2016 Wrap-Up

The End is Nigh

2016 is almost over! For some that may come as a huge relief given the unfolding of recent political machinations and the seemingly domino-like pace at which pop culture icons are dying. But in terms of cinema, 2016 was a year to remember. Since we’re still in the middle of December and there are several titles that need to be seen, I’ve decided to formulate this post as a grab bag of my favorite year-end superlatives and save my “Top Ten” list for later this month. Down below you’ll find my favorite images of the year, favorite musical scores, favorite under-seen performances, favorite “moments,” and finally my favorite theater experiences of the year. It’s not often I get to look back and meditate on everything I’ve seen in an entire year but this time I was sensible enough to keep all my ticket stubs, which was crucial in helping me recall the cinematic moments that resonated with me in 2016. Needless to say, I had a blast putting this list together because it served as a great recap of the wonderful year in movies. Hope you enjoy!

Favorite Shots:

Arrival

dir. Denis Villeneuve | Cinematographer: Bradford Young

arrival

Why it stuck: Our first full look at the alien pods is poetically draped with the billowing clouds emanating from the Montanan plains. Gorgeous.

Nocturnal Animals

dir. Tom Ford | Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey

nocturnal-animals

Why it stuck: A great introduction shot for a great character. Simply one of the coolest entrance shots of the year.

Moonlight

dir. Barry Jenkins | Cinematographer: James Laxton

moonlight

Why it stuck: A powerful close up after an intense scene in the movie, this shot captures all the emotion that Chiron is feeling and transfers it into the viewer. It’s almost as if he is staring through the screen into the audience.

American Pastoral

dir. Ewan McGregor | Cinematographer: Martin Ruhe

american-pastoral

Why it stuck: Great images play with darkness as much as light. Martin Ruhe expertly lit this shot to match Jennifer Connelly’s despair at her inability to find her missing daughter. There’s also something impactful about framing this moment in a wide shot that encapsulates her helplessness.

La La Land

dir. Damien Chazelle | Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren

la-la-land

Why it stuck: One of many beautiful shots from the movie, this “blue hour” shot of Ryan Gosling wistfully crooning about the city of dreams is dreamy and striking. With this shot in particular, the faint lens flare across his eyes is next level work.

The Lobster

dir. Yorgos Lanthimos | Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis

the-lobster

Why it stuck: The mood is immediately set with the framing of Colin Farrell and his “brother” in front of a single window in the middle of his drab hotel room. Another example of complementing darkness with light.

Loving

dir. Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer: Adam Stone

loving

Why it stuck: This single frame of the Lovings standing isolated and resolute amongst the rural Virginia landscape where Richard has promised to build a house for Mildred is a microcosm of the entire movie. The image is silent yet moving, much like our protagonists.

Favorite Scores:

The Neon Demon – dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez

“The Demon Dance” – Julian Winding

What made it memorable: The club scene where this song kicks in was also a contender for my “favorite moments” but the score is too delicious to pass up mentioning. Although this specific song was created by Refn’s nephew Julian, Mr. Martinez has once again delivered a delightfully twisted and hypnotic score.

Midnight Special – dir. Jeff Nichols

Soundtrack – David Wingo

“Midnight Special Theme”

What made it memorable: David Wingo has been doing solid work on Nichols’s films for years and I think he finally reaches full gallop on Midnight Special. Inspired by familiar synth tracks of the 80s, Wingo’s hooks are simple yet intriguing – much like the film itself.

Swiss Army Man – dir. Daniels

Soundtrack – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell

“Don’t Overthink Things”

What made it memorable: No film score this year better captures the feel of a movie better than the one Hull and McDowell have created for Swiss Army Man. Partly because most of the songs are comprised of a cappella singing from the two lead actors but mostly because it’s so damn quirky. I can easily remember specific scenes according to which song was playing at the time and that is a high compliment to the composers.

Arrival – dir. Denis Villeneuve

Soundtrack – Jóhann Jóhannsson

“Heptapod B”

What made it memorable: Much like their work on last year’s Sicario, Villeneuve and Jóhannsson appear to speak the same cinematic language. Sure enough, their follow up feature centers around language and the very nature of communication. Jóhannsson’s work here is textured and layered, slowly building up from gentle hums to epic sweeping movements. Here’s to hoping they never stop working together.

