Binge Watching '16

I look forward to the end of the year for a few reasons - vacation time from work, the holidays, and my birthday - but mostly because it’s a great time to watch some of the year’s best films.

Movie studios save some of their biggest and best movie releases for the Christmas holiday season when they know people tend to have time to go out and watch them (at least that’s their hope) and because it’s a film’s last opportunity to be considered and chosen for the award season in Hollywood that starts early the following year, while also staying fresh in the minds of Academy members and the general public. 

I certainly took advantage of watching some of these new 2016 film releases, stories that will certainly have a long lasting impact on my love for cinema and storytelling in general. These movies are worth the investment...


1. Arrival:

Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind. Here's the trailer...

I really like films that deal with extraterrestrials and what encounters with human beings says about who we are as a species, our desires for progress, and where we see ourselves in the vast existence of the universe. Most importantly, and central to this story, is the question of how we communicate with "the other"; do we even care to get to know the other at all? Do we as Americans authentically care enough about other cultures and other people and want to connect with them? How far do we reach out to our neighbors, strangers, and those in need? Do we use the language barrier as an excuse to seclude ourselves from those who not speak the same language nor share the same interests, lifestyle, and skin color as me or you? Would we be willing to look beyond our differences for a common good?

The film is philosophical, poetic, and dramatic. The cinematography, music, and acting are also phenomenal. Here's a good examination of the film from The AtZ Show:


2. Fences:

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) makes his living as a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. Maxson once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but was deemed too old when the major leagues began admitting black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, Troy creates further tension in his family when he squashes his son's (Jovan Adepo) chance to meet a college football recruiter. Here's a look at the trailer...

It's a difficult task to translate a play into a feature film; they're two completely different mediums. In theatre everything is big, expressive, overacted; in film everything is much more quiet, it's aims to show than to speak. I enjoy and respect both mediums equally, so I was interested to see how this play would project on the big screen.

Denzel Washington as director attempts to make this story's transition from the stage to the screen a smooth one, and although it is a very good endeavor, I don't think he quite achieves it. On the other hand, he's able to get fantastic performances from the entire cast, especially his own and Viola Davis. Here's a conversation with Denzel and Viola for Essence Magazine regarding the film:


3.  Manchester by the Sea:

Lee Chandler is a brooding, irritable loner who works as a handyman for a Boston apartment block. One damp winter day he gets a call summoning him to his hometown, north of the city. His brother's heart has given out suddenly, and he's been named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew. As if losing his only sibling and doubts about raising a teenager weren't enough, his return to the past re-opens an unspeakable tragedy. Here's the trailer...


4. La La Land:

The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.


And, here's a really cool featurette on the making of the film with some of the cast and crew...



5.  Lion, or A Long Way Home:

Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of miles across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home....Here's a conversation with Dave Patel on CBS This Morning talking about his character: 

And, just because Patel is such a brilliant and interesting actor and speaker I'll include this conversation from Variety with him and Octavia Spence, who talk about Hollywood and the craft of performing for the camera...


6. Hacksaw Ridge:

The extraordinary true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss who saved 75 men in Okinawa, during the bloodiest battle of WWII, without firing a single shot. Believing that the war was just but killing was nevertheless wrong, he was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon. As an army medic Doss single-handedly evacuated the wounded near enemy lines - braving enemy fire and putting his own life on the line. He was the first conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here is the trailer to the movie...

I'm very glad Mel Gibson decided to make this movie. It's great to see a story told on the big screen where the Christian character actually has a positive impact on the lives of other characters, and consequently on us the viewer. Hollywood writers and directors often prefer to portray Christian characters as antagonists, probably because it's Christianity - many people believe - that's responsible for "so much hatred in the world". In any case, whether the viewer is a Christian believer or not, Hacksaw Ridge is an important film about a man who stands up and fights for what he believes to be true. It's an inspiring movie, as Mel Gibson has described, of an "ordinary man in hideous circumstances doing extraordinary things"...


7. Moonlight:

A young man deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the "War on Drugs" era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality. Here's the trailer...

This was film is very interesting in the sense that it made me feel a bit uncomfortable at a few moments, but that often means that the story is diving into territory that is new and different. I got a similar sensation from the 2008 Darren Aronofsky film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. There's a scene in that film where the wrestler starts to hit himself with strange objects, he's a masochist of sorts. I remember that I could only take so much of watching the self-abuse that the thought of walking out of the movie theatre crossed my mind many times, but in the end I decided to stay and live through pain along with the protagonist. I assume that's what the moviemakers wanted - to place the viewer in a different, perhaps uncomfortable situation in order to help us relate to the main character, to feel compassion a la Marina Abramovic. It is in doing so that we can try to understand what it is like for the “other”.

Aside from the obvious sexual dilemma that Chiron, the protagonist goes through in the story, I believe that the film is about loneliness and the struggle one young man goes through to define his persona, manhood, childhood, and “son-hood”. He’s like a floating spirit throughout the story, never really taking hold of his life, never understanding what his life means. He’s the antithesis of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge who knows exactly who he his, what he wants and what to do to obtain it; Chiron is timid, small, and a reject. That, however, doesn’t mean that film isn’t worth the investment. Based on the music, acting, and cinematography Moonlight is a film worth watching. The movie is what some film critics would call a tour de force because it achieves to touch on themes that are risqué and taboo, while still managing to be relatable.

Here are a couple of vids where the director Berry Jenkins and the cast talk about the making of the film...


8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:

Former scientist Galen Erso lives on a farm with his wife and young daughter Jyn. His peaceful existence comes crashing down when the evil Orson Krennic takes him away from his beloved family. Many years later, Galen is now the Empire's lead engineer for the most powerful weapon in the galaxy, the Death Star. Knowing that her father holds the key to its destruction, a vengeful Jyn joins forces with a spy and other resistance fighters to steal the space station's plans for the Rebel Alliance. Here's a look at the international trailer...

I wouldn't lie to you and say that I am a fan of Star Wars and that I have seen any of the prior Star Wars films because I haven't, but I really enjoyed this one. Rogue One is very entertaining, the story is good, the acting is great, and I really appreciated the way the movie makes references to the earlier films. Here's a behind-the-scenes featurette...


For more about these films, click on these links:
1. Arrival
2. Fences