Best Films of 2016

2016 went by in a flash but some of its films have still left an impact. Yes, it has been a while since the year ended, but this list’s lack of timeliness means many of the movies discussed here are now available on streaming services.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was not just the quality of films but the strength of new filmmakers. Several of the films below are made by first-time directors which bodes incredibly well for the industry as a whole and means there will be even more impressive films sure to release in the future.

15. Nocturnal Animals

The framing narrative can be stale at times with unneeded avant-garde flourishes, but the inner story is thrilling. Tom Ford’s take on a Deliverance-style encounter is a frightening look at the fragility of one’s existence. Seemingly perfect lives can be destroyed in an instant and even deep affections can turn into resentment.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

14. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson has never been one for subtlety and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The character development is saccharine but earnest and the action is gratuitous but visceral. He is a visual director whose skills come through in the wordless action scenes. Gibson deftly stages the many moving pieces of combat to create a deliberately disorienting chaos. The violence may be too gory for some, but he captures the pandemonium of battle with great success.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

13. The Witch

Stark and slow-moving, The Witch is a film that uses the bleakness of its period to full effect. It’s a horror film about the paranoia of a pilgrim family. When things don’t go according to plan and mutual mistrust builds, every character’s behavior becomes suspect. Even when the facts aren’t there to support assertions, it’s their perception of others and need for an easy explanation that leads to their downfall.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

12. Maggie’s Plan

Despite her busybody nature, the titular character is never anything but endearing. Greta Gerwig’s performance shows that her meddling comes from the best of intentions. As Maggie pulls strings in the relationships around her, the genuine affection she feels for her loved ones and sacrifices she makes for their benefit make her a lovable presence. Even as she fumbles her plans, her actions are filled with a palpable warmth.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

11. Love & Friendship

Who knew Whit Stillman’s arch humor would translate so well into a period piece? His clever phrasings and prim tone mix perfectly with the haughty manners of the setting. Kate Beckinsale as the deceptively loquacious widow is entrancing as she talks circles around her friends and family to get her every wish fulfilled. The swirling verbal dance she plays is a joy to behold, even when you know of her calculating nature.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

10. Hell or High Water

Hell of High Water is a film that strips a genre down to its core. It’s a modern western presented as a low-scale heist movie. Instead of relying on elaborate staging, it leans on the terse dialogue and body language of its characters. The acting is so expressive in its own subtle way that a brief conversation becomes as thrilling as a police shootout.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

9. Eye in the Sky

Drones have been a hot topic in the media lately, but Eye in the Sky is more than topical. It evaluates the minutiae of several stakeholders in each military mission. Politics, infantry, pilots, and data analysis all play a part in actions that have good intentions but inherent, often fatal, tradeoffs. The film succeeds by creating tension at each stage of decision-making and driving home the moral complexity behind every order.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

8. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook is known for his often transgressive plotlines but with The Handmaiden he adds a more playful tone. Returning to Korea after a brief foray into English language films, he is clearly enjoying his freedoms back home. The story swivels through different perspectives, each revealing new, film-altering context. Every twist is a face-slapping surprise as the director expertly – and repeatedly – flips over audience expectations.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

7. Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has created another world of marginal characters locked into stagnant existences. Like Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, it follows one animal as it travels in and out of the lives of its owners. The overwhelmingly depressing tone may be too much for some, but there is truth behind each person’s failures. Their missed potentials or bleak futures are products of their unfortunate situations. Even as the characters sink further into their miserable realities, their plight is deeply sympathetic.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Balancing over the top antics with a heartfelt message of belonging, Taika Waititi has created his best film to date. The unlikely duo of a 13-year old ne’er-do-well and a grumpy old man mistakenly becoming the center of a nationwide manhunt is an endless source of humor and only buoyed by an eccentric supporting cast.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

5. Girl Asleep

Set in an elaborately designed 1970s, Girl Asleep is a fresh take on the coming-of-age movie. The first half is a vivacious look into a teenage girl’s interactions with her quirky classmates and family, overflowing with panache, and the second half is a surreal exploration of the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile changing expectations in her transition to womanhood and independence. It’s an original experience that is as flamboyant as it is honest.

