Finding Dory Written by Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane. Starring Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill.
Pixar's absurdist fish-out-of-water (!) satire, Finding Dory is, in many ways, my favorite single piece of entertainment in 2016. Andrew Stanton and company channeled their inner Werner Hertzog to create the sequel to the beloved Finding Nemo. The sensibility of this movie is hard to articulate. It's a confluence of culture and nature so searing and cynical, it loops around to be endearing again. For all the prestige Disney/Pixar carries, this film isn't even on many people's best animated movies list this year, a list made up from only a handful of possibilities. That's a feat, in and of itself, that I can get get behind. Finding Dory trades mainstream storytelling, built largely on logic, reason and expectation, for unprecedented levels of insanity, in an effort to subvert all traditional tropes that hold together animated films. I mean, the protagonist is a fish with a severe learning disability. That's not usual. And that's the starting point. Also of note, while wrapping itself in just literally one bonkers set piece after another, this film manages to put forth some extremely nuanced character development, some so sophisticated, I would not even dream of it showing up in any characterization of anything, much less an animated film. For example, the lens through which we view Dory's disability is utterly astounding. There is a constant pulsation between how she sees herself, relative to her own experience and how others see her, relative to their own experience. What you get is a realistic view of how much of the outer world feeds into our own self-development. To place at the heart of that dramatization, a being who is neurologically atypical is just so inspired, I can barely stand it. In my estimation, Finding Dory, by and large, sailed over people's heads, much like a scene in the third act that was, hands down, the best Thelma and Louise homage to date. That's okay, I might actually love it all the more because of that.
Arrival Written by Eric Heisserer. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.
Arrival is the most exquisitely executed film I have seen this year. It elevated itself above its own genre to the degree that it defies being categorized as solely science fiction. Yes, someone finally made Interstellar -- is what I thought when I left the theater. The reason it works on a molecular level is because it traded male consciousness for female consciousness, in order to tell the story. There is, applied here, a softness and trancelike delivery of urgency, that makes the heartbeat of this film a more visually immersive experience because it is filtered through the POV of a female protagonist. I still get the chills thinking about the visual and psychic portrayal of the heroine trying to connect thoughts she knows belong together in her memory, and one is always... getting... away... from... her. Amy Adams has perhaps never been more perfectly cast in her life since the character of Louise Banks needed to be imbued with every actual human trait she herself contains. I almost did back handsprings in the theater's aisle when it was revealed Banks is a linguist, and that, in an ultimate sense, it would be someone who is a master of communication who would save our world. To hear the story of how this film got made, through the eyes of Heisserer, Arrival is a quintessential symbol of the phenomenon that outstanding cinema is about shared commitment to a unique vision.
Moonlight Written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson.
This graceful film, I cannot say enough about. I walked into it with an entirely different expectation and came away so thoroughly blown away by what this movie accomplishes. Far more in the company of Y Tu Mamá También than anything else (that's a compliment to both films), this seemingly stripped down minimalist story embodies the most intricate human component: empathy. Seriously, the only qualification you have to bring as an audience member is that you're human. On the pathway, a point of view about family, being gay, the construction of love and how we're accountable in this life is weaved so lovingly that by the time Moonlight ends you might look at the world through different eyes. The protagonist and supporting characters are so pure that the viewer has no choice but to give over their heart, thus experiencing the movie without preconception. In very skilled ways, Jenkins and his compadres, gently peel away everything that prevents us from seeing our sameness to deliver their message, it's like serene waves washing over us.
O.J.: Made in America Directed by Ezra Edelman.
This documentary is unusually excellent in several ways. It was released on ESPN through a 5-part series, lasting close to 8 hours. It also came after the critically-lauded FX show, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, yet it was no less interesting or relevant at a time where people might just as well have felt exhausted by this story. This film also shows, in all their glory, the qualities of O.J. that propelled him into fame in the first place. Witnessing this, one really gets a sense of his huge accomplishments, both personally and in a broader sense. Because of this, this documentary stands solidly on its own, adding more fine-tuned insight and hypothesis about how this man fits into what became the trail of the century. Having reviewed the FX show, I remain in awe of its specific brilliance, yet this film includes key moments in the civil rights movement, as well as, a more detailed and complicated history of both Los Angeles and the LAPD that add a lot more substantive inquiry into what O.J. Simpson represents for us. Edelman has a superior ability as a documentarian to let facts and images effectively work their way into our understanding, in order for us to get the fullest picture available. Edelman endeavors to also include the chapter(s) after the Simpson/Goldman murder trial, which, in turn, means much more for us to consider in this saga. This is bit of a behemoth, time-wise, but quite worth it.
