“Wind River”

By the time Taylor Sheridan’s (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water) Wind River concluded with an informative caption, I was devastated. Sheridan writes and directs a brutal modern-day Western about a subject that needs our attention.

US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds a murdered teenager in the Wind River Indian Reservation. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned the case and is unprepared for the harsh weather and violence that await. With Lambert’s help, Banner hunts for the killer. Lambert, however, has his own reasons for taking the case.

Wind River has taken the title of 2017’s feel-bad movie (who would have thought Detroit would be dethroned?). I haven’t seen any other film this year that’s either as provocative or visceral as Wind River. Sheridan is on a role with the cynical and grim Westerns.

While Sicario was nihilistic about the war on drugs and Hell or High Water about banks, Wind River isn’t nihilistic. It’s brutally honest about missing Native American women and how there are no statistics. No one knows how many are missing; this is a fact that floored me.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Lambert takes the case as a form of catharsis. His daughter has been missing (and possibly dead) for years and he aids Banner to help exercise his aggression. Lambert doesn’t hold back his rage during the climax, resulting in some shockingly violent moments. Renner delivers a taut performance as Lambert; he’s a likable-yet-troubled cowboy overwhelmed by pain. With one beautifully written monologue about grief, Renner is a guaranteed Best Actor nominee.

Olsen plays Banner with a certain level of innocence. She isn’t afraid to draw her weapon or take charge of the situation, but it’s obvious that this is her first homicide case. This is emphasized in the final act when she breaks down over the case’s grisly outcome.

Wind River is Sheridan’s sophomore directorial effort. While his aesthetics are slightly uneven (using voiceover narration in the prologue and title cards in the epilogue), he is one to keep an eye out for. His poetic screenwriting, dark commentary, and use of violence make him a standout auteur.

Grade: A

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Top 16 Films of 2016

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That’s right! I saw 16 movies that were great and worth mentioning. Before I count them down, I have a few things to mention:

  • Grades are arbitrary. So, just because a movie has an A+, that doesn’t mean I’m going to rank it above the A’s and A-‘s.
  • If there’s a movie missing, keep in mind I saw well over 70 movies throughout the year for review. So, if there’s one you liked that’s missing, I either didn’t see it or didn’t like it.
  • As much as I loved Hail, Caesar!, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Edge of Seventeen, and The Witch, these are honorable mentions, as I found the top 16 films superior.

And my top 16 films for 2016 are:

16) The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – This New Zealand gem is loaded with heart, humor, and a myriad of action movie references that left me entertained beginning-to-end. The underrated Sam Neill also gives an award-worthy performance that’ll sadly be looked over.

15) Manchester by the Sea – The most recent film I reviewed, Manchester by the Sea is a funny, heartbreaking, and sincere depiction of grief. Casey Affleck once again delivers a powerful performance as Lee Chandler, this year’s most haunting on-screen protagonist.

14) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – I know a lot of fans are mad this isn’t higher on my list, but hey, I still loved Rogue One! This is a refreshingly dark and political installment in the Star Wars franchise, featuring one of the year’s best final acts.

13) 10 Cloverfield Lane – Semi-sequel to the decent monster film Cloverfield10 Cloverfield Lane is an old-fashioned thriller reminiscent of 80’s sci-fi and horror films. John Goodman delivers a chilling performance as survivalist, Howard. His relationship with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is also an in-depth commentary on abuse that left me floored.

12) Doctor Strange – Benedict Cumberbatch steals every seen as our charismatic and arrogant titular character. Between his performance and Scott Derrickson’s bizzare and innovative visuals, Doctor Strange is a must-see for Marvel fans.

11) Deadpool – Speaking of Marvel, Ryan Reynolds gave me what I wanted: a damn fine Deadpool movie. Reynolds brings his A-game in a movie packed with meta jabs at himself and the superhero genre, frenetic action, and quotable dialogue. Deadpool has set the new bar for R-rated superhero movies.

10) Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson makes a directorial comeback with this harrowing and spiritual war film. Hacksaw Ridge has some pretentious moments, but they’re redeemable thanks to Andrew Garfield’s amazing performance as conscientious objector, Desmond Doss. Between his performance and Gibson’s visceral direction, it’s now a top contender for best WWII movie.

9) Moonlight – Director Barry Jenkins directs this year’s most ambitious and unique film. It’s a tough film to watch, focusing on three periods in one man’s life. The journey pays off as we’re treated to some innovative cinematography, a kinetic score, and beautiful storytelling.

8) Zootopia – One of the most important films of the year, Zootopia is an insightful and funny animated film with a lot on its mind. Did anyone expect a cartoon to have thought-provoking commentary on race, discrimination, xenophobia, and gender roles? We’ll need more films like Zootopia over the next four years.

7) Kubo and the Two Strings – Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical animated film with heart and superb animation. Dario Marianelli’s brilliant score and the ensemble voice performances make Kubo an unforgettable experience.

6) Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier’s third film Green Room is sick, twisted fun. Combining arthouse elements of Gus Van Sant with grindhouse elements of John Carpenter and Sam Peckinpah, Green Room is an explosive tribute to siege movies and punk music. It also features an against-type performance from Patrick Stewart and one of the late Anton Yelchin’s final performances.

5) Captain America: Civil War – As a Marvel fan, I was satisfied with the morally ambiguous turn in Captain America: Civil War. The second and third acts contain the year’s best action sequences and one twist that made the movie into a dark dysfunctional family tale.

