Director: Denis Villeneuve
Full disclosure—I’m not the biggest fan of science fiction. But this is the kind of science fiction I can get behind, using the genre to explore larger issues in ways that are impossible outside those bounds. This is science fiction along the lines of Contact, of Interstellar, of Inception, and at its best, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arrival doesn’t scale the philosophical and spiritual heights of that last film, of course, but it’s to his credit that director Denis Villeneuve even tries to get into that range. The plot revolves around a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) trying to help decode the language of aliens who have landed a dozen massive ships in various parts of the Earth. But that plot is interwoven with a mysterious connection to a daughter she lost, and other unexplained phenomena. Part of the fun is seeing the mysteries unravel, so I won’t go any further. But Arrival is certainly worth the experience if you like your sci-fi heady and pensive. And—need it even be said?—Adams is fantastic in the lead role. —Michael Dunaway
24. Cemetery of Splendor
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Deep into the enchanting Cemetery of Splendor, an assortment of fit-looking bodies get up, sit down, join one another, walk away, split apart, ride bikes and trade seats, all without reason but obviously with rhyme, as if, as a viewer, you’ve stumbled upon a reel of background footage with the film’s main action cut out. Soon after, a sparkling shot of blue sky is calmly violated by a giant amoeba—or not, because maybe the amoeba is normal size, because the perspective isn’t clarified. And soon after that, a woman (Jenjira Pongpas) rises from an unperturbed nap, unsure if she’s found her way out of the labyrinth of her dreams, or if she’s only woken into another level of subconscious surreality. Meanwhile, a hospital of soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, who rest indefinitely under glass tubes used as part of an ill-defined light therapy, rests indefinitely upon a sacred burial ground. At least that’s what the modern manifestation of god-like princesses, come to life resembling the statues at the woman’s favorite shrine, tell her. Such is the stuff of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s typical filmmaking fodder, the Thai director not so much doing something radically different with Cemetery of Splendor as just laying one more layer of fantasy upon his oeuvre, waiting with clairvoyant patience to see if his characters, and by extension his viewers, will ever wake up—or if they even want to. —D.S.
Director: Antonio Campos
Why did TV journalist Christine Chubbuck take her life on camera in 1974? The brilliance of this Antonio Campos drama is that it tries to answer that question while still respecting the enormity and unknowability of such a violent, tragic act. Rebecca Hall is momentous as Christine, a deeply unhappy woman whose ambition has never matched her talent, and the actress is incredibly sympathetic in the part. As we move closer to Christine’s inevitable demise, we come to understand that Christine isn’t a morbid whodunit but, rather, a compassionate look at gender inequality and loneliness. —T.G.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Beginning with a rape scene, Elle is the latest nasty bit of business from director Paul Verhoeven. It’s also one of his greatest films, exploring how the assaulted woman (Isabelle Huppert) decides to turn the tables on her attacker. Darkly funny but also very astute about our predatory, sensation-driven culture, this thriller upends societal hypocrisies—in particular, how we all like to pretend we’re nice, normal people with no kinks at all—and gives Huppert one of her best roles in the process. As the head of a videogame company that happily peddles gory, shoot-’em-up games, she’s a lethal, amoral businesswoman whose personal tragedy doesn’t cause her to even bat an eye. —T.G.
21. Swiss Army Man
Directors: The Daniels
It should be ridiculous, this. A buddy comedy built atop the premise of a man lugging around, and bonding with, a flatulent, talking corpse—but cinema is a medium in which miracles are possible, and many occus in Swiss Army Man. A film with such a seemingly unpalatable concept becomes, against all odds, a near-profound existential meditation. That this is a debut feature makes it even more of a marvel.
Even if Swiss Army Man’s reach to some extent exceeds its proudly ribald grasp, there’s something strangely moving about the filmmakers’ sincerity. For all the increasingly absurd gags about the utilities of Manny’s body—not just as a jet-ski propelled by bodily gas, but as a giver of fresh water through projectile vomiting and even as a compass through its erection—there’s not one iota of distancing irony to be found in the film. Dan Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (a.k.a. the Daniels) are absolutely serious in their attempts to not only re-examine some of the most universal of human experiences, but to also explore the idea of a life lived without limits, casting off the shackles of societal constraints and realizing one’s best self. It’s a freedom that the Daniels project exuberantly into the film itself: Swiss Army Man is a work that feels positively lawless. Witness with amazement what bizarrely heartfelt splendors its creators will come up with next. —K.F.
