Saturday, February 25, 2017

Under the Moon and Stars: Films of 2016

If you're a reasonable, intelligent human being with a full set of working human emotions, you know that 2016 was an awful year for a variety of reasons. But movies is not one of those reasons—in fact, I'd say that 2016 was stronger than 2015 in almost every way. While there wasn't quite a comparable cinematic experience to Mad Max: Fury Road (you can't have everything), 2016 was the more top-heavy and deeper year. Only my top 3 of 2015 (Mad Max, Sicario, and It Follows... maaaaybe The Big Short as well) would've cracked this list, while 4-5 movies outside of this year's top 10 would likely have made last year's list. So 2016 was a quality year for cinema. And what better way to reward quality than handing out fake awards? (Insert Grammys joke here.) For the second year in a row, I've got fake awards for Picture, Director, two Writing categories, and four Acting categories. (Although I did have just one Writing category last year—2016's scripts were stronger than 2015's.) So let's see who won these highly prestigious awards, shall we?

Gold = winner
* = also nominated for an Oscar

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis – Fences*
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures and Moonlight
Tilda Swinton – A Bigger Splash
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea*

Category fraud alert! There's little doubt that Davis is a co-lead in Fences, and it could be argued that Monae (in Figures) and Swinton are co-leads as well. (Gerwig and Williams play more typical supporting roles.) But Davis explicitly campaigned in this category and Monae and Swinton both received other supporting actress nominations, so that's what I'm going with. Plus, Best Actress is LOADED this year. But that's not to say that these performances are any less laudable.
  • Williams, with the least screentime of the group, had perhaps the most powerful scene of the year in Manchester by the Sea ("Can we ever have lunch?"—my god). But, as will happen on Oscar Sunday, her lack of screentime works against her here.
  • Gerwig, in the other true supporting turn, does outstanding work as a wayward twentysomething playing a surrogate older sister to Lucas Jade Zumann's Mike Mills stand-in in 20th Century Women. She likely just missed out on an Oscar nomination this year, but one is undoubtedly forthcoming. (A makeup nomination for Frances Ha, no doubt.)
  • Monae had the misfortune to be overshadowed by her Oscar-nominated costars in both Moonlight (Naomie Harris) and Figures (Octavia Spencer), but she gave the better performance in both films in my eyes—more nuanced in Moonlight and more fiery in Figures. It remains to be seen whether 2016's successful foray into film will be a permanent one for the singer, but I'd certainly love to see more of her work.
  • Swinton was nothing less than magnetic as one of the sides of a rickety love quadrangle in the underappreciated Splash. Although it's mostly a silent role (see the movie to know why), she doesn't have to say much to take over a scene, even opposite the loquacious Ralph Fiennes. I'm not sure what happened with this movie's Oscar campaign. I would have thought it would have made a bigger... oh, never mind.
  • The other four nominees were all great, but I agree with the oddsmakers and prognosticatorsViola Davis gave the best "supporting" actress performance of the year (and maybe even best performance, period). In Fences she's a powerhouse opposite a heavyweight performance from Denzel and brings a cinematic gravitas to a role she won a Tony for playing on Broadway. She'll be a deserving Oscar winner who will surely bring the house down with her speech.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight*
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water*
Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Yōsuke Kubozuka – Silence
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals*

