Silence – 5

Bizarre. Sort of a Platoon directed by Akira Kurosawa. Or The Mission meets The Revenant. Or maybe Unbroken merges with The Mikado. I assume every film director has a point to make, but darn if I could figure out what Martin Scorsese was up to. It seemed to me he was condemning the role of missionaries – maybe a parable about America in Iraq? – but then why did he make the Japanese such creative torturers? (Each set of Christians got killed in a gruesomely different way.) Or just because we are Christians, were we expected to identify with Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver on their mission to Japan, whatever it was, even though they were hopeless naifs rather than potential game-changers?

The scene where Liam Neeson confronts Garfield was particularly astounding. They didn’t seem to belong in the same movie, and you wished the director had been following Neeson instead of wasting our time with Garfield’s comic-book story (viz., the scene of Garfield and the miscast Driver peeping through the bushes as their flock members were crucified). Was this a meditation on Faith? or Situational Ethics? The burning question was WWJD? Should you renounce your faith if that act will save some peasants’ lives? Or are they better off in Paradise anyway? It’s one thing to give up your life like the martyrs of old, but what if the Inquisitor changes the playbook and starts killing others in your place?

The underlying problem here is the emptiness of the Faith that Garfield is embodying. There is nothing to suggest it is in any way superior to the Buddhism (unexplained) that the Japanese prefer. In the few theological discussions presented, it seemed to me that the Inquisitor and the Neeson character had the better argument. A system of worship that grows out of a people’s culture is surely more efficacious than one imposed from an alien world. Garfield’s inability to reason, his total reliance on dogma, made him less interesting and made the movie worth watching mainly for its cinematography.

Hidden Figures – 6.5

There’s nothing wrong with making a feel-good movie, in which 37 consecutive scenes end with a moment that brings a smile or a tear, in which every child is perfectly behaved, in which every injustice is overcome, in which even the allegedly hard-hearted gruff boss is played by Kevin Costner. Nothing wrong, but you might as well be watching a fairy tale, instead of a supposedly true-life story about America’s space program. Then again, most fairy tales have more suspense and produce more dread that something might go wrong. See Loving for a more realistic picture of life in Virginia in 1961.

Live By Night – 7

Not as bad as the reviews and a meticulous adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, but both book and movie had more incident than soul. We moved from one gangland killing to another with admiration for the machinery but little emotional involvement. Part may be due to Ben Affleck’s constant on-screen presence, with hair and designer clothes ever in place, more the Hollywood movie star than credible human being.

Hail, Caesar – 7.3

A thoroughly enjoyable spoof on classic Hollywood, much better than La La Land because it took itself less seriously, and had better production numbers. The Coen brothers must have had fun making it, as did George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, et al.

Florence Foster Jenkins – 2

Unwatchable, even when desperate on a cross-country flight. And that goes for Meryl Streep, too – maybe especially.

Top Ten – 2016

By my rating standards, 2016 was the worst year yet for new movie releases. Perhaps as a reflection, dinner party discussion tended more toward what TV series are you watching/have you seen, than what’s your favorite movie of the moment. While there were movies I admired, there was only one – Hell or High Water – that I felt I could unequivocally recommend to anyone who asked, and that paled in comparison to top movies of yesteryear, specifically No Country for Old Men. Nevertheless, if for no other reason than to reveal my taste and proclivities, I feel compelled to  designate a Top Ten, subject to amendment as other 2016 releases get shown in Santa Barbara.

1. Eye in the Sky. This film about a drone strike in the Mideast gave me more to think and write about than any other and courageously tackled a controversial matter of foreign policy. (Kudos, also, to the similarly overlooked Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

2. Hell or High Water. Not rated high upon viewing because of its derivative nature, but it was charming and accomplished everything it set out to. I still get thirsty thinking about its West Texas setting and enjoy any time I spend with Jeff Bridges.

