All posts by Brent Leuthold

Kong: Skull Island **½|****

Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island

Everybody’s favorite oversized gorilla is back for his eighth feature in Kong: Skull Island, a monster movie that’s lacking worthwhile characters and a plausible plotline but still delivers the goods with some excellent effects-driven sequences. Like just about everything else these days, one of this primary film’s goals is to set up a franchise –in this case, the Warner Bros/Legendary “MonsterVerse” that began with the glum 2014 remake Godzilla— but Skull Island does have enough unique touches to distinguish itself from other brain-dead reboots. Though its 1970s setting is meant to inspire comparisons to the Vietnam War and the subsequent war movies that were based on it, this is actually more of a throwback to the creature features of the 1950s that threw loads of terrifying creations onto the screen just to see what would stick.

After a prologue set during World War II, we move forward to 1973 as government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits a crew to substantiate his suspicions that an uncharted island may be home to ancient beings of massive proportions. Along for the ride is British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), in addition to US colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron. After dropping a heavy arsenal of explosives to “test for seismic activity”, the explorers are introduced to the gigantic ape Kong as he annihilates their air attack and leaves the surviving parties stranded on various parts of the island.

Besides setting the movie during such an evocative time period in American history, another key decision that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes when retelling this story is how early in its runtime he chooses to reveal his central monster. Where other directors have kept creatures like Jaws and Godzilla under the surface or obscured in some way, Vogt-Roberts knows the audience is there to see Kong do his thing and its no surprise that his first scene is the film’s highlight. In fact, the first 20-30 minutes are so clumsy in their attempt to flesh out the characters and their motivations that I almost wish we could have arrived at Skull Island even sooner.

For better or worse, the movie’s most sympathetic and enjoyable character isn’t a part of the initial band of visitors but is an eccentric resident of the island played by John C. Reilly who pops up about halfway through the story. Not only does he possess much needed wisdom about the mysterious land and the way of its creatures, he also has a wacky affability and the kind of goofy charm that Reilly has perfected throughout his career. During his initial encounter with Conrad and Weaver, he clues them in to the worst monsters on the island that he has dubbed “Skullcrawlers” because, well, the name “sounded neat” to him.

To its credit, Skull Island moves briskly from one creepy monster to the next but contrivances that keep our protagonists stranded on the titular island begin to pile up in ways likely to irk even those who say they don’t care about plot in monster movies. A certain character’s descent into madness (yes, this movie owes quite a bit to Apocalypse Now) begins to hijack the narrative about two-thirds of the way through and makes the concept of computer-generated behemoths brawling seem credible when compared to the overwhelmingly stupid decisions made by the humans. As a showcase for some jaw-dropping special effects, Kong is undeniably effective but it could have been much more memorable with some tighter screenwriting and attention to character.

Logan ***|****

Hugh Jackman in Logan

Hugh Jackman dons the CGI claws one last time as the mutant Wolverine for the brutal and sobering Logan, which is as startling a left turn into dramatic territory for the superhero genre as last year’s Deadpool was for the comedic sides of things. The X-Men series has always been attuned with the more fantastical and frivolous trappings of comic book fare –often the glut of superpowers across its myriad of characters can seem arbitrary and sometimes a bit silly– but the character of Wolverine has always been treated with more weight and seriousness in the film adaptations. It’s not surprising, then, that Logan feels like a culmination of the more mature themes that the character has established and is a perfect send-off for Jackman’s iteration of the brooding berserker.

Set in 2029 after the X-Men have disbanded and any remaining mutants are mysteriously absent, we follow an aging “Wolverine” (he just goes by Logan now) as he wastes his days as a nondescript limo driver in Texas while also caring for the now brain-damaged Professor Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart). After meeting with a desperate new client, Logan reluctantly accepts a job to transport a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a location nicknamed “Eden” in North Dakota, which allegedly provides safe haven for those with special powers. While on the road, they are pursued by the devious Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his mechanically-enhanced henchmen from the shady corporation Transigen that’s behind other “manufactured mutants” like Laura.

