Thursday, January 19, 2017

2016 Honorable Mentions

Last week I talked up my favorite ten crime flicks from 2016 and, like every year, it included a lot of obvious choices, but I like to follow up with the 11-20 slots 'cause that's where I can get into a few that may've slipped through the cracks. Again, not all are 2016 releases, but all of these are recent small or foreign flicks and they were all first-viewed last year. In alphabetical order.

Black Coal Thin Ice - Diao Yinan - Parts of a dismembered body are discovered inside a coal shipment and the investigation ends in a sudden, horrific bloodbath that leads the detective to retire. Five years into a new career as a half-assed private dick and full time drunk another killing with the same weirdly-specific M.O. has him looking into the murders with new ideas. The hoops this one jumps through plot-wise are maybe a twist too-far, but it's an effectively moody mystery with at least three memorable scenes. The aforementioned bloodbath is a wonderful set-piece that comes out of nowhere - a routine investigation scene jumps sideways - it's messy, brutal and shockingly funny, a character has his motorcycle stolen in another vignette of inverted expectations and the use of ice skates as a murder weapon is surprisingly effective. The filmmakers know their genre tropes and have fun playing with expectations all the way through while sticking to them faithfully, it's exactly the kind of measured, skillfully executed mystery film that I can enjoy without feeling like an asshole afterward.

Don't Breathe - Fede Alvarez - A trio of young thieves have a hot lead on easy score - a disabled vet with cash from a legal settlement hidden somewhere in his house. What they didn't count on was the lethal capabilities of the old blind soldier, nor the far reaches of his mind for revenge. A classic switcheroo where the villains become victims, the set up is pretty simple, but the extended suspense sequence that makes up the bulk of the film is so relentless and well done that minor quibbles with logic and tone are easily forgiven, plus fuckin Stephen Lang deserves some serious recognition for his almost completely silent performance as the glorious bastard with an inglorious baster.

Kill Zone 2Cheang Pou-soi - I can't recap the plot for you. I know it involves undercover cops, drug smuggling, trafficking in human organs, corrupt prison officials and a shit-ton of coincidence, but where all those pieces go I'm not the least interested in trying to recall. They're just excuses to move from one great action sequence to the next. A sequel in name only to the 2005 Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung flick, even the returning actors (neither Yen nor Hung) Wu Jing and Simon Yam play different characters so don't worry. Ong-Bak's Tony Jaa is foremost amongst the ensemble of ass-kickers doing what they do.

The Legend of Barney Thomson - Robert Carlyle's debut as a feature director is an adaptation of The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay, is a grisly comedy about a hapless barber who accidentally kills his boss and is relieved to find the murder mistkenly attributed to a serial killer currently working in Glasgow and then horrified to learn that he is suspected of being said serial killer. Carlyle shows an eye for detail that make Glasgow and its inhabitants pop off the screen and seem an alternately dismal and charming locale, and the cast, including Carlyle, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen and Brian Pettifer are fun, but it's Emma Thompson playing the barber's overbearing, alcoholic mother whom I charge with grand theft motion picture. She goes big and owns every scene she barrells through - couldn't get enough of her. Special notice to the props department for the lovingly detailed severed limbs and sundry liberated anatomical pieces that show up throughout - they add a good deal of punch to the goings on.

MarshlandAlberto Rodríguez - A pair of mismatched Spanish detectives are sent to investigate the disappearance of teenaged sisters from a remote village in 1980. The post-Franco setting is key to the tense atmosphere as the duo learn how to work together - one a fascist-era leftover and the other representing a new Spain, neither without a troubled conscience. Similar in tone and plot Memories of Murder or the first season of True Detective, it's dour, but stately and outfitted with a satisfyingly violent and bitter conclusion.

Mexican Gangster (aka Mexico's Most Wanted) - José Manuel Cravioto - This unwieldy film based on the true larger than life figure Alfredo Ríos Galeana, a bank-robbing cop who moonlit as a luchador-mask-wearing mariachi going by the name Charro Misterioso, is full of enough what the actual fuckery to compensate for its sometimes shaggy-dog script and obtuse structure. I'd never heard of Galeana before and looked him up immediately after finishing the film. Turns out writer/director Cravioto deserved more credit than I'd initially given him in getting the story onscreen in a more or less cohesive package. If the narrative had been presented chronologically it would have required a much longer running time to give proper attention to each element in the unbelievable story. As presented -like a blender full of incongruous liquified ingredients- it makes for a head-scratching take on an otherwise standard criminal bio-pic, but honestly, what was left out was even weirder and I think it showed great restraint on Cravioto's part not to even bother.
99 HomesRamin Bahrani - At first glance this slick picture starring recognizable white folks would appear to be the place Bahrani went hollywood, but the fact that it fits perfectly into his body of work serves as an alarming illustration of how big a sink hole the American middle class rests upon. Like Bahrani's previous features Chop Shop and Man Push Cart this one is a portrait of people existing in the places they land after falling through the cracks in society. 99 Homes stars Andrew Garfield as an out of work construction worker in Florida evicted from his foreclosed upon home by real estate operator Michael Shannon. Garfield's character reaches for an opportunity offered by Shannon's to work for him evicting other in default families and flipping the properties. Works well as a far more human companion piece to The Big Short showing the fallout of the housing market crash from the chaos on the ground. Shannon's Carver shows Garfield's Nash the ropes of his business which cross ethical, moral and legal boundaries like so many invisible and meaningless lines and delivers a brief back-story speech that sounded uncomfortably similar to Tina Turner's in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome driving home, perhaps intentionally, that this is a pre-apocalyptic movie. Both lead performances are engaged and worthy of their front and centeredness, but, as with Bahrani's other work, they are convincing stand-ins for the faceless subterranean we may all be on our way to becoming. With this one and Chop Shop Bahrani tackles the element of crime from a law of the jungle, basic human survival angle that I'm drawn to and stupid for, and I hope that the addition of A-list talent like Shannon, Garfield and Laura Dern means his star is rising and he gets to keep exploring his area of interest. Strong contender for opening scene/shot of the year... whatever year it belongs to. Fucking amazing and beautifully economic delivery of character and world-building. Did I mention Michael Shannon is in this picture?

