2.08.2017

The Best Films of 2016

After two years of circumstantially slicing more than half my typical film viewing like a seeping appendage, I'm back. Try to contain your enthusiasm. After considering over 100 films I subjectively place as "2016", I feel confident recommending these ten standouts for your contemporary viewing pleasure.

Perhaps the year's cinematic landscape was merciful, or perhaps my scrutiny's simply improved, as 2016 featured fewer outright stinkers than I've become accustomed to. Among the sea of "really good" there is an unusually large helping of somewhat undercooked offerings, as many films start well and falter along the way (The Girl on the Train, The Legend of Tarzan, Chevalier...) while others meander before cementing moderate memorability (L'avenir, Sunset SongAquarius...). Still others nearly give me qualitative whiplash as they bounce from excellence to dreck and back again (okay, I'm pretty much just referring to Nocturnal Animals). Plenty thoroughly strong titles are to be found, however, and are well worth your time.

For the full, updating rankings from best to worst, visit my "2016" list on Letterboxd.


Honorable mentions (#25-11)
Hail, Caesar! (Coens), The Fits (Holmer), Sully (Eastwood), Allied (Zemeckis), Hell or High Water (Mackenzie), Moonlight (Jenkins), Fences (Washington), The Nice Guys (Black), Queen of the Desert (Herzog), Wiener-Dog (Solondz), The Witch (Eggers), O.J.: Made in America (Edelman), 君の名は。 [your name.] (Shinkai), The Light Between Oceans (Cianfrance), Paterson (Jarmusch)


Top Ten (#10-1)

Childhood of a Leader, Corbet
One of my favorite intangibles in a great film is assurance. Experimentation is well and good (except when it's not), but if a filmmaker can provide a sense of confidence in their art from beginning to end I am all the more impressed. Such assurance is especially impressive in the case of a feature debut, which is precisely what we have with Brady Corbet's profile of a period in the youth of a future fascist leader. A daunting score charges through the carefully composed series of "tantrums", graced by a glass-cutting turn from Bérénice Bejo - ingredients enough that the compelling subject matter feels like icing.


Kubo & the Two Strings, Knight
Family fare that dares to challenge its younger audience members can be difficult to find anymore. Enter "Kubo" - an immediately heart-wrenching, often horrifying, and ultimately indelible (while occasionally cute) original tale deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Today's children will be proud to revisit this gorgeous stop-motion animation as adults and realize how excellent it truly is. Bonus: the innovation of the "Sword Unbreakable" sequence is worthy of standing alongside Ray Harryhausen's marvelous Dynamation creations.


Team Foxcatcher, Greenhalgh
As of this writing, my #1 of 2014 remains Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" - a haunting depiction of a mentor/protégé relationship in the vein of the core "Boogie Nights" narrative, or, more fittingly, that of Soderbergh's underseen Liberace film "Behind the Candelabra". Quite nearly as captivating is this documentary of the true events that led to Dave Schultz' murder at the hands of John du Pont. The amateur wrestling backdrop, the utterly fascinating character that was du Pont, and the looming consequence his fortune and misgivings culminated in, all presented primarily through actual home video footage from the Farms... it's an experience that had me pressing 'play' again as soon as the credits began to roll.


Warcraft, Jones
The biggest surprise of my year came when I decided to get drunk and laugh at how embarrassing Duncan Jones' alleged trainwreck based on a video game series I've never cared for turned out. Six Yuenglings and something with gin (the theatre called it a "Godfather") later, I wound up having a blast with what feels like a campy 1980s 'B' fantasy (think "Gor" or "Krull") was given a nine-figure budget boost. It's possibly an even bigger surprise that the fun holds up sober. Unique, albeit convoluted lore benefits an unabashed commitment to depicting in film a tumultuous and somewhat whimsical world where magic spells are as commonplace as Dunkin' in Boston. It's silly, but I'll sit down and rollick in this silliness any time. Give us the sequel China wants, Universal!


