Top 10 Films of 2020

Ugh, 2020 was the worst! A year marked by loss and suffering that extended to the movie industry. There’s been a drought in studio output. I haven’t been to a movie theatre since March 14th – the last movie I saw on the big screen was First Cow (call it my #11 film of the year). If it turns out that there are no movie theatres after this, I feel like my final movie choice would be a fine way to mark the end of an era. But cinema will survive. And once the vaccine has been distributed, I will resume my moviegoing habits! Even with my favorite pastime activity being on hold I was able to find comfort in the movies we did get in 2020. The lack of blockbusters allowed smaller films that would have otherwise gone under the radar to garner some attention. The way we see movies may have changed but quality will always matter and there were plenty of great movies to be found this year.

1. NOMADLAND
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. In the aftermath of the late ‘00s recession, a recently widowed woman in her 60s, Fern (Frances McDormand giving one of the best performances of her career) hits the road in a van traveling the American West in search of seasonal employment. As Fern joins a community of similar travelers, Zhao offers us a glimpse into a part of America we don’t see often. The people she meets are non-professional actors, really living the life explored by Nomadland. Roger Ebert described cinema as a machine that generates empathy. Zhao’s lyrical and perceptive ode to people on the fringes of American society reminded me of Ebert’s belief in the power of movies. This movie has only appreciated in value since I saw at this year’s virtual TIFF. Opens in theatres February 19th (but unless the vaccine has been distributed by then, just wait for it to be available for rental). 

2. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
Directors Bill and Ross Turner present a fly-on-the-wall portrait of the final hours of a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s as its patrons bid farewell to it. Except a quick online search reveals that the bar is in New Orleans with the narrative woven around an assembly of barflies playing versions of themselves without a script. That this was a curated setup annoyed some documentary purists at this year’s Sundance Film Festival who felt this movie had no business being in the Documentary programme. I don’t much care because this is a magic trick of a movie – a hybrid of reality and fiction that feels genuine despite the artifice. The drinks, the conversations, the outpouring of emotions – they’re all real. Here’s a bold and innovative film with a good sense of humor that has deep compassion for its characters. Available for digital rental.

3. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Here’s a perfect meeting of director (Spike Lee) and subject (David Byrne). Okay, it sounds like a weird pairing, but these are two pop culture giants that started their respective careers in New York City in the 1980s and bring a lifetime of experience to this enterprise. I miss live performances so much and American Utopia not only filled that gap by this magnificent capturing of the Broadway engagement at the Hudson Theater but also supplied me with one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had this year. The world wasn’t in a great place in 2020. Yet this communal celebration of personal connection left me with a feeling of hope in a year when that was off limits. This movie transported me to a better place. Streaming on Crave.

4. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
The story centers on a17-year-old girl (Sidney Flanigan, excellent) whose pregnancy leads to a journey from rural Pennsylvania to New York City with her cousin to seek a legal abortion. The state laws are such that this becomes her only option without her mother and stepfather knowing that she’s pregnant. Eliza Hittman’s empathetic character study leaves us feeling enraged by the hurdles these girls face but there’s also an incredible amount of support and kindness on display. The title comes from a list of possible answers to a series of questions about the young woman’s sexual history asked by a social worker. The camera stays on Flanigan’s face, her expressions conveying her trauma – I’ll never forget this gut-wrenching scene. Streaming on Crave.

5. THE ASSISTANT
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Kitty Green’s remarkable directorial feature debut is a monster movie where the monster isn’t even referred to by name. It’s a disquieting procedural about the day in the life of a junior assistant (Julia Garner) to a Weinstein-esque figure. When she brings concerns about her boss to HR, she’s told she doesn’t need to worry because she’s not his type. Her colleagues know what’s happening but look the other way. You see the weight of this system of complicity on her face. The film’s muted approach is perfectly suited to showing this system of silence. The predatory behavior occurs offscreen – the shock value comes from its ecosystem of enablers. Streaming on Crave.

6. MARTIN EDEN
Pietro Marcello directs a brilliant adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 semi-autobiographical novel, transplanting the setting to Naples while remaining untethered to time (even if it echoes a few current day figures). The story follows a working-class sailor (a revelatory Luca Marinelli who has the presence of a classic movie star) who educates himself and achieves success as a writer. Fast-forward to years later and we see that the political ideology he’s adopted leaves him standing alone with nothing but contempt for the working class he emerged from. Gorgeously shot on 16mm, this is a magnificent, sweeping epic – a classic rise and fall story that’s lush, romantic, and deeply absorbing. Available through virtual cinemas.

7. THE 40-YEAR-OD VERSION
I got early Spike Lee vibes watching writer-director-star Radha Blank’s debut. Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself – a playwright in the midst of a crisis. A decade ago, she received the “Most Promising 30 Under 30” award. But now she’s turning 40 and the teens at her day job remind her that this promise has faded into the distance. So she gives up on Broadway to take up rapping! Gorgeously shot in black and white, Blank draws on her own experiences to explore just how Black artists compromise their work for white audiences. And her skewering of the New York theater scene mines humor from a place of soul-crushing exasperation. Streaming on Netflix.

8. DA 5 BLOODS
Leave it to Spike Lee to make two of the best movies of 2020. An in-your-face history lesson filtered through an exciting adventure story about a reunited squadron of Black American soldiers return to Vietnam in search of buried treasure. Rarely has a movie met its political moment like this one – Da 5 Bloods premiered on Netflix in June when Black Lives Matter gained global prominence. Here’s an underrepresented depiction of generational trauma and an indictment of America’s treatment of Black people – you feel anger for a nation that exploited Black lives for war and ignored them at home. Features a career-crowning performance from Delroy Lindo as a pro-Trump, PTSD-inflicted vet. Streaming on Netflix.

9. POSSESSOR
This movie about an assassin (Andrea Riseborough, perfectly cast) who works by taking over the mind and body of someone to get close to her targets without suspicion sounds like it comes from the weird imagination of David Cronenberg. But it’s his son, Brandon Cronenberg, who writes and directs, and he does the family name proud with this WTF body-swap horror flick. Possessor is easily my favorite genre movie of 2020. The violence is shockingly gruesome but strip away its nihilistic qualities and you’d be left with a high-minded science fiction picture. It thrills on a visceral level and provides plenty of existential themes to unpack on an intellectual one. Available for digital rental.

10. THE OLD GUARD
The year’s most satisfying blockbuster. Not that there were many this year. But I remain convinced that The Old Guard would have been one of the year’s highlights even if this were a normal year. And even if this is a movie about a band of immortals, the story has real stakes because of its emotional underpinning. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a distinctive voice and has made a big budget superhero flick that’s wonderfully romantic and provides its characters with moments of introspection. And the movie kicks ass when it needs to – the combat scenes are very well choreographed and edited for maximum clarity. Charlize Theron doesn’t need your fast cuts! Streaming on Netflix.

Honorable Mentions: Bacurau, Beanpole, Collective, The Disciple, Dick Johnson is Dead, The Father, First Cow, The Invisible Man, Palm Springs, Soul

Top 10 Films of the 2010s

Much has changed in the cinema landscape since the start of the decade. After Avatar took the world by storm in 2009, studios and filmmakers attempted to capitalize on the trend. Today, 3-D movies are dead. At the start of the decade, Disney had 11% market share. In 2019, it has 33.6%. In 2010, physical media sales were strong. Today, we have just one video store left in Toronto (a major film market) as streaming platforms have disrupted the industry. Some of the films included in my Top 10 lists from the start of the decade were not easy to find. In the years since, streaming platforms have given a home to plenty of smaller films (and have even funded them). Times have changed. But, regardless of how we choose to see movies, there is one constant – movies of exceptional quality are still being made. And the 2010s were an incredibly exciting time for moviegoers. Here are my 10 personal favorites of the decade:

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

“If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” says our embittered folk singer (Oscar Issac, wonderful) whose existential voyage into the folk scene of New York’s Greenwich Village is traced in Joel and Ethan Coen’ masterful Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s 1961 and this year will not be kind to him. He’s got talent. But, he’s a victim of poor timing – he lacks commercial appeal in a time of shifting cultural tastes. Inside Llewyn Davis is every bit as playful and melodic as you’d expect from a Coen Brothers movie about folk music. What struck me most was just how heartbreaking Llewyn’s odyssey becomes, despite some of it being his fault for his shortsighted decisions! Unappealing as he may be, the movie’s magic trick is how much we empathize with him. This flick about the high potential for artistic failure that comes with living a creative life is a downer movie for the ages. The Coen Brothers made the best movie of the 1990s – Fargo. They made the best movie of the 2000s – No Country For Old Men. And now, they’ve made the best movie of the 2010s – Inside Llewyn Davis.