Jackie – dir. Pablo Larraín

Soundtrack – Mica Levi

“Vanity”

What made it memorable: Easily the most surprising score of the year, you wouldn’t expect a biopic about the former First Lady to feature such a rich and delicate soundtrack. But that’s exactly what relative newcomer Mica Levi has produced. From the opening moments of the film, her strings signal that this isn’t just another routine historical picture, and that you’re in store for something special.

La La Land – dir. Damien Chazelle

Soundtrack – Justin Hurwitz

“City of Stars”

What made it memorable: As fantastic as Whiplash was, it’s evident from the opening musical number that La La Land was Damien Chazelle’s passion project. He along with his college roommate Justin Hurwitz have created what I think is the crowd-pleaser film of the year. And this coming from someone who isn’t too fond of musicals as a whole. What makes this soundtrack so great is that all the songs are integral to the plot, and don’t just serve as a song-and-dance showcase for the actors. In fact, most of the pivotal moments in the story come in the form of a musical number. Bravo.

Favorite Under-seen Performances:

Ethan Hawke | as “Chet Baker” in Born to Be Blue

born-to-be-blue
dir. Robert Budreau

Why it stood out: Ethan Hawke is an actor of incredible range and sensitivity. He puts that on full display in this jazz biopic of legendary musician Chet Baker in the midst of his struggles with a mouth injury and subsequent drug addiction. The film is serviceable on its own merits but is entirely elevated thanks to Hawke’s dedication to the role.

Alden Ehrenreich | as “Hobie Doyle” in Hail, Caesar!

hail-caesar
dir. The Coen Brothers

Why it stood out: It’s difficult to stand out in a movie with a cast that includes Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum. But somehow Alden Ehrenreich manages to steal the show in Hail, Caesar! His portrayal of “Hobie Doyle,” a country cowboy turned Hollywood actor, is hilarious and impressive. A new face to many, he won’t be unrecognizable for long considering he was recently cast as Hans Solo for the upcoming Solo spin-off film.

David Oyelowo | as “Robert Katende” in Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe
dir. Mira Nair

Why it stood out: Portraying historical figures (dead or alive) is never an easy task, but David Oyelowo avoids melodrama and transcends cliché with almost every role he takes. He proved it as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Selma and he does it again in Queen of Katwe as chess coach Robert Katende. The real life Katende actually served as a consultant for the film’s chess scenes so you can imagine the pressure the actor felt portraying the man standing on-set with him. Thankfully, Oyelowo’s presence in the film is as comforting to the audience as it is to his prodigy Phiona. I can never get enough of him.

Hailee Steinfeld | as “Nadine Franklin” in The Edge of Seventeen

edge-of-seventeen
dir. Kelly Fremon Craig

Why it stood out: Bursting into the acting world with a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2010’s True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld is as prodigious as young actresses come. Having acted in a handful of projects since her precocious start (establishing herself as a bonafide pop star and model along the way), Steinfeld shines brighter than ever in The Edge of Seventeen. Her performance is truly something to marvel given that she is asked to register simultaneously as funny, angry, witty, awkward, and dramatic. Her star burns bright.

Miles Teller & Aaron Eckhart | as “Vinny Paz” and “Kevin Rooney” in Bleed for This

bleed-for-this
dir. Ben Younger

Why it stood out: Speaking of rising stars, Miles Teller is ascending faster than anyone at the moment. His profile is growing larger with each role and he admirably answers the call to play Vinny Pazienza, a boxing champion who suffers a near fatal car accident and must fight the hardest fight of his life to return to the ring. Eckhart undergoes a Christian Bale-like transformation into his trainer Kevin Rooney, completely losing himself in the role without leaving behind a trace of vanity. While the supporting cast is aces, this film is ultimately a one-two punch centering around the relationship between boxer and coach.

Favorite Moments:

Zootopia – dir. Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Judy Hopps’s entrance into Zootopia

Why it’s noteworthy: The train ride into the city of Zootopia is beautifully rendered and Shakira’s insanely catchy “Try Everything” matches the optimism that consumes Judy’s character.

