Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016: The Top 10 Movies of the Year

I was going to open this year-end overview by writing, "2016 started out so promisingly," but then I actually thought back to the early months of this year. My grandmother died, I was convinced my wife and I had made a terrible mistake with the purchase of our condo ... there were plenty of things to lament then, too. My point isn't to make 2016 sound like a ceaseless wave of sadness but, rather, to suggest that sometimes we have to choose to find a little light amidst the gloom.

So let's try this: 2016 was a fantastic year for movies, a suspicion that started back at Sundance but was cemented by trips to True/False and especially Cannes. Here's my Top 10....

1. Moonlight 
2. American Honey 
3. The Other Side
4. O.J.: Made in America 
5. Paterson 
6. Certain Women 
7. The Lobster 
8. Notfilm 
9. La La Land 
10. Everybody Wants Some!!

After a couple years of being out of the critical consensus, I found myself pretty aligned with my colleagues in 2016. I go into my choices in some detail over here at The New Republic, and you can check out my Village Voice ballot right here. (An even-more-detailed ballot can be found over at the IndieWire site.) The two selections in my Top 10 that are probably the least familiar to readers, The Other Side and Notfilm, were among the year's finest documentaries, and both are available on home video -- or soon will be. (The Other Side is up at iTunes and Amazon. Notfilm hits DVD in March.)

Professionally, 2016 had plenty of highlights. In April, I flew to Las Vegas for Rolling Stone to review the first official date of Guns N' Roses' "reunion" tour. (That sentence is something 16-year-old me would have never believed he would be able to say.) In June, I spoke with former Esquire art director George Lois in the wake of Muhammad Ali's death to talk about the iconic cover they made together in 1968. Lois was still reeling from his friend's passing, but he was incredibly gracious with his time: The resulting piece is one of my favorites I've written for Rolling Stone. I am grateful to write for a publication I adored as a kid, and I'm thankful to have a great editor in David Fear, who asked if I'd be interested in interviewing Alden Ehrenreich after his delightful turn in Hail, Caesar! I was, and wrote this piece, which is a lot funnier now that he's been cast as the young Han Solo. For David, I got to profile everyone from Elizabeth Wood to Andrea Arnold to Julie Dash, and he also let me write about Stephen Colbert's disappointing performance during the Republican and Democratic national conventions -- a piece that, in retrospect, was my way of letting go of my hope that his Late Show was ever going to pull out of the nosedive of mediocrity that seems to be its fate.

I wrote a ton of reviews, for Screen International, The New Republic, Paste and Popular Mechanics, which allows me a consistent opportunity to interact with film culture in a way I prefer. (As much as I enjoy tweeting reactions after screenings during a festival, the process of sitting down and composing something still feels more nourishing.) And the opportunity to go back and reconsider movies between a festival viewing and a theatrical release has been illuminating. More times than not, my initial impression remains, but the nuance of my understanding of the film deepens.

Then, there are the happy accidents that come your way because of an assignment. I'd been a fan of Emayatzy Corinealdi ever since seeing her in Middle of Nowhere. But hanging out with her the day before the Oscars for Backstage was an absolute treat. She couldn't have been lovelier. I've mentioned this before, but I relish my experiences interviewing actors for Backstage: They are open and honest in a way that's refreshing. It's partly because of the publication, I imagine, but I'd also like to think that they feel that they're in good hands with me -- that trust means a lot. Corinealdi saying grace before our meal, or Michiel Huisman taking a break to really enjoy the opening cut off Stevie Wonder's Innervisions while it was playing in the room, or Emma Stone sharing her secrets about dealing with voice issues (it didn't make the final piece), or Derek Hough talking about being lucky ... each of those moments felt unrehearsed, and I was thrilled to have been present when they occurred. (My Backstage year culminated with a chat with Lily Tomlin. More about that in 2017.)

The public unveiling of MEL was one of my proudest 2016 moments. There's a part of me that's drawn to building something from scratch, and I couldn't be happier to work with a bunch of smart writers and editors in Venice, who have become a new little family in my life. For MEL, I got to make the case for Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience as the great movie about the 2008 economic collapse. I also bid farewell to Prince and Leonard Cohen, and I was able to revisit my 2009 EMP Pop Conference paper on George Michael's "Father Figure," having no idea that Michael would die 10 months later. And I was also given the freedom to interview documentary filmmakers whose work spoke to me, whether that be Brett Story and the remarkable The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (No. 17 on my 2016 list) or the directors behind last year's Welcome to Leith. In between, I also chatted with Max Linsky, who hosted the I'm With Her podcast alongside Hillary Clinton. A lot of my writing for MEL in 2016 reflected the rolling anxieties of a presidential election year. I suspect MEL will spend a lot of 2017 reacting to that election's aftermath, and I'm excited to see what the staff will come up with.

