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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

5 Films We Should Be Talking About This Year (and 3 We Shouldn't Be)

There's been a lot of what I'd call "white noise" this year in film. Meaning, there have been films folks have been hyping up for literally no reason at all, polluting the air with foolery and taking oxygen away from films that actually matter. So, I took it upon myself to bring attention to those underrated films we haven't talked much about this year.

Without further ado...:


The Salesman: How often do we see Iranian characters on screen who are not terrorists? Right, rarely (at least in American films). Leave it up to Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-nominated Iranian director of A Separation (2011), to explore the crushing humanity of a couple whose relationship is strained once they move into a new home previously occupied by a prostitute. A devastating attack in their new residence leads them both to evaluate the value of life, love, and money. Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti play the couple (Emad and Rana) you want to root for, but never quite sure they should be together. And Farhadi is just so good at creating tension in even the most tender moments.

A Monster Calls: So it's not exactly the feel good children's movie of the year, but it sure is special. A needed film during the year of seemingly a trillion deaths, it teaches young ones (and adults) how to cope and understand death in a way that doesn't hide how scary it is. Rather, it encourages bravery and acceptance. Blending animated scenes with live action, the film centers on 13-year-old Conor's (Lewis MacDougall) path to come to terms with the overwhelming truth that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. When a giant monster (voiced by the always amazing Liam Neeson), who's scary in his own right, enters his life (if only figuratively). it teaches him how to tap into his strength while also healthily expressing his emotions (whether it be sadness, anger, or fear).

The Handmaiden: I remember just two months ago I could't escape this film. It was on everyone's must-see lists, and folks were talking Oscar. And now? It's just sort of faded away. But it really is a Korean masterpiece (and I am not a fan of throwing out that word all willy nilly like that). It's at once delightfully flighty, devastating, sexy, romantic, lustful, and deviant. The narrative introduces itself through the eyes of a mere handmaiden (Tae-ri Kim) hired to scam a Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim), then weaves into a tale of forbidden love, agony, betrayal, and desire. Though the duplicity within each of the characters is undeniable, there are unmistakable heroes in this story that is forthright feminist and moves like a fever dream. Yes, it's technically beautiful to look at it, but it's also masterfully performed under Chan-wook Park's cunning direction. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: I have a confession. These last two Star Wars films have finally made me want to go back and watch the original films in their entirety (I know, I know, I have a lot of catching up to do). Rogue One is one of those films that begs you to immediately sit down, shut up, and fasten your seat belt, because this is one hell of a ride. A prequel to the classic saga. the movie follows Jyn's (Felicity Jones) pursuit to seize the plans for the Death Star, recruiting an army of rebels behind her. The special effects are astonishing, making it that more fun to watch. And is this the most diverse Star Wars ever? With Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, and so many other standouts, it's rising to the level of The Fast and The Furious (it still needs to fix its lack of women of color problem, though). But while Jones was a decent protagonist, she didn't strike me as a heroine in this role. The supporting cast, even with their limited screen time, muster more anxiety from the audience than she does. Just saying, still a good movie.

Lion: Can I tell you how thrilled I am to see Dev Patel headline a good movie again? It's been eight years since Slumdog Millionaire, and since then he's been relegated to the sidelines in mediocre films. But he reminds audiences of his leading man talent once more in this inspiring story about Saroo, a boy from India who gets adopted at a young age by a white Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham)--and years later is compelled to learn his true identity and find his birth mother. The film is too simplistic at times, and its marketing around Saroo's relationship with Rooney Mara's character and not the larger story of his self-realization is problematic. But Lion has heart, and it deserves to be talked about not only because of Patel. Its commentary on cross-cultural adoption highlights a reality for blended families across the globe.


Paterson: This may be the most pretentious film of the year, by a landslide (and it has some stiff competition). I know Hollywood is trying to shove Adam Driver down our throats, but why? He's not right for every role (certainly nothe Kylo Ren), and plopping him in a role that supposedly carries more gravitas than is written on the page (meaning, it calls for a lot of non-speaking acting) is a HUGE misstep. He's just not ready for that. Though, I question whether Paterson would be good even with another actor in the role. It's just not as smart as it claims to be. It's 2016 and we're still supposed to be impressed with watching a white guy move through life with quiet, alarmingly minimal, disappointments? No, thank you.

