Moonlight is extraordinary. At the heart of this story is the simple desire for human connection, told through the emotional experience of the character of Chiron in three stages of his life: as a child, a teenager, and as an adult (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively). Barry Jenkins’ stunningly sensitive coming-of-age story, all at once suffocating and liberating, connected with me in such profound ways. A brief phone call took my breath away; that need for empathy and forgiveness was so deeply felt.
Through a strikingly immersive personal journey of acceptance of a queer, black man, Barry Jenkins’ and original playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay tackles the universality of the human experience and gracefully dismantles the performativity of masculinity. James Laxton’s cinematography channels Chiron’s inner life beautifully, from stark moments of sensual intimacy, to swirling shots of claustrophobia. So much is said in each look not met and each word not spoken. The quietness dances on these characters’ faces and through each ellipses. Moonlight‘s silences speak volumes that will stay with me for a long time.
I came into Manchester By the Sea expecting a bleak meditation on depression, but I was instead met with a finely balanced story between the embodiment of grief and the humor observed in the details of daily life. I was particularly impressed by the narrative structure of Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay; the masterful way character motivations are exposed, the revelations of how a tragic past informs a guarded present. Casey Affleck delivers a magnificent performance in restraint, capturing the complexities of his emotionally unavailable character behind pained eyes, furrowed brows, and clenched fists. Manchester By the Sea delivers especially devastating wordless, emotional scenes, but it’s not a film without hope.
Arrival took me by complete surprise, both as an emotional personal story and as an intelligent and thoughtful work of science fiction. Amy Adams’ nuanced work as a linguist who attempts to speak with newly arrived aliens, is worthy of an Oscar nomination. There is such a captivating patience with her process that reveals a deep belief that communication is key to our species. Arrival believes in the optimism of humanity; that only through understanding and cooperation, can we advance together as a species. It’s a poignant message that rings especially true in today’s political climate.
In the hands of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, we are front row center to an acting masterclass. I respect Fences‘ confidence in showcasing playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece of American theatre. The film embraces both Wilson’s dense, gorgeous dialogue and its stage roots. By keeping the Maxon family fenced-in in their backyard, director Denzel Washington allows the stifling pressure to build ever so slowly, until tensions to boil over and explode.
I can understand why some people have fallen head over heels for La La Land. The film provides a sweeping Technicolor escape of romantic reverie. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have dynamite chemistry together, particularly in Emma Stone’s fantastic expressiveness. Sun-kissed colors leap off the screen, thanks to a radiant costume and production design.
Ultimately, La La Land disappoints; it’s more a movie with musical numbers than a full-fledged musical. It’s a fine movie for movie lovers, but less so a successful movie for musical lovers. And for a movie that celebrates movie musicals, I wanted more musicality.
La La Land starts out with so much potential and promise with the inventive choreography of “Another Day of Sun” (but poor sound mixing, coupled with weak vocals from those soloists, makes the opening number surprisingly difficult to listen to). Sadly, that vibrant musical energy all but evaporates from the rest of the film, only to return in its wonderful final sequence.
It’s telling that my favorite musical moment, Ryan Gosling’s 80s cover band’s take on “I Ran,” is the one the film takes the least seriously. Emma Stone lights up the screen with her sharp comedic timing, which nicely contrasts his bright red jacketed self-loathing. No other moment lived up to this all-too-brief moment of delight.
Emma Stone’s struggling actress storyline is so painfully familiar (and really, what else do we know about her?), that nothing new comes out of it at all. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, but came away from La La Land with a “well, that was nice.”
Hidden Figures, the true life story of black female mathematicians working for NASA, was every bit as inspiring as I had wanted it to be. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and particularly, Janelle Monáe’s, performances are luminous and magnetic. There’s an undeniable sense of joy that radiates from every pore, delivered at just the right, crowd-pleasing levels. To be fair, you know exactly where the story is headed, but it’s a journey that needs to be told and CELEBRATED.
Hell or High Water is a film for our times, a character-driven modern-day Western that captures the unease and unrest of our economic climate. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who rob banks together as a last-ditch effort to save their family land from foreclosure. There’s a warm affection for its complex and morally ambiguous characters and the movie delivers a potent mix of emotionally rich human moments and bleak, non-romanticized action sequences.
I cried no less than five times during Lion. I can’t help it; I’m a crier! This tear-jerker of a movie belongs to Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo, a young Indian boy who becomes separated from his family. He radiates such magnetic charm that it becomes all the more devastating once the tragedy takes hold. While Saroo’s journey as an adult (played by an excellent Dev Patel), and his isolating struggle to reunite with his family, is less engaging, Lion still delivers some truly emotionally potent fireworks.
The utterly charming Andrew Garfield aside, Hacksaw Ridge, about real-life WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, is not for me. Altogether, the film is overly sentimental in depicting one man’s devout convictions and overly brutal in portraying the atrocities of human warfare. And boy, those war scenes are overflowing with torturous and unrelenting violence. Unfortunately, Hacksaw Ridge’s simple focus on an uncomplicated morality doesn’t reveal much of anything under a bloody surface. Inspiring? Sure. Interesting? Not so much.