2.   A Separation (2011, dir. Asgar Farhadi)

Right from the opening, Asgar Farhadi’s masterpiece places us in the middle. A Separation opens with a middle-class Iranian couple opting to call it quits. It’s a decision that spirals out of control, enveloping another family. It’d be easier if Farhadi gave us a clear villain but life is much more complicated than that. He clearly feels empathy for everyone in this story and that’s part of what makes it so brilliant – he exposes their humanity, showing the push/pull of social and religious expectations. This is very much a movie that defines the 2010s – nothing captured that feeling of these polarizing times of two sides convinced they’re right, neither side willing to compromise in the slightest. A Separation won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. That wasn’t enough. There wasn’t an English film that year that came close to achieving its level of greatness.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, dir. George Miller)

One of the greatest action movies of all time. 4.5 years later, it’s still hard to believe that George Miller’s post-apocalyptic extravaganza exists. How did a major studio blockbuster that represented a powerful, original directorial vision make it into theatres in an uncompromised state? If there’s a flaw to be found, it’s in the title. The Road Warrior himself is just a passenger. It’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa that drives this story. In my May 2015 review for Corus, I wrote “When a character takes a pair of bolt cutters to her chastity belt, it is a declaration of independence.” Viewed today in the years following #MeToo, I realized that this statement could have been about the entire movie itself as it’s story is about its women who break free from the monstrous men that have exploited them.

4.   Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins)

The Oscars almost got it wrong on February 2017. But, after a correction, they thankfully got it right. And it was the only time this decade they got it right. “At some point, you gotta decide who you gonna be. You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” This coming-of-age story of a black kid in Miami named Chiron showed us the world through the eyes of another human being – and though his story and circumstances may not have been our own, we all felt something. When Roger Ebert described movies as an empathy-generating machine, he was talking about movies like this. This is pure cinema and a prime example of its transformative power.

5. Phoenix (2015, dir. Christian Petzold)

The best performance of the decade comes from Nina Hoss in Phoenix. She plays a disfigured Jewish singer who returns to Berlin after undergoing reconstructive surgery to repair a serious facial injury. There, she finds her husband who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis. He doesn’t recognize her but is quick to figure out how he can use her to claim his wife’s inheritance. Petzold mines his pulp premise to explore post-war identity. There isn’t a single wasted shot as the movie builds to one of the most piercing, jaw-dropping endings in the histoires du cinema.

6.  Paterson (2016, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Jim Jarmusch’s celebration of the creative process is the most life-affirming movie of the 2010s. The film stars Adam Driver as a New Jersey bus driver who writes soulful poetry. He watches the world – what he observes fuels his art and helps him find meaning. The movie revels in the sublimity of the mundane. It’s also wonderfully romantic, portraying a complex relationship dynamic between two artists with polar opposite personalities. Patience. Joy. The beauty of a small life. Watching Paterson provides me a great sense of peace, which is why I find myself coming back to it and why it continues to appreciate in value.

7. Poetry (2011, dir. Lee Chang-dong)

And now another film about poetry called…Poetry. Lee Chang-dong’s heartbreaking drama follows a 66-year-old woman (Yun Jung-hee) coping with Alzheimer’s while facing a tough decision involving her irresponsible grandson accused of rape. Along her journey of self-discovery, she enrols in a poetry class, which opens her eyes to life, allowing her to truly see – to find the words to describe the beauty she sees before language fails her. I love Lee’s refusal to provide easy answers. Poetry is a delicate, humanistic masterpiece that quietly sneaks up on you. And then you realize you’re in a puddle of your own tears.

8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, dir. Celine Sciamma)

The other nine films on my list had the benefit of having time to marinate. I just saw Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire three months ago. But, I’m 100% certain of its resonance. A female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is hired to paint a portrait of a spirited young noblewoman, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), for an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, and finds herself falling for the would-be bride. The movie is exquisitely composed – every shot a kind of portrait itself. If the romantic dramas of 2020s hope to surpass the standard now established by Sciamma, best of luck to all comers!

9. Incendies (2010, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

“Death is never the end of the story. It always leaves tracks.” The movie follows a set of Quebecois twins assigned to locate their estranged father and brother as part of their deceased mother’s will. The movie is filled with haunting images that have been burned into my brain. It is not an easy watch – there are some truly shocking developments along this psychological journey. Director Denis Villeneuve went on to make some of the most critically acclaimed films of the decade – Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 – but his cinematic breakthrough, Incendies, remains his masterpiece. You’ll never forget this one.

10. The Social Network (2010, dir. David Fincher)

David Fincher’s retelling of the rise of Facebook is somehow more relevant now than it was 9+ years ago. Part of its resonance is due to the  damage Facebook has levied on society and democracy. The warning signs were in this time capsule of a flick: the company’s origins were rooted in male ego and dishonesty and it was a mistake to place this much power in the hands of someone incapable of human interactivity  “You write your snide bullshit in a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays.” I can’t think of a better statement to capture the online culture of the 2010s.

Honorable Mentions: Amour, Boyhood, Frances Ha, Her, Mommy, Nocturama, Parasite, Roma, Stories We Tell, The Tree of Life

Top 10 Films of 2019

Top 10 Films of 2019:

The 2010s ended with a year that will be remembered for our greatest filmmakers offering up films that were distinctly theirs – true directorial visions that often felt like a summation of their entire body of work. Also emerging were some truly original new voices (see my #7 pick!). My Top 10 gives a sense of the variety 2019 offered moviegoers: class-warfare thrillers, doomed romances, a social experiment with a 56-year-old film series, and aging artists looking back (these might not be their final films and yet they feel like elegies). In an era marked by unlimited streaming content options, and the monopolistic handle of a major motion picture studio, I believe these films will be a part of the cinematic conversation for a very long time.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

In a year defined by monumental achievements by some of our very best veteran filmmakers, nothing took my breath away like French writer-director Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This isn’t just the best film of 2019 – it’s one of the very best films of the decade. A female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is hired to paint a portrait of a spirited young noblewoman, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), for an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, and finds herself falling for the would-be bride. The movie beautifully illustrates how art can capture genuine passion – their slow-burning romance unfolding through a series of stolen glances, the ever-increasing intensity of them holding the possibility of melting the barrier between them. Sciamma presents an 18th century story in which every single character in the film is a woman –  where a lesbian romance, abortions, and sisterhood seem commonplace in a time of close-mindedness. The movie is exquisitely composed – every shot a kind of portrait itself. I’ll never forget the spellbinding a cappella sequence. Or the ending, which ranks among the all-time greats. As far as lush period romances go, this is the ultimate. To be released in theatres on Feb 14th, 2020.

2. Parasite

Articulating what makes Parasite one of the very best films of the year is a difficult feat. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of its twists and turns. It’s a film you must experience. South Korean master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho jumps genres like a DJ. Parasite starts off as a social satire. Then it becomes a mystery. Then a thriller. Then a horror movie of sorts before ending on a note of wistful sadness. And despite the eclecticism, there’s an expert control of tone as the film tracks the intertwined fates of two families: one rich and the other poor. The members of the struggling Kim family find ways to insinuate themselves inside the wealthy host home of the Parks. Despite the richness of its cultural specificity, I can’t think of another movie this year that made me sadder about the state of the world, yet more thrilled about the state of cinema. In theatres and available to rent on Jan 28, 2020.

3. Ash Is Purest White

The most overlooked film on my list, Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke’s story centers on a gangster’s girlfriend (Zhao Tao, spectacular) who takes the fall for her man (Liao Fan). Released from prison five years later, she goes searching for him in central China. What she finds, I will not reveal. Ash Is Purest White has a three-part narrative spanning decades – Zhangke shows us a changing China through the lives of its characters. At no point did I know where this story was going and I was enthralled. Everything unfolds organically. Even some potentially absurd developments have a true-to-life quality here. It’s got a ruminative power and it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Weirdly funny. Heartbreaking. Sprawling. Epic. Ash Is Purest White is the best gangster film of 2019. And no, I haven’t forgotten that this year gave us Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. We’ll get to that next. Available to rent on iTunes.

