1. A Quiet Passion- In A Quiet Passion, writer/director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon see their subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson, with disarming clarity. Fragmentally structured through her life in 19th century Massachusetts, Davies and Nixon create an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s increasingly shrinking, reclusive world. Happiness is nearly always out of her reach, conveyed by Nixon’s endlessly crumpling face. Still, A Quiet Passion does not wallow in Dickinson’s despair, Davies grapples with her thoughts and feelings that build and bleed into each other moment to moment. The first half of A Quiet Passion is often blisteringly funny, and Dickinson’s quick wit becomes a through line that Davies uses to trace her withdrawal from the world. The second half of the film portrays Dickinson reaching a point where she refuses to meet face to face with anyone other than family members, standing from a doorway atop the stairs, shouting down witticisms and rebuttals from a sad distance. A Quiet Passion may at times be unrelentingly bleak, but it is also deeply empathetic and moving. Davies shows that remarkable artistry can bloom from such dark, oppressive conditions, even if it wasn’t rightly admired during its creator’s life.-Matt
2. Call Me by Your Name– Call Me by Your Name is a film about young love made from a mature distance. Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating drama, set at a villa in 1980s Italy, chronicles a summer affair between 17-year-old Elio and Oliver, a chiseled, imposingly tall American in his 20s who is working as a summer graduate assistant of for Elio’s academic father. The director and his invaluable lead actors (Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver), portray the uncertainty the two young men feel both physically and verbally. Guadagnino aims his camera at them head-on, often foregrounding one as he talks, reads research or plays the piano while the other watches in the distance. There are also key point-of-view shots, watching one of them from a distance before cutting to the other person watching, transfixed but uncertain why. Their eventual affair is the result of an evolving, undefined intimacy. Call Me by Your Name gets so much right about attraction, about a short-term affair that will be frozen in time and replayed for the rest of its characters’ lives.-M
1. Cynthia Nixon- A Quiet Passion- “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” Emily Dickinson speaks these lines from one of her poems not in voiceover, as is often the case in A Quiet Passion, but to a newborn baby the first time she holds him. Staring directly into the infant’s eyes, Cynthia Nixon’s delivery is a gentle whisper that, like many other moments in Terence Davies’ extraordinary film, caught me off guard. Her performance creates an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s small, increasingly reclusive world. Traditional happiness is nearly always out of reach for the poet, something that Nixon displays on her endlessly crumpling face. It’s an unforgettable blend of quick wit and despair, a performance that is more important to the overall success of a film than any other this year.
2. Timothée Chalamet- Call Me by Your Name- One of the most powerful images in a movie this year was an extended shot of Timothée Chalamet staring into a fire at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. In this scene, his character Elio is replaying his unforgettable summer with Oliver, a graduate assistant who stayed with his family as a sort of understudy with his academic father. The expansive range of emotions that Chalamet displays here are astounding, as is the rest of his performance. He imbues the 17-year-old with a lanky restlessness that comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings at his parents’ luscious Italian home. Chalamet’s physicality, his cautiousness mixed with abrupt bursts of confidence, gives Call Me by Your Name a crucial sense of spontaneity.
1. Moonlight- “Who is you?”
The question seems to knock Chiron backward. That’s because when it’s asked toward the end of Barry Jenkins’ moving, intimate epic, everything that preceded it seems to wash over him at once. Told in three stages of his life — as a young boy, a teenager and an adult — Moonlight charts Chrion’s evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity. Jenkins crafts scenes filled with long, winding conversation where Chiron slowly unfolds his inner desires as well as moments of loud, visual splendor, as in a scene where Chrion’s father figure Juan brings him to the beach. Chiron’s entry into the water is overwhelmed by Nicholas Britell’s stirring, string-heavy score, the camera seemingly placed on the water’s surface as Juan supports Chiron as he floats on his back.
It’s exceedingly rare to see a film like this, a black, queer coming-of-age story that morphs into a beautifully observed romance, get a nationwide release and even an awards push. It’s nice to see the film get this kind of exposure, and hopefully it leads to Jenkins getting more resources for his next endeavor. However, the breathtaking artistry with which he realizes this deeply personal vision transcends whatever awards hype Moonlight might garner. Jenkins charts Chiron’s inner life and emerging queer identity with extraordinary empathy and images of overwhelming power, finding rhyming verbal and visual cues that echo across decades. –Matt
2. Manchester by the Sea- Films often portray grief as a series of steps characters move through to reach the end of a dark tunnel and emerge back into the light. Kenneth Lonergran’s exceptional Manchester by the Sea is one of the few to acknowledge that, sometimes, a tidy reconciliation never arrives. The past continues to haunt and inform the present. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living in Massachusetts – he sulks through his work with a dead-eyed stare, sometimes snapping to life at slight transgressions from customers and bar patrons. It is clear he is a man suffering, unable to rectify himself. Chandler is called back to his hometown, Machester-by-the-Sea – a place that holds painful memories – when he is informed his brother Joe has had a heart attack. Joe’s son, Patrick, comes under the temporary guardianship of Lee as the two negotiate the best course of action and form a strained – and often humorous – reconnection.
