We've reached the end of our Year in Review List Making if not the end of the year in review list making -- wait wha?!. Which is to say that we still have our own awards nominations (both Oscar and fun extras) in some 40 categories to come. That's right. It's time for the annual Film Bitch Award Nominations -- our 17th annual prizes (gulp) -- which begin with the age-old tradition of the top ten list.
If The Salesman borrows too liberally from Asghar Farhadi's masterpiece A Separation so be it (let's face it -- all the great auteurs steal from themselves. This is how we recognize their films). It's a riveting drama exposed by destabilizing cracks in the foundations.
Sing Street was the year's most rewarding nostalgia piece causing flashbacks of teenage identity experiments and that usually short lived 'i could be a pop star!' phase. And what a fantastically fresh cast.
Viggo Mortensen's uniquely out of place and time persona (think about it: he could be from any country or era) is a huge boon to the thought-provoking Captain Fantastic. Writer/director Matt Ross harnesses Viggo's energy for a head-first sprint into the woods of non-conformity but those idealogical woods thin out and soon enough we're face-to-face with reality.
The Fits' unique character as something of a mystical movement film had us levitating. Its hard-to-pin-down allegory wasn't so much tentative and amorphous as thrillingly ambiguous...
Director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) grants the adoption / search drama Lion a stirring soul when a more problematic and cheaply sentimental movie was lurking around every corner.
And finally, Paul Verhoeven's darkly hilarious Elle handed Isabelle Huppert a role she was born to play. She ran with it, amplifying all of its cerebral, deadpan, button-pushing daring. Yes, Isabelle, you kept it tight.
(Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)
Disney. March 4th
Favorite bit: Judy's initial train ride into Zootopia. What economic clever and fully enveloping bit of 'world building,' in less than the length of a pop song. "Try Everything," you say? Thank you I will. May we have a sequel set in each borough we've only barely glimpsed on the way inside?
Given that Zootopia was a massive blockbuster all over the globe, that request may well be granted. Hopefully Disney doesn't lose sight of what really sells this delightful movie: it's superbly rendered unity through diversity theme and creative spin of multiple movie tropes into one succinct and very satisfying story.
(Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Vitagraph. October 14th
Favorite bit(s): It's an organic tie between the first image of the incomparable Sonia Braga emerging from the ocean near the home she plans to die in and that final macro closeup of invaders (no spoilers). Both images speak to truly elemental forces of nature and to each other.
Honestly if the movie were twenty minutes shorter to twist all its intuitive sensual strands together as effortlessly as Clara keeps reconfiguring that glorious mane with her fingers, I suspect we'd be looking at a bonafide masterpiece. (Give me everything Filho's every shot right now so I can catch up!)
Sony Pictures Classics. August 5th
Favorite bit: That seemingly disposable acting class scene. Before an amusing screaming match exercize (not diametrically opposed to the lower volume stand-offs to come between adults), the coach explains to his students that the raw material of acting is the seeing, observing, and understanding of human behavior.
If that's true than Ira Sachs is his own film's greatest actor because this increasingly outstanding writer/director (see also the gorgeously felt Love is Strange) has all those materials at his disposable. This observational socioeconomically minded family drama is far more complex than it appears or that its running time suggests. Note to the increasing herds of longwinded filmmakers: you can actually accomplish a lot in an hour and a half.
Paramount. December 16th
Favorite bit: Those seismic aftershocks when Rose (Viola Davis) realizes that Troy (Denzel Washington) never could accept his fate and live in it alongside her. The language of this classic is so superb, both real and heightened. August Wilson is a master.
I took all of my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams... and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom.
You take... and don't even know nobody's giving!
Troy's furious self-deluding response "I done give you everything I got" only amplifies the tragedy. Just let two of the world's greatest actors loose on those powerhouse Wilson lyrics and stay the hell out of their way (arguably the very best conducting/directorial choice). It's one hell of a duet.
TOP TEN OF THE YEAR
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
Oscilloscope. February 17th
Favorite bits: Those hallucinatory interlude shots of animals and then the actual hallucination. Their mysticism gives off the sense that this parallel journey epic (the film crosscuts between two similar trips down the Amazon), is always happening in some way or another.
This is not to say that this well-researched Colombian epic about a search for a transformative plant is an easy metaphor or an allegory for larger journeys but it sure does haunt. It's been sixteen months since I saw it and I still recall the feeling it gave, if not the particulars, quite vividly.
A24. May 13th
Favorite bit: Just that disturbingly opaque glimpse of the Transformation Room. Mundanely non-descript and bluntly named, and thus weirdly funny given its magical purpose and refusal to explain itself. But to be honest The Lobster is so confident about its vision and so full of bracing originality in its satire of conformity, coupledom and self-esteem that any tiny bit of it could be argued as a standout.
Appropros of nothing but fully engaging in the weird headspace this movie demands and just in case I ever run in to Oliva Colman's frighteningly direct hotel manager, I would choose a racoon. I love their mask faces and relate to their dexterous handsiness. "A racoon is an excellent choice."
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Amazon Studios. June 3rd
Favorite bit: The character title cards. Like the movie itself, they're witty and mercilessly fast. You can catch up later on all those predicted repeat viewings.
