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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Final Oscar Predictions 2016

Best Picture:
1. La La Land (Previous Ranking: 1)
2. Moonlight (Previous Ranking: 2)
3. Manchester by the Sea (Previous Ranking: 3)
4. Hidden Figures (Previous Ranking: 4)
5. Arrival (Previous Ranking: 6)
6. Hacksaw Ridge (Previous Ranking: 10)
7. Fences (Previous Ranking: 7)
8. Lion (Previous Ranking: 5)
9. Hell or High Water (Previous Ranking: 8)
        The last time the incumbent Best Picture winner felt this assured was nearly a decade ago, when Slumdog Millionaire never showed any true signs of weakness on its 6 month march to the podium. The much-beloved Moonlight is the only real threat to derail the La La Land freight train, but we're talking about a movie that tied the record for most nominations ever and it's about Hollywood, the Academy's favorite subject. Bet the house.

Best Director:
1. Damien Chazelle---La La Land
2. Barry Jenkins---Moonlight
3. Kenneth Lonergan---Manchester by the Sea
4. Denis Villenuve---Arrival
5. Mel Gibson---Hacksaw Ridge
        Copy and paste literally everything I said above but with ever-so-slightly less confidence. A Jenkins win here would be a nice concession to a movie many feel was the year's best, but if La La Land sweeps the technical categories (which is to be expected) how can you not give its director the top prize? The other three are just along for the ride.

Best Actor:
1. Denzel Washington---Fences
2. Casey Affleck---Manchester by the Sea
3. Ryan Gosling---La La Land
4. Viggo Mortensen---Captain Fantastic
5. Andrew Garfield---Hacksaw Ridge
        A short time ago this felt like Affleck in a lock, but sexual harassment scandals are no joke. That said, the one thing that's wise to keep in mind when predicting the Oscars is that 'best' really just means 'most,' and lord knows that Washington ACTED the most of anyone in this category. His SAG win seems to have sealed the deal, but there could still be a late surge from Affleck's camp, or even a Gosling win if La La Land just takes over the whole show. Even Mortensen, who has shown up at every awards gala despite his movie being completely ignored in every other category, has a puncher's chance, but smart money remains with Denzel taking home his third statue.

Best Actress:
1. Emma Stone---La La Land
2. Natalie Portman---Jackie
3. Isabella Huppart---Elle
4. Ruth Negga---Loving
5. Meryl Streep---Florence Foster Jenkins
        Much like Best Actor, Stone is the prohibitive favorite here after winning the SAG, but she's only just emerged after months of being stuck in Portman's shadow. Then there's Huppart, nominated for a little-seen film which is always a sign of strong support. I'm tempted to bump her up to the second spot, but Portman plays a real-life icon, which is always a boost. It's a three-horse race where I simultaneously feel like Stone is in front by a considerable margin, but could still cough up the lead at the last second. Can you imagine how ticked off people would be if Streep won?

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Mahershala Ali---Moonlight
2. Michael Shannon---Nocturnal Animals
3. Jeff Bridges---Hell or High Water
4. Lucas Hedges---Manchester By the Sea
5. Dev Patel---Lion
        This one is tricky because Ali feels very vulnerable for the upset given his limited screen time compared to the other nominees, but there's no one on this list who screams out as the underdog able to pull off the upset. This award almost always goes to an industry veteran with a lengthy resume, which would point to Bridges, but this just doesn't feel like the time to give him a second Oscar. Shannon isn't quite old enough to qualify for that description, but he's a much-beloved actor's actor, and his citation for a movie that missed out everywhere else could mean something. Even Hedges has a shot, given his participation in what voters likely feel is the best acted movie of the year. No way Patel sneaks in. I'm going with the safe money (Ali), but a Shannon or Bridges surprise wouldn't be that surprising.

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Viola Davis---Fences
2. Naomi Harris---Moonlight
3. Michelle Williams---Manchester By the Sea
4. Octavia Spencer---Hidden Figures
5. Nicole Kidman---Lion
        In a year where more categories feel like locks than usual, Davis is as assured as anyone. There's no doubt in my mind that certain voters still feel that Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady win was a straight-up theft from Davis (nominated that year for The Help), and she has enough screen time in Fences to be considered a lead in some people's eyes. Harris is the challenger simply because her movie has so many champions (and because she's fantastic in it), but they're not giving Williams her first for such a tiny role, and there's no way in hell that Kidman or Spencer wins another before Davis nabs her first.

Best Original Screenplay:
1. Kenneth Lonergan---Manchester By the Sea
2. Damien Chazelle--- La La Land
3. Taylor Sheridan---Hell or High Water
4. Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou---The Lobster
5. Mike Mills---20th Century Women
        I hope this category is presented early in the night, because if La La Land wins, we might be looking at it going 14 for 14. Why is this, you ask? Because no reasonable person could claim that Manchester By the Sea isn't by far the better written movie, and if voters are so in love with Damien Chazelle's musical to mark it down in this category, why not just give it everything? I suppose there's a small chance of Hell or High Water sneaking in, given its timely subject matter and broadly awesome dialogue. The other two received their award by being nominated.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
1. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney---Moonlight
2. Eric Heisserer---Arrival
3. Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi---Hidden Figures
4. August Wilson---Fences
5. Luke Davies---Lion
        Now here it gets interesting. The Writer's Guild awarded both Moonlight and Arrival, somehow assigning the former to the Original Screenplay category (... it's based on a play), making this one of the tougher picks of the night. I'll go with Moonlight simply because I think voters will be looking to honor the movie wherever it doesn't get in the way of going nuts over La La Land, but Arrival is a worthy competitor, and has a real shot at the naked golden man. Hidden Figures is the dark horse, a movie that I believe Oscar really loved, but just can't find a category for. The other two are also-rans.