Apologies to Lucas Hedges, Billy Crudup, Liam Neesons, the various Chirons and Kevins of Moonlight, Ben Foster, and John Goodman, but this category is full of great actors, stacked to the rafters. It was especially painful to leave Crudup off the list for two great, under-the-radar performances in Jackie (where he made Natalie Portman's robotic Jackie O seem nearly human in their scenes together) and 20th Century Women (as a clueless ex-hippie handyman). Someone please find him an Oscar-worthy role, pronto. (Not that he needs the validation.)
  • Bridges's character in High Water is so similar to Shannon's that I almost left him off this list. That's obviously a dumb reason though, so he made the cut for his typically superlative work as an outmoded Texas Ranger in neo-Western High Water, creating an entire character with just a scowl and a series of off-color wisecracks. Bridges is getting up there, but I have a feeling this isn't the last great performance he has in him. (Stay the fuck away from beloved aging celebrities, 2017.)
  • In an alternate world where Silence was the Oscar heavyweight it probably should have been, there's a good chance you'd be hearing Kubozuka's name as a contender in this category. Like his character in the film, you just can't shake his performance loose after you see it. As the comic relief and spiritual analogue to Garfield's character, it's equal parts pratfalls and prostrations. The movie wouldn't work nearly as well without him.
  • Nocturnal Animals is a movie you're either going to love or hate (my opinion will become abundantly clear if it isn't already), but Shannon's performance as Detective Bobby Andes should be beyond reproach even from the haters. The character radiates the casual intensity that Shannon is known for, and he gets almost all the best lines. Without him, the "book" storyline falls flat and the film falls apart; with him, it's one of the year's best.
  • This was a tough category, and I almost picked Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!... would that it were so simple. His work as Hobie Doyle is the best comedic performance of any actor this year (just watch the linked clip for proof), and one of my favorites in any category.  It's an instant classic Coen Brothers performance, another one of their blissful idiots (although Doyle just seems like one) who pushes the plot forward through happenstance or sheer force of gumption. Next up for Ehrenreich? The decidedly un-Doyle-like Han Solo.
  • Finally, Mahershala Ali delivers one of the true great performances of 2016 in Moonlight, an utterly empathetic turn as what could have been a stock character as drug dealer Juan. While he only appears in 1/3 of the film, his absence in the final two acts is keenly felt in every frame, whether haunting Chiron's every gesture and conversation in Act 2 to almost being reincarnated on his very visage in Act 3. He can add this fake award to his trophy case, along with the for-real Oscar he'll win tomorrow.

Best Actress
Amy Adams – Arrival
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert – Elle*
Kim Min-hee – The Handmaiden
Ruth Negga – Loving*

No slight intended to Emma Stone—I quite liked her in La La Land and she just missed the cut here. While she's likely got the Oscar in the bag, I don't think she's in the same class as any of the five nominees here. (I thought Natalie Portman's work in Jackie was more impression than performance, which typically doesn't resonate with me.)
  • I haven't seen Florence Foster Jenkins (EDIT: I now have, and it's not very good), but I can't imagine Meryl Streep's 67th-best performance* (*all numbers estimated) was better than either Adams in Arrival or Bening in 20th Century Women (EDIT: it's not). Adams carried a sci-fi opus while making Jeremy Renner look like little more than a sidepiece (a dichotomy that is almost always reversed). Arrival hinged on Adams making us believe her character's professional expertise and emotional resiliency, and she pulled both off with aplomb.
  • At this point, Bening seems destined to pop up in every "best actress never to have won an Oscar" debate. (I'd say Adams is on pace to join her, but she'll get the Kate/Leo "she's due" treatment before too long... probably for her next lowercase-g-great performance.) She gives another expressive, lived-in performance in 20th Century Women, a fictionalized version of writer-director Mike Mills' mother. A similar performance won Christopher Plummer (as his elderly father) an Oscar for Beginners a few years ago. Too bad Bening didn't get a similar chance this year.
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see Negga's name on nomination morning (although, to be honest, I would have nominated Adams or Bening over her). While Loving largely lacks the emotional fireworks and crowd-pleasing payoff scenes you might expect, Negga is the best thing about it as its living, beating heart. (She's also the best part of AMC's Preacher, a show she almost single-handedly makes watchable.)
  • I almost nominated both Kims of The Handmaiden—Tae-Ri and Min-hee. But, like I said, this category is LOADED. Tae-Ri is very good, but her performance is mostly reactive, while Min-hee balances between proactive and reactive and ultimately has the stronger arc. She transforms from cold, porcelain statue to hot-blooded lover to scheming seductress and you believe every second of it. It's a phenomenal performance, and one that could very well result in a nomination for someone in the inevitable American remake in a few years.
  • While Kim Min-hee's non-English-language performance was doubtlessly overlooked for that reason, thankfully Isabelle Huppert's was not for the wonderfully dark and complicated Elle. This is a film that never quite decides if it wants to be a dark comedy or a psychological drama, and Huppert wisely never commits to either tone in her performance as Michèle, who is (SPOILERS, kind of) raped in the opening scene. That's a dangerous gambit for any film, but Elle doubles down by subversively treating it as more of a plot point than a character-defining event. No, the film—and Huppert—is interested in more than victimhood. Watching Huppert explore the dark corners of Michèle's psyche—and seeing her grapple with what she finds—is one of the true cinematic revelations of 2016.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea*
Ralph Fiennes – A Bigger Splash
Andrew Garfield – Silence
Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys
Denzel Washington – Fences*

