Sunday, February 5, 2017


Only nine movies made it onto my "Top Ten" list of favorite movies this year. I don't think this means I'm getting any crankier (who, moi?), or even that the movies overall are getting any worse.

The problem is I only see about half the number of movies per year that I used to. This is largely due to space constraints in the paper, but also because the complicated technology of digital movies has pretty much ended the practice of advance film screenings for regional press.

All of which means there are less chances for me to discover those offbeat, unexpected gems (like, say, The Fall) that used to lead off my Top Ten lists.

Of the movies I did see this year, however, these are the most list-worthy!

How about you? Any unexpected gems you'd like to share?

LA LA LAND It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. But Damien Chazelle's virtuoso production makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.

Did I mention several scenes are shot in my home town of Hermosa Beach? Shots inside the venerable Lighthouse jazz club (top, left) were especially nostalgic!

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS The best girl-power stories are true. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of this stunningly beautiful documentary, is a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles. Directed by Otto Bell, and shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people.

MOONLIGHT Black lives matter in filmmaker Barry Jenkins' eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways. Three terrific actors play the lead character as child, teen, and adult, and Mahershala Ali (left) is wonderfully charismatic as the boy's surrogate father figure. A slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast. These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.

THE HANDMAIDEN It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London. But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. It's a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.
Cristina Pato, Spanish bagpiper, The Music of Strangers

THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE This beguiling and bittersweet documentary chronicles the efforts of the renowned cellist to found a performing group of international musicians from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, whose existence is dedicated to cultural diversity, and common humanity. Filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) knows a great music doc needs to feature not only wonderful music, but dynamic personalities to perform it, and this one is incredibly rich in both.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT The journey is the destination in Ciro Guerra's haunting meditation on culture, colonialism, and loss, shot in captivating black-and-white, on location in the remote jungles along the Amazon River. An indigenous shaman guides two separate scientific explorers down the Amazon, decades apart in the 20th Century; through his eyes, we see the disruptions of tribal culture before, during, and after exposure to the outsiders. Guerra's dreamlike pacing and sensuous imagery make this an absorbing piece of filmmaking with the power of myth in every frame.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS I was completely entranced by the sophisticated storytelling of Derek Cianfrance's film adaptation on the M. L. Stedman novel. Michael Fassbender is terrific as a stoic WWI vet who takes a job as lighthouse keeper on a lonely rock off the Australian coast. Alicia Vikander is remarkable as a local woman who eases past his defenses and changes his life plan. This is movie-making for grown-ups, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully shot.

THE VVITCH Set in early colonial America, and meticulously researched by rookie writer-director Robert Eggers, this is not the cheesy horror movie you might expect, but an often squirmingly intense psychological drama of hysteria and religious fanaticism. Sure, it's still plenty scary (or at least creepy), but it's fearful anticipation that propels the narrative, not in-your-face violence.

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