And that’s a wrap! As 2016 concludes and we turn the calendar to 2017, the year in film wraps up with my watching ~160 films this past year. I had the privilege of seeing most of the big name films from this past year, including Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and a number of independent releases and films still seeking distribution. I sat in theaters, I streamed, I screener’d, I VOD’d even and, truth be told, the large tentpole blockbusters were considerably disappointing overall, with small, scrappy, independent film projects clearly reaping the best rewards.
Which means we can expect this year’s Oscar nominations to be dominated by the smaller budget underdog movies – Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Jackie. And, I can already write the headline following Jimmy Kimmel’s first stint as Oscar host the morning after the ceremony on February 27, which will have nothing to do with how good or bad he does as host…
“Ratings reach all time low for Oscar telecast.”
And so as we proceed, let’s remind ourselves of this: A film’s box office does not guarantee a film’s quality and stories told with small budgets, small crews, and just a handful of people can be every bit as important and meaningful as the movies which open in 4,000 theaters and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in box office revenue. The good news is that new voices and storytellers emerge every year and we have more access to great movies than ever before.
Let’s celebrate that, shall we?!
As per each year, here’s the breakdown of the highest ratings we awarded films this year…
31 films scored a rating of ★★★★, while 15 films achieved “Yes You Should!!!” distinction, scoring our highest ratings of ★★★★1/2 and ★★★★★. Of those 15 films, 3 of the films listed below received all five of my stars, down from six films in 2015.
With a shout out to the awesome made-for-TV movies LEMONADE, created by Beyoncé Knowles and the exhaustive, 7-plus hour documentary, OJ: Made In America, meticulously curated and directed by Ezra Edelman, here is the best of the best from 2016…
JUST MISSING THE TOP 10:
- CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Matt Ross‘ endearing and thoughtful second feature film stars Viggo Mortensen as a father of six children, living off the grid, in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. When a tragedy strikes, Mortensen and clan must come to the city to face fears, challenges, and a family who simply do not understand the unique bond that all have created. At first, Captain Fantastic may not strike a chord with you, but stay with it and you will find something pretty special.
- FENCES. Denzel Washington‘s labor of love, Fences features the two-time Oscar winner in line for nominations as actor, director, and producer for this sobering and intense adaptation of August Wilson‘s Tony-Award winning Broadway play. Alongside the brilliant Viola Davis, both star as Troy and Rose Maxson, struggling to stay afloat in 1950s Pittsburgh, where Troy leans on his past, often misinforming his present and future. Meanwhile, Rose tries gamely to simply hold everything together. Embracing and not hiding its stage origins, Washington, Davis, and a wonderful supporting cast, embody these characters so deeply we become immersed in the back yard and sitting room of the Maxson home where fences exist both in literal and metaphorical senses.
- HELL OR HIGH WATER. Two sets of men: a pair of brothers robbing banks, and a pair of Texas Rangers set out to find the brotherly tandem, head to an inevitable showdown in the hot Texas sun in David Mackenzie‘s powerhouse tale of desperation and legacy. The reasons behind why the brothers resort to criminality prove clever and novel, thanks to a pulse-pounding, contemplative screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Part suspense/thriller, heist film, dark comedy, and modern-day Western, Hell or High Water shares a little bit of everything we love about the movies and features four stellar performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the renegade brothers and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the police hot on their trail.
- JACKIE. Natalie Portman‘s next Oscar nomination is found here as she delivers a career-defining performance as widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain‘s searing and choking Jackie. Lost and in the clouds, Portman nails the traits, mannerisms, and overall presence of the iconic woman, who gives an interview with Life Magazine in the days following her husband’s assassination. Larrain never lets us breathe, keeps us tight and close with the pain and confusion, the loss of life and celebrity that surrounds a woman learning how to live all over again.
- TICKLED. Never would I ever believe a documentary about competitive male tickling would land on a Best of 2016 list, but Tickled is nothing like you could ever imagine. When New Zealand-based pop-culture writer David Farrier finds an online world of apparent platonic male-on-male tickling competitions, he is intrigued to write about his discoveries. Quickly rebuked in the harshest of ways by the owner of the website promoting such events, Farrier and colleague Dylan Reeve set out to learn more about what may have provoked such an angry response. Farrier quickly learns that hiding behind the anonymity of the website is someone or some entity that has bullied countless participants with legal threats, lies, deceit, and attempts to sabotage their reputations and potential future careers. Tickled may start with sordid curiosity, but turns into something very real, very dangerous, and quite frightening as Farrier uncovers a subculture he could never have anticipated existed in the first place.
