10 Cloverfield Lane A Bigger Splash

Movie Advocacy: 2016's Overlooked Gems

Tuesday, December 27, 2016 Rob Samuelson

This year was an odd one for me at the movies. While there were many great films, nothing stuck out to me in the way that made me say, “This was made specifically for me,” like 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road or 2014’s Whiplash. I still have no clue what my final top 10 will look like. Here are some that may or may not find their way onto the “official” list; regardless, they should be seen by more people. Some are phenomenal entertainments and others are weird, provocative little movies that will inspire uncomfortable thoughts and feelings inside of you. It’s healthy to work through that funky stuff with the help of a movie. You’ll feel better. Please do not take this to mean, “Rob said it’s okay to avoid therapy by going to the movies.” With that out of the way, here is my 2016 movie “advocacy list.”

Photo credit: 10 Cloverfield Lane/Facebook

10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

2008’s Cloverfield showed how erratically a group of American 20-somethings would react to a Godzilla-style monster invading New York. That film’s handheld camera was integral to setting a mood of panic and confusion, but it also got a little tiresome when stretched to fill a feature film’s runtime. 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane swapped out the shaky skateboard video aesthetic of the first film in the anthology series (none of the first movie’s characters appear and it’s unclear whether the Godzilla-like creature has anything to do with the things that go bump in the night in this installment) for classic suspense in the mold of Alfred Hitchcock -- it trains the audience to focus on every potential threat with often slow, purposeful camera movement. When Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, Michelle, wakes up in a grimy green basement, chained to the wall of an underground survival bunker after a car crash in the film’s opening minutes, her disoriented fear is chilling. Once she meets her captor (savior?), Howard (John Goodman in one of his finest, most unsettling roles), that fear turns into determination -- first to discover whether the paranoid Howard is telling the truth about the “alien invasion” or “Russian bombing” he talks about incessantly, and later to finding an escape route. First-time feature film director Dan Trachtenberg uses the confined space of Howard’s bunker to ratchet up the tension to unbearable levels, with awkward dinners leading to freakish outbursts. The answer to the central mystery -- are these people in the bunker because there really is something monstrous above ground? -- does not play out in an entirely satisfying way, but the somewhat entertaining (if underwhelming) final 15 minutes do not take away from the 85 minutes of superb, mounting fright that precede them.

My Blind Brother
Director: Sophie Goodhart
Writer: Sophie Goodhart
Starring: Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, Jenny Slate

My Blind Brother is a story about selfish people being selfish and it is somehow heartwarming -- and quite amusing. Bill (Nick Kroll) tries hard to be a good brother to Robbie (Adam Scott), a blind man who competes in scores of athletic events for the disabled. Robbie’s all about training (and getting attention), and he’s often an egotistical jerk who browbeats those around him for not doing everything he wants -- the blindness helps him convince/guilt them. This includes Bill, who guides Robbie at every event (often tethered to him with a line of rope, something he finds humiliating), when he would rather be smoking pot on the couch like the misanthrope he really is. Bill meets Rose (Jenny Slate) at a bar, where she is mourning the death of her ex-boyfriend with his family after his funeral -- he was so distracted during their breakup fight that he walked into traffic, thus causing the reason for the funeral. A one night stand and heaps of guilt lead a comedically tortured Rose to begin volunteering her time to the less fortunate, which includes Robbie, who mistakes Rose’s guilty conscience for a romantic interest and she is too embarrassed to deny him -- they begin dating, much to Bill’s dismay. The chain reaction of people denying their true wishes to keep up a charade of false kindness brings laughs (through cringes) and a shocking amount of dramatic pathos, to boot. It’s an actors’ showcase, with these three comic superstars spending a good amount of time sharpening their chops at playing serious. Director Sophie Goodheart knows this and she doesn’t distract from her actors with enormous stylistic flourishes, instead choosing to document them as they twist in the mess they made.