Going on names alone, 4/5 of my picks align with the Academy's—only Big Vig missed out in my list. (Although saving Captain Fantastic from being a complete dumpster fire with a typically committed performance is an achievement in and of itself, I suppose.) But the AMPAS voters whiffed badly with Garfield and Gosling, nominating vastly inferior performances from more Oscar-friendly films.
  • Let's start with Gosling in The Nice Guys, who took to Shane Black's dialogue even better than I had hoped. (The same could not be said of co-star Russell Crowe—he was game but couldn't quite pull it off.) The script, predictably, is full of zingers, and Gosling either handled or set up most of them. And that's without mentioning his gift for physical comedy. As much as I like Gosling in Steve McQueen mode (Drive, etc.), perhaps action-comedy is his true calling. (Not his true calling: musicals. He was just okay in La La Land.)
  • On to Garfield, whose mis-nomination was even more egregious. Hacksaw Ridge over Silence? Really? Hallmark war movie of the week over a late-period Scorsese masterpiece? A five-minute crisis of faith squeezed in between (admittedly very well done) action set pieces over a 160-minute meditation on faith and sacrifice? But maybe the achievement is that he could do both. I honestly have no idea how this happened. That accent. Ugh.
  • Of the two guys who were actually deservingly nominated, Washington had the showier performance—good god there was a lot of capital-A-Acting in Fences. Denzel is at about an intensity of 8.5 in the opening scenes and is rarely below a 9.0 for the rest of the movie. (In comparison, Davis hums along quite nicely below 5.0 for stretches of the film.) It's actually a physically exhausting movie to watch. But he is magnificent, especially late in Act 2 when he receives news of a death.
  • He's in the conversation for the Oscar, although Affleck the Younger seems to have the inside track for the Affleck family's first acting Oscar. (Although the allegations against him could impact on his chances at gold, fairly or not.) He'd be a deserving winner (again, just based on the quality of his performance). His work as Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea is a different kind of performance than Washington's (Fences definitely wears its origins as a play on its sleeve), about as unshowy as it gets. It almost makes you forget you're watching a movie and instead are just watching a real man live his (unbelievably tragic) life.
  • Not so my pick for the winner here, A Bigger Splash's Ralph Fiennes, whose Harry Hawkes is a purely cinematic creation, a larger-than-life force of ego who couldn't possibly be a real person. At least, that's what Fiennes and the film want you to think at first. Splash—and Fiennes—does a clever thing by having Hawkes (the character) act for 90% of the film, putting up a massive front to hide his true intentions. (Which aren't nearly as well hidden as he thinks.) The result is a fascinating, multi-layered character and performance that couldn't have been duplicated by anyone... although I'd love to have seen Big Vig try.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese – Silence
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Eric Heisserer – Arrival*
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight*
Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung – The Handmaiden