Knight of Cups, Malick
My Terrence Malick critique tank may still be empty from declaring "To the Wonder" a dream-like odyssey at TIFF12, which doesn't say much to combat the mentality that Malick has just been making mini versions of "The Tree of Life" since 2011, but... well, he hasn't. There's more to this continued departure from the random curves of nature to the sharp edges of manmade structure. Admittedly it took revisitation before I fully came around on this characteristically masculine journey through the relationships that define a man, which leads me to feel if you've never seen a Malick this might not be where you wish to begin. As a fan, I have come to regard it as one of ol' Terry's better outings. He can stay away from beaches for a while, though.


Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater
Richard Linklater has provided some of the defining films of our lifetime, yet we've been waiting since the middling and oft-forgotten "SubUrbia" for the auteur to truly return to the day-in-the-life ensemble hangouts he broke through with. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried this logical college-in-the-'80s successor to "Dazed & Confused" I've always wished for would fall flat. To my pleasure, "Everybody Wants Some!!" - while not instantly as iconic as "Dazed" - delivers signature Linklater goodness in droves. Complete with era-specific soundtrack and wardrobe, this snapshot of young men seeking definition between grade school and their careers gave me exactly what I wanted.


クリーピー 偽りの隣人 [Creepy], Kurosawa
During my viewing of this expert thriller that absolutely lives up to its name, you could have poured hot coffee in my lap and I would have stayed desperately still for need to remain trained on the screen to the end. On top of purely entertaining me more than many films do - while providing visuals that are nothing to scoff at - my first from Kiyoshi Kurosawa proved I would do well to quit inadvertently passing by the director's taut work.


Silence, Scorsese
Please forgive in advance my preferred description of one of Martin Scorsese's greatest achievements. Generally, one of the most impressive aspects of Scorsese's work is curiosity. The indisputably legendary director adores his craft so much, he is not satisfied to simply persist in creating new versions of what has worked for him in the past. Far more often than not this curiosity leads to results that would make anyone uninitiated believe he has spent a lifetime developing what are actually new ventures - the stunning and felicitous use of 3D in "Hugo" being the prime recent example. Not to discount ingenuity also found in "Silence", but the passion project completely blows me away for an entirely different reason. Rather than find one or two particular curiosities to hone in on, what Marty has done here is reach deep in to his black cashmere slacks of rarely rivaled filmmaking expertise, extract a gargantuan phallus from within and wallop it upon a marble display as if to exclaim, "Behold! Behold and cower before my unbridled cinematic virility!" He probably flexed, too. It's a very good movie.


山河故人 [Mountains May Depart], Jia
A familiar song. A soft, unbroken look. A single act three scene so out of place it nearly topples the entire piece, but we're not going to let that spoil our day. Jia Zhangke is a renowned filmmaker I've lazily allowed to linger in my periphery, and his deliciously titled "Mountains May Depart" changes that. Or at least it will, once I tire of rewatching it so I may explore his other works. It's certainly saying something when a film contains the line, "It's like Google Translate is your real son" yet still manages to hold me in a state of perpetually damp-eyed adoration. I'll never be able to listen to the Pet Shop Boys without weeping ever again.


Certain Women, Reichardt
You could probably travel through Montana's Paradise Valley filming two hours of passing bushes, and I'd love it simply for the setting. Kelly Reichardt has utilized those 50 sumptuous miles between Gardiner and Livingston to give us three vignettes that capture in their deceptive simplicity the swelling aspirations and bittersweet eventualities of our lives. And for all the everyday beauty we are party to, the whole can be summed up in its tiniest moments. An awkward silence. The sip of a milkshake. A pile of rocks. Seriously, I've never felt so much emotion looking at a pile of rocks. Reichardt has been a filmmaker to prioritize for over a decade now. "Certain Women" is by far her best work.

