Tag Archives: Movies

My 10 Favourite Films of 2016

It’s that time of year again. And maybe for the first time ever, I’ve managed to get my list out before January 1st (albeit just barely). There are some films I really wanted to catch up with before making a top 10 (Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women, Jackie, 20th Century Women), but I’m willing to “settle” for the 10 fantastic films I’ve already seen. So let’s get on with it.

Very honourable mentions go to Little Men, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Invitation, Dheepan, The Bad Kids, and Green Room.

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10. Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie took the grit and depiction of uneasy male family ties from his last picture, 2014’s Starred Up, and translated it into something that has had surprising resonance with American audiences with Hell or High Water. A lot of reviewers have honed in on the film’s geographic and economic perspective and dubbed it as something of “a film for Trump’s America” and while I see that argument, I think it sells the film short, or at least distorts some of the points that McKenzie is making. But even setting politics and social messages aside, Hell or High Water feels undeniably timely and reworks tropes of the western genre into something that feels fresh, which is no easy feat. Ben Foster and Chris Pine smolder on screen in just the right ways, and when the film kicks its plot into high gear, it’s both wildly exciting and an example of filmmaking at its finest.

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9. The Edge of Seventeen

John Hughes comparisons have run rampant with this debut feature from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, and while I usually like to play the contrarian, I have to agree that The Edge of Seventeen is like a more modern and – dare I say it – more intelligent version of an ‘80s Molly Ringwald flick. The Edge of Seventeen perfectly captures the confusing, exhilarating, gross, and frustrating feelings that come along with being a teenage girl. Protagonist Nadine (played by a truly fantastic Hailee Steinfeld) is frequently unlikeable, but also thoroughly relatable. Her behaviour may not be excusable, but it is understandable, and Craig’s film explores how we can better relate to the people around us at any age. It’s heartfelt but never treacly, and funny but certainly never disposable.

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8. Paterson

Paterson is the sort of strange, plotless movie that seems like it would embody all the worst stereotypes of about indie film. But with Jim Jarmusch directing and Adam Driver starring this film that is seemingly about nothing becomes something quite moving and almost haunting, in a way. Driver plays the titular Paterson, a bus driver in a small New Jersey town also called Paterson. (This is what I mean when I say the film should be thoroughly annoying.) Paterson explores this man’s simple life, his poetic aspirations, and his relationships, all amounting to a quiet yet memorable entry from Jarmusch. I hadn’t been sold on Driver’s abilities on the big screen, but he more than proves himself here, giving a complicated and layered portrayal to a character who could have been quite flat in the hands of a less sensitive performer.

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7. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I can’t overstate how thrilled I was to encounter a big franchise film that is essentially a three-person chamber play. The fact that it made over $100 million at the box office is just icing on the cake, and I can only hope that it’ll encourage more blockbusters like this. And financial successes aside, I found 10 Cloverfield Lane completely gripping. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of the film’s claustrophobic setting and his fantastic trio of actors, perfectly crafting tension at every turn. Some people had a problem with the film’s third act, and while I don’t necessarily think the film NEEDED to go the direction it did, I understand WHY it did, and I found that part of the story compelling, too. More exciting leading roles for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, please.

6. The Wait

I’m still sad that The Wait has gone largely unnoticed this year, lovely and quietly complicated as it is. Co-leads Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage are completely enchanting to watch together on screen, and the careful direction from director Pietro Messina only adds more glorious tension to this simmering film. So much goes unspoken in The Wait, but it’s all the more powerful because of it.

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5. A Bigger Splash

I think about A Bigger Splash possibly more than any other film I saw this year, and it continues to only goes up in my estimation on reflection. It’s not perfect and it’s definitely wacky as hell, but there’s something about it that really worked for me. Maybe it’s just Ralph Fiennes’ dance moves. Who knows. In any case, I think this is a film that’s sly in its social commentary, surprisingly moving, and a fantastic acting showcase for all four leads involved. Check it out if you haven’t already.

