Critics sure do love our year-end best-of lists. It’s kind of what we live for. I love them too, but I don’t wait until year’s end. No – that’s not how I roll. I prefer to write them at the end of August.
Sure, it leaves out four months – four pretty important months if we look at award history. But I see two advantages to doing it this way. One, it allows me to recognise movies that, let’s be honest, don’t have a prayer of getting any serious award consideration. Two, with 33% fewer movies to mull over, it makes my life 33% easier.
But really, it’s the first reason. All the big prestige movies come out in the Fall to position themselves for a Globe or an Oscar. I mean, when was the last time a movie released before September 1 even got serious Oscar buzz? OK, it was last year, with Mad Max Fury Road. But you get the point, right? Writing on Vulture.com last week, Kyle Buchanon went through a pretty exhaustive list of likely Oscar nominees for 2016. In the dozens of titles and names he mentioned, precious few have been released yet. But with the year Hollywood is having (BAD, really, really BAD), I wouldn’t be surprised if this mediocrity continues and nothing really grabs our attention. So looking at some good things that are in the bank seems like the right thing to do. Because though it has been a bad eight months, there have still been some gems.
One of the best things about writing your own list is that you pick however many movies you want. I have nine that I consider first rate. In alphabetical order:
Born to Be Blue – Robert Budreau’s biopic of troubled jazz legend Chet Baker features Ethan Hawke’s best performance.
Don’t Think Twice – Mike Birbiglia’s second feature is a funny and warm-hearted ensemble story about an … ensemble. Improv comedy with laughs and tears and artistic truth.
The Innocents – If you liked 2014’s Oscar winner Ida, be sure to see Anne Fontaine’s beautiful and terrible portrait of a group of nuns in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and the young French doctor who tries to help them.
Hell or High Water – All right. I wrote about this one already. Here’s the link. It’s really, really good.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople – If you liked Taika Waititi’s vampire send-up What We Do in the Shadows, be sure to see this hilarious and touching adventure story. (And pray that directing the new Thor movie doesn’t ruin Waititi.)
Little Men – If you liked Ira Sachs’ critical darling Love is Strange, be sure to see this. (OK, I realise that I’m using that same construction over and over. It’s intentional. But I’ll stop now.) Anyway, I didn’t like Love is Strange, but I loved this story of young friendship destroyed by adult reality.
Morris From America – A black single dad raising his son in Germany. How much more off-the-beaten-path do you want? Director Chad Hartigan, who made the quietly engrossing This is Martin Bonner a few years back, scores again.
Wiener-Dog – Todd Solondz makes difficult movies that have a very dark sense of humor about them. This portmanteau, which follows its titular pooch through four different owners, from very young to very old, has echoes of Au hazard Balthazar and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and if you can recall Robert Bresson and Roy Andersson in the same movie, that’s pretty good stuff.
Zootopia – The one mainstream Hollywood film on my list. And it was about a bunny working as a cop.
I’ve got seven.
Jesuthasan Antonythasan – Dheepan won at Cannes in 2015 and Antonythasan’s escaped Tamil rebel driven to violence in his new French home carries the movie.
Bryan Cranston – For those of us who worried that Cranston might never find another suitable role after playing Walter White, doing Dalton Trumbo last year and Robert Mazur, the undercover agent who helped take down Pablo Escobar’s operation in this year’s The Infiltrator, should give us all comfort.
Cliff Curtis – The Maori actor actually got to play a Maori character in The Dark Horse. He is a troubled chess master who teaches troubled kids how to rise above their circumstances.
Hugh Grant – The Academy will likely consider him a supporting actor in Florence Foster Jenkins. He is a leading man.
Ethan Hawke – See Born to Be Blue above.
Shah Rukh Khan – Khan plays a version of himself in The Fan and he is OK doing it. But he also plays a young man who impersonates that character, and in that role, he is absolutely brilliant.
Parker Sawyers – Sawyers doesn’t just do a really good impersonation of a young Barack Obama in Southside with You. He creates a nuanced, indelible character that is entirely believable.
By sheer coincidence, I’ve got seven.
Taraneh Alidoosti – Made ten years ago, but only released in the USA this year, Asghar Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday is not quite as sharp as his subsequent gems. But it is still awfully good, and so is Alidoosti as the young maid in over her head in this intense family drama.
Lou De Laage – She’s the young doctor in The Innocents, mentioned above.
Krisha Fairchild – Krisha is a painful story about addiction and what it does to families and Krisha Fairchild inhabits it like a tortured spirit.
Catherine Frot – She was tasked with playing a version of a character Meryl Streep would soon play. Her movie was called Marguerite. It is too long and too mean spirited, but Frot is remarkable.
Imogen Poots – In Green Room, Poots is a tough rocker who must fight off killer dogs and knife wielding skinheads to survive. And she does it so damn well.
Meryl Streep – Catherine Frot laid down the challenge and Ms. Streep picked it up. Her Florence Foster Jenkins is a marvelous return to form.
Tika Sumpter – The other half of Southside With You’s power couple. A fabulously controlled Michelle.
Too many to elaborate on, but here are 16 stand-outs.
Barkhad Abdi (Eye in the Sky), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Ellen Burstyn (Wiener Dog), Agata Buzek (The Innocents), Clifton Curtis, Jr. (Triple 9), Danny DeVito (Wiener Dog), Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water and Blood Father), Ben Foster (Hell or High Water), John Carroll Lynch (The Invitation), Melanie Lynskey (The Intervention), Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky), Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad), Craig Robinson (Morris From America), Tim Robbins (A Perfect Day), Fedja Stukan (A Perfect Day) and Rima Te Wiata (Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
Every year, there are more and more great performances by actors too young to vote.
Michael Barbieri (Little Men), Markees Christmas (Morris From America), Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Oona Laurence (Bad Moms and Pete’s Dragon) Jaeden Lieberher (The Confirmation and Midnight Special), Theo Taplitz (Little Men)
Opening Credits – Deadpool
Cinematography – Jarin Blaschke for The Witch
Versatility – He went undercover as a skinhead in a brutal drama. He played a dead guy magically restored in an absurdist dramedy. And he brought manic life to an otherwise vapid sequel. And you probably still think of him as Harry Potter. Here’s to you Daniel Radcliffe, for taking chances and hitting them out of the park.
Screenwriting – Birbiglia for Don’t Think Twice
Music – the Lonely Island boys for the songs in Popstar. Never Stop.
Moments – Movies are about moments. Here are some unforgettable ones.
Jake’s speech in Little Men begging his parents not to evict his friends.
Curtis’ speech in Morris From America. Instead of scolding his son, he shares a memory.
The meal Ryder shares with his Uncle Keith’s family in Take Me to the River, as tension-inducing as it gets.
Well, that’s the update from the three quarter mark. I hope some of these are still in the conversation when we reach the end of the year and start passing out the kudos.