Director James Mangold, also responsible for the excellent 2007 remake 3:10 To Yuma, envisions this chapter in Wolverine’s story as a modern-day Western about a man whose lifetime of suffering and regret has finally caught up with him as his ability to heal fades away. His unrelenting focus is on the human side of these seemingly impervious superheroes, who we’ve previously seen manage incredible acts of courage and strength but now struggle just to get through each day as their bodies continue to fail them. The effects of their ailments can manifest themselves in exaggerated supernatural form–for instance, Xavier’s dementia triggers seizures that create a kind of “psychic earthquake” for those who surround him–but Mangold also gives equal attention to the constant necessities of sleep and sustenance (and, yes, bladder relief) along the way.

Aside from being an overt, Shane-referencing Western, Logan also functions as a throwback road movie with a sci-fi twist that has shades of superb contemporaries like Midnight Special and even the time-traveler Looper at the heart of its story. At times, it feels like a contrasting character study between two men dealing with the inevitability of time in polar opposite ways; Xavier with a sense of quiet humility and  Logan with a great deal of bitter resentment. Most important for fans of the series, though, this is an uncompromising, R-rated action feature that will satiate the bloodlust of hardcore Wolverine fans who have been denied the ultra-violent carnage that the PG-13 films previously kept at bay.

Even if this is used as a justification for the gratuitous and, dare I say, needlessly excessive action scenes, I still found the film to be more exhausting than exhilarating in the execution (pardon the term) of its combat. The opening scene, in which Logan confronts a pack of would-be car jackers, is well-choreographed and tightly edited but every subsequent scene of claw-imposed brutality begins to feel redundant and tedious throughout its punishing 140 minute runtime. Still, there’s plenty of other creative elements at play during Logan, in addition to a pair of terrific performances by Jackman and Stewart, that make it a worthy swan song for the Wolverine.

Get Out ****|****

Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Up to this point, Jordan Peele has been most notable for the sketch comedy series Key & Peele and last year’s so-so comedy Keanu but he’s clearly stepped up his game in a big way for his directorial debut. Get Out is my favorite kind of horror movie: one that mines the small anxieties and absurdities of everyday living to create an increasingly feverish nightmare scenario that paradoxically feels more plausible as it gets stranger. What’s more, it has a tongue-in-cheek perspective on modern race relations that most major studios would try to shy away from or push to the side but this film uses to create something that’s both timely and trailblazing.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in my favorite episode of Black Mirror, plays Chris, a talented black photographer who has been dating his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a few months and finds that the time has come for a weekend trip to meet her family. Aside from the typical nerves that arise from meeting a significant other’s parents for the first time, Chris worries that Rose hasn’t told her white family that she’s dating a black man, even though she can’t imagine her liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) having any issues with their relationship. All seems to be going well during the initial meet-up but as time progresses, an unplaceable tension gives way to creepy behavior and a sense that something sinister may be afoot.

Not only is the acting in Get Out uniformly fantastic but the casting of each character (with one glaring exception) is spot-on in both major and minor roles. Kaluuya’s unassuming mannerisms are a perfect fit for a character that endures increasingly bizarre circumstances and Williams brings layers of depth to a role that seems similar to the one she plays in the HBO series Girls but proves to have much more going on under the surface. There’s even some hilarious comic relief in the form of comedian Lil Rel Howery, who’s often an audience surrogate and the voice of reason against the abnormal twists that develop as the plot progresses.

Peele is markedly assured as a first-time director; he knows just how far to take each scene and is so skilled at playing with the expectations and empathies of his audience. He also addresses racism in admirably nuanced fashion, not settling for easy targets and low-hanging fruit but instead exposing the condescension and tactlessness that can occur in communication between black people and even the most well-intentioned of white people. The film’s best scene documents a barrage of these types of interactions,  in which privileged partygoers are eager to engage with Chris about his superior physique and the greatness of Tiger Woods (even though Chris mentions that he’s not a golf fan).

Aside from the racial commentary, the film works on its own terms as a ruthlessly efficient thriller that expertly ratchets up the tension and diffuses it in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes scary but always surprising. The influence of directors ranging from Spike Jonze to Michael Haneke is evident from details that pop up in the costume design and the visual effects, which indicates that Peele clearly did his homework when crafting his project. I’ll no doubt pick up on more of these embedded elements during the inevitable repeat viewings that I have for Get Out, one of the finest achievements of the horror genre in the 21st century.

