Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Top 10 Movies of 2016 (And Runners Up)

Moonlight. Image courtesy of A24.
So that happened - 2016, that is. No, it was not a particularly good year to be a human being during the past 12 months. But great art, although not a remedy, is certainly a balm for troubled times. And there was a lot to praise at the movies this past year.

2016's best films were movies about making a connection - or healing wounded relationships. Some of the year's top films were about finding beauty in the small details or living a life with passion that involves trying new things. A few of my favorite films were overtly political, while others more subversively so.

Two of the films in my top 10 had song and dance in their hearts, while others observed the grieving process, faith, race and sexuality, economic matters and parent-child bonds. Since it's always difficult to narrow down the year's best films to 10 selections, I've included 10 runners up that involve subjects as diverse as the U.S. prison system, a landmark Supreme Court case, fascism, a sci-fi thriller and period pieces.

In fact, there were so many movies that I liked this year that I'd feel remiss not to give a shout-out to the following films that didn't quite make my top 20: Tom Ford's very dark revenge thriller "Nocturnal Animals," Nate Parker's incendiary "The Birth of a Nation," Arnaud Desplechin's relationship dirge "My Golden Days," Pedro Almodovar's return to form "Julieta," James Schamus's excellent Philip Roth adaptation "Indignation," Joachim Trier's powerful family drama "Louder Than Bombs," Lorene Scafaria's lovely "The Meddler," Karyn Kusama's extremely creepy "The Invitation," Jacques Audiard's 2015 Palm d'Or winner "Dheepan," Yorgos Lanthimos's inventive "The Lobster," Noah Baumbach's fascinating documentary "De Palma," Tom Tykwer's adaptation of "A Hologram for the King," Gareth Edwards's fun non-trilogy prequel "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" and Peter Atencio's hilarious "Keanu."

Also, I'm not including Ezra Edelman's highly acclaimed, eight-hour documentary "O.J.: Made In America" because it is technically a TV movie and, naturally, there are a number of films that I either missed (and will catch up with on Netflix in 2017) or have yet to review. These include: Denzel Washington's "Fences" (reviewing on Dec. 31), Asghar Farhadi's "The Salesman," Ben Affleck's "Live By Night," Stephen Gaghan's "Gold," Anna Biller's "The Love Witch," Gan Bi's "Kaili Blues," Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come," Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake," Pablo Larrain's "Neruda," John Lee Hancock's "The Founder," J.A. Bayona's "A Monster Calls," Theodore Melfi's "Hidden Figures," Kirsten Johnson's "Cameraperson" and Chan-wook Park's "The Handmaiden."

So, without further ado, here's my list of the year's best films, starting with my 10 runners up (numbers 20-11). I'd love to hear from you. Tell me in the comment section which films were your favorites from the past year.

Ten Runners Up
Sunset Song. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
20. The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet) - Actor Brady Corbet made a stunning directorial debut with this film, based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, which chronicles the increasingly disturbing behavior of a young boy whose father is involved in the Treaty of Versailles. The picture, with its prescient portrayal of the roots of fascism, gives off the vibe of a Michael Haneke directed version of "The Omen."

19. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra) - This mesmerizing film feels like a long lost Werner Herzog movie. The picture, shot in gorgeous black and white and set at two undisclosed times in the first half of the 20th century, follows the story of a botanist who befriends an Amazonian shaman during the former's search for a mythical plant with healing powers. Hypnotic and entrancing, the film was one of last year's Best Foreign Film nominees at the Oscars. Reviewed here.

18. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) - Mackenzie followed his intense prison drama "Starred Up" with this engrossing film, part western crime drama and part economic blight examination, which ended up becoming last summer's sleeper. The film is gritty and timely and featured a performance by Jeff Bridges that serves as a reminder why he's considered a national treasure. Reviewed here.

17. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols) - Jeff Nichols had a very good year - with two movies in my top 20 - and "Midnight Special" proved that he could deftly combine genre elements with his tales of people living on the fringe in the Midwest. The film is a stylish and spellbinding thriller about a young boy with supernatural powers whose overprotective father (Michael Shannon, always great) is on the lam from the law. The picture was significantly more impressive than any of the summer's mostly lame genre films. Reviewed here.

16. Loving (Jeff Nichols) - And Jeff Nichols again. Released just one week before the presidential election, Nichols's portrayal of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple at the heart of a landmark Supreme Court case, is a powerful film about two people who changed our nation by daring to love, although the film is more intimate in nature than an overview of the case itself. And Ruth Negga gives a star-making performance as Mildred. Reviewed here.

15. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills) - With this warm, witty and insightful follow-up to "Beginners," Mills has made an even better film about a parent's relationship with her child, although the young man at the center of this funny and good natured, 1970s-set period piece is equally influenced by two other strong women in his orbit. The film is about good, but flawed, people with room to improve and the desire to do so. Reviewed here.

14. Jackie (Pablo Larrain) - Less a hagiography and more a realization of the maxim "when it comes to printing the truth or the legend, print the legend," Larrain's extraordinary film - anchored by a dynamite Natalie Portman performance - about Jackie Kennedy argues persuasively that it's often easier to understand the myth surrounding an individual, rather than the actual person. Reviewed here.

13. Mountains May Depart (Jia ZhangKe) - One of modern Chinese history's finest chroniclers, ZhangKe's ambitious and moving new film takes place during three different time periods - 1999, 2014 and 2025 - and follows the life of a woman, her two suitors and her family from Fenyang to Australia. Thematically, the picture concerns itself with the impact of market-driven prosperity on ZhangKe's homeland but, at its heart, the film explores the changing nature of relationships over a period of years. And it features one of the year's most moving endings.

