My 2016 Personal Ballot

BEST PICTURE:
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Nominees:
Elle
La La Land
*Manchester by the Sea – WINNER*
Midnight Special
Moonlight
Sing Street

BEST DIRECTOR:
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Nominees:
Andrea Arnold for American Honey
*Damien Chazelle for La La Land – WINNER*
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols for Midnight Special

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:casey aff.jpg
Nominees:
*Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea – WINNER*
Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge
Andrew Garfield for Silence
Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Denzel Washington in Fences

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:
elle.jpgNominees:
Rebecca Hall in Christine
*Isabelle Huppert in Elle – WINNER*
Natalie Portman in Jackie
Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen
Emma Stone in La La Land

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:lucas hedge.jpgNominees:
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight 
John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane
*Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea – WINNER*
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:lily gladstone.jpgNominees:
Viola Davis in Fences
Paulina Garcia in Little Men
*Lily Gladstone in Certain Women – WINNER*
Naomi Harris in Moonlight
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
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Nominees:
David Birke for Elle
August Wilson for Fences
*Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney for Moonlight – WINNER*
Tom Ford for Nocturnal Animals
Kelly Reichardt for Certain Women 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
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Nominees:
Kelly Fremon Craig for The Edge of Seventeen
Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster
*Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea – WINNER*
Jeff Nichols for Midnight Special
John Carney for Sing Street

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE:
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Nominees:
The cast of Certain Women
The cast of Little Men
*The cast of Manchester by the Sea – WINNER*
The cast of Moonlight
The cast of Nocturnal Animals

BEST FILM EDITING:
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Nominees:
Sebastian Sepulveda for Jackie
*Tom Cross for La La Land – WINNER*
Jennifer Lame for Manchester by the Sea
Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders for Moonlight
Joan Sobel for Nocturnal Animals 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:
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Nominees:
Bradford Young for Arrival
Stephane Fontaine for Jackie
Linus Sandgren for La La Land
*James Laxton for Moonlight – WINNER*
Seamus McGarvey for Nocturnal Animals 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN:
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Nominees:
*Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson for The Dressmaker – WINNER*
Consolata Boyle for Florence Foster Jenkins
Madeline Fontaine for Jackie
Mary Zophres for La La Land
Jacqueline West for Live by Night

BEST USE OF MUSIC – ORIGINAL SCORE or SONG:
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Nominees:
The original score from Jackie
The original score from La La Land
The original score from Moonlight
*The original song “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street – WINNER*
The original song “Go Now” from Sing Street 

The Worst Movies of 2016

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While I love making lists of the best movies of any given year, it’s always painful to counter that with a list of the worst movies. By the time the end of the year comes around, I’ve forgotten about a lot of movies that I saw earlier in the year, so it’s sad to remind myself.

There are some that will forever be burned into my memory because of how awful they were. So, wallow in the muck with me as we go over the worst films 2016 had to offer.

The worst movie of 2016 was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. Jones has been an exciting new director for a while with the wonderful Moon and the entertaining action flick Source Code but Warcraft was a soulless spectacle without one redeeming quality. I remain excited for what Jones does next and hope Warcraft was a fluke.

In alphabetical order, here are 10 (well, 11) more movies that were the worst of the year, with brief thoughts.

Blair Witch: An ungodly bore of a film and complete disappointment. From the team that brought us You’re Next and the effortlessly cool The Guest, Blair Witch should have had a lot more verve.

Collateral Beauty: I could go on for days about the absurdity of Will Smith’s latest. This movie is nothing the trailer would suggest and rarely has a movie actively hated its audience so much.

Gods of Egypt: The first 20 minutes or so seem to play like a new trashy guilty pleasure. Quickly, any sense of fun evaporates.

Hardcore Henry: This movie was nauseating and stupid – an absolute headache from start-to-finish.

 Nine Lives: The worst movie you have to see. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Risen: Jesus’ body is lost and we are forced to go on the world’s most boring scavenger hunt to find it.

Rules Don’t Apply: There are probably worse movies that could populate a spot on this list but Warren Beatty’s passionless passion project is so incoherent, it’s extremely frustrating.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows: Why is Laura Linney in this?

The Zach Galifanakis Double Feature: There were no lamer of comedies than Keeping Up with the Joneses and Masterminds, both starring Galifanakis. These movies beg the question, why does Zach Galifanakis still get work?

 Zoolander 2: The first one wasn’t even good.

The list could go on, unfortunately, but why continue to torture ourselves with these cinematic embarrassments? Onward and upward…

The Top 10 Movies of 2016

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What an interesting year it was for movies. After a stronger than normal first quarter, we hit a slog of a summer and ended the year with movies that were both thought-provoking and deeply moving. One of my favorite aspects of this year in movies was how quietly some films snuck up on you. Movies that I thought I liked, I couldn’t get out of my head and actually, truly loved.