This is a category I'm usually not that invested in. It's not because writing an adaptation isn't as challenging as writing an original script (just ask Charlie and Donald Kaufman), but it's because awards bodies usually treat the category as "best script based on an existing property" without taking into account the specific challenges of adaption for each script. The Oscar nomination for Fences this year is a perfect example of this—the script is almost entirely unchanged from the play upon which it is based. That's not adaptation, that's transcription.
  • That said, there were some very good adaptations this year, starting with one that might not technically be an adaptation—Jenkins adapting McCraney's unproduced play for Moonlight. Category confusion aside, it's one of the finest scripts of the year and a potential Oscar winner. It keeps a play-esque three-act structure but isn't dialogue heavy, instead relying on action and mood to tell its story. But when dialogue is featured—especially in the third act—it excels at that, too.
  • I'd hoped that Ford's script for Nocturnal Animals would have snagged an Oscar nomination, but the film's divisive critical reception probably doomed it. Too bad, as it is as brilliant as it is audacious, juggling three separate storylines (present world, "book" world, and flashbacks) while expertly threading emotional and thematic throughlines through each. It's impressive work, even if the subject matter isn't for everyone and it occasionally takes too-easy potshots at L.A. culture, a "la" another major Oscar contender.
  • Perhaps the most daunting challenge of the bunch was Scorcese and Cocks taking on Shūsaku Endō's largely epistolary classic novel, Silence (which I have not read). They use voiceover, internal monologue, dialogue, even prayer to discuss themes of faith, sacrifice, pride, and vanity. The script asks more questions than it answers, but that's kind of the point. Silence is one of the most complex and thought-provoking films I've seen in years. I'm still thinking about it weeks later.
  • Park and Chung had a wholly unique challenge with The Handmaiden—take a novel set in Victorian England and transpose it to post-WWI Korea. Not only did they have to keep the essential plot elements intact—the scheming, the twists, the same-sex love story—but they had to make it make sense in a different time period and culture, and do it in multiple languages. They completely pulled it off, resulting in one of the most clever, heartfelt, and transgressive stories of the year.
  • But, to me, Eric Heisserer's script for Arrival is the best adaptation and best script of them all. He, too, had multiple challenges—making the minutiae of translation cinematically interesting, duplicating the complicated structure of the original story (which I also have not read), and hiding the infamous "twist" in plain sight. He managed to do all that with consummate leanness and exactitude, without a misplaced word or extraneous scene, all the while delivering the perfect message to US audiences after Election Day. Coincidental? Yes. But it's enough to put an already... stellar script over the top here.

Best Original Screenplay
Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi – The Nice Guys
Joel and Ethan Coen – Hail. Caesar!
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea*
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women*
Jeremy Saulnier – Green Room

Original Screenplay, on the other hand, is typically one of my favorite categories (I studied screenwriting in grad school, what do you want?), and this year is no different. There were quite a few near misses here, including Hell or High Water, Everybody Wants Some!!!, Sausage Party (seriously), and The Lobster (even though I didn't care for the film itself). But these five, from established masters and up-and-coming prodigies alike, are as good as it gets.
  • First, Saulnier—the auteur behind 2014's excellent Blue Ruin—belongs on this list for Green Room's logline alone: "A punk rock band is forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar." What a fucking premise. And Saulnier delivers, too, cultivating a brutal kind of heightened realism—the situation is plausible if not realistic, but the characters and their actions (and reactions) are entirely authentic. And, as in Ruin, violence is used not as a plot point or a device to mete out justice, but to explore character, which too few filmmakers do today.
  • On the other hand, Black (one of my favorite screenwriters) and his partner Bagarozzi uses violence largely for comedic effect in The Nice Guys, almost parodying the buddy cop action flicks that earned Black his reputation (and his millions). It's also chock full of his trademark dialogue, which the cast (especially Gosling and his on-screen daughter Angourie Rice) take to with gusto. It reminds me a bit of (at the time) future Oscar-winner(!) Adam McKay's script for The Other Guys in that it both sends up and celebrates the buddy cop genre while also tackling a Serious Issue (fiscal malfeasance for McKay, political corruption for Black).
  • Hail, Caesar! is a relatively middling Coen Brothers movie—the various subplots don't all quite come together in the end, and it doesn't seem to have a concise overall theme—but there are enough moments of sheer brilliance in the script to earn it a spot here. From the clergymen roundtable scene to "No Dames" to the "would that it were" scene linked above (and really everything Hobie Doyle says), it has some of the smartest, funniest writing of the year.
  • While Saulnier's script is built around a unique premise, and the Black/Bagarozzi and Coen scripts are more obviously "written," the genius of Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea isn't as immediately apparent. There are no extraordinary situations, no larger-than-life characters, no instantly quotable lines. Instead, it's a small story about one man's life-altering tragedy, steeped in humanism and deep empathy. It posits the very uncinematic idea that there are some things in life that simply can't be overcome. It's a raw, powerful statement, and one that may very well win Lonergan an Oscar tomorrow night.
  • But fellow real-life nominee Mike Mills is my choice here for 20th Century Women, a gem of a film that deserved much more than the one Oscar nomination (in this very category) it received. Drawing on his experiences growing up in Santa Barbara in the 1970's, Mills creates the most vivid ensemble of characters of any movie this year, a quasi-family made up of the conflicted matriarch, her gawky proto-punk son, his capricious best friend/would-be girlfriend, the recovering cancer patient/artist roommate, and the very Zen handyman who may or may not be full of shit. The film finds a way to present these five lives in their entirety, an astounding achievement.

