110. 20th Century Women

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I really wanted to see 20th Century Women before the Golden Globes, but it didn’t hit wide release until this weekend, so it just wasn’t possible.  The Academy Award nominations are announced this coming Tuesday, so that may have been a factor in the timing of the nationwide expansion.  But will it get some nominations?  I hope so.

From writer/director Mike Mills, 20th Century Women focuses on Annette Bening’s Dorothea, a middle-aged mother who feels as if she’s losing touch with the world around her, and her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).  As a single mother in 1979, Dorothea doesn’t feel confident in her ability to raise her son without a father in a world that she doesn’t understand.  She enlists the help of two other women: her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning).

There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of 20th Century Women.  The title implies that the narrative focuses exclusively on the women, but that’s not the case, as the story is often told from the perspective of Jamie.  This is essentially his coming-of-age tale but without a distinctly masculine influence, setting it apart from other coming-of-age stories.  The women around him understand that he would be better served with that influence, but they’re at a loss as to how to provide it.  So, they set about showing him the world through their eyes.  Explaining how they see men, how they relate to men, what they want from men, what they don’t want from men, how men make them feel, and how they want to be seen for who they are rather than as who men want them to be.

It’s a tricky approach to storytelling but Mills somehow pulls it off.  No, he does better than “pulling it off”.  He excels at it.  I often hear that men can’t write women, but Mills goes a long way towards squashing that particular stereotype.  It seems to me that he might be so adept at writing them because, just perhaps, he’s also grown accustomed to truly listening to them.

That’s just my speculation.  No matter the reasons behind it, Mills and his film beautifully address the complexities in male/female relationships of various forms: familial, romantic, sexual, friendly, casual.  He confidently acknowledges what should be obvious, but rarely actually seems to be: men and women all want the same things from life.  Unfortunately, where we want to get those things and how we want them presented to us don’t always line up.  So, what then?  That’s when things get complicated.  That’s when it’s time to listen.

And here’s where I interject my own personal history into the review, but only because it’s relevant to the film and to my viewing experience.  In my life, I have come across many (not all.  I repeat, NOT ALL!!!) women who want to be heard but absolutely do not want to listen.  All of their actions are to be understood or justified, but as soon as a man does or feels something that doesn’t sync with their idea of how men should think or feel or behave, then the judging begins.  I was once hung up on by a woman (with whom I was not in a romantic relationship) just because I said that I thought Jennifer Love Hewitt was attractive.  And that’s exactly how I said it.  I didn’t say it in a crude way or with any sort of salacious undertones.  Just as a matter of fact.  I still don’t know what was wrong with that.  I also know that I didn’t choose to find her attractive.  This sort of thing happens a lot.  I’ve sometimes experienced it.  Other times, I’ve been on the sidelines as a witness.  We all hear about it in our daily lives.  If a man dates a younger woman, he’s a “pig”.  If he mentions the appearance of a woman, at all, he might be labeled as “shallow”.  If he eats at Hooters, he’s a “perv”.  It’s a reactionary labeling that is essentially a shaming of men for things that aren’t hurting anyone and are out of their control.  And there is no effort to actually understand these choices that the man in question is making.  It’s just straight-up judging.

Of course, many men do the same thing to women, though usually for different reasons and under different circumstances.  My point is not that this type of thing doesn’t happen to women; my point is that we hear all about that, but it happens to men, too – very frequently – and typically goes unaddressed.  It’s as if it’s okay.  So, as Mike Mills speaks out on behalf of women who go unheard and projected upon by men, he uses Billy Crudup’s character of William, another of Dorothea’s tenants (she has a very large house) to represent the men who are unfairly labeled without a moment of hesitation or a single discussion.  It’s done quietly and gently and poetically.  Mills doesn’t use this film to speak out of behalf of just women or men.  In 20th Century Women, Mills speaks out on the behalf of anyone who wants to feel loved for who they are.

