And so we have arrived at the final five, the last installment in the countdown of my personal top 25 theatrical releases in 2016. Stunning achievements in filmmaking, storytelling, and emotional impact, they all instantly shot to the top of the list upon first viewing, and all continue to live on vividly in my mind, opening further upon reflection. One was an eagerly awaited critical darling whose distribution delayed its release for over a year, and another’s journey to the screen has been twenty-five years in the making, but both were worth the wait. Two characters experiencing great loss, and two stories paint inventive and honest portraits of grief, both aching and touching. And then there’s the crowning creation, a film crafted like music, one that tells a new story, an untold story, and one that hopefully paves the way for more. Here they are, my top 5 of 2016:
5. THE LOBSTER, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Darkly satirical, bitingly absurd, and sometimes deeply troubling, the latest from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos delivers once more on the surreal weirdness that made his much lauded DOGTOOTH one of the best, and most difficult, films of 2009. Swapping his native tongue for a script in the English language, he crafts a strange dystopia to examine the place of human partnership in society, survival, the pressures of conformity, and the presence of romance and love. Lanthimos’ observations are laugh-out-loud hilarious and brutally disturbing from moment to moment, provoking slapping knees and shielding eyes in equal measure, and come together to form one of the most ridiculous, bizarre, erratic, crazy cinematic worlds, all while pulling back the curtain to reveal it’s not too far from our own.
Being single is socially unacceptable in contemporary life, and everyone who is must remain at a hotel where they have forty-five days to find a partner, or be turned into an animal of their choosing. Having been recently left by his wife for another man, David (Colin Farrell) is escorted to the hotel, accompanied by his brother, now in the form of a dog. There are many rules in place at the hotel, as well as specific scheduled events. Masturbation is forbidden and severely punished, and everyone must start their stay off with the use of only one hand. They’re required to attend formal dances as well as endure performance sketches that reinforce the need for a mate. Residents of the hotel also regularly go out in the woods on periodic trips to hunt down the single people who have escaped the hotel’s grasp. Shooting them with tranquilizer darts, each “loner” they bring back adds an extra day that prolongs their potential transformation. Believing common traits such as nosebleeds, limps, or lisps to be the indication of a good connection, David attempts to trick a cold-hearted woman into believing he too is just as unfeeling. However, when it backfires in his face, he makes a break for the woods, only to find a wholly different life with a new set of rules.
There’s a unique style of acting necessary to land this ridiculous premise in the sweet spot between funny and horrifying, a challenge met by the versatile cast all the way down the line. Everyone seems to be right at home in this weird nightmare from John C. Reilly to Ben Whishaw to Léa Seydoux to Olivia Coleman and, of course, Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia as the “Heartless Woman”. It’s been a while since we’ve had a great Colin Farrell performance, probably since IN BRUGES in 2008, and this is a fantastic departure from his occasionally grim and growling work, perhaps the greatest demonstration of his range to date. This is quite simply restraint at its best, where deadpan delivery induces fits of laughter. In one particular moment, his comment, “That’s awful” is just side-splittingly hysterical. The dialogue is written with such uncommon and upfront frankness that it gives everyone these moments, but it’s Farrell who consistently hits them out of the park. And he’s never been this departed from his leading man persona either, becoming schlubby, sad, hopeless, perhaps even a little dim, making for a startling transformation both physical and otherwise. Still, there’s a real heart beating inside, and though he may not be the most intelligent or clever, David definitely has feelings that run deep, and that’s a credit to the subtleties in Farrell’s portrayal. Meeting him for part of the journey is Rachel Weisz as a short-sighted woman he falls for out in the woods. Farrell and Weisz connect perfectly, and it’s a wonder this is somehow their first pairing onscreen. Weisz is always a reliable supporting player in any context, but here she helps give it an emotional core. She too gets her share of detached, expressionless deliveries, providing much of the film’s amusingly monotone narration. But the events that precede the film’s conclusion allow her some unique opportunities for drawing immense empathy through almost total blankness.