Director: Pablo Larraín
It’s difficult to remember where Jackie begins, and where it ends. Even minutes after leaving it, the moments that open the film and the moments that close it exist as diffuse notions rather than solid, plot-shrouded happenings. We understand that, barely a week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a conversation between Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and Life journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup, smugly zombified) frames the film, tacks it to some semblance of spacetime—but the rest of Pablo Larraín’s biopic operates liminally. This, most of all, the Chilean director understands: If the film is about grief, then the film must act as grief acts. Unmoored and aimless, Jackie acts like a bad dream.
Of course, the black hole at the core of Jackie is the assassination, rendered in one graphic image Larraín treats fairly. Throughout, the film hovers around the rim of this moment, and for much of Jackie’s running time, that moment seems like it will never come. When it does, though, it’s a relief we never realized we needed. Portman as Jackie pushes against the film’s reveal of that tragic split-second, and the film pushes too, and at times you want the film to stop pushing so much. This is grief, Larraín beautifully says—it is exhausting and relentless and dull, and, most of all, selfish. Sorry the movie is that way too. —D.S.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
You’ve seen the plot of Krisha before: self-destructive woman with a drinking problem goes to a family gathering supposedly having made strides in putting her life back together, but finds the tensions that arise testing her resolve to not go back to the bottle. Jonathan Demme explored similar territory in his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’ debut film does have a similar looseness to it, a feeling that anything can happen at any time. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Whereas Demme’s film was warmly observational, Shults’ film aims for an expressionism that imaginatively uses formal elements to invite us into the titular main character’s fractured psyche. Krisha could be seen as cinematic family therapy: Shults’ way of dealing with what was apparently a troubled home life. But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the passion he brought to this project. One can sense it in the film’s long takes and still setups, in the alternation between montages of unnerving chaos and lengthy scenes of shattering solitude. Krisha does more than announce a potentially major new talent; it shakes new, and tragically devastating, energy into the dysfunctional family drama. —K.F.
18. Toni Erdmann
Director: Maren Ade
And now, a high concept comedy from the country that invented comedy, Germany, in which a career woman’s ambition is pitted against her free-spirited dad’s waggishness. Maren Ade’s third feature film is light on its feet and sick in its heart, a discontent story about the danger capitalism poses to the human soul in our increasingly globalized corporate landscape. Its indelible dryness belies both the anger that seethes beneath its cool exterior as well as its cheeky, off kilter humor, defined in large part through awkward silences and bizarre but childishly endearing pranks. You may walk away from Toni Erdmann wishing you had a father who cared as much about your well being as Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) cares about his daughter Ines’s (Sandra Hüller). Alternately, you may be grateful that your sire doesn’t make a habit of dressing up in big, inexplicable monster costumes that suggest the lovechild of E.T. and Chewbacca. In either case, Toni Erdmann is a marvelous effort from Ade, a 162-minute film that feels half as long and which makes classic parent-child reconciliation tropes feel new again. It won’t necessarily leave you with the warm and fuzzies, but that’s okay: Happiness is, after all, a very strong word. —A.C.
17. The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook
There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. —A.C.
16. Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
The title of Whit Stillman’s latest comedy may be Love & Friendship, but while both are certainly present in the film, other, more negative qualities also abound: deception, manipulation, even outright hatred. Underneath its elegant period-picture surface—most obviously evident in Benjamin Esdraffo’s Baroque-style orchestral score and Louise Matthew’s ornate art direction—lies a darker vision of humanity that gives the film more of an ironic kick than one might have anticipated from the outset. Stillman’s film is based on Lady Susan, a posthumously published early novella by Jane Austen that, through a series of letters, chronicles the efforts of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (played in the film by Kate Beckinsale) to get herself back into the comfort of the upper class by finding husbands for her and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). While the more panoramic Last Days of Disco offered many different points-of-view to offset Charlotte’s scheming perspective, Love & Friendship puts us more squarely in the headspace of this one cunning character who sees people as little more than pawns in a chess game. It’s an uncompromising approach that is as necessarily discomfiting as it is gleefully droll. Such honesty has always been a hallmark of Stillman’s cinema, and even if Love & Friendship feels like more of a confection than his other films, that frankness, thankfully, still remains. —K.F.
15. Knight of Cups
Regardless of how successfully the film explores the once-elusive director’s recently obsessive, less universal themes like the banality of excess, Knight of Cups delivers on all things Terrence Malick. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s shot Malick’s last four projects and in February picked up his third Oscar, opulently embosses the sterile vacuum of high-living in L.A. One of the film’s most gratifying sequences has a dog underwater in a pool trying to retrieve an eerily elusive tennis ball—you half expect “Scarborough Fair” to queue up on the soundtrack.
