The Taylor Awards 2017

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Another year, another Oscar season. As always, I’m excited for the Oscars, but if you’d like to know what my favorite films were, then read on!

Here follows a set of lists that sometimes coincide with the Oscar selections and sometimes don’t. I have bolded my favorites and linked to the blog posts involving those films if possible. Those that do not have a bolded entry are too close to call; those with two signify a tie. Once again, I’ll put the disclaimer that I probably forgot a few films/performances or simply didn’t see them. Apologies.

Now without further ado!

Best Picture – Academy-esque Films

13th

Arrival

Captain Fantastic

Hell or High Water

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

La La Land

Lion

The Lobster

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

 

moonlight-poster

Property of A24.

This year saw the release of a sterling array of films that fit into a variety of genres. The documentary 13th broke my heart with its deep-dive into the horrors and injustices of mass incarceration in America. Arrival delivered an essential story about humanity’s need for communication. Captain Fantastic showed an unconventional father’s love for his children in a tragic situation. Hell or High Water was a modern western masterpiece. Hunt for the Wilderpeople showed that quirky, heartwarming, and tragic could all be used to describe the same movie about two outcasts coming together. That it was hilarious also solidifies its presence here. La La Land brings old and new together in a perfect package that reminds me why I love movies. It’s a film for artists and dreamers, a call to never give up and persevere. It’s hard to resist the pull of that message. Lion was a touching story about loss and identity. Simple, yet emotionally gratifying. The Lobster was a hilariously dark exploration of the vicious ironies of modern love. Manchester by the Sea was a wonderfully poignant mediation on grief. However, of all these films, I think Moonlight, as a whole, is the one I’d choose as “Best,” because it offered me a glimpse into a world that is not my own; it let me understand one man’s struggle with his identity and his relationships in an extremely artful, emotionally resonant way. I won’t soon forget it.

And just a hair behind Moonlight, I’d put La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, two films that I also loved.

Best Picture – Science Fiction or Fantasy

10 Cloverfield Lane

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition)

Captain America: Civil War

Doctor Strange

Split

Star Wars: Rogue One

Swiss Army Man

Warcraft

The Witch

It has been another strong year for fantasy and science fiction (which always seems to be shunned on the awards’ circuit save for last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina). However, I think this group is too close for me to call. If anything, I’d say 10 Cloverfield Lane and Split satisfy my yearning for small, taut thrillers, Swiss Army Man and The Witch give me just the right amount of moody weirdness, while other films like Captain America: Civil War and Star Wars: Rogue One offer the epic scope that I crave.

 

Best Action Film/ Best Film that Happens to Have Great Action Scenes in It

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition)

Captain America: Civil War

Doctor Strange

Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

John Wick: Chapter II

Star Wars: Rogue One

Warcraft

This was a difficult choice for me because all of these films are filled with great action sequences. John Wick: Chapter II has enough face-shooting, throat-punching mayhem (with the requisite return of the amazing Keanu Reeves) to satisfy any action fan. Captain America: Civil War is here solely upon the majesty of its Airport Fight sequence, which manages to have a handful of heroes clash in unique ways while maintaining dramatic focus and letting everyone have a moment to shine. Finally, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition) is here simply for the Warehouse Sequence, which gave me the Batman fight scene I always wanted. Fingers crossed for The Batman to be just as thrilling as that sequence.

 

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Property of Disney.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle – La La Land

DANIELS – Swiss Army Man

Robert Eggers – The Witch

Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Yorgos Lanthimos – The Lobster

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water

Martin Scorsese – Silence

Dennis Villeneuve – Arrival

Taika Waititi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Property of Summit Entertainment.

This category is filled with brilliance. It was hard to choose a victor, but I ended up going with Damien Chazelle, who seems to have revived a genre through the pure cinematic joy of La La Land, a film that I love for its dedication to artists and their dreams. After Whiplash and La La Land, I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Best Actress

Amy Adams – Arrival

Annette Bening – 20th Century Women

Viola Davis – Fences

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – 10 Cloverfield Lane

Natalie Portman – Jackie

Emma Stone – La La Land

Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch

This category is populated by knockout performances, but for me, it was Natalie Portman in Jackie that moved me most. She effortlessly captures the double-life of Jackie Kennedy, contrasting her turbulent private life with the demands of her extremely public persona. An intriguing, layered performance. I was mesmerized.

 

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Property of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Best Actor

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge/Silence

Ryan Gosling – La La Land

Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington – Fences

Casey Affleck’s performance is devastating in Manchester by the Sea. It’s subtle and refined, yet so controlled that he somehow manages to characterize a man numbed by trauma and make the audience feel for him. It’s a genius performance and probably my favorite of the year. And just a step to the left of that is Viggo Mortensen, one of the finest actors alive today. His unconventional father figure in Captain Fantastic is the heart and soul of the film; it’s a complex performance, full of warmth and compassion, yet also contradictions that the character must face. Mortensen navigates this human puzzle with a master craftsman’s grace. I love this man.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Naomie Harris – Moonlight

Nicole Kidman – Lion

Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Like my pick for Best Supporting Actor, Michelle Williams is only in a few scenes in Manchester by the Sea. However, Williams uses the most of her time, turning in an incredible performance full of pain and heartache. It’s caught in glances at first, a lingering melancholy between William’s and Affleck; but when it comes to the surface it gushes out in a scene so earnest it will move even the iciest of viewers. Always reliable, this is some of Michelle William’s finest work.

 

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Property of Amazon Studios.

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali – Moonlight

Julian Dennison – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Ben Foster – Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea

Dev Patel – Lion

Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals

Though only in a small portion of the film, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is a looming presence in the entirety of Moonlight. It’s a quiet, thoughtful performance that’s filled with warmth, compassion, and guilt. Ali effortlessly conveys Juan’s growing affection for Chiron, providing him with a father figure that is sorely missed in the latter two-thirds of the film.

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Property of A24.

Best Cinematography

Thimios Bakatakis – The Lobster

Jarin Blaschke – The Witch

Greig Fraser – Lion

James Laxton – Moonlight

Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals

Giles Nuttgens – Hell or High Water

Linus Sandgren – La La Land

Larkin Seiple – Swiss Army Man

Bradford Young – Arrival

This is an incredibly tough category this year, however I chose Swiss Army Man for Best Cinematography due to the sheer overwhelming power of its inventiveness. There’s a wild, beating heart of creativity that pumps in every frame of this film and Larkin Seiple’s skillful eye manages to capture its kooky, earnest magic in vivid, colorful detail while also using a number of inventive techniques to convey the questionable mental state of the main character.

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Property of A24.

Film Editing

Tom Cross – La La Land

John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge

Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders – Moonlight

Jake Roberts – Hell or High Water

Joe Walker – Arrival

There’s a hypnotic quality to Arrival that is difficult to capture in words. It has a thoughtful pace, but it’s never slow, instead unfolding and crosscutting between different timelines and events in a beautifully coordinated, yet elegant way. It’s some truly great work from Joe Walker.

 

Writing – Adapted Screenplay

Luke Davies – Lion

Eric Heisserer – Arrival

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Taika Waititi and Te Arepa Kahi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Arrival is a magic trick of a film and that is largely due to its magnetic script by Eric Heisserer. It’s a thought-provoking movie that manages to explore macro and micro events through its unique structure by contrasting a possible apocalypse with a personal tragedy in a completely unexpected way. A brilliant work of screencraft.

arrival

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Writing – Original Screenplay

Damien Chazelle – La La Land

Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou – The Lobster

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Mike Mills – 20th Century Women

Tyler Sheridan – Hell or High Water

There was a ton of creativity on display here in the Original Screenplay category this year. However, none moved me quite as powerfully as Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating Manchester by the Sea. It’s an emotional powerhouse of a film delivered in a script that is beautiful in its sparseness. The naturalistic quality of conversation is so difficult to capture, but Lonergan does it here with a master’s deftness.

