Top 10 Movies of 2016
Yeah, I'm a little late to the party. What can I say? Busy year. The fall and early winter were particularly busy, and that's the time distributors release their best movies, all at once, blarghhhhhh, and if you're a regular person with a regular job in a regular city you're kind of screwed. No movies you want to see for months, then a dozen you want to see on Dec. 29. They save the best for last. Or never. I blinked and missed the weeks-long window for “Silence” and “Paterson.” I haven't been able to drag myself to see “Lion” or “Hidden Figures.” “The Salesman” still hasn't arrived in Seattle.
So this is a top 10 list with that caveat. Or several. Here's one more: God, 2016 was a sucky year, wasn't it? In every way. Bless these movies that gave us a glimmer of something better.
10. Love & Friendship
I was wary of this one, afraid of another proto-feminist British costumed drama based upon another 19th century novel, and this is that, but far from that madding crowd. It zipped rather than plodded. And the woman at its center was a Scarlett rather than a Melanie: a schemer, Machiavellian in her ability to twist the world, and men in particular, around her beautiful finger. Her lines are among the dishiest of the year: “He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give: his income.” Yes, her options are limited in Victorian England but she makes the most of those limits. Indeed, with her, they hardly seem limits. More Scarlets, please.
Inspired by a 2006 oral history in Texas Monthly, director Keith Maitland spent 10 years filming and then animating the ground's-eye viewpoint of the people trapped and shot at by and killed by former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman, who, on August 1, 1966, climbed to the top of the tower on the University of Texas and started shooting. It's truly “you are there” cinema. It's recreation and documentary and a revolutionary way of viewing history. In the '60s, that turbulent, violent decade, Whitman seemed an outlier since his violence was random. We now know he was a harbinger. On that day, a radio newman tried to tell his colleagues what was going on: “There’s a guy on top of the tower. He’s shooting.” Then he had to add for clarification: “Shooting at people.” We don't need that clarification now.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. Death is the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye. I liked hanging with them—that's the main thing. I liked their conversations, and meals, and women. We anticipate a lot of the third-act plot twists but that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's an inevitability to it, as in life. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
7. La La Land
Throughout, there's a love of L.A., and the movies, and musicals. It's a modernist take on a classic, giving us a bittersweet ending rather than a Hollywood ending. Both of our protagonists actually get what they want—she becomes a movie star, he owns a jazz club—they just don't get each other. Is that bad or is it life? There's magic throughout: their first dance in the Hollywood hills; their first kiss floating amid the stars at the Griffith Observatory. I like her and her friends in different, primary-colored dresses strutting down the street on their way to a party. I like Sebastian on the dock with the fedora. Magic matters.
It's December 1945, and an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland—helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens after World War II—is asked to go to a convent, where she finds a nun about to give birth. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it's when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won't even let the intern examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That's the first horrific revelation. The second horrific revelation is worse.
A powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history, “Jackie” is interested in story-making and mythmaking and the difference between the two. As first lady, Jackie Kennedy tried to bring the history of the country to life. As first widow, she opted for myth because she knew myth resonated. Myth was remembered and she wantd her husband remembered. She politely stomped over the Johnsons, the Kennedys, and anyone else who got in her way to make this happen, then, with a priest, searched her soul and found a death wish. The movie does the opposite of what Jackie does: It reveals the human within the mythic.
4. O.J.: Made in America
I may have been the only person in America who didn't pay attention to the O.J. trial back in '95. There was just too much noise; it felt like tabloid fare to me. But it's actually a linchpin in the racial history of America, meaning the history of America. It's the story of a man who became famous for running, and who ran from his race and embraced his celebrity; and then when the chips were down, he ran to his race. He spent years being treated as a football celebrity, even by the L.A.P.D., and got away with so much because of it; and in the trial he may have gotten away with murder for the opposite reason. The ironies in this seven-plus-hour documentary pile up and overwhelm. O.J. is a subject worthy of Shakespeare.
How hard do sensitive men have to become to survive? How much of yourself do you have to lose? Early in the film, Juan, the drug dealer/mentor, tells our child protagonist, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.” But Little/Chiron/Black lets others make that decision for him. Or maybe he simply decides to survive and in doing so you become someone else. By the third act, he's unrecognizable from the skinny, sensitive kid he was. He's a drug dealer with a grill, who intimidates with his presence. But a line late in the film reveals that the sensitive kid is still there underneath it all. It's the most devastating line of the year.
