Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

I usually try and get this blog up before the calendar switches over, but I had a rather busy final week of the year that led to a slight delay. No matter, it’s only a slight delay, and New Year’s Day only gives it the sense of further closure for the year.

Is it closure, however? There’s still a great number of films I haven’t seen, including Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”, Oscar hopefuls “Manchester By the Sea”, “La La Land”, “Loving” and “Jackie”, not to mention other acclaimed films like “The Lobster”, “Hell or High Water” and “The Neon Demon”. And don’t forget “Kubo and the Two Strings”, “Mascots”, “Me Before You”, “Swiss Army Man”, “A Hologram for the King” and “Knight of Cups”. I’ve currently seen 106 movies from the 2016 calendar year, and yet, it still looks like I’ll be catching up all the way to Oscar night. Hopefully, it won’t be that drastic, but it wouldn’t surprise me. And that’s not even including all the screeners I have yet to get to.

2016 has been predominantly about nurturing Sonic Cinema, and getting it in good shape to be a movie website to be reckoned with. I’ve recorded 13 podcasts, including four filmmaker/actor interviews, with plenty more I’m interested in doing this year, and I’ve also decided to revisit a writing project my mother and I had the idea for when I first started writing reviews. I was too inexperienced in both cinema and life then; now, I have plenty of experience in both to finally work on writing that book. I can’t wait to share it with you.

As it has been in previous years, I am eschewing typical Top 10 lists until closer to Oscar time. For now, we will start with the movies that rocked my world, in one way or another, in addition to going through my favorite soundtracks and performances of the year before looking forward to the year ahead. No worst mentions, this year; why bother when I’d rather discuss what I loved about the movies that I couldn’t have liked more this year. I hope you enjoy!

Movies That Made the Biggest Impact of Me on 2016
=“Pete’s Dragon” (Directed by David Lowery)- How surprising is it that the Disney “re-imagining” to get the least hype was the one that has hit me hardest? I’ve never had any particularly fond feelings for their 1977 animation/live action musical family film, which is still true after watching it again this summer. But David Lowery’s bold interpretation of the original concept digs much deeper than just the idea of a boy whose best friend is a dragon (Elliot, one of the most endearing CG creations in recent memory) who only he really sees, and what happens when their existence is upended when the boy, Pete, suddenly finds himself part of a small-town community. This is a film about loss and love and friendship that is tested when life changes dramatically, and that personal nature transcends the notion of brand extension and digs into the soul of the viewer in a way Disney hasn’t done in a good long while without an assist from Pixar. Forget just being a great family film; this is great filmmaking that will make you a mess when you watch it. This is now the bar for live-action adaptations for Disney; it’ll take something truly miraculous to jump over it.

=“Believeland” (Directed by Andy Billman)- This was a TV documentary, made as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, but for a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, it hit me right in the feels, as hometown boy Billman looks back at 50-plus years of “close, but no cigar” moments for Cleveland sports. Until the basketball Cavs stunned the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals this past summer, it had been 52 years since a professional sports team had won a championship, the longest drought going in cities with teams in three sports. What happened? Cleveland fans, both still in the area and around the country, all know: Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Blown Save, along with further indignities like The Move (where owner Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, forever altering the course of a legendary franchise when the team came back as an expansion team in 1999) and The Decision, where Akron-born LeBron James, who had given the Cavs hope of better days, left for the Miami Heat in front of a live, televised audience. James eventually came back, and his leadership and skills helped the Cavs beat the Warriors this year coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the series. If Billman’s film were just about the action on the field (or court), it wouldn’t be nearly as affecting. He also shows us Cleveland, and how the futility in sports mirrored the city’s struggles after a period of prosperity in the ’40s and ’50s when industrial changes only amplified the affects of the sports team’s losses on fans. Even if you aren’t a Clevelander (or from Northeast Ohio), you’ll get a greater appreciation of the city, and what the Cavs’s win this summer meant for it. For this predominantly Browns fan, it was the words of Earnest Byner, the man at the center of “The Fumble,” as he recalls his own journey with his place in Cleveland sports infamy that left the biggest lump in my throat. I remember being one of those angry fans in 1988 at 10 years old; now heading towards 40, he’s an inspiration for how he has become a symbol of how fans have a personal connection to their teams.

