2016 was such a weird year in film, its cinematic offerings somehow refusing to gel into a cohesive whole now that awards season is upon us. For every triumphant historical biopic, we have a quirky, pitch black sci-fi comedy about forced couplehood; for every ebullient musical we have a quiet, ponderous character study of a sensitive boy negotiating life with few choices. And regardless of who eventually wins a few meaningless awards, a large number of smaller movies seem to be getting a lot of recognition this year.
At its core, this is a film about humanity, and the limitations we all live with as human beings. It’s a film whose ideas and themes linger long after you leave the theatre, forcing you to examine how you think, and how your memory works. Amy Adams’ performance is soft and brilliant as a linguist so in tune with language that learning a new one changes her entire state of existence. The imagery is stark and beautiful, and the soundtrack is perfectly matched to the tone of the film. This may be too emotional a film to simply be slotted with other sci-fi classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s fine, as it deserves to stand apart.
This extremely violent thriller pits a struggling punk band against a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads led by a sinister Patrick Stewart. The second Anton Yelchin accidentally witnesses a murder, it becomes clear there is very little hope for these scrappy musicians, and the film gets grimmer from there. The sound design and mixing are fantastic, creating a painfully tense atmosphere. And while the theme isn’t subtle (hopelessly doomed underdog artists threatened by an unstoppable army of right-wing extremists) it’s especially timely considering the events of the second half of 2016. Released just weeks before Yelchin’s untimely death, there’s a risk this film might end up being remembered for its tragic timing instead of the quality of the work.
Exquisite, colorful, weird, meticulous, abstract, slow, transgressive, campy… it seems like there is nary an adjective that doesn’t apply to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. As beautiful as the photography is (and it is quite something to behold), this glam-horror knockout of a film wouldn’t work at all without Elle Fanning, who plays up-and-coming model Jesse, a girl who just naturally has that special “something” that can’t be defined. Fanning just glows from within, a seemingly effortless performance that justifies everything else about the movie
Jake Gyllenhaal brings subtlety and honesty to the role of repressed banker Davis, who loses his wife in a car accident and immediately channels all of his confusing grief into multiple complaint letters to the vending company that ate his quarters in the hospital waiting room. To the dismay of his devastated father-in-law, Davis can’t be controlled or forced into acting in socially acceptable ways. Instead, he becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying everything around him. It’s a perceptive portrait of how erratic, strange, uncomfortable and ultimately freeing grief can be.
The heartbreaking story of a boy growing up gay and black in a rough area of Miami told in three chapters over a span of several years, Moonlight doesn’t seem to follow a traditional story structure. As a result, viewers may feel lost at first, but the film really comes together in the moments and days after you leave the theatre. The performances of all three actors who play the main character Chiron are pitch perfect, and perfectly in tune with each other – amazing considering they never even met during filming. It’s difficult to watch as Chiron navigates abuse and love, sometimes experiencing these as two sides of the same coin in the relationships he has with the people around him, but it’s a deeply moving experience in the end.