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2016
#10: The Jungle Book
Released: April 15, 2016
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Oh how I love a great, great movie.
That simplistic thought kept rolling through my mind again and again as I watched Jon Favreau‘s masterful reimagining of the beloved 1967 Disney animated classic, The Jungle Book. Adopting more of the darker and intense elements of Rudyard Kipling’s anthology of stories, his work inspiring the Disney film, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have crafted a stunning “live action”/CGI hybrid film that hooks you from an opening chase sequence, and doesn’t let you go until well after a thoughftul and creative end credits sequence has started to roll.
Here he entrusts 12-year-old Neel Sethi to carry this robust and ambitious adventure in the young actor’s feature-film debut. Starring as the “Man-Cub” Mowgli, the young actor convinces in his portrayal of a boy raised by wolves, freely able to interact with anthropomorphic animals believably, in a seamlessly rendered VFX playground that looks absolutely breathtaking on the big screen.
The journey, expectedly, is far from easy and rife with adventure and intensity. Mowgli encounters a seductive, hypnotic python named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a lazy, kind-hearted bear known as Baloo (Bill Murray) and a massive gigantopithecus dubbed King Louis (Christopher Walken). Where other films would treat each encounter as something akin to moving past a new level of a video game, Favreau spends good, constructive time with each animal Mowgli encounters, his camera surveying and investigating each new discovery and the interplay developing between man-cub and creature.
An astonishing number of people worked on The Jungle Book, the end credits run nearly ten minutes, but the film is nothing short of breathtaking to watch unfold. Every scene finds a blending of Oscar-worthy visual effects, cultivating a whirling landscape of beautiful imagery surrounding a young actor who spent nearly all of his time working on a sound stage in Los Angeles.
But man oh man, do I love a great, great movie and Favreau has crafted his finest film to date. We have memorable, smartly written characters to consider, action and suspense supplemented with stabs of humor, and moments that are a great deal of fun.
#9: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Released: March 11, 2016
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Let’s not split hairs here. 10 Cloverfield Lane is awesome. Full stop.
Nearly every element of Dan Trachtenberg‘s feature-length directorial debut is masterfully constructed, a film that gets your heart racing moments after it begins and impedes your ability to find peace and calm until long after the credits fade to black.
Honestly, there is so little that can be truly shared about the film that a conventional verse-chorus-verse approach to reviewing the film seems unjust and almost insulting. Rest assured, there are surprises upon surprises, elements that purposefully confuse and leave you scratching your head, and a gonzo conclusion that you may anticipate, but will likely never quite see coming.
We also learn that along with Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Michelle, handyman/laborer Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) is somewhere they are not quite sure they want to be. They are isolated in a spacious, multi-room underground bunker built under a stranger named Howard Stambler’s farmhouse. Howard (John Goodman) reveals an attack has taken place and while he is uncertain as to whether it is chemical or nuclear in nature, the conditions outside are unsafe. Howard has amassed resources and supplies to stay below ground for “a year, maybe two” and has painstakingly tried to recreate the comforts of home in his underground dwelling.
The beauty here is how Trachtenberg shows us everything, nods and winks at the audience, and still delivers an intense, rewarding rollercoaster ride of a thriller. When we think we know what’s happening, things shift, sometimes with a jolt and sometimes ever so slightly, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is never comfortable or settled in its own skin, anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by John Goodman.
As good as he has been in years, Goodman gives a brilliant performance, wholly absorbed in creating a man consumed by fear and conspiracies, yet battling within himself. The beauty here is that no matter how much he commands our attention, he never sucks the air out of the room. There is plenty of room in this bunker for Michelle and Emmett to flesh out their characters, with both Winstead and Gallagher delivering pitch-perfect work in trying to discover what’s truly happening here, right along with the rest of us.
Living in an underground bunker would naturally amplify even the most rudimentary of sounds, so everything is understandably louder, with pinging and buzzing and disorienting flourishes of noise happening around the trio. Adding to the experience is near flawless below-the-line work by cinematographer Jeff Cutter, who lights each scene with colors that seem slightly out of balance. Everything is tangible and real, but the yellows are a little sour, the reds a little darker, the black a little blacker, and the lights a bit brighter and stronger than we are typically accustomed to seeing.
While the movie may prove polarizing, especially with a series of “wait, what?” moments near the end which fog up a portion of the glass, 10 Cloverfield Lane lives and breathes in our doubts and uncertainties. Fantastic acting, precision-focused direction by a noteworthy new filmmaker, and a clever, winning screenplay pays rich rewards to an audience who have no idea what’s coming their way.
