By David Ferguson
For Adam G
It’s been an industry under the microscope for lack of diversity and opportunity … so much so that last year #OscarsSoWhite became a trending hashtag and rallying cry for movie industry protestors and boycotters. 2016 has provided a step forward with numerous high profile projects for women, minorities and the LGBT community. Unfortunately that diversity did not necessarily translate well at the box office where the top 18 earners could all be at least loosely classified as animation, superhero and/or comic book.
The year did provide a second consecutive U.S. Box Office record of $11.4 billion; however, looking a bit deeper, we see that only 26 movies reached the $100 million mark – the fewest in a decade. Three movies hit the magical $1 billion level globally, and all three were Disney films (Finding Dory, Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War), contributing to that studio’s milestone $7 billion worldwide (26% of the total market, including Moana, The Jungle Book, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
For me, the year 2016 resulted in my watching and reviewing 196 new releases (down from 234 in 2015). While you won’t find many of my favorites on the big money list, there were still dozens of films that I found immensely enjoyable, interesting and well-made. I was particularly impressed with some of the based-on-a-true-story films and the high number of standout performances by actresses this year. And of course, my annual list is once again loaded with some extraordinary (and worth hunting down) independent films and documentaries.
Some might prefer that the list be cut off at 10, but rather than stick with the arbitrary number favored by so many, it’s these 15 films that define 2016 in film for me. I can’t imagine leaving one off, much less five of them. As I’ve done for years, after the initial list of my favorites, you’ll find plenty of other recommendations for your consideration – plus a few disappointments. With any of these films, you can find my full review by searching the site at www.MovieReviewsFromTheDark.com
BEST OF 2016
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivered what is possibly the best ever film about grief, sorrow and guilt. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are tremendous, and the film contains my single favorite scene of the year when, late in the film, the Affleck and Michelle Williams characters bump into each other. What follows is the most agonizing, rip-your-guts-out, emotionally draining few minutes on screen I can recall.
LA LA LAND – This is the most likely film on this list to have wide appeal. It’s deceptively deep, emotionally speaking, and also colorful and musical – somehow both nostalgic and modern. The opening is a rousing musical and dance production number that takes place on a gridlocked L.A. freeway. After that, it becomes much more personal and intimate, though Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still keep our toes tapping.
TOWER (doc) – A superb, creative, informative and emotional documentary about the first U.S. mass shooting deserves consideration as one of the year’s best. Director Keith Maitland uses interviews, animation, and audio to recreate and explain the tragic and captivating 96 minutes from 1966. Of course, even 50 years later, we still can’t make sense of the tragic event.
HELL OR HIGH WATER – Jeff Bridges and his drawl are contrasted with Ben Foster’s high-energy loose cannon and Chris Pine’s simmering internal machinations. It’s a rare contemporary western that’s more effective when it focuses on the individual characters than the too-big-to-fail system it’s attempting to denigrate. For those who enjoy the chase and a slow burn, this one’s likely to be a good fit.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE – How about a quirky, smart and quite funny adventure from New Zealand with a wicked twist on the buddy movie genre? It mismatches a grumpy geezer (Sam Neill) and a tubby young misfit (Julian Dennison), and lets us follow them navigate the bush. Filled with laughs, heart and sincerity … this one is a true gem.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS – I would consider this the most creative script of the year. The overlapping story lines, blurred lines of reality, and fantastic acting combine to make this one of my favorites to watch this year. Three stories – present, past and a demented version of how a decision can impact lives, are brought to life with outstanding performances from Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
SING STREET – Unfortunately, this terrific little film flew under the radar despite deserving a much wider audience. It’s charming and inspirational and carries a nice message. Funny and sweet is a rare combination at the theatre these days, and this one is capped with the song “Drive it like you stole it”. No need to be a fan of 1980’s music (I’m not) to find this one worth watching and re-watching.
A MONSTER CALLS – Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just another movie for kids. It does have the best youth performance of the year (Lewis MacDougall), but it’s also a touching story about loss and leaving, and features expert visual effects enhanced by Liam Neeson’s voice. Wide eyes and tears can be expected as you watch this one from director J.A. Bayona. There is also some underrated supporting work from Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver.
MOONLIGHT – One of the year’s most discussed films, this is a remarkable three part story following the life of a gay black male. We meet him as a confused 9 year old, follow him as an isolated high schooler, and catch up with him as a young adult. This is expert storytelling with a message and struggle that many of us go through, regardless of race and sexual preference. We see him build walls for protection as he searches for his identity and sense of self.