But what ultimately elevates Knight of Cups above Malick’s last film, To the Wonder, are the performances. Wonder was left too much in the hands of Ben Affleck, an actor not known for physical emoting. The ability to convey much while saying little is a rather crucial trait for any actor serving as the protagonist in a Malick film, as they remain largely silent in the present action while other players provide voiceovers explaining in teasing, arcane wisps the backstory and dilemma du jour. Bale, so quirky and masterful in films like The Fighter and The Big Short, has much greater carrying capacity (for lack of a better phrase) than Affleck, and he’s blessed with a talented supporting ensemble. (The cast list has everyone from Fabio to Antonio Banderas in it.) His Rick is far less appealing than Affleck’s homeboy, but Knight of Cups in turn carries infinitely greater wonderment. —Tom Meek
14. Everybody Wants Some!!
Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to play like a spiritual companion piece to Linklater’s ’70s-era Dazed and Confused, with the writer/director reveling in his turn-of-the-decade’s style and swagger. Big lapels, bigger hair, even bigger facial hair and outright enormous egos are the norm throughout this nostalgic saga. Boasting little in the way of plot, Linklater’s film is content to sidle up alongside Jake (Blake Jenner) and his new friends to see where their appetites, whims and libidos will lead. And its laid-back vibe pays dividends as it progresses, given that one-note characters who initially appeared to be smug louts, hyper-gonzo wild cards, dim-bulb doofuses or inane hillbillies slowly develop semi-distinct personalities of their own. Their days devoted to slacking off, their nights spent trimming mustaches and dousing themselves in cologne before hitting the town in search of the next woman to bed, Linklater’s play-hard-and-party-harder characters are the embodiment of cocksure macho vitality, all of them rightly convinced that, at least for the moment, they have the world by the balls. —Nick Schager
13. O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
This installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is its most obviously ambitious, transcending superficial descriptions such as “entertaining” to get at something deeper, richer, truer—O.J.: Made in America clocks in at seven-and-three-quarter hours, though it breezes by—but if you’re conversant with the structure of earlier 30 for 30s, it’s also pleasingly familiar. The film encapsulates 30 for 30 at its best: It’s endlessly riveting, smartly packaged and exceedingly intelligent. And most important of all, the nearly eight-hour O.J. makes a pretty convincing case to non-sports fans why the rest of us invest so much emotional energy into the exploits of men playing children’s games. Sports are never just sports—they’re an extension of the race and class issues we experience on a daily basis. O.J. Simpson symbolized something powerful in our collective unconscious. And as this movie demonstrates, his fall from grace was partly ours. —T.G.
12. Voyage of Time
For a dose of some real perspective on the incomprehensibility of the past couple months, Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (the long version narrated by Cate Blanchette is better than the Brad Pitt-voiced 60-minute cut) will reduce your ego to a sniveling speck. Birthed from the 20-minute sequence splitting The Tree of Life in two, Malick partners phantasmagoric CGI with digital footage of addicts scuffling amidst urban detritus and the Arab Spring in medias res. It’s an overblown film, as big as its ideas, as audacious as it is beautiful, saved by the clarity with which Malick puts no pressure on his audience to garner any sort of agenda from the depths of the filmmaker’s philosophical mind. As the literal “Story of Our Universe,” Voyage of Time is as pregnant or as bereft of salient ideas as you want it to be: Life is symmetry; everything that rises must converge; consciousness destroyed the innocence of our baser animal instincts; drugs are bad; whatever. If, in the wake of an election which revealed the worst in American politics, writing about American film felt at its most futile, then we need the cold shower of one of our greatest living American filmmakers to confirm that futility. “See,” Malick says in each mythical narrative phrase and magnificent, cosmic visual, “You really don’t matter.” —D.S.
