Tag Archives: 2016

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:

Best Live Action Short Film

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

My Prediction: Timecode
My Vote:

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


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


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 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


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.

La La Land ****|****

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Musicals have long been a cherished mainstay of American cinema and like any other genre of film, the trends that define it change as time progresses. However, even fans of the genre would admit that the glut of recent stage-to-screen adaptations have lost something in translation and left more to be desired. Writer/director Damien Chazelle must have been privy to this when he began developing his original musical La La Land in 2010 but despite his perseverance with the project, I doubt he had any idea that the result would be as stunning and downright delightful as it ended up being.

La La Land wisely reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for their third time on screen together and as their chemistry was the highlight of those previous works (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), it is the glue which holds this movie together. The two play a pair of relentless dreamers: Gosling an accomplished pianist named Sebastian who aspires to opening his own jazz club and Stone a struggling actress named Mia striving to break through the monotony of failed auditions to find her starring role. Through a series of chance encounters across modern-day Los Angeles, Sebastian and Mia begin to develop an affection for one another but their ambitions threaten to get in the way of their relationship.

From a breathtaking opening number that already feels iconic to an ending that lives at the intersection of bittersweet and heartbreak, this is a film filled with so many consecutive creative choices that stack up in such a fulfilling way. Like any great musical, each new song and development of the score enriches the one prior to it and creates a breathless momentum that doesn’t seem sustainable but somehow makes the spell last the entire runtime. The experience of watching it was akin to watching a talented pitcher throw a perfect game: the possibility for error is so high that the ability to avoid it makes the experience that much more exciting.

If I had to pick one aspect of La La Land that made it such an overwhelming hit for me, I would credit Chazelle’s knack for balancing the fantastical elements of classic musical fare with the more grounded insights into how young people navigate their way through modern relationships. There are countless influences on the style of this movie, the most obvious being the grandiose MGM musicals of the 1950s and the vivacious work of Jacques Demy in the 1960s, but Chazelle puts these touchstones through his own filter of longing and wistfulness to create something that feels a bit wiser and perhaps more timeless as well. Following a studio session, one of Sebastian’s band mates asks of him “how are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” and the push-pull creative impulses of nostalgia vs. innovation pervade every inch of this film.

Chazelle is working with quite a bit conceptually here but I don’t want to undersell just how effortlessly charming Gosling and Stone are in their lead roles and how utterly enchanting the original music is from composer Justin Hurwitz. Other technical aspects from the gorgeous lighting choices to the dazzling, dreamy camerawork from Linus Sandgren add pitch-perfect notes of sophistication to the wonderful affair. We haven’t seen a musical quite as grand as La La Land on the screen in quite some time and even those who aren’t partial to the genre owe it to themselves to discover what’s so special and unforgettable about it.

Fences ***|****

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences in this new film adaptation, which credits Wilson as its sole screenwriter and also features Washington for his third time in the director’s chair. With an economical use of locations and focus on long passages of dialogue with stage-ready blocking from its players, it’s clear from the first scene that this material was developed from a play and Washington doesn’t add too many stylistic flourishes that could give things a bit more flavor. Instead, he clearly trusts the strong writing from the source enough to let it speak for itself and that, along with some excellent performances, make this a worthy substitute for those who haven’t seen the theater version.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences follows the life of garbage collector and former baseball player Troy Maxson (Washington) as he works tirelessly to support his resilient wife Rose (Davis) and his determined teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Maxson is often visited at his house by his mentally challenged brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) and drinking buddy and oldest friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who commiserates with him about the hard times and reminiscences on their old glory days playing ball. As we learn more about the details of Troy’s mired past, we also learn of a secret that he has been keeping from Rose which may threaten their marriage and their entire family as well.

Though not often a likeable character, Maxson is a fascinating figure and Washington plays him with the kind of moral complexity that constants tests your allegiance to him as a protagonist. He has plenty of charm and charisma to get through the gate but reveals ugly degrees of selfishness and stubbornness that begin to paint him in a much less flattering light over time. Washington plays Troy as a man constantly at odds with his circumstances but ultimately as someone at odds with himself, trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of his father before him but perhaps failing even harder as a result.

