Reeling it in
The 2016 holiday movie season cast a wide net, reeling in general audiences with animated delights (Sing, Moana) and big-budget epics on the order of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (An alert, fans! That entry by Lucasfilm Productions is the first of a set of space opera adventures to be labeled and promoted as the “Star Wars Anthology” series.)
Similarly motivated, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them found J.K. Rowling prequel-ing her Harry Potter wizardry narratives by seven decades, with the promise of four more films to come in the new series.
The 2016 special effects adventure fantasies and animated features brought families to movie theaters in great numbers. They also showed off just how sophisticated and far-reaching computer-generated storytelling has come in the creation of motion pictures.
Also a winner with families was the captivating Otto Bell documentary The Eagle Huntress. Captured in National Geographic-quality photographic imagery, the film follows a 13-year old Kazakh girl as she journeys through the snow-covered Mongolian landscape with her father for training as an eagle huntress—heretofore solely a father/son ritual in her family for more than 10 decades.
When I saw The Eagle Huntress on Thanksgiving Sunday, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater was packed with parents accompanying their teenage daughters and sons who together watched the charming and determined young heroine as she honed and mastered hunting skills that would lead to championship status in an annual competition. Bell’s documentary was remarkable for the way that it both thrilled and inspired filmgoers, old and young.
For dedicated cineastes the year-end rush of movies brought a number of films that I found impressive for their cinematic and narrative substance.
Ang Lee’s film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was highly anticipated for its innovative technology. Made for a projection speed of 120 frames-per-second (the standard is 24 fps), the new technique delivered remarkable screen resolution and clarity to the viewing experience.
The juxtaposition of these two realities — one depicting Bravo Squad caught in the inescapable trauma of war, and the other as part of a tawdry spectacle — delivered a powerful statement about the nonchalant indifference that American soldiers often experience back home. Not typical of its genre in treatment or thematics, Lee’s film failed to generate the audience that I believe this important, moving war drama deserved.
Another much admired film, Loving, recounts with impressive narrative restraint the “true” story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose biracial marriage in 1958 was outlawed in Virginia. In 1967, the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia struck down such laws in states that prohibited interracial marriage. Most notable about director Jeff Nichols’ treatment of the Lovings’ historical story is its unflinching focus on the intimate relationship between the couple, even as ACLU lawyers take their case through the tribunal courts. Loving bravely avoids courtroom cliches. Ruth Negga and Joe Edgerton bring Mildred and Richard Loving to authentic life on the screen.
Acting at its best
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, among the best films of 2016, stood out for their acting achievements.
In Lonergan’s film Casey Affleck portrays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor/handyman who, against his wishes, is named guardian to his deceased brother’s 16-year-old son, Patrick. Affleck has earned wide accolades for his take on a forlorn man having to deal with an unexpected turn in his solitary life. As Patrick, Lucas Hedges brings a significant dimension to Lonergan’s narrative, adding just the right touches of levity to a film that could have been a complete downer. Hedges is the perfect embodiment of a cocky, coming-of-sexual-age teen whose interaction with Affleck is equally award-worthy.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about Chiron, a poor gay black man whose life is revealed over 20 years. The film traces the development of Chiron from a skinny Miami grade-schooler through high school and into robust manhood. These age passages are treated in a narrative triptych with different actors portraying Chiron in the film’s three time-frame units. Three different actors also portray school friend Kevin who introduces Chiron to sexual intimacy and who later betrays him.
The great achievement in Moonlight comes in the psychologically potent conveyance of Chiron’s complicated inner reality as it progresses from actor to actor. Although the actors’ physiques differed for each incarnation of Chiron, Jenkins motivated the three actors to “project the pain beneath the surface,” i.e., the painful weight of Chiron’s unrelieved sexual confusion, his vulnerability, and low self-esteem — all exacerbated by a dysfunctional, crack-addicted single mother.
The emotional depth of Moonlight is realized through lingering closeups of the three actors’ faces (Alex R. Hibbard, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as they convey similar body, facial, and eye movements: head always gravitating downward, shy eyes refusing to look up and about, lips parted but void of talk. Brilliant filmmaking: three body entities artfully crafted into a palpable whole. Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was a revelation in its treatment of black masculinity and in the supporting cast of characters’ own search for self-identity.
Among 2016’s psychological thrillers, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals was notable for carrying on the neo-noir styling that characterized the dark, violent, graphic impulses of No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Counselor (2013). Like these earlier neo-noir films Nocturnal Animals is populated with sociopathic outcasts whose character motivations are never fully clarified.
The film’s plotting conceit is that of an epistolary narrative derived from a novel written by a shunned husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and delivered to his ex-wife, Susan (Amy Adams). The plot of the novel is visualized on screen and takes the form of a road trip that turns deadly. As Susan reads the violent manuscript, she realizes the shocking plot is an exercise of fictional revenge for belittling her husband during their marriage. Nocturnal Animals is beautifully filmed, well-acted in both its “real” and “fictional” stories, and meticulously directed by fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford. The movie earned the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.
On a much lighter note, the musical film La La Land was a cause for cinematic celebration in its tribute to Hollywood’s old studio-driven screen magic. It’s also a work for which the University of Michigan can proudly claim some important creative links. Set in Los Angeles La La Land returns to the familiar and ever-popular genre that embraces ambition and dreams of fame.
The film’s two protagonists — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician — discover one another in Los Angeles, and enter into a romantic relationship that becomes, alternately, supportive and complicating. The real pleasure of La La Land resides in its sometimes exuberant, sometimes dreamy song-and-dance numbers. “Another Day of Sun” introduces the film with a large ensemble of singers and dancers, caught in a traffic jam, who leave their cars and perform on a Los Angeles access ramp. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, 2006 U-M musical theater grads, wrote the lyrics, which chronicle the ups and downs of artists trying to make it in Hollywood. The singers and dancers are boisterously optimistic as “the sun comes up on a new day.”
Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics for all but one of La La Land’s songs which were set to music by composer Justin Hurwitz. (Hurwitz co-wrote the lyrics for “Start A Fire.”) The Pasek/Paul lyrics for “City of Stars,” sung in the film by Ryan Gosling, earned a Golden Globe for Best Original Song earlier this month and received the 2016 Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Song. As a contemporary screen musical La La Land is as inventive as it is compelling. I’ll cite one sequence (without spoilers) that occurs in the latter part of the film when Mia and Sebastian encounter one another in a jazz club and engage in a rousing rendezvous — brilliantly conceived, filmed, and edited in order to bring La La Land to a climax that you’re meant to remember. It’s Damien Chazelle at his creative, ingenious best.
Best Sci-Fi Film: Arrival, with Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who takes on the task of deciphering the language of aliens who have set down in a dozen Earth locations. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Best Film Adaptation of a Stage Play: Fences, a 1950s-era social drama, adapted for the screen by playwright August Wilson and completed before his death in 2005. Directed by Denzel Washington who also stars.
Best Political Intrigue Film: Miss Sloane, directed by John Madden with Jessica Chastain as a high-powered D.C. lobbyist who is driven to reveal collusion between government figures and the NRA.