Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2016

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

Below you will find lists of my favorite films of the year, divided by narrative (fiction) and documentary (nonfiction) formats (I do not separate animated films from either genre, and there are examples of at least one animated film in each category). This is the first time I have broken down my lists in this way, and it largely has to do with the sheer number of documentaries I now watch and review in my position as lead film critic for Hammer to Nail, which makes me want to highlight even more of the great work being done by the 21st century’s exceptional nonfiction filmmakers. As always, the main factor that motivated me to include a film among my favorites is whether or not that film surprised or moved me; was there something in it that reached deep down into my cinematic soul and woke me up as I watched it, even if the film as a whole may have had some flaws (perfection is a subjective reality, anyway).

Not all of the movies mentioned received some kind of theatrical or online release in 2016, though most of them did; a few may still be looking for distributors after making their festival rounds. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie (whether for Hammer to NailFilm Festival Today or this blog), the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. If I only wrote a brief capsule review of a film after seeing it at a film festival, then I link to that write-up, however short it may be. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film, I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page and written a (very) short description of it, just to explain what I admire (or don’t).

If a film that you, yourself, saw and liked is nowhere mentioned here, then it is possible that I did not see it (or saw it and liked it, but not enough to include among my favorites, or saw it and, of course, did not like it). As many films as I watch every year, I do not see everything; Swiss Army Man is but one example of a movie I missed. If you have questions about any omissions, feel free to comment and/or send me a note. And really, what separates the “Top 10” from the “runners-up” is very little.

Enjoy! Over the next three weeks or so, as always, I will publish a separate list of the best acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 10 Narrative Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Best of 2016 Narratives Part 1

Best of 2016 Narratives Part 2

  1. Captain Fantastic
  2. Certain Women
  3. Hell or High Water
  4. La La Land
  5. Loving
  6. Manchester by the Sea
  7. Moonlight
  8. Rams
  9. Toni Erdmann – Perhaps excessively long (perhaps), this delightful German film is nevertheless a profound (and very entertaining) meditation on familial bonds that features one of the best uses of nudity to ever grace the silver screen.
  10. 20th Century Women – Mike Mills (Beginners) delivers a loving fictional portrait of his mother that is also a tribute to the strength of women, of all ages, everywhere.

2016 Narrative Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

2016 Narrative Runners-Up Part 1

2016 Narrative Runners-Up Part 2

  1. Claire in Motion
  2. The Edge of Seventeen
  3. Fences
  4. The Handmaiden – Bound meets Rashomon in this  twisted Korean period thriller from Chan-wook Park (Stoker) that offers us a satisfying frisson both sexual and intellectual.
  5. Hunter Gatherer
  6. The Lobster
  7. Miles Ahead
  8. Moana
  9. Silence – An adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, this chronicle of the plight of Portuguese priests in 17th-century Japan is director Martin Scorsese’s best work in years.
  10. Zootopia

Top 10 Documentary Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Best of 2016 Documentaries Part 1

Best of 2016 Documentaries Part 2

  1. Cameraperson
  2. Chicken People
  3. In Pursuit of Silence (linked to my interview with director, which includes a brief capsule review)
  4. The Last Man on the Moon
  5. Newtown
  6. Plaza de la Soledad
  7. Salero
  8. Tower
  9. Under the Sun
  10. Weiner

2016 Documentary Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

2016 Documentary Runners-Up Part 1


  1. Abortion: Stories Women Tell
  2. Almost Sunrise
  3. Audrie & Daisy
  4. The Bandit
  5. The Dwarvenaut
  6. The Eagle Huntress
  7. The If Project
  8. National Bird
  9. Ovarian Psycos
  10. Sonita

Documentary and Narrative Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Worst Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Stay tuned for more posts in the week ahead, where I will list my favorite performances and technical achievements of the year, as well.


