*** 25.) The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama, Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lindsay Burdge, Mike Doyle, Jay Larson & John Carrol Lynch) ***
*** 24.) Queen of Katwe (dir. Mira Nair, Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga) ***
*** 23.) American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold, Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf & Riley Keough) ***
*** 22.) Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols, Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas, Nick Kroll & Michael Shannon) ***
*** 21.) Indignation (dir. James Schamus, Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger & Noah Robbins) ***
The centerpiece scene in Indignation is a battle royale of wits between Logan Lerman’s outspoken Marcus and Tracy Letts’ intimidating Dean of Students. It’s thrilling, almost operatic in a way and gives the film its emotional crescendo so that when it all comes together in its final moments, you’re absolutely crushed. Anyone who thought Lerman’s work in 2012’s Perks of Being A Wallflower was a fluke will find themselves mistaken, as his work here is among one of the best of last year.
*** 20.) Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Patrick Stewart) ***
One of the last, great performances we got from Anton Yelchin came from one of last year’s most underrated films. Green Room isn’t short on thrills, or gore, but it’s flat out entertaining. A wild ride from start to finish.
*** 19.) Moana (dir. Ron Clements & John Musker, Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger & Alan Tudyk) ***
Aside from being one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year, Moana is beautifully made. It’s lush, vibrant and always thrilling to watch; this may be the most beautifully animated Disney film since Tangled. And while it may fall into some familiar story cliches, none of that matters. The original songs by Lin Manuel Miranda are fantastic. All in all, Moana is a worthy addition into the hall of Great Disney films, with Moana herself being one of the most exciting Disney Princesses in recent history.
Oh, yeah, and for what it’s worth Frozen wishes it was even half as good as this movie.
*** 18.) Hello, My Name Is Doris (dir. Michael Showalter, Starring: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon- Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Natasha Lyonne & Tyne Daly) ***
I never wanted this movie to end, largely in part to Sally Field giving one of the best performances of her career.
“I could have had things too;” the scene where Doris realizes she’s wasted her life is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking all at once. Without chewing the scenery, Field delivers one of the most heart wrenching moments in film in recent history.
*** 17.) 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. , Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman & John Gallagher Jr.) ***
10 Cloverfield Lane uses every single minute of its running time to submerge you into the claustrophobic bunker our main characters find themselves.Much has been said about the performance of John Goodman, and he deserves every bit of praise he’s gotten. But it’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead who blew me away the most. Her Michelle is much more in line with Ellen Ripley from Alien than Aliens though I’m sure if we’re blessed with another installment, we’ll see her get there.
*** 16.) Lion (dir. Garth Davis, Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Priyanka Bose, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee & Nawazuddin Siddiqui) ***
The film in a word: powerful. What kind of been an emotionally manipulative melodrama is a well acted, beautiful film. It’s ludicrous that Dev Patel is gunning for a Supporting Actor campaign; though he is in half the film, he dominates as the older Saroo. I didn’t think the kid from “Skins” had this kind of performance in him. Nicole Kidman as Patel’s character’s mother is revelatory in her handful of scenes, taking a role that is regulated to an archetype and imbuing it with warmth. By the end, I was a puddle of tears.
*** 15.) O.J.: Made In America (dir. Ezra Edelman) ***
A sprawling, masterclass work that touches on a number of topics, chief among them race relations, civil rights and OJ’s relationship to the black community all of which were undeniably at the heart of the deeply complex trial that people are still trying to understand today. The running time may intimidate some viewers looking to commit to it, but the pay off is worth it. What a film.
*** 14.) Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven, Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet & Lucas Prisor) ***
Elle is a tricky film, one that’s impossible to pin down much like its central protagonist. Paul Verhoeven has made yet another film that will be analyzed ad debated for years to come. But one thing that’s not up for debate is the quality of Isabelle Huppert’s performance. A commanding, thorny and acidly funny turn in a career full of accomplished work; she is a marvel.
