Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

The Middlebrow Monk's best films of 2016

Critical listicle!

Hell or High Water: Trump may disappoint, but this film still captures the feeling that got him elected.
Hell or High Water: Trump may disappoint, but this film still captures the feeling that got him elected.

Matthew Lickona here. One of the painful things about looking back over the year in reviews is you get an eyeful of your unfortunate overuses. I’m going to try to excise “riveting,” “gripping,” and “fascinating” from next year’s efforts. Not sure what happened there. Maybe it’s just that This Modern Internet Life has rendered me more distractable than I used to be, and so when a film hooks me hard and drags me under, I’m both impressed and grateful — and out come those adjectives.

But you know what isn’t riveting? A critic musing over his own stylistic choices when he should be trumpeting his approval for other people’s. So! Herewith, Matthew “The Middlebrow Monk” Lickona’s Top Ten Movies for 2016. (Honorable mention/Number 11: Tobias Lindholm’s A War.)

Movie

Queen of Katwe ***

thumbnail

It’s a movie about a poor girl (Madina Nalwanga) being raised in a ramshackle African village by a single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who comes under the tutelage of a chess coach (David Oyelowo) who would rather be an engineer, and who quickly discovers she has a gift for the game. Plus a nascent hunger for a better life than the two possibilities that loom before her: Mom’s constant toil and want and big sister’s transformation into a sexual plaything. So yes, there’s a formula at work here, just as there is a formula in a classic chess opening. And yes, that formula will involve lessons about chess that very neatly turn out to be lessons about life. What of it? Success depends on execution and the small, telling surprises that come from anticipation and mastery. Happily, director Mira Nair knows just how to deploy her excellent cast, giving weight to the drama of both Mom and coach without ever forgetting her sweet young queen. And kudos to Disney for leaving a few rough edges on its smoothly built piece of family entertainment.

Find showtimes

10) Queen of Katwe

When I failed to fall in love with Moana, a commenter suggested that I “could just be someone that hates brown people.” I think maybe it was more that I’d already seen a feel-good, formulaic Disney flick featuring a young, female person of color who overcomes great odds with the help of an older male and so brings joy to her people in 2016, and it was just flat-out done better. Director Mira Nair managed a family-friendly presentation of a story with plenty of dark and difficult aspects, and did it without bowdlerizing. And there is great pleasure in watching really fine actors (David Oyelowo, Lupito Nyong’o) elevate their supporting characters from stock to special. Plus, chess metaphors for kids!

Movie

Elvis & Nixon ***

thumbnail

Historical flight of fancy suggesting that if only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only Elvis could go to Nixon: a rock ’n’ roller beloved by America who loved America right back, right down to her squaresville commander-in-chief. In 1970, the King surveyed his dominion and was dismayed: riots, drugs, communists, and the Beatles were destroying the youth culture he had labored so mightily to create. So he resolved to go undercover to save his people — with the backing of the Federal government. (Either that, or he just wanted a cool badge for his collection.) Step one: stop by the White House — uninvited, unannounced, and mostly unwanted — for a chat with the leader of the free world, and task his two buddies with making it all work out. Michael Shannon effectively makes his tender voice and feline movements cover for the physical discrepancies between himself and Presley, but it’s Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon who slouches into the spotlight as a man determined to understand and engage the strangely dressed creature sitting in the Oval Office, eating his candy and drinking his Dr. Pepper. Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) brings warm humanity and delightful tension to the proceedings, and even slips in a point: something about what the mighty must do for the rest of us to live happy.

Find showtimes

9) Elvis & Nixon

An admittedly minor film about a minor American moment, even if it did produce the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives. But it’s rendered with such care and compassion (Kevin Spacey’s Nixon is a marvel in this regard), and powered with such verve and heart, that director Liza Johnson’s look back on a weird time feels like a miniature masterwork. I left grinning, a painfully rare occurrence. Plus, Michael Shannon as Elvis!

