Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

Weekly Round-Up: March 27 – April 02, 2016

  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Fiercely brilliant political puzzle, following a troubled Korean War vet piece together what happened overseas as a senator’s sensational Communist accusations sweep the presses. Slightly slow at times but an overall masterwork, driven by sophisticated dialogue and genuine suspense. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Another one that’s easy to make fun of, but this chapter in the saga provides a nice glimpse into everyday life of the Republic and passionate music by John Williams (to accompany romantic dialogue of varying quality). RECOMMENDED.
  • Brooklyn (2015) – Steadily soaring in my favorite films of the past decade, this love story continues to wow me with its intelligent dialogue and nostalgic setting. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see three weeks ago?

Anatomy of a Frame: “Brooklyn” (2015)


The image above, as you may recognize from the movie, is one of the final shots of the terrific film Brooklyn. On its own, it’s quite a memorable, possibly iconic, image. From the context of the movie, it appears just as Eilis comes back home to Brooklyn after her brief return to native Ireland. As with any strong shot, the individual elements captured within the frame contribute to its power and magnitude:

  • Eilis is standing against a brick wall, facing us. She has come back to America from Ireland, possibly for good – leaving a difficult, confining situation into a freer, more open lifestyle; going from a literal “hard place” into freedom.
  • Her arms wrapped behind her back. Her arms are not folded in front of her, defensively, but are placed behind her, reflecting her openness to what life has to offer.
  • Her suitcase is set on the ground. Her suitcase, full of her few belongings, is there, accessible within arm’s reach, but she’s not holding onto it – just as her Irish roots are always with her, and she can always go home, but she’s not grounding herself by them.
  • The car on the bottom right. This could be taken as throwaway, but I think this has a more subtle meaning. In the course of the film, Eilis travels by boat, by foot, by bus, and as she emerges as a modern woman of the 1950s she will undoubtedly take on more independence, embodied by the iconic image of the American automobile. Even if she never steps behind the wheel, the journey the film takes her on is one of greater independence and control of her own life – “driving” herself into her future.


Brooklyn (2015)

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman, decides to immigrate to America. She lives in a picturesque, quaint small town where everybody knows each other’s business. She and her best friend attend social functions together – her friend quickly lands a man, as Eilis stands and waits for no one to ask her to dance.

On her voyage to America, she bunks with a more experienced Irish woman – who promptly leaves to find a man in first class. That night, Eilis is the only one eating the repulsive meal and gets food poisoning.

Brooklyn is full of these moments, setting us up to fall for the romantic ideal of immigrants in the 20th century, before breaking the glass with hard realism. It is a beautifully constructed, terrifically told film with believable characters in a richly authentic setting.

image-d796d7bb-b9e5-4140-8eb2-057b5fa5879a1The art direction is gorgeous, taking us back into 1950s Ireland and New York City. The eye-popping department store where her priest secures her a job is a highlight – further illuminated by her Rita Skeeter-esque nightmare of a boss (played to perfection by Mad Men‘s Jessica Pare – the midcentury modern goddess).

Away from the department store, where her Irish roots stick out among the elite New York society women who shop there, she is more at home in her boarding house, owned by a middle-aged Irish mum figure and filled with other young Irish women. Each night at dinner, they talk about work, school, boys, and social functions. In their circles, the only real fun they have is going out to their church parish for dances each Saturday night.

That’s where we meet the real heart and highlight of the film: Tony Fiorello (played with spectacular ease by newcomer Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who has a thing for Irish girls. He meets her one night at a dance, and soon begins walking her home from night school, takes her to Coney Island, even to meet his family.

As their romance takes shape, tragedy strikes and Eilis has to return home. Everything has changed since then; not only is Eilis now a modern woman of the world, but home is different too. This isn’t the bleak dead-end it was before she left home, and she finds job opportunities and a possible love interest – a long ways from the lonely girl nobody wanted to dance with. She finds herself torn between two worlds and again, having to make a choice.

Brooklyn is one of those movies that is so good it already feels like a classic. It never delves into excess, either through its vibrant imagery nor through its admittedly emotional heartstring-tugging. Everyone looks and behaves just like they should and would in this era, though the film nonetheless manages to surprise, entertain, and enthrall.

Even after the movie, my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how much we loved it, and how it made us think of our own family’s immigration experiences. America is a country of immigrants, and Brooklyn is a film that tells all of our stories. Less than 48 hours later, my mind keeps wondering to Eilis’s terrifically satisfying closing monologue:

“You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. […] And one day the sun will come out, and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”