It’s a meaningful movie for me, coming out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. Our guitarist/singer even had the same Gibson SG guitar that Jack Black’s Dewey uses.
At first, we’re meant to see Dewey as a delusional has-been, if a true believer in rock music’s ability to “change the world.” But in his new role as accidental teacher and musical mentor to a class of talented prep school kids, he finds a positive outlet for his enthusiastic idealism (if under shady circumstances). And his maxims about what rock is really about become sound wisdom for impressionable minds rather than just eye rolling platitudes.
This is evident in the scene where the band comes together to make something new together in Zach’s song. Not only does it capture the excitement of “creating musical fusion” with bandmates, but the smile that emerges on Dewey’s face as he steps back to watch the kids come into their own as musicians is a testament to the joy of creative potential being realized.
There are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout, not even counting the “I have been touched by your kids” scene. You really have to be a Jack Black fan to enjoy most of them, if not the whole movie. But even if you aren’t, I can’t see how he wouldn’t win you over with his relentless, goofy energy and legit talent.
According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:
Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.
Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.
Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.
Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up inthis movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.
Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.
The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.
The Fits. That finale!
Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.
Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.
Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.
Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert
Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women
With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, Everybody Wants Some!! is more than just a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. It’s the middle sibling between that film and Linklater’s Before series, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones.
I say the cast is likable, and they are, but the kind of guys and social life depicted in the film—college baseball players in 1980s Texas—are also what I tried to avoid during my adolescence. I played in team sports (mostly soccer) up through high school, and enjoyed the camaraderie and the opportunity to play in a team setting. But the macho posturing, sexual banter, and competitive saber-rattling common in that milieu made me uncomfortable and kept me from bonding with most of my teammates.
Those same things are prominent in Everybody Wants Some!!, but with the barriers of time, maturity, and the fourth wall I felt a strange affection for these guys that I didn’t feel for their real-life counterparts. Maybe because Linklater cranks the Bro-ishness right up to the limits of its charm, mercifully saving it from spilling over into being unpleasant. Or maybe it’s due to the lack of malice in their pranks, taunts, and hazing rituals. This isn’t a team of O’Bannons, the paddle-wielding sadist from Dazed and Confused. They clearly enjoy being around each other and find value in their shared experience on campus and on the baseball field.
Despite sharing the laid-back, chatty vibe of Dazed, a significant difference between the two films is the gender balance, or lack thereof. In Dazed the girls were weaved well into the film’s panoramic story. Every Everybody female, however, save Beverly, is either a potential sex partner or barely regarded at all. Perhaps that’s at it should be in this case, given how sex-obsessed these guys are. Like the one dude who gives lip service to the Equal Rights Amendment while trying to pick up a girl, it would be inauthentic to make these guys more politically enlightened than they really would have been.
Authenticity being a key virtue of Linklater films, it’s why, despite the quibbles, I loved hanging out in this world. I suspect repeated viewings will confirm this, as is true with most Linklater films.
It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.
Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.
So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latestfrom Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.
As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.
The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.
The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.
Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.
With respect to the late, great Roger Ebert, I’m taking the name of his memoir and biographical documentary and giving it instead to Richard Linklater’s new epic novel of a film, for it is Life Itself.
Boyhood chronicles the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who at the film’s beginning is a six-year-old on his back, gazing up at a blue sky. He’s in trouble at school for shoving rocks into a classroom pencil sharpener — not because he wanted to destroy it, but because, he tells his mom after she leaves the principal’s office, he thought he could make arrowheads for his burgeoning collection. Such a small moment of innocent longing comes to typify Mason and his journey, which we get to witness throughout the rest of the film’s twelve-year time frame.
Most Hollywood biopics take the “greatest hits” view of their subject’s life. They often glide over childhood to establish some running themes before skipping to adulthood to get to the “real” or familiar story: J. Edgar and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are recent examples of this. But Linklater, he of the intimately expansive Before series, he’s a deep-cut kind of guy. Rather than, say, making a pit stop in childhood on the way to adulthood — where supposed Important Things happen and Life Lessons are learned — it’s as if he rented a place in town so he could stay as long as necessary to really understand where he was, akin to a documentarian or journalist. Linklater the director seems not like the guy at the party who enters with a bang and works the room all night with a procession of drinks in hand, but the one in the corner talking to one person all night about everything — mutual acquaintances, pop culture arcana, and the familiar tropes of life we often don’t know we share with others until we share them with others. He has an eye trained on the truth.
