Friday, January 13, 2017

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2016

Blood Father - Jean-Francois RichetMel Gibson turns in an engaged performance as Link, a dirtbag parolee just trying to stay sober while he ekes out a quiet living as a tattoo artist in a dusty ass-end of nowhere trailer park, whose runaway daughter reaches out desperate for his help. He takes her in for a few days and promises her some money if she sobers up, but trouble tracks her down in the form of a nasty pack of criminals she's on the run from before sobriety can really be established. Nothing special about the plot or set-up here, they're pretty standard. The pleasure is just how punchy a familiar tune can sound when played loudly by the right band in the right venue. The action is simple, but clear and quick and brutal. Gibson holds the center as a man left with only two emotions - anger and more angrier - and precious little in coping mechanisms since he's committed to sobriety and the rules of his parole. One of those commitments is ditched early (and not without pain) but Link confesses to his daughter that he's having fun living on the lam with baddies coming out of the woodwork after them, and that's our cue to jump in and chew this thing as a palatable piece of pulp (based on the novel by co-screenwriter Peter Craig) rather than a harrowing tale of crime and consequence. The subcultures of the film add tremendously to the atmosphere - the trailer park full of scraggly, well armed rednecks, the fleabag motel, peckerwood biker bar and the compound where Dale Dickey and Michael Parks run an internet business specializing in confederate and nazi paraphernalia. Note to filmmakers: if Michael Parks is available you fucking use Michael Parks.

Dealer - Jean Luc Herbulot - Director and co-writer Herbulot lifts the plot and title nearly whole-cloth from Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher, and moves the action to Paris where Dan (Dan Bronchinson), a small time drug dealer, sees an opportunity for a one-time big cocaine job that will free up his finances enough to move out of the country and his current shitty life. Merde hits the fan from jumpstreet and Dan spends a nerve-wracking day crisscrossing the streets of Paris to keep plates spinning while avoiding cops and gangsters who all want a piece of him and his deal. Again - absolutely nothing new with the plot - it's just a sturdy as hell frame to hang a movie on and, oh my, they don't skimp on the nasty here. Both the general atmosphere and the tone of the violence will make you recoil, but the amphetamine kicking and ever-louder ticking on the game clock will keep you alert and paying attention. Don't pay for a whole seat, you'll only need the edge.

Dog Eat Dog - Paul Schrader - The novel by Edward Bunker is one of the first serious crime books I read to light a fire under my ass for the hardcore hardboiled stuff I love. For pure scorch factor I'd put it up there with the best of James Ellroy, Jim Thompson and Eddie Little. So let me say right up front that this adaptation from Schrader and company is a far fucking cry from the book in tone, impact and cohesiveness. Further - it's a mess. Uneven, ugly, silly, almost amateurish at points. And I love it. It's easily the most give-no-fucks straight-up entertaining flick Schrader's made in years and whatever you may find among its many faults none of it will be limp or lazy, luke-warm or disengaged. Schrader pushes his cast out onto the flimsiest limbs while he chops down the whole tree and sets fire to the forest. And God bless 'em they deliver some big moments, especially Willem Dafoe who teeters from loyal and wounded to pathetic and psychotic through high and amped down to strung-out and seething with a dim-bulbed, dumb-dogged sincerity that makes me wish he could stay exactly this age and ability/commitment level for a couple more decades. Christopher Matthew Cook is the anchor on the other end of the trio of hapless career criminals fucking up their lives with every new opportunity. They bumble from one cockup to the next staggering through stylistic changes as violent as Mad Dog's mood swings. For my money though nothing is better or funnier in the movie than the visual of a car that they've fixed up with reflective tape to look like a police cruiser and the sequence that ensues is the height of the film's suspense powers. The opening drug-jag, bumble-murder is the most disturbing and the Bogart finale takes it to a level of head-scratching whatthefuckery previously un-foretold. Nobody seems to agree on what movie they're appearing in, but everybody feels committed to the performance they drew from a hat back stage and, improbably, even Schrader himself is having fun onscreen. Watch it once scratching your head, but repeat viewings reveal a patchwork of disparate vignettes about characters all circling the same drain and taking more than a few of us down with them.

Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier - A touring punk band living by their wits take a sketchy impromptu gig at a remote skinhead compound to help with basic living expenses like food and maintenance for the van they travel in. While there they witness a murder and barricade themselves inside the venue's green room. The hostage/standoff situation eventually becomes a siege/last stand/escape kind of thing and a pile of bodies later you will need a keg of Pepto. Simple concept, brilliant execution. The award for stomach churner of the year goes here. Seriously this thing left me with a mouth full of powder where my teeth had been. Like Blue Ruin, each beat satisfies, but lands unexpectedly and the film unravels with a brutal elegance un-paralleled this annus horribilus. Saulnier's understanding of audience instincts and his trust of their engaged critical faculties are crucial ingredients that allow his films to engage and shock initiates while stimulating and still revealing themselves to repeat viewers. His treatment of violence is masterful too - there to deliver the goods, but never cheap - brutally and realistically rendered for maximum revulsion to lie beneath the adrenaline kicks whipped topping. Cast is strong and points awarded for the specificity of the world inhabited, but the real star is writer/director Saulnier's consistency. Not yet ready to put him on the tippy-top shelf of film makers making movie just for me (the body of work isn't yet large enough), but whatever he's working on next is certainly at the top of my eagerly-anticipated list.

Hell or High Water - David Mackenzie - A pair of brothers on a deadline pull off a string of bank robberies while a pair of Texas rangers pursue them. A simple, sturdy frame, well dressed with actors, action and good looking landscapes, it's another film on this list that brings nothing new to the table only executes solidly its functions without embarrassing itself or insulting its audience. What more do I need? Nothing really. Neither adversarial pair should get all that they want (and neither do), neither squander their screen time or wear out their welcome, the mix of victory to tragedy is pleasing and it changes based on which point of view you're partial to. The real standouts here though are the small moments and incidental characters who often feel like found objects in the landscape - I'd happily watch films based on Katy Mixon or Margaret Bowman's waitresses Kevin Rankin's financial advisor or Nathaniel Auguston and Ariel Holmes's bored armpit of America thugs. I've taken a little heat for comments I made sounding like I was not appreciating this one enough so, hey - look here, it's on my favorites of the year list - I appreciate it, and I'd love it if the critical success its enjoyed brings us more high-profile, adult crime fare - in the end that may be the accomplishment I appreciate most.

The Last Panthers - Johan Renck - A multifocal portrait of modern European crime and politics that makes the list for scope and ambition. It starts with a diamond heist and splits into several narratives -the thieves attempting to escape the country and get paid, the local police investigating the crime, an insurance investigator whose reach extends across borders and a politician financed by organized crime with nationalist roots. If that sounds like a lot to cram into a two hour movie, it would be, but this aired as a 6-part mini-series on the Sundance Channel. It's long enough to give every narrative strand room enough to develop independently so that when they tie together it has impressively strong thrust and impact, but each narrative strand has a singular focal character who holds the screen easily and brings a personal motive and reason to invest in so we don't lose the small scale in the big picture. Kudos to writers Jack Thorne, Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme Pierrat as well as cast members Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan for that. Haven't heard much chatter about this one, but I'm hoping people catch up to it and we get more fare like this across the long-form narrative mediums of television and streaming content.

The Nice Guys - Shane Black - An L.A. detective partnered with a thug for hire scour the seamy side of the city looking for the missing daughter of a prominent member of the DOJ with ties to the porn industry, the auto industry and an incendiary fuck flick in 1977. Arrayed against them: a terrific trio of heavies in David Keith, Beau Knapp and Matt Bomer, gravity and alcohol. In their corner: a precocious kid, good luck and hard headedness. Of course a sharp script from Black, a groovy soundtrack, a bumble bee played by Hannibal Buress and some killer chemistry between Russell Crowe's bleary slab of beef and Ryan Gosling's bumbling ball of kinetic comic chops and a high-pitched squeal to take all comers don't hurt a damn thing. This is easily the most fun to have been had at the movies last year and it's yet another example of inexplicable poor box office performance that points to why we fucking deserve the coming four year shit sandwich buffet we've only just begun to tuck in to. We can't have (many) nice things, but you'll have to pry The Nice Guys from my cold dead hands.