11.11.2016

Election 2016: We Are Pagliacci

Alan Moore's "Watchmen"
I'm not much of a political mind. I can't sing all the US presidents in chronological order. When you share an article I probably begin skimming by the end of paragraph three unless it's about pro wrestling or Skyrim. But I believe in true equality, and I have a voice. So do you.

Though I once was a CNN-watching, Obama rally-attending citizen encouraging people to "get out the vote," I have consciously become quieter as the social climate has reached toward a point where discourse even with those I wholly agree with can quickly become a vile enterprise. Earlier this week I was relieved we had neared the end of 2016's grating election cycle. I avoided what of it I could, and tolerated references and spoofs amid my standard stable of sanity-bolstering entertainment. I've never needed to deliberate over what vote to make, and I'd never believed putting up signs or knocking on doors makes any kind of impact. There was no way a crass, skyscraper-dwelling, beauty pageant-owning billionaire from reality television with more failures under his belt than successes could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, anyhow. I was excited to have to look at that face and listen to that voice on a far less regular basis after Tuesday night.

Then it happened. And at 3AM on Wednesday morning I realized simply exercising my right to vote is clearly not enough. The nightmare sensation - an almost fight-or-flight response instinctively telling me this isn't actually reality - has yet to wane. When comedians open their talk shows with a harrowed tone clocking somewhere between "9/11" and "David Bowie dying", you know something has gone horribly wrong. Silver lining: Erwin Schrott's glorious bass-baritone reminding me there's still elegance in the world is just about the only thing maintaining my relatively even keel right now, so I am becoming slightly more versed in opera (albeit not versed enough for this diatribe's heading to be anything more than a semi-cryptic "Watchmen" reference).



I'm aware the United States has had reprehensible leaders in its relatively young history, but this is the information age and through inaction we've elected someone who's basically like if Elmer Fudd had been raised by the Rockefellers. We've elected someone who actually makes George W. Bush's inadequacy seem retrospectively endearing. Someone who makes that proverbial beer with Mitt Romney sound pleasant. Someone who wishes to tear down what the past eight years have built by reinforcing fossil fuels, kicking people out of homes, closing borders, revoking healthcare, reintroducing witch hunts, and-- well, you know all of this already. You also know he's failed on several opportune occasions to denounce the KKK, while at other times referring fondly to segregation as "the good old days." Yet we still elected him.

Was Hillary Clinton not a good enough candidate? Well, you're right. I don't think she's particularly the greatest, either. But that doesn't mean don't vote. It certainly doesn't mean vote Trump just because of one or two issues. Every valid candidate is going to have a few relevant aspects you dislike. Maybe the candidate you oppose even has a stance or two you jive with. Shoot, there's a detail in Trump's tax plan that would directly benefit my family. You're not going to find me turning a blind eye to the rest of his platform in favor of that detail, though (in our case the loss of health benefits cancels it out anyhow, but that's beside the point). I mean, can you imagine this ivory tower idiot in an international peace talk? I digress.

And please stop voting third-party. I've listened your arguments - I actually do believe many of the conspiracies - and I know you don't want to hear this. Like it or not, however, the system is the way it is and a non-vote or a vote for someone who does not have a chance to win is essentially a vote for the candidate you like the least. It's not a perfect world and idealism will not make it as such. Truly don't like Trump? Really wish he wasn't the president-elect? Probably should have gone with the person with the best chance to take him down, then, because here we are. If nothing else, this "trap" election has shown that we cannot trust a projected landslide.

Photo source: BaltimoreRavens.com

I watched Thursday Night Football last night. Cleveland at Baltimore. No, it did not turn out to be a "trap" game for the passable Ravens hosting the winless Browns; where I'm actually going with this is that for the first NFL outing of the Trump era, I was afraid I'd feel disgusted listening to our national anthem. I thought I'd cringe thinking of our new, 45th Commander-in-Chief immortalized in historic photographs, commemorative libraries and even derisively in adult cartoons. I thought, "If I punched the head off his animatronic likeness at Disney World would they ban me permanently or just for the calendar year?" Then, when Sergeant Joey Odoms of the Maryland Army National Guard began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", I instead felt my heart hurting for our nation. I felt a resounding urge to fix this.

