The presentation of the Academy Awards is the perfect time to reflect on what the best movies of the previous year really were. As opposed to scrambling out a top ten list that gets heavily influenced by all of the year-end Oscar bait, taking some time to consider, and even revisit favorites a few months later puts things into perspective, particularly in comparison to what work gets rewarded (and contested) at the big show. Coming up with the best film of the year was extremely challenging as numbers one and two are both masterful, re-mastered versions of two tried and true Hollywood genres (the Musical and the Western) that will resonate for many years to come for entirely different reasons, and number three is really like no other film before it as far as structure, feel, and subject. The films that moved, stimulated, and most importantly (and unfortunately often not considered by the Academy), entertained in 2016:
10) Everybody Wants Some!! – Writer / Director Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his rollicking ode to the 1970s, ‘Dazed and Confused’, is an immensely entertaining movie set in 1980 over the course of the first weekend before classes start at a Texas college, starring relative unknowns that will likely go on to have solid acting careers. Its’ title comes from the shallow Van Halen hit of the same year – the song’s undeniable appeal to our baser natures and desires mirrors the characters’ raucous activity in the film, but Linklater has more on his mind than mindless ‘Porky’s’ hijinks and nostalgia. He organically weaves the various styles, trends, and music genres in particular, to help create the basis of young adult identity. It’s all done with an undercurrent of sweetness, a reminder that the brashness of youth always comes with a healthy side of wonder, camaraderie, and a desire to connect.
9) Fences – If there is any criticism of Denzel Washington’s direction of the film adaptation of August Wilson’s masterful Pulitzer and Tony winning stage play concerning a black working class family and set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, it’s that it is so beholden to the source material that it feels like the audience is on stage with the actors. This is an acting tour de force from all the players, the five main actors reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as a couple trapped within metaphorical and physical barriers, beset by the limitations of both societal station and their own flawed personal choices. It’s easy to categorize Washington’s Troy as abusive husband and Davis’s Rose as long-suffering wife, but Wilson’s prose, particularly as conveyed by these two treasured actors, belies these character tropes, providing honest layers to multi-dimensional characters that illuminate both the uniquely American, as well as the broader human, condition.
8) Pete’s Dragon – Scoff if you like, but Disney allowed indie writer/director David Lowery (‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’) to take only the basic idea of the 1977 original animation/live action hybrid and craft something classically magical. Through a combination of a subdued country score, vivid acting by a cast that understands the earnestness of the film they are in, an isolated Pacific Northwest setting that heightens the fairy-tale like wonder, and palpable special effects juxtaposing the feral young orphan with a fully realized CG marvel, he creates an experience of empathy within a familiar narrative. Audiences may have experienced this type of story before from ‘Old Yeller’ to ‘E.T.’, but when done this sincerely well, it’s impossible to resist, whether you’re eight years old or eighty . . .
7) The Witch – One would be hard pressed to identify an artistic representation on screen fitting of the matter of the New England witch and its’ resonant themes of religious persecution, feminine repression, and incendiary hysteria . . . until now. Writer / Director Robert Eggers, in his feature debut, is less interested in cheap scares and more interested in building a foreboding sense of dread that permeates every frame, as well as maintaining a constant state of unease and setting up an understanding of how quickly people could turn on each other in the puritan times. Like all classic horror stories, ‘The Witch’ plays with a limited, well-defined setting (naturally lit), human drama touched by the supernatural realm, and a cast and crew dedicated to the illusion (sets built with only material available to the settlers at the time), resulting in the definitive horror story befitting of that unique figure, the American witch . . .
6) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Branching off from the main episodic tales of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, this first attempt at introducing new characters to care about, featuring vehicles, locales, and extended cameos both familiar and new, as well as crafting a compelling plot where the overall outcome is already known seems like the difficult task George Lucas’s prequels had before them twenty years ago, but Gareth Edwards, his talented cast, screenwriters, special effects team, and crew, succeeded in making the prequel safe again for audiences. This is a film that can stand proudly next to the original trilogy as grand adventure and perfect blockbuster entertainment, while to the delight of execs for sure, effectively open up a galaxy of possibility for future stories with characters outside the Skywalker aura.