4. The Irishman

Most of the discourse surrounding Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman had to do with his comments about the MCU not being cinema, the 3.5-hour length of the film, the de-aging technology that shot up the film’s massive price tag, and how many lines of dialogue Anna Paquin’s character had. Now that the dust has settled on all that, we can begin to unpack its many layers. It’s Goodfellas by way of Silence – the energetic direction of the younger Scorsese coupled with something more elegiac and ruminative. That something is the promise of mortality and what awaits mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). However you choose to view it – as a statement on tribal loyalty and male violence, a comment on American history, a showcase for some of the best actors in film history, or a veteran director casting a plaintive eye on his own storied legacy – it’s a masterpiece. What is cinema? This! In theatres and streaming on Netflix.

5. Marriage Story

Divorce is discussed in Noah Baumbach’s insightful and deeply compassionate film as death without a body. Since the person’s not gone, that makes it worse than death, doesn’t it? The film opens with a couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) telling us what they love about each other. We then discover that this is an exercise for a therapist helping them separate. In addition to the messy feelings, we get a sense of just how logistically difficult it is to end a marriage; especially once the lawyers get involved. The best movies see us as we truly are. We see the good and bad of both characters without being asked to choose a side. As a divorce dissection (Baumbach’s own), Marriage Story is up there with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. In theatres and streaming on Netflix.

6. The Souvenir

All cinema lovers have blind spots and mine was Joanna Hogg until recently. In the elusive semi-autobiographical drama, The Souvenir, a young film school student, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), falls for an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke). He has opinions on art and takes her on extravagant trips. He’s also a junkie and pathological liar. We know he is bad news but Julie is too naïve at first to figure it out. The Souvenir is a portrait of addiction from the outside, a superhero origin story (yes, Ms. Hogg attains that status!), a story of obsessive love and how it reduces even the most intelligent among us into irrational fools. The elliptical editing is well matched with this story of transformation in all its disorienting, nonlinear glamour. It feels like a movie from another era – shot on 16mm, it has the sort of texture that feels largely absent from current releases. And in Honor Swinton-Byrne, we bear witness to one of the best debut performances. Ever. Available to rent on iTunes.

7. Atlantics

A simultaneously depressing and exhilarating experience: here’s another example of a film that may not leave you feeling hopeful about the state of the world but you’ll be ecstatic about the current state of movies. Set in the coastal city of Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics follows a grieving young woman whose love has disappeared into the sea. She’s forced to marry another man by her family only for her wedding to be attacked by an arsonist. An intoxicating amalgam: a love story, a detective story, a ghost story, a political allegory, a female empowerment story. Even seasoned filmmakers would struggle with this tonal juggling act. Imagine my surprise to find out this was a feature debut by filmmaker Mati Diop. A startlingly assured one too – this is pure cinema! I can’t wait to see what she does next. Streaming on Netflix.

8. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood

Frustrated with the way some occurrences in history have played out, Quentin Tarantino has used the cinematic tools at his disposal to present us with a revisionist opus. The movie is theoretically about what would become the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). But, really, it’s a hangout movie – we get to spend time with fading actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). There’s a foreboding sense of danger because … well, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a tribute to Tarantino’s obsessions. This is a movie only he could have made and made this far into his career. His love for this world permeates every exchange. It’s his vision of a 1969 Los Angeles that might have been had it not been for that one horrific night. What is cinema? Watching Margot Robbie’s character watch herself on film. Available to rent on iTunes.

9. A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick’s deeply impressionistic A Hidden Life recounts the true story of a Catholic Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and was arrested for the decision. It’s message of doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences, couldn’t be timelier in these uncertain, deeply polarizing times. And Malick couldn’t have told this story more beautifully. His signature poetic aesthetics remain intact here: he uses light, movement, texture, and sound to capture the undisturbed natural world. There’s also the whispery internal-monologue narration. Here’s an intimate epic that feels as monumental as the questions it raises. That’s why Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers – he has the courage to take on eternal questions. And yet I was unprepared for the film’s sheer emotional impact – it steamrolled my heart! I said this about The Irishman, and Ash is Purest White, but this too feels like a career summation. In theatres.

10. 63 Up

63 Up might be the final chapter in one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of cinema. Every seven years, director Michael Apted revisits the same 14 people from whose lives he’s been chronicling since they were seven years old in 1964. I’m relieved that some of its subjects turned out better than I expected. There are sad turns of course. Such is life. But we get the full sweep of it. Seeing them play as children, talking about their hopes and dreams as young adults, what they’ve achieved in middle age, and now, what they’re hoping to take stock of and hold onto as the exit signs approach. It was incredibly poignant seeing these people become who they are. I don’t know how long Apted, who is now 78 years old, and his participants will be able to continue. And yet, I didn’t feel sad exiting the cinema – just contemplative and grateful for being alive. In theatres.

Honorable Mentions: 1917, Anne at 13000 Ft, Blinded by the Light, Honeyland, Invisible Life, Midsommar, The Nightingale, Pain & Glory, Uncut Gems, Waves

Top 10 Films of 2018

2018 might just have been the best film year of the 21st century thus far. My favourites of this year encapsulate my eclectic cinematic tastes – action blockbusters, independent films, and foreign language films from Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. It’s my privilege to share with you, my friends, the ten films I loved most this year – the ones that moved me the most and/or wowed me by its mastery of the form.

1. Roma

Easy choice – Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is not only my favourite film of 2018 but also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Roma is an intimate, semi-autobiographical slice of life, taking place in the Mexico City neighbourhood where Cuarón grew up in the 1970s. It is a visually dazzling and emotionally resonant piece of work. Serving as his own cinematographer, Cuarón films in exquisite 65 millimetre black-and-white and lures us into a time and place, a whole era really, with his signature long takes – the camera creates a rich sense of place and is punctuated with dreamlike imagery. You could almost live in the film’s widescreen compositions. And, indeed a lot of people live within it, especially the film’s central figure Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a massive discovery), a family housekeeper/nanny (she is based on the woman who raised Cuarón). Through the eyes of Cleo, we witness the changing family dynamics, and the social changes in Mexico, as well as her own dreams and disappointments. Roma is an embodiment of Roger Ebert’s Principle of Cinema – “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy”. This is a very personal film for Cuarón and a powerful tribute to the nanny who raised him during adolescence. Currently playing in theatres and streaming on Netflix (but in order to fully experience its wonder, please see this on a big theatre screen).

2) Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of our best living filmmakers and his latest film, Shoplifters, is among his career highpoints. His films are every bit as beautifully understated and perfectly observed as the grandmaster of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda builds on themes found in his previous films – especially the meaning of kin – but Shoplifters also works beautifully as an entry point into his filmography. We become quickly absorbed in the lives of a struggling ragtag family that gets by with petty thefts – the family grows when they bring home a neglected little girl they find on the street. Kore-eda draws fine performances from his cast (side note: I’m in love with Ando Sakura). Like a practiced thief, Kore-eda sneaks in and steals your heart right in front of your eyes. This is a film of gentleness and compassion – another film supporting Roger Ebert’s theory of cinema as an empathy-generating machine. In Japanese with English subtitles. Currently playing in theatres.

3) Burning

A mesmerizing masterpiece from master filmmaker Lee Chang-dong left TIFF audiences staggering out of the Ryerson Theatre in a daze, eager to unpack the film’s complex themes and multitude of possibilities. Is it a comedy about social class? A Hitchcockian missing-person thriller? Lee Chang-dong stretches the film’s source material (a short story called Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami) into an expertly paced 148 minutes. You could call the dynamic that develops between an introverted writer (Ah-In Yoo), a girl he knew from childhood (Ah-In Yoo), and the wealthy and enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun) a love triangle – one the filmmaker sets alight in this lovely, terrifying, unclassifiable movie. During the post-screening Q&A session of Burning at TIFF, an audience member asked Lee Chang-dong what he was doing during his eight-year filmmaking hiatus. In other words, we need him to make more films. In Korean with English subtitles. Available on Blu-Ray March 5th, 2019.

4) Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is writer-director Debra Granik’s first narrative feature in eight years. She too needs to make more films. Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, heartbreaking) and her PTSD-afflicted father Will (Ben Foster) live on public land outside of Portland, Oregon. The two have each other and that seems like enough until society grabs this pair and tries to provide them with shelter and stability. Granik’s compassion for these two is contagious. We want Tom to be happy. We want Will to find stability. There’s no antagonist and yet there’s simmering tension in this quietly suspenseful tale. We feel as though we are with Tom and Will – that we are seeing and experiencing the world as they do. Granik has a strong grasp of environment, presenting a certain corner of American life that feels vivid and true. An incredibly gripping and powerful cinematic experience – prepare to be shattered. Currently available on Blu-Ray.