[Currently available on Netflix}

4. Swiss Army Man

While it will most definitely turn off viewers with its aggressively weird premise and moments of gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man is an incredibly emotional journey. It looks at the value of friendship from the angle of outcasts and examines the nature of conformity with Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse as the mouthpiece of the directors. It’s a call to break free from our own inhibitions and an indictment of the self-doubt that prevents us from being happy, filtered through the minds of two strange filmmakers.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

3. A Monster Calls

Movies are rarely more honest about grief than A Monster Calls, especially from a child’s perspective. At every turn, it eschews easy answers and delves deeper into the emotions behind the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Using beautifully rendered fairytale stories and a lifelike tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it tackles the seldom touched upon topic of guilt with uncommon sensitivity and insight.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

2. Sing Street

Sing Street is the most infectious movie of the year with an incredible original soundtrack and endearingly oblivious characters. As the kids start their own band in 1980s Dublin, their tenacious spirit and adorable naivete is irresistible. Whether it’s writing the next hit song or winning the affections of a certain someone, anything is possible. Director John Carney has proven once again that he is the master of the modern music movie.

[Currently available on Netflix}

1. Under the Shadow

Blending physical and supernatural dangers, Under the Shadow creates tension with every scene. The unexplained missing items, freak occurrences, and ingrained superstitions escalate into an unbearable level of suspense without ever resorting to frequent jump scares or cheap gore. I have never been more terrified of a piece of fabric in my entire life.

[Currently available on Netflix. DO NOT watch the dubbed version. Please change your settings to watch in the original Farsi.}

Special Mention: Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

Its appeal is incredibly small, but if you are in the specific demographic that grew up with the original web series, Pure Pwnage Teh Movie is going to be an unexpectedly successful modernization of an early-internet-video classic.

[Currently available for VOD rental on Vimeo]

Brad’s Status (2017): A Self-centered Midlife Crisis

At some point in life, we look at what we have and wonder, “What else could I be?” It’s natural to compare ourselves to others and think about the alternate lives we could have led. Written and directed by Mike White (Year of the Dog), Brad’s Status is about a middle-aged man doing just that. When Brad (Ben Stiller; Zoolander) takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams; Paper Towns) to visit colleges, he starts to think back to his own college days and where his close group of friends ended up. One is a political commentator and author of several best-selling books, another owns his own hedge fund, and the last sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii at the age of 40. Brad, on the other hand, started a small non-profit and lives a normal life in Sacramento with wife and son.

Brad’s Status is the quintessential midlife crisis film. Brad feels like he missed his potential and his comparisons to the illustrious lives of his college friends are relatable because of his chosen profession. While others chose the money and power of politics, finance, or tech, he chose service to others and is now living through the consequences of that decision. The central question is not only what could he have done to become successful, but rather how could he have done the most good. Does his non-profit, scraping together financing from reluctant donors, make a difference? Brad’s only employee turns in his two-week notice and remarks “I’d rather make a lot of money and donate it than beg people for their money.” The realities created from a life of service versus self-interest and how decisions made for altruistic reasons can lead to middling personal outcomes is the film’s most sympathetic angle.

Stiller and Abrams have natural chemistry as father and son.

To a certain extent, Brad’s struggle is an exercise in solipsism. He only views the world in terms of how it affects him, sometimes even forgetting about his loved ones. This disregard can become callous when he looks at the effect of his relationship with his wife. One of his friends had a career-focused, ambitious spouse that, in Brad’s mind, forced his friend to push himself further in comparison. Brad’s wife is a loving, supportive partner but he wonders if her contentedness with their middle-class life held him back. This is the kind of reasoning that can often make Brad an unlikable character. He can resort to blaming others for his own failings. When issues with his personal success turn outward, it makes him seem less like tragic figure suffering for a noble cause and, especially when he is ungrateful towards his caring wife, more like a self-centered asshole.

Thankfully, the supporting cast eventually calls Brad on his bullshit. It’s a relief when even the college aged characters burst his bubble of self-absorption and point out his narrowmindedness, but his son is the main catalyst for change. Despite his age, Troy is a calm, self-assured individual and without his father’s crippling self-doubt. The realistic interplay between father and son is heartwarming as Troy’s confidence gives his dad hope and purpose. Regardless of his current position in life, Brad still made an impact on the world through raising his son. Some of the conclusions White comes to may be cliché, but his belief in the value of family and parenthood over material wealth still holds weight. It may not overcome a degree of navel-gazing, but, in an age of increasingly exhibitionist behavior, Brad’s Status is a worthwhile reminder of what defines true success.

