To kickoff the blog, I wanted to rundown my top 10 movies of 2016. As a lifelong film lover, I know there’s no better two hours spent than two hours watching a film that will make you reflect, laugh, weep, flinch, and just feel all the feels. Life’s too short to watch bad movies (*cough* Assassin’s Creed *cough*), so I’ve compiled my favorite films of the year. I’m obviously not an Oscar voter (DREAMS!), but I do love the medium as much as any legitimate film critic. One caveat is that I haven’t seen Hidden Figures or Rogue One yet (more to come on those next week!)
10. Chilean director Pablo Lorraine’s Jackie is a character study of arguably America’s most famous first lady in the days following the assassination of her husband. The film is slow and plodding at times, but is anchored by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman, who somehow gets that peculiar accent just right. I’m not sure to what extent the details in the film are factual, but I would venture to say this is far from a history textbook, but instead a largely imagined rendering of a public figure enduring an unspeakable tragedy. The moments that resonate most concern Jackie’s efforts to secure her husband’s legacy (and to perpetuate/preserve the fairy tale Camelot image of the White House created by the media that, as histories in the intervening years have revealed, wasn’t quite so rosy). Peter Skaarsgard is exceptional as Robert Kennedy, who has lost both a brother and political partner. My only nitpick with the film is its overwhelmingly loud and jarring score, which often distracts from scenes and sometimes renders dialogue difficult to understand.
9. Southside With You is a charming independent film chronicling (yes, really) the first date of Barack and Michelle Obama. It’s a beautiful, grounded, subtle snapshot into the lives of two incredible figures before they were incredible figures (very much the indie film version of a Marvel superhero origin story). The film has an earnest, genuine feel and it’s a great date movie.
8. Full disclosure: I only saw Dr. Strange because Benedict Cumberbatch is in it. I was surprised by how good it was. It’s refreshing in that it’s a superhero origin story I haven’t seen before (sorry comic book movies, but there’s only so many times I can watch Peter Parker’s uncle die before I get bored). With its Inception-like landscapes and Tilda Swinton (weirdly) as a wise Asian sage who guides Doctor Strange through his transformative journey from self-absorbed surgeon to altruistic superhero, the film is 2 hours of “can’t take your eyes off the screen” action. There’s a weird, almost laughable sequence of Benedict Cumberbatch flying in a cape through a blacklit planet system that looks like some thing out of Studio 54, but aside from that the narrative never misfires. I also liked that there wasn’t an intrusion of other characters from the Marvel Universe (my primary complaint with Captain America: Civil War, which quickly devolved into Avengers 3).
I’m sure there will be sequels since there’s much more story to tell here. Selfishly, I don’t want them so Cumberbatch can be devoted to Sherlock full time.
7. Don’t Think Twice is a comedy film set in the world of improv. The narrative follows the struggles of a group of friends who comprise a small improv comedy troupe in Brooklyn. Second City alum Keegan Michael Key is a standout as a troupe member who leaves for an opportunity at a Saturday Night Live-esque television comedy hour, creating conflict and some inevitable resentment among the group’s other members. Don’t Think Twice, however, is about much more than improvisational comedy. At its heart, it’s a story about navigating your 30s and defining success for yourself. The movie’s central quote is improv legend Del Close’s “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.” That’s not just improv – that’s life.
6. La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) homage to the glamorous Hollywood movie musicals of the 40s-60s. Overall the film’s parts (and there are some spectacular parts, like the opening number set on the LA freeway) are greater than its sum. That said, I loved almost every minute of this love letter to Hollywood (which is really an era, not a place). Standout scenes are those that borrow from classics such as Singin in the Rain, An American in Paris, and On the Town. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast as a jazz nerd and aspiring ingénue, respectively. The film is a perfect vehicle for showcasing Gosling’s subtle musical chops, which haven’t seen much use since his days on the Mickey Mouse Club in the early ‘90s. The coda of the film is perfect in every way (and alone worth the price of admission), but my favorite scene comes earlier in the film when Gosling and Stone tap dance to a song about how unsuited they are for one another (harkening back to Fred Astaire’s “Something’s Gotta Give” in the 1950s musical Daddy Long Legs). The movie plays every retro romantic musical trope, but somehow still manages to feel fresh and sweet.