5) If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins follows up Moonlight (i.e. the best film of 2016) by adapting James Baldwin’s “unfilmable” 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a dazzling picture – the luscious cinematography of Moonlight’s James Luxton, a gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell, and deeply felt performances. The relationship between the leads, Stephen James and newcomer KiKi Layne, is at the heart of the story and their story is representative of the injustices enlaced throughout the lives of black Americans. It is tragically real. But, there’s also overwhelming joy – of family, of love, of hope. It’s a movie that wants us, like its characters, to trust in love. Clearly, Jenkins has love for these characters. I was emotional right from the start. There’s real poetry to the filmmaking – every frame maximizes the tension and emotional power of Baldwin’s work. Great performances all around but it is Regina King who gives us the best performance of 2018. Currently playing in theatres.

6) Transit

Baffling in the best possible way. In this tricky throwback noir, Christian Petzold melds the past into the present to tell the story of a man (Franz Rogowski) fleeing an unstated wave of fascism in an unstated time period. The screenplay is adapted from Anna Seghers’ WWII refugee novel but the setting bears a striking resemblance to the present day – modern vehicles and SWAT teams can be found in the frame. As a viewer, we feel like we’re out of time and place, and we’re left to sketch our own connections between the film’s source material and the contemporary rise of Neo-Nazism and anti-refugee sentiment. Transit is a startling, gut-wrenching, and brilliant refugee allegory and further evidence of Petzold’s confidence and skill as a filmmaker. In German and French with English subtitles. Transit had a brief theatrical run in Toronto in November. It opens in the US March 1st, 2019.

7) Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in a movie franchise that started in 1996 as a reboot of the 1960s TV show also turns out to best the best action film in years. It has a breathtaking pace and a strong visual language. But most importantly, it’s got Tom Cruise – the 56-year-old star seems willing to sacrifice his life at the cinematic altar for the film’s death-defying practical stunt work. Tom Cruise leaps between buildings. Tom Cruise flies on a motorcycle between – and into –traffic. Tom Cruise climbs the rope of a helicopter several thousand feet above ground and free-falls 40 feet into the helicopter’s payload. Tom Cruise does a HALO jump out of a flying plane. Tom Cruise hangs from a razor-sharp cliff. Tom Cruise is the best. But the pure adrenaline and nail-bitingly suspenseful action is at the service of a surprisingly emotionally resonant script and great performances. Currently available on Blu-Ray.

8) Black Panther

The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther, turns out to be the most absorbing Marvel movie to date. Director Ryan Cooler’s imagining of Wakanda places a foot in the real world, which gives the superheroics genuine stakes. It is a landmark film for so many reasons – the biggest box office film of this year grossing north of $700 million domestically, the amazing cast, the great action, the emotionally resonant moments, the fact that this was the first time an African-American lead starred in a giant superhero franchise film. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) gives the MCU its most magnetic villain and steals the film from our title character (Chadwick Boseman). We have a great deal of sympathy for the villain’s tortured soul. This is the rare big-budget franchise film that feels like a personal project fulfilled. Wakanda Forever! Currently available on Blu-Ray and streaming on Netflix.

9) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

If you told me back in January that the 7th Spidey film (and 3rd reboot) in 16 years would appear on my Top 10 Films of 2018 list, I’d say you were nuts. But here we are. Cynicism be damned. It is a crazily bold, imaginative, diverse, hilarious, and heartfelt instant classic. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman provided us with a screen-filling, eye-popping visual treat – the film is gorgeously rendered and is the only superhero film ever made to capture the feeling of reading a comic book while simultaneously developing its own style and personality. The appeal of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse transcends visual language. Phil Lord’s endlessly witty screenplay is complex but perfectly comprehensible and the heart of the story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a hero anyone and everyone can relate to. One of the most enjoyable animated movies of the decade. Currently playing in theatres.

10) You Were Never Really Here

Perhaps the most polarizing film on my list this year is Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Billed as a thriller but that genre categorization feels limiting: Ramsey takes us into the deepest and darkest recesses of the human psyche and what we have is a perfectly calibrated work of art that is bold and challenging. The imagery is striking and unforgettable and at the center of the film is a mesmerizing performance from Joaquin Phoenix. His character, Joe, is a physically intimidating assassin-for-hire who taps into his trauma to carry out his job. Stylistically, the film is every bit as fractured as the consciousness of its protagonist. Ramsey’s approach upends traditional narrative expectations. This propulsive, expressionistic film doesn’t stop to explain itself. It’s a film that creates meaning through style. For all its moments of excessive violence, Ramsey makes as much time for unspoiled beauty. Currently available on Blu-Ray.

Honourable Mentions: Annihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blindspotting, Capernaum, First Man, First Reformed, Happy as Lazzaro, Hereditary, Lean on Pete, Widows

Top 10 Films of 2017

Top 10 Films of 2017

 

It has been such a strong year for movies. Narrowing my favorites-of-the-year list to only ten titles was an especially difficult task this year. Even with the inclusion of ten additional titles in the Honorable Mentions section, I could have continued on. In celebrating the remarkable variety that cinema offers today – voices from debut filmmakers like Greta Gerwig to master filmmakers like Olivier Assays – here are my ten favorite films of 2017:

1) Foxtrot

The great Israeli drama, Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz is my choice for the best film of 2017. You’ll be able to seek this one out in Spring, 2018 – it had a brief awards-consideration run at the end of the year in New York City, so it qualifies for this year’s list. My main criteria for choosing the best film of the year is to award the film that attempts to push the boundaries of the cinematic language, or the film that changes me emotionally/physically. It is so hard for a film to do either. Foxtrot does both – here’s a movie that upends your expectations at every turn. Heartbreaking scenario: a middle-aged couple, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler), experience unspeakable grief when army officials show up at their home to inform them that their son has died in the line of duty. Once the terrible tragedy at the heart of the film has been established, the film becomes something entirely different. Maoz’s experimental meditation on fate and grief is laced with humour, satire, and warmth – it’s at once hilarious and devastating. The performances are pitch-perfect – Ashkenazi and Adler make every single whisper, word, glance, and movement count. The framing is meticulous, and there’s a mastery of tone– it swings beautifully from absurdist humour to brutal gut-punch sadness. It’s beautifully conceived with a visual audacity that serves the subject – its tripartite structure encompassing the threadlike frailty of life, the randomness and cruelty of tragedy, and the impermanent flashes of brightness in between. Foxtrot is the year’s greatest discovery – it’s a masterpiece. Foxtrot will open theatrically in limited release on March 16th, 2018.

2) Nocturama

You may not have heard of Nocturama. After all, it wasn’t even released theatrically in Toronto this year. It’s not difficult to figure out why Nocturama was relegated to Netflix Only status – it is a daring move for any distributor to release a film that unfolds from the perspective of teenage terrorists. We see them stage a series of attacks in Paris for no apparent reason, then seek refuge from the police in a luxury store for the night. The procedural aspects of the film give us an hour-by-hour construction of the events that took place, forcing us to focus on the simple material facts of what they do rather than why – the why would have asked us, on some level, to understand them and either agree or disagree with their (misguided) ideology. What a masterstroke in construction – a terrifying, brilliant, intoxicating film. I can’t recall a film in recent memory that used music in a more inventive way (and no, I haven’t forgotten about Baby Driver). Even if we spend the film’s entire runtime with these adolescent radicals, we never for a moment forget the horror of the situation. Now streaming on Netflix.

3) A Ghost Story

David Lowry’s A Ghost Story is a miniscule wonder of a movie with the ambition and reach of a spectacle like 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of its many virtues is how this modest little film evokes such feelings of profundity: love, loss, significance, time. A man (Casey Affleck) dies, but hangs around his true love (Rooney Mara) invisibly lingering in the house they used to live in, observing her grief but unable to console her. Only a plain bed-sheet with little eyeholes cut out camouflages Affleck. As the ghost remains trapped in his former home (and a thoughtful box 1.33 aspect ratio), the world soldiers onward without him. The film starts off as a study of grief, but as it jumps forward and backward in time, it turns into something unclassifiable – it’s both monumental and intimate. Oh, and the use of sound and music –*speechless*. We’ll be revisiting this one and talking about it for years to come. A Ghost Story is one of the year’s most transporting experiences. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.

4) Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadignino’s Call Me By Your Name is the most romantic film of the year. This story of first love in the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy is so poetically realized with perfectly measured performances. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old musical prodigy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer) is the older graduate student living with Elio’s family for the summer. The fabulous cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captures the lush beauty of its Italian setting but not in a way that calls attention to details in the frame – the 35mm images are more poetic than bombastic. Guadignino masterfully engages all of our senses – we don’t merely see and hear Call Me By Your Name; this is an experience to be touched, felt, even smelled. The film’s secret weapon belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father – he delivers the film’s best moment in a monologue that’s unforgettable and quietly devastating. Sufjan Stevens’ supplies two songs that capture the feeling of recounted love. This movie wrecked me. Currently playing in theaters.

5) Dunkirk

The masterful Christopher Nolan has engineered the rare war movie that is about surviving as opposed to winning. Nolan flings us into the air, the sea, and on the ground as the film recounts Operation Dynamo – one of the most heroic and important evacuations in modern history – in three interwoven sections that unfold over different time frames. This is a prime example of the big budget indie – a structurally complex picture with a $100 million budget. Dunkirk obliterates your notions of what a war film should look and feel like. In doing so, Nolan conveys the breathtaking scope of a seemingly insurmountable task. The cast includes Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance. I saw it twice: the first was a 70mm screening, and the second was on an IMAX screen – I was blown away both times. Dunkirk is a monumental achievement – a WWII epic of staggering beauty. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.

6) The Florida Project

Sean Baker has a knack for finding people on the margins of American society and showing us their world. He did that with Tangerine and he’s done it again with The Florida Project, a beautiful portrait of life in the shadow of the happiest place on earth. The film takes place primarily at a cheap, purple motel called The Magic Castle – it is both alluringly close and unavailingly far from the Magic Kingdom. Half of the film unfolds from the perspective of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the queen of mischief. The other half presents the privations of the girl’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggling to protect her daughter from the harsh realities of poverty. Baker draws strong performances from his cast, particularly Prince and a never-better Willem Dafoe as the manager of the motel. The Florida Project is simultaneously the most joyful and the most heartbreaking movie of the year. Current playing in theaters.

7) Personal Shopper

The most polarizing film on my Top 10 of 2017 list is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. The film marks his second collaboration with Kristen Stewart. Maureen (Stewart) is an American in Paris trying to make contact with her dead twin brother, all while contending with mysterious text messages from an unknown source that seems to know her every move and location. You may ask yourself what it all means – that’s beside the point here. Personal Shopper is an eerie ghost story, a Hitchcockian murder mystery, and a mournful contemplation of grief and loss. A long section of the film consists of text exchanges and this movie offers up proof that a skilled filmmaker can turn text-messaging sequences into frighteningly exhilarating cinema. Personal Shopper offers contemplative ruminations on industry narcissism and mortality, features a number of genuinely terrifying set pieces, and has one of the best central performances in recent memory. Currently available on Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD and streaming on Netflix.

8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s bleak, funny, and heartbreaking picture is very much a movie of the now – a statement about hot-button issues like sexual violence, racism, and police brutality and ineptitude. But it dodges Movies About Something conventions at every corner and remains as thorny, unforgiving, and as shrewd as the grieving mother at the center of the film, Mildred (Frances McDormand). There’s a rage in her that is exhilarating to witness. Perhaps it is because it’s a rage that isn’t available to everyone. There are plenty of laughs and an impressive amount of mayhem and gore on display but McDonagh’s script treats its dark subject matter seriously. He isn’t concerned with likability – he highlights his characters’ weaknesses, stubbornness, and faults. The film has career-best performances from McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was an unusually controversial choice for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year. Currently playing in theaters.

9) Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig makes her feature debut as solo writer-director and her semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is both deeply personal and universally relatable. Saoirse Ronan is at her absolute best as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high-school senior searching to find her place in the world. She longs to fly away from her hometown of Sacramento, California for New York City because that’s where culture is. One of the things I like best about Gerwig’s screenplay is that she doesn’t try to make Lady Bird all that likeable all the time, and the film derives its emotional power from her strained relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalfe, excellent). Everyone in Lady Bird’s world is sharply and affectionately drawn. One of the most observant and authentic voices in the movies today has just proven with Lady Bird that she has the directorial chops to match. I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next. Currently playing in theaters.

10) The Shape of Water

The AGO has had an exhibition dedicated to the works of Guillermo del Toro and this exhibition is now entering its fourth month. It’s not difficult to understand why. The Shape of Water certifies del Toro as a world-class artist. This is the work of a creative master gleefully and completely unfettered. Here, he conjures up a dream-like fantasy of a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) at a Cold-war era research facility who falls for an amphibious creature. Where does he come from? What does the director of the facility (Michael Shannon) plan to do with him? Don’t analyze it too much. Just dive in. There’s magic to be found here. The Shape of Water is a hauntingly beautiful homage to everything that’s come out of Hollywood – monster movies, silent pictures, and musicals – but he transcends mere pastiche to deliver something so poignant and sweet without eschewing man’s ugliest impulses. What a breathtaking creature-feature romance! Currently playing in theaters.

Honorable Mentions: Blade Runner 2049, Dawson City: Frozen Time, Faces Places, Get Out, Logan Lucky, The Lost City of Z, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound, A Quiet Passion, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Personal Shopper

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Grade: A

Director Olivier Assayas reunites with his ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ star Kristen Stewart in ‘Personal Shopper’ and I have to say on the basis of these two films alone, this is one of the most exciting director/performer duos in the movies today. “A movie isn’t supposed to have answers, it’s supposed to raise questions.” This is what Assayas said at the ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ premiere at TIFF 2015. I thought back to this quote after seeing ‘Personal Shopper’ on Sunday night. There were a number of things I couldn’t explain. So, I went to see it again Monday night. On second viewing, I was even more confused – there were now three possible interpretations as opposed to the two I had after my initial viewing. But with such a peculiar, compulsively involving, and puzzling piece of work, who needs to have the answers?

‘Personal Shopper’ starts off as a ghost story. In the opening minutes, we see Maureen (Stewart) arriving at a dark, creaky, rambling old house. Here, she waits for a sign from a spirit that may be residing within. She isn’t a paranormal investigator by trade. This is personal for her. The home used to belong to her brother, Lewis, who recently died of the same heart defect she has. Lewis promised that if he died first, he would make contact with her to let her know that he was at peace and that there was some kind of afterlife. Assayas’ camera moves stealthily through the darkened halls and what transpires is unnerving if inexplicable.

Maureen works as a personal assistant and shopper in Paris for a spoiled socialite named Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), buying her expensive clothing and jewellery for public appearances. She resents her job. Kyra might as well be a spirit – she’s never around and when she is, she barely acknowledges Maureen’s presence (other than to say she wants to keep the pricey items that were lent out to her). Maureen’s job keeps her from communing with her dead twin. She eventually finds herself plagued by mysterious text messages from an unknown source that seems to know her every move and location. The possibility that the sender is flesh-and-blood is muted because she wants to believe these texts are coming from beyond the grave.

‘Personal Shopper’ is a Hitchcockian murder mystery. It’s a moving story about grief. It’s a haunting supernatural thriller. Assayas masterfully shifts multiple related but distinct genres and levels of consciousness. Not for a moment did I feel the movie adhered to any genre conventions whatsoever – it is very much its own unclassifiable entity. The section I liked the most sounds the least exciting – those bizarre and increasingly creepy text messages Maureen receives. A long section of the film consists of text exchanges and this movie offers up proof that a skilled filmmaker can turn text-messaging sequences into frighteningly exhilarating cinema.

I can’t be sure which of my three interpretations is “right” but Assayas juggles all these possibilities and maintains their respective mysteries without letting things dissolve into nonsensical woo woo. Stewart gives the performance her still-developing career. This is a tricky role – a strong central character that modulates her performance depending on the person she interacts with. She’s a different version of herself to the various people she interacts with throughout the film – she is consistently authentic in each of those modes and there isn’t a false note anywhere to be found. Her smallest gestures resonate. She’s in nearly every frame and the camera hangs onto her every mood and movement. The days of ‘Twilight’ are long behind her. She now delivers finely nuanced work film after film. Those on the lookout for great acting can find her doing just that it in ‘Personal Shopper’, or ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, or ‘Certain Women’. It’s also worth noting that Stewart was the first American actress to win the Cesar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her work here.

