Lion (2016, Garth Davis)

This had weird similarities with Mountains May Depart, which we watched the night before. It spans about the same amount of time, during which a boy is separated from his mother, moves to Australia and forgets her native language.

This one’s the true story of “Saroo” who gets lost while adventuring with his big brother then accidentally rides a train to Calcutta where he doesn’t speak the language and almost gets captured by a creepy man then ends up in an orphanage from where he’s adopted by Nicole Kidman and the corrupt police chief from Top of the Lake. Years later he is Dev Patel of Slumdog, going to college and dating Rooney Mara when he learns about online satellite-map programs and becomes obsessed with finding his home town, which he’s been mispronouncing all his life, and seeing his real family again.

Besides obviously getting choked up by the climactic family reunion (and the inevitable footage of the real people being dramatized) I got much of the same feeling as Garth’s Top of the Lake – it’s a good-looking prestige pic tackling Important Issues, but when it was over it didn’t reverberate in my head in any meaningful way, just made me wanna go see another movie.

Also: Darth Gavis.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Philippe Falardeau)

Emotionally delicate movie focusing first on two young kids who saw their teacher’s classroom suicide, then on Mr. Lazhar from Algeria who lies about his past in order to get a job as substitute teacher. Turns out he was a restaurant manager and his wife the professor (?) was murdered for having unpopular opinions, along with both of their kids in Algeria. So, teacher and class are both grieving, and somewhat help each other along in a less touchy-feely way than one would expect from a plot description.

M. D’Angelo: “I did like that he lies about having smacked one of the kids upside the head, however, and that nothing ever comes of it – just an everyday ass-covering.”

J. Anderson in Cinema Scope:

French-speaking audiences may detect parallels between Lazhar’s story and that of the man who plays him. A popular actor, playwright, and satirist in Algeria, Fellag exiled himself to France after the clampdown on freedom of expression in his homeland manifested itself as a bomb attack on one of his productions. Usually an exuberant performer onstage, the 51-year-old Fellag handles his role here with a quiet precision and a keen sensitivity to his fellow actors that is all the more remarkable when you consider that this could have literally been a one-man show. Indeed, the play on which Falardeau’s film is based — by Québécois playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière — was written for a solo performer.

The Eagle Huntress (2016, Otto Bell)

Kazakh teenager becomes the first female eagle hunter in the region. She tells her dad she wants to eagle-hunt, so he checks with grandpa then takes her to kidnap her own baby eagle, walks her through training then leads her to the competition (where her bird sets a record) and her first wild fox capture. It’s a family-friendly feel-good feminist true story (complete with awful disney-uplift closing pop song) that’s doubly pleasurable for those of us who love birds, sweet fur hats and crisp photography. Lead girl Aisholpan is great fun, and fortunately she has a family who cares more about letting her achieve her own destiny than about what the neighbors might think.

Dukhtar (2014, Afia Nathaniel)

Too-young girl in the Pakistan mountains is going to be married off to her father’s rival as a peace offering, so her mom takes her on the run, getting help from a dreamy guy who drives the world’s most awesome truck. Seriously, I wish we hadn’t watched this on streaming so I could show you this truck. The husband/father’s crew and the rival’s crew both search for them, both of them all pissed off.

Lovely bright colors clearly, brightly photographed. Aside from that and the cultural interest, the plotting and editing and music all seemed highly familiar from genre flicks I watched on cable in the 1990’s.

First Monday in May (2016, Andrew Rossi)

Functional doc following pre-planning through opening night of a Spring 2015 China-inspired fashion show at the Met in NYC. 95% of the interest comes from the fantastic costumes on display and in archive footage and clothing worn by celebrities to the opening ball. 4% comes from watching Wong Kar-Wai as the only Chinese participant on the board (and realizing he does other things with his time besides making movies), and the rest is from anything that anyone has to say.

Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford)

It was the baby-monitor jump-scare that lost me. Intriguing backstory open before the movie changes directions, centering on Amy Adams (far less electric here than in Arrival, and given much less to do) reading the rape-murder-revenge novel written by her ex Jake Gyllenhaal, visualizing it starring him with Michael Shannon as a dying cop who doesn’t play by the rules. I suppose the ending should be cynically satisfying, as Adams becomes obsessed with the novel, contacts Jake to meet him and talk about it, and gets stood up. By that point though, who could care about Amy and Jake’s old relationship problems (she got an abortion without telling him, and dumped him for Armie Hammer) or his elaborate literature-based revenge plot, when the bulk of the movie has become the novel itself, a grimy, joyless, desert desperation story? And who can say why Adams gets so sucked in, to the point where she starts seeing jump-scare monsters inside her assistant’s baby monitor, a moment that felt so outrageously cheap that I optimistically figured it would be justified later, or at least be the beginning of a series of visions?

Also it opens with naked fat women dancing in slow-motion. And hey, here’s Love star Karl Glusman and Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone, both of them returning from another 2016 movie I found ugly and misguided. Standard dialogue scenes were filmed in a flat and boring manner (and the movie is mostly standard dialogue scenes). Diana Dabrowska in Cinema Scope and David Ehrlich on Letterboxd both compliment the camerawork, so maybe I missed something there. At least Jake G. is very good in his role, and Shannon is always pleasant to watch.

The Love Witch (2016, Anna Biller)

One of the weirder movies in theaters last year. Meticulous art design, color, makeup and costumes, with a look referencing the glory of technicolor. Once the actors showed up speaking their dialogue methodically, carefully pronouncing every syllable, I assumed it was going to be self-consciously campy along the lines of The Editor, but I eventually got over that. I suppose it’s its own unique thing, though unlike the unique things made by Cattet & Forzani or Peter Strickland or Yorgos Lanthimos, my mind stubbornly refused to ride its feminine groove.

M. Sicinski’s online Cinema Scope review makes beautiful sense of all the pieces… after reading, I went from thinking “oh well, that was pretty good/failed experiment” to desiring to watch it again soon.

The Love Witch is so exaggerated in its twin concerns — magicks and genteel, womanly behaviour — that they come to intersect imperceptibly, even when they don’t fit together at all. (Elaine’s garish, Lovecraftian self-portraits, for example, or her mad-scientist laboratory set-up, come to seem completely of-a-piece with her wide brimmed sun hats and her pinky extension in the all-women’s tearoom) … Biller’s control over her own filmic world parallels Elaine’s witchcraft in that both are pervasive and thoroughgoing … The Love Witch does demonstrate the power that resides in matriarchal practices that are frequently scorned for their ostensible lack of seriousness.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)

Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) is an awkward teen who likes a guy (“bad boy” Alex Calvert), is liked by a different guy (cartoonist Hayden Szeto), hates her brother (Blake Jenner of EWS!!) and has a best friend (Haley Lu Richardson, kidnappee in Split) who starts dating the brother. So far, so typical. But the sparkling dialogue and the work by Woody Harrelson as her patient, smartass teacher should ensure this movie’s place in Teen Film Eternity, to run on cable (or streaming or whatever) for generations.

David Ehrlich’s review got our butts into the theater:

Unfolding like a symphony of small humiliations, there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel at least vaguely familiar, and there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true … the scenes with the highest potential for hokeyness are the ones that Craig and her cast most relish … When shit gets heavy between Nadine and her brother, both Steinfeld and Jenner tap into a sense of depth so real that it almost seems alien to the genre.

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)

It’s 2017 but I’ve still got eighteen 2016 movies to catch up with. I won’t spend much time on this one since it was everybody’s favorite and there’s a ton of writing about it. Three episodes in the life of Little/Chiron/Black, played by different actors. First he finds a substitute family with Miami drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife (Janelle Monae), then he begins discovering his sexuality with a friend named Kevin, and finally he’s a drug dealer himself in the image of Juan. As with Certain Women, the third part is overwhelmingly great. Trevante Rhodes as the oldest Chiron gives a sensitive performance that allows his shy younger selves to slowly bleed through the gangster facade as he reconnects with Kevin.

Bonus points for “Classic Man” and the Hokusai poster, right after we rewatched Kubo over Thanksgiving, making this the fourth Hokusai-referencing movie of the year. We listened to an interview with the director discussing Chiron’s mother’s similarity to his own mother, and marveled at the fact that Naomie Harris appears in all three episodes and shot all her scenes in three days.