Movie

Embrace of the Serpent <em>(El abrazo de la serpiente)</em> ***

thumbnail

The reason for black and white — or one of them, anyway — in Cero Guerra’s tale of dual Amazonian explorations is clear from the get-go: the lack of color allows texture and light to come to the fore in spectacular fashion. The film can be savored (and almost entirely understood) on the strength of its visuals alone, but the dialogue is much more than decoration. Rather, it serves to navigate the twisting, tangled souls of both explorer and native. Both of the physical journeys — one in 1909, another in 1940 — involve a white man in search of <em>yakruna</em>, a plant of remarkable power and dubious existence, and a Cohiuano shaman named Karamakate. Suspicious, heartbroken, clever, and profoundly decent, Karamakate believes himself the last of his tribe, the sole repository of his people’s wisdom and culture. Throughout, he succeeds in avoiding the brutal and rapacious rubber barons, the brutal and overzealous missionaries, and the brutal and invasive Colombians, but the questing men of science prove too great a temptation. Wisdom wants to be shared. A frankly great character in a thoroughly gripping film.

Find showtimes

8) Embrace of the Serpent

The author David Foster Wallace once noted that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism...everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In other words, even a secular person has a religious bone, and this was a good year for seeing that explored on film. Knight of Cups, The Vessel, The Innocents, The Free World, The Witch — even the horror show that was The Eyes of My Mother. (And I haven’t even seen Silence yet!) Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent was my second favorite of these — the first shows up later in the list — a tale of desperate faith, broken faith, and clashing faiths set in the Amazon. The shaman Karamakate may be my favorite character of the year. Plus, gorgeous black and white photography!

Movie

Neon Demon ***

thumbnail

Trite but visceral but gorgeous, director and co-writer Nichalas Winding Refn’s story of a teenage model (a pitch-perfect Elle Fanning) who discovers the dangerous power of her own beauty is the sort of expertly crafted depiction of youth’s instinctual narcissism you might like to show a newly self-conscious adolescent — except for the extremely nasty bits. The frustrating part is that the nasty bits, which are shocking enough to seem gratuitous at first, prove to be nearly essential in hindsight. Without them, the louche lurching from highbrow to lowbrow would subside somewhere in the middle, and you’d be left with an oddly arty cautionary tale. As it is, you have another strong outing from a strong director: blank-faced models performing entire arias with their eyes, a purple dress blending into the sunset sky over Los Angeles, and a coherent — if occasionally fantastical and/or horrific — reality. Yes, Refn indulges his camera to the point of luxuriating, but then, he has reason to believe you’ll stay with him.

Find showtimes

7) The Neon Demon

Yup. I was utterly seduced by the beautiful surface of a film about the profound awfulness and danger of being seduced by beautiful surfaces (including your own). But not just the surface: this gorgeous and delicious cautionary tale from master of nastiness Nicholas Winding Refn goes for the gutso [sic] with a third act just batshit and trashy enough to keep it from being an afterschool special. Plus, almost as much L.A.-drenched color as La La Land!

Movie

Weiner ***

thumbnail

The personal is political in Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kreigman’s fascinating documentary covering former Representative Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City. Because, as we’re reminded at the outset, the combative congressman was driven to resign his office in the wake of a sexting scandal. But the political is also personal: right away, he announces that getting back into politics looked like a way forward for his marriage to Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Also, his textual hookups tend to start via shared political passion before progressing to the other kind. And in a rare moment of self-criticism, he allows that politicians may choose their profession partly out of a desire for attention and approval from a wide swath of humanity. Maybe that helps to explain why he lets the cameras roll as both his campaign and his marriage are rocked by a second wave of sextual revelations. At one point, the voice behind the camera actually asks, “Why are you letting me film this?” Weiner can only shrug in reply; the implication is that, for better or worse, this is who he is: an idealistic fighter who will not back down or chicken out. If the fighter is also a fool, so be it. The access is amazing, and the film easily escapes the fading headlines about a botched campaign to become an enduring portrait of a political animal caught in a technological trap.

Find showtimes

6) Weiner

This year’s documentary winner for right time, right place (rather like last year’s Cartel Land). Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg already have a compelling story on their hands: passionate Democrat Anthony Weiner’s attempt, in the wake of a sexual scandal, to mount a political comeback and in the process, remove his taint from his politically ambitious (but also hugely supportive) wife Huma Abedin. And then, in the middle of filming, the scandal re-emerges. Amazingly, Weiner lets the filmmakers stay on, and as a result, Weiner veritably throbs with energy and insight. Plus, bad puns in tabloid headlines!