Was a better movie less seen in 2016? And yet it's a film that so necessary for our time. It's 1979 but that was the tipping-point year. That was the year before the year we all opted for wish-fulfillment fantasy in our politics as well as our entertainment. We even get Carter's infamous “malaise” speech here, and in it he seems to be predicting the future if we go the wrong way. He's talking to us like adults but we were children. “20th Century Women” is about a single mom who enlists two other women to help raise and educate her teenage son. The kid comes of age just as our country decides not to.
So many people think this movie as depressing, but I was exhilirated. Yes, it's a movie about a tragedy so large that its protagonist is essentially a dead man walking. There's no “working though the unimaginable” here. It's about two types of male stoicism: one adult, and aware, and tragic, and the other young and blind, and how each shapes the other. We get large understandings and small redemptions. And the redemptions, for being small, for feeling truer than the life outside the theater, are poignant and exquisite. They are cathartic.
“Trump is rushing headlong into Muslim bans and mass deportations, wall building and Obamacare dismantling. Indeed, it feels like the campaign promises Trump is keeping have to do with cruelty and those he's flip-flopping on have to do with character.
”For instance, it is now abundantly clear that Trump had no intention whatsoever of draining the swamp in Washington. He is simply restocking it to his liking.
“This is why I have no patience for liberal talk of reaching out to Trump voters. There is no more a compromise point with those who accept, promote and defend bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia than there is a designation of 'almost pregnant.'
”Trump is a cancer on this country and resistance is the remedy. The Trump phenomenon is devoid of compassion, and we must be closed to compromise. ... Fight, fight, fight. And when you are finished, fight some more. Victory is the only acceptable outcome when freedom, equality and inclusion are at stake.“
-- Charles M. Blow, ”The Death of Compassion," The New York Times
National Chili Day
Earlier this morning, J. Daniel, with whom I shoot the shit on Twitter about baseball, tweeted that today is National Chil Day (it is), and he included a photo of Chili Davis during his San Francisco Giants days. Made me think of the foul ball I caught off Chili in September 1995. Also made me think of that great Chili Davis story that Kirby Puckett told in his 1993 autobiography “I Love This Game!”
On a roaddtrip to Seattle, Kirby, Al Newman and Shane Mack went to their favorite seafood joint, and Mack ordered the Cajun Chicken Fettucine, which comes garnished with a large jalapeno pepper. Kirby had eaten the dish before but never the pepper. He didn't think anyone would be fool enough to eat it.
I warned Shane about this jalapeno but he said, “These things aren't hot. These aren't anything compared to the ones where I come from.” He grew up in Southern California. So he popped the entire pepper in his mouth and started chewing. His eyes exploded! He gulped his water, my water, Al's water, then signaled for more water. He was still on fire. He dranks some soda, ate some ice cream, nothing helped. ...
Now Chili Davis and the rest of the guys finally show up. We tell them the story of the pepper—Shane still can't talk—and Chili says, “Man, I'm used to hot food, bring me a bowl of those peppers.” Newman and I glance at each other. But then Chili eats the whole bowl. No problem. Doesn't even need water. Eats them like I eat oysters. Just amazing. They must have hot food in Jamaica, where Chili's from. Maybe his name is the tip-off.
Happy National Chili Day.
The following was published last week by long-time Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass under the headline “Whatever happened to liberal Democrats, anyway?” It was syndicated on the usual right-wing sites as well as more mainstream media like The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The bold-faced annotations are mine.
Whatever happened to liberal Democrats, with their concerns about civil liberties and government surveillance of American citizens? Out protesting Donald Trump's anti-refugee/immigration executive order, I guess.
Liberals once hated the CIA. And they loved the Russians. You can look it up. Where do you look that up? It's not really a thing that can be looked up, can it? Liberals are more diverse than you make them. The world is more complicated than you make it.
Their liberal friends in Hollywood made movie after movie about the dangers of The Deep State and its awesome surveillance powers. One of the best was “Three Days of the Condor,” with liberal icon Robert Redford fighting the malevolent CIA boss John Houseman, who longed for the “clarity” of world war. That's ... just wrong. First, Houseman's character was talking about 10 years after the Great War, adding “Before we knew enough to number them,” which is more a critique of world wars than a longing for one. And the clarity he missed was for a simpler world in which we knew we were on the right side. We all longed for that clarity in the 1970s. You could say that such longing led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who tried to fit such clarity onto a more complex world.
