Tag Archives: Arrival

“ARRIVAL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Changing the things we can, and confronting the things we cannot.

There is a double meaning to the title Arrival, although you wouldn’t know it if you haven’t seen the film. On the surface, Arrival looks like another science-fiction thriller, unraveling an extraordinary world to an ordinary one, quietly observing how one reacts to the other. What the film turns into as it draws to its closing moments is a question of mortality, a search for purpose in life, and how we face the inevitable.

Confronting the life-long question of “Are we alone in the universe?”, Arrival starts on a bleak day where alien ships land on different continents all over the globe. Their landings seems to be without pattern or purpose, but whatever their motivations are, they don’t confront the human residents with hostility. Their ships just rest there, floating vertically over the horizon, awaiting brief interactions with the humans watching in awe below.

Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an experienced linguist who is notable for her translation of thousands of languages. Louise is recruited alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) to find out as much as they can about Earth’s new visitors, and if they establish communication, find out what they’re doing here. As Louise delves deeper into the aliens’ minds, she makes a discovery so shocking that will change the course of the human species forever.

One of the most unique elements of the film is how intelligently it approaches its strange premise. Director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the deeply unsettling films Prisoners and Sicario, approaches Arrival not as a typical science-fiction blockbuster, but instead as a quiet observation of the extraterrestrial, how human beings react to the unknown, and how we build bridges to learn foreign communication. I didn’t know what exactly to expect when going in to see Arrival, but after watching it I know one thing for certain: it is definitely not an action movie. A thriller, maybe. But the film doesn’t excite you as much as it educates you, and that immersion in knowledge is where the movie finds its niche.

Let me break down one of the movie’s key scenes to show you what I’m talking about. In one exchange between Webber and Louise, Webber tells her to ask the aliens one question: “What is your purpose here?” One sentence, five words. Seems simple enough. Yet when Louise breaks it down, she explains how complex the question actually is to those unfamiliar with the language, from differentiating between a question and a statement, to identifying the meaning behind “what”, to whether “your” is plural or singular, to even defining what the word “purpose” means. To us, these are simple concepts because we’ve been educated on these since we were children. But when communicating with someone or something else that has spent their entire lives learning another form of communication? How do you even begin to bridge that gap?

This film’s exploration into our interpretation of language is one that is only seldom observed in both mainstream and independent cinema alike. The fact that Villeneuve translated it into a science-fiction film is sheer brilliance on his part, as he draws comparisons between the humans and the aliens in the film to the real-life encounters we’ve shared with our own species in the past. Think, for instance, the first time the pilgrims landed in America and met Native Americans for the first time in the 1620’s. Spaceships and aliens aside, would their interactions really have been that different from what we’re seeing in the film?

This is a great film from Villeneuve: a thoughtful minimalist masterpiece that evokes the same eeriness and existentialism as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey does. If there is any weakness, it is the drudging tone and pacing that follows the film everywhere it goes. We as moviegoers are so used to movies that are quick-paced, fast-tempoed and always watching something happen on-screen. It’s not usual to find a film as slow-moving, contemplative, and uneventful as this. In that lack of excitement, viewers might have a hard time immersing themselves into such a sublime picture when they’re so used to watching flashy effects and movement light up the screen.

And yet, I don’t fault Arrival for this choice of tone. Not one bit. That’s because the pacing isn’t a mistake on its part: it’s intentional. If real-life aliens ever did come to our planet, our first instinct wouldn’t be to shoot at them like a Michael Bay movie. No, we would try to establish communication with them and find out what exactly they want from us. We would be surprised, confused, scared, maybe intimidated all at once by their presence. In embodying our emotions in such a situation, Arrival’s slow pacing is validated due to the reality the film tries to encompass, not the sensationalism that every other Hollywood blockbuster contrives to.

Arrival is much more than standard science-fiction. I would classify it as science-philosophy. It poses questions, leaves its answers open to interpretation, and watches as two different species push past their cultural boundaries so they could try and understand each other. And after watching all of these events unfold on the screen, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question of all: if our knowledge expanded beyond that of our human capabilities, would we use it to change what we previously couldn’t? The answer will shock you.

