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THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2016

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned nearly 200 published movie reviews in 2016.  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets swept into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.  You can also revisit Best of Barnes 2014 HERE and Best of Barnes 2015 HERE.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

*Safe in Hell/Three on a Match (posted on 2/28/16)
The mot juste: “Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and difficult to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants, and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story…you were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?”

rsz_safe-in-hell-20120213-162318-large*Francofonia (posted on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “A docu-narrative discombobulation of historic footage, new footage, reenactments, photographs, pixellated Skype sessions and drone shots, Francofonia is just too punishingly cerebral and preciously meta-textual to fully embrace, but there’s also too much going on in Sokurov’s head to ignore his tenuously connected ravings.”

*Office (posted on 5/4/16)
The mot juste: “The entire film is dominated by gigantic, geometrically intricate sets that feel like IKEA showrooms arranged by Jacques Tati, or a Busby Berkeley version of the stage play from Clouds of Sils Maria.  Offices, board rooms, apartments, dive bars, fancy restaurants, hotel rooms, gymnasiums and 24-hour convenience stores are all rendered as a series of vertical lines, Mondrian prisons that dwarf and mock the petty manipulations of the characters.”

*High-Rise (posted on 5/12/16)
rsz_office-01The mot juste: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

*A Monster with a Thousand Heads (posted on 5/25/16)
The mot juste: “You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.”  Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards.  Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie.”

*Chevalier (posted on 6/9/16)
rsz_high-rise2The mot juste: “Tsangari seems less interested in satire than in digressive dawdling, and while she probably achieved exactly the sterile tone that she wanted, a lot of Chevalier plays like Kubrick on horse tranquilizers, empty and benumbed.  God help me, but I was longing for a revved-up American remake starring Seth Rogen and Ed Helms by the end of this thing.”

*Three (posted on 6/30/16)
The mot juste: “With his constantly moving camera, square-jawed themes, propensity for action and seamless movement between genres, To recalls muscular old-school greats like Howard Hawks and William Wellman, but he also possesses the ability to gracefully juggle an infinite number of narrative balls, even in the center of a chaotic shootout.”

*Little Men (posted on 8/12/16)
rsz_three-2The mot juste: “With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and while Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to get a rise out of me.”

*Lo and Behold… (posted on 8/18/16)
The mot juste: “It’s hard not to get a little incredulous when Herzog waxes all end-of-days about soccer-playing trash cans, or when he lingers with horror on an extremely frail robot unscrewing an empty jar (“Soon it vill be unscrewing youuuuu,” he seems to whisper).”

*The Handmaiden (posted on 10/27/16)
The mot juste: “It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.  I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.”rsz_maxresdefault

10 BEST IN PRINT (ordered by publication date)

*The Revenant (published on 1/7/16)
The mot juste: “The film works as a visceral experience, yet on the whole The Revenant is a frustrating mess. There is a change jar of messages regarding the pitiless beauty of nature and the savagery of man, but Iñárritu only knows how to lay it on thick, so it amounts to a lot of puffed-up finger-wagging. More than anything, Iñárritu excels at hectoring and exhausting his audience, and The Revenant is no exception—he’s good at grinding you to a nub, and not much else.”

*Anomalisa (published on 1/21/16)
The mot juste: “From its gorgeous opening shot of a commercial airplane gliding through a birth-canal sky, the camera pulling back to reveal the inside of a different plane, the film captures the fluidity between the real and the surreal, and between insides and outsides.”

rsz_thumbnail_23485*I Saw the Light (published on 3/31/16)
The mot juste: “And here we go again, unfolding and assembling the timeworn critical arguments against bad biopics as though they formed some sort of ghastly memorial quilt. At this point, is there anything more tiresome than critics bemoaning the hoary conventions of musical biopics? Believe me, I return to this dry well without any enthusiasm, but as long as studios insist on recycling this inane movie mold like editions in some Godforsaken Franklin Mint collection, I will continue to meet their perfunctory with perfunctory.”

*A Hologram for the King (published on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “Cracks in his facade begin to show almost immediately, but the entire film is obviously traveling on a monorail toward messages about embracing the real and letting go of your shit, so just relax.”

