Joe’s Top Films of 2016: 11-20

By Josiah Wampfler

20. OJ: Made in America

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OJ: Made in America was the last edition to my list. It is a five-part, nearly 8 hour long documentary that aired on ESPN, so as you may imagine, there was plenty of debate around whether or not it qualifies as a film or TV series. In the end though, ESPN put it into the theaters to qualify for the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has named it an Oscar nominated film, so I figured it was safe to put it on the list.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, OJ: Made in America is one of the most meticulously researched and complex documentaries ever made. It covers not only the famous trial of OJ Simpson, but also his rise to fame, the racial climate in which he came to stardom, and how that climate ended up impacting the trial itself, American culture and OJ’s life after the trial. And like some of the other films on this list, even though it is a film about a different time and place, it is an extremely prescient work that speaks to many of the same issues we are facing today. OJ: Made in America is long, but it is engaging, fascinating and extremely worth that time.

19. I Am Not Your Negro

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“The story of the negro in America, is the story of America… It is not a pretty story.”

If there is a quote that perfectly sums up what Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro it is this one. Based on an unfinished manuscript by prolific writer James Baldwin entitled “Remember This House,” I Am Not Your Negro is a powerfully personal documentary. Throughout its runtime, Peck uses only Baldwin’s own words, both from the manuscript and from his other works as he reflects on the lives of three Civil Rights leaders (Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.), discusses the root causes of racism in his time, considers the effects of racism on the oppressed and even engages in a bit of film criticism relating  to therepresentation of African-Americans on screen.

I Am Not Your Negro, narrated beautifully by an unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, is a film that is supposed to make you uncomfortable, like Baldwin did in his own time. Yet, what makes it all the more uncomfortable is how true Baldwin’s words still ring today. And Peck highlights this as he uses both archival footage from Baldwin’s time and images from recent incidents of police violence against African-Americans and the protests that resulted. It is as if Baldwin is speaking directly to this new generation in 2017.

But, what makes I Am Not Your Negro truly powerful is that, in Baldwin’s reflection on these three Civil Rights leaders who had very different strategies and styles, he never hails one as the correct one. I Am Not Your Negro is not about what African-Americans can do better in their messaging or anything like that. As the title suggests, the film is speaking directly to America as a whole and the white population specifically. Toward the end of the film, Baldwin crystallizes this thesis in a statement, calling for the white population to ask itself “Why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place.” He continues, “Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, then you need it. And you have to find out why.” Baldwin’s words, though meant for an earlier audience ring far too true today as he calls for a moment of national self-reflection I think we still clearly need.

18. Don’t Breathe

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I have a whole review for Don’t Breathe that you can check out here, so I’ll keep this brief.

Don’t Breathe is one of the most intense theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. My heart was racing the whole way through and was still going miles away from the theater as I raced home. It is a tightly constructed thriller that knows the meaning of planting and payoff. It has a stellar villain played by Stephen Lang and a great pair of actors in the leads. And, the cinematography is simply stunning. If you are down for an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, then check out Don’t Breathe.

17. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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From the very first frame of 10 Cloverfield Lane I knew I was in for something spectacular. The film starts completely wordless, Bear McCreary’s dread-inducing score underneath as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle races around her apartment packing her things and driving away. Then, suddenly, the car crash with the film’s credits inter-cut within the deafening carnage. This is the moment I was introduced to the confidence of director Dan Tracthenberg.

10 Cloverfield Lane is like a masterclass for how to make a thriller. Throughout the film, Trachtenberg plays the audience’s expectations and emotions like a fiddle. From his terrifying introduction, we are never totally sure of John Goodman’s Howard, and that is completely by design. Just as Michelle, and Emmett (John Gallgher Jr.) to some degree, we are trying to read Howard’s true intentions and whether he is telling the truth. And even if you know of the Cloverfield alien connection, you still aren’t entirely sure. It had me on the edge of my seat the entire film.