Movie

Hail, Caesar! ***

thumbnail

Remember movies? <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=coen+brothers">The Coen brothers</a> do. Westerns, romances, musicals, dance extravaganzas — the works. (All of which are on gorgeous, indulgent display here.) Millions of people used to look to them for — in the words of Capitol Pictures’ Eddie Mannix (<a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=josh+brolin">Josh Brolin</a>) — “information, uplift, and yes, entertainment.” Kind of like religion! It’s no accident that Mannix delivers that line to a quartet of religious leaders, brought in to comment on the presentation of Jesus in Capitol’s <em>Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ</em>. It’s also no accident that <em>this</em> film shares part of <em>that</em> film’s title. You see, Mannix is a man of faith: faith in God, but also faith in humanity. Despite the waywardness and weakness forever being displayed by the feckless denizens of his industry, Mannix has trouble writing people off — as economic units, or as clumps of atoms destined for destruction. Instead, he sees them as suffering souls in need of, if not salvation, then at least information, uplift, and yes, entertainment. It’s just possible the Coens feel the same way, and that’s why they made this picture about a beleaguered studio fixer dealing with, among other things, a kidnapped movie star, a cushy job offer, a pregnant mermaid, and a habitual temptation. With <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=george+clooney">George Clooney</a>, <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=scarlett+johansson">Scarlett Johansson</a>, <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=channing+tatum">Channing Tatum</a>, and <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=tilda+swinton">Tilda Swinton</a>, among others.

Find showtimes

5) Hail, Caesar!

Scott already picked Sully for his list, which I greatly admired for being a well-made movie that also perfectly expressed its director’s vision. I thought Hail, Caesar! did the same for the Coen Brothers, and it’s also my favorite religious picture of the year. My take on its message: God doesn’t exist any more than the fantasy world of the movies exists. But without those fantasies, it’s a rotten old world, so take comfort in whatever faith you can muster and try to live accordingly. It gets even better when you consider the story behind the real-life versions of the film’s pregnant actress and Hollywood fixer. Plus, homages to Old Hollywood!

Movie

Indignation ****

thumbnail

Longtime screenwriter and producer James Schamus adapts longtime novelist Philip Roth’s novel of love and death and Midwestern collegiate life, and turns what might have been an exercise in mordant mid-century nostalgia into something vital and resonant (as opposed to the trendier, emptier “relevant”). Something that lives and breathes and feels and fights: you don’t have to care about Bertrand Russell’s essay on <em>Why I Am Not a Christian</em> to sympathize with Jewish undergrad Marcus Messner (a fierce yet cuddly Logan Lerman). You just have to know what it feels like to be flailing away at a system that seems thoroughly comfortable with its failure to understand the subtlety and significance of the particular, the internal dramas that shape our lives and set our destinies. (It’s not that Winesburg College is Evil; it’s just that it’s so thoroughly Other.) That includes its view of romantic love, a thing that moves from external to internal with frightening ease (no pun intended). Messner’s affair with a troubled but generous co-ed sets him against not only his chosen institution, but also the one he inherited, and what seems like a simple act of affection sends our hero headlong into the mouth of fate, and ultimately, his eternal reward.

Find showtimes

4) Indignation

Lotta good coming-of-age movies this year. The Edge of Seventeen was the highest profile, and possibly most winning, but also the slightest. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most charming and offbeat. Songs My Brothers Taught Me was the most hopeful in the midst of heartbreak. Coming Through the Rye was the loveliest. But James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel was the darkest, deepest, and best: the awakened awareness of sex linked fatefully to the awakened awareness of death, and death lending new significance to everything. Smart East Coast Jew heads off to a Midwestern Christian college, falls in love and finds himself. For him, that means finding himself in opposition to...just about everything. And every war brings casualties. Plus, one of the year’s finest dramatic scenes in the confrontation between our hero and the wily Dean!

Movie

Manchester by the Sea ****

thumbnail

Some films you watch to escape from the frequently painful and/or difficult reality of life. <em>Pacific Rim</em>, perhaps. Some films you watch to impose a satisfactory narrative onto the seemingly random chaos of life. <em>Casablanca</em>, maybe. And some films you watch to enter more deeply into life — the difficulty, the chaos, all of it. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful <em>Manchester by the Sea</em>, which tells the story of a penitent exile who is asked to give up both his penance and his exile, falls into the third category. And it does so without a hint of bravado or flourish, except perhaps for a single devastating scene between the exile (Casey Affleck) and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). But even there, everything is earned and nothing is wasted in service to anything beyond the characters themselves. Williams’ is only one of the outstanding performances surrounding Affleck; Lucas Hedges also merits mention for his portrayal of a teenager who remains recognizably human — and what’s more, recognizably himself — in the midst of adolescent grief. But it’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken. (It’s tempting to add, “Until the marble angel standing atop a tombstone is once more a man,” but that’s precisely the sort of high-flown hooey that Lonergan avoids.)