*The Man Who Knew Infinity (published on 5/12/16)
rsz_rev-247-embedThe mot juste: “Instead of focusing entirely on Ramanujan and his life and work, the narrative is inexplicably framed as a flashback-memoir of Jeremy Irons’ twinkly-eyed professor G.H. Hardy, effectively turning Ramanujan’s story into one of those simpering, pseudo-inspirational, I-tried-to-tame-the-savage-beast-but-really-I-was-the-beast-and-he-tamed-me-whaaaaa cinematic aspirin tablets. Brown clearly identifies with Hardy the rogue imperialist rather than with the meager and rigorous Ramanujan, which is a problem.”

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (published on 6/9/16)
The mot juste: “At this point, it’s hard to imagine a subject less deserving of affectionate satire than the egos and excesses of the entertainment industry. It takes a knife as serrated and vulgar as David Cronenberg’s underrated Maps to the Stars to slice through that bubble of absurd privilege. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s likeable but limp music mockumentary, on the other hand, still has its comedic baby teeth, nibbling on subjects it should be ripping to shreds.”

rsz_1maxresdefault*Maggie’s Plan (published on 6/16/16)
The mot juste: “There are no real laughs in Maggie’s Plan, only chuckles of recognition at the rough cadence of comedy, acknowledgments of the empty spaces where we expect humor to reside. The twinkly acoustic guitar score from Michael Rohatyn feels programmed to accompany an open-air luxury mall stroll, just right for a film without any unexpected notes.”

*Snowden (published on 9/22/16)
The mot juste: “Stone, who co-wrote the film along with The Homesman screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, has had a lot of success in his career twisting and perverting the biopic form for his firebrand objectives. But if you had any hope that the hot-button recentness of the subject matter would rouse Stone out of a two-decade stupor, forget it—Snowden is one of Stone’s most numbingly prosaic films.”

*Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (published on 10/27/16)
rsz_jake-nocturnal-animalsThe mot juste: “On the one hand, Cruise deserves a lot of credit for staying in his lane and allowing these powerful women to take over his films, letting them flash the charisma and panache while he commits to steely-eyed terseness. But on the other hand, it only makes you wonder why these actresses aren’t headlining their own big-budget genre pictures instead of Cruise. I’m a lot more excited to see what Smulders does next than I am to see Cruise do the same thing again and again.”

*Nocturnal Animals (published on 11/24/16)
The mot juste: “Seven years later, Ford delivers his follow-up film, and it finally feels like he means business. The storytelling is both more refined and more brutishly personal, and the film strikes a balance between inscrutability and accessibility, between David Lynch-ian art horror and Deliverance or Death Wish-like exploitation. A Single Man was the work of a talented tourist; this is the work of a true filmmaker.”

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III

rsz_the-handmaiden-cannesA final awards season observation before we flush this turd of a year down the toilet:  Critics groups and other end-of-year awards-giving organizations don’t honor the best so much as they honor the most.  In other words, the award for best acting is really an award for the most acting (thus the sliding scale of difficulty that tends to reward physical transformations, physical hardships, accents, portrayals of diseases and public figures, etc.), the award for best writing awards the most writing, best picture the most picture, best editing the most editing, and so on.  Of course, there are also working critics who would argue that the best editing is the kind that you don’t even notice, to which I can only reply: What in the serious f?  Are you literally sleeping through these movies, you inveterate hacks?  Notice editing, goddammit!  Do it!  NOW!

And now on to the final chapter of my 2016 Cramfest. Check out Part I HERE and Part II HERE.

Saturday, November 26

The Handmaiden ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Park Chan-Wook; GRADE: A-)

rsz_960No real change from my rapturous review of a couple months ago, although it was fun seeing how the plot pieces all clicked into place this time.  As I said back in October, the aesthetics here are flawless, but the important thing is that they all pour back into the story, characters and themes.  Nothing is wasted or gratuitous, not even the octopus.

American Honey ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Andrea Arnold; GRADE: A-)

Another rewatch as my stack of screeners started thinning out, and once again no real change from my original review, just another affirmation that this film was designed to be compatible with my operating system.  Equal parts cultural anthropology, never-ending party, social critique and waking daydream.  The ensemble cast of the year.

Sunday, November 27

Toni Erdmann (Dir.: Maren Ade; GRADE: B+)

rsz_dontbreathetrio0Do not open until 2017.

