Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Alex Lawson's Favorite Movies of 2016

by Alex Lawson
Another Top 10 list!

10. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman) — It ranks this low strictly on procedural grounds, as it remains murky how a nearly 8-hour ESPN documentary fits into the rigidity of the Top 10 movie list construction. What is not murky is nearly everything else about Edelman’s sprawling masterpiece, a staggering piece of work that wraps together just about every prong of the nation’s racial unease over the past 60 years into a package that never — not even for one second of its run time — feels bloated or overly ponderous.

It would be one thing to produce a story of this size about a largely untold chapter of history, but to do so about a figure as dissected and examined as O.J. Simpson is next to impossible, or so I would have thought. The sheer entertainment value of the thing is eclipsed only by its value as a cultural document.
9. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) — Look, I’m not that smart. I attended a poorly regarded public university and didn’t even do that well, and a lot of really dense art leaves me looking like I caught wind of some hot trash on the street.

So perhaps the central thesis of The Lobster has eluded me. Almost to a person, everyone who sees this move, supporters and detractors alike, has something to say about its cynicism toward the very idea of love. I think that’s true only in the sense that the two main characters exist to thumb their nose at it. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are both doing tremendous work to emote through a script and an environment designed to specifically prevent them from doing so, forging what I read as incredibly heartfelt and sincere romance. I guess I see their whole union as a rose-through-concrete sort of deal, two against the world and all that. I love this movie.

8. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore) — I’ve just never seen anything like this. There’s been no shortage of children’s movies with political messaging, of course, but never in a way that is so pointed and so unafraid to put its characters in positions that challenge them at a basic, moral level. In a year without O.J.: Made in America, this talking-animal kids’ flick would have been the most important American film about race. Stew on that for a second.

On top of that, it has a genuinely intriguing and surprising detective story tucked away in there! Even some of Pixar’s best work never has me really tracking everything at a plot level the way this movie did. Aesthetically, Zootopia, the place, is a beautifully realized city in a way that captures the surface sheen and seedy underbelly that lies at the heart of the best film noir yarns. Everything about the movie just flat-out works.
7. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch) — No other movie on the list underwent a more rigorous “Uh, is this thing actually good” test than Jarmusch’s sleepy ode to creativity and life’s mundane pleasures. Deftly sidestepping the trappings of a nauseatingly twee conceit — Adam Driver plays a Paterson, N.J., bus driver who is named Paterson, writes poems, and has a contentious relationship with his live-in girlfriend’s bulldog — the movie somehow got me charged up about the very act of poetic composition while maintaining an entrancing poetic structure itself.

It’s entirely possible that you and any number of other people who see this movie will think it’s just boring. Hell that was a pretty boring first paragraph up there, wasn’t it? But I could have lived in this movie’s world for hours on end.

6. The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama) — We’ve all got our blind spots, and I am basically a sucker for literally any story that explores cults and the way they use a person’s vulnerability as a method of imprisonment and their self-doubt as a key to keep them locked in. So through that prism, I was likely in the bag for this one from the jump.

But while the movie has a litany of interesting things to say about those components of cults and their followers, it also plays as a really profound meditation on the nature of grief and loss, all within its packaging as an unrelentingly intense chamber play. And, as is statutorily required in all reviews of The Invitation, no matter how brief, the final shot is nothing short of a kneecapper.
5. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven) — The alchemy on display in Elle is just plain wild. It’s one of those movies that you feel could have only worked out in this specific way, with this specific individual behind the camera and most of all with this specific actress putting a chokehold on every scene. A serious examination of sex, violence and consent shouldn’t really be this...gleeful? But here we are, as Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert subvert sexual norms, genre tropes and our cultural expectations left and right.

On a scene-to-scene basis, Elle generated the type urgency and anticipation that was unlike almost anything else I saw this year, wriggling free from the grasp I thought I had on it at every turn.

