Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

 

Looking over my list of favorites from the recently ended movie year, I was trying to find something – anything – that connected them beyond my admittedly eclectic tastes. I mean, seriously: low-budget drama next to Disney animation next to indie horror next to teen comedy next to musical romance next to cops and robbers next to sci-fi next to a woman being transformed into a Shetland pony ... . What the hell kind of cinematic Top 10 is this?

Considering it’s more than three hours long, I’ve seen Philip Kaufman’s space-program epic The Right Stuff an almost unseemly number of times. Yet as strong as my recollections of the film are, I don’t recall a single person of color with a speaking role, which makes the new Hidden Figures an important, necessary corrective – and a terrifically enjoyable one, to boot. I’m due for another viewing of Kaufman’s 1983 Oscar winner, and probably soon, but I’m not sure I’ll ever again be able to watch all those earnest white NASA guys hard at work without thinking, “Hey ... where the hell is Taraji P. Henson?!”

Movies aren’t plays, but it’s amazing how movie versions of plays, every once in a while, can make audiences momentarily forget that. A decade after seeing Dreamgirls, I can easily pinpoint the four moments in Jenifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” solo that caused our cheering crowd to burst into applause. Thirty-five years after the fact, I can still hear, with perfect clarity, the relieved laughter and ovation at On Golden Pond’s finale when Henry Fonda looked up at Katharine Hepburn and said, “I think I’m feeling all right now.” And if you ask me years down the road, I think I might also have instant recall of which revelations in the August Wilson adaptation Fences elicited loud, collective gasps at my screening, to say nothing of the Viola Davis line reading that, were this an actual play, might have stopped the show for a full 30 seconds.

Damien Chazelle’s musical romance La La Land is a grand, lush, candy-colored dream of a movie, and I’d mean that as even higher praise if the lingering effects of dreams lasted longer than they actually do. Don’t get me wrong: I devoured this movie so hungrily and happily that I half-wished my admission ticket came with complimentary silverware and a napkin. Yet as of this writing, four days have passed since I saw it, and I find the film’s delirious charms and plaintive melancholy slowly but surely evaporating, only resurfacing when I play one of its tunes on YouTube, or enjoy a millionth viewing of the trailer. Writer/director Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a great time, but I’m not altogether convinced it’s a great movie, despite knowing that I’ll likely, eventually, watch it 20 or 30 more times in an attempt to decide.

Ten years ago, you could’ve called Passengers a “Sandra Bullock in space” flick, before Bullock went and ruined the gag by starring in Gravity.


Forest Whitaker in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes place after the events of Revenge of the Sith and before the events of the original Star Wars (which I steadfastly refuse to call A New Hope), and it concerns the Rebel Alliance’s plans to destroy the Death Star. I think that’s about as much detail as I can get into without traumatizing the spoiler-averse, unless “... and I didn’t care for it” counts as a spoiler.

Before its narrative gets underway, Manchester by the Sea opens with a title card presenting “A Picture by Kenneth Lonergan.” That unusual phrasing is more formal than we’re accustomed to. But it proves not to be inaccurate, as this picture is indeed a picture, and an intensely specific one, of life continuing in the wake of insurmountable tragedy. Given its reams of brilliantly crafted, oftentimes dryly hilarious conversation and its transcendent performances, you’d never mistake Lonergan’s third feature for a documentary. You’d still be hard-pressed, though, to find one scene, one moment, that doesn’t feel unerringly real. The film is as heartbreaking as actual life can be, but also as funny and startling and, above all, surprising – a profoundly human work that’s also a hell of a satisfying entertainment.

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

Is any movie sight more incongruously dull than that of amped-to-11 crowds drinking and dancing and losing their minds at a raucous on-screen party? I ponder this every time I yawn during a teen-centric Project X or a “We’re still vital, damn it!” slapstick lament such as the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler Sisters; characters may be having an inhibition-busting ball, but watching them from the immobility of a cineplex seat is a strange and alienating affair. Exactly how are we supposed to react to all these happy lunatics enjoying the techno-thumping, strobe-flashing times of their lives? By punching our fists in the air and shouting, “F--- yeah!!!”? By whipping out our own Jell-O shots and Slip N Slides? By smiling politely, chuckling occasionally, and kind of wishing we were anywhere else instead?

A few years ago, while in the South Dakota Badlands, still photographer, photojournalist, filmmaker, LeClaire native, and current Iowa City resident Danny Wilcox Frazier met John and Julie – married ranchers whose daily lives he wanted to document in photographs. Frazier explained his intentions to the couple, and they agreed to take part. But as Frazier says during our recent phone interview, there was a caveat.

“I said, ‘There’s one thing you need to know before we start: How I work is I move in.’ And Julie was like, ‘Uh-h-h-h ... oka-a-a-ay ... . Are you saying you need somewhere to sleep tonight?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’d be great!’ Because at that point, I was sleeping in the back of my truck. I’d find a place, get a few hours sleep, wake up with the sun, and start shooting again.

“But more importantly,” he continues, “I wanted them to understand how I work – how I wanted to be there for everything.”

BELIEVE and INCARNATE

As the first weekend in December has traditionally been one of the sleepiest in terms of movie attendance, this used to be the period in which studios would debut one or two releases that presumably few would bother seeing. But for two years running, that hasn’t been the case. Nowadays, it seems, the first December weekend brings with it very specific releases that few will bother seeing: a faith-based drama to make us conscious of miracles, and an evil-spirits chiller to make us fear the unknown. In 2015, it was the deadening Mother Teresa bio-pic The Letters and the yuletide creep-out Krampus. This year, it’s Believe and Incarnate. Can someone please nip this trend in the bud before we’re saddled with the two-fer of God’s Really Most Sincerely Not Dead and Annabelle IV: Porcelain Revenge?

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