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2016 Oscar Predictions

I’m preparing to rename the 2016 Academy Awards “The La La Land Awards.”

Seriously, ever since it broke award records at the Golden Globes back in January, the amount of traction La La Land has received has been absolutely ridiculous. Almost immediately, everyone started predicting that La La Land would sweep awards season, from the BAFTAs all the way to the Academy Awards. That train kept going and going and going, and like the Energizer Bunny, it never stopped.

I know two things for certain at this point: Jackie Chan will win an honorary Oscar, and La La Land will sweep Oscar night. That’s it. I don’t know how many awards La La Land will win, or what awards the other best picture nominees will win, and I especially don’t know what will win in those blasted short categories. A lot of people are saying that there’s a strong chance that La La Land will win 11 Oscars, putting it in an exclusive club with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic, and Ben-Hur. With my current predictions, I have them winning 10 Oscars, but it can really go in any direction on Oscar night.

Either way, I’m expecting a full rundown of snubs and surprises this year, just as there are a few during every ceremony every year. Let’s go through my predictions and see where they’re expected to be:

Best Picture: No surprise here. La La Land is going to take home the highly coveted award for best picture. Last year, I went against my gut predicting that The Revenant would beat out Spotlight for best picture. While I was correct in predicting the other categories, Spotlight still managed to nab the top prize, despite only winning one other award from the night. I’m not going to make the same mistake again this year. La La Land it is.

Best Director: Damien Chazelle won the DGA, so more likely than not, that also means he’s going to win the Oscar. He wasn’t nominated in 2014 for his masterful work on Whiplash. Him winning for La La Land this year will make up for that snub years ago.

Best Actor: One of the first categories where the odds are split right down the middle for me. It’s down to Manchester By The Sea and Fences for this one. Casey Affleck won the golden globe. Denzel Washington won the screen actor. Who’s going to take it?

It’s a tough race, but I’m going with Denzel for a few reasons. First, the Screen Actors Guild is more accurate at predicting best acting Oscars than the Golden Globes are, even if it is by a fraction. Second, with most best actor wins, their performances usually break out emotively, expressing a wide range of emotions for voters to judge from. Great as Affleck’s performance was in Manchester By The Sea, it was also very muted and soft spoken, which works against him compared to Denzel’s confrontational, intimidating presence in Fences. This category really is a flip of the coin here, but I’m betting on Denzel.

Best Actress: Another pincher. Emma Stone for La La Land versus Isabelle Huppert for Elle. Who will win? Since Stone has La La Land by her side, I’m betting on her. Again though, this category can go either way.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight. Even though you could make a strong argument for Dev Patel in Lion or Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals, Ali has had the traction for a long time now and strong support from the acting community. If he didn’t get it now, it would be one of the biggest upsets of the year. Considering we already got one last year with Sylvester Stallone losing for Creed, I’m not looking for another upset anytime soon.

Best Supporting Actress: Can we all agree that Viola Davis was robbed in 2011 from her performance in The Help? Her portrayal as a confused yet courageous housemaid compelled the film forward in its narrative and made her one of the standout performances of the year. She deserved to be recognized alongside her acting colleagues including Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Christopher Plummer in Beginners, and Octavia Spencer in The Help as well. The award instead went to Meryl Streep for her performance in the dull, lifeless, mind-numbingly tedious The Iron Lady. Oh, don’t worry about it Academy voters! Give her all of the awards, why don’t ya?

In the place of that massive snub, Viola Davis will win her first Oscar this year for portraying the supportive, strong-willed, yet heartbroken Rose Maxson in Fences. The fact that she will be recognized for her hard work is encouraging. The fact that she will get it at the cost of Naomie Harris’ performance in Moonlight is not. Different performances, yes. Powerful performances, yes. But when it all comes down to it, it’s a matter of opinion, not quality, as to which performance deserves the Oscar more. I felt Harris’ was superior, but I have a feeling I’m going to be in the minority on that one. It’s a shame Harris and Davis had to go against each other in the same year. They’re both outstanding talent.

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia. Even though Disney’s other animated nominee Moana is more deserving, there’s no denying the popularity and the influence that people share for Zootopia. Cute and cuddly zoo animals beat The Rock going on a deep sea adventure.