=“Arrival” (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)- Science-fiction has spent so much time playing off of archetypes and adventure formulas the past 40 years that when a film appears to upend that mentality, it is a blast of fresh air. In that respect, Villeneuve’s film is an important tonic for cinema, in general, but for a world that feels closed off to others more than ever. When aliens land 12 ships around the globe, the fright and paranoia of such an event is seismic, with the key for communication coming from deciphering their language. That is where Amy Adams’s Louise Banks, a linguist, comes in. Unfortunately, the more she is able to decipher, the more the rest of the world closes itself off. The work is exhausting for her, and images of a daughter lost add to the emotional toll she feels. Adams gives a smart, emotionally powerful performance in a film that recalls “Contact,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Interstellar,” or any other film that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension of the universe, and shows the importance of communication in fearful times.

=“The Music of Strangers” (Directed by Morgan Neville)- Like “Arrival,” this musical documentary from the Oscar-winning filmmaker of “20 Feet From Stardom” is a study of the need for communication in a multicultural world, only this comes through in the realm of music, not in the form of a sci-fi thriller. In 2000/2001, world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma had an idea to create a world music ensemble featuring musicians from all around the world. The resulting effort is the Silk Road Ensemble, which has played for over 2 million people in 33 countries, and includes talented artists from China, Spain, Iran and Syria. We get glimpses of rehearsals and performances, along with interviews with the members discussing their lives and how the cultural and political environments they came from have inspired them artistically, and how they bring that to the larger purpose of The Silk Road Ensemble. What we get is a powerful look at the importance of creative expression, and how when lines between cultures become blurred, communication between them, sometimes, can get easier.

=“Araf” (Directed by Tofiq Rzayev and Fidan Jafarova)- I think it is safe to assume that you can expect Azerbaijanian filmmaker Rzayev to appear in my retrospective blogs and lists of best and favorite films of the year on an annual basis, not just for the quantity of films he has offered me (six in two years, with a seventh awaiting review), but for the emotional pull his stories have shown to have on me. His earlier films in 2016, “Nihan: The Last Page” and “In a Time for Sleep”, are just as worthy of this slot, but when it appeared in my Inbox later in the year, “Araf” hit me like a ton of bricks to the stomach with its story of a family isolated because of war, in need of supplies. A daughter is left alone with her dying father, and is forced to deal with the pains of war on her own in a nine-minute film that says much about the personal toll war takes without even going to the battlefield. It will stick with you.

=“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (Directed by Gareth Edwards)- The first film in the “Star Wars” franchise to not deal primarily with the Skywalker family melodrama, “Rogue One” is a different type of war film from “Araf,” but gets to the same truths while telling a rousing story about the operation to learn the secrets of the Empire’s new weapon, the Death Star. Like in “Araf,” we also get the story of a daughter (Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones) who is forced to survive on her own when her family is split apart by the larger war going on around them, although here, her father (played by Mads Mikkelsen) has abandoned her because the Empire needs him for their plans. Okay, so the tensions between parents and the children left to try and clean up their mess is at the heart of this “Star Wars” film, as well, but it’s a powerful storytelling trope that works beautifully here as Jyn is pulled into the larger conflict by a Rebel Alliance who sometimes has to do things just as ruthlessly as the Empire does. We get a glimpse of the Rebel fight against the Empire that’s been hinted at on the animated “Rebels” TV show, but Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) and his writers are able to go into murkier moral waters than a kids show is able to do, while also providing some of the most exciting set pieces in franchise history, especially during the final attack on Scarif.

=“Sing Street” (Directed by John Carney)- Almost 10 years ago, John Carney hit the scene in a big way with his musical love story, “Once.” In 2014, “Begin Again” continued his exploration of the ways music can have a profound impact on people’s lives. Now, he finishes the trilogy, of sorts (though I hope he has more to say on this subject), with probably my favorite film in this vein of his to date, and that’s saying something given how much I loved “Once.” Here, he follows an Irish teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) whose home life is fractured as he starts a new school. Walking home one day, he spots an older girl (Lucy Boynton) and, in an attempt to impress her, tells her he’s doing a music video from a band and she should be in it. The problem? He doesn’t have a band…yet. It would be very easy for Carney to take this in a comedic route, but he plays everything with sincerity and a love of music and these characters that wins us over immediately. Setting the film in the ’80s, at the beginning of the music video boom, is not just for the sake of the story, but allows for the main characters to be inspired by what they see to pave their own way. It’s probably the most in love with music movie since “Almost Famous” or “High Fidelity,” and I dare you not to add the in-film band’s songs, like “Riddle of the Model,” “To Find You” and “Drive It Like You Stole It,” to your rotation immediately. This film is all about a guy finding the heart and soul of music for the sake of love, and if you think that isn’t going to have an effect on me, you don’t know much about me at this point.

