Without further ado...:
WORTH THE HYPE
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
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.
NOT WORTH THE HYPE
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.