Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Well here we are, once again!
It has become one of my favorite traditions each year to recognize and celebrate the top examples of cinematic achievement for the calendar year. While 2016 was a difficult year for many marked by loss, never before have I seen such profound artistry and moving stories told through film. 

I like to consider films on both an objective AND subjective scale. Not only must a film be a high example of writing, acting, cinematography, scoring, and direction; but I also must be MOVED and/or DELIGHTED by the film.

While there are few big-budget pictures on my list this year, the indie filmmaker market exploded in 2016, offering numerous surprises throughout the year. For every Batman V. Superman there was a Sing Street...

So without further ado....

Honorable Mentions:

- The Nice Guys - One of this year's most entertaining (and original) flicks was the Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe buddy cop movie from director Shane Black. The 70's setting and hilarious story are part of what makes this movie work so well, but most of the credit is due to Black's writing and direction.

- The Witch - Robert Eggers' chilling horror film is a masterpiece, more of a tale of paranoia and fear than witchcraft. Everything from the atmosphere to the dialogue lends itself to getting under your skin. Anya Taylor-Joy is the top billed actress, yet there is not a bad performance to be seen here.

- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - I know, this one didn't make my top 10 list (please keep reading though!) simply because it WAS a flawed example of filmmaking. HOWEVER, the storytelling in the Star Wars universe has never been quite as strong, and one of the best 3rd acts in recent action film history make this a film worth seeing on the big screen

- Moana - The animation alone gives Moana a spot on this list, rivaling the detail and beauty of Pixar, but the story, characters, and amazing music push this film to the pantheon of such Disney giants as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.

- Other People - Molly Shannon has been known as a comic actress for pretty much her entire career, yet she gives a heart-wrenching performance as a mother dying of cancer in Chris Kelly's pseudo-biographical directorial debut. Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad/Friday Night Lights fame is the lead as her struggling, loner son. 

10. Love & Friendship - directed by Whit Stillman
Kate Beckinsale (yes THAT Kate Beckinsale) is an absolute delight in this adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan. Fast witted, quirky, smart, and a lean 93 minutes; this is one of the best period films to come out of Hollywood in years, and a sure-fire contender for this year's Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. Director Whit Stillman understands the time period well, and manages the high-society dialogue and complicated character relationships with ease, practically dancing from one setting and character to the next. With nothing less than a Wes Anderson-esque intro for each character complete with placard explaining their relationship to Lady Susan, Stillman trusts the viewer to be able to figure out the social circles as you go, choosing to dive right into the story. While it is disorienting at times, this is part of the fun of a Jane Austen story, as the characters themselves often end up hilariously confused. With a supporting cast that boasts Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry, and some of the most detailed and beautiful period clothing and set design, Love & Friendship was a delight, and worth many viewings to uncover even more layers to the humor and wit. 

9. The Lobster - directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
One of the strangest films to be released in 2016 was the modern day parable from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Lobster is set in a fantasy-dystopian version of reality in which each single person is given 45 days to find a romantic partner. The penalty if they fail to do so? They are turned into an animal of their choosing. This bizarre setup is jarring, yet serves as a wonderful staging for a story that examines the nature of sacrifice and relationships. Colin Farrell is delightfully subtle in his performance here, hilarious with simple facial expressions and sighs. Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly round out the talented cast. While the actors themselves are superb, they are elevated to a new level by Lanthimos' direction. So much of the story is told in glances, breaths, and body language; and while the dialogue is smart, it is only part of what makes this work. While the story takes unexpectedly dark turns, there is always a heart to the film and always a ray of hope. Definitely a product of the times we live in, The Lobster is a profound exploration of humanity that serves as a wonderful companion piece to such films as Spike Jonze's Her and Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

8. Captain America: Civil War - directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
It has been a good year for Marvel Studios! While DC (and occasionally Fox) constantly flounders with their comic book properties on screen, Marvel has delivered hit after hit - both critically and at the box office. While Marvel's fall offering, Doctor Strange, was fun and creative, it was not the feat of filmmaking that was Captain America: Civil War. This film had to function as both a sequel to Captain America: Winter Soldier AND Avengers: Age of Ultron. With a cast of at least 16 major characters, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give everyone an organic place in the plot, never shoehorning anyone in, and STILL focusing the plot on Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and his relationship with Bucky Barnes (Stan Sebastian). Despite the massive set pieces and huge number of players, there is still a deeply personal story at the heart of Civil War. Gone are the global stakes and larger than life villains. Instead, we have a story of grief and grey morality that never gives it's audience a clear answer as to who exactly is in the right. Much of this is due to the handling of the story by the Russo Brothers. Somehow, they find the right balance of tone and action. For every airport battle there is an intense and intimate face-off between Tony and Steve, reminding us once again that these are people who are just trying to make the right decisions the best they can. 

