Some quick thoughts on three 2016 films I recently caught up with. The sensitive, emotional Moonlight and the decidedly non-blockbuster alien film Arrival are both in theaters now. A small indie with lots of style, Krisha, is available on Amazon Prime.

MoonlightBarry Jenkins / 2016 / fourstar


Bracingly, bruisingly intimate. It’s a rare and precious gift in cinema to feel as close to a character as we do to Chiron in Moonlight, the center of this episodic, moody film about a young black man struggling to define himself. We emphasize with his fragility, with as a boy almost too sensitive for this world, and the young performers capture this fragility in a way I’ve never really experienced before. I felt especially connected to Ashton Sanders, the second of three actors to play Chrion, whose slender frame communicates so much rage, hurt and insecurity.

There’s a slight “record skip” when we jump to the third segment of the film, however. The hulking Trevante Rhodes is just as powerful as the rest of the fantastic cast, but his Chrion feels like a different character, buried underneath muscle. This is no doubt intended, but I felt a loss of continuity that’s also evident in the tightrope the third act walks centering around one key, extended conversation. It’s a more pointed style of drama, and one less forgiving than the evocative stylization on display in the younger phases. Still, I’ll remember Chrion’s brooding sensitivity and this film’s gift of empathy for a long time. A must-see.

ArrivalDenis Villeneuve / 2016 / threestar


I appreciate the earnestness of Arrival, the way it wears its morals and allegory on its sleeves. This is a film about communication and cooperation, about a certain feminine-coded openness that unfortunately gets tangled up in an otherworldly mysticism. It should instead be raw and earthy. Still, the specifics of this alien encounter are unique and provocative enough to hold our interest until the final movements crystalize the nascent thematic elements. It’s a bit disappointing that the film gets away with having so little thematic resonance until some twists recast these themes as central to the film, but get away with it it does.

KrishaTrey Edward Shults / 2016 / twostar


Director Trey Edward Shults is obviously talented, but Krisha is so paper thin that even at 80 minutes it feels too long. It’s not that there’s not enough plot to support a mood piece like this film; I’m perfectly fine with thinly plotted or completely unplotted mood pieces. It’s just that the family’s tensions in this anxious, nervy family Thanksgiving scene are buried under so much external, surface artifice that they become irrelevant. After a few showy, actorly conversations, dispersed around more than a few kaleidoscopic montages, it’s hard to feel emotionally invested. I’m still interested in what Shults could do with a richer story.