Best Director
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight*
Park Chan-wook – The Handmaiden
Martin Scorsese – Silence
Paul Verhoeven – Elle
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival*

Just missing out here were Mills, Lonergan, and Ford, probably in that order. There was also another tier of guys like Nicolas Winding Refn, Saulnier, Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special and Loving), and Robert Eggers (The Witch). (Yikes, it is just "guys" isn't it? I'm a bad cinephile—I clearly need to seek out more of these films.) I never really considered  Damien Chazelle—La La Land had none of Whiplash's masterful deployment of tension or anything like the stunning final sequence. He's absolutely one of Hollywood's rising stars, but his likely Oscar win tomorrow won't be for an especially great directorial achievement.
  • Of the actual Oscar nominees, Jenkins is clearly most deserving of the award, and I very nearly went with him myself. Moonlight is an incredible film, somehow even more accomplished than it is important as a critically acclaimed story about the gay black experience. The film is suffused with a subtle eroticness that tinges many of the films most imporant scenes, from a young Chiron and Kevin roughhousing to the teenaged oceanside encounter to the entirely of the final 30 minutes. (And for me, it's not the diner scene that's the most profound, but the kitchen scene afterward.) I'll be rooting hard for an upset tomorrow night.
  • Villeneuve would also make a fine Best Director winner for his work behind the camera on Arrival, a film every bit as good as Sicario but in a very different way. Where Sicario delved deep into the darkness humanity is capable of, Arrival shows what we're capable at our very best. Villeneuve nests a personal tragedy nearly on the level of Manchester within a cerebral, globe-hopping sci-fi story, with each plot point and emotional beat perfectly captured, culminating in one of the most earned "aha!" moments I've seen in a long time. Oh, and he invents and decodes an alien language along the way. If only he'd found a way to save jazz too. (Don't worry, I'll have good things to say about La La Land soon, I promise.)
  • Verhoeven (2016 was apparently a good name for European directors with last names beginning with "V") probably never had a shot at an Oscar nomination, which is a shame—it would have been well earned and a nice recognition for an eclectic, always interesting career. And Elle might be the weirdest and best film of his career, which is saying something. The way it tiptoes between tones, refuses to blanch, and consistently subverts expectation is a singular achievement from a singular mind. He originally wanted to make the film in the US with a more recognizable "star" than Huppert, but fortunately for us, it didn't work out and we got this delightfully discomfiting and endlessly fascinating film.
  • I thought Scorsese might snag an Oscar nomination for Silence, easily the year's most intellectually challenging and ethically complicated film. But, no, they instead went with fucking Mel Gibson for Hackneyed Ridge. (Which is a... fine WWII film that has no business being in any of the main Oscar categories.) Silence is an admittedly tough watch—160 often harrowing minutes of physical torture and spiritual crisis. But it is by far the film that stayed with me the most in 2016. Even many films that are probably "better" (Moonlight, Manchester, Arrival) are fairly self-contained—the say what they came to say but don't really ask any questions or confront viewers with agonizing moral dilemmas. Not so Silence. Like in all of his best films, Scorsese unflinchingly challenges his audience and delivers yet another masterpiece at age 74.
  • Here's a sad but true Oscar fact: No (South) Korean film or filmmaker has ever been nominated for Best Foreign Film. Much less Best Picture or Best Director. That's almost unthinkable for a country with such a successful, vibrant film industry. Perhaps no director would be more worthy of recognition from the Academy than Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Thirst, Stoker) for The Handmaiden, which, somehow, wasn't even South Korea's official submission for Best Foreign Film. In a perfect world (which, after 2016, we know we don't live in), the Academy would have recognized Park and his film anyway for its intricate plotting, its skillful interweaving of genres, and the way it manages to be at once salacious and heartwarming. It's a truly one-of-a-kind film from one of the most underappreciated directors on the planet.

