The brilliant Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales once wrote of a short-lived show, “The Gangster Chronicles is so DOA, it makes doornails look frisky.” (I know, because as a 14-year-old, I clipped out his review, underlined that sentence, and kept it in a box under my bed, dreaming that someday I, too, would turn a phrase that beautifully.) Well, Live By Night makes The Gangster Chronicles look like The Godfather.
It must’ve looked great on paper: Ben Affleck, fresh off the Oscar-winning success of Argo, directs his own adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just as he did with his hugely promising debut as a filmmaker, Gone Baby Gone (starring his brother Casey, who’s having a much better year, winning every award under the sun for Manchester by the Sea, than Ben is having with Batman v. Superman and this dud). The story starts in Boston, Ben’s old Good Will Hunting turf as well as the setting for Gone Baby Gone and its solid followup The Town. Affleck remains a gifted visual stylist; working with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he stages a bank robbery/car chase and shootout that crackle with electricity. But they’re stand-alone sequences, and soon as they’re over, the story comes to a screeching halt.
So where did it all go wrong? Where to begin? Where movies always begin, with the script. The story of a World War I vet, Joe Dougherty (Affleck), who returns to Beantown and goes against the wishes of his honest-cop father (Brendan Gleeson) to live a life of crime, is quite simply full of beans. Affleck attempts to capture Lehane’s hard-boiled dialogue, but the result is soft-headed. One character is described as “dumb as a grape.” Live By Night is as dumb as a bunch of them. A similar story of Prohibition Era gangsters was told in an infinitely better fashion on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Live By Night should’ve been prohibited.
Gleeson gives the film’s only credible performance, and—SPOILER ALERT—he dies, off-screen, within the first half-hour. The rest of the cast seem to be competing in a bad-acting-off. Chris Messina channels Chico Marx as Joe’s goombah sidekick. The usually great Chris Cooper seems to be parodying his own performance in American Beauty as a corrupt yet self-righteous Tampa sheriff. Two shockingly nondescript actors, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone, are cast in the pivotal roles of warring mob dons, one Irish and one Italian, who fight for what’s left of Joe’s soul. An even more anonymous performer, Matthew Maher (who also appeared in The Town), portrays a Klansman with an apparent hare-lip, and he unintentionally conjures the memory of Elmer Fudd. You half-expect him to say, “Be vewwwy quiet. We’re hunting minorities!”
The women’s roles in the film are as insultingly written as they are poorly executed. Sienna Miller fatally overplays the femme fatale; she’s a moll who double-crosses Joe and sets him up to be killed by the Irish kingpin, yet we’re supposed to believe Joe’s so in love with her that he instantly forgives her, even though we see no traces of genuine affection between them. Zoe Saldana is saddled with the good-wife role; she’s a Black Cuban rum-runner who becomes Joe’s spouse when he relocates to Florida to try and open a casino, and the minute they get together, she becomes a paragon of virtue (once again, we never understand why these two are attracted to each other or what they have in common—we’re just supposed to take Affleck’s word for it that they’re deeply in love). The real doozy, however, is Elle Fanning in a part that is literally both a Madonna and a whore. She’s Cooper’s daughter, who heads to Hollywood seeking stardom and ends up doing porn and heroin. Then she returns home and is whipped by her dad in a scene so twisted it plays like daddy-daughter porn, if there is such a thing (and I’m afraid to find out but there must be). So she becomes an evangelist, showing off her track marks as if they were stigmata, and singlehandedly shuts down Joe’s plans for a gambling empire with her supposedly rabble-rousing tent-revival speeches. Problem is, Fanning is so low-energy (pardon my Trumpism), she barely seems able to keep her eyes open, muchless whip a flock of parishioners into a holy-rolling frenzy.
But the winner of the bad-acting-off, by a mile, is Affleck himself. He barely seems able to keep a straight face when he’s delivering ridiculous lines like, “I have no beef with you, but I don’t truck with gangsters.” Just behind his eyes, you can see a little boy’s glee that he’s getting to do a gangster movie like the ones he grew up watching. Can you imagine Al Pacino in The Godfather or Ray Liotta in GoodFellas delivering such transparently awful work? No, because Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wouldn’t allow it. But Affleck’s his own director — and his own worst enemy.
