Thieves, Storytellers, and Wilderpeople: The Best of 2016



Word of the street could be heard loud and clear over the previous couple of months: on top of the elevated number of celebrity deaths and the hostile presidential election, 2016 has been labeled a pretty bad -- at best, lackluster -- year for the movies. While the first two points are tough to dispute, I can’t really agree with the third. Sure, there might be a lack of heavy-hitting, culturally significant dramas in the pool this time around, but this has been an exceptional year for genre films, many of which ascended above their niches and accomplished something noteworthy. Claustrophobic horror films adopted challenging contexts involving their respective scenarios, animated films expressed rich themes and motifs centered on coming-of-age and diversity, and a few of the more noteworthy dramatic portrayals of the year found narrative power and personality through earnest levity. And an R-rated superhero movie kicked a lot of ass by just being its own vulgar, fourth-wall-breaking self. Below, you’ll find ten favorites -- and a few honorable mentions -- that I'll be taking away from what should be considered an under-appreciated year of film, and while I always keep things alphabetical to avoid arbitrary rankings, you can go ahead and chalk up the first film appearing on this list to be my humble choice for the one that resonates strongest of the lot.

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve has explored dark themes and big concepts in his previous works, from the grayness of renegade justice against accused child abusers in Prisoners to the necessary evils of combating Mexico's drug trade in Sicario, composing beautiful films with heavy, bleak substance. Arrival marks Villeneuve's first true foray into science-fiction, leaving one to ponder what might've drawn the director's complex outlook on the human condition to its story about figuring out how to talk with visitors from outer space, as well as the potential somberness that it might hold. While containing tough, incendiary reflections on the ways in which humans struggle to communicate amongst themselves in times of strife, there's a surprisingly uplifting and embraceable rhythm in Arrival's depiction of decoding an alien language that might be unexpected of the director, and it only deepens as this masterwork touches upon perceptions of how this mysterious universe of ours might actually work. [Full Review]


Deadpool

X-Men Origins: Wolverine suffered a number of issues upon its release, from a leaked workprint to middling reviews from both critics and comic-book aficionados alike. Yet, that reputation might've been the strongest reason why Deadpool actually got made, which could twist its legacy around in a bizarre sort of way. One blunder in Gavin Hood's take on Wolverine came in the handling of this "Merc with a Mouth", thinking it was a good idea to manually silence Wade Wilson -- and, by extension, Ryan Reynolds -- later on in the film. It was a creative risk that didn't pay off, but the response to this problematic take of the character led to a surge in attention towards getting Deadpool right, exacerbated by leaked studio test footage that proved somebody out there knew how to get it done ... and the fan response proved it's something they wanted. After years of tweaks, campaigning powered by Reynolds, and debate over the trickiness of an R-rating, the fruit of that labor is born within the gleefully violent and blatantly subversive Deadpool, and its fusion of fourth-wall-breaking and sentimentality exceeds expectations. [Full Review]


The Handmaiden

Several years back, Park Chan-wook left a subtle but disturbing impression with his first English-language film, Stoker, which took the vengeance-centered director's perspective into the space of a more closed-quartered, domestic style of psychological thriller. The Handmaiden might bring him back into the comfort zone of his native Korean tongue, but the design of his subject matter presents even bigger challenges than his previous works. Park Chan-wook's adaptation of the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters transfers the story back to '30s Japanese-occupied Korea, where a plot has been devised by a group of thieves and con artists to swindle a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko, by infliltrating her home with a specially-selected pickpocket, Sook-hee, to become her handmaiden. As one can expect from the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, things aren't as they seem on the surface, leading this tense caper film into a provocative and unpredictable downward spiral hinged on gender roles, perversion, and layers upon layers of deceit. Masterfully interweaving both unyielding thrills and brilliant expressiveness, it's arguably the director's finest.


Hell or High Water

Two brothers rob banks throughout the sleepy expanses of central Texas in David Makenzie's Hell or High Water, zipping around in what seems like a reasonably conventional setup for a modern western. Working from a script from Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the moral complexity and brewing intensity of Sicario, the film reveals that there's a good bit going on under the surface with the Howard brothers: a tale of desperation, obligation, and a little bit of redemption as they rush against the clock to protect their family's property. Hell or High Water reveals that a versatility of tone is the ace up its sleeve, shifting from a meaningful character study of a brazen ex-con and his divorced, slightly out-of-his-element brother to straight-up humor within their sibling banter. Couple that with a depiction of the nearly-retired Texas Ranger on their heels, a clever and capable officer with a quirky rapport with his Native American partner, and you've got a lot of substance filling the spaces between the pragmatic, tense heists executed by the brothers across Texas.


Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Along with slasher movies and revenge westerns, the troubled, coming-of-age teen drama has been done in so many ways that it’s hard to imagine a fresh take on the idea. Just like in real life, however, every situation like this is different, hinged on the individual kid, their prior experiences, and the types of concentration and attention in certain surroundings that’ll set them on the right path. That’s a part of what enriches Ricky’s story in Hunt for the Wilderpeople: seeing how a smart, charismatic, yet brash and rebellious teen from the city finds his comfort zone in the atmosphere of the New Zealand bush, filled with a splendid amount of humor through his wild experiences with his new foster parents, the warm “Aunt” Beck and the stoic, unlikely guardian Uncle Hec. When tragic circumstances force Ricky and Uncle Hec -- delightfully and gruffly portrayed by Sam Neill -- to tough it out in the woods around their home, director Taika Waititi (one of the guys behind Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows) infuses sharp adventure, careful wit, and authentic bonding to form a truly resonant take on this weatherworn concept.


Kubo and the Two Strings

Several years ago, the Portland-based animation company Laika Entertainment emerged on the scene with the dazzling Coraline, a stop-motion journey into a mythical world adapted from the works of Neil Gaiman. Filled with dark whimsy and meaningful allegory, the Henry Selick-directed story put the animation studio on the map with its hypnotic, outlandish fusion of reality and nightmarish fantasy. Since then, the studio has been chasing after that same kind of artistic success, yet their following works -- ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls -- have been jaw-dropping works of visual creativity that lack the kind of substance that made their introductory work such a memorable experience. When Kubo and the Two Strings came crashing onto the scene with its Japanese-inspired setting, fairytale trappings, and symbolic storytelling centered on a child's voyage amid hardship, it appeared as if Laika might've rediscovered the same type of haunting magic that filled their first feature, and that turned out to be right. This is a stunning, quite memorable piece of artistry. [Full Review]


Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is funny, surprisingly funny, something I really didn’t expect from a drama about the abrupt death of a beloved single father and the discussions of teenage custody that stem from it. Sure, Casey Affleck does a tremendous job of realizing the rattled, disgruntled personality of Lee Chandler, a janitor who’s thrust into the position of becoming the guardian to his deceased brother’s teenage son. Lonergan’s drama hits many of the anticipated roadblocks one would expect of the scenario, from figuring out a new living situation to juggling the social life of the teenage boy, amplified by Lee’s prior experiences with loss and sadness involving his ex-wife, Randi, exquisitely portrayed by Michelle Williams. What makes Lonergan’s original script so special rests in how it incorporates sharp verbal and situational humor into the despair, elevating its observations on grief, responsibility, and the struggles of moving by striking chords of endearing, frank humor along with it.


Nocturnal Animals

The thought that might creep into one's mind when they hear that a fashion designer has directed a motion picture might be one of artifice, that they've concentrated on style above substance in how they've brought their talents to a storytelling medium. Tom Ford's soulful adaptation of A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood's novel about the lingering effects of losing a loved one, proved that the designer has far more tricks up his sleeve than the glamours and expression of aesthetics, instead paving the way for sheer enthusiasm toward his next project. Ford's second feature, Nocturnal Animals, channels the polish of his freshman film into a layered, challenging psychological drama that explores grief, redemption, and how humans perceive masculinity and strength themselves, wrapped around and interwoven within an unsettling story-within-a-story that amplifies its musings. [Full Review]


Ten Cloverfield Lane

Bad Robot's Cloverfield turned out to be little more than a serviceable found-footage monster movie built around a Statue of Liberty-sized kaiju tearing through Manhattan, but the mysteries and speculation surrounding its prolonged viral marketing campaign were something to behold. An enigmatic trailer without a title, social-media pages for the characters, and websites built around the fictional brands found in the film created a long line of breadcrumbs for interested parties -- many of whom were already caught up in the puzzle-solving of LOST's missing pieces -- to follow until its release. Dan Tractenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane, a parallel spinoff set in the same universe, does almost the exact opposite, where instead of a year of promotional nudges and winks, a surprise trailer emerged mere months before the film was slated to arrive in theaters. The difference in approaches to the marketing reflects the differences between the films themselves: 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps its scale small and its intentions cerebral, producing a well-crafted paranoia thriller with apocalyptic science-fiction in its veins. [Full Review]


