Best Music Moments of 2016

Whether it’s used to enhance an emotion or add an interesting contrast, music has always been intertwined with movies. Some of my favorite scenes in all of cinema rely heavily on their music and last year’s lineup was no exception. Here are the best musical moments of 2016, in no particular order. Some minor spoilers follow, but will be called out before each movie as needed.

Captain Fantastic – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Beginning with gentle acapella vocals, this rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine starts out as an elegiac goodbye to a lost loved one and the past they carried with them. The children in the film are about to start a new chapter of their lives, but before the melancholy sets in they switch to a rousing, upbeat, acoustic sing-a-long. The jump in tone exemplifies the family’s resilience as they quickly move beyond their sorrow to face the future ahead, remembering the joy their mother brought them rather than their sadness at her absence.

Sing Street – Up

This is probably the most difficult film to pick an entry from, but also the most deserving. Like John Carney’s previous movies, Sing Street is filled with amazing original music. The film is an ode to the music of the 80’s and its songs come straight from the youthful hearts of the band members. Up may be my personal favorite from the soundtrack. It’s a boy basking the ups and downs of his first love. The vocals lift off to new heights as the singer experiences his first feelings of romance. His genuine naivete and joy are infectious. Be sure to also check out the other songs from the film.

Everybody Wants Some!! – Rapper’s Delight

The characters’ aggressive hypermasculinity of Everybody Wants Some!! was often repulsive as they continued to turn on each other for the slightest appearance of victory. However, their one moment of unity was in a short car drive. Between trading insults, they take a break to sing when the Sugarhill Gang comes on the radio. Their playful handoffs finally reveal the deep comradery hidden underneath the insults they normally hurl at each. It’s a welcome, exuberant expression of male friendship.

Girl Asleep – You Make Me Feel

An unwanted birthday party with everyone in your school invited is a wallflower’s worst nightmare. As the film’s shy lead stands in fear, the celebration ends up being something far beyond the normal. The party becomes surreal as each classmate dances their way in and drops off their gift. Just when it feels like things are back to normal the entire crowd erupts into an unexpected, synchronized dance number. It might be far-fetched but the 70s spirit is too contagious for anyone to care. This scene is a glorious abstraction and one of the grooviest moments of the year.

Hardcore Henry – Don’t Stop Me Now

As if Hardcore Henry’s action scenes weren’t exaggerated enough, the director uses Freddie Mercury’s bellowing vocals to take the film to the next level. Caught in a state of weakness and surrounded by enemies, Henry double fists shots of adrenaline and jumps back into the thick of it. The Queen song best exemplifies the film’s gleeful take on violence and has oddly appropriate lyrics. This isn’t about serious fighting. It’s a respite from the gritty realism of many modern action movies and a celebration of the euphoria that can be created with well-choreographed violence.

American Honey – American Honey

When the titular track finally plays, it’s more than background music, it’s a culmination of the lead’s aimless life. The song’s sweet, nostalgic vocals reminisce on a past long gone. For Star (Sasha Lane), it creates a moment of realization of what her journey has been and will continue to be. It’s a redefinition of what the American Dream is to young people like her. Not a path of upwards mobility, but a horizon of limited opportunity. As she looks around at the troubled youth just like her, the song becomes a farewell to her aspirations and an acceptance of her constrained future.

Swiss Army Man – Montage

Last year’s weirdest film also came with the most meta musical moment: a montage featuring an acapella track titled “Montage”. The strangely anthemic vocals underscore an uplifting spirit and narrate the actions onscreen as we discover just how many odd uses the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe has. It’s the arts-and-crafts quirkiness of Michel Gondry combined with Spielberg’s sentimentalism as the bond between the two leads grows and allows them to escape their own loneliness – and use a dead body as a machine gun. Honorable mention must be given to the film’s use of the Jurassic Park Theme. Remember: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit”.