Find showtimes

3) Manchester by the Sea

“Oh, hell,” I thought as the camera held on Casey Affleck’s dead-eyed visage in the early going, “an entire movie’s worth of emotionally constipated Northeast Irish? And there’s a funeral in the offing? Where’s my whiskey and rusty razor blade?” And then Mr. Affleck and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan proved me wrong. A study in grief and learning to live with the wounds that never heal. Plus, Michelle Williams!

Movie

American Honey ****

thumbnail

…needs lots of American worker bees to make it, a roving swarm that labors for the sake of preserving the hive and comforting the queen, and thinks of nothing else. (If that analogy seems a bit much, just take note of the preponderance of bugs through this captivating film’s generous but well-considered runtime.) In this case, that means a van full of Lost Boys and Girls, roaming the heartland and selling magazines door to door under the stern care of their ladyboss Crystal. Except, of course, the grime of commerce has a way of getting under your fingernails (and your clothes, and your skin…), and super-seller Jake (a revelatory Shia LaBeouf) quickly makes it clear to our runaway heroine Star (a mesmerizing Sasha Lane) that what you’re selling isn’t magazines, it’s you. Writer-director Andrea Arnold artfully sets love against money and manages one of the best endings in recent memory. She does a lot of other things right as well, using the kids' use of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll (well, hip-hop) to illustrate both the nightmare and promise of being young and alarmingly free in America.

Find showtimes

2) American Honey

Probably my favorite movie of the year: a film about youth that feels young, a film about fringe living that feels fringey (but also absolutely assured), and most importantly, a film about the persistence of life, love, and hope that gives full voice and vision to their opposites. It’s long, it’s punishing, it’s beautiful, it’s enthralling. Writer-director Andrea Arnold and breakout star Sasha Lane proved revelatory right through the fantastic final scene. Plus, a revivified Shia LaBoeuf!

Movie

Hell or High Water ****

thumbnail

The stars align in the Western sky. <em>Hell or High Water</em> is the sort of film that tempts the critic — well, this one, anyway — to start writing the sort of copy that might end up as a promo-poster pullquote. “Timeless and yet supremely timely,” “A movie with tremendous action that, wonderfully, doesn’t turn into an action movie,” “Hooks you hard and reels you in, but not before it pulls your sympathy in every conceivable direction.” That sort of thing. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as Toby and Tanner, luckless but savvy brothers just setting out on a controlled spree of bank robberies. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as Marcus and Alberto, the aging Texas Rangers out to stop them. The outlaws believe their cause is just, or something close to it: they were dealt a bad hand at the outset, and that was before the house started rigging the game. The Rangers, on the other hand, have the luxury of simply enforcing the law. (Then again, that means they have to chase gun-toting outlaws.) And the rotten world keeps on spinning. Director David Mackenzie tells a sad story about desperate characters that is somehow as thrilling as it is heartbreaking.

Find showtimes

1) Hell or High Water

The film of This American Moment: a couple of angry American men set out to reclaim what’s been taken from them by an inhuman, corporatized system by turning outlaw. The plan is to throw a little monkey wrench into the machine that’s grinding them underfoot, and so gain the power to take care of their own. But their personal revolt has consequences beyond their own troubled world. Sound familiar? Allegories aside, David Mackenzie’s modern Western is tight, taut, tense, and just really good all ’round. Plus, secret favorite Chris Pine in another small-budget marvel!

That’ll do it for me. Scott and I are hoping to get together for a compare-and-contrast session in the very near future. Hopefully, we’ll have something to show for it. And speaking of Scott, here is my co-critic’s Top Ten for 2016. Maybe now I’ll sit down and watch some of them!

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

If sci-fi glam really makes a comeback, UNI will rule them all

Big changes for little band may put them at the head of the class of 2020
Hell or High Water: Trump may disappoint, but this film still captures the feeling that got him elected.
Hell or High Water: Trump may disappoint, but this film still captures the feeling that got him elected.