The Wailing

No matter how far horror movies push boundaries to desensitize audiences with physical gore and terror, there's always something unsettling about the unknowable motivations and manipulations of supernatural beings. In twisted depictions of a spiritual realm beyond our existence, they involve everything that lingers between the extremes of salvation or damnation, ones which either don't align with one's personal beliefs or have warped them into a terrifying state. Why do these being interfere with, often tormenting, the affairs of man? It's a question that lingers at the center of South Korea's The Wailing (aka Goksung), the new horror-thriller from The Chaser's Na Hong-jin, where a lethal and inexplicable disease drives others into a murderous rampage. Grueling transformations of the virulent killers and their victims are just the tip of the iceberg, as the suspected root of this evil -- a fabled stranger who just moved into a small township -- leads to an absorbingly outlandish and consistently disturbing descent into the enigmas of folklore. [Full Review]


Honorable Mentions




Most Disappointing: DC's Cinematic Universe Entries

If you were to tell me that the two best things about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice would be Ben Affleck’s temperament as the Caped Crusader and Gal Gadot’s embodiment of Wonder Woman, two of the more hotly-discussed and complained-about casting decision in the annals of superhero-film history, I would’ve thought you had bats in your belfry. That’s exactly what happened in Zack Snyder’s nonevent of a square-off between these two giants, a tonally leaden, inert blockbuster and a uninspiring way of jump-starting DC's interconnected cinematic universe. Thing is, this could be foreseeable based on Snyder’s work in Sucker Punch and Man of Steel, whereas the disjointed nature of Suicide Squad is a rare misfire for David Ayer, who gets some of the attitude -- and nearly all of Harley Quinn -- right without concentrating on a suitable narrative and respectable action beats to engage his wacky renegades. Both films planted seeds of decent characterization that could sprout up in the heroes’ later independent films, but the pair of films surrounding these comic-book icons doesn't make for a dynamic duo.


Best Videogame: Layers of Fear

In a year filled with tweaked reboots, sequels lacking innovation, games that didn’t match their touted potential and a plethora of remasters, the door was left wide open for smaller, unassertive gaming experiences to step into the spotlight. Layers of Fear, a narrative-driven horror adventure, ended up being one of those. There’s something decidedly retro in its approach to the scenario, where a mentally-unstable painter explores a warped perspective on creativity in the making of his great masterpiece, tearing apart his family and his living conditions in the process. As the painter, the player navigates the shadowy halls of the house while coping with the stresses of his everyday life in an era not directly revealed, a place with clues scattered everywhere to uncover. Like Amnesia and point-and-click adventures of yore, finding these clues and solving underlying puzzles sends Layers of Fear through a funhouse of jump-scares and ominous corridors. These reflect the painter’s psychosis as he grows nearer to completing what he believes to be his legacy, encountering legit scares and unsettling outcomes depending on choices made.


Favorite Blu-rays Covered in 2016 (Click Each for Review)





Parting Thoughts

2016 was a big year for claustrophobic horror, poetic animation, and laughs where one might've not expected them, which comes close to making up for the other lackluster areas of the cinematic world that you may have heard being harped upon. On top of that, the science-fiction lover in me also got to experience one of the more thought-provoking and soul-searching pieces of work to come out of the genre in many years, one that telegraphed crucial messages right when they seemed necessary. Here's hoping these movements forward in those genres continue throughout 2017, and that the power of the movies provides equal measures of escapism and reflection upon the current state of things throughout the year, something that should prove to be quite intriguing to write about over the coming months. All the best, readers; hope you enjoyed this rundown, and I hope the year treats you well.

Mind-Twister Shyamalan Back With Unnerving, Poignant 'Split'



Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan; Runtime: 117 minutes
Grade: B+

There was a time roughly a decade prior to the release of M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Split, where the writer/director's original storytelling had started to develop a less-than-stellar reputation, notably for his dependence on plot twists that were more elaborately anticlimactic than satisfying or shocking. People came to expect the big "Shyamalan twist" following his deliberate exposition, which tapered off from the chilling and eloquent strangeness of Unbreakable's superheroic reveals to the inane ecological surprises unearthed in the broadly-panned The Happening. Watching how Shyamalan's creations have gradually spiraled out of control over the years makes one wonder how his earlier intuition toward characters, his attention to darker themes, and his fierce grasp on mounting tension might've looked under other circumstances, had he controlled the scale of his projects and stayed truer to his more expressive and human elements. Split, a psychological thriller hinged on kidnappings and multiple personality disorder, does precisely that, which is why it's such an impressive, disturbing return to form for Shyamalan.

