These Are The Top Films of 2016
The Golden Globes are over but the nominees for the Academy Awards are coming up soon.
It is time for me to alphabetically list the movies of the past year that are the best films of the year. I’m sure there are some films, especially foreign films, that I have not seen. Still, I have listed the movies that were engrossing. I feel confident that many of these films will be surfacing again on February 26th.
I decided against trying to rank order them 1 to 20 and went with alphabetical inclusion. (There will be some Honorable Mentions at the end.)
Arrival: This film either left you singing its praises or wondering “What the hell just happened here?” I enjoyed it and the performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner were top-notch. If you want the plot explained, check my review. (*Spoiler alert)
Café Society: Woody Allen gave us Jessie Eisenberg in the role Woody would have played in his younger days and a Hollywood studio romantic triangle involving Jesse, Steve Carrell and Kristen Stewart. The idea that there may be more than one partner who is right for you at various times in your life surfaces in this film, just as it does in this year’s “La La Land” and has before.
Captain Fantastic: This first directorial effort from Matt Ross featured Viggo Mortensen in a performance that was as good as anything turned in this year. A winner at Cannes, it was a wonderful ensemble piece, with unknown child actors portraying the children of a couple who have chosen to live their lives isolated from society in the wilderness. However, the illness of their mother forces their father to make some difficult decisions. In a scene where he is alone and merely driving a bus, Viggo has a moment as powerful as anything on the screen this year.
10 Cloverfield Lane: This thriller starring John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a horror film that was far better than my daughter and my husband and I anticipated it would be, going in. After being involved in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.
Don’t Breathe: A trio of young people decide to break into a blind man’s house because he supposedly keeps money there. Fede Alvarez, who both co-wrote and directed the film, engineers a thriller starring 3 unknown actors that keeps you enthralled from start to finish.
Fences: I saw this Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play on Broadway with the same cast that Denzel Washington has directed onscreen. Denzel also stars, along with Viola Davis in what is almost certainly going to be a Best Supporting Actress performance. Along with Captain Fantastic and Moonlight, one of the all-around best ensemble casts of the year.
Hail, Caesar!: This send-up of old Hollywood features George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, the star of a Roman epic of the fifties, who suddenly disappears during filming. Not only one of the funniest movies of the year, but also features Josh Brolin as a studio head, Channing Tatum tap-dancing his little heart out, and the beginning of what looks like a promising career for Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the consummate movie cowboy of Hollywood’s Golden Age of cowboy actors. Hey! It’s the Coen Brothers!
Hell or High Water: Jeff Bridges turns in another supporting star turn in a movie that is owned by co-stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine. In order to save the family ranch the brothers have to pull off some bank robberies to secure $43,000. That puts Sheriff Bridges on their trail. Filmed for $12 million, this is a character-driven movie with a lot of action.
Hidden Figures: A feel-good movie about NASA and the African American women employees who worked there, helping to launch men into space. Based on the true story of Katherine Gobels Johnson, one of the first women to work in the space program. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janaelle Monae star. It is the second movie offering from Director Theodore Melfi who gave us Bill Murray in St. Vincent. Kevin Costner provides some star power as the white boss who paves the way for fair treatment for the trio when scientists like the Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons (Sheldon) are insensitive and unaccepting. Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Jackie: I saw this film the most recently. I was blown away by Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in the days immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy. It was clear that she was intent that her husband’s brief time as President be remembered and, therefore, modeled his funeral on that of Abraham Lincoln rather than Garfield or McKinley (3 other presidents who were assassinated). It was an upset at the Golden Globes when Isabelle Huppert of “Elle” won instead of Portman. I still think Portman will go home with the gold statuette on February 26th and Director Pablo Larrain has done the subject of JFK’s death and funeral justice. (And I’m old enough to have been a freshman in college when JFK was assassinated, so I do remember what the era was like; Larrain nailed it with help from Peter Saarsgard as Bobby Kennedy, et. al.)
La La Land: This is the Film to Beat at this year’s Oscars. Maybe it’s because it is colorful and upbeat and original and we all definitely are craving something upbeat and inspiring. It’s a musical, usually not my favorite genre, but Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance their hearts out in a very naturalistic way under the direction of young director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) with an assist from the wonderful score by Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle brought his film to the Chicago International Film Festival as the Opening Night feature and he couldn’t have been nicer.
Lion: The “Sixty Minutes” treatment of the true story of a five-year-old Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his older brother Guddu and travels hundreds of miles away from his Indian home to the teeming city of Calcutta was helpful in understanding this film. Saroo’s situation ultimately leads to his adoption by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman is nominee-worthy as his adoptive Mom) until, 25 years later, Saroo Brierley (who wrote the book on which the film is based) sets out with the aid of Google Earth to find his birth mother and siblings in India. The cinematography was breathtaking, although some of the “wandering through the landscape” scenes seemed gratuitous to me and I would have voted for some judicious editing to keep the film from feeling overlong. Mara Rooney (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) has a supporting part as Saroo’s girlfriend in Tasmania, but young Sunny Pawar, who is supplanted by Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) later really made the film for me. We learn that the title refers to the fact that young Saroo was mispronouncing his own name, which meant “Lion” when translated.