Rabid Dogs - Eric Hannezo's French language remake of Mario Bava's 1974 heist/hostage/road movie is tense and elegant and turns nasty quick. The heist always goes wrong, right? Bank robbers pursued by police take hostages and drive across countryside arguing, plotting, sizing each relative-stranger up and weighing their options - none of them good. It's 100 minutes of tension relieved in an orgy of blood and ill-intent. Not having seen the original, I can't comment on how it stacks up and that's probably why I've placed it in the honorable mentions rather than in the top honors category (because I"m afraid you'll point out my total lack of credentials). Fuck you, it's really good.

Too Late - Dennis Hauck - Hauck's debut feature is an exciting high-wire act of filmmaking that is thrilling when it succeeds, but is not without its drawbacks. Let's stay positive up front though. I love the idea of this flick - 5 single-uncut*-shot scenes presented in non-chronological order tell the story of a private investigator looking into the murder of a young woman. The formal experiment is the real star here and the simplicity with which many of the scenes unfold mute some of the monumental orchestration achievements - one shot has a character placing a phone call which is answered by another character within the same shot by use of a telescopic camera zoom, said answering character then hangs up, exits his building and gets in his car which arrives at the scene of the placed phone call in time to conclude the vignette, another scene involves multiple locations and following a character through in and out of rooms, through crowds, up into a boxing ring where a fight is in progress and back and another involves multiple interiors including a strip club and a music venue (both featuring live performers) - it's audacious and bold and works very well and quietly... except when it doesn't. And oh boy, when it doesn't. The quality of the cast varies greatly - at the center is the ever-dependable and always compelling John Hawkes (the only character in every scene) who is joined by solid performers (Natalie Zea, Robert Forster, Vail Bloom and Dichen Lachman are particularly strong, while Jeff Fahey, David Yow and Joanna Cassidy are always welcome) and a handful of not-sos (Rider Strong and Dash Mihok are painful to listen to and Brett Jacobsen has either has uniquely unwieldy lines or is simply outmatched by the elevated writing - either way, I suppose that falls on Hauck's shoulders). The story too - like the speech - is, er, elevated (read - movie logic), the situation and characters within it are the things of fiction, not to be mistaken for actual people or believable behaviors - and that's okay - that's what we want from movies often. So hey, don't go looking for something particularly mindblowing here - when the final puzzle pieces are fit together, if it don't quite land like Chinatown, that's okay. I'm very much looking forward to revisiting this one for it's DePalma-ish camera and dream-like world - I loved the structure - the way the story unfolds and damn, I wish more films took the monster sized swings for the fences that this one does.

VictoriaSebastian SchipperLaia Costa plays Victoria, a young Spanish woman now living in Berlin who meets and flirts with a group of young men at a dance club and spends the remainder of a night in their company eventually being roped into committing a crime with them, which goes badly, and fleeing police and gangsters in a single un-broken 138-minute take. It's a gimmick film, so its success depends on the gimmick itself and in this case it's a hell of an ambitious gimmick that probably would have worked twice as well if it were half as long. I'm of an age now where the indulgences of the young tend to irritate more than inspire and there wasn't a single character among our group of five that I liked and by the time the idiots start to get what's coming to them I confess I was probably on the unintended side of the experience, but hey I'm drawn to material featuring all manner of unlikeable characters and this crew are guilty most of being young and dumb - there may be hope for those who live through the events of the next two hours to become people I would like just fine. The sheer excitement of watching the film making - the multiple locations, the 720 degrees of visibility and complexity of the choreography - is enough to get you through the rough patches. Those rough patches are pretty much the first half to 2/3 of the run time where we're sitting through a night of awkward flirtations over bad music and cheap drugs, but holy shit the unbroken take schtick absolutely elevates the tension of the final forty-five minutes - it's inspiring shit. I'll absolutely be revisiting this one, but I'm likely just to skip to that last section.

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