Monday, January 9, 2017

Top Ten Films of 2016

It's been established ad nauseam that 2016 was a wretched year for humanity, but how were the movies? At first glance, it seems on the weak side but it turned out to be one of those years where I had to dig a little deeper to fill out this list. While most of the attention goes to the parade of sequels, reboots and desperate appeals to 80s/90s nostalgia (an Independence Day sequel? Really?), the ever growing realm of streaming services has given movie fans a chance to find gems that had only a tiny stint in actual movie theaters. Even a classic crowdpleaser like Sing Street would have gone totally unnoticed if not for Netflix. Combined with strong showings by the horror and animation genres, the year turned out to be a little better than I first thought. Let's go through some of the high points.

Special Mention: O.J.: Made in America
Eligibility for this one was tricky. This is a five-part documentary made for ESPN, but it also had an awards-qualifying theatrical release that should come in handy this awards season. Ultimately, I decided the massive difference in length gave it an unfair advantage over the rest, hence the special mention. Highly detailed but never boring, the epic chronicle begins with Orenthal James Simpson’s rise as a record-breaking football player, commercial star and comedic actor in the late 60s to the early 80s. Then he was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. The rest is history, but you’ve never seen it like this. Director Ezra Edelman contrasts Simpson’s ascent with a series of high-profile conflicts between the police and black residents of the running back’s native Los Angeles. With this as a preface, it becomes clear why the trial of a man who had distanced himself from the black community became an unlikely referendum on decades of appalling behavior by the LAPD. Following the trial, the filmmakers continue to follow Simpson on his sad decline into decadence and crime. It’s a towering experience to watch, with somber music and haunting archival footage expertly accompanying the comments of an army of interviewees.

10. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesome, nerve-shredding movie stars a small-time punk band in need of money who find themselves playing in a venue full of Nazi skinheads somewhere in the Oregon woods. After they witness a murder, the band (including the late Anton Yelchin, who sadly passed away this year) barricades itself in the green room and the skinheads outside make increasingly brutal attempts to clean everything up. Patrick Stewart plays way against type to tremendous effect as Darcy Banker, the monstrous but oddly paternal leader of the thugs. The tension pins the viewer to the screen for the entire standoff and when it ends, the audience is left to reflect on the pockets of hateful white rage that have been growing in the corners of America while so many of us fooled ourselves into thinking things were getting better.

9. The Witch
This period horror film follows a family too extreme in their beliefs even for the Puritans who are exiled and find themselves living uncomfortably close to a genuine witch. After stealing the family’s infant child in an early scene, the witch prefers to menace them from afar while isolation and unsuccessful attempts at farming begin to strain their relationships. Despite the presence of a very creepy goat, the true horror of the film is watching this family slowly collapse and Eggers stages some brutally intense scenes where they turn on each other. Only the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to really understand what’s happening and is central to the thought provoking ending, which goes totally against the conventional wisdom for tales like this.

8. Sing Street
The 80s nostaglia thing might be getting out of hand, but it can still be done really well. This delightful coming of age story takes place in 1980s Dublin, where sensitive teen Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is dealing with the crumbling marriage of his parents and being transferred to a joyless Catholic school. When he meets the glamorous Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he tries to impress her by telling her he’s in a band. Despite knowing very little about music, he relies on the expertise of his older brother (Jack Reynor, the heart of the movie) and gathers a group of nearby young musicians who quickly cohere into a real band. It’s pretty familiar stuff, but it works wonders thanks to the sincerity of the cast and the infectious fun of the songs themselves (composed primarily by Gary Clark). There is also a surprisingly heartfelt subplot about the pain older brothers endure so that their younger brothers have a better chance for success.

7. The Monster
For me, this was the year's biggest out of nowhere surprise. It’s a familiar setup – young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) get into a car accident on a rainy night and then figure out that a mysterious creature is lurking in the nearby woods. What makes this film stand out is the emotionally intense relationship between the two lead characters. Flashbacks explore the family’s dysfunction and this is not the typical “my mom doesn’t understand me stuff,” these are unsparing glimpses of domestic life gone wrong. Director Bryan Bertino wisely uses the monster sparingly and when it does appear onscreen it looks fantastic. There are no explanations given for its existence, which will annoy some viewers but keeps the focus where it belongs – the powerful family drama playing out during the scares.

