Perhaps we — ok I — have been too hasty to write off 2016 at the movies.
Sure, the dead stretches have been corpse-strewn, but a year that started with “Deadpool” can’t be a total write-off, can it?
The exceptional films are as rare as they always are, but the great muddled middle brow/middle-ground fare seems to be of a somewhat higher caliber.
Mainstream thrillers like “The Accountant” and “Girl on the Train” were watchable, a true story action picture like “Deepwater Horizon” is almost enough to restore your faith in Mark Wahlberg. I can’t recall a movie whose dazzling visuals and sound made me duck at what I was sure was flying off the screen the way that one did.
Horror produces so much that’s forgettable, that remembering what’s good enough to attract a decent cast (“Ouija 2”) or new twists on basic fears (“Don’t Breathe”) is a worthwhile exercise. “The Eyes of My Mother” is cryptic, arty and succeeds in almost every way — except that it’s not scary.
The holiday/awards season fare is stacked with swings and misses — “Rules Don’t Apply,””Allied,” “Nocturnal Animals,” and the best of that lot, “La La Land.” Some are going to regard the sturdy “Sully” as exceptional. Nah. Good, not great.
But “Arrival” raised the bar on smart sci-fi, “Moonlight” is this year’s breakout indie Oscar contender and “American Honey” is good enough to make you reconsider Shia LaBeouf.
One hopes that awards buzz builds for guys like Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”) or Paul Dano (“Swiss Army Man”), or Sasha Lane (“American Honey”), even if their movies didn’t connect with a big audience.
The sinister Korean import “The Handmaiden” makes subtitles worth reading, “The Lobster” was at least worth a good argument, “Denial” addressed a Big Issue with smarts and heart and Disney found the best use-ever for digital animation in a live action film with “The Jungle Book.”
I’d include “In Order of Disappearance” in here, the coolest, bleakest vengeance thriller of the millennium, but Stellan Skarsgaard’s dazzling turn in this Norwegian film came out back in 2014 and only opened in the U.S. this year. You should be watching that on Netflix right now.
I saw a lot of documentaries this year, but none really stuck with me as the very best ones always do. But “For the Love of Spock,” or Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold,” “Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story,” “The Lovers and the Despot,” “Zero Days,” “Gimme Danger,” the Netflix docs “The 13th” and “Amanda Knox” would make a best docs of the year list.
I may amend this list, as there are a couple of other “contenders” I will only get to see in another week or so — “”Fences,”for instance.
But I’ve been back through the 500 or so titles I watched and reviewed this year, established my benchmarks and waited for fresh fare to come along and knock the best I’ve seen off their perches.
The ones still standing, the ones that had the staying power, are listed below — the Ten Best Films of 2016.
“Loving” — I called this indie historical drama “the most important film” of the year when I saw it. And I’ve seen nothing since that either changed that, or moved and impressed me as much as this intimate epic about forbidden love in defiance of state Jim Crow law. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give performances that make this historical love affair feel lived-in and real, with Edgerton in particular capturing the quiet certitude of a simple man who knows what he wants out of life, and knows that can’t be wrong, even if it is illegal — for now. In the context of our toxic times, it is “important.” But beyond that, it is moving and smart, a biographical drama with a sense of the changing currents of history.
“Hell or High Water” — A great genre-picture, perfectly-executed, is a thing of beauty. And this exceptional heist movie makes you remember that Ben Foster is criminally under-employed, that Chris Pine is a lot more than Captain Kirk, and that Jeff Bridges didn’t let an Oscar ruin his gift for ornery, Texas toasted character acting. Droll writing, somber pacing and just enough sparks of wit mixed in with violence and the feeling of impending doom make this David Mackenzie thriller a winner.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” — Don’t underestimate your audience, especially if they’re children, and even if you’re feeding them animation. This animated classic from Laika, the folks who made “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” is a smart, beautiful Americanized take on an Asian folk tale. It didn’t do Pixar business. But nobody’s talking up Pixar’s chances for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar this year. In a just universe, that will come down to this underdog feature, the uproarious “adult” cartoon “Sausage Party,” and Disney’s “instant classic,” “Moana.”