Best Animated Feature:
1. Zootopia
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
3. Moana
4. My Life as a Zucchini
5. The Red Turtle
        Zootopia cleaned up at the Annie's (animation awards), and has a timely message, especially as the academy works overtime to convince us they're not all racists. Kubo's Special Effects nomination proves that the movie has some real love throughout the voting body, and could potentially be a spoiler given how amazing its animation truly is. I personally don't know how Moana isn't fighting for this prize, but after losing every precursor there's no real reason to have faith. There are somehow always a couple of foreign nominees in this category; they never win.

Best Foreign Language Feature:
1. The Salesman
2. Toni Erdmann
3. A Man Called Ove
4. Land of Mine
5. Tanna
        Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is being compared to Ingmar Bergman; I think that says about all you need to know as to why The Salesman is then obvious frontrunner. Toni Erdmann is still alive and well as a rapturously-reviewed spoiler, especially given that Farhadi has already won in this category (A Separation), but I'll stick with the favorite. The other three movies can take a walk.

Best Documentary:
1. OJ: Made in America
2. 13th
3. I Am Not Your Negro
4. Fire at Sea
5. Life, Animated
        This is a comparatively buzz-filled year for Best Documentary, the top three candidates more than capable of taking home the prize. Negro sports fantastic reviews, while 13th was directed by Ava DuVernay, who might be looking at a make-up win after being inexplicably snubbed for Selma just two ceremonies ago. That said, a slew of critics felt that Made in America was the best movie of the year, not just the best documentary. That kind of passionate following should be enough.

Best Cinematography:
1. Linus Sandgren---La La Land
2. Greig Fraser---Lion
3. James Laxton---Moonlight
4. Bradford Young---Arrival
5. Rodrigo Prieto---Silence
        Here's where we start our infinite plunge into the La La Land deep end. Fraser took home the ASC award, but that's only cinematographers; when we open it up to the whole academy, do you really see enough people voting in favor of the little-seen Lion for it to take Sandgren's award? In my mind, Laxton's work is the single best thing about Moonlight, but it still ranks third due to what was just described. Young will have more chances, and the fact that Prieto was Silence's lone citation should speak for itself.

Best Editing:
1. Tom Cross---La La Land
2. John Gilbert---Hacksaw Ridge
3. Joe Walker---Arrival
4. Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders---Moonlight
5. Jake Roberts---Hell or High Water
        Much like Supporting Actor, this is a category where the favorite seems incredibly vulnerable, but the right challenger is no where in sight. Gilbert is my spoiler simply because war epics tend to fare well in this category, but man, this one feels like a foregone conclusion. Remember, with Oscar, 'best' just means 'most.'

Best Production Design:
1. David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco---La La Land
2. Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock---Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
3. Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte---Arrival
4. Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh---Hail, Caesar!
5. Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena---Passengers
        And to think I'm only just beginning with my predictions of La La Land carnage. Beasts somehow won at BAFTA, and qualifies under my most-rather-than-best rules, but handing the award to a Harry Potter spinoff over LLL sounds like a steep hill to climb. Arrival takes the third spot due to its presence in the Best Picture race, and the last two sport a collective .00001% chance. Just give the thing to Wasco and Reynolds.

Best Costume Design:
1. Mary Zophres---La La Land
2. Madeline Fontaine---Jackie
3. Colleen Atwood---Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
4. Consolata Boyle---Florence Foster Jenkins
5. Joanna Johnston---Allied
        Much like Original Screenplay, I don't think La La Land has any business winning this category whatsoever; the only difference is this time I actually think it will. It's neck-and-neck with Jackie, a more traditional choice given its period setting, but that logic is most appropriately applied to Victorian-era flicks. Beasts is a little interesting, but is an obvious third wheel. When in doubt, just write La La Land

Best Original Score:
1. Justin Hurwitz---La La Land
2. Nicholas Britell---Moonlight
3. Mica Levi---Jackie
4. Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann---Lion
5. Thomas Newman---Passengers
          It's a freakin' musical. This is the single biggest lock of the night. Moonlight is a Picture nominee, and Levi's nomination is inspired enough to suggest real support, but who are we kidding?

Best Original Song:
1. City of Stars---La La Land
2. How Far I'll Go---Moana
3. Can't Stop the Feeling---Trolls
4. Audition (The Fools Who Dream)---La La Land
5. The Empty Chair---Jim: The James Foley Story
        Or is this the single biggest lock of the night? I have How Far I'll Go in the second slot (because in earnestness it should be the front-runner), and Can't Stop the Feeling in third just incase voters want to kiss up to the celebrity of Justin Timberlake in this category (surprisingly not a common occurrence in Original Song). But in all honesty, you might have just wasted your time reading me pontificate about something so obvious.