Best Documentary Feature: O.J. Simpson has been getting a lot of attention this year. The TV drama based on his notorious murder case, “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”, broke critical and commercial barriers and won the Golden Globe for best television miniseries. His documentary O.J.: Made In America also swept critics’ top ten lists, both for best of the year and for documentaries. I can’t see another film winning this year, so I’m going with O.J.: Made In America.

Best Foreign-Languge Feature: I have a good feeling about Toni Erdmann. While The Salesman has also been getting a lot of traction and buzz for the Oscar, Asghar Farhadi already won the foreign-language Oscar in 2012 for A Separation. Repeated wins are unusual in this category, so I’m betting on Toni Erdmann in its place.

Best Original Screenplay: The great thing about La La Land is how many layers it has to peel away, not just as a fun and snappy musical and comedy, but also as a complex drama, a heartfelt romance, and a journey towards pursuing your dreams. The script is one of the greatest things about La La Land, but it isn’t the best thing. No, the best things from the film are its brilliant score and standout performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The script supplements their talent. It doesn’t provide it.

Since this is the case, I’m going against the grain here and guess that Kenneth Lonergan will win best original screenplay for Manchester By The Sea. That’s a movie that has less to work with than La La Land does, and yet, it ends up doing so much more. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy, a family drama, a dark comedy, and a tale of mending open wounds that achieves everything that it set out to do. For its ambition, bravery, and intimacy in handling the delicate topic of death and how we react to it, I’m going with Manchester.

Best Adapted Screenplay: It’s hard to imagine any other nominee winning this year besides Moonlight. That’s because with it, Barry Jenkins broke barriers in racial, economic, and homosexual communities, and it allowed viewers to understand its characters because of their experiences, not because of what they looked like. Arrival was equally genius in its structure and Fences was faithful to its source material. But I’m going with Moonlight, if for no other reason than it deserves it the most.

Best Film Editing: I’m going to start this by saying that literally everyone in this category deserves the award over Tom Cross for La La Land. Everyone. Joe Walker’s smart sequencing of events built up the intrigue and the mystery surrounding Arrival. John Gilbert’s assemblage of chaotic, bloody firefights in Hacksaw Ridge made all of the madness clear and readable. And Moonlight was especially outstanding in its editing, in how it gradually built up Chiron’s childhood and how it carried over into his adult years. All of these nominees are most deserving for the Oscar for best film editing. None of them will get it.

Instead, Tom Cross will win best film editing for work on La La Land. Why? Because he won the ACE award for best editing, which is more often than not accurate in predicting the Oscar winner. So Cross it is.

If this goes down as I predict, this will be the win that frustrates me the most on Oscar night. Don’t get me wrong, Cross is an exemplary editor. But the editing is not the thread that holds La La Land together. It is the music, the acting, the story, the cinematography, the art direction. Every element in the film fits and works with each other in the way that it needs to. Cross just had to assemble it all together. I realize that in itself is a time-consuming job, but it required no innovation on his part, no deep attention to detail. Just an observation on the characters and the scenery and arranging clips into the right order.

If you think I’m overreacting, look at his work on Whiplash, which won him his first editing Oscar in 2014. Now compare that to La La Land. You will see for yourself how much more difficult and impressive it was to edit that action together compared to the lighthearted ambiance of La La Land.

Moving on.

Best Cinematography: The best cinematographer in this category easily goes to Bradford Young, whose skillful, deliberate shots built up the suspense and the eerieness of Arrival. But by this point in the night, La La Land will already be on a roll, and I don’t expect Arrival to derail the train anytime soon. Linus Sandgren will win best cinematography for La La Land. Celebrate by singing a song and two-stepping to it.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: This is a difficult category to pick this year, because unlike previous years, there’s no clear standout among the nominees. A Man Called Ove is so under the radar that it’s barely gotten any attention, so you can already cross that right off the list. And everyone hates Suicide Squad, so I don’t expect a win there either. Since I’m out of options, I’ll begrudgingly guess Star Trek Beyond will win the Oscar, even though it’s only repeating the work that it did the first time it won in 2009.

