Is it possible for an Alien movie to still offer surprises? If you've been following the trajectory of these movies for the past few decades, you'd be forgiven for considering the series exhausted. And while I'm willing to admit that lowered expectations may influence my appraisal, it doesn't diminish the fact that Alien: Covenant is by far the best of the last thirty years. But not only that, it's a terrifically twisted horror movie that stands rather well on its own.
A critic's best-of list is a lot like a selfie, they're superficial and arbitrary, they provide only a fleeting snapshot's worth of insight, and social media has made them ubiquitous - especially at the end of the year. In the rush to get them out, all the sufficiently-hyped movies of the year get crammed into marathon viewing sessions that offer little possibility for thoughtful digestion and it provides us with a slew of lists that shuffle around the same dozen or so movies. It's especially ridiculous since we all know that over time these things will change; certain movies will pale while others will become deeper and more meaningful.
Yet a lot of traditions are nonsensical and we nevertheless feel the urge to be part of it. It's the same with the awards ceremonies. Last year, I tried to suss out my mixed feelings regarding the Oscars and the potential they have for doing good and pushing things forward, that inevitably get pushed to the side in favor of maintaining a stable business model. I've felt this way for a long time, but each year I'll nevertheless feel the pull of ceremonial tradition and hold out hope that a certain movie or performance might defy the odds. This year, there's the added interest of just how politicized these awards will get.
There isn't much ritual to the TAMYs, seeing as some years they don't leave the confines of my head, but it's only human to want to join in on a chorus, even if your timing is a bit off and you're in no position to see as many of the world's films as you'd like.
Yeah, sure, it might be a bit of a cheat (its official first debut was in 2015) but there was no better cinematic experience in 2016 than seeing Julian Rosefeldt's mind-bending and invigorating Manifesto installation. Thirteen simultaneous screens of Cate Blanchett reciting quotes from the twentieth century's most famous artistic and ideological manifestos. In the role of a nightly news anchorwoman, a school teacher, a stock broker, a choreographer, and some more mysterious occupations, Blanchett transforms and inhabits these remarkable characters to give power to the words of futurists, dadaists, surrealists and abstract expressionists, among others.
Rosefeldt shoots fascinating landscapes and remarkably detailed environments for these scenarios, gliding the camera through and around spaces that are often man-made yet strangely alien. His compositions are some of the most striking and engaging I had the pleasure to see last year, and when the thirteen Blanchetts lock into their harmonies every ten minutes or so, it's a spine-tingling and gloriously giddy celebration of art and the power of film - a collision of sight and sound that has left a lasting inspirational impact.
Here's another caveat: Word from Sundance has been scarce but unsurprisingly underwhelming about the movie-movie version of Manifesto, which has been flattened and re-edited into a linear experience that it was obviously never intended to be. But it's worth seeking out the original version in a space that does the concept justice. Who knows, maybe there's some kind of Zaireeka-esque home-viewing experience one could put together with a bunch of laptops and tablets, but otherwise you'll be missing out on the power of a great testament to some of art's most passionate voices.
RUNNER UPS: Patterson, Toni Erdmann, Love & Friendship, Manchester by the Sea, The Lobster, Hail Caesar, Green Room
WHIT STILLMAN - LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
After years of delays and false starts, the worlds of Stillman and Jane Austen finally collided in 2016, resulting in a movie with a laughs per minute ratio that is off the charts. Those familiar with Stillman's history (particularly Metropolitan and Barcelona) have come to expect an abundance of charm and wit, but Love & Friendship is perhaps a crowning achievement. Everything that Stillman has previously shown a knack for has never seemed so evident as it is here. Not a line of dialog or gesture from the perfect cast is wasted as Stillman shows a growing strength of the cinematic tools at his disposal.
Perhaps it's odd given that he's been at this for over twenty years, but you get the sense that the years Stillman spent trying to bring his vision of Jane Austen to the screen was exactly the kind of immersive inspiration that can make a director's work suddenly raise itself to another level. This is masterful control of material with a deep understanding of every line, every motivation and how every piece fits together. This isn't to say that his previous work didn't show great thoughtfulness, but I'm not sure if I've been this impressed with Stillman since my first viewings of Metropolitan.
RUNNER UPS: Jim Jarmusch, Kenneth Lonergan, Barry Jenkins, Kelly Reichardt
KENNETH LONERGAN - MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Here's another triumph of construction - Manchester's screenplay unfolds like a tragic novel, with perfectly timed flashbacks that deepen our understanding of the characters and move the story forward. It might sound like Screenwriting 101, but knowing when to hold back information and when to deliver it for maximum soul-crushing impact ain't so easy. Lonergan once again shows himself to be a genius-level storyteller with superb control of sound, music and framing to wrap the viewer around his finger. But it's all there in the amazing script, the beats, the twists and, perhaps most remarkably, the humor.
Everyone makes an understandable fuss about the grief on display in Manchester by the Sea, but it's the wealth of humor that makes it all bearable and all the more human and impressive. If, as everyone likes to say, Lonergan is modern cinema's great dramatist, he's also one of the more important humorists. He knows exactly how comically inept we can be and how we use humor to deflect how hurt, disappointed and damaged we are - not just to protect our own sanity, but to also protect those around around us. Emotions are contagious, after all, and it's not so difficult for a person to end up as toxic mess if they don't try to contain it somehow or other. But what's really difficult is to protect yourself and other when you're suffering from survivor's guilt and self-loathing. To make this subject matter as watchable and engaging as it is, and not slip into unbearable miserablism is a testament to some brilliant writing.
With help from the magical Tilda Swinton, and a physics-defying set piece that is a high-point in the Marvel filmography so far, Doctor Strange has enough style to overcome some weak points in the character department and actually make the 3D surcharge worthwhile.
Film isn't dead, and neither is film criticism. What's deteriorating is the thoughtfulness surrounding the medium and how we treat and share our opinions. I try to work my way toward the cause of today's message board mentality, shed some light on my own tastes, and offer some advice on how we can tone down the unproductive nonsense. Fair warning: it's a long one.
Brace yourself for yet another Oscar think piece as I brace myself for Mad Max: Fury Road's inevitable best picture loss. Then I get more philosophical about what effect the Oscars really have on the movie's we watch and how bad Spotlight's win is for movies in general and for the chances of anyone taking the Academy Awards seriously.