Top Ten Movies of 2016

2016 - A Great Year for Films

1850

2016 was a lousy year for me, since I worked so hard for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. Yet Hillary lost, so I was out of luck. The exception to my disillusionment with 2016, is the exceptional quality of films released, emphasizing documentaries.

I’m a committed student of history, so the documentary format best fits my preferred area of study. You might think of Christine as a Docu-Drama, since it is consistent with the real Christine Chubbock’s biography.

I doubt anybody else (Big Guns) has picked this one as their favorite film for last year, but that just goes to show how you I think, and what I choose as influential. Nothing could be more fascinating to me than the question: what was the state of television journalism in the early to mid 1970s? Don’t throw eggs at me if I put La La Land in the eleventh slot. At least not rotten eggs, anyhow! Toss me a carrot or two, if I break the boring mold of the Oscars.

Christine

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, John Cullum, Timothy Simons, Danny Bensi, and Saunder Jurriaans; Directed by Antonio Campos; Written by Craig Shilowich; Running Time: 119 minutes

“If it bleeds, it leads.” Michael Nelson

Christine is a very painful movie to watch, and Rebecca Hall does a masterful job letting you feel the hurt. I did not enter the theater with a single bit of knowledge regarding the real Christine Chubbock; this is probably the best way to go, coupled with the idea of not reading movie reviews before you see a film. You know, see how you feel about the film yourself.

Now it’s okay to look at her biography and to compare my own impressions with many of the professionals. It’s safe to say, Rebecca is interpretive in her portrayal of Christine, which is okay, as far as I’m concerned. No one’s going to leave the theater without making a mental note to research the real life of Christine Chubbock.

I’ll give a few reasons (five so far) why I chose it as the top film of 2016, but know, the main reason is I just liked it (a gut call)! The story is the most interesting one of all the other films. The depiction of Christine coming apart at the seams ever so gradually until she finally decides to do what she’ll do, is played flawlessly by Rebecca Hall.

The context of the early 1970s in Sarasota, Fl is the second reason why I loved this film; Watergate transformed the reporting of the news, although it appears some station managers didn’t get the memo, such as Michael Nelson, played by Tracy Letts. You are forced to learn the period well if you hope to understand why this happened.

The third positive, is you get insight into how a local TV station from that period reported the news. This gets at the heart of what this film is about: is virtue necessary or only ratings and body count?

The fourth is obvious, Rebecca Hall is close to my favorite actress currently working! The fifth bullet is the period (1970s) re-creation and design of wardrobe, make-up, and sets is pristine and perfect! Since I lived and survived this mellow decade, I can attest to the authenticity of these simulations. The television monitors and live news sets will get you started.

Christine - Rebecca Hall #1 in Top Ten Movies of 2016.
Rebecca Hall gives the performance of her life, portraying Christine Chubbock, who committed suicide live during a WXLT news broadcast, on July 15, 1974 (Sarasota, Fl.). The chronicle of television journalism in the early 1970s is a most interesting one, and makes Christine number one for me!

Tower

Documentary incorporates archival footage combined with rotoscopic animation; Directed by Keith Maitland; Based on 2006 Texas Monthly article “96 Minutes,” by Pamela Colloff; Running Time: 82 minutes

I enrolled at the University of Texas in January of 1972, exhilarated with my new life in Austin, Texas. Yet, in the back of my mind, I still felt the weight of the pathos experienced from the Tower Shooting 5 years, 5 months before. I had been on vacation with my family to my Aunt Martha’s house in New York. The fact that we were from Texas (Dallas), made the traumatizing incident sink in that much more.

From August 1st, 1966, my interest in the case didn’t seem to dwindle. Therefore, when I arrived on campus during the Spring semester of 1972, I was much aware of the omnipresent, negative vibe emanating from the Tower. Its strongest presence felt on the West Mall when classes were changing, the Tower bell resounded mercilessly on the quarter hour. The ghost of Whitman was still there, no doubt about it!

During my senior year (spring and summer of 1976), I participated in some freelance research on the Whitman/Tower affair; a lingering curiosity, I figure. This includes the lucky purchase of a Time magazine issue (dated August 12, 1966) at Half Price Books; the Time issue covered Charles Whitman and his signature crime, asking the important question: why?

One article (will need to see it again) suggested we Americans are all are partially to blame; this touched me, since it looked like CW was pathologically ill, as far as his love and attachment to firearms goes. For better or for worse, the significance of the movie is, it has triggered recollections (100s of witnesses) associated with this dark incident. Breaking it down again can be cathartic to a limited extent, when coming to terms with the Texas tragedy.

One issue for me is remembering my years at UT (1972-1976), many of which were spent studying in the stacks (UT General Libraries), which were located right in the Main Building (The Tower), in those days. The pathos of Whitman was right there with you while you tried to study, along with a few of the suicides, which in many cases, were only a few days or weeks old!. This only leads to the truism that the mass murder spree of C. W. is really just a series of individual stories. One of those is my own, if I can be so generous.

