Once again this year, I am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to catching up with the 2016 films that I missed, as well as re-watching some of my favorites of the year so far. We begin this annual cinematic orgy with an invocation to our deity:
All hail, Awards Season! Tyrant of all she surveys! Oppressor of cinephiles! Scourge of the pudgy and bespectacled! Defiler of evenings and weekends! Obvious Billy Crudup fan! Long may her tastefully bland mediocrities occupy our otherwise presumably intelligent thoughts!
But enough of this palaver, let’s get this show on the road.
Thursday, November 17
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Michael Bay; GRADE: B+)
Nothing new to report, this is still terrifying and awesome, and the best thing that Bay has ever done, with literally dozens of memorably haunting images. A tactile action clarity only tantalizingly teased at in Bay’s earlier work comes to full fruition in 13 Hours – it’s as though you can feel the impact of every bullet and the heat of every explosion. Benghazi became a political football for alt-right, neo-fascist liars, so naturally most critics responded by pre-judging and dismissing a work of art, makes total sense.
Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir.: Sang-soo Hong; GRADE: B+)
I’m fairly new to the world of South Korean shoegazer Hong, but Right Now, Wrong Then feels like the apotheosis of his aesthetic, thoroughly refined and perfectly detailed while remaining true to his Rohmer-meets-Linklater-meets-Spike Jonze world of doubled action, unattainable attractions and all-night sake bar hangouts. A Hong-like director (Jung Jae-young) and an aspiring artist (The Handmaiden star Kim Min-Hee) spend the same day together twice, the first time ending in blustery disaster, the second time still awkward but more honest and meaningful. It’s strangely lovely.
I, Daniel Blake (Dir.: Ken Loach; GRADE: B-)
Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or for this lion-hearted but logy slice of working-class life, and it wasn’t even one of the top 5,000 most annoying things to happen in 2016. Stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays Daniel, a crab with a heart of gold stumbling through a cold, cruel, Internet-automated health care system in search of justice. Johns is quite good, but there’s not much here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other quirky indie issues dramas.
Friday, November 18
Manchester by the Sea (Dir.: Kenneth Lonergan; GRADE: B+)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Dir.: Ang Lee; GRADE: C+)
Sully (Dir.: Clint Eastwood; GRADE: B)
A sturdy retelling of the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson from inside the bubble, and focused like most of Eastwood’s recent work on American perceptions of heroism and unresolvable conflict. Tom Hanks gives a tutorial in kinetic understatement as the hero pilot, but the supporting performances are a lumpy mixed bag. It’s certainly well-mounted – the cinematography, production design, special effects, sound and editing are all top-notch, although Eastwood’s jazz piano score feels extremely out of place.
Saturday, November 19
Kate Plays Christine (Dir.: Robert Greene; GRADE: B+)
The other 2016 Christine Chubbuck movie, not the comparatively traditional biopic of Antonio Campos’ Christine, but a highly original meta-documentary that follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Chubbuck. Anyone discomforted by the exploitative nature of Christine (the Sarasota-based TV journalist Chubbuck committed suicide on the air in 1974) might appreciate Greene’s more meditative approach, as the entire film is dedicated to Sheil empathizing with and understanding Chubbuck, literally trying to get under her sun-tanned skin.
13th (Dir.: Ava Duvernay; GRADE: C+)
Commendable on a conceptual level, and impossible to disagree with any of the broad stroke arguments, but Duvernay’s flashy and provocative documentary feels more designed for high school students than for cinephile adults. Almost all of the best documentaries are focused on discovery, on unrepeatable or unrelated moments adding up to some kind of revelation, but the clips, graphics and talking heads-heavy approach of 13th is all about disseminating known information in a digestible package to an uninformed and potentially unreceptive audience. Like I said, students.
Certain Women (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt; GRADE: B)
Give Reichardt credit: the closer she edges to the mainstream, the more austere and arid her movies become. Certain Women adapts three Maile Meloy short stories into a tenuously connected anthology about the struggle and strength of small-town Montana women. Laura Dern gives the best performance as a lawyer whose client takes her hostage; Michelle Williams plays a dissatisfied wife who covets a pile of reclaimed brick; and Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who develops something like a crush on Kristen Stewart’s neurotic night teacher. No major complaints – it’s honest, well-acted and thoughtful, but I can’t tell you how many times my mind drifted away during this thing.
Peter and the Farm (Dir.: Tony Stone; GRADE: B)
Intense, deeply personal and unusually minimalist documentary about Peter Dunning, a gruff, alcoholic, long-time Vermont farmer rapidly reaching the end of his rope, and beginning to fashion that rope into a noose. Peter and the Farm doesn’t shy away from the realities of farm life (Dunning butchers a lamb from start to finish in one of the film’s first scenes), and it manages to capture both the ethereal, borderline surreal beauty of farm life and the lonely, difficult, often ugly realities of Dunning’s everyday existence.
Sunday, November 20
French filmmaker Hansen-Love’s previous film Eden failed to enchant me during last year’s Cramfest, and I wasn’t that much higher on this similarly low-pulse, narrative-lite, character piece about a sixty-ish philosophy teacher who re-evaluates her life after losing her mother and her marriage. The difference maker: the great Isabelle Huppert, incapable of playing a false note, a geyser of strength and complexity, even in the midst of Hansen-Love’s disaffected long nod.
The Edge of Seventeen (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig; GRADE: B-)