John Wick: Chapter 2 ***|****

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 2

The man in black is back and as much of an unexpected and pleasantly surprise as the original film was, it’s perhaps even more surprising that the sequel manages to pack just as powerful a punch. John Wick: Chapter 2 expands on the lean premise of its predecessor by further going down the rabbit hole of this underground fraternity of assassins and introducing new rules and concepts that plausibly expand on the universe. Most importantly, it provides the same no-holds-barred, intensely choreographed action sequences that made the first film stand out amongst the genre and as long as entries in this series continue to present more creative setpieces, we could have many Wick films in our future.

We pick up just a few days after the events of John Wick, as the title character (Keanu Reeves) forcefully retrieves his vintage Ford Mustang that’s being held captive by Russian thugs. Wick believes he’s finally out of his life of crime until he is visited by Italian crimelord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has come to collect on a blood oath called a “Marker” in exchange for a task that he completed for Wick that allowed him to retire in the first place. D’Antonio demands that Wick murder his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can claim her seat at the “High Table” and after initially refusing, Wick goes on his signature killing spree in order to reach his target and make good on his promise.

Former stuntman-turned director Chad Stahelski once again crafts his signature brand of bone-crunching violence within action scenes that are sometimes overly long and often exhausting but as technically impressive as anything being done in action cinema today. He shoots his sequences with consistency and coherence, often favoring lengthy takes that are more demanding for the actors than if he were to piece together fragments of stuntmen duking it out but the authenticity is the key to what makes it all work. Reeves, too, is crucial to making the whole picture come together and his dedication to studying all of the beats of expert gunplay has once again paid off.

Stahelski further distinguishes this follow-up with a pulpy visual flare that can also be seen as an improvement on the former work, setting the majority of the story in Rome with Catholic iconography popping up in the background to add some religious subtext. He also works with cinematographer Dan Laustsen to craft dazzling sequences that feature some heads-up camerawork, specifically during a gunfight late in the film that takes place in a Reflections of the Soul art exhibit comprised of rooms filled with mirrors. I also appreciated little touches like one of the opening shots that features a Buster Keaton film being projected on a city building, a nod to one of the most daring performers of all time.

Most action films have an almost flippant attitude towards the pain that they inflict on both big and small characters but what sets this series apart is the reverence that it has for the bloodshed that it causes. Even when the body count rises — as it certainly does throughout the film — there’s a sense that the brutality is not without cost and that the violence often spurs on further violence, never fully resulting in closure for its protagonist. Conveniently, those are great terms for a burgeoning franchise and if future entries continue to be as inventive as John Wick: Chapter 2, I say keep ’em coming.

The Lego Batman Movie ***½|****

Will Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Movie was one of 2014’s biggest cinematic surprise hits with both audiences and critics (it even made my top ten list that year), so Warner Brothers wisely chose to follow up with a spinoff of one of the film’s most memorable characters. Just as its predecessor did, the hilarious The Lego Batman Movie picks away at the mythos of the Caped Crusader (and the superhero genre as a whole) in a way that’s fresh, cheeky and exceedingly clever without being mean-spirited in the process. It’s the kind of comedy that you want to immediately watch again after first viewing, not only enjoy it once more but to pick out the jokes and visual gags that you may have originally missed.

Will Arnett returns with Ron Burgundy levels of arrogance to a version of Batman who is treated like a rock star by the citizens of Gotham City but once his crime-fighting is done, it’s revealed that he’s actually quite lonely and unable to form any meaningful relationships with those around him. His inability to commit is even distressing to his arch-nemesis The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who considers himself the Dark Knight’s greatest foe but Batman refuses to put a label on things (as he puts it, “he likes to fight around.”) To prove his importance to Batman, The Joker unleashes his wildest plan yet on Gotham City, which forces Batman to team up with his long-suffering butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Bruce Wayne’s accidentally adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) to save the day together.

The laughs come early and often in The Lego Batman Movie, as Batman chimes in with voiceover commentary before the first frame of the opening credits and even regards DC as “the house that Batman built” when the company’s logo appears on the screen. Within the first five minutes, there are in-jokes and visual citations not only from the most recent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films but from every iteration of the Caped Crusader thus far, even going back to his early comic book roots in the 1940s. Even if you’re not privy to some of the more obscure references to Batman mythology (you’d be forgiven for not recalling Condiment King as one of Batman’s enemies), there is still plenty of humor to be had in the fast-paced slapstick and silly banter.