Loving (Dir.: Jeff Nichols; GRADE: C)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, November 28

Holy Hell (Dir.: Will Allen; GRADE: C+)

A documentary about a magnetically slimy cult leader made  by the person with perhaps the least critical distance – one of his most devoted followers. Fairly fascinating in a purely voyeuristic sense, but the utter lack of rational perspective is infuriating.

Wednesday, November 30

The BFG (Dir.: Steven Spielberg; GRADE: B)

A solid and unfairly dismissed children’s fantasy from Spielberg – it’s a messy and weird stargazer where most movies of its kind are blunt and safe, although even I could have done without the extended dinner sequence in the final stretch (we get it, we get it…the giant is comically large).rsz_1maxresdefault

Don’t Breathe (Dir.: Fede Alvarez; GRADE: B)

Effective and atmospheric horror, as a gang of callow Detroit thieves invade the house of the wrong sight-challenged sadist.  Keeps pushing forward and mutating when most films would nestle into their own unambitious concepts, although considering some of the second-half twists, you certainly wouldn’t call this a progressive portrayal of the blind.  Quite the opposite, in fact!

Thursday, December 1

Paterson (Dir.: Jim Jarmusch; GRADE: B)

Do not open until Xmas.  Check out my updated Jim Jarmusch Power Rankings HERE.

Friday, December 2

rsz_methode_2ftimes_2fprod_2fweb_2fbin_2f47b59b1a-7054-11e6-acba-85f5c900fc1aArrival (Dir.: Denis Villeneuve; GRADE: C+)

More sustained, thudding portent from Villeneuve, closer to the tongue-clucking, two-and-a-half hour skull contusion of Prisoners than the comparatively focused and electric Sicario, with an ending that roots the entire film in a Bill & Ted concept of space-time.  Note to makers of movies: please stop putting Jeremy Renner in things.  He is awful.

A Monster Calls (Dir.: J.A. Bayona; GRADE: C+)

Do not open until Xmas.

Saturday, December 3

La La Land (Dir.: Damien Chazelle; GRADE: C+)

rsz_3063128-poster-p-1-emma-stone-melts-our-heartsI get the feeling that Chazelle’s entire concept of classic cinema was gleaned from watching Chuck Workman montages, rather than the actual films.  This would-be throwback offers all the exuberance and bright colors of an Old Navy ad, without any of the substance.  Impossible to despise, and the leads have chemistry, but La La Land offers such a shallow, juvenile perspective on film musicals, on classic Hollywood, on Los Angeles, on artistic integrity, on dreams, on jazz, on love. I could go on, but why?  You’re either gonna eagerly mainline this human-emoji daftness into your bloodstream or you aren’t.

Hacksaw Ridge (Dir.: Mel Gibson; GRADE: C)

Fuck Mel Gibson.  That is all.

Sunday, December 4

Man Down (Dir.: Dito Montiel; GRADE: C+)

rsz_alwaysshine_web_2Reviewed in the 12/8 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, December 5

Hidden Figures (Dir.: Theodore Melfi; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.

Tuesday, December 6

Evolution (Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed for E Street Film Society on December 9.

Always Shine (Dir.: Sophia Takal; GRADE: B)

An uneven but extremely promising weird-out from Takal, a prolific indie actress directing only her second feature.  She also offers meaty roles to her lead actresses, although I was less enamored with Mackenzie Davis’ showy transformation than other critics.rsz_baden-baden

Baden Baden (Dir.: Rachel Lang; GRADE: B-)

An airless, nearly Sundance-ready story of a post-collegiate slacker (Salomé Richard) falling back into bad habits and bad relationships while doing piss-poor repair work on her grandmother’s bathroom.  Lang’s debut feature is the final chapter in a trilogy that started with two short films I haven’t seen, so it’s possible I’m missing some key context.  Either way, this is extremely minor, but Lang still shows an intriguing eye and ear.

Saturday, December 10

Fences (Dir.: Denzel Washington; GRADE: B)

Reviewed in the 12/22 issue of the SN&R.

rsz_389c0ddc00000578-3798362-image-a-2_1474378570794Moana (Dir.: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams; GRADE: B)

Utterly delightful, if you don’t mind the usual limp Disney spirituality and shameless cultural appropriations (not to mention Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shockingly insipid lyrics and melodies).  Funny and thrilling, not to mention self-aware in the mold of Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove, and so much more satisfying than Disney’s more celebrated 2016 release Zootopia.