Speaking of. I have yet to test run this theory but a bold prediction: Whit Stillman's perpetually amusing and no frills tear through Jane Austen's "Lady Susan" will prove to 2016's most rewatchable movie... or thereabouts. Mean Girls meets How to Marry a Millionaire in pre-Victorian drag with a hint of the tetchiest bits of Sense & Sensibility thrown in. Its pleasures are abundant from the delicious side-eye of besties Sevigny & Beckinsale, to the recurring fear of Connecticutt, and dumb genius of Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, "a bit of a 'Rattle'"
Fox Searchlight. December 2nd
Favorite bit: "I don't smoke." She's always rewriting the scenes while living them. This First Lady will have the last word.
There are some stories so rooted in the USA's cultural DNA that only a foreigner could have enough objectivity to see them for what they are and re-engage with the myth-making from a fresh perspective. Think Taiwan's Ang Lee taking on American masculinity / the Western in Brokeback Mountain, or Britain's Steve McQueen with his excorciating look at the pre-Civil War nightmare of 12 Years a Slave. If Chilean Pablo Larraín's take on the most famous of First Lady's seizing her own mythmaking moment with blood still on her dress, isn't quite their equal it thrills by getting so damn close.
Paramount. November 11th
Favorite bit: "Now that's a proper introduction." It's something like a laugh line and a shared exhale after a wondrously tense build up to Dr. Louise's attempts to meet the aliens in Villeneuve's exquisitely shaped sci-fi picture.
Acclaimed writer Ted Chiang's story "Story of Your Life" was the foundation, granting Arrival its beautifully circular storytelling. Speaking of circles, we know we'll be coming back around to this one for years to come. A good bet for a sci-fi film that will age well partially because it doesn't rely on current technological tricks to generate its awe factor; visual effects pictures have a way of instantly dating themselves when they do that.
And my Best Picture ballot*, alpha order
* Please note if you would like to compare the film bitch awards Best Picture Ballot directly to Oscar's ballot you have to wait until Oscar nods come out to see how many films they include (5-10 being their range) and then add more films to these five accordingly.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN
A24. December 28th
Favorite bits: The infrequent narrated digressions as the characters attempt to explain each other omnisciently in voiceover. These flourishes break the time barrier in this otherwise very focused slice of life story which appears to take place over a single month or summer (?...the season is tough to suss out since it's always sunny in California.)
An hour or so into the movie, Dorothea (a perfect Annette Bening) tetchily rebuffs her son for reading her a chapter in a feminist book and presuming too much. "You think because you read that that you understand me?" And so it goes with the whole movie. Mike Mills gorgeous ensemble and insightful screenplay may constantly reveal human nature and intricate character but no one soul is ever fully knowable. That shouldn't stop you from trying to know them.
Amazon Studios. October 21st
Favorite bit: How to choose in a film so dizzying with brief "WHAT?!" spectacle and character sleight of hand. But that pornography reading is something else entirely. Particularly the showstopping suspended sexpiece excuse me setpiece with a wooden mannequin.
The Handmaiden is utterly alienating and sneakily inviting, simultaneously, in nearly every scene. The characters invite us and each other in only to violently shut us out as Park Chan-wook continually upends the board, with the human game pieces scattering and then jumping back into place for the next round but the boards been turned and we've a whole new perspective to consider. By the end I felt as if I'd fallen into the tank with a particularly slimy octopus. This movie's gets its tentacles all over you. Months later it has yet to loosen its suction-cup grip.
LA LA LAND
Lionsgate. December 9th
Favorite bit: That brilliant 'dream ballet' gambit, which reconsiders the not-so-hidden theme... journeys we abandon to chase 'the dream.' It's a celebration of an age old musical trope but also a modern melancholy sliding doors / swipe right fantasy.
This is true in a broader sense of the movie as a whole, of course. Though many critics got enormously uptight about the movie's jazz conversations, they're a red herring. The movie isn't about jazz (Sebastian) any more than it's about acting (Mia). It's about dreams themselves and how rigid, committed, and proprietary we are about them. In this case we're all happily inside of Chazelle's own, dancing in LA traffic, wistfully recalling our Aunts in Paris, and celebrating the past with two of the greatest stars of the right now; Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling couldn't be dreamier.
A24. October 21st
Favorite bit: "Who is you Chiron?" and that impotent reaching "I'm me, man. I'm not trying to be nothing else."
The genius of Barry Jenkins triptych, beautifully moodily realized by all members of its filmmaking family in front of the camera and behind it, about a lonely gay black man in Miami is that Chiron has never answered the question or settled on who "me" is. There's a reason his name changes in each chapter: Little, Chiron, Black.
A24. February 19th
Favorite bits: No cinematic images were as unnerving in their genius minimalism this year than The Witch's brilliant shots of two animals direct to camera. One rabbit. One goat. Harmless animals, Satan's servants, or merely dark mirrors of the unknowable and feral within ourselves?
I don't know about sacrificing your soul for living deliciously but I do know that this movie's inevitable unravelling of a pious Puritan family was filling in only the way a feast of a movie can be. I saw it four times in theaters, utterly spellbound.