Some viewers will find ‘Personal Shopper’ too ambiguous for their liking. We are dropped in the middle of the action and we’re required to piece things together by observation. There are narrative strands that are intentionally irresolute but it never feels disjointed. The first audience to see it at the Cannes Film Festival last year booed the movie. That means nothing. Those who are open to experiencing something challenging and original will find that ‘Personal Shopper’ offers contemplative ruminations on industry narcissism and mortality, features a number of genuinely terrifying set pieces, and has one of the best central performances in recent memory. Regardless of how you choose to intellectually disentangle ‘Personal Shopper’, it has a raw emotional effect that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. This is the best film of 2017 so far. QED.

2017 Oscar Predictions

oscars-2017-nominations

The 89th Academy Awards wraps up the 2016 awards season on Sunday, February 26th. Included below are my predictions for all 24 categories. I’m expecting ‘La La Land’ to take home ten trophies in total (just short of the record 11 shared by ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Titanic’, and ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’).

Best Picture
‘Arrival’
‘Fences’
‘Hacksaw Ridge’
‘Hell or High Water’
‘Hidden Figures’
‘La La Land’
‘Lion’
‘Manchester by the Sea’
‘Moonlight’

Will win: ‘La La Land’
Should win: ‘Moonlight’

Best Director
Damien Chazelle (‘La La Land’)
Mel Gibson (‘Hacksaw Ridge’)
Barry Jenkins (‘Moonlight’)
Kenneth Lonergan (‘Manchester by the Sea’)
Denis Villeneuve (‘Arrival’)

Will win: Damien Chazelle (‘La La Land’)
Should win: Barry Jenkins (‘Moonlight’)

Best Actor
Casey Affleck (‘Manchester by the Sea’)
Andrew Garfield (‘Hacksaw Ridge’)
Ryan Gosling (‘La La Land’)
Viggo Mortensen (‘Captain Fantastic’)
Denzel Washington (‘Fences’)

Will win: Denzel Washington (‘Fences’)
Should win: Casey Affleck (‘Manchester by the Sea’)

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert (‘Elle’)
Ruth Negga (‘Loving’)
Natalie Portman (‘Jackie’)
Emma Stone (‘La La Land’)
Meryl Streep (‘Florence Foster Jenkins’)

Will win: Emma Stone (‘La La Land’)
Should win: Emma Stone (‘La La Land’)

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (‘Moonlight’)
Jeff Bridges (‘Hell or High Water’)
Lucas Hedges (‘Manchester by the Sea’)
Dev Patel (‘Lion’)
Michael Shannon (‘Nocturnal Animals’)

Will win: Mahershala Ali (‘Moonlight’)
Should win: Mahershala Ali (‘Moonlight’)

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis (‘Fences’)
Naomie Harris (‘Moonlight’)
Nicole Kidman (‘Lion’)
Octavia Spencer (‘Hidden Figures’)
Michelle Williams (‘Manchester By the Sea’)

Will win: Viola Davis (‘Fences’)
Should win: Michelle Williams (‘Manchester By the Sea’)

Best Animated Feature
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’
‘Moana’
‘My Life as a Zucchini’
‘The Red Turtle’
‘Zootopia’

Will win: ‘Zootopia’
Should win: ‘Zootopia’

Best Documentary
‘13th’
‘Fire at Sea’
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
‘Life, Animated’
‘OJ: Made in America’

Will win: ‘OJ: Made in America’
Should win: ‘OJ: Made in America’

Best Foreign Language Film
 ‘Land of Mine’
‘A Man Called Ove’
‘The Salesman’
‘Tanna’
‘Toni Erdmann’

Will win: ‘The Salesman’
Should win: ‘Toni Erdmann’

Best Original Screenplay
‘20th Century Women’
‘Hell or High Water’
‘La La Land’
‘The Lobster’
‘Manchester by the Sea’

Will win: ‘La La Land’
Should win: ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Best Adapted Screenplay
‘Arrival’
‘Fences’
‘Hidden Figures’
‘Lion’
‘Moonlight’

Will win: ‘Moonlight’
Should win: ‘Moonlight’

Best Film Editing
‘Arrival’
‘Hacksaw Ridge’
‘Hell or High Water’
‘La La Land’
‘Moonlight’

Will win: ‘La La Land’

Best Original Score
‘Jackie’
‘La La Land’
‘Lion’
‘Moonlight’
‘Passengers’

Will win: ‘La La Land’

Best Original Song
Audition (‘La La Land’)
Can’t Stop The Feeling! (‘Trolls’)
City of Stars (‘La La Land’)
The Empty Chair (‘The James Foley Story’)
How Far I’ll Go (‘Moana’)

Will win: City of Stars (‘La La Land’)

Best Visual Effects
‘Deepwater Horizon’
‘Doctor Strange’
‘The Jungle Book’
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Will win: ‘The Jungle Book’

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
‘A Man Called Ove’
‘Star Trek Beyond’
‘Suicide Squad’
 
Will win: ‘Star Trek Beyond’

Best Costume Design
‘Allied’
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
‘Jackie’
‘La La Land’

Will win: ‘Jackie’

Best Production Design
‘Arrival’
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’
‘Hail, Caesar!’
‘La La Land’
‘Passengers’

Will win: ‘La La Land’

Best Cinematography
‘Arrival’
‘La La Land’
‘Lion’
‘Moonlight’
‘Silence’

Will win: ‘La La Land’

Best Sound Editing
‘Arrival’
‘Deepwater Horizon’
‘Hacksaw Ridge’
‘La La Land’
‘Sully’

Will win: ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

Best Sound Mixing
‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’
‘Arrival’
‘Hacksaw Ridge’
‘La La Land’
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Will win: ‘La La Land’

Best Animated Short
‘Blind Vaysha’
‘Borrowed Time’
‘Pear Cider and Cigarettes’
‘Pearl’
‘Piper’

Will win: ‘Piper’

Best Live Action Short
‘Ennemis Interieurs’
‘La Femme et le TGV’
‘Sing (Mindenki)’
‘Silent Nights’
‘Timecode’

Will win: ‘La Femme et le TGV’

Best Documentary Short
‘4.1 Miles’
‘Extremis’
‘Joe’s Violin’
‘Watani: My Homeland’
‘The White Helmets’

Will win: ‘The White Helmets’

Top 10 Films of 2016

Top 10 Films of 2016

2016 was a strange year for reasons you already know. In confusing times, the best films can provide relief or provide clarity and meaning to the intricacies of our world today. No unifying element links the year’s best films except their quality. The variety and different filmmaking voices from around the world is something we should celebrate. I had a tough time narrowing down my year-end list to just 10 films. Here are my picks for the best films of 2016:

1) Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight’ is the best film of the year. In the broadest sense, it’s about being black, gay, poor, and largely friendless. In its specificity, it deals with universal subjects of masculinity, identity, race, culture, sexuality, and family. It is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen – both in terms of Jenkins’ visual poetry and in the power of its story. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, ‘Moonlight’ tells the story of a young Miami man named Chiron, who is portrayed, over about 20 years, by three different actors. The three actors who play Chiron all somehow seem to be the same person; we’re engulfed in an ocean of empathy as we drop into moments of his formation. Jenkins vividly depicts a section of Miami we don’t often see in the cinema. You feel the humidity of the afternoon sunshine. The water and the beach around it feel like an escape from the harsh realities of the real world. The restless camerawork, the vibrant and vivid colors, and the distinctive soundtrack all combine to give the movie atmosphere. ‘Moonlight’ has an astoundingly good ensemble: the three actors who play Chiron at various stages in his life (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes), Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monae. It’s a quiet, understated, and intimate film. And then all of a sudden, bam! It sneaks up on you and you find yourself releasing tears. ‘Moonlight’ is a movie that believes in people and the possibility it offers for compassion, community, and human understanding is something we really need right now. Currently playing in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD February 28th.

2) Manchester by the Sea

Now, this may not sound like a joyous cinematic experience but I swear this is the funniest film about tragedy, loss, and coping ever made: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston custodian who after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), is forced to return to his seaside hometown, the site of some very painful memories, to take on the responsibility as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Kenneth Lonergan’s achingly exquisite movie of life after loss immerses us in a world of pain, segueing between past and present effortlessly, while slowly revealing the source of that pain. Lonergan explores how grief is not something we learn to get over but that we learn to live with. There are no easy answers, or pat resolutions and there’s a rare authenticity to every element. The superb screenplay is a miraculous combination of tragedy and wit. Michele Williams and Affleck give career-best performances and young Hedges is a revelation. I think I literally heard my heart break during this one. The tears will flow, and they will be earned. Currently in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD February 21st.

