Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.
Jared McMillan // Film Critic
The year 2016 has now come and gone, with either good riddance or fond remembrance. Also, as is tradition, it’s that time for the critic to sort out his/her favorite films of the year. It can be painstaking in sorting out the list, especially nitpicking every favorite title to get to a personal list…it leads to a competition with yourself. It was a great year for movies, although popular opinion sways either way. There was a list of about 30 movies that I started with and narrowed down to the list that follows. No set criteria, but I did focus on what impacted me as a viewer and a critic; the films that both entertained and intrigued me.
Unfortunately, even though there were a ton of films that passed through these eyeballs, I couldn’t get to some, either by release schedule (SILENCE, 20th CENTURY WOMEN, A MONSTER CALLS) or by personal schedule (SULLY, LOVING, THE HANDMAIDEN). I’ll probably change this list over the next few weeks, but until then, these films merited the most acclaim for 2016…
10. SWISS ARMY MAN
On the surface, this movie looks like it shouldn’t work. The story of a man deserted on an island until he’s rescued by a corpse-of-all-trades, and is punctuated by bodily humor. However, the adventure of Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) is one of the most original movies to come out in 2016. A first and second act built on their budding relationship, rife with laughs and growth, is followed by a third act that is a gut-punch of Hank’s reality. Accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack from Andy Hull & Robert McDowell (Manchester Orchestra) and immersive imagery, it’s a movie that sticks with you in a positive way. A promising start to the directing duo known as DANIELS.
9. LA LA LAND
Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is a breath of fresh air as well as a comforting feel of nostalgia. Struggling jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) are just trying to achieve their dreams in the uphill battle that is Los Angeles success. From the opening number of “Another Day in the Sun”, the movie takes you on a journey of naïve positivity to stark realism through a year in their relationship. What makes LA LA LAND more successful is not only using the music to guide the viewer, but the color palette as well. It’s an excellent time at the movies.
8. HELL OR HIGH WATER
Set against the backdrop of a West Texas ravaged by oil companies, this modern Western has elements of what we have come to love from heroes and anti-heroes. As the Howard boys (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) rob every bank that is involved with big oil to get their childhood home back, they are chased by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is looking for one last bit of excitement before retiring. Every element falls in line to give HELL OR HIGH WATER enhancement to its rustic setting as well as keep the plot at a steady pace, thanks to a tight screenplay from Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO). Also it’s a given that a movie will be great with a soundtrack from Nick Cave.
7. MILES AHEAD
This passion project from Don Cheadle (who wrote, directed, produced, and starred as Miles Davis) was met with some mixed reviews, mainly because it’s not a traditional biopic and is told with an erratic narrative structure. However, the movie had to be told this way because that’s how Davis’s music was to the listener; he can improvise at the drop of a hat in order to make the story more functional. The main narrative of a reclusive Miles trying to get his new recordings away from record executives and thieves is framed by an outer narrative of Miles using his trumpet to tell the story to a reporter (Ewan McGregor). Cheadle hit it out of the park with this one in capturing the essence of one of the greats, out of control to be in control.
6. SING STREET
It’s impossible not to have fun with this! Set in working-class Ireland in the 1980s, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is in the throes of his teenage years as his parents’ marriage is strained and he has to start school at Synge Street, a Catholic school, where he now gets bullied. One day he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to start a band to impress her. John Carney, who directed the amazing ONCE, uses original songs to mirror Conor’s emotions as well as songs from that time period to course the band’s progression as musicians. However, where SING STREET raises the bar is in Conor, as he shifts from lovelorn fool to a rebel with a cause, his mentality growing with every lyric as he strives for independence.
5. UNDER THE SHADOW
The best horror movie of the year just so happens to be one of the best films of the year. As bombs fall in Tehran during The Iraq-Iran War, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is troubled by the effects of being an Iranian woman branded from her independent thought. As her husband goes to war, she and her daughter are haunted by a djinn, leaving Shideh to lead them to survival. The film is a metaphor for the struggles of being a woman in this culture, as she comes between the religious oppression that surrounds her and the brighter future her daughter can provide.
4. THE FITS
After first seeing this movie, I immediately watched it again. There is a hypnotic quality in its presentation that takes you aback. Told from the perspective of Toni (Royalty Hightower, in an incredible debut), she is an 11-year old boxer who happens upon a dance troupe at the local rec center. As she practices in joining their ranks, taking in the routines, dancers start falling under these seizures, which the local media describe as “the fits.” THE FITS is about misconception of female maturity, with everyone outside of the group misguided, while everyone in the group accepts it as reality. Clocking in at about 75 mins., director Anna Rose Holmer & crew keep everything flowing, but leaves everything unstated for the viewer to interpret.
Another unconventional biopic, as it’s told in a span of days after JFK’s assassination. Watching this movie, you realize that no one could have played Jackie Kennedy except Natalie Portman. She keeps the elegance of her character while simultaneously falling apart. The movie maintains a level of psychological drama because Jackie isn’t just dealing with the death of her husband, but her Jackie brand that she built as first lady. Her façade is all that’s keeping her together, and it counters various elements of her personal life. The haunting score of Mica Levi (UNDER THE SKIN) drives this point further, as Camelot gets further warped by perception.
2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
An exceptional portrait of coping as well as depression. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a life of solitude, ultimately turned upside-down after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). As part of his will and testament, Lee is deemed guardian of Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). It’s at this moment, the moment another person has to enter Lee’s life, that we realize why Lee is alone. He’s coping by shutting people out, while Patrick is coping by hanging out with friends or various girlfriends. The performances are fantastic and heart-breaking, while also providing genuine laughs. It’s a masterclass in dramatic filmmaking by Kenneth Lonergan.
It’s amazing how one movie can actually speak on something that you think about on a consistent basis. Using contact with alien lifeforms, Denis Villenueve’s direction, coupled with Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, uses this motif to center on elements of communication theory. A linguistics professor must decipher alien language in order to figure out what the aliens wish to accomplish here. As Louise Banks, Amy Adams carries the weight of the film as she balances various emotions as the narrative shifts to center on her life. ARRIVAL becomes more about communication, evolving into connection as communication, and making choices based on the knowledge you would gain. It’s thought-provoking, emotional, and Bradford Young’s cinematography is breath-taking.
The Next 10:
12. THE LOBSTER
13. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
15. THE WITCH
16. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
17. THE WAILING
18. OTHER PEOPLE
19. THE NICE GUYS
20. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS