Rodrigo Prieto. And the whole time, the entire village and the two priests watch, not daring to speak a word. What does their silence mean under these circumstances? What does the sacrifice made by these three men achieve or represent to either side? Perhaps the largest question the film asks, where was God amidst all this suffering? In the villagers? The priests? The rising tide? The men themselves? With every emotional punch, Scorsese packs a dozen questions, and the answers are hard to find, and therein lies a masterpiece.
“What about my life? What about me?” – FENCES
I’ve been required to read August Wilson’s FENCES more times than I think I can count. It’s a remarkable play I’ve yet to have the opportunity to see on stage, and I still eagerly await that day. I was hopeful Denzel Washington’s film version might achieve something astounding, as several performers from the Tony-winning production of 2010 were on board, but I found that, aside from some truly towering performances, I wish I was watching a live production of the play rather than the film. Washington’s directorial choices don’t make much of an argument for a screen treatment outside of reaching a wider audience, and he seems reluctant to add cinematic devices until all of a sudden employing several at once towards the very end. There’s just something that simply gets lost in the translation from stage to screen. Yet the leads hold up strong, and the scene I waited for did not disappoint. Viola Davis has long been one of the greatest actresses of our time, and with Rose she was gifted a role to really sink her teeth into and own from top to bottom. Her journey is an understated one, and Davis commits to it with subdued grace and quiet dignity, but once Troy reveals his infidelity and his imminent child with another woman, it unleashes everything that has been built up and suppressed within Rose. This is the kind of scene that is sometimes negatively referred to as an “Oscar scene”, and it’s due to Davis’ boundless talent and impeccable craft that the connotation is rendered unimportant, even obsolete. It’s a messy, arresting, soul-baring, everything-pouring-out-of-her-body explosion of emotive release, yet Davis keeps it firmly rooted in reality. Washington appears to know the acting gold he’s been blessed with, and allows the camera to focus primarily on her commanding performance. In one stunning exchange, Davis communicates so much of Rose’s hopes, dreams, frustrations, pains, and griefs that have too long lingered beneath the surface, and are now no longer silent. Hopefully this fantastic match of material and performer garners appreciation not just this year, but in many years to come. (Watch part of the scene)
Naked Brunch – TONI ERDMANN
German director Maren Ade’s bizarre and oddly touching dramedy was the talk of every critic out of Cannes, and it took about 9 months to finally get to theaters here. And while I didn’t walk away from it feeling it was as masterful as others, I still found much to love in its extensive almost three-hour runtime. Following a man, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who spontaneously makes a trip to reconnect with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), after the death of his dog, it’s a funny, eccentric insight into father-daughter relationships. Winfried, feeling unwanted, eventually leaves, only to turn up again with a wig and false teeth as the wonderfully strange “Toni Erdmann”. His absurdity irritates Ines as he seemingly interferes with her work life, until she begins to realize how much Erdmann’s antics remind her of parts of herself she’s lost sight of. Everything culminates in what’s quite possibly the most awkward scene of the year. Throwing her own birthday brunch and inviting some of her co-workers and business associates, Ines is in the process of getting ready when she decides to change her dress. There’s a knock at the door, and Ines gives up on the dress to answer the door naked. Embracing the craziness of the situation, she tells everyone who arrives that the brunch is simply a naked party, and they must be naked to enter. Some are instantly put-off, while others sheepishly and embarrassingly give in, leading to several people just standing around her living room, completely naked next to a spread of breakfast food. The weird factor gets upped even more when Winfried shows up dressed in a Bulgarian kukeri costume, which basically makes it look like “Erdmann’s” awful wig took on a life of its own and consumed him. So, you’ve got naked people and a hair monster all at a brunch together, and I think it’s the most unexpected, stupidly hysterical thing, and one I thought I’d never see in my entire life. This all leads to a lovely moment where Ines, now in a bathrobe, chases down the costumed Winfried in public to give him a big hug, finally accepting the love and insight he’s gifted her. It’s ridiculous, yet it brings with a much earned warmth with it. If TONI ERDMANN is a film about embracing the absurdities of life and not taking it so seriously, this exemplifies it the most. (Watch the end of the scene)