12. 13th (Ava DuVernay) - By far the year's best documentary, DuVernay's urgent examination of the U.S. prison system and how it underscores the nation's history of racial inequality dropped just a month before one of the most divisive elections - one tainted by racist overtones - in American history. The picture will likely leave you in despair and righteously angry and could act as a wake-up call for those ready to take action against injustice.

11. Sunset Song (Terence Davies) - Old fashioned in style, but intimate and epic, Davies's gorgeous new film told the devastating tale of a young woman's education in the school of hard knocks at the dawn of World War I. Visually dazzling and featuring a powerful lead performance by Agyness Deyn, "Sunset Song" is a somber, deeply moving experience. Reviewed here.

Top Ten
Image courtesy of A24.
10. American Honey (Andrea Arnold) - Arriving stateside with her fourth feature, the latest from Britain's Andrea Arnold focuses less on story and more on mood and capturing a specific milieu - in this case, millennials at loose ends in the Midwest. This energetic film, which features a terrific lead performance by newcomer Sasha Stone, is always propulsively moving forward in a free form style and provides a unique view of an oft misunderstood generation. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
9. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen) - The second film in a row to be miscategorized as a minor Coen Brothers movie, the hilarious "Hail, Caesar!" has more on its mind than recreating the vibe of behind-the-scenes Golden Age Hollywood, although it does a great job of that. Although breezy in tone, "Caesar!" tackles the American trinity of politics, religion and Hollywood and suggests that creating art is God's work, especially in a world troubled by, well, politics and religion. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
8. Silence (Martin Scorsese) - Not since Terrence Malick's rapturous "The Tree of Life" has a movie taken a serious stab at depicting faith onscreen. Apparently floating around in Scorsese's head for four decades, the film - based on a novel by Shusaku Endo - follows the travails of two Jesuits who are oppressed by a Japanese inquisitor in the 1600s and poses the question of whether it's righteous to forgo one's beliefs in order to take action that actually helps others. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
7. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater) - Similar to the best of his films, Linklater's spiritual sequel to "Dazed and Confused" comes off, at first, as an exuberantly fun lark, that is, until you realize that it's been hinting at something more philosophical the entire time. "Here for a good time, not a long time" is the mantra of one of the film's more memorable characters, but the picture is also a call to live a life filled with passion and get out of your comfort zone. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
6. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) - Ranking high among Jarmusch's best films, this meticulous picture about a bus driver who dreams of being a poet in the titular New Jersey town features the type of laconic, deadpan humor you'd expect from the indie maverick. But the film also provides a maxim that could come in handy for some possibly dark years ahead - finding beauty in life's small details and poetry in the mundane. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
5. La La Land (Damien Chazelle) - Destined to be one of the quintessential L.A. movies, Chazelle's reinvention of the musical brilliantly incorporates the City of Angels as a backdrop to tell the story of two aspiring artists - an actress (Emma Stone) and jazz piano player (Ryan Gosling) - who struggle through hard times in the pursuit of their dreams and learn to lean on each other. The opening musical number, set in a traffic jam, is worth the price of admission alone, while the film's gorgeous visuals and bittersweet story will make a believer out of the hardest cynic. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
4. Sing Street (John Carney) - Admittedly, a majority of my favorite films in any given year are aimed at the head, but there's something to be said for a movie that concerns matters of the heart and hits its target. Such is the case with John Carney's absolutely lovely "Sing Street," which is the year's other great musical and a perfect paean for 2016: that art can provide a place of comfort or escape during troubled times. Plus, the 1980s-set Irish film also includes one of the best portrayals of sibling-hood in recent memory and has a terrific soundtrack that blends period nuggets with catchy original songs. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
3. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) - As mordantly funny as it is woefully sad, Lonergan's heartbreaking story of a Massachusetts handyman who shuts himself off from the world following a tragedy, but is forced to engage once again after his nephew is left fatherless, features Casey Affleck's best performance to date as well as a stellar supporting cast and terrific writing. It's the rare film about the grieving process that is less about healing than it is learning to cope. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
2. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade) - At once a moving father-daughter relationship story, sharp critique of soul sucking corporate culture and sexism in the workplace and screamingly funny statement of purpose from a filmmaker who clearly believes that small acts of anarchy are essential to staying sane in the modern world, Maren Ade's film features two of the year's best set pieces - an out-of-the-blue karaoke number and a brunch party that defies description, but left the audience with which I saw the picture howling with laughter. Similar to my best film of the year, "Toni Erdmann" is likely to make its director a well deserved household name for cinephiles. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of A24.
1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) - Ah, "Moonlight," what a glorious film you are. Yes, Barry Jenkins's luminous sophomore feature is about race, sexuality, masculinity, coming of age, self discovery, drugs and poverty. But none of these attributes quite capture its essence. At its heart is the story of Chiron, a lonely, poor, closeted gay black kid growing up in Miami with a drug addicted mother and a drug dealer mentor who defies all the cliches with which such a character would likely be associated. Similar to several other of 2016's finest films, "Moonlight" is ultimately about human connection. And like several of the year's most memorable characters, Chiron is forced to come out from behind the shell in which he has hidden himself due to many years of bottled up pain and reconnect with the world. The character is played at different stages by three marvelous young actors - Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes - but the rest of the cast (Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris and Andre Holland) is just as revelatory. Jenkins has made the most impressive jump from debut film to sophomore feature since Paul Thomas Anderson. You may not know his name yet, but you will. Reviewed here.

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