5) Captain America: Civil War – In this stellar entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, relationships are tested, stakes are high, and unlike some other recent superhero slugfests, emotion is duly earned. The film boasts some of the best comic book action yet and balances levity and character-building heft equally well. Brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo (on board for the next ‘Avengers’ films) usher in a very important chapter that grounds this ever expanding blockbuster world, flawlessly introduce some new characters (hello Tom Holland’s teenage Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s regal Black Panther), and juggle a sprawling cast deftly. They are able to do so through organically playing off past incidents in other movies, using the established personalities of the core characters audiences have been following for years and creatively working in the new ones, in what adds up to an exhaustingly fulfilling movie experience.
4) Manchester by the Sea – Writer / Director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest quiet family melodrama may be the most devastating film to receive awards attention this year. Buoyed by an incredible, understated performance by Casey Affleck, surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, and featuring a unique flashback structure, it’s impossible to argue its’ artistic merit. From an entertainment perspective, this film must be taken with a major degree of caution. Despite balancing its’ extremely dark and somber plot threads with some truly funny lines and situations, the movie is a very difficult one to experience. While the film is initially tough to wade into, once one is quickly caught up in its’ droll rhythms, then submerged into its’ depths of human suffering, and finally lifted by its’ little triumphs of hope, it is impossible not to appreciate the talent, craft, and artistry on screen.
3) Moonlight – Hard to categorize, at times hard to watch, but ultimately easy to love, novice auteur Barry Jenkins has crafted a spare and devastating poetic movement in three parts. ‘Moonlight’ is a unique meditation on black masculinity in the urban climate of Miami which defies classification and illuminates characters rarely, if ever, portrayed on screen. The main character Chiron is played by three different young unknown actors, each conveying a different pivotal moment in the life of this oft persecuted, necessarily independent, sexually confused, lonely individual. He interacts with fully inhabited figures of adulthood impeccably played by Mahershala Ali (Juan, a local drug dealer), Naomie Harris (his crack-addicted single mother), and Janelle Monae (Juan’s live in girlfriend). These relationships, in conjunction with his interactions with his classmates, help shape him into the hardened man he inevitably becomes, but the movie defies convention in portraying these situations as well as the surprisingly tender moments all throughout the film.
2) La La Land – Great musicals of the past represent the ultimate Hollywood realization – flights of fancy as works of art that don’t seem to have a place in these cynical modern times. Right from its’ rambunctious opening song-and-dance number set on a typical traffic-jammed LA freeway, ‘La La Land’ makes no bones about what it is – a candy-colored fantasy of hopes and dreams in the land of the sun. It’s obvious that this is the film that the young writer/director Damien Chazelle has had on his mind for some time – his singular vision of big dreams, sweet romance, and compromise vs. sacrifice, all on a fantastical Los Angeles backdrop, accomplishes the impossible – it’s a modern day classic that unabashedly nods to the nostalgia of past musical triumphs, yet is firmly steeped in the NOW.
1) Hell or High Water – Sometimes a film comes out of nowhere and just absolutely kills it on every level – this neo-western / noir is one such example. It’s a throwback to the character driven crime films of the 70’s yet teeming with modern sensibilities. As the plot naturally unfolds over the course of its’ runtime, introducing and developing fully dimensional main and side players, the film sneaks up and gut punches. The film gives equal time and pathos to both the Texas Ranger hunters (Jeff Bridges owning the grizzled lawman on the verge of retirement role) and the brother bank robbers (Chris Pine, gaunt and haunted; Ben Foster in a perfect role of outlaw charisma) with a heist plan set against a highway littered with promised deliverance from the ravages of debt. West Texas here is portrayed as a vast expanse of plains and desert, with craggy rock structures littered around like sharp edges of a hardened land; its’ residents’ weariness etched into their leathery faces, a populace fed up with a financial system rigged against them. Classic films with a violent slant set in Texas have always been able to captivate, telling tales of desperate plans motivated by complex issues and complicated American history. ‘Hell or High Water’ makes perfect use of its’ characters and setting to deliver a harrowing, funny, engaging, melancholic, entertaining, instantly classic masterpiece.