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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2016.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in alphabetical order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2016

LA LA LAND -  Here is easily the most effortlessly charming movie I have seen in years.  It's a dizzying, joyous, and vibrant musical that positively leaps off the screen with the kind of life few films possess.  This is writer-director Damien Chazelle's second major feature, after his breakthrough debut, 2014's Whiplash.  If his first film proved that he could make a powerful and intimate drama, then here he proves that he can create a truly unforgettable cinematic musical dream.  And even though this is a romantic and sometimes dream-like musical, the movie does have an undercurrent that you would not expect walking in.  Mia and Sebastian do get hit by hard times, have troubles, and yes, have a falling out or two.  But it is not played up with melodrama as you would expect from a modern day, or even a classic, musical.  We can feel and understand the pain of these characters and relate to them.  The use of music, as well as the performances from Gosling and Stone, adds so much it's hard to describe.  I don't remember the last time a movie musical has affected me so emotionally.  The movie can be joyous and filled with wonder, but it is also honest and rough at times.  The fact that it can pull off both aspects so effortlessly is not only rare, it's also just incredibly well done.  La La Land is a truly rare film, one that likely will not be forgotten once the Awards have been handed out.  It's a true cinematic event, and something that you just don't see at the movies all too often.  It not only leaves you on a natural high, it makes you want to turn around and see it again as soon as it's over.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2016 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD - This animated film from France has a lot of the things I go to the movies for.  It has an imaginative and well-designed world that is a marvel to look at, it's exciting, it's bright and fast-paced, and it has characters that immediately endear themselves to you.  I can easily see myself watching this many times, picking up on things I previously missed. There is so much fun, invention and humor behind the story that it makes some of the more dark and heavy recent Hollywood blockbusters seem even more archaic.  April and the Extraordinary World is at its core a hopeful and optimistic movie.  Even with some of the more gritty and dirty Steampunk images that make up the film, there is always a sense of invention and wonder, not despair.  And by the time we get to the beautiful and heartfelt final scene, we find ourselves walking out of the theater on a natural high that only a truly great film can achieve.  This movie simply made me happy.  It was showing me a world I had never seen before, while also telling an engaging story with characters I could get behind.  It made me think how rare it is we get all of these things in one movie these days.  Can you remember the last time a film left you feeling not only inspired, but just plain cheerful?  It's also a family film in the truest sense of the word, as it's appropriate for both kids and adults.  It's the kind of entertainment we don't see enough of, and deserves to be seen.

ARRIVAL -  This is a moving and quietly powerful film that depicts Earth's first encounter with Alien life.  Sure, many films have done this, but what this film does is narrow its focus. Yes, we do see glimpses of how the nations of the world are handling the situation (there's talk of U.N. meetings, lootings and possible military action in response to the massive ships that have arrived on Earth), but this is a very close and intimate story mostly about a single woman, and her interactions with this interplanetary life.  The woman is Louise, played by Amy Adams in a highly effective and complex performance.  The drama in Arrival is built around whether Louise can create a way of communicating with these visitors before the nations of the world get nervous, and start using their weapons against them.  But the emotion of the film is drawn not so much from mankind's first encounter with alien life, but rather the backstory that involves a personal tragedy in Louise's life.  But most of all, Arrival grabs your attention almost right from the beginning, and refuses to let go.  This is an amazingly deft and level screenplay provided by Eric Heisserer (adapted from the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang) that never once gets bogged down in exposition or useless information.  The movie flows perfectly, and Villeneuve's direction never once sags.  There's really no one element here that rises above the other.  Everything from the performances, to the cinematography, right down to the music score - Everything complements one another creating an experience we seldom get at the movies, where we feel like everything has come together.

EYE IN THE SKY - Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is a movie to be savored.  It is not only wonderfully acted and emotionally powerful, but it is almost forensic in its depiction of a drone strike seen from various points of view, and the various moral dilemmas these people face because of the situation.  Rather than take a standard three-act narrative, the movie instead almost seems to be done in real time, so we feel like we are right there with the characters.  And although it is technically a drama, it is generally and completely thrilling.  The film takes a complex situation, and manages to look at it from multiple points of view, never once playing favorites.  Combine that with a winning cast including Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in his final on-screen performance), and you have easily one of the most gripping, and sadly forgotten, dramas of last year.  This is an intelligent and thought provoking movie that never once manipulates.  It's an even-handed and powerful look at a very tense situation, and that tension carries right through to the very end, as the characters reflect on everything that has happened.  There is no reflection through dialogue, mind you.  Actually, the final moments are very quiet, as they should be.  We can see it on the faces of the actors, and how the outcome weighs on them in different ways, based on their views.  Eye in the Sky is an impeccable film.