*** 13. ) Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell & Mahershala Ali) ***
Deadpool and Captain America have nothing on the ladies from Hidden Figures. That we’re just learning about the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson is, frankly, criminal; these are women who deserve to have their faces in history books. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe deliver some of the year’s best performances in what is undeniably the year’s most winning film. More stories like this, please.
*** 12.) Fences (dir. Denzel Washington, Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson & Saniyya Sidney) ***
Staying true to the spirit of the late, great August Wilson’s play, Denzel Washington’s steady hand directs a truly phenomenal ensemble cast to delivering a worthy screen adaptation of the wildly successful play. But it’s the performances of Washington and Viola Davis that justify the price of admission; watching these two greats trade monologues is nothing short of jaw-dropping; they were born to play these roles.
*** 11.) 20th Century Women(Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup & Lucas Jade Zumann) ***
The luminous Annette Bening has truly never been better than she is here (and that’s saying something) but to make the film just about her performance would be to ignore the work of the entire ensemble (Fanning, Gerwig, Crudup and Zumann are perfectly in sync), Mills’ brilliant direction and screenplay, the handsomely understated production design and costumes, and the beautiful cinematography.
The Top 10:
*** 10.) The Meddler (dir. Lorene Scafaria, Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Cecily Strong, Jarrod Carmichael, Jason Ritter, Billy Magnussen, Lucy Punch, Casey Wilson & Michael McKean) ***
Despite her antics concerning Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and the 2016 Presidential Election as a whole, Susan Sarandon is an exceptional actress. It’s been awhile since she had a truly great part that allowed her to flex her acting muscles, but Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler manages to be just that. Playing the role of the recently widowed Marnie Minervini, Sarandon’s subtle comedic chops shine alongside of the nuanced dramatic work she’s doing with what could have been a grating character, but in Sarandon’s hands manages to be entirely watchable and sympathetic.
When we meet Marnie, she is still getting accustomed to her new life in Los Angeles after following her screenwriter daughter Lori (Byrne). Marnie is coping (I use that word lightly) with the death of her beloved husband Joe, who left behind his money that has set her up for the rest of her life. Instead of moving on, Marnie tries to hold onto her daughter who wants nothing more than for her to let go, as she’s coping in her own way. To avoid the pain, Marnie involves herself in the lives of others so she can feel needed. She befriends Freddy (Jarrod Carmichael), an Apple Store employee, and begins driving him to and from night school and plans a wedding for Lori’s friend Jillian (Cecily Strong), never deterring from her main mission of emotionally suffocating her daughter.
But it’s when Marnie meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons), the first person she’s been able to foster a connection with since the death of her husband, that reality sinks in and her dream world that she’s crafted around her starts crashing down. She’s presented with the opportunity to move beyond her grief, something she’s chosen to run from in the past (it’s why she moved across the country in the first place) but can’t hide from any longer.
It would be easy to play up Marnie’s neuroticism and antics at her expense, and while we can’t help but laugh at Marnie leaving countless voicemails on Lori’s phone that will never be returned or watch her play Beyoncé’s “I Was Here” for the umpteenth time, acting as if it’s the first time she’s heard it every time it plays, we also cry along with her in those quieter moments. We smile and cheer as she finds a second chance at love. Watching Scafaria slowly peel back the layers of her complex protagonist is a wonder to behold, while Sarandon’s performance is imbued with a sensitivity and complexity that isn’t showcased often enough in film. The Meddler is not just a poignant portrait of grief, but a love letter to mothers everywhere and a beautiful story about a woman coming into her own later on in life.
*** 9.) The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig, Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedwick & Hayden Szeto) ***
The Edge of Seventeen is a rare type of film that we don’t get enough of, but you’d have absolutely no idea if you went solely on the marketing and the trailer. Following splashier debuts at the Toronto Film Festival and sidelined with a cruel Fall release, the film didn’t find the audience it deserved, though critics have (thankfully) rallied behind it. Where coming of age stories never truly seem to capture the purgatory-esque years of adolescence and high school no matter how real they try to seem, Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut film captures that feeling with an ease that suggests she’s made dozens and dozens of films.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a teenage girl who is convinced the universe is against her. Her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) has begun dating her arch nemesis, aka her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) who is every bit as athletic and popular as Nadine is socially awkward and introverted. In between nursing her teenage woes, trying to get the boy she likes to notice her and simply survive high school, Nadine must also nurture her emotionally fragile mother (Kyra Sedwick), who is still reeling from the death of her husband., which left a huge rift in between the surviving family members they’re still trying to make sense of.