While there are dozens of accounts featured in the mega-animation documentary, one still notices the filmmaker, Keith Maitland, had to be selective of witnesses he chose to include. Here I will only mention Claire Wilson (now Claire Wilson James), whose story has always stood out the most for me, even from the actual date of the event. Claire’s version has finally seen the light of day!

Sources: Tower Sniper – The Term of America’s First Active Shooter on Campus, by Monte Akers, Nathan Akers, and Dr. Robert Friendman, P. H. D. ; A Sniper In the TowerThe Charles Whitman Murders, by Gary M. Lavergne (U.N.T. Press – 1997) ; 96 Minutes, by Pamela Colloff (Texas Monthly – 2006)

Manchester by the Sea

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges; Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan ; Music by Lesley Barber; Amazonstudios; Running Time: 137 minutes

The first time I saw the film, I felt some tears streaming down my cheeks as the credits rolled. The second time I saw it, I was more steady and detached, hoping I could figure out why the film had moved me so the first time around. You realize early on there’s something seriously wrong with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), but you don’t know exactly what it is. The structure of the plot of Manchester is essentially a gradual unveiling of what’s eatin’ away at Lee.

The predominant ambience of melancholy beams its presence from the first to the last frame. All the tools of the filmmaker (Kenneth Lonergan) work in unison to help you feel Lee’s pain. This would include the screenplay (by Kenneth Lonergan), music score (Lesley Barber), cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), and performances of the actors. Even moments of comic relief put the spotlight on Lee’s sad situation.

There is no catharsis in Manchester; rather, the pathos of Lee comes into focus more clearly until you finally get it. The heart-wrenching scene with Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex, can not soften the tragedy of what happened before. If anything, it opens the wound of hurt even more! With the realism of this one scene, Michelle raises Manchester from four star to five star!

Lee confirms to himself, he has to get out of there. And that’s exactly what he does, while not forsaking his commitment to his nephew (Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges) and to his deceased brother (Joe, played by Kyle Chandler). Escape is not a catharsis, but rather an anodyne to an irreconcilable past. This is why I love this film.

I Am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck; Written by James Baldwin and Raoul Peck; Based On Remember This House by James Baldwin; Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson; Running Time: 95 minutes

It finally came to Austin yesterday (February 3, 2017), which was my birthday, so I drove over to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and purchased a ticket for the 11:30 AM screening on one of those self-service kiosks (went all the way through the steps on my lonesome this time). I was very moved and energized by the documentary! As it was my birthday, I felt like I was reliving the days of my youth in the 1960s, but seeing it from a black man’s point of view (James Baldwin – 1924-1987). I did read Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of Native Son for Freshman English at UT (1972), and I do recall seeing James Baldwin on talk shows back in the day, plus the film uses many of these TV clips, when they’re relevant to the unfinished work, Remember This House.

The main themes put forth are familiar to me, yet I picked up some important facts here and there that were new to me. One good one is the story of Dorothy Counts attempting desegregation at Harry Harding School in Charlotte, North Carolina (September 4, 1957). A photo shows white kids scowling at her with disapproval. This one case was riveting enough for Baldwin to return to the U.S. after living in Paris for some years.

He became a forceful voice for the newly emerging Civil Rights movement. James Baldwin’s familiarity with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was genuine, since he knew and worked with all the influential black leaders. The literary figure deeply empathized with these icons and their tragic assassinations were very close to home. James Baldwin’s position of strength in the evolution of Civil Rights is assured with this film.

Certain Women

Starring: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone, and Rene Auberjonois; Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Written by Kelly Reichardt; Format: Three intertwining vignettes; Running Time: 107 minutes

I left the theater with a lingering uncertainty as to what I’d just experienced. One thing is certain, I knew I loved this film! I haven’t seen any other Kelly Reichardt films, but what I gathered from reading reviews, she likes to include lots of landscape shots in her work. This one takes place in Montana, so we get some gorgeous shots of open cattle pastures, ethereal skies, and majestic mountains, which suggest John Ford’s classic Westerns as a big influence. I saw an organic ambience to these three vaguely intertwining vignettes, offering a window into the lives of four women faring from Montana.

This vignette template is a hard one to pull off, but Certain Women did an exceptionally good job with it, not pushing the envelope too hard, as far as interconnectivity between the characters in different vignettes goes. The women have things in common, but it’s general. They all live in Montana, most in Livingston, and they all have daunting challenges in their lives, although not insurmountable.

The most obvious connection would have to be, the lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is having an affair with Ryan Lewis (James LeGros), the husband of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams); thus, vignette 1 and 2 lightly interweave without a downright collision. It’s mostly ineffable, yet when you witness the alienation between Ryan and Gina (in vignette 2), you tend to get it a little better! As you drive away from the movie house, you make more connections. Is Jamie (Lily Gladstone) gay (for example)?

Twenty Top Films 2016 Certain Women
Jamie (Lily Gladstone) drives back to her Montana ranch in Certain Women, after a disheartening meeting with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) in Livingston. Beth, a transitory education law instructor, turns out to be a different person than she originally thought.