FENCES -  Based on August Wilson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and featuring almost the entire cast from an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival (all but one of the main Broadway cast reprise their roles here), Fences manages to be just as powerful and at times emotionally draining on the screen as it was on the stage.  The intelligent dialogue and raw emotion is all here, which is sure to make fans of the original work overjoyed.  The movie does seem to be a bit limited in scope, and sometimes it can feel like we're watching a stage play up on the screen.  But the drama here is so involving, I honestly did not care.  Denzel Washington not only leads the cast, as he did in the earlier stage play, but he also directs the film.  This is only the third time he has stepped behind the camera, and while he doesn't really show off any great directing or film tricks here, he doesn't need to.  He simply lets his cast brilliantly deliver the dialogue, and lets the drama of the situation grow from the performances.   Just as when I saw the production in New York back in the summer of 2010, the cast manages to capture every bit of power and essences from Wilson's words.  As for Washington himself, I feel that this stands as one of his truly great performances in his career, ranking alongside Malcolm X and Training Day.  It's a versatile performance that truly shows off his range.  Rich in emotion and power, Fences is easily one of the great films of the year, and hopefully will be met with numerous awards.  Since the 2010 Broadway production was never filmed for television, it's great to have this film to capture these unforgettable performances.  In my mind, this is the best acted film of 2016.

HELL OR HIGH WATER - Here is that rare movie that hits every right note.  There's not a single scene that drags, a performance that seems off, or a moment that seems convoluted.  It intrigues us with its characters and scenarios, explaining just enough, but also leaving much a mystery.  As the story unravels, we are even more intrigued, and surprised to find that the movie knows what it's doing every step of the way.  This is a supremely well thought out movie that lends comparison to some of the best films of the Coen Brothers, and shares their love for crime stories mixed with local color humor.  Hell or High Water is really telling two stories. Yes, the two stories do eventually come together, but that's not the ultimate goal I think.  We see the story from both sides, and it's fascinating on both ends.  The cast is note-perfect in almost every regard.  This is not an inventive movie, but it's been crafted and written so well, you almost feel like you are experiencing it for the first time.  It's the kind of movie that grabs you almost instantly, and stays with you long after it's gone.   After a summer movie season that was largely disposable save for some exceptions, that in itself is praise enough.  This is simply one of the finest films of the year.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS - In their past offerings, such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, the Oregon-based animation studio, Laika, have gained a reputation for thinking outside of the box when it comes to American animated features.  Not only do they freely use stop motion puppetry (an art form seldom used in traditional animation), but the stories they have told in their films have often been dark, wickedly funny, and certainly much more twisted than the stuff we see out of Pixar, while still making them acceptable for families.  Their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, goes one step further.  This is not just a spellbinding and beautiful animated film steeped in Japanese mythology, but it is also surprisingly mature and poetic.  This is the rare animated film that has a plot worth discovering, and may hold some surprises, so I am doing my best to be vague.  The movie itself likes to reveal information slowly, so that we are as spellbound by what is happening as much as by the visuals.  That's saying something, because artistically, this movie is gorgeous.  The artists at Laika have created some of the most unforgettable images of the year here.  Kubo's story does not shy away from the darker elements, but this is not a glum or morose film.  It's lively, full of imagination and wonder, and completely enthralling.  When you see as many movies as I do, this is the kind of film you dream of getting - One that mixes spellbinding images with a story that is not only fantastic, but emotional.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA - Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has only three films under his belt, with the other two being 2000's You Can Count on Me and 2011's criminally underappreciated Margaret.  All of his films are smart, honest looks at personal loss, and the effect it has on people, but Manchester by the Sea may be his best attempt yet.  Anchored by a sure-to-be-remembered performance by Casey Affleck, this is a film that works both as a devastating human drama, as well as a dry and often very droll comedy.  At its heart, the film is about forgiveness.  It covers both sides, dealing with forgiving yourself as well as others.  It's a movie about guarded characters, who keep to themselves in a tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's secrets.  It's also a movie about parenting and taking responsibility.  But Lonergan finds a way to not only make these ideas seem fresh again, but to also add his own personal spin.  He's a writer and filmmaker who can bring out incredible emotion, but can also make you laugh harder than at any over-hyped Hollywood comedy.  He knows how to balance the pain and joy in his films, and always gives his audience a memorable experience.  But his true secret weapon this time is Casey Affleck, delivering some of the best work of his career.  Manchester by the Sea is a movie that takes its time, and keeps certain things hidden from us.  Lonergan instead lets us grow to be involved with these people and their world, and the end result is a movie that truly makes us feel for everyone involved in the story.  After seeing this, you kind of want Lonergan to make movies more often, but at the same time, you don't want him to turn into an assembly line filmmaker, just pushing out one film after another.  At the rate he's going, he can take all the time he wants to.