Best Costume Design: While Jackie and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them both demonstrated some outstanding outfits, it’s hard to imagine La La Land working without the great costume work by Mary Zophres. From Ryan Gosling’s suave jazz suits to Emma Stone’s elegant dresses, her costumes made every scene come alive with the music. For that reason, I’m going with La La Land.

Best Production Design: First thing’s first: Passengers, get your butt out of here. Doctor Strange deserved to be in your place. Second: with a pack of outstanding nominees including Arrival, Fantastic Beasts, and Hail, Caesar!, it’s hard to pick the most worthy out of these nominees. However, none of these films throw you back to the classic Hollywood musical days where sets were filled with bright lights, vibrant colors and beautiful designs. I’m going with La La Land since it does exactly that.

Best Musical Score: La La Land. It will be a national outrage if anything else wins.

Best Original Song: This award is obviously going to go to La La Land. The question is for which song? La La Land is nominated twice here, once for “City of Stars” and another for “The Fools Who Dream.” Considering that I’m still humming “City of Stars” weeks after seeing the film, I’m placing my bet on that one.

Side note: Twenty One Pilots should have been nominated here for their phenomenally dark and ethereal work on “Heathens.” Suicide Squad got straight up robbed on that one.

Best Sound Editing: How many action films have won for best sound editing? Too many, that’s how many. From the past six years, six action films have won the Oscar in this category. Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied in 2012. American Sniper won in 2014. And Mad Max: Fury Road also won last year. At this point, I would be foolish not to go for the action-packed war epic like all of the Academy voters. So I’m going with Hacksaw Ridge. Deepwater Horizon also has a good chance of nabbing it too.

Best Sound Mixing: La La Land. It’s hard to time music to action on-screen, especially when that action includes tap-dancing and motion choreography. La La Land did exceptionally well not only with its music, but with making it relevant in every scene. So La La Land it is.

Best Visual Effects: The most visually impressive out of the nominees here is easily Doctor Strange, whose shape-shifting, mind-bending visuals bend and break reality barriers like you wouldn’t believe. Visual effects are supposed to be transportive in their art, and I haven’t visually seen a film like Doctor Strange since Avatar or Inception.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to get it. Why? Because a Marvel property hasn’t won a best VFX Oscar since over a decade ago with Spider-Man 2. If Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men: Days of Future Past couldn’t nab it, then it’s highly unlikely Doctor Strange will now, no matter how good the visual effects may be. The fact that Captain America: Civil War isn’t even nominated in this category should tell you everything about the Academy voter’s opinions of superhero movies.

Since that is the case, I’m going with my runner-up option, which is Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book. His team expertly combined practical effects with CGI, and the body movements of the animals were so accurately depicted that it’s hard to tell that they’re not real animals. If The Jungle Book had any achievement, it was in its visual effects, so that’s the one I’m going with.

And now we come to the infuriating short categories. I never know what to put any year, considering I’m never able to see any of the nominees. The following are just blind guesses: Piper for animated short, Joe’s Violin for documentary short, and Silent Nights for live action short. Watch me get all of them wrong this year. Just wait.

That concludes my predictions for this year’s La La— oops, I meant Oscar ceremony. I’ll see you guys on awards night, preferably without any singing.

– David Dunn

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Oscars Strike Back

You spoke, Academy Award voters listened. Well, mostly.

After the #OscarsSoWhite controversy last year regarding the obvious lack of diversity in their nominations (all 20 acting nominees were Caucasian), the Academy wisened up with their pool of nominees this year. While there are still a healthy amount of snubs (there are every year), most of the nominees are at least well-deserved, and the nominees don’t seem to be lacking diversity-wise in many areas.

For best picture, we have the eerie science-fiction mystery Arrival, the Denzel Washington-directed Fences, the incredible and emotional war epic Hacksaw Ridge, the western-heist film Hell or High Water, the behind-the-scenes story of the moon landing Hidden Figures, the uplifting tap-dancing musical La La Land, the true story that spans technology and time in Lion, the personal family drama Manchester By The Sea, and the pivotal and passionate Moonlight. From the look of these nominees at first glance, it seems clear that the Academy is trying to make up for their relentless snubbing of Creed and Straight Outta Compton last year, as the inclusion of Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight shows they’re trying to atone for past mistakes that they’ve made.