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane - directed by Dan Trachtenberg 
While it is not a traditional sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this year's anthology sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves recognition for both the film itself AND it's surprising marketing. A sequel to J.J. Abrams' alien pic had been rumored for years, but J.J. Abrams' Twilight Zone-style series dropped the 2nd entry with little warning. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead offers a fantastic and nuanced performance as a car crash victim who wakes up trapped in a stranger's basement, John Goodman proves once again why he is one of Hollywood's best actors with his performance as her captor. Goodman can be genuinely terrifying at times, as a gender-swapped version of Kathy Bates in Misery, but at times his character is presented in an almost sympathetic light. At it's heart 10 Cloverfield Lane is an escape thriller, but in a similar fashion to Cloverfield, takes an exhilarating sharp left turn in the final act. Much credit is owed to director Dan Trachtenberg for using the bunker setting well to create a sense of confinement and dread. Ultimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane creates an experience, and not a spectacle - which is where the original film faltered. 

6. Hell or High Water - directed by David Mackenzie
I have a love/hate relationship with westerns. While I love the classic films from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, I feel like modern Hollywood struggles with these morally complex anti-heroes. Hell or High Water is the first "modern western" I have seen that boasts both a gripping story and worthy characters. The story setup is simple, allowing director David Mackenzie to examine and explore each character's motives. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard who rob banks to try and save their family farm. Jeff Bridges portrays the Texas Ranger pursuing them who is facing a life crisis of his own as he nears retirement. The story is simple, but the execution is flawless. Pine, Foster, Bridges all deserve recognition for their detailed and layered characters in this film. Mackenzie's direction is brutal and unflinching in his handling of violence, which pairs perfectly in the way he depicts the painful emotional heart of the story. There is no softening to the pain, and the bloodshed is harsh and tangible. In Mackenzie's Texas, life is cruel and every man fends for himself. 

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople - directed by Taika Waititi
Most movie-goers are not familiar with the name Taiki Waititi yet, even though both of his recent directorial efforts are stellar films. While not as raucous as his vampire satire What We Do in the ShadowsHunt for the Wilderpeople is delightfully silly in many places, and deservingly could be compared to the odd sensibilities of Wes Anderson. Where these two filmmakers differ, however, is in the way that they approach grief. Whereas Anderson approaches emotion in a surreal way, Waititi is not afraid to move his audience. At its heart, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about two people who have lost everything. Sam Neill and the wonderful Julian Dennison play a widower and his foster son who are being pursued in a national manhunt after a series of unfortunate circumstances. While trying to survive in the wild they are forced to face their new reality, and their relationship as an atypical father/son. Although Waititi's next feature is Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, I truly hope that he keeps making wonderful and intimate films like this. Few directors have the confident ability to make you laugh and cry so much in the same film. Quirkiness in cinema does NOT necessarily mean devoid of heart, as evidenced here. 

4. Manchester by the Sea - directed by Kenneth Lonergan 
Let me start by saying that Manchester by the Sea is a VERY difficult film to watch. It's tragic in every sense of the word, yet is a powerful exploration (once again) of grief. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a depressed and lonely handyman whose life is uprooted one day when he gets the call that his brother (portrayed by Kyle Chandler) has passed away, leaving him in charge of his 16 year old nephew. Director Kenneth Lonergan utilizes flashbacks to slowly uncover the complex history of this dysfunctional family, weaving a portrait of the relationships, the pain, and the coping mechanisms that each person has turned to throughout their lives. The film is a slow burn, taking it's time to make sure you know each character well before demanding an emotional response. Few films have such a punch-in-the-gut emotional impact. At times I was reminded of the cathartic development from such classics as Good Will Hunting or Dead Poet's Society. The core to this film lies in the performances, however. A screenplay this intense can only work if the actors are talented enough to convey this wide a range of emotion. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are already receiving nominations for their roles, and Academy Award nominations seem inevitable at this point. There is a vulnerability, and a messy emotional core to their acting that brings you into the story as a participant, and not just a bystander. Manchester by the Sea asks you to mourn with this family as they try desperately to move forward with life. 