Other happy memories? I love my annual tradition of covering the Sci-Tech Awards, and going backstage during Oscar prep week was very entertaining. I wrote both of those pieces for Popular Mechanics, but my big feature for the magazine is my yearly salute to the best movie effects. Talking to Arrival production designer Patrice Vermette about our shared love of James Turrell was one of my most geeked-out conversations in 2016. (Seriously, Turrell's LACMA exhibition from a few years ago was amazing. Just ask me or Patrice, who took plenty of inspiration from it for Arrival, which ended up No. 19 on my year-end list.)

I continued to review television for The Wrap, which allowed me the opportunity to experience gems like the small-screen redo of The Girlfriend Experience, as well as Atlanta, Better Things and The Night Of.

As always, my hat's off to the great crew at Paste, who give me ample room to write about Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and True/False. I was very happy to write the site's essay on its Film Person of the Year, the magnificent Isabelle Huppert. (Elle ended up No. 13 on my list. Things to Come was No. 16.)

And then there's my old friend Will Leitch. This was our first full year at The New Republic, and it was a blast. The weekly podcast is a regular treat in my life, and I'm eternally grateful to my editor, Michelle Legro, for letting me write about The Killing of America, a movie I found arresting and deeply upsetting when I saw it at True/False. Will and I have cultivated a readership over the years, and I never take that for granted. And what fun it was to watch a movie with Will for the first time in forever, even if we totally disagreed about the movie. Eagle-eyed readers will know I'm referring to Rogue One, which, well, you can hear about that here.

I am not going to convince you that 2016 wasn't a terrible year. It was. For me, personally and globally, it was the worst since 2001. I feel very concerned that 2017 could be worse. But I refuse to assume that. I'm just more convinced that we have a responsibility to take care of one another -- because I'm not sure anybody else will.

The morning after the election, I wrote an email to my parents. Here's the part of it I feel like sharing:
Needless to say, I am heartbroken. I'm also angry and stunned and ashamed. I feel like I have tried to live a life in which I conduct myself as a good person -- the kind of person you raised. The man the country just elected represents everything that is counter to how I was raised and the values that I was given. I can't help but take last night's results incredibly personally -- it feels like an affront to everything that matters to me about basic human decency. 
I'm scared about what's ahead for America and the world. But I'm not going to give up on the idea of basic human decency still mattering. One of the reasons why I love Obama was because he was a role model for the values that mean so much to me. Those values are worth fighting for. Which is why I'm ending this wrap-up on the film that kept speaking to me most this year.

At True/False, which takes place in Columbia, Missouri, a last-minute premiere was announced of a documentary short made by a trio of University of Missouri students. It was Concerned Student 1950, named after the student protest movement that brought down the campus president in 2015. An attack on racism fueled by righteous anger, Concerned Student 1950 was an inspiring story in the newspaper, but to watch the fiery, triumphant documentary on the campus where the events occurred was another story entirely. It's the sort of disciplined, concentrated protest that many Americans would do well to study as we move into Trump's presidency. Next year may be worse than this year. But we have some say in the matter.

Mousterpiece Cinema: Going Long on 'Rogue One'

At this point, you have already seen Rogue One or decided you're entirely uninterested in seeing it. This post is for people in the former camp: I was very pleased to be asked back to Mousterpiece Cinema to talk about the latest Star Wars movie. We went long -- two hours -- and I think it's a fun discussion about the movie that touches on politics, economics and whether CG Tarkin is the worst thing ever. Check it out here.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016: Isabelle Huppert's Amazing Year

Over at Paste, I wrote about Isabelle Huppert, who the site named its Film Person of the Year. She was part of four films in 2016: Valley of Love, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come and Elle. In each, she ruled. Taken together, their cumulative impact is stunning. Really happy with how this turned out: Hope you enjoy.

Catching Up With the Late-December Movie Releases

Will and I are on break for the holidays, but over at The New Republic we have a handy rundown of the season's big releases. We've got capsule reviews for Assassin's Creed, Fences, A Monster Calls, Passengers, Paterson, Patriots Day, Silence and Toni Erdmann. Enjoy!

case/lang/veirs - "I Want To Be Here"

The hungry fools 
Who rule the world can’t catch us 
Surely they can’t ruin everything  

I just want 
I wanna be here with you 
Not bracing for what comes next

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Best of 2016: The Year in Best-Of Lists

Here's one of my favorite annual traditions. For Rolling Stone, I attempt to tell the story of the year gone by entirely through ranked lists. The idea is to create a de facto time capsule of 2016 -- and maybe provide a little commentary along the way. The stars of this year's list of lists include Kobe Bryant, Syrian refuges and, yes, Donald Trump. Check it out.