Certainly, there were plenty of lousy movies because, unfortunately, there are always more stinkers released in a year than not. That should not deflect from the great films and hidden gems that came out this year and will stay with you long after the end credits roll.

I could have easily filled up a list of 20 movies that were great this year. It pained me to not highlight the thrills of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Hell or High Water. How about the beautiful subtlety of Certain Women or the tale of friendship and economic struggle in Little Men? Disney remade Pete’s Dragon to charming and emotionally satisfying success, which ended up being one of the surprise highlights of the late summer season. I haven’t even mentioned Everybody Wants Some!!, Eye in the Sky, Deadpool, Hacksaw Ridge, Green Room or A Bigger Splash. They may have not made the Top 10 but are all movies worth seeing.

The fun and challenging part is keeping the list to 10, so without further ado, here are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2016…

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  1. American Honey: When I left Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I wasn’t entirely sure how much I liked it; it’s a shaggy, rambling, 163-minute ode to millennial ennui that lacks a distinct focus. A few days after seeing the movie, I hadn’t stopped thinking about it. There’s an unshakable energy and vibe to Arnold’s road trip oddessy, which follows a young ragtag magazine sales crew. Featuring a debut performance by Sasha Lane and a career-best by Shia LaBeouf, American Honey‘s spirit is worth witnessing.

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  1. The Edge of Seventeen: Oh, how I love this movie. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig – in a directorial debut – The Edge of Seventeen is a high school movie that is worried about so much more than who is going to prom with who. Hailee Steinfeld has been in a handful a movies – garnering an Oscar nomination at 14 for True Grit – but delivers a star-making performance in this hilarious and deeply felt film. This was one of 2016’s biggest surprises.

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  1. Tickled: David Farrier has made a career as a journalist writing about weird stories. He stumbled upon a strange competition online that involved boys tickling each other and knew there was a story to be told. As he continued to dig, he saw there was more than just a new story here and created the documentary Tickled, which is one of the most bizarre experiences of this year. I can’t say much more but I urge you to see this one to believe it.

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  1. Patriots Day: On the surface, Patriots Day is another Peter Berg-Mark Wahlberg movie about Wahlberg saving the day. Their latest outing is a basic procedural, which is infused with so much tension, even though we know the entire story, which is a sign of something great. Patriots Day follows the events of the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt, which is likely to resurrect the range of feelings you felt in April 2013. The movie is thrilling but respectful to everyone who was affected by this tragedy.

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  1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins has created a movie of quiet power. It’s the movie topping most lists and rightfully so because films of delicate beauty are so rare these days. Jenkins’ triptych tale of Chiron is seamlessly told from the point of view of the protagonist as a child, teenager and adult, struggling with his sexuality and identity. Featuring one of the best casts of 2016, including Mahershala Ali in a likely Oscar-winning supporting turn, Moonlight is powerful even when it doesn’t try to be.

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  1. La La Land: Director Damien Chazelle is someone to watch. The 31-year-old director gave us the magnificent Whiplash two years ago and now La La Land, a gorgeous wink to the a bygone era of Hollywood musicals. While this movie put a smile on my face and had me tapping my toes, Chazelle infuses a sense of melancholy amongst the L.A. sun, pulling off a delicate balancing act. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling turn in their best performances to date as two creative types searching for success in tough businesses. La La Land is a joy across the board.

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  1. Elle: Paul Verhoeven’s latest as struck up some debate and controversy about how the film handles the sexual assault that opens the film. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Elle is a perplexing but magnetic piece of cinema, which will have you questioning each characters’ motivation throughout. Huppert is magnetic in this unshakable film.

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  1. Sing Street: Not unlike La La Land, Sing Street is pure joy. John Carney’s latest doesn’t stray from the mold we are used to seeing from him but why fix something that isn’t broken? Sing Street is unabashedly romantic, telling the story of a young boy in Dublin, who wants to impress a girl and starts a band to do so. The songs, romance and energy are infectious and it’s a movie that can put anyone in a good mood.

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  1. Midnight Special: Jeff Nichols has been a director to be excited about for some time. In Midnight Special, he reteams with Michael Shannon for a story about a father who is trying to get his son away from a cult, while evading the government, who both want access to the son for different reasons. Midnight Special is a marvel – an eerie and mysterious work, which will keep you guessing until the final frame – if not long after.

