Top 10: 2016

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1. Manchester By the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a masterful character piece that explores the frailties and intricacies of grief and familial tragedy. Writer and director Kenneth Lonnergan expertly weaves his narrative’s past and present through haunting extended flashbacks that manage to convey the minute preciousness of human life. Casey Afleck gives one of the finest male performances of all time, carrying his character’s engulfing pain in every glance, his hunched shoulders, and quiet repose. Michelle Williams matches his caliber (though, no surprise there as she always delivers a fine performance) in an anticipatory and devastating final scene. Manchester by the Sea does not completely wallow in gloom, as there are many humorous moments and traces of the family comedy genre. This is a testament to the film’s power, as Lonnergan and the actors manage to convey life’s ever-flowing and perpetual amalgam of pain and pleasure within seemingly infinitesimal gestures, glances, and moments.

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2. Hacksaw Ridge

“War is hell” they say, and perhaps no other film since Saving Private Ryan expresses this sentiment best as Hacksaw Ridge. The horrific carnage of the gritty and graphic battle sequences convey the psychological devastation of war and provide extraordinary stakes for its lead character, Desmond Doss. Doss is an outcast in his squad for his strong Christian beliefs and refusal to carry a gun in battle. Yet, he miraculously manages to save hundreds of his fellow soldiers. Andrew Garfield gives a powerful performance as Doss, providing the film’s central heart and intensity and a character the audience can truly root for. Doss proves the immense power of committing your convictions. Hacksaw Ridge is a gripping and inspiring story of passion, dedication, and a death-defying heroism like you’ve never seen.  Even if you are not particularly religious, it is hard not to be moved by this incredible story and Gibson’s sweeping vision.

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3. Christine

Christine perhaps the only film to so accurately express the traumas of depression. The minutiae of mental illness is found in director Antonio Campos’ uncomfortable close-ups and lingering shots. Rebecca Hall gives one of the finest female performances I’ve ever seen as Christine Chubbuck, a young news reporter who killed herself on a live broadcast in the 1970s. Hall expertly dives into the bleak waters of her character’s emotional turmoil. Her lack of nominations and awards buzz is absolutely astounding. Christine gets under the skin of its lead character, delving into her private life in ways that may be too close for comfort. Campos eradicates the potentialities of sick voyeurism in his refusal to sensationalize her death. It is simply a devastating outcome of a terrible mental illness and unhappy life. Christine is a raw and powerful viewing experience that will haunt you.

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4. La La Land

La La Land has received an overwhelming amount of praise and Oscar buzz, and I believe rightfully so. It is Damien Chazelle’s innovative and spirited vision that accounts for the film’s success. The visuals, more so than the thin singing voices of its otherwise charismatic leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, or even the story itself, is what makes La La Land so special. Chazelle’s impeccable eye for rhythm established in Whiplash flourishes in the musical medium. What is so intriguing about the film is that it functions as both a homage and reversion of the Old Hollywood musical. The spirits of Singin’ in the Rain or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are readily felt, yet Chazelle foregrounds his story with a modern sensibility. The heart of La La Land’s magic spell is its ability to blend fantasy with reality and 1950s cinematic traditions with contemporary ideals. It stands as a melancholic ode to artists, the “fools who dream,” and is an overall majestic cinematic experience.

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5. The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ Brechtian comedy is a strange, surrealist portrait of a dystopian world perhaps not so far from our own. The film’s eccentric sensibilities work to reveal the oddities of modern courtship, our societal rules for the perusal and cultivation of an “adult relationship.” The Lobster suggests that it is not the film itself, but rather our need to build a society terrified of singledom and predicated on the acquirement of a soulmate that is truly absurd. The Lobster manages to expose the ego-centrism, shallowness, and narcissism of online dating, where we hinge equating traits and interests on the entirety of our future with another human. Colin Farrell and Rachel Wesiz lead the film with strong performances that match the film’s offbeat tenor.

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6. Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is a bizarre and charming family dramedy sure to elicit plenty of smiles and belly-laughs, one that plays on the inherent embarrassment all children feel of their parents. It tells the story of a practical jokester father who feels he is growing apart from his corporate professional daughter. He disguises himself as her CEO’s “life coach,” a bold, quirky weirdo who is unafraid of any situation, to be a part of her life again, break her out of her shell, and rekindle their former closeness. The film features one of the most memorable scenes of the year, the daughter singing Whitney Houston’s hit “The Greatest Love of All.” Despite its daunting length, it never feels slow. Toni Erdmann is one of the most unique films of the year, one that builds to a side-splitting and poignant climax.

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7. Jackie

Director Pablo Larrain departs from the patterns of a typical biopic to present a subjective experience of Jacqueline Kennedy’s fight to maintain composure and sanity in the aftermath of her prolific husband’s untimely and horrific death. We infiltrate the privacy of the alpine White House walls to view the First Lady’s struggle to uphold her trademark dignity and poise despite the threat of collapse. Jackie is more of a psychological portrait and performance showpiece than a strong film in and of itself. This is anchored by Natalie Portman’s enthralling performance. Portman manages to side-step any clichéd traps that befall an actor playing this iconic American figure. Most importantly, Jackie meditates on the ideas of constructing legacy, and how at many times a woman’s contribution can be overshadowed by their male counterpart.