Still, they’re lacking in some areas. Captain America: Civil War is no where to be found, as well as its profane cousin Deadpool. Both of Peter Berg’s films Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day were skipped over by the Academy, despite them both being biopics and for featuring outstanding talent from its cast and crew. Perhaps most surprising to me is that they decided to snub A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama that has been getting Oscar talk for a long time now. I guess it goes to show that buzz doesn’t equal results, and with how many Christmas releases are included in the lineup, it especially shows how close to the chest Academy voters play with the nominations process.

For best director we have Denis Villenueve for Arrival, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge, Damien Chazelle for La La Land, Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, and Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. My immediate reaction is that Gibson and Jenkins are most deserving. After all, it’s hard to take the subject matter they’ve had to deal with and translate it into film so well. Myself personally hopes that Gibson will win it, because he’s had a hard few years and made a comeback as powerful and groundbreaking as Hacksaw Ridge. But he already won best director a few years ago with Braveheart, so it’s unlikely the Academy will strongly consider him again, especially with all of the outstanding talent that he’s up against.

For best actor we have Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Gosling in La La Land, Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, and Denzel Washington in Fences. Not much to complain about here. All of the nominees are well-deserved in one way or another, and there’s no obvious snubs like Johnny Depp’s absence last year for Black Mass. I’m sure others will raise arguments about one actor or another, but for the most part, this category is well-rounded. No complaints here.

For best actress we have Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Ruth Negga in Loving, Natalie Portman in Jackie, Emma Stone in La La Land, and Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins. First thing’s first: Meryl Streep again? Really, Academy? This is literally her 20th nomination. I agree that she’s an outstanding talent, but you don’t need to nominate her every time she makes a movie. Amy Adams was subtle yet masterful in her role as a linguist in Arrival. But no, Meryl Streep needs another nomination, for a movie as clunky, awkward and uncomfortable as Florence Foster Jenkins.

Keep in mind I’m not criticizing Meryl Streep, I’m criticizing the Academy. There are outstanding artists every year yearning for recognition, yet the attention the Academy keeps giving her is taking away from those same performers. At this point, I’m expecting her to get a nomination if she portrays a wood table and chair. She could even win it too.

Back to the nominations. I like that Huppert is nominated for Elle, as French actors usually go unnoticed by the Academy unless it’s in the Foreign Language film categories. But I am also pleased to see Stone under the nominations as well. She’s always been a stand-out talent, from The Help all the way to Birdman. I don’t know whether she’ll win this year or not, but I’m excited to see what the race will be like. This is a category to look forward to.

For best supporting actor, we have Mahershala Ali for Moonlight, Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water, Lucas Hedges for Manchester By The Sea, Dev Patel for Lion, and Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals. An oddity I found in this category was Dev being nominated for Lion. Isn’t he the main character? I haven’t seen the film myself, but I know its about a young boy who uses Google Earth to find his birth parents after years of separation, which is the role that Patel plays. Even if the film uses flashbacks, he’s still portraying the elder version of the main character. Why is he nominated in a supporting role?

For best supporting actress we have Viola Davis for Fences, Naomie Harris for Moonlight, Nicole Kidman for Lion, Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, and Michelle Williams for Manchester By The Sea. Again, nothing really lacking in this category, although I would have liked to have seen Felicity Jones nominated for A Monster Calls. I’m personally pining for Harris to win for her outstanding work on Moonlight, but this category can really go any way. Cross your fingers on this one.

The most obvious snubs come from films that are frequently ignored by the Academy, although they shouldn’t be. Suicide Squad got a nomination in makeup, although it should have also gotten nominated for best original song for Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens.” Deadpool also had outstanding makeup and costume work and is nominated for a Writer’s Guild award for best adapted screenplay. Of course, it isn’t nominated for that same award here.

The biggest snub came from Captain America: Civil War, a movie which really deserved to be nominated for anything. Best Picture. Best Director. Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Sound Editing and Mixing. Best Visual Effects. It got nominated for nothing. Yep, that’s right: it got The Dark Knight Rises treatment in 2012.