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Property of Amazon Studios.

Music – Original Score

Arrival – Jóhann Jóhannsson

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, Conrad Wedde

La La Land – Justin Hurwitz

Lion – Volker Bertelmann & Dustin O’Halloran

Moonlight – Nicholas Britell

Star Wars: Rogue One – Michael Giacchino

Swiss Army Man – Andy Hull & McDowell

I know this is a contentious category for many, and though I loved all of the entries here, there was something strangely hopeful, yet somber about Michael Giacchino’s score for Star War: Rogue One. It ran counter to expectations to produce something new, and in my opinion, powerful. However, I would be remiss to deny the wonderful mix of joy and melancholy I feel when listening to Justin Hurwitz’s brilliant La La Land score. It’s catchy, moving, and instantly memorable.

Music – Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream” from La La Land

“City of Stars” from La La Land

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

La La Land is obviously the favorite here, but as a singular song, I was most taken by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. If he wins the Academy Award here, he’ll be the youngest person ever to win the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). I think that would be pretty cool. NOTE: I still haven’t listened to Hamilton. I know. I know.

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Property of Disney.

 

Visual Effects

Arrival

Doctor Strange

Kubo and the Two Strings

Star Wars: Rogue One

Warcraft

All admirable tech entries here, however none engrossed me as fully (or as seamlessly) in a different world as the technology on display in Warcraft. Fully half of the film’s main characters are CG and yet I felt for them, they seemed wholly tangible. Everything from the orcs’ design, musculature, movement, clothes, hair, and even facial expressions was pitch perfect.

Best Breakout Performance

Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch

Surely one of the most talented new actresses to come around in some time, Anya Taylor-Joy has impressed me in both The Witch and the recent Split. In the former, she offered a transformative performance that was both calculated and effortlessly naturalistic. Be on the lookout for what she does next.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Property of A24.

Most Majestic

Sadly, once again Richard Armitage was not in a nominated film this year.

Other Films I Enjoyed

20th Century Women

The Accountant

Allied

Before the Flood

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Think Twice

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fences

Green Room

Hidden Figures

High-Rise

Jackie

Kubo and the Two Strings

The Lego Batman Movie

Moana

The Nice Guys

Nocturnal Animals

O.J. Made in America

Sausage Party

Silence

Star Trek: Beyond

Suicide Squad (Extended Edition)

Tallulah

Zootopia

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ICYMI: Thoughts on The Lobster

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What is love? It’s a question with no true answer, but one that has been examined endlessly in every medium. Some of these explorations are serious. Others are farcical. In director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, modern love is dissected using both absurdism and satire to deliver a message that is both cutting and poignant.

In a dystopian near-future, The City controls all, including the personal relationships of its citizens. The most important thing a person can be is part of a couple. It is required by law. Those who do not naturally pair up with another are sent to The Hotel, a picturesque facility in the countryside, featuring a number of amenities and group activities designed to allow people to find a compatible partner. If they fail to make a match within forty-five days, they are transformed into the animal of their choice.

Thrust into this ticking-clock of a scenario is David, an overly-polite and miserable man seemingly incapable of attracting a partner. Paunchy and not terribly excitable, David’s love life has suffered ever since his wife left him for another man. He now spends most of his time with his brother, Bob, who was turned into a dog a few years past after failing to find a mate at The Hotel. The first half of the film follows David’s exploits as he navigates the terrifying unfamiliarity of The Hotel’s bizarre rules and regulations. Throughout his journey he meets a number of colorful characters, including a woman with a fondness for biscuits, a woman with regular nosebleeds, a man with a limp, and a man with a lisp. Through these interactions, he learns of another group of people who live in The Woods beyond The Hotel. This group rejects interpersonal relationships and physical intimacy in rebellion against The City’s laws. Through a series of events both thrilling and peculiar, David comes into contact with this group in the back half of the film and soon finds that their complete denial of all romantic feeling might be just as cloying and repressive as The City’s demand for coupling.

To say that The Lobster is strange is a gross understatement. It is absurd and bizarre in the extreme, but thankfully always in a way that serves the story, which in itself is a vehicle of metaphor. Every facet of the film functions as a metaphor or commentary on the absurdity of modern relationships and the awkward push and pull of human connection. The characters speak with an arch sort of bluntness that’s jarring at first, but like Shakespeare, the beauty of the language shines through as the scenes roll on. That archness is a way for the storytellers to give voice to the subtext that usually haunts conversations as people attempt to get to know each other. Here, the subtext is the text, resulting in hilarious declarations told in glorious deadpan.

Beyond the dialogue, the scenarios themselves all speak to different fears and desires for anyone seeking love. The ticking-clock of The Hotel represents the societal pressure placed upon people to find a partner. Failing to do so often makes people feel ostracized and removed from part of the human experience. That people who fail to find a mate are lowered to the level of “animal” is telling of how extreme the film is willing to go in terms of its symbolism, but it is a powerful storytelling-device and one used to great effect.

Though being single is not inherently bad or a measure of one’s value as a person, The Lobster’s brilliance lies in its willingness to explore the ugliness of societal and institutional pressures concerning romantic relationships. These pressures are so deeply internalized that they cause people to act in illogical ways in order to please people they barely know. However, despite the complexity of human behavior and personality, for whatever reason people are also often simplified to a sole, defining trait. The Lobster takes this literally; everyone in the cast besides David is nameless, defined by a single trait which is reiterated throughout the film. It’s a brilliant and often hilariously sad commentary on how people interact with one another, especially when they’re desperately seeking human connection. In one scene David’s quasi-friend, the Limping Man, takes interest in another woman who has a limp, only to later learn that it’s from a recent injury and will soon heal; with a sigh of disappointment, he acknowledges that they can never be and moves on. Simply brilliant.

In contrast, when David encounters the rebel group that lives in The Woods, their denial of all physical and romantic interaction proves to be just as caustic and damaging as The Hotel’s dehumanizing regulations. Perhaps a commentary on the “outsiders looking in” – the rebel group is literally called The Loners – these people are so disgusted by those that subject themselves to relationships that they persist in a state of perpetual, sneering judgment. Even when David encounters a woman who shares a common trait (they are both shortsighted) he is hamstrung by The Loners’ rules, putting him in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario that leads to a wildly disturbing conclusion that is sure to stick with you long after the film ends.

This film lives and dies upon the audience’s relationship with David. Thankfully, Colin Farrell is pitch-perfect in the role, turning in a nuanced, subtle performance that somehow manages to be understated and arch, yet human. In a snow globe of a world, David is the lone spec of warmth. Though he tries to follow the rules, he is one of the only people with any sense of curiosity and agency. Farrell deftly shows David’s rebelliousness in small gestures and line-deliveries that speak of a man trying his best to break out of his shell, yet not certain where to go or what to do once he does. Overall, it’s a masterful performance by a talented actor in a period of well-earned resurgence.

On a textual level, The Lobster is wonderful. Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s incredible script somehow manages to package everything described above into one dense, yet subtle package. However, it is Lanthimos’ artful direction and Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography that make the text sing. Orchestral interludes of slow-motion, picturesque beauty are spliced into stunningly filmed landscapes and haunting interiors. Everything is framed in such a way as to convey beauty, but also the distance and removal between the characters. The color palate is subdued and cold, accentuating the artificial, emotionally stunted nature of the relationships being explored. The score as well adds to this effect, featuring mournful string quartets that perfectly accent the reserved melodrama of what’s taking place on screen.