And the best film of 2016…

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  1. Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece is both brutally devastating and darkly funny. Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, who is forced to care for his teenage nephew, played by a wonderful Lucas Hedges, after his father passes away. Everything about Manchester by the Sea aligns so perfectly: the writing, the direction, the performances, the gorgeous cinematography and the operatic score. When I first saw Manchester by the Sea at the New York Film Festival, I knew I saw something special. When I saw it again upon its release, I realized I had seen a pitch-perfect exploration of grief told through a supremely honest lens. The material is heavy but this is a true masterwork and the crowning achievement of 2016.

 

If you read any of my film writing in 2016, I thank you very much. If you made it to the bottom of this list, I thank you again. I’m so excited about these movies I saw in 2016 and look forward to what 2017 will bring.

The Birth of a Nation Review (2016): It’s Very Much a First Film

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There’s a world of difference between ambition and a good film. Every filmmaker has a vision, has a hope they will make a transcendent piece of art but sometimes those ambitions get away. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation resides in that frustrating state of purgatory.

As an actor, Parker has appeared in several films but The Birth of a Nation is his first as a writer and director (the script was co-written by Jean McGianni Celestin). The story of Nat Turner is a daring undertaking but Parker’s vision and determination doesn’t translate to the screen.

The story unfolds like a traditional biopic; we begin with Turner as a child and lead up to the rebellion that solidified his placement in history books. The bulk of the film is set in 1831, when Turner was a plantation slave. He was different then most. He had a much easier relationship with his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), was literate and led sermons.

Being able to read and having a uncommonly close relationship with his owner didn’t stop Turner from recognizing the unacceptable cruelty that surrounded him. He rallies other slaves and leads one of the bloodiest uprisings in history, pushing back against the owners who don’t think twice about doling out a hundred lashings.

Parker doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of Turner’s rebellion but finds difficulty balancing it in with the rest of the film. The first hour-plus is slowly paced and rarely focused and then in the blink of an eye he is taking an ax to a master’s chest. Parker takes far too long to create tension or generate interest but, most importantly, he takes too long to find the passion in the story. The writing feels like a very unpolished first draft.

Conversely, his direction may be a little too polished. Parker includes numerous transition sequences with the hopes of flashing his filmmaking bona fides, trying to prove himself the daring newcomer. There are various snippets or brief scenes that don’t add to the overall story, which only beg the question of why they were included, giving The Birth of a Nation a less-than-subtle feel.

The Birth of a Nation made waves at Sundance when it was met with rapturous applause and bought by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million. In January, the film was the answer to the two-year #OscarSoWhite issue. Is this a movie worthy of gold statues? Not a chance.

4 out of 10

Blair Witch Review (2016): I’m a Witch, I’m a Witch Oh, the Witch is Back

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Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett want to party like it’s 1999 but as we were all taught, parties weren’t meant to last. Their sorta-sequel, sorta-reboot Blair Witch is a dismal retread of the 1999 surprise hit that created a now-tired sub-genre. They decided to replicate the original idea and we are all left scratching our heads and wondering why. Wingard and Barrett seem to think, why the hell not?

The Blair Witch Project was made on a $60,000 budget and made just under $250 million worldwide, creating a phenomenon by rubbing two nickels together. The latest, made for $5 million, doesn’t do much to advance the concept technically or narratively, except giving the characters a drone and a few digital cameras.

Set 20 years after the events of the original, James (James Allen McCune) discovers a video that could have belonged to his sister Heather, who disappeared in the woods while looking for the Blair Witch. Desperate to know if she’s alive – again, 20 years later – he gathers a group of friends (Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) to go spend a night in the woods and see if she’s out there.

Outlandish premise aside, Blair Witch has nothing to offer and commits a movie cardinal sin: What is the justification of this film’s existence? Who is it for and why is it here? It’s a movie that leans heavily on nostalgia for the first, which gained a strong fan base at the time of its release and subsequent years after, and doesn’t attempt to do anything new or exciting. The friends spend the night in the woods with a pair of sketchy people (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who found the original video footage. Things creak and crack throughout the night, trust is challenged and somehow absolutely no tension is created.

I’m mostly saddened by the attempted cash-in (as of Sunday night the film opened to only $9.6 million) nature of Blair Witch. It’s a regressive step in Wingard and Barrett’s respective careers, who gave us the fun horror film You’re Next and the slick, retro, bloody action-thriller The Guest, which I absolutely adore (if you haven’t seen The Guest, it’s available on Netflix – stay home and watch that instead of Blair Witch.) These are guys, who in such a short period of time, have become masters of creating palpable tension and atmosphere and now they’ve succumbed to the lazy found footage conceit.

