Day two of our 2016 Year in Review focuses on those indelible moments that stick with you long after the credits roll and the theater lights come back up. Here are ten of my favorite scenes from 2016.
The Alchemist Cookbook - Sean finishes his ritual
Joel Potrykus makes some weird movies. His previous two features, Ape and Buzzard, both starred Joshua Burge and examined the lives of people on the brink, failures at life and the depths they will go to in order to get some of what the world constantly denies them. The Alchemist Cookbook is a pretty major step forward in filmmaking, though it continues to plumb the same sort of depths Potrykus has shown clearly interest him. In this case, a young man has retreated to the woods with designs to summon some sort of otherworldly demon or perhaps Satan himself, intending to use the confrontation to enter into some sort of Faustian bargain for phenomenal power and wealth. The only person who seems to know he’s gone off the grid is his brash cousin, clearly put off by whatever it is he’s up to in his remote trailer. But when Sean finishes his ritual and his cousin comes back, it’s under far different circumstances. As The Alchemist Cookbook unfolds, it’s initially tough to figure out just what Potrykus is up to, whether his protagonist is a true believer or simply an isolationist loon. Where it goes, though, is eminently surprising, leading to a ‘hell’ of a third act that twists and turns in ways impossible to expect.
Hidden Figures - Church lunch matchmakers
In a year as generally rotten as 2016, sometimes you just need to feel good. And few movies were as successful at creating that sense of good feeling as Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi’s true story look at three African-American women and their unsung contributions to the space race. Much of Hidden Figures plays out in office buildings with math equations scrawled on wanton pieces of paper and blackboards, but Melfi makes sure to take the time to present the domestic lives of these women. One of the better examples of this would be the church barbecue where Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) meets Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Katherine is a widow raising her children on her own, and a new relationship is the last thing on her mind with plenty to keep her busy between work and family. But even if she can’t admit it herself, her friends can see how lonely she is, and how Jim is looking at her across the park. Hidden Figures works as well as it does almost entirely thanks to its three outrageously charismatic leads, and few scenes capitalize on that more than this one. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae light up the screen with warmth and energy, and their easy, breezy chemistry sells the sense that this trio of marginalized NASA employees truly care about each other, a necessary element to make sure their triumphs and tribulations mean all the more.
‘Montage’ remains the best piece of original music to grace screens in 2016, and the sequence it accompanies, which follows Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) as they explore the capabilities of Manny’s magical corpse powers. The exuberance that makes Swiss Army Man one of the more indelible cinematic experiences of the year is on full display here as they discover Manny’s abilities to shoot popcorn kernels like a gun and turn his mouth into a grapple gun. The accompanying hyper literal lyrics (“Now we killed a raccoon/We’re using your body/Like it’s a machine gun/Now we’re shooting some fish/Our friendship is blossoming/Let’s eat the stuff we killed”) don’t necessarily make themselves clear on first listen, making the section even more rewarding upon return visits. Swiss Army Man is among the most divisive films of 2016, seeming to make as many Bottom Ten lists as Top Tens among critics, but those of us who have found the wavelength directing duo Daniels (until now mostly known for music videos, especially the infamous “Turn Down for What” video, which makes so much sense after watching this film) see the montage sequence as a sort of microcosm for the joys of the film as a whole, combining Radcliffe’s fantastic and fearless physical commitment to his role, its creativity, its overwhelming energy and childlike sense of wonder as Manny becomes the Swiss army man from which the film gets its name.
The Eyes of My Mother - What is a scream without a voice?
The physical horrors of The Eyes of My Mother occur off screen, in another room, or slightly outside the purview of the film’s judiciously framed camera. But it’s the aftermath of these terrors that have the lasting impact in full view of the frame. This is a film that takes its cues from slashers of the 70’s like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, classic thrillers like Psycho and more contemporary takes on the form like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but the specifics of what our protagonist/psychopath does to her victims is the real stuff of nightmares. An early conversation with her first victim sets the stage, but it’s when she’s fully grown and horrifyingly adept at robbing her charges of their eyes and vocal chords that the true depths of fear settle in. Before The Eyes of My Mother, I never thought about what it might be like to try to scream without having any vocal chords in my throat, but I sure know what it must be like now. It’s barely a moment in the grand scheme of things, but that one shot of a woman trying to scream but only managing a rasping exhalation of air stayed with me for days.
The Witch - Living life deliciously
The true power of The Witch lies in its restraint, eschewing the simple effectiveness of jump scares and choosing the path of agonizingly slow mounting of tension to eke out every last drop of dread from the doomed little farm on the outskirts of a witch-patrolled forest in 17th century New England. I first saw The Witch at a promotional screening at the venerable Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA, surrounded by an equally enthralled audience. The silence during the film’s bloody climax was deafening, only matched by the theater-wide gasp when a disembodied voice asked Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin if she would like to live deliciously. Director Robert Eggers has such precise and exacting control over the tone, the sound, the creeping dread of The Witch that he can have an entire theater full of strangers so utterly enthralled and wrapped around his finger. It is an exercise in tension and the release of said tension, of upturned expectations and an expansion of what is possible on this tiny little farm out in the middle of nowhere in 17th century New England. The Witch is one of the defining cinematic experiences of 2016 precisely thanks to moments like this.