Manchester by the Sea: This is Casey Affleck’s turn to shine as the main character, who inherits a teenaged nephew when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies unexpectedly. Michelle Williams will be nominated for Best Supporting Actress and would be a lock if her part were larger. Matt Damon produced and was originally set to star in this Kenneth Lonergan written and directed effort.
Moonlight: Mahershala Ali as drug-dealer Juan was astonishingly good in this story of a young, gay black boy known as Little, who is growing up with a drug-addicted mother in the projects. His mother is played by Naomie Harris (Paula) and she is great. Filmed on a budget of only $5 million, the film won the Golden Globe as the Best Film of the Year, and its ensemble was definitely one of the best. We trace the young boy through his years of being bullied and ostracized up to the present with different actors stepping in to portray Little at various ages. It was not my favorite film of the year, because my ability to identify with all the situations this young victim faces was limited by how different our lives have been, but it was definitely worth seeing and appreciating so that we can understand why a young black boy might turn to a life of crime.
Nocturnal Animals: Designer Tom Ford cast this story-within-a-story well, with star turns by Amy Adams (again) and Michael Shannon and an actual Golden Globe win on January 8th as Best Supporting Actor for Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Aaron Taylor-Johnson said, of his part (on “Last Call”), “It was a very ambitious film; it’s 3 films rolled into one…It was an intense shoot.” Johnson is a psychopath in the film and his British accent is completely obscured by his part as a criminal in the West. He went on to talk about Susan (Amy Adams), the heroine, who receives a novel from her ex and, in reading it, we visit a very different world from the one Susan currently inhabits. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in his usual professional job as the main character’s ex-husband, a would-be novelist. I thoroughly enjoyed the peek into the lives of the very rich. Others did not like the symbolism and attention to detail that Ford brought to the piece, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Aside from the Sopranos-like ending, I would have put this film in my Top Ten. It opened wide on December 9th.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Many have said this is their favorite of all the films since the original “Star Wars” because it combines outstanding special effects (Director Gareth Edwards who will be at SXSW when I’m there began in films creating special effects) with a great story line: it’s about stealing the plans that will reveal the flaw in the Death Star that will allow it to be destroyed. Ben Mendelssohn, (the actor who was so great as the bad brother in “Bloodlines” on television), takes on the role of new villain Orson Krennic here. In terms of “Where does this film fit in with the other Star Wars movies?” the answer is that Rogue One focuses on the stealing of the original Death Star plans. The bulk of the film takes place nearly twenty years after Episode III and just a brief time before Episode IV. The film has been Number One at the box office for four weeks and shows no sign of giving up the top spot any time soon.
Sing: I don’t have many animated films on my list and I know many will argue that Zootopia belongs there. I confess that, so far, my 7-year-old granddaughters have not taken me to Zootopia, but I did take in Sing and, somehow, singing gorillas and giraffes and dancing pigs were just what I needed over Christmas break, post-presidential race. It’s been a close second to “Rogue One” at the box office, deservedly. It’s “American Idol” or “The Voice” for animals.
“Sully:” We’ve grown so used to Tom Hanks turning in Oscar-worthy performances that this one seems to have flown under the radar. We all know the story of the heroic captain who landed the plane in the Hudson, saving the lives of everyone onbaord. I actually met the man at the BEA in New York City’s Jacob Javits Center that year and my daughter was in New York City when the plane hit the birds and crash landed. Even if the post-crash interrogation aspect was over-emphasized in the film to provide conflict, Hanks and co-pilot Aaron Eckhart are great in this docu-drama.
The Infiltrator: Bryan Cranston is terrific in this film about an undercover agent who infiltrated Pablo Escobar’s drug kingdom as a money launderer. Support from John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger and Olympia Dukakis turns this true story of Robert Mazur into a heart-pounding thriller.
The Nice Guys: Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe teamed up to provide one of the wackiest films of the year, with an homage to the comedy of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Shane Black wrote and directed this story of 1970’s Los Angeles where a pair of mismatched private eyes investigate a missing girl at the bequest of her mother (Kim Basinger).
Honorable Mention films would include the following, [in no particular order]: DePalma (technically, it’s a documentary and should be required viewing for film school students and the film may have been out in 2015 but didn’t hit Chicago until the year just past); Paterson; The Handmaiden; The Lobster (very weird, but enjoyably so); Deadpool; O.J.: Made in America; American Honey; Loving.