Best Visual Effects:
1. Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Dan Lemmon---The Jungle Book
2. John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal T. Hickel, and Neil Corbould---Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
3. Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, and Brad Schiff---Kubo and the Two Strings
4. Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli, and Paul Corbould---Doctor Strange
5. Craig Hammack, Jason H. Snell, Jason Billington, and Burt Dalton---Deepwater Horizon
        Oh my god! What is this? A tech category without La La Land?!?! This is the perfect place to refer to my best-means-most theory, because as spectacular as the last hour of Rogue One proves to be, The Jungle Book is entirely artifice, and will undoubtably impress some voters due to the omnipresence of its effects. Kubo's shocking inclusion in this category means it also has some deeply-felt support, but there will undoubtably be voters who feel an animated feature has no business in this category. Go with the most.

Best Make-up and Hair Styling:
1. Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo---Star Trek Beyond
2. Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson---A Man Called Ove
3. Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Allen Nelson---Suicide Squad
        There are three prominent types of make-up, at least as the Academy sees it: Creature, Gore, and Aging. Creature wins most commonly, with Gore seeming to always go home empty-handed. Thereby Star Trek is the clear favorite, with Suicide Squad in second, only there's one problem; Oscar ain't handing shit to Suicide Squad.

Best Sound Editing:
1. Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou---La La Land
2. Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright---Hacksaw Ridge
3. Sylvain Bellemare---Arrival
4. Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli---Deepwater Horizon
5. Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman---Sully
        I love that Editing and Mixing are separate categories at the Oscars, but I'm not so sure that voters do. They tend to align more often than not, and also deeply favor war movies, which is why I have Hacksaw Ridge listed in second in both categories. Do I really need to explain my front-runners? It's a musical!!! You think these voters consider it more deeply than that?

Best Sound Mixing:
1. Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee, and Steven Morrow---La La Land
2. Kevin O'Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie, and Peter Grace---Hacksaw Ridge
3. Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye---Arrival
4. David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio, and Stuart Wilson---Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
5. Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, and Mac Ruth---13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
         Copy/past everything said directly above, without a single deviation.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2016 (10-1)

10. Green Room
        Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is not a man of mercy; he is a furious god of wrath who spews hellfire upon his audiences the second the lights go down. His third feature operates with a remarkably simple premise; after electing to play a show at a known White Supremacist hangout, punk band the Ain't Rights witness an act of violence, and are held hostage by its perpetrators in the four walls of the movie's title. To say that Green Room earns its R rating is the ultimate understatement, Saulnier ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels before lashing out into spurts of stunning, stinging violence. Besides being an expert craftsman of sweat-inducing anticipation and mania, the 40-year-old auteur also has tremendous rapport with his actors, each member of the band and the staffers that hold them captive fully realized and believable, while Patrick Stewart stalks the sidelines with the soft-spoken menace of movie-bad-guy legend. Losing Anton Yelchin at such a young age is a tragedy that still stings from the middle of last year, so lets be grateful that he went out in a blaze of glory, face paint on and guns blasting.

9. The Nice Guys 
        Even if you haven't seen The Nice Guys, you really have. Writer/director Shane Black is not only completely disinterested in remaking the wheel, he'd prefer if we'd stopped messing with it way back in the 80's. His latest buddy cop comedy stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a Private Investigator tasked with finding a missing pornstar in 1970's Los Angeles, at first deterred and then joined on his mission by the burly, battered Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The Nice Guys is all fun all the time, from Black's slick direction and gut-busting script, to the immediate and irresistible chemistry between its leads. Gosling, in particular, gives a performance for the ages, reaching a level of physical comedy genius that we usually only associate with the silent film era. This one goes straight to the One-Liners Hall of Fame, and if there's any justice in the world, the inevitable TNT reruns that it feels destined for will turn more people on to its many charms.

8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
        And now to the part where I try to explain how I could possibly have an SNL spinoff movie in my top 10 of the year. After years of digital shorts and even a few full-length albums, The Lonely Island finally have their own movie, chronicling the meteoric rise and seemingly endless fall of band leader Conner4Real (Andy Samberg). There is nothing of sustenance in Popstar, only utterly delicious empty calories that manage to never fill you up, and continuously replenish themselves. Clocking in at 87 minutes, the movie would probably collapse under the weight of another 5 minutes, but it would be equally damaged by slimming down by that same number, nearly each and every single gag and cameo completely obliterating its target. What's more, first-time directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (the other two members of The Lonely Island beside Samberg) turn the concert sequences into actual spectacle, shooting an editing them as if they were the real thing while the absurd lyrics coming out of Samberg's mouth work overtime to convince you that they're not. Impressive drama's come out and impress every year, but I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed as consistently as I did through Popstar and its expert skewering of celebrity culture. It's a 'turn your brain off' classic.