And that’s a wrap for the 2016 movie year!  As of December 21, I watched 354 movies in the calendar year of 2016, and 205 of them were list/ballot-eligible releases.  That’s a lot, but there were still many well-reviewed and/or intriguing films that I failed to watch before deadline, including:

Silence; (GRADE: A-) Allied; Miss Sloane; The Founder; Gold; Patriots Day; (GRADE: B) Rules Don’t Apply; (GRADE: B) Passengers; (GRADE: B-) The Light Between Oceans; (GRADE: C-) Newtown; Voyage of Time; The Age of Shadows; The Alchemist Cookbook; Closet Monster; Creepy; The Eyes of My Mother; The Innocents; Happy Hour; London Road; One More Time with Feeling; Operation Avalanche; (GRADE: C) Under the Shadow; and many more.

Still, I did as thorough a job as possible catching up with 2016 releases, and even though I felt like it was a down year at the movies overall, I’m happy with my top 10 list.  And yet it’s still quite possible that an even better top 10 could have been pulled just from that above list of unseen titles.  It’s really quite humbling, and an important reminder that no matter how much we think we know, there is always so much left to learn.  Onward to 2017!

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part II

rsz_film_hero_demon_01_1Monday, November 21

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck; GRADE: B+)

Do not open until 2017.

Demon (Dir.: Marcin Wrona; GRADE: B-)

An admirable but only fitfully successful arthouse horror movie about a Polish wedding disrupted by a “dybbuk,” an angry and dissatisfied Jewish spirit that attaches itself to the Israeli groom.  As the groom’s behavior grows increasingly erratic and dangerous, exhuming not just ghosts but long-buried secrets of atrocities against the Jews, the father of the bride plies his guests with more and more vodka, and soon enough their bacchanal merges with the supernatural suffering.  Wrona favors disturbing compositions and shock cuts over long-winded explanations, but the final act still falls into a navel-gazing tailspin.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Dir.: Thom Andersen; GRADE: B)

Another wide-ranging, thought-provoking documentary intersecting cinema, politics, philosophy and personal taste from the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself, only far less enveloping and focused an experience.  Andersen crafts a personal history of cinema through the lens of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who often wrote about film.  I honestly can’t say that I grokked much of what Anderson laid down here, but I dug his rap all the same – it’s a pungently intellectual and marvelously curated cinematic journey.rsz_unsun

Jackie (Dir.: Pablo Larrain; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until December 21.  Check out my updated MVFF39 Power Rankings HERE.

Julieta (Dir.: Pedro Almodovar; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Pedro Almodovar Power Rankings HERE.

Under the Sun (Dir.: Vitaly Mansky; GRADE: B+)

Unbelievable.  When Ukrainian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky was given government permission to make a documentary about a typical North Korean family, he was followed round-the-clock by bureaucrats who monitored the production and tailored the script to glorify the country, but the b-roll footage smuggled out and fashioned into Under the Sun tells a different story.  North Korea is fascinating not just because it’s a Lynch-ian nightmare parody of fascism, but because it makes us think about how our own country is run in a subtly similar way: like a flashy cult filled with mindless rituals, spotlighting heroism and prosperity while the poor and exploited are rendered invisible.

Wednesday, November 23

Elle (Dir.: Paul Verhoeven; GRADE: B+)

rsz_the-waveDo not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Paul Verhoeven Power Rankings HERE.

Nerve (Dir.: Henry Joost and Ariel Schuman; GRADE: B-)

Reasonably entertaining idiocy, with Emma Roberts and Dave Franco as “players” in a game controlled by anonymous online “watchers” who push the participants into ever more embarrassing and dangerous stunts.  Think Pokemon Go meets truth or dare meets murder, directed by the “brains” behind Catfish.  It’s breathless and salacious enough to hold your interest, and while the film seems to shed IQ points as it hurtles towards a truly stupid finish, it’s still better than probably half the films that will get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Finding Dory (Dir.: Andrew Stanton; GRADE: B)

Thoroughly unnecessary piffle, with a lot of narrative structural integrity issues and some obvious 11th-hour tinkering, but like last year’s similarly strained The Good Dinosaur, it’s pushed over by the usual expert Pixar craftsmanship.  The chameleonic octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill is the one element that unquestionably works, so he gets repeatedly shoehorned into scenes where his presence makes little sense, presumably filling in for excised storylines.  There are a few memorable setpieces, solid voice work and the usual cleverness and beauty you expect from Pixar – this isn’t a Cars 2-level embarrassment, but it’s pretty far from great.  Check out my updated Pixar Power Rankings HERE.rsz_les_saisons_galatee

Lion (Dir.: Garth Davis; GRADE: C)

Do not open until December 21.