Hacksaw Ridge: Call me a sadist, but if you're going to do a war movie, I'm expecting people to die--deliberately, violently, and horrifyingly. It's not about desiring to see that kind of thing (at all), but about the realities of war. Everything just seemed very Disney-like, including the battlefield scenes. Granted, this is the true life story of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, an apparent saint in military fatigues who went to war intentionally unarmed on account of his Seventh Day Adventist faith. But it's another example of how not every good story deserves a movie. Actually, this kind of movie which might have been successful on, say, a Christian TV channel after a marathon of Touched by an Angel, but not so much on the big screen. As much as I want to root for Andrew Garfield to do rekindle the magic of his performance in The Social Network from six years ago, this isn't it. And don't think I missed the irony of Mel Gibson directing a Christian drama.

The Birth of a Nation: I went into 2016 wanting to root for this film, because Nate Parker is a great, underrated actor and I was excited to see his directorial debut. But...a lot has transpired since then. I was still anticipating the film, though, until I saw it. While it's a strong effort from a first time director, it needs more of a wow factor. Everything, including the depiction of Nat Turner's (Parker) slavery rebellion, just seems confoundingly underplayed. The women of the film (shout out to Aja Naomi King, especially) do due diligence in their roles, but it isn't enough to fix its inherent issues.

What films do you think deserved more attention this year (and which films didn't)? Drop me a line in the comments section below.


Courtney Young said...

I'll definitely check out Lion as it's just come to theaters over here. Glad to read your thoughts on Paterson. Did you see The Lobster?? That's my #1 most pretentious film of the year...

Candice Frederick said...

@Courtney Young I have seen The Lobster, and yes that's also pretentious.

Terrance Porter said...

Swiss Army Man was hyped. Great visuals & original concept, but the final product wasn't worthwhile.

Brittani Burnham said...

Noooo not Paterson, I love Adam Driver! lol. I really want to see Lion and The Handmaiden, and now I've saved The Salesman in my Netflix queue.

I agree with Hacksaw Ridge, while I liked it more than I thought I would the first half was so corny and FULL ON agree with Birth of a Nation. I wanted to root for that film too, and that's hands down the worst directed thing I've seen all year.

I'd throw Manchester by the Sea in as overhyped too but that's none of my business. lol

Candice Frederick said...

Manchester by the sea is soooooo overhyped!

jt said...

Manchester is legit devastating. Lion is a worthy story but overhyped storytelling. The first act sets up something special which then falls victim to mish-mash filmmaking, with that grabby Kidman monologue jammed in there. Agree about A Monster Calls. BOAN & Hacksaw too. (very worthy stories, though) Have to see The Salesman since A Separation was my fave (and Ebert's) that year. (I hosted at least 3 dvd nights to watch it)

jt said...

Manchester is legit devastating. Lion is a worthy story but overhyped storytelling. The first act sets up something special which then falls victim to mish-mash filmmaking, with that grabby Kidman monologue jammed in there. Agree about A Monster Calls. BOAN & Hacksaw too. (very worthy stories, though) Have to see The Salesman since A Separation was my fave (and Ebert's) that year. (I hosted at least 3 dvd nights to watch it)

AJ Muhammad said...

Queen of Katwe

Candice Frederick said...

Queen of KATWE is one of the best movies of 2016.

Wendell Ottley said...

Thanks for letting me know about Handmaiden. I hadn't heard of it before now, and I love Chan-Wook. I've got to see this.

James McKinnon said...

Yes, it's 2016 and you're still supposed to be impressed with a white guy moving through life with quiet, minimal disappointments. If the movie is any good at expressing that. You think it isn't. I happen to agree with you. But what that has to do with his race or the quietness or size of his disappointments I'm sure I don't know. If it was the quiet, minimal disappointments of a black guy, would that help the case for this movie in your view? Congrats on the racism.

Unknown said...

Geez...White guy? Really?

Unknown said...

Yeah, not sure why you emphasized a "white guy" going through minimal disappointments. It makes it sound like you think "white guys" have it soooo easy that we don't have to feel any compassion for them. As a "White guy" that grew up in a poor area, battled t-cell Leukemia, has crohns disease, and has worked full time since age of 16, without more than a week of vacation off.... I don't understand why you guys think we all have it 'soooooo easy.' If I reviewed a black movie and said "not another black guy struggling through life movie" you guys would go crazy on me.

Unknown said...

What an absolutely craptacular, utterly pretentious "review" of Paterson. And the reverse-racist bent to your rant is downright smugly.

David Chandlee said...

Too bad for you. We showed Paterson at our film society and it was well received, including by me. The characters are well developed and there are many funny moments in this non-comedy. Even the dog has character.

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