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8. Indignation

Indignation manages to capture the quiet poeticism of Phillip Roth’s writing, no easy task. Helmed by a talented writer-director James Schamus, Indignation explores a teenager’s sexual awakening and challenge of authority within the stifling conventionalism of 1950s America. Indignation is the kind of film that allows its actors to breathe and Logan Lerman leads the charge with a compelling and curious grace. His drawn-out and agonizing diatribe with the Dean, played by Tracy Letts, is one of the most memorable scenes of the year. Schamus’ strict period details convey the characters’ oppressive world, but the narrative’s subtext of death and darkness, especially with war on the horizon, subverts the presentational beauty of the 1950s. Indignation leaves you with the terrifying and arresting idea that every small decision you make could potentially lead to the utmost doom.

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9. Lion

Lion is one of the most undeniably uplifting films of this year. A sweeping and grand journey across oceans and continents, Lion is based on the incredible true story of a young Indian boy seperated from his family after falling asleep on a train. After several frightening encounters navigating the slums of India, Saroo is adopted by a wealthy white Australian couple. Dev Patel plays Saroo as a conflicted adult torn between his love for his adopted family and yearning to return to his origins. Saroo cannot correctly remember the name of the village he comes from, so he must resort to using Google Earth to find his hometown. This is an arduous and near-impossible task, much like finding a needle in a haystack. Lion’s ending has an emotional punch that will wring a fountainous flow of tears out of you. Lion is about the power of family, both those bound to you by blood and the family you can create with others. Lion is truly one of the must-see films of 2016, and a film that will be remembered for its earnest and passionate spirit.

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10. Green Room 

Once Green Room grabs you, it never lets go. A punk band travels to a last minute booking for a group of Neo-Nazis in a decrepit backwoods hideaway. After witnessing a murder backstage, they bargain with the club’s sadistic owner to escape the sordid confines of the green room alive. This dirty, chaotic environment only exacerbates the film’s grisly terror. Since no character seems to be safe from the Neo-Nazi’s barbaric awfulness, the film maintains nail-biting tension and keeps you guessing throughout the entirety of their great escape. Gorehounds will relish in the film’s brutal violent surprises. Green Room is one of the finest horror thrill-rides in recent years.

Honorable Mentions: MoonlightNocturnal Animals, Loving, The Witch, Hell or High Water 

 

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Born on the Fourth of July: A Dangerous Mother

Born on the Fourth of July is an adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography. Kovic begins as a patriotic high school wrestling superstar who enthusiastically enlists in the Marines. During his second tour in Vietnam, he accidentally kills a solider and later becomes permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The poor conditions of the Veterans Administration hospital and his recognition of the war’s futility lead him to become a prolific anti-war movement leader. The film’s roots in Ron Kovic’s memoirs leave little room for the subjectivity of other characters. Ron serves as the film’s orbit, and the women revolve around him as clichés.

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In line with Ron’s harsh Catholic upbringing, Born on the Fourth of July egregiously mobilizes moral oppositions. In other words, it starkly draws the lines between good and evil. This moral schema extends to the key female character in the film—Ron’s mother, Mrs. Kovic. We have little sense of her motivations outside of her patriarchal and jingoistic values. Mrs. Kovic’s obsession with fighting Communism (“It’s God’s will you go!”) and strict enforcement of oppressive puritanical Catholicism lead to her son’s psychological trauma, thus positioning her as a villain.

The narrative does not construct her as an ideological victim, or in other words, a character confined by the constrictions of 1950s gender roles. Rather, she embraces the values of and her position within the 1950s American nuclear family  Ron’s mother is the one to victimize her son with certain toxic ideologies that motivate his suffering, such as individualism, male dominance, and xenophobia. Overall, the narrative excludes women by limiting their voice to clichés.

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Ron’s disabled body and disillusioned spirit destroy Mrs. Kovic’s pre-Vietnam innocent and romanticized vision of him. It is in her rejection and discounting of Ron, I argue, that causes him to seek maternal comfort, approval, and a sense of love from other female figures in the narrative. Director Oliver Stone presents a highly saccharine portrait of Mrs. Kovic’s refuge (pre-Vietnam society) as the ultimate space of innocence He envisions 1950s America as an idyllic land of parades, home runs at baseball games, parental adoration, Kennedy’s rhetoric, and young, innocent love.

To match this sentimental vision, Ron’s mother first appears as an angel, shrouded in the heavenly glow of the film’s white tint. This moment contrasts with her final scene with Ron. When Ron returns home inebriated, soothing his rejection from his former prom date, we view Mrs. Kovic from his POV: a slight, high-angle shot in low-key lighting that renders her as an oppressive and frightening figure.

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Ron’s tirade against the values Mrs. Kovic had instilled in him—pride in his country and belief in God—defines the scene. It becomes clear that he has developed a psychological complex about sexuality that will last throughout the remainder of the film. Ron feels Catholic guilt for wanting sexual satisfaction coupled with a frustration that he no longer has the ability to soothe these desires due to his disabled state. He fears remaining infantilized, as he had not lost his virginity before becoming paralyzed. Ron pulls out his catheter as he mourns his “dead penis” lost in the jungles of Vietnam. He cries, “The church, they say it’s a sin if you play with your penis but I sure wish I could.”

Ron’s mother screams and covers her ears because she cannot bear to hear these impure thoughts. In the culmination of their heated fight, Ron accuses his mother of forcing him to go to Vietnam, a corrupted war that made him kill women and children. After he denounces God and country, Mrs. Kovic declares Ron blasphemous and bans him from the house. Although Mrs. Kovic appears only in a few scenes, it is clear the psychological damage she inflicts her son is great.