Thursday, November 24

The Wave (Dir.: Roar Uthaug; GRADE: B-)

I’m obviously running low on viable screener options when I pop in a Norwegian disaster movie on Thanksgiving morning, but you go to war with the army you’ve got.  This was actually a pretty watchable facsimile of American disaster movies, with the emphasis placed on characters rather than carnage, even better than San Andreas if not for the absence of Alexandra Daddario.

Les Saisons (Dir.: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud; GRADE: C+)

Perrin and Cluzaud previously collaborated on nature documentaries like Winged Migration and Oceans, and their strength has always been their ability to get close to their wildlife subjects without superimposing a contrived human narrative on the creatures.  That appreciation for beauty and persistence, and that restraint in the face of DisneyNature aggression, comes across once again in Les Saisons, although a heavy-handed framing device about man’s intrusion into the world’s timeline drags the film down.  There are some gorgeous individual images, but they all feel disconnected from the didacticism at the heart of this thing.

Friday, November 25

rsz_close-up_red_1The Love Witch (Dir.: Anna Biller; GRADE: C+)

This deliberately retrograde horror satire mimics the clothes and colors of 1960s Technicolor movies (even though the characters use cell phones), and the acting is extremely mannered and bad in a way that I can only assume is meant to evoke the same.  Biller’s film is getting a lot of love from critics, but I felt as alienated and annoyed by this cinematic re-appropriation as I have felt in the past about some of Guy Maddin’s movies…there’s an element of contemptuous superiority and intentional shittiness that I just can’t hurdle.

High-Rise ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Ben Wheatley; GRADE: B+)

No significant insights or changes of opinion from my initial viewing of this pitch-black adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s satire on 1970’s capitalism and convenience.  In a weak year for award-worthy male acting performances, Tom Hiddleston’s sleek showing as the social-climbing Dr. Laing has a good shot of making my SFFCC and Indiewire ballots, while Luke Evans’ highly physical performance as the working-class Wilder still has an outside chance in the supporting actor category.

20th Century Women (Dir.: Mike Mills; GRADE: C)

Do not open until Xmas.rsz_hero_krisha-2016

Krisha ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Trey Edward Shults; GRADE: A-)

Again, no real changes from my first viewing of this sucker-punch domestic drama.  Either cruelly compassionate or compassionately cruel, Krisha feels like the family dinner scene from Punch-Drunk Love developed into a full-length feature – the film practically vibrates with a nervous energy.  Shults shot the film in his parents’ house and used friends and family as actors, including his aunt Krisha Fairchild, who gives a devastatingly desperate performance in the title role.  Shults landed a two-picture deal with Krisha distributor A24, so it will be exciting to see what happens once he leaves the nest.

Look for Part III of my 2016 Cramfest Capsules sometime next week. You can read Part I of the 2016 Cramfest HERE, and check out my frequently updated 2016 Power Rankings HERE.

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

rsz_rightnowwrongthenOnce again this year, I am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to catching up with the 2016 films that I missed, as well as re-watching some of my favorites of the year so far.  We begin this annual cinematic orgy with an invocation to our deity:

All hail, Awards Season!  Tyrant of all she surveys!  Oppressor of cinephiles!  Scourge of the pudgy and bespectacled!  Defiler of evenings and weekends!  Obvious Billy Crudup fan!  Long may her tastefully bland mediocrities occupy our otherwise presumably intelligent thoughts!

But enough of this palaver, let’s get this show on the road.