While part of the mastery of DOGTOOTH was its confined nature, Lanthimos expands his scope here to map out a whole wacky fictitious universe. Essentially structured into two separate acts, he compares the lives at the hotel and the lives in the woods, highlighting their contrasting and overlapping ideologies. Each is informed by the other, and almost exist in a symbiotic manner. Showcasing the differences in the visual realm is Thimios Bakatakis, whose muted colors and desaturated paintings compliment the monotonous and joyless tone. The hotel, in its cold blandness, resembles less of a resort and more of a prison, designed to suppress any outside thinking or real emotion. Trapped in this hell, they’re stripped of all their individuality outside of their imperfections, made to wear the same dresses and suits as everyone else. The walls almost close in, attempting to force connections that should be organic. On the flip side, the woods outside the hotel offer a welcoming vast openness. Bakatakis’ framing becomes larger here, capturing dirty greens and browns, a more natural, yet still dulled, feel. Insisting on independence, they’re all still interconnected, though not individualized as their uniformly grey raincoats suggest. Amongst the nature, the sparks of chemistry fly sincerely, but the rules quash the potential of any romance. The ideas are layered on all fronts, a result of masterful writing and direction on Lanthimos’ part. It’s not difficult to watch and laugh, yet feel the tingle of pain that comes from registering the reality it stems from, and that’s the genius of it.
Having gorged audiences recently with countless fictional dystopias that appeal to adolescents and teenagers, we’ve finally received the mature, farcical, dark one nobody was particularly asking for, and it’s the best of them all. Skewering the overwhelming cultural pressure to conform to systemically reinforced ideas of romantic partnership and its value in society with deadly precision, Lanthimos has created a black comedy for the ages. And while it may appear his outlook is bleak when holding this warped mirror to us, part of it is what we’re willing to see within it. While it may be easy to dismiss it as completely devoid of love, I think you might be missing something. When it comes to connection in this world, the characters’ understanding of it stems from what they’re told. And that’s why I think your reaction to the final scene defines what you take away from the whole. To me, while horrifying and sad, it’s, in its messed up and screwy way, one of the most touching gestures of all.
4. JACKIE, dir. Pablo Larrain
Take everything you’ve been conditioned to believe biopics are made up of and throw them out the window, because Pablo Larrain’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life surrounding the assassination of her husband is the antithesis. A dive into the emptiness that is left in the wake of the sudden passing of a loved one, Larrain is far less interested in the broad life story than the deeply personal, creating a masterwork that lands closer to psychological horror than baity prestige pic. Telling a story familiar and oft told, he grants it new eyes, Jackie’s eyes, and the result is a fragmented, mournful, heartrending, painful, moving, almost cleansing look at one woman and her grief, lost in a world that seems to be crashing down around her.
A magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) arrives at the home of the former First Lady in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts to conduct an interview. Jackie (Natalie Portman) is welcoming and open to the journalist’s questions, but will only provide answers on her own terms. What follows is a verbal chess match between the two, each vying for their voice to be heard, their narrative to win out. Amidst their veiled sparring, she recalls various notable moments during her time living in the White House, including the days of invited musicians and extravagant evenings, the “Camelot” she and Jack created, and, most notably, her 1962 television special providing the American people with a glimpse into the residence of the leader of the nation. But while it may be easier to revisit the better times, in a nation still recovering from the murder of its president, the journalist pushes for details on the death of her husband. We are offered glimpses of the quiet seconds before, the agonizing seconds after, and the shock and horror of Jackie’s world turned suddenly upside-down. As she continues to disclose about the days that followed, we witness her struggle to cope with a life that has been shattered, attempt to hold on to what little others cannot strip from her, and weather the sea of her anguish.