All of this goes a long way to say that The Lobster is brilliant and easily one of the best films released this (Oscar) year. It is thematically dense, darkly humorous, and sure to be a conversation starter among your friends, half of whom probably hated it. But that’s the beauty of the film. It exists on multiple levels and even if someone didn’t enjoy the film itself, its messages are worthy of conversation and critical thought. Most films don’t even get that.

A masterful work.

Thoughts on Silence

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Faith and nuance don’t usually mesh when it comes to film. Though unfortunate, this is not entirely surprising considering the commercial nature of the film industry. To be a success in most cases a film needs to either have a loyal fan base of repeat viewers or possess a broad enough appeal to intrigue the everyday moviegoer. One can see why a film about faith – specifically religious faith – is a financially risky proposition. This is the reason most films involving faith affirm rather than question, because it is more pleasing to be comforted than to be asked to think critically. However, faith remains a fascinating topic because of its pervasive nature in everyday society and it is this pervasiveness that demands for it to be explored in a more probing and thoughtful manner. Thankfully, Martin Scorsese’s incredible filmography has allowed him to create Silence, an almost three-hour long deconstruction and exploration of faith set during a tumultuous time in religious history.

In 17th century Japan the imperial government has rejected Christianity. Now, the Japanese inquisition scours the countryside in search of Christians in order to make them apostatize (renounce Jesus Christ as lord) or die. Two Jesuit priests are thrust into this dangerous environment as they smuggle themselves into Japan in search of Father Ferreira, their former teacher who’s rumored to have apostatized. The leading question of why Ferreira would do such an unthinkable act weighs heavy over the first half of the film as the priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, struggle to remain undetected by the inquisition while also witnessing to a population of secret Christians hidden among the Japanese working class. When they are forced to confront an inquisitorial agent, the film shifts focus, becoming a duel of ideas as the priests must defend not only their faith, but its moral and institutional underpinnings as well.

The cast of Silence is small, but stellar. Andrew Garfield has had a career-best year with his role in Silence as well as his Oscar-nominated performance in Hacksaw Ridge. He imbues within Rodrigues a clear sense of duty to his religion, something that is so simple and pristine at the film’s onset that it demands to be tested and dirtied by the story’s conclusion. However, Rodrigues’ naiveté is never used to deride the character or what he believes; rather it seems to represent the rather careless “Manifest Destiny” attitude of Christianity throughout history. That Japan will not accept Christianity is mystifying to Rodrigues. However, as the film continues and his faith is tested, it becomes more and more difficult for him to remain loyal to the strictures and rules he’s spent his life upholding and even venerating when people’s lives are at stake.

In opposition to Rodrigues are Garupe and the Inquisitor, Inoue. Garupe, played with reliable conviction and intensity by Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), is even more zealous than Rodrigues. Where Rodrigues would see a sphere in any situation, Garupe sees a circle; the strength of his belief lies in how simple their quest and ultimately their faith is to him. Christianity is meant to spread across the world. He and Rodrigues are merely vessels of an inevitable tide.

The Inquisitor, Inoue, adds another layer to the story. Actor Issei Ogata’s unpredictable, inscrutable performance makes Inoue a memorable enigma. Beneath his calm demeanor is an undercurrent of annoyance at the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of the religion that Rodrigues and his kind are attempting to bring to Japan’s shores.  While more than capable of verbally sparring with Rodrigues about the merits of their religions, Inoue seems more interested in revealing these shortcomings to Rodrigues. Getting Rodrigues to apostatize is not so much about shaming him, but rather making him realize the shortcomings of the religious institution he serves.

Furthermore, Inoue is not a man opposed to violence, yet not vindictively hateful of Christianity either. He simply believes that it was never meant to flourish in Japan and that the Jesuits should leave them alone. What he does find offensive is their callous, unthinking dismissal of thousands of years of Japanese tradition. In his eyes, Japan, due to the nature of its traditional religious beliefs, is a swamp where no seed of Christianity will ever bloom. It is simply incompatible with Japan’s people. Though an active participant in the violence being perpetrated against the Christians, Inoue maintains that he harbors no ill will toward them. He’s only been forced to act in violence because they have chosen, in their arrogance, to violate the laws of his country. This circular defense of his actions presents a fascinating moral quandary, one which forms the basis for the more meditative, philosophical second half of the film.

Through these character descriptions one can see the complexity of the subject this film explores. Its multicultural dissection of what religion means, especially as two war for the heart of a nation, is fascinating and, incredibly sad. Religion has been a powerful motivator throughout most of recorded history, but though it has led to much progress, it has also caused unimaginable pain.

Based on the book by Shûsaku Endô, writers Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) and Martin Scorsese cleverly explore the complexity of this situation by limiting the amount of characters, giving them very clear motivations and differences, and most importantly, testing the characters’ personal faiths against the laws of the institutions they serve.

The main method of the inquisition to prove someone has apostatized is to place a piece of religious iconography on the ground before the person being questioned. All the person needs to do is step on it and they will be released. It sounds simple, but the gravity of what is being asked is immense for someone who has spent their life dedicated to Christianity. What then, is the person in question to do when they’re told that if they do not apostatize, a group of people will be executed? It’s a fascinating question and one with no clear-cut answer (at least, for these characters). To apostatize is a grave sin, but surely, letting people die is worse. Would Jesus apostatize to save a life? What does one do in the face of such horror when one prays and hears nothing but silence, as the title implies? Left to one’s own judgment, a truly good act might fly in the face of established religious law, but if it is right, does that matter? And if it is right to act against those laws, what then is the value of these man-made institutions?

It’s a philosophically dense, morally complex film ripe for discussion and this is the main reason why I still find myself thinking about it weeks later. In the end, I think the true brilliance of Silence is that, like faith in general, the audience’s reaction to it will largely depend on what they bring to the experience. When Rodrigues sees the face of Jesus Christ around him, is that a sign of anointment or madness? As his psyche is pummeled by the Inquisitor and his tests, Rodrigues begins to hear voices. Is that the voice of God or merely the strength of Rodrigues’ own delusions, seeking to absolve him of any blame for the pain that others have suffered due to his beliefs?

This myriad of questions and the many ways in which this story can be interpreted while not being obtuse are why I believe that Silence is an excellent film. See it with a person that does not share your beliefs. See it with ten. The discussion that follows is sure to be entertaining, if not enlightening.

Thoughts on Manchester by the Sea

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The Cutaway is my favorite cinematic device. To me there is something incredibly pure and human about a good cutaway in that it simulates our multi-dimensional experience of time. Physically you are always in the present, but your present is constantly interrupted by memory; associative snatches of past events spring up to remind you of important moments, be they happy, devastating, or somewhere in between. The drama of Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea is predicated upon the unavoidable presence of memory in one’s life, and though the cutaways might stretch long enough to be considered flashbacks, in an associative way they seamlessly fit the through-line of the film as it explores the deep emotional trauma of Lee, a janitor and divorcee faced with the threat of human connection.

Lee leads a quiet, isolated life at the onset of the film. He’s a handyman that fixes mundane problems for the unappreciative tenants of a building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Each day is much like the last, ending with him sipping a beer at the bar, alone. He repels connection and invites antagonism and much of the film is concerned with why this is. Lee’s voluntary isolative state ends when he receives word that his brother, Joe, has passed away suddenly. Joe’s untimely death forces Lee to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, where he must face not only his tragic past, but also an uncertain future embodied by Patrick, Joe’s teenage son, who is now in need of a guardian.

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Casey Affleck as Lee. Lucas Hedges as Patrick. Property of  Amazon Studios.