To me, this really speaks to how disconnected the Academy voters are to moviegoing audiences. Captain America: Civil War is simultaneously the highest-grossing and one of the highest-reviewed pictures of the year. With its complex story, mind-blowing action scenes, as well as its blurred sense of morality, this is a movie that is more resemblant of our politically-polarized society than it is as an action blockbuster. To look at its depth of layers hidden inside a superhero epic and ignore them is just a plain sham. The Academy Award voters should know better than this.

You can check out the full list of nominees here. In the meantime, I’m sharpening my pencil and checking off on my ballot. I’ll see you on Oscar night.

– David Dunn

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Top 10 Films Of 2016

I think I speak for everyone when I say this has been an exhausting year for us all. The politics. The presidential elections. Not to mention all of the celebrity deaths. I thought last year was bad. 2016 felt like it was having a competition with 2015 on how much more miserable it could make everyone feel. If I were judging, it wouldn’t even be a contest for me. 2016: you win.

During these difficult times, I try to find some positive from the year that everyone can take away to make the next year more positively impactful. Most years, they are the movies, because they usually reflect our mindset, where we’re at socially, and where we need to go from here together as a society. This year, however, my point of positive is not the movies (although that is a close second).

No, this year, its the people.

No matter what we’ve faced this year, there were always people there to help others with the horrible things they were going through. There were Christians that helped the homosexual community after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June. Legal citizens helping their fleeing refugee neighbors from war-torn countries. The Americans that banded together for the ethnic minorities that were targets of many hate crimes during the presidential elections. On and on.

My point being, no matter who is triumphing over whom, there will always be a group of people there to hold everyone accountable for their actions. Cries for justice may go unanswered, crimes may go unpunished. But we as a people, for the most part, know the difference between right and wrong. And you can’t ever escape morality, no matter what office you hold or what seat you sit in. These same unnamed heroes are the same people who made the year’s most important stories on the big screen. Perhaps that is why 2016 is one of my least favorite years, but one of my favorite years in film.

Before we get into my top 10 list for the year, it’s important for you to understand that I have not seen every movie made this year. I tried. Films that I wanted to see but didn’t get the chance to view included A Monster Calls, La La Land, Silence, Patriots Day, and Fences. What can I say? 2016 is a year filled with movies, but since the other 11 months aren’t close enough to awards season, those filmmakers decide to push those releases to the very end in December next to all the other Holiday releases. Since they’re more concerned about trophies than they are in reaching their audience, they will not be included on this list, even if their films deserve to be.

Also, this is my top 10 list. My favorite films. My opinion. You will notice that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not included on this list. That is because I saw 10 other films that I enjoyed more than I did Rogue One. That does not lessen or expand upon Rogue One’s success, or the success of many other films. It just means that I liked these movies more.

That being said, let’s hop into my favorites from this year:


10. Kubo and the Two Strings

A movie that is not only better than most of today’s animated films, but also better than most of its live-action ones as well. When Kubo (Art Parkinson) is being hunted by his evil grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), he enlists in the help of two new friends he’s met along his journey: Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Together, these three embark on an adventure to defeat the Moon King and free Kubo from his clutches forever. Filmed using stop-motion technology, Kubo and the Two Strings feels and breathes of Japanese mythology, its characters talking, fighting, flipping, and moving like the origami figures Kubo loves to craft. The action is also surprisingly exciting, with its fast-moving and acrobatic characters fighting in sequences that are more impressive than most of the year’s live-action films. There is one plot twist that doesn’t fit in with the overall plot, but beyond that, this is an excellent movie. Like Akira and Spirited Away, this is a movie that challenges animated movies and what they can accomplish. If Kubo is anything to go by, they can accomplish a lot. Three and a half stars.

