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2016 Movie Reviews!

Here are the movies I think are likely to garner best picture nominations (in no particular order):

Captain Fantastic is not a super hero movie- unless you consider raising a family with 6 kids fully outside of mainstream American capitalist culture heroic, and I might. Written and directed by Matt Ross (Good Night and Good Luck, American Psycho) and starring Viggo Mortensen, Captain offers an only slightly Hollywood-ized portrait of a family which rejects capitalism and lives a rich- if spartan- life in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.

The film is extremely well-acted and will likely garner Mortensen an Oscar nod. The central question of the movie is one that many of us ask ourselves today more than ever: Would life be richer, healthier, and ultimately more fulfilling if we rejected our roles as consumers and lived a life in direct, sustainable commune with the natural world- or is such an idea in a hyper technological, post-industrial world simply naive romanticism at best, and dangerous self-delusion at worst? The narrative and emotional core of the film unfolds out of the conflict between these two questions as the family makes a pilgrimage away from their chosen habitat to fulfill their recently deceased mother’s wishes to be cremated and flushed down a toilet rather than buried. Thankfully, the film gives realistic dramatic sincerity to both conclusions.

The culture of the family that Ben Cash (Mortensen) is raising is as intellectually intrepid as they are keenly able to self-sustain and thrive in a beautiful-but-unforgiving environment. In one key scene, Ben tries to assuage the understandable concerns of his suburban in-laws (played by Katherine Hahn and Steve Zahn)- who believe her nieces and nephews are being subjected to a dangerous lifestyle- by contrasting their teenage son’s understanding of the Bill of Rights to his 8-year-old daughter's. Predictably, the suburban teens know very little about the founding documents of the culture they so benefit from, whereas his young child has an intimate understanding of the nuances of constitutional law and it's importance in a thriving democracy. As endearing as this moment is, it’s with this idea that I find the only real disagreeable aspect of the film’s presumptions.

That children can reliably and consistently be taught to see the world through the eyes and intellectual faculties of philosophers is an endearing, but dubious suggestion that seems to hinge upon the assumption that what holds us back from a truly enlightened view of the world is the preponderance of technology and the distraction it ultimately provides in our collective lives. The children of mainstream America seem, when compared to the disciplined and thoughtful Cash kids, like ignorant, irritable, insolent automatons concerned with nothing but their freedom to be left alone to play video games. As an educator of kids, I can attest to the challenge of providing an intellectually stimulating counterweight to the inane distractions of the digital domain created by our ever-growing technology. However, as most mindful parents will likely attest to, kids tend to internalize behavior and ideas through material cognitive processes rather than purely intellectual ones. For example, a child will be dissuaded from experimenting with potentially dangerous activities like putting his or her hand on a hot burner by the use of material and physical deterrent (a slap on the hand) rather than a rational and dispassionate explanation of what happens to human flesh when severely burnt.

The story of Captain Fantastic resolves with a compromise between Thoreauvian libertarianism on one hand, and blind, ignorant gluttony on the other. At the end, we see a family reintegrated into society on terms that upholds their commitment to environmental stewardship and responsibility and acknowledges the additional importance of bringing the wisdom gained through such experience back to society through the consistent engagement with other people. Captain ambitiously-but-sincerely offers a post-post-modern vision of the family as the petry dish of good citizenry, and for that reason alone, everyone interested in being a good citizen should watch it.

The Lobster is an extremely effective social commentary piece that uses satire, absurdist comedy, and a refreshing twist on the dystopian future theme to make the poignant assertion that our all-too-human impulse to define ourselves by our relationship status- single or married- can lead to profound pathology on both an individual and collective level. Very well acted by Colin Ferrell- I’d love to see him get a best actor nom for this restrained but complex performance as a man caught between two absurd extremes of social pressure.

Hell or High Water is well paced, well acted, well written, and beautifully shot. This study of the spectrum of human desperation and decency bred of today’s economic hardships and class-driven realities should be compared to films like The Cohen Brother’s No Country For Old Men, The Proposition (2005), and Ridley Scott’s The Counselor for it’s juxtaposition of bleak landscapes and the spiritual hopelessness of the idea of crime and murder as a solution to even life’s most desperate problems. I see Jeff Bridges getting an best supporting nod for his nuanced turn as a gruff and cynical Texas Ranger.

Queen of Katwe might well be overlooked as a solid but ultimately emotionally predictable story of a young Ugandan girl’s rise to world chess mastery- that is, but for the impressive debut performance of Madina Nalwanga as chess master Phiona Mutesi. This is not the best movie of the year, but it does deserve it’s high critical praise and should be checked out on whatever your streaming service of choice if you’re into feel-good stories about people rising to greatness despite their third world circumstances.

Arrival is this year’s think piece drama masquerading as a sci-fi movie. In the recent tradition of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, we’re drawn in by a familiar sci-fi premise only to be given a story that transcends it’s genre’s traditional tropes, cliches, and limitations. Arrival poses a profound question about the nature of suffering, choice, and the relationship of those basic human conditions to our ability to survive into the indefinite future. I would compare it’s themes roughly to those suggested by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but not for it’s groundbreaking vision or it’s sublime cinematography, or even it’s epic scope. What is has is it’s heart, suggesting that, as we continue to apply our most rigorous rational faculties to understand the universe, what we may find is something profoundly human in it’s essence.