It’s easy to forget that Hailee Steinfeld is an Academy Award nominated actress. She was recognized right out of the gate for her performance in True Grit. Though lately she’s been moonlighting as a pop star (2015’s moderately successful masturbatory anthem “Love Myself” and last year’s undeniably catchy “Starving”) and a thankless supporting player in the dreadful Pitch Perfect sequel, her performance in this film confirms she has the gift. Where many would play Nadine as a the recipient of fate’s cruel joke, something Steinfeld does that without making her a martyr in a performance that feels like a true, lived in experience and not fabricated and hyper-realized. There were several moments I squirmed in my seat, reeling from memories of my own emotionally unstable teenage behavior; constantly the victim and never in the wrong. Steinfeld maps this out so well, that when Nadine finally comes around, we believe she’s truly grown up.
What’s so revolutionary about The Edge of Seventeen is that it feels worlds away from the fast-talking characters of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s Juno, a world that’s more authentic. And as someone who genuinely enjoys Juno, The Edge of Seventeen is the much more necessary film; it’s a genuine live saver for any teenager who feels they’ve lost their way. It’s a reminder to fight and come up for air when fate’s cruel hand is holding you under water.
*** 8.) Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman, Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwall, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry & Chloë Sevigny) ***
It would be easy for me to just write about how much I love Kate Beckinsale in this movie, and how it’s one of the best, most fully formed and hysterical portrayals of the year. Her Lady Susan is a quick, witty force of nature; Beckinsale doesn’t waste a single frame, constantly sizing up and analyzing her situation and the people around her looking for the situation most beneficial to her. Whether it’s the young and handsome Reginald (Xavier Samuel) the hilariously daft suitor eyeing her daughter (Tom Bennett in one of the year’s best supporting turns) or even her own daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), no one is safe from Susan’s schemes, always staying five steps ahead of everyone else.She was truly the original Joanne the Scammer.
But to simply write about Beckinsale would ignore the brilliance of the rest of the ensemble cast. Chloë Sevigny matches Beckinsale tit for tat as her American sidekick married to a moody Englishman (an excellent Stephen Fry in a small cameo) while newcomer Clark has the insane task of playing it straight to her larger than life co-star, and manages to succeed. But it’s Bennett as Sir James who impressed me the most, threatening to steal the film away from his co-stars. It’s a performance that could have very easily tipped over into irritating territory. We’ve seen actors play dumb for laughs many times, but his many moments of sheer outrageousness, such as the way he claims he’s never seen a pea before or his unfamiliarity with the word “Churchill,” are carefully sprinkled throughout the film giving it just the right amount of absurdity. Bennett is clearly having the time of his life, and it’s a performance that earns your laughs rather than demanding them. That he hasn’t been winning more Best Supporting Actor nominations is incredibly disappointing.
The hilariously self-aware screenplay couldn’t have been in better hands; the cast is a well-oiled machine working perfectly in tandem with one another under the assured and confident direction of Whit Stillman. In a year full of big-budgeted misfires, the modestly budgeted Love & Friendship managed to be one of the year’s biggest surprises.
*** 7.) The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers, Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Granger & Lucas Dawson) ***
Robert Eggers directorial debut has managed to stay on my mind since I saw it back in February. It’s meticulously crafted, with an expert level of attention to detail that might stun some upon learning that he’s never made a film before. Billed as “A New-England Folktale,” Eggers uses the 17th century as his backdrop, establishing the scene and immediately isolating his characters in the foreboding woods. Anyone who knows anything about Puritan New England knows that there was nothing more terrifying than the woods. It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike; young Thomasin (the amazing Anya Taylor-Joy) finds her infant brother Samuel has mysteriously vanished out from under her close watch, without a trace. Is it witchcraft?