The title of Martin Scorsese’s latest is loaded, at once a reference to God’s tendency not to reply to the pleas and appeals of followers, a nod to the culture of secrecy maintained by Japanese Christians during Japan’s Edo period and an acknowledgment of the state you’ll be left in after watching. Silence isn’t an easy moviegoing experience—it isn’t an easy conversation point, either, but that’s because it shouldn’t be. Scorsese knows it. Most likely Shusaku Endo, the author of the text from which Scorsese adapted his film (and had sought to adapt since the 1990s), knew it too. Who is innocent in Silence? Who is guilty? If we can rule out Japanese villagers put to death for their beliefs, and we certainly can, then that leaves culpability at the feet of their spiritual and bureaucratic leaders, both at odds with one another while the faithful remain suffering between them as priests and politicos treat them as fodder for proving the illegitimacy of their opponents’ belief structures. The film’s complexity is expected from Scorsese, one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time, but it’s also a reinvention in style, a picture that both feels totally unlike anything he’s shot before and cannot be mistaken as anyone’s but his. —A.C.
10. The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
The Lobster opens with David (Colin Farrell) as he’s discovering his longtime lover is dumping him. That would be painful enough, but in the world of this film, which is set in the near future, the fact that he’s single means he has to report to a mysterious hotel out in the woods. Once there, he’s informed that he has 45 days to find a new mate within the hotel’s crop of fellow single people. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into an animal by the hotel staff, banished to live the rest of his days away from humanity.
It’s a funny, scary and slightly gonzo conceit, and one of the best things about it is that Lanthimos and cowriter Efthymis Filippou don’t take it all that seriously. To be sure, The Lobster has plenty of profound ideas, but they’re executed with a cheeky, sardonic lightness. Even when the movie gets dark and suspenseful—and it most certainly does—Lanthimos operates as if The Lobster is a tough-love satire. Dogtooth commented on the hell of family with an exaggerated, worst-case-scenario stylization. For The Lobster, he’s pulled off the same trick in an eviscerating dissection of the rituals around modern romance. —T.G.
9. Certain Women
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Silence speaks volumes in Kelly Reichardt’s films. In works like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she has explored how people spend most of their day thinking, not talking, and that perhaps those quiet moments can be as revealing of character as anything that comes out of their mouths. (And, let’s not forget, even when we speak, we’re rarely saying precisely what we mean.)
Reichardt’s less-is-so-much-more approach is again on display beautifully in Certain Women, a series of three barely interconnected stories in which empty spaces are pregnant with meaning and resonance. As usual with her films, Certain Women is so delicately but smartly constructed that ecstatic reviews may give people the wrong idea about its greatness. Certain Women is wonderful not because it’s some towering, imposing colossus, but because every small moment feels thoughtfully considered, fully lived-in. Certain Women seeps into the skin and expands in the mind. It leaves you shaken—even though nothing seemingly momentous has happened.
Reichardt treats cinema as a kind of meditation, which probably explains why her movies almost never feature traditional endings. Lives are a process, not necessarily a destination, and Reichardt honors her characters’ journey by letting it ebb and flow as it pleases. Like so many of her films, Certain Women is muted and restorative. Suddenly, the real world feels too loud. —T.G.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Like Chantal Akerman’s ascetic classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson concerns itself with routine. The film conditions you to jive with its particular rhythm, in part so you might feel the impact experienced by our hero when the unexpected punctuates what’s regular in this average person’s life. Only, where Jeanne Dielman depicted the day-in-day-out of working-class life as a monotonous horror show, Paterson takes an altogether different tack. To Jarmusch, the everyday existence of blue-collar individuals like bus driver-poet Paterson (Adam Driver)—whom we observe across a single week—is so simple as to be near transcendent.
Paterson’s a classic nice guy, but Driver helps us realize there’s more going on beneath that exterior that’s so cautious to offend. It’s a turn of minor gestures that lacks the obvious Best Actor grandstanding to, say, win an Oscar, but rest assured Driver’s performance is one of the most impressive given this year. As with Jarmusch’s beguiling film on the whole, once acclimated, you continue to feel it long after you’ve left the cinema. —B.M.
7. One More Time With Feeling
Director: Andrew Dominik
If you’re a longtime fan of Nick Cave, if you’re a father or even if you just have some modicum of human empathy, One More Time With Feeling is going to be a very, very hard watch. In 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, under the influence of LSD, fell from a cliff and died—a tragedy that pervades every note on Cave’s new album Skeleton Tree. Understandably reluctant to publicize the album and subject himself to talking about the tragedy over and over, Cave agreed to let his friend and collaborator Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) film a documentary about the making of the record instead. Dominik shot in the unusual combination of 3D and black and white, and as more than one reviewer noted, the effect is ghostly. Which would be appropriate for any film about Cave, but especially this one: It’s a devastating, gorgeous journey into a prolonged (permanent?) existential crisis. —M.D.