The strength of the drama in Manchester by the Sea comes from its believability. At times it seems more like a documentary than a drama because every relationship is nuanced and layered with (often unspoken) history. There’s an aged quality to the characters here that not every film achieves. For example, Lee and his ex-wife, Randi share only a handful of scenes, but their dialogue bleeds with such regret and earnestness that it’s impossible to look away. Lee’s relationship with Patrick, suddenly changed from friendly to paternal, is similarly complex; each interaction is colored by their relationship to Joe as well as the other characters in the film, such as Randi or Patrick’s absent, alcoholic mother. As the film proceeds, Lee’s past tragedy and subsequent withdrawal from society call into question his suitability to be Patrick’s guardian, however Lee himself does not desire that responsibility, putting further strain on their already tenuous relationship. All of this is dramatic material at its finest, but it is grounded and believable. It sounds like a story you could have heard around town.

This is due in large part to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterfully conversational script and understated, yet beautiful direction. In every scene he makes the performances the focus and with good reason: they’re all incredible. Casey Affleck turns in the best performance of his career (and that’s saying a lot considering his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). He effortlessly embodies Lee’s quiet pain, long-nursed with alcohol and self-hatred. Yet his solitary, self-destructive nature never reaches hyperbolic Hollywood heights. Instead, Lee is a man in a constant struggle with the specter of his past. Joe’s death reminds him of that struggle, except this time instead of retreating from the world, he’s forced to confront it for the sake of Patrick. Affleck conveys all of this complexity – Lee’s fear, his regret, his striving to be better – in a performance that somehow manages to be restrained and devastating at the same time.

Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) is similarly impressive as Patrick, who must attempt to navigate the drama of being a teenager on top of his father’s sudden death. Hedges does great work, deftly shifting between forced ambivalence and full-on panic. One gets the sense that he’s trying to adapt to the new status-quo of his life by ignoring what’s happened, but like Lee, there’s a price to that emotional distance. How Patrick’s pain compares and contrasts with Lee’s is a fascinating point of discussion and sure to be a question on some film class homework assignment in the future.

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Michelle Williams as Randi. Casey Affleck as Lee. Property of Amazon Studios.

As far as the supporting players, Michelle Williams is predictably excellent, making the best of her brief time as Randi, a woman who’s lost more than most but still manages to keep going. Williams is a master of peeling back emotional layers (see Blue Valentine) and here she is no different. She is shown only through the lens of how she treats Lee before and after their tragic past event, but in those scenes she reveals much about the intensely human arc of her character. To describe her further would spoil the film, but let it be known Williams navigates these heady dramatic waters with grace and dutifully delivers in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film.

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Kyle Chandler as Joe. Casey Affleck as Lee. Property of Amazon Studios.

Kyle Chandler (ever reliable Kyle Chandler, known to many as Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) plays Lee’s older brother, Joe. Present only in flashbacks, Chandler embodies everyman charm and reliability. His Joe is not a particularly talented or special man, but he is hardworking and loves his family. His uncomplicated normality is something that Lee yearns for, but thinks he cannot achieve given his past failures and interestingly, Joe’s treatment of Lee after his trauma is similar to Lee’s subsequent relationship with Patrick. The warmth and empathy that Chandler imbues within Joe makes the hole left in Lee and Patrick’s life by his passing that much more tangible.

If all of this sounds very dour, it is. Manchester by the Sea is not a happy film, but it isn’t relentlessly bleak either. There is humor here, derived from everyday banter and cutting insults strengthened by the casts’ Massachusetts accents. However, these moments of levity do not detract from the central message of the film which, surprisingly, is not whether Lee is capable of being Patrick’s guardian. Instead the film chooses to present an unflinching and dramatically brave view on grief. Sometimes grief truly is insurmountable; it can be fought and one can win daily triumphs over it, but it never goes away completely. This in itself is not a satisfying message to have in comparison to most mainstream films, but it is the truest. If artists use lies to tell the truth, then Manchester by the Sea is one of the most truthful films I have ever seen; one that is moving, raw, and cannot be missed.

Thoughts on La La Land

la-la-landNostalgia is an easy sell. People love the familiar dressed up as something new, but this isn’t a wholly negative concept. I’ll be the first to tell you that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a supremely enjoyable film made even more so by the feelings of childlike glee it inspired within me. The same could be said about La La Land, the new film by Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. It is a work of art born out of nostalgia and a deep appreciation for the musicals of old Hollywood, and yet it, like The Force Awakens, succeeds by twisting the familiar into something new and timely.

At its core, La La Land is about dreamers, the pursuit of one’s dreams and the cost of that journey. The two dreamers in question are Mia and Sebastian. Mia is an aspiring actress and current barista, constantly attending auditions with the hopes of one day being accepted for her craft. Sebastian is a jazz musician working to bring his dream of owning a jazz club to life in an age where jazz is neither popular nor profitable. By chance both meet and so begins a tale of love and loss in modern Hollywood set to an array of dazzling musical numbers.

The real star of this film is Justin Hurwitz, the composer, who provides a score that is catchy, eclectic, and instantly memorable. There are orchestral swells and twinkling chimes, propulsive jazz numbers and quiet piano solos. All are woven into larger, repeated themes that are cleverly altered throughout the film to match the tone of the scene in which they appear, always at exactly the right moment to tug at the heartstrings the most. As a person who lived in relative ignorance of jazz before Whiplash, with both of these films I am now thoroughly intrigued and appreciative of jazz’s legacy and the staggering talent it takes to play it. A song being constructed in real time is a fascinating thing to witness.

In contrast, there’s an obvious structure to the film’s plot, but it is skillfully crafted and knowledgeable of the nostalgic idealism that people crave. Writer/director Damien Chazelle ultimately succeeds in creating a film that is both unique and surprising by touching on those classic, cliché moments then immediately deviating from them in ways that are not always dramatically pleasing, but true. All the twists here are subtle and believable in the scheme of the lives these characters are trying to lead and the dramatic heft of the picture comes from the pursuit of their dreams and how the similar circumstances they found themselves in at their meeting change as they both begin to experience a measure of success.

Yet Hurwitz’s score and Chazelle’s writing wouldn’t mean very much if the audience didn’t buy into Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. Luckily Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have a ridiculous amount of chemistry (they previously starred together in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad). Stone is perfect as a young woman who has been told “No” so much that her once vibrant hope for her future career as an actress is little more than a guttering flame. Beneath her good-natured and easy banter is a fragility and self-doubt that is as likely to stop her from achieving her goals as an executive’s pass. Likewise, Gosling plays his charming everyman heart out, making Sebastian both relatable and obsessive, a talented musician crippled by his perfectionism and resistance to change. Their relationship is the perfect alchemy of push and pull, as each struggles to make the other see their worth and continue the pursuit of their dreams.

Speaking of dreams, whether it’s Mia and Sebastian waltzing through a fantastical starry landscape or a group of drivers deciding to have a song and dance number on a freeway overpass, this film is strikingly beautiful and never wanting for a touch of magic. Like a dream everything is the same, yet different; the fantastical lurks just beneath the surface, ready to spring out at the barest hint of a song. The whole film is bathed in soft pinks, deep blues, and lush purples, making Los Angeles into a dreamscape of possibility; the sets and sights are accented by the stellar costuming that clothes the characters in bold colors that stand out in sharp contrast to the environments surrounding them. The glorious production, art, and costume design is highlighted by the beautiful camera work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) who along with Chazelle captures the majority of the musical numbers in long, uninterrupted takes. There’s an intimacy to this method of filming, one that puts the focus squarely upon the performer and fortunately neither Stone nor Gosling miss a step. I was particularly impressed by Stone’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and every time Gosling touched a piano since he learned how to play the instrument specifically for this film.