#8: Kubo And The Two Strings
Released: August 19, 2016
Directed by: Travis Knight
Add another shining star to the Laika Entertainment universe as their fourth production, Kubo and the Two Strings, might just be their most impressive film to date. Intricately conceived, juxtaposing the fragility of human emotions with the formidable work of richly detailed sets and astonishing production design, you may have seen stop-motion animation movies before…
Just never quite like this.
From the animators who have given us the Oscar-nominated Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, all impressive accomplishments in their own unique and distinctive way, Kubo is a brave and bold adventure, taking us through centuries of Japanese symbolism but retaining, at its core, a beautiful, tender tale of heroism, love, loss, and maturation.
We learn that Kubo and his mother have faced tragedy and family upheaval. He has been shielded from his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), always looking for him at night, promising to seize him if Kubo is ever out after dark. Additionally, Kubo’s twin aunts, known as “The Sisters” (voiced by Rooney Mara), also hunt for him after dark and look to do the bidding of the Moon King. We learn that the boy’s father, Hanzo, a legendary samurai wanted to defeat The Moon King in his wife’s honor, but failed to do so.
Blurring the lines of fantasy and reality, Kubo takes place in an ancient Japan where the one-eyed, eye-patch clad title character (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother, depressed and struggling. He departs their seaside cave each day, heading to the town square, with his trusty shamisen and a seemingly endless stack of origami folding papers. He tells intricate tales he has embellished and enhanced by stories his mother has shared with him all his life. His stories dazzle the townspeople, the papers magically coming to life as he strums a folk singer’s yarn. As the paper folds and bends into the characters and events Kubo is sharing, he never has enough time to complete his stories and leaves the villagers with a cliffhanger every day.
And so naturally Kubo stays out too late one evening (kids these days…) and chaos is unleashed. The end result is a mother’s sacrificing of the last bit of magic she possesses, infusing life into a talisman of a monkey to help guide Kubo on a quest to do what his father was unable to do — defeat The Moon King by acquiring three items necessary in doing so – The Sword Unbreakable, The Armor Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable.
If this all seems too fantastical to understand, rest assured that the film is easy to invest into. The world that is created to envelop these characters is nothing short of breathtaking and the voiceover work by the film’s main characters is simply outstanding. Instantly, we are drawn into the world of a young boy who devotes himself each and every day to overcoming adversity and simply trying to make the world better for those he comes into contact with. He is purely and wholly a good person, stronger than what surrounds him, and he becomes a character we instantly root and cheer for.
Everything the film deals with – talismans, spiritualism, family, love, holding on and letting go of memories, heroic deeds, fantastical mythology, and Japanese folklore – are checked and balanced in a terrific screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (Haimes and Shannon Tindle conceived the story), always circling back to drive, determination, and the resolve present within us all.
There are those who will see Kubo and the Two Strings and long for the amiable nature of the studio’s previous work. However, through the intermittent darkness, comes a film that is every bit as approachable and engaging as those that came before it. One could even call this Laika’s “Miyazaki movie.” And for those familiar with the iconic Japanese animator and Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, Kubo retains a kinship with films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the decade’s most accomplished and impressive animated motion picture achievements.
Released: May 20, 2016
Directed by: Josh Kreigman & Elyse Steinberg
In the waning moments of the stellar documentary Weiner, disgraced New York City former Congressman and 2013 mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner watches a television, confirming his public persona has crashed and burned a second time with all the grace of a bloodsplatter on concrete. And it is here where the film’s co-director, Josh Kreigman, a friend to both Weiner and wife Huma Abedin, simply cannot help himself.
“Why did you let me film this?” he asks.
He is exasperated, confused, and angry. As is Abedin. As is Weiner’s team. As is the man who lies at the heart of one of the most astonishing documentaries of the decade. All are angry for different reasons and that moment, one of the year’s best from 2016’s year in film, speaks volumes as to how politicians are so easily swayed into believing that they are above the law, have a different set of rules to follow, and are essentially untouchable.
Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg saw their subject in a Shakespearean light, with Steinberg telling Indiewire that the parallels between the disgraced politician and Caesar were incredible. As a film, Weiner is narcissism and self-destruction distilled down to a formula that seems so simple to avoid, and yet captures a man’s addiction to needing constant validation that he simply cannot refrain from sexting strangers on the internet. More than any election, this proves to be as insurmountable an opponent as he has ever faced.
Released during the most contentious of presidential elections, its emergence in theaters came at the time that Abedin was Hillary Clinton’s closest consultant. Weiner had just started making the rounds again on political talk shows and news segments, somehow finding another life in public discourse. And then, with the movie documenting his self-immolation playing in theaters across the country, news broke that he had again sent provocative images to strangers through social media.
