2016’s 10 Best Films

In 2016, seemingly more than ever before, the movie theater proved necessary as the most accessible of respites from turbulent, unexpected and sometimes harsh realities of the world.

Even for a critic who wasn’t able to catch some of the more enticing titles of the year – and who is still waiting for Oscar hopefuls like “Silence,” “La La Land,” “Fences” and “Paterson” to come to a theater near him – this year’s films provided an incredibly diverse array of places and situations to experience.

History-defining encounters with visitors from other worlds. Hollywood’s most heroic figures fighting each other instead of alongside each other. Animated grocery items engaging in all-out war against humans.

Hollywood showed us in 2016 that internal struggles and immensely personal journeys can be just as thrilling as traversing the farthest reaches of space. It also showed that while popular franchises will continue to spawn seventh, eight, ninth movies, wholly original stories can still be created and told through innovative methods of not only the technological sort, but through appeals to what energizes the most successful films – connections with those watching them.

As previously mentioned, it’s nearly impossible to catch every big movie that comes out every year, and even harder to find time for the treasures that seemingly come out of nowhere to universal praise and acclaim. The year isn’t done, the Oscars still weeks away with many movies still to come out between now and then.

But for now, here are my top 10 films of 2016. Some of them were no-brainers for inclusion; others that you don’t see on this list were tough to leave out. In the end, these films all are connected by one trait: an understanding and embodying of the power of film to be bigger than simply the images we see on the screen.

 

10. Hail, Caesar!

Months before “La La Land” was hailed for bringing back the feeling of Golden Age-era Hollywood, we got a movie that functioned as a love letter to the indomitable spirit of mid-1900s cinema. The Coen Brothers’ latest is also probably their most straightforward, a hilarious and memorable montage of pieces from fictional films inspired by real classics that makes the most of its fantastic ensemble.

From my review: It sounds like a rough gamble, but the Coens make it work. “Hail, Caesar”  may not necessarily be their most thought-provoking work or their most memorable – a testament to their varied catalogue – but one gets the sense that if they know they have left the audience awed by the majesty of 1950s cinema, then they’ve done their job.

 

9. Southside With You

Strong writing and an incredible pair of performances by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter give life to this story inspired by the first prolonged encounter of America’s First Couple. The more that young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama learn about each other and the environment they grew up in, the more we feel a new dynamic between ourselves and the figureheads they would eventually become.

From my review: Director Richard Tanne offers a film that is consistently poignant, charming, and also very, very relevant. He struck gold with Tika and Parker Sawyers, who embody everything that has come to be associated with the 21st century Obamas – their vocal and physical mannerisms, their grounded nature – while also reminding us that this version of the future presidential duo still has some things to learn about the world around them.

 

8. Moana

With “Moana,” Disney officially closes the chapter of outdated unwritten rules that dictate what female characters in the studio’s movies can be and stand for. The film’s action is memorable, its music buoyant and fulfilling, its message universal: where we go next is just as important as where we came from and where we are.

From my review“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.

 

7. Jackie

The untold story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s quest to define her husband’s legacy in the wake of his assassination is a fascinatingly layered and complex one. Portman is downright tantalizing as the former First Lady, a performance that permits her entrance into the discussion of contemporary cinema’s most consistently surprising performers.

From my review“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately.

 

6. Zootopia

In a very strong year for animation, “Zootopia” was arguably the strongest work in the genre. Adults might get more out of it, not just for the hilarious references, but also for its no-holds-barred portrayal of racial tension in contemporary America. It’s brutally honest, making it incredibly relevant – a time capsule future generations might return to in the way we hold “American History X” and “Hotel Rwanda” in such high historical regard.

 

5. The Witch

With “The Witch,” first-time director Robert Eggers bursts onto the scene with sound, fury and one of the most atmospherically haunting films of the decade. A tale that delves into the dangers of isolation and religious fanaticism, there is more paranoia to be had with “The Witch” than many real-world events, especially with Eggers having drawn inspiration and details from historical documents to paint as ominously realistic a snapshot as possible of Puritan New England.

