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: Southside With You embraces familiarity while still being unexpected

(An edited version of this review was originally published in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.)

 

There are moments in Southside With You, several of them, in which Director Richard Tanne teases us with an unthinkable premise – what if young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama never formed a kindred kinship and went on to accomplish all they’ve accomplished?

That’s how personal the film is in telling the story of how Michelle – with her steely stare and impenetrable demeanor – and casual, quietly powerful Barack connected, despite their immediately apparent differences and ways of perceiving the world.

Of course, we know that there is a second, third, fourth date beyond what we see on the screen, but Southside With You still manages to be an unexpected experience, driven by showing the audience how young Michelle and Barack eventually became much bigger than 1989 Chicago destined them to be.

This could easily be a “first date” story about any ol’ Sally and Joe, but it chooses to set a bar for itself by offering a glance at one of the most well-know and powerful couples in the world today, and it succeeds while still being a very entertaining watch.

To reach that end, Tanne offers a film that is consistently poignant, charming, and also very, very relevant. He struck gold with Tika Sumpter  (The Haves and the Have Nots, Ride Along) and Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Survivor), 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 have some things to learn about the world around them.

Working off one another in harmony, along with Tanne’s consistently engaging screenplay, helps the audience feel warmly welcomed along for the ride of their casual-turned-intimate summer day in Chicago.

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That isn’t to say Southside With You is a totally cathartic experience all the way through. It also compels and intellectually challenges us in moments of commenting on racial issues that in many ways reflect some of the ongoing national discourse of 2016. By touching on the social atmosphere of the late 1900s, we’re reminded that while much has changed for Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, it has not been so for others they may have interacted with in southside Chicago.

The film also explores Barack’s complicated family history, one he dwells on consistently despite, as the film shows us, already playing a vital role in his community.

The film also comments on the consequences of judgment, as well as the sometimes difficult task of asking ourselves if we truly are where we deserve to be. In that vein, Tranne could have spent some more time exploring the titular “southside” of Chicago that hardened Michelle and Barack into the leaders they are, but he still strikes an acceptable balance between their environment and themselves as people navigating it.

While delving into these subjects, the film’s tone evolves rather nicely when it could have whisked us away to a place that is grim and obscure just as we’ve become accustomed to the generally light hearted nature of Southside With You.

Tanne respects the audience with his direction, and by keeping his focus on two young people navigating issues that anyone else could be trying to solve. At its core, it remains very much a film about how different Michelle and Barack were and are, in a way that is complimentary.

Southside With You is a film that definitely relies on dialogue, and it delivers on that front for the most part. From it’s buoyant opening moments, the writing is engaging and thoughtful, thrusting us into the psyches of two individuals who are at first glance different in every way. At the same time, it manages to be humorous and very tight, keeping the film rolling along at a lively pace.

It’s also a deeply layered screenplay to be sure, and while it doesn’t quite provide the payoff on every concept it touches on in its 84-minutes run time, it is still an immensely satisfying experience to behold.

Of course, the film has its winks and inevitable foreshadowing at the figures Michelle and Barack are to become, but it’s subtle enough so as to stay focused on this on-screen iteration of the pair. And while the story might leave us wanting just a little bit more, it’s a small complaint when the whole world already knows that this story is only just beginning when the credits roll.

 

In a Nutshell

While not the most memorable of films, Southside With You is sweet and engaging as it pulls back the curtains on the Obamas while touching on relevant contemporary issues.

7.5 / 10

 

 

Southside With You is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference

Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers

Directed by Richard Tanne

2016