The screenplay, created from actual records from the time, explores the family’s dynamic as they grapple with the loss of their son, and the growing suspicion of their oldest daughter, slipping deeper into paranoia. Eggers is clearly fascinated at the repressive puritan way of thinking, with the underlaying themes of the treatment of women and sexuality, which no doubt fueled the Salem Witch Trials. It’s impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of Thomasin’s growth into a woman with the emergence of the titular witch. Where many directors would focus more on the witch herself, Eggers keeps her in the background allowing her to cast a foreboding cloud over the entire film. Yes, she’s terrifying no doubt but the real horror is watching this family’s descent into madness as they tear each other apart. It all leads to one of the scariest climaxes I’ve seen in a long time. With The Witch, Eggers has cast a transfixing and heart stopping spell that will changed how many will define horror, and will no doubt go down as one of the best of the genre.
*** 6.) Zootopia (dir. Byron Howard & Rich Moore, Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer & Alan Tudyk & Shakira) ***
There haven’t been many animated movies I’ve loved as fervently as I do Zootopia. Smart, funny and engaging, it’s a film that wears its intelligence and timely message on its sleeve; a film that at first sight may seem more kid-friendly, but upon further examination manages to reach people to everyone of all ages, from all walks of life.
The overzealous Judy Hopps (an excellently cast Ginnifer Goodwin) wants nothing more than to be a cop, which would make her the first bunny to ever hold the job. Previously, bunnies have been stereotyped as “weak” and “too small,” regulated to simply being carrot farmers. But through sheer will and determination, Judy beats the odds and accomplishes her dream, moving to the city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything.
It doesn’t take long for Judy to realize that Zootopia isn’t all its cracked up to be, and that despite the city’s inclusionary message there is plenty of segregation and stereotypes; Judy’s own boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) assigns her to writing tickets while the bigger animals (“the predators”) get in on the real action. It isn’t until a missing persons case tied with other disappearances and cases of predators going “savage” lands squarely in Judy’s lap that she gets her big shot. She teams up with the con artist fox, Nick (Jason Bateman), to solve the mystery behind what’s really going on.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to draw the parallels between Zootopia and the real world. But what’s so revelatory about the film is how it delivers its message without pandering, or ever seeming heavy handed or preachy. Even the well meaning Judy, the film’s hero, is seen feeding into the stereotypes and micro aggressions that many well meaning people in real life do as well, albeit not intentionally but the way the film explores these tricky themes is incredible. Similarly impressive is how well the film recalls the classics like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. I dare you to find a funnier moment this year than the DMV scene.
*** 5.) The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook, Starring: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong & Kim Tae-ri) ***
The Handmaiden would have earned a spot on here for its handsome production values and exquisite craftsmanship alone. Is this the most beautifully made film of the year? The bar has been set pretty high with films like Jackie and even Moonlight, but Park Chan-wook’s latest erotic and duplicitous psychological thriller is one hell of a ride from start to finish, which is why it’s one of the best films of the year.
Loosely based on the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters’, Chan-wook has changed the setting from Victorian era England to 1930s colonial Korea. Told in three parts, the story focuses on the efforts of a poor pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman, to deceive the aristocratic Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune. Sook-Hee will work as her handmaiden, earn her trust and coerce the good lady to fall in love with the Count. When he has her hand in marriage, he’ll snatch her fortune, throw Hideko into an asylum and split the profits and spoils with Sook-Hee. Sounds easy enough to follow, right?
Wrong. If you’re familiar with Chan-wook’s work, all is not what it seems to be, as we and Sook-Hee learn quite quickly. I’ll leave it there; it’s a thorny symphony with as many twists and turns as visual and technical grandeurs. In a perfect world, The Handmaiden would be a lock in every single technical category at the Academy Awards, and the favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film. I’d argue that it even deserves an Adapted Screenplay nomination as well. Alas, the film was not submitted for consideration, and we all know the Academy favors english-speaking films.
