The wild west clashes with modern concerns of economic strife as the identity of Texas transforms in this meaty, mindful thriller about two brothers who take to bank robbing to secure their dead mother’s dusty plot of land. Taylor Sheridan’s rich script lays it all on the line and doesn’t hide its fears and worries, which makes for a powerful and deeply rooted requiem for the simpler days of old. Ranchers ride past the characters at one point and lament the dying of their way of life while hoping for a better future for their kids. It couldn’t be less subtle, but that’s to the movie’s strength. Hell or High Water is heart-on-its-sleeve cinema and thrives on its passion for the past and fear for the future. A great cast anchored by an unshakably intense Ben Foster provides director David Mackenzie with all the ammunition he needs to explode the myths of the old west in search of hope for the new one.
I saw several shorts throughout 2016, many of them very good, but this 12-minute Irish mystery tale rose to the top of the pack, accomplishing more in its compact running time than most feature-length thrillers ever even hint at. A young man arrives at a for-sale house to take a tour and instantly creates tension between himself and the owner as he adopts an aggressive tone and marches around the house. The cast consists entirely of the young man and the woman selling the home, so our expectations naturally assume we're in horror territory here, unsure what the man wants, but sure that he's angry and increasingly unable to hide it. The truth is powerfully revealed in a subtle finish that manages to be utterly unpredictable, while additionally reminding us how often we judge fictional characters by perceived genre conventions. Dunroamin is built on a twist that you can never see coming and shows how quickly we jump to conclusions, when often the truth is not terrifying, but touching.
The experience of being poor, black, and gay is underrepresented in cinema to the point of near nonexistence, so Barry Jenkins' tale of Chiron, first a boy, then a teen, then a man, is immediately unique. But it's the astonishing acting (with miraculous casting) and a personalized tone that ranges from fearful to sensual that ensure the effort matches the attempt. Jenkins ambitiously trisects Chiron's timeline so we watch him grow in dedicated chapters, each with their own dramatic thrust, specific conflict, and symbol of growth. All of these pieces tie together to create a poignant portrait of one man's journey to find acceptance and love. Jenkins adds a strong, sensitive touch to the movie that exquisitely encapsulates Chiron's introverted personality and his forming identity. A poem to self and the healing power of time.
This South Korean chiller could be reductively referred to as The Asian Exorcist, but it's hardly interested in wasting any of its 155-minute running time ripping off a horror classic. This is startlingly fresh fright cinema, deeply unsettling and harrowing and yet also filled with darkly haunting humour. Comical moments that cut the tension are intertwined with gravely serious drama as a police officer tries to protect first his village, then his family from a mysterious demonic force. Director Na Hong-jin’s movie takes its time navigating the twists and turns and walks a careful balance laughs and screams, so the humour is jaggedly cut short by the frights and the scares are temporarily alleviated by the strangely chilling chuckles. This mix makes it difficult to predict where the story will end up and Na knows it, drawing us into the darkness so we can no longer locate an escape.
Whit Stillman's snide, snappy Austen adaptation is a tribute not only to the beloved author, but also to the written word entirely. It's an ode to language that praises those who can twist words to their advantage and pokes fun at those who can't. The story revolves around the affairs of wayward widow Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a general disturber of the peace who clings to the remaining shreds of her social standing with all of the do-or-die gumption of a brave soldier on the battlefield. No one is taking Susan down without a fight and no one plays the game as wickedly as she. Beckinsale has mostly made a career of starring in B-grade actioners, but she’s an absolute delight here in a grand change of pace, rattling off quick-witted dialogue and proving she’s as much a force to be reckoned with on the screen as Susan is in a conversation.
Disney had plenty of misses for me this year, but the updates of their classic iconography were all major highlights of their recent busy output. The Jungle Book was tremendous fun and a stunning ode to the studio's history of visual storytelling driven by dazzling animation. Moana was a bold leap forward in the evolution of the Disney Princess series, finally removing a Prince from the equation entirely. But it was David Lowery's remake of Pete's Dragon that moved me most. Borrowing inspiration from E.T., this new Dragon tale is magnificently mature, feeling like the work of an adult reflecting on childhood instead of an adult trying to be a kid again. This is a smart, unusual movie about how kids eventually have to grow up and move on, but adults don't have to forget their lost innocence. It's a bittersweet message that captures both the elation of childhood wonder and the feeling of looking back after years of easing into adulthood. The central relationship between Pete and his Dragon is both adorable and sad as Lowery observes the complex connections that get us from one point in our lives to the next.
Amy Adams is an American treasure. She can communicate everything we need to know about her characters with just a look and she seems to have walked a whole lifetime in that character’s shoes. She's an actress of extreme grace and tender humility, so effortlessly honest onscreen that she can make her character's arc truly soar. She's never been better than she is in Denis Villeneuve's emotionally engaging and structurally stylistic movie about a linguist whose perception of life is transformed when she's enlisted to crack an alien language during first contact. Villeneuve intercuts the extraterrestrial conversations with linguist Louise's memories of her deceased daughter and the movie that's initially about understanding another species becomes a tale of understanding the life-altering joys of parenthood. A richly stirring experience from a filmmaker who continues to hone his craft and an actress who can do no wrong.
Devastating. No other single word seems to quite capture the immense power of Kenneth Lonergan's damning account of a man who can't overcome his tragic past. Casey Affleck is masterful as perpetually perturbed Lee, who is forced to face his past when a family tragedy sends him back to his hometown where much responsibility waits. Lonergan approaches the story as a sort of character mystery, wherein the explanation for Lee's attitude and itchy eagerness to dash back to Boston is slowly teased out through a series of flashbacks. It seems an unnecessary decision at first, but when Lonergan finally reveals the truth behind Lee's cantankerous attitude, the attention to both past and present allows the story to make a profound statement about how some tragedies simply can't be beat. It's one of the saddest movies I have ever seen and Lonergan and Affleck give everything they've got to ensure their movie's dark thesis lands its dizzying punch.
The best comedy of the year is a droll parody of how clumsily we can grasp at romantic connection. Set in a future that forces single people to live in a hotel where they're allotted 45 days to find a mate or face being surgically transformed into an animal of their choice, The Lobster puts its lovably oddball characters in a tough spot. The only other option is to run away and live in the neighbouring forest, where you avoid becoming an animal by being hunted like one. The movie’s key joke is that the concept of monogamy has become perverted to the point that partnering is based entirely on sharing some random trait, often a physical one. Love has ceased to be a natural feeling and has now become a mere survival tactic, leading to all sorts of craziness, like one character regularly smashing his face so he can connect with a woman who experiences constant nosebleeds. Yorgos Lanthimos’ movie is darkly hilarious and deeply melancholic without ever sacrificing its rigorous insight about how we crave connection to the point that we risk losing ourselves.
Filmmakers are so often interested in answers. They plumb the depths of mysteries big and small, interpreting meanings and constantly pushing forth with their quest to make sense of the world. But Terrence Malick, now in his 70s and experiencing the most prolific chapter of his career, sees only questions. He asks and ponders and meditates on life's biggest mysteries only to come back with more questions. It's a stunning thing to behold because the filmmaker's approach speaks to an ongoing journey of existence, one that can't solve life's problems, but inspires us to keep trying anyway. Each Malick movie has less plot than his previous pic, so Knight of Cups can be synopsized as Christian Bale playing a promiscuous screenwriter wandering around L.A., Vegas, and some desert while looking endlessly for meaning. Malick probably seems like a raving madman to some, but to his fans, he's serving up the vital, vibrant musings of a genius. His movies now seem to spontaneously spill forth from his brain, cinema as organic material birthed brilliantly by a master.