7. Hail, Caesar!
        I suppose when you've made as much amazing art over the years as the Coen Brothers have, a few of your winners will sort of slip through the cracks, but I still can't help but wonder if everyone saw the same Hail, Caesar! that I did. Set in 1950's Hollywood, the film follows a couple days in the life of famous fixer Eddie Mannox (Josh Brolin) as he juggles egos, unexpected pregnancies, surly directors, missing persons, and communist blackmailers. The delights of the movie are too numerous to list them all here, but the lavish, note-perfect costumes and production design deserve special attention, as does the outrageously talented cast of household names, all here and ready to make a mockery of themselves. Despite being headlined by the likes of George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson, its newcomer (and impending young Han Solo) Alden Ehrenreich who steals the movie as a stuntman turned most unfortunate actor, though Channing Tatum's 10 minutes of screen time will not be forgotten anytime soon. As much as the movie works as a simple excuse to play in the sandbox of film's yesteryear, it also weaves in a theme of loyalty and faith, equating political and religious beliefs with the all-mighty power of the silver screen. When the Coen Brothers have fun, we all win.

6. 20th Century Women
        In 2011, writer/director Mike Mills gave us the deeply-moving Beginners, a film about the last several years of his late father's life, and the ways that they impacted his worldview. Six years later, he's back with that movie's spiritual sequel 20th Century Women, focusing in on his complicated relationship with his mother (Annette Benning) and the other women who shaped his teenaged paradigm during the 1970's. Mills is the least antagonistic director working today; no one cares as deeply for his characters and wants them to succeed as much as he does. It's this level of warmth and generosity that defines the movie, an overt exploration of feminism through the eyes of a young heterosexual male, and a celebration of the ideas and songs and people that shape a person in the early-goings of life. Benning has never been better, easy-going and nonchalant until pushed out of her relatively small comfort zone, her eyes and face rendering every thought and emotion through the smallest of gestures. There were more impressively made movies released in 2016, but none with a bigger heart.

5. Moonlight
        The dark horse to come in and steal La La Land's Best Picture statue at Sunday's Oscars, Moonlight is undoubtably the most adored film of last year, and it's not hard to see why. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid who grows from boy to man in three distinct passages, each chronicling an important moment in his life. Director Barry Jenkins is an avowed Wong Kar Wai disciple, a fact that is evident in every frame of Moonlight, a film made of eye-popping color, sensual undertones, and repressed passions. James Laxton's cinematography is gorgeous and intimate, just like the story itself, which feels personal to the point of being autobiographical. It brings you in close, declining to make bold declarations, preferring to whisper gently in your ear.

4. Manchester By the Sea
        Manchester By the Sea is like many moody, depressed adult dramas in the sense that it walks right up to the pit of despair. What separates it is that instead of simply gazing down, it does a full-on nose dive straight in. Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a silent, prickly type spending his days doing custodial work until a phone call beckons him back home to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) whose father (Kyle Chandler) has just passed due to cancer. If that doesn't exactly sound like the easiest premise in the world, you couldn't possibly prepare for the places Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece of a script decides to go, presenting tragedy in a matter of fact way that strips them of the schmaltz most directors would apply. It's somehow one of last year's funniest films as well, drawing you close with sly humor before leveling you with hard-earned pain. Affleck is a marvel in the role, playing a man who is rudderless and all out of feeling, a zombie forced to deal with the issues of the living. Manchester asks what a person's responsibility is to the rest of the hopeful world after they've completely given up on themselves, and its exploration of the idea is just as fascinating as it is heart-breaking.

3. La La Land
        Tomorrow's all-but-certain Best Picture winner has already and will continue to receive an avalanche of backlash, detractors accurately pointing out its self-congratulatory air, underwhelming vocalists, and white appropriation of black art. I see those things too, but I'll come clean; this one had me at hello. After a couple of chance meetings start to resemble fate, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) fall in love as they follow their dreams out in the city of stars. No really, that's the whole story, but La La Land harkens back to a simpler way of storytelling, one driven by movie star performances, and broad, sweeping emotion. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has obviously studied his classics, every idea and element of his latest film owing their life-blood to the musical boom of the 1950's, from the rich, over-saturated colors to a climax that openly steals from An American in Paris. But the movie's greatest accomplishment is in its approximation of the feeling of falling in love, with its all-powerful pull and invigorating, fool-making sweep. Yes, La La Land has just as many flaws as the next movie, but its ambition and charm are entirely too much for me to resist. Sometimes you're just a sucker.

2. The Witch
        We all know that ghosts and monsters and sorcerers have the capacity to frighten, but that's all surface level stuff. The Witch deals with a much more terrifying notion; what if everything you ever believed in crumbled right before your eyes, and holding fast only made it worse? Set in New England of the 1630's, the movie tells the story of a Puritan family who is forced out of their society and onto the edge of a forest wherein a titular evil-doer might just be lurking. First-time writer/director Robert Eggers is largely disinterested in the jump scares and gory killings that define many modern horror movies, preferring to create a deep-seeded, omnipresent feeling of dread and anxiousness. Awash in ashen shades, the film explores the limits of faith, and just how far a person will go to preserve said beliefs even as their errors present themselves openly. The cast of largely unknowns is powerful and memorable, reciting olde english dialogue as though it was their everyday speech, believable descending into madness. There is a wicked darkness at the heart of The Witch, and enough unsettling questions and ideas to unpack for years.