9. Moana

A great deep sea adventure and memorable animated odyssey. When the powerful demi-God Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) loses an ancient artifact known as the Heart of Te Fiti, he sends the world spiraling into a pit of darkness that is polluting all of the Earth’s crops and lands. But when the ocean picks Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as the one who will rescue Maui, find the heart of Te Fiti, and restore the planet, she embarks on an epic journey to find the stone, and along the way, herself. Disney outdoes themselves yet again with this one. The animation alone is visually colorful and dynamic, even the waves are so detailed and accurate in their movement that its hard to tell the difference between it and the real ocean. The voice talent is outstanding, with newcomer Auli’i Cravalho surprising us at every turn with her singing and projection. A great throwback to classic Disney adventures and a great tribute to female empowerment. Three and a half stars.

8. Miracles From Heaven

Part medical drama, part family drama, part spiritual drama, all human drama. Based on a true story, Miracles From Heaven follows a tight-knit Texas family when their middle daughter is diagnosed with intestinal pseudo-obstruction, a fatal disease that freezes the intestines and makes it nearly impossible to digest food. Now left wondering how something so terrible could happen to a girl so sweet, Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) is determined to nurse her daughter back to health, no matter how many pills, tests, or doctor visits it takes. Jennifer Garner is a standout in this movie, expressing genuine joy and relief in some moments, while in others demonstrating genuine grief and depression, just like all of the ups and downs a mother would go through with her child. Despite this film being labeled a “Religious” film, it isn’t preaching to the choir, and is considerate and respectful to viewers of all faiths, especially those who don’t believe. Other movies should follow its template if they want to be as impactful and meaningful. Not just a good Christian film, but a great one. Three and a half stars.

7. Doctor Strange

A unique, compelling, visually spectacular entry into the superhero genre: one of the best. When Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets into a devastating car accident, he loses the nerves in his hands and his career as a neurosurgeon. When he is told that a monk called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) can help him, he traverses to the deep mountains in Nepal to be cured, only to be introduced to a world full of magic and sorcery that he’s only beginning to understand. The visual effects are easily the standout element of this movie, with sorcerers kung-fu fighting each other on constantly shifting walls, windows, pillars, ledges, and anything else that can turn into a kaleidoscope of architecture. Not since Avatar or Inception have the visuals been so sensory that they felt more like an out-of-body experience rather than a cinematic one. Cumberbatch, just as well, plays his role with charisma and gravitas, making his character feel more tragically Shakespearean rather than larger-than-life. A great moviegoing experience that shows our titular character not as a superhero, but as a man, fatally egotistical, selfish, eccentric, ignorant, and most of all, flawed. Four stars.

6. Finding Dory

A surprisingly meaningful animated sequel that is every bit as good as its predecessor. Taking place years after the events of Finding Nemo, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly remembers her parents and her life before meeting Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). Now determined to reunite with her parents, Dory, Marlin, and Nemo embark on yet another journey across the ocean to find Dory’s family. With Finding Nemo writer-director Andrew Stanton returning to once again helm this oceanic odyssey, Finding Dory displays a fine understanding of everyone’s favorite forgetful fish. So fine, in fact, that this movie truly stands on its own, needing almost no support from its previous entry. From its animation to its screenplay, Finding Dory is a smart homage to its origins, but also a funny, unique, and emotional roller coaster of a film that stands very well on its own two feet (well, fins). Four stars.

5. Don’t Breathe

An intense, immersive experience that makes the best use out of its limited premise. When a team of professional thieves decide to rob the home of a retired blind veteran, they think its an easy job. But when one thing happens after another, they realize this veteran is not all that he seems, and soon they’re the ones fearing for their lives. This cat-and-mouse invasion thriller is excellently paced and tightly edited, with director Fede Alvarez making the best use of his environments and with how characters react to shocking revelations. He also makes great use of sound space, with the most tense moments often being the most silent. The cast is convincing in their roles, and Stephen Lang demonstrates the full capacity of his skills as this spine-chilling, creepy, yet sympathetic veteran desperate for the things that he’s lost. A creative, captivating thriller that is as unconventional as it is unpredictable. Four stars.

4. Deepwater Horizon

A unique and riveting action film that seeks to honor its real-life subjects by showing us exactly what they went through. Mark Wahlberg stars in this adaptation of the 2010 BP oil spill directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor), and he handles this subject with delicate treatment of the events and for the real-life figures involved in the tragedy. Berg connects us to the crew members’ humanity before ominously foreshadowing to their dreary fates beyond the spewing oil, the collapsing metal frames, the wild fires, and the empty sea gallows looming beneath them. This is a movie that completely understands what the real-life crew members were up against, and they bring you every detail of that disaster with nerve-wrecking alertness and urgency. The PG-13 rating is deceiving. Definitely do not bring your children. Four stars.