5 Pieces @hammertonail: Reviews of “Baden Baden,” “Risky Drinking,” “8-Bit Generation,” “I, Daniel Blake” + Criterion Blu-Ray of “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum”


Since my last post about Hammer to Nail, the site has posted 5 more reviews of mine: Baden Baden, a French coming-of-age film about a lost twentysomething woman; Risky Drinking, a documentary about the perils of alcoholism; 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars, a documentary about the history of Commodore computers, which dominated the early 1980s; 2016 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or-winner  I, Daniel Blake, the latest from Ken Loach, about an injured blue-collar worker caught up in the horrors of British bureaucracy; and the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 drama The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, about the perils and passions of Kabuki actors in late 19th-century Japan. Here are links to all 5 pieces:


“Fences” Showcases Great Performances


Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016)

The great American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) may no longer be physically of this world, but his work, which discusses issues of race and family, among other topics, very much lives on, as relevant as ever. His best-known plays include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (1990) and the Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning Fences (1987), now on the screen courtesy of actor-turned-director Denzel Washington, whose third outing in that role this is, after Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007). Before his death, Wilson insisted that only an African-American director would be able to do justice to the story, and though it took over 10 years for that to happen, the wait was worth it. Washington, working from a script by Wilson, himself, delivers a raw and powerful movie that may not entirely escape the conventions of a stage play, but is filled with vibrant performances from actors – including himself – at the top of their craft.

Joining Washington are select other members from the 2010 Tony-winning Broadway revival, including Viola Davis (Doubt) as his wife, Rose. The time is 1957, and Washington plays Troy, a fiftysomething husband and father of two, who works as a garbage collector, a job he fell into after an early promising baseball career didn’t pan out, a fact he blames on the racism of the pre-Jackie Robinson era. His and Rose’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers) is approaching the end of high school, and his pending adulthood is a source of increasing strife at home, especially since he seeks a football scholarship, a hope that Troy denigrates, believing that “the white man” will never offer any African-American any real opportunity: life is what you make for yourself. His older son Lyons, (Russell Hornsby, Grimm), from an earlier marriage, sometimes stop by (on payday) to ask for money, since his gigs as a musician don’t pay the bills. Though Troy never wants to help out, Rose insists, which keeps Lyons coming back every week. Added to the mix, as well as, are Troy’s best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, The Romans) and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, Justified), who has never been the same ever since a head injury sustained during World War II left him with a metal plate in his head. The story revolves around everyone’s interactions, mostly taking place in and around Troy’s and Rose’s home and backyard (where Troy and Cory are building a new fence).

Much of what drives the plot is a meditation on the nature of family, and of the challenges that face a black man as he strives to find his place in a world where the rules have been made by whites. Troy is by no means a kind patriarch, though he does his best to provide for his wife and son. Rose softens him, and part of what is lovely in the film is the intense connection between Davis and Washington, who imbue their characters with the history of a long relationship filled with a lot of work, but also a lot of love. When, in the second half of the story, something happens to fundamentally alter the nature of their partnership, it comes as a bit of a shock, since their connection previously seemed so genuine. But gender is another underlying theme here – how men and women see their roles as fathers and mothers, and how they handle the disappointments of life – and slowly Wilson shifts our focus from Troy to Rose, while never losing diminishing the pain that makes Troy behave as he does. Though perhaps not always as cinematic as one might wish it to be – trapped as it is, most of the time, in one location – Fences is still a moving tribute to the trials and tribulations of African-Americans in the decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as to the journey of one particular family through their own personal challenges at home and within themselves.

In Disturbing “Elle,” Isabelle Huppert, As Always, Mesmerizes


Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

Now 78, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has long since graduated beyond enfant terrible, if that moniker were ever actually suitable for a director more exploitative than avant-garde. Best known as the creator of violent, sexual, and sexually violent thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s such as Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992), Verhoeven began his career in Holland with a series of brutal, erotic and brutally erotic (sense a pattern?) films like Turkish Delight (1973), Soldier of Orange (1977) and The 4th Man (1983), before the sirens of Hollywood beckoned. Initially successful, his American star waned after the box-office and critical debacle of Showgirls (1995), despite the better-received follow-up, Starship Troopers (1997), and with the dismal Hollow Man (2000) under his belt, he decamped for his native Europe. Back home, he made Black Book (2006) which, slickly produced and smartly acted as it is, went one level of exploitation too far for me in its romantic portrayal of a doomed SS officer; Nazis just aren’t sexy, I’m afraid. Now he’s back once more, proving his polyglot credentials with a French film starring the ever-marvelous Isabelle Huppert that finds Verhoeven pushing all of his usual buttons, and then some, but in a manner more reflective than before. Perhaps. The jury in my brain is wrestling with that one.