Combine that with incredible performances by the cast (Goodman’s is downright Oscar-worthy), an insanely good score (see our top scores of 2016!), wonderfully inventive cinematography in a tight space and an insane final act and you have yourself an incredible thriller. If this is how all the new Clover-verse films are going to be, please take my money now!

16. Loving

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Loving is one of the most beautiful films of the year. Its cinematography is not overly impressive, its score is subtle, but it is the characters and how the film treats those characters that is so beautiful. The story of the couple behind one of the most well-known Supreme Court cases in the United States is told not through a procedural courtroom drama, but as a humanistic tale of love, family and struggle. Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving are given their full humanity in this film.  The court case to end the miscegenation laws to which they were subjected takes a back seat to the true focus of the film: their love.

The film is completely carried by the performances of Edgerton and Negga and excels because of their quiet chemistry. Richard is a man of few words, yet Edgerton gives him a full emotional arc throughout the film by taking advantage of every look and gesture. Mildred is also quite reserved, but Negga gives her an incredible strength and a positive outlook that is simply infectious. Watching these two simply lay together on a couch is a pure delight, which is also what makes every injustice they face all the more heartbreaking and terrible.

Under Jeff Nichols direction, Loving is able to take incredible performances and give them a deserved home. Though the film is very different from his previous work in many ways, there is the same sense of anxiety hanging over his characters as they disobey the law of the land just by loving each other. And, growing up in the same type of southern town the film is set, Nichols has a very interesting perspective on racism that lends itself to the film. This is not a black and white journey of heroes and villains, but a complex tale about a simple couple just trying to love each other the best they could. It is this combination of simplicity and complexity that makes Loving such a joy to witness.

 

Sam’s Top 20 Films of 2016: 11-20

By Sam Wampfler

20. Silence

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Silence is the crowning achievement of Martin Scorsese’s impressive career. It is a visual masterpiece and every scene of this film is breathtaking. Andrew Garfield is also at the top of his game as the main Jesuit priest, Rodrigues. His struggles throughout the film with pride are heartbreaking.

One of the most inspired choices in the film is the almost complete lack of a score. It adds to the already tense mood and elevates the incredible dialogue, the best of which coming from Issei Ogata as the Inquisitor and Tadanobu Adani as the Interpreter. The way they both work to manipulate Garfield’s Rodrigues is hard to watch at times, but so entrancing. This is not a film I will probably ever watch again, but is an experience that I think everyone should have.

19. Southside With You

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The presidential election was depressing and I definitely needed something to get my mind off of the results: Enter Southside With You. This film was delightful. It is a wonderful look into the first date of the Obamas that was so much more entertaining than I was expecting. It is particularly interesting because it shows the events of their date but also delves into their early political ideals and work in community planning. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer do an excellent job of portraying the future presidential couple. The way they transformed their voices was impressive and completely spot-on. This film may not be anything super innovative, but every second of it is lovely and supremely entertaining.

18. Kubo and the Two Strings

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The first thing I noticed about Kubo and the Two Strings was it’s beautiful animation. Every strand of hair and every drop of water is animated so precisely; a truly impressive feat. The story is interesting and very unique and the voice actors do a wonderful job of expressing a vast array of emotion. Some of the voice actors, specifically Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron, transform their voices so well that I didn’t know until the credits that they were the ones portraying their characters. Art Parkinson as Kubo is extremely impressive for such a young voice actor. I always find it impressive when young actors portray such complex characters with only the use of their voice. Overall, this was a wonderful film that brought a surprisingly rich and beautiful world to life.

17. Jackie

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Jackie is a stunning and beautiful film. The cinematography in this film is simply a wonder to behold. One of my favorite scenes, which seems so simple, is a scene of Jackie walking through the White House trying on different dresses and looking through different rooms. Through interesting camera angles and some intense close-ups of Jackie this scene becomes a work of art and also benefits from the filmmaker’s choice of music. They perfectly pair it with music from the musical Camelot which not only enhances the scene, but also reflects the overall themes of the film.

Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her career as the titular Jackie. She completely embodies the character down to the way she carries herself and her flawless recreation of the first lady’s accent. Her performance truly elevates this film to a new level.

16. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I am so glad we continue to get great Star Wars films. Rogue One, while not as high on my list as The Force Awakens, is still an amazing addition to a film series that I have always loved. It has one of the best ensemble casts of the franchise, with the obvious standout performance of Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso.  She continues the new Star Wars trend of strong female leads, which I think brings new direction and character to an already great franchise.

The special effects and cinematography in this film are simply stunning. There are shots in this film of the Death Star and other Empire ships that are awe-inspiring. The battle scenes, both on land and in space, are well thought out and perfectly executed.

 

“The Light Between Oceans” Review – A Brilliantly Beautiful Romance With A Twist

By Josiah Wampfler

Blue Valentine. The Place Beyond the Pines. And now The Light Between Oceans. Director Derek Cianfrance has now blown my mind with all of these films and, shockingly, they are his only three feature films of note. From the first frame of Blue Valentine it was apparent that Cianfrace was bound for great things. But with The Light Between Oceans, he makes it abundantly clear that he is a brilliant auteur through and through.

In this twist on an early 20th Century romance, Cianfrance trades in one of my man-crushes (Ryan Gosling) for my other: the endlessly captivating Michael Fassbender. Joining Fassbender is his real-life girlfriend Alicia Vikander and WOW! These two are incredible. Apparently, their real-life relationship blossomed during the making of the film and that is immediately evident on the screen. Fassbender and Vikander make one of the best romantic pairings in years.

Though Vikander is a relative newcomer compared to Fassbender, she is every bit as captivating and convincing. For every brilliantly emotive look Fassbender exhibits, Vikander is there to answer him. Each one feeds off the other’s performance to create the kind of magnetic chemistry that is rarely captured on camera.

The film also features Rachel Weisz, who is every bit as superb as her co-stars, but to even talk about her role is a spoiler in itself unfortunately (If you haven’t read the synopsis/watched the trailer, DON’T). What I will say is that all three of these actors put in phenomenal performances worthy of awards attention, but it is Weisz that surprised me the most. I hadn’t seen her in much before this film and I want to see her in everything now. It is her character that makes The Light Between Oceans so much more than a simple romance and it is her performance that adds heartbreaking complexity to the film, as she pulls at our heartstrings and allegiances throughout.

And holy sunsets! The Light Between Oceans is one of the most magnificently gorgeous films I have ever seen. The scenery, a lone island on which a quaint lighthouse rests amid the treacherous ocean, is the epitome of tranquility. And Cianfrance captures this extraordinarily beautiful place under the light of sunsets and sunrises as often as possible. With his camera he is able to make one place emotionally different in almost every shot, showing how beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Throughout the film we experience beauty in loneliness, love, togetherness, and even tragedy. It is truly a unique visual experience.

The Light Between Oceans is a film first and foremost about love. This is not the simplistic love that is found in most mainstream romances that is all about surface level emotion but a love that explores the deeper complexities of what it takes to make a relationship work. The type of love that Cianfrance shows us involves sacrifice and forgiveness. Life is messy and, like the director’s past work, much of The Light Between Oceans revolves around good people making bad decisions. But we empathize with the characters as they make these decisions, making it all the more heartbreaking. Yet out of the tragedy that is the second half of the film comes a deeper understanding of true love that is willing to sacrifice and willing to forgive. This love is what is able to carry these characters through the tragic events of the film and, in the end, it is this same kind of love in another that ultimately saves them.

 

CB Podcast Ep. 34 – “Green Room” Review

‘This week on the podcast, the bros talk about film news and lots of trailers as well as bring you their review of the bloody indie thriller ‘Green Room.”‘

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