5. Midnight Special
Midnight Special is probably best classified as a light sci-fi drama. Strip away the sci-fi elements of Alton’s abilities, and this film boils down to a chase film, with the main characters trying to get somewhere and outside forces are trying to get them and/or prevent them from reaching their destination. People have labeled it Spielbergian, with some comparisons to E.T. and no doubt some of the emotional elements of the story. I can see that, but I was also reminded of last year’s Disney movie Tomorrowland. This is probably the movie that Tomorrowland wishes that is actually was. Regardless of the comparisons though, Midnight Special succeeds because its shines its ray of light on the tender father-son relationship between Roy and Alton, and then further expands that to include Sarah, the mom. In a lot of ways, the family dynamic at the heart of the story is tragic and bittersweet as forces have kept this family apart for so long, but it ultimately hints at hope even if their reunion is short-lived.
Arrival gets into the practicality of what first contact with aliens could look like. There are natural barriers that exist, related to language, biology, and other things. The film does a great job laying out the potential pitfalls inherent in the language barrier. Words we use can take on several different meanings and several different words can mean the same thing. And translating from one language to another complicates those pitfalls, because another person’s understanding of a word may be different than the intent of the word being used. Louise lays this out very early in the film when she tells Col. Weber to ask a colleague of hers who the Sanskrit word for “war.” The story explores other interesting themes. Related to the aspect of barriers or divisions is the importance of communication in bridging those divisions and overcoming those barriers. With arrivals all across the globe, several other countries are interacting with these crafts. All of the countries are in communication with one another, but with some countries being more reactive than others, complications naturally arise and communications between the humans and the aliens breaks down, but so does communication between nations as uncertainty escalates. And the film is also tinged with melancholy and grief related to Louise’s memories of losing her daughter, which ties into her experiences with the aliens.
3. The Nice Guys
This is a genre of film that Black has spent most of his career crafting, defining, dismantling, and sometimes subverting. He knows the ins and outs of a detective story as well as anyone working in Hollywood right now. While the dialogue is snappy and really hums, there is great physical comedy on display here. Gosling, in addition to have great line deliveries, also has a great knack for the physical comedy that comes from being an at-times-literal fall down drunk. I also underestimated Crowe on my first viewing. Gosling and Crowe are an entertaining pair and slip into a quick, familiar banter with one another. Enjoyment of the film does not come from being able to follow the plot, but rather in watching Gosling and Crowe bumble their way through it. It’s pure, pulpy goodness.
2. La La Land
La La Land is in praise of people who dare to dream big and to go after their dreams, even when it seems crazy or fruitless. The third time Mia and Sebastian’s paths cross leads to a beautiful song and dance number between them, at sunset, underneath a lamplight and overlooking LA. A second dance later on between them takes place at the LA Observatory, and starts off as a nice ode to Rebel Without a Cause before giving way to a magical moment where they are dancing in air that is truly unforgettable. These and others are moments of pure movie magic, moments that seem to happen with far less frequency in today’s Hollywood. Indeed, so much of this film is an ode to the kinds of movies that Hollywood used to make in the 40s, 50s, and 60s (the movie is even presented in Cinemascope). But to say it is only a throwback to a bygone era of movies is selling La La Land short. La La Land isn’t about the magic of movies or musicals. Even if there are nods to others films, it’s about its magic. It also pretty seamlessly blends the musical elements with the reality of the characters, giving it a feeling of having its head in the clouds, but also having a foot grounded in the struggles of their reality. And it runs you through just about every emotion in the book, but in such a pleasant way.
1. The Lobster
Let me be upfront about this: The Lobster is an idiosyncratic, absurdist satire that is probably not for everyone. As a single person in my 30s, I felt uniquely attuned to this film’s vibe, and found it deeply satisfying. Yes, relationships are desirable and something to aspire to, but there is also no denying that some married people have a weird fixation about “fixing” their single friends. There is significant societal pressure to be a couple and not just an individual, and there is a lot of commentary in this film about that. There is also substantial commentary on the flip side of that too, being too much of an individual that you become a loner. But what near-future or any futuristic films are supposed to do is hold a mirror up to our current world. The world we see in The Lobster is one of polarization. Everything is an extreme. Find a suitable companion or suffer the consequences. Remain a loner or suffer the consequences. These are the poles we find in this world. In our world, we see so many aspects of our society becoming more and more rapidly polarized, from our politics to our entertainment, to our opinions on just about anything. People abandon the middle ground and the common ground for the extremes and insulate themselves in a cocoon of the like-minded. I loved everything about this bold, ludicrous, entertaining, darkly funny film.
Tomorrow: A 2016 Retrospective