3/5 stars.

mother! (2017): A Dizzying, Disturbing Descent

With only strange posters and cryptic trailers, details about mother! have been deliberately kept to a minimum. The new film from Darren Aronofsky is one of his stranger works. Picture the creeping suspicion from Rosemary’s Baby, the allegory of The Fountain, and paranoid jump scares like the refrigerator scene in Requiem for a Dream all mixed together with a continuously escalating sense of chaos. Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) plays the much younger wife of a poet (Javier Bardem; No Country for Old Men) who has been struggling with writer’s block. They live together in a secluded house that Lawrence is renovating while Bardem struggles to complete new material. Their peaceful isolation is broken when a strange man visits and stays for the night, bringing with him much more than expected.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s camera is fixated on Jennifer Lawrence. The film is shot in uncomfortably tight close-ups with an unstable handheld camera. Libatique employs a constantly moving technique that creates a dizzying effect. Like a lab rat desperately trying to escape a maze, the camera swerves from room to room with each movement revealing more sinister situations. Its swirling pans prevent the tension from ever receding as increasingly destructive events erupt into the frame. As Lawrence, in her best performance to date, attempts to defuse her growing predicaments, her pure, altruistic love for her husband comes into stark contrast against the predatory beings intruding into her world.

Lawrence is sympathetic as the only humane character in a world of selfishness.

This is film that begs the question “how did this get made?”. And by a major studio! It may be that Paramount was hoping to stumble onto Black Swan levels of box office success, but that film didn’t contain anything nearly as divisive. mother! becomes unapologetically twisted and downright mean. Characters suffer horrible mistreatment while others seem unconcerned which may repulse viewers unused to such transgressions. As things spiral out of control, the film never stops to explain itself. Rather than elucidate the purpose behind the disorienting thrills, the film argues that the thrills are themselves the purpose and comes to a recursive conclusion that may leave general audiences unsatisfied. mother! is a film to be appreciated as a bewildering experience rather than typical narrative.

Aronofsky has stated his intentions about the film representing climate change. Lawrence is supposed to be the embodiment of mother nature with her shameless abuse representing the damaging effect of a greedy, merciless mankind. This interpretation may help understand the film and it seems justified, but my initial thoughts went elsewhere. This is a story of the mad, all-consuming destruction wreaked by an artist. Bardem’s character’s supposed commitment to his writing is slowly revealed to be nothing more than self-absorption hiding behind a pretense of depth. Every action he takes is self-aggrandizing and he is completely dismissive of the support from Lawrence’s character. mother! is a takedown of the egotistical nature of art. It externalizes the ugliness and selfishness of people fixated on their own success. The often vile acts onscreen may be exaggerations, but they aren’t untruths. Aronofsky has created a dizzying, disquieting, and disturbing descent into the dark side of any artistic pursuit.

4/5 stars.

Dave Made a Maze (2017): Cardboard Sets and Cardboard Acting

With a weekend all to himself, Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist, creates an elaborate cardboard maze in his living room. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns, he tells her that he has been inside for three days and is unable to get out. Confused, she calls his friends over and they enter the maze only to get lost themselves.

The film’s most distinguishing trait is the look of the maze. It’s a twisting, handmade structure. First time director Bill Waterson created elaborate sets that are completely unified in their aesthetic. Inside the maze, everything is made from art supplies, including animals, monsters, and, occasionally, human parts. Characters bleed confetti and silly string instead of blood. The inventiveness and commitment to the aesthetic are the highlight of the film as each additional leg of their journey brings new designs. Watterson is able to get a surprising amount of variety from a limited set of materials by using different colors and patterns that prevent the maze from becoming plain. The standard obstacles, including booby traps and even a minotaur are present, but the corrugated look provides a fresh spin on each element.