Matthew Lickona here. One of the painful things about looking back over the year in reviews is you get an eyeful of your unfortunate overuses. I’m going to try to excise “riveting,” “gripping,” and “fascinating” from next year’s efforts. Not sure what happened there. Maybe it’s just that This Modern Internet Life has rendered me more distractable than I used to be, and so when a film hooks me hard and drags me under, I’m both impressed and grateful — and out come those adjectives.

But you know what isn’t riveting? A critic musing over his own stylistic choices when he should be trumpeting his approval for other people’s. So! Herewith, Matthew “The Middlebrow Monk” Lickona’s Top Ten Movies for 2016. (Honorable mention/Number 11: Tobias Lindholm’s A War.)

Movie

Queen of Katwe ***

thumbnail

It’s a movie about a poor girl (Madina Nalwanga) being raised in a ramshackle African village by a single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who comes under the tutelage of a chess coach (David Oyelowo) who would rather be an engineer, and who quickly discovers she has a gift for the game. Plus a nascent hunger for a better life than the two possibilities that loom before her: Mom’s constant toil and want and big sister’s transformation into a sexual plaything. So yes, there’s a formula at work here, just as there is a formula in a classic chess opening. And yes, that formula will involve lessons about chess that very neatly turn out to be lessons about life. What of it? Success depends on execution and the small, telling surprises that come from anticipation and mastery. Happily, director Mira Nair knows just how to deploy her excellent cast, giving weight to the drama of both Mom and coach without ever forgetting her sweet young queen. And kudos to Disney for leaving a few rough edges on its smoothly built piece of family entertainment.

Find showtimes

10) Queen of Katwe

When I failed to fall in love with Moana, a commenter suggested that I “could just be someone that hates brown people.” I think maybe it was more that I’d already seen a feel-good, formulaic Disney flick featuring a young, female person of color who overcomes great odds with the help of an older male and so brings joy to her people in 2016, and it was just flat-out done better. Director Mira Nair managed a family-friendly presentation of a story with plenty of dark and difficult aspects, and did it without bowdlerizing. And there is great pleasure in watching really fine actors (David Oyelowo, Lupito Nyong’o) elevate their supporting characters from stock to special. Plus, chess metaphors for kids!

Movie

Elvis & Nixon ***

thumbnail

Historical flight of fancy suggesting that if only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only Elvis could go to Nixon: a rock ’n’ roller beloved by America who loved America right back, right down to her squaresville commander-in-chief. In 1970, the King surveyed his dominion and was dismayed: riots, drugs, communists, and the Beatles were destroying the youth culture he had labored so mightily to create. So he resolved to go undercover to save his people — with the backing of the Federal government. (Either that, or he just wanted a cool badge for his collection.) Step one: stop by the White House — uninvited, unannounced, and mostly unwanted — for a chat with the leader of the free world, and task his two buddies with making it all work out. Michael Shannon effectively makes his tender voice and feline movements cover for the physical discrepancies between himself and Presley, but it’s Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon who slouches into the spotlight as a man determined to understand and engage the strangely dressed creature sitting in the Oval Office, eating his candy and drinking his Dr. Pepper. Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) brings warm humanity and delightful tension to the proceedings, and even slips in a point: something about what the mighty must do for the rest of us to live happy.

Find showtimes

9) Elvis & Nixon

An admittedly minor film about a minor American moment, even if it did produce the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives. But it’s rendered with such care and compassion (Kevin Spacey’s Nixon is a marvel in this regard), and powered with such verve and heart, that director Liza Johnson’s look back on a weird time feels like a miniature masterwork. I left grinning, a painfully rare occurrence. Plus, Michael Shannon as Elvis!

Movie

Embrace of the Serpent <em>(El abrazo de la serpiente)</em> ***

thumbnail

The reason for black and white — or one of them, anyway — in Cero Guerra’s tale of dual Amazonian explorations is clear from the get-go: the lack of color allows texture and light to come to the fore in spectacular fashion. The film can be savored (and almost entirely understood) on the strength of its visuals alone, but the dialogue is much more than decoration. Rather, it serves to navigate the twisting, tangled souls of both explorer and native. Both of the physical journeys — one in 1909, another in 1940 — involve a white man in search of <em>yakruna</em>, a plant of remarkable power and dubious existence, and a Cohiuano shaman named Karamakate. Suspicious, heartbroken, clever, and profoundly decent, Karamakate believes himself the last of his tribe, the sole repository of his people’s wisdom and culture. Throughout, he succeeds in avoiding the brutal and rapacious rubber barons, the brutal and overzealous missionaries, and the brutal and invasive Colombians, but the questing men of science prove too great a temptation. Wisdom wants to be shared. A frankly great character in a thoroughly gripping film.