Director Chris McKay is known for his work on Adult Swim’s stop-motion series Robot Chicken, which has also lovingly lampooned fan favorites like Star Wars and many others for years, although the format here is obviously more family-friendly and not quite as irreverent. He and his five screenwriters have crafted a superhero movie that’s not only funny but also has a surprising amount of pathos and more moral fiber than most other entries in the genre. The virtues of teamwork and togetherness have been touted before but when the movie does slow down enough to give these subjects credence, it’s often thoughtful and touching in a way that I didn’t expect.

Even more than The Lego Movie, the story pacing and animation style goes at breakneck speed and some people will no doubt be overwhelmed with how much this movie throws out during a 105 minute runtime that goes by in a flash. Still, it’s hard not to admire a comedy that’s bursting at the seams with creativity and energy when there are so many comparatively lifeless and brain-dead options around, even if that means viewing it can feel like having the fast-forward button on your remote accidentally pressed to 1.5x speed. My hope is that the good-natured laughs and carefree style of The Lego Batman Movie will influence the pervasive doom and gloom that has infected the DC’s live-action features up to this point and help elevate it to a worthy competitor to the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios.

Notes on the 2017 Oscars

Best Picture

I went 6 for 9 on viewing and reviewing Best Picture nominees this year (hoping to catch up with Hacksaw sometime this month) but based on what I’ve seen, the Academy made some excellent picks for the top prize this time around. With a record-tying 14 nominations, the Academy clearly went gaga for La La and as it’s also my #1 film from last year, this may a rare instance where my favorite movie of a given year also wins Best Picture (perhaps the first time since The Hurt Locker in 2010). If I had to pick a potential upset, I’d look to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight but it has a very small sliver of a chance to overcome La La Land‘s dominance.

Update – I was able to see Hacksaw Ridge recently and aside from some well-staged combat scenes, I couldn’t find very much to like about it. Outside of the sound categories, it doesn’t seem that Hacksaw will walk home with much else on Sunday night anyway.

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Midnight Special

Best Director

  • Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
  • Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Damien Chazelle – La La Land
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

As with Picture, I see this going towards La La Land by way of its visionary director Damien Chazelle who, at 32 years old, would be the youngest director to ever win the award. Chazelle was previously nominated for his fierce breakout Whiplash (which, incidentally, was my favorite film of 2014) and with this victory, he should have enough industry sway and creative control to keep making more great movies for the foreseeable future. Outside chances would again go to Moonlight via Barry Jenkins, who would become the first African-American to ever win the category.

My Prediction: Damien Chazelle
My Vote: Damien Chazelle
Overlooked: David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water)

Best Actor

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington – Fences

The prospect of La La Land winning the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) runs into its biggest obstacle here, as both Affleck and Washington have a considerable lead on Gosling at this point. My personal pick would have to go to Affleck, whose wounded performance gives Manchester its poignant core, but two-time winner Washington does equally great work in his feature Fences. While I don’t think Gosling deserves to win among this particular field, he’s been a top-tier actor for some time now (he should have won when he was nominated 10 years ago for his role in Half Nelson) and I don’t doubt that an Oscar will be in his future as long as he remains smart about the work that he chooses.

Update – In the past couple weeks, this race has gotten even tighter and it’s now ostensibly a coin-flip between Affleck and Washington. My prediction remains with Affleck on the basis of his numerous wins over awards season but don’t be surprised if Washington pulls the upset.

My Prediction: Casey Affleck
My Vote: Casey Affleck
Overlooked: Colin Farrell (The Lobster)

Best Actress

  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

I’m sadly ignorant on this group, as I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances at my time of writing this, but all signs point to Emma Stone riding the La La train to victory. Huppert won the Golden Globe for her icy performance in Elle but she doesn’t seem likely to repeat here. Meryl Streep scores her 20th (!) nomination this year, making her the most nominated performer in Academy history and a reliable nominee for pretty much any year in which she chooses to act in a film.

Update – Since my original post, I have had a chance to catch up with the other three films this category. My preference would still be with Stone but Portman would be my runner-up, as she absolutely disappears into her role as Jackie Kennedy and pulls off yet another brilliant performance.