3. Arrival

A science-fiction drama that starts out as one thing, only to slowly transform into another. When aliens land on multiple places at once on Earth, the U.S. army enlists in the help of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is notable for her translation of thousands of languages on the planet. As she investigates deeper into the reasons why the aliens are there, she makes a discovery that will change the course of the human species forever. Smartly crafted from the mind of director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival is an intelligent observation of the extraterrestrial, how humans react to the unknown and how they build and learn foreign communication. Adams is a powerhouse as the lead, a hero who is intelligent, vulnerable, yet persistent in doing what she has to do. Smart, emotional, and leaving you with plenty to think about long after you’ve left the movie theater, Arrival is a science-fiction experience that you simply must see. The twist near the end will guarantee have your jaw dropping. Four stars.

2. Captain America: Civil War

The best MCU movie to be made to date. When the United Nations decides that the Avengers are too dangerous to be left unchecked, the team is split into two factions. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes that the team should be allowed to continue to operate freely without interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks that the team needs to be held accountable in some way, shape or form. As tensions between the two sides rise, the team eventually collapses and comes to blows with each other, never to leave them the same again. A film as politically-charged as it is fast-paced, fun, and exciting, Captain America: Civil War is unique in the superhero genre in that there is no black-and-white sense of morality. No established sense of right and wrong in the picture, just characters whose ideals and values clash violently with each other. What’s left is an unconventional masterpiece, a moral dilemma packaged as a superhero blockbuster that excites us just as much as it challenges us. Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland shine in their breakout roles as Black Panther and Spider-Man. Four stars.

1. Hacksaw Ridge

A powerful, emboldening film, one that does not shortchange the horror of war, but equally does not shortchange the power of belief either. Hacksaw Ridge is based on the incredible true story of Desmond Doss, a WWII combat medic who saved over 75 soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. Most impressively, he did it armed without a single weapon. Directed by Mel Gibson, who is a master at epic filmmaking with Braveheart and Passion of the Christ, Hacksaw Ridge pulls emotion out of you to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie anymore, and are instead completely immersed in its harsh, uncompromised reality. Andrew Garfield equally commits to this uncompromising role, showing how his character is scared, frightened, yet earnest and determined all the same. I can’t praise this movie enough. Hacksaw Ridge does more than strengthen the soldier’s spirit. It strengthens the human spirit. Four stars.


And now for my special prize. For those of you that don’t know, every year I award a special prize to a limited release that not many people heard of, but nonetheless deserves to be sought out just like any blockbuster out there. This year’s selection was difficult, because for the longest time, I debated if this film should be placed as my number one in my list over Hacksaw Ridge. I eventually decided that its achievement places itself at a higher, more important caliber than a top ten list. So I decided to give it the appropriate award for its uniqueness.

And my special prize this year goes to…

Special Prize: Moonlight

An urgent, important, and timely film that presses the viewer not to understand its characters by their race or sexuality, but by their personal experiences that mold them into the men that they become. Broken up into three parts, Moonlight follows a young man growing up in an ugly urban neighborhood that doesn’t care much about the people who live in it. As he is hit with one childhood trauma after another, we watch as they shape him into the man that he grows up to become, with all of his flaws, scars, and burdens on his shoulders intact. A great movie that hits on many important issues, Moonlight absorbs great performances from Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and even child actor Alex Hibbert, who surprisingly keeps up with the outstanding talent surrounding him. Barry Jenkins, who hasn’t made a film in eight years, comes back center stage with a film that is technically immaculate, creatively shot, and emotionally absorbing. It is a personal, astounding film that shows while a person may be scarred, hurt, maybe even broken, they are no less beautiful because of it.

I can’t make it any simpler than this. If you can only see one movie from this year, make it Moonlight.

And that’s my list, folks. Here’s to leaving 2016 behind, and looking forward to making 2017 better.

– David Dunn

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