3) Midnight Special

‘Midnight Special’ is a taut fugitive-on-the-run picture, a gripping science-fiction thriller, a concise case for narrative minimalism, and a beautiful film about faith and fatherhood. Jeff Nichols’ breathtaking entry into genre filmmaking manages to be both grounded and awe-inspiring. The story follows two parents (terrifically understated performances from Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst) on the run to protect their child from government agents and doomsday cultists. What’s so important about this one little boy? You will have to discover that for yourself. What I can say is that the sense of mystery, mood, and tone is incredible. In terms of filmmaking, ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a John Carpenter movie, from the ominous electro score to the empty visual spaces. Thematically, the film’s biggest influence is Steven Spielberg. ‘Midnight Special’ is ultimately about what it means to be a parent and how far we’re willing to go to protect our children. Nine months after seeing the movie, it still lingers in my mind. Nichols made two quietly powerful, terrific films this year – the other is the interracial drama ‘Loving’ which is on my runners-up list. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.

4) Toni Erdmann

What if I told you one of the best films of 2016 features a Bulgarian hair monster? The latest from German director Maren Ade is a masterpiece – a fearlessly entertaining look into parent/child bonding. After his dog dies, Winfred (Peter Simonischek) leaves Germany to pay a surprise visit to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate consultant in Bucharest. Sporting joke-shop false teeth and an elaborate wig, Winfred’s portrayal of the titular alter ago is a source of unremitting embarrassment for Ines who is every bit as humorless as her prankster father is impish. This movie will change the way you think about a lot of things: workplace sexism, the effect of a managerial culture on social relationships, generational estrangement, and how performance and role-playing can be used as devices to explore unchartered emotional terrain. It is wildly funny, deeply moving, and genuinely unpredictable (especially in its climactic set piece). I’ve already said too much. The less you know going in, the better. Just see it. Trust me. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is Germany’s official foreign-language Oscar submission. It deserves the win. Opens in Toronto theaters January 27th.

5) La La Land

‘La La Land’ was the clear audience favorite at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have amazing chemistry as two aspiring artists (one jazz pianist, one actress) who fall giddily in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom in Los Angeles. While paying homage to Old Hollywood, French New Wave, and classic Hollywood romances, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance musical leaps off the screen with resplendent, infectious energy. ‘La La Land’ looks like the world we dream about but without masking the harsh realities that can come out of those dreams. Stone kills it. The opening freeway traffic-jam number will leave you gobsmacked and the show-stopping final segment is a heartbreaking denouement. Both are among the finest moments the cinema has ever known. The stuff in between is pretty terrific too. It’s shot in CinemaScope, and yet it’s an intimate masterwork. Though different in tone, ‘La La Land’ makes for a great double bill with Chazelle’s previous film, ‘Whiplash’ which was also zeroed in on the costs and the glories of artistic ambition. Currently playing in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD April 11th.

6) The Handmaiden

‘The Handmaiden’ is a fetishistic delight from Park Chan-wook that’s part romantic melodrama, part crime thriller, part puzzle box. Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ has been transported from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied South Korea. The story involves a petty thief who pretends to be a servant girl to help a con man marry an heiress kept captive by her depraved uncle. Their increasingly complicated love triangle takes them and the movie to places you wouldn’t imagine, while advancing an argument about gender, repression, sexuality, culture, and class. The film is just luscious – every frame is constructed for maximal impact. I loved the imagery, the score, the performances, and the pot-boiler of a plot – it’s a strikingly assured piece of filmmaking on every level. It’s also got some unexpectedly big laughs that come at the expense of dim-witted and outsmarted men. But what surprised me the most about ‘The Handmaiden’ is the story’s faith in the power of true love. No really, I swear! The director of ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Stoker’ has made a wildly romantic film. It is also by far his best one. Currently playing in theaters.

7) Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a keenly observant meditation on contentment. It’s a story of a week in the quiet life of a bus driver who writes poetry. Adam Driver is the bus driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, home to one of America’s most famous poets, William Carlos Williams. Paterson lives a life of calculated routine: awake at 6 am, goes to work, home by 6 pm, chats with his personable artist wife (Golshifteh Farahani), walks the dog, downs a beer at the local tavern, and finds time in between to scribble the odd verse. Everything he encounters fuels his art. ‘Paterson’ makes us believe that poetry is everywhere and that if we look at something or someone long enough, we may get clues to why we are here and what it is all about. What a joy it was to watch a film where kindness functions as the main currency between people. Like great poetry, ‘Paterson’ gave me a feeling of serenity. If you’re ever feeling emotionally rundown by life, this is the movie to see. Opens in Toronto theaters February 3rd.

8) Zootopia

My favorite animated film of 2016 and one of my favorite animated movies ever is ‘Zootopia’. In a really politically divisive year, this was the movie we needed: a depiction of a mammalian metropolis where predator and prey live together harmoniously but are at risk of giving in to their baser instincts. Its tail – sorry, tale, of a female rabbit who becomes Zootopia’s first rabbit cop and investigates a missing mammals case with the aid of her sly fox pal keeps one foot planted firmly in the real world. It’s sweet, funny, has moxie, is layered with wit and incident, and is laden with positive messages that worked in story terms and emotional terms. The animation and the world created are amazingly detailed. The voice cast is pitch-perfect. ‘Zootopia’ finds the perfect balance between enlightenment and entertainment. I am amazed that an animated film had the courage to have us accept our inherent shortcomings and have us admit that we could do better. Oh, and the DMV being operated by a painfully sloowwww all-sloths staff – brilliant in its comic timing. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

9) Sing Street

Like ‘La La Land’, ‘Sing Street’ is a joyous musical about identity and dreams vs. reality. There’s an infectious energy to this movie that I found really endearing. It’s an inspiring, heartfelt coming-of-age comedy set in Catholic 1980s Dublin about a misfit teen who starts a rock band to impress the beautiful badass girl who lives across the street from his school. Their creative venture serves as a welcome distraction from their miserable lives at school and conflict at home. They cast about for influences, riffing on pop personas such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and The Cure. As we see the group shoot their music videos early on, it’s clear no one knows what they’re doing. But the songs they perform – all originals – are terrific. Director John Carney’s film feels extremely personal in a way that is universal. It is about how great joy rises audaciously from distress. In other words, it’s about why bands are formed in the first place. Try not to smile. I dare you. ‘Sing Street’ is the essence of charm. And yeah, I cried. Twice. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

10) ‘Dheepan’

Every now and then, a movie comes along that we respond to on personal terms. Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ is an example of such a movie for me. It’s the story of a former Tamil Tiger starting fresh in Paris with a makeshift family. I’m Sri Lankan. Both my parents are Tamil. Watching ‘Dheepan’, I found it next to impossible to find the boundary between art and life. Though the movie arrived in theaters a year after its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, it hadn’t lost its sense of urgency. This is a movie committed to understanding displacement and is for anyone who empathizes with the immigrant experience. The characters may have fled danger in Sri Lanka. But, the threat of violence only transfigures itself. When they arrive in France, they continue to long for home. Though Audiard’s films have a gritty quality, he has a great deal of warmth and is sympathetic to the plight of his protagonists. All three of the central performers are newcomers, and the acting here is outstanding. ‘Dheepan’ is a masterfully plotted motion picture. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

Honorable Mentions: ‘Arrival’, ‘Certain Women’, ‘Green Room’, ‘Hell or High Water’, ‘Loving’, ‘Nocturnal Animals’,‘The Revenant’, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, ‘Sully’, ‘Under the Shadow’

Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)

Grade: A

Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ is one of the best films of 2016. It tells the story of a young Miami man named Chiron, who is portrayed, over about 20 years, by three different actors. Based on an unproduced, semi-autobiographical stage play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, ‘Moonlight’ is an intensely personal film. Jenkins rearranges McCraney’s nonlinear narrative into three distinct chapters in the life of Chiron (played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert, as an adolescent by Ashton Sanders and a grown man by Trevante Rhodes).