There’s little else that can be said about La La Land without spoiling the experience. I urge you to see it in the biggest theatre you can with as many people as possible. Why? Because it is a joyous cinematic experience that touches on the best of what film has to offer as a medium. It’s a musical. It’s a love story. It’s one of, if not the best film of the year.

Thoughts on Star Wars: Rogue One

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Property of Disney.

Star Wars means many things to many people. For me, the franchise is an integral part of the foundation upon which all my interests have been built. I spent years watching the original trilogy at least once a week, playing with the toys and video games (Shadows of the Empire remains one of my favorites), constructing the Lego sets, and writing stories of my own (nearly all about Boba Fett). I was and am obsessed with Star Wars.

In 2012, when I heard that Disney had purchased Star Wars from creator George Lucas and was planning to make their own films, I was skeptical. Unlike many, I do not harbor an intense hatred for the Star Wars prequels. I don’t even dislike them. I find the underlying story of Palpatine’s sabotage of the Republic interesting and I always enjoyed the tragic friendship between Anakin and Obi-wan Kenobi. Also, Darth Maul is undeniably cool. However, I understand where those films failed to capture the spirit of the originals. Last year’s The Force Awakens, however, banished any doubt I had about the saga films’ quality; it paid homage to the original trilogy while also managing to reorient itself onto a new and exciting path. Though I love that film and the rebirth it provided for the franchise, I think Rogue One has given me something even better: hope. A new hope, one might say, that we as an audience will get to explore the vast and glorious beauty that the Star Wars universe has to offer. That being said, here is why.

Rogue One is unlike any Star Wars film before it; not only because it is the first in a series of standalone films (the untitled Young Han Solo project will come out next in 2018), but because of its distinct tone. There is no swashbuckling sense of adventure here. This is a film about war and the cost of freedom from tyranny. Set just before Star Wars: Episode IV, the story follows Jyn Erso, a delinquent and drifter whose childhood was stolen from her by the Empire. Her father, Galen Erso, is a brilliant scientist specializing in Kyber crystal research and technology. The crystals powered the lightsabers of the Jedi and, consequently, serve as the power source for the Death Star’s planet-killing laser cannon. After a tragedy sees Galen thrust into the custody of the Empire, a young Jyn is spirited away by Rebel soldier/extremist Saw Gerrera.

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The Death Star looms. Property of Disney.

Years later she is rescued from Imperial captivity by the Rebellion and given a task. Word has reached them that an Imperial pilot has defected and carries a message from her father. The only problem is that the pilot is currently in the custody of Saw Gerrera, who has since splintered from the Rebellion due to his extremist tendencies. The Rebels hope that Jyn and Saw’s former relationship will be enough to convince him to have an audience so that they may determine the validity of the pilot’s message. Faced with the possibility of seeing her father again and clearing his name – most of the Rebels think he is a genuine Imperial sympathizer – Jyn agrees to the task. Unfortunately, Orson Krennic, director of the Death Star program and the man who captured Galen in the first place, has also heard of the pilot’s defection and suspects Galen to be the cause. Events transpire, a team builds around Jyn, and the true stakes of Galen’s message are revealed: the newly operational Death Star has a weakness, one which is described in its plans. With time running out, Jyn and company form a last ditch effort to locate the plans for the Death Star before it’s too late.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Property of Disney.

Though you may know the end of the story, the greatest success of Rogue One is that that doesn’t matter. It’s an intense ride full of war and destruction. The stakes are real and palpable for the duration of the film. This is mainly because of the characters. You care about every one of them. Sure they are developed in broad strokes, but those strokes are calculated and effective. Jyn Erso, as played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy), is an incredible protagonist. She’s a person who’s been hurt deeply and repeatedly by life, but she’s a fighter, powered by her love for her father, and later, the idea at the heart of the Rebellion: hope. Seeing her transform from a grudging participant to a rebel with a real sense of agency is one of the best parts of the film. Felicity Jones’ exemplary acting elevates an already interesting character into someone who feels real and lived in; we’re only offered a glimpse of her life, but we care.

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Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Property of Disney.

Jyn is assisted by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna (Milk, Y Tu Mamá También). A lifelong Rebel, Cassian offers the audience a glimpse of the lengths to which even “one of the good guys” must go in order to fight the suffocating evil of the Empire. Like Jyn, Cassian is damaged, but Luna goes a long way to instill within Cassian a sense of duty and determination. The development of his relationship with Jyn is easily one of the highlights of the film, as they both come to teach each other about what it truly means to be a rebel.

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Cassian and K-2SO (motion captured/voiced by Alan Tudyk). Property of Disney.

Cassian’s partner is K-2SO played by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dodgeball), a reprogrammed Imperial security droid with a droll sense of humor and a tendency for stating unfortunate odds. Though K-2SO could have easily been relegated to comic relief, he thankfully avoids that role, instead serving as a stalwart companion just as likely to draw chuckles as fist pumps. Tudyk’s perfect comedic timing as well as his ability to imbue even the most monotone characters with emotional depth (he played Sonny in I, Robot as well) make K-2SO a standout in a film full of stand outs.

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Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. Property of Disney.

Rounding out the main cast are Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Riz Ahmed, fresh off his Golden Globe nominated work in the HBO series The Night Before, plays the Imperial defector, Bodhi. A man with true knowledge of what it’s like to be a cog within the Imperial machine, Ahmed does a good job making Bodhi fearful, but not cowardly. He wants the galaxy to be a better place and it is upon his volition that this story begins. Perhaps the closest thing to an audience surrogate as this film gets, seeing Bodhi find his courage is a wonderful experience.

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Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Property of Disney.

Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe are a team; Chirrut a blind, monk-like figure that appears to be Force-sensitive; Baze his gun-wielding protector. Though their backstory remains a mystery, it is their camaraderie that makes a lasting impression.

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Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus. Property of Disney.

Chirrut’s spiritual encouragements are routinely negated by a gruff dose of reality from Baze, but it is clear that they care for one another. This is thanks to Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tangible chemistry, which is a highlight of every scene they’re in together. Though more static in their arc than some of the other characters (and for good reason), Chirrut and Baze’s relationship with Jyn strikes its own tone and is just as compelling as the rest.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic. Property of Disney.

As you can see, I loved the main cast, and the supporting players are just as good. Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Killing Them Softly) is appropriately loathsome as Director Orson Krennic. A ruthless man of great ambition, Krennic’s arc is interesting in that it parallels Jyn’s, but also explores the dog-eat-dog nature of the Imperial infrastructure. His interactions with another Imperial character, who I will not name here for the sake of the reader, are tense and antagonistic, each statement threaded with barbs and disdain.

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Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso. Property of Disney.

Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) plays Galen Erso, Jyn’s father. I have written at length about the wonders of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting. Put simply, he is one of the finest actors we have today. He makes the most of his limited screen time as Galen, portraying him as a man wracked with guilt, yet full of love for his daughter. His actions are a final attempt at making peace with what he’s done and giving the galaxy a chance for a future without the Empire. There is an urgency to Mikkelsen here, a sense of doom (both personal and galactic) that makes Galen a standout in a film full of standouts.

(On a side note: Galen and Orson have a long and intriguing relationship before the events of this film, elucidated in the book Catalyst, by James Luceno. It is a riveting Star Wars book and a necessity for anyone wishing to explore the characters of this film further.)

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Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera.

Forest Whitaker (Arrival, The Last King of Scotland) recreates himself in the wheezing, heavily augmented form of Saw Gerrera. Too extreme for even the Rebellion, Rogue One finds Saw on the world of Jedha, leading his own personal splinter group of insurgents. Saw has clearly suffered a lot in his life and there’s a bit of madness in his eyes, but overall he is a person completely dedicated to the idea of the Rebellion and the Empire’s end. He is willing to sacrifice everything to see that done. Whitaker chose a distinct voice for this character, a wheezing, breathless voice that speaks to the extensive damage done to Saw’s body. I enjoyed it and found Whitaker mesmerizing. His time with Jyn in particular is powerful and an important step on her path toward heroism.