A trio of high-school girls are out shopping at the local mall: two (Haley Lu Richardson; Jessica Sula) are your typical contemporary, upbeat teenagers, while the third, tag-along Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), projects a darker and more stoic personality, a result of her traumatic past. On their way home, the three are strategically kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) sporting a bald head and glasses, locking them in a dimly-lit, seemingly underground room filled with sliding locks and zero visible exits to the outside world. The girls naturally develop fear toward their captor, furthered by the obsessive-compulsive attitude that gives him an added unsettling edge. What they soon learn, however, is that this is one of many personalities within the man, revealed to be a sufferer of dissociative identity disorder through his sporadic sessions with therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who views the higher functions of the disorder through a different lens. For Casey and the girls to escape, they'll have to sort out and exploit the many personalities of Kevin, though there's no telling what others loom under the surface.

Like seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense and the presence of aliens in Signs, writer/director Shyamalan once again lets conceptualization run the show in Split, that of multiple personalities being involved in the same kidnapping plot and blurring the lines of awareness and responsibility between each one. The difference lies in the reality-bound nature of his latest conceit, tapping into a degree of relatively realistic mechanisms in the alternating personas, a glimpse at how the actual mental disorder functions. Sure, variations of this have appeared in other psychological thrillers, from Hitchcockian classics to modern big-twist suspense flicks; however, the dangers presented to the three girls are specific and candid in relation to the disorder, with the villain's observable shifts in character offering states of consciousness for them to fear and others which they can use to their advantage. There's no speculation as to whether that's what going on, but plenty of anticipation behind seeing the directions that Shyamalan's willing to take it through his creative scripting.



Turns out, Split takes the multiple-personality concept farther than one might anticipate from a PG-13-rated suspense film built around captured teenage girls, and it's hinged on the shifting, tenacious performance from James McAvoy as he brings the villain's many iterations to life. Each one has its own distinctive traits that alter their relationship with his captives, spanning from an obsessive-compulsive aggressor, "Dennis", who's responsible for the brunt of the threatening suspense, to a 9-year-old boy, "Hedwig", who ends up being a quirky dose of comedic relief and a window into the villain's vulnerabilities. Observing how the personalities are kept inline and how he interacts with his longstanding therapist becomes just as much of a study of his character -- and the unique parameters of his condition -- as it does a suspense film. What's fascinating about McAvoy's performance isn't just how he takes on these distinct personas, but how they all share very faint common traits tied to the actual person lying underneath them all, brilliantly realized with McAvoy's ferocious eyes and sardonic speech.

The thrills in Split swing on those changes in the captor's psychosis, along with the resourcefulness of the three girls trapped in a musty underground bunker, filled with stone walls and twisted pipes that give this psychological thriller plenty of texture. Shyamalan has written a trio of young women who aren't comfortable being victims, though: they're smart and tenacious, to a point where they even resist the idea of strategic submissiveness. The brains getting them through their dilemma is Casey, whose harrowing back-story plays out in concurrent flashbacks that have deliberate, meaningful ties to the film's cerebral suspense, empowering her through the suffering of her childhood. The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy channels distraught gazes and unassuming willpower into Casey as she adapts and tries to outwit their captor, taking on its own significance amid the film's breathlessly claustrophobic plays on dominance and deception. She's a heroine who earns the right to be rooted for, driven by another performance from Anya Taylor-Joy that deepens the emotive reality of the chaos going on around her.

Split wouldn't be one of M. Night Shyamalan's works without a twist or two, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's got a few tricks up his sleeve, ones that directly feed off the two-dozen beings residing in the depths of Kevin's mental space. Shyamalan isn't relying on them to make or break his film this time, though, as the instability of Kevin and the efforts of Casey and the girls to escape from his clutches -- their clutches? -- stands strong on its own as an absorbing demonstration of psychological terror, even if there are a few engineered red herrings and obstacles that serve little purpose beyond doubling-down on the captives' desperate conditions. This twist, a manifestation of the true power of the personalities vying for control within the villain, takes Split down an outlandish, borderline unnatural path, yet it never loosens its grip on the intentions and significance of what happened prior, all while sinking its teeth into an explanation to why Kevin captured the girls. What Shyamalan comes up with at the end, and the motivation behind piecing it all together, has brought the director back into the light.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