The more I think about and reflect upon the film, the more I like it.  It’s subtleties are sinking in and it’s becoming more evident that Mike Mills has made something truly beautiful.  We are all people who are doing what we need to do to get through life.  As long as we aren’t deliberately hurting or suppressing others, being judged for simply living is wrong and unfair.  Men, listen to the women in your life.  Understand them – their needs, their wants, their desires.  All of those things won’t revolve around you.  They want to feel independent and have a place in the world, separately from you.  And women, listen to the men.  We aren’t built like you – not physically, mentally, emotionally, or physiologically.  Our biological imperatives are different and they’re there for a reason.  We can’t help it.  Of course, most everyone is in control of their actions, but not their desires.  So, if you’ve ever labeled a guy a “pig” or a “perv” because you’ve decided that he can’t control himself due to an ultimately benign action, consider the idea that perhaps what you saw was, in fact, him controlling himself.

20th Century Women is another film from studio A24 that has reaffirmed my belief that, along with Marvel Studios and Pixar, they are one of the three most consistent studios out there, right now, as far as putting out high-quality films is concerned.  This movie is a soft but poignant reminder that we are all human and we’re simply doing our best to get through each day.  Whenever we forget that about each other, bad things happen.  People get hurt.  There is no hook to this film, which makes the storytelling process much more difficult.  Holding the audience’s attention without that compelling story point can be quite the challenge.  But the dialogue and characters are so strong (with engaging performances to match) and the story, while simple, so relatable, that it doesn’t matter.  Despite the fact that I knew I had things to do after the movie, when I sensed my time with these characters was coming to an end, I felt a twinge of sadness.  I liked them all and was invested in their futures.  I wanted the best for them because the film allowed me to see inside them.  That’s the difference between a great film, such as this and Lion and a merely good film, such as Hidden Figures or Patriots Day.  If you have to make a choice, spend your money on one of the great ones.  Spend your money on 20th Century Women.

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110. 20th Century Women

109. Patriots Day

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When I first saw the opening seconds of the Patriots Day trailer, I briefly thought it was another, late-running trailer for Deepwater Horizon.  Of course, it became clear that it was a film about the Boston Marathon bombing in fairly short order, but the similarities shouldn’t be surprising.  Both films star Mark Wahlberg and are directed by Peter Berg.  Berg has a very distinctive style and Patriots Day falls right into his wheelhouse.  I remember the bombing well as my employer at the time was actually there and running the marathon.  He luckily escaped unscathed but not everyone was so fortunate, and it was a harrowing experience for the entire country and especially for anyone who was in attendance at the race.  Recalling the events, I walked into the film expecting a gripping and emotional thriller.

I was kind of right.  I’ll start by saying that the events as they play out in the film jive very closely with what I remember as the story was unfolding on the news in 2013.  If there were narrative liberties taken, they weren’t readily apparent to me.  The cast is strong and Mark Wahlberg gets to show off a little bit.  It’s a star-studded group of talented people, with Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, and Melissa Benoist all delivering the goods.  Only Wahlberg has what amounts to a leading role, however, and he does good work.

The film is very much a Peter Berg film.  He and Wahlberg are going to become a lower-profile version of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp if they aren’t careful, as this is their third pairing as director and actor since 2013’s Lone Survivor and the second in the last three months.  And, by the way, Berg has now only directed four films, beginning with 2012’s Battleship.  That film stands apart from the latter three, but the more recent trio are all gritty true stories, star the same actor, have the same tone, the same look, and the same feel.  I suggest that Berg start displaying a little more versatility, but who am I, right?

Having established all of that, as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between how I was feeling and how I also felt as I watched Hidden Figures.  There is nothing overtly wrong with the film.  The dialogue is a little flat, but I’ve heard much worse.  The performances are strong, even if many of them are abbreviated.  The story is an important, modern reminder that, even with many police officers behaving in grossly inappropriate ways, there are more of them that do what they’re supposed to and do it well.  So, I should have been significantly more engaged on an intellectual and emotional level than I was.

I think the issue is in Berg’s delivery.  The film is immensely muted, both visually and sonically.  Even during the bombing, itself, the movie has a sleepy tone that lacks a permeating energy that is quite frankly necessary for this type of story.  There is almost no sense of urgency, which boggles my mind.  Almost immediately after the bombing, with the perpetrators on the run and the clock ticking, Wahlberg’s Officer Tommy Saunders, who was at ground zero . . . goes home and starts to get in the shower?

Look, maybe that’s what he really did.  If so, that’s fine.  But sometimes, liberties do need to be taken in order to give a film the burst of energy and the pacing that it needs in order to achieve its goals.  Once that first bomb goes off, the remainder of the story should demand the viewer’s attention.  There should be no quiet moments.  No down time.  No opportunities for a pee break.  These people attacked a country and a city.  They killed and maimed.  The anger and sense of emergency should be unrelenting and palpable.

