What a fascinating time to be alive. Over the last few years, my viewing habits became dominated by ritual and placement. My nightstand is for YouTube, Fandor and Mubi with old standbys on Vimeo while I sleep. My television is essentially a 24/7 broadcast from Skyrim, Post-Apocalypse Commonwealth (of a fictional Massachusetts) and other games I've since devoted entire day. It's also the Blu-Ray player and a background screen to my laptop. All of these venues and formats make a "best of" list strange in a way because our time is becoming harder to intentionally fill. What I mean is unless you go out with intent you're damned to watch The Bourne Identity for the umpteenth time or the cookie-cooking show. For the sake of these choices below, it is limited to theatrical releases following the New York release schedule.
Despite the variety of delivery methods, it's hard to watch good films. Especially in an age where it's just as easy to google "Best DP" with questionable results and then sucked into the SEO-bait world of YouTube and reactions and all stuff stolen and repurposed thanks to Adobe Premiere Elements.
So here's a list of arbitrary films to judge whether or not I'm smarter than the average bear for another year. I also normally keep these as ongoing raw lists at my Letterboxd starting around October or November each year.
1. HAPPY HOUR (2015) DIR. RYUSUKE HAMGUCHI
The 319-minute film that screened once a day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and via torrents for everyone else that saw it in 2016. When it premiered at Locarno, Happy Hour was billed initially as a test for art film snobs and those without deadlines. It gets even worse: it's a film about the power of friendship.
But Ryusuke Hamguchi makes a very stark style choice in his opening shot and that determines how you'll view this. If you're sucked into the tunnel then you're set for the next five hours. If you're annoyed by it or can't understand the following shot (see above image) you should be reaching for the eject button. Happy Hour looks at four friends that meet occasionally for lunch or day-trips and how after one particularly awful weather moment they plan a month ahead. Their words are measured at first, becoming far more comprehensive as their personal lives are shown in minute--almost banal--detail. Because of the length, Hamguchi intentionally goads the viewer into accepting appearances and that we're bound for change.
As of publishing today there are no plans for U.S. distribution, theatrical or home media release.
2. CERTAIN WOMEN (2016) DIR. KELLY REICHARDT
Back in 2008 my first Kelly Reichardt film was a screener of Wendy and Lucy I borrowed from a friend for a podcast recording. It was a shitty day and I was laid off a week or so prior. Maybe a month. I had put off watching it for nearly a week until the day of the podcast, which was overcast and raining the kind of grey and wet that just ruin everything. I had all the lights in my apartment on and briefly perked up when Larry Fessenden cameoed as the devil hobo to scare Michelle Williams on the hillside. When I left, I was crossing under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when an Escalade turned the corner too fast and nailed me. I saw it coming, so I jumped up and grabbed the exposed grill and rode it for a few feet. The Driver and I exchanged middle fingers and fuck yous before I hopped off his hood.
I hated Wendy and Lucy. I don't know what struck a nerve at the time, but I was so utterly turned off by it that I was preoccupied from everything around. Which is ironic because this also means Wendy and Lucy literally saved my life. Carrying the screener back to the podcast in my pocket, thinking back on Reichardt's portrayal of a Northwest that is both barren and teeming with weirdness and a dog helped me not get completely run over. I was much younger, which is an easy case for stupidity. Now I can observe and enjoy this adaptation of Malie Malloy's "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It" and appreciate the diner scenes between Kristin Stewart and Lily Gladstone (the break-out of the bunch). Years later I can appreciate the jump-cut to the aftermath of Jared Harris' character asking his lawyer (Laura Dern) if she could lie to the cops for him, while he holds an injured rent-a-cop at gunpoint. It took me until last year with a film about subtlety to get the hint about Wendy and Lucy in time for Certain Women.
You can listen to that old episode of The House Next Door "Live" at Grassroots Tavern here. A note if you do: the world of 2008 and 2017 were much different. Opinions may have changed, recording quality may not have been stellar. But there's a very good chance you'll hear "All Along the Watchtower," which definitely would not fly today's world of rights' management.
The theatrical wrapped up a while ago, but I have no idea about the home release. Check their deets.
3. KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (2016) DIR. ROBERT GREENE
Kate (Kate Lyn Shiel) agrees to research the role of Christine Chubbuck, an on-air reporter who shot herself after reading aloud the news about her suicide during a July 15th broadcast, for director (Robert Greene) in a nonexistent film. In a weird twist, Kate Plays Christine would be one of two films about Chubbuck to release in 2017 and premiere at Sundance 2016—Christine, by Antonio Campos, was a pure narrative using Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck along with Michael C. Hall and others.
