2016: The Great Performances


In the years I have compiled a list of the Great Performances of any given year, I still am not sure I can answer the question: “What makes a great performance?”

We all go to movies to be entertained, but sometimes that can be defined as needing to laugh or disappear from our daily lives into the lives of someone else. Other times, we want to learn about a historical figure or we are entertained learning about history or someone other’s experiences. And…as the summer reminds each and every year, we just like seeing stuff blow up and hearing loud noises exploding all around us.

In a crudely worded answer, the Great Performances in any given year are the ones that make us feel something. With that in mind, in compiling the 2016 list of the year’s Great Performances, the list below made me feel something. To me, the best performances are not always in front of the camera. So, true to the form of this column over the years, I considered all kinds actors, actresses, screenwriters and directors, but also composers, cinematographers, costume designers, visual effects creators, and, for the first time ever, live animals.

15 entries make the final cut and 15 more earned Honorable Mention. Believe me, lots of names should be here who couldn’t make the final cut.

So here we go…These are are the finest performances I experienced in 2016.

15 HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival.
  • The Cast of Hidden Figuresspecifically, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble (Johnson), Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan.
  • The Cast of The Witch.
  • Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane.
  • Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy and Ryan Gosling as Holland March in The Nice Guys.
  • Ava DuVernay as Director, Co-Writer, and Co-Producer of 13th.
  • Ezra Edelman as Director and Co-producer of O.J.: Made In America.
  • Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in Loving.
  • Sally Field as Doris Miller in Hello, My Name Is Doris.
  • Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge.
  • Mica Levi as Composer of the Original Score, for Jackie.
  • Molly Shannon as Joanne Mulcahey, in Other People.
  • Trey Edward Shults as Director, Writer, Co-Producer, and Actor in Krisha.
  • Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins and Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield in Florence Foster Jenkins.
  • Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson in Southside With You.

THE BEST PERFORMANCES OF 2016 (In Alphabetical Order)

 Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler
in Manchester By The Sea.

Loneliness and mundanity are a warm blanket to Lee Chandler (Affleck), a divorced New England handyman who moves through each and every day quietly helping a number of residents in and around a workmanlike Boston town. He has more work than one person can handle, but seems to take it all in stride, having a series of interactions with an eclectic mix of equally lonely and mundane clientele.

He lives in a nondescript apartment and finishes most nights at a neighborhood bar, but there is a seething, almost too calm quiet that bubbles underneath the surface. Not exactly happy, but satisfied with life for now, he learns that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died unexpectedly. Covering work for a few days, he heads out to his old hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, located about an hour-and-a-half away. After some tenuous reconnections, and facing palpable pain and loss immediately upon arrival, Lee soon learns that he has been named the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Naturally, Lee was never told this was his brother’s wishes.

Though he is a former Oscar nominee, Affleck has found his breakout performance here and he appears in nearly every scene of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan‘s snapshot of a life in turmoil. For those who find the film overwhelmingly sad, and for those who see hope rising from the sadness found in Lee’s story, virtually everyone agrees that Affleck becomes Lee Chandler. Affleck hangs years of pain and regret on his back and as a man who has faced unspeakable tragedy, lost everything, and rebuilt a life far (enough) away from his hometown, he is walking wounded. When forced to return home, he is viewed as a demon by some, an empathetic figure by others, and the only option in front of him is to try and take care of what family he has left.

He continually refuses to let his guard down, but when faced with real emotion, he cinches up, locks down, and retreats, occasionally to the bottom of a bottle. Affleck just powers through scene after scene, trying to be good, trying to do right, but grimacing, in his cheekbones, in his taut jaw and far away gazes. At times we want to shake him out of his stunted stupor and, in other moments, allow him space to exude lingering grief and pain.

It’s a performance that is a strong contender for the Best Actor prize with the Academy this year and once you settle into the different pace of life Lonergan creates in Manchester By The Sea, you become enamored, frustrated, and fascinated by the complex man Affleck places at the center of a powerful film.

Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon
in Love & Friendship

Few things are as awesome to see as a movie fan, than a talented actress, finally finding the role that shows everyone just how talented she really, truly is. Perhaps director Whit Stillman just brings the best out of Kate Beckinsale, but as Lady Susan Vernon in the hilarious Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, the actress gives the best performance of her career. She exhibits a radiating wit, fantastic timing, and serves as the centerpiece of a strong ensemble Stillman deploys to carry his adaptation to one of the year’s most entertaining films.