Beyond that, there was a lot I really liked this year, or was just plain great. Those will be dealt with in more detail as the Oscar season plays out, and I get caught up. That said, plenty require mention off the bat, starting with the two Marvel Cinematic Universe films of the year, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange”, one of which closed a door on one part of the MCU, the other of which opened the floodgates. Meanwhile, “Star Wars” wasn’t the only venerable sci-fi franchise to thrill this year, and Justin Lin’s “Star Trek Beyond” was probably my favorite entry of the recent reboot, even if the sudden loss of Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov) this summer before the film opened made it feel bittersweet, at times. On the independent screener front, short films and features both impressed in distinctive ways, with Nicholas Duarte’s “Sultan of the Sea”, Cindy Maples’s “Out of My Mind”, Edgar Michael Bravo’s “A Young Man’s Future”, Kevin Chenault’s “Lattie” and Foster Vernon’s “Hell-Bent” earning “Best in Show” honors, although there were plenty more to enjoy. Tim Miller’s “Deadpool” brought a genre-bending attitude that makes you wonder whether why other superhero films take themselves so seriously. In the realm of horror, James Wan’s “The Conjuring 2”, “The Witch” and the “Blair Witch” reboot each found fresh takes on tried material, while “Finding Dory” and Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” had top-notch value for more family-friendly entertainment. I could go on with plenty of other films, but those are the other favorites of 2016 that made the strongest impressions on me, and the best cases to be on the above list.

Movie Music to Be Moved By in 2016
Surprisingly, soundtracks that really made an impression on me were in short supply this year. It’s true that I still have quite a few films left to watch, but with over 100 films seen, I’d say about 10-12 of them had a soundtrack that really affected me in some way, if that. The biggest one on that front is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s bold, beautiful score for Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, which landed with an impact not unlike something like “The Fountain,” “Gravity” or “Noah” in the way is elevated the film it was written for; unfortunately, it is disqualified for Oscar consideration due to the important use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” at key moments in the film. Special recognition must be given to the documentary “The Music of Strangers”, which was my first real introduction to the world music ensemble The Silk Road Ensemble, created by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as John Carney’s “Sing Street”, which came in under the wire and blew me away like his previous films did with their musical pleasures. Disney provided a couple of great soundtracks this year, first for David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon”, with song selection and a score by Daniel Hart that went perfectly with the film, and then later with the animated “Moana”, with songs by “Hamilton” created Lin-Manuel Miranda that deliver a memorable musical experience for Disney’s latest tale of independent women finding their way in the world. Of the many superhero films this year (four in all), only David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” provided a soundtrack that had any sense of identity, with a hard-edged song soundtrack that was matched by Stephen Price’s score. And while Michael Giacchino’s score for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was initially a letdown, further listening to it provided plenty of proof that the “Star Wars” universe will survive the eventual passing of John Williams, and provide plenty of memorable moments worthy of the master. And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the late James Horner provided us with one more example of his talent with a score for Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” that was a delightful pleasure for this long-time fan when we heard it completed by Horner’s colleague, Simon Franglen.

Favorite Performances in 2016
I could list so many actors from blockbusters like “Captain America: Civil War”, “Star Trek Beyond”, “Doctor Strange” and “Finding Dory” that it could make one’s head spin, but my focus this year is on actors whose performances just took me to another level, in one way or another. At the head of the class in that department is Amy Adams, whose performance in “Arrival” anchored probably the most important narrative film I saw this year, while her lonely artist wife in “Nocturnal Animals” took the actress in a direction we haven’t really seen from her before. (Her on-screen ex-husband, Jake Gyllenhaal, also gave what is probably his best performance since “Brokeback Mountain” in the film.) Next up, I was originally going to only mention Trevante Rhodes, who played the last version of the main character in “Moonlight”, but the truth is, all three actors, including Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders require mention here, because without each proceeding actor, the film’s final effect doesn’t work. As the teenager who starts a band to impress a girl, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is awkward, funny and charismatic in John Carney’s wonderful “Sing Street”. On the blockbuster front, Felicity Jones and Donnie Yen were the combination of soul action that drove “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, while Ryan Reynolds blew every other superhero out of the park this year with his devious wit and bold brutality as “Deadpool”. For possible awards contenders, Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane”) and Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) delivered strong, sincere work, while I wish I could will award campaigns into being for Jordan Becker (“A Young Man’s Future”), Stephen Lang (a great new horror villain in “Don’t Breathe”) and Oakes Fegley (the titular Pete from “Pete’s Dragon”)- alas, I don’t have that kind of reach, although all of the people mentioned here are worthy of such consideration.