There have been many portrayals of the famous icon, but it’s safe to say that Natalie Portman has created the most empathetic, the most vulnerable, the most layered, the most human, and the most quintessential of them all. In her best work, Portman finds opportunities to strip away the facade, laying bare the souls of the characters she portrays. Her eyes are true windows, deep pools that open up the audience to a shared emotional experience. It’s safe to say that specific gift is at its peak in this performance. While clearly emulating the specific mannerisms and vocal affectations of the woman herself to a T, they fall secondary to the unflinching exposure of her internal turmoil. Portman finds the achingly honest thoughts and words that pierce straight through us, and the non-verbals that convey the ones she cannot bear to utter, even to herself. And for all its meditation on her suffering, it’s an insanely versatile and multifaceted creation as well, giving us a glimpse of every side of the woman. We are introduced to her joy and regal standing as the queen of the court, her quiet, elegant, almost shy presentational air in giving the tour, and her insecure nervousness in the process of filming it. We see her as the pained, protective, and loving mother, as well as the empty, lost, and lonely figure wandering the abandoned halls, and the hardened, determined and unwavering wife committed to honoring her late husband. And we also see the guarded and cooly defensive individual taking part in her own myth-making, assuring her version of events is the one told. All of these land perfectly, and effectively, evoking sympathy and understanding at every turn, a testament to Portman’s standing as one of our greatest living actresses. It’s a performance for the ages, one of complete openness of the mind, heart, and soul that is often strived for, yet rarely achieved this remarkably.
Larrain knows he’s been given a goldmine from Portman, and rather than intrude on it, he does everything to highlight it, amplify it, and showcase it. The film is crafted to provide us with her viewpoint of events specifically, allowing us a penetrating and intimate look at her journey. The camera follows her religiously, yet never forcefully, insistent on capturing every step on her way, every glance, every breath. Alternating between insightful, revealing close ups of Jackie’s tear streaked face from practically every angle, and the vast chasm of the barren environments surrounding her, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine vividly paints a broken figure in a broken world. And the use of mirrors and reflections enhance perceived image and private nakedness to dazzling effect, creating one of the most arresting shots of the year: a blood and tear stained face gazing back at itself, still reliving the trauma. The jarring and upsetting strings of Mica Levi’s score feel like they’re ripped from a horror film, but somehow fit perfectly in representing the tortured and distressed heart of the subject. Much credit should be given to Noah Oppenheim’s original screenplay, an exercise that ditches slavish dedication to communicating facts while focusing primarily on emotional truth. The interview framing device might normally come across as tired, but the interactions are played to the hilt by Portman and Crudup, finding the conflicted depths in the dialogue. In truth, Larrain could have coasted on the strength of Portman alone, but through innovative and inspired choices on every artistic level, he has created a singular original work that will, no doubt, be admired for years to come.
As a complete reinvention of cinematic storytelling style with regards to historical figures, JACKIE is a rousing, inventive success. As a compassionate and sensitive glimpse into the life of one of the most famous and intriguing women of the last century, it is a poignant, revelatory opportunity for understanding. As a representation of a human being whose entire existence has been irrevocably changed by the departure of their life partner and is now adrift looking to grasp any semblance of meaning or truth, it is one of the most powerful, cathartic, and soul-shattering experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Larrain and Portman’s unblinking dedication and passionate commitment to this flawed, wounded, and brave woman and her story has brought forth one of the most stunning depictions of humanity at our most troubled, conflicted, and broken, one that left me unable to move, unable to speak, alternately devastated and touched to my core.
3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, dir. Kenneth Lonergan
When tragedy strikes in our everyday life, there is no normal or typical way to experience it, or react to it, a quality playwright and screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan seeks to capture in all its messiness, contradiction, and confusion in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. What fascinates him is the attempt at sustaining forward motion as the emotional baggage piles up, how grief manifests itself in surprising and unexpected ways, and how what haunts us can hold us back, preventing us from escaping our personal, self-inflicted, darkness. Another examination of loss, its bare-bones, un-glamorous, down-to-earth approach to the damaged, faulty, broken pieces of human nature makes it perhaps one of the most painfully honest films ever written, directed, or performed.