My Prediction: Emma Stone
My Vote: Emma Stone
Overlooked: Krisha Fairchild (Krisha)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

My Prediction: Mahershala Ali
My Vote: Mahershala Ali
Overlooked: Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

My Prediction: Viola Davis
My Vote: Viola Davis
Overlooked: Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys)

Plenty of great stuff in the supporting categories this year but the standouts for me (and likely the Academy) are Ali for his empathetic turn in Moonlight and Davis for her knockout role in Fences (she was nominated and should have won Supporting Actress in 2009 for her work in Doubt). I’m glad to see the young Lucas Hedges get recognition for his breakout role in Manchester and while Michael Shannon was loads of scene-chewing fun in Nocturnal Animals, I actually prefer Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s work in the same film. Naomie Harris did excellent work in Moonlight and could upset Davis come award night, while I might give Williams the edge to both of them if she potentially had more screen time in Manchester.

Best Original Screenplay

  • Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
  • La La Land – Damien Chazelle
  • The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
  • Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan
  • 20th Century Women – Mike Mills

My Prediction: Manchester by the Sea
My Vote: Hell or High Water
Overlooked: Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Arrival – Eric Heisserer from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  • Fences – August Wilson from Fences
  • Hidden Figures – Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Lion – Luke Davies from A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose
  • Moonlight – Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney

My Prediction: Moonlight
My Vote: Moonlight
Overlooked: Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi

Best Animated Feature Film

My Prediction: Zootopia
My Vote: Moana
Overlooked: Sausage Party

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Land of Mine
  • A Man Called Ove
  • The Salesman
  • Tanna
  • Toni Erdmann

My Prediction: Toni Erdmann
My Vote:
Overlooked: The Handmaiden

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America
  • 13th

My Prediction: O.J.: Made in America
My Vote: O.J.: Made in America
Overlooked: Weiner

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • Extremis
  • 4.1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

My Prediction: The White Helmets
My Vote:
Overlooked:

Best Live Action Short Film

  • Ennemis intérieurs
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

My Prediction: Timecode
My Vote:
Overlooked:

Best Animated Short Film

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

My Prediction: Piper
My Vote: Borrowed Time
Overlooked: Inner Workings

Best Original Score

  • Jackie – Mica Levi
  • La La Land – Justin Hurwitz
  • Lion – Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
  • Moonlight – Nicholas Britell
  • Passengers – Thomas Newman

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Krisha – Brian McOmber

Best Original Song

  • “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from Trolls
  • “City of Stars” from La La Land
  • “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story
  • “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

My Prediction: “City of Stars”
My Vote: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”
Overlooked: “Up” (or any) from Sing Street

Best Sound Editing

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

My Prediction: Hacksaw Ridge
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Silence

Best Sound Mixing

My Prediction: Hacksaw Ridge
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Captain America: Civil War

Best Production Design

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: The Witch

Best Cinematography

  • Arrival – Bradford Young
  • La La Land – Linus Sandgren
  • Lion – Greig Fraser
  • Moonlight – James Laxton
  • Silence – Rodrigo Prieto

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: Silence
Overlooked: The Neon Demon – Natasha Braier

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: Star Trek Beyond
My Vote: Star Trek Beyond
Overlooked: Nocturnal Animals

Best Costume Design

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Love & Friendship

Best Film Editing

  • Arrival – Joe Walker
  • Hacksaw Ridge – John Gilbert
  • Hell or High Water – Jake Roberts
  • La La Land – Tom Cross
  • Moonlight – Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

My Prediction: La La Land
My Vote: La La Land
Overlooked: Sully

Best Visual Effects

My Prediction: Doctor Strange
My Vote: The Jungle Book
Overlooked: Arrival

Enjoy the show!

My Top Movies of 2016

Honorable Mention: O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America

I don’t often include “honorable mentions” on these lists but I made an exception because this behemoth of a documentary has popped up on many year-end lists and after viewing it myself, I can see why. The reason for the asterisk centers around O.J.: Made In America‘s concurrent status as both a feature film and a television series, as it originally aired in five episodes as part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series but has also been screened at film festivals and is currently the frontrunner for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Since my viewing experience took place over a number of weeks and was separated by the five segments, I personally regard it as a series but regardless of how you see it or what medium you consider it apart of, it is a riveting and vital document.

