The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2017

EPSON MFP image

There are 47 feature films nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards. We here at Swampflix have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2016 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2016 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

EPSON MFP image

1. 20th Century Women, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.”

2. Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Visual Effects

“A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent.”

3. Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design

Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are somewhat mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.”

EPSON MFP image

4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

“The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!”

EPSON MFP image

5. Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography

“It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.”

EPSON MFP image

6. Zootopia, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.”

7. Hidden Figures, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

“As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ sign and declared that ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,’ after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers.”

8. Moonlight, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomi Harris)

“In Moonlight, Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

EPSON MFP image

9. Arrival, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing

Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.”

EPSON MFP image

10. La La Land, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.”

EPSON MFP image

11. I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary

“It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp.”

EPSON MFP image

12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion.”

EPSON MFP image

13. Star Trek Beyond, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real ‘classic style’ Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.”

bear

14. The Jungle Book, nominated for Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).”

EPSON MFP image

15. Captain Fantastic, nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)

“Six kids wielding knives, late-night gravedigging, and skinning animals all sound like elements to a rather disturbing horror movie, but, surprisingly, all exist in Matt Ross’s latest comedy-drama, Captain Fantastic. Those with a slightly darker sense of humor will get a kick out of this film, but it really has something to offer everyone, such as family values, brief nudity, religious humor, and a heart-wrenching love story. I had no idea who Matt Ross was, and I was surprised to see that he directed less than a handful of movies because he did such a ‘fantastic’ job with this one.”

EPSON MFP image

16. The Lobster, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.”

EPSON MFP image

17. Jackie, nominated for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.”

EPSON MFP image

18. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams)

“What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.”

EPSON MFP image

19. Nocturnal Animals, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)

Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).”

EPSON MFP image

20. Loving, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)

Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.”

EPSON MFP image

21. Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing

“I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.”

EPSON MFP image

22. Fences, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Support Actress (Viola Davis)

“Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone.”

EPSON MFP image

23. Suicide Squad, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness; it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their ‘art’, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.”

EPSON MFP image

24. Doctor Strange, nominated for Best Visual Effects

Dr. Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.”

EPSON MFP image

25. Elle, nominated for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)

Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s ‘behind you,’ having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Brandon’s Top Films of 2016

EPSON MFP image

1. The Neon Demon -At once Nicolas Winding Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting, The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. It’s exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets uncivilized filth. Months later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. It’s tempting to reduce this achievement to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel about it.

EPSON MFP image

2. Tale of Tales – It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. The film is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. Its three tales all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart).

3. Hail, Caesar! – A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. Every classic genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded, so it’s shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with these beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ comedic work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings – Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. Kubo and the Two Stings is an overwhelming triumph in its attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense visual spectacle as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive, though, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for storytelling as a tradition.

EPSON MFP image

5. The Witch – A haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. This movie has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was scary, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying. Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early on that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horrors about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can often be when it too closely plays by modern rules.

EPSON MFP image

6. The Fits – Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature isn’t a standard coming of age drama or a medical thriller or a supernatural horror, so much as a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence. The Fits sidesteps strict genre classification by aiming more for a loosely menacing art house tone than a traditional A-B story structure. Though, even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age narrative about a young girl deciding between the rigidly gender-divided realms of dance & boxing at her local gym, Royalty Hightower’s stoic lead performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would still make the exercise more than worthwhile. As is, it’s quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination, an act of strange majesty that’s sure to divide audiences in its swing-for-the-fences ambition.

EPSON MFP image

7. High-Rise – Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash, High-Rise is a modern reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various devices of “convenience.” High-Rise’s never-ending consumerist party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long descent into the darkness of the human soul. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. It’s an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a rare nightmare of a good time.

EPSON MFP image

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi is on a wicked hot streak. His 2007 debut Eagle vs Shark wasn’t half bad as an off-center romantic comedy, but his last three films (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople) are pretty much perfect works. In its best moments, Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Waititi’s best to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable). One thing I haven’t heard enough of a fuss over yet, though, is how great the music is, from the novelty of the “Ricky’s Birthday” jingle to the legitimate action movie sounds of tracks like “Ricky Runs.” If it weren’t for The Neon Demon’s surreally intense synth submersions, it’d be an easy pick for soundtrack of the year for me.

EPSON MFP image

9. Midnight Special – Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Jeff Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. This may be the director’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. An incredible work with a near-limitless scope, it’s one built on an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old-fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation.

EPSON MFP image

10. NerveThis teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing. Nerve uses its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame through a hideously self-described “game of truth or dare without the truth” obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. The film manages to Trojan horse a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell, presenting a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of more insular.

EPSON MFP image

11. The Dressmaker – There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most admirable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with the campy tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. At once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, the film plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.

EPSON MFP image

12. The Nice Guys – If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir.” A miracle of Frankensteined movie science, the film’s general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, an unlikely tonal mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality, The Nice Guys finds a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Shane Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects among its more straightforward gags. Black understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.

EPSON MFP image

13. Zootopia – This animated Disney film isn’t exactly about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. Zootopia instead addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined, all-purpose dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the talking animals that populate its CG concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. The attention to detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film.

14. Moonlight – Besides functioning as a queer narrative about how homosexual desire violently clashes with traditional ideas of black masculinity in the modern world, Moonlight also works as a coming of age & self-acceptance story for a single man who’s forced to navigate & survive that clash. A large part of what saves the film from dramatic banality is its basic structure as a triptych. We see our protagonist as a child, a teenager, and an adult man. Narrowing down Chiron’s life to these temporal snapshots allows us to dive deep into the character instead of casually empathizing from the surface. Director Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make this meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on its visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively. What could have been a potentially middling, by the books queer drama avoids woe & despair mediocrity to instead find an ultimately life-affirming adoption of Under the Skin levels of visual & aural abstraction. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing.

EPSON MFP image

15. The Handmaiden – An erotic lesbian crime thriller with meticulous dedication to craft and a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, The Handmaiden is a gleefully tawdry art piece. Park Chan-Wook’s latest takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & set design, which allows for plenty of room to accommodate its deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. If it were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. Fortunately, it’s carefully calibrated to be too fun & too beautiful to resist.

disaster

16. 10 Cloverfield Lane – A tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture, 10 Cloverfield Lane locks its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors collectively suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It not only clouds the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings, but also introduces a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique, but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicate that narrative allows it to crawl under your skin in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs.

EPSON MFP image

17. Shin Godzilla – The latest entry in the longest-running film series of all time is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. The film barrels through its ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the inventive framing & mixed medium experimentation of a modern indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow. This is Godzilla done exactly right.

EPSON MFP image

18. Arrival – To convey its story about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages, Arrival similarly has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Once you learn the film’s language, though, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

EPSON MFP image

19. Swiss Army Man –At once an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner, Swiss Army Man is loaded with feel-good scatological bleakness & divine absurdity. The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. A teary-eyed journey featuring a farting corpse & an unlikely budding romance, the Daniels’ long-form cinematic prank is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies.

EPSON MFP image

20. Girl Asleep – Romantic awkwardness, papier-mâché costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape. Personally, I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being this intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. Often, when movies choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama, filtering the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm. The results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged.

EPSON MFP image

HM. Lemonade – Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly when it aims at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.

-Brandon Ledet

Zootopia (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.

The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.

As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.

It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).

-Brandon Ledet