Thursday, November 17

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Michael Bay; GRADE: B+)

Nothing new to report, this is still terrifying and awesome, and the best thing that Bay has ever done, with literally dozens of memorably haunting images.  A tactile action clarity only tantalizingly teased at in Bay’s earlier work comes to full fruition in 13 Hours – it’s as though you can feel the impact of every bullet and the heat of every explosion.  Benghazi became a political football for alt-right, neo-fascist liars, so naturally most critics responded by pre-judging and dismissing a work of art, makes total sense.rsz_i-daniel-blake-3

Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir.: Sang-soo Hong; GRADE: B+)

I’m fairly new to the world of South Korean shoegazer Hong, but Right Now, Wrong Then feels like the apotheosis of his aesthetic, thoroughly refined and perfectly detailed while remaining true to his Rohmer-meets-Linklater-meets-Spike Jonze world of doubled action, unattainable attractions and all-night sake bar hangouts.  A Hong-like director (Jung Jae-young) and an aspiring artist (The Handmaiden star Kim Min-Hee) spend the same day together twice, the first time ending in blustery disaster, the second time still awkward but more honest and meaningful.  It’s strangely lovely.

I, Daniel Blake (Dir.: Ken Loach; GRADE: B-)

Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or for this lion-hearted but logy slice of working-class life, and it wasn’t even one of the top 5,000 most annoying things to happen in 2016.  Stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays Daniel, a crab with a heart of gold stumbling through a cold, cruel, Internet-automated health care system in search of justice.  Johns is quite good, but there’s not much here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other quirky indie issues dramas.rsz_sully

Friday, November 18

Manchester by the Sea (Dir.: Kenneth Lonergan; GRADE: B+)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Dir.: Ang Lee; GRADE: C+)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.

Sully (Dir.: Clint Eastwood; GRADE: B)

A sturdy retelling of the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson from inside the bubble, and focused like most of Eastwood’s recent work on American perceptions of heroism and unresolvable conflict.  Tom Hanks gives a tutorial in kinetic understatement as the hero pilot, but the supporting performances are a lumpy mixed bag.  It’s certainly well-mounted – the cinematography, production design, special effects, sound and editing are all top-notch, although Eastwood’s jazz piano score feels extremely out of place.

Saturday, November 19

rsz_kateplayschristine02The Eagle Huntress (Dir.: Otto Ball; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 12/15 issue of the SN&R.

Kate Plays Christine (Dir.: Robert Greene; GRADE: B+)

The other 2016 Christine Chubbuck movie, not the comparatively traditional biopic of Antonio Campos’ Christine, but a highly original meta-documentary that follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Chubbuck.  Anyone discomforted by the exploitative nature of Christine (the Sarasota-based TV journalist Chubbuck committed suicide on the air in 1974) might appreciate Greene’s more meditative approach, as the entire film is dedicated to Sheil empathizing with and understanding Chubbuck, literally trying to get under her sun-tanned skin.

13th (Dir.: Ava Duvernay; GRADE: C+)

Commendable on a conceptual level, and impossible to disagree with any of the broad stroke arguments, but Duvernay’s flashy and provocative documentary feels more designed for high school students than for cinephile adults.  Almost all of the best documentaries are focused on discovery, on unrepeatable or unrelated moments adding up to some kind of revelation, but the clips, graphics and talking heads-heavy approach of 13th is all about disseminating known information in a digestible package to an uninformed and potentially unreceptive audience.  Like I said, students.rsz_1ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-crop

Certain Women (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt; GRADE: B)

Give Reichardt credit: the closer she edges to the mainstream, the more terse and austere her movies get.  Certain Women adapts three Maile Meloy short stories into a tenuously connected anthology about the struggle and strength of small-town Montana women.  Laura Dern gives the best performance as a lawyer whose client takes her hostage; Michelle Williams plays a dissatisfied wife who covets a pile of reclaimed brick; and Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who develops something like a crush on Kristen Stewart’s neurotic night teacher.  No major complaints – it’s honest, well-acted, thoughtful and accomplished, but I can’t tell you how many times my mind drifted during this thing.

Peter and the Farm (Dir.: Tony Stone; GRADE: B)

Intense, deeply personal and unusually minimalist documentary about Peter Dunning, a gruff, alcoholic, long-time Vermont farmer rapidly reaching the end of his rope, and beginning to fashion that rope into a noose.  Peter and the Farm doesn’t shy away from the realities of farm life (Dunning butchers a lamb from start to finish in one of the film’s first scenes), and it manages to capture both the ethereal, borderline surreal beauty of farm life and the lonely, difficult, often ugly realities of Dunning’s everyday existence.