3. Arrival - directed by Denis Villenueve 
First off, if you are not familiar with director Denis Villeneueve (pronounced den-Ny vill-Newve), stop reading this article and go watch Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy - like RIGHT now! Ok, ready to go? Arrival is the best sci-fi film I have seen in years. Villeneuve is a genius storyteller, and one of the most talented directors working today. In a refreshing change of pace, Arrival imagines a sci-fi story from a more grounded perspective. (Interstellar tried hard a couple years ago, but ended up being a bit too long and pompous  to be completely successful). Through the use of stunning imagery, deliberate pacing, and an intimate group of characters; Arrival tells a very personal story of a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) set against the backdrop of a global alien invasion. Although the core of the storyline revolves around the worldwide effort to communicate with these visitors, as the story plays out we are given snapshots and pieces of information that unlocks Louise's personal journey - leading to the best emotional climax in cinema this year. I really don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, as the way that it unfolds creates part of the experience. This is one of the few films I have seen this year that truly is perfectly balanced in every way. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner work wonderfully together, and mesmerize the viewer. I fully expect this film to be nominated for best Actress, best Director, and best Picture - at the very least! Catch it on the big screen while you can. 

2. Sing Street - directed by John Carney
Irish director John Carney has only 3 directorial credits to his name so far, but each of them has done a stellar job of using music to aid storytelling on screen. Similar in spirit but vastly different from his debut/masterpiece Once, Sing Street tells the story of a young Irish boy named Conor growing up in the 80's who turns to music to escape the pain of his broken home life. For Carney's films, music is a character that challenges and shapes the people of his stories. As an homage to its setting, much of the original music in Sing Street is written in the style of popular 80's music icons - while lyrically containing the angst and frustration that we have seen Conor experience day to day. "Drive It Like You Stole It" is a particularly memorable tune, and has already been nominated for a Critics Choice award. As a musician myself, I love a film that understands the power of music to bring people together, to express oneself, and to escape the harsh realities of life. Carney understands this, portrays it well, and invites you to share this portion of life with Conor. The balance between pain and joy is handled well. While Carney's movies always have a melancholy tone, he knows how to bring out the joy in a moment. Part of this is due to the stellar cast, but Carney is the true auteur here - able to capture a feeling and recreate them on screen. Many of the performances on screen have an unscripted spontaneity to them, reminding the audience that it is the little moments in life that bring you joy and comfort. 

1. La La Land - directed by Damien Chazelle
One of the best movies of 2014 was director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Much of the acclaim for that film revolved around its stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, yet it was one of the most deftly handled films of the year thanks to the confident directorial sense of Chazelle. On paper, La La Land seems impossible to pull off. Many directors have tried - and failed - to capture the sense of wonder and awe that the musicals of classic Hollywood had. The ambition has paid off however, rewarding us with not only the movie that we want to see, but the movie that we NEED to see after such a difficult year. La La Land is the story of Mia and Sebastian, two aspiring entertainers whose lives intersect in an unexpected way - ultimately shaping their paths and the people they are to become. Sort of a modern day combination of Once and Singin' in the Rain, the story is realistic yet never cynical; honesty, yet never without joy. There are tears to be shed, yet enough smiles to warm your heart. Oh, and a lot of singing and dancing! Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are majorly responsible for this, as I have never seen an on-screen couple with better chemistry. Gosling has always been a fine actor, but Stone proves she is a star in La La Land, stealing every scene she appears in. Both appear in impressive dance numbers and although neither of their voices are Broadway quality, both actors are wonderful singers as well. There is a rawness and emotional core to their duets that captures the moment in addition to the song itself. This is where the true magic happens for the viewer. Spontaneous song and dance numbers happen, yet they are more than just a spectacle to tease the eye and ear, they are an outward expression of an inward reality for Mia and Sebastian. While discussing the film with a couple friends, we remarked that Mia and Sebastian aren't supposed to be top notch singers, because in La La Land they are just two ordinary people who fall in love. We are able to relate to them, to root for them, and to feel the joy and sorrow the feel. I could sing praises of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone all day, yet would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the music, written by Chazelle's friend Justin Hurwitz. Since viewing the film I wake up with "City of Stars" and "Someone in the Crowd" stuck in my head (and I am not complaining). La La Land is spectacular, a true work of beauty and joy that is uplifting and entertaining all at once. I'll be viewing it again, and highly recommend you do the same!

PHEW! So there you go! I hope you found this post entertaining and inspiring! I would LOVE to hear YOUR top 10 films of 2016, and I will see you at the movies.

Signing out,