It’s Oscar season, and this time last year I considered everything crap. I don’t think this anymore. Like a lot of people last year, I needed the movies more than ever to escape reality. Thankfully, 2016 contained a diverse body of work that entertained, informed or reinforced why we watch and make films. For a couple of hours, anyway.
Of the sixty theatrical releases I saw, I missed some: Bone Tomahawk, The Handmaiden, Elle; Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures; Nine Lives, Independence Day: Resurgence, Warcraft; London Has Fallen, The Choice, and many more. Before I share my favorites of what I have seen, here are some thoughts.
I guess Arrival is considered God’s greatest gift to sci-fi since 2001 according to film critics and, evidently, some of my friends. What did I miss? I swear I saw that film years ago and it was called Contact (or maybe it was Interstellar). They’re all similar, notably towards the end (if you’ve seen them, you know what I mean). I liked the film, but the twist unraveled strangely. Maybe my head is too small, but time travel always sends me down a rabbit hole with a lot of questions and no aspirin. What do you guys think?
Inversely, I was enthralled by Rogue One, especially that Darth Vader line everyone fussed and farted about. This film beautifully blended the special effects and filmmaking of the prequels with the emotional complexity and content of the originals, unlike Episode VII which felt like an endless SNL sketch.
Rogue One belongs to the nostalgia wave of 2016. Others include The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters; Pete’s Dragon, Shin Godzilla, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Hail, Caesar!, and everybody’s favorite, La La Land. Nostalgia sells. Don’t believe me? Buy a Crosley, they’re everywhere. So are remakes, long-winded sequels, and films that remind us of the good old days.
Superhero films also thrived last year. Marvel rocked the box office with Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, and Deadpool, (not owned by Marvel Studios) made a hell of a debut as an independent film. X-Men: Apocalypse concluded the franchise with a dud, but it’s better to fail at the end than at the beginning like Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad. It was a bad year for Warner Bros. Snyder, Rowling and Afleck all struck out. Swing Nolan, swing.
Anyone else love last year’s horror films? Thrill seekers devoured Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring 2 and Lights Out, while film snobs worshipped The Witch, The Neon Demon and 10 Cloverfield Lane. While no one liked The Blair Witch remake, everyone loved the new Shyamalan film.
2016 had impressive performances, including Ben Foster in Hell or High Water and Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals. Shannon won’t win the Oscar, and Foster isn’t even nominated (but Meryl Streep is). Everybody Wants Some!! boasted the best ensemble, and Hailee Steinfeld gave the greatest teen performance since Juno in the coming of age dramedy, The Edge of Seventeen.
Naomi Harris was electrifying as the mother in Moonlight, and while I won’t knock Viola Davis, I only wish they’d put her in the leading category so Harris can have the Oscar. Regarding leads, Casey Afleck has my vote. Maybe Ben should take notes. Three films last year and not a single nomination. Ouch.
BUT the Oscars don’t determine everything, right? Certainly not. Classifying high and low isn’t the purpose of cinema.
And now to contradict myself, here are my top films of 2016:
Here’s to the chums who work.
Like Yasujiro Ozu and Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch demonstrates with his latest gem that the mundane moments matter. We follow a week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson, played expertly by Adam Driver. He routinely walks his dog, eavesdrops on conversations, and writes free-verse poetry. It’s a quiet, observational slice of life, concocted far from the clutches of Hollywood. Forget all you know about American cinema, because Jarmusch prolongs his narrative to create something tangible and true, while Driver expresses human qualities that the average Joe understands. We’ve all been there. Films like Paterson and Everybody Wants Some!! ask the big everyday questions about meaning and love that never go away. It’s a strange and beautiful world.
I’ll get shit for preferring this to Moana. It doesn’t matter, one or the other will win over Kubo. That’s fair, because Disney deserves to shine again as leading craftsmen. Zootopia explodes with depth and quality, both in story and style. I won’t analyze the social themes, but in the context of 2016, they can’t be refuted. When I first saw it, I posted on Facebook saying, “Donald Trump needs to see Zootopia.” I don’t think he has, but one can hope. And pray. And cry.
My favorite line comes from Nick, the fox, who says towards the end, “You can’t be who you want, you can only be who you are,” and what’s wrong with that? Zootopia embraces all possibilities of every kind and reaffirms acceptance through perseverance. And it’s all told by bunch of dirty stinking animals.
8. The Witch
The Witch concerns the oldest, darkest New England folktales about the devil’s ladies, ones we’ve misunderstood or satirized, but takes everything with grave seriousness. Stylistically, it emulates horror classics like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, while its story echoes anything from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. It’s a film lover’s horror delight.
Rather than dim the volume and blast the sound, The Witch develops slowly and disturbingly, relying on psychological horror and association. When the scenes cut, what festers in our minds is almost scarier than that which we see (unless you’re with buddies who refuse to suspend their disbeliefs). Whether the film gets you or not, it’s one of the more exquisitely crafted nightmares in recent years.
7. Captain America: Civil War
I wonder if the MCU