Weiner Written and directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.
I saw this documentary before the election, then again, afterwards. It's two different viewings to be sure. That's a powerful piece of film that can look one way based on historical events, then another, based on newer, also historical events. Watching the filmmakers figure out what they are actually the treasurers of is, no hyperbole, one of the most fascinating things I have ever observed. After seeing this, I understand, with greater acuity: the media, politics, pathology, pathology of politicians, campaigns, elections, how history is written and New York City (for which this film was a total love letter).
The Girlfriend Experience Created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seitz. Starring Riley Keough, Paul Sparks and Mary Lynn Rajskub.
I watched this 13 episode season in one afternoon (episodes are 30 minutes). I could not take my eyes off of it. Based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name, the series follows a law student/prostitute in Chicago, in our post-modern world. The Girlfriend Experience shares much more DNA with Mr. Robot or Ex-Machina than something on Cinemax after hours. It's a show that offers us an angular slo-motion view of a woman detaching from her innermost self using power, sex and money to fuel her propensity to either overindulge or deprive herself intimacy. Needless to say, it is beyond chilling. There was loads of backlash when the show came out about not portraying the people in the sex worker trade as "victims." But the creators looked at the material, namely the film, which is also not exactly about prostitution, and figured that this show has a different kind of social commentary: the one that asks why would a woman, who isn't bound by logistical circumstances, choose this line of work? It took a lot of guts to leap over the hurdle of social justice judgment. And thanks to Kerrigan and Seitz, we have a deliberately clinical, numbing, compelling insight into modern femininity, millennials and the tech-intricate world.
Mr. Robot Created By Sam Esmail. Starring Rami Malek, Christian Slater and Portia Doubleday.
God, I really love this show. It's really another one that is sui generis. It's pure joy to watch, especially if you can let go of any expectations of what you want it to be. (That's very hard, generally!) More than any other show I have watched in even the last five years, not a day goes by that I don't think about this one. I absolutely adore Malek as Elliot Alderson. He brings this incredible mix of damage and genius to the role. There are many great analyses of this show out there of why and how Mr. Robot has insinuated itself into our consciousness at this point in time, and some are quite self-evident (!) so I won't go on here except to say that as much as it is the show, its look and feel and conceit that make up the reasons I watch it, I think it's my dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker that values Esmail's vision of the city, above everything else. Mr. Robot gets the manic, propulsive, bizarre, collective vibe of NYC better than anything I've seen.
Bojack Horseman Created by Raphael Bob-Wakesberg. Starring Will Arnett, Aaron Paul and Amy Sedaris.
Bojack Horseman is my go-to for existential crises. In fact, Bojack is a fantastic character to give unending existential angst to. He's a former tv star, addict, going through a midlife crisis, living in Hollywoo (the D gets stolen off of the sign in S1 and never returned), desperate to become less shallow. We can relate to his ennui while still keeping a healthy distance, thanks to the insufferable nature his circumstances. In S3's 'Fish Out of Water', Bob-Wakesberg took the show to another level, one where even the standouts of Mad Men look pedestrian. The episode's plot took Bojack to a film festival underwater, in a city where mammals are forced to wear oxygen helmets. It was a 30 minute episode where dialogue was almost completely absent. It relied on its animation to tell an unusually heartfelt story about Bojack finding a small seahorse who had lost his dad. I can't even imagine what the script looks like for this one, but it's got to be a masterpiece. This episode showed the fearlessness of this team to do something that required the viewer's complete commitment and it was a boon for the series.
Transparent Created by Jill Soloway. Starring Judith Light, Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman.
I've been a big fan and supporter of this show since S1. I hold in very high regard its ability to study the structure of family, secrets, trauma and shame, subtly and comprehensively. S3 grew the show and its maturity in surprising ways, using the tools of serial storytelling really effectively. As is a part of each season, there is a frame of flashbacks, visually arresting and clear so that the arcs of the characters in 'real time' are made more poignant. S3's flashbacks were especially good. The show has a real knack for casting, too. (Maybe it's easy when you have the great actresses and actors of our time gratefully accepting roles?!) The show is not an easy watch. In fact, it's really the opposite. I have to steel myself before each season because I'm aware that this style of writing, the show's often-misaligned characters, plus the subject matter can be an emotionally exhausting combination. But there isn't another show, that I know of, that dramatizes the sheer infinite amount of pressure that befalls the matriarch of a family. That, alone, is enough for me to back-burner any challenges I find with the show. Jill Soloway said we need to topple the patriarchy at her Emmys acceptance speech. Her series shows precisely why that's necessary and just so damn hard.
