A mid-year review.
By Tomris Laffly and Rob Hunter
It’s hard to believe we are already at the halfway point of 2016. Before we proceed with the dog days of Summer and get chewed up by prestige pictures of Fall headed for the awards season, we wanted to look back and compile a list of our ten favorites among the many, many titles we have seen so far.
The only rule we followed was sticking with the US release date. In other words, movies we have loved out of festivals weren’t necessarily eligible, unless they opened in theaters and met larger audiences.
Some honorable mentions before we reveal the final titles that made our cut: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer), Sing Street (John Carney), Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols), Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) and Tickled (David Darrier, Dylan Reeve).
A Bigger Splash
A lush visual indulgence that gently strokes and awakens one’s senses, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is a sultry treat of the best kind. Playing a temporarily voiceless, David Bowie-esque rock star vacationing on the Sicilian Island of Pantelleria, Tilda Swinton is at the heart of this sizzling drama/crime story, that follows a group of misbehaving Americans at their most disarmed and unrestricted state. From Tilda Swinton’s breathtaking, to-die-for looks (all designed by Dior) to a scene where Ralph Fiennes blithely sings and dances to a Rolling Stones track, collectively rousing facets of A Bigger Splash ruthlessly turn the heat up at every turn, through a camera stalking the seductive moves of its characters.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Set in 1980, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused-esque period comedy/drama functions as a chronological countdown, with rapidly growing characters possessing a swelling sense of humor, conscience and warmth. Leave it to a fine writer to extract amiability from a group of jocks chasing parties, girls and philosophical wisdom over a long weekend before the start of classes in a Texan college. In different hands, it’s a scenario that can rapidly turn toxic with falsely realized, outdated gender politics. But thankfully, that is not the case under Linklater’s watch. Everybody Wants Some!! (with two well-deserved exclamation points) is thoroughly charming and witty in its exploration of the retro young mind, and measures up to some of the writer/director’s best work.
An expert at dramaturgy, Asghar Farhadi visits family struggles and class conflicts in his exquisite 2006 title, which only just found its way into (limited) US theaters. At its core, Fireworks Wednesday is the auteur’s closest work to his Oscar-winning A Separation. Thematically and structurally, the search of truth and justice becomes a co-jointed effort here, with various parties involved in a crumbling marriage from the inside and outside: the upper-middle class Iranian family, the temporary cleaner/bride-to-be assigned to them on the eve of a big trip, nosy neighbors, co-workers and such. This is a chaotic, talky world where no moment or space is wasted in its purpose of feeding an undercurrent of constant tension.
With her ingenious Chevalier, Greek writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari accomplishes the nearly impossible and makes a bold feminist statement with an all-male cast that (obviously) fails the Bechdel Test. With a story (co-written by Efthymis Filippou) that follows six financially privileged men vacationing and fishing on a luxury yacht, Tsangari stupendously brings down the patriarchy by gradually lowering masks and exposing the characters’ deepest insecurities through the one-upmanship games they play out of boredom. Egos get bruised, manhood certainties fade and “big beautiful erections” become items of ridicule in her daring, intimate and irresistibly funny film, unafraid to go to some very dark places.
The Nice Guys
The film I was least likely to like in 2016 became an instant, surprising favorite thus far. In The Nice Guys, Ryan Gosling uses his fantastic physical comedy chops (that he should do more of), pairs up with a brooding tough guy (Russell Crowe) and takes on corrupt establishments in a smog-soaked 1970s Los Angeles amid the imploding porn industry. Never mind that the duo gets repeatedly upstaged by a young teenager: the fabulous Angourie Rice in the role of Gosling’s daughter. The Nice Guys looks like a million bucks with vivid period details, is end-to-end fun (and at times, violent) and a gleeful resurrection of the crime thrillers of the 70s as well as the buddy cop comedies of the 80s, which Shane Black certainly knows a thing or two about.
I feel like I’ve been singing the intense and bloody praises of Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature for ages now, but not only is worth it – but I expect to keep on doing so for some time to come. We care about these characters which makes their ordeal a tense, frightening, and terrifically thrilling experience, and while Patrick Stewart’s villainous turn is an attention-grabber the rest of the cast is equally memorable and deliver performances that help elevate a familiar genre setup into a brilliant piece of film-making. If Blue Ruin was Saulnier’s slow-burn thriller, Green Room is him turning the heat all the way up to 11.
An adult man and a young girl make for challenging bedfellows in this heartfelt and harrowing film, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there are scenes here as tense and anxiety-inducing as anything in Sicario. The tightrope being walked here is razor-thin, and it’s kept taut in large part by the two lead performances. Ross Partridge (who also writes/directs) is tasked with an extremely difficult role as a man whose every move is suspect as being motivated by the worst possible inclinations, while the skill wielded by young Oona Lawrence is big in effect and impact as she shifts effortlessly between fragile child and punchy pre-teen.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is quite possibly the best romantic comedy of the past five years. It’s also emotionally brutal, incredibly dark, and surprisingly sad, but its embrace of our innate fear of loneliness makes the love story and big laughs that much more valuable. The cast is top-notch across the board, but Colin Farrell is the stand-out. If he hasn’t already won you over with his work in the underrated second season of True Detective or In Bruges then his slovenly, brokenhearted, sardonic sad sack should do the trick.
Director/co-writer Derek Kimball’s feature debut is a beautiful ‘80s-set rarity – a coming of age tale focused on a teen girl confronted by ideas of grief, family, and her own growing identity. Jane Ackermann gives a terrifically powerful and affecting lead performance complemented by atmospheric and equally attractive visuals that perfectly capture life on a small island off the coast of Maine. This isn’t isn’t big, exciting, popcorn cinema, but it’s the kind of film that immerses you in a time and place and lasts in your mind and heart long after viewing.
Na Hong-jin’s third feature is every bit as dark, vicious, and spellbinding as his earlier films (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea) even as we’re often shown the aftermath of the crimes rather than the acts themselves with the weight of the scenes visible both on the screen and on the performers’ faces. The mystery comes with more than a few twists of the metaphorical knife as Na’s story and characters deal in fear laced with xenophobia and superstition, genre shifts are executed fluidly as comedy, action, and horrific thrills work in tandem to hold our attention, and the visuals are equally engrossing as Na’s presents a rural Korea that hasn’t looked this frightening and menacing since Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant Memories of Murder.
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