1. Arrival
        No 2016 film took on more, accomplished more, or meant more than director Denis Villeneuve's latest masterpiece. Trying to talk people into an alien invasion movie as some sort of life-affirming classic isn't exactly the easiest task, but this story of a linguistic expert's (Amy Adams) effort to bridge the communication gap between humans and an extra-terrestrial race that descended on earth with no warning is more than worth your effort. After all, this is a film's whose primary moral is the virtue of patience, and the ways that understanding can emerge from simply withholding judgements. Amy Adams gives what might be the best performance of her already-awe-inspiring career, under-playing every scene in a manner than belies her incredible intelligence, and open-minded curiosity about the ever-expanding universe. The technical accomplishments on hand present an embarrassment of riches, from Bradford Young's sleek, pristine cinematography to Jóhann Jóhannsson's leering, unsettling score, but the main attraction is Eric Heisserer utterly unparalleled script, which balances not only the story described above, but pulls off a twist whose fall out is emotional in nature, rather than a mere plot mechanism. Arrival doesn't suggest that we abandon our fear of the unknown, but rather embrace it, understand it, and make the difficult decision to move past it. Given the present state of the world, I couldn't possibly think of a more timely message.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2016 (25-11)

25. Hell or High Water
        Despite being as old as time itself, the Western genre still manages to crank out at least an offering or two per year, but seldom do they take place in the present moment, with characters suffering from modern problems. A pair of brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) take to bank robbery as a means to save the family's West Texas ranch, with both a pair of police officers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) and legalistic entanglements hot on their tail. Taylor Sheridan's script is almost laughably awesome, cranking out one 'man's man' dialogue exchange after another while building tension as the forces at play near their collision. Playing out like a less obvious, less stylish version of Andrew Dominik's Killing Them SoftlyHell or High Water pits man against the modern American system, resulting in one juicy scene after another.

24. A Monster Calls
        Following the time-honored tradition of movies that are about both cancer and giant tree demons, A Monster Calls stars newcomer Lewis MacDougall as a young boy who is periodically visited by a Groot-like behemoth while his mother (Felicity Jones) struggles with an increasing sickness. Rather than preach about the powers of love and human decency, Monster's ultimate lesson is uniquely inclusive, suggesting that there are a multitude of ways to look at any situation, and that an individual is capable of both good and evil without completely siding with one or the other. MacDougall is remarkable in the role, his pain and confusion completely believable from first frame to last, his suffering palpable. Director J.A. Bayona has been one to watch for a while, and if this heartfelt, beautifully-rendered slice of gothic folklore is any indication, his upcoming Jurassic World sequel will be one to watch out for.

23. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
        A Harry Potter spin-off series (arriving after the eight films already in existence) is a pretty tough sell to non-obsessives, which makes it all the more impressive just how quickly Beasts does away with your skepticism. Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a magical Zoologist who travels from Britain to New York in the 1920's with a very simple mission that experiences a myriad of setbacks. Director David Yates, back from helming the final four HP installments, has a deft ability to zig zag between breezy brightness and startling darkness without giving you whiplash, and experiencing J.K. Rowlings world exclusively through the eyes of adults gives the flick an entirely different hue than any before it. Fantastic lives up to its name with brilliant effects, likable characters, and a sweet, sensitive performance from Dan Fogler.

22. The Lobster
        If you haven't already heard the premise of The Lobster, here it is; in a bizarro present day, single people are rounded up like cattle and booked into a resort where they have less than a month to find a new mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. Now... stay with me here. The latest from writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is as darkly savage in its humor and paradigm as anything he's made before, creating an entire world of rules for our poor rube of a hero (Colin Farrell) to stumble through, only occasionally making the right decision. The film is split evenly into two halves, and while I understand the turn it takes, and genuinely enjoy most of its second act, the first hour is essentially peerless, as beautifully orchestrated and bleakly hilarious as anything I saw last year. 60 minutes in, The Lobster is a masterpiece. After two hours, it's one of the best movies of 2016.

21. Captain America: Civil War
        The latest Marvel team-up movie seems to be made as a response to all the criticisms the studio's output most commonly faces: the bad guys are lame, the action is limp, the consequences aren't dire enough, and there's always a glowing macguffin to fight over. Civil War certainly has a bad guy, but he mostly lurks in the shadows, allowing the central conflict between Earth's Mightiest Heros to occupy the space usually allotted to someone in silly face makeup. The Russo brothers, back from their first comic book joint Captain America: The Winter Soldier, concoct the best action sequences the brand has ever seen, both dizzyingly fun and imaginative. And look, no glowing rock to chase after! Just a group of people on two sides of a thorny issue, including newly-minted and expertly woven-in newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). By brushing up against real consequences without skimping on their signature rollicking vibe, Marvel Studios made one of their very best to date.

