10) 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Who would have though a sequel to Cloverfield would not only surpass the original, but leave it completely in the dust? The fact this found footage monster movie even had a sequel in the first play was a surprise. But it’s a miracle that it turned out as thrilling as this film.
With the exception of having giant monsters and the word Cloverfield, these two films couldn’t be more different. 10 Cloverfield Lane not only does away with the found footage style, but it also it does away with the monster movie genre in favour of a paranoid thriller. It may not be epic, but writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle and director Dan Trachtenberg more than make up for it with pure tension, gripping performances and an unsettling environment.
The film makes the bold move of having the most of the film take place in a bomb shelter. What a setting it was. With cinderblock walls and low hanging lights both creates a sense of claustrophobia and recalls the atomic age. Then there’s the living room, which tries to create the illusion of perfect Norman Rockwell-esque homestead. These don’t hide the cinderblock walls.
But what really brings in the tension is John Goodman’s performance. Goodman is a rare actor who elevates every scene he’s in, but he really brings his A game as Howard. He presents himself as a gentleman to our heroine (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), taking her in and fixing her broken leg. Like Annie Wilkes from Misery, there’s something unsetting about his manners. He is so intense that a chuckle can set him off, as one uncomfortable dinner proves. He is such a paranoid lunatic that for all we know, he could be making up the chemical warfare in the outside world.
Sure, the ending leans too much into conventional action scene, but the earlier scenes are still excellent.
Natalie Portman’s has a great chance of getting her second Best Actress Oscar. She practically vanishes within the role of Jackie Kennedy, capturing her look and voice to perfection. But the true strength of her performance was how she conveys power within Jackie’s pleasant persona. Without ever raising her pleasant voice, Jackie takes command of every situation, determined to ensure the legacy of both her husband and herself. But her demeanor’s put to the test when her husband’s assassinated. Though she tries to maintain a dignified power during funeral plans, her voice can’t hide her traumatic grief. In a powerful scene, Jackie tearfully wipes the blood off her face, and then returns to a dignified manner to face the press.
Though Portman’s sure to get all of the attention, director Pablo Larrain, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and writer Noah Oppenheim deserve equal acclaim. Oppenheim portrays the events around the assassination in disjointed manner, connecting them all through Jackie’s interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup). Fontaine uses a classic fuzzy camera style to create the feeling of nostalgia. Putting it all together, Larrain captures a Guinevere recalling a time when she had her Camelot.
8) HELL OR HIGH WATER
Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) investigates a series of bank robberies committed by brothers. That’s the plot in the nutshell. As he has done with Sicario, screenwriter brings complexity into a simple plot, creating a relevant character study disguised as a mix between a modern western and a heist movie.
Not since Bonnie and Clyde has a crime drama so perfectly captured the frustrations of its time. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are among many desperate people screwed over by the banks. Throughout the film, both Hamilton and the brothers encounter people struggling to make ends meet. Hamilton has a hard time investigating the crime when locals are rooting for the robbers. With their towns full of foreclosures, you can’t blame them.
Adding to the layers are the complex performances. Pine portrays Toby as an intelligent yet desperate measure with an intricate plan to save the family farm. Bridges brings depth into a caricatured stoic lawman, portraying him as an old guard starting to realize how out of touch he is in a digital world. He’s sure to get the most attention, but it’s Foster who steals the show. In sharp contrast to his brother, Tanner is an unhinged ex-con looking for a thrill. He’s restraining himself for his brother sake, but he’d rather go out with guns ablazing. It would have been so easy for any actor to chew the scenery, but Foster keeps the character grounded enough to be sympathetic.
In the end, this film is a portrayal of desperate people struggling for relevance and security in a world running out of both. And it does so while bringing us some kickass robbery scenes and car chases.
Theatres in Edmonton seemed to be very determined to make people see this indie sleeper. Since its premiere at the Edmonton International Film Festival, Landmark cinemas had it show in two theatres; a luxury usually reserved for Marvel movies. Right now, the Garneau Theatre has been showing this over and over throughout late December and early January. In some days, it will be the only film shown there. What makes Moonlight so special?
Well, it is a beautiful, sensitive portrayal of the life of a gay, black man in Miami. In his childhood, he is Little (Alex R. Hibbert), a bullied little boy who finds a reluctant in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer. In the second part, he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a bitter teenager whose emerging homosexuality makes him a target of more hostile bullying. As an adult, he is Black (Tervante Rhodes), a man who decides to reunite with Kevin (Andre Holland), a longtime friend who betrayed him as an adult.