Misleading Men: Edward Norton

Edward Norton is one of the stars of Collateral Beauty, which nobody saw, including me. But it did provide me an opportunity to write about Norton, The Incredible Hulk and the misconceptions around the idea of the "difficult" actor. The Oscar-nominated thespian is the subject of my latest installment of "Misleading Men" over at MEL.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Ride - "Drive Blind"

Have a Merry Shoegazing Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'Live by Night' Review

I went to an early critics' screening of Live by Night, which was introduced by Ben Affleck, who wrote, directed and stars in the gangster drama. He made an appeal for supporting studio movies that take risks and aren't just franchises. (He then made a self-deprecating joke about being knee-deep in Batman movies for Warner Bros., which is putting out Live by Night, for the immediate future.) Supporting grownup fare is all well and good, but Live by Night is kinda dull. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Let's Rank All Will Smith's Movies

I haven't seen Collateral Beauty, but for Vulture Will and I offer a comprehensive overview of Will Smith's career. Check it out. (And, seriously, see Ali.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

'Rogue One' and the State of the Modern Prequel

Ready for more Rogue One opinions from me? Over at Rolling Stone, I made my case for why the new Star Wars film shows other franchises how to do their reboots/remakes/sequels/prequels properly. As you might imagine, there are spoilers. You can read it right here.

'Assassin's Creed' Review

Give Assassin's Creed this: It's not good in a pretty arresting way. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in this adaptation of the popular videogame series. Most of the time, I had no idea what was going on. But it's got a real vision to its hallucinatory nonsense. My Screen International review is live here.

'Passengers' Review

Is Passengers as terrible as you've heard? No. Is it good? Ultimately, no. It gets close to being a nervy studio movie about one supremely twisted love story, but it wimps out along the way. Also, Passengers is the film where I started to seriously question Chris Pratt's potential as a movie star. I reviewed the film for Popular Mechanics.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Julieta' Review

Funny how movies' bad buzz can sometimes affect your relationship with them before you even get a chance to watch them. Before Cannes, Julieta had screened for some critics, and the consensus was that it was pretty minor Pedro Almodóvar and, therefore, skippable -- which is what I did at the festival. Only now am I catching up with it before its U.S. release, and I have to say ... well, it's not amazing, but it's pretty darn decent. And it's sure better than his last film, the ghastly I'm So Excited! My review is up at Paste.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Grierson & Leitch Podcast: Let the 'Rogue One' Debate Begin

While Will was in Los Angeles, he and I taped a podcast entirely devoted to Rogue One. He and I saw the film together but did not discuss it afterward. Also, we hadn't read anything that anyone else had said about it. So, what you'll hear in this episode are our completely unfiltered responses to the movie. One of us loved Rogue One; one of us hated it. Both of us were surprised by the other person's take. Hear the whole thing here. (Note: There are no spoilers in this episode, but I still think you should see the film first before listening.)

'The Killing of America': 35 Years Later

At this year's True/False, I checked out The Killing of America, a profoundly upsetting documentary about our country's obsession with violence. The movie debuted in 1981, but it felt like it could have been made yesterday. For The New Republic, I spoke with its director to reconstruct the making of this upsetting film and why it basically vanished without a trace afterward. In 2016, The Killing of America is having something of a comeback. Here's my essay on the film and its lasting impact.

Best of 2016: The Top 10 Horror Movies of the Year

The intrepid team at Rolling Stone has put together a list of the year's finest horror movies. I wrote about The Eyes of My Mother, which is super-creepy. You can check out the whole list here.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Blood Orange - "I Know"

Dev Hynes is not getting enough end-of-the-year love for his terrific album Freetown Sound. C'mon, people.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Returning to 'Welcome to Leith'

At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, a documentary called Welcome to Leith debuted. It was about a small town in North Dakota that was overtaken by white supremacists. (Their strategy was simple: If there's more of us than there are of them, we decide what happens in this community.) With Trump's rise, I revisited the film and interviewed one of its directors, Michael Beach Nichols, for MEL. You can read the piece here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Grierson & Leitch Podcast: Talking 'La La Land,' 'Usual Suspects' and 'Five Heartbeats'

For this week's installment of our New Republic podcast, Will and I come to you live from Los Angeles. He and I hang out in my office to discuss La La Land. And in our Reboot segment, we tackle The Usual Suspects (I still think it's overrated) and The Five Heartbeats. You can hear the whole thing here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