Find showtimes

8) Embrace of the Serpent

The author David Foster Wallace once noted that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism...everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In other words, even a secular person has a religious bone, and this was a good year for seeing that explored on film. Knight of Cups, The Vessel, The Innocents, The Free World, The Witch — even the horror show that was The Eyes of My Mother. (And I haven’t even seen Silence yet!) Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent was my second favorite of these — the first shows up later in the list — a tale of desperate faith, broken faith, and clashing faiths set in the Amazon. The shaman Karamakate may be my favorite character of the year. Plus, gorgeous black and white photography!

Movie

Neon Demon ***

thumbnail

Trite but visceral but gorgeous, director and co-writer Nichalas Winding Refn’s story of a teenage model (a pitch-perfect Elle Fanning) who discovers the dangerous power of her own beauty is the sort of expertly crafted depiction of youth’s instinctual narcissism you might like to show a newly self-conscious adolescent — except for the extremely nasty bits. The frustrating part is that the nasty bits, which are shocking enough to seem gratuitous at first, prove to be nearly essential in hindsight. Without them, the louche lurching from highbrow to lowbrow would subside somewhere in the middle, and you’d be left with an oddly arty cautionary tale. As it is, you have another strong outing from a strong director: blank-faced models performing entire arias with their eyes, a purple dress blending into the sunset sky over Los Angeles, and a coherent — if occasionally fantastical and/or horrific — reality. Yes, Refn indulges his camera to the point of luxuriating, but then, he has reason to believe you’ll stay with him.

Find showtimes

7) The Neon Demon

Yup. I was utterly seduced by the beautiful surface of a film about the profound awfulness and danger of being seduced by beautiful surfaces (including your own). But not just the surface: this gorgeous and delicious cautionary tale from master of nastiness Nicholas Winding Refn goes for the gutso [sic] with a third act just batshit and trashy enough to keep it from being an afterschool special. Plus, almost as much L.A.-drenched color as La La Land!

Movie

Weiner ***

thumbnail

The personal is political in Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kreigman’s fascinating documentary covering former Representative Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City. Because, as we’re reminded at the outset, the combative congressman was driven to resign his office in the wake of a sexting scandal. But the political is also personal: right away, he announces that getting back into politics looked like a way forward for his marriage to Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Also, his textual hookups tend to start via shared political passion before progressing to the other kind. And in a rare moment of self-criticism, he allows that politicians may choose their profession partly out of a desire for attention and approval from a wide swath of humanity. Maybe that helps to explain why he lets the cameras roll as both his campaign and his marriage are rocked by a second wave of sextual revelations. At one point, the voice behind the camera actually asks, “Why are you letting me film this?” Weiner can only shrug in reply; the implication is that, for better or worse, this is who he is: an idealistic fighter who will not back down or chicken out. If the fighter is also a fool, so be it. The access is amazing, and the film easily escapes the fading headlines about a botched campaign to become an enduring portrait of a political animal caught in a technological trap.

Find showtimes

6) Weiner

This year’s documentary winner for right time, right place (rather like last year’s Cartel Land). Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg already have a compelling story on their hands: passionate Democrat Anthony Weiner’s attempt, in the wake of a sexual scandal, to mount a political comeback and in the process, remove his taint from his politically ambitious (but also hugely supportive) wife Huma Abedin. And then, in the middle of filming, the scandal re-emerges. Amazingly, Weiner lets the filmmakers stay on, and as a result, Weiner veritably throbs with energy and insight. Plus, bad puns in tabloid headlines!