Besides the incredible cast, Rogue One is a triumph of style and design. The costuming and production design are unparalleled, harkening back the Ralph McQuarrie-ness of the originals while also adding a new dimension and flavor to the universe. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) is beautiful, yet retains a gritty, documentarian appeal which can also be credited to director Gareth Edwards. Known for the indie Monsters and his 2014 reboot of Godzilla, Edwards deftly makes the jump to mega blockbuster with Rogue One, creating an experience at once epic and intimate. It really is the “war film” that he spent so many months talking about. Kudos must also be given to composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Star Trek: Beyond), who replaced Alexander Desplat at the last minute and reportedly completed the score in 4 ½ weeks (what?!). His work here is sumptuous and grand and, most importantly, original; it only just touches upon familiar themes, but in new and exciting ways.

Finally, we come to fan service. There are all manner of references in this film, but for the most part they appear in organic and pleasing ways. A pair of them surprised me so much I nearly jumped up in my seat. That’s the beauty of Star Wars. It is old and new. Sitting in a packed theatre tonight I saw hundreds of people of all sorts affected and moved by this film, joined together in joy at what they were witnessing, cheering just as hard for the familiar as they were for the new. That is the power of Star Wars and it is my supreme pleasure to say that Rogue One met and exceeded my expectations. I hope everyone goes out and supports this movie so that we may continue to explore the untold bounds this universe outside of the Skywalker saga; so that we’ll get that story about the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, so that we can delve into the criminal underworld of Coruscant, and perhaps, just maybe, we’ll see the return of a certain Mandalorian bounty hunter with a T-shaped visor.

One can dream.

But Star Wars is the stuff of dreams; a far-ranging, science-fantasy epic that clearly has much more story to tell. Whatever that story is, I’ll be there.

Thoughts on Moonlight

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Film is an important, vital art form. So often it is neglected as an educational medium, but a good film not only affects us on an emotional level, it can allow us to experience the lives and cultures of others removed from ourselves. Moonlight is a perfect example of this incredible, sympathetic power.  A devastating triptych, it is a journey of self-discovery told over three acts in the life of Chiron, a gay black man.

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Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” Chiron. Property of A24.

The first follows Chiron as a child, navigating the difficulties of his home life with his drug-addict mother as well as his burgeoning friendship with a local drug dealer named Juan. Already cognizant of how he is different from the other boys he knows, the film deftly explores the loneliness of childhood and the cruelty of children.

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Ashton Sanders as Chiron. Property of A24.

The second act follows Chiron as a young man in high school, living in a world that’s all surface, filled with posturing and forced stoicism. His desire for friendship, for acceptance extends beyond his difficult days at school to his home life, where his mother’s drug addiction has wasted her into a needy husk of a woman. Despite his general isolation and confused feelings about being gay, another young man has taken an interest in him and the seeds of a potential friendship are sewn.

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Trevante Rhodes as “Black” Chiron. Property of A24.

The third act finds Chiron as a man in his twenties, having become something and someone else, obscuring his true self to fit into a mold crafted by society. Here, after a surprising phone call, he struggles to reconcile his troubled past with the possibilities presented by the future. However, he must come to terms with who he truly is if there’s any hope for happiness.

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Property of A24.

Irony is a grand player in Moonlight and something that director Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) conversational, yet deeply heartfelt script manages to capture in a realistic, yet compelling way. Irony is what makes Juan and Chiron’s relationship so tragic: the one man who cares for him is also a peddler of the very thing that is destroying his mother. Later, in Chiron’s attempt to escape his otherness, he becomes the stoic, posturing bully he hated in high school. These are not grand twists and there are no winks at the camera. These are life’s ironies, tragic and wholly believable in their rawness. They invigorate character relationships and create palpable emotional baggage that carries through the films three distinct acts.

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Property of A24.

The emotional isolation that is a constant in the story is called into focus by Jenkins’ distinct directorial choices and James Laxton’s breathtakingly intimate cinematography. Chiron’s life is one of removal, both physical and emotional. When Chiron is himself, the camera remains tight, floating close, giving the audience a taste of the suffocating nature of others’ judgment as well as Chiron’s fear of the world around him. Yet there is an intimacy to this closeness as well, captured in the moments where the camera drifts back just enough to allow another person into the frame. When Chiron is comfortable with others, there’s a calmness to the picture, which remains free-floating, but mostly still. This is in distinct contrast to the Chiron of the third act, who is filmed in wide shots as if he were a different person entirely. Though that description was a bit technical, the manner in which this film was shot speaks to the immense care and consideration put into its construction. Chiron’s personal journey through isolation and exclusion in search of self-discovery is invigorated by these creative choices and further enlivened by the distinct lighting, which casts the world in intense whites, soft golds, and varying shades of blue, red, and purple.

However, despite the stylistic successes of this film, it would mean little without a strong group of central performances. Fortunately, all three Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – are wonderful. Hibbert possesses a naturalism often absent in child actors. Sanders does a great job of navigating Chiron’s confusion and struggles as a teen. Rhodes, perhaps given the meatiest part, has the task of taking a character we’ve come to know over the course of the film, obscuring his true self, and then slowly peeling away at that false exterior one scene at a time; a difficult job for any actor, but Rhodes makes it look easy.

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Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” Chiron. Property of A24. 

Though there are other supporting actors in the film, the two standouts are definitely Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Though not in the film for long, Mahershala Ali makes the most of his time, playing Juan with a charm and charisma at odds with the darkness of his profession. A man of contradictions, Ali manages to capture Juan’s shame and disappointment with himself without being maudlin. His affection and paternal love for Chiron, likewise, is completely earnest and beautifully performed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali got a Best Supporting Actor nomination, if only for his incredible monologue which is one of the best and most important scenes in the film. Along with his fine performance in Luke Cage, Ali is having a great year and I can’t wait to see more of him in the future, hopefully as a leading man.

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Naomie Harris as Paula. Property of A24. 

Noamie Harris delivers a heartrending performance as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Harris, reliable in pretty much any role, avoids the potential one-note pitfall of portraying a drug addict, instead making Paula a tragic figure whose love for her son is hidden away and overpowered by her uncontrollable addiction. Over time she, like the adult Chiron, peels back the layers of herself, becoming three-dimensional through regret from her actions and a desire for connection, the same connection that Chiron yearned for and was denied in his youth. It’s a painful arc, but one that Harris plays to perfection.

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Property of A24.

All of this – the performances, the direction, the writing, the cinematography – add up to a beautiful, moving, and deeply personal film; one that shines a light on the seldom illuminated culture of gay black men in America. Chiron’s struggle with his otherness is heartbreaking, but his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance is empowering, and ultimately, hopeful. And that is the beauty of the film. It offers a portal into the life of a marginalized person, showing the needless nature of that marginalization and the strength of that person to endure through adversity in an effort to become their truest self.

Overall, Moonlight is a beautiful, necessary story for today’s world and one that demands to be seen.

Thoughts on Arrival

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Science fiction is a genre rich with possibility. A story can take place anywhere and be about anything, exploring the human experience through a boundless lens that allows for interstellar travel, time travel, extraterrestrials and more. However, the true strength of science fiction as a genre rests in its ability to use the extreme, the impossible to plumb the depths of the human experience; through extremity, themes are explored in ways that a normal setting would not allow. For years literature has entertained and terrified with countless “hard” sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, given the time-sensitive format of film, cinema has lagged behind in creating an abundance of more cerebral fair. That is not to say that they do not exist; Ex Machina and Interstellar were recently released to wide acclaim, but films like these are in the minority when compared to the number of special-effects driven blockbusters that flood theatres every year. That is why Arrival is so refreshing. It’s a “First Contact” alien story without the space battles or explosions. Instead, its story is propelled by relationships and a powerful message.