There’s a scene in the film when Joe gets kicked so hard in the groin, he instantly vomits. That’s how I felt watching Live by Night. “I’d like to think there’s a God, and He’s kind,” Fanning’s Bible-thumper tells Joe. “Wouldn’t that be swell?” Sure it would, but if there is a God, why would He or She allow such a mortal sin against cinema?
Tonight’s the night in the City of Stars: the Golden Globe Awards! Here are my predictions and preferences in the major categories (with highlighted links to my longer reviews).
Should win: Hell or High Water
Will win: Manchester by the Sea
If there’s a dark horse, it’s Lion, which may appeal more to the Hollywood Foreign Press with its international focus than the very American Manchester by the Sea.
Should win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land
The lighter-than-air musical will waltz away with the Globe since it doesn’t compete with weightier entries like Manchester and Moonlight. Winning the Best Picture Oscar will be a heavier lift, where Hidden Figures is coming up fast on the outside.
Best Director — Motion Picture
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Tom Ford
Will win: Mel Gibson
The Globes are all about manufacturing great TV moments, and giving the award to Gibson — and forgiving him for his many public and private trespasses — is a shiny opportunity the Foreign Press won’t be able to resist.
Should win: Amy Adams
Will win: Natalie Portman
I found Jackie to be ghoulishly awful, but Globes voters will probably eat up Portman’s hammy accent and the chance to see her up on stage pregnant and accepting another award, just like she did for Black Swan a few years ago.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Should win: Denzel Washington
Will win: Casey Affleck
The conventional wisdom is it’s Affleck the younger’s year (despite the sexual harassment stories that have bubbled under the surface in recent weeks). No question he was great in Manchester, but Washington is downright magnificent in Fences.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Jonah Hill, War Dogs
Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool
Should win: Ryan Gosling
Will win: Ryan Gosling
Gosling’s charming turn dances circles around his competitors, but he may not be able to keep up with more serious competition from Affleck at the Oscars.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Lily Collins, Rules Don’t Apply
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Should win: Emma Stone
Will win: Annette Bening
This is a two-woman contest, and it’s a toss-up. If La La Land sweeps the night, Stone could get caught up in the whirlwind, but Bening is a longtime Globes fave (having been nominated eight times and won twice).
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Simon Helberg, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dev Patel, Lion
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals
Should win: Jeff Bridges
Will win: Mahershala Ali
This is a strong category — although I would’ve nominated Nocturnal Animals‘ Michael Shannon over Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But Ali’s got the big mo for Moonlight, and his winning work in Hidden Figures will put him over the top.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Viola Davis
Will win: Viola Davis
Forget about it. This is as close to a lock as the Globes ever gets. Never mind Davis should be competing in the Best Actress category. She destroys in Fences.
Best Screenplay — Motion Picture
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Should win: Taylor Sheridan
Will win: Kenneth Lonergan
It’s a tight contest between Chazelle, Jenkins and Lonergan, but Manchester is nothing if not a writer’s movie and the playwright Lonergan will take the final bow.
Best Original Score — Motion Picture
Nicholas Britell, Moonlight
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival
Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, Lion
Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, and Hans Zimmer, Hidden Figures
Should win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land
Three little words: La. La. Land.
Hidden Figures isn’t just one of the year’s best movies, it’s also got one of the year’s best titles. It works on two levels—as a math reference, but also as acknowledgement that the heroic African-American female math geniuses who contributed to NASA winning the Space Race in the ’60s have remained hidden from history… until now.
But I’ve got an even better title for this wonderfully human film: 20th Century Women. Too bad that moniker was already taken by an inferior movie, set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Calif. and starring Annette Bening as a single mother trying to raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) with the help of two female friends (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning). The cast is spot-on: Bening has earned heaps of praise, as well as a Golden Globe nod and major Oscar buzz, but Zumann doesn’t hit a false note either. Gerwig didn’t annoy me for the first time ever with her precious quirkiness. Fanning did annoy me, but that was the point of her mopey character, so she did her job well.
Writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) devises a seductive visual style, but his script comes up short in its depiction of Bening’s character. Early on, we’re told she wanted to be a military pilot but wasn’t allowed due to her gender, and Mills circles back to that point in the end, but by then you’ve forgotten all about it. In between are interesting individual scenes (although way too much punk-rock dancing), yet as hard as Bening works to depict her character as a flesh-and-blood human being, she remains a frustrating mystery. Zumann’s character even says so in a voiceover. Yes, human lives are messy and self-contradictory. But the job of a filmmaker is to cut through that and bring out a character’s essence, and on that point, Mills fails.
Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi (who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, author of Mean Girls 2… wait, there was a Mean Girls 2?) brings the same lovely, naturalistic touch to this story as he did to the seriously underrated 2014 Bill Murray-Melissa McCarthy dramedy St. Vincent. All of the characters are fully three-dimensional, whether it’s Octavia Spencer as a computer whiz; Taraji P. Henson as a math savant; or Janelle Monae as an aspiring engineer.
They’re stymied in pursuit of their dreams due to the double whammy of prejudice against their gender and their race, and theirs is truly the story of 20th Century women. It turns out even the sky had a glass ceiling. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels, these women similarly matched their male coworkers, many of whom were backwards heels.
Still, Melfi loves his characters, and even the would-be villains—Jim Parsons as a haughty sexist (slyly playing against his lovable-nerd Big Bang Theory image) and Kirsten Dunst as Spencer’s casually racist boss—show signs of growth, minuscule as they may be. And Kevin Costner gives his best performance since… well, ever… as Henson’s hard-nosed, gum-chomping, tough-but-fair supervisor. Oh, and Mahershala Ali, reteaming with Moonlight‘s Monae, stirs up fiery chemistry with Henson as a military man who falls in love with her and her three adorable daughters.
As for the three female leads, I’d give ’em all Oscars, in a tie with Fences‘ Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress. A movie like this is why the Screen Actors Guild invented the Best Ensemble award. Bening may win Best Actress for 20th Century Women (unless, God forbid, Natalie Portman takes home a second Oscar for her ghastly Jackie), and it’s a shame these other four women are all grouped in a supporting category. I guess that’s just another glass ceiling that needs to be shattered by 21st Century African-American women.
The makers of Passengers are lucky that I posted my list of the year’s 10 worst movies before I subjected myself to their atrocity in an act of New Year’s desperation: There were no other films playing near me that I hadn’t seen and weren’t cartoons, Assassin’s Creed or Why Him? But why me? Why couldn’t have an assassin spared me of this torture?
Full disclosure: I thought Passengers looked terrible from its trailer alone. What I didn’t know (major spoilers ahead… but can you really spoil something this rotten?) is that the trailer is horribly misleading: The actual movie is even worse. First of all, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t even wake up for the first 30 minutes. That leaves Chris Pratt wandering around a spaceship, having awakened 90 years too early, with only a robotic bartender played by Michael Sheen — who seems more human than Pratt, by the way — for company. I don’t think Pratt even had to act in the scenes when he’s weightless; the guy’s got no natural gravity, no gravitas. For the first half hour, Passengers plays like 2016: A Space Idiocy.
Then J. Law finally wakes up… or I should say, Pratt wakes her up. He’s been stalking her for a year as she lies comatose in suspended animation and falls so deeply in love with her that he has to rouse her, thus ensuring she’ll die before reaching the vaunted planet Homestead 2, a kind of do-over for Earth. (I wish they’d done a do-over for Jon Spaihts’ script.) But Pratt doesn’t tell J. Law he woke her up, and she falls in love with him… until the robo-barkeep spills the beans. It’s never really explained why a robot would be on duty when no customers are expected to turn up for another nine decades, but that’s the least of this story’s problems.
J. Law gets pissed, understandably, for Pratt having essentially “murdered” her, but along comes Laurence Fishburne as a kind of “Magical Negro,” as Spike Lee dubbed characters like The Green Mile‘s Michael Clarke Duncan and The Legend of Bagger Vance‘s Will Smith whose sole function is to help white people realize their dreams. Fishburne’s captain suddenly wakes up, gets sick and dies… but not before convincing these two crazy kids they can’t live without each other.
So J. Law forgives Pratt and decides not to go back to sleep because she wants to spend the rest of her life with him… alone on a spaceship. We’re supposed to see them like Jack and Rose on the Titanic, star-crossed lovers on a doomed ship, but Passengers plays more like a pro-Stockholm Syndrome propaganda film. The woman exists only as a subordinate to the man, to satisfy his desires — no matter she’s a gifted writer who’ll never live to see her greatest story read by anyone other than him.
