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: ‘Arrival’ a near perfect sci-fi tale

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

Maintaining good communication – whether between governments of countries or two people in a relationship – isn’t always easy. Sometimes the mediation of an outside party is necessary.

For director Denis Villeneuve, it takes a visit aliens for humanity to discover its communicative flaws. At least, that’s the premise of “Arrival,” a film depicting a close encounters of a thrilling kind that takes the audience on a mesmerizing ride as intelligent as it is poignant.

Like some of the best sci-fi, “Arrival” utilizes an outlandish concept to make very relevant comments on the state of humanity, with Villeneuve deconstructing a concept as simple as communication by reminding us of the paranoia that can manifest when we take communication for granted.

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The story is told through the eyes of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor recruited by the military, along with another expert in Jeremy Renner’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Avengers”)Ian Donnelly, to help communicate with extra terrestrial beings. We don’t know if these aliens come in peace; all we know is they come via one of 12 pods resembling a slice of fruit in different places around the globe. And every day they hover a few dozen feet above the surface, humanity grows even more weary.

With “Arrival,” Villeneuve begins to cement himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood at exploring deep themes through multilayered, provocative stories. Like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” his latest is a slow-burning escalation towards a mind-bending, tense finish that eventually places a new connotation on its title.

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.

Amy Adams (“Man of Steel,” “American Hustle”) gives a subtle but powerhouse performance as Banks, the ever-anxious but curious expert whose personal ties to the mission anchor themselves in her believable quest to be able to communicate with our visitors. Renner is also terrific in what has to be the most vulnerable role we’ve ever seen him in.

“Arrival” isn’t just thematically astounding; the film is totally immersive, engaging nearly all our senses. Conversations between characters through headsets limit outside noise. We feel as claustrophobic as Banks does when she enters the alien craft in a hazmat suit. The IMAX-worthy camerawork is sweeping and gorgeous, bold in portraying the film’s grand scale. The music is daringly ambiguous too; conveying a tone that is all at once threating and captivating.

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The way “Arrival” plays with light, in particular, provides its own symbolic value. It makes excellent use of a dark, brooding aesthetic, with shadows playing a prominent role. Half-clouded faces and environments tease moral flaws, and the brightness associated with the spaceship’s interior resonates with the film’s central questions: Is language a gift, or a weapon?

In other words, it is very much like Villeneuve’s previous works as far as his focus on the visuals. It’s incredibly well-directed in that regard; all of the film’s elements work closely in tandem to deliver a memorable experience that rivals the best sci-fi of recent years, maybe decades.

 

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

2016