One can hope, however, because The Handmaiden really is that good. Chan-wook’s previous films, particularly Stoker, all feature the same handsome and ornate fingerprint of their director. But this is his crowning achievement. And there have been plenty of films are so devoted to their aesthetic, that they shirk their storytelling duties (I’m looking at you, Nocturnal Animals). The Handmaiden is proof that you really can have both, and sets the bar high for those looking to follow it.
*** 4.) 13th (dir. Ava Duvernay) ***
There’s a moment in Ava Duvernay’s 13th that I have not stopped thinking about since I watched it, one that has only grown more resonant since the election. Duvernay uses footage and audio from Donald Trump’s rallies while showing footage from the era of Jim Crowe, where black people were brutalized by white crowds for simply having the courage to walk down the street. It’s something that many would tell you is far behind us, but as 13th shows us, that could not be farther from the truth.
Duvernay’s masterfully made documentary, reportedly filmed in secret before premiering at the New York Film Festival, exposes the ugliness of America’s racism and how deep it’s intertwined not just in our past, but our present and our future too. Slavery was supposed to have been ended with the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Instead, America evolved and found a new way to carry on the grand tradition of slave labor:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Duvernay is working with a lot here, and manages to deconstruct and untangle all of the language being used to mask the true purpose of mass incarceration. And yet, 13th doesn’t ever get bogged down with all of the information and facts it’s throwing at you, nor does it exploit your emotions. It compels you to sit down and listen.
13th is not an easy pill to swallow (not that it should be). It doesn’t let anyone off the hook, lays bare the sins of white America, forcing us to take a long, hard look in the mirror and confront the bitter and ugly truth about who we are, what we have done and what we are continuing to do. It’s the first film Duvernay has done since her criminally underrated Selma. Since then, she has developed and directed the brilliant tv series Queen Sugar and is gearing up to direct A Wrinkle In Time. From the time her excellent Middle Of Nowhere made waves at Sundance, she’s shown us all that she refuses to be pinned down and is the most exciting and necessary emerging directorial voice working in Hollywood today.
*** 3.) Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg & Tzi Ma) ***
Arrival truly couldn’t have arrived (pardon me for the pun) at a better time. Days after the terrifying and heartbreaking news that one Donald J. Trump would succeed Barak Obama as President of the United States, it’s safe to say the majority of American’s (more than 65 million as I write this, to be exact) were feeling incredibly defeated, broken and most importantly, scared. What the future holds is still unclear, but if there’s anything Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has to say, it’s that language, connections and understanding one another matter now, more than ever.
Adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival tells the story of lonely linguist Louise Banks. When we meet Louise, she and every other human on the planet have learned that twelve, potentially extraterrestrial spacecrafts have landed on random spots across the globe for no reason. Banks is recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to engage with the creatures on board one of the spacecrafts. Blocked by a glass barrier, Louise must not only decode the alien’s strange language (the equivalent of squids spraying ink), but help them to understand english and figure out what it is they want.
As Louise digs deeper into her research, she is plagued by visions of her late daughter Hannah, while facing pressure from the military and other world powers who believe the aliens have a weapon. She pleas with the men around her to be patient, and try to understand rather than simply react. We as the audience are at the mercy Louise’s perspective; Villeneuve sparingly feeds us information and clues to the point where we’re actively trying to solve this mystery alongside her.
In a career full of great performances, this stands among her best; Amy Adams is nothing short of incredible, holding this film and carrying it on her shoulders. Cinematographer Bradford Young captures the increasing divide between dreams and reality that plagues Louise’s mind in the same way he captured the Ava Duvernay’s retelling of the march to Selma, Alabama. This couldn’t have been an easy script to adapt, but Eric Heisserer has managed to retain the original spirit of the story without using it as a crutch. Villeneuve delivered my favorite film of last year with Sicario, and has once again managed to wow me.
