With multitudes of films releasing every week, it’s hard to stay on top of them all. Last week provided the perfect opportunity to try and catch up a few of the films that have been recommended to me from 2016 and beyond that managed to slip past without realizing it. I aimed to watch at least a film a day, and while that dream was cut short by three films, it provided a much needed recharge. So much so, that I’ve put together this short list of recommendations from those films – some new, some old – so that you might find some encouragement to track these down if you missed them too.
From the minds of The Lonely Island, this fictitious behind-the-scenes music special follows pop star Conner 4 Real (Andy Samberg) as he releases his second solo record and goes out on tour. Filled to the brim with comedic talent, Popstar never fails to find the funny in any given scene, especially given the difficulty in managing one-note nature of the premise. A delicate touch is required prolong a full-feature lampoon (akin to This Is Spinal Tap or CB4) without degrading into idiocy. What helps to serve the story is how Popstar never feels mean-spirited toward the industry that it’s – in all reality – making fun of throughout Conner’s ordeal. Ultimately, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping proves to be a delightful surprise for audiences, even while it feels like an extended SNL Short.
Love stories are hard to execute with so many devolving into predictable three-act pieces: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. The Lobster takes the standard three-act mold and transforms it into something dark, strange, and mentally exhausting. Co-written with Efthumis Filippou, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos tells the story of David (Colin Farrell), a recently divorced man who, by rule of law, is sent to the Hotel to find a new life companion within 45 days lest he be turned into an animal and sent back out into the world. Seeking to explore love’s role in social dynamics, The Lobster takes all the pressures individuals feel about coupling and all the anxiety of loneliness and makes them each radical exclusionary social groups. Either you belong to one or the other, each requiring a giving up of something and each coming with strict repercussions of failure to live by the rules. A high-concept think piece that opens ambiguously and ends just the same, forcing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about both what they’ve seen and the outcome that makes the most sense to them. For a film that explains nothing upfront, and only provides details through conversation, much like life, the viewer is forced to be constantly present in order to process and understand David’s story.
Recently released on BluRay for the first time, this 80s gem is racked with plot holes, terrible acting, and stereotypes run amuck. Yet, for some reason, No Retreat, No Surrender holds a special place in the hearts of those that viewed it back in 1986. Centered on Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney), No Retreat tells the story of a young man in love with the martial arts whose life is up-ended when a New York-based syndicate beats up Jason’s father for refusing to join their fighting team. Upon recovery, Jason’s Dad moves them from L.A. to Seattle in hopes of a fresh start. Unfortunately, a local bully takes issue with Jason, which seems to pit all of Seattle’s martial artists against one kid. To find a way to gain the respect of the local kids, and his own self-respect, the spirit of Bruce Lee arrives to train Jason and put him on the true path of the peaceful warrior. Again – and I must be clear with this – watching No Retreat, No Surrender as an adult, it’s terrible. There’s no explanation for why the syndicate comes to Jason’s Dad in L.A. nor why they come to Seattle looking to fight local teams. There’s no explanation for why the local bully hates Jason, beyond who Jason becomes friends with. More than anything, there’s no reason for the inexplicable ending that can only be resolved by saying, “well, that’s how they did things in the 80s.” That said, the film features some impressive martial arts and marks the first American feature appearance for 80s legend Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Comedians Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci possesses a lightness in their style of comedy that combines their inner delightfulness and the harsh reality of life to create situationally-inspired pop songs. You’ve most likely seen them appear on either Comedy Central’s Another Period or CBS’S The Big Bang Theory respectively, but as their comedic alter-egos Garfunkel and Oates, they also had a single season of tv series run on IFC in 2014. Spring-boarding off the success of that show, the comedians draw from many of the songs each episode was based around to create their first hour-long comedy special Garfunkel and Oates: Trying to be Special. With songs about growing up, sex, pregnancy, freezing eggs, and other mature themes, Lindhome and Micucci prove again and again that this team isn’t driven by a gimmick, but that their style brings out the honesty we all feel at every stage of life. Charming, delightful, and really dirty, Garfunkel and Oates didn’t need a special to prove they are special; yet, we’re all better for it.