The only time I got that impression was during the nighttime, suburban street showdown between the suspects and the authorities.  It’s a great scene, with a grand sense of scale.  It’s made even better by the complete lack of a score – much like the T-Rex attack in Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park – that serves to help the audience forget that they’re watching a film and grounds them in reality.

All told, the second half of the film is better than the first half.  And none of it is bad.  It’s just lackadaisical.  And this story deserves more than that.  Also, while I maintain that every story has a right to be told, I question the wisdom in making the bombers into bigger stars.  Other potential criminals are often motivated by the idea of fame and this sort of thing does nothing to dissuade that notion.  I see both sides of the argument, here, but it nags at the back of my mind, regardless.

There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than by catching Patriots Day, but there are much better ways, too (like this.  And this.).  I applaud the attempt and the intent behind the film and everyone involved clearly worked hard on it.  But a seeming lack of perspective lessens the impact of the narrative and could leave some feeling unfulfilled.

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109. Patriots Day

108. Hidden Figures

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If the attendance at the screening I just attended is an accurate representation of the country as a whole, Hidden Figures is poised to be a big hit.  Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the film adapts the true story of three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) who are hired by NASA to help pioneer America’s space program.  Facing the daunting task of crashing through not one but two glass ceilings, the women persevere, defy expectations, and make history along the way.

There are a number of motivational films about breaking down barriers that are sitting in cinemas, right now, and that’s not a bad thing.  The world needs it, at the moment, and Hidden Figures makes decent company for the others.  However, I can’t help but feel that it falls short of its potential in execution, even as it excels in other areas.

The cast is exceptionally strong as, joining the three lead women, we have Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and the up-and-coming Mahershala Ali, who I’ve already raved about, recently.  Costner and Dunst are firmly established in the industry, but Ali is such a great talent, as well.  He doesn’t get to flex his muscles in this film as he did in Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and Moonlight, but it’s encouraging to see him in another high-profile role and I hope it leads to plenty more for him.

That’s kind of the story in general in Hidden Figures, though; most of the cast gets to stroll through the film without really pushing themselves.  As Katherine – the most prominently featured of the three lead women – Henson gets one memorably strong scene and nails it beautifully.  The feeling behind her words is palpable and its the water-cooler moment of the film.  Outside of that, there’s a smaller moment here and there (Spencer gets the best line . . . an “ooooooh”-worthy dig aimed at Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell) but the film feels very paint-by-numbers as far as the writing is concerned.  It’s almost as if Melfi and his creative team wanted to allow the story to carry the audience through without worrying about how to actually deliver said story.  The film simply shows what happens and it usually does so in the least imaginative ways it can muster.

The big moments are clearly big for the characters but – aside from Henson’s speech – they don’t feel big for the audience.  It’s the exact opposite of what I was talking about in my Lion post.  In that film, the audience lives vicariously through the characters, experiencing what they experience and feeling it alongside them.  In Hidden Figures, we’re just casual observers, watching the events play out but never feeling like active participants.

Almost the entire movie plays it safe.  The dialogue is fine, but unremarkable.  It’s strong enough to hold the attention of the audience but, with two or three exceptions, unmemorable.  The humor is Walmart humor: meant for mass consumption.  Nothing is funny as a result of being particularly witty or clever.  There’s barely a bit of wit to be found.  Instead, when a moment is supposed to be light or humorous, the cast is relied upon to “act” funny through their delivery and/or body language.  I give them all the credit in the world for making the best of it, but it’s the laziest form of humor there is.

The film reminds me quite a bit of The Blind Side.  That film, too, was an adaptation of a touching and powerful true story that fell flat due to lackluster execution.  Hidden Figures is better than that film, by quite a margin.  It’s competently told, without question.  It just under-delivers.  And it will get a free pass from most because of its uplifting subject matter.  But it’s not the subject matter that’s at fault; it’s the delivery of it.

