The Second Annual "Settled Dust" List: 2016's Under-heralded Movies (and a Few Books, too!) ~ What'cha Reading?

The Second Annual “Settled Dust” List: 2016’s Under-heralded Movies (and a Few Books, too!)

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The Second Annual Settled Dust List: 2016’s Great Movies, Worthwhile Oddities, Better-Than-Expecteds, and Didn’t-See-That-Comings.

AKA The 2016 “Don’t Ram Your Art Down My Throat” List

Eulogizing cinema has become a sucker’s game, as every November, enough Oscar-driven material escapes we forget the 10 consistently cruddy months that proceeded it.  But a key reason movies feel so dead to me is said Oscar season; throughout the year, studios are releasing “movies” that still make “profit,” at least overseas, but I find myself increasingly cold to one-hundred-million-plus Hollywood manipulation machines such as Jason Bourne  and Inferno.

As for the Oscar season (it sounds so organic, like summer or spring!),  films arrive immediately on pedestals as near-museum pieces you don’t dare speak against, and ugly battle lines are drawn — you’re either with La La Land OR you’re with Moonlight OR you recognize Fences is really just an adequately-staged film version of a play and of course you hate Casey Affleck –wait a minute, you don’t? Didn’t you read the right articles?? Hey, tell me, were you brave enough to like Martin Scorsese’s Silence despite it not getting nominations (ergo, it’s somehow thought defective by many)?  Whether it’s a Jurassic Sequel or a critic-affirmed Oscar flick, Every Damn Thing Arrives In Capital Letters. And boldfaced. And italicized.  With lots of exclamation points after.

You don’t need so many critical thinking skills to embrace either Rogue One: A Star Wars Story OR Moonlight. The path has been all laid out.

GARD Pro Not Registered

More than ever, Hollywood’s output is reboots, tentpoles, spin-offs, one-offs and amusement park rides followed by a flurry of serious cinema designed purely with Oscar Gold in mind.  If the films don’t get the desired nominations, such as Billy Turner’s Halftime Walk, they immediately dissolve into particles, deemed undeserving or “snubbed.” There is now an empty gully where once stood a fertile garden, where films not designed for global OR Oscar domination could have a reasonable release and rate of return on investment.

So, more and more, you, the wary filmgoer, must  seek out offbeat and interesting fare that isn’t presold one way or the other, as if it ain’t Oscar and it ain’t “tentpole,” it has no role in our culture whatsoever.

With the dust settled after last weeks tempestuous Oscar cast, now the time comes  to reveal truly essential Cinema of 2016 — Right Here!  Yes, You’ve found it!  Here are the secret; obscure; forgotten; underpraised; overlooked; the fully realized;  the flawed but noble; the scrappy, and most tellingly, the largely unseen. Most of the titles below you likely haven’t heard of, let alone seen, but all are highly credible and worth the investment by anyone who values synapse-charging movies more than awards or grosses.

A most telling aspect in a recent A.V. Club  “Random Roles” interview  was how often a most agreeable Rob Lowe  — Rob Lowe, not Kenneth Branagh or Isabelle Huppert or some highfalutin’ thespian dilettante —  marveled that successful films he was in, whether Class, Hotel New Hampshire, or Bad Influence, — basic food group entertainmentsjust wouldn’t be made today 

I am chronically, romantically, hopelessly drawn to movies that fall under the umbrella of “Stealth Cinema,” which, as said in my intro to the first annual Settled Dust list, aren’t rammed down my throat, but instead “catch me on the elbow.”  So once more I gather a straight-shooting group of most-admirable, thought-provoking, interesting, strange films that will continually surprise, engage, scare, frustrate and move you, while likely leaving blank expressions on your friends’ faces as you excitedly discuss them. You’ll be a delightful nonconformist just for discussing Frank and Lola or One Day Since Yesterday when everyone else is all Moonlighting their way through dinner parties!

Explore the following and curse me afterward if you must, but  they all are worth your time, attention, and admiration, even if they weren’t worth a distributor’s advertising budget or Oscar campaign.  You may even find yourself loving some of these films, as I do.  All have their charms, and are all films I will return happily to in the future.

Forgive me my swoony romanticism; the Oscar winners may be the shining sun of our movie culture, the “best” cinema has to offer, but there is no sun without the mysterious, beguiling moon as contrast. These are the films that might surprise you and stay with you when you peek into your telescope at night, searching for uncharted territory not pushed on you by Harvey Weinstein, high-end real estate agent.

A PERFECT DAY

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Melanie Therry, Fedja Stukan, and Olga Kurylenko.