This meeting of human and otherworldly is also explored in Midnight Special featuring Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and the young Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent). This is essentially a supernatural/sci-fi thriller that unfolds slowly and carefully out of an intriguing premise involving a boy with prophetic, otherworldly powers, a fly-by-night road trip to meet the boy’s estranged mother (Dunst), and a rogue FBI scientist/investigator (Driver). The narrative direction of this story is a complete mystery as the boy’s ‘premonitions’ and ‘episodes’ (which involve blinding light emanating from his own eyes!) culminate in a reveal that is likely to both impress and bewilder most audiences. A deft combination of direction, writing, and acting serve to develop a whole cast of characters with very little exposition, giving the audience a real sense of history and weight to the family’s shared experience as well as the motivations of the supporting characters.

The Edge of Seventeen is a dramedy featuring an absolutely great comic/dramatic performance from young actress Hailey Steinfeld (True Grit 2010) who suffers from possessing neither the innocence of childhood nor the independence of being adult. This is a film that strongly evokes the best of John Hughes’s 80’s coming-of-age stories as it deftly toes the line between family drama and situational comedy. In my viewing, there are some subtlely traditional themes at work in this film about the shattered, pathological nature of the family that loses a parent, and the pitfalls inherent in a young woman’s emerging socio-sexual identity.

There’s not a ton to really say about Manchester By the Sea, mostly because it just needs to be seen- but only by those that can somehow benefit from perhaps the most heartbreaking story about truly profound loss and it’s ability to kill any desire to be happy and fulfilled ever again that I’ve seen since The Machinist. Casey Affleck should walk away with the Oscar for Best Actor for his brilliantly understated existential agony.

La La Land is a great movie about the inevitable disappointment and heartbreak awaiting everyone who pursues an artistic life the big city. An aspiring actress and a struggling jazz musician meet and fall in love. They support each other’s ambition. He eventually acquiesces to mediocrity for the sake of financial and commercial success while she nearly gives up on her dreams out of frustration and perceived failure. I won’t tell you any more because you need to really wonder how it will end for the story to really work.

I really enjoyed this film, despite my traditional loathing of musicals, because the story itself is one with which I strongly identify. I tend to hate musicals because of the obvious reason that the singing and dancing involved is categorically non sequitur- it almost always has nothing to do with the real-life experience of the characters we’re getting to know. No one just starts spontaneously singing and dancing to reinforce their own self expression- not even theater geeks. But, La La Land can be forgiven for it’s use of music and dance mostly because it doesn’t give you too much of this ridiculousness- most of the protracted dance numbers happen at the beginning of the film, giving way to actually character development and story for the bulk of the movie.

Land is a film that most will like, many will love, and a few of us- those who have experienced the contents of the story first-hand (like me)- will find deeply resonant and perhaps even a bit disturbing in it’s portrayal of the seemingly predestined failure of artists to offer adequate mutual support to one another in the context of a romantic relationship. It will probably win the best picture award at the Oscars and, though I’m not fully convinced it is actually the years best, it’s really close and does achieve recognition for both it’s ambition as a modern musical and sincere story about the dreams, talents, and failures of real people.

Other movies I liked:

Passengers is space thriller-meets-romance that suffered some critical backlash as a result of what I humbly suggest is a simple (although understandable) misinterpretation of it’s narrative. The film is about a space ship on a long voyage to a colonized planet light years away from Earth. It’s crew and passengers are all in static sleep pods not to be awakened until their arrival some 100 years in the future. Unfortunately, Jim Preston’s (Chris Pratt) pod malfunctions and wakes him up some 80 years before the arrival date. Oops. After a solid year of attempts at repairing, and eventual despairing, he decides to wake up another passenger (Jen Lawrence) so he doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life alone. Of course, it’s this decision that seems like the blatant, murderous, misogynistic, patriarchal entitlement for female companionship men have demanded throughout so much of history. And, the film agrees with that. Lawrence’s Aurora Lane’s ambitions as a writer searching for a great story about life on another planet are forever crushed by Preston’s choice to wake her up. He’s forced a decision on her that she would never have made by herself and robbed her of her self-determined life.

What the films seems to ultimately contemplating, beyond some of the necessary sci-fi cliches like fixing a murderously malfunctioning ship Gravity style, is the nature of human partnership. It may be true that the coupling men and women engage in to have a family and to stave off loneliness does represent a killing off of at least some of the potential of each individual. What the film wants to say is that, just as individuals can reaffirm the value of life in the face of suffering, so can couples affirm the value of their bond even in the face of it’s undeniable unfairness.

Hail Ceasar! Another fun, absurdist romp from the greatest sibling filmmakers alive. Even if the narrative and dialogue aren’t the point (and, maybe they are?), one is again invited to revel in wonderful imagery, peculiar and out-of-type performances by A list actors, along with timing and pacing that should never be overlooked.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense and suspenseful vehicle for both John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, two performers who consistently choose interesting and substantive roles. This film was promoted as a psychological thriller, through Shyamalan-esque narrative tension, opens up into something quite different in the end sequence.

The world of animation gave us two superb releases. Disney’s Zootopia is another extremely effective piece serving up themes of alienation, tolerance, and the value of diversity- all in a tidy, feel good, well-paced package. Kubo and the Two Strings is another offering from my favorite animation studio LAIKA Studios, based in Portland Oregon. Their elegant stop-motion craft combined with wonderful, mythologically-oriented storytelling never fails to strike all the beats you need in well-crafted coming of age fantasy.

Here’s hoping for a great 2017 in film….!

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