We first encounter Chiron running away from a bunch of other kids who want to beat him up. He is smaller than most of them – they call him ‘Little’ (which is the name of this chapter). He is different in ways he doesn’t fully understand. They suspect that he might be gay. His mother, Paula (Naomi Harris, riveting) tumbles from infrequent drug user to full-on junkie – she knows why he is bullied. Paula and Chiron live in a housing project. Juan (Mahershala Ali, fantastic) controls the drug traffic in the neighborhood and ends up becoming a father figure to Chiron. Juan lives with his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) – their home becomes a place of refuge for Chiron. But, we know that Juan is the root of Paula’s pain. There is a heartbreaking scene where Chiron asks Juan some really tough questions: “My mama does drugs?” “And you sell the drugs?” “What’s a faggot?”

In the film’s second chapter, ‘Chiron’, our central character is an awkward teenager coming to terms with his sexual orientation, dealing with more intense bullying, and trying to figure out his place in the world. His boyhood friend Kevin (who grows from Jaden Piner to Jharrel Jerome) is the source of his most beautiful memory and his most painful.

We see how Chiron responds to all of this in the film’s final section, ‘Black’. He’s in his late 20s, stoic and muscular – he has built armor around himself after what he has endured. We get a sense of the long-lasting effects of Chiron’s lifelong search for love, acceptance, and understanding. An unexpected phone call from Kevin (now embodied by Andre Holland) reconnects these two men after a decade. A prolonged, nearly real-time conversation between these two at a diner where Kevin works as a cook is one of the film’s most powerful scenes.

Though the narrative is structurally episodic, it doesn’t feel that way in part because Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter. You’ll notice uniformity in the body language, verbal tics and downcast gazes. It’s easy to believe we’re seeing the same person throughout.

I noticed the complete absence of white people in ‘Moonlight’. In its specificity, it deals with universal themes about masculinity, identity, race, culture, sexuality, and family. But, this story needed to be told this way. Chiron faces oppression from black adversaries, not white people. Jenkins doesn’t present black kids beating each other up to abdicate black masculinity. It’s there so we learn to accept the reality of what it is like to be black, gay, poor, and mostly friendless.

‘Moonlight’ is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen – both in terms of its visuals and in the power of its story. You feel the humidity of the afternoon sunshine. The water and the beach around it feel like an escape from the harsh realities of the real world. The restless camerawork, the vibrant and vivid colors, and the distinctive soundtrack (hip hop, R&B, classical, Nicholas Britell’s subtly emotive score) all combine to give the movie atmosphere.

In terms of structure and tone, there is a naturalism that brings to mind Richard Linklater’s gentle masterwork ‘Boyhood’. Neither film is driven by the mechanics of plot. Instead, they channel the flow of real life. Both films present the idea that there are moments, big and small, that define who we are and that we are shaped most by the people in our lives.

‘Moonlight’ isn’t the big, loud, melodramatic experience some viewers may be expecting it to be. It’s a quiet, understated, and intimate film. And then all of a sudden, bam! It sneaks up on you and you find yourself either fighting tears or releasing them. In this regard, it’s similar to ‘Manchester by the Sea’, another 2016 favorite opening November 25th.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took a lot of heat earlier this year for its lack of diversity amongst the nominees. ‘Moonlight’ doesn’t have the scale that Academy nominators tend to favor, but it’s exactly the kind of film they should be recognizing more often. I suspect this will be the year they get it right. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali – I’d say he’s the frontrunner in this category), and Best Screenplay. ‘Moonlight’ isn’t a movie we just see. We feel it. Our heart rate rises and falls as we watch it. And it’s a movie that stays in our minds long after the end credits have rolled. QED.

The Best of TIFF 2016

Did we get many great movies at TIFF 2016? I say yes but this isn’t an easy question to answer. Even though I managed to catch 28 films at the festival, this only accounts for about 9% of the entire lineup. Within this limited window, it was a terrific year – easily among the very best I’ve experienced in my years of attending the festival. Some notable films I missed (but look forward to catching up with in the fall) are: ‘Jackie’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, and ‘Queen of Katwe’. Among the movies I’ve seen, here are my top picks from TIFF16. 

1  ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is, as of this writing, the best film I’ve seen in 2016. I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t receive Oscar nominations in the major categories. When Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is forced to return to his hometown, the site of some very painful memories, to take on the responsibility as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This achingly exquisite movie of life after loss immerses us in a world of pain, segueing between past and present effortlessly, while slowly revealing the source of that pain. It may not sound like a joyous cinematic experience, but what caught me off-guard was just how funny the movie was. This superb screenplay is sprinkled with many hilarious moments, mostly between Lee and his nephew. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams will likely receive well-deserved Oscar nominations, but young Hedges is the revelation here. Affleck gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen; it’s a surprisingly physical one – his mannerisms and gestures point to the turmoil within. We feel his pain through what is not said. I think I literally heard my heart break during this one – I defy anyone to watch ‘Manchester by the Sea’ without releasing tears. Release Date: November 25th.

2.   ‘Toni Erdmann’

What if I told you one of the very best films of 2016 features a Bulgarian hair monster? The latest from German director Maren Ade is, quite simply, a masterpiece – a fearlessly entertaining look into parent/child bonding. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate consultant in Bucharest who is every bit as ambitious, stressed, and humorless as her prankster father Winfred (Peter Simonischek) is impish. Imagine Ines’ discomfort when her father pays a surprise visit. If Yasujirō Ozu ever made a comedy, it might look something some like ‘Toni Erdmann’ – the family relationship dynamics reminded me of ‘Tokyo Story’. Though its focus is on the central relationship, the scope is wide enough to consider workplace sexism, the effect of a managerial culture on social relationships, generational estrangement, and how performance and role-playing can be used as devices to explore unchartered emotional terrain. It has a runtime of 162 minutes, but I promise it will be the shortest 3 hours you will spend in a movie theater this year. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is wildly funny, deeply moving, and genuinely unpredictable (especially in its climactic set piece which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you). Release Date: December 25thstateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.  

3.   ‘La La Land’

A lot has already been said about ‘La La Land’. It won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF16, the festival’s most prominent award which is determined by audience members and not a jury. Unlike previous years, this year’s winner was easy to predict. As I was exiting the Elgin Theater, it was clear that the movie worked its magic on us all. Never before had I witnessed so many folks submit their ticket in the voting box as they were leaving the venue. A jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom in Los Angeles. While paying homage to Old Hollywood (‘Singin’ In The Rain’), French New Wave (‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’), and classic Hollywood romances, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance musical feels exhilaratingly alive and new. ‘La La Land’ looks like the world we dream about but without masking the harsh realities that can come out of those dreams. The opening sequence and the ending are among the finest moments the cinema has ever known. The stuff in between is pretty terrific too. ‘La La Land’ is an instant classic. Release Date: December 16th.  

4.            ‘The Handmaiden’

Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ draws its plot from Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ about a petty thief who pretends to be a servant girl to help a con man marry an heiress kept captive by her depraved uncle. The book was set in Victorian England but Park moves the story to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s.  The film employs a three-part structure to tell the story from three different perspectives, playing with our knowledge of who is in charge and who is being strung along before doubling back in on itself again and again. It’s a vision of repression, sexuality, culture, and class that is absolutely gorgeous and unsettling – a strikingly assured piece of filmmaking on every level. I loved the imagery, the score, the performances, and the pot-boiler of a plot. What surprised me the most about ‘The Handmaiden’ (and Park acknowledged this when he introduced the film at TIFF) is how wildly romantic it is. It is certainly his tamest film to date. It is also his very best. I don’t know why South Korea submitted ‘Age of Shadows’ to the Academy nominators for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration over ‘The Handmaiden’. Release Date: November 28th.

5.        ‘Paterson’

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a keenly observant work of poetry. We get a glimpse into a week in the quiet life of a bus driver who writes poetry. Adam Driver is the bus driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey – an intentional circular joke on Jarmusch’s part I’m sure. Paterson lives a life of calculated routine: awake at 6 am, home by 6 pm, chats with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani, excellent) walks the dog, and downs a beer at the local tavern. I wanted to be more like our titular character – one who is fully aware of the beauty in the world around him, and revels in life’s simple pleasures. Everything he encounters fuels his art. ‘Paterson’ makes us believe that all of us are artists of different sorts whether we know it or not and that if we look at something or someone long enough, it may become the impetus for a captivating narrative. Nearly a week after seeing this movie, I’m still parsing its beautiful text. I could have easily spent another week or two with Paterson. Release Date: December 28th stateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.

Also Great: ‘Aquarius’, ‘Arrival’, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘Loving’, ‘Sand Storm’