Sunday, January 15, 2017

2016 At The Movies

A little late, but none the worse for wear, here are a selection of the films that made an impression on me in 2016.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

For a film that was considered a flop, it was one of the most lucrative flops ever made. 330 million stateside, 873 million worldwide. It was tough to love for some, but I ate up every Wagnerian second with a large spoon. I worried when it was announced that Ben Affleck would step into Batman’s cowl, but his performance was very good. It is obvious that Wonder Woman was the real star of this film though. Her introduction was electrifying. A mostly female cheer went up in the theater audience I was in. Some iconic moments from past comic stories were included in the film, and it was the fulfillment of a fond wish to see them visualized on the screen. Not a perfect film, but much better than I expected. Save your hate for something that really deserves it.

Where To Invade Next

America’s true populist, Michael Moore, travels to Europe in this film to attempt to take some ideas back from there to make the US a better country. Workers’ rights in Italy, school meals in France, prison conditions in Norway. It’s eye-opening, and it emphasizes just how much better we could have it if we really wanted it. Instead, we elect a fake populist, a 1 percenter actually, who bows to Russian interference and hands the government over to the real enemy, corporate interests. Ironically, Moore predicted Trump’s win. Moore, however, is not one to give up the fight.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me

A Native film that takes place on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, amid abject poverty and historical oppression. A brother and sister struggle to deal with the death of their father. The brother wants to leave for LA, but the film shows us what is there to keep him in such a place, rather than the supposed empty promise he’d be leaving behind. Quiet performances full of grace, and the resilience of a proud people who keep fighting for a better existence.

Paths of the Soul

The best film I saw this year. It’s the story of a group of Tibetan villagers who decide to undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital. They do this in a traditional Buddhist way, by prostrating the entire distance as they go, over a few hundred miles. It’s an incredible feat of endurance and cooperation as they face hardships along the route. Men, women, and even children are included in this journey. If you didn’t question the value of a consumerist way of life before this film, you will afterwards. A story full of simple rewards and profound sorrows.

The Infiltrator

The great Bryan Cranston portrays an FBI agent who plays a part in a number of successful undercover operations.
He mulls retirement after a successful sting against a mob group, but is pulled into one last effort by a fellow agent. This one involves the Escobar drug operation as it was getting into high gear. It’s a long, challenging sting, and there are many close calls. His journey is a trip into hell and back, and Cranston plays it with his usual depth and focus.

De Palma

A look at the great director’s career featuring the man himself, who talks at length about his films, from his first success, Carrie, to this most recent effort. His style has always owed a big debt to Hitchcock, which is plainly evident in many of his most famous scenes. Besides the retrospective, there are the additional treats of interesting stories about working in Hollywood during its creative golden age.


Another story of alien visitation, but this time minus the cheap histrionics and gore. The only threat of war comes from humanity, and it’s up to the scientists played by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to find out what the aliens are telling us. They may look like sea creatures, but their technology makes ours look like child’s play. Man’s urge to blow things up it doesn’t understand threatens to rear its ugly head again, but an ingenious and painstaking translation of the alien language gradually shines light on their intentions. This time, the fireworks are mainly intellectual, which is refreshing.

Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck gives a restrained, smoldering performance as a young man who’s lost so
much that is important to him, and struggles to make sense of it all. After losing his older brother, he is named to be his nephew’s guardian, but feels incapable taking on the responsibility. The film is a rough passage, and contains many scenes that will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who’s lived at least a decent chunk of their life. By the end, he is forced to confront his limitations, and acknowledge that not all things can turn out as we would wish. For some, the effort required is too much.

The Birth of a Nation

Director Nate Parker’s film about the slavery revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831. Parker’s performance as Turner is powerful, and you can feel the hope rise in the slaves of the plantations where he is enlisted to preach. The depredations and outright torture of the slave population will make you squirm in your seat, and once again wonder how a nation founded on such high-minded ideals could’ve let such a barbaric institution exist for so long. The hatred of the white mob at the end is the very picture of willful ignorance. It’s good to be proud of your country, but Parker’s film reminds us it’s also necessary to acknowledge and atone for its often ugly, oppressive past.

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