As a janitor and handyman living in Quincy, Massachusetts, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a monotonous and lonely life. One day, he receives a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has gone into cardiac arrest. Lee races back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, but is too late, as Joe passes away before Lee arrives. As the funeral arrangements are being made, Lee learns that Joe has named him as guardian for Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his teenage son. Though resistant to the idea, Lee is even more reluctant to allow Patrick to live with his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol). The very thought of relocating back to his hometown to provide care weighs heavy on him, as intermittent flashbacks acquaint us with the tortured and grievous events he’s attempted to move past that still linger constantly in his mind. Interactions, environments, words conjure up ghosts of his former life, ones he cannot bear to confront. While reluctant, he remains long enough for the ground to thaw so that Joe may have a proper burial, and to determine how to navigate his guardianship of Patrick. There’s a great distance that has grown between the two over the years, but they slowly begin to reestablish the bond they previously had before Lee moved away, springing from the mutual bereavement that manifests itself in different ways for both of them. As the weeks pass by, Lee struggles to make it through each day, unsure if he’ll ever manage to break free from his personal demons and allow himself to be forgiven.
Lonergan’s writing demands the touch of a subtle, simple performer to navigate the wreck of a man that is Lee Chandler, and he found the ideal match in Casey Affleck. As an actor often relegated to supporting roles, there hasn’t been anything since his revelatory work in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD that has provided him with as much complexity as this role does, as well as an opportunity for showcasing his abilities and range. Lee Chandler and Casey Affleck feel literally made for each other, Affleck’s typical restrained, sometimes inscrutable, delivery is a perfect pairing for the reticent and taciturn Chandler. It might be easy for some to dismiss the portrayal of such a detached and hardened individual as empty or hollow, but they’d be missing the fact that it’s one of very few performances that feels as if it truly represents the numbness we take on after enduring an onslaught of emotional tragedy, trauma, and self-loathing. Affleck is captivating and effecting, a man constantly at war with himself, determined to bury his pain deep inside, fighting to stop the swell of anguish from breaking through the surface. The cracks give way briefly from time to time, and Affleck makes these moments moving and meaningful, yet never overplaying them. And through intermittent, involved flashbacks that occur with the unexpected and disjointed timing of human memory, we’re given a history of Lee’s destruction of his life in vivid and agonizing detail, a challenge Affleck rises to in devastating ways. Mesmerizing on his own, his scenes opposite others are even more intriguing. Sharing much of his screen-time with Affleck is 20-year-old Lucas Hedges as Patrick, standing toe-to-toe with him all the way. Patrick is wry, stubborn, and a tad rebellious, all aspects of teenage defiance almost amplified to act as a shield around what he’s feeling. Hedges brings all that to the table and more, deftly handling the inherent comedy and tragedy, most of the time all mixed together. And then there’s Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. Though with far less material, she manages to create an equally haunted and broken individual, and even if it was just for their painful meeting on street alone, it would be considered one of the top tier portrayals of the year, not to mention her career.
As a writer who started off mostly in the theatre, Lonergan’s plays are notable for their naturalism in dialogue, character, and circumstance, qualities that have translated to film with absorbing results. His screenplay opts for pure rawness and unpolished truth, seeking to reflect the human experience in all its messy, busted, defective, malfunctional, convoluted glory. Every aspect seems oriented to be emblematic of this honesty. The acting is committed and grounded. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes shows us the simple beauty of the small fishing town, as well as its coldness, by letting the environment speak for itself. He doesn’t apply any polish or trickery, he just shoots like it is, unblinking and true. In a way, it makes Manchester-by-the-Sea itself come alive, a prominent character in Lee’s internal journey as well as in the film, so clear and real you can almost smell the salt-water. Editor Jennifer Lame and Lonergan have assembled a perplexing, unconventional cut that seems to have caught some detractors with its unapologetic inelegance, its flawed execution a mirror of the soul at its center, for which I wholeheartedly applaud it. Again, it circles back to everything Lonergan has instilled in the words on the page. What could have easily tripped into convention and melodrama he has infused with dry humor, nuance, and crippling reality. Not content to limit his focus to one idea, he has made a story rich in complexity, a look at the struggles of raising a child as a surrogate parent, being tortured by inescapable ghosts and memories, issues of estrangement, disconnect, and self-repression, all in the midst of loss and sorrow.
There is no right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, way to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. When it comes to those points in our lives, there are multitudes of emotions swirling inside of us that make themselves known in the most abnormal and unexpected ways, a theme which Kenneth Lonergan and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA are committed to expressing with equal unpredictability. Lonergan’s film captures life at its highest and lowest, at its most wonderful and strange, more often than not muddled all together in gorgeously tangled up imperfection. It’s not impeccable or unblemished, but it is genuine and true. Its honesty is not a harsh slap or a bludgeon, but a sincere embrace of what makes us human. It reaches out compassionately to those trapped in their own darkness, their unwillingness to forgive themselves, and their inner turmoil. It says to them, “It’s ok. I see you. I feel what you’re feeling. I’m trying to fight it too.” Perhaps that’s why it resonates so strongly, because sometimes it’s just helpful to know that you’re not alone.
2. SILENCE, dir. Martin Scorsese
As artists and storytellers, there are some stories that stick with us for eons, ones that resonate with us, that we’re dying to share with the world, and we long to have the opportunity to interpret it through our own voice and medium. Occasionally, they come to fruition, but more often than not, they elude us, drifting outside our artistic grasp. Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel about two Portuguese Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan has been a passion project for cinematic master Martin Scorsese for over twenty-five years. The history of its journey over the last quarter century has become almost legendary for those who reverently follow Scorsese’s filmography, with a multitude of possible cast members and delays that felt endless. Having wrestled with it for decades, he has finally felt ready to tackle its immensity, complexity, and scope, presenting cinephiles with a long awaited gift. And what a gift it is. A challenging, riveting, punishing, thought provoking, soul-rending, gorgeous, unsettling, multi-faceted depiction of human conflict and contradiction, it might just be Scorsese’s most personal and self-reflective creation, an opus that rightfully takes its place amongst his celebrated works.
In Portuguese Macau, a European colony in southern China, two young Jesuit priests, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), receive word that their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has apostasized, renouncing his faith under Japanese torture. Refusing to believe the news, Rodrigues and Garupe embark on a journey to Japan to find Ferreira and learn the truth. Acquiring the aid of an alcoholic fisherman, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they arrive at the Japanese village of Tomogi. They soon discover that the Christian populace of the area have taken to practicing in secret, as Japanese security officials constantly seek to uncover those suspected of practicing Christianity, forcing them to trample on a fumi-e, essentially a crudely carved image of Christ, as a means of rejecting the faith. The two priests administer to the faithful of the village behind closed doors and under the cover of darkness, all while hiding away in a remote, secluded hut on the mountain above. It isn’t long before the shogunate takes action, sentencing three villagers to torturous and drawn out deaths as an example to the rest. Garupe, believing their presence to have put their flock in more danger, leaves for a different island, while Rodrigues travels to the last place Ferreira lived. Finding the area completely destroyed and abandoned, Rodrigues continues his search on his own, coming across situations and encounters that test his strength, his faith, his compassion, and his understanding.
