Friday, July 01, 2016

Halftime Top 10

O.J.: Made in America

Even though January of 2016 now seems like it happened 15 years ago, we are somehow only halfway through this fucking year, which means that it's a good time to look back over the last six months and consider how the year is shaping up, film-wise.

The answer is "not great", as evidenced by the fact that my number one film is arguably not actually a film, and the slate of mainstream fare has been pretty woeful with a few bright sparks dotted around the place. Still, there's plenty of promising stuff on the horizon - Manchester by the Sea! Rogue One! Kubo and the Two Strings! Moana! La La Land! - and I still have to catch up on a bunch of films that I haven't had a chance to see/haven't played anywhere near me (my anticipation for Green Room remains sky high), so there's still plenty of time for 2016 to sort itself out. 

Right, let's get to the top ten.

10. Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers at their slightest and most throwaway, sure, but beneath the period trappings and arch laughs lies a heartfelt celebration of creativity, and a deep respect for the people who, against all odds, manage to wrangle art (even if it's superficial and fleeting) out of chaos. Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation, and fully deserving of all the money and fame he's going to get from playing Young Han Solo.

9. A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

In a word: sultry. Guadagnino's story of music, long-simmering resentments and intrigue on a remote Italian island is one of the sexiest films in years, one which is driven by a quartet of actors who all give fun, layered performances that are as mysterious as their pasts. Ralph Fiennes dancing to St. Vincent covering "Emotional Rescue" needs to be the new Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, otherwise there's no hope left in this world.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

A wonderfully tense thriller that whiffs it somewhat during the final third, but even if the film stumbles when it switches genres on the audience, everything up to that point is too good to write off in good conscience. John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are both working at the top of their respective games as they explore the complicated captor/captive, father/daughter, stalker/stalkee relationship that lies at the centre of the film, while the script gets every drop of tension out of the claustrophobic setting. An impressive B-movie delivered with blockbuster panache.

7. Finding Dory (dirs. Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane)

Like Monsters University, Pixar's previous long-delayed followup to an earlier hit, Finding Dory both has no right to exist, or to be as good as it is. No one was clamouring to learn more about Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the memory-challenged blue tang who served mainly as comic relief in Finding Nemo, yet Stanton and MacLane deliver a story which is funny, sweet, inventive, and just slightly different enough from its predecessor not to feel like a complete rehash (emphasis on the just). It isn't top-tier Pixar by any stretch of the imagination, and it gets far too silly for its own good in the last twenty minutes or so, but Pixar operating at 60% is still better than most studios working at 100%.

6. The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)

While not nearly as clever and meta as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black's directorial debut, the rest of the key elements from that film (not to mention earlier Black-penned projects like Lethal Weapon) are present and correct. You've got chalk-and-cheese partners who are forced to work together, comic violence, a plot that's both compellingly complicated and completely superfluous, and an overriding love of dialogue and badinage. The most pleasant surprise is Ryan Gosling's penchant for physical comedy, which is utilised to great effect throughout, and pairs nicely with Russell Crowe's gruff professionalism. The ending leaves the door open for a sequel, the box office closed it, but regardless of what happens in the future, we've been left with a supremely entertaining hangout movie.

5. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush)

It's a good year for buddy comedies, it seems, though Disney's take on mismatched partners is a touch less violent and sweary than Black's. A vibrant and inventive setting is brought to life through stunning animation, great vocal performances, and a legitimately well-structured mystery, all of which mark Zootopia out as an uncommonly ambitious effort from the House of Mouse. What really makes it work, though, is the central relationship between Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, with the latter being so ridiculously perfect as an animated fox that it's hard to believe it hadn't happened already.

4. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Sometimes when an acclaimed international filmmaker makes their English language debut, their distinctive voice gets lost in translation. That was not the case for the director of Dogtooth and Alps, since Lanthimos' unique, surreal vision of humanity remained intact, even after the language changed. A by turns bleakly funny and just plain bleak look at sex, love, and the notion of monogamy, it takes an absurd premise - single people have 45 days to find a partner or they will be turned into an animal of their choice - and makes it unbearably sad and poignant. The affected performances grate from time to time, particularly when it comes to Rachel Weisz's voiceover, but that only barely detracts from a haunting and genuinely unfamiliar take on the most familiar of subjects.

3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dirs. Jorma Taccone & Akiva Shaffer)

The Lonely Island have repeatedly proven themselves to be adept at mimicry, both visual and auditory, and at adding surprising amounts of depth to silly, ephemeral concepts. In their first true movie together (excluding the perennially underrated Hot Rod, which they didn't write) they apply that formula to a story and a style (a mockumentary about a hubristic pop star) which is perfectly suited to their dynamic and sensibilities. The film is at times surprisingly touching and personal - it's not hard to find parallels between the careers of The Lonely Island and their characters - but most importantly it's packed to the rafters with funny, funny jokes of every shape and size. Very much the Donkey Roll of movies.

2. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

Whit Stillman is just about the best there is when it comes to crafting funny, piercing comedies about hermetically sealed social groups, so it's hardly surprising that he takes to Jane Austen like a social climbing duck to easily manipulated water. Kate Beckinsale gives a career best performance as Lady Susan, an inveterate schemer who knows what she wants and will do everything to get it, but Tom Bennett steals the film playing possibly the dumbest man who has ever lived.

1. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

I debated whether or not to include this on my list given that it aired on ESPN, but it fulfills some of the important criteria to be considered a film - it's the work of a single director; it played in its entirety at film festivals - while its sheer ambition and quality make it hard to ignore in a year so bereft of truly great work. Edelman handles the familiar parts of O.J. Simpson's story - his football success, his acting career, that time he killed two people - with aplomb, but what sets the film apart is the sheer amount of detail used to establish the context around O.J.'s story. It's as much a documentary about the history of L.A. and the L.A.P.D.'s long history of racism and corruption as it is about Simpson, and the way in which Edelman places the circus of the murder trial on a timeline that includes the Rodney King beating, the Watts Riots, and the mass migration of African Americans to L.A. in the '30s and '40s, speaks to the breadth and depth of his vision. It's a great film about the points at which fame, race and gender intersect, and plays like the cinematic equivalent of a Rick Perlstein book. There is no higher praise.