20th Century Women

Starring: Annette Bening, Ellie Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup; Directed by Mike Mills; Witten by Mike Mills; Running time: 118 minutes

I wasn’t able to see 20th Century Women until Saturday, January 21st, 2017, since it finally made its way to Austin. I was so blown away, so impressed, I added it to my list, inserting the cosmic experience to #6. Regrettably I had to jettison one, so I chose The Accountant, although I got quite a few grins out the Ben Affleck satirical spy flick.

The Accountant is meant for cable TV viewing, when you’ve exhausted all other possibilities for entertainment. Now I’ve got the list of twenty reduced to ten; only the fine resin of cinematic art remains, and I’m feeling very good about it. No more revisions will be made in the list! It’s final. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you why I dig this film a whole lot.

I could say quite a lot, but I’m going to reduce it down to PUNK ROCK and how strong of an impact it had on the late 1970s. This was a celluloid invitation for us all to take a look back at our own lives and our personal, dicey brush with PR, which seemed to alter people’s behavior exactly as it did to the characters in 20th Century Women, especially Julie (Elle Fanning). One sensed the Hippie Thing was gone for good!

Nocturnal Animals

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Sheen; Directed by Tom Ford; Screenplay by Tom Ford; Based on Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright; Running Time: 116 minutes

There are three qualities I like about Nocturnal Animals. The first, is, after an arduous road trip to Colorado, which had me cruising smoothly through West Texas, towards the camouflaged New Mexico border, I became intrigued by the bleakness, flatness, or (intimidating) openness of the landscape.

Many scenes in the film take place in West Texas, so this improved my attitude towards whatever message I fathomed the filmmaker (Tom Ford) was trying to impart. The fact that I couldn’t quite decipher the message helped too.

The second was the devise of a story within a story; that is, a gallery curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), receives a manuscript from her Ex, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which she begins to read. Susan is drawn into the (maybe fiction, maybe non-fiction) novel in a big way!

The third positive bullet, yet negative in outcome, is the way Texas lawman, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), pickled with lung cancer, morphs to a rogue vigilante, bypassing the dysfunctional judicial system. The seduction of Edward into what amounts to criminal behavior is perhaps the strongest message of the film (there are others, but this one resonated most for me).

Hell or High Water

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster; Directed by David Mackenzie; Written by Taylor Sheridan; Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; Running Time: 102 minutes

Two things I like most about this film are: 1. the stark shots (cinematography) of West Texas, that align very closely with how I remember it, passing through on a road trip to Colorado last June (my vacation). I took quite a few photographs as I made the arduous and lonesome trek towards the New Mexico border.

You could match my photos up to many of the scenes in Hell Or High Water, and pick-up on much of the same ambiance that makes this movie so compelling and realistic!

2. Would have to be the genre: heist or bank robbery films. You know I’m right, so I won’t go to a lot of trouble defending why the heist genre is so effective in cinematic history. It just is. Bonnie and Clyde, Goodfellas, The Great Train Robbery – get it?

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years

Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison; Genre: Documentary; Directed by Ron Howard; Music by The Beatles; Running Time: 97 minutes

I was glad to hear of Ron Howard’s Grammy! So as to not show my prejudice, I’m gonna position Eight Days at nine. I’ve seen it at a theater, which is mandatory, and now I own the DVD, which has a bonus disk with extra footage. To show how important of a film documentary this is, since it’s release on September 15, 2016, I’ve been going back through their albums in chronological sequence, in yet another attempt at recreating what I perceive to be their accomplishments in music.

What Eight Days does is to establish once and for all the fact that they were the greatest, and tightest live combo ever! When Kennedy was assassinated, The Beatles filled the void of the loss of a very charismatic President, leading the way for an incredible Youth Movement, that’s still influencing the present in more ways than we’re capable of understanding. It’s ironic that the screaming girls killed them as a live band.

Don’t Breathe

Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang; Directed by Fede Alvarez; Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagnes; Running Time: 88 minutes

I follow the Horror or Thriller genre fairly closely, and I can say definitively, Don’t Breathe is rare gem! A sequence of rapidly developing plot gaffes, in the midst of a home invasion gone awfully awry, makes for the highest order of a nail-biter, theater cushion (seat) squirmer!

In the riveting, early moments of the ambitious home robbery, terror tingles your spine as The Blind Man caps poor Money in a dim, silhouetted light; doomed Money’s only trying to perform his duties in this (seemingly) well thought out crime! What’s impressive to me, is, this level of manic tension never ratchets down one iota; it’s a nerve-racking trudge to the closing credits!

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Horror genre, can see Fede Alvarez has advanced the form. Sam Raimi’s there, George Romero’s there; we can feel John Carpenter’s creepy presence. But then he goes beyond the outline of their borders, by making the Blind Man the real villain and the juvenile delinquents, verging on professionals, slightly less sinister culprits (not by much)!

It’s the details that get you. A guard dog meaner than Cujo, The Blind Man’s a veteran of the Gulf War (that takes you lots of places), a clean house that’s jammed-packed with booby-traps (or sets where a lotta Ultra-violence goes down). Rocky’s retirement settlement and flight from dodgy Detroit comes at a price.

John Kays identifies timeless remnants from our past that will endure, or be admired by future generations.