From my reviewFrom the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

 

4. Hell or High Water

You’ve seen heist movies before, but not one like this. Set in the vast, unsaturated emptiness of rural Texas, Taylor Sheridan’s script makes you empathize with the outlaws more than the boys in blue on their tail. The movie is thrilling and intelligent while also making us take stock of the things we own that truly belong to us.

As it turns out, it may not be very much.

From my reviewWhile exploring all these motifs and themes, the film remains briskly paced with huge entertainment value, and a climax that is both open-ended and also incredibly satisfying. Whether for the analytical filmgoer or the one just looking for a good time to be had, watching Hell or High Water once certainly isn’t enough. Five or 10 times might not be sufficient, either.

 

3. Arrival

It might be too soon to anoint Denis Villeneuve’s ascent as the second coming of Francis Ford Coppola. But after three big-time swings – “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and now “Arrival” – the director has yet to miss. In fact, he has yet to not hit a home run.

His latest continues a trend of engaging, intelligent and thought-provoking films that are masterfully executed at nearly every level. The music of “Arrival” is on a biblical scale, as are its themes, awe-inspiring cinematography and emotional tugs. Amy Adams pulls off a complicated, multi-faceted turn, and Jeremy Renner excels in the most vulnerable performance of his career.

But it’s Villeneuve’s ability to balance world-shaking events with the most intimate of moments that makes his latest a reminder of what the best science fiction can still do, in a time when the genre very rarely presents situations with little real stakes or edge-of-your-seat drama.

From my review: To be clear, this isn’t particularly an alien invasion movie – our visitors never even set foot on Earth – and the audience shouldn’t expect the normal sort of blockbuster action associated with that moniker. These are thrills of a much more subdued kind.

 

2. Moonlight

There is a certain subdued, cinematic melody to “Moonlight” that helps it ring, like the barely audible hum of society that can be heard when sitting on a lonely beach at 2 in the morning.

Its performances are mighty, its storytelling prowess mightier. This is ostensibly one of the most straightforward narratives you’ll see in a 2016 offering.

But along the way of showing Chiron – a gay, black man growing up in LA – trying to find sympathy and real human connection at three different stages of his life, “Moonlight” places in the spotlight the ability for there to be magnitude in everyday occurrences like a phone call, an encounter, an unleashing of long-held frustration.

It’s a story of life at simultaneously its most simple and its most complex. It’s “Boyhood” without the gimmick, and it’s all the better for it.

 

1. Manchester By The Sea

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan’s latest – and most monumental – work is only a little over two hours. It’s not like it doesn’t feel like it; it races right along, telling a singular human story that takes on more and more weight with each scene.

But it’s just incredibly comprehensive in its world-building. We feel like we know Casey Affleck’s Lee and his nephew, Patrick. We can sympathize with their numerous clashes, their exchanges, and their personification of life at its most delicate and foreboding.

Lonergan’s is a superbly-written tale of grief and coping, a reminder that going through life means going through uncomfortable situations, ones we are ready for and other still that catch us off guard.

Its ending may feel a bit sudden until we realize that, like our own ongoing stories, there can never be a true ending to this one. It goes on beyond the credits, just as life does when we leave the theater doors.

From my review: Lonergan has crafted a film in which seemingly every scene is brimming with emotional depth. The moments of eruption are not only superbly directed, but immensely memorable for the way they interweave humanity with the kind of merciless humor that seems authentic of the Bostonian culture Affleck personifies.

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Review: Portman is a revelation in cerebral ‘Jackie’

Note: An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press and can be viewed here

 

“Jackie” is a cement-mixer of a film. Its cinematic workings churn consistently for a little over two hours, virtually devoid of any cinematic energy of the traditional sense that the audience might be expecting.