A MONSTER CALLS -  This is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful family films I have ever seen.  And yes, even though it deals with some very dark and serious subject matter, it is a movie that I think will speak loud and clearly to children.  There are some critics who have complained that the movie is too dark and depressing for its target audience of young viewers. (The themeatic content is also why the movie has been given a PG-13 rating, although any child around the age of 10 should be able to handle it.) My answer to this complaint is that maybe it just seems that way to them because we so seldom get movies for children that are this mature and refuse to pull any punches.  Just like Kubo and the Two Strings, this is a movie that is not afraid to show the darker side of family and childhood.  The fact that the film is unflinching, honest and sad is perhaps the best aspect, and what drew me so much into the film.  But there's so much more to admire here outside of its brave stance on its subject matter.  The movie is masterful in its visuals, performances and special effects.  The Monster itself is a combination of CG and a motion capture performance by Neeson, and ranks as one of the more personable special effects creations to hit the screen.  Not only that, but the cinematography by Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game) does a splendid job of showing us both Conor's dreary real world, and the more fantastical dream-like images that the Monster shows us in his stories.  The film also makes wonderful use of its music score, and most importantly, silence.  There are many scenes that simply allow the emotion to come out of the expressions and motions of the actors, and it made me think how seldom we see that in film today.  Yes, the movie can be devastating emotionally.  If you reach the end of this film with dry eyes, you may want to check your pulse.  However, it's more than emotional.  It's fantastical, kind of magical, and yes, deeply touching in a way few films are.

MOONLIGHT - I sadly did not get to review this wonderful film, as I had too much going on.  I meant to do a micro review, but there just wasn't enough time.  And so, I just will have to honor it as one of the best films of 2016, which it truly is.  Barry Jenkins' unforgettable drama that looks at a young black man in the different stages of his life (from childhood, to teen, to adult), and the different events and people who influence him, is so captivating and poetic you almost can't believe the effortlessness that it is pulled off with up on the screen.  Every scene, every emotion and performance is one to be savored.  Were it not for Fences, this would probably get my pick for the best acted film of last year.  One of the amazing things Jenkins does with is direction is the camerawork, using long tracking shots, which create such a fantastic sense of place that we seldom see in movies.  There are also moments where the camera is so fluid and natural, it's like a character in the conversation, reacting to what is going on, but not in a distracting way.  This is one of the more unforgettable cinematic experiences of the year, and one that should have gotten a wider release.

ZOOTOPIA - This is not just a fine piece of entertainment, but it also has something important to say that's been in the news a lot.  There‚Äôs a lesson in the film about the relation between fear and prejudice, and some surprisingly strong scenes that tackle this theme head on.  The film is set in a bustling and beautifully designed metropolis called Zootopia, where animals of all kinds, both predator and prey, have learned to live alongside one another.  That's not to say everything's perfect, as some of the smaller herbivores still eye the bigger animals suspiciously.  Still, it's a marvel of design, filled with lots of visual animal-based gags, and just a brilliant overall look.  Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) keeps the narrative constantly moving, and successfully juggle the film's diverse tone, which ranges from pop culture and visual humor, to some surprisingly tense and serious moments.  There's clever dialogue, and more than enough fast paced action to keep the youngest in the audience enthused . The movie was mainly advertised as breezy entertainment, but parents were surprised to find that the film follows a lot of themes that became dominant in the 2016 Presidential election year.  I can imagine that the movie did inspire some interesting conversation between adults and older children about what's going on in the world.  Whatever the case, this is a funny, entertaining and heartfelt film, and that's really the most important issue of all.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Finest Hours, Kung Fu Panda 3, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Deadpool, The Witch, Race, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special, Hello My Name is Doris, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Keanu, Captain America: Civil War, Money Monster, The Nice Guys, Me Before You, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, Love and Friendship, The Conjuring 2,  Central Intelligence, Finding Dory, The Shallows, The BFG, The Secret Life of Pets, The Infiltrator, Lights Out, Jason Bourne, Nerve, Bad Moms, Pete's Dragon, Florence Foster Jenkins, War Dogs, Don't Breathe, Sully, Bridget Jones's Baby, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Doctor Strange, Hacksaw Ridge, Trolls, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, A Street Cat Named Bob, The Edge of Seventeen, Moana, Allied, Miss Sloane, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing, Lion, Patriot's Day


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ashton Sanders in Moonlight
Denzel Washington in Fences

MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Amy Adams in Arrival
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane
Viola Davis in Fences
Ellen Degeneres in Finding Dory
Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Felicity Jones in A Monster Calls
Emma Stone in La La Land
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

So, those are my favorites of 2016 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2017, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.

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