Though Abedin left Weiner when this latest news broke things open, she is frustrated more than once on screen, with Kreigman and Steinberg capturing so much personal discontent and uncomfortable interactions that you cringe but compulsively keep watching. We never see this side of politics and Weiner is an undeniable force – charismatic, charming, a little too ready for the spotlight, and unsettled and anxious when not beneath it.
For someone trying to rehabilitate his image, it makes sense (to him) to turn to his documentarian friends and capture his resurrection. Abedin, serving as his campaign manager and advisor, has her doubts about the access provided to the filmmakers. And yet she is there, by his side and giving a statement to the press when the 2013 sexting scandal that unraveled his mayoral resurrection surfaces in the media.
Kreigman and Steinberg, under the guise of a favor, provide us with an incredible historical record and the sobering reality of how instant gratification, instant fame, and the presence of social media now impact how our body politic operates.
Released: November 11, 2016
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Conversations about how films impact people are some of the most wonderful chats to have because movies like Arrival foster such great debate and insight. After mentioning that I had thought Arrival suffered some pacing issues and surged too quickly to the finish line, a friend of mine set me straight: “Right. But that’s on purpose, right? Fits with the story being told and makes sense that the whole movie quickens as she learns more and more of how to communicate. Kinda like life, no?”
Well yeah, that makes perfect sense. And in hindsight, I admit that I was wrong. Once that conversation concluded and I went back and looked at Denis Villeneuve’s measured and lyrical science-fiction epic again, another layer of why this film is so terrific fell right into place. Led by Amy Adams, Arrival is, in part, a film exploring communication, patience, and the awareness of what surrounds us. Though the film is built around the fantastical premise that a dozen alien vessels with creatures known as “heptapods” inside have descended upon Earth, Arrival is less about what comes from above and more about lies within.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer zip back and forth in a non-linear way, giving us snapshots of the past and future, while we try and deduce what is happening in the present. Additionally, Heisserer crafts a dazzling mystery at the heart of the film; Why are the creatures here and what are they trying to say? Also, it would be fair to suggest that a number of viewers are also trying to wonder just what the hell is going on here. So let’s admit that too.
And while the power of Arrival may not be immediate, it comes in the moments and a crackling mystery, emblematic of the memories Adams’ character is trying to arrange and the cracking the code of the countless circular symbols the aliens offer up to her. Jeremy Renner offers a nice supporting turn as a project assistant who may have more of an impact on Adams’ character than either of them initially recognize. And the world Villeneuve creates is something that feels like right now. We recognize everything we see and as a result, this is science-fiction that feels less a part of a dystopian world and more a part of today.
Most films this densely layered get mired in complexities that people can never slice through. Arrival takes its time, with patience, steadiness, and a seeking curiosity in wondering what is out there. But then, in a masterful way, it reminds us that to communicate effectively, we must listen, hear, and try and understand one another. And then asks, if we truly can hear and process everything around us, would we make the same decisions?
Arrival had us all talking, listening, sharing, contemplating, and conversing about its various thoughts and themes. How many films can truly say they did that in 2016?
Released: October 7, 2016
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
A polarizing, searing documentary from one of the nicest filmmakers you ever can meet, Ava DuVernay‘s 13th takes viewers through a disciplined, researched, and studied look at the history of race since the advent of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the systemic rise of the criminal justice system across the United States.
DuVernay challenges perceptions by simply delivering credible talking heads calmly and patiently laying out simple and effective facts. In focusing on the present, people discuss how the rise of the prison-industrial complex targeted and seized on vulnerable communities. The numbers of African-American men incarcerated for minor crimes when compared to the same arrest rates and crimes of caucasian men, is breathtakingly slanted in one direction. And through representatives from both sides of our political aisles, DuVernay reveals that it is simply fallacious to believe that one major political party is to blame for the “Prison-as-Business” model that exists in our country. Add in lobbyists, opportunistic politicians, and the millions and millions of dollars gained by a private prison system, and a case just might be able to be made that the 13th Amendment may have abolished slavery on paper, but created a shapeshifting of problems that are still embedded in our culture today.
When Newt Gingrich shares that “no white person can ever truly understand what it means to be Black in America,” he makes one of the most cogent and logical statements the movie has to offer. DuVernay also does not restrain from presenting both President-elect Donald Trump and Bill & Hillary Clinton as having a part in heightening rhetoric or making disastrous decisions that stunted progress and/or extended the problems and policies which have had a targeted impact on people we live alongside each and every day.