The maze isn’t the only thing that appears to be built out of cardboard: the acting is just as stiff. Thune and Kumbhani have stilted, sometimes cringe-inducing, delivery and lack any noticeable chemistry. They seem like amateur actors in front of the camera for the first time. The script is no help either. Most characters are underwritten and the director relies on exaggerated reaction shots for development. The supporting cast is mostly one note. They are supposed to provide comic relief but are but each only has a single discernable, usually self-consciously quirky, trait that leaves them either forgettable or annoying.

The film is filled with overdone reactions like these.

The central metaphor is that of art being an all-consuming endeavor. Dave is described as someone who has never been able to finish any of his artistic goals and is still being supported by his parents despite being in his 30s. The maze is both his greatest creation and his burden. He doesn’t want to leave the maze because he hasn’t finished it yet and it is the only thing he feels he has come close to completing. The conclusions here are obvious, that an artist’s work envelops their life and that of their loved ones, and the film never goes beyond commentary that has already been done before. There are many, better films that have examined the psychology behind the tortured artist trope. By devoting its focus on the maze itself, the film is never able to develop Dave and his artistic struggles.

Watterson’s clear influence is the art-and-craft visuals of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but he lacks the ability to match Gondry’s emotion. In Gondry’s films, his elaborate designs are always reflections of a character’s creativity and mental state. They reveal as much about the character as any line of dialogue. The maze and its inhabitants don’t have this connection to Dave. As creative as they may be, the designs in the maze are used as pure spectacle which leaves the film feeling hollow. The poor emotional development of Dave’s struggle and the stiff performances leave the film more like a maze found on the back of a daily newspaper: quick, obvious, and unsatisfying.

2/5 stars.

Good Time (2017): An Ultra-Gritty Crime Caper

Good Time should really be called Tough Luck. Directed by brothers Ben and Josh Safdie (Heaven Knows What), the film follows two bottom-rung losers as they try to steal enough money to get away from their miserable lives. Connie (Robert Pattinson; Twilight) and his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) attempt to rob a local bank for $65,000. When their plan goes south, Connie decides to rescue Nick which leads to a string of progressively complicated situations as he fumbles each step along the way.

The Safdie brothers bring their realistic shooting style to the caper film. The word “gritty” is frequently thrown around to describe what appears as a more realistic shooting style, but in reality, it is a relative term. The concept is often associated with the crime films of Martin Scorsese and, in comparison to most slick, mainstream films, his works do appear more down to earth, but that is only because of the excessive sheen given to the visuals of a standard Hollywood picture. The Safdie brothers employ a style that can only be described as ultra-gritty. Their actors are mostly unknowns that look like regular people. They’re unkept and not particularly attractive. Even Pattinson, the former Twilight heartthrob, looks and acts like a lowlife and the change is refreshing. The extras and minor characters seem like regular, imperfect beings and the glamour-free appearances make Connie’s flight more intense because the setting is grounded in the real world.

Nothing about the brothers’ plans go as desired.

The New York City of the Safdie brothers is a downright shithole. This is a part of Queens far away from the haute intellectual settings of a Woody Allen film. The movie was shot on film and features a pronounced film grain, adding a scrappy, low-budget feel to the actions onscreen. The houses we see are cramped and rundown and the few glimpses of better situations are short-lived. These are the dirty streets of the lower class, filled with people in perpetual cycles of barely making it by. The cast that populates the city is uniformly excellent with the direct, curt behavior expected from the NYC working class. Safdie as Nick is unrecognizable and utterly convincing as a mentally challenged character with his vacant, disconnected stares and delayed reactions. In their previous film, the Safdie brothers followed heroin addicts slumming their way through the city and the realism of their repeated self-harm almost became repulsive. Here, the entertaining characters and Connie’s relatable motivation prevent the aesthetic from becoming unpleasant. Instead, it lifts the stakes and clearly distinguishes the film from others in the genre.

Despite their disparate visual styles, the Safdie brothers have made their own version of a Michael Mann film, specifically Thief. They even use a pounding electric score that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work. The main difference is the caliber of their characters. Their protagonists, unlike Mann’s professional criminals, are horribly flawed. Connie is shown to have the seeds of good ideas and is crafty enough to momentarily avoid capture, but is not intelligent enough to fully solve his problems. The mistakes he makes as his outlook worsens are believable, but only for a desperate hoodlum with some awful decision-making. His narrow escapes exacerbate his situation and dig himself further into a hole which, to some, will almost be comedic in its escalation, but to others will be equally thrilling. The rough, realistic settings and increasingly precarious getaway make for a uniquely grounded heist movie.