Toni Erdmann – Greatest Love of All

A series of increasingly uncomfortable interactions created by an eccentric father trying to be involved in the life of his stressed out straight-laced daughter build to a moment of what could be pure embarrassment. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is forced to sing in front of strangers, something she is completely unprepared for and her performance is as cringe-inducing as it is funny. Her singing begins shyly as it takes several intros for her to even start but she unexpectedly escalates into a full, committed performance. Each note belted out and every sassy expression on her face is a masterclass in awkward amusement.

La La Land – Audition (The Fools Who Dream)

My opinions on La La Land were much more lukewarm than most, but the real standout moment of the film is during a crucial audition. Mia (Emma Stone) has been crushed by her constant rejection as an actress and only returns to Hollywood at the behest of her boyfriend. Instead of being guarded, she opens herself up and delivers a personal tale. The background fades to black as Stone’s increasingly mournful expression dominates the frame with a painful ballad of pursuing one’s dreams at all costs. The vulnerability and reflection of her unsuccessful career turn the song into an aching eulogy for her own failed aspirations.

Star Trek Beyond – Sabotage (SPOILERS)

Director Justin Lin brought a fun, frenetic energy to the action of Star Trek Beyond and nowhere is this more apparent than in the finale. After being attacked by a horde of interconnected spaceships, the only solution is to beam low-tech radio at the frequency of their communications and disrupt their flight patterns. Instead of some forgettable signal, the only available transmission is a Beastie Boys song. Their anti-establishment spirit and the silly setup make the film’s climax a playful wave of explosions that stick it to the man (err…bad alien).

Personal Shopper (2017)

Olivier Assayas’s newest film was surprisingly the most divisive entry at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. After the screening, several critics booed the movie while others applauded. Despite the mixed reaction, most likely in response to the ending, it went on to win the award for Best Director. Personal Shopper is the second team-up between Assayas and Kristen Stewart after 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper in Paris who happens to be a medium. Her twin brother, also a medium, recently died from a congenital heart disease they both share. They made a promise at a young age that whoever passed away first would give the other a sign from the afterlife so Maureen stays put in a job she hates, waiting for his signal.

Stewart delivers consistently strong acting. Her conflicted expressions display her fragile emotional state. Losing her twin brother was losing a part of herself and that mourning prevents her otherworldly explorations from becoming pretentious or irritating. During her day job buying clothes for her wealthy employer she shows her professional ennui without appearing whiny. Her character’s longing to reconnect with her twin brother and inability to move past with death are deeply sympathetic. Her previous experience working with the director has clearly benefitted her as she completely inhabits the role.

There is a certain amount of unintended silliness to the movie’s premise. It’s very easy for ghost stories to become laughable when attempts to connect with spirits are stilted and Personal Shopper occasionally veers into that territory. Large portions of the film feature Stewart texting the ghost that is supposedly stalking her which isn’t as foreboding as direct contact would have been. There are scenes when this type of communication is used effectively, like turning on your phone to see a series of progressively violent texts, but at times it makes the spectral world seem disappointingly mundane.

Stewart’s fearful attempts to make contact are the best parts of the film.

When Maureen is faced with meeting a ghost in person, the film is able to ratchet up the tension. As she explores an empty house or apartment looking for a signal from a spirit that may or may not be her brother, there is a palpable sense of dread because anything can be mistaken as a sign. Did someone leave that faucet on? Is it the wind that opened this door? Stewart’s performance hypersensitizes the audience to every irregular detail that could potentially be caused by supernatural interference. These scenes create the desired apprehension and show the potential of what the film could have been.

Personal Shopper is help back by its unfocused screenplay. Assayas splits the runtime across the intriguing ghost story and the fairly banal workplace drama. This prevents either aspect from being fully developed and actively harms the tone created in the ghost story. Maureen’s dissatisfaction with the menial tasks the make up her job and the demanding, inconsiderate diva she works for is relatable but consumes unnecessary screen time. Had Assayas been more decisive with his focus, he could have either made a compelling exploration of the afterlife or an interesting drama about a stifling dead-end job. Without a clear direction, Personal Shopper can’t succeed beyond Stewart’s committed performance.