4) The Nice Guys – Shane Black takes his buddy cop formula and mashes it into the Film Noir genre (my favorite genre); the result is a smart, hilarious, and stylish throwback on 70’s New Hollywood. Russell Crowe returns to form in his most badass role since 3:10 to Yuma, while Ryan Gosling shows off his hidden comedic talent. The duo’s chemistry is brilliant!

3) Hell or High Water – A modern Western reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, Hell or High Water is a cynical and poetic tale of brotherhood. Ben Foster and Chris Pine shine as a pair of troubled brothers while Jeff Bridges steals every scene as the persistent lawman. The final scene alone makes Hell or High Water a haunting, but rewarding experience.

2) Arrival – Arrival is the year’s most challenging film. It’s slowly paced with minimum dialogue, but expressive. Director Denis Villeneuve makes an uncommonly optimistic and beautiful hard sci-fi film, featuring the best twist ending I’ve seen in years. It’s an emotional journey, and it shows Blade Runner 2049 is in the right hands.

1) La La Land – I’ve been singing “City of Stars” nonstop since I saw La La Land, this year’s best film. Director and writer Damien Chazelle follows Whiplash with another love letter to jazz. La La Land is a more hopeful commentary about passion and dreams, and it’s packed with masterfully directed musical numbers and more winning performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. This will be the Best Picture winner!

Those were my favorite movies of 2016! What was yours?

“Hell or High Water”

It’s always nice to see a Western that’s a refreshing take on the genre. This year’s “Hell or High Water” is a modern-day Western that wasn’t well-advertised, but I’m here to tell you to see the film. It’s the best of 2016 so far.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are estranged brothers, Toby and Tanner. The film opens with them clumsily robbing three banks in one day, and we learn that they’re trying to save their family farm. Toby is the mastermind while Tanner is his mentor at armed robbery.

Meanwhile, a soon-to-retire Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) learns of the brothers’ spree and knows that they have a goal in mind. He’s tailing them, knowing it’s his last ride as a ranger before he turns in his badge and gun.

“Hell or High Water” opens with a bang when Toby and Tanner rob a bank early in the morning. We see graffiti on the wall regarding the bank’s greed and extreme wide-shots of rundown buildings, establishing the film as a cynical Western about poverty and greed.

Toby and Tanner are well-established in the first act of the movie. Toby wants to provide for his kids while Tanner is helping him out of both the thrill and unconditional love. Hamilton is a foil to both brothers, being as calculating as Toby and as thrill-seeking as Tanner.

“Hell or High Water” is restrained, quirky, and well-paced with a lot to say about death and financial hardships. It’s a slow burn thriller that focuses more on the characters and dialogue instead of dreadful violence. There are a couple of bloody shootouts, but this doesn’t occur until the climax.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster both deliver expressive and charismatic performances as the troubled siblings. We know they’re flawed, but we love them anyway. Bridges is great as always, and will likely secure an Oscar nomination.

Taylor Sheridan of “Sicario” penned the script for “Hell or High Water” and once again mashes his love for Westerns with a topical, poetic narrative. If you’re craving a smaller, character-driven film over the standard Blockbusters we’ve gotten this summer, see “Hell or High Water.” You won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

“The Hateful Eight”

Restraint has been quite popular this year for a few filmmakers who had seemed to forgotten the meaning of the word. Quentin Tarantino is the latest with “The Hateful Eight”.

“The Hateful Eight” is Tarantino’s second Western film, and it’s set in a violent blizzard in Wyoming. Colonel Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) sits on a pile of dead bounties and a stage coach featuring fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and convict Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) offer him a ride.

Along the way, they pick up a dimwitted sheriff named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), and the four find themselves in a lodge with four other strangers – retired confederate general Smithers (Bruce Dern), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), British hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and lodge owner Bob (Demian Bichir).

It’s when the eight characters meet each other that “The Hateful Eight” turns into a bloody Western play with elements of dark comedy, murder mystery, and even a brief moment of body horror. This is not “Django Unchained” (which is good, but not his best) or “Inglourious Basterds” (which I loved). This is a glimpse of what Tarantino’s future looks like as a playwright/novelist.

Tarantino uses 70mm film stock to beautifully photograph exterior landscapes and pay close attention to detail within the elaborate lodge set-piece. His script is cleverly written since he’s restrained his humor and ego. I mean that we hear Tarantino’s character’s talk; not Tarantino.

The characters are by far the best part of “Eight”. Jackson’s Warren is a menacing vengeful sociopath who takes pride in bounty hunting and his role in the civil war. Russell’s Ruth is an arrogant and misogynistic bounty hunter who respects his hardened allies. Leigh’s Daisy starts as a foul and quirky convict who gets increasingly psychotic throughout the film. Goggins’ Mannix is the most dynamic character, seeing he’s a bigoted-yet-noble sheriff.

The first half of “The Hateful Eight” is all about mystery and tension, which is masterfully built and paced, thanks to Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing score, eerie shots reminiscent of John Carptenter’s “The Thing,” and interactions between the characters. The second half gets meta and over-the-top with loads of blood splatter and revelations.

I love Tarantino and I was greatly impressed with his execution in “The Hateful Eight”. It was less of a film tribute and more of an actual film. Even with the trademark heads blowing off, the racial slurs, and the similarities to “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s one damn innovative Western.

Grade: A