Directed and Written by Fernando León de Aranoa

IFC FILMS   RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 15, 2016

A Perfect Day is a delightfully discreet surprise set in the Balkans during wartime, where a roving gang of “badass” humanitarian aid workers attempts to acquire a rope to remove a cadaver that has been dropped in a well, contaminating drinking water for the desperate locals. The film’s forlornly funny horrors (dead cows concealing landmines) and appalling straightforward horrors (murder, starvation),  are mostly inferred, and don’t add up to much, which is sort of the point.  The film’s tragicomic tone is its own, not belligerent, forced or self-satisfied. Whether focusing on a small boy whose parents have been lynched in their home’s backyard, or on U.N. “Peacekeepers” who apologetically subvert the aid workers’ efforts to get that damn corpse out of the well, A Perfect Day’’s pathos is small and modulated; you have to pay attention to emotionally respond to the goings-on, and its screwy, understated virtues are the film’s strength . It is rare to pull off a film about man’s inhumanity toward man in as easygoing and subtly humorous style as A Perfect Day, and Aranoa’s film works in small ways that count; it should be seen.

FRANK & LOLA

Starring Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Rosanna Arquette, and Justin Long

Directed and Written by Mathew Ross

PALADIN | RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 9, 2016

A sleek, enigmatic, unexpected vision from first-timer Mathew Ross, and an oddly satisfying, impossible to predict, unresolved film. Being sold as a thriller in its wholly overlooked release, it isn’t, really; more of a relationship drama between two closed-off people whose personalities  lead them to some very strange and dangerous emotional and physical places. The film’s tone is even-tempered, making the unfolding events even more unsettling. Frank and Lola spend the film acting on the irresistible impulse they have for each other,  then circling each other with wary mistrust, and then waking up to remember where they are, which is in love. If Michael Shannon’s coiled spring is a more developed and less puzzling character than Imogen Poots mercurial floret, well, the male gaze and all that, but be glad that her somewhat underdeveloped character isn’t pure wish fulfillment for a sensitively damaged protagonist (think Emily Watson in Punch Drunk Love) nor pure femme fatale, leading Shannon to hell with a kiss.  Lithe and effective, Frank & Lola offers two talented actors an uncommonly intense showcase,  and at moments feels like a dark, confused, romantic haiku.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigney,  and Emma Greenwell

Directed and Adapted by Whit Stillman

ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS | RELEASE DATE: MAY 13, 2016

Whit Stillman provides high entertainment and sublime wit in his “kind satire” LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, an adaptation of Jane Austin, and his disarming tendency to not bludgeon viewers but instead tickle us with glancing blows  remains undiminished.  His psychological sensitivity is as sharp as can be and while his interests can be seen as limited as, say, Woody Allen’s, his much more empathetic view of his imperfect characters is a fantastic strength. There’s no special pleading for Stillman’s people, despite their sometimes maddening behavior. He is even-tempered as he unveils his exceptionally intelligent characters’ manipulations and delusions and pretensions and insecurities, and his trim and smart films win you over every time.  He doesn’t make wealth sexy, he makes it comic, and you root for his characters to find some measure of happiness.

The Documentaries!  Netflix, Video On Demand and premium cable channels’ thirst for original content has been a boon of sorts for documentaries, the one genre that was more likely to be buried in the old film economy than in the new.  There continues to be an influx of easily accessible, high quality documentaries:

THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD

Director: Jenn Senko

RELEASE DATE: MARCH 18, 2016

BOOM BUST BOOM

Director: Benjamin Timlett and Bill Jones and (Monty Python’s) Terry Jones

BRAINSTORM MEDIA | RELEASE DATE: MARCH 11, 2016

A CLASS DIVIDE

Director: Mark Levin

HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS | RELEASE DATE: APRIL 13, 2016
In the shadow of Ava DuVernay’s brilliant, must-see documentary 13th are three smaller films also detailing aspects of our most troublesome world, where the decent feel powerless, and viewed as a trio you’ll get a pretty comprehensive overview of why we’re fucked — but in a most diverting manner.  Brainwashing provides historical background, putting events of the last forty years in an lucid framework; it details the efforts by ultra-creepy sexual harasser Roger Ailes to control American minds through manipulative, agenda-driven “news” from the early 70s right through the era of Fox News. This process is made personal by Filmmaker Jenn Senko’s father’s evolution into an anti-social monster due to constant exposure to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.  Armed with Bill Plympton’s animations and a ripe sense of  resigned humor, the film details the very steps that have led to Donald Trump angrily spitting out bald lies  that are hungrily digested by millions who insist they are victims of some great media scheme.

Boom Bust Boom details how financial disasters apparently run cyclically, as we can’t help but greed ourselves into desperate situations again and again throughout history without truly learning anything. Boom features witty Monty Pythonesque animation and Python legend Terry Jones as its narrator, keeping the mood light even when the message is heavy. Class Divide explores issues of gentrification as The Avenues, a high-end private school, is dropped into Chelsea, Manhattan, adjacent to public housing. The film is all the more effective for not demonizing anyone – the most miserable and tragic figure in the film is one of the wealthy schoolchildren.  Nevertheless, taken as a trio — “What I tell You Three Times is True!” as quoted from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark these are a most effective exploration of our society gone sideways, their good humor and low-budget energy a powerful avenue for getting disturbing truths across.