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4. Arrival

I don’t think Arrival is as smart as a lot of people say it is. It utilizes some clunky narrative devices, and I wish some of its plot points were less “movie trope-y” than they are. I don’t even think it perfectly hits all the emotional notes it goes for. But here’s the thing: I don’t think I saw a more beautiful film this year. Dennis Villeneuve’s sci-fi vision feels like the sort of movie I’ve always wanted to see. (Blade Runner 2049, please come faster.) It does feel a little bit stuck in between a blockbuster and Villeneuve’s more arty instincts. But I’m glad that a movie like this is getting shown in multiplexes and being seen by a wide audience. Thanks to Amy Adams’ brilliantly soulful performance, it has Villeneuve’s signature character-propelled core that have also elevated Prisoners and Sicario above the genre fare they could have otherwise fallen into. I love his twist on genre expectations, and Arrival is a particularly beautiful example at that.

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3. Moonlight

This is the film that’s on every one of these damn lists, and here it is on mine. I had the opportunity to see Moonlight just before it screened publicly at Telluride or TIFF, so I was able to go in without expectations. What I found was a beautifully shot, uniquely structured, and wonderfully empathetic film. There is an elegance to Moonlight that is rare. Director Barry Jenkins unfurls the story so well that by the time the final third rolls around and Andre Holland (in my opinion, the standout performance of the film, though Mahershala Ali is also fantastic) shows up to charm the hell out of everyone, you feel like you’ve properly experienced the main character’s life along with him. I’m thrilled that the response to Moonlight has been so enthusiastic, and I’m keen to revisit it.

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2. Blue Jay

So here we are at our final two spots. And first comes the film that was both one of the funniest and probably the single most moving movie I saw all year. Blue Jay was such a beautiful, heartfelt film. I absolutely adored it, and while I feel like I can’t succinctly articulate why, I attempted to do so at more length in my full review of it. It’s on Netflix now. Please seek it out.

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1. Louder Than Bombs

So I still have the same #1 film as I did when I made my mid-year list? How boring, I know. But nothing topped Joachim Trier’s English-language debut for me. It is a simple story, and could be boiled down to “white people problems” for some. But I found Trier’s examination of a family dysfunction so honest. It is both quietly brutal yet strangely hopeful. This is one of the few examples of the genre that manages to strike that balance, never falling into mopey melodrama or twee sentimentality. It feels honest – almost mundanely so – yet completely riveting from start to finish.

10 Modern Horror Movies for People Who Hate Horror Movies

Not everyone likes horror films, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re wimpy or a film snob (y’know, unless you are), and maybe it’s just not your thing. But like any genre, there’s enough diversity that you can probably still find something you like, so long as you’re looking in the right place.

So, I’ve assembled a list of 10 films that I’d recommend to people who don’t typically like horror films. Most of these are films that really value character development, which is something that I need in order to get invested in a horror film. They’re artfully made while still being thrilling and suspenseful, and who knows? Maybe they’ll work for you as an entry point into the genre.

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1. The Mist (2007)

The horror genre is full of Stephen King adaptations, but if The Shining or It don’t appeal, try The Mist, an adaptation of a 1984 King novella. The film is about a small town that becomes enveloped by a thick, monster-filled mist (the worst kind!) and the group of survivors who get trapped inside a grocery store and must fight off the encroaching threat from outside. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is as much about the interpersonal dynamics going on inside the store as it is about monsters destroying everything in their path, and the film is all the stronger for it. Darabont perfectly combines B-movie camp with more thoughtful filmmaking here, and viewers who appreciate a helping of character development alongside their gory kills (which The Mist also offers, though not in completely gratuitous quantity) will likely appreciate this eerie sci-fi gem.

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2. Funny Games (1997)

Sometimes the scariest thing of all doesn’t come in the form of alien invasions or werewolves, but in learning exactly what other human beings are capable of. And boy, does Michael Haneke dive headfirst into that concept with Funny Games. The film follows a family that get visited at their vacation home by two seemingly polite young men who invite themselves in and proceed to subject the family to a string of sadistic “games” just because they can. And as you can probably guess, Funny Games is pretty disturbing. However, Haneke doesn’t go overboard on the gore, keeping the worst of the violence off-screen. Instead, he offers a deconstruction of the horror film genre that’s actually extremely thoughtful and clever. Haneke also directed a shot-for-shot English remake in 2007 that stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, which (since it’s basically the same movie) is also quite good.

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3. Let the Right One In (2008)

This creepy, chilly Swedish vampire flick was a surprise crossover hit among critics and arthouse crowds in the United States, and with good reason. (It also inspired the 2010 English-language remake, Let Me In. And an upcoming TV reboot on TNT. But let’s not talk about either of those things.) Director Tomas Alfredson combined coming-of-age tropes with some quietly shocking vampire violence, and the result is something that feels unique and artful within the often repetitive horror genre.