This past year has featured many remarkable performances in countless film, but what Scorsese and Ellen Lewis, his casting director since the 80s, have done here is assembled what is, top to bottom, one of the finest ensembles ever, one that sits head and shoulders above the competition. Every single performance and actor lives so impeccably in their moments on screen, with each new scene offering an embarrassment of riches. As Rodrigues, and the film’s protagonist, Garfield has been given his most daunting role yet, rising to it with commitment not just to completely understanding the Jesuit lifestyle, but also to the war raging inside the man himself. He does not shy away from the gnawing doubt or the youthful arrogance that plagues him, a reflection of our natural impurity striving for salvation. He renders Rodrigues’ arc in ways that are incredibly powerful and moving. Alongside him part of the way is Driver, whose equally tortured performance is even more haunting than his emaciated features and frame. As their guide Kichijiro, Kubozuka strikes through to the heart as Rodrigues’ Judas, infusing a shameful figure with aching humanity, creating an image of the flawed beings we sometimes refuse to accept we are. As two of the doomed villagers, Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Yoshi Oida leave unforgettable marks with their brief portrayals. Insanely versatile actor Tadanobu Asano, notable for playing Genghis Khan in 2007’s MONGOL, makes a great impression as Rodrigues’ translator in captivity, in turns charismatic and brutal, simply with words and knowing glances. Issei Ogata might be the standout as the Inquisitor, a man whose harsh and violent actions contrast with his mild, often amused temperament. Ogata does so much just with his physicality and delivery, adding strange bursts of humor, showing us a side of this initially monstrous individual that we might be empathetic towards. And Liam Neeson, who gets third billing yet only features in about fifteen of the film’s one-hundred and sixty-one minutes, still manages to have one of his finest moments on camera, adding enormous weight to Rodrigues’ journey and subsequent trial. Even beyond that, every actor is stellar, becoming a finely interwoven tapestry of excellence.
Though less immediately obvious as some of his distinct filmmaking traits, Scorsese’s personal grapples with issues of faith and spirituality have always been an integral part of his oeuvre. They’re sometimes underlying, subdued, but here they’re the primary focus, the ultimate object of attention and examination. It’s splashed across every frame, the conflicted, contradictory, impenetrable, staggering ideas made strikingly clear in cutting words and evocative images. It’s understandable why Endo’s novel has sat with Scorsese so long, and why he’s felt compelled to tell it yet never strong enough to fully tackle it. Its paradoxical intricacies are as vast and convoluted as the human soul, a quality Scorsese and collaborator Jay Cocks’ screenplay is intent on, and successful in, emulating with as much richness as humanly possible. It helps too that it’s the most gorgeously lensed film of the year as well, Rodrigo Prieto’s compositions highlighting the contrasts between humanity and nature, the mortal and the divine, in stunning imagery, helped by Dante Ferreti’s astounding costume and production designs. There are shots that linger in the mind, dense in their emotional and intellectual power. Scorsese employs Prieto’s eye to almost unobtrusive effect, relying less on his trademark stylistic energy and more on the characters place in the world itself. Equally restrained is legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s assembly of this daunting and monumental epic. She masterfully allows the film itself to breath in its stillness, alive and quietly potent. But the craftsmanship is really just the dressing to the profound and esoteric core of the piece. This is a film that plunges deeply into the heart and the mind in unison, assailing us with questions that strike at our equivocal, tormented spirit and leaves us enlightened and confounded in equal measure. Scorsese does not have the answers, but he has provided us with a vessel that represents our collective constant pursuit of them.
A masterpiece of untold depths and endless reflection, Scorsese’s passion for Endo’s novel has manifested itself in the most exposed and soul-baring revelation of the seventy-four year-old iconic and prolific master. And yet, for how intensely personal it is, it is impactful because the struggle he displays is universal. We all find ourselves in search of some tangible understanding, comprehension, or sense of meaning, but find it escaping our grasp, swallowed up in the deafening quiet we are met with. The truth evades us because we desire for it to be simple, easy, and attainable, and we shrink because it is unknowable, boundless, and mystifying. Rather than being receptive and opening up, we close ourselves off to the possibility of recognizing the truth within each other and in the world surrounding us. There is much to process in SILENCE, philosophical and intellectual discussions, contradictory ideas, disturbing and horrifying actions, words of wisdom, prayer, anger, fear, pain, reflection, forgiveness, but in their absence is when it speaks to us the most. If we allow ourselves to listen, we might find it expresses more than we could truly know.