The premise is simple: one day twelve enormous space-faring vessels land on Earth. A brilliant linguist named Louise Banks is recruited by the army to attempt to communicate with the beings aboard a ship that has settled in a field in Montana. Along with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, Louise meets with the alien life forms and attempts to decipher their complex form of communication as national tensions mount.

To say any more would be an extreme disservice to the incredibly clever way the film is constructed: its characters’ emotional arcs rise in tandem with the intensifying conflict, allowing for a series of events that are at once epic and intimate. Furthermore, the film provides one of the finest protagonists in recent memory. No matter the dire stakes, at the heart of this tale is Louise. Amy Adams turns in one of the best performances of her career, imbuing within Louise a strong moral compass that seems to have been nurtured and developed through her love of language. Communication across the globe is so nuanced and varied that to take any communicative action or perceived communicative action at face value is a mistake; it’s a shallow, surface response that is often as much ego as it is fear and expectation. Louise knows what may be a respectful gesture in one culture may seem like an insult in another; given this unique viewpoint, she approaches communicating with the extraterrestrials as a person seeking to understand them as a species and as a culture, rather than specifically trying to discover what they want from Earth (much to her Army overlords’ displeasure). Adams artfully conveys Louise’s intense curiosity, wonder, and empathy, as well as her extreme frustration as events spiral out of her control. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is contrasting Louise’s extreme empathy and desire for communication with the ugly, fearful tribalism to which much of humanity seems to revert in times of extreme crisis. For Louise, communication is life, it is what brings people together and allows them to share in the vast possibilities of collected knowledge.

Jeremy Renner ably serves as Adams’ support in the form of Ian Donnelly. In a refreshing twist of gender norms (at least in film), his character is the one off which Louise bounces ideas as well as her frustrations. Though having a tangible effect on the events of the film, this is still very much Louise’s story; yet by making Donnelly the support, Renner is given the opportunity to turn in a performance full of warmth and compassion. Donnelly’s belief in Louise’s abilities and intellect develops alongside the audience’s and the way Renner conveys his growing support of Louise is subtle, yet moving and one of the best parts of an immaculate film.

It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic, but this film is truly excellent. An artful, contemplative science-fiction story that asks from the viewer as much as it gives. Much credit must be paid to director Denis Villeneuve’s nuanced, thoughtful approach to film – he directed Sicario, also a sizzling slow-burn and one of my favorite films from last year – but one would be remiss to forget the work of Eric Heisserer, who wrote the script based on Ted Chiang’s short, “Story of Your Life.” A passion project written on spec (with no assignment; no money up-front), Heisserer’s love for the source material and story is clear from the first moments of the film. The dialogue is sparse, yet realistic; all emotional beats are organic and earned. Heisserer’s written work is only strengthened by Villeneuve’s directing style, which tends more toward art-house than blockbuster. I must also commend Villeneuve on his dedication to silence; like one of my other favorite directors, Nicolas Winding Refn, Villeneuve lets his films breathe, lets characters look at one another and allows for the actors’ talent to shine through in those quiet moments. Given his incredible success with this film, I can’t wait to see what he does with his next project, the sequel to Blade Runner.

Lensed by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year), Arrival is beautiful. Shots of nature and architecture are juxtaposed with the absolutely foreign appearance of the alien vessels and the extraterrestrials themselves. Memory flashes are interspersed throughout the film, shot in such a manner as to express the intimacy of remembered moments: beautiful, idyllic fragments that hit incredibly hard. All of these images are accompanied by a wondrous, sometimes quiet, sometimes pulsing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has quickly become one of my favorite composers with his varied work in films like Sicario and The Theory of Everything. Also, the design of the alien language, developed by designer Patrice Vermette and artist Martine Bertrand, is beautifully intricate and completely convincing as a millennia-old form of communication.

All this being said, Arrival is a magnificent and oddly timely film. It urges the absolute necessity for communication across cultures and borders; a communication that is not merely surface-level, but born from a genuine desire to understand that which is different and “other.” The film’s plea for empathy is a powerful one, deftly delivered in one of the best film’s I’ve seen in recent memory. I cannot recommend it enough.

Thoughts on Hell or High Water

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Property of Lionsgate.

There is a certain mythic quality to the western genre, something that is timeless in its appeal. It might be because of the archetypal characters: the unpredictable outlaw, the quiet hero, the hard-as-nails lawman. Or maybe it’s the setting that somehow remains the same despite the passage of time. Dusty towns and plains serve as the stage for tales of revenge, family, and greed. The best of these stories are explorations of morality and violence. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny struggles with the sins of his past as the era of the Wild West comes to a close. No Country for Old Men is a meditation on evil and the inexorable, relentless march of time. Director David Mackenzie’s latest film, Hell or High Water is an exploration of brotherhood and (in)justice in a time where villains aren’t people, but corporations.

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Ben Foster and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby Howard. Property of Lionsgate.

Toby and Tanner Howard are bank robbers. They might not be stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but their plight is understandable; they seek to wrong those that wronged them. Yet, in a modern twist, the subject of their revenge is not a person, but a bank. The less one knows about the circumstances of their struggle at the onset, the better, but I will say that Hell or High Water has three of the most compelling characters in a drama this year and the bulk of the film deals with the Howard brothers’ relationship to one another. Toby is an intelligent, quiet man whose potential seems to have been hamstrung by the circumstances of his birth; his family has always been poor and in the barrens of West Texas, opportunities are scarce. His brother, Tanner, is an ex-con coming off of a long prison sentence. He is a man accustomed to violence and accepting of his role as an outcast, standing against everything and everyone. Yet, somehow, the film makes him a sympathetic character, a person with absolutely nothing save the love he has for his brother. Together, they bond as they hit bank after bank in an attempt to raise a specific sum of money so that Toby can finally look toward the future. However, one man stands in their way: Marcus Hamilton.

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Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton and Gil Birmingham as Alberto Parker. Property of Lionsgate.

Marcus is an ageing ranger who fears that his impending retirement is more of a death sentence than a reward for his years of service. A man out of time, Marcus – affably sarcastic and always ready with a cutting remark – seems as if he was born in the wrong era. His heroes didn’t get to retire. Theirs was the way of the gun and in the Howard brothers he sees the opportunity for a grand exit. Along with his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner, Alberto, Marcus pursues the Howard brothers across West Texas, trying to piece together evidence to form a possible explanation for their drastic actions.

All of this drama is set against desolate plains and towns lost to time. Closed-down shops and dilapidated trailers line dusty streets, while cloudless skies exaggerate the immense emptiness of the countryside. Adding to the film’s grit is a subtle undercurrent of irony; a number of roadside signs are spot-lighted, claiming “Cheap Loans” and “Fast Cash.” Like 2012’s Brad Pitt hitman drama, Killing Them Softly, Hell or High Water has a lot to say about the evils of greed and corporate overreach, however, unlike that film (which I also think is brilliant) it manages to separate itself by its relative silence. Exposition is doled out in sparse tidbits, muttered without context, leaving the viewer to piece together the circumstances of the Howards’ crime spree as the movie progresses, ramping up to a breathless ending of nail-biting intensity. Marcus’ backstory is likewise one of mystery until the mystique exuded in earlier scenes gives way to the sobering reality of a man facing the next phase of his life with no clue as to how he should proceed.