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4. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic zombie-outbreak thriller is just pretty much perfect from start to finish. It takes the hearty DNA of Night of the Living Dead and adapts it to the 21st century, creating a gritty sci-fi tale with a surprising emotional core. It’s career-best work for Cillian Murphy and as far as Boyle’s filmography goes, I’d put it right at the top of the list – yes, even above Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. If you’re squeamish, know that while the film doesn’t pull its punches, it also doesn’t go overboard with the gore. Instead it puts the focus on its characters, its social allegory, and its bleakly beautiful art direction.

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5. Frozen (2010)

Not being a huge horror fan myself (hence the creation of this list), I find that one horror subgenre that I’m uncharacteristically drawn to is “survival horror”. A lot of films can arguably fall under heading, but one that pretty much defines the label is 2010’s Frozen. (Insert your “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” jokes here.) The film follows three friends who, through an unfortunate string of human errors, find themselves trapped on a ski lift and must use their (sometimes really questionable) brainpower to try and survive. That’s it. And it’s actually really interesting. Granted it’s not perfect – the tropes are a little too plentiful and the dialogue could use some work – but at its heart, it’s a tightly constructed little one-location movie. I’m not sure if any of its three leads are actually good actors, but they sell the material, and I’ll applaud the guts of any horror filmmaker that makes their film without supernatural elements or, hell, even an antagonist.

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6. Near Dark (1987)

Vampires and Tangerine Dream! Yeah! Kathryn Bigelow’s first film has aged just the right amount in the nearly 30 years since its release. Though the film plays it straight, I didn’t find it particular “scary”, but it’s moody as heck and it has a nice sense of atmosphere that feels simultaneously very ‘80s and very ephemeral. It’s a good entry point for non-Twilight vampire films, and also a nice opportunity to glimpse what Bigelow was up to before she started winning Oscars.

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7. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods is a film that a lot of horror buffs love, but while it certainly rewards a thorough knowledge of the genre, I think it’s also quite accessible to horror neophytes. Everyone is familiar with at least some of the clichés that the film takes aim at, and its satirical nature helps to offset some of the “horror” that’s being presented on screen. It’s a bit scary and definitely a bit gory, but The Cabin in the Woods is mostly fun. It’s also so madcap that it deserves to be seen if for no other reason than to experience the wonderful, bizarre directions that Joss Whedon’s screenplay takes.

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8. The Awakening (2012)

A distinct, well-executed atmosphere can make a film. And The Awakening has atmosphere in spades. The film is set in the 1920s and follows a female ghost-hunter (played by Rebecca Hall) who is out to debunk rumours of a little boy who haunts an English boarding school. While The Awakening may not offer much that hasn’t already been explored in the “ghost story” genre, its story is engaging and its visual style is absolutely stunning. Hall, too, is fantastic, turning in the sort of confident, captivating performance that helps to elevate the film’s sometimes silly story. I will throw in a disclaimer that of all the films on the list, this might be the most standard “horror” film. So if you really can’t stand jump scares, maybe stay away (though for the most part here they’re executed well and don’t feel cheap, and the film also has the bonus of being light on gore).

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9. Dead Ringers (1988)

After his early gross-out early days but before his union with Robert Pattinson, Cronenberg had the wise idea to cast Jeremy Irons in a dual role as creepy twins in this twisted psychological thriller. Being a Cronenberg film, it’s hard to really describe Dead Ringers, and it’s actually probably best to go in as blind as possible. This one might be a good option for those who maybe don’t like the classic horror tropes but like films with a creepy atmosphere. Because Dead Ringers fits the bill. Gynecology has never been scarier, and that’s saying a lot.

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10. The Invitation (2016)

Is this a horror film? Is it just a thriller? Doesn’t matter! The Invitation is tense and creepy, building to an inevitable finale, but making the ride to get there feel narratively rich in the process. This is a film that takes its sweet time, carefully setting up the interpersonal dynamics between a group of people who have been invited to a dinner party that gradually gets more and more unsettling. Logan Marshall-Green can finally stop just being known as “Wait, Is That Tom Hardy?”, turning in an unexpectedly nuanced performance here as the film’s severely troubled protagonist. If you’re easily frightened by traditional horror movies and don’t like jump scares, this could be a really good alternative, because while it is suspenseful, it’s not really ~scary, per se. It’s more of an interesting character drama that relies largely on character reveals and misdirection for its thrills, rather than a lot of outright horror elements.