Movie

Hail, Caesar! ***

thumbnail

Remember movies? <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=coen+brothers">The Coen brothers</a> do. Westerns, romances, musicals, dance extravaganzas — the works. (All of which are on gorgeous, indulgent display here.) Millions of people used to look to them for — in the words of Capitol Pictures’ Eddie Mannix (<a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=josh+brolin">Josh Brolin</a>) — “information, uplift, and yes, entertainment.” Kind of like religion! It’s no accident that Mannix delivers that line to a quartet of religious leaders, brought in to comment on the presentation of Jesus in Capitol’s <em>Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ</em>. It’s also no accident that <em>this</em> film shares part of <em>that</em> film’s title. You see, Mannix is a man of faith: faith in God, but also faith in humanity. Despite the waywardness and weakness forever being displayed by the feckless denizens of his industry, Mannix has trouble writing people off — as economic units, or as clumps of atoms destined for destruction. Instead, he sees them as suffering souls in need of, if not salvation, then at least information, uplift, and yes, entertainment. It’s just possible the Coens feel the same way, and that’s why they made this picture about a beleaguered studio fixer dealing with, among other things, a kidnapped movie star, a cushy job offer, a pregnant mermaid, and a habitual temptation. With <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=george+clooney">George Clooney</a>, <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=scarlett+johansson">Scarlett Johansson</a>, <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=channing+tatum">Channing Tatum</a>, and <a href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/archives/?q=tilda+swinton">Tilda Swinton</a>, among others.

Find showtimes

5) Hail, Caesar!

Scott already picked Sully for his list, which I greatly admired for being a well-made movie that also perfectly expressed its director’s vision. I thought Hail, Caesar! did the same for the Coen Brothers, and it’s also my favorite religious picture of the year. My take on its message: God doesn’t exist any more than the fantasy world of the movies exists. But without those fantasies, it’s a rotten old world, so take comfort in whatever faith you can muster and try to live accordingly. It gets even better when you consider the story behind the real-life versions of the film’s pregnant actress and Hollywood fixer. Plus, homages to Old Hollywood!

Movie

Indignation ****

thumbnail

Longtime screenwriter and producer James Schamus adapts longtime novelist Philip Roth’s novel of love and death and Midwestern collegiate life, and turns what might have been an exercise in mordant mid-century nostalgia into something vital and resonant (as opposed to the trendier, emptier “relevant”). Something that lives and breathes and feels and fights: you don’t have to care about Bertrand Russell’s essay on <em>Why I Am Not a Christian</em> to sympathize with Jewish undergrad Marcus Messner (a fierce yet cuddly Logan Lerman). You just have to know what it feels like to be flailing away at a system that seems thoroughly comfortable with its failure to understand the subtlety and significance of the particular, the internal dramas that shape our lives and set our destinies. (It’s not that Winesburg College is Evil; it’s just that it’s so thoroughly Other.) That includes its view of romantic love, a thing that moves from external to internal with frightening ease (no pun intended). Messner’s affair with a troubled but generous co-ed sets him against not only his chosen institution, but also the one he inherited, and what seems like a simple act of affection sends our hero headlong into the mouth of fate, and ultimately, his eternal reward.

Find showtimes

4) Indignation

Lotta good coming-of-age movies this year. The Edge of Seventeen was the highest profile, and possibly most winning, but also the slightest. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most charming and offbeat. Songs My Brothers Taught Me was the most hopeful in the midst of heartbreak. Coming Through the Rye was the loveliest. But James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel was the darkest, deepest, and best: the awakened awareness of sex linked fatefully to the awakened awareness of death, and death lending new significance to everything. Smart East Coast Jew heads off to a Midwestern Christian college, falls in love and finds himself. For him, that means finding himself in opposition to...just about everything. And every war brings casualties. Plus, one of the year’s finest dramatic scenes in the confrontation between our hero and the wily Dean!

Movie

Manchester by the Sea ****

thumbnail

Some films you watch to escape from the frequently painful and/or difficult reality of life. <em>Pacific Rim</em>, perhaps. Some films you watch to impose a satisfactory narrative onto the seemingly random chaos of life. <em>Casablanca</em>, maybe. And some films you watch to enter more deeply into life — the difficulty, the chaos, all of it. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful <em>Manchester by the Sea</em>, which tells the story of a penitent exile who is asked to give up both his penance and his exile, falls into the third category. And it does so without a hint of bravado or flourish, except perhaps for a single devastating scene between the exile (Casey Affleck) and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). But even there, everything is earned and nothing is wasted in service to anything beyond the characters themselves. Williams’ is only one of the outstanding performances surrounding Affleck; Lucas Hedges also merits mention for his portrayal of a teenager who remains recognizably human — and what’s more, recognizably himself — in the midst of adolescent grief. But it’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken. (It’s tempting to add, “Until the marble angel standing atop a tombstone is once more a man,” but that’s precisely the sort of high-flown hooey that Lonergan avoids.)