Soon to be released in live-action format later this month, the original Ghost in the Shell is considered to be one of the greatest anime stories of all time. Its fans are legion throughout the globe, and they are deeply possessive of a story that was, at one time, the pinnacle of Japanese animation. Originally released as a manga by Masamune Shirow in 1989 before being adapted into an animated feature directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, Ghost follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg policewoman belonging to an elite task force within a government-run group known as Section 9, as she hunts down an international hacker known as the Puppet Master. Through the Major, Ghost explores the concept of the singularity – a cyperpunk concept describing the moment when technology intersects with humanity and then surpasses it – and its relationship to identity. As a human brain (ghost) within a cybernetic body (shell), the Major questions whether she is now or ever once was something resembling humanity and if it’s possible to remain a part of it now. These heady concepts have been explored through the novels of older novels of Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?) and William Gibson (Necromancer), as well as with more modern flair in the Wachowskis modern cinematic classic The Matrix, but there is something about Ghost in the Shell which, for its time, began a movement of adult entertainment that could challenge as well as entertain.
The unexpected Best Picture Winner of 2017, director Barry Jenkins indie film Moonlight captured the hearts of audiences across the country due to its simplicity in narrative focus and engaging performances from the cast. Adapted from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight centers on Chiron by inviting audiences to witness his transformation through the major phases of development (youth, adolescence, and adulthood) as he struggles with his own self-identification and his drug-addicted mother. Moonlight is a series of quiet moments with louder, more volatile moments breaking them up; rather than the other way around. The quiet moments enable the narrative elements to breathe as we watch Chiron internally struggle under the discomfort of his burgeoning sexuality; whereas the volatile moments create the bridges between each major shift in perspective as Chiron ages before us. A bittersweet story of a gentle boy turned into a hard man because he believes that will make him accepted by society. Perhaps that’s why the ending, a simple conversation between old friends, feels like a hammer to the gut. It’s a quiet, irresolute ending that inspires hope for Chiron to accept his truth and move forward with his life.
BONUS: Streaming Films For Your Must-Watch List
Horror films are not my forte, but when I heard about a South Korean zombie flick that dominated the December 2016 “Best of” lists across multiple genres, I knew I needed to find watch it. Halfway through my Netflix disc, without hesitation I knew what everyone else who had seen this film knew and I bought it from Target. With humor reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, the heartbreak of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and the unrelenting zombie horde of every zombie film ever, Train to Busan proves to be a delightful surprise at every turn. The premise is simple: a zombie outbreak occurs in the city of Seoul that spreads throughout the country despite the best efforts of the military to contain it. For a young girl, her father, and all the passengers riding a speeding train out of Seoul toward Busan, a town far from the infection epicenter, this seems like their lucky day – until they realize that someone on board is infected and its spreading.
Available now via Netflix Instant.
One of my favorite films of 2016 – Kubo and the Two Strings – a Laika Studios (ParaNorman/Coraline) production is soon available to stream via Netflix. Once again proving that stop-motion in cinema can convey powerful themes all while being sold as a children’s story, their latest draws its inspiration from Japanese folklore, in particular the connection between man and the mystical realm. In this tale, communing with spirits is as natural as breathing to its inhabitants, which makes it perfect for tackling themes of loss, grief, and the courage to forgive. While certainly family friendly, Kubo is more often a dark parable that reminds us that family is more than those that raised you. However, just because this lesson is wrapped in a supernatural adventure of a young boy restoring his family to the peace it deserves doesn’t make it any less valuable or poignant.
Coming soon to Netflix Instant in April.
Hands down my favorite film of 2016, The Handmaiden will soon be available for Amazon Prime Video members to stream. On the surface, it’s a confidence film in which a pickpocket is hired to help seduce an heiress into marriage, but what unfolds is beyond expectations. South Korean writer/director Chan-wook Park developed a reputation for delving into the seedier side of humanity through stories that twist and turn from beginning to end. Though the materials frequently feature dark violent acts, even sexual deviation, it’s never gratuitous; rather, it’s an aspect that serves the story. More than anything, Park tells stories where what you see is not what it appears. His latest, The Handmaiden, falls perfectly in line with his catalogue and is possibly his finest work. Though the length and subtitles may turn off some audiences, “The Handmaiden” possesses one of the great cinematic stories of last year. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Coming soon to Amazon Prime Video in April.