4/5 stars.

Columbus (2017): Composed, Contemplative, but a Little Too Quiet

Known for his video essays dissecting the style of other filmmakers, first-time director Kogonada brings a unique voice and eye for images to his debut picture. Two people find themselves intersecting in Columbus, Indiana, a center for modernist buildings. A Korean man, Jin (John Cho; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is forced to come to the city when his father, an architecture professor, has a medical emergency. He meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson; The Edge of Seventeen), a young architecture enthusiast delaying her college education to take care of her unstable mother. They begin meeting regularly as Casey shows Jin her favorite buildings in the city.

As the leads of the film, Cho and Richardson form a believable companionship. There is a hint of romantic feelings between them, but the film never makes them explicit. This is a relationship closer to that of Once than a typical romance. Richardson plays Casey as a bright, curious young woman that cares so deeply about her mother that she would neglect her own desires, but unfortunately Cho can’t match her performance. His readings as Jin are often stilted as he tries to relate to Casey, but their similar situations are enough reason to justify their bond. Both characters are trapped in Columbus by a parent and their candid conversations while surrounded by beautiful buildings become a gentle form of mutual therapy.

Every object in Kogonada’s film feels deliberately chosen for aesthetic balance.

Kogonada revels in the modernist architecture of the city. He relies on his fixed, wide-angled camera to allow the audience to dwell in the environments and heavily incorporates shots of building exteriors as connective tissue between scenes. Even though the locations are immaculate with each piece of fabric and furniture precisely chosen, they never feel sterile. He frequently uses symmetry in his framings and one-point perspective that funnels the viewer’s attention deep into the image, similar to the compositions favored by Edward Yang. For Kogonada, each plane of the image is of value and action is frequently placed at multiple depths. There are no flat backgrounds that only provide pleasant scenery here. Kogonada’s multidimensional images have a still, contemplative beauty.

There are several points where the director uses dialogue to reference his intents as a filmmaker. Referring to their dinner, Casey’s mother comments that it needed more spice to which she replies, “I was going for something a little more subtle.” In another scene, a librarian posits that people not being interested in reading is “…not a crisis of attention, but a crisis of interest.” With each of these lines, Kogonada appears to be describing his own style. The film has a subtle tone and may not have enough overt emotion to keep everyone interested. It’s true that it could have used more flavor. Jin’s estranged relationship with his father is something that is mentioned but never fully fleshed out and it leaves his character lacking in comparison to Casey. His motivations and callous behavior relating to his father’s health don’t receive the depth needed to be fully sympathetic which drains the film of some its central drama. Kogonada’s debut may not be a full success, but his pensive tone and skill with image composition mark him as a filmmaker of high potential.

3/5 stars.

Some Freaks (2017): Social Outcasts Coming-of-age

A one-eyed boy and an overweight girl form the unlikely pairing at the heart of Some Freaks. The film is the directorial debut of playwright Ian MacAllister McDonald and follows Matt (Thomas Mann playing a role similar to his in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), the boy missing an eye, and Jill (newcomer Lily Mae Harrington), a heavyset punk transfer student. The film is separated into two sections. The first shows the two meeting when they are the only people in their biology class without a partner for a project. Each has been the victim of bullying and they quickly enter an awkward, but caring relationship. The second section picks up when Matt visits Jill at college, having been physically apart since graduation.

The film suffers from a rushed and amateurish first half. McDonald repeatedly uses title cards to skip forward in time to advance the relationships but, save for the necessary gap separating the film’s two halves, the leaps are distracting. They’re an indication of poor editing trying to create character progression. The camerawork makes this feel even more slapdash. The lighting can be strong, but the camera is constantly jostling around to the point that it becomes difficult to track characters that are simply taking a walk. The cast is held in extremely shallow focus which can in general be a good technique, but when they move the focus doesn’t move with them. McDonald has stated that this was a deliberate decision to depict the unstable nature of teenagers still defining themselves but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling like it was shot by a subpar cinematographer. The characters are sympathetic, but McDonald seems to be rushing toward the second half where he can explore his true interests.

Harrington gives a realistic, conflicted performance.