Find showtimes

3) Manchester by the Sea

“Oh, hell,” I thought as the camera held on Casey Affleck’s dead-eyed visage in the early going, “an entire movie’s worth of emotionally constipated Northeast Irish? And there’s a funeral in the offing? Where’s my whiskey and rusty razor blade?” And then Mr. Affleck and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan proved me wrong. A study in grief and learning to live with the wounds that never heal. Plus, Michelle Williams!

Movie

American Honey ****

thumbnail

…needs lots of American worker bees to make it, a roving swarm that labors for the sake of preserving the hive and comforting the queen, and thinks of nothing else. (If that analogy seems a bit much, just take note of the preponderance of bugs through this captivating film’s generous but well-considered runtime.) In this case, that means a van full of Lost Boys and Girls, roaming the heartland and selling magazines door to door under the stern care of their ladyboss Crystal. Except, of course, the grime of commerce has a way of getting under your fingernails (and your clothes, and your skin…), and super-seller Jake (a revelatory Shia LaBeouf) quickly makes it clear to our runaway heroine Star (a mesmerizing Sasha Lane) that what you’re selling isn’t magazines, it’s you. Writer-director Andrea Arnold artfully sets love against money and manages one of the best endings in recent memory. She does a lot of other things right as well, using the kids' use of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll (well, hip-hop) to illustrate both the nightmare and promise of being young and alarmingly free in America.

Find showtimes

2) American Honey

Probably my favorite movie of the year: a film about youth that feels young, a film about fringe living that feels fringey (but also absolutely assured), and most importantly, a film about the persistence of life, love, and hope that gives full voice and vision to their opposites. It’s long, it’s punishing, it’s beautiful, it’s enthralling. Writer-director Andrea Arnold and breakout star Sasha Lane proved revelatory right through the fantastic final scene. Plus, a revivified Shia LaBoeuf!

Movie

Hell or High Water ****

thumbnail

The stars align in the Western sky. <em>Hell or High Water</em> is the sort of film that tempts the critic — well, this one, anyway — to start writing the sort of copy that might end up as a promo-poster pullquote. “Timeless and yet supremely timely,” “A movie with tremendous action that, wonderfully, doesn’t turn into an action movie,” “Hooks you hard and reels you in, but not before it pulls your sympathy in every conceivable direction.” That sort of thing. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as Toby and Tanner, luckless but savvy brothers just setting out on a controlled spree of bank robberies. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as Marcus and Alberto, the aging Texas Rangers out to stop them. The outlaws believe their cause is just, or something close to it: they were dealt a bad hand at the outset, and that was before the house started rigging the game. The Rangers, on the other hand, have the luxury of simply enforcing the law. (Then again, that means they have to chase gun-toting outlaws.) And the rotten world keeps on spinning. Director David Mackenzie tells a sad story about desperate characters that is somehow as thrilling as it is heartbreaking.

Find showtimes

1) Hell or High Water

The film of This American Moment: a couple of angry American men set out to reclaim what’s been taken from them by an inhuman, corporatized system by turning outlaw. The plan is to throw a little monkey wrench into the machine that’s grinding them underfoot, and so gain the power to take care of their own. But their personal revolt has consequences beyond their own troubled world. Sound familiar? Allegories aside, David Mackenzie’s modern Western is tight, taut, tense, and just really good all ’round. Plus, secret favorite Chris Pine in another small-budget marvel!

That’ll do it for me. Scott and I are hoping to get together for a compare-and-contrast session in the very near future. Hopefully, we’ll have something to show for it. And speaking of Scott, here is my co-critic’s Top Ten for 2016. Maybe now I’ll sit down and watch some of them!

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

As COVID-19 lockdown lifted, mayoral fundraising delivered better results

Bry outdoes Gloria
Next Article

Vista squeezes pot clinics with 4375 percent fee rise

While Oceanside ponders the storefronts
Comments
4

Having seen all of Lick's single-star ratings, I was expecting a blank page for his top 10 of 2016.

Jan. 5, 2017

Great picks of "Manchester," "American Honey," "Queen of Katwe" and the wonderful "Hell or High Water," but I suspect ulterior motives for naming the Coen Brothers' boring dud "Hail, Caesar." (Like, a chance to interview them for one of those let's-talk-to-famous-directors-column.) And as for "Weiner," how could you?

Jan. 17, 2017
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
Nov. 15, 2018
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
Dec. 10, 2018

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer News — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close