From a film about a Colonial witch to a star-turn for Casey Affleck, these were the best of 2016 

According to Kevin

click to enlarge The Witch took its time to tell a story, but the slow-burn period piece was a horror highlight in 2016

Courtesy of A24 Films

The Witch took its time to tell a story, but the slow-burn period piece was a horror highlight in 2016

In the late '90s, I recommended a friend of mine watch the notorious Larry Clark/Harmony Korine flick Kids, a film about teens engaging in sex, drugs, and violence. When we next spoke, he could only tell me, "I wanted to kill you for ever telling me to watch that crap." He was legit bothered by the film. Since then, that and a few other past recommendations have made me leery of actually suggesting a movie to others without prefacing it with "Now I liked it but ..."

There were pleasant surprises, of course. I never would've expected to like the prequel to a by-the-numbers post Insidious/Conjuring film, but Ouija: The Origin Of Evil creeped me out. The sexual transgressiveness of Paul Verhoeven's rape-revenge flick Elle still has me second-guessing whether I liked it or not. Key and Peele's film, Keanu, was not the catsploitation bromance I was hoping for. I was bowled over by the unrelenting bleakness and morbid humor of The Lobster and its open-ended conclusion. Summer offered some pleasant escapism in Star Trek Beyond and the melancholic animated fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings.

There are a slew of movies I haven't seen yet that I was really hoping to see. I've yet to see Michael Shannon's take on Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon or see him in Jeff Nichols' latest film Loving. I've yet to set my eyes on Nate Parker's much-lauded historical drama Birth Of A Nation. Apparently there is a new Star Wars movie? Well, I'll be dipped.

I understand the idea of brazenly labelling films the "best of the year," but the reality is to say such suggests these lists aren't subjective but actual fact. That said, here are a few movies, namely one, that left an impression on me this year.

Hell or High Water

The story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) going on bank heists could have been a run-of-the-mill drama, but it took on a neo-western flair thanks in no small part to the snappy dialogue of Taylor Sheridan's screenplay and performances by the always reliable Jeff Bridges as well as Pine and Foster. The two underrated actors made the film for entirely different reasons. These factors made some of the film's inevitable results cut a little bit deeper than I've normally seen in movies of this variety.

Manchester by the Sea

Of all the films released recently, this one felt the most unnervingly tangible. I left the theater at a loss for words. There are moments that are painful and distressing with only slivers of joy. As little fun as this all sounds, it works. I don't know if I'd call it a fun time at the movies since there is little escapism, but it is potent nonetheless. Manchester by the Sea is Oscar-bait and worthy of the love that has been lavished upon it.

The Fits

Have you seen Anna Rose Holmer's elegant, haunting film The Fits? Since the naturalistic performances, the poetic lingering camerawork, and emphasis on dissonance of the 72-minute film harken back to work by artsy cinematic darling Terrence Malick, it would likely be categorized as arthouse fare. When an 11-year-old girl, Toni (Royalty Hightower), joins a dance drill team at the local rec center, The Fits seems like it'll be the Rocky of the You Got Served variety, but that doesn't last long when members of the dance team start having unexplained convulsions. Works for me.

Arrival

I was initially hesitant to see it, but my snobby nerd ears perked up when I found out that Denis Villeneuve, the director behind last year's thriller Sicario and the equally tense underrated Jake Gyllenhall film Enemy, was at the helm. Also, Amy Adams can do no wrong in my eyes. It's not often a sci-fi flick gives me much in the way of an emotion outside of "Wow, that looked cool." By the end, Arrival made my eyeballs grow to the size of Adam's saucer-sized peepers.

Night of Something Strange

Earlier this year at the third annual Crimson Screen Horror Film Festival, I stumbled late into a screening of Jonathan Straiton's comedy-horror flick. I took my seat as I watched a young woman try to relieve herself while hovering over a grungy toilet covered in various bodily fluids before ultimately falling. That was one of the tamer scenes in this film about an STD that transforms its victims into psychotic, sex-crazed zombies. No one is safe from the voracious vaginas and deadly dongs that control the undead's maniacal actions. It's safe to say that this low-budget indie was inspired by chaotic gross-out films like Evil Dead 2, The Toxic Avenger, and Night of the Creeps. When my jaw wasn't dangling open in disbelief at some of the shit occurring on screen, I was muttering "What the fuck?" or grinning at the film's sheer audacity.

The Green Room

Having been a fan of Jeremy Saulnier's melancholic revenge drama Blue Ruin, I was there opening day to see his third feature. The film's scenes of youthful punk idealism were charming. That enchantment becomes overwhelmingly tense when the film's protagonists, a punk band, find themselves trapped in a white nationalist skinhead club owned by the guy who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The film's final line of dialogue ­— "I don't give a shit" — perfectly sums up the movie and the visceral punch it packs.