Some Freaks is about how relationships can change us and how personal change can affect our relationships. These teens are in flux and the second half of the film, by far the stronger portion, examines the consequences of their development. When Matt finally visits Jill at her college, she is not the girl he remembers. She looks and acts completely different. Even though she still cares for him, he is unable to reconcile her new self with the one he fell in love with. In this half, Harrington reveals herself as the film’s true star and a breakout talent. She must come to terms with who she was, who she wants to be, and whether Matt is a part of that. In one of the film’s best scenes, she delivers an eviscerating tongue-lashing that hits the core of their problem. They were brought together by their outsider status so Jill’s progression has removed what was the foundation of their relationship. Their dissolution is a raw and nuanced portrayal of a couple that finds themselves moving at divergent velocities.

McDonald deserves praise for focusing on these specific characters. Few films bother with humanizing people at the fringe of society. The closest we normally get are fake misfits that are one makeover away from being on the cover of a magazine. In an intimate, but depressing scene, Matt confesses that he had never thought about girls before Jill. He spent so much of his energy struggling to make it through each day amidst the tormenting of his classmates that he never had time to think about romance. These teenagers are truly at the bottom rung of their social ladder and it is refreshing to see how their relationships benefit them. Even as their romance fades, its impact remains. It helped them get through a difficult time and despite the heartbreak it’s end may cause, it will be a part of them as they move on in their lives. Some Freaks is a film filled with difficult, honest insights about our formational relationships, dampened by a jumbled first half.

3/5 stars.

The Girl Without Hands (2017): Gorgeous Art, Unnecessary Adaptation

The world of animation has becoming increasingly similar. Despite growing options with new technologies, most companies opt for computer generated 3D animation. As beautiful as these renderings can be, the lack of diversity is disheartening with Japan remaining as the main producer of feature length 2D animation. The Girl Without Hands is a welcome visual change, featuring a singular hand-painted 2D art style animated entirely by its director Sébastien Laudenbach. The film is an adaptation of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It is the story of a miller that mistakenly trades his daughter for wealth in a deal with the devil and follows her as she faces the fallout of his decision.

The expressive images are worthy of hanging up on a wall.

Laudenbach art is the film’s most distinctive quality. He uses a minimalist, yet expressive style. The images are less like drawings and more like etchings. Each frame has a colored background with objects shaded in rather than explicitly outlined in a sort of spartan impressionism. The background colors are textured and often have a gentle gradient that sets the mood for each scene and the brush strokes are painted on similar to watercolors. The film animates by having these strokes pulsate and is particularly effective when depicting water or wind. The rippling colors perfectly encapsulate the energy and movement of nature. Laudenbach also has a unique method of showing the emotional state of the characters. Because they are so minimally sketched, he can paint a broad stroke of color over them and even as the character moves, this mark remains, showing their lasting presence and the unchanging state of their mind. His indirect approach to his images gives the film its unmistakable storybook quality.

The vibrant colors are a joy to look at.

If only the screenplay wasn’t also of storybook quality. The original fable is short and the film, while running only 76 minutes, still feels overlong. The material hasn’t changed significantly in adapting it for the screen so there isn’t enough content to justify the runtime and what is present is too simplistic. As gorgeous as it is, the film is clearly an excuse to show of Laudenbach’s beautiful images. Several scenes are elongated just to feature the artwork. The story, with its fairytale roots, never produces any emotional response. This is a fantasy world that is too detached from our reality to create a connection. There is supposed to be a moral lesson about admonishing the pursuit of wealth, but it is delivered using blunt platitudes that are as generic as they are groan-inducing. A character says to the girl’s father, “You are rich. How could you be at peace?”. These aren’t new or creatively presented insights. This might be a trait that stems from the source material, but even so that doesn’t mean it translates well in a film. The few original flourishes added to the story are scenes that show the director’s gross and unnecessary fetish with genitals that has no place in something that was originally meant for children. Laudenbach’s artwork and animation are uniquely expressive and minimalist, but the story they present would have been better suited to a picture book, not a feature length film.

2/5 stars.