While I appreciate the relevance of The Blair Witch project, I was never a fan of the original, which was a long journey to an inevitable ending. It was all concept and no execution. Maybe that put me at a grave disadvantage going into Blair Witch, because it’s so heavily steeped in the lore of the first. Either way, we didn’t need to see it again.

2 out of 10

Don’t Breathe Review (2016): Every Breath You Take…Will Get You Killed

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Don’t Breathe is the second film this year that finds an evenhanded combination of thrills and disgust, pairing them together to great effect (the other is the terrific Green Room, which you should seek out if you haven’t seen it).

It’s sad that the current state of modern horror filmmaking is one of a thankless genre. Most depend on the flickering lights or the bedroom door that moves on its own to generate suspense, which is usually done to no avail. Director Fede Alvarez (who last rebooted Evil Dead) doesn’t hold back from trying to shock you any way he can but he’s mostly effective in his conquest.

The film focuses on three friends, who have a full-time job robbing houses. Rocky (Jane Levy) robs with a specific purpose in mind, while her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) goes along because he has feelings for Rocky. The trio is completed with Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), a cornrow-clad punk who swaggers with the confidence of Danny Ocean; he’s just missing the charm and aptitude.

The group – like most morally conflicted thieves – have a code of ethics, where they take possessions under a certain amount but never money. All of that changes when a big score surfaces. They find out that a retired Army veteran is sitting on a settlement of $300,000. The man lives alone and is blind, so they aren’t even going to bother to wait for him to leave his house because it should all be a piece of cake.

Turns out, it isn’t and the $300,000 is much harder to get to than they had hoped. The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is smarter than these three combined and because this is a Hollywood film, he doesn’t need his eyesight to inflict terror upon them. What ensues is a game of cat-and-mouse in a grim house that the Blind Man (I swear, this is what he is credited as) has managed to trap his burglars in.

The basic plot may seem a little shopworn but Alvarez consistently ratchets up the tension with every scene. Things get bloody, as you would expect, but rarely does it feel contrived for the sake of showing blood. There are twists and turns within the night in the house, each surprising, and one fallen off the edge to the side of repulsive.

Minnette and Levy, in particular, carry the film as strong young actors. Their angst, ennui and desperation all feel believable and authentic. Their uneven relationship feels lived-in, never forced in as a plot tactic. The character of Money is as often on-the-nose and his name. He’s a caricature with no real weight in the film. Lang makes for a threatening antagonist, mostly evoking chills through action and not words.

It’s unfortunate that good horror and thriller films are such a rarity in today’s world because it’s seemingly hard to come up with anything new or fresh. Don’t Breathe never attempts to reinvent the wheel but will more than satisfy your thrill-seeking cravings.

8 out of 10

Equity Review: This Time, Anna Gunn is the One Who Knocks

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Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White for five season on Breaking Bad, gets her first big lead role in Equity, an engrossing new financial-set drama.

There has been a lot of chatter about the fact that the film was directed, written, produced and primarily stars women. Big whoop – this shouldn’t be the lede of everyone’s review or coverage of the film. Maybe Hollywood will one day catch up and realize that Gunn can play more than the embattled wife of a meth dealer because here she proves herself a formidable leading lady.

Gunn is mesmerizing as Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker, who is in the aftermath of an IPO gone awry. Her name is plastered all over the financial sector after her efforts to take a company public didn’t go her way but Naomi has no time to dwell; she’s ready for her next project.

Naomi has sunk her teeth into a company called Cachet, a social networking site that boasts unshakable privacy above all else. Naomi is a no-nonsense kind of banker, who seems to only pitch her ideas to the company’s CEO Ed (Samuel Roukin) as a formality. She wants to do things her way and have everyone else stay out of it.

After what happened with her last IPO efforts, there is a lot of pressure on Naomi. She has an old college friend, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), who investigates securities frauds and a hungry VP, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), looking for a promotion for all the work she does for Naomi, all distracting her from her work. Once Naomi sets her focus, you better not get in her way.

Under the direction of Meera Menon, Equity unfolds rather straightforwardly in its web of Wall Street happenings. The central story is consistently engaging but Equity has a problem with its tangents, detouring on some side plots that never feel fully fleshed out. The script has such a strong and engaging central story but the background noise proves to be more distracting than anything else.

Gunn, who won two Emmys for her role on Breaking Bad, is the addictive constant of Equity. Her performance is so wonderfully layered and she creates a balance of razor sharp precision and vulnerability in Naomi. It’s a calling card for continuous leading roles for Gunn.

In the dog days of summer, Equity is a strongly acted drama for the adult crowd, brimming with great performances and moments of true tension. Too bad it took us this long to find something engaging to watch this summer.

7 out of 10