Best Picture
20th Century Women
Arrival*
Elle
The Handmaiden
La La Land*
Manchester by the Sea*
Moonlight*
The Neon Demon
Nocturnal Animals
Silence

A few excellent films came up just short of the final 10 (I cheated a bit and went with the maximum 10 possible nominees rather than the total of 9 films nominated this year), including Hell or High Water, Green Room, The Nice Guys, and A Bigger Splash. And believe it or not, Captain America: Civil War was the first runner-up here. Big fan of that one. (None of the other actual Oscar nominees was particularly close, although I thought they were all at least pretty good.) I'll go with a numbered list for this category (none of the other categories is ranked aside from the winner) to mirror my Letterboxd top films of 2016 list.
  • 10) The Neon Demon – This one might come as a bit of a surprise, given that it was not nominated in any of the other categories. No, there is nothing particularly impressive about the acting or writing here, but, like most of Winding Refn's films, it has an unmistakable style and atmosphere. It would likely dominate the technical categories if I added the them to this write-up (I'm not that obsessive... yet). I'm not particularly sure what it's about (and I don't think Winding Refn really knows either), which gives the film a kind of hollow, empty quality (appropriate for an L.A.-set film... ZING!), but that only matters so much when it's as accomplished as it is in other areas.
  • 9) Elle – This was the last film I saw to crack this list. I watched it a few weeks ago to check my Isabelle Huppert box in my yearly pursuit of seeing all the major Oscar nominees. (Another success this year, I'm happy to report.) I'd heard it was worth it for Huppert's performance but the film itself wasn't great overall. I was very pleased that this was proven wrong. Elle is just the kind of film I tend to love—dark, weird, smart, a little funny, artfully made. It's certainly not for everyone, but it really clicked for me.
  • 8) La La Land – Here we are. I've made a few slights at La La Land over the course of this write-up, but the truth is I really liked it. I wasn't sure if I would—I've never been a fan of musicals—but dammit if I didn't find myself charmed by the music, enthralled by the visuals, and swept up in Sebastian and Mia's story. I left the theater with a smile on my face and more than a little ache in my heart at the ending. No, it's not the Best Picture of the year (even though it will almost certainly win the Oscar), but it is an exceedingly well made and enjoyable movie. The backlash is real, if not entirely warranted—but it certainly won't be an Artist-level catastrophe if/when it wins.
  • 7) Nocturnal Animals – This is perhaps the most divisive film on the list, even more so than The Neon Demon or Elle. (La La Land was was hardly divisive before this recent backlash.) More than a few critics I respect outright hated it, and far fewer liked it. I recognize its flaws—the present world plot with Amy Adams is cliché-ridden and largely emotionally inert, and the flashbacks are melodramatic af (shoutout to Laura Linney though)—but what works—namely the "book" plot—really works. It's a stark, brutal story that doesn't so much use rape as a plot device but rather uses rape used as a plot device as a plot device, if that makes sense. That and the way the events and emotional reckonings of the fictional story reverberate through the other two plotlines is ingenious. And, I mean, that Mikey Shannons though.
  • 6) 20th Century Women – I *think* I watched Thumbsucker, Mills's debut, 10 or so years ago. It's also entirely possible that I'm imagining that. Either way, I need to revisit/rewatch it immediately, as his subsequent two films, 2011's Beginners and 20th Century Women, both semi-autobiographical, are outstanding. In Beginners, Mills explored his father's dying years, while Women explores his teenage years with his mother. I think Beginners is ultimately the more resonant film (despite a flat note or two), but Women is more assured, and Mills' Oscar nomination signals the undeniable arrival of a major voice in American film. Women is full of rich characterization and genuine warmth, is unafraid of complicatedness, and revels in the joyous messiness of growing up—which, as Mills posits, is a constant process for everyone, never really finished.