Despite the extremity of the characters’ actions in the film, nothing ever feels disingenuous or heightened. Rather the Howards’ financial woes seem to be the very same that a large number of lower to middle class Americans are facing today. Marcus’ struggles point more toward the passage of time and the developing complexity of the modern world, a place controlled by faceless entities and esoteric laws, neither of which a bullet can harm. In pursuing the Howards, Marcus seems to chase an idyllic past, one that might never have existed anywhere but his mind, where lawmen fought outlaws and bullets flew; no red tape, no post-incident reports, no retirement.

Overall this is a character piece and every actor present is at the top of their game. Chris Pine finally finds a drama beyond Star Trek worthy of his talent. His Toby is a weary, reasonable man pushed to the edge by things far larger than himself. His desperation is palpable, but like all parts of his character, quiet. He doesn’t want to rob these banks, he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Ben Foster (The Messenger, Lone Survivor) finally gets a chance to shine as Tanner, the loose-cannon Howard that is at once violent and unpredictable, yet warm and brotherly. In every action, Foster imbues within Tanner a sense of foreboding; he’s a man that seems to have accepted that he is to burn bright, then be snuffed out by a world in which he is the “other,” an unsociable outcast that drives away good things. Without the pitch perfect chemistry between the Howard brothers, this film would have been a failure. Thankfully, Pine and Foster are great together, seeming like old friends that fight, joke, and share real moments of earnest emotion.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges turns in one of the finest performances of his career. Behind Marcus’ plain-speaking, jovial demeanor, the viewer can sense his growing anxiety as the end of his career looms; he’s searching madly for a reason to feel like it was all worth it, even as the world he spent decades protecting falls apart around him. In the Howards, he may have found his reason. Bridges, gruff, yet always charming, makes Marcus a character you root for despite you investment in the Howard’s plight.

In this way, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) has succeeded in making an excellent film. He lets moments breathe, allows for silence, and lets tension build and build until you can’t take it anymore. The best part is that all of this is elevated by a trio of three-dimensional characters you actually care about. Aided by a tight script from Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario, one of last year’s best) and the stylish, yet utilitarian work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Perfect Sense, What Maisie Knew), Hell or High Water is easily one of the best films to come out this year and one that I hope receives at least some attention for its performances come Oscar season.

It may not revive the western genre, but Hell or High Water does prove that the modern western is still fertile ground for exploring potent themes about violence, family, and time.

Thoughts on Captain Fantastic

Depictions of familial love have long been a staple of the film medium. In these films – which depict everything from dysfunctional family dynamics (August Osage County, Rachel Getting Married) to explorations of grief (Ordinary People, Rabbit Hole) – most of the action takes place inside homes with characters that are at least relatable in their ordinariness. There may not be one that represents you specifically, but there is usually a character that is similar to someone you have met. It is because of this norm that Captain Fantastic feels so fresh; it challenges these familiar premises by presenting a cast of characters that have a very different background, who live in a manner that is anything but ordinary.

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Theatrical Poster for Captain Fantastic. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

The film centers on Ben Nash, a man who has dedicated his life to cultivating an environment in which his children can thrive. Living in the sprawling forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben’s children endure a rigorous daily regimen of physical and mental activity. All of them – from the youngest who is barely more than a toddler, to the oldest who is already a young man – are entirely self-sufficient, able to hunt and forage as well as they can quote Kant, discuss historical politics, or speak different languages. At first, their solitary existence is depicted as a paradise, and in a way it is, existing outside time and the ugliness of the world; it is place where strength of character and intelligence reign above all things. However, something is clearly amiss.

When Ben goes into town to sell some wares he and his children have made, he learns that his wife, who was recently admitted into a psychiatric facility, has committed suicide. Furthermore, her businessman father tells Ben that he is not invited to her funeral, which will take place in a week’s time. Though Ben is tempted to honor his father-in-law’s wishes, his children have different ideas. Swayed by their desire to see their mother off in proper fashion, Ben reluctantly takes his children into the world that he and his wife fought to shield them from.

What follows is a culture-clash story that explores what it means to love your family, your spouse, your children, and how that love can sometimes be both empowering and detrimental to their development and well-being as people. Though Ben’s children are incredibly intelligent, they are socially-inept; some of them are incapable of even the simplest of interactions with other people. The social constructs that we navigate daily are alien to them, their values creating a gulf between them and “normal” people in a way that sometimes makes them come off as pretentious and condescending. Yet there is value in the lessons Ben seeks to teach his children. Intelligence is important; knowledge of history, of literature, of philosophy, are vital to developing one’s world view. To accept anti-intellectualism and to not question authority figures is to fail one’s duty as a well-rounded and dynamic human being.

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Ben and his children. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

Whether you agree with Ben’s treatment of his children or not, the true strength of Captain Fantastic is that it doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t say that Ben is either right or wrong, rather it shows how his choices, and likewise the choices of his wife and father-in-law affect his children. How each of the children react, with their own personalities and desires, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Ben’s way of life. Some of the kids wish to be normal so they don’t feel likes outcasts, while others rebel against society, thinking to be “normal” is to be simple. Through all of this, the definition of love is explored in an open-ended, realistic manner that neither judges nor defines. Ben loves his children unconditionally and has very specific desires for them. Though Ben’s father-in-law lives in a mansion off a golf course, in no way is his love for his grandchildren diminished. Neither he or Ben are depicted as caricatures, which is also refreshing given that so many films seek to make an antagonist of a character from the onset by having them act in unrealistic and clichéd ways, rather than taking the time to develop their worldview and let the audience judge for themselves.

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Viggo Mortensen as Ben. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

The obvious highlight of this film is Viggo Mortensen as Ben. Mortensen, in my opinion, is one of the greatest actors alive today. Though he first wowed me as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, his work in smaller roles has been equally impressive and varied in the years since (see A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Road, etc.). He has one of the most expressive faces of any actor, and whether Ben is experiencing grief or joy, Mortensen knows exactly what to do. His effortless, emotive performance is full of nuance and depth; he manages to make Ben hyper-intelligent, but never pretentious. Ben is a man of reason and though he may disapprove of other peoples’ lifestyles, he’s always willing to have discussions and open to changing his mind if presented with a compelling argument.

Likewise, the children in the cast are all impressive in their own ways, with the highlights being Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso as Ben’s two eldest daughters, who wish for nothing more than to attend their mother’s funeral, and George MacKay, who plays Ben’s eldest son who is struggling with how detached from the outside world he is due to his parent’s chosen lifestyle. Though these actors have more material than those that play their siblings, they all turn in great performances, regardless of age. Frank Langella is excellent as Jack, Ben’s father-in-law, ably depicting a man in immense pain seeking someone to blame. Though not in the film for long, the arc of Jack and Ben’s relationship has layers that some features don’t even achieve, and that is largely due to the prowess of the actors onscreen.

Directed and written by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is an experience that is beautiful in every respect. The dialogue is lively and intelligent, yet never seems forced or unrealistic. The cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and Bone) is incredible, showcasing the beauty of nature and contrasting it with the manicured lawns of suburbia and the twisting freeways and sharp lines of America’s cities and towns. The score by Alex Somers (Aloha) is lovely in its subtlety; it assists emotional moments rather than overwhelming them and Somers uses already-existing music in compelling ways to make the film feel like a piece of our world, while never robbing it of its unique identity. Also, props for the best use of a Sigur Rós song in a film since 127 Hours.

In short, Captain Fantastic is an impeccable film, one that leaves you full of love and a desire to not only seek intelligence, but also connection with others. It is a nuanced depiction of familial love, alienation, grief and finally, acceptance; an exploration of what it means to be a part of the world and how one can do that while still retaining what makes them special.

In a word, fantastic.