What this all boils down to is that Hidden Figures is a good film that should be a great film.  The dialogue should dazzle.  Moments that come across as nice should instead be monumental.  If it seems like I’m being hard on the film, it’s only because I can see what it could have been, with just a little bit of tweaking.  As it stands, the film will do well.  People will love it.  And they’ll say it’s much better than it actually is.  I just wish that a movie about such a then (and maybe even now, in some circles)-provocative topic and situation felt a little more challenging than it does and projected fire like a flame-thrower, rather than smoke like a cap gun.

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108. Hidden Figures

107. Lion

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Here we have it.  This is it.  This is the reason I go to the movies.  I go to the movies because, every once in a while, there’s a film – an experience – like Lion.  I often say that the ultimate goal of any film should be to make the viewer feel something.  Anything.  Happiness.  Sadness.  Excitement.  Amusement.  It doesn’t matter.  But, sometimes, a movie goes above and beyond and makes the viewer feel as though they, themselves, are a part of the story – that it’s their very own lives and futures at stake.  It’s rare.  And it’s extremely difficult to achieve that as a filmmaker.  But, director Garth Davis succeeds beyond all reasonable expectations.

Lion is adapted from the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly.  Saroo is actually a character in the film, played initially by Sunny Pawar and then eventually by Dev Patel.  That, of course, is because Lion tells Saroo’s incredible true story.  I don’t want to go into what that story is, in case you are unaware (as I was).  If you want to spoil it for yourself, do it elsewhere.  I’ll have no part in dampening the experience of seeing the film for you.  But it’s an absolutely mesmerizing story of survival and family that our culture quite frankly needs, right now.

I tend to go through the individual aspects of the film that made an impression on me, one-by-one, specifying what I did like and what I didn’t.  I don’t feel like that would be a fair approach to Lion.  It all works.  All of it.  And while, if the components were analyzed individually, they would all score high marks, this film is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  Because all of those component work together to construct a touching, moving, emotional experience that reminds us all of what’s truly important in life.  But, to improve upon that, the film doesn’t only remind us of what is important, but also why.

One of Lion‘s primary competitors in this ongoing award season is the excellent Moonlight.  I was actually reminded of that film as I watched Lion due to similarities in the story structure.  Moonlight tells the story of a single character at different points in his life, and Lion does the same.  Both movies are excellent, but I felt more of a connection to Lion.  That, of course, will vary from person to person but I really identified with Lion‘s themes of loneliness and family.  I expect those themes would resonate with a vast majority of the general moviegoing audience, as well.

Having the opportunity to witness Saroo’s childhood experiences truly contributes a sense of warmth towards the character after he grows up.  We saw his hardships and lived through them alongside him.  When we get the chance to see him as an adult, there’s almost a sense of pride and respect towards him.  He did it!  He got through all of that and has apparently emerged just fine on the other side.  But, has he really?  Or is his baggage still weighing him down?

The film builds and builds towards a powerful, memorable climax and it does so naturally and organically.  There is nothing forced, as with Jackie.  Both of those films are based on true stories, but only Lion feels entirely authentic.  Even had the film been a fictional story, it would have been no less moving or affecting.  True stories still need true artists to translate them for public presentation and everyone involved in this film displays true artistry.  Had any single one of them, from Davis to the Foley artists, failed to deliver, then the impact at the finale would have been lessened.

Lion is the epitome of outstanding filmmaking – a rare emotional experience that will resonate with even the hardest of hearts.  The film packs a punch and it does so as one complete package, working in aggregation, not as separate aspects that all function independently of each other.  This is the kind of movie that people say they want.  Well, here it is.  Go see it.  And, when you start feeling things you weren’t prepared to feel . . . just roll with it.  That’s kind of the point of the whole thing.

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107. Lion

106. Jackie

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There’s been a lot of buzz around Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy in the appropriately-titled Jackie.  In fact, there’s been so much buzz around the performance that I’ve heard very little else about the movie.  Obviously, I was aware that it follows Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, but, beyond that, I knew nothing.

The structure of the film is centered around an interview being conducted with Jackie following her husband’s death.  The reporter (Billy Crudup, in the most subdued performance I can recall him giving) walks Jackie through the events, her emotions, and her coping mechanisms in order to craft the story he desires to tell.  At the same time, Jackie declares that it’s her story, not his, and she’ll tell it the way she chooses.