Detroit (2017): Unsettling, Infuriating, and Timely

Working again with writer/producer Mark Boal to make a historically based film, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) leaves military stories behind for a period piece set during the Detroit riot of 1967. As a brief, but informative intro animation explains, the city of Detroit had become increasingly segregated with many of its black citizens living in the crowded inner city patrolled by a predominantly white police force. A large-scale raid and arrest of an unlicensed bar leads to riots, city-wide destruction, and the deployment of the National Guard. The film follows an up-and-coming doo-wop group led by Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) as they retreat to a nearby motel to avoid the riots, only to be attacked by the local police.

The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style. Bigelow has used this technique before and she leans even harder into this direction here. She uses an unstable camera that rapidly whips between subjects and zooms in and out constantly as if a cameraperson is rushing to capture live action. This makes the film incredibly immersive and it would be easy to forget that this isn’t found footage from the actual time. Bigelow chooses to interweave real news video and photographs which makes this distinction even harder. She is also an expert at blocking her scenes. And by that I literally mean blocking. The film almost always features groups or crowds and the characters will routinely burst into frame and obstruct the camera’s view causing it to have to readjust around them. These cinematographic choices create a palpable feeling of boots-on-the-ground frenzy.

You will hate Poulter (left) because of this film.

There are times when the story can strain your patience. The film’s climax is a slightly overlong interrogation inside a motel where three Detroit police officers repeated assault and, in some cases, kill the mostly black tenants for a crime they have no physical evidence of. This depiction dramatizes an event using witness testimonies so, as the film states in the end credits, some liberties were taken during the recreation. The local police, led by Will Poulter (The Revenant) in an appropriately repulsive performance, continuously fail at drawing out a confession and the film shows each of their futile attempts. These start to wear thin as you wonder why the police, or the filmmakers, haven’t moved on already. At 143 minutes long, the movie would have improved with some editing in this particular scene. The incompetence, the racism, and the cruelty of the police becomes evident quickly which makes the extended sequences unnecessary. Bigelow may be using the length to emphasize the cast’s protracted suffering but the point has already been made and further emphasis without additional depth becomes somewhat redundant, even if these scenes are rooted in fact.

Despite some pacing issues, Bigelow uses the injustice on display to create a sense of terror and urgency. For these characters, the slightest misconstrued movement or innocuous comment could lead to a ruthless beating or worse, so every interaction is fraught with danger. It’s impossible to separate the events depicted in the film from our current problems in America. The actions of the police in the film combined with the horrifying news headlines of the past few years become both hideous and infuriating with later scenes involving John Krasinski (The Office) as a police union lawyer being blood-boiling in their blatant inequity. The inhumanity displayed by the authorities towards people of color makes for more than just a disturbing movie. It has been some time since we have had a film that can truly be described as polemic, but Detroit deserves that descriptor. Bigelow’s indictment of systemic racism and injustice in 1967 Detroit is an upsetting look into the tribulations of minorities at the hands of law enforcement that is infuriating and, sadly, relevant to our present world.

4/5 stars.

To the Bone (2017): A Grounded, Painful Look at Addiction

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

With glamorous images of people with seemingly perfect looks and illustrious lives exacerbated by social media, we are inundated with unrealistic ideals of how we should look and behave. For some, this can lead to harmful behaviors, namely eating disorders. To the Bone follows Ellen (Lily Collins; Mirror Mirror), a 20-year-old living with anorexia nervosa. She has just left her fourth treatment facility without showing any improvement and returns home to a stepmother who is unsure of what to do next. She finds one final physician who may be Ellen’s last chance at recovery.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) turns up in an unexpected, but welcome supporting role. He plays Dr. Beckham, an eating disorder specialist known for his high success rate and unusual methods. Reeves plays Beckham as a tough, no-nonsense doctor. Instead of sterile clinical language, he is direct and almost confrontational. “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living”, he tells Ellen. His experience makes him impatient with pleasantries, but detailed during actual treatment and his advice, however blunt, is filled with support. He genuinely cares for the well-being of his patients and Reeves’s confident performance highlights his intelligence, understanding, and compassion.

The physical effects of anorexia create some of the film’s most unsettling images.