3/5 stars.

Raw (2017)

The first thing to know about Raw is that it’s not for the squeamish. Its early screenings have caused audience walkouts, vomiting, and even fainting in festivals from Gothenburg to Toronto. Even knowing that you’re about to see a difficult film is not enough preparation, so consider yourself warned. The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman raised vegetarian, who begins her first year of veterinary school. This is the same school her parents went to and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior student there. During a hazing ritual in her first week, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. From there, her taste for meat grows and can only be satisfied by human flesh.

The body horror is disgusting. And by that I mean it is incredibly realistic. The film is filled with blood and lacerated flesh. The practical effects capture the repulsive sheen of blood coated surfaces. Justine’s mouth, dripping with the thick crimson fluid, is a disturbing sight to behold. The movie also features some vomit-inducing scenes involving human hair shot in extreme closeup to prevent the viewer from any chance of relief. The effects, and their staging, make viewing a harrowing experience.

Justine is always at the mercy of those around her.

Despite being her first theatrical feature, director Julia Ducournau is remarkably adept at tackling complex topics. She uses long takes during Justine’s first party experience to convey the mass hysteria of young people raging with drugs and alcohol. She is even able to examine the subtleties of sibling relationships within the context of Justine’s nascent cannibalism. When Justine is forced to betray her personal beliefs by eating meat, she takes out her anger on Alexia for not supporting her. The two argue, slam doors, and even fight, but their love for each other comes through when they are at their worst. As their primal appetites surface, they reach an understanding with each other. Ducournau is able to capture the clashes that underscore the love between siblings.

Marillier’s performance prevents the movie from devolving into schlock material. Her genuine confusion as she deals with the changes in and around her is in stark contrast to her peers. Even as her lips are stained red with blood, her face exudes innocence, not malice. Her bloodlust appears like an uncontrollable urge hard-wired into her. She tries to stop her habit from growing, but it is a part of her being. The compassion her acting elicits makes her a sympathetic character, even when her actions are aberrant.

Raw might be best described as a cannibal coming of age movie. As violent as Justine’s habits become, they are symptomatic of her sheltered life. She is shown as the well-behaved, hard-working child that hasn’t experienced the world. Whether it’s cannibalism, sexual awakening, or independence from her family, she hasn’t had the chance to define herself and the changes are just another part of her self-discovery. Ducournau grounds the explicit narrative and transgressive behavior with the symbolism of a young woman finding herself and directs the gore with unsettling skill.

4/5 stars.

Song to Song (2017)

Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.

The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.

There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.

The upscale parties and general opulence offer little reason to feel for the characters.

Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.

One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.

Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.

1/5 stars.

Get Out (2017)

Making a 180-degree switch, Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) directs and writes Get Out, his first feature. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya; Sicario), a black man, has been dating Rose (Allison Williams; Girls), a white woman, for some time. They decide to spend the weekend at her parent’s house so Chris can finally meet her family. Chris is uneasy about what her parent’s reaction might be and his initial concern turns into suspicion after meeting the two family servants, both black, who seem to be too polite and too satisfied with their current situation.

Despite the genre, Peele remains true to his comedy roots. Comedian Lil Rel Howery costars as the TSA agent best friend. Normally this type of role could conflict with the film’s intent, but Peele is able to use this character to prevent the film from becoming too serious. Howery becomes the viewer surrogate. He says all the things that audience members normally shout at the screen during a horror movie and is able to be consistently funny without ever becoming obnoxious or distracting.