Huppert plays Michèle, a middle-aged video-game entrepreneur with a more than disturbing past, which we only slowly discover. We meet her right away, in medias res. There’s a crash under black, then sounds of a struggle followed by moans, most likely of distress. When we cut to picture, a man in a ski mask is just finishing raping her. He leaves, she lies on the floor, then rises and composes herself before running a bath. For reasons of her own, she doesn’t report the assault, instead calmly cleaning herself and ordering dinner over the phone. When her feckless twentysomething son pays her a visit, she remains ever formally maternal. Nothing knocks this proud businesswoman down, it seems. Soon, we follow her to work, where we find her in a creative meeting focusing on the content of her company’s next product, an animated game in which a scantily-clad woman is killed by a monster, its tentacle piercing her skull as she writhes in pain. “No,” Michèle cries. “Her struggles should be more orgasmic.” Clearly, she is a complicated and complex person.

Elle (the title means “Her,” in French) offers a disturbing portrait of its strong-willed protagonist as she feints, parries and occasionally strikes in a twisted game – to which only she, perhaps, knows the rules – with family, friends, employees and yes, that initial rapist. There are no simple heroines/heroes and villains here, and those viewers for whom rape portrayed as anything other than a straightforward assault might trigger an adverse reaction towards the film should beware, and maybe stay away (and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way). But what makes the film often work in spite of its exploitative treatment of sex and violence (again, this is a Verhoeven film) is how it tackles its own subject in a multilayered metatext in which art imitates life, and vice versa, within the confines of cinematic artifice. Michèle, herself, traffics in the very commodity that inspires her aggressor. Her adult self, we learn, has been shaped by a traumatic event from her childhood, from which she has never entirely recovered. She’s a damaged soul, and a dangerous one, prey and predator alike.

However one might feel about the movie’s narrative, the real reason to see it is for Huppert, who in this and every film she has ever made is a force of nature. Now 63 (impossible to believe), she is one of the premier actresses of her generation, in any language. With a career almost as long as Verhoeven’s (and far more diverse), she has starred in notable films from the 1970s (Going Places, The Lacemaker), the ’80s (Heaven’s Gate, Story of Women), the ’90s (Madame Bovary, The Swindle), the 2000s (The Piano Teacher, I Heart Huckabees), and our current decade (Amour), always able to transfix us with performances that have at their heart a bewitching mystery. Her face reveals all, and nothing. This makes here the ideal actress to incarnate Michèle, whose motivations and desires remain unclear throughout. It is the genius of Huppert to take an unpalatable situation and character and make us want to watch her every move. Forget Verhoeven (though the film is competently made); this is an Isabelle Huppert film from start to finish, and a testament to her eternal greatness.

In Moving “Lion,” Dev Patel Roars

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]


Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)

Based on the memoir A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, Lion tells the tale of how Brierley, born in extreme poverty in India, came to be adopted, as a young child, by a childless Australian couple. Over 20 years after leaving his homeland, Brierley meets Indians his own age, and at a dinner party finds himself transported back to his early life by the smells of their cooking. Unable to rest easy, since the conjured memories remind him that he is no orphan, but rather someone who got lost and was placed in foster care by the state, Saroo goes in search of the mother and brother he left behind. The journey on which he embarks brings rewards both profound and bittersweet. In the title role, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) makes Saroo a vibrant and sympathetic protagonist, delivering a moving performance that is one of the best of the year.

The film, itself, is not always up to Patel’s level, but it is mostly competently made, with beautiful cinematography courtesy of Greg Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), whose opening shots of a little child playing in a cloud of butterflies sets a dreamscape tone for the innocence soon to be lost. This is director Garth Davis’ debut feature, and his lack of experience sometimes shows in the occasionally awkward scene transitions, overuse of sentimental music where none is required and (intentionally?) blatant advertising for Google Earth. Fortunately, the power of the story is such that these minor flaws do not detract from its emotional impact. But really, this is a movie to see for Patel, who owns every scene in which he appears.