Beckinsale arrives at her brother-in-law’s home with love on her mind, not only for herself but also her daughter. Very quickly, we see that she is scheming, manipulative, quite smart, perhaps too smart for her own good, but intermittently charming and charismatic. Stillman’s dialogue comes fast and furious and her Lady Susan never misses a beat, Beckinsale sharp in performance, striking in look, and completely convincing as an inhabitant of 1790s London.

Watch the aura Beckinsale creates around her here. People swirl around her and hang on her every word. She is conniving and manipulative, but many of the characters she encounters are intoxicated by her. There are scenes where people seem in awe of her, and she portrays a confidence and natural ease here that makes at least some of us wonder where this Beckinsale has been all these years. She’s been terrific in movies before, but never owned the screen quite like she does here. And part of what makes Love & Friendship so great is that this is not a one-woman show – Beckinsale defers to a brilliant cast which includes Chloe Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Xavier Samuel, and Tom Bennett, who almost made this list for his scene-stealing buffoonery.

But throughout 2016, when I thought of this film, I thought of Lady Susan and the potential new direction for Kate Beckinsale. She delivers one of the year’s finest performances and here is hoping we only have more to come in the near future.

The Cast of Captain Fantastic.

Annalise Basso, Shree Crooks, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Nicholas Hamilton, Samantha Isler, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Viggo Mortensen, Missi Pyle, Charlie Shotwell, Steve Zahn.

When I first watched Captain Fantastic, I was amused but didn’t really get all the hoopla which surrounded the film as it played our local Seattle International Film Festival (winning Best Film) and slowly rolling out across the summer as counterprogramming for big budget blockbusters. A second viewing (then a third) sealed the deal for me: Matt Ross‘ second feature film is something pretty special and the robust ensemble all contribute to making the melancholy undertones of his dramedy really sing a beautiful tune of love, forgiveness, and understanding.

Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben Cash, played by a tremendously moving Viggo Mortensen, raising six children off the grid in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest. His wife is in treatment, suffering from bipolar disorder and when tragedy strikes the family, Ben is faced with trepidation and nervousness when he must load the family up in the family RV and head to the big city to reconnect with family they largely have lost touch with.

Very easily, Ross could make this a treacly, heavy-handed “message film” but he exhibits great restraint and allows his script to find its voice through Ben and his children. Though I have also included Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, and Steve Zahn, who play grandparents and relatives to the Cash family, this film is built around the strong, unbreakable bond between brothers and sisters, the freedom the Cash children are given to learn who they are, and a supportive father who sets more boundaries and parents his children better than anyone gives him credit for.

The best moments come when we see the routines, hear the interactions, and watch the family grow and mature before our very eyes. Ben’s resistance to anything “normal” or “conventional” lies at the heart of the story, lending to some of the film’s more outlandish moments. But Mortensen believes in Ben. The children believe in Ben. And they all believe in one another. In scene after scene, the chemistry and the ability to work off of one another’s emotions shines through and the six young actors cast as Ben’s children are all given moments to shine, without undercutting the story in any way.

Captain Fantastic is gaining more and more buzz for Viggo Mortensen and a potential Best Actor nomination. And though that would be wonderful were it to happen, Captain Fantastic transitions from a good film to a beautiful film because of the honest and tender love everyone exhibits for one another.

The Cast of Hell Or High Water

Gil Birmingham, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Chris Pine. 

By most accounts, David Mackenzie‘s Hell Or High Water gives us a film that works as a heist film, an action movie, a suspense/thriller, a modern-day Western, even a dark comedy in key moments. It’s a little bit of everything we love about the movies and that lends it great and lasting appeal.

For those who have not seen the film, we essentially have two sets of men seeking redemption for different reasons. A set of brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, are desperately trying to save a family estate from foreclosure and concoct an elaborate scheme to rob different branches of the bank trying to seize their property. Best friends and Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, are tipped off to the brothers’ illegal dealings and begin a manhunt to apprehend the wrongdoers.

And as compelling a story as that is, Mackenzie’s film takes a stellar Taylor Sheridan screenplay and lets the four men play free and loose with Sheridan’s words, giving us four men, who need one another, to fulfill something within themselves.