Review: Blue Jay

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Blue Jay is, in some ways, a very simple film. With just two actors on screen for almost the entire runtime, a black-and-white colour palette, and an almost non-existent narrative, it’s a masterclass in barebones cinema. Think of a quiet, low-budget indie film. Now think of a film even more stripped down than that, and you have something approximating Blue Jay.

However, it’s also a film that is a bit difficult to describe. The plot is simple – two former high school sweethearts, Jim and Amanda, unexpectedly meet again 20 years later and spend a day catching up – but the reason it’s actually interesting is much more complicated to define.

A big part of the reason is lead actors Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, who imbue their performances with such lived-in believability that you never question Jim and Amanda’s past together, or why they’d be intrigued at the prospect of hanging out again. There is an immediate tenderness to the pair’s chemistry that allows the viewer to buy in to their shared past and also nicely lends credence to some later plot reveals about why the pair’s teenage romance fell apart in the first place.

Another thing the film certainly has going for it is the Duplass touch. Blue Jay is the first of four films that Mark Duplass and his brother Jay are producing for Netflix, and Mark also wrote the script. It has the same micro-melancholy feel of other Duplass brother joints, such as 2012’s Jeff Who Lives at Home and 2011’s Cyrus. But while the brothers directed those other two films themselves, Blue Jay is actually the debut narrative directorial effort from cinematographer Alex Lehmann. By the Duplasses handing over the directing duties to someone who, frankly, has a much stronger eye for composition and cinematography than they do, Blue Jay has a visual beauty that their other films have lacked. The black-and-white cinematography is clean and surprisingly unobtrusive, lending the film a bit of extra, albeit gentle, emotional heft.

Blue Jay has an emotional core that feels genuinely melancholy without ever being melodramatic or self-pitying. It’s the little character touches – for example, Jim’s tendency to cry at nearly anything versus Amanda’s unshakable reserve – that make them feel like real people with a full life’s worth of history, rather than characters created solely for the purpose of a self-contained film. The filmmakers tap into something authentic and intimate in a way that is rarely captured on screen.

The film bound to draw comparisons to Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, and there is a “walk and talk” quality to Blue Jay that makes the comparison apt, as does the film’s limited timeframe. However, while Linklater’s trilogy is full of acerbic dialogue between its two notably articulate protagonists, Blue Jay revels in its own regularity. The conversations between Jim and Amanda feel like discussions anyone could have. That’s not to say that they’re banal, but the film’s emphasis on improvisation allows Duplass and Paulson to explore in a way that feels very natural. The result is something that feels a little less polished, but perhaps all the more emotionally raw because of it.

The old “I laughed, I cried” cliché has maybe never been more true for me than it was with Blue Jay. It’s a film rich in universal truths and an almost indescribable sadness, despite the fact that it comes in such a charming package, courtesy of Duplass and Paulson’s on-screen chemistry. It’s a small film, but don’t let it pass you by.

Green Room (2016)

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Grungy, gruesome, and way more fun than it probably should be, Green Room joins the ranks of culty arthouse thrillers like Funny Games, The Mist, and Drive that flagrantly glide back and forth over the line between high- and low-brow entertainment. But while most films of this type ultimately fall into one of those categories or the other, Green Room keeps the audience on their toes, never showing its hand and continuing to offer up surprises and thrills right until its final moments.

The film’s plot is both simple and bizarre. It follows a young punk band called The Ain’t Rights, who, after getting shafted on a gig while on tour, wind up being given a compensatory show playing to an aggressive crowd of Nazi skinheads in rural Oregon. After their set, things take a turn backstage and the goal then becomes simply to make it out alive. And thus, we have our movie.

Our protagonist is Pat (Anton Yelchin), the band’s quiet bass player, who is joined by guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner). Back in the eponymous green room of horrors, the band also meets Amber (Imogen Poots), whose allegiances are murky, but who becomes an ally by necessity. Though we don’t get much in the way of backstory or character development, our main group of “good guys” feel wholly believable, unveiling more about themselves in the ways they respond to the insane situation unfolding around them. Particularly effective was how Cole’s quietly sturdy presence is laced with an undercurrent of rage from the start, making it feel natural how Reece boils over once stuff really starts hitting the fan.