Rather, a certain amount of intensity is created through a sort of dreamlike style which, like a cement-mixer, seems sluggish in its task but is necessary to the film’s ways of presenting themes that can be examined and appreciated for years.

And if the film is a cement-mixer, Natalie Portman is its driver, the one keeping the film’s metaphorical cement mixing so that it doesn’t solidify into formless rock, but rather something memorable.

That is to say, Portman is revelatory as the titular former First Lady, as demanding with her performance as her character is written to be. Even after a handful of career-topping roles over the years, “Jackie” has her at her most compelling.

She is in virtually every shot of the film, the camera either following her through rooms like an obedient disciple or having her face the audience head-on, her steely gaze cutting right into our souls.

Speaking of souls, director Pablo Larraín provides the film with one that is surreal and kinetic. This cement-mixer may seem slow, but most of the scenes don’t last more than a few minutes. Instead, it ping-pongs between various events that Jacqueline Kennedy engages in in the days before and immediately following her husband’s assassination.

A discussion with a priest. An orchestral concert alongside JFK. Funeral arrangements. Taking the American people on a televised trip through the White House as she describes the changes she has made to the décor.

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By carefully layering certain portions of these scenes on top of one another – as gravel, sand and water form to create concrete – the film pieces together the inner workings of Jackie’s mind. It tells a grim story of a public figure much more vulnerable in privacy as she may have come across as being in public, a widow obsessed with ensuring her husband has an important legacy, or any legacy at all.

At the crux of the interweaving events portrayed onscreen is an interview between Jackie and a journalist (played by a rather stiff Billy Crudup) that we assume occurs after everything else we see in the film. While these scenes reinforce Jackie’s “my way of the highway” attitude, it also serves as a bit of a distraction.

The dynamic of the discussion between Jackie and the unnamed journalist serves as a way of helping us understand her motivations – as well as offering a standout scene as she describes the horrific assassination of JFK in her own words – but it does so in a way that is overly explicit.

“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately. But it’s also just 20 to 25 minutes too long, and omitting these – while helpful – expendable scenes with Crudup’s journalist would make it all a bit more satisfying to absorb on an intellectual level.

But that is a small complaint for a movie that is provocative and memorable in its storytelling. Portman is an absolute force, the film’s pessimistic score telling as much. Hopeful music swells up at times, only to plummet into a kind of reverberating and unavoidable despair that characterizes the unique predicament Jackie Kennedy was placed into in the days following Nov. 22, 1963.

The way she reacts in the face of public pressure is not as much one of perseverance as it is a reminder that not even sleeping in the White House can provide all the answers for our troubles.

 

“Jackie” is rated R for brief strong violence and some language 

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Directed by Pablo Larraín

2016

Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

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Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

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The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016

Review: In ‘Edge of Seventeen,’ Steinfeld returns to award-worthy glory

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

“The Edge of Seventeen” could have been easily written off. Its premise is one we’ve seen on screens both big and small countless times. Avid movie buffs can probably see the major story beats coming, and generally predict how it will end.

First-time director Kelly Fremon Craig easily could have settled for that – a potentially charming, but mostly cliché-filled and forgettable film.

Thankfully, she doesn’t. Buoyed by a breakout performance by Hailee Steinfeld, “The Edge of Seventeen” ends up being not only the opposite of forgettable, but also one of the very best and most satisfying films of 2016.

It took six years, but Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Academy Award at 14 for “True Grit,” solidifies her resume as an actress who can only elevate a movie several notches solely with her involvement.

Her turn as socially troubled and consistently quotable Nadine commands the audience’s attention. Even though her character is colored with many shades (the quirky outfits, the 64 oz. slurpees) of Ellen Page’s Juno, a modern icon of the “coming of age” story in her own right, Steinfeld is just as effective a scene-stealer.

And she is virtually in every scene of “Seventeen,” excelling in a performance that is as emotionally charged as it is demanding.