MAGGIE’S PLAN

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore, and Ethan Hawke.

Directed and Written by Rebecca Miller

Sony Pictures Classics | Release Date: May 20, 2016

Rebecca Miller’s screwball hipster comedy isn’t driven by the neoliberal narcissism that drives much of indie cinema today; like Mistress America, an unexpected surprise that would have made my 2015 Settled Dust list if I had seen the damn thing in 2015, it is about this plight – with both starring Greta Gerwig as a self-obsessed well-meaning monster, who in Plan tries to design her life and cast all its players in the right part – and then realizing the mistake she has made, tries to maladroitly undo the damage. She’s kind of a beast, sure, but not a bad person, and this is where the sweet (but not darling) comedy comes in. Maggie is amiably self-absorbed and manipulative, while also being fairly sane and moral. Luckily the canny film doesn’t let her off the hook for this either, and strategic co-star Julianne Moore really shines in the second half when she has to a) comprehend  this well-meaning horror and b) forgive and work with her.  The untiring Ethan Hawke, represented in Settled Dust’s 2015 list by his nifty documentary Seymour, gives a controlled performance as an academic who is too good-hearted to be a narcissist until someone gives him opportunity, which he then runs with.   Miller’s direction may not be distinctive,  but her screenwriting is bouncy, witty, surprising. The funny bits and dialogue are sometimes tossed off too much, and Miller the director doesn’t quite give her material the beats it might need to explode into madcap lunacy, which may have been her design. Still, Maggie’s Plan is funny and amiable,  hitting a rich, slight, but original comic tone, coming off something like a series of playful shoulder punches.

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

Director: Taika Waititi and Taika Waititi

Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House, Rima Te Wiata, Sam Neill

The Orchid | Release Date: June 24, 2016

A charming mashup of the eccentric foibles of LOCAL HERO & BREAKING AWAY with a bit of whimsical Wes Anderson, this New Zealand film (which proved a huge success in its home country and did pretty well here for a foreign release) is full of wonderfully quirky, did-I-just-see/hear-that lines and moments, anchored by convincing performances by veteran Sam Neill, as a cranky but decent misanthrope, open-faced deadpan newcomer Julian Dennison and the unaffected Rachel House as Neill’s wife, whom I wasn’t acquainted with but who anchored this quirky film early with her pragmatic good humor, so that when the time is come for the oddball plot to be set adrift, we’re fully invested in its outcome.  A small comedy that doesn’t put down its quirky characters, nor nobalize them, it accepts the ways they’ve adapted to a world that compels them to be divided against themselves. Modest but shrewd, and a real smile-maker.

 

HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING

Director: Tom Twyker

Starring: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Ben Whishaw, and Sarita Choudhury

Lionsgate | Release Date: April 22, 2016

RUN ROLA RUN’S Tom Twyker once seemed a director to watch, but has been largely forgotten over the last decade, his last notable release the dull  Clive Owen thriller The International. But here is a surprisingly quirky, frothy entertainment  from him in a very different vein, dealing with the frustrations of an aging American salesman, Tom Hanks, who can’t quite acclimate to the international marketplace, yet is the head man on a potential software deal between an American company and the Saudi king.  Based on a Dave Eggers novel, the German Twyker shows a knack for mellow fish-out-of-water humor, and any sentimentality in the concept isn’t overplayed. I don’t know if I can say Hologram is an idea worthy of Preston Sturges, but the film’s rhythm is  unforced, allowing for the film’s loose screws to rattle around pleasingly.  Hologram  is decidedly easygoing and unaggressive – dealing with Muslim/American conflicts, I feared the film would grow a tightness in its throat that never materializes. Twyker seems to embrace the disarming qualities of Americans lack of self-awareness that perhaps also allow us to latch onto a romantic notion without a complex initial  thinking-through. Hanks uses his disarming comic quality to full effect; it’s his lightest recent performance. It’s a smartly deadpan, wigged-out comedy.

THE FAMILY FANG

Director: Jason Bateman

Starring: Christopher Walken, Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, and Maryann Plunkett

Starz | Release Date: April 29, 2016

Perplexing that Director Jason Bateman should follow up his well received Bad Words with this all-but dumped black comedy about aging performance artists The Fangs, who labelled their children Child A and Child B and resented how “raising” these children got in the way of their art; we follow the now-grown children’s reactions and investigation when the parents go missing in an apparent violent crime. Is it just another performance piece, or are they actually dead?  The film works on some surprisingly ambitious themes and keeps an off-kilter tone throughout – you never quite know what’s going to happen next.  The always-good-don’t-argue-with-me Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken get most of the showy moments, but special props to Maryann Plunkett, whom I didn’t know, as Walken’s wife, who has some complicated subtle emotions to play.  If anything, Bateman, a true Hollywood success story (his It’s Your Move is one of the great forgotten mid 80s television series), doesn’t give himself enough to do.  The Family Fang  should be seen; its characters are silly, and bright, and genuinely eccentric. It’s an odd film, with a  gap-toothed rabbit smile at times, and at the end I had unresolved feelings.  Bateman’s direction is thoughtful, and he seems willing to pick up new impressions as they unfold before the camera; Fang‘s hit and run, unresolved quality allows for some eccentric peaks.

DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES

Director: Jon Schnepp

SchneppZone, Inc./ Premiered on Showtime, 2016

ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY

Director: Bill Teck

Lo ’77/ Release Date: April 16, 2016 (on Netflix)

DE PALMA

Director: Noah Baumbach

A24 | Release Date: June 10, 2016

DOOMED

Director: Marty Langford

Uncork’d Entertainment/ Release Date: October 11, 2016

“We are battling a very difficult system and all the values of that system are the opposite of what goes into making original, good movies.” — Brian De Palma in De Palma

Ahh Hollywood. The story of Hollywood is never properly told through its winners, and that’s why 2016 proved a banner year for Hollywood documentary.  De Palma is a chatty, vivid, if somewhat superficial exploration of Brian De Palma’s career; while by any sane measure it must be seen as a success, the film (and De Palma) see it as vaguely a failure, due to indifferent box-office and critical reception at times.  He is loquacious and interesting, and the film will make you seek out his body of work for viewing after, but I still there were many key aspects of his story (and storytelling) that were left untold or only superficially touched upon. Nevertheless, it is a well-produced, engaging film on a worthy subject

One Day Since Yesterday is a welcome exploration of Peter Bogdanovich’s meteoric rise and Shakespearean fall, with the focus on the making of Bogdanovich’s glorious, unclassifiable They All Laughed, which might just have been the most playful, lively, quick-spirited film set ever, as Bogdanovich and his band of pirates ran around Manhattan shooting locations that have never before or since used to to such effective, giddy effect. New York is a downright gentle and forgiving location in Laughed;  And as Bogdanovich fell in love  with costar Dorothy Stratten, murdered before its release, the film itself became captured moments of very personal love,promise and loss that led him to buy the film back and self-release it, with financial ruin ensuing.  Luckily, I and others (notably Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, who hold much more sway than I), and now documentarian Bill Teck, have always recognized it as a masterpiece, everyone of its 170,000 frames little glowing dreams filled with life and beauty.  Teck has made a dignified, non-judgmental effort to place the film and Bogdanovich’s work in a context filled with amity, much like the amity the characters show each other in that unique valentine to New York City, They All Laughed.

Doomed is a kind of homage to dreamswept (and broken-dreamswept) L.A.  At the tail-end of Roger Corman’s active career as a low-budget producer, his no-frills studio was tasked with making a  cheap Fantastic Four, likely because of Batman‘s huge success a year or so earlier. While the odds against the quickly-tossed-together film ever being good were astronomical, Doomed details the earnest efforts of cast and crew, foot soldiers in “La La Land” who suddenly found themselves that most magical of things, employed.  They do their best to make something of the opportunity, and what happened next is a tragedy of sorts, as the film was intentionally buried, never to be properly released (bootleg copies have shown up at conventions).  Where Doomed falls down a bit is in the mystery of what, exactly happened – everyone raises theories, the film shares them, but makes little effort to uncover the actual truth.  But as an essay on the amount of effort (and hope and faith) that goes into making even bad cinema, Doomed is an entertaining celebration of Hollywood at the low end.

The high end, where at some point the players clearly have more money than sense, is what is explored in The Death of Superman Lives, which enjoyably recounts Producer Jon Peters’ most curious efforts to restart the Superman franchise as  a Tim Burton film starring Nicolas Cage, a most controversial casting choice.  The film details the allegiance shifts and anxieties and abject nonsense and rewrites and actual hard work that would lead to the film’s eventual cancellation.  What is interesting is that beyond the wasted money and the honorable effort of the costume designers, effects people etc., it seems likely the film wouldn’t have worked.  Burton clearly had no personal feel for Superman, and was recasting him as a moody Batman, with many curious creative choices, starting with Cage.  No doubt Burton’s job was to create a world on celluloid, so much of what feels indigestible in the telling may have cohered on the screen, but the project itself seems as ill-devised as the mechanical spiders Peters kept wanting to insert for no evident reason (and which he finally got into Will Smith’s Wild Wild West).

