Lamb was the first film I saw in 2016 and as soon as it was over, I knew that it would be on my year-end list. Directed by Ross Partridge (who also stars as the titular lead, David Lamb), this is not an easy film to watch by any means. It deals with the incredibly taboo subject of a relationship between David Lamb and a young girl, Tommie (Oona Laurence), as they travel to his cabin in rural Wyoming after the passing of his father.
Lamb is certainly one of the most daring films I have ever seen as it challenges your expectations and forces you to put aside your judgement of characters that are clearly making some pretty bad decisions. It is a complex film showing that love and morality are not always clear-cut concepts and to truly understand it, you must be willing to accept uncomfortable conclusions.
Aside from the narrative strengths of the film, the performances by Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence as these unorthodox kindred spirits are simply incredible. The chemistry between these two is felt and they both bring so much emotional depth to the film. Plus, the film has a mesmerizing score paired with beautifully subtle cinematography that lends a sense of lightness to a film that is filled with such uncomfortable subject material.
It is contradictions like these that Lamb explores throughout its run time, ending with one of the most morally and emotionally complex scenes this year. For anyone looking for something off the beaten path, Lamb is a must-see.
14. Sing Street
With Donald Trump throwing the world into chaos every other day, Sing Street can seem both frivolous and the exact thing we need right now. It is a film that is so audaciously positive and fun, I am honestly surprised I wasn’t annoyed by it. Directed by John Carney (Once), Sing Street is the delightful story of a young Irish boy, Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) trying to impress a girl with a band he formed only after telling her he had a band.
Set in the 80s, Sing Street gets at the heart of what it is to be young, naïve and a dreamer. It tackles the complex relationships that men form with each other, with an especially powerful relationship between Connor and his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) that moved me to tears, as well as the spirit of adventure that comes with finding one’s true identity.
The film is beautifully constructed both visually and audibly, showing off the vibrant colors of the small Irish town and delivering on some kick ass music from Conor’s band. It is incredibly fun, surprisingly moving and features some wonderful performances from a great group of actors. In these uncertain times, Sing Street is the perfect escape from the constant headache that is reality.
If there is a film on this list that I would say is important it is 13th. Directed by the brilliant Ava Duvernay (Selma), this documentary about the racial inequalities in the United States criminal justice system is a must-see for anyone looking to understand the problems of mass incarceration and current race relations in the U.S. As the name suggests, Duvernay traces these current issues back to slavery and the 13th amendment of the constitution. She argues that because of the exception within that amendment for those convicted of a crime, that slave has now morphed into criminal as a disproportionate number of people of color are incarcerated and are many times even forced to work for private companies without compensation.
Duvernay meticulously lays out her argument like a college dissertation. The film is painstakingly researched, packing an enormous amount of information into less than two hours, yet it also is laid out in an engaging and easy to follow way. 13th is basically “what is wrong with our criminal justice system 101.” And as Duvernay builds her agrument, brick by brick, using interviews, archival footage, graphics and some great African-American music to weave a heartbreaking story of racial prejudice, the gravity of what all these people are saying starts to sink in. We realize that the injustices we remember from history class and the racism that some had believed gone is still here. As social justice activist Bryan Stevenson says at the end of the film, “People say all the time, ‘Well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ … if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that. And the truth is, we are living in this time. And we are tolerating it.”
I have rarely been as moved and entertained by a Disney animated film as I was with Moana. It is the riveting story of a young Polynesian girl sailing across the sea to find the demi-god Maui to save her island, told through mesmerizing animation and incredible songs. But, at the heart of it all, is the characters. Moana, played by first-timer Auli’i Cravalho is probably my new favorite Disney princess (though, she maintains she is not a princess in the film). Cravalho absolutely nails the role, impressively conveying heartfelt emotion and great comedy through her voice alone. And that voice! Her incredible singing voice carries some of the most triumphant and emotional moments of the film and her songs are easily my favorite.
Though I referred to Moana as a Disney princess before, it should be noted how anti-Disney princess this film is. Not only do we have a wonderfully diverse cast and characters from a culture that is rarely represented on screen, eschewing from the many white princesses we’ve had before, but Moana is also unique in that there is no love story. The film is really kind of a coming-of-age tale of Moana journeying to find her true identity as she does the actual work of saving her island. In a subversion of expectations, Maui is the one that becomes the helper character as Moana takes charge and becomes the strong leader she was meant to be. And, interestingly enough, Maui (played by a wonderful Dwayne Johnson) is also an obstacle to her at times, representing sexist attitudes that many women face day-to-day. Though, they also form a wonderful friendship that offers the character some redemption.
So with a wonderful story and great character work, the cherries on top of the whole experience would have to be the animation and music. Though this was the first 3D animated film for directors Ron Clements and John Musker, you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. Moana is simply beautiful, with vibrant colors and incredible detail. There are certain scenes that moved me through the animation alone and the water effects were particularly impressive, especially as it becomes an actual character throughout the film. And to top it all off, just as vibrant as the colors was the music by the amazing Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. The songs are still running through my head, as they are wonderful pieces that work on their own, but within the context of the film they are truly special. Moana never feels overly-musical as it perfectly transitions in and out of song.
With beautiful animation, wonderful music, great characters and a story about a culture that is not often seen on screen, Moana is easily the best Disney animated film in years and I will be humming its tunes for a long time to come.
11. Blue Jay
Right off the bat, what I noticed about Blue Jay was how mesmerizingly beautiful it is. Shot in a soft black and white with a very slight blue hue, the film takes the indie filmmaking feel that is akin to the Duplasses and brings it to a whole new, beautiful level. The way the film uses light and darkness throughout is really interesting and it turns some fairly ordinary scenery into something extraordinary. And the black and white photography serves a purpose outside of just aesthetics, evoking a feeling of nostalgia as two former lovers take a trip down memory lane in the town they grew up in.
What really sells the film though, is the pairing of Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson. Blue Jay is a film that is filled with quiet moments and the duo masterfully exploits every single moment for emotion and character. The film’s premise seems pretty simple at first: two former lovers run into each other in their hometown and spend the day together reminiscing. But, what Paulson and Duplass bring in their performances adds true complexity to the characters that eventually bares itself out in a third act reveal that is the emotional linchpin of the entire film.
Blue Jay is a film that realizes that fairy tale love stories don’t really exist in real life, even as it seems to be telling one of those tales at the same time. This is one of the things I love most about it. The film is able to properly poke fun at romantic tropes and the characters’ past idealistic love, but it also is able to call out the very cynicism that all of this comes from. The characters spend a good deal of time laughing about all the dumb, uncool things they used to do and think, but as the film progresses, both the characters and the audience start to understand that, while fairy tale love stories don’t truly exist, we all really wish they did. And sometimes, that is close enough.
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