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Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea.  Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top.  Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.

First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant.  I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).

Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.

So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket.  Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me.  Best film of the year.

Then, Moonlight.  The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic.  Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form.  While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.

The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances.  Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.

The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.

I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.

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As a director, Mel Gibson has visual chops, but that’s about the whole of it.  Accordingly, unless someone writes him something of value, it can be a long slog.  Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the incredible story of WWII conscientious objector medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as he staves off court-martial and saves75 lives on a hellish plateau in Okinawa, is that slog.

First, to the history.  After Hidden Figures and Sully, I smelled a rat, and sure enough, most of the particulars of those stories – which could have and should have stood on their own – were b.s.  After Hacksaw, I was sure I’d hit the trifecta.  I was wrong.  Doss’s story is basically retold straight.  The problem is that his story is so incredible, Gibson should have said, “You know, let’s leave this part out, or people are going to start rolling their eyes.”  For me, the part when Dawes has a grenade thrown at him, and he wheels around and gives it a back-kick reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or top form Pele’ – that was the moment.  But hell if Doss didn’t do just that.  From History v. Hollywood:

On the night of May 21, 1945, just a half mile past the escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit inadvertently walked into a company of Japanese soldiers. The unit engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and Desmond scrambled to treat the wounded. “They begin to throw these hand grenades,” recalled Desmond. “I saw it comin’. There was three other men in the hole with me. They were on the lower side, but I was on the other side lookin’ when they threw the thing. I knew there was no way I could get at it. So I just quickly took my left foot and threw it back to where I thought the grenade might be, and throw my head and helmet to the ground. And not more than half a second later, I felt like I was sailin’ through the air. I was seein’ stars I wasn’t supposed to be seein’, and I knew my legs and body were blown up.” The blast left 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in Desmond’s body, mostly in his legs. The Conscientious Objector Documentary

 Now, to the film.  I don’t know what to say about the non-combat portion, where we see Desmond as a boy and later in basic training.  As dewy-eyed hokum goes, this is buffed to almost the point of art form.  Garfield is so damned earnest in his role he threatens veering into Gomer Pyle and even Forrest Gump territory, but to his credit, his ardor actually works.  He inhabits the role fully and effectively communicates the viewpoint of a simple, decent and brave man.  Unfortunately, those around him are so melodramatic or stock, it is hard not to stifle a laugh.  His sweetheart (Theresa Palmer) is the vintage beauty in the gleaming white nurse outfit, the sun streaming through her lovely hair.  His mother and father (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths – Mel takes care of his Aussie own) are damn near operatic.  And my God, his introduction to his unit threatens to break into song, as every stereotype steps up to say “Hey, I’m the Italian/Hollywood/Tough/Nice/Shy/Hick guy” and “Howya doin’, goodtomeetcha’, heytheresport, getalookatdosegams, fuggedaboudit”

“WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . .

OFF TO FIGHT THE JAPS!

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE SOME ACTION

IN TOJO’S ASS WE’LL PUT SOME CAPS.

WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . . . .”

After this incredibly uncomfortable segue, the scenes of Doss’s trial by fire to get him to quit and his convictions being challenged during basic training are perfunctory.  One gets the sense Gibson wants to get to the battlefield.  Understandably so. Mel does maelstrom and carnage better than most, and the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are fluid, inspired and riveting.

But that ain’t nearly enough.

I looked at the IMDB description for this film, and nearly did a spit-take when I saw it categorized under “Comedy.”  A woman estranged from her family for years, clearly mentally disturbed and also a recovering substance abuser, arrives at her sister’s massive Thanksgiving get-together in Texas, where we get to watch every holler and stomp destabilize her like a gut punch, as she repeatedly retreats to the bathroom or patio to pop pills, smoke and/or eventually, booze.

Hilarious!

What follows is an intense exploration of the sufferings of a sick mind as it shimmies and shatters and the shards go flying into the innocent bystanders.  Krisha Fairchild is riveting as the poor wretch, but I’m simply too old for this kind of film.  One reviewer noted: “The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying.”

Not so.  I don’t care about her and i don’t want to care about her.  She’s a narcissistic cancer and it’s neither fun nor interesting to watch the world try to pull her from a dizzying descent down the crapper.

Winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Jury Award and Audience Award, available on Amazon Prime, and as entertaining as orange juice on a canker sore.

A haunting, mournful yet cautiously optimistic film.  As with You Can Count on Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan depicts family like no one else.  In this family, the protagonist is Casey Affleck, a Boston janitor so emotionally stunted he struggles to maintain a personal conversation longer than a minute, seeking outlet in drinking and getting his ass kicked. He is forced to return to his home town of Manchester due to tragedy, and while there, must confront his unforgiving past.

It’s hard to say enough about Affleck’s performance.  He is required to do so much with so little emotion, yet in a wince, a stare, or a wry smile, he imparts more than he ever could with pages of overt dialogue.  He is ably matched by Lucas Hedges (both are nominated), his teenage nephew, who has been placed in Affleck’s care for a period of time.  Kyle Chandler, as Affleck’s  older brother, exudes responsibility and vulnerability.  Yet, despite the lack of real familial relationships, these three actors seem as if they are indeed brothers. The scene where the adult Chandler and Affleck won’t stop goofing around during a dire time at the hospital (much to the frustration of Chandler’s wife and their gentle, peacemaking father) is foreshadowing for a later rough, jokey and conspicuous dialogue between Affleck and Hedges.

Lonergan provides no easy resolution or pat answers. He stitches the pain of the past in his characters very tightly and eschews melodrama. I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by a moment or a revelation, but really, the entire piece is quietly, almost stealthily moving, a studied portrait on loss and family and life.

I still have a few flicks to see, such as Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge, and I was over the moon for La La Land, but as of now, this is the best film I’ve seem from 2016.

One nit.  The score, by Lesly Barber, which is orchestral with a lot of strings, and is at times affecting, is at others intrusive and overstated.  In such a restrained film, this was off-putting.

Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.