Director: Jeff Nichols
How well you like Jeff Nichols’ Loving, his second motion picture on 2016’s release slate, will partially depend on what you look for in courtroom dramas. If you prefer judicial sagas made with potboiling slickness and little else, you’ll probably like Loving less than Nichols likes filming landmark legal proceedings. His film isn’t about the case of Loving v. Virginia as much as its two plaintiffs, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter Loving (Ruth Negga), the married couple at the center of the 1967 civil rights victory over the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws. As an effect of Nichols’ focal point, the movie speaks little to no lawyer jargon and takes place almost entirely outside of the court rather than within.
So if you’re sick to death of courtroom dramas that insist on pantomime, and if you think those kinds of stories demand more restraint, then you’ll probably dig on Loving. It so studiously avoids the clichés of its genre that it feels fresh, original, a completely new idea based on a very old, very formulaic one. It’s a disciplined, handsome, unfailingly serious screen reproduction of an important real-life moment in the nation’s ongoing fight for civil rights; it’s hitting theaters at a time when we’re still having cultural arguments about who gets to marry; and it’s directed by one of the critical darlings of contemporary cinema. This is the kind of anti-prestige movie critics yearn for, a product stripped away of non-artistic pretensions and ambitions, leaving only the art. —A.C.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Loss and grief—and the messy, indirect ways people cope with the emotional fallout—were the dramatic linchpins of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s first two films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. And so it is again with Manchester by the Sea, a movie with a grand scope but an intimate story. An ambitious, practically novelistic exploration of the tragedies that have greeted a blue-collar Massachusetts family, the film touches on themes that won’t be unfamiliar to viewers, but Lonergan’s particular approach makes them unique, although not always completely successfully. Still, Manchester by the Sea is a commanding, absorbing work in which the sum of its impact may be greater than any individual scenes. As opposed to the intimate, short-story quality of You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea bears the same sprawling ambition as Margaret, Lonergan draping the proceedings in a tragic grandeur that sometimes rubs against the film’s inherently hushed modesty.
Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler is quietly magnetic as a man who can’t express himself at a time when he really needs to step up and be the patriarchal figure. Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler are also both quite good, their characters buried deep in the man’s-man culture of the East Coast communities in which the film is set. But especially terrific is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, who has played haunted wives before, in Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island. Here, though, she really pierces the heart: Her character never stopped loving Lee, but her brain told her she had to if she was ever going to move on with her life. In this film, she’s actually one of the lucky ones.
Tragedies drop like bombs in Manchester by the Sea, and the ripple effects spread out in all directions. The movie’s ending isn’t exactly happy, but after all the Chandlers have gone through, just the possibility of acceptance can feel like a hard-earned victory. —T.G.
4. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
La La Land’s exhilarating and nearly unflagging energy strives to inspire in viewers an equally bold appreciation for all the things it celebrates: the thrill of romantic love, of dreams within reach, of what we call “movie magic.” In this, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, an opening scene blooms into an ambitious song-and-dance number set in the midst of a Los Angeles traffic jam. It’s there our protagonists, Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone), will have a terse encounter foreshadowing their destiny as lovers, but not before a flurry of acrobatic dancing and joyful singing erupts around them, as if heralding their own flights of fancy to come. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera guides us through the excitement, weaving and spinning among drivers who’ve left their cars to execute a stunning sequence of choreography which appears to have been performed in a long, unbroken take.
The combination of song and visual is how Chazelle renders the joy of being in love and the way love transforms the geography around those in its sway. Many of Sebastian and Mia’s scenes are awash in pastels, swoony golden light and the deep purples of early evening. The key to the impact and success of the musical sequences is Chazelle’s understanding that the fantastical requires the mundane in tow. If we’re thrilled when we soar, it’s because we are usually grounded, and Chazelle makes sure to show us enough reality—failed auditions and performances, bitterness, blouses stained with coffee—to give La La Land’s musical numbers surreal lift by way of contrast.
Stone and Gosling make all of Chazelle’s balancing worthwhile with realistic performances; their musical segments are all the more transporting as they commit themselves to the old-fashioned allure of Chazelle’s conceit. Gosling conveys an attractive air of cool (and appealing vulnerability) without being self-satisfied. For her part, Stone endows Mia with sensitivity and vitality that drive her to work past her self-doubt, to confront her lover when she sees him taking the safe route in life. —Anthony Salveggi
3. The Other Side
Director: Roberto Minervini
Director Roberto Minervini has crafted a nonfiction narrative in the thick of the Louisiana swamp, drawing on locals to tell a bifurcated story that both exploits liberals’ fears of what the “other” America looks like and constructs a compassionate, clear-eyed account of those who are being left behind economically and culturally.
