10. Hell or High Water
The slow economic recovery is the backdrop of the story of two brothers robbing local Texas banks, in particular the banks and their lending practices in regards to homes. An air of simmering resentment lingers in many parts of this film; resentment between people and the banks, between whites and Native Americans, and amongst family members present and deceased. There is little resentment, though, between the two brothers or the two lawmen who are at the center of this film and stand on opposing sides of this well-crafted narrative. Despite having two very different personalities, Toby and Tanner have a strong bond of brotherly love between them, likely fostered from their upbringing and an abusive father. The relationship between Marcus and Alberto is steeped in familiarity and occasional exasperation. The strength of this movie resides in the fact that these are fully formed, deep characters that ground the story.
Much of Moonlight is about Chiron’s identity. The three chapters are all titled Little, Chiron, and Black. Little and Black are both nicknames that others have labeled him; Little is a name he takes reluctantly as a child while Black, a nickname given to him by Kevin in the Chiron chapter, is a name he ascribes himself as an adult, as much for protection as projection. The importance of identity pervades this entire film. It’s how the film is able to be so deeply personal and yet feel like it is speaking to universal truths at times. Setting aside the nicknames assigned to Chiron, there are three defining aspects of his identity. The first, obvious aspect, is being black. The black experience, while not at the forefront of the film, is there in everything and is unfortunately intertwined in Chiron’s case, with the second aspect, poverty. Most of this is due to his mother increasingly wasting her money on drugs instead of providing for them. The third aspect is being gay, something others seem to know about Chiron when he is Little even before he is aware, which is revealed in a heartbreaking, loaded scene at the dinner table with Juan and Teresa when he asks them, “What is a faggot?” It’s something he is aware of and struggling to conceal later as Chiron, and after a series of events as Chiron, it is something he buries deep underneath a tough exterior as Black, having learned the false lessons that his upbringing in a poor, black community that is incredibly homophobic has ingrained into him.
8. Green Room
Green Room is extremely violent, but, much like Blue Ruin, grounds the violence firmly in reality; it’s sudden and blunt and often sloppy and messy. Most people have little to no experience with taking a life and being put in a situation that may call for that is a difficult thing. To process. At one point in the green room, Sam is handed a gun the band has managed to get, but quickly proclaims that she doesn’t want to be the one holding the gun. This film is not populated with typical action heroes or the average hero/heroine of other similar thrillers, and because of that, the violence carries more heft and the deaths of characters carries more weight, and it’s all a testament to director Jeremy Saulnier. As I walked out of the theater and got into my car after seeing Green Room, I sat for a moment and realized I felt exhausted. It took me a second to realize that it was because of the movie. I was so incredibly tense throughout almost its entire, lean 95 minutes that I had not just watched the film, but I had expended energy experiencing it.
7. The Witch
The Witch is a slow-building horror film that is unnerving and unsettling in a way that only the best horror movies are. Everything from the setting to the cinematography to the performances to the score create an affecting, creepy tone to the film that is hard to shake. Everything about the film is working together as this family is falling apart at an accelerating rate. Its score is heavy on string instruments that convey a sense of dread and distress that reminded me of Stanley Kurick’s The Shining. The film also touches on several themes. Also like The Shining, there is the aforementioned family dynamic coming undone, but there is also the fear of the unknown, issues of pride and humility, hormones and temptation, and of course religion and superstition. Most interesting though, may be how the sense of betrayal can be a two-way street, and how if someone is betrayed by those closest to them in such a fundamental way, it can lead them to reject what they have and embrace something else.
6. Manchester by the Sea
Grief is an emotion that we all deal with in our lives, but it is also an emotion that can be incredibly unappealing in a film, especially when so many people look to movies as escapes from reality and a way to unplug and turn off the brain. Manchester by the Sea, though, is a film that challenges and pushes back against this notion, while challenging normal film conventions as well. The strength of the film is that every aspect of it feels real and genuine. All of the characters are fully formed and come off as having full, real lives that we’re getting a glimpse into. How do we live with our grief and still live? Are some people unable to be made fully whole because of it? In Manchester by the Sea, as in life, there are no easy answers.