What emerges is a heartbreaking parable, one that, as I said before, could not have emerged at a better time. Louise pleads with the men around her to calm down and leave their preconceived notions and stereotypes at the door. “Language is tricky,” she says, preaching the importance of truly understanding one another and the danger of simply reacting. She is underestimated by the men around her, but in the end it’s Louise’s patience and empathy that unlocks the key to communicating with the aliens. As America elects one of the most openly racist, xenophobic men to the presidency in recent memory, Louise’s pleas for understanding and empathy ring louder and louder upon repeated viewings, tugging at the heartstrings. I just pray people are truly listening.
*** 2.) Jackie (dir. Pablo Lorraín, Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, & John Hurt)***
How much easier would it have been for Pablo Larraín to make a by the numbers biopic about the life and times of Jacqueline Kennedy? But to do so would imply that Larraín is a by the numbers director, and anyone familiar with his work (the brilliant No and Neruda, his other film being released this year) knows that he is anything but. For his first english language film, Larraín has made his masterpiece; Jackie examines the days after the assassination of JFK from the perspective of his wife, Jacqueline played by Natalie Portman in the performance of a lifetime.
Running at a perfectly utilized 99 minutes, the film is framed through Jackie’s famous interview with LIFE magazine. Larraín places us smack dab in the middle of her emotionally shattered mind. It’s not always an easy or empathetic place to be, but it’s visceral and enthralling. We see glimpses of her now iconic White House tour (painstakingly recreated, frame by frame), the ride in the motorcade on that fateful day in Dallas, wandering through the White House as she tries to hang onto a sense of normalcy as life as she knows it changes around her, a meeting with a priest (John Hurt). These fragmented moments build towards a towering crescendo as Jackie marches through the streets of D.C., attempting to rewrite and solidify a legacy for her husband with a funeral procession that rivaled Abraham Lincoln’s, forgoing the opinions of everyone around her.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is claustrophobically stunning, and I mean that literally; the film is mostly shot in close-ups, with very few tracking shots to give us a breath or two. Composer Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) score sounds transported from another world entirely, and yet it’s a perfect fit. Much like the film itself, the music is haunting, disorienting but ultimately gorgeous. The strings lurch you forward and backward as Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay skips through time. It’s visceral and intimate, much like Jackie’s psyche. Larraín’s searing and hypnotic character study rebukes the shackles of the biopic genre; Jackie has more in common with the horror genre than it does with a sympathetic portrait of a historical figure. I have not been able to shake the horrifying image of her Jackie in the motorcade, blood splattered throughout her face as she looks around trying to make sense of what just happened while literally holding her husband’s head in place. Just the thought of it sends a chill down my spine, with Levi’s score swelling over the diegetic sound; it’s more horrifying than anything you’d find in a handful of the more “typical” horror movies released this year.
The film lives and dies by Portman’s performance, and to say she dives in headfirst is an understatement. Larraín was persistent about not only casting her, but removing every scene from Noah Oppenheim’s brilliant screenplay that didn’t feature her. Her depiction of the former First Lady is so studied in its technical precision, it almost leaves no room for nuance or depth, emphasis on almost. But we’re not just talking about any actress here; this is the performance of Portman’s very accomplished career, exceeding her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan and similarly acclaimed roles in Closer and The Professional. I’ve read many reviews that have accused Portman of succumbing to camp, and it’s clear that they focused entirely too much on the accent, missing the emotion the actress is imbuing into her character. That so much of the film is shot in close ups only adds to the effectiveness of Portman’s very masterful work; she has a face made for close ups.
Anyone who is familiar with Jackie knows her incredibly unusual speaking voice, something she played up or down depending on who she was talking to. Portman plays this aspect effortlessly, switching the many masks of Jacqueline sometimes several times throughout one sequence. There’s Jackie the mother, Jackie the widow, Jackie the scared woman hiding behind the beloved public figure, etc. And while she plays up her recognizable poise, her Jackie is no shrinking violet. In fact, she’s not always entirely likable, and she’s a bit of a scammer. As Jackie sees the world around her change, being pushed out of the Oval office by Lyndon B. Johnson, his wife “Ladybird” and the men around her, she struggles to redefine and cement a narrative for her late husband that will not be forgotten. And as we all know, she succeeded.