What to See in 2017
It was funny to go back to this list for 2016 and find out that “Independence Day: Resurgence”, which I still haven’t seen, made my list over some of the films mentioned above. That’s how it goes, and who knows exactly what I was thinking. No matter- the eleven films below are must-sees of the highest level as I go into my 40th year of being on Earth.

1) “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (12/15)- After Lucasfilm began expanding on the “Star Wars” universe with “Rogue One” this year, we return to the Skywalker saga, and the further adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and Luke and Leia (RIP Carrie Fisher) as writer-director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Brick”) reportedly takes the story in a direction we may not see coming as Rey and Kylo Ren, who may or may not be cousins, begin to hone their skills with the Force. I cannot wait.
2) “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (5/5)- James Gunn’s 2014 Marvel adventure with Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax was the bigger shocker of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is probably one of the favorite origin films of the MCU. Can he duplicate that now that the characters will not be taking fans by surprise? I’m optimistic.
3) “Wonder Woman” (6/2)- After DC provided not one but two disappointments in 2016, the comic studio looks to rebound in a big way. No, I’m not talking about Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” in November, but Patty Jenkins’s solo film with the most iconic woman in comic books. Gal Gadot was one of the only redeeming qualities in “Batman v. Superman.” The film Jenkins (who was originally going to direct “Thor: The Dark World”) has in store looks great in its trailers. Crossing my fingers she gets it right.
4) “Beauty and the Beast” (3/17)- A quarter of a century after the animated “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture, “Gods & Monsters” and “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” director Bill Condon has Emma Watson as his Belle in the latest live-action adaptation of a Disney classic. If the trailers are any indication, we’re in for an experience as special as the original animated film is.
5) “Dunkirk” (7/21)- Christopher Nolan is going away from genre work with his newest film, but bringing his trademark cinematic vision to this WWI war film about the Battle of Dunkirk. Once again shooting largely in IMAX, we look to have another large-scale hit from the visionary director.
6) “Logan” (3/3)- The third solo Wolverine film in the “X-Men” franchise, looking to adapt some of the Old Man Logan arc, also looks to be Hugh Jackman’s final time playing the fan favorite mutant. Directed by “The Wolverine’s” James Mangold, we’re about to get our first R-rated Wolverine movie, and it’s hopefully going to be a worthy send-off for the actor after 17 years in the role.
7) “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (7/7) & “Thor: Ragnarok” (11/3)- Of course all three MCU films are making it onto this list- it’s just that “Guardians 2” has the edge on our third iteration of Spider-Man (though the first associated with the MCU, as Tom Holland starts to expand on his “Captain America: Civil War” cameo) and third Thor film (though Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk being in the mix gives us hope for some Planet Hulk mayhem). Each piece is another step to “Infinity War,” and I can’t wait to see what is added in these films.
8) “It” (9/8)- It’s been a long trip through development Hell for a big-screen adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most famous novels. The 1990 TV miniseries, with its indelible Tim Curry as Pennywise, is still a fan favorite, but I’m hoping director Andres Muschetti (“Mama”) is able to make this as terrifying and memorable as its predecessor.
9) “The Circle” (4/28)- This is a very different film than any of this list, but when I first saw the preview to this drama about a young woman (Emma Watson) who goes to work at a tech company run by an enigmatic leader (Tom Hanks), I was immediately hooked at the possibilities. Based on a novel by Dave Eggers (“Away We Go,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), I have high hopes for the social commentary this movie might have to make.
10) “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (7/21)- “The Fifth Element” director Luc Besson returns to a big, bold, visually-rich sci-fi world 20 years after “Fifth Element” became a cult hit. The film, based on a graphic novel, has a lot of the same look as the earlier film, but hopefully, will find its own identity with the “Lucy” and “Professional” director at the helm.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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