TOWER

Director: Keith Maitland

Kino Lorber | Release Date: October 12, 2016

Harrowing, compelling, sometimes lyrical documentary –combining archival footage with rotoscopic animation– about that fateful day in 1966 Charles Whitman climbed into a tower in Texas and started shooting.  Based entirely on first person testimonies from those present, best of all is its disinterest in Whitman, the attacker, but instead focusing on the victims, heroes and everyday people swept up in this horrible event; watch this alongside Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 fictional recreation Targets. Tower’s animation gambit isn’t offputting, and the film does honor by recounting a day that just might be the bastard grandfather to our hyper-violent present reality of random death via strangers. It’s a sophisticated achievement.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

Starring: Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Zoey Deutch

Director: Richard Linklater

Paramount Pictures | Release Date: March 30, 2016

Linklater’s latest  evenhanded day-in-the-life didn’t catch fire like his earlier efforts, likely because it didn’t feel “new” –really it’s his El Dorado, and while it isn’t really doing anything “new,” it is a happy, sustained work that you love all the more for its plainness; Linklater’s films, despite their occasioned pretenses, don’t really “fancy things up.”  You feel he’s talking to you straight, and he conjures magic in the ordinary and everyday. There’s a blessed plainness and common touch to Linklater’s film-making that sustains his features even when there’s no real narrative urgency.  Everybody Wants Some has a springiness of spirit, and I wasn’t in a rush for the narrative to climax; I wanted to hold on to what I was experiencing.

GREEN ROOM

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and  Patrick Stewart

A24 | Release Date: April 15, 2016

Intense, suspenseful, anxiety-inducing horror about a punk group getting the gig from hell playing for a deep backwater white-supremacist audience who take their beliefs very seriously. Green Room sadly highlights the last lead performance of Anton Yelchin, alongside an effectively calm villain Patrick Stewart and Imogen Poots (from Frank and Lola), in an extreme fantasy of misery, a fantasy realization of some of our worst fears of this newly-arrived Trump universe. Made with a cruel, gory wit, and wholly effective, Green Room traps the viewer in a creepy nightmare and doesn’t let go.

TRANSFATTY LIVES!

DIRECTOR: PATRICK O’BRIEN

FILM BUFF/ PREMIERED ON NETFLIX, JUNE, 2016

Debuting on Netflix in 2016,  this film is both a sober exploration of and a finger in the face of ALS. Transfatty Lives details how Patrick O’Brien (whom this author knows), faced with ALS, uses his talent, discipline and a wicked sense of humor to will into being this absorbing documentary. The film is both harrowing and celebratory, its very existence an achievement, but its singular quality comes from  O’Brien’s drive  to make a film that could only be his.  It doesn’t flinch from the infuriating banality of what crippling illness does, but also displays a wicked sense of humor and spirit unabated by his ailment. Lyrical and almost hallucinogenic at times, this is the rare film about disease and death that isn’t afraid to occasionally revel in its own nuttiness.  O’Brien’s refusal to play the “disease card” straight but to continue exploring the impulses that drove his earlier films showcases a virtuoso genuine looniness, with love and creativity in a constant battle with frustration and rage.  There’s something stubborn, freakish, and beautiful in the way O’Brien fails to buckle under the fog of disease.

TALE OF TALES

Director: Matteo Garrone

Starring: John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek,  Toby Jones, and Vincent Cassel

IFC Films | Release Date: April 22, 2016

A rather gory and sexually frank adult fairy-tale, reminiscent of Excalibur in its decidedly-not-for-children tone and its self-intoxication, plunging us into an adult fantasy world overflowing with glorious visual textures (and dialogue that can’t really keep up). Matteo Garrone, director of the much more ashcan realistic Gomorrah, creates a memorably dark and often entrancing world, mixing images of beauty with grotesqueness. The film is an assortment of bits, some better than others, but the best bits reach magically debauched heights.

THE TRUST

Starring Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood, and Jerry Lewis.

Director: Alex Brewer and Benjamin Brewer

Saban Films | Release Date: May 13, 2016

A trim, comic tail of two nobody police officers who attempt to steal cash from a heroin dealer, only to have everything goes wrong; large parts of The Trust are free, chaotic and nasty.  The film is one long black humor gag, with eccentric moments that echo after they play out. The Trust is flawed, but it has a pulse, and when it ends I feel I’ve seen something with personality, verve, humor and a spacey malice all its own.  The Trust’s ironic desperation keeps it afloat; it has a great wobbly B-movie gait to it, and Cage hasn’t seemed so alert and cagey in years.    A little cheap comic nihilism goes a long way, so I don’t want to overrate it, but The Trust kept my attention and kept surprising me with small detail effects, that made me respect the filmmakers and cast.  There’s a kind of dim, deadbeat whimsy to this  one that I really responded to.

MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL

Director: Spike Lee

SHOWTIME/ FEBRUARY 5, 2016

TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU

Director: Joe Berlinger

NETFLIX/ RELEASE DATE: JULY 13, 2016.

Both Spike Lee and Joe Berlinger do well by their mythic subjects, the tragic king of pop Michael Jackson and the still-thriving commercial self-help guru Tony Robbins, by focusing on the positive: Lee compellingly makes the case for the artistry and bravery of young Jackson, breaking free from the constraints of his childhood stardom and omnipresent family to make his first, indefatigable solo album, Off the Wall.   By ignoring all the controversy and focusing exclusively on Jackson’s artistry as a performer, songwriter and dancer, Lee makes us understand  what made him not only a star, but an artist and an original, making his later problems and early death much more affecting and less remote. His paranoid-celebrity-star temperament that made him rather alienating by the late 80s is nowhere in evidence in this archival footage and the expertly gathered testimonials of contemporaries.