For Bridges, he draws the card which reads “Cop Retiring Soon Who Takes One Last Case.” It’s a caricature, sure, but Bridges finds an accent that would occasionally benefit from subtitles, brandishes a thick moustache, and is tired. And crass. And hilarious. And he is serious, when need be. His relationship with his half-Mexican/half-Comanche colleague Alberto (Birmingham) is full of racist jokes and slang terms, which Alberto takes in stride, lashing out only when he thinks Bridges’ Marcus needs to put in his place. They are partners in work and brothers in life, with Alberto a calm and steady voice of reason. Though he speaks softly, his is a voice that matters as Marcus stubbornly plots his course to finding these bank-robbing brothers.

Pine and Foster are terrific together. Complete opposites, Pine’s Toby, down-on-his-luck but trying to make things right with his divorced wife and children, and Foster’s Tanner in and out of jail, living an impulsive life. What he wants he gets and damn all the rest of it. They find common ground over legacy, family name, and blood being thicker than water. The blending of Toby’s nerves and anxiety with Tanner’s steely-eyed, battering ram personality gives rise to two men who represent a sense of desperation and worry that permeates through significant pockets of our country right now.

Hell Or High Water is a thoughtful, smart, and complex film which finds themes and ideas staying with you long after the film fades to black. The go-getter, the sensible one, the nervous rulebreaker, and the fearless bad guy. All people we can relate to. All crucial to this film’s lasting power.

The Cast of Moonlight

Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders.

Barry JenkinsMoonlight is a film unlike any that most of us has 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” (Hibbert), who finds sanctuary in Juan (Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (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 (Harris), a nurse and single mother struggling to make ends meet.

As a teenager, Chiron (Sanders), has seen his mother spiral into drug addiction and the bullying against him only intensify. His only friend is Kevin (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 vulnerability is demolished, leading him with nowhere else to turn, as he has 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 (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 around 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 Alex Hibbert or a veteran talent like Mahershala Ali, the world where this moonlight glows is everlasting.

Lily Gladstone as Jamie
in Certain Women.

Kelly Reichardt is a filmmaker unlike any other, enamored with minimalism and the sound that exists in and around everyday silence. Her films are quiet, contemplative, observant, and focus on characters, faced with the unending dual threat of making the right decision and fighting one’s own instincts.

For her sixth feature film, Certain Women, she turns to Montana-based novelist Maile Meloy and adapts her 2015 short story collection into a triptych, giving us four women, among three stories, battling loneliness and an inner resolve to overcome the daily obstacles that can sometimes feel insurmountable.

In the final story, a ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), lives alone on a large farm and tends to horses day in and day out. On a trip into town one evening, she notices some cars pulling into a schoolhouse and, on a whim, does the same. She follows the people arriving into a classroom where a law student, Beth (Kristen Stewart), is teaching a continuing education course to teachers on school law. Beth agreed to the job, not realizing the class would be four hours away, one-way, mistaking the name of the town she would be teaching in for something closer.

The other performancesin the film, featuring Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, are all tremendous, but Gladstone is truly the takaway. She says so much with such few words, communicating with a glimmering smile, captive eyes, and the hope that accompanying Beth for a quick meal at a nearby diner after each class will finally provide her with someone to finally talk to.

Few actors were as believable and as real as Gladstone is here in just her third feature film appearance and first in a co-leading role. Initially, you feel as if Stewart is guiding her through their first scenes together, but Gladstone’s instincts and Jamie’s tenuous confidence take hold and make her the film’s most memorable component. As someone who lives largely an isolated life, she finds a connection and summons all of her strength to pursue it. Quiet, soft-spoken, she steps outside of her comfort zone and whether she glances down, looks away, or stares deep into Beth sitting across from her in a diner, she hopes she has lucked into something she has never quite believed she deserves.

John Goodman as Howard Stambler
in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Nearly every element of Dan Trachtenberg‘s feature-length directorial debut, 10 Cloverfield Lane, 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.

If you have missed the film in 2016, then, 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.

10 Cloverfield Lane is precisely why going to the movies can be such an awesome experience.

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. Every moment is twitchy and jittery, anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by John Goodman.

Let me clear my throat and repeat this once again. John Goodman deserves an Oscar nomination.

As good as he has been in years, he gives a brilliant, complex, ferocious and charismatic 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 the doomsday bunker he provides for Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) 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.

The movie would not work without Goodman’s larger-than-life, emotionally volatile performance. The first time he arrives in the film, we, along with Winstead’s Michelle, gasp for breath. Then he surprises us. He gets angry over the strangest things and then, in turn, loves soul music and apparently 1980s John Hughes movies.