For DuVernay, 13th could be angry, full of rage and vitriol. And by the end, she does give into her emotions with a breathtaking sequence involving Donald Trump’s campaign speeches set to archival footage of the past that some viewers have found pointlessly incendiary, and others have found powerful and true.
But above all else, 13th is brave, smart, and ambitious filmmaking that leaves few stones unturned. Conventional in presentation, though her uncomfortable and frequent use of “CRIMINAL” drives home the feeling of what it feels like to be viewed and called by such a moniker every day of your life, 13th simply gives us all a professorial, sobering, and powerful look at slavery in multiple forms. After her extraordinary Selma, DuVernay has the guts to ask if we truly have abolished the stain of slavery, wondering out loud if it simply exists in different forms, out i the open every day, right in front of our eyes.
Released: October 21, 2016
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight is a film unlike any that most of us have ever seen. That it exists at all is a testament to the determination of Jenkins, playwright and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, Plan B Entertainment and A24, who felt that the time was right to present a brave, frank, and bold look at a gay African-American male, told through three formative chapters of the man’s life.
To characterize Moonlight in that way, however, is something of a disservice to Jenkins’ incredible achievement. Though the optics on the storytelling appear new, Jenkins and McCraney’s story tells the story of a man who is surrounded by few positive and many negative influences – those that define what he becomes, what he is afraid of becoming, and how he tries to find strength and resolve growing up in a culture where who he is as a person is viewed as weak, soft, or something worth denigrating and demonizing.
The main character, Chiron, is represented by three different actors. One timid, one curious, one big in stature, all closeted and living afraid. We first meet Chiron as “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert), who finds sanctuary in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juan, a drug dealer, finds Little in an abandoned crack house and takes him home for an evening when Little silently refuses to disclose where he lives. Juan eventually returns him home the next morning to Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse and single mother struggling to make ends meet.
As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has seen his mother spiral into drug addiction and the bullying against him only intensify. His only friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who senses Chiron’s secrets and becomes something of a down low confidant to him. When things take an unexpected turn, Chiron’s trust and openness soon demolished, he has nowhere to turn, no sense of home or connection to anyone.
Kevin’s nickname for Chiron, “Black”, defines Chiron’s adult life and Trevante Rhodes slips into the skin of a man who is big and ripped, dealing drugs, and emulating the life Juan led. A surprising phone call leads to a testing of Black’s trust and vulnerabilities when he drives from Atlanta to Miami for an unlikely reunion with an old friend (André Holland).
Every character mentioned above matters to Chiron in all three chapters of his life. The connectivity that Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes create is incredible, each actor, who looks little like the other, finding commonalities within themselves to build and create a human being that speaks beyond looks and/or environment. You need not be African-American and/or gay to connect with Chiron, as universal themes of acceptance of yourself and those around you, and not being too afraid to seek and need guidance and love from people circling near you, can speak volumes no matter who you are.
And yet with all of the things viewers can relate to, the optics here are new. And important. And vitally necessary. Though the film concludes with two shots that inspire hope, water the eyes, and leave you contemplating everything you have just seen, Moonlight is a movie driven by its actors. And whether it is first time actor Hibbert or a veteran talent like Ali, the world where this moonlight glows is everlasting.
#3: The Wailing
Released: May 20, 2016
Directed by: Na Hong-jin
South Korean writer/director Na Hong-jin has busted everything wide open with his incredible and breathtaking The Wailing. In a landscape where horror films rely on jump scares, sequels, prequels, and the same tired tropes over and over again, this blood-stained, dark, and uncompromising fog of terror emanates from bold, fearless storytelling. Hong-jin may call to mind elements of David Lynch, “The Walking Dead”, and The Exorcist, but resides in a pure and unfettered home of originality, bravado, and unsettling intensity.
The first obstacle for those interested in the film is that the film is subtitled in Korean and Japanese, and runs 156 minutes. Honestly, if you are watching this, you likely won’t notice or even care, after the first few minutes. The Wailing takes place in a small village known as Goksung and we soon meet bumbling, affable police officer Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), tasked with investigating a graphic double murder. Instantly, we recognize that a crime like this is a jolt to the system for the small community and Jong-gu is not all that equipped to wrap his arms around what he is seeing.
Almost concurrently, Jong-gu discovers a couple of strange individuals lurking around the village. One is a woman, who wears white, and identifies herself as Moo-Myeong (Chun Woo-hee). The other is a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who resembles a demonic presence suddenly occupying Jong-gu’s dreams. Nameless, the man has a steely-eyed intensity and has reportedly been seen running around in the woods, feasting on deer like an animal and protected by a vicious dog chained to the outside of his home. He is crudely dubbed “The Jap.”