Portman’s performance is worthy of the hype.  I’ve always been frustrated by all of the attention that Jamie Foxx’s turn as Ray Charles in Ray received as that came off to me as more of an impression than as acting.  This is not that.  Sure, Portman does the accent and has been made up to look the part, but there’s depth to what she puts up onto the screen.  Her every word conveys a combination of hopelessness and courage and the minutes following the assassination are especially powerful.  That real-life event was on such a grand, public scale that we rarely – if ever – stop to recall that a woman saw her husband get murdered right next to her.  His dead body, missing part of the head, collapsed into her lap.  That’s the height of horror; the pinnacle of traumatic experiences.  JFK was president to millions but husband to only one.  Portman powerfully forces us to remember this.

But now I know why I hadn’t heard much about the rest of the film; there’s not much to it.  There really is no story of which to speak.  We just follow Jackie around, jumping to different moments in the chronology of the events, and see how she responds.  The dialogue is mostly fine, but rather dull and uninspired.  Some of it is downright forced in order to contrive what is intended to be a particularly moving line or scene and it just feels disingenuous.  The worst offender is the scene where Jackie informs her and JFK’s children Caroline and John, Jr., about their father’s death.  The children don’t speak or think as real children do and it takes one right out of the moment when you find yourself thinking, “A kid would never ask that!”  It’s all intended to create an artificial gravitas that honestly isn’t necessary seeing as how most of the audience already feels connected to the story and the characters.  They don’t need to be converted.

It’s pretty clear that director Pablo Larraín and the rest of his team wants Jackie to be an awards darling and that, quite frankly, is the problem.  There’s virtually no meat to the film and so, realizing that, Larraín tries to force unnatural memorable moments on the viewer, hoping to fool them into feeling something that they wouldn’t otherwise be feeling.  Combining that with Portman and the subject matter would hopefully be enough to get the film the desired attention, but it’s just not.

The film isn’t actively bad; most of it is simply existent.  Portman shines and singlehandedly elevates the picture as a whole.  Despite that, there are much better options out there, right now, for those looking to go into the awards season as informed viewers but who don’t have the ability to make it to the theater to catch all of the nominees.  Portman and Kennedy family fans should check it out, though.

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106. Jackie

105. Fences

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(Disclaimer: Yes, I know it’s now 2017.  But if you look at the way I worded my goal for the 2016 March every single time, I stated that it was to see at least 100 2016 films in the theater, not to see at least 100 films in the theater in 2016.  They are two very different things.  So, as long as I’m seeing 2016 films in the theater, the count will continue to climb.)

Following the efforts of African-American father Troy Maxson as he attempts to raise his family in 1950s America, Fences is the rare film that not only stars Denzel Washington but which he also helms.  And it’s the most complex film I’ve seen in quite some time.

That complexity is rooted in its honesty and stark realism.  On the surface, the story seems obtusely simple.  But once the characters’ motivations behind their words and actions are explored, the film becomes intricate and layered beyond all expectations.

Troy and his family all feel like real people.  I harp on the importance of that particular component of filmmaking on a regular basis and the entire team behind Fences has mastered it.  The characters are written realistically.  They each repeat their favorite turns of phrase and words.  They laugh uproariously at their own jokes, even though said jokes have been lifted from a thousand other sources.  And they speak like people from the 1950s with their backgrounds, upbringings, and desires would speak.  Their life experiences as well as their hopes for the future are reflected not only in the message of their words, but in their choice of phrasing.

The characters are also portrayed to perfection.  People tried their best to put Viola Davis’s performance as Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad over as something special but she wasn’t actually given anything to do in that woefully underwritten role.  Here, as Troy’s wife Rose, she gets to . . . I was going to say “shine”, but that’s not strong enough.  She radiates.  She’s raw and powerful and a painfully sympathetic figure throughout the entire story.  It would be easy to wonder why Rose is with Troy, at all, but Viola convincingly sells it.

As Troy, Washington gives my favorite male performance of 2016.  He is singlehandedly responsible for the majority of the film’s complexity.  At the outset of the narrative, he comes off as a decent, likable family man.  A little rough around the edges, but basically good.  However, just like in real life, as more time is spent with Troy, the real man underneath becomes more and more exposed and the audience is no longer sure he’s who they thought he was.

The opening scene reminded me very much of the opening to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  When I say that, I mean in delivery, not content.  It’s a basic, isolated, 20-minute scene of dialogue that opens the window into the minds of the principles and their relationships.  It’s lighthearted and fairly benign but there’s an unmistakable ominous presence lurking just underneath the surface.