Additional members of the ensemble include Nicole Kidman (Stoker) and David Wenham (300: Rise of an Empire) as the adoptive Australians, Rooney Mara (Carol) as the adult Saroo’s girlfriend, and the amazing newcomer Sunny Pawar as the child version of our hero. The first part of the film belongs to this preternaturally talented young thespian, who brilliantly registers sadness, terror and pluck when an accidental journey across a continent separates him from his biological mother.  Overall, this is a film well worth seeing, sure to make you cry from sadness and joy in equal measure. Whatever issues I may have with the mise-en-scène, I was still deeply affected by the drama, and I expect others to be, as well. Happy Holidays!

The Dilemma of “Jackie”: Beautiful to Behold, Unbearable to Watch

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]


Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

We first meet her in close-up, shot in muted grays and blues, with a series of oddly centered compositions, smoking, walking, and then greeting a journalist – never named, but clearly Theodore White – who has come to Hyannisport, MA, a week or so after John F. Kennedy’s funeral to discuss her husband’s legacy. She’s a bundle of neuroses, alternately fidgety and calm, imperious in her will to control the conversation and shape the meaning of JFK for posterity. As they talk, the film cuts back and forth between this “present” and various moments from Jack and Jackie’s past, including the gruesome events on November 22, 1963. It’s this somber interview, however, that forms the main cinematic tapestry of the film, through which Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No) attempts to thread his narrative needle. Unfortunately, that needle soon becomes a leaden anchor, and those muted steely colors transform into an ocean of significance (in bold and underlined throughout) in which the story drowns a soggy death. Not without aesthetic interest, the movie is a mess, weighed down by an expositional script and extremely mannered performances.

On that aesthetic side, Larraín and his fine cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and BoneCaptain Fantastic) shoot in Super 16, a now little-used format that, when blown up to the big screen (for 35mm or a DCP), displays a grainy quality that lends the image an automatic sense of archival material. Since Larraín occasionally intercuts actual historical footage, this makes those transitions relatively seamless, especially as he recreates Jackie’s 1962 White House tour. In addition, the period sets and costumes are all beautifully designed, plunging us into the time of the story in a direct, visceral way. This includes the actual assassination – already known by millions around the globe thanks to Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm home movie – which is, at first, presented tastefully, from a distance, as Jackie, in her pink suit, scrambles to hold on to her dying husband. Sadly, that restraint is later forgotten as we watch, in a subsequent scene, JFK’s head explode in foregrounded extreme close-up.

That excess is in line with most of the over-the-top acting. Natalie Portman (A Tale of Love and Darkness), an actress I normally admire, here creates a Jackie Kennedy who is all ticks and surface emotions, without a shred of internal life. There is, for sure, a good movie that could be made about how hard it is to understand public figures so consumed by their personae that they are now one-dimensional, but this is not that film, and Jackie was not such a person. The dialogue between Portman and Billy Crudup (Spotlight), as “the journalist” (as he is listed in the credits), certainly lacks dimension, however, treating the viewer to a series of declaratory statements about history and its interpretation that would not pass muster in a high-school paper. Of the remaining ensemble, perhaps the most egregiously miscast is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) as Robert Kennedy, who not only is physically unfit for the role, but seems genuinely at a loss over how to handle the dramatically inept sequences into which he is dropped. As visually lovely to behold as most of this movie is, it is nevertheless unbearable to watch.

Rodricks, Reed and DeLibero on the Films of December 2016


Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the films of the current season, from the Oscar-worthy to big box-office draws, including The Edge of SeventeenJackieLa La LandManchester by the Sea and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, among others.

Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

“A Kind of Murder” Is a Worthy Tribute to Highsmith

Kind of Murder 

A Kind of Murder (Andy Goddard, 2016)

The late, great American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) – best known for books like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – was a virtuoso in the art of psychological unease. Her best works went far beyond conventional murder mysteries, becoming disturbing profiles of the psychopaths among us. Even The Price of Salt – her second novel, adapted last year, by film director Todd Haynes, as Carol – was more than merely a lesbian love story (certainly a bold enough literary statement for 1952, when it was first published), occupying, in its intense focus on desire and its consequences, similar territory to Highsmith’s thrillers about killers. She was sui generis, a brilliant chronicler of the anomie of the disaffected denizens of our modern world.