Boyhood unveils its truths deliberately and episodically, year after year adding new dispatches from the front lines of Mason’s life. These dispatches are often celebratory, sometimes jarring, but mostly they catalog life’s banalities, the tiny triumphs and tragedies that accumulate into something approaching a story. In an interview with The Dissolve, Linklater says Boyhood is “all about the little things that don’t have a place in a movie. … This is all the shit they cut out of [a] movie.” This isn’t Beatles 1, a compilation of greatest hits with all the very best the band offered; it’s the Anthology series, a deep dive into the band’s catalog that juxtaposes alternate cuts of the classics hits with obscure and ordinary songs that never get radio play.
The film zooms in to the granular level and stays there, preferring to consider some of the moments that won’t make the slideshow at high school graduation. He makes a virtue out of seeing the cosmic in the quotidian, not unlike, as Brett McCracken noted, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which considers similar connections between a Texas boyhood and the cosmos. Malick employs a much greater visual artistry than Linklater does in general, and with Boyhood specifically, but both filmmakers are concerned with the long game. They delight in capturing the beauty of detail and the rich story such details can tell.
Boyhood captures not just a person but a time and a place. The film is indeed the step-by-step story of a boy’s emerging from boyhood, but it is also a profile of a place. In the literal sense this place is Texas, where Mason — an often frustrated member of an itinerant family — lives in various homes and goes to various schools, haunting the backyards, basements, and back alleys that seem to draw boys in their restless wandering. In another sense the place of boyhood is psychological: it’s a confining, often confusing place where hyperactivity is stifled, where self-determination is chimerical, where the specter of sexuality haunts every interaction with girls and informs (poorly) the vulgar sex talks with other boys, where you’re constantly being told what to do, and where your well-being is almost always at the whim of adults who may or may not deserve such a vital power.
I’m very familiar with the place Boyhood lives in. Excepting a few key differences, I saw so many moments in Mason’s story, little and large, that harmonized with my own.
When as Mason’s mom drove him and his sister away to a new city he saw his neighborhood friend biking behind them as a last goodbye, I saw in my mind the dreadful day my childhood best friend from down the street moved away with his family, and the weekend before when we had one last sleepover and wore our Batman pajamas and wrestled with my dad.
When Mason aloofly played video games on an enormous Apple iMac G3, I saw my fifth-grade computer lab where I wrote a short story about mice playing games and found refuge from my teacher who assigned essays as punishment for peccadillos instead of for teaching us how to write better.
When Mason and his step-siblings were barred from drinking soda by an oppressive father yet in the next scene walked home from school with Cokes proudly in hand, I felt the exhilaration of sneaking to Walgreen’s one summer with my friend to buy candy forbidden by his mother and eating it all in a fury before returning home.
When Mason’s biological dad brought him to an Astros game against the Brewers, I reminisced about trips with my own dad to County Stadium (and then Miller Park) in Milwaukee to see those very Brewers and get autographs during batting practice in between stadium hot dogs.
When Mason entered middle school and hung with kids who clearly were bad influences on him yet offered friendship and camaraderie in the fight against the seeping oppression of puberty, I remembered my own struggles with peer pressure and in crafting an identity that fit in the nebulous space between family, friends, and myself.
When Mason’s high-school photography teacher lectured him condescendingly in the dark room about his aimlessness and impractically whimsical photos, I recalled clashing with a teacher freshman year who was as frustrated by my antagonistic apathy as I was by her overbearing personality.
When I saw Boyhood, I saw my life itself. I saw an hourglass full of sand that drains way too quickly. I saw how every little moment is another grain we can add to give us a little more time, but only if we take the time to appreciate them. “Love all of God’s creation,” exhorts The Tree of Life, “both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”
Driving to college through the Texas desert, Mason stops at a gas station to fill up. He pulls out his camera and starts shooting the little things he sees around him: the architecture, the people, the sky… photography teacher be damned. Once again he’s the daydreaming kid considering the clouds, but now with the accumulated knowledge from a boyhood survived. He’ll soon be filing dispatches from new places — college, career, marriage, fatherhood — ever adding to the hourglass new grains of sand, each a story of life in itself.
Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality / Open your eyes / Look up to the skies / And see. —“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
A few summers ago I was in Guatemala with my sister, staying with an older married couple near the Pacific coast. Over lunch one day they asked me what traits I desired in a future spouse. They asked about height, hair color, personality, etc. and I told them what I liked. That’s all great, said Alvira, the wife and homemaker, “But remember, don’t look for the ideal girl; look for the real girl.”