As that unfolds over the course of the film, Troy becomes increasingly transparent, yet no less complex.  He’s a man who feels like society owes him; he’s simultaneously afraid and mistrusting of the world that’s changing and progressing around him; he feels the need to maintain control of his entire universe.  And those traits are the groundwork for how he lives his life.  It’s not a particularly productive combination.  He becomes so concerned with living up to his responsibilities to his family – mostly in an effort to prove to the world that he’s “a real man” – that he loses touch with how to love them.  He lives a life of hypocrisy but never once comprehends the irony of the “do as I say, not as I do” approach to his relationships.

Washington – both as director and actor – navigates the difficulties of this material like the seasoned professional that he has become.  His work in this film is beyond remarkable on every possible level.  He’s incredible to watch and also remember that he pulled similarly exceptional performances from the remaining cast members, as well, including several who are young and inexperienced.  For me, this is the best work of Washington’s career and I hope it’s reflected at the awards ceremonies in the upcoming months.

If there’s one place the film falters, a bit, it’s in the fact that there’s never really a hook – an unresolved plot element that propels the narrative forward as we wait for the denouement.  There’s no rule that says that there has to be one, of course, but it’s always a bit tougher on the viewer if there isn’t.  This is why the film feels so simple on the surface.  But the dialogue and character work are both so unnaturally strong that they more than compensate for the fairly by-the-numbers tale.  It’s all in the execution and the execution is exquisite.

Fences isn’t an easygoing day at the movies, but it’s a showcase for some of the best that the art form has to offer.  Though the film was very good, there were better ones in 2016.  But I challenge anyone to find a male performance from 2016 that tops Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson (if I discover one in the weeks to come, I’ll make it known).  Viola Davis is right up there at the top of her game, as well, with a part that allows her to flex her muscles and put on full display why her name is consistently on the tip of so many tongues that surround the industry.  For film lovers, Fences is a master class of performances and in believable, honest writing.  It deserves your attention.

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105. Fences

104. La La Land

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Well, here we are with the final film that made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About.  There’s certainly been a buzz around La La Land and it seems poised to be one of the two or three awards season darlings of 2016.  Writer/Director Damien Chazelle made a huge splash with 2014’s incredible Whiplash and now he’s back and getting people talking, once again.

Well, this time, he’s getting people talking . . .and singing . . . and dancing . . . and laughing . . . and crying.  And none of that would have been possible without Chazelle’s writing/directing and the brilliant performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  They are the heart of the film and they are who most casual moviegoers will be talking about when they leave the theater.  (And there will be a lot of those moviegoers; my screening was nearly sold out.)

The film centers around a couple (Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia) who meet in Hollywood and encourage each other to follow their dreams.  Sebastian wants to open a jazz club while Mia longs to be a world-renowned actress.  The themes of following one’s dreams and believing in oneself are impossible to miss and, while those are hardly uncharted territory for films about Hollywood, what really stands out in La La Land is the execution.

Everything about the film not only works but soars.  The dialogue, the characterization, the music, the singing, the dancing, the story, the directing, the cinematography, the art design and set decoration . . . all of it stuns and dazzles from the opening number to the powerful and poignant finale.  And everywhere you turn there are ideas.  Fresh ones.  Funny ones.  Clever ones. All new ones.  Chazelle understands on the deepest level imaginable how to craft a story and shoot a film for maximum impact.  He plays with the audience and gets the exact reaction he desires, without exception.  It will go unnoticed by casual audiences.  They’ll give the credit to Gosling and Stone.  And while Gosling and Stone deserve untold heaps of praise for their part, it all started with Chazelle and his master plan.

While Chazelle has crafted a film that’s about dreams, he’s also delivered a film that reminds us that life is ultimately about choices, and they aren’t always easy ones.  In fact, the big ones never are.  On one hand, musicals are the least-realistic genre of film in existence, but Chazelle’s story is honest and heartfelt and touching.  It also serves as a love letter to both film and music.  Chazelle teases both art forms about some of their sillier aspects but does it in a playful way that never feels mean-spirited.  All art has something to offer and it’s pretty obvious that Chazelle loves what he’s doing for a living.  And so do I.  After this film and Whiplash, if Chazelle isn’t careful, he’s going to end up as one of my favorite filmmakers.