“Manchester by the Sea” — An exquisite rendering of the way grief empties out the soul, this painful picture about tragedy, responsibility and wounds that will never heal, this has Oscar buzz for Casey Affleck. He plays a broken man trying to summon up the heart to “be there” for his nephew when the kid loses his father and faces a future as somebody’s ward. Lucas Hedges is winning as the teenager who, like his uncle, needs to figure out how to grieve. But Michelle Williams, in just a couple of poignant scenes, will tear your heart out.
“Arrival” — We may remember this as the film that finally earned Amy Adams an Oscar. But it’s so muted, so wistful and so very smart that it messes with your head long after you’ve left the theater, and that will stick with you, too. From the storytelling style (flash forwards) to the scientific concepts, unforgettably unusual and yet logically defensible aliens, to the subtexts this brilliant picture slips past us, about fearing the unknown and really fearing “the other,” it’s no wonder this wasn’t a blockbuster. This is science fiction that’s too smart for general audiences.
“Moana” — The few songs are pretty forgettable, but the Polynesian folk story, the jokes, the animation, the great voice-casting (Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement) make this an unforgettable experience at the movies. Disney totally outclasses the last few Pixar pictures with this in-house production. The gap has been closed, the torch has been passed, The Mouse is making great animated movies again.
“Moonlight” — Patience in a screen storyteller is a rare thing, but Barry Jenkins brings that to this story of bullying, coming-of-age and avoiding coming out on the mean streets of Miami. Jenkins keeps us guessing about motives, wrong-foots us with every pre-judgment and makes an anti-heroic star out of a Mahershala Ali, playing a sympathetic role-model drug dealer. Yeah.
“Jackie” — Natalie Portman delivers an exquisite expression of the shattering nature of grief and the shock of witnessing a horrific death in her interpretation of a woman we remember as something of a cultural punchline today. Fashion icon, born rich, married rich repeatedly, a wisp of a debutante with a whispery, submissive voice who could, when tested, become the very embodiment of grace under pressure. Good film, great lead performance.
“Lion” — This inspiring true story merits inclusion here for its unflinching, unsentimental depiction of Indian poverty, and sentimental embrace of the child it follows experiencing it. Sunny Pawaer is a very small boy, an adorable moppet and a natural on camera. His character Saroo’s odyssey through the populous, sometimes callous Third World State on the rise is tense and intensely moving. Director Garth Davis captures the dusty western side of the country and the tough people who cling to life there, and screenwriter Luke Davies and the actors — Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Dev Patel as the adult Saroo — pull at the heartstrings as they show us the emotional cost of a traumatic childhood, and the Proustian memories that flood back just from the smell of that favorite food of childhood — a madeleine for Proust, a jalebi for Saroo. Lovely.
“Doctor Strange” — There were two out-of-body experience, joked-up and dazzling comic book adaptations that came out this year. The hilarious “Deadpool” hangs on its wit and a star turn by Ryan Reynolds, and seeing it again recently I was struck by how thin much of what goes on around him and his one-liners is. Weak villain, for starters, malnourished supporting cast. “Doctor Strange” may not have the self-aware winking of that February blockbuster, but it is eye-candy of the highest order, built around a seriously cool and totally credible turn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Getting Mads Mikkelsen reminds us of that old Hitchcock rule, don’t scrimp on your villain. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, a dazzling star turn by Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong? They’re the reason this one will hold up as one of the classics of the genre.
First film to fall out of the top ten?
“Anthropoid” — Here’s a World War II thriller that is everything that the dismal and glib “Allied” is not. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as young Czechs dropped back into their homeland for a suicide mission — assassinating the Nazi overlord of their occupied country. It’s a film that concentrates on logistics, planning and “the human factor,” all considered, discussed and grimly accepted by men who see nothing but the necessity of their mission and its awful consequences. Riveting.