This dichotomy of ideal versus real stuck with me. We all have things in our lives we wish were real but are actually illusions. Think about your favorite movies, books, or TV shows. Don’t you wish you could live in those worlds? You can, for a time, but eventually the story ends and the illusion fades away.
But what if we tried to hold on to these ideals, these stories we tell ourselves, because they’re beautiful or inspiring, even though they’re ultimately temporal? This is a question both Gil from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and Richard from Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2009) struggle with in their encounters with the ephemeral.
Neither Richard nor Gil are satisfied. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a self-described “hack” Hollywood screenwriter who vacations in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. A neurotic and a romantic, he’s stuck between his obligations to the lifestyle Inez wishes to keep up and his newly kindled desire to finish his long-dormant passion project – a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop specializing in memorabilia from 1920s Paris.
Here, as they say, comes the turn. In a twist of fate, Gil arrives at a bar, circa 1928, filled with rowdy patrons resplendent in classic Twenties dress. He bumps into a Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband Scott. Cole Porter croons from the piano. He later meets a broody writer named Ernest Hemingway, who after learning Gil is a writer, offers to give his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. For some reason, he’s come face to face with all of his literary idols.
Meanwhile, in late-1930s New York, Richard (Zac Efron), a bored high-school student, meets by chance the famous theater wunderkind Orson Welles. Welles needs a ukulele player for his oft-delayed production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater and finds Richard suitable for the show, which is supposed to open in days.
Like Gil, Richard soon finds himself in another world, performing beside the larger-than-life and mercurial Orson Welles, who runs rehearsals pell-mell yet commands great respect from his colleagues in spite of his massive ego. Richard grows close to Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ hard-to-get secretary, and soon considers her his lover. For Richard this is the ideal life: performing on stage far away from his boring family and school.
Gil, too, grows close to a woman in his otherworld. Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful fashion designer, shares his romanticism and validates Gil’s desires more than Inez ever did. He falls hard for Adriana just as he falls further away from Inez.
But sooner or later, the illusion evaporates. Sonja, ambitious above all else, sleeps with Welles the night before the opening. Too jealous for his own good, Richard castigates the thin-skinned Welles, who in turn fires Richard. They make nice before the show and perform it splendidly, but Richard later learns Orson “just wanted his opening,” so Richard’s out for good.
Gil has a different kind of clash. Adriana doesn’t share his love of the 1920s because it’s her present. “It’s dull,” she says. She much prefers La Belle Époque, Paris’ Victorian era of the 1890s. This triggers Gil’s light-bulb moment: everyone thinks the past era was better than his or her present. Another character in Midnight in Paris calls it “Golden Age thinking.”
So whether out of naiveté or misplaced optimism, they finally awake from their dreams. Yet even in their dreams, both men had brushes with reality. For Richard, it was Greta, a girl he meet-cutes in a music store. For Gil, it was Gabrielle, a flea market vendor selling Cole Porter LPs. They talk briefly each time about music and art, but the thing about these women compared to the ones in their fantasies is that they’re real. Gabrielle isn’t the stunner of Gil’s dreams like Adriana was; she’s flesh and blood. She may not inspire great works of art with her beauty, but she loves walking in the rain just like Gil does. Greta doesn’t work in a grandiose theater production like Sonja; she’s a struggling writer who connects with Richard away from the spotlight.
Gil and Richard never had a chance at their dream women because they didn’t actually exist. They may have been real for a time, but only for a time. That’s the problem with illusions; they don’t last forever. A connection with real life – with Gabrielle and with Greta – made them realize that.
The ideal is temporary, but fools you into thinking you can have it all and keep it that way. The real, conversely, is tangible, yet can fool you into thinking life is dull because it isn’t always enchanting. We find fulfillment in the ideal because it lets us escape from an undesirable present. But Gil realizes eventually that “the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.” No illusion will ever change that.
This isn’t a depressing thought. In fact, it can set you free. To paraphrase the wise old thief from The Italian Job, you can either let the illusion enhance your life or define it. Don’t let it be the latter.
So we need not shatter our illusions completely. At their best, illusions are simply stories that can inspire, inform, and reveal beauty to us in many ways. When we let these stories enhance our lives rather than define them, real, amazing things can happen.
At the end of Welles, Richard, a little blue after losing his dream job, the illusion shattered, meets Greta at the museum again. Her short story is being published, and Richard is finally clear-eyed about his life.
“It’s an exciting time,” Greta says, “because it feels like…”