Midnight Special – dir. Jeff Nichols

The first five minutes

Why it’s noteworthy: Thrusting us into the narrative in medias res, the opening title sequence of Midnight Special is a real treat. Nichols is on record saying that the image of two guys speeding down the highway at night with their lights off was the original inspiration behind this film. Sometimes the simplest images can lead to stunning results.

Star Trek Beyond – dir. Justin Lin

Beastie Boys Battle

Why it’s noteworthy: Few joys can match a well synced action and music set piece. The climactic battle sequence from Star Trek Beyond featuring the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is a good example. Quentin Tarantino once said that taking songs and arranging them in a certain sequence to play alongside images is “about as cinematic a thing as you can do.” I agree with him.

Sully – dir. Clint Eastwood

Landing in the Hudson

Why it’s noteworthy: “The Miracle on the Hudson” was nothing short of just that, a miracle. Tom Hanks plays the calm and quick thinking Captain Sully who landed the plane in the Hudson River after a bird strike and managed to save every life aboard his aircraft on that fateful January morning in 2009. Eastwood has the patience to let the whole thing play out as we experience the terror from inside the cockpit.

Hell or High Water – dir. David Mackenzie

Waitress takes the order

Why it’s noteworthy: Two Texas Rangers on the hunt for a pair of brotherly bank robbers stop by a diner for a meal. They’re prepared for many possibilities but what they aren’t prepared for is the commanding waitress who takes their order. It’s a brilliant scene, not just for its humor, but because we get a taste of the slice-of-life Texas that gives screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s script that elusive lived-in feeling.

The Nice Guys – dir. Shane Black

The Bathroom Scene

Why it’s noteworthy: One of the best on-screen duos of the year, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are The Nice Guys. This scene is a great example of how well they play off each other. Gosling also takes his physical comedy to place we’ve never seen him before and honestly, he seems to have a knack for such slapstick behavior.

Green Room – dir. Jeremy Saulnier

The First Attack

Why it’s noteworthy: When punk-rock band “The Ain’t Rights” are trapped backstage in a Neo-Nazi owned club, they find themselves in a tricky position. In possession of a hostage and his gun, they decide to hand over the gun to their captors outside in exchange for safe passage. Little do they know it’s all a set-up. This scene is violent, tense, and exceedingly horrifying. The faint of heart need not watch.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – dir. Taika Waititi

I’m like the Terminator

Why it’s noteworthy: Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road/chase film unlike any other this year. Ricky, a troublesome but good-natured orphan, goes on the run with his reluctant Uncle Hec and the two slowly form a bond that tests the boundaries of New Zealand law enforcement. When the disturbingly relentless child services worker Paula finally catches up to her prey, she taunts him with references befitting of a child.

Favorite theater experiences:

The Witch – dir. Robert Eggers

Location: Frank Theaters South Cove – Bayonne, NJ

the-witch

What made it great: It was a late showing and the theater was largely empty which helped my immersion into this historical-horror period story. The silence around me actually increased the tension in the story.

Sausage Party – dir. Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan

Location: Kerasotes Showplace 14 – Secaucus, NJ

sausage-party

What made it great: Watching the finale with a room full of strangers was revelatory. Nobody is quite sure what they just witnessed but it’s fun trying to process it together.

Miss Sloane – dir. John Madden

Location: Regal Union Square – New York, NY

DF-01971.CR2

What made it great: Completely forgot I was watching a movie, that’s how much I was into Miss Sloane. I was fully engrossed; good narrative can do that.

Read my review here.

Manchester By the Sea – dir. Kenneth Lonergan

Location: Angelika Film Center – New York, NY

manchester-by-the-sea

What made it great: Packed house with everyone equally respectful of the solemn tone this film presents. Silence, laughter, and eventually tears all occurred in unison.

American Honey – dir. Andrea Arnold

Location: Landmark Sunshine Cinema – New York, NY

american-honey

What made it great: At 2 hours and 43 minutes, American Honey might sound like a chore to get through but it was anything but. The film moves so breezily that by the end I didn’t mind spending a couple more hours with these characters.

———————————————————————————————————————

Those were a few of my favorite things from the past year. As mentioned at the start, I will reveal my Top Ten films of the year later this month. In the meantime, let me know what you’re thoughts are on this wrap-up. Was there any overlap with what you enjoyed? How about what I missed? Let me know in the comments.

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Nader Salem

"Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." -Jean-Luc Godard

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