'In a Valley of Violence': Doggone Familiar, Lacks Firepower



Directed by: Ti West; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: C-

The western genre has enjoyed a rejuvenation, a renaissance of sorts, over the past decade, but it's reached a point where new entries either need to possess something truly distinctive or get the weathered, lawless atmosphere just right to leave the impression that it's worth pursuing. As of late, entirely competent and sufficiently entertaining westerns that don't really go that extra mile -- even one or two that do -- get left in the dust as a result, often abandoned in the outskirts of the direct-to-video landscape despite varying degrees of star power. In a Valley of Violence is (essentially) one of those, an entirely functional but unexceptional tale of revenge from the horror-fueled mind of writer/director Ti West. While there's some emotional rawness, levity, and consistent performance value from Ethan Hawke and, especially, John Travolta here, the film's humdrum atmosphere and resemblances to another tale of canine revenge make it more forgettable and throwaway than it could've been.

In a Valley of Violence sets its sights on a lone wanderer, Paul (Ethan Hawke), who's hoping to reach Mexico and leave his prior life behind him. After encountering a loutish priest (Burn Gormon) who points him in the direction of a nearby town, the wanderer -- alongside his dog, Abby -- takes a pit-stop in the sleepy, near-empty settlement of Denton, colloquially named the "Valley of Violence". The treatment he receives as a stranger is predictable considering the genre: a scuffle at the local bar lands him in a conflict with one of the town's strong-arms, Gilly (James Ransone), putting a target on his back as he tries to shack up at the hotel, curated by sisters Ellen (Karen Gillan) and Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga). Paul has sworn never to kill anyone again, but after a senseless act of violence, he chooses to break that oath and exact revenge on the town's bullies. He meets resistance along the way, notably the law-abiding posturing of the local marshal (John Travolta), but little keeps him from pulling the trigger once he gets roped back in.

Best known for his work in moody, immersive horror, especially that of The House of the Devil's well-executed ‘70s-style throwbacks, the wild-west attitude of In a Valley of Violence seems like a bizarre but promising vessel for director Ti West's talents. Turns out, West's grasp on mounting tension heightens the predictable moments of intimidation in puffy-chested posturing and square-offs, sporadically highlighting the danger that follows Paul on his trek through the dusty town. There's another side of In a Valley of Violence, however, that wasn't so expected: he incorporates a fair amount of humor around the dreary subject matter, to a point where the brutish threats and gang-like cronyism in Denton comes close to parodying the western, yet not comedic enough to play as one. Some of that falls on the language of West's script and the performances delivering it, which have more of a contemporary slant to them that, despite some amusement value, takes away from the consistency of the atmosphere, especially with Ethan Hawke's sincere but decidedly modern attitude at the drifter Paul.

Based purely on those virtues, In a Valley of Violence struggles with a tricky mixture of clashing moods and meandering objectives, and that's before the film's true purpose kicks into gear. A few mild spoilers follow. West takes the film on a detour down a dark and emotionally manipulative path involving petty vengeance, past demons, and violent retribution, blatantly echoing the framework of a breakaway action hit from a few years back, John Wick. Both revolve around a "retired" professional killer who's forced back into the game by the brash actions of an arrogant son of an important person in the city, and yes, animal lovers should proceed with caution. Granted, there's some variation in the moral complexity going on in the characters, especially involving the town's marshal, given surprising texture by a stubbly John Travolta, whose evenhanded desire to keep the peace in his domain and respect the integrity of both men involved in this inconsequential conflict almost saves the day. Director West and his horror inclinations push too hard in the wrong areas to differentiate his spin on the tale, though.

Perhaps some of In a Valley of Violence's missteps could've been pardoned had the anticipated shootouts and vengeful finale grasped enough visceral suspense, which isn't unexpected when one considers the trajectory of West's previous features. After a few head-scratcher decisions from the characters that unnaturally contrive the circumstances of the final act, the grand "shootout" that results regrettably lacks focus and intensity, though. Despite a few flashes of inventive cinematography and deeper emotional connections between the characters, the result is an awkwardly-paced skirmish through the town that pulls punches with the antihero's vengeance and interrupts the momentum with odd diversions, ones that involve domestic squabbles and, I kid you not, a message against body-shaming. Inspired motivations can be found in West's mildly idiosyncratic pursuits, but he ultimately loses touch in following through with the film's central and anticipated culmination, neglecting to keep the mood firmly planted on the saddle during his not-so-violent gallop through the wild west.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]