Even an Oscar winner like J. Law can’t make this story believable. She’s mainly used as a prop, often stripping down to a swimsuit (although Pratt gets the obligatory butt shots) and ending up in a soaked tank top. Is this a movie or a wet t-shirt contest?
Passengers was poorly directed by Morten Tyldum, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for The Imitation Game. That seems apt, since this feels like an imitation of better films like Gravity and The Martian. (Hell, even Interstellar was less ludicrous.) The special effects and music appear to have been lifted from Battlestar Galactica — the 1970s version. The script once languished on “Black List,” the annual rundown of allegedly great screenplays that haven’t been filmed. This one should’ve stayed on the Black List. Or in a black hole.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But in the theater where I saw Passengers, everyone could hear me scream with scornful laughter at one of the most inept films I’ve endured in this or any other year.
And the Frettsies go to… the best performances I saw at the movies in 2016. I still need to catch up with a few contenders, like Hacksaw Ridge‘s Andrew Garfield (sorry not sorry, I haven’t been able to bring myself to support a Mel Gibson movie). But here are my picks. Click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews, and make sure to check out my lists of the year’s 10 best movies and 10 worst movies.
The wild card here is Jerry Lewis, whose long-delayed drama Max Rose came and went with little fanfare. But his portrayal of a heartbroken jazz musician haunts me like an unforgettable melody. After watching his recent Hollywood Reporter interview, I wonder how much of his character’s bitterness was acting, but it remains riveting.
It’s a toss-up between who etched the most heartbreaking portrait of a woman profoundly uncomfortable in her own skin: Krisha Fairchild as the fresh-out-of-rehab relative from hell who turns her family’s Thanksgiving into a psychological horror show in the micro-budgeted Krisha, written and directed by the actress’ own nephew, Trey Edward Shults; or Rebecca Hall as a ’70s TV news reporter so terrorized by her own demons that she commits suicide on the air in the fact-based Christine. You be the judge, if you can bear to watch.
Best Supporting Actor
Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals and Loving
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson, Fences
Mahershala Ali and Andre Holland, Moonlight
Jared Harris, Certain Women and Simon Helberg, Florence Foster Jenkins
Way too many worthy contenders to limit this list… so I didn’t. The two most surprising turns I saw this year were Jared Harris — aka Mad Men‘s Lane Pryce — as a true madman, a desperate redneck who takes his lawyer (Laura Dern) hostage in director Kelly Reichardt’s Montana triptych Certain Women; and Simon Helberg as the fey, reluctant accompanist to Meryl Streep’s titular tone-deaf diva in Florence Foster Jenkins. Both men expertly strip any vestige of themselves (you’d never guess Jared is Richard Harris’ son) and their previous roles: The Big Bang Theory‘s Wolowitz feels a universe away from Florence‘s McMoon.
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women
Margo Martindale, The Hollars
Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
The Hollars nearly made my list of the year’s worst movies: Director John Krasinski’s cliched tale of an artist who returns home to be with his critically ill mother made me queasy with its condescending predictability. Yet Margo Martingale’s performance as the mom transcended the earthbound material. This wasn’t acting; it was alchemy.
Worst things first: I couldn’t make it through five minutes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, so I’m not including it in my list of the 10 worst movies I saw in 2016. I’ll just take the world’s word for it that it was almost as much fun as Tom and Martha Wayne’s night at the opera. Anyhow, here are the most painful cinematic experiences I endured over the last 12 months. (Click on highlighted titles for links to my longer reviews, and check out my list of the year’s 10 best movies.)
10. Jackie America needed this movie like JFK needed a hole in the… never mind. Still, that joke isn’t as tasteless as this unintentionally kitschy portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman, auditioning to be an automaton in Disneyland’s Hall of First Ladies). It’s even more tone-deaf than Mica Levi’s irritatingly discordant score.
9. Shut In I wish I would’ve stayed shut in my house rather than endure this waste of 91 minutes—and the talents of Naomi Watts and Room‘s Jacob Tremblay. It’s not so much a horror movie as a borer movie. Hey, what do you expect from a guy who opened his first movie review for U.Va.’s University Journal in 1986 with the immortal line: “House for sale. Boo-tiful condition.” Actually, that piece was co-written by my fellow future professional film critic Arnold Wayne Jones. Yes, it took two people to come up with a pun that bad.