At the centre of this film is how Chiron’s environment affects him…or doesn’t. Throughout the film, we see people like Juan, his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) to Kevin offering him some form of guidance. But their advice is undermined by the complexities of their circumstances. Juan’s appalled by Chiron’s mom’s drug addiction, until she points out the crack comes from him. Kevin tries to get Chiron to stand up for himself, but Kevin himself is not above peer pressure. Writer/director Barry Jenkins doesn’t demonize these people for their flaws. He portrays their flaws with great empathy.
The visuals are as beautiful as the character’s depth. Cinematographer James Laxton brings out the sunny setting of the Miami suburbs. Though he shoots most of the film in a realistic setting, once in a while, once in a while, he will present a stylistic shot, like the neon pink lights through Paula’s bedroom door or an overhead shot of Chiron walking down a road while being tormented by his bullies. Jenkins combines this to create a beautiful portrayal of humanity.
We’ve seen documentaries about political scandals, but rarely do we get the scandals from the politician’s point of view. Directors Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg accidently got this rare opportunity while filming Anthony Weiner’s 2012 New York mayor campaign.
As the film starts, the film shows us how respected this New York congressman was before the scandal. He was revered as a crusader who wasn’t afraid to get loud and mean for the sake of the people, as we see from live debates. But then he gets busted for sexting and his reputation goes downhill. After resigning, he launches a comeback through his campaign for Mayor. At first, it works perfectly with him gaining the majority lead. Yet when you hear supporters appraising Anthony Weiner, you can’t let go of the awareness of what’s going to happen
Of course, he tweets a photo of …himself to Sydney Leathers and it all goes downhill for “Carlos Danger.” Again. This film started out as an underdog story of a politician’s redemption but this scandal takes this documentary to a new level. It’s rare you get to see a political campaign react to a scandal. We see the Weiner team attempt to keep voters on their side as Weiner and his campaign leaders discuss strategies to save their reputation. When Leathers leads a media mob in a march to confront Weiner, we get a scene of the campaign strategizing a plan to lead their leader out of a hotel without being confronted. Of course, their candidate isn’t helping matters by pulling one boner after another. With all of these screw ups, the filmmakers outright ask him why he’s letting them film all this. With yet another sexting scandal in 2016, you’re left to wonder how a guy as smart as he is could do such stupid things.
5) ART OF THE PRANK
When I read an NPR article about Jestin Coler, a democrat creating fake right wing news sites in order to “infiltrate the echo chamber of the alt right,” this documentary popped up in my head. Known as the Godfather of the Media Hoax, Joey Skaggs has been baiting the media with fake projects since the 60s. Whether he’s playing the owner of a “brothel for dogs” or donning a priest robe and carrying a confession booth on his bicycle, major news items always lap it up. And now he plans to try his hand at pranking film festivals with a fake documentary about regrowing teeth using shark DNA.
It’s a shame this documentary’s getting so little attention. With high concerns about fake news, nowhere is there a more perfect time for this documentary to be released. Through his elaborate media hoaxes, Skaggs exposes the failure of news media to fact check their stories, choosing sensationalism over journalism. No matter the persona Skaggs portrays, it’s incredibly easy for him to get a platform to weave his pythonesque spider web. Tragically, nothing seems to have changed. With rejections from of the shark DNA “documentary”, there’s some sign of hope, but you can’t be too sure about that.
4) LA LA LAND
Old cinema fantasy clashes with new cinema reality in this visual delight of a musical. In nearly every way, writer/director Damien Chazelle blends these two styles with grace. The graceful choreography and beautiful imagery captures the magical feeling of the golden age musicals. Unafraid to use fantastical elements in their numbers, this film even has one dance number where our heroes float atop the roof of a planetarium. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren brings out the neon colours of the L.A. environment, complimenting Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy music. Outside of the musical numbers, Sandberg and Chazelle contrast the dazzling imagery with a grounded, realistic look at L.A.
The visuals aren’t just here for eye candy. They match the internal conflict the dreams and reality of our heroes. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) try to work hard to achieve their dreams, but they are constantly confronted by harsh reality. Sebastian’s obsession for jazz has a hard time fitting in the modern world. Mia has it the worst, dealing with one failed audition after another. When one finds success, it only emphasizes the failure for the other. Even their romance is fragile. Through these characters, Chazelle celebrates the dreams of artists and their failures.
3) MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Is there anything Jeff Nichols can’t do? Since Shotgun Stories, this writer/director has delivered one extraordinary film after another. This year, he brings two films; Loving; a biopic about the Loving family, the loving couple who made interracial marriage a constitutional right and Midnight Special; a supernatural road movie about a father trying to protect his son.
The film hits the ground running with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from the law while Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) reads comics in the backseat. Alton has some extraordinary powers, which not only attracts the attention of government agents (among them Adam Driver) but a religious cult (led by Sam Shepard). Throughout the trip, Roy and Lucas try to keep the boy in hiding while they can help him achieve his destiny. But they don’t know what destiny awaits Alton when they reach their destination?
The film begins with a lot of questions about Alton? Why do his eyes glow blue? What does the cult want with him? Why does he have to be shielded from sunlight? The ambiguity creates a sense of mystery which builds a sense of intrigue throughout the film.
At its core, it’s a film about father’s need to protect his son. Shannon gives a heartfelt performance as a desperate father who doesn’t know what lies ahead for his son, but knows he must fulfill his destiny. At the same time, he fears this destiny may require him to let go of his son. There are other great performances, from Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother to Sam Shepard as the manic, yet charismatic cult leader.
The ending to this film is one of the most beautiful scenes of the year. It left me in awe.
It takes a great director to create suspense out of language translation. It takes a daring writer to put it at the centre of a science fiction film about aliens arriving on earth. It takes a great actress to hook the audience into a linguist’s fascination with understanding alien language. All three gather to create this haunting beautiful film.
While Denis Villeneuve gets a lot of praise for his directing, Eric Heisserer deserves equal praise for creating a screenplay that defies sci-fi tropes. Based on Ted Chang’s “Story of Your Life,” Arrival tells the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s hired by the military to interpret alien language after 12 spaceships land across the planet. First of all, it’s refreshing to have a sci fi film where the first reaction to alien arrival isn’t to shoot them down. Instead, we see world leaders try to work together to understand the meaning behind the circles. Heisserer creates a sense of mystery around the translation, which may reveal the alien’s intent for earth. Heisserer also uses the loss of Bank’s daughter to build on themes of grief, memories and fear.
Arrival brings Heisserer’s script to life with awe-inspiring visuals. The floating giant spaceship alone is a sight to behold, but when Louise floats into a gravity-defying dark hallway to the giant white window, you feel like you’re transported into a different world. Adams certainly helps by bringing the audience into Banks’ fascination with this unique language and need for meaning. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the layers this film has. But that would give too much away.
1) I, DANIEL BLAKE
I got to see the preview of this film at the Edmonton International Film Festival, and I blew me away. A Palme D’or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach’s unflinching neorealist comedy of working class struggles.
When we first meet Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), he’s applying for Employment and Support Allowance after suffering a heart attack. His application’s rejected due to a mix up and he’s deemed able to work, even though Daniel’s doctor says working at this state could be fatal. In his struggle, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single mother desperate for work. But with an uncaring system and little means of survival, both of them are forced to take desperate measures.
Writer/director Ken Loach brings us yet another brutally honest masterpiece of neorealism. Since Kes, he has always portrayed the working class with a lot of empathy. This time, he looks at the working class frustrations in the times of recession. Throughout the film, he tries to appeal for his benefits, but is met with frustration from overly-complicated policies and indifferent social workers who care more about maintaining orders than helping people. When a welfare worker does show any compassion, he gets punished for it. These make any chance of an appeal seem unlikely. This leads to a very powerful scene where Daniel graffiti his demands in front of a welfare office.
Katie has it the worst. She is one of many working class people who are losing their means of financial security. As single mother, the only work she can find doesn’t give her enough to feed her children and heat up her home. As a result, she’s forced to live in hostels and depend on a food bank. She gets her benefits rejected because she was unable to get to the welfare office on time. Hayley Squires deserves Oscar consideration for her devastating performance, conveying Katie’s attempt to hide her desperation around her children.
Despite the brutal portrayal of these character’s struggles, the film is also very funny. When Daniel has never used a computer in his life, which proves a problem in a world where applications are online. There are a lot of jokes at the expense of his cluelessness on a computer, like thinking he needs to move the mouse on the computer screen. There are also jokes aimed at everyday frustrations. After some practice, Daniel finally completes an online application…only for the computer to freeze just as he’s about to hit the apply button.
This film’s getting a limited release this year and hopefully it will get wider recognition.
 He and other writers tried writing fake news for liberals, but they never seem to take the bait.