  • 5) Silence – I said all that needs to be said about this one above. See it, contemplate it, see it again. Preferably with me, because I definitely need to, if only to try to get it out of my head.
  • 4) Manchester by the Sea – Unlike Mills, I know for sure that I've never seen Lonergan's first feature, 2000's You Can Count on Me, which is insane because it has Mark Ruffalo, who is in the conversation for my favorite actor. I'll go ahead and put that one on my "must-watch" list as well, because Manchester and 2011's Margaret are absolute stunners. Since I also covered my thoughts on Manchester above, let me instead wholeheartedly recommend Margaret as one of the unimpeachable (if entirely under-seen) modern classics of American cinema. A simple description of its premise—a girl witnesses/maybe causes a bus accident—doesn't do justice to the depth in which it explores the concept of guilt and its effect on a person, which I would argue it does even better than Manchester. If you have a spare 3 hours and a well of inner strength, you must watch it.
  • 3) Arrival – While Arrival probably won't win any of the major categories—it has no shot at Picture, Villeneuve is an also-ran for Director, and and Moonlight figures to win Adapted Screenplay—it should be a contender in several of the technical categories. It's nominated for Sound Editing and Mixing, Production Design, Cinematography, and Editing. It'd be very deserving of the last two especially. Bradford Young (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Selma, A Most Violent Year) is fast becoming one of my favorite DPs, and one who seems equally adept at shooting on film and digitally. And Joe Walker would be my choice for Editing by far for the flawless way the subplot with Adams's daughter is woven into the rest of the film. It wouldn't pack nearly the same emotional punch without Walker's fine-tuned work.
  • 2) Moonlight – To make a comparison between a semi-relevant awards show (the Oscars) and a completely irrelevant one (the Grammys), the race this year between Moonlight and La La Land is a lot like the Album of the Year race in the 2016 Grammys between Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift. Much like 1989, La La Land is an immaculate pop composition, critically praised and commercially successful. But let's not pretend for even one second that 1989/La La Land are greater artistic achievements (i.e., what awards shows are supposed to decide) than To Pimp a Butterfly and Moonlight. To do so would be willfully disingenuous at best and gobsmackingly ignorant of the role of art in culture at worst. The shimmery pop album and the nostalgic musical have nothing of note to say about the human condition. They don't necessarily have to, but if we want to be in the business of deciding what the "best" art is (a dubious proposition, but we're well past that), then we have to stop picking albums and films like these. They might be (okay, *are*) incredibly enjoyable and make you feel good, but they have nothing new or interesting to say about the human experience. Butterfly and Moonlight do, and they are incredibly enjoyable and make you feel good to boot—at least when they're not illuminating some of the more unpleasant aspects of the human struggle. And that's what good art—the "best" art—should do: make you uncomfortable *and* uplift your heart. It has to do both, otherwise it's just safe and boring and stagnant. So tomorrow, I'll be hoping for edgy and exciting and progressive. I'll be rooting for the two black boys kissing under the moon rather than two white people dancing under the stars.
  • 1) The Handmaiden – All that said, The Handmaiden was still my favorite movie of the year—the smartest, the sexiest, the loveliest, and the one that left me the most slackjawed at the end (and not just from the scissoring). It's the one I know I'll rewatch the most, whose score I can't get enough of, and whose many facets I look forward to exploring more. For those reasons and more (and, okay, the scissoring), it's my #1 movie of 2016.
Another year, another overlong fake awards ramble. But hey, I got it done before March this year! For-real Oscar predictions to follow shortly. (Ever the procrastinator.) Thanks for reading!

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