10. Moana

Moana

Disney made headlines late last year by becoming the first studio to earn $7 billion worldwide at the box office (with help from their subsidiaries Marvel and Pixar) but it was a product of their own Animation Studios that struck a bigger chord with me than anything else that they produced. Featuring a host of winning original tunes and some of the most stunning computer animation I’ve ever seen, Moana does just about as much right as an animated musical can do. Breaking from the tradition of Disney’s “Princess” cycle, the film takes a cue from its bold protagonist and carves out a new path that feels fresher and more forward-thinking than some of the studio’s more recent efforts.

9. Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

This feature by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan could be considered my “Revenant” pick for this year, as it was a film that was more of a cinematic endurance test than a traditionally good time out at the movies. While the brutality of The Revenant (which, coincidentally, was in my #9 spot last year) hinges on the elemental struggle its main character has with his surroundings, Manchester by the Sea brings that same level of turmoil and applies it to the emotional state of its lead. Casey Affleck will likely be taking home Oscar gold later this month for his thorny and insular but nonetheless brilliant performance as a man paralyzed by grief.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

New Zealand director Taika Waititi keeps cranking out the hits with this effortlessly charming and relentlessly funny tale of a mismatched pair who get lost in the wilderness and unwittingly become targets of a national manhunt. “Quirky” is a word that often gets thrown around with negative connotations when describing comedies but Hunt for the Wilderpeople is loaded with all sorts of peculiar touches that make it stand with distinction above lazier efforts in the genre. Sam Neill is at his grizzled best playing a perpetually cantankerous adoptive father and newcomer Julian Dennison brings an abundance of charisma to a character that could have been irritating had a lesser actor filled the role.

7. Weiner

Weiner

In a year that culminated with a presidential election marred by controversy and scandal, Weiner gave us a first-hand account of just how quickly a campaign run can crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Most documentarians would kill to have the access that directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had when they followed disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner during his unsuccessful bid for New York mayor and the duo squeeze every last bit of cringe-worthy comedy and bitter tragedy from the circumstances. It’s not often that you’ll find a documentary so raw that the cameraperson literally asks “why are you letting me film this?” to its subject while filming.

6. Midnight Special

Midnight Special

2016 saw the release of two films by the abundantly talented director Jeff Nichols (I still have to catch up with his Oscar-nominated biopic Loving) but this superb sci-fi throwback/road movie has gone largely unrecognized during awards season. Midnight Special opens with one of the year’s most captivating examples of visual storytelling and never lets its foot off of the proverbial gas pedal throughout its running time. The always dependable Michael Shannon, now a five-time collaborator with Nichols, does career-best work as a father struggling to protect his son amid unparalleled circumstances and he’s amply aided by a supporting cast that includes Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver.

5. Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

The modern Western is a genre that’s been on the rise as of late and outstanding films like Hell or High Water are a great example of how the themes of honor and justice from classic Western fare can still be relavent today. The post-recession desperation that permeates this archetypal cops and robbers tale gives it an added layer of relavence and significance that I wasn’t expecting going into the movie. Aided by sure-handed direction from Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie and a snappy script by Taylor Sheridan, this is one of the most purely entertaining crowd-pleasers that I stumbled upon last year and I hope even more people give it a chance now that it’s available to rent.

4. Krisha

Krisha

Krisha announces its intentions early from its opening shot; the stark close-up of its titular character captures her in an unflinching gaze with the audience as if she is studying us as much as we are studying her. This stunning debut by Trey Edward Shults is about as personal as filmmaking can get, as he captures the messy details of an estranged mother trying to reconcile with her family on Thanksgiving with such acuity that it’s hard to imagine he’s not drawing from his own life experiences. Along with the spot-on storytelling, lead actress Krisha Fairchild gives an immensely powerful performance that’s devoid of vanity and layered with shattering humanity.

3. Moonlight

Moonlight

It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes Moonlight such an extraordinary piece of filmmaking; on the surface, it’s a modest coming-of-age tale about a boy coming to terms with his race and sexuality across three periods in his life. Perhaps, then, it’s not about the “what” but rather the “how” that matters most as writer/director Barry Jenkins finds uncommon levels of empathy and eloquence to weave into the fibers of his understated narrative. Three different actors all do excellent work playing the main character at different ages but the soulful performance from Mahershala Ali in the film’s first segment resonates through each of the subsequent chapters.