Now comes A Kind of Murder, from first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd and veteran television director Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey), whose debut feature film, Set Fire to the Stars, came out in 2014. It is an adaptation of Highsmith’s 1954 novel The Blunderer. Starring Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring 2), Eddie Marsan (The World’s End), Jessica Biel (Hitchcock), Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), the movie features fine performances, high production value, and a production design that plunges us effectively both into the late ’50s era of the story and the murky world of the characters’ fragile psyches.

Wilson plays Walter Stackhouse, a successful New York architect who moonlights as a writer of murder-mystery stories and becomes obsessed with the recent killing of a Newark woman that is splashed all over the news. Unhappy in his own marriage, to Clara (Biel), a depressive, he fantasizes about the death of his wife and pays a visit to the husband of the murder victim (Marsan), who is the prime suspect, at least in the eyes of Detective Corby (Kartheiser), a man not wont to let evidence (or the lack thereof) get in the way of a hunch. That visit eventually turns out to be ill-advised, especially once Walter is suspected of carrying on a torrid affair with Ellie (Bennett), a seductive young torch singer who likes married men. In typical Highsmith fashion, the motivations of all players are never quite clear – even to themselves – until the final act.

Overall, this is a solid bit of filmmaking where the various cinematic cards are handled with deft sleight of hand. It’s far from perfect, however, and the plot is sometimes too dense and the behind-the-scenes actions too Byzantine to entirely satisfy. Goddard and Boyd are frequently willing to resort to ellipsis in the name of mystery which, when the missing information is eventually revealed, feels like a cheap trick. But flaws aside, A Kind of Murder rewards the viewer with the perverted joys of witnessing the all-too-human tendency towards depraved self-interest. As such, it’s a fitting tribute to Highsmith, and well worth watching.

“Collateral Beauty” Offers Mostly Collateral Damage

[This review will also appear at Film Festival Today, and when it does, I will link to that review.]

Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty (David Frankel, 2016)

Let us be clear about one thing: Collateral Beauty is utterly ridiculous. Overstuffed with big-name actors – from Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) to Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) to Naomie Harris (Moonlight) to Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) to Michael Peña (Ant-Man) to Edward Norton (Birdman) to headliner Will Smith (Concussion) – the film offers a muddled mishmash of mystical mumbo-jumbo about life and death that is not without its occasional pleasures, yet collapses under the weight of its simultaneously maudlin and fantastical premise. Smith plays Howard, an apparent titan of the advertising world whom we meet in the opening scene, when Norton’s Whit introduces him, as his partner, at a company meeting. All smiles and charismatic bluster (Smith’s movie-star stock-in-trade), Howard deconstructs his business philosophy as using the concepts of “Love,” “Time” and “Death” to manipulate the general public to respond to the products he sells. An abrupt cut later – identified in a subsequent title card as three years after the first scene – and Howard is now older, grayer and, most notably, depressed, doing nothing but building elaborate domino structures in his office, edifices which he promptly knocks down. What happened?

That is for you to discover if you choose to see the film (which I cannot recommend). Whatever the reason, Howard’s near-catatonic state poses a problem for his co-workers, who either need him to rejoin the living or divest himself of his shares in the company so they can move on without him. To achieve the second goal, Whit hatches a plan to hire three out-of-work actors – played by Mirren, Knightley and Jacob Lattimore (The Maze Runner) – to portray the three aforementioned abstract subjects of the movie’s opening speech, to whom Howard, we discover, has been writing letters. If Whit and company can gather evidence of Howard’s mental incompetence, perhaps they can force divestiture. Cruel, but effective, and the movie goes to great lengths to show that they, for a while, have tried other methods before resorting to this.