8. Ghostbusters I felt the same way about a female-centric Ghostbusters as I did about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign: I loved the idea, but I was seriously underwhelmed by the execution. In this case, it was a guy’s fault: cowriter-director Paul Feig, who stranded his supernaturally talented cast with gags so lame, they barely even qualified as jokes. Forget about paranormal investigators: He should’ve called a script doctor.
7. Maggie’s Plan had to do with an annoyingly self-indulgent grad student (Greta Gerwig) wooing an annoyingly self-indulgent professor (Ethan Hawke) away from his annoyingly self-indulgent wife (Julianne Moore), then scheming to reunite them. Bruce’s plan was to walk out halfway through the movie before these characters could annoy him even further with their self-indulgence. Bruce’s plan worked.
6. The Legend of Tarzan You, Tarzan . Me, Bruce. Your movie stinks like a wet sack of Cheetah’s monkey crap.
5. Suicide Squad Margot Robbie, aka The Legend of Tarzan’s Jane, reunites with Will Smith, her co-star in one of 2015’s worst movies, Focus, with an even more unfocused mess. Is it a dark supervillain saga? A lighthearted superhero romp? A dessert wax? A floor topping? And what the hell is Jared Leto’s Joker (barely) doing here? The joke’s on you if you paid to see this act of cinematic hari-kari.
4. Knight of Cups Terrence Malick, please, just stop. Yes, you can get any actor you want to appear in your movies on the strength of long-ago masterpieces like Badlands and Days of Heaven. But your meandering meditations on meaninglessness don’t make sense to anyone but you. And I’m not even sure you understand them anymore.
3. Independence Day: Resurgence Will Smith may have starred in two of the year’s biggest turkeys between Suicide Squad and Collateral Beauty, which I refused to see based on the staggeringly awful trailer alone. But at least he was smart enough to stay away from this utterly needless sequel, which fizzled like the dud that it was.
2. Bad Moms When I recently interviewed Bob Weinstein for a New York Times story on Bad Santa, he commented on how many “Bad” movies and TV shows had followed in the wake of the original: Bad Teacher, Bad Judge, Bad Moms. (Not to mention Bad Santa 2, another utterly needless sequel.) Bad Moms belongs in a category all its own—an insult to moms, dads, and the childless alike. So of course, get set for Bad Moms 2, coming to theaters Nov. 17… an early favorite for my 10 worst movies of 2017 list.
1. A Bigger Splash Dakota Johnson gets 50 shades of naked. Ralph Fiennes shows his penis, which bears an eerie resemblance to Voldemort. Matthias Schoenaerts has too many vowels in his last name. Tilda Swinton can’t speak. And neither could I after being assaulted by this aggressively artsy-fartsy mega-turd. I can’t top my original assessment: What makes a bigger splash? Oh yeah, a giant piece of shit!
Say what you will about 2016, but it was a great year for movies. In an average year, excellent films like Loving, Lion and Captain Fantastic would easily make my top 10 list, but this time, they fell just short. (Still, you can click on their highlighted titles to read my reviews, as is the case through this entire story.) Here are my pics.
10. Fences. I didn’t think Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Russell Hornsby could ever deliver better performances than the ones I saw them give in August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway in 2010. But under Washington’s direction in the film version, they’re subtler, deeper and richer. They’re matched in quality by Mykelti Williamson and newcomer Jovan Adepo in the play’s two trickiest roles, as the brain-damaged brother and rebellious son of Washington’s proud but deeply flawed 1950s Pittsburgh garbageman. It’s a profound story about men and women, fathers and sons —perfectly evocative of its time yet utterly timeless.
9. Weiner. It’s one of the most unbelievably riveting political dramas I’ve ever seen, all the more so because it’s real. The Shakespearean tragedy of disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, a gifted politician laid low by his screaming narcissism, takes you so far inside the scandal, you’ll find yourself squirming, even while you can’t look away. Yet he’s the not the film’s most fascinating character — it’s Huma Abedin, his inexplicably loyal wife. As a bonus, the insight we get into her psyche sheds light on the mind of her similarly loyal-to-a-fault boss, Hillary Clinton and why she lost the election. Invaluable.