At the scene of the initial murders, a man is sitting out front, his face soaked with blood, his eyes rolling around pinball-like in his head. He appears to be in a trance, or even worse, in a zombie-like state. The investigation determines that locals are falling ill to a mysterious sickness that leaves rashes, boils, and lesions on the infected person’s body. Grasping for straws on what could have led to the events surrounding the murders, a tenuous suggestion is made that a possible toxic outbreak linked to poisoned mushrooms could serve as a plausible enough explanation. Conveniently, this is reported in the news.
The Wailing is overwhelmingly intense. We see graphic violence and imagery early on, but we almost instantly like Jong-gu quite a bit. He is married, with a young daughter, and his inability to properly assess the grave and dire circumstances happening in his quaint, sleepy village seems genuine and relatable.
Initially, this is laid out like a police procedural, itself a formula of Korean cinema. And to be fair, we have seen lots and lots of stories start like this. Murders are committed. Clues are few and/or hard to find. Crimes keep occurring and investigators seem to have nowhere to turn until a magical stroke of luck helps solve the case. However, that is not this story. The sense of dread and imminent evil escalates and grows until the movie reaches a mid-point crescendo of sensory overload that is one of the most remarkable, intense, and powerful sequences I have seen in a film this decade.
The performances are all fantastic, the actors nimbly dancing over and around the twists, turns, and surprises that Jong-win’s script has in store for us. The main characters all have moments of powerful devastation and the film brilliantly conceals its surprises. As we keep wondering what is occurring in this village, and as Jong-gu’s daughter gets sicker and the stakes raise impossibly high, we cannot turn away.
And make no mistake, we want to. There are moments found here that are not nice or easy to watch. No one is safe or immune from Jong-win’s story, be it human, animal, or perhaps something else.
#2: La La Land
Released: December 9, 2016
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Sometimes, all too rarely, in fact, a film arrives that you just want to take and show everybody. One of those movies so fun, thoughtful, magical, enjoyable, and entertaining that you know you will find something different to enjoy with every subsequent viewing.
Welcome to Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land.
Building off his electrifying three-time Oscar-winning debut, Whiplash, Chazelle takes us to a modern-day Los Angeles, where time and space are poorly defined. We have throwback jazz clubs, costumes that seem to reflect any number of generations of style, and two hopeless dreamers, Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone), who hope to make it in Hollywood.
From the thrilling opening moments, defined by a showstopping song-and-dance member on a jam-packed Los Angeles off-ramp, we see Mia fail in audition after audition and decide to take a D.I.Y. approach and write her own one-woman play. Sebastian wrestles with a steely-eyed club owner (J.K. Simmons) over what music to play in something of a residency and sees interest in his passion for jazz dying all around him.Mia is a barista on a studio lot, while Sebastian is a jazz musician. She shares an apartment with three other acting hopefuls, all on the cusp of being discovered, while Sebastian litters his rundown apartment with artifacts he cops from an old jazz club which is now a fancy restaurant. Apparent opposites who become equal to one another over time, Mia and Sebastian meet awkwardly and keep finding ways to interact. Soon, they fall for one another and over the course of four seasons, Chazelle gives us a musical story of two fools who dare to dream.
Stone and Gosling are electric on screen together. Literally every moment they share is one that leaves us wanting more; a yin to the other’s yang. They are fascinated with one another and forever inquisitive as to what makes the other one tick. Stone’s Mia is smart, weathered, vulnerable, and too proud to admit she just might be in over her head. Gosling’s Sebastian is a harder nut to crack, holding his emotions close to the vest. He seems to only feel comfortable opening up to his sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt), who he unleashes all of his angst and frustrations upon. He is also too proud to admit he just might be in over his head as well.
But together they go, each compromising and relenting on their dream to take more chances that feel right and may just be too good to pass up. And Chazelle captures the dream-like haze surrounding not only his film but also of all the dreamers who go to Hollywood to one day make it big.
The musical numbers Chazelle commissioned from composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are engaging, centered on character and Gosling and Stone’s vocals are real, occasionally imperfect, and simply wonderful. Together, they enhance a somber Gosling solo piece into an enchanting ballad of courtship, Chazelle front-loading his film with most of the musical moments.
A shift occurs when challenges arise for the young couple and the songs fade away and the intensity and emotions heighten exponentially. And the film finds another layer of impact, because Chazelle knows how to build something new out of a longing for nostalgia and remnants of the past.