Let’s talk about Ryan Gosling.  It’s time to be open about the fact that he’s one of the greatest talents in the industry.  His versatility is second-to-none and he simply has a knack for performing.  That includes acting, but is in no way limited to it.  He does so much more than act and, in La La Land, he actually transcends acting and reaches a level of just . . . being.  He truly becomes Sebastian in every way.  Also, I’d like to point out that even though Gosling has never been considered a comedian, his ability to get laughs is pretty much unrivaled.  His timing and delivery are flawless without exception and he provided 2016 with two of its funniest performances in Sebastian and also Holland March from The Nice Guys.  On top of all of that, as Sebastian, he gets to shred the piano the way so many people think they shred the guitar.  Seriously.  He was so good that he made co-star and pop artist John Legend jealous.  Gosling can do anything and the world needs to begin acknowledging it openly.

They already acknowledge that Emma Stone can do anything, and that’s good, because she can.  And her turn in La La Land does nothing to contradict that.  Sweet, charming, and endearing, Stone continues to press all the right buttons with audiences around the globe and, as Mia, Stone will win hearts the world over, once again.

Both of their characters exhibit true passion for their dreams, to the extent that “passion” could actually supersede “following your dreams” as the central theme of the film.  Sebastian talks about jazz from a place of frustration, having to constantly hear laypeople who don’t truly understand jazz speak as if they do and then dismiss it without ever even beginning to understand its depth and finer points.  Just by listening to him, I gained a greater appreciation for it, myself (I never claimed to be knowledgeable about jazz, though, so I would hope he wouldn’t consider me among the lemmings of which he speaks), and I appreciate the character’s enthusiasm in his defense of it.  I feel that same enthusiasm and frustration almost every time I try to talk to people about film, comics, and even professional wrestling, which is misunderstood to an unrivaled degree by people who don’t watch it – and even most people who do.  Seeing Sebastian express his frustration so eloquently and display a true understanding of something that he loves is the defining moment for the character and also the moment where I became invested in his story.

Mia has a similar passion, but it’s harder to boil down to a single moment.  Instead, she suffers a long, extended torturous existence full of pain and rejection, forcing herself to carry on and forge ahead, despite any evidence that her perseverance will ever pay off.  Her entire future is in the hands of others, and therefore the path of least resistance is to simply give up.  After all, this is a story about modern Hollywood and how easy is it in our current culture to actually believe in someone else?  To trust them to care enough about you that they’ll help you to achieve your dreams?  The very word “passion” comes from the Greek word that means “to suffer” and that’s exactly what Mia does, all in an effort to achieve her dream.  But she does it with a smile and an optimism that makes her all the more lovable.

All of this combines into a single experience that at once entertains and moves.  The comedy hits.  The drama hits.  The music hits.  And both stars work together with their director to make a film about love of all different kinds, and the joy and sorrow that that love brings along with it.  La La Land is the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking and deserves every award that will inevitably come its way over the next few months.

Speaking of passions, I started the Movie March to 100 because of my passion for movies.  I love writing about them and I love interacting with other likeminded people.  I’ve gotten a good amount of support and I want to thank any of you who have contributed to that support, whether it was from the beginning or if you just discovered me, last week.  Building an audience is difficult, however, especially when there’s not a lot of money behind the project.  And I don’t have a lot of money to put behind it.  So, it’s been tough and it’s often felt as though I was writing for just a handful of people.  There have been moments of brightness.  And I feel like those who read like what they’re reading.  There just aren’t as many readers as I would hope for.

But I can’t get more if I stop, now, can I?  So, the March will continue into 2017!  There will be a slight re-working.  I’m not shooting for any specific number of movies.  The format will shift, a bit.  But I’m going to keep trying this and see if I can turn it into something.  Any help you can provide would be immensely appreciated.  In the meantime, I have more 2016 movies to see, so those will get added to the count.  2017 films will not have a number attached.  Some fun Year-in-Review columns are in the works and who knows what else?

So, keep following the Facebook page and share it around.  If you know of other online film communities, share it with them!  Get the word out so you can say that you knew me when!  Thanks, everyone!  Don’t go anywhere, it’s just going to get better!

104. La La Land