The calendars have changed over, and that can only mean one thing in Alpha Primitive land: it’s time to spend a week looking at the best (and a bit of the worst) in film fro 2016.
As has become tradition, our look back at the (excellent) year in film from 2016 begins with ten characters, big or small, that left an indelible mark on me throughout a year choked with so many good movies that it would be impossible to talk about them all.
Holly March (Angourie Rice) - The Nice Guys
"Don't say 'and stuff.' Just say 'they were doing anal.'"
As wonderful a comic duo as Ryan Gosling’s Holland March and Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy are in Shane Black’s 70’s throwback detective comedy The Nice Guys, the young Ms. Rice provides that little extra bit of spark that makes everything come together. The exasperated daughter of a thoroughly broken man and generally terrible detective, she does her part in keeping her worthless dad on track as he works to solve the central mystery of the film. But there’s more to her than simply being Penny to Holland’s Inspector Gadget; she also represents a key into the March family backstory that led to Holland becoming the booze-soaked sad sack he is. There’s a long history of precocious teens in films like this, whether it’s Short Round in Temple of Doom or Mathilda in Leon: The Professional, but this is one of the more satisfying takes on the trope, with Rice eminently comfortable with Shane Black’s particular rat-a-tat rhythmic dialogue and the film not overplaying the easy hand of the impressionable young girl shocked by LA’s seedy porn-infused underbelly. Rice is a joy, and the perfect foil for her boneheaded dad and his heavy of a partner.
Sarah (Abbey Lee) - The Neon Demon
"Don't do that. Pretend that you don't know. People see you. They notice. Do you know how lucky you are? I'm a ghost."
Nicolas Winding Refn’s twisted, macabre, satirical gonzo look at the soulless LA fashion industry features some great performances from the likes of Elle Fanning and Jena Malone, but perhaps the most indelible presence in The Neon Demon is that of Sarah, the mean girl (to put it nicely) model and rival to Fanning played by Lee, the statuesque model best known from Mad Max: Fury Road. She menaces the screen as some sort of otherworldly vampire vulture, thoroughly ambitious and amoral, but hindered by having the temerity to turn 24 in a business that spits you out when you’re old enough to drink. The model life is everything to her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to keep the spotlight, a compunction she more than proves in the film’s depraved third act. Lee is an incredible screen presence, tall and slender, a single sneering curl of the lip bending the entire world to her will. The world of The Neon Demon is such an arch one, so heightened, such a carnival mirror reflection, and Sarah is its perfect denizen. Once she gets the taste for blood, nothing will stop her.
Sir James (Tom Bennett) - Love & Friendship
"Churchill? That's how you say it? All together like that: Churchill. Oh, well that explains a lot. you see, I'd heard 'church' and 'hill,' but couldn't find either! All I could see was this big house. Ha ha! Fine name, Churchill"
You would be hard-pressed to find a better aristocratic boob in the history of cinema than Tom Bennett’s take on Mr. James from Whit Stillman’s Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. From his introduction, standing behind the woman he hopes to marry, giant goofy grin on his face as she fails to hide her disdain out of his view, Bennett casually steals every scene he’s in. Whether it’s his blustery, stammering introduction (from which the above quote derives), a drawn-out discussion of the Twelve Commandments (you read that right) or his first time being confronted with the existence of peas, Bennett gives a master class in being a complete idiot. It might not be possible to find a single dumber character in any film in 2016, and Bennett relishes his stupidity with so much joy, giving the single best comic performance of the year, all the while giving the rest of the class the wonderful opportunity to play off him with bemused incredulity. Love & Friendship is a good film made great solely thanks to his performance.
Steven Seagull (a seagull) - The Shallows
"Various seagull noises"
The Shallows managed to pretty easily fly under the radar this summer while the major blockbusters made it their solemn duty to disappoint and repulse, but those who took the time to seek out the Blake Lively-starring shark attack genre picture found a nice respite from all the doom and gloom. The battle of Lively versus a shark hell-bent on devouring her as the tide slowly rose to engulf the tiny spit of rock keeping her from getting a personal tour of the fish’s digestive tract is compelling enough, but the inclusion of a cute little seagull companion with a busted right wing gave the film just enough additional humanity to make the tense moments just a little more heightened, as more than the fate of this woman was at stake. The seagull was a very real one, not CGI or an animatronic, a choice that must have been hell to film but reaps the benefits of verisimilitude as this adorable bird acts and moves just like a real gull would.
Sevier (Adam Driver) - Midnight Special
"Is it too much to ask you to punch me in the face? No? Never mind."
Adam Driver’s first role of 2016 is destined to be forgotten, with his fall output of Paterson and Silence deservedly getting him all the plaudits he needs (and, to be fair, the same can be said for Midnight Special, the 2016 Jeff Nichols release that isn’t Loving), but his tiny role as the weird, entirely over-enthusiastic NSA agent Paul Sevier in Midnight Special shows just how good he has become. Similar to his supporting/cameo role in Inside Llewyn Davi (which got him on this list back in 2013), Driver seems to excel at creating these wackadoo little characters who inhabit the corners of a much larger world, content to use the handful of scenes he is given to make a real impact where one might not necessarily be expected. This weird, nerdy guy is more than happy to break protocol with his organization for a little more information on the kid with inexplicable powers, and his presence adds in a dash of needed levity in Nichols’ sci fi genre picture.
McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) - Everybody Wants Some!!
"Voluntary means mandatory"
The impossibly perfect star slugger of Everybody Wants Some!!’s baseball team, McReynolds brings an impossibly short fuse to the party alongside his impossibly high standards. He’s the sort who can effortlessly cleave a baseball in half with a fire axe and look beautiful doing it. That’s all well and good for him until he runs into a case of someone being better than him, like, say, a losing ping pong effort against upstart freshman (and the film’s chief protagonist) Jake, unleashing an epic tantrum the second his manliness is challenged. Any member of the ensemble Richard Linklater has put together for his throwback look at college in 1980 could have been a good pick for this list (Glen Powell, also a delight with a bit part in awards season contender Hidden Figures, was an impossibly close runner up), but Hoechlin’s swagger and movie star presence wins the day as the embodiment of the upperclassman jock.
Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) - Nocturnal Animals
"It's a question of how serious you are about seeing justice done"
I have a lot of problems with Tom Ford’s messy overwrought B-movie of a thriller Nocturnal Animals, but Michael Shannon’s turn certainly isn’t one of them. His character is all stock, which makes perfect sense considering he’s a character in a book, but Shannon brings his menace to life like only he can. The lurid absurdity of Nocturnal Animals is often too much to bear, but the film is at its best when Shannon commands the screen, ushering Jake Gyllenhaal through his moment of grief and despair, spurning on nascent feelings of revenge. He’s every grizzled veteran at the end of his career (in this case due to cancer rather than retirement), but he has a more violent bent, committed to get his men regardless of the ethical costs for doing so, especially when the court system lets him down. Shannon got a lot of work in 2016 (both Jeff Nichols films, naturally, as well as the likes of Elvis & Nixon and Complete Unknown) and has generally continued his streak of being among the best parts of any movie he’s in. While Nocturnal Animals doesn’t really work as a cohesive whole at the end of the day, his performance leaps off the screen with tension and immediacy.
Rose Maxson (Viola Davis) - Fences
"Well, I've been standing with you! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!"
As an adaptation of a stage play that is all about conversations that reveal our true selves below the layers and layers of projection and lies and bravado, Fences is the perfect opportunity for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to ply their keenly honed trades. Fences is a profoundly dense experience, almost choked with dialogue as Washington rants his way through life in the backyard of his house. Davis tends to get lost in the shuffle in the film’s first half, existing mostly on the periphery as Washington holds court. But it’s when the cracks in his foundation begin to form, when that bravado stops covering up the rot underneath, that she gets the opportunity to shine, and it’s an opportunity she does not take lightly. She only gets a couple opportunities to open up, and reveals a character of grace and quiet indignation, held down by a society that puts all the power in the hands of the husband. Both Washington and Davis are actors of the highest order, and Fences is the type of project that seems designed to give them platforms to shine. And shine they do, with Davis staking a particular claim for one of the performances of the year.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) - The Edge of Seventeen
"I don't want to take up a ton of your time, but I'm going to kill myself. I just thought an adult should know."
One of this year’s better surprises was the coming of age comedy The Edge of Seventeen from first time director Kelly Fremon Craig, and the reason it works so well is the depth and spirit of its main character, Nadine. Steinfeld hadn’t found the role to truly capitalize on the goodwill she generated as the lead in the Coens’ True Grit, but this is both her best role and her best performance since her Academy Award nominated debut. Nadine has quite a bit of depth and dimension for what seems on the face like a pretty standard teenage coming of age comedy, with Steinfeld making her into so much more than what is normally a bundle of stereotypes and cliches moving through plot set pieces with bland predictability. She feels like a real teenager with real teenage problems and real teenage foibles, something that can’t be said nearly as often as it should be. She’s also funny, and consistently so, with a breezy rapport with her supporting cast (the likes of Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick and Blake Jenner). The Edge of Seventeen is such a breath of fresh air, and having such a vibrant lead is key in making it all work as well as it does.
Chiron (Ashton Sanders) - Moonlight
"Thanks for the ride, man"
Of the three iterations of the central character in Moonlight, third act star Trevante Rhodes has received the balance of the plaudits, and with good reason. But I can’t help but keep going back to the middle section of Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece, which chronicles Chiron as a teenager (and, perhaps notably, is the section of the triptych where he claims his own name) and sets the stage for Rhodes and Andre Holland to captivate in the closing act. It’s hard to say that any one of the three Chirons can be considered to have the toughest part, as the beauty of Moonlight lies in how complex all three of its acts are in the way they depict life in such wildly different ways, but I found the second section of the film to form its most compelling emotional and empathetic backbone, with Sanders (as well as Jharrel Jerome) representing so much overwhelming feeling that it can be tough to reconcile with what it means to all of us. As a story about a black boy growing up in a community and a culture that he can’t call his own, Chiron is assaulted on all sides by school bullies, by the Miami drug culture that has subsumed his own mother, and by confusing sexual urges he can’t quite put his finger on. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a young actor (especially one with only two credits to his name before Moonlight), and it’s stunning how Sanders internalizes this torrent of emotions and so easily conveys it to the audience. If he wants it, Sanders should have a long and prosperous career ahead of him.