Get Out’s strengths in confronting racism come out in the little details. Rose’s family aren’t overtly racist, cross-burning, KKK members, but their prejudices comes out in subtle ways. It’s the way Rose’s dad keeps calling Chris “my man” and the way an older female relative feels his muscles as if he is an animal. It’s not that these people think less of him because of his race, it’s the assumptions they make about him. All of these behaviors, while satirical in nature, ring true. Any minority can attest to being in similar situations. Peele deserves enormous credit for accurately highlighting these forms of ingrained prejudice.

Rose’s family’s interactions with Chris capture the minute changes they make because of his race.

Where the film stumbles is with its narrative turns. The setup is nothing new and was mostly shown in its trailers. It’s basically The Stepford Wives with race instead of gender and the film doesn’t ever build past that starting point. The exact details of the situation might be a slight surprise to some, but the direction the film is headed is clear from the beginning. The underlying cause of this failure is Peele’s inability to produce sustained tension. For the audience to be invested in Chris’s situation, there needed to be a possibility that everything was normal and that Chris was just being paranoid. By not keeping the alternatives plausible, Peele effectively saps the film of the suspense it needed to be successful.

It also features some incredibly contrived plotting. In order to push the story to a climax, many films have forced reveals that are caused by actions that don’t make sense for the characters to do. For example, the villain might just happen to leave out a notebook that contains their plans. Get Out unfortunately uses a similar plot device to progress the film. It breaks the immersion and feels entirely artificial. Get Out is an encouraging debut for Jordan Peele, but it’s well-balanced humor and look at the subtle details of race relations are held back by a borrowed, predictable, and often forced narrative.

3/5 stars.

The Salesman (2017)

Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) was absent from this year’s Oscars due his protest of the recent immigration ban, but his latest release was very much in the room. He won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the second time with The Salesman. The film stars many of his regular collaborators with Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) as Emad and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) as Rana, a married couple who are actors currently costarring in a production of Death of a Salesman. After their apartment building is damaged in a construction accident, they move to a recently vacated apartment recommended by another actor. Shortly after moving in, when Emad is out, Rana is assaulted by an intruder while taking a shower. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of this attack as the couple decides what to do next.

The Salesman brings Farhadi into noticeably darker material. While his films are well known for being morally complicated, his previous works did not feature this kind of deliberate criminality. In addition to a series of well-intentioned but disastrous errors, this movie focuses on crime, punishment, and society. Instead of immediately calling the police, they take Rana to the hospital. The question then becomes: is it worth it to go to the police? Rana would have to relive the trauma she faced and potentially suffer public embarrassment. The desire to reduce the pain she has to go through directly conflicts with what is best for catching the criminal.

Rana’s emotional well-being becomes a focal point of the film.

The issue of justice is even more murky. Emad, using personal items left by the attacker, decides he will find him on his own. But to what end? How will he know who actually committed the crime and even if he is able to find the culprit, what will he do? Take him to the authorities or handle the situation on his own? What punishment will fit the crime and would any punishment actually help Rana? The movie confronts these issues as we see the couple’s opposing ideas. Emad wants retribution for Rana but Rana wants to move on and put this behind her more than anything else. As with all Farhadi films, neither character is favored and each position is shown to be flawed. There are no simple choices here, only alternative trade-offs.

Farhadi’s choice to build his film around the famous play has mixed results. Death of a Salesman is a clear classic, but the parallels the director tries to draw between Emad and Rana and Willy and Linda are too forced and too weak to justify the play’s emphasis. Willy’s self-destruction in the pursuit of money isn’t similar enough to Emad’s need for justice, nor is it different enough to create an insightful comparison. The play itself is also shown far more than it needed to be. Perhaps this was done to introduce some variety into the film’s settings. The stage is well shot and expertly lit, but the additional location doesn’t provide much value. Most of Farhadi’s films take place in one or two middle class apartments and it has never been an issue in the past. His morally ambiguous plotting remains enticing, but Farhadi’s decision to rope in an unnecessary element and give it a substantial amount of screen time causes his latest feature to fall short of its otherwise high potential.

4/5 stars.