John Goodman is a national treasure. 10 Cloverfield Lane proves it and it is about time the Little Golden Guy named Oscar offers long overdue recognition for an actor who continues to challenge and redefine himself four decades into an incredible career.

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and
Emma Stone 
as Mia Dolan
in La La Land.

The barista and the jazz aficionado. The hopeful actress and the fame-seeking jazz pianist. Sebastian and Mia steal our hearts in Damien Chazelle‘s addicting and unforgettable La La Land. In their third film together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have never found chemistry quite like this, giving performances that are full of music, life, stress, strain, heartbreak, and the hopes of what might have been.

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 on other 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.

Easily at or near the top of the best films of 2016. I cannot stop thinking about it and I cannot stop smiling over the magic created by Stone and Gosling. In the end, La La Land is 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.

Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck
in Christine.

If you are unfamiliar with the name Christine Chubbuck, then you might also be surprised to learn that two films were released in 2016 documenting her life. In a documentary, Kate Plays Christine, veteran actress Kate Lyn Sheil documents her preparations in playing Chubbuck for an upcoming role. In the more conventional film, Christine, Rebecca Hall plays the woman in a biopic, documenting her precipitous rise and horrific fall from grace – detailed on a television news broadcast, live, in July 1974.

Hall is a terrific actress who disappears into the role of the local Florida news reporter who battled depression, suicidal thoughts, and obsession with co-workers and her job. She became the host of a weekly public affairs broadcast and desperately sought friendship from her colleagues. Her personality was strong, hard to hold, and people often did not know how to take her unique comments and sometimes bizarre and abrasive personality. After seeing other anchors given promotions and her depression reaching untenable heights, Chubbuck took her own life by gunshot, on television, in the middle of her morning news show.

Antonio Campos‘ film becomes increasingly claustrophobic and framed through the prism of Christine’s perceptions, fears, and anxieties. With the whole wide world seemingly closing in all around her, Hall is tense in every conceivable way – her walk, her talk, her mannerisms, the way she sits, the way she works. Though a silly comparison, Hall’s incarnation of Chubbuck calls to mind Pigpen from the children’s show “Peanuts,” as individuals routinely step aside and move out of her way, unsure, somewhat afraid, and uneasy of what is passing by.

What we learn is that Chubbuck really wanted to just fit in, do her job well, and have recognition for her hard work. However, she lived and wanted things too hard. Hall captures this and director and actress work in synergy, building their collaboration to a truly terrifying and heartwrenching final act. Christine did not get 2,000 screens when it was released and the word-of-mouth, grassroots effort seems to have failed to gain Rebecca Hall any traction during Oscar season. Make no mistake, Hall, familiar in so many recent films, but never cast at the top of the card, proves that not only can she lead a film, she can deliver.

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
Directors of Weiner.

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 Anthony Weiner’s addiction to sexting strangers on the internet as an insurmountable opponent he simply cannot defeat.

Released during the most contentious of presidential elections, it’s 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 as he led the 2013 mayoral race in the polls played 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 during the campaign, she is frustrated more than once on screen and Kreigman and Steinberg capture so much personal discontent and uncomfortable interaction, that you cringe but compulsively keep watching. We never see this side of politics and Anthony Weiner is an undeniable force, charismatic, charming, a little too ready for the spotlight, and unsettled when not under 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 campaign manager and advisor, has her doubts about all 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 would unravel his mayoral resurrection surfaces in the media.

Kreigman and Steinberg, under the guise of a favor, provide us with an incredible record and the sobering reality of how instant gratification, instant fame, and the presence of social media now impact how our body politic operates.

Rolf Lassgård as Ove
in A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove could easily find itself on the prestigious Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film this year, as this is a terrific film. Adapting Fredrik Backman‘s beloved 2012 novel, director Hannes Holm has crafted a caustic, tender, haunting look at a man who initially comes off as something of the flesh-and-blood incarnation of Carl Fredericksen, the elderly man who wanted to tie balloons to his home and fly far away from everyone in Pixar and Disney’s animated classic, Up.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård, with Filip Berg as a younger incarnation and Viktor Baagøe as a child) has been forced into retirement at 59, from a life working on the railroads. Privately, he has also checked out of life in general, sputtering some six months after losing his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) to cancer. He is trying to honor a promise he made to “follow” her when she passed away. That he keeps getting interrupted whenever he attempts to complete his promise is one of the film’s many successes in presenting a serio-comic world that allows us to laugh amidst heavier, denser dramatic beats found within the story.