If you're just as scared for the future now as I am - if you also feel like the floor has been ripped out from beneath you, and your stomach churns and your body convulses each time you think of this misguided joke framing up the latest portrait of himself for the Oval Office while nearing his goal of tearing away freedoms under the guise of freedom - use your fear. Don't sit out. Vote. Vote in the midterms. Register early. Register with a party if it means you can weigh in on the primaries in your state. None of that takes very long (and do check your state's voting regulations so you don't get shut out of the primaries like I did). If you're motivated, find your local office and volunteer if you can. Spread the word before people become complacent to Trump's America. If you have friends who abstain from voting because they "don't like politics," find a way to show how performing that simple civic duty every two years can make a difference. I "don't like politics" either, but look how close those percentages were. Look at that popular vote tally. Due to that slim margin - due to lack of Democratic voter turnout - millions upon millions of people are going to be affected for the worse, including many who "don't like politics." I only did the bare minimum this year because my candidate of choice did not resonate with me on a deep level, and I couldn't conceive of a reality in which she wouldn't win. Donald Trump does not represent us, but we did not effectively select an alternative and, hopeful as we may be, we cannot rely on his track record as assurance he'll wind up impeached.

My time for worrying about offending friends and family is over. By merely voting and calling it a job well done, the blood of those who have already been attacked by victors who feel vindicated is in part on my hands, and the same goes for that of those who will suffer further in the version of our country Mr. Trump considers "great."

11.09.2016

WWE: The Case for Dana Brooke

Photo credit: WWE.com
Being a Dana Brooke fan is often a lonely prospect in today's WWE. Despite the superstar's prominent role alongside arguably the most talented woman on the current roster (and perhaps ever) in Charlotte Flair, a vocal majority of WWE fans have refused to embrace who could become a major player in the near future of the women's division.

Brooke came to WWE in mid-2013 through the Winter Park, FL-based promotion NXT - reportedly signed by ascendant honcho Triple H himself. With an extensive background in fitness competition and gymnastics, she picked up the art of professional wrestling sufficiently enough to be put on television beginning in the fall of the following year. Though the presentation was on point - captivating entrance theme, glamorous ring gear, fancy side summy flip - out of the gates Dana's "squash" performances left something to be desired. She lacked flow, and the apparent limitations in her moveset glared more egregiously with each outing. To draw the comparison is a bit extreme, but the situation nearly smacked of the premature Roman Reigns main event shove we're all sick of thinking about.

But then something happened. Dana got better. With NXT being a wealth of time-tested and world-renowned talent in recent years, from Kevin Owens and Asuka to Shinsuke Nakamura and Tommaso Ciampa, it can be difficult to remember - or maybe just difficult to accept in times of roster transition - that the developmental "territory" is just that - developmental. Week after week, through perseverance Dana was starting to look more and more polished.


Soon under the learning tree of "Evil" Emma's expertise, Dana's fresh character began to brightly shine, bringing her to new qualitative heights. Often a solid character is all that's needed to become must-see - just look at Bo Dallas. Dana adeptly discerned which knobs to twist to create an effectively grating heel persona - unabashedly condescending to any who dared question her, and following it up with a wholly debasing head pat. Dana's time in NXT culminated at NXT Takeover: London as she managed her mentor against the dominant Asuka in a match-of-the-year contender. She had honed tools that would assist in her call-up to the main WWE stable.