Triple 9 - John Hillcoat - Armed robbery, murder for hire, vice rings and general street-level mayhem - this picutre covers organized crime playing out on both sides of the blue line like I'm always down for and rarely have delivered on this level. If this is Hillcoat's version of going Hollywood then I'm all fucking for it. The dude's been making high-profile, commercial vehicles with an un-commercial amount of attention payed to violent content since The Proposition crossed over. Seriously, this guy's got a David Cronenberg-level eye for gruesome detail captured lovingly with glossy production value that I cherish above most things. This one failed to catch on in its theatrical run, but I'd bet it's got some serious long-game and accrues cult status soon. Among its chief criticisms was "nobody to root for," and similarly, "not enough attention to character" to which I rebut a big juicy fart noise. Really? Instead of a fallacy in the script I see it as one of the best uses of a star-studded ensemble in a long time. These are faces that come with history, gravity and pre-infused with character. If you can't immediately jump into Casey Affleck or Chiwetel Ejiofor's corner you, sir or madam, lack a very basic level of empathy and deserve to be remanded to talky, arty, bloated with self-importance movie hell where they spoon-feed you hot-topic, approved-by-committee reasons to invest your precious reserve of human feeling for a guaranteed congratulatory pat on the back.

The TribeMyroslav Slaboshpytskyi - A new kid at a school for deaf/mute students in Ukraine falls in with a ruthless criminal element among them. This one makes the cut for the sheer audacity of its vision and execution as well as for the devastating impact of the violent finale. Oof. It stuck with me. Check the IMDb page and you'll find that the characters have names, but that doesn't help discussing it because none of those names are ever uttered aloud. In fact there is no spoken dialogue in the film - the characters communicate through actions and sign language and, without the benefit of subtitles, it is the viewers who find themselves on the outside looking in and forced to interpret for themselves the events on screen. The film is composed of a series of scenes captured in single shots - sometimes static and wide focus, other times fluid and complex tracking shots that follow characters room to room or through locations like a truck stop where they run a prostitution ring. Did I mention this thing was dark? Holy shit is it. The level of criminality engaged in is no ordinary juvenile hijinks. Nope. The waters tread are dark, dangerous and infested with teenaged nihilists whose antics should impress even the most misanthropic viewer and induce cringes of real humanity. This one is challenging viewing, but pays off with images of visceral violence caught in a haunting vacuum of sound.

The Trust - Alex Brewer, Benjamin Brewer - Nicolas Cage and Elijah Woods play a couple of Las Vegas cops who decide to capitalize on their position to rip off a drug dealer. Chief among the pleasures of this feature debut from brothers Alex and Benjamin Brewer are their sense of scale and control of tone that balances humor, suspense and dark drama in a mix that keeps you guessing and unsure of where we're headed. Cage's volatile presence is utilized to great affect and Woods never lets us quite pin him down either. They're not particularly evil police, neither are they desperate or disillusioned former idealists, instead they're bored professionals who happen to be cops casual enough about their corruptibility to play like people rather than stock characters and thus keep us off balance unsure of what kind of film we're watching. Is it a buddy comedy? A thriller? Yes. It works on all the levels it plays at, but it's the film's final moments that really drive home what a well-crafted experience it is. Looking forward to more from the brothers Brewer for sure. Here's hoping they keep crime in mind.


Nicolas said...

Hey, Jed. Nice list. Ive trying to find Dealer. Have you seen at Netflix or what?

jedidiah ayres said...

I saw it on Netflix several months ago

Nicolas said...

Thanks for the answer, Jed. Bad Luck that Netflix Argentina doesn't have it.