As good as Washington is, Viola Davis is the biggest standout of this actor’s showcase in a performance that should land her a third Oscar nomination and hopefully her first win as well. As Troy’s long-suffering wife, she bravely wears the early triumphs and persistent failures of her life with him all on her world-weary face. In a spellbinding monologue towards the film’s conclusion, Davis wrings heartache from every single line as she reflects on the compromises that she made to be with Troy and dwells on the impact that he had on Cory as a less-than-ideal father figure.

With a 2 hour and 20 minute run time, Fences can drag a bit during some sections and the lack of conventional “action” (most scenes are simply two or three characters sitting around and talking) may be a bit tedious for those expecting dramatic fireworks in every scene. As it’s mainly a meditation on fatherhood and failure, it can be emotionally bruising as a family drama but intellectually engaging as a character study of a man raging quietly against the world that he’s built for himself. To keep with the various baseball analogies used in the film, Fences may not be the grand slam that it could have been but at the very least, it’s a solid base hit.

Manchester by the Sea ***½|****

Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck gives a quietly devastating performance in the gripping new drama Manchester by the Sea, the third film in 16 years from acclaimed director Kenneth Lonergan. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a withdrawn Boston-based janitor who gets an unexpected call from a family friend in northern Massachusetts with the news that Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a major heart attack. After making the hour-long drive up the state, Lee arrives to the news that his brother passed away during the trip and that he’s now responsible for taking care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who lives close by in the city from which the film takes its title.

This raises a problem for Lee, not only because he feels estranged from Patrick after years of little to no contact with his family but also because looking after him would seem to require Lee to relocate to his hometown. As Patrick points out, Lee’s living situation is much more malleable as he lives in a small one bedroom apartment and handywork can be done anywhere but it’s not that simple. A tragedy in his past has made him a pariah in the community and the sight alone of his now re-married ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is almost too much for him to bear.

Lonergan uses a unique flashback structure to reveal the circumstances through which Lee was cast into a self-imposed exile, both in the physical and psychological sense. This is the first film of Lonergan’s that I’ve seen and it’s clear that he’s a very deliberate and precise filmmaker, one who trusts the audience to keep up with the artistic decisions (especially those involving the editing) that he’s making. He’s also a director that allows his actors to dig deep within the nuances of the writing (Lonergan also penned the original screenplay) and to create some truly stunning performances as a result.

Affleck has and will continue to receive praise for his work here (as well he should) but Hedges is every bit as revelatory in his role as a teenager who doesn’t quite know how to manage his reaction to the surprise death of his father. Life seems to go on, at least on the surface –he asks Lee if he can invite friends over and have pizza on the night of Joe’s passing — but it’s clear that his method of coping is in sharp contrast to Lee’s more insular approach. Patrick’s wicked sense of humor not only feels like a credible emotional response to such tragic events but it also gives this oppressively dour story a much-needed sense of relief.

Even with the jabs of dark comedy piercing through, Manchester is still a heavy sit and there will no doubt be some that find it more emotionally exhausting than traditionally “enjoyable”. The important thing is that it doesn’t feel like Lonergan is intentionally making these characters suffer endlessly for no reason; they feel like real people doing their best to battle valiantly with their grief. Bruising and resonant, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful piece that may deny conventional catharsis but does so on behalf of its richly authentic character work.

Rogue One ***|****

Felicity Jones in Rogue One

The Star Wars Anthology continues after last year’s Episode VII with Rogue One, which is technically a prequel to the 1977 original but also serves as a standalone film with a new slate of characters and settings. In some ways, it’s slavishly devoted to the mold created by its predecessors but it does take some creative leaps of its own and strives to get this artistic balance just right. Most importantly, this movie builds on the promise of The Force Awakens by providing more spectacular sequences of space battle that are as technologically ground-breaking today as the original trilogy was in its day.