Dana would wait about a month after one of the greatest spectacles in wrestling history - the record-setting WrestleMania 32 in Dallas - before debuting on national television to join Emma on Monday Night Raw. Less than two weeks later a shocking back injury to Emma threw Dana's place in the storylines in to question, though she was soon reshuffled to become Charlotte's protégé and commence one of the more complex WWE angles in recent memory. Per her booking, Dana has been inefficient in the ring contrary to the game she talks and the physique she commands. As a result Charlotte has treated her more or less like garbage, only employing compliments when they are deemed convenient to her own selfish goals. The obedient Dana remains eager to improve, however, and repeatedly forgives her master's transgressions. On occasion she has displayed great frustration in holding her tongue, and once as of this writing has snapped and assaulted Charlotte. Credit to both performers - though Dana's mass popularity at the moment is questionable at best, the long-awaited slap across Charlotte's gloating face elicited a massive babyface pop from the Baltimore crowd in attendance (not to mention social media).

Later that evening, Dana was pitted against Sasha Banks and Bayley - two of the most deservedly adulated women in WWE - in a triple threat match that marked the best she's been to date. Sure, the affair was designed to spotlight the others, but like the great Ted DiBiase Dana played her fall role pitch-perfectly throughout. The remarkably involving climactic sequence featured Dana refusing to submit to Sasha's signature submission hold - a maneuver she'd succumbed to repeatedly in prior weeks - in an enthrallingly brilliant moment pairing physical growth with character development.



So what do fans resent about Dana Brooke? Is she really that good at being a heel? Well, to be fair she really is darn good at that. Is it because Michael Cole likes to call her finisher incorrectly, leading people to believe it is in fact her getting it wrong? It is entirely possible some have not been able to let go of the choppiness in her initial ring work. It is more possible some hold it against her that she's not on the level of her more elite contemporaries (though she holds her own with them just fine). Maybe it just comes down to the fact that she didn't come up through the ever-revered independent scene, and by appearances obtained this opportunity due to management favoring her look. Then there's what gets perceived as her tendency to "botch." Shoot, in the above video you'll see her clasping the top rope to remain balanced for Sasha's double knee attack, an act that goes much-derided among hardcore wrestling fans. Does it look ridiculous? For sure it does, though that is partially the fault of the attack concept itself. And yes, it also looks ridiculous every time Dana slams her ponytail against the turnbuckle when we're supposed to believe she's being hit in the face, but come now - you'd be hard-pressed to find a single wrestler who doesn't make routine of at least one similar issue. There's this one dude who essentially pins himself each time he applies his signature submission hold, and he's The Undertaker for crying out loud. And have you seen [insert literally any name] do a suicide dive lately? Things like this are quite simply a part of the nature and danger of being a single-take stunt performer with multiple live cameras and microphones pointed your way at all times.

It is amidst all this derision Dana's most admirable trait arises. She sheds hate. Dwelling on negativity gets you nowhere, and Dana clearly embodies this mentality as she is constantly showered with peoples' worst yet keeps pushing forward whether onlookers recognize it or not. Rumor even has it she is not well-liked by some backstage - the very contemporaries she makes her livelihood working with - and still every day she's glowing with the determination to continue improving, and the appreciation for the opportunities she's been afforded. It's damned inspirational is what it is.

More than ever, pro wrestling's adult fanbase clamors for a brand focused on absolute perfection between the ropes, and the benchmark has been set high. Dana Brooke may not be a Becky Lynch or a Nikki Bella, and those ladies are fantastic but any wrestling fan should understand the very best ring prowess is not necessarily required to create an entertaining product. Dana is not only physically impressive, she's also gorgeous, charismatic, resilient, and most importantly has demonstrated an understanding of the psychology it takes to work an audience. All the legends of the business from Jerry Lawler to Steve Austin and beyond agree: you do not need to be a nonstop daredevil to achieve greatness - you just need to work smart, and Dana's got that on lock.

Now let's just hope WWE gives this slow-burning Dana/Charlotte thing a worthy payoff.

Photo credit: WWE.com

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