Much to Ove’s dismay, a new family moves in and tries to be friendly. He literally lords over the housing community he resides in, seeing himself as something of a judge, jury, and executioner of the covenants and rules of his neighborhood. Occasionally we see neighbors and fellow residents ask him to help them repair this or assist with that. At other times he is rebuffed, which only makes him more agitated. Picking up on what she perceives to be his kindness, young mother Parveneh (Bahar Pars) introduces herself to Ove, bringing along her two young daughters and bumbling husband Patrik (Tobias Almborg).

Naturally, he often resorts to lashing out, spitting verbal venom and then, in sadder moments, returns to his makeshift noose or investigates other means to effectuate an end. However, Parvenah won’t let him wriggle away. Slowly breaking down his walls, he agrees to teach her how to drive, she sets up situations where Ove must sit and interact with her daughters, who he of course “tolerates”, and even finds himself tending to a cat. Eventually, though ever so grumpy and spirited, he starts coming around to them, agreeable even, and protective in ways which sometimes even catch him by surprise.

Guided by a terrific performance from Lassgård, who received the Swedish equivalent of Best Actor for this role, we just want good things to fall upon these folks and happiness to make them whole. Watch the scene where a children’s book is thrust into Ove’s hands by Parvenah and Tobias’ daughters and he is asked to read them a story. He grumbles, he mumbles, and of course the daughters interrupt him a few words into this reading. Ove steadies himself and swallows his very obvious frustrations, realizing that this is a moment he doesn’t want to quite let go of. He’s made progress.

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann
in Ghostbusters.

Though certainly the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters was an ensemble film, featuring four of comedy’s funniest women, including Melissa McCarthyKristin Wiig, and Leslie Jones, one name drew a massive ovation from our screening audience when her name appeared in the closing credits.

Kate McKinnon.

Watching this ovation occur, you would have thought McKinnon herself walked out to say thanks. And once you see the film, it is not difficult to see why the ovation occurred. McKinnon’s is just kind of awesome as quirky inventor and fearless scientist, Jillian Holtzmann. She starts slow, observing Wiig and McCarthy attempts to restore a decade-long rift, working as McCarthy’s lab assistant. Later in the film, she starts dropping one-liners, saying strange, but hilarious things, and showcasing more and more of her personality as the movie warms to her involvement.

This past fall, McKinnon became the first performer in history to win an Emmy as a cast member of “Saturday Night Live”, and those talents lend her well here. In scenes where director Paul Feig lets his cast improvise, she thinks quickly on her feet. When the camera focuses on her, she illuminates the screen with a sly smile, a twinkle of her eye, or a hilarious line reading. The film is simply better every time she arrives. And what’s exciting is her career is really still beginning. McKinnon’s been in a lot of films and there will be many more to come. Ghostbusters allows us to see a glimpse into the potential she had to headline movies in the future.

One of the most intriguing and entertaining actors working right now, Kate McKinnon had a mainstream breakout in 2016, expanding her base beyond viral videos, memes, and those who religiously remain devoted to “SNL.” She makes her comedy look effortless, natural, and real, and in a hyperbolic movie about scientists capturing ghosts in and around New York City, we can almost imagine a Jillian Holtzmann in real life, lighting things on fire, testing out crazy experiments, and making life better for all who come into contact with her.

Keith Maitland
Director, Co-Producer, Cinematographer and Art Director of Tower.

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, Maitland brainstormed the different ways he could tell his story. What he crates with Tower is jarring and alarming at first, quickly mesmerizing, and by the end, has delivered one of the most intense and unrelenting 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 interns to replicate the words of those he interviewed. He them filmed the young actors telling “their” stories. He filmed some scenes in his back yard and the went deep into his research, 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 he then animated nearly all of his footage. Relying on the rotoscoping technique, Maitland creates a dystopian world where characters, settings, and scenarios look strangely real and animated. The whole experience in 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, but shakes you in ways 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 frozen in our tracks, hitting the ground, praying that the sickening sounds circling around us quickly come to an end and no one gets hurt.

Tower is remarkable and Keith Maitland’s instincts and inner drive to tell this story his way, stands as one of 2016’s most unheralded achievements.

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy
in Jackie.