20. Silence
        Never in my life has a Martin Scorsese movie been released to such little fan fare, but I suppose that might have something to do with the grueling endurance test that is Silence. Set in the 17th century, a pair of Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Japan to rescue their long lost mentor (Liam Neeson), finding the region to be less than hospitable to their chosen faith. A passion project that Scorsese has been trying to get off the ground for years, Silence is a beautiful, brutal exploration the intersection between religion and colonialism. Featuring stunning camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and a slew of great performances from the Japanese cast whose position as antagonizers somehow becomes easier to understand as their methods of resistance become harder to watch, the latest Marty Party stays in your head long after the lights come up.

19. Midnight Special
        The ultimate superhero movie for people who are sick of superhero movies, Jeff Nichols' first film of 2016 follows a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who is taken from a cult-like commune by a mysterious pair of men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) hellbent on delivering him to an undisclosed location. Midnight Special's greatest asset is coolness, from the way it looks to the fashion in which it tells its story to the intricate details of individual scenes. But the film also packs and emotional punch once it reveals its hand, and the motivations of each character come into focus and gain your empathy. It's one of the only movies since the post-90's superhero boom to think outside the box in terms of what it would actually mean for an advanced human to walk among us, and having this great of an ensemble (Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Bill Camp round out the cast) doesn't exactly hurt either.

18. The Neon Demon
        Oh boy. No film in 2016 was harder to evaluate or earnestly recommend than The Neon Demon, an utterly amazing experience that sometimes amazes in ways you... might not want to be amazed. Aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles and experiences little-to-no setbacks within the industry itself, but the jealousy of her older, more experienced rivals threatens to derail her at every turn. The All About Eve-like premise might sound quaint and passive, but that couldn't be further from the truth; the latest from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn makes his most famous film to date, Drive, look like kittens and rainbows. The visuals and the sound design are absolutely incredible, and the knotty themes and ideas lurking just under the surface are enough to keep your wheels turning for days. But, my god, is this thing grisly, and anyone with even a slightly soft stomach might be wise to stay away. Its peaks are preposterously high; just don't say I didn't warm you when it all starts going down.

17. Lion
        What the hell is Lion? exclaimed everyone on Oscar nomination morning, and I have a simple and succinct answer for you: one of the best movies of the year. Saroo (played first by Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy, is suddenly and randomly separated from his mother and brother in 1986, first arriving in Calcutta before being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) whose loving parenting isn't enough to completely expunge the memories of his biological family. The true story is a weepy in the most traditional and best of ways, with characters we care about and empathize with, and a screenplay structure that turns Saroo's life into a modern epic. First time feature director Garth Davis takes an awfully big bite and chews it well, sending us across continents and decades without ever losing sight of the task at hand. As well-crafted as it is inspiring and life-affirming.

16. Paterson
        And to think that Jim Jarmusch's last movie was about vampires. Adam Driver takes on the title role in the legendary director's latest, playing a bus driver in New Jersey with an interest in poetry, both in its written and readily-observable forms. One would be hard-pressed to think of a movie wherein less 'happens'; Paterson wakes up every morning next to his beloved, eccentric girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani), goes to work, comes home, takes the dog on a walk, hits his favorite bar, then comes to bed and starts it all over again. But Paterson isn't interested in events so much as the dignity of repetition, and an openness to the world that makes each moment special and worthy of acute observation. Driver is a revelation in the role, all show and no tell, emotions and thoughts passing quickly and gracefully across his face in a manner more effective than any dialogue could hope to be. Many independent films patiently observe the normal lives of normal people; Paterson celebrates them.

15. Captain Fantastic
        Like an updated Swiss Family Robinson for the learned, book-smart type, Captain Fantastic introduces us to the Cash family, whose father and figure-head (Viggo Mortensen) has opted to raise his children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, only properly introducing them to the real world when their mother's funeral beckons. The movie has a merry time challenging each and every aspect of parenting, calling into question both the protective, stunting tutelage of modern society, and the aggressive, rigidly constant self-improvement preferred by the Cash clan. Mortensen lives up to the billing of the title, warm and philosophical despite the grief that's constantly simmering just below the surface. Fun and confrontational in equal measure, Captain Fantastic argues that no one is perfect, but that's no excuse for not trying to be.

14. Nocturnal Animals
        In only his second film, fashion designer Tom Ford already has a firmer grasp on both visuals and story-telling than directors with three times his experience. Adapted from Austin Wright's novel of the same name, Nocturnal Animals follows a wealthy art gallery owner (Amy Adams) who's sent a manuscript of her ex-husband's (Jake Gyllenhaal) upcoming novel, a piece of violent fiction that bares some marked similarities to their failed romance. Combining the slow-drip madness of David Lynch with the salacious 80's bombast of Brian De Palma, Ford's latest is pulpy as all get-out, and could correctly be accused of misappropriating real-world trauma for the sake of entertainment if it wasn't so damn entertaining. The Adams portion of the movie is largely an afterthought, swallowed up by her dramatic imaginings of what's on page, a revenge saga featuring stellar performances from Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It's exhilarating stuff... if you can bare it.