3. Elle. A taut, if kinky, thriller, in which all the pieces fit together and warrant a second thought, if not psychoanalysis.

4. Sully. Corny, in a Tom Hanks way, but heartwarming to watch regular people saving lives by doing their jobs. (More credible, by far, than the also heartwarming Deepwater Horizon.)

5. Manchester by the Sea. I could smell the New England air and feel the palpable heartbreak of the Casey Affleck character. I like “real.”

6. Fences. A dramatic tour de force that barely made it off the stage, but its power builds to a final knockout.

7. Little Men. Real people grappling with a real situation, parents on one page, kids on another. (Maggie’s Plan deserves mention here, too.)

8. Cafe Society. This was my favorite love story, with my favorite actress, Kristen Stewart, and lots of good costumes. (Hail, Caesar was also better than the similarly set, similarly plotted La La Land.)

9. Love and Friendship. Can’t go far wrong with Jane Austen and Kate Beckinsale – may there always be an England!

10. Loving. Realistic and de-dramatized, the movie spoke of hope despite our hopeless times.

Outside the main studio releases, I found much satisfaction in three other movie categories this year:


1. Vegas Baby (f/k/a Haveababy). I rated this as high as any of the ten above, and it was the only film that made me cry (twice).

2. Weiner. For sheer audacity, and subsequent relevance, this couldn’t be beat.


1. Elevator to the GallowsSo French, so 1958, so Jeanne Moreau, so noir.

2. Niagara. Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten in Henry Hathaway’s 1953 take on Alfred Hitchcock.

Festival Films

1. The Unknown Girl. A psychological thriller from the Dardennes brothers.

2. VivaA drag queen, or princess, in Cuba, against all odds.

Oscar Choices (limited to actual Oscar nominees)

Best Picture: Hell or High Water

Best Actor: Casey Affleck

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert

Featured Actor: Mahershala Ali

Featured Actress: Viola Davis


Jackie – 3.5

Why? What was the point? Natalie Portman didn’t look like Jackie – not as pretty, nowhere near the presence – and we were given her at her most insecure, at her most vulnerable. No American who lived through “Camelot” could have directed such a picture, and you wonder why Pablo Larrain – much more at home with Neruda – even tried. As for history, Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in All the Way was so much more authentic to the period. Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy missed by a mile, and none of the bit players rang true, although it was fun to see Greta Herwig in a dramatic role. If my score weren’t so low already, I would deduct another 2 for showing a recreation of JFK’s assassination – tasteless, exploitative and totally unnecessary. No Oscar for the lisping Portman.

Manchester by the Sea – 8

Matching Hell and High Water in regional atmosphere, Manchester reverberated more closely to home for me, recalling Mystic River and Dennis Lehane novels, Spartina and the whole ball of Matt Damon/Ben Affleck/Mark Wahlberg New England wax – not surprising, as Damon was a producer and Ben’s little brother Casey was the star. I’ve loved watching Casey since Gone, Baby, Gone, and he was riveting here, although there was maybe a tad too much. He was damaged goods, in much the way of Isabelle Huppert in Elle, and the whole point of the movie was watching, and understanding, how he dealt with life after being responsible for the death of three daughters. The second point, I guess, was the counterpoint of how his 16-year-old nephew coped with the death of his father. There was too little Michelle Williams (Casey’s wife), but maybe she would have taken away some of the film’s focus. For those, like me, who pine for movies about “real life,” this was it.

Lion – 5

Hokey and manipulative, plus cursed by that bane of bad plots, “based on a true story.” Why did Saroo have an adopted brother? Why did Nicole Kidman have such an awful hairdo? Neither helped the movie, but both were based on the true story. Dev Patel’s matinee-idol looks, of course, weren’t based on the truth; they were to make you fall in love with him and his quest. I didn’t. The child Saroo was a charmer, and I was happy to follow the first half of the film, although not so much that I’d ever want to go to India.