2. The Lobster

The Lobster

It starts with a pitch like something from a Charlie Kaufman movie: in a dystopian future, all single people are gathered up and given 45 days to find a suitable life partner or else they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing. Yorgos Lanthimos’ pitch-black comedy (and surprisingly heartfelt romance) The Lobster works so well because even though the characters find themselves in a patently ridiculous scenario, their motivations and compulsions remain completely relatable. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz have an unbeatable chemistry that seems to come out of nowhere and elevate the tenderness amid the absurdity and the cynicism.

1. La La Land

La La Land

The experience of watching Damien Chazelle’s original musical on the big screen was akin to having a skilled neurosurgeon probe various sectors of the pleasure center of my brain consecutively for two hours. In more non-clinical terms, I was absolutely enchanted by everything that La La Land had to offer not only as a love letter to classic musicals but also as a modern relationship movie that taps so thoroughly into the hopes and dreams of its main characters. I would argue that this film is more poignant and thoughtful than people seem to be giving it credit for but even if you just take it in as pure spectacle, the first-rate music and the undeniable creative vision from Chazelle should be enough to please anyone.

The Handmaiden ***½|****

Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden

South Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known for his blood-spattered revenge opus Oldboy, is back with another wickedly entertaining piece of pulpy perfection. The Handmaiden is an engaging love story, a constantly revolving mystery and an intense psychological thriller all in one but above all, it’s a bold shot of uncompromised vivacity into the often lifeless landscape of world cinema. It’s possible that its 1930s setting paired with the two foreign languages that comprise the spoken material along with its lengthy runtime may cause some to view the film as a “challenge” to watch but thankfully, I found the total opposite to be the case instead.

We are introduced to a young Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she meets another con artist who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and has a potentially profitable proposal in mind. He schemes to bring Sook-hee on as a maid for the wealthy and withdrawn Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as a part of his plot to marry and then institutionalize the heiress to subsequently inherit her fortune. Plans go awry, however, when Sook-hee’s time with Hideko eventually manifests a passionate romance between the two and the roots of Sook-hee’s ruse slowly rot away.

The story, an adaptation of the Victorian Era-set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is split into three distinct sections that each encapsulate the mindset of one of the film’s three main characters. This cleverly allows the audience to experience an event from an individual’s limited perspective and then reveal greater context to that same event later on through the eyes of a different character, which is even more integral to a movie that revolves around deception and romantic intrigue. Where Oldboy hinged its story on one central mystery and its eventual reveal, The Handmaiden is steeped in more nuanced storytelling that embeds bits of meaning throughout instead of pulling the rug out from under us with one fell swoop.

Chan-wook serves up his twisted and twisty narrative with a verve and vigor that’s equal parts playful and perverse, as bits of lighthearted physical comedy and shocking scenes of bold eroticism are interspersed with little advance warning. His high attention to detail is carried out at every level of production, from each ornate prop that’s utilized to the dazzling selection of vibrant costumes to the sumptuous sets that draw you in more at every turn. This meticulousness even applies to the performances as well: the manner in which a character eats her rice in one sequence, for instance, speaks to her exacting nature and with just that gesture, suggests that their may be even more to learn about her later in the story.

Late in the film, one of the characters — himself a storyteller of sorts — facetiously remarks “the story is all about the journey” but no one has a greater affinity for this concept than Park Chan-wook. He crafts his films with layers and details that may not always be detectable within a first viewing but multiple visits tend to reveal greater depths and thus become more impressive over time. I have little doubt that The Handmaiden will perfectly fit within his pantheon of expertly crafted works that richly reward those who take the time to seek them out.

Silence **½|****

Andrew Garfield and Yōsuke Kubozuka in Silence

The new religious epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, has reportedly been a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s since the early 1990s and after viewing the film, it’s easy to see why he’s been so eager to adapt it after all these years. The thematic territory is right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse: the concepts of doubt, guilt, suffering and sin have been explored in countless iterations throughout his prolific career. His work here has many positive elements, especially from a technical perspective, but the story is just too thin and comes off as repetitive and monotonous over a runtime that feels punishingly long by design.