13. 10 Cloverfield Lane
        An out-of-nowhere revelation from early in the year, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves to only be a sort of spiritual sequel to the 2008 film referenced in its title, but once this thing gets moving, that'll be the last thing on your mind. After packing her things and fleeing her life in a largely silent opening passage, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is knocked unconscious in a car accident and wakes up in a the basement of a stranger (John Goodman) who claims to have saved her from an on-going chemical attack. The clever script gives both the viewer and Michelle just enough information to unlock certain mysteries while keeping others tantalizingly out of reach, all as first-time director Dan Trachtenberg tightens the screws on this game of cat and mouse. John Gallagher Jr. gives a strong performance to round out the cast, but its Winstead and Goodman who easily win the day, the former relaying a clever, observant resourcefulness with the most minor a facial movements, while Goodman returns to a level of titanic mania we haven't seen since Barton Fink. My heart was still racing for an hour after the credits rolled.

12. Wiener-Dog
        Part heart-breaking exploration of loss and loneliness, part cosmic, black-hearted prank, Wiener-Dog has a lot in common with the previous films of its writer/director Todd Solondz, and nothing with anything else in 2016. Operating like War Horse with a sense of humor and a fondness for the macabre, the movie follows the titular pooch as she's passed from one owner to the next, sometimes directly, others without any discernible exchange beyond simple fate. Featuring a spectacular cast including Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, and especially fine work from Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn, Solondz's latest will have you laughing out loud as the forces of the universe bare down and crush your soul. If that doesn't sound like a great night out at the flicks, you'll at least get to see the intermission, one of the most jarring, goofy, and wonderful things that happened on film in years.

11. Moana
        For a movie that's racked up over 575 million bucks since its release last November, Moana still feels strangely slept-on, and I couldn't begin to understand why. The latest from Disney animation is yet another entry into their long line of princess movies, though our titular heroine here has precious little in common with other members of the lineage. When the crops on her gorgeous Hawaiian home mysteriously begin to rot, it's up to Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) to set sail for help, imploring the mischievous demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for his services. There's simply no over-stating just how beautiful the animation is here, the tropical rays of sun almost palpable on your back, the water pristine and inviting. And don't tell Oscar, but the slew of original songs on hand, composed by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, easily best those featured in La La Land, their shimmering sumptuous rhythms (not to mention the spectacular voices that sing them) rattling around in your brian long after the credits roll. Much has been made of the fact that Moana is the first princess to not even broach the subject of a prince, but the movie's progressive streak reaches far wider than just that, deeply steeped in a decidedly non-white culture and folklore. A massage for the eyes and ears that never stops entertaining, Moana is the best non-Pixar computer animated Disney release to date.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2016 (40-26)

40. Jackie
        Apparently everyone forgot to tell director Pablo Larraín how you're supposed to make a biopic of an American icon. Where most movies would have taken a more expansive look at the immediate aftermath of John F, Kennedy's assassination, Jackie focuses almost exclusively on his titular widow, and even then places far more weight on deep-seeping confusion and loneliness than any political machinations. Credit Stéphane Fontaine's woozy, over-saturated cinematography and Mica Levi's domineering score for creating such a feeling of dread.

39. Everybody Wants Some!!
        Richard Linklater's long-anticipated spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused might somehow have even less plot than the 1993 cult classic. Jake (Blake Jenner) is an incumbent college baseball player who is shown the ropes of college life by the man-babies with whom he will soon be teammates. Set in the early 80's in sun-soaked Texas, the film boils down to a string of nights out consisting of lady-chasing and drunken debauchery, but the insanely talented slew of bright, charismatic young actors keeps you engaged.

38. Eye in the Sky
        In a way, it's almost strange that it took this long for us to finally get a drone bomb movie. Eye in the Sky chronicles the preposterous number of moving parts involved in an over-seas aerial strike, and the desperation of all to avoid culpability. Part 12 Angry Men, part The Hurt Locker with odd bits of humor dashed in here and there, it'll have you holding your breath on more than a few occasions, and offers a nice swan song for Alan Rickman's too-short career.

37. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
        Our first trip to a galaxy far, far away to not include a single utterance of the name Skywalker, Rogue One started our upcoming collection of stand-alone Star Wars flicks in style... and then more style. While I readily line-up with the horde of folks decrying to movie's lack of truly interesting characters who take on this mission to steal the Death Star plans, there's simply no denying the spectacle on hand, especially in the last hour, which makes any action sequence in The Force Awakens look positively meek by comparison.

36. Sausage Party
        Raise your hand if you thought that the Seth Rogen written-and-directed grocery store comedy was going to be about the loss of religious faith, and the label of otherness that it immediately assigns you within society? That's what I thought. Carrots, hot dogs, flat breads and bagels are all confronted with the truth when they discover that their concept of heaven (being purchased and removed from the store) has more similarities with hell. While the humor is sophomoric as always, Sausage Party manages to tickle the intellect through its jarring premise.

35. Certain Women
        Based on a trio of short stories by Maile Meloy, writer/director Kelly Reichardt's latest features the likes of Michelle Williams, Jared Harris, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and dazzlingly subtle newcomer Lily Gladstone all striving to succeed with what little they have in small-town Montana. Unfolding in a tryptic structure wherein stories only occasionally and unimportantly intersect, Certain Women, like all of Reichardt's filmography, is about patience and observance of life's miniature odyssey.