Minervini’s film contains scenes that feel fly-on-the-wall, while others have clearly been rehearsed and scripted. If he was trying to mock these people, that line between fiction and reality might have been more uncomfortable, but The Other Side is actually a deeply empathetic portrait. It obviously has its share of cultural dog-whistling—the whole movie could be a cinematic illustration of the economically disenfranchised voters Obama was referring to in 2008 on the campaign trail when he said, “…they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”—but The Other Side brings this world to such vibrant life so that we can see these people’s pain, and, perhaps, even understand the rage and violence swirling around them. The Other Side has been made by an outsider who refuses to shy away from other outsiders’ humanity. In an election year dominated by anger and disillusionment, the movie isn’t some freak show but, instead, an incredibly moving, undeniably frightening articulation of why so many in America want to blow the whole thing up and start all over again. —T.G.
2. American Honey
Director: Andrea Arnold
Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is the sort of electric audacity that paves over the movie’s occasional wobbles. With Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has looked closely at poverty, youth and desperation in her native England. With American Honey, she turns her attention to the United States, and what she finds is a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land.
The film stars newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, who is caring for two young children (her boyfriend’s, not hers), somewhere in the South. Dumpster diving, Star radiates the sort of scrappy, raw energy that marks her as someone who’s never had much money and always had to fight for everything she’s gotten. So, it’s fairly obvious why she takes a liking to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who drives by in a van with a group of young kids. Catching her eye, Jake is a fellow charming survivor, explaining that he’s part of a group that travels cross-country selling magazines door-to-door. Star can’t believe such an operation exists in the 21st century, but Jake swears there’s decent money to be made. Impulsively, she abandons her makeshift family—her boyfriend seems like a redneck cretin, anyway—and runs off to join another.
Lane steals the movie, this newbie projecting an almost feral vibrancy which makes her character’s next move consistently unpredictable. One moment, she’s a real sweetheart, but then her anger flares up, almost as if what’s upset her is actually connected to some hidden past trauma. Cultivating her sex appeal, hoping for a place to belong, Star is looking for something indescribable on this odyssey—she won’t know what it is until she sees it. The heartbreaking beauty of American Honey is in its insistence that such a dream is anyone’s right. The United States has often promoted itself as a place for second chances. All Star wants is any chance at all. —T.G.
Director: Barry Jenkins
What’s remarkable about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is that it’s hardly remarkable at all. It’s actually mundane, though its mundanity can be mitigated—or, really, delineated—via qualifiers: buoyant, bitter, graceful, beautiful, harsh, coltish, doleful, vibrant. More to the point: Moonlight is familiar. If you strip away its exterior particulars, you’ll be left with the bones of a coming-of-age story. (And if you’re into fancy European labels, you might call that story a “bildungsroman,” wherein the principal character’s emotional growth is traced over the course of formative years, even decades.) Every film has a skeleton to support its musculature. Moonlight’s just happens to look like Boyhood’s and The 400 Blows’.
Moonlight is painted with brushstrokes of silence: of Jenkins’ unobtrusive direction, of Chiron’s mute trepidation, of his friends and caregivers, who speak to him in the knowledge that he’ll say little and less to them in return (if he says anything at all). But rather than make Moonlight inaccessible, silence opens it up. In film, silence is neither mortal nor venial sin—it’s actually a virtue. Jenkins is fluent in silence and possesses an innate understanding of how silent moments can communicate more than heaps of dialogue. It’s in glances that pass between Little and his surrogate custodians, Juan (Mahershala Ali, damn near ubiquitous in 2016 and at his best here) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the stillness Chiron responds with when in conversation with his chum-then-crush, Kevin.
Moonlight is nothing if not empathetic. But describing the film solely in terms of empathy is a misguided oversimplification: All movies seek out empathy to degrees, after all, and so Moonlight does what any human story on celluloid has to do. Jenkins opts for sensation in favor of the sensational, eschewing flash and bluster while making old hat feel new again. Most of all, he invites our empathy at the cost of our vanity. He leads us away from navel-gazing to see the stunningly constructed drama he and his troupe have laid before us on screen. The film encourages self-reflection, but not at the expense of either its narrative or the viewing experience. That’s the surest sign of a deft cinematic hand. In turn, this isn’t simply Jenkins’ sophomore effort—it’s the defining pivot of his career. —A.C.