One More Time with Feeling - “Jesus Alone”
The Andrew Dominik helmed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds documentary that was paired with the release of the band’s sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree didn’t receive a full release to be eligible for awards consideration, but its event-style roll-out shouldn’t result in it being ignored. Ostensibly a pretty standard making-of doc for the band’s newest release, the tenor of the film changed profoundly when Cave’s son Arthur died in 2015. “Jesus Alone” is the opening track of the album and the first performed in the film, with Cave captured by Dominik’s sumptuous black and white cinematography as he sits at a piano and recites his particular brand of poetic verse into a microphone, the grief and discomfort etched on his face. His songwriting partner and multi-instrumentalist friend Warren Ellis (himself a spitting image for Jesus if he hadn’t shaved or cut his hair in his 33 years) conducts a wave of strings, swelling and receding as silent engineers look on from a mixing board. It’s an enchanting and engaging meeting of the practical aspects of recording the song and the tragic underpinnings that made One More Time with Feeling so special.
La La Land - Pool Party Cover Band
Sebastian, Ryan Gosling’s idealistic dreamer jazz piano purist, is, to be frank, a bit of a boob. He’s overly serious about his beloved music, even in the face of people telling him that his outlook is the sort of position that led to jazz being forced to the margins in the first place. It’s important, then, for La La Land to take him down a peg from time to time, and nothing manages to accomplish that quite like playing synthesizers and (gasp) keytar for a cheesy 80’s cover band at a Hollywood pool party as he’s forced to absentmindedly pump out riffs to “I Ran” while his hyperactive vocalist commands him to tickle those ivories. This is Sebastian and Mia’s third attempt at a meet-cute, and the one that sticks, with Gosling making the scene work with his pitch perfect powerless outrage, stewing at his predicament and playing along with the enthusiasm of his bandmates with the most passive aggressive of fist pumps (and a perfect slow realization double take) as Emma Stone dances at him with a joyful mix of aggression and glee. It’s a paying gig, so he goes along with it even though it kills him inside, allowing Chazelle to shrewdly deconstruct his tough hipster exterior that pays dividends later on in the film when the conflict begins to rear its head. Gosling’s mini comic renaissance (his two previous films being The Nice Guys, where he gives one of the great comedic performances of 2016, and The Big Short) has been wonderful to behold.
The Nice Guys - Holland and the toilet stall
Speaking of Ryan Gosling’s comic renaissance, this was the moment I realized that he was a silent comedy star in a talkies world. From cutting himself shaving to cutting himself trying to break a window to open a locked door, The Nice Guys builds its humor on his slapstick abilities just as much as Shane Black’s trademark dialogue. But this scene, where Gosling’s Holland March is approached in a bathroom stall by Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy (who, when last they met, casually beat the hell out of him and broke his arm), the resulting tornado of movement as March attempts to draw a gun on him without moving the magazine covering his dignity, losing the cigarette he just dropped in his lap and keeping the stall door from closing on him is almost Keanton-esque in its timing and absurdity. Like the La La Land scene, this works so well as a piece of juxtaposition, showing this tough guy detective is really a drunk and kind of an idiot with only the most superficial control over his faculties. On balance, The Nice Guys might have the most laughs of any 2016 release (its humor is a tad more consistent than the likes of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping or Love & Friendship, despite Tom Bennett’s best efforts), and Gosling’s wonderful comic timing has quite a bit to do with that.
Kubo and the Two Strings - The sisters arrive
Kuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuubooooooooooooo is the siren’s song of the young boy’s evil aunts, voiced in tandem by Rooney Mara, their faces obscured by perfect porcelain masks that hide all feeling and expression. They roll in with the mist of nightfall, floating above the ground with unnatural power and preternatural grace as the score turns to string-laden horror. The sisters represent the first inkling that the stories passed down to Kubo by his often catatonic mother might be a bit more truthful than the fables they appear to be. The animation on the sisters is exquisite, and Mara’s honeyed delivery adds to the sense of peril and child endangerment as they play dumb about who or what stole his missing eye. The ensuing confrontation with Kubo’s newly revitalized mother and her sisters is brutal and swift, over seemingly before it begins. It is an abrupt end to the film’s first act, establishing the visual tone and emotional mood of the villains Kubo must face over the rest of his epic journey. It also shows the true power of Laika’s animation expertise as they further embrace the capabilities of melding stop motion and computer generated effects. It’s the sort of alluring, expressive storytelling that makes Laika such a vital studio in the modern landscape.
Neruda - Oscar meets his end
“Because no one else hunted the poet. No one else terrorized him in the snow. No one else made him pant remorsefully. No one else accompanied him on his journey. I don’t care that he created me, that he made me a supporting character. I created myself, too. And I did it badly. I invented a life for myself. Alone, without love. But the poet invented me as furious. Full of wind. He even wrote me a fabulous death. A policeman’s death. Slow. Cold. With red details. With music. With animals. With trees. With poetry."
Come back tomorrow as we take a look at some movies that overperformed (as well as some that underperformed) expectations.