The year is 1633 and we’re introduced to two Portuguese Jesuits named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) as they journey to Japan to rescue their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they receive distressing letters detailing his capture. Upon their arrival, they find a land ruled harshly by the shogunate who terrorize villages to weed out suspected Christians and force them to denounce their religion under punishment of death. As the priests fight for survival in the treacherous countryside, they also struggle to avoid a personal crisis of faith and to maintain their own personal beliefs when being surrounded by near-constant apostasy.

Perhaps atoning for the unhinged debauchery that pervaded 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has crafted a movie that is reverent and staid with the patience that only a masterful filmmaker like he can exhibit. Furthermore, he has assembled a production team that is absolutely first-rate in every regard; each technical aspect from the lighting to the sound design to the editing is carried out with breathtaking precision. I particularly want to praise Rodrigo Prieto’s jaw-dropping work on the gorgeous cinematography, which is the best I’ve seen in all of 2016 and reason enough to see Silence on the big screen.

Where the film began to lose me was during the second act, after the tension of the missionaries’ presence subsides and Scorsese falls into a curious cycle of sidelining his main characters while they quietly observe the torture and execution of secret Christians. One of these instances, in which three prisoners contend with a slowly persistent rising tide, is captivating and full of pitch-perfect dread but after about four or five variations of this scene play out, the routine seems needlessly cruel. Things pick up again in the third act, even if the storytelling gets heavy-handed at times, but it’s the punishing middle section that makes Silence a more sluggish affair than it should have been.

More misjudgments occur with the central casting too, as I was never fully convinced that talented actors like Driver and especially Garfield were a good fit in their lead roles. Neither give a bad performance but it felt like there was something out of place or just fundamentally incompatible with their acting sensibilities and this particular material (it also doesn’t help that Garfield frequently looks like he walked out of a shampoo commercial with his carefully managed man bun). Silence isn’t the masterpiece that it could have been but it has enough thought-provoking questions and individually powerful sequences to warrant a viewing from the more philosophically restless among us.

Elle **|****

Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The new French film Elle from Paul Verhoeven, his first in ten years, opens in the aftermath of a sexual assault committed against middle-aged businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) in her home. Instead of cutting to the next scene in a hospital or police station, Verhoeven chooses to stay with her as she picks herself up and cleans up the broken debris from the floor, almost as if she is unfazed by the attack. While there are some minor signs of emotional trauma, life generally seems to move on for Michèle as she proceeds to order takeout food moments later on her phone.

Over the next two hours, we discover more about the machinations of her busy life: her executive role at a well-regarded video game company, the strained relationship with her meek son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his bossy girlfriend, along with the affair that she pursues with the husband of her co-worker and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). While out to dinner one night, she opens up to her friends about the details of the shocking event that happened to her days previous but she does so in such a blasé and matter-of-fact way that they’re unsure just how to react to the information. As she continues her daily routine, Michèle methodically makes strides towards unveiling her assailant and presumably confronting him for his role in the attack.

By my estimation, Verhoeven has crafted this story as a sort of subversion to the traditional rape revenge tale that we’ve been told before but the result is a distracting mishmash of office politics and turgid family drama that muddles what it seems the film wants to achieve. The core material is provocative and problematic enough to carry along undisturbed but just when there seems to be a breakthrough, we’re introduced to more uninteresting characters or more subplots that ultimately don’t add up to much. It’s a shame that the film is so overstuffed because it does have some salient points to make about consent and sexual politics but the storytelling is too unfocused to make the themes resonant.

Despite the aimless direction, the central performance by Huppert (recently deemed the Best Actress in a Drama by the Golden Globes) almost makes the movie worth seeing on its own terms and gives it a spark that it would otherwise be lacking. Most actresses wouldn’t even think about approaching material this brazen or have the bravery to pull off some of the trickier scenes but she casts an indelible mark on the film with her eccentric work. It’s a sly and sophisticated turn that underlines a character who is fundamentally enigmatic and still vulnerable and empathetic at the same time.

But she doesn’t have the support system that she needs from other aspects of the film to pull it all together. Beyond some of the more bizarre story elements that come out of left field (a serial killer past, various bouts of vandalism and voyeurism), other technical aspects like the rote musical score by Anne Dudley and the dismal visual effects in the scenes that depict the video game being developed by Michèle’s company seek to undermine any progress that Huppert commands on her own. Elle made me leave the theater scratching my head in bewilderment rather than consider the implications of its troubling story and I doubt that’s the effect Verhoeven intended for his film to have.