Jackson’s drive, instinct, smarts and vulnerability are all here, not yet glazed over by distrust, vanity, and, well, insanity. We have all the joy and none of the (self?) torment that colors his post Thriller-years.   Jackson is wholly irresistible in this film, and I’m grateful to Lee for this portrayal.

Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru takes a thorough look at Robbins and one of his expensive retreats.  I don’t know if I could say Robbins comes clean in this film – it’s not clear he has anything, really, to hide, anyway, but it does at moments feel like an extended infomercial, bringing this gentle, extremely wealthy giant into our laps.  He’s vividly, tantalizingly close to us; the film never quite incarnates Robbin’s soul and guts – there’s something guarded in his center that still feels unreached by the talented Berlinger.  But for those who only know him as a vaguely comic or dubious figure, the film, if you will allow it, will introduce you to this pleasingly enigmatic infomercial titan.  For those of us who just plain have always liked the dude, it’s even more of a slam dunk entertainment.

THE WITCH

Director: Robert Eggers

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Julian Richings

A24 | Release Date: February 19, 2016

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

Starring: Emile Hirsch & Brian Cox

Director: André Øvredal

IFC Films | Release Date: December 21, 2016

These two smaller horrors effectively exploit  the greatest tools of horror, which are not gore, but apprehension, claustrophobia, and dread of the unseen; in Jane Doe’s case the creepiness is elevated by the participation of a stalwart British character actor in the vein of Peter Cushing or Donald Pleasance, in this case the formidable Brian Cox adding gravitas to a film that actually does have its fair share of necrophilish gore.  The Witch, full of unsettling images and palpable dread, is another release from A24, the noble, spirited release house that has handled such recent  sleepers as Ex-Machina, The Lobster and Moonlight, and The Witch’s striking moody foreboding and sustained sense of keen paranoia make it a genuine sleeper.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS 

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Florence Clery, Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Disney | Release Date: September 2, 2016

This wins my widest-release-that-utterly-flopped-that-nobody-liked by me alongside 2015’s excellent Child 44.  This windswept story of a war-scarred veteran choosing to be a light house watcher for the isolation it promises, only to fall in love with a lovely, needy, determined local girl played by Alicia Viklander, is overemotional in its plotting, offset by the tone of muted melancholy in the graceful acting of its three leads (Rachel Weisz does her usual fine work as an achingly nervous mother who has lost her husband and child). The film is best seen without too much knowledge of what will unfold, much like Robert Zemeckis’ Alliedwhich was also an underrated romantic melodrama that curiously underwhelmed at the box-office.

Is romance dead in this nervous, cynical age?  This kind of teary-eyed romantic drama, that was once the cornerstone of Hollywood cinema, has been replaced by Transformers movies.  Both Oceans and Allied are occasionally corny, maudlin, romantic, dreamy, and implausible, and I enjoyed every minute of them.

THE PROGRAM

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd

Director Stephen Frears

Momentum Pictures | Release Date: March 18, 2016

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Starring: Meryl Streep & Hugh Grant

Director: Stephen Frears

Paramount Pictures | Release Date: August 12, 2016

I do think “Boys-With-Toys” is a very real dilemma in cinema analysis, which is why fine filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Don Siegel, and Brian De Palma are considered worthy of so much ink. (Predominantly male) reviewers not only respond to their filmmaking prowess, which is of course considerable, but also to the prevalent sex and violence in their films.  Equally interesting directors such as Paul Mazursky, Peter Bogdanovich and Mike Nichols do not seem to get the same coverage – for every 15 articles on Scorsese’s bloated, tiresome CASINO, there’s, say, one on Mazursky’s fascinating Blume in Love.  I want to remind people that the brilliant, surprising, unclassifiable Stephen Frears is still churning movies out in his late 70s, with two releases in 2016. His alert direction gives his films solidity, and doesn’t call attention to itself, but Frears is a giant.

Florence Foster Jenkins has been underrated because of Streep backlash; it is funny and moving, and while Streep is quite entertaining in her showy row, the backbone of the film is a brilliant Hugh Grant performance built on genuine wit and unusual gallantry.  The Program is a real under-the-radar release, a Lance Armstrong biopic that went the Stealth Cinema route.  It is perhaps hard to adjust to Ben Foster in the Armstrong role, as the story is so current and Armstrong himself is well represented in several recent documentaries.  But Frears’ direction is typically  inquisitive and graceful.  He rarely does the same thing twice and with a body of work that includes Jenkins, Dangerous Liasons, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things, and much more, I would hope for more recognition (while he lives, breathes and works) of his heightened status, even if it means killing one more worthy piece about Raging Bull.