Years later, Edward Snowden became the liberal demigod and WikiLeaks their winged chariot of truth. Another overstatement, and never true for me. Some leftists still feel that way about Snowden.
Liberals fretted about the powers of the intelligence community being used on citizens for political reasons. Don't we all?
So what happened to the ideals of these liberal Democrats? Donald Trump was elected president, that's what. You're fucking kidding.
And now you can clearly see the change in them as Trump's now-former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has become feast for the crows. You're fucking kidding.
Flynn deserves his punishment. Make no mistake about that. He reportedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his phone conversations with a Russian ambassador that included discussion of the Obama administration's sanctions against Russia. As a former general officer, as a former Defense Intelligence Agency boss, Flynn understands the chain of command. There is no lying to a superior officer. That's the lesson you pull out of this? We have evidence of possible collusion between an incoming administration and a hostile foreign power, and you're concerned about chain of command?
Kass goes on. It's not worth detailing the rest of the overstatements and misreadings because they can be flicked aside with the following rejoinder: Circumstances matter. Also this: Where was Kass during the debate of the USA Patriot Act, which allows the type of wiretapping that caught Flynn? Also this: The hyprocrisy belongs to the GOP, who spent decades winning elections by claiming to be more patriotic than thou and are now turning a blind eye to an obscenely cozy relationship between the current Republican administration and the foreign power that helped elect them.
Let me repeat that: Between the current Republican administration and the foreign power that helped elect them.
That's serious shit, but it's completely bypassed by Kass. Then again, he can't even recall “Three Days of the Condor” correctly.
I don't know Kass, so I asked Chicago-area friends about him. I got this:
He's a joke. Basically a phony “regular guy” “man of the people” who isn't funny or clever or insightful but thinks he is. He's a pathetic Royko imitator with none of the talent or intelligence.
He's a troll. Shame the trib gives him a platform
He's a meatball that can type.
I miss greater clarity from The Chicago Tribune.
- I think I like Joe Posnanski's defense of “Field of Dreams” more than I like “Field of Dreams.”
- Nathaniel Rogers is bringing the Oscar trivia. Example: Can you name the 12 actors who have won both a lead and supporting Oscar? Six men, six women. I used to be really good at that.
- A woman at the Sante D'Or Adoption Center in L.A. gave the cats likes/dislikes to help them get adopted. Sylvia's dislike is classic.
- David Denby examines Steven Spielberg at 70. I was hoping for more insight, actually. Feels leaden. Maybe Molly Haskel's book is better?
- There's a great description of Michael Keaton's acting at the beginning of Anthony Lane's review of “The Founder.”
- The Yankees didn't make the playoffs last season but they still won 84 games, and they got a big boost from Gary Sanchez and his amazing two-month-callup. So a sunnier outlook this year? Thankfully, no, at least according to Fan Graphs, who project mediocrity for the Bronxers.
- John Oliver breaks down the horror of the Putin/Trump connection. Love the “La La Land”/“Human Centipede” analogy. Also the grizzly bear analogy. Also the dance number in the end. But the key line is this: “Trump is basically the propagandist of Putin's dreams.” So how do we stop him?
- Chris Vance, former Washington state GOP chair, on what the GOP can do to stop Trump.
- Michael Moore, filmmaker, on what you and I can do to stop Trump.
Movie Review: Sausage Party (2016)
The obvious one-word review of “Sausage Party”? Tasteless.
When he’s not doing stoner comedies, Seth Rogen has spent his career either buying into the tropes of Hollywood genre films (“Neighbors”), half buying into them (“The Green Hornet”), or mocking them mercilessly (“Observe and Report”). “Sausage Party” is in this last group.
It takes the Disney/Pixar love of anthropomorphism (animals, toys, and furniture), and asks, “What would happen if we did that with food?”
Great concept. When I first saw the trailer in early 2016, I roared with laughter. The food thinks it’s going to a special place, then horror ensues: the potato is painfully peeled, the iceberg lettuce torn apart, the baby carrots masticated. “They’re eating children! Fucking children!” a hot dog cries.