34. The Birth of a Nation
        What once was thought of as a sure-fire Best Picture nominee was no where to be seen on Oscar morning... or, for that matter, during the minimal summer release it received after a scandal surrounding writer/director/star Nate Parker swallowed up almost all of its hype. The film tells the true-life story of Nat Turner, a literate slave in the Antebellum south whose powers of intellect initially help his masters before turning into their worst nightmare. Meeting halfway between the solemnity of 12 Years a Slave and the hysteria of Django Unchained is certainly a strange middle-ground in which to make a slavery epic, by the cocktail provides some deeply impactful thoughts and images, and features what likely would have been a star-making performance by Parker.

33. Hidden Figures
        Seeming to come out of nowhere at the end of last year to win the hearts and dollars of American filmgoers everywhere (not to mention a pretty nifty Best Picture nomination), Hidden Figures tells the story of the African American women who helped launch John Glenn into space. A complete and utter triumph of narrative over craftsmanship, director Theodore Melfi does his best to step out of the movie's way completely, allowing his three talented leads (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) and the amazing true story to take over the proceedings.

32. Don't Breathe
        The complete and utter opposite of my calling Hidden Figures all style over substance, Don't Breathe is basically a stupid premise that gets literally everything else right. When a trio of cat burglars decide to take advantage of a blind man they believe to be sitting on a sizable law settlement, they find themselves in the middle of a horror show that doesn't require ghouls or demons to produce scares. Undeniably silly and jovially trashy in a way that defies what we're used to from studio fare, director Fede Alvarez reveals himself as a maestro of set-up and payoff, while Pedro Luque's deceptively gorgeous camera work keeps you on your toes.

31. Swiss Army Man
          Either fondly or detestably known simply as 'the farting corpse movie' since its debut at the Sundance film festival a whole year ago, Swiss Army Man is about as out-there as life affirming flicks get. Stranded alone on a lush green island, Hank (Paul Dano) discovers a washed up cadaver (Daniel Radcliffe) who is partially reanimated through either imagination or pure magic. The premise only gets weirder when bodily functions become a running theme, but each piece serves to explain something about the nature of humanity, no matter how microscopic, insignificant, or unsightly. It's a strikingly unafraid examination of the one thing we all have in common; being a fleshy bag of bones who learns the rules of the world one at a time.

30. Zootopia
        The seemingly impossible has come to fruition; after absorbing Pixar, Disney's in-house animation team has more or less passed the former titans of the genre in terms of quality output. The big, bright, and buoyant Zootopia follows Officer Hops (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) as she migrates from her humble suburban roots to join the police force of the titular metropolis, wherein animals of all shapes and sizes live in extremely tenuous harmony. The racism allegory is clear from a mile away, but the movie does an inspired job of breaking down the roots of xenophobia in a way that anyone could understand, all without skimping on the candy-colored grandeur of the animation.

29. Kubo and the Two Strings
        What a shame that the actual narrative of Kubo and the Two Strings isn't just slightly better, because it was quite possibly the most entrancing visual experience of the whole year. Mixing folklore and modern sensibilities, Laika's latest follows the young boy of the title as he embarks on a mythical quest to save himself from an evil grandfather. His journeys take him from one utterly dazzling set-piece after another, remarkable not only for the dark beauty and awe-inspiring intricacy of the stop-motion animation, but also for their immaculate action spectacle that would make most blockbusters green with envy.

28. A Bigger Splash
        Imagine if Earnest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was set in Italy, subbed out jazz in favor of rock 'n' roll, and bore characters with even more baggage, and you've arrived at A Bigger Splash. Just as sumptuous as director Luca Guadagnino last film (I Am Love) but with a much more salacious and excitable group of characters at its center, the film features nothing more than a simple vacation, and the complications presented when an unexpected guest arrives. Those in need of plotting beyond how the characters simply feel in a given moment will be left out in the cold, but they will also miss out on a completely bananas performance from the irreplaceable Ralph Fiennes.

27. Sully
        As he's grown older (and older... and older...) Clint Eastwood's films have become more and more politically polemic, striving to explain a typically conservative way of thinking without ever appealing to sensibilities other than his own. Sully, the true story of airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) whose miraculous Hudson Bay plane landing soon found itself under shrewd investigation, finally reaches across the aisle, taking America to task for her utter resistance of old-fashion heroism even when completely merited. Todd Komarnicki's cleverly-structured screenplay does a lot of the heavy lifting, as does Hanks' steely performance, but this is still Eastwood's best film in over a decade, and he deserves credit from haters like me.

26. The Edge of Seventeen
        Some coming of age movies seek to break the mold; The Edge of Seventeen emerges from it in pristine fashion, having learned from all the successes and failures of the genre's elongated history. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a moody High Schooler whose life is thrown into chaos when her best friend starts dating her much ballyhooed older brother. Nothing on hand surprises unless you count first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig's savvy avoidance of a single pot hole, each character perfectly acted and fully realized, each scene popping with the humor and horror of growing up. 

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2016:

More Oscar Coverage:
The Seventh Annual Elwyn Awards
Final 2016 Oscar Predictions
Absurdly Early Best Picture Rankings for the 2017 Oscars