4. Don’t Breathe (Fede Álvarez) — Sometimes when a movie is over, the lights come up and you realize you’ve been digging your nails into the armrest for the past hour. Enter Don’t Breathe, in which Fede Alvarez works the audience like a speed bag as he turns the oft-bungled home invasion sub-genre on its head. Instead of nihilistic terror descending upon well-meaning home dwellers, Don’t Breathe sees some troublesome but ultimately nonviolent burglars intruding into space where the nihilistic terror is waiting for them.

And lord, the terror. My favorite sequence in this bottle episode of a movie may not even take place in the house, but in an abandoned car with a very pissed-off rottweiler. Just kidding, my favorite sequence is all of them.

There’s a second-act development that some feel steers the movie away from gleeful anarchy and into truly vile territory. I don’t know that I can really refute that, except to say that the comeuppance-by-turkey baster is just about one of the most cathartic things I have ever seen in a movie and washed away any moral qualms I had about the movie’s trajectory.
3. Weiner (dirs. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg) — A documentary that was already absurdly intriguing has only grown more so since the camera stopped rolling. The Cormac McCarthy novel that was 2016 has nudged the former politician at the center of the film well past “troubled public servant” all the way into “likely sex criminal” and “accessory to the degradation of the American experiment.”

Still, we have to deal first with what is within the parameters of the movie as it exists, and contained within those parameters is nothing short of the most compelling political documentary in recent memory. The amount of access given to the filmmakers is so confounding that it becomes an unavoidable question in the film itself.

But Anthony Weiner’s fall from grace is just one aspect of the film’s considerable appeal. There’s a whole other layer of commentary here and the sort of dutiful rottenness at the heart of political culture and those that it envelops, and it is that commentary that has kept me thinking about this movie from the moment I saw it so many months ago.

2. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park) — Here’s some intellectual film criticism for you: The Handmaiden fucking owns. The movie’s minuscule release and general incongruity with the American marketing machine means you probably didn’t see it yet. And perhaps, for now, that is good, because you are reading this and I can tell you that you are not prepared for all the ways in which Park is about to fuck with you in this movie.

How The Handmaiden manages to be so many different incredible movies under one umbrella without ever feeling jumbled or confused is beyond me. There’s a dignified historical costume drama, a caper, an erotic thriller and even some romantic comedy DNA laced elegantly throughout the entire thing, with each of these complementing and enriching those that constantly surround it.
1. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle) — Immediately after this movie ended, all I could do was giggle and stammer out sentence fragments of praise to my wife. I’ll try and pull those fragments together here to make some complete thoughts, but I can’t really make any promises.

I think what impresses me the most is Chazelle’s mastery of both the big moments and the small moments in equal measure. After a pair of pretty extravagant numbers to begin the movie, including one that features the camera splashing around in a god damn pool, he deftly shrinks the scale down and gives us this really earnest and sad love story that still somehow never strays from old-school Hollywood musical roots.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is barely a moment at all. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is touring the nation with a replacement-level techno-jazz band while Emma Stone’s Mia is back in L.A. on the struggling actress grind. They’ve been apart for a long time, and he surprises her by coming back into town and preparing an elegant meal in their apartment. The joy on her face is palpable, and as she rushes in to embrace him, he off-handedly blurts out that he will be heading back out of town the following day. This line doesn’t really register a reaction, the shot isn’t cut and the scene proceeds apace. But when he said it, I got a twinge up my spine thinking that something bad was afoot, because he felt the need to stress that this momentary bliss was just that, momentary. For a second I thought I’d read too much into a throwaway line, but sure enough, the conversation unfurls — organically and painfully — into a complete emotional clusterfuck that soon has the two at each other’s throats. It is heartbreaking.

The less said about the movie’s final set piece, the better, as it still remains in limited release. But...Jesus. The sheer audacity of it all is...Hell. There I go with the sentence fragments again.


  1. Super excited to catch The Handmaiden next week. Only two showings in my neck of the woods. If there's one thing Chan-wook Park knows how to do is throw everything at the audience.

    1. I am jealous of people who get to see this for the first time! Have a great time

  2. La La Land is finally coming to my area this weekend. I haven't been this excited to see a movie since The Force Awakens.