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It helps that Craig has supplied Steinfeld – as well as her uber-effective supporting cast of Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner and Kyra Sedgewick – with a script bursting at the seams with as much energy and angst as Nadine herself. It’s equal parts hilarious, profane and poignant, and it balances all those in a way that comes across as perfectly natural.

In that sense, “The Edge of Seventeen” is particularly effective in how genuine it is. It’s an honest portrayal of high school life – of teenagers trying to hook up with crushes who throw parties when they have the house to themselves, and how their self-centeredness affects those around them.

Sure, its messages apply to 38-year-olds as much as 18-year-olds, but there’s something refreshing about recognizing that many of our high school experiences are decidedly R-rated, and making a movie with an aesthetic that reflects that.

The film is endearingly satisfying even in its predictability – something to be admired. A lot of that has to do with its pacing, which works a little too well. The film is a kinetic force, most of its moments of pause offered to the audience by Harrelson’s wise-cracking history teacher. He personifies the film’s honesty about the harsh truths of life, and the consequences we sometimes face with our relationships.

Even still, I was left wanting just a little bit more, even if that came in the form of some expendable scenes that stretched the film another 20 minutes. As long as Steinfeld chews up that time with what is one of the most obsessively entertaining performances of the year, I’m game for more.

At the very least, it makes me very excited for what she does next.

 

 

‘The Edge of Seventeen’ is rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner and Kyra Sedgwick

Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig      

2016                                                                                                                

Review: Disney tops itself with ‘Moana’

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

It’s been remarkable to see how Disney has been able to reinvent itself at the theater in recent years, doing away with decidedly outdated stories, most of them which can be summed up as Anglo prince saves Anglo princess.

The world has moved on from being constrained to such narrow-minded themes simply being the way of things. Wisely, Disney’s films have followed suit. With “Moana,” Mickey Mouse’s house dispels once and for all the traditional notion that there can only be heroes, not heroines, and that the most rewarding connections with others are always heteronormative romances.

“Moana” is as grand and epic as “Frozen” was intimate and personal, without losing any of the latter’s ability to tell a story with universal themes and messages.

Whereas “Frozen” portrayed relationships in an unorthodox way (at least by Disney’s standards), there is, refreshingly, no romantic subplot of any kind in “Moana.” Instead, Disney spins a tale about finding our place in the face of uncertain futures, while subtlety commenting on our duty to the environment.

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It does it all through the strength of a monumental score and IMAX-worthy visuals. Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame lends his talents to the songwriting of “Moana” to wondrous ends, with every tune fulfilling a real purpose in the narrative while also managing to be compelling and emotionally stimulating.

The music works particularly well when complimented by the fantastic visual elements. At some points I had to remind myself that what was transpiring on-screen wasn’t live action. The animation is simply that engrossing.

Moana herself sets a new mark for how far Disney has come with its female characters. She is endearing, but also captivatingly independent; at times too curious for her own good in her larger-than-life quest, but never crossing a boundary where the audience questions her actions.

16-year-old Auli’I Cravalho deserves acclaim for her turn as Moana, providing a grandstanding performance as a voice actor and singer despite being having nary a single big-time acting credit to her name. The same goes for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui (who knew The Rock could sing?), a character with an engaging and thoughtful story arc of his own.

“Moana” also has laughs (a surprising amount of them coming from Moana and Maui’s companion, a chicken) for both the younger and older crowd. Parents, this is one you’ll want to watch with your kids, as the film also provides genuine thrills. One sequence in particular, a “Mad Max: Fury Road”-inspired affair, provides one of the best action action set pieces this year, lifting the film beyond the label of “just another kid’s movie.”

“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.

Moana would never call herself a princess. As this film shows, she doesn’t need to be to aspire to something great.

 

 

‘Moana’ is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

Starring: Auli’l Carvalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison

Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams

2016