8. Paterson. Less a movie than a tone poem, and an achingly beautiful one at that. In a bit of witty symmetry, Adam Driver plays a bus driver/poet named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, N.J. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has found an ideal muse in Driver, who looks like he could be the love child of John Lurie and Richard Edson, the co-stars of the auteur’s 1984 breakout feature, Stranger Than Paradise. Haunting patterns resonate throughout the visually dazzling film, which eludes simple explanation yet lingers in your soul.
7. Moonlight. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m neither gay nor African-American, yet this culturally specific story of a gay African-American during three stages of his life resonated with me deeply. It’s a story about love and acceptance, most importantly of one’s own self, and that’s something with which anyone can identify. Cowriter-director Barry Jenkins creates a gorgeously seductive visual scheme for the picture, and among the flawless ensemble, standouts include Mahershala Ali as an admirably parental drug dealer, Janelle Monae as his kind-hearted companion, Naomie Harris as a hollow-souled addict, and Andre Holland as a cook effortlessly comfortable in his skin and sexuality. That’s a goal to which we can all aspire.
6. Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan belatedly builds on the promise of his stunning debut feature, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, with this equally adept character study. Casey Affleck smolders and simmers with a bone-deep intensity as a Massachusetts handyman who relcutantly becomes the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges, who doesn’t make a false move). And if there’s an actor more skilled at projecting open-wound vulnerability than Michelle Williams, I’ve yet to see her. Brokeback Mountain, My Week with Marilyn, Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine, this year’s Certain Women and Manchester by the Sea… Williams is quietly assembling a Meryl Streep-ish body of work.
5. Silence. Martin Scorsese’s devastating story of 17th century Jesuit missionaries who endure unspeakable torture at the hands of Japanese captors isn’t the easiest film to watch, but it continues to resonate in my mind, heart and soul. The question of faith and its limits isn’t an easy one to answer, and Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks don’t try to offer one. Your reaction to the film and its characters may vary based on your own level of religious belief. As an agnostic who leans Buddhist, it raised deeply troubling issues for me. And that’s a good thing. One thing is certain: Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are young actors of remarkable range, and their physical and spiritual commitments to their roles are nothing short of miraculous.
4. Arrival. I’m generally not a sci-fi guy, but director Denis Villenueve’s alien-contact allegory hit me on a visceral level just as powerfully as his gritty drug-war drama Sicario did last year. Both films also feature refreshingly tough and smart female protagonists—in this case, Amy Adams as a grieving linguist who finds a connection to the universe that goes beyond the stars and planets in the sky. If Arrival‘s mobius-strip denoument doesn’t leave you in tears, check your DNA: You might not be human.
3. La La Land. Pure cinematic joy. The creativity and love that went into every frame and every note of this transcendent ode/update to the classic movie musical bursts off the screen into your eyes and ears and heart. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly imperfect as the L.A. dreamers who endure romantic ups and downs but are never in anything less than perfect harmony. La La Land is a sustained smile, and desperately needed. Between this and Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle might be American cinema’s greatest source of hope to come along in decades.
2. Nocturnal Animals. One of the greatest mind-fucks I’ve ever had — right up there with David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. — designer-director Tom Ford’s exquisite thriller messes with your conception of what’s real and what’s fiction in this brilliant two-tier story. The less you know about the plot going in, the better, but suffice it to say the performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are every bit as daring and intoxicating as Ford’s fever-dream visuals.
1. Hell or High Water. I’m a sucker for a good Western, and this is a damn-near perfect one, but it’s also about something bigger: the banking crisis and how it hit the white working class. Without pandering in any way, Scotsman David Mackenzie (Starred Up) — working from an exhilaratingly streamlined script by Sicario‘s Taylor Sheridan — creates a Robin Hood story for the 21st century, one rife with moral complexity. On one side of the law-and-order ledger, Chris Pine and Ben Foster expertly balance each other out as bank-robbing brothers: Pine a bundle of ethical contradictions, Foster an incendiary loose cannon. On their trail is a wily Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges) who tosses off politically incorrect remarks that might make Donald Trump turn bright orange but feels his own brotherly bond with Native American coworker, played by Gil Birmingham (who deserves to be in this year’s best supporting actor Oscar race right alongside Foster and Bridges, not to mention Michael Shannon as a terminally ill Texas ranger in Nocturnal Animals). Satisfying on every level, Hell is 2016’s cinematic high-water mark — it’s sheer movie heaven.