The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Seo-kyeong Jeong, Park Chan-wook
Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo

The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s return to Korean- and Japanese-language filmmaking after 2013’s disturbing English-language Stoker, is bonkers, just, like, cuckoo bananas. The story of a poor young woman named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) going to work as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a Korean-born heiress of a Japanese fortune, is a complex web of double, triple, and maybe quadruple crosses. There are multiple layers of deceit and depravity, with increasingly unsettling information revealed in each passing section (the movie is told in three distinct chapters). Long cons get disrupted by even longer, contrary cons. Revenge for horrible childhood treatment (never go into a creepy old man’s secret basement or read his books) is horrific and more than a little funny. That’s Park’s go-to move throughout the movie, with graphic sex and violence giving way to sly jokes and visual gags -- you wouldn’t think a woman trying to hang herself would wind up uproariously funny, but here we are. Beneath the perverse thrills lies a sweet story about two people finding love in spite of a twisted environment -- their goofy screwups between their machinations make for one of the year’s best love stories.

The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Matt Bomer

When you have a missing persons case that the police won’t touch and you don’t have a lot of money, sometimes you have to make a crummy decision. As drunken private detective Holland March, Ryan Gosling represents that crummy decision. He’s terrible at his job, but he can convince desperate people to keep funnelling cash into his bank account because he represents hope -- and just enough results to make him look like he’ll be able to help his clients at some point down the road. He teams with a man who had days earlier broken his arm (Russell Crowe in his best role in at least a decade) to find a young girl who has been mixed up with the porn industry, the sleaziest members of the automotive industry, and environmentalists in 1970s Los Angeles. Director Shane Black returns to the dark comedy/neo-noir subgenre he thrives in, this time relying on the surprisingly nimble Gosling’s physical comedy and Crowe’s cuddly-bear hired muscle to craft a wonderfully entertaining movie that will be replayed innumerable times on the Samuelson family entertainment system in the years to come.

Everybody Wants Some!!
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman, Zoey Deutch

Richard Linklater makes movies where people shoot the breeze. He perfected conversational connection in his five masterpieces, Dazed and Confused, every entry in the Before series, and Boyhood. His 2016 effort, the 1980-set college baseball comedy Everybody Wants Some!! is perhaps the lightest of the bunch, but that also means it might be the most fun. Freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) joins his teammates at his Texas college the weekend before classes start and he learns the ropes over those few days of driving around to the pop music of the era, keggers, hopping to every bar possible (country, disco, and punk are well represented), meeting a potential girlfriend (played by Zoey Deutch as an even-keeled charmer), and potentially finding a second passion in the arts by attending a theatre kid party. There’s no plot, and it’s better for only depicting fun hangouts and silly “getting to know you” moments that perfectly capture the whirlwind first few days of college at a place where you don’t know anyone.

Me Before You
Director: Thea Sharrock
Writer: Jojo Moyes
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer

Me Before You is a romantic drama with a lot more on its mind than simply depicting two people falling in love. Mind you, two people do fall in love and it is delightful at times and heartbreaking at others. Even better, it happens with a bouncy, funny turn from the usually uber-serious Emilia Clarke (her regular gig is as Game of Thrones’ “breaker of chains,” Daenerys Targaryen) and a tragic but resilient role for Hunger Games supporting actor Sam Claflin as an accomplished, athletic man cut down in his prime after being paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident in the beginning of the film. Clarke’s character, Lou, is hired as a caretaker for Claflin’s Will, mostly because Will’s parents want to find him a woman who can snap him out of his decision to pursue assisted suicide. This is dark, complicated stuff, but by the end of the movie, Will’s choice doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It is undeniably sad, not because of what could have been, but because they remind the people in his life how much it sucks to not be around for longer. That ends up being life affirming for everyone who knows him, including the audience.