What makes it particularly funny is that, until that moment, all the scenes in the trailer buy into the Disney/Pixar tropes. The grocery store/kitchen is the happiest place on earth. It’s Disneyland, where everyone is clean, behaves, no one curses, and no one has genitalia or sexual urges.
That’s just the trailer, though. In the actual movie, our foodie protagonists act as horny and raunchy as dudes at a frat party. The hot dogs are all male, the buns female, the former want to get into the latter: “You know it, baby! Work those buns! ... Waiting to get filled with my meat!” Everyone’s tossing around F-bombs. It’s supposed to be shocking and funny but it’s shockingly unfunny. It’s pushing buttons that don’t produce laughter. By the time the kitchen knife comes out, the carnage is almost welcome.
Question: With the racially specific food (the Woody Allenish bagel, voiced by Ed Norton; the hard taco shell, voiced by Selma Hayek; the German mustard with the Hitler face), is this a satire of the now-embarrassing racial stereotypes of early cartoons? Or is it just an opportunity for Seth and his friends to be as politically incorrect as possible? I’m betting both. It feels like they’re enjoying it too much.
The movie was directed by animation vets Conrad Vernon (“Shrek”) and Greg Tiernan (“Thomas & Friends”), and written by the Rogen crew: Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter and Rogen, who all worked on “This Is The End.” Goldberg goes back with Rogen to “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” days. I’m beginning to think this is good as these guys get.
Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
It begins meta. We’re immersed in a dark screen—silent until we hear the guttural growl of Lego Batman (Will Arnett) commenting upon the thing we’re watching:
Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos. Warner Bros. Why not Warner Brothers? I dunno. DC: The house that Batman built. Yeah, what Superman? Come at me, bro. I’m your kryptonite.
I wanted a little more here—particularly with all the logos of all the production companies necessary to make movies now—but it’s doing a good job of satirizing the genre: superhero movies generally, Batman movies specifically. I’m laughing. The fact that they’re Legos helps. Batman acts as superimportant as he always does but he’s a Lego.
The Joker (Zach Galifanakas) has concocted a needlessly elaborate plan to blow up Gotham City but nobody is particularly scared. The pilot whose plane full of explosives is hijacked kind of shrugs and says Batman will save the day, as he has in the past. He references “the two boats” (“The Dark Knight,” 2008) and “the parade with the Prince music” (“Batman,” 1989) as examples. The Joker’s incensed, or maybe petulant—the way a first grader might be—but with his team of criminals he takes over an event in Gotham headed by Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), and this brings out the Batman, who is unstoppable and full of himself. And a Lego. He’s about to capture the escaping Joker (rope ladder, helicopter) when the Joker reminds him of the bomb ready to blow up his city. He crows: “It’s got to be one or the other, Batman! Save the city or catch your greatest enemy. You can’t do both!”
It’s that classic hero dilemma—but with a twist. Batman looks confused for a moment, and we get the following dialogue:
Batman: You think you’re my greatest enemy?
Joker: Yes, you’re obsessed with me.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, your are.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, you are! Who else drives you crazy the way I do?
Joker: No he doesn’t.
Joker: Superman’s not a bad guy!
Again, I’m laughing. The absurdity of it all, the first-grader dialogue, the idiocy of a Batman who considers Superman his enemy. We get a close-up of Lego Joker’s face turning sad, his painted mouth beginning to quiver, as he realizes he means so little to the enemy who means so much to him.
“This is good,” I thought.
About a half hour later I realized I wasn’t laughing anymore. What happened? The plot kicked in, of course. The movie stopped being a satire and became the thing it was satirizing. It tried to give us meaning.
The meaning is in the above dialogue. Batman has never gotten over his parent’s murder—the incident that made him Batman—so he keeps everybody, including the Joker, at a distance, while he watches sappy romances such as “Jerry Maguire” and “Serendipity” on his big-screen HDTV in his voluminous mansion. (I liked him on the couch, searching for the right HDMI input. Us, finally.)
But keeping yourself at a remove isn’t healthy personally. Here, it’s also not healthy professionally. Batman winds up needing others. Not the Justice League of America, who make a cameo appearance partying in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Instead, it’s the usual Batman crew: Robin (Michael Cera), Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). Initially he pushes them away, because Batman doesn’t do “ships,” as in “relationships,” but finally he realizes he can’t save the day without them. So he has to change from a solo Batman to one surrounded by bat-friends. Basically, he’s changing from Christopher Nolan’s growling, solo Dark Knight to the Adam West version. By the end, everything is bats: Batgirl, Night-wing, Alfred dressed as 1960s-era Batman. We get shark repellent and Pow! and Sock!