Pablo Larraín’s Jackie cuts right to the heart and bleeds out the grief of a woman who within a span of a few weeks has seemingly lost everything – her husband, her home, her life, and her identity. For anyone, this kind of loss would be immense, debilitating, and overwhelmingly sad. And we feel that. We see that. The woman at the heart of this film is working through a very real shock, distracted, knocked off balance, and lost.

When Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) arrives to speak with this woman, we recognize this is former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman). Her husband, President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated just days prior. After living in the White House for more than two-and-a-half years, the new President, Lyndon Johnson, allowed her and her children a couple of weeks to find and relocate to a private residence. For the First Lady, everything has crashed down around her with the pull of one trigger. Every element of her life, as she knows it, also died that morning in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963.

Portman’s portrayal of Jackie channels elements of the real woman, saddling the small-framed, fragile figure with thousands of pounds of fear and loss on uniquely broad shoulders. What White did not realize, and Jackie may have already calculated, is that this interview would serve as her only public comments on her husband’s assassination for years. Wrestling control of what little she feels she has left, she both manipulates and guides White kindly, but aggressively into a narrative she needs to be told.

Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine offer us a world where fresh air and a breeze comes at a premium. We are often tightly framed here, walking with Jackie from behind, tightly focused in close-up on her face, her mannerisms, the compulsive way she smokes cigarette after cigarette. What screenwriter Noah Oppenheim theorizes from his fictionalized, but well researched script, is that there was a fierce protection of legacy that the First Lady fought hard to preserve.

For those who believe that Portman could never surpass her work with her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, she finds something altogether different and powerful here. She lives and breathes every scene with whispery incantations and remarkable cadence, capturing Jackie’s distinct dialect and presence. Portman commands the screen, simply mesmerizing to watch, and Larraín rarely gives her enough space to breathe.

The film is as riveting as it is intrusive. Portman gives us a woman who is just remembering to exist again, to be a mother again, so she can learn how to become a widow. In her interactions with White, she shares deeply personal information about her thoughts and feelings and then tells him, “don’t think I will let you publish that.” White just smiles and presses on with his inquiries.

 

Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson
and Viola Davis as Rose Maxson
in Fences.

There is often great acting in the films we watch, we see performances and moments that take our breath away every year. And then there is whatever level Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are functioning on in Fences, and pretty much everything else falls by the wayside. While Fences the movie can be a tough watch, with its themes of sadness, regret, and what might have been, these performances, which previously won Tony Awards for the duo in 2010, represent a master class in focus, understanding character, and transcending celebrity to dissolve into something unique and original. Denzel fades into Troy Maxson right before our eyes and Viola Davis disappears into Rose and we are hanging on every word.

In a series of long conversations and monologues, Washington, also serving as the film’s director, lets his actors take ownership of their characters and his apparent trust in them reaps great rewards. Washington commands much of the first hour-and-a-half, sledgehammering through the proceedings with an intense and rather unpredictable personality that leaves a lot of people laughing, some cowering in fear, and others trying to sort out his wild and outrageous stories, seeking the truth from the fiction, or being satisfied with something in between.

Davis builds her character slowly, meticulously, until she finds her voice in a powerful sequence involving Troy revealing some painful truths. In earlier moments, as Troy pontificates, Rose verbally tries to keep him in his lane, reminding him to be nice, to listen to his children, something of a soft counterpoint to Troy’s ramblings and bitter resentment over a missed opportunity to convert a Hall of Fame-level Negro League baseball career into the major leagues.

For Troy, racism lies at the heart of his failings and he frequently talks about the opportunities that were taken from him by the “white man.” In some ways, it adds fuel to his already volatile emotional fire, but Troy is broken, and as Rose later learns, perhaps beyond all repair.

Fences is not going to uplift you or send you out of the theater with a Hollywood ending. The film, the play really, lives deep inside the gut, conflicted through and through with how to express its characters’ feelings and emotions. There is a raw, exposed, nerve-like quality to all of this which is equally refreshing and uncomfortable to watch. And so, as the film finds a wider audience, some will understandably recoil against this and, as a few people remarked when leaving the theater, come away saying, “I did not like this at all.”

But Washington stays true to the words Wilson left him. He captures a family in turmoil, unflinching in the depiction of a complex man, lost in his own mind, and a wife and mother who has given up so much to try and hold together what lies in front of her. Though melancholy, sad, and challenging at times, Fences has raw, enigmatic power in Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and never stands afraid of showing us a slice of life that has seldom been shown to us on screen.

Fences is a difficult film to embrace, but needs to be held close all the same.

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