Outside of Chubbuck, this is a fascinating question: how does an actor attempt to portray someone? Especially when the person known to the public was an acting herself and masking their own depression (among other things) until it snapped. Shiel builds her character out through the physical (moving down to Sarasota, Florida; firing a gun; spray tan) and mental (practicing mannerisms, walking through crowds being trailed by the camera). And on the same level, there is a meta-narrative: Greene, as director/producer/editor, as a predator (I worked hard to smash this in, I did). Scenes of Shiel inquiring about a gun later become intermixed with scenes of her as "Chubbuck," as if it is 1971. Later local actors are hired on and perform in a movie that only exists for Greene in snippets. They mingle and still try to figure out something like that could happen and never be seen or found again. But there is still the ending, whose preparation is the opening and the eventual filming of (reportedly) ceased being Greene's film and turned into Shiel's.
Kate Plays Christine is avaliable via Grasshopper Films.
4. MOONLIGHT (2016) DIR. BARRY JENKINS
Three takeaways I had after Moonlight in early November:
- You may not be able to stop humming "Classic Man."
- Mike D'Angelo had one of the few cautionary warnings about the story of Chiron/Black in a review on Letterbox. The gist of it: Chiron's a blank slate that people pour themselves into and that's sort of a cop-out. That's the point that Jenkins is going for with this adaptation of "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." Against a backdrop that used to be reserved for Will Smith music videos and Michael Mann's wet dream, the rest of Miami goes unnoticed (This is echoed slightly as the DP, James Laxton, talks to Filmmaker Magazine about shooting Moonlight). I think the blank slate concept works well in this light.
- Part III ("Black") may have some of the best low-light sections from film in 2016, specifically as André Holland drags on a cigarette or squeezes lime across a grill-top.
Moonlight is available wherever there are Internets, DVDs or Blu-Rays.
5. HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY (2015) DIR. STEPHEN CONE
I watched this in a packed theater in the back of a restaurant in Baltimore after a day of walking around Baltimore going from Two Shots Fired (w/o) to Results (good), then Funny Bunny (really good) and end on Henry Gamble's Birthday Party. It eventually got a release through IFP in 2016 and that means I can technically say it was one of my legitimate favorite films for two years in a row.
Normally I'd say, "never has a pool party had more tension," but any adventure as a kid that involved swimsuits and a pool--even with adult supervision--made everything seem comically heightened or important. Another wonderful side-effect of hormones. Henry (Cole Doman) and Gabe (Joe Keery) wake up from a sleepover and get ready for the unfolding day of friends, crushes, awkward stories about what really happened at a Bible retreat and where the boxed wine is kept in the Gamble household. The cast tease out the day until night arrives with nearly everything that should explode from religious convictions, personal demons and a poorly timed visit from an (ex-)boyfriend until—well, why spoil it now?
Henry Gamble's Birthday Party is available here and still floating around Netflix as of today.
6. HARDCORE HENRY (2015) DIR. ILYA NAISHULLER
In a fun throwback to the "music video-as-art" theory, Biting Elbows' "The Intercept" and "Bad Motherfucker" were viral hits about a nameless, suited man battling his way through an office complex for a teleportation device—and shot entirely through a first-person POV thanks to two GoPros and a headset. It's what amuses me from yet another music video they made to showcase filming Hardcore Henry (neé Hardcore). It's 3/4 technical achievement and 1/4 willingness to push the boundry for what could've been dumped into the rows of a SVOD service. Everyone and their intern weren't wrong when they'd breathlessly shout, "IT'S LIKE A VIDEO GAAAAAAAAME."
"Henry" (Andrei Dementiev, Ilya Naishuller, Sergey Valyaev, and seven other stuntmen supposedly) wakes up on a state-of-the-art floating facility where his wife (Haley Bennett) is completing the process to turn him into a cyborg, but it leaves him mute. Then like the true start to any game: the psychokinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) appears to kidnap Henry's wife, which starts a chase across multiple levels with Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a support character in a constant state of death and rebirth ranging from a meleé-based punk rocker to a Colonial British man with musket. Of course, there's a reason Jimmy is the way he is (and Copley explains this during a musical number) but no one knows why a psychokinetic albino wants to rule the world. But it's the type of time-consuming fact every gamer ignores as Henry enters the final boss fight: The Matrix Reloaded's "Burly Brawl" with dozens of other cyborgs just as strong as you--and that guy who stole your "wife," but I jumped ahead too many levels.
Hardcore Henry is pretty easy to find now.
7. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015) DIR. CIRO GUERRA
An early critical darling out of the 2015 Cannes' Director's Fortnight premiere and not stopping until it reached U.S. arthouses in March 2016. A tale of two eras as they traverse the Amazon River for a mythical plant. The first story follows Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) as he's lead to the shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to find where his tribe keep yakruna, a medicinal herb that will cure Theo of whatever's ailing him. Years later, an American arrives and seeks out an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) to also show him where yakruna is—but Karamakate is a self-proclaimed shell of a man now after the first trip, inevitably agreeing to help the American.
Embrace of the Serpent takes both past and 'present' to show how culture becomes corrupted and inevitably forgotten due to basic trade: here Europe and America are coming to stake land claims and cut down trees for rubber. Even the American isn't solely there to have an experience; he wants untapped land that Karamakate's tribe may be sitting on.
Embrace of the Serpent is available with Amazon Prime and anywhere else that sells movies on the Internet.
8. THE NEON DEMON (2016) DIR. NICHOLAS WINDING REFN
Just watch it. You'll either hate it or switch to hardcore pornography once you've had enough.
9. WEINER (2016) DIRS. JOSH KRIEGMAN AND ELYSE STEINBERG
An example of "lightning in a bottle" along with the recent revelation that a documentary about Donald Trump's winning the 2016 presidential election premiered at Sundance 2017. What began as a victory lap after a sexting scandal, Weiner is a master class in embracing the failure as a teachable moment. No one will ever know why Anthony Weiner decided to let cameras keep going or why he egged on his then-wife Huma Abedin to get in front of a media gaggle.
How you interpret Weiner's ego is up to you. Is he a flawed man who wants to prove he can be just? Is he a blow-hard looking for one last fight? Is it possible even worse than that (as of October 2016, maybe)?
10. SHIN GODZILLA (2016) DIRS. HIDEKI ANNO AND SHINJI HIGUCHI
This was my favorite shot towards the end of 2016. The return of Godzilla as a lumbering toddler into sinister, scared monster is stunning. Especially because for years I grew up never thinking (then) he was anything but an affable creature that just liked to fight other monsters before going back into the ocean. It went so long that I didn't wind up seeing the real Gojira until college when Film Forum offered The King of All Monsters in two-for-one screenings. I had forgotten how dark and desperate even dealing with the original Godzilla was, eradicating the entire Tokyo Bay just to kill him.
But Hideki Anno and Shinji Higuchi clearly didn't. Shin Godzilla (or odzilla: Resurgence) is a dark, depressing comedy that shows the progress we think we've made as a society is easily crushed. The Japanese Government are a series of bureaucrats dominating from the top-down and eager to avoid responsibility. As each one is introduced, no matter the level or office, they receive a brief caption on-screen of their name and position. It's a dry joke that builds throughout the film, even as Godzilla emerges first as a slug-with-legs and later as the glowing visage above. Of course, since it's a new Godzilla it requires a new way to handle after a scientist determines that Godzilla's final mutation will be into smaller, humanoid creatures, bringing a new twist to a decades-old threat.
Shin Godzilla is not yet out on Blu-Ray or Streaming as of April 2016, except in Japan.
OTHER STUFF FROM LAST YEAR
I still crack up over the fact that a YES song became an audio gag for a Japanese cartoon. It took three years to be seeded around the Internet, but now the opening licks of "Roundabout" are associated with a freeze frame for an entirely different generation.
Anything I watched that I found acceptable based on an interview Sean Burns once did with Jon Hamm where the actor wondered: "why can't things just be okay," caused me to tweet a photo of the actor. It may be retired for 2017. It is still going strong.
Skyrim, a video game I bough in 2011, was re-released. I bought it again. I thought about how sad this may seem, but then I remembered I also have two different versions of the Lone Wolf and Cub films (DVD and Criterion Blu-Ray), Romeo is Bleeding only on VHS and multiple Haruki Murakami books in hard-cover and paperback. So really it's no different from previous years.
Finally got around to seeing The General with a live orchestra. That's where the top image base comes from when it screened at AFI Silver.
I watched Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe at a pop-up theater in Northeast D.C. on a Saturday afternoon. I also kept sneaking photos of the screen and buying large bottles of Racer 5, which earned me a glare or two from two parents that brought their child in a stroller. It was horrific. Find it here: #VAXXEDLIFE.
I went to my second Summerslam in Brooklyn. It was magical.
Also more multiplex theaters have adopted reclining seats and "choose your own seat" ticketing. These are bullshit.
I'll end on this photograph I took back in November.