La La Land pulls from the past, but recognizes the superficiality of colorful sets, costumes, and flawlessly choreographed dance numbers. Mia and Sebastian dare to look past the smoke and mirrors and Chazelle is not afraid to peer behind the curtain. In Chazelle’s Los Angeles, hearts and dreams still get broken each and every day and in the film’s more sobering second half, La La Land becomes a film steeped in melancholy, fear, regret, and worry. In short, nothing has changed. No matter how fancy you gussy up the Hollywood gimmick, that town can still rip your heart out, stomp on your neck, and discard you like you never mattered in the first place.
Stone and Gosling are magical. And in the end, Damien Chazelle has made a love story to all the Mias and Sebastians, those fools who dream, smiling through the highs and lows, willing to do it again and again.
AND THE BEST FILM OF 2016 IS…
Released: September 28, 2016
Directed by: Keith Maitland
The best movie no one saw in 2016 was the staggering Tower, a remarkable animated documentary about a forgotten moment on August 1, 1966, when a sniper opened fire on the campus of UT-Austin and shot nearly 50 people over the course of 96 agonizing minutes. Drawing on the 50th anniversary of the incident and driven to work on the project after an onslaught of mass shootings began throughout America, director Keith Maitland brainstormed the different ways he could tell his story. What he creates with Tower is jarring and alarming at first, quickly mesmerizing, and by the end, one of the most intense 82 minutes of cinema I have ever witnessed.
Maitland, a graduate from the same university, first began working on Tower in 2006 when he read an article and met with the author to discuss the incident that was largely written out of history when he attended the school. The seeds planted, Maitland began the painstaking process of putting the film together in 2012, trying to raise money along the way, and attempting to understand how his film could truly resonate and leave viewers with a sense of what that morning felt like to those who experienced the real-life horrors of that particular day.
What he accomplishes is unlike anything you have ever seen. He found survivors and interviewed them. Recognizing that they were in their mid-to-late 60s, he made the choice to utilize young actors and production interns to replicate the words of those he interviewed. He then filmed the young actors telling “their” stories. He shot some scenes in his backyard and the went deep into research mode, finding incredible archival footage few, if any, had ever seen before. He worked with the survivors he talked with and meticulously documented their stories, crafted timelines, and used his young acting ensemble to re-enact the events of that morning.
And then…he animated nearly all of his footage.
Relying on the technique known as rotoscoping, Maitland creates a dystopian world where characters, settings, and scenarios look strangely real but animated. Watching Tower knocks you off-center. The images look exaggerated but feel right somehow. The voices are searing, youthful, and honest and convincing. And the soundtrack, initially populated with the music of the time, turns heart-stopping and frightening, as randomly, loud, piercing gunshot blasts pop off throughout the film. As a result, you literally have no idea what is coming next, hearing a story that may be all too familiar in our current culture, yet jolting your senses in a way other films exploring similar topics have never quite achieved.
In short, we are there. It’s 1966. It’s a 100-plus degree day in Austin, Texas. We are rushing to class or off to the next one. We might be late. And then, we are stuck, ironically frozen with the heat closing in, hitting the ground and praying that the sickening sounds circling around us quickly come to an end and no one gets hurt.
Tower is a remarkable film and Keith Maitland’s instincts and drive and determination to tell this story his way, stands as one of the decade’s greatest achievements.
31 MORE FILMS YOU CANNOT MISS FROM 2016 –
ALL EARNING 4 STAR RATINGS
- 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. Annette Bening portrays a single mother in 1979 California, raising a teenage son, and summoning the influence of a 20-something photographer (Greta Gerwig) and an amorous teenage neighbor (Elle Fanning) to help mold and shape her son’s worldview. Writer/director Mike Mills‘ third feature is a well-written, wonderfully performed ensemble piece that serves as a semi-autobiographical look at Mills’ youth and the influences that made him into the man he is today. Retaining an independent defiance all its own, 20th Century Women balances humor and real-life emotion in a stubborn yet endearing way.
- THE BFG
- THE BOY AND THE BEAST
- CAMERAPERSON. Kirsten Johnson has spent her life working as a cinematographer and filmmaker on dozens of film projects both big and small. Cameraperson serves as a testimony of countless projects she has been a part of. What initially begins as something of a sizzle reel of this and that, becomes a film of fascinating curiosity and inquisitiveness of the world around us. Brilliantly edited and built, Johnson is rarely seen in the film but her vision is everywhere. We never know what images, stories, or experiences we will be sharing from scene to scene and Johnson’s ability to let us observe much of what she has observed leaves us moved and affected in ways you do not expect once the movie begins.
- CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR
- CERTAIN WOMEN
- DON’T BREATHE
- DON’T THINK TWICE. Mike Birbiglia’s ensemble comedy/drama looks at an improv group teetering on the brink of dissolution, just at the height of their success. On stage, they click and connect perfectly, while off stage, the post-show bar trips and late-night hangs grow ever more caustic and empty. With Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key and Birbiglia leading the way, Don’t Think Twice shows the fragility that comes with being a performer and the inherent need to try and hold on to the spotlight for just one more laugh, one more second, and one last curtain call. Funny, honest, and real.
- FINDING DORY. In the end, this was like coming back home for a wonderful meal, a nap in your old bed, and then that sense of feeling a little bit better leaving then before you arrived. Finding Dory may have felt like a familiar rehashing of the beloved Pixar classic Finding Nemo, but it is kind of impossible to not get swept up again in Ellen DeGeneres‘ effortless performance as the blue tang fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. When a memory of family from the past cannot escape Dory’s mind, she sets out to see if she can find them and we have a kind, funny, endearing ode to youthfulness, innocence, and the power that unconditional love can have on someone. It’s not innovative, though it looks amazing to watch, and we have heard this song before, but Finding Dory is basically a night off. And sometimes, that’s really all we need as movie fans.
- THE FITS
- FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
- THE HANDMAIDEN
- HIDDEN FIGURES. We kind of need this movie right now. Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked as “computers” for NASA in the early 1960s. A mathematician (Taraji P. Henson) and her colleagues (Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer) proved to be the uncredited catalysts in helping the United States catch up in the Space Race with Russia in the 1960s. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures is terrific, important, and thought it does lean towards some Oscar bait it cannot resist chewing on, this is a wonderful film the whole family can enjoy.
- HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. Unique, wacky, and a testament to love and loyalty, New Zealand import Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a teenage boy taken in by yet another foster family, only to have the woman die unexpectedly. Tired of being bounced around, the teenager runs away, from not only child services but also his tumultuous past. An unlikely savior arrives in disgruntled and now former foster dad Hec (Sam Neill), who joins Ricky on his trek. Fitfully funny, bittersweet at times, Taika Waititi‘s adventure-comedy is a sight to see, beautifully written and uncompromising in how it loves staying rough around its edges.
- THE INNOCENTS. Haunting atmosphere and palpable fear and intensity line the walls when watching Anne Fontaine‘s French film The Innocents, a harrowing tale of a French Red Cross student who uncovers a number of impregnated nuns hidden away in a convent. Set in 1945, the story is inspired by the stories of writer Philippe Maynial’s aunt, who worked in Poland after World War II. The performances are stunning, the film difficult to watch at times, but exquisitely shot and presented on screen. Featuring nearly all women in front of and behind the camera, The Innocents is an overlooked film that discerning audiences should spend ample time with.
- LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Writer/director Whit Stillman gets a career best performance from Kate Beckinsale in his Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, which documents the force majeure that is Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon, as she arrives at her brother-in-law’s estate, adult daughter in tow, seeking new husbands for both of them. Stillman’s movie rips through 1790s England with wicked humor and fast and furious dialogue and a fantastic ensemble keeping things light and frothy. The film is a sight to behold, from the costumes, production design, all the way down the card, but Beckinsale is best in show and worth the price of admission almost by herself.
- A MAN CALLED OVE
- MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
- MY BLIND BROTHER
- NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING
- THE NICE GUYS. While I don’t think the film actually really has a plot or a point per se, I had some of the best times of the year watching Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling tear into one another during their 1970s buddy cop picture, The Nice Guys. Set in a porn-laden L.A., we’ve got car crashes, mansions, adult films, investigations, pollution concerns, new car exhibitions, and dead bodies everywhere. And through it all, Gosling and Crowe riff and jive through 120 minutes of one-liners, stabbing put-downs, and great chemistry, while trying to fit together the puzzle pieces of a series of crimes that don’t want to fit together nicely. Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s hyper-smart teenage daughter, but this is really a two-man show and one of the most entertaining films of 2016.
- ONLY YESTERDAY. The lost discovery of Studio Ghibli finally made its way stateside after 25 years without theatrical distribution. Isao Takahata‘s 1991 coming-of-age tale of Taeko is really intriguing, telling the story of a 27-year-old woman reflecting back on her Tokyo childhood on a trip back home to visit her family and old friends. All the Ghibli haunts are here, even from 1991, including the strict attention-to-detail, the focus on character and non-linear storytelling. We really do not have anything like this in the marketplace, then or now – an animated film made for adults, focusing on a female-driven story, but with a message that anyone can relate to. Adventurous now, and especially then, Only Yesterday is a delight.
- OTHER PEOPLE
- PETE’S DRAGON
- SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
- THE WITCH