2016 may not have been a great year for everyone, but it was a great year for film. I have not seen every film released this year unfortunately (Toni Erdmann looks especially appealing) but out of what I saw these are the ones that made the cut.
- La La Land
Hearkening back to musicals from the 50’s and 60’s, La La Land is brazenly romantic, lush with color, and extremely well-acted. Superficially, this may seem wildly different from director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, but they’re actually quite similar, as both deal with the idea of artistic ambition.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play aspiring artists (Stone an actress and Gosling a jazz musician) who try to balance their newfound blossoming relationship with their shared ambitions. Their chemistry is electrifying, and their last scene together will leave you both exhilarated and melancholic. It is hard not to see why this is the Oscar frontrunner this awards season. La La Land is a wonderful escape from post-2016 malaise.
I often compare this movie to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, not because they are both coming-of-age stories, but because one may not feel the emotional brunt of the film until the very end. As a chronicle of Chiron’s life, Moonlight is devastatingly beautiful. Despite the fact that three separate actors play Chiron (Trevante Rhodes as an adult, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Alex Hibbert as a child), the transition to each stage in his life is seamless. Mahershala Ali plays a drug dealer who acts as a surrogate father-figure when his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) is unavailable.
We follow Chiron’s journey of discovering his sexuality, and feel his pain when he experiences transient feelings of loneliness. Writer-director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures not only the difficulty in connecting, but also the universal desire for requited love.
3. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford is back with a divisive second feature that plays with truth and reality in a way reminiscent of Gone Girl and Mulholland Drive. Amy Adams plays an art curator who is sent a book written by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Ford and Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey deserve special recognition for making every still of the film look like it could be from a magazine. Also, Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying turn as psychopathic gang-leader Ray Marcus will leave viewers with shivers down their spines.
4. The Lobster
In a reality that could very well be dystopian, David (Colin Farrell) is forced to find a new partner in 45 days or else be transformed into an animal of his choice. Unfortunately for David, finding his new partner is more difficult than he initially thought. This film is unlike any love story you have seen.
The aesthetic for The Lobster is so formal that when something dark occurs, like when a woman attempts suicide by jumping out her window, it is oddly hilarious. Colin Farrell’s steady deadpan delivery walks a fine line that almost borders on parody. Yorgos Lanthimos’s commentary about the unnecessary burdens we place upon ourselves will leave you laughing.
Arrival, in many ways, is the film that Interstellar should have been. It is cerebral yet grounded with humanity. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist who is hired by the military to decode an alien language. Adams graces this Best Of list for a second time, and not by mere coincidence. She ably carries every minute of this film, and the warmth felt by the viewer is because of her. She is rejoined by American Hustle co-star Jeremy Renner, who provides a nice foil to her.
One of their first scenes together has physicist Ian Donnelly refuting Bank’s belief that language is the “cornerstone of civilization.” Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots the aliens’ (named heptapods), alien language in a beautifully ethereal way. Providing a timely story about the need for international cooperation, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Sicario is austere but not cold.
6. Green Room
Hardly anyone saw this film when it was first released and it is a shame. There are several moments in this film that are shocking in their austerity. From a knife to the head to disemboweled bellies, Green Room holds nothing back in terms of gore. Jeremy Saulnier’s indie horror thriller puts its punk band characters in claustrophobic rooms and up against violent skinheads in a fight for their survival. Patrick Stewart is darkly funny as the leader of these skinheads, as his trademark politeness becomes hauntingly false, but it is Imogen Poots who plays the scene-stealing Amber.
Green Room is another film that proves timely, as open xenophobia and racism have become acceptable in this country, but it is also a must-see for fans of Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles.
7. 20th Century Women
Set right here in Santa Barbara circa 1979, Dorothea (Annette Benning) enlists the help of artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (the hilarious Elle Fanning) to help raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). This film explores how these three women affect Jamie, but also how they all affect each other. It perfectly captures its sense of place, and is as free-spirited as its protagonist. Annette Benning plays one of the most complicated characters to appear in cinema: someone who is temperamental, compassionate, honest, private; the list can go on. Mike Mills creates a loving portrait of three generations of women in his follow-up to Beginners.
8. Hell or High Water
Beautifully shot and acted, Hell or High Water is a very trademark Coen Brothers film for a film not directed by them. The film is about two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) who spend their time robbing banks while being pursued by Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). The story’s West Texas setting could almost pass as apocalyptic because of the many foreclosed homes that adorn the streets, but it stays true to the current condition of the United States.
Many characters in the film refuse to get help. Bridges catches the brothers because of their resentment and animosity toward the banks. The dialogue also rings true. In an especially funny scene a diner waitress asks Bridges’ character “What don’t you want?” as opposed to “What will you have?” Oddly enough, if you loved 2015’s The Big Short, you will most definitely love Hell or High Water, as it fits into that same subgenre of post-2008 recession films.
9. A Monster Calls
When first hearing about the plot to this film, in which a boy (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of terminal cancer befriends a talking tree (Liam Neeson), it sounded saccharine. It’s not. Instead, the film is charmingly understated. J. A. Bayona makes an active effort not to overwhelm you with special effects (although some scenes look straight out of a painting), and draws performances from his actors that do not attempt to manipulate the viewer.
Scenes do not dictate how the audience is supposed to feel but rather give them the freedom to get there on their own. The film hits a few familiar story-beats seen in similar movies, such as the requisite child by their dying parent’s bedside, but the script smartly twists those scenes to avoid clichés. Felicity Jones has a lovely heart-breaking scene with her son that will leave you in tears.
10. The Jungle Book
The setting and world of The Jungle Book is beautifully tactile and immersive in a way that Avatar was when it was first released. The audience does more than just see various colors on the screen. They feel the pain that Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) feels when she has to say goodbye to her son Mowgli (Neel Sethi).
This is not merely a copycat of the Disney animated version. Although you may hear brief snippets of “The Bare Necessities” or “I Wan’na Be Like You,” the script cleverly adapts to make it more cohesive than the animated version ever was. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) deserves full credit for improving upon the predecessor, something remakes rarely do.