BLOOD FATHER

Starring: Mel Gibson, William Macy, Michael Parks, Diego Luna and Erin Moriarity

Director: Jean-François Richet

Lionsgate Premiere | Release Date: August 12, 2016

Winner of this year’s Best-Old School-Genre-Flick, BLOOD FATHER is a trim, mean and agreeably disagreeable hard-nosed throwback to the wild and woolly B-movies of the 1970s such as White Line Fever and The Dion Brothers. Whether Mel Gibson has earned his get-out-of-jail-card is debatable, but what isn’t is his undiminished talent, evidenced as director with Hacksaw Ridge; but his movie star bonafides are also resuscitated in this overlooked hard-knuckled Father-Protects-Daughter action piece, which is generally much smarter (and sometimes funnier) than preceding films such as Taken that have made this sort of thing commercially viable.  For this I credit Gibson, whose last stealth-cinema release, Get the Gringo was an equally solid, funny, balls-to-the-walls actioner.  Kudos also to Erin Moriarity who holds her own in a bunch of one-to-one scenes with the star, and the always dependable Michael Parks, Diego Luna, and Bill Macy show up to offer sturdy support.  This was my disreputable-entertainment of the year; now let us pray Gibson stays off the sauce and keeps his mouth shut.

THE KNIGHT OF CUPS

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer.

Directed by Terrance Malick

Broad Green Pictures | Release Date: March 4, 2016

EVERY THING WILL BE FINE

Starring: James Franco & Rachel McAdams

Directed by Wim Wenders

Released on MPI Home Video, June 7, 2016.

 

The visual literacy of two of modern cinema’s great auterists is undimmed in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine; their occasionally irrational but always brave brushstrokes have been largely ignored or dismissed in their most recent releases  – auteurist fatigue? By focusing on the apparent negatives we ignore at our peril the integrity and reflective, aesthetic beauty of these masters.  There might be a bit more dichotomy between intent and realization in these current works than in, say, Malick’s Thin Red Line and the 4-hour cut of Wender’s Until the End of the World (still unjustly obscure in the U.S.), but both filmmakers are brilliant explorers of the subconscious, utilizing emotional honesty that can feel invasive when they’re cooking with gas. Plus their films look damn good!  Yet both Cups and Fine have been unjustly ignored and even mocked, as was auetuer Gus Van Zant’s indeed less successful and somewhat jumbled but nevertheless intriguing, ambitious Sea of Trees.  The cosmic indulgence required by viewers to fully embrace these works is perhaps off-putting, but they avoid the trap of moral schematics and the filmmakers’ independent spirits burn as bright as ever.

EYE IN THE SKY

Director: Gavin Hood

Starring: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, and Aaron Paul

Bleecker Street | Release Date: March 11, 2016

Colonel Katherine Powell  a UK-based military officer in command of a top secret drone operation discovers her targets are planning a suicide bombing and the mission escalates from “capture” to “kill.” But as an American pilot  is about to engage, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone, and Eye in the Sky  tackles the moral and  political implications of modern warfare. In a world increasingly devoid of humanist optimism comes this impressive thriller about the new ways we come up with of killing each other,.  Less a sober character study and more incident-driven than Ethan Hawke’s unjustly obscure drone-warfare drama Good Kill from the year before , the dark crimes, honest decisions and hypocrisies of government are explored in an intriguingly non-judgmental way, with director Hood ratcheting up suspense nicely and alerting viewers to a form of warfare likely not to go away anytime soon, putting a human face on the various people involved in an “unmanned strike.”

THE WAVE

Director: Roar Uthaug

Starring: Kristoffer Jones

Magnolia Pictures | Release Date: March 4, 2016

The mountain Åkerneset overlooks the village of Geiranger in Norway — and — with tourist season at its peak — the local geologist recognizes on his last day at work that it might just collapse into the fjord causing catastrophe, leaving locals ten minutes to get to high ground before a tsunami hits. What if someone made a realistic disaster film?  While THE WAVE isn’t long on peculiarities, director Uthaug is a good engineer, and the film’s straightforward sober read of the situation is a reminder that Hollywood could, if tasked, make high concept entertainment that doesn’t feel constructed by an attention-deficit 12-year old. While the human drama of THE WAVE isn’t overwhelmingly complex or multilayered, Uthaug’s filmmaking relies on controlled build-up of tension culminating in  a genuinely terrifying climax; his alert intelligence makes this old-school disaster yarn feel rather new-style.

EQUITY

Director: Meera Menon

Starring: Anna Gunn, Alysia Reiner, Craig Bierko.

Sony Pictures Classics | Release Date: July 29, 2016

Half the world is paranoid and the other half’s password is “password.”

When a senior banker is passed over for a promotion, she fights for the opportunity to take a start-up public; as the situation unfolds, she must decide whether to investigate rumors that may put the deal in jeopardy, or push ahead. Nothing so special to see here, except the usual fairly compelling backroom Wall Street machinations focus on a woman, in a film written by another woman and directed by yet another; this is definitely a feat of some sort, and that’s enough to give Equity its fresh spin.  Deliberately and provocatively explicating the unfairness of the old boy’s club, the nagging notion that said club should be utterly dismantled, not just opened up so women born of early 21st- century neoliberal avarice can also feed at the trough, remains.  Insider-dealing from a feminine perspective is indeed more dramatically  rejuvenating than yet another story of boys being boys, and as a study of endurance, backbiting and self-preservation in an otherwise familiar dramatic tale of double-dealing and dollars, the cool hard EQUITY , with its internalized feminist viewpoint, has  scrappy integrity.   The film treads no new narrative ground, but it walks with brisk confidence on the ground it’s on.