Natalie Portman doesn’t just become Jackie Kennedy, so much as she and Pablo Larraín redefine what it means to depict an iconic figure on the screen.
*** 1.) Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris & Mahershala Ali) ***
There is nothing I’m going to say about Moonlight that hasn’t been said already. It’s the year’s best film by a country mile, and one of the best films ever made. Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece went unmatched by every film this year, and no matter what wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards this is the film of 2016.
Based on the unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is about many things, but at the center, it’s the story of Chiron a young boy growing up in Miami coming to terms with his identity. Told in three acts (i. Little, ii. Chiron and iii. Black) we witness three moments in his life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood, with Chiron being played by a different actor in each chapter. In his childhood, we see him begin to latch onto a surrogate family in the form of drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). There’s already a strain between Chiron and his mother Paula (the exceptional Naomie Harris) that evolves throughout the next two chapters as she slips into drug addiction that casts its shadow over the film. His friendship and blossoming romance with childhood friend Kevin (also played by three actors: Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland in a similarly symbiotic group of performances). These characters are rendered with sensitivity and humanity. Jenkins never shoots them with judgement, nor does he attempt to canonize them or falsely earn empathy and understanding from the audience; these are human beings that are never afforded this kind of treatment from most mainstream Hollywood films, much less offered the opportunity to have their stories told and explored.
That the actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevonte Rhodes) all manage to flow in and out so fluidly is a testament to the strength of not just the actors, but Jenkins’ iron clad screenplay. Though we are seeing the world through Chiron’s deeply introverted perspective, there’s a lot we as the audience don’t know and aren’t told. And yet, we don’t need to know those things. Whether we go ahead and draw our own conclusions or just move on altogether, the exceptional performances of Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes tell us everything without explicitly saying everything, sometimes by not saying anything at all. This is the first time I’ve ever seen such a symbiotic performance; each actor manages to bring something new, while building off of the others’ work. It’s an achievement that is deserving of its own accolades.
There are anecdotes about the making of Moonlight that only heighten the achievement Jenkins, his actors and crew were able to achieve. That Harris filmed all of her scenes in the span of a weekend, that one of the films best shots was caught by complete accident, that Rhodes didn’t watch any of the performances given by the younger actors playing Chiron, that this is only Jenkins’ second feature film; it’s mind blowing.
As I mentioned before, Moonlight doesn’t tell us everything. A death of a major character is mentioned briefly, and not fully addressed. There’s a prison sentence that’s told and not shown, but its effects are felt in the following chapter. We feel the magnitude of these events through the powerful performances of each member of the cast; Jenkins delivers many of the events in Moonlight much like how life itself handles them. It never feels anything less than 100% authentic, and each frame is heartbreakingly beautiful so much so that the tears you’ve been quietly trying to hold back flood over when the final shot fades to black. Not because of melodrama or any specific emotion, but because the beautiful achievement you just watched washes over you like a tidal wave. We have witnessed the birth of a new classic.
The Long List (Films I Liked, But Didn’t Love):
- Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross)
- The Conjuring 2 (dir. James Wan)
- Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)
- Hush (dir. Mike Flanagan)
- Miss Sloane (dir. John Madden)
- Other People (dir. Chris Kelly)
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards)
- Swiss Army Man (dir. Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)
Worst Films of the Year:
- Batman Vs. Superman (dir. Zack Snyder)
- Suicide Squad (dir. David Ayer)
- X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer)
- The Neon Demon (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)
- Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)
- Blair Witch (dir. Adam Wingard)
- King Cobra (dir. Justin Kelly)
- Lights Out (dir. David F. Sandberg)
- Manchester By The Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)