Lonergran’s 2011 film Margaret was an operatic and ambitious melodrama about a teenager emerging from solipsism in New York City, with narrative threads that piled on and split off in all directions to overwhelming effect. The tangled narrative structure is still here, albeit on a much smaller scale, absent of the escalating drama and more attuned to the ways comedy can coincide with tragedy. Its script is unconcerned with easy resolutions or adhering to formulaic notions of “growth” and “change” – most of the characters here end up much the same as before. As we all often do. -Sam
1. Krisha Fairchild- Krisha- Even though our introduction to the title character of Trey Edward Shults’ debut film seems relatively calm at first, erratic energy soon reverberates off of her. Krisha mutters to herself as she exits her vehicle, stops mid-track to retrieve her suitcase and then trudges through a lawn until she arrives at the front door of her sister’s house. She is there to make amends for her turbulent past, but the reunion only causes her to retreat back into it, opening up old wounds and carving out fresh ones. The camera shares her frantic perspective, sometimes observing at a nervous distance and other times focusing on Fairchild’s face as she searches for a way back into the family. She gives a volatile tour de force here, playing Krisha as a woman who desperately wants to make things right but is unable to escape her demons.
2. Casey Affleck- Manchester by the Sea- Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is one of the great recent films about guilt and grief. At its center is Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man drawn back to his hometown Manchester from Boston after the death of his brother. He’s shocked to find out that his brother’s will leaves him custody of his teenage nephew, and he’s forced to linger in town as he decides what to do. Manchester is a place of unspeakable pain for him, and Affleck is tremendous at showing the weight of his character’s torment in both the present and in the movie’s many extended flashbacks.
Best Picture: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight
- Will Win: Spotlight. I think (and hope) a lot of the hype behind The Revenant is empty in this category.
- Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road is my top pick in this category, though Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies and Spotlight are all worthy contenders.
- Left out: I was tempted to put “Not Carol” eight times for the list of nominees. I’d have also included either Magic Mike XXL, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Results or Unfriended in this category instead of Room, The Martian, The Revenant and The Big Short. (The Big Short is solid, for the record. I just think the others I mentioned are better).
1. Carol- Todd Haynes’ Carol is a prolonged and profound examination of the sparks that lead to romance. Featuring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the year’s two best, most intwined performances, Carol is a sublime 1950s-set melodrama about falling in love in a dangerous time. Almost every rapturous frame lets us in on these strangers’ secret, from the first time they make eye contact in a department store to every brief moment of intimacy. Each of Therese and Carol’s muted exchanges is whisked out of the sexually repressed time period by the deep longing in Carter Burwell’s score. Haynes captures the fragile intimacy at the core of Phyllis Nagy’s script (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) with confident restraint. Carol is a masterpiece, and one of the most ravishing movie romances.
2. Hard to be a God- This decades-long passion project from the late Russian director Aleksey German is one of the filthiest feeling movies you’re ever likely to see. Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. Araknar is also in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears. Almost every black-and-white frame of this grotesquely beautiful epic is coated in some kind of slime, whether it’s snot, shit or mud. Hard to be a God captures human cruelty in a ferociously close proximity; it’s a depraved, totally unforgettable experience.
1. Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara- Carol– This year, the top spot on the list is also an act of protest. It’s ridiculous to debate who gives the leading performance in Carol, and it’s ridiculous to campaign Rooney Mara for Best Supporting Actress awards when most of the film is told from her point of view. Lost in the debate are two performances destined to be iconic; Mara as the young store clerk Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol, the regal housewife she falls in love with. Todd Haynes’ sublime 1950s melodrama is a superb showcase for both of them; never has a director better understood the distinct power of Blanchett’s slow-burning gaze, or the quietly devastating power of Mara’s wide, wondrous eyes. Together the two actresses sketch a bond as intimate and ravishing as any screen romance in recent memory.
2. Julianne Moore- Maps to the Stars- Julianne Moore gives a brutal, merciless performance in Maps to the Stars, playing a woman who is gradually unraveling at the thought of no longer getting movie roles as she reaches 50. Her Havana Sagrand is Valerie Cherish of HBO’s The Comeback stripped of any sympathy and dignity. She is ruthlessly mean and unhinged, the kind of character you’d want to keep your distance from in case she spontaneously combusts. Like Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method or Jeff Goldbloom in The Fly, this is exactly the kind of performance that director David Cronenberg loves to lavish with close-ups. It’s among the most terrifying and memorable performances from one of the greatest living actresses.