Better Call Saul Created by Vince Gilligan. Starring Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean and Rhea Seehorn.
Better Call Saul is really good because Vince Gilligan is a really good writer. Gilligan and his cohorts are extremely comfortable at the intersection of what's barely tolerable and what's too hard to tolerate for their characters. I should add that I'm still basking in that Breaking Bad glow coming off the show. But I'm in for the long haul. I love Jimmy McGill as much as I love Saul Goodman. The show is storytelling at another level. It's not reliant on any gimmicks or contrivances, at its source, cause and origin are four impeccably written characters who are trying to live through their various insecurities. Always fascinating.
The New York Story Created by Colin Quinn.
I saw this show live, in a theatre, in the fall of 2015, but since it was released on Netflix in October, I wanted to include it on this list. This hour long one-man show is crafted by the mind of Colin Quinn. He, a native New Yorker, did, I can only assume, tons of research to come up with this piece which is, among other things, a history of New York City, starting with the Lenape Indians in the 1600s. But at its genius is a tale of how we all become bits and pieces of each other, no matter what our cultural background or ethnicity, just by living shoulder to shoulder. And, more importantly, we are made better for it. This was the one thing I could put on in my house when I went home for Thanksgiving that brought every living varied soul in the room to tears, from laughter. You don't have to live or like or know anything about New York to get a big kick out of The New York Story, either. The broader concepts carry you through Quinn's denouement.
A Streetcar Named Desire Written by Tennessee Williams. Starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster.
In April, I had one of the best nights of my adult life. I not only saw Gillian Anderson's performance of Blanche Dubois at St. Ann's Warehouse, but I also got to meet her afterwards at a gala for her SAYes organization. I plan to write separately about this event at some point in the future so here I'll just focus on the play and her performance. Thinking back, I have spent more hours analyzing (for review purposes) and watching Gillian Anderson than any other actress. I think I've put in my 10,000 hours. Yet, even that level of immersion previous to this night did not prepare me to be so touched with her portyal. Simply said, Anderson luxuriated in the character of Blanche, like someone would an expensive bubble bath. That role is so tough, too. There are so many possible pitfalls, ending in melodrama. It was as if Gillian hovered a few inches above each of them, winking at the audience with her awareness they existed. And if she did indulge a moment of melodrama, she was also winking at us, as if to say, you know you wanted this. In short, her capacity to work the audience, which is different every single performance, was beyond second nature. Wow.
Finding Dory Soundtrack Composed by Thomas Newman.
I think in another life I was a composer. I have such a huge huge love for scores, all kinds of them. I am never not aware of the score in what I'm watching. This year I was extremely enchanted by the soundtrack to Finding Dory. Newman is a favorite of mine and has been since the days of Six Feet Under. Here he created something that the movie cannot stand without. Proving that his 83 player (!) orchestra could keep up with the pace of the movie and at times, actually set the pace, is what makes this soundtrack so special. As mentioned above, the movie is complete insanity, almost from start to finish, with the tone changing as many times per scene as one can count. But instead of getting whiplash, Newman brings everything together to make the movie harmonious. (As an aside, the soundtrack is a great addition to when one is running about like a little forest creature in the woods!)
A Tribe Called Quest's We’ve got it from Here... Thank you 4 Your Service
Can somebody just give me, can somebody just give me direction? I don't want to move backwards... This is a sample lyric from one of the songs on We've got it from Here..., the title being (I've always interpreted) a sentiment meant for Barack Obama. This album came out the week of the election and to this day, it is saving me. I fell in love with the TCQ boys in the 90s and memorized and listened the hell out of every single song of theirs. They are all very much embedded in my deep tissue. As for this album, it's like they knew who was going to win because songs like "We the People" and "The Donald" speak politically to a portion of the population who has been plagued by grief. But there's hope in their rhythms and upbeat tracks. I get a little jolt of joy each time I listen. I'm actually indebted to the Tribe because I have seen beyond my own sadness over the years with their music, more than once. This offering of theirs is at once activating and inspiring.
Honorable mentions: Other things I enjoyed quite a bit this year --
Manchester by the Sea
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Thanks for reading my list. ALL THE BEST this holiday season, you guys, and a Happy New Year to everyone reading and writing Doux Reviews.