Sunday, November 20

rsz_things-to-come-reviewThings to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Love; GRADE: B)

French filmmaker Hansen-Love’s previous film Eden failed to enchant me during last year’s Cramfest, and I wasn’t that much higher on this similarly low-pulse, narrative-lite, character piece about a sixty-ish philosophy teacher who re-evaluates her life after losing her mother and her marriage.  The difference maker: the great Isabelle Huppert, incapable of playing a false note, a geyser of strength and complexity, even in the midst of Hansen-Love’s disaffected long nod.

The Edge of Seventeen (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Spa Night”/”Danny Says”/”Cameraperson”

rsz_1maxresdefaultSpa Night (2016; Dir.: Andrew Ahn)

GRADE: B-

Danny Says (2016; Dir.: Brendan Toller)

GRADE: B-

Cameraperson (2016; Dir.: Kirsten Johnson)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

*All three films open in the Bay Area on Friday, September 30.  Spa Night and Danny Says play at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco; Cameraperson plays at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

I overbooked for the week, so this is happening.

rsz_dannysaysLos Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Ahn makes his feature debut with Spa Night, a fairly flimsy but authentically lived-in story of a closeted Asian-American teenager trapped between his expanding desires and his oppressive, non-assimilating parents.  All roads entwine at the Koreatown spas – it’s a family ritual, cultural tradition and status symbol built around male bonding, and also a hotbed of sexual curiosity and tentative activity for the reserved David (Joe Seo).  The film slowly goes exactly where you would expect from there, with David leading a double life – stoic student by day, tantalized towel boy by night – that culminates in the usual facepalm-inducing shots of the hero looking into a mirror as though seeing himself for the very first time.  At least Ahn and cinematographer Ki Jin Kim deliver a sharp-looking movie with a congruous visual and tonal concept on a presumably low budget, and it all feels genuine and resonant enough to halfheartedly recommend.  If his handsome lead actor possessed a little more natural magnetism, the emotional connections might have fused at a more reliable rate.  Ahn is one to watch, even if his debut film isn’t.

Although ostensibly a clip-happy rock doc about promoter and manager Danny Fields, Brendan Toller’s spry Danny Says also takes time to explore the awakening of its homosexual hero.  In fact, the ten minutes or so devoted to Fields’ adolescent sexual exploration and immersion in pre-Stonewall gay subculture, a path that eventually led to his acceptance into Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, are among the most compelling scenes in Danny Says.  While Fields makes for an engaging storyteller throughout, his  tales about his time spent as “company freak” for Elektra Records, where he worked publicity for The Doors and signed MC5 and The Stooges, are pretty standard music industry jerk-off material: heavy on name-dropping and portent, vague on details and context.  And so it goes for Danny Says, a very canny and well-assembled cinematic scrapbook, but one that barely seems to scratch the surface of anything it purports to care about.  The sections on the Ramones, who Fields got signed to Sire Records and managed through their best run of albums (the song “Danny Says” was written about Fields), are disappointingly skimpy, especially considering the film’s already over-inflated running time.rsz_cameraperson

By far the best film of the week, and a strong candidate for the best documentary of 2016 so far, is Kirsten Johnson’s brave, wise and unexpectedly moving memoir Cameraperson.  A longtime documentary cinematographer who has worked with industry standard-bearers like Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and Michael Moore, the globetrotting Johnson assembled Cameraperson from her extensive reel, forging a deeply personal greatest hits collection out of clips, outtakes and footage of her own family.  Far from a dry experiment or a masturbatory self-tribute, though, Cameraperson comes alive with possibilities in every scene, mutating and evolving from moment to moment like an engrossing conversation.  Without any narration and with very little onscreen text, Johnson creates a sprawling and beautiful work, one that challenges our notions about documentary filmmaking, especially regarding the role of the cinematographer, while also making profound statements about mortality, poverty, narrative structure, power structure, racism, sexism, violence and motherhood.  I mean, no big deal, right?  Just that.  What comes through strongest is Johnson’s powerful need to connect with people through her camera, whether it’s a random stranger on the street or her own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother.  One of my favorite scenes of the year: a shot of two children, one an elementary-school aged boy and the other a baby, playing with an axe; you can feel the agonizing tension between Johnson’s protective instinct to remove children from harm’s way and her compelling duty to keep filming the shot, and she audibly exhales when the baby finally wanders away. This is a remarkable film.