The film’s primary focus is thrills, which are in no short supply. It’s pretty much a perfectly paced film, holding back on its violence through much of the film to make it even more impactful when it does erupt. But Saulnier is clearly interested in creating more than just an action-packed thriller. He sticks to his signature aesthetic and careful camerawork throughout, right from the misty, pastoral opening scenes through to Green Room’s most horrifying scenes, including one involving some …creative… use of a box cutter.

On that note, one could probably spend a long time debating whether or not Green Room qualifies as a horror film. At most, I’d say it falls into the category of “survival horror” – films that aren’t necessarily “scary” in the traditional sense, but whose “horror” stems from the seemingly insurmountable situations the characters face (usually in some sort of isolated environment). And indeed, Green Room probably won’t seem groundbreaking unless you haven’t already seen some of the staples of this subgenre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, the aforementioned Funny Games, etc, etc.) But Saulnier’s riff is so self-assured and gripping that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re enjoying the artistry, the plot, or both, Green Room is a completely compelling 90-minute ride.

How to Be Single (2016)

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How to Be Single immediately brought to mind a couple of other recent films that take a “real” look at love through the lens of an impossibly attractive ensemble cast. You know the ones. He’s Just Not That Into You. Valentine’s Day. Prom. Probably a few others that I’ve either already forgotten or never saw. But while How to Be Single is riddled with problems of its own, it does get points from me where those other films don’t: it’s sometimes funny, and occasionally real.

The set-up is almost too cliched to bother explaining. Alice (Dakota Johnson) is coming off a four-year relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York in hopes of “finding herself”. She moves in with her control freak older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and befriends her wild new colleague, Robin (Rebel Wilson). This all tenuously links into another side plot concerning Tom (Anders Holm), a lothario bar owner, and Lucy (Alison Brie), his supposedly “charming” and “wacky” upstairs tenant who loiters in his bar for the free wi-fi. Single people. New York. Hijinks.

After a rather dire first half hour spent establishing all of this, the film settles into something a little more interesting as the various relationships start to intertwine and the comedy starts to kick in. Yet, even though both the comedy and drama of this film are intermittently effective, they also never really stop feeling at odds with each other. One minute we’re forced to endure physical comedy gags about somebody dropping their laptop out a window and the next minute poor Dakota Johnson is trying her best to accurately portray the feelings of emptiness and confusion that plagues so many 20-somethings. The film mentions Bridget Jones’s Diary multiple times, which is clearly a strong influence, yet it doesn’t have the wit or the genuinely felt emotional punch to land within the same realm of that rom-com high-water mark.

Before I get too down on How to Be Single, though, I would like to say that it got a few things surprisingly right. It’s not reinventing the rom-com genre by any means, but it DOES semi-boldly reject some of the genre’s most tightly-held tropes. I did like how much emphasis it put on being your own independent person, rather than reinforcing the idea that you need to fall in love and find your “other half” in order to be complete. Especially towards the end of the film, it felt like they were really fighting against some of the traditional values of the genre, and it was refreshing to see a film that champions female friendship and independence over traditional romantic love. (I was pleased to see that two of the three screenwriters are female, and their perspective was very much welcome in a medium where the female voice is usually depressingly absent.)

However, if you’re looking for some great feminist message, this still isn’t going to be your film. I thought the Alison Brie role was especially problematic and just unpleasant, presenting Lucy as a borderline insane person who strikes one note over and over again. We learn nothing about Lucy other than that she’s love-obsessed, and her only two purposes in the film are 1) represent the butt-of-the-joke cliches that they didn’t want to saddle their other female characters with and 2) serve as the catalyst for change for one of the male characters. There are also some definite problems in the way they represent Rebel Wilson’s character in terms of her weight (though they’re certainly not the first film to do so), but Wilson is funny enough that (for better or worse) I found myself forgiving those issues more easily.

Most of the cast here deserves better. (Particularly Jake Lacey, who is given a thankless and bland “love interest” role but somehow still turns in a hugely charming performance.) However, How to Be Single at least tries to explore some different ideas, even if it doesn’t fully succeed at articulating them. I’d rather this kind of movie be moderately ambitious and fall short instead of skating by on the status quo. If you’re looking for a bit of light fun, you could do worse.