1. MOONLIGHT, dir. Barry Jenkins
There is one film that continues to resonate and echo every day since I witnessed it, one that still abides in my mind and heart as if a vivid dream or memory that remains ingrained in my person as a result of the experience. Its moving silhouettes and portraiture, its chopped and screwed soundscape, its beautiful words and imagery, its sensitivity and empathy endure, radiating from the place where it softly, but profoundly, touched me. That film is Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT. There is no other film this past year that has swam these waters of intimacy, culture, and identity. There is no other film this past year, or years before that has sought to tell this particular story, to embody this reality, this life. It’s the type of film we are in desperate need of in these times, and the type we are sorely lacking. Its strength of feeling and craft is a testament to what is possible when we share the untold stories that must be told, when we embrace the beauty and power of artistic voices that speak truths from experience. A chronicle of life, it is one of the greatest achievements in the medium in recent memory.
Told in a three-act structure, it follows the young life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes), a shy, withdrawn kid who lives in Liberty City, Miami. One day, when hiding in an empty crackhouse while escaping the bullies who are pursuing him, he is discovered by a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Unable to get a response from Chiron about his name, family, or home, Juan decides to bring him to stay with he and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), for the day. Chiron’s reticence eventually gives way to his revelation that he lives with his mother, but that he’s reluctant to go back to her, so Teresa allows him to stay the night. When Juan brings Chiron back home the next morning, he runs into Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s drug-addicted and abusive mother, who is disturbed that this stranger was looking after her son. From then on, Chiron continues to spend time at Juan and Teresa’s, finding it a sanctuary free from the torture of his mother and the torment of the kids, other than his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland), at school. Juan takes Chiron under his wing, trying to impart wisdom and life lessons as best he can, telling him only he can decide for himself who he is. He also teaches Chiron how to swim, cradling his body as he floats on the surface, telling him that’s “the middle of the world” as the water washes over him like a baptism. As the story progresses from Chiron’s life as a child, a teenager, and eventually an adult, we see the rippling effects of Juan’s teaching, the constant bullying, his friendship with Kevin, and the emotional abuse at the hands of his mother as he struggles with his identity, sexuality, and the overwhelming pressures surrounding him.
As a cross-section of the main character’s life through three distinct periods, there’s a significant amount of weight that falls on the young performers tasked with portraying each period, as well as creating a cohesion and growth amongst them. Somehow, each of the three actors that play Chiron and Kevin master this feat with an effortlessness and fluidity that brilliantly compliments those same qualities in the filmmaking. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes capture the distinctness of each age, but, remarkably, you can see the same sensitive and quiet child ingrained deep within. The way they huddle over their food at the table, or the way they walk as if hoping no one will notice them, or the way their eyes easily betray the wounded soul inside are all incredibly subtle choices but hugely expressive. That really goes for all of the performances in the cast: the nuances of their work, the non-verbals, are what say the most. The glances, the breathing, the movement of a hand, the brushing of an arm, the smiles, the tears, they are all insanely specific, natural, and bursting with meaning. These perhaps occur most when Chiron shares the screen with Kevin, their friendship and relationship budding with curiosities and things left unsaid. Piner, Jerome, and Holland handle their character with equal facility and deftness, creating a compelling figure who’s perhaps more verbally expressive but nonetheless guarded. As Juan, Mahershala Ali has never been better, magnetic from the instant he opens the film. Juan quite simply lives within Ali’s frame, his eyes, his movement. Ali so smoothly becomes the character, it’s as if you forget you’ve seen him as anyone else. Though his screen-time is limited, his presence is immense and impactful. Naomi Harris is literally transformative as Paula, and her arc throughout from abusive to vulnerable and repentant is a clear indication she deserves to be more widely recognized. And kicking off a new side of her career, Janelle Monae proves she is equally as electric on screen. Every single portrayal is so cohesive, so complimentary, so interwoven and interconnected, and so essential to the whole. They’re all perfection in their rarest form.