The Witch

If ever a trailer did a disservice to a film, it was the trailer for The Witch. This movie was not the loud or frenetically paced scarefest that the trailers led audiences to believe. I saw this film thrice. Thrice times I saw it. The film's Kubrick influence, namely The Shining, is hard to miss. A patriarch foolishly leads his family into isolation accompanied by eerie photography and a dread that slowly creeps over the story. More than anything, the film's theme of radicalization resonated for me long after the movie ended.

The Handmaiden

I found a new favorite word, thanks to Park Chan Wook. Fluidity. Whether it be the camera movements or sexuality, the man who made hammers a legitimate ass-kicking weapon in 2003's Oldboy utilizes the fluidity of both for this erotic thriller rich with eye-bulging visuals. Set in 1930s Japan-occupied-Korea, a pickpocket is hired to defraud and ruin an heiress. Nothing goes according to plan once horniness and ensuing betrayal kicks in. Suffice it to say, since this is Park Chan Wook territory: We'll be treated to beautiful cinematography, excellent performances, and some fairly shocking stuff like brutality and prolonged explicit sex scenes. Oh and subtitles. Lots of subtitles.

Nocturnal Animals

Two stories unfold in Nocturnal Animals — one a cold open-ended reality, the other an engrossing manuscript. As a lonely art gallery owner (Amy Adams) reads a draft her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhall) sent her, the parallels between her reality and his fiction bleed into each other thanks to the film's obsessive attention to detail in both worlds. I loved it. Here's one of the dumber, more redundant sentences you'll read all year: "You can tell Nocturnal Animals was written by a writer." I uttered those words to a movie companion shortly after leaving The Terrace theater. I honestly don't know how else to phrase it. Tom Ford's psychodrama is, at its core, a film about the drive that fuels a writer's urge to tell a story. On that note alone, it struck a chord with me.

The Neon Demon

Seeing a film so weird, so artsy, so sleazy playing right beside Finding Dory appealed to the internal mischief in me. Having bombed big time at the box office, I feel fortunate to have seen The Neon Demon during its short stay at the Citadel Mall 16.

From the sounds to the visuals, no other film has stayed with me as much as Nicholas Wending Refn's film about a naive young model, Jesse, entering the vampiric fashion world. The idea of Hollywood fame being a monstrous beast is an old concept. The film didn't really say anything new, but it worked for me.

Maybe it was all the scenes awash in blues and reds and the skewed angles that director of photography Natasha Brair used. Maybe it was Cliff Martinez's mesmerizing score. Maybe it was satiric moments mixed with scenes of gruesomeness that reminded me of a movie born from a Stanley Kubrick fan film (see the scene when Jesse leaves fashion designers speechless). Maybe it was trashy dialogue like "That's some hard candy" or the cold bluntness of a line like "I think you're perfect. I would never say you're fat." Maybe it was that scene that referenced Queen of Bathory, or the melancholic scene of lesbian necrophilia or the random mountain lion that pops up in the film? You read that correctly. A mountain lion.

I've spent months trying to find the right words, the right phrasing to properly explain why I love this film as much as I do. Every criticism levelled at it carries some weight. Personally, the arguments didn't seem that simplistic, but I won't snobbishly say that other people didn't get it. I'm still not sure if there is even a lot to get.

Much like the film's protagonist, The Neon Demon is shallow when it thinks it's deep, naive when it thinks it's wise, chauvinistic when it thinks it's feminist, and I assume that was on purpose. As soon as one scene feels like an admonishment of the predatory male gaze, another seems like it's celebrating it.

Any argument of it being feminist quickly evaporates when two women bathe each other in slo-mo like '80s bikini models straddling a muscle car. It is equal parts Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, Tony Scott's The Hunger, and Dario Argento's Suspiria rolled into one male-centric take on femininity. Is the movie itself conflicted, unaware, or is it just trying to keep us guessing exactly where its headspace is? Like most of Refn's work, his films (Bronson, Drive) promise sensationalistic nuttery, but, as is the case here, it ultimately is a film more content with creating zombie-like lulls interspersed with disquieting scenes of anarchy.

When Jesse (Elle Fanning), like Narcissus, became so in love with herself that she kissed her two reflections, I smirked. So too on-the-nose, yet so awesome. Was it all by design? Fuck if I know, but I liked it.

The amount of space I've devoted to this polarizing film still doesn't seem to clearly illustrate why this movie worked for me. Of all the cinematic experiences I had, this one had me spellbound happy like a cat focused on a laser pointer. All I can say is I liked it but...


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