Director Marti Noxon’s approach to group dynamics goes far beyond the typical addiction movie. Instead of only focusing on Ellen’s struggles, she takes time to explore the damage done to her loved ones. This ranges from a mother too hurt to look at her suffering daughter, a frustrated stepmother, an absent father, and a loving younger sibling who misses having her older sister in her life. Noxon understands that these afflictions also manifest differently. She uses the different patients in the treatment home to show the lengths to which people will go. Whether it’s laxatives, diet pills, or hiding bags full of vomit, these are people trapped by their disorder into an unstable frame of mind. As a test of her size, Ellen tries to wrap her thumb and forefinger around her bicep. The film is deeply disturbing in its depiction of the unrealistic, self-destructive ideals the patients impose on themselves and the rippling effects they have on their families.

Collins is frightening in her performance. She has written about her own struggles with eating disorders and she clearly draws from those personal experiences in her acting. Her progressively skeletal frame and gaunt facial features show her deteriorating condition. “You’re a ghost”, her mom says after seeing her. The film has faced some backlash over its depiction of anorexia, but it neither glorifies nor indicts people with eating disorders. It repeatedly states its position: that this an addiction and one without clean answers. When Ellen’s stepmother tries to tell her doctor that the disorder has something to do with her mother, he cuts her off and says, “It’s never that simple.” This isn’t a film about easy solutions or motivational speeches. Noxon delves into the obsessive behaviors of anorexics and the fractured families that may be both a source and symptom of the disorder. The only exception is a dream sequence near the conclusion that is embarrassing in its literalism and contradicts the film’s grounded tone. Save for this specific mistake, Noxon has created a realistic examination of the struggles of someone clinging to warped body image ideals and the turmoil it can create for those who love them.

4/5 stars.

Brigsby Bear (2017): “Dope as Shit, Man”

This a movie to watch with no prior information. If you’re willing to do that, suffice it to say that the film is a strange, hilarious, and heartfelt comedy.

If you need more than that, please read on. Minor plot details follow that tiptoe around spoilers.

Brigsby Bear is a story of a young man named James (Kyle Mooney) who is obsessed with a TV show about an intergalactic bear that fights an evil talking star in what seems to be a low budget 80s style production. James’s entire life has revolved around Brigsby (the titular bear) so when the show abruptly ends, he must adjust to normal living. He has no other context for regular human reactions and the film becomes both a coming of age and a fish out of water story of him learning about the real world while proving to it that his passion is worthwhile. To demonstrate what he has learned from his favorite show, he decides to make the film sequel. With no experience, money, or even, initially, friends, he writes a script, draws a storyboard, and starts his journey anyways.

James’s integration into modern society is a limitless supply of laughs. He has never had friends or been exposed to any type of media other than Brigsby so he frames everyone’s behavior in terms of plotlines from the show. Brigsby reacted in a certain way, so he assumes that he should too. The trouble comes in the many scenarios that Brigsby did not cover, namely parties, slang, and drugs and alcohol. In these cases, James makes the exact wrong choice and imitates others…poorly. His (mis)use of slang around the wrong people and the way he copies other people’s mannerisms to try to be normal are endearingly awkward. His good-natured spirit makes every faux pas equal parts hilarious and sweet.

James’s unbreakable spirit is magnetic.

The film’s success rests on Mooney’s pitch perfect performance. With even a trace of knowing satire or cynicism, the entire film would have fallen apart. Mooney instead plays James with the most childlike earnestness. Every interaction he has is free from judgement, ulterior motives, or ego. Mooney creates a genuine innocence that becomes the heart of the film. He approaches luxuries we take for granted with a contagious wonder and enthusiasm. In a world of forgotten dreams and suffocating realities, James is a dreamer with nothing but hope. His passion, dedication, and conviction are absolutely infectious, even if the project in question is ridiculous.

Director Dave McCary strikes a tone that precisely complement’s Mooney’s performance. The film never looks at its subjects with any sense of ridicule. His camera comes from a place of pure compassion and every character’s flaws or desires are treated with respect. For example, there is a detective who wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, but gave up when life got in the way and McCary gives his hopes the deepest sympathy. Like James, the film views the world as an open book, with each individual as an aspiring writer. They just need the belief in their own ability to say something. The tenderness of McCrary’s direction and Mooney’s sincere screenplay and performance create a film that reminds us of the passions we neglect and celebrates the desire to create that exists in all of us. It’s an offbeat, heartfelt, and hilarious counterpoint to cynicism and apathy.

five stars

5/5 stars.