'Rogue One' Review

So, I have no idea what any of my colleagues thought of Rogue One. I went to the premiere Saturday night, wrote my review that evening and have stayed off social media ever since. Well, now that the embargo has lifted, I can say: I enjoyed this movie immensely, and I think it's the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. This is a surprisingly thoughtful and emotional war movie. My review is up at Screen International.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

'Hidden Figures' Review

Here's a great true story that's stripped of its drama by a bland biopic-y approach. Hidden Figures recounts the unsung contributions of African-American women who worked as mathematicians in the 1960s for NASA during the height of the Space Race. Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe are such fun in the film but, seriously, the movie is a paint-by-numbers affair. I reviewed Hidden Figures for Screen International.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

'Silence' Review

Silence is a movie that Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for decades. It tells the story of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) in the 17th century traveling from Portugal to Japan to hunt down their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). Arduous, demanding, uneven, imperfect, Silence is also a real knockout in certain ways. I struggled with it, which is perfect for a film about faith. My review is live at Screen International.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Drive-By Truckers - "What It Means"

I've long praised Drive-By Truckers, who are one of America's two best bands. (The other being the Roots.) But I've been nervous about hearing their latest record, American Band, ever since word got out that it was going to address current events head-on. As frontman Patterson Hood puts it in the liner notes, "Our records have often attempted to tell some kind of story, sometimes current things veiled in some tale set in some other time period. This album is pretty much centered around contemporary issues. Tales of our time."

And while I still like American Band, its straining to be bluntly topical ends up having limitations. DBT's best songs have tackled racism, unemployment, inequality, mortality, murder, marriage, suicide, corrupt politicians, Southern identity, and even the phony feud between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. These guys are bright, articulate storytellers who connect the small, telling detail to larger societal issues. But American Band strips away the narrative distance these guys usually incorporate, and as a result too much of the album feels earnest rather than illuminating. For the first time in their great career, DBT are telling us what we know without really showing us fresh ways to think about what's going on around us.

At the center of my mixed feelings about American Band is "What It Means." Hood lets fly with a litany of the country's current ills, pinpointing the racial disharmony that's been rampant since Obama got elected. The killing of Trayvon Martin is connected to Ferguson, which is connected to so many other black murders. "Don’t look to me for answers," Hood sings near the end, "'cuz I don’t know what it means." This is a typical approach from artists -- survey the scene while being humble enough to admit you don't have any concrete solution -- but Drive-By Truckers have never pretended they have the answers. What they have been able to give us are characters: Whether based on real people or entirely fictional, the men and women we meet in a DBT album are folks we know. And it's through their struggles that we see ourselves; their humanity reminds us of our own.

As predictably stirring and moving as American Band can be, I find myself missing that slightly removed perspective. If you listen to "What It Means" and it gives you what you need to cope in our troubling times, that's great. Me, I nod along in agreement with everything Hood says. But agreement doesn't seem sufficient. At their best, DBT have also challenged and inspired. The spiritual exhaustion in "What It Means" and American Band is, perhaps, intentional. Lord knows a lot of us feel that way right now. In that sense, American Band is, indeed, a tale of our time. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

'La La Land' Review

Yeah, it's as good as you've heard. La La Land is a fun, frizzy romantic comedy, but like some of the best musicals, it's also a bit bittersweet. My review is up at The New Republic.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Grierson & Leitch Podcast: Reviewing 'Jackie' ... and 'Hudson Hawk'

I am always reminded that one shouldn't use the word "eclectic" to describe something that offers a variety of different things. (Technically speaking, "eclectic" means a wide array of great items.) So, I'll simply say that this week's episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast runs the gamut. On one side, we review Jackie and Things to Come, great movies fronted by superb female performances. On the other, we go back and look at Hudson Hawk. In between, we also chat a bit about the indomitable Double Indemnity. So, a little something for everyone this week. Check it out here.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Thursday, December 01, 2016

'Bad Santa' and Movies About Characters Behaving Badly

In honor of Bad Santa 2, I decided to vent about my dislike of "bad" movies -- you know, Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Words, etc. All those comedies where characters act like reprobates? I think they're massively lame. I go into it over at MEL.

'Things to Come' and Learning to Let Go

Over at The New Republic, I spent a little time raving about Things to Come, which is merely the second-best film out this fall with Isabelle Huppert. (The other, of course, is the fabulous Elle.) She plays a woman saying goodbye to her marriage, her mother and the life she's known. It's a gem -- read all about it.