Birdman

A faux-continuos shot of a washed-up superhero movie star trying to stage a Broadway comeback. The way it plays with space and time is admirable, and the law company of Keaton, Norton & Stone does their job with perfection, but the subject matter is so far up Hollywood’s large intestine that Birdman should best be compared to another well-known continuous shot.

It is on-your-nose pretentious, and artsy by design, yet too loaded with contemporary references to become timeless. Its one deep message — the one about criticism — was much better stated, and with a more positive attitude, a decade ago in an animated film about a rat. Iñárritu must have made it on a dare.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014

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Hacksaw Ridge

An old-school paint-by-numbers war movie. Each kind of scene in it has a bar that’s been set long ago, and it doesn’t surpass any of them. Some are so high above it’s like they don’t exist. It does set some standards of its own, most notably for dehumanizing the enemy, who is never given more than 10 seconds of film at a time and always with a growling face straight out of a propaganda poster.

That is a shame. The story of Desmond Doss as told in 2016 deserves better than a WW2 also-ran and an illiterate journal article, for at least two reasons: he saved everyone he saw on the battlefield, American and Japanese; and no-one could get the number of people he helped straight, even as he was being given the Medal of Honor. Wondering how the other side thinks and feels, and sorting between truths, half-truths, and alt-truths are the themes of this decade, so it must have taken a lot of determination (or ignorance) on Braveheart’s part to ignore them so completely. Sort of like I’m ignoring Mel’s pet theme that wants to be central but can’t quite make it.

PS: Spiderman Jr. does his best doing Jimmy Stuart doing a pious army medic, and almost makes it. Vince Vaughn makes a good drill sergeant. This is not a failure of acting.

Directed by Mel Gibson, 2016

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Neurotic burglar with a heart of gold meets neurotic gay private investigator for some neurotic fourth wall-breaking shenanigans. Ironman’s vintage post-rehab quips are supposed to be endearing, but turn the movie into an annoying Ally McBeal spinoff that’s even less sure of itself. Val Kilmer’s misshapen botoxed head mumbles through most of the lines, though his penis features in a memorable scene. There are many more gags that are just as good, but are connected by a not well thought-out metaphor (is it a home movie on a reel? on tape? is it just playing in Downey’s head?) to make a twisty-turney plot that’s meant not to be followed (not unlike this sentence).

Good thing Michele Monaghan is there to eat their lunch and make the movie watchable.

Directed by Shane Black, 2005

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Moonlight

A poem in three verses about introversion and grit that is also a story about a boy growing up black and gay and functionally parentless in a poor Florida neighborhood. Through symmetry, silence, and omission, that depressing premise — imagine having to be a teenager in Florida — never invokes depression. Compare and contrast to sad tales of straight white lower-middle class woes.

Since issues of identity, gender, and race are somewhat of a thing in this early 21st century, the movie is also a Rorschach test for its audience. A thousand opinion pieces bloomed in its wake, few of which as deep as a single scene, yet quite a bit more pretentious. Thousands more are to come in liberal arts colleges across the country, and deservedly so — many films tend to induce sympathy and elation in one particular group of people, awkwardness and shame in another, and this one time those two groups have flipped.

Directed by Barry Jenkins, 2016

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Whiplash

A.k.a. Whiplash: The Truth Behind the 10,000 Hour Rule.

Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax, gets up to play at a cutting session, and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off stage. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices, and he practices with one goal in mind: Never too be laughed at again. And a year later he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage and he plays the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones just said “Well, that’s okay Charlie. That was alright. Good job.” Then Charlie thinks to himself “Well, shit. I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying. I’ll tell you, man - and every Starbucks “jazz” album just proves my point, really - there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

If delivering this dialogue gets you an award, how on Earth does writing it not also get you one? Never mind the precise shots, impeccable pace, midpoint that could have been a short movie on its own, and the adrenaline-surge-inducing ending that is musical, cinematic, and deeply philosophical all at once. Movies at their best.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, 2014

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Arrival

Flat characters cipher through a thinly plotted array of science fiction concepts which are new enough to the non-reading public to make the movie palatable on novelty alone. Since novelty may be the only thing that counts in what is bracketed as SciFi — look at Interstellar being undeservedly panned — a movie whose emotional range begins and ends with a side plot of a dying child now has a shot at the Academy Award. Also, and it feels wrong to even have to write this, there are other ways to elicit emotion in your audience than killing off children, dear movie-makers of 2016.

Respect where it is due: passing of Hawkeye as a plausible physicist — by having him not talk about physics the entire movie, but still — and floating the idea of world unification in anno domini 2017 are admirable feats. Not enough to offset the hours wasted on walking through a hallway and 80s-style montages, though.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2016

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Manchester by the Sea

A dour movie about dour people living dour lives in a dour New England town. The camera is static and so are our hero’s faces. Long periods of voyeuristic shots of everyday life are punctuated by rare expressions of minimal emotion. Answers to all our questions are quickly revealed and dramatic tension never builds up.

That kind of direction is fine if you are talking about a man’s mid-life crisis, but disturbing when your movie involves three children burning to death. Is seeing a couple of good acting performances worth subjecting yourself to emotional trauma that doesn’t result in a meaningful message (and anything on stoicism of the Irish can hardly count if the Simpsons have already done it)?

Medical things of note: congestive heart failure is a diagnosis as broad as lower back pain (i.e. not a real diagnosis at all); would anyone not work it up further, never mind that it is in an otherwise healthy 40-something; and do they not have ICDs in Manchester, MA? Coach should not have died, least of all because without his death we wouldn’t have had this movie.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 2016

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Looper

Although a movie that involves traveling through time, Looper is hardly a time-travel movie. Bruce Willis says as much when he brushes off any attempts to discuss the mechanics, implications, paradoxes, etc. for reasons of expediency. So, Primer, Predestination, or even Back to the Future II this ain’t. Groundhog Day is more like it, only with shotguns, telekinesis, and a far messier ending.

That’s unfortunate for me, since I prefer pure time-travel movies; and there isn’t enough — or any, really — Bill Murray in Looper to justify comparing it to that other category. JGL spends too much time pretending to be Willis, who in turn phones it in. Elevator/hallway action scenes are good, but don’t come close to the peak of the genre (or even the western take, which was fundamentally a feature-length interpretation of that one scene from Oldboy).

There is, in fact, nothing new to see here, and the movie feels as flat as the Kansas plain it is set in. The one interesting thing about it is that, in what is the complete opposite of the director’s previous movie, Looper might be better appreciated in a vacuum.

Directed by Rian Johnson, 2012

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The Dark Forest

Starts several years after The Three Body Problem and ends 200 years later, shortly after the first (brief, horrific) physical contact with alien technology. The future’s clean, white, Apple-y aesthetic was annoying enough for me not to feel too badly after it imploded, and the humans of the future were just as grating, but I assume that was one of the big points Liu wanted to make (that we are more closely related temporally than we are geographically or genetically, that is, not that Jony Ive is a future-human).

Another point: a book about humanity’s impending demise has a good quarter of it dedicated to one man’s delusions about art and love. Those passages end up being directly relevant to the plot, but if anything, that takes away from them.

Finally, the character who ends up being the book’s main proponent of historicism dies in the best standoff since the Gotham prisoners’ dilemma, which ends up being only the second-best of the many standoffs the book presents. It is a beautiful, self-referential standoff heaven.

Written by Cixin Liu, 2015

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