Normally I would’ve liked all of this, since I’m a fan of the 1966 “Batman”: I think it’s the best superhero satire ever made. This is probably second now, but a distant second, because it has to give us not just a happy ending but a cozy ending: Batman rejoining the family of men/women. The ’66 version gave us a happy ending (Batman saves the day) but Batman himself never changes: he remains as pompous in the end as he was at the beginning. U.N. leaders are reduced to dust by the Penguin, and when Batman rehydrates them they continue arguing without skipping a beat—except now they’re arguing in someone else’s language. Robin is worried but Batman gets that far-off “Father Knows Best” look of wisdom in his eyes, and says, “Who knows, Robin: This strange mixing of the minds may be ... the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” It’s a perfect take on post-World War II American pomposity. We save the day and can’t stop patting ourselves on the back for it.
So what would be the perfect satire for post-Reagan American pomposity? I don’t know. Not this. If you have your hero change, you need to mock the change. It can’t be the right move, just another move fraught with inadequacies and human doubt. Batman could, for example, go from pompous and stoic to pompous and empathetic. He couldn’t stop hugging people and asking about their feelings: “Believe me, I’m the least stoic person out there. Just ask anyone.”
Worse, “The LEGO Batman Movie” goes beyond the bounds of the Batman/superhero universe to include other Warner Bros. properties: Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong. You can almost feel business executives (LEGO, Warner Bros., DC Comics) rubbing their hands together at the synergy.
Maybe that’s what you mock. You go meta on that. Those guys. Sadly, they’re the ones still in control. More than ever now.
The Most Frightening Thing about 'Last Night in Sweden'
Last night Donald Trump held a rally in Melbourne, Florida to make himself feel better for being such a lousy president. There, he referenced what sounded like an immigration-related or refugee-related terror attack in Sweden:
You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible.
This led to confusion for ... everyone. Particularly those in Sweden.
Turns out he wasn't referencing a terror attack:
My statement as to what's happening in Sweden was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2017
Brian Stelter of CNN posted the Fox segment on Twitter, so I watched it earlier today. It's interesting to watch. Host Tucker Carlson had the right-wing filmmaker Ari Horowitz on the show, and Ami talked about the rise of crime in Sweden as it relates to that country's liberal refugee policy. Horowitz says that the stats clearly indicate that violent crime, particularly rape, has been on the rise since Sweden began letting in refugees, but that the Swedish government won't acknowledge this. The people won't either. You know why? They're too politically correct. Bad things are happening, and the stats show why, but the people won't own up to it because they want to be, in Carlson's word, “virtuous.”
It's interesting because it's obvious what the segment is about. It's not about Sweden. Sweden is a stand-in for liberals and Democrats, and rape and murder is what happens to good Americans when you follow Democratic policies. So vote Republican.
It's not news, it's propaganda.
At the same time, I was curious: Is violent crime going up in Sweden?
According to this piece on The Local, a European news site, and dated in January (so before Tucker and Ari politicized everything), “the number of rapes reported in Sweden increased by 13 percent in 2016 to 6,560.” Except that number is slightly less than the number of reported rapes in 2014. In other words, the number dipped, then returned to the previous level.
The article adds this:
Seen over a ten-year period, the number of reported rapes has gone up from 4,208 in 2006, partly because of legislative changes in the previous year and in 2013 broadening the definition, according to Brĺ.
Reuters' article mentions this:
Sweden's crime rate has fallen since 2005, official statistics show, even as the country has taken in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq.
So on a Friday night on FOX, Carlson and Horowitz act 100 percent certain of a rise in violent crime in Sweden, even though the stats are inconclusive, as a means to smear liberals, Democrats, and (let's face it) long-standing U.S. policy on immigration. Pres. Trump watches this and repeats it as if it were 100 percent true.
The most frightening thing to me? The way our president phrased his comment: “You look at what's happening last night in Sweden.” Last night? It's one thing to buy the bullshit on Fox, but surely Trump knows that, in reference to his comment, nothing happened last night in Sweden. That the only thing that happened was he watched TV. And surely he understands the difference between the two. Right? Reince? Someone? Anyone? Please tell me he knows the difference between the two.