5. Moonlight is a story told in three acts. The first act centers on a young boy growing up in a Miami housing project with a drug addicted mother and an absentee father. His father figure and mentor is a drug dealer played by the always remarkable Mahershala Ali of House of Cards. The first act centers on subtle interactions between these two characters. There are allusions to Chiron’s (the child) emerging ideas about himself and possible homosexuality. In the second act, we see Chiron as a high school student, grappling with ideas about black masculinity and his feelings for another male student. The third act, however is where Moonlight soars. It focuses entirely on Chiron, now an adult, reconnecting with the male student introduced in the second act. Moonlight is a beautiful film, but it’s so understated that I worry it may be overlooked in awards selection. For filmmakers, it’s an illustration of the power of silences and the unsaid in storytelling.
At the very least, I favor Mahershala Ali for a best supporting actor win as a drug dealer who challenges our perceptions, one of the most remarkable performances in film this year.
4. Disney has finally perfected its animated film formula with Moana. All the classic Disney elements are here – protagonist who wants something more (in this story, that something more is becoming a seafarer/explorer), a threatening but not too threatening villain (a Bowie-esque crab deliciously voiced by Alan Tudyk), clever sidekicks of both the animal and human variety (a chicken and a demigod played by The Rock in what may be his best film role to date), a wise elder (in the vein of Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas), familial conflict, and catchy beautiful songs that wonderfully complement the story (co-penned by Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame). Moana feels like a timeless film and the title character is a refreshingly feminist addition to the Disney princess calvacade, With recent entries like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Moana, it’s clear that rumors of the death of Disney animation have been greatly exaggerated. Sleeping Beauty wakes in Moana.
3. Loving is director Jeff Nichols examination of the figures at the center of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court Case, which rendered state miscengation laws illegal in 1967. It’s a landmark case prominently featured in every civics textbook, but I (like many) knew very little about the real story behind it. The film IS the performances of Joel Edgerton (as the taciturn but hard working Richard Loving) and Ruth Negga (as his African American wife Mildred, a shy but strong woman who never gave up hope or relented in the face of many legal obstacles).
My love for Lexington, Kentucky native Michael Shannon is well-documented (I’m fully committed to seeing every movie he’s in, even that awful Superman remake). I was delighted to see him as the Life magazine photographer sent to capture images of the Lovings for a feature piece. He’s only on screen for a few minutes, but it’s one of the best few minutes in the movie’s 2 hour runtime.
Like Moonlight, Loving is a subtle film. There’s no dramatic courtroom scenes in the style or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to be found here. The Lovings didn’t even attend many of the hearings for their case and the film’s subtle tone is in keeping with the Lovings personalities. Richard and Mildred weren’t overt crusaders for sweeping social change — they simply wanted to be married. The movie doesn’t proselytize or engage in condemnation, but serves is a nuanced look at America’s complicated and tarnished past of race relations. It’s sadly, as illustrated by a number of high profile racially motivated incidents in the past few years, still a very relevant story.
2. Manchester by the Sea is unquestionably the saddest film I saw this year. Casey Affleck is phenomenal as a blue collar Bostonian summoned back to his small Massachusetts hometown by the early death of his brother. While there, he learns he will become the guardian of his nephew and is forced to confront a tragic past. About halfway through the film, we learn the source of the character’s grief in a terrifying scene that will haunt viewers long after its conclusion. The film is relentless and an unflinching portrayal of grief– I spent many scenes wishing for a cut just to end my own uncomfortableness as a viewer, but the director rarely gives us that relief.