Star Trek Beyond
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Summer 2016 was when I finally fell in love with Star Trek. Since then, I’ve watched nearly the entire original series, starring the characters from the current film series, which began with 2009’s reboot. It’s no coincidence that this newfound love (obsession?) coincided with the release of Star Trek Beyond. New series director Justin Lin picked up the baton from J.J. Abrams and improved on Abrams’s first two movies in every way, mostly by removing the gloomy cynicism that overrode everything in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. The crew of the USS Enterprise (led by Chris Pine’s Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Commander Spock) deals with plenty of enormous issues in Beyond, like saving a gigantic floating space colony from the murderous alien Krall (a tattooed and unrecognizable Idris Elba), who has his reasons for hating the Federation government. However, those problems are solvable and the gung ho crew puts their multicultural heads together to fix every problem that comes their way. Having The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on the ship’s stereo helps their problem solving skills in one of the year’s most deliriously entertaining scenes. In an ode to the original series’s episodic structure, Beyond is a one-and-done story that doesn’t try too hard to set up a saga or shared cinematic universe like so many other modern blockbusters. This allows its characters to merely spend time with each other and let their personalities blend (like co-writer and co-star Simon Pegg’s engineer Scotty and newcomer Jaylah, played by Sofia Boutella) or clash (like Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, played by Karl Urban). It’s refreshing and oh so exciting.

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Krisha Fairchild, Alex Dobrenko, Robyn Fairchild, Trey Edward Shults

Certain family members can be difficult. When you’re forced to be with them at the holidays, that difficulty is magnified. That’s what title character Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) represents in writer-director-star Trey Edward Shults’s debut film. Fairchild is Shults’s real-life aunt, but here she plays his estranged mother, a woman who has dealt with decades of substance abuse, which led her to neglect everyone in her life. Her sudden reappearance in the lives of her son and the rest of her family at Thanksgiving is filled with tension that threatens to destroy whatever goodwill is left for the family’s black sheep. No matter how much she claims to have changed, everyone at the party knows her problems are not behind her. She can’t make up for them and once that’s pointed out to her, things go from bad to “Thanksgiving is ruined.” Along the way are moments of desperation, connection, the beginnings of reconciliation, woozy and disorienting (in a good way) camerawork, plenty of regret and despair, and a lot of comically loud dogs.

A Bigger Splash
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich, Alain Page
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

If you’ve ever wanted to see Ralph Fiennes play Mick Jagger, the closest you’ll probably get is A Bigger Splash, when he does his best Jagger dancing impression while The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” plays on the stereo. It’s exceptional and it’s part of what makes Fiennes’s character, Harry Hawkes, so endearing even though he’s a philandering mooch who perpetually tries to put the moves on his ex, recuperating rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton, in all her androgynous glory, basically plays a mute version of David Bowie as she recovers from a vocal cord strain). All of this happens while Marianne’s current boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), allows him to hang around their vacation estate. Harry’s recently discovered young adult daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), is a wild card whose only source of fun is riling people up -- usually sexually. This pressure cooker of an art film is groovy and beautiful, playing out resentment, love, and temptation on gorgeous European beaches and in the moodily lit hallways of mansions. It takes a turn you may not expect (but is nonetheless inevitable given everything that precedes it), and it follows its twist for a significant amount of time so it does not appear to be purely about cheap shock value. This makes A Bigger Splash one of 2016’s best noirs as well as one of its best examinations of relationship regret.

Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Writers: Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Alange Kavaite, Geoff Cox
Starring: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Mathieu Goldfeld

Evolution is probably the “artiest” movie on this list. It takes place on a European island where the only adults are seemingly sedated and malevolent women and the only children are confused and worried boys. One boy (Max Brebant) finds a dead body while swimming one day, which triggers a frightening series of events that leads him to discover late-night beach mating rituals, science fiction tubes that grow babies, and plenty more nightmarish imagery that amount to an allegory about the horrors of childbirth -- swapping the gender of the childbearing people will do a number on the male viewers. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic has a cold and detached style when shooting the humans (or are they?), but the sea and coral roil with life and creation while the humans toil with their experiments. Hadzihalilovic gives no answers, but she raises questions that won’t soon leave you. I’m still reeling from an image of suction cups on a woman’s back. It’ll mess you up real good.

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