THE LOVE WITCH

Director: Anna Biller

Starring: Samantha Robinson and Glan Keys

Oscilloscope | Release Date: November 11, 2016

A beautiful witch is determined to find a man to love. She makes spells and potions, and  seduces men only to leave helpless victims, with insanity and murder ensuing when she meets her “perfect” man in this genuinely eccentric comedy-horror, which visually is a throwback to the early 70s grindhouse cinema, but  is completely director Miss Anna Biller’s vision. Funny and colorful, The Love Witch explores female sexuality, identity and power in a way I’m not about to mansplain, except to say it is evocative, weird, and a double-feature of this and Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos would be a great way to impress some friends and alienate others.  Love Witch’s heightened self-awareness is necessary in a film that explores gender politics while offering careful homage to  early 1970s cinema such as Blood Mania and the pioneering feminist grindhouse work of Stephanie Rothman, such as Velvet Vampire.  It’s a bit long, but well worth seeing, and made with verve.  Perhaps Biller might consider reviving the late 60s/early 70s portmanteau horror film, combining short films connected by a common theme.  I will be first in line.

THE SECOND ANNUAL “SETTLED DUST” BOOKS OF THE YEAR

THINGS THAT CAN AND CANNOT BE SAID

John Cusack and Arundhari Roy

Things that Can and Canot Be Said  is a free-form collection of informal memories gathered in essays by John Cusack and Arundhari Roy and excerpts from conversations recorded by Cusack.  They attempt, with fair success, to clearly elucidate just how exactly our world got in its current mess, and define more clearly the position that “the coordinates of our souls,” to borrow a phrase from the eloquent Roy, have been stage-managed by the all-powerful nation states, and we must strive to recalibrate our priorities, resist power and cultivate the ability to “refuse to obey.”

A handsome paperback, perfectly sized to take on the subway or in the bathtub for some thoughtful reading, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said is an accessible, casual introduction to the current struggle for social justice in a neoliberal world, and convincingly gets one thinking that the most patriotic thing a person can do is betray the ideology of the ruling powers.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (IN WHICH JANE AUSTEN’S LADY SUSAN VERNON IS ENTIRELY VINDICATED)

Whit Stillman

And the winner in Settled Dust, fiction division, is Whit Stillman’s unconventional novel, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated), where Stillman dares to “re-imagine” Austen on the page while still offering the full text of Austen’s “Lady Susan” as an addendum for those with sharpened knives to compare.  His last effort was his novelization of his own Last Days of Disco, which was written with care and depth, not just a simple hashing-out of the screenplay. This new loopily enjoyable entertainment, alert and happy, is respectful to Austen while having the playful effrontery to flesh out one of her less canonized works, and it’s a simply fun read.  Austen’s novella provides a strong springboard for Stillman’s own sensibility, and both film and novel are welcome additions to Stillman’s relatively slender oeuvre.

THE OFFICIAL MAKING OF BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

Tara Bennett & Paul Terry

Happy Happy Joy Joy!  Big Trouble in Little China was quite a flop upon release, the film that ultimately sent John Carpenter out of the studio system and back into smaller, independent works like They Live and Prince of Darkness.  But what a way to go!  A funny, quirky,  affably ridiculous adventure film, Big Trouble is the kind of huge production that deserved a handsome coffee-table making-of book, save that it flopped and it seemed interest was nil in such a project.  But thirty years of people discovering the inspired lunacy of Trouble has resulted in this belated, handsome book, which has detailed interviews with all the key participants and great behind-the-scenes photos and design artwork.  It seems like a happy set; everyone from star Kurt Russell and Carpenter to the great Kim Cattrall, cinematographer Dean Cundy, and sidekick/hero Dennis Dun happily recount their on-set adventures.  A must-read for the growing legion of fans of this one-of-a-kind film.

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About Author

James Kenney reviews film for What’cha Reading? and is an editor and film reviewer at QueensFreePress. He writes fiction for Hooked, an iPad application featured on TechCrunch, Fast Company, Business Insider and CNNMoney, won a New York Foundation of the Arts fellowship for his screenplay Secret Vienna, and has a pilot, The Whip, in development at Spike TV. He is an English Lecturer at Queensborough Community College as well as Bronx Community College, and lives in Queens New York with his wife and two children. You can follow James on twitter @jfkenney and check out more of his reviews on http://www.queensfreepress.com/author/jkenney/

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  1. Pingback: Slyly Funny, Cool and Lofty: Kate Winslet IS the Dressmaker. ~ What'cha Reading?

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