The story here involves the covert Rebel operation to steal the plans for an impending weapon by the Empire called the Death Star, a mission which is led by the fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a soldier named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The crew is also comprised of an Imperial pilot now aligned with the Rebels (Riz Ahmed) and Andor’s droid assistant name K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who provides some comic relief to this often grim tale. Hot on the Rebels’ trail is Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is in charge of the Death Star’s initial weapons tests and whose research helped develop it as the Empire’s most powerful war machine.

Director Gareth Edwards, who headed up the 2014 Godzilla reboot, paces this film breathlessly, beginning with a cold open prologue from Erso’s childhood that segues into introductions to a dozen new faces across several planets within the first 15 minutes. It’s a lot to take in but once he finds his rhythm, the plot begins to unfold more naturally and the stakes are laid out very clearly. Newcomers should have their hands full just keeping track of the action but existing Star Wars buffs, especially those of A New Hope, should also be able to pick up on many bits of fan service scattered along the way, particularly towards the film’s stunning conclusion.

A significant way that Rogue One doesn’t quite stack up to The Force Awakens is in its handling of these new characters, as Erso doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out as Rey was in last year’s film and Andor doesn’t have nearly the personality of Finn or Poe. It also squanders the charisma of actors like Riz Ahmed, who doesn’t have nearly enough to do here, and Donnie Yen, who has some well-designed combat scenes but is mainly left murmuring a mantra about the Force again and again. While the script isn’t as strong on its character development, it does have an engaging political subtext that I wasn’t expecting and some incisive messages about the consequences of war.

Aside from these details, the big picture is really what matters most and this movie delivers on the basis of pure adrenaline action in a way that none of the other prequels have in the past. In fact, there are two major setpieces, those on the rainy planet of Eadu and the  Imperial base on Scarif, that could stack up even against some of the best action scenes from the original trilogy. Rogue One puts Disney at 2-for-2 since their acquisition of Lucasfilm and with the masterful Rian Johnson at the creative helm of Episode VIII, there should be plenty to make Star Wars fans excited for the future.

Nocturnal Animals **½|****

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford follows his moving debut A Single Man with this ambitious and multi-layered thriller that contains some thought-provoking story elements but can’t find a way to tie them together in a meaningful way. Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, uses its story-within-a-story structure to tell a dark tale of betrayal and revenge that has a sumptuous sense of visual flair, even when the plot doesn’t always add up. It’s comprised of three separate narrative threads, each of which are well-acted and beautifully photographed but only two of which kept me engaged the entire time.

The one that didn’t could be described as the “main” storyline, which involves an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript for Nocturnal Animals, a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he has dedicated to her. Troubled by her failing marriage with the unfaithful Hutton (Armie Hammer), Susan becomes obsessed with the story and stays up throughout the night tearing through page after page of the manuscript. She becomes desperate to find meaning within its tragic and violent contents, which spurs both flashbacks to her early days of happy marriage with Edward and a dramatized version of the novel.

It tells the story of family man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter as they travel across a largely vacant highway in West Texas during the middle of the night. Following a run-in on the road with a band of troublemakers led by their devious driver (a triumphantly creepy Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the group kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter and leaves him abandoned in the desert. After Tony makes he way back into town, he partners with a no-nonsense detective (Michael Shannon, doing some excellent scene-chewing) to find the criminals and bring about justice at any cost.

This segment of the film is the most straight-forward and engrossing from a narrative perspective but it can sometimes feel at odds with the more conventional “present day” and flashback storylines. Part of this likely has to do with the seedy West Texas setting in contrast to the highbrow art scene of Los Angeles but the tone of the “fictional” passage is also much darker and more disturbing than the rest of the film. The lurid details of the story at the center of the film may be too much for some audiences but I found this core story to be more involving than off-putting.

What I expect more people to find off-putting are the bizarre and inexplicable opening credits, which depict numerous severely overweight women dancing in slow motion with sparklers, all while completely naked. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a provocative opening sequence in a film but if it doesn’t properly set the tone for the rest of the story and if the context given for it later on is unsatisfying, it just doesn’t do much good for the movie as a whole. Tom Ford clearly has some artistic instincts that can lead to some truly groundbreaking storytelling but Nocturnal Animals could have worked much better if he had reined in his vision a bit more.