Things don’t quite work out as planned, and I will give screenwriter Allan Loeb (The Switch) some credit for surprising me with a few details, especially towards the end. But nothing makes up for the treacle, not even Norton’s enjoyably sly turn as a playboy past his prime. Director David Frankel (Marley & Me), fortunately, is not afraid of mining even the most tragic situations for their inherent humor, which does help leaven the mawkish tone, but it’s not enough. At the end of the day, nothing holds together, and whatever small joys exist here and there do not a cinematic raison d’être make. Mirren is fun, Harris is moving, and both Smith and Peña get a few solid dramatic moments, but there is very little “collateral beauty” beyond that in this misbegotten mess of a movie.

“La La Land” Is a Magical, Musical Paean to the Hollywood Dream Factory

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

La La Land

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

From its exuberant opening musical number, set atop a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway overpass, La La Land announces its intention to win your heart through whimsy. With songs and score (alternately toe-tapping and soulful) by composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash) and dances (alternately snappy and romantic) by choreographer Mandy Moore (Silver Linings Playbook, So You Think You Can Dance), the film breezes through a celebration of dreams and passion, equal parts comedy and drama. At its center are two magnetic performances by lead actors Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) and Ryan Gosling (The Big Short), as Mia and Sebastian, two young artists – she an actress and he a jazz pianist – who meet and fall in love while struggling to make it in their respective fields. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who mesmerized us with his 2014 Whiplash, proves that he can tackle the same themes as before but in illuminating new ways, all the while creating a dazzling tribute to Hollywood and its legacy of charming musical confections.

I’ve now seen the film twice (my initial capsule review is embedded in my write-up of the Middleburg Film Festival), and like it even more after the second viewing. I had initial reservations about Stone’s and Gosling’s talents as singers and dancers – they are capable, if not quite polished – but the sweet, unaffected way they gamely go about their paces (after months of rehearsal) becomes part of the movie’s aesthetic, with neither Hurwitz nor Moore asking too much of them. They’re no Fred and Ginger (nor Gene and Judy, nor Gene and Rita, etc.), but they don’t need to be for Chazelle to cast his spell. Rather, they need to be believable in the universe he fashions out of tinsel and tune, and they are. From the moment they appear on screen, Gosling all bristling cynicism and Stone all desperate hope, they clash and unite in a fiery combination that recalls the best romantic dramedies of yore while creating a relationship thoroughly of our time.

Indeed, it’s this update of the musical genre, simultaneously looking backwards and forwards, that lends the movie much of its power. As we watch Sebastian and Mia navigate the pitfalls of the music and studio worlds, we find ourselves immersed in the tradition of the great MGM musicals of the famed Freed Unit (such as Singin’ in the Rain or, especially, An American in Paris), always aware, however, that the time is now. Chazelle asks us to consider how and whether art and commerce can coexist, and what might be the human cost of holding on to a belief in the former even as one is overcome by the latter. It makes perfect sense to set his story in “La La Land” (i.e., Los Angeles), since Hollywood has always been the locus of such concerns, where money rules but cultural prestige is forever sought. Beyond the love story, this is a movie about movies, writ large.

The very first image we see announces Chazelle’s grand ambitions: we see a black-and-white square frame – the old pre-1953 Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 – with the word CinemaScope framed in the center, its right and left syllables cut off, which suddenly expands to the wider aspect ratio that the word implies (in this case, 2.55:1), gaining color at the same time. This will be a big movie, emotionally affecting, intellectually satisfying and deeply entertaining. The later numbers do not disappoint, from a night-on-the-town party scene to a pas-de-deux in the Hollywood hills to a waltz in the Griffith planetarium; it’s all joyous good fun. What makes the whole affair more than a modern retelling of the same old love story, however, is its final scenes, where all does not go as expected and Chazelle ups the cinematic ante in an ending montage that will take your breath away. The director, not yet 31, is most definitely a young man to watch.

Beyond the pitch-perfect Stone and Gosling, the ensemble cast, including many unknowns, is a delight. Musician John Legend appears as a rival/colleague of Sebastian’s, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) shows up briefly as a jerk of a boss. In many ways, though, it’s Hurwitz and Moore who are the real stars, crafting beautiful routines that transport us into the magical fairyland of the world’s dream factory (the final credit even reads “Made in Hollywood, USA”). I highly recommend.