Jenkins brings a definitive singular style to Chiron’s story, playing it all together as if its emotional currents and intersecting elements are the melodies that make up the symphonic body of the piece. Everything moves like music, or poetry, or the strokes of a paintbrush, or a dance. It’s an evocative artwork that still feels grounded in reality. Composer Nicholas Brittell’s score is minimal, but the thematic elements bleed into one another, morphing and changing, growing with the narrative. It’s the heartbeat of the film, the heartbeat of Chiron, and it feels as if it’s springing forth from within the story itself, not outwardly crafted to amplify it. James Laxton’s cinematography follows a similar vein, as rich, textured, tonal, and layered as the plot and characters, yet still feeling as one with them. Shooting on digital, Laxton captures a wide spectrum of saturation and colorful beauty, as well as crafting the look of different film stocks for each chapter through color grading in post. His closeups of individual characters almost show every facet of their being, every slight movement betraying some hidden feeling, and his shots that linger behind their shoulders find new angles and perspectives on the expressiveness of physicality. Piecing it together are editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, classmates of Jenkins from university, and they blend the dreamlike elements with the grounded ones fluently and effectively, all while navigating the time jumps with total assurance. With only twenty-five days total worth of shooting, and a budget of only $1.5 million, it’s a miracle that it is so unified, so fully-formed, so undeniably and collectively superb. Jenkins’ voice and vision, as well as his adaptation with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, have created a cinematic orchestration, each element and aspect working in total harmony, a union of artistic excellence on every level passionately conducted by a confident, rising auteur. Everything comes from within, the emotions, the words, the gestures, the images, all of them breathing into life this story of Chiron, reaching out to draw us in, to draw us closer together. In fact, it is the nature of touch that seems to be in primary focus, its capability to be soft but also harsh, how it can tear us apart but also bring us together. Every single instance of contact is so specific, so important, so intimate, and so movingly portrayed. They inform us of Chiron’s struggles, relationships, and desires more vividly than any dialogue ever could. Through them we see a young man shaped by both the love and abuse he receives, who feels at times the soft caress of the cheek, and at others the brutal impact of a fist, and through it all has been forced to bury his true self deep down, trying to survive in a society and world that teaches him that there’s no place in masculinity for gentleness, vulnerability, or sensitivity. Thus, it calls to embrace him, accept him, feel with him, and, in turn, do the same for each other.
Ignored, neglected, forgotten, and abandoned, as a character Chiron is representative of those we overlook in our lives, who we pass over without attempting to understand their pain, who we never offer a second glance, and whose stories we too often omit from the cinematic world. As a masterful work of art, MOONLIGHT is mightily powerful and achingly poignant because it seeks to tell that story, refusing to let that life go unnoticed, and lovingly enveloping and cradling that lonely soul just as Juan holds Chiron among the waves of the ocean. It touches a place inside us that brings us closer to its subject, closer to each other, and drives us to hold each other close, to listen, to understand, to accept and forgive, to love and to share our journeys through life with each other. It is a rarity that a life is depicted so completely, so thoughtfully, so tangibly, so truthfully, and so sincerely, and it’s even rarer still that it inspires overwhelming compassion, instilling empathy when it’s hard for us to find amongst ourselves. It’s a treasure, an unbelievable gift that will hopefully open the doors to more untold stories so that every single Chiron has the chance to be reflected, accepted, and loved.
And that concludes the countdown of my top films of 2016. If you missed the other installments, you can find them all here on the blog. That pretty much wraps up my 2016 year in review, but I’ve got one or two things up my sleeve I’m looking to add before embarking on more typical blogging. Be on the lookout for what’s next! And, as always, thanks for reading.