There’s little hope to be found in Manchester by the Sea (although it does have some darkly funny moments). As the story progresses, we know Casey Affleck’s character will never escape from his hatred for himself, grief, and regret. The scene is the police station midway through the film, among the hardest to watch, is a master class in acting. The character reaches out to police to punish him, only to learn that he has not in fact committed a crime. He turns inward and we see he will spend the rest of his life punishing himself. Think DeNiro unleashed in Raging Bull – the scene and the performance is that level of good. Just go ahead and etch Affleck’s name in that little gold statue.
1 Arrival is ostensibly a movie about aliens visiting earth. Amy Adams plays an aloof linguist tapped by the military to communicate with the aliens and discern their intentions. Jeremy Renner is a Los Alamos physicist brought in to help understand the alien’s technology. First and foremost, Arrival is a beautiful, humanist film in the guise of a sci-fi story. It’s about embracing our life and our choices as we’ve made them, how we communicate with one another, and how we understand time. Probably quite a bit more than you expect when you walk into the multiplex to see a film about aliens, right?
The film’s foremost strength lies with its storytelling. Arrival is an immersive experience – we feel that we, as audience members, are making discoveries alongside the characters. Adams and Renner’s entrance to the ship is a perfect illustration of the film’s “show don’t tell” mantra. In any other film, that scene would have been accompanied by technobabble from Renner’s character about gravity effects and propulsion systems. Here it plays out without almost any dialogue and only the accompaniment of the film’s beautiful score. Arrival is an incredibly challenging film – there’s no “exposition fairy” descending at any point in the movie to help you understand what’s going on. There are aspects of the story that I still haven’t completely figured out – I may not even “close the loop” on them on a rewatch (that’s a pun if you’ve seen the film!) – and I’m ok with that.
The film also gets points for a standout scene with Amy Adams and Forest Whitaker (as a no nonsense military commander — is there any other kind?) that provides some perspective on differing approaches to science. “Why can’t we just ask the aliens why they’re here”, Whitaker asks impatiently. He wants application-driven, accelerated investigation that is a clear means to an end. What follows is a discussion (using a white board – yay!) on linguistics (and in a larger sense the process and purpose of more fundament, inquiry based scientific discovery) that made my science loving heart leap.
Arrival is truly great science fiction that deserves to be appreciated on a big screen. The score, performances, and story are all en pointe. Get thee to a multiplex before it leaves theaters.
Movies that almost made the cut:
The Lobster: The Lobster is a strange film, but one that unapologetically embraces its strangeness. If you like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and existentialist meditations on the vapid nature of current dating culture, you’ll love this.
Captain America: Civil War Just a fun entry in what continues to be my favorite Marvel franchise.
Deadpool: No superhero movie has a right to be this funny.
Zootopia: Another stellar entry for Disney animation. Clever and inspiring.
Sing Street: From the director of Once, this is a tribute to 1980s music as told through the eyes of an Irish youth.
Movies I really wanted to like but didn’t:
The true story is so compellingly dramatic that a film version seems like a no-brainer. The flaw here is in the execution. Lingering questions: Why is there a false narrative that villainizes the National Transportation Safety Board? Why do we see the entirety of the plane crash twice in the course of a 90 minute film? Why is Laura Linney (as Captain Sullenberger’s wife) even in this movie when her entire role consists of a few 60 second phone calls that reveal nothing about the character or otherwise contribute to the story? Upside: Tom Hanks is stellar. Sully’s internal struggle with insta-celebrity and the trauma of the event itself is plenty dramatic – no need to shoehorn in the NTSB and a manufactured witchhunt.
This movie has all the ingredients for a great film – a fantastic cast, a compelling story, beautiful direction – but somehow just doesn’t gel. Tom Ford’s first film, A Single Man, was so spectacular that I entered this one with very high hopes. I also love movies that have complex narrative structures and this one definitely checks that box. If you do see it, do so for Aaron Johnson (as a rural Texas man who commits an unspeakable crime) and Michael Shannon (as the police chief trying to track him down), who are the cast standouts. The theme of art imitating life imitating art is well-played. Ultimately I’m not sure where Nocturnal Animals went wrong — perhaps it was just too ambitious.