ARRIVAL – Already a must-follow director, Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Incendies) provides a psychological character study in a sci-fi format exploring our contact with alien beings, our insecurities as a species, and the importance of communication. It’s another one that plays with the element of time, and it avoids the explosive destruction that has become so common in the genre. This is sci-fi for thinkers, not just nerds and those jonesing on special effects.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC – Through the eyes of an eccentric father daring to raise kids by his own methods, we witness an excellent commentary on parenting and education. His methods severely contradict societal norms, and we get to see what happens when the “off-the-grid” clashes with suburbia and those things we accept as normal. It’s certainly not a perfect film, but it deserves bonus points for suggesting that kids can be taught to think independently.
JACKIE – What happens when grief and responsibility collide while the world is watching … and you happen to be the most famous woman on the planet? It’s a dramatized look at how Jackie (a career performance from Natalie Portman) creates a legacy for her slain husband, while simultaneously dealing with her own shock, her kids’ confusion, the incoming President, and the very public expectations of the world. It’s also pretty startling to see the JFK lookalike.
SILENCE – Another masterpiece from the legendary Martin Scorcese, but this one is likely to struggle in finding an audience. It’s extremely beautiful to look at while being difficult to watch. The argument could be made that the lead casting doesn’t help the film, but the Japanese actors are certainly a plus. What the film will do is provide a smorgasbord of discussion topics for your post-movie gathering (presuming you can get someone to watch it with you).
ELLE – I’m not sure tastefully twisted even makes sense as a description, but it’s the best I can come up with for another one that’s quite discomforting to watch. It’s a mesmerizing character study of an independent woman engaging in a most bizarre game of cat and mouse. Or is it revenge? Or playful sex games? Rarely, if ever, have revenge and pleasure been so intertwined – and it works thanks to Isabelle Huppert, one of the finest and bravest actresses working today.
PATERSON – No explosions. No special effects. Very little dialogue. It’s a quiet movie about a quiet man who finds poetry in everyday life … except for his dog. We follow Paterson (Adam Driver) as he goes about his week in Paterson, New Jersey. It’s a week where not much happens, yet so much does. He doesn’t so much stop and smell the roses as he observes and thinks about everyday parts of life that most of us take for granted as we rush through our lives.
BASED ON A TRUE STORY: 20th Century Women, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Lion, Loving, Sully, The Birth of a Nation
COMEDIES (subject to your own sense of humor): Everybody Wants Some! (Linklater baseball memoir), Hello, My Name is Doris (Sally Field’s best in years), Love & Friendship (proof that Jane Austen and Kate Beckinsale can be wickedly funny), The Nice Guys (a love it or hate it comedy in the vein of Lethal Weapon), Zootopia (smart, clever, animated)
INDIE DRAMAS: A Bigger Splash, American Honey, Certain Women, Fences, Frank & Lola, Indignation, Krisha, Little Men, Midnight Special (proof that Michael Shannon appeared in almost every 2016 movie)
HORROR: The Witch
MOST UNUSUAL: The Lobster
J.K. ROWLING (she can afford her own category): Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
FOREIGN LANGUAGE: Aquarius (the greatness of Sonia Braga), Magallanes, Things to Come, and these three that were nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar last year: Embrace of the Serpent, A War, Mustang
A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story – from the director of Tower (see above), a nostalgic and behind-the-scenes look at the best live music TV program
De Palma – an intriguing look at the Scarface director, and an even better look at the movie business
Fastball – for baseball lovers it’s hard to beat this look at the high heat
Gleason – inspirational story of an exceptional man (and woman), and what it takes to overcome obstacles
Harry Benson: Shoot First – the renowned photographer takes a look back his journey, one snapshot at a time
Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke – the music takes a backseat to the charisma of James White, owner of the last of the true Texas dance halls.
Miss Sharon Jones! – though she recently passed away, her story and toughness will live on through the film just as her music will live on through her fans
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You – takes us through a revolution in TV from mindless entertainment to societal commentary
Nuts! – an incredulous piece of history that is all too relevant today
The Witness – detailed research into the fascinating and tragic story of Kitty Genovese
Weiner – you will never again doubt the allure of power or question the enormity of a politician’s ego
(not necessarily the worst movies, just expected more)
Allied – We know Brad Pitt had a rough year because this Casablanca-wannabe misfire wasn’t even close to the worst thing that happened to him.
Knight of Cups – I’m still not convinced this wasn’t a prank by director Terrence Malick to see just how far he could push things before we pull back on all the labels of genius and artist
Rules Don’t Apply – Warren Beatty breaks his 18 year directing and 5 year acting hiatus for this mostly flat, mildly entertaining period piece that is too focused on Howard Hughes.
There are a few 2016 films that I haven’t seen yet, so the list is subject to change. Those that I’ll see soon include: Patriots Day; The Founder; Julieta; I, Daniel Blake; Queen of Katwe; The Salesman; Toni Erdmann; Cameraperson
As always, I look forward to hearing from those of you who would like to share your favorites from this past year. Please feel free to share the list and at any time you are welcome to visit my site at https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com
SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES!!