Menstruation Conversation – 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Based in part on director Mike Mills’ memories of childhood and the women who raised him, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN lovingly portrays the lives of three women of different generations and ideologies. Though it initially seems like yet another coming of age tale, it opens up to become an examination of the diverse, multifaceted nature of womanhood. Concerned about her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea (Annette Benning) enlists Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young photographer who lives with her, and Julie (Elle Fanning), her son’s best friend, to help her raise him. Despite her free-spirited nature, Dorothea finds herself butting up against her own plan, finding Abbie’s introduction of Jamie to feminism and Julie’s general relationship with him to be more than she initially bargained for. Using this particular cross-section of women, it deftly shows the commonalities and the disconnect between individuals who came of age in different eras. A wonderful scene that is practically the runner up in humorously uncomfortable moments finds Dorothea throwing a dinner for many of her friends. When she encourages a seemingly tired Abbie to be more engaged in the social gathering, Abbie responds that she is menstruating. Put off by this personal revelation, Dorothea tells her that she doesn’t really need to share that, but Abbie turns it around to become an opportunity for learning and erasing the stigma of talking about this natural process, not just for Jamie, but for everyone at the table. In turn, she encourages every single person to simply say the word “menstruation”. Gerwig is a delightful and charming performer, and this, among many moments in the film, benefits from her winning honesty and tremendous verve. It’s all very amusing until William (Billy Crudup) butts in to let Jamie know that sex during menstruation can be very pleasurable for a women, and encourages him to not be limited to the vagina when it comes to intercourse. This comment is met with utter bafflement from everyone present, and a funny “that’s slightly off-topic” from Abbie. It’s just a great showcase for the entire ensemble, hilariously awkward, but also filled with some subtle insight into each character. (Watch part of the scene)
“Aha” – PATERSON
A week in the life of a poet named Paterson (Adam Driver) who works as a bus driver and lives in a town that shares his name, Jim Jarmusch’s latest might be dismissed as mundane or even dull by some, but that would be ignoring the simple and understated beauty of everyday humanity, itself very poetic. It’s littered with wonderful pockets of humor and charm illustrating the presence our interactions with others has in our lives, and the merits of taking time to appreciate the world around us. Really, several moments could be listed here instead, in particular Paterson’s chat with a young girl who shares a poem with him about waterfalls that got me tearing up. But the one that continues to stick with me is one that is basically the film’s conclusion. A defeated Paterson, still recovering from the destruction of his notebook of poems by his wife’s dog, makes his way to his favorite spot, the Great Falls of the Passaic River, seemingly uncertain about how to move forward. Sitting all by himself, he is approached by a Japanese gentleman (Masatoshi Nagase) who asks if he may sit down next to him. When the man sees Paterson glancing at his book of poems, he strikes up a conversation about poetry. Paterson is a little reluctant at first, even responding that he is not poet when asked. But as the conversation continues, it appears to dawn on the man that Paterson might not be merely a bus driver, each hint punctuated by “Aha”. They eventually part ways, but the man leaves behind a gift for Paterson: a notebook and the phrase “sometimes an empty page provides the most possibilities”. As he walks away, he turns to say one final “Aha” which seems to suggest he knows Paterson is indeed a poet as well. The man’s presence in the scene is at first mysterious but by the end has morphed into something almost strangely angelic, helped along by Nagase’s knowing looks and insightful, plain delivery. Driver is, of course, masterful too, and it’s fascinating to watch the subdued and sober way in which Paterson registers the comments of this stranger. It’s a wonderful bit of writing, one that suggests even if our work is lost and it seems impossible to pick up the pieces and start again, the art is still within us, waiting to be poured out in new and unexpected ways. Even at our lowest point in life, there’s the potential to begin anew. There’s always promise.
And that’s it for the Best Movie Moments of 2016! And if you’re interested in where some of these films fall in my ranking of the past year, be on the lookout for my upcoming posts on my top 25 films of the year. I might take a break for a day, but I promise, they’re most certainly on their way. Thanks for reading.