 

The Year in Barnesyard – 2016 Mid-Year Review

rsz_the-witch-movie-reviewTOP 10 FILMS OF 2016 SO FAR

1) Three

MY TAKE: “A genre-hopping blast, the anonymously named Three works as part solemn morality play and part gonzo white-knuckle thriller, part huge-hearted ensemble dramedy and part pitiless three-hander, with an almost unbearable escalation of tension that explodes into one of the most insane action sequences you’ll ever see.”

2) The Witch

MY TAKE: “Undeniably disturbing and strangely elegant, The Witch creates its horror with such care that the film may be over before you realize it’s a tour-de-force genre classic.”

3) 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

MY TAKE: “I always suspected that the Transformers movies might be kind of great if you just removed Shia LeBeouf and all of the sass-backing robots. Suspicions confirmed.”

4) Love & Friendship

rsz_11maxresdefaultMY TAKE: “There is an almost perfect overlap between the sensibilities of Stillman and Austen, to the point that all of Stillman’s previous New York-based films now feel like reverse-engineered Austen adaptations.”

5) April and the Extraordinary World

MY TAKE: “Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat.”

6) High-Rise

MY TAKE: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

7) Rams

MY TAKE: “Hákonarson’s last film was a documentary about an Icelandic country priest, and he brings the observational eye of a documentarian to Rams while exuding the quiet confidence of a natural storyteller.”

rsz_love-friendship-600x3738) My Golden Days

MY TAKE: “The details of the story aren’t particularly compelling, but Desplechin’s telling casts a spell that’s curiously thrilling, as the film seems to be constantly reinventing itself as it goes, mutating and evolving like an unpleasant memory.”

9) The Lobster

10) The Measure of a Man

MY TAKE: “Impotent resistance versus soul-sucking compliance in the bloody coliseum of capitalism; human dignity loses either way. ”

10 MORE GOOD ONES

Aferim!

Dheepan

Embrace of the Serpentrsz_johnnie-to-three-2016-zhao-wei-louis-koo

Fireworks Wednesday

The Jungle Book

Mountains May Depart

Neon Bull

Swiss Army Man

10 Cloverfield Lane

Tickled

TOP 10 2016 RELEASES THAT I STILL NEED TO SEE

rsz_960Cemetery of Splendor (GRADE: B+)

De Palma (GRADE: B)

Everybody Wants Some!! (GRADE: B)

Finding Dory

Knight of Cups (GRADE: B-)

Krisha (GRADE: A-)

O.J.: Made in America (GRADE: A-)

Only Yesterday (GRADE: A)

Right Now, Wrong Then

Weiner (GRADE: B+)

rsz_hiddleston-xlarge_trans--3hvejul2wvjxejb3jwusshndml-fnbpvlkwcwvkdhwuAWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Teodor Corban, Aferim!

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby

Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Dheepan

Lea Seydoux, Diary of a Chambermaid

Antonio Bolívar, Embrace of the Serpent

Hedye Tehrani and Hami Farokhnezhad, Fireworks Wednesday

Geoffrey Rush, Gods of Egypt

Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!

Sally Field, Hello, My Name is Doris

rsz_rams-cannes-film-festival-2Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, High-Rise

Tom Hanks, A Hologram for the King

Noah Emmerich, Jane Got a Gun

Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence, Lamb

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia and John C. Reilly, The Lobster

Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship

Greta Gerwig, Maggie’s Plan

Kalki Koechlin, Margarita, with a Straw

Catherine Frot, Marguerite

rsz_the-lobsterVincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man

Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, The Meddler

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, Midnight Special

Zhao Tao and Sylvia Chang, Mountains May Depart

Juliano Cazarré, Neon Bull

Keanu Reeves, The Neon Demon

Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Rams

Christopher Plummer, Remember

Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan, Sunset Song

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

Salma Hayek, Tale of Tales

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lanersz_my-golden-years-cannes-film-festival-4

James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Wallace Chung, Wei Zhao and Louis Koo, Three

Woody Harrelson, Triple 9

Pilou Asbaek, A War

Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw, The Witch

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS AND LINKS

Top 10 of 2016 Power Rankings

2016 Unranked

2016 Catchup

The Barnesyard’s 2015 Mid-Year Review