6. Zootopia
Are we in the midst of another Disney renaissance? The surprising depth and visual ingenuity of this animated buddy-cop movie makes a pretty strong argument. The story takes place in a giant city where predator and prey have long since evolved from their primal ways and live in harmony. An idealistic rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) defies expectations for her species by becoming a police officer and teams up with a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to solve a series of disappearances. The colorful setting, made up of several ecosystems, is constantly delightful to look at and there’s always something interesting to see. There is also a surprisingly detailed examination of prejudice and identity politics buried beneath all the sight gags.

5. Arrival
This smart and surprisingly optimistic tale of man’s first contact with an alien race depicts a point in the not too distant future where a dozen spaceships touch down at various points on the Earth’s surface. Lonely linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and decipher the circular ink-blots the tentacled aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, panic gradually sets in across the globe and a war could erupt if Louise and her partner (Jeremy Renner) don’t crack the code soon enough. The main breakthrough in figuring out the language seems to happen during a montage, leaving the audience with disappointingly little insight into how it works, but Director Dennis Villeneuve’s majestic visuals and a major twist conveyed with surprising grace make this a powerful film. If the day ever comes where we meet aliens, I hope it turns out to be more prescient than naive.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings
So I wasn't a big fan of The Boxtrolls, but Laika Studios came back in a big way and turned in another top-notch production with this classic hero’s journey tale about a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) trying to find three magical artifacts to protect himself from his wicked grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Kubo is joined by a foul-tempered monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Some of the attempts at humor can feel strained but the film’s gorgeous animation feels as effortless as it is spectacular. You can't overstate just how amazing the stop-motion work here is. Kubo has the power to manipulate paper but the only one who can conjure more magic than him are the animators.

3. The Invitation
Two years after the tragic death of his son, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michael Huisman). In the midst of the reunions, the couple babbles new-age nonsense about expelling bad feelings and Will isn’t having any of it. In general, things seem unusually tense for a gathering of friends but are we right to be suspicious or are we just viewing things through Will’s agitated perspective? How much passive-aggression and intimidating behavior should anyone tolerate for the sake of politeness? The ensemble cast is excellent and Director Karyn Kusama directs everything masterfully, withholding answers as long as she can and dragging the audience to the edge of their seats.

2. Hell or High Water
Most modern takes on the western are dour, but this is a surprisingly fun morality tale of cops and robbers that nonetheless makes powerful observations about how the American West’s history of domination and exploitation continues in the form of modern capitalism. Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies to try and save the family ranch from foreclosure, slowly pursued by a smart-ass Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham). The emphasis on banter, memorable side characters and dark comedy (it’s tough to keep robbing places in a state where seemingly everyone is carrying a gun) does its job and the audience will be heavily involved with all the characters by the time things get intense in the final act.

1. Moonlight
This soft-spoken but intensely emotional film follows Chiron, a fatherless black boy with a crack addict mother (Naomie Harris) who is quietly trying to piece together his own identity. The movie follows Chiron at three points in his life – he is played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, a teen by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes, all of whom give great performances. While much of its subject matter, such as drugs or bullying, may be familiar, the strength of the actors and Barry Jenkins’s inventive cinematography make it feel totally unique. With its colorful yet desolate depiction of Miami and sometimes unsettlingly personal dialogue, the film is a involving portrait of people whose lives are rarely explored in movies. It’s Chiron’s story but the other roles are also filled out by talented performers, particularly Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer whose growing attachment to the boy force him to confront the reality of his trade. The late Roger Ebert once said that at their best, movies are "a machine that generates empathy" and in a year where empathy was violently kicked to the curb, we need movies like this one more than ever. There will be plenty of righteous takedowns of Trump-era ideology in the years to come but movies like Moonlight, which draw attention to important issues simply by exploring the lives of our fellow man, are likely to make more of a difference in the long run.

Honorable Mentions: The Little Prince, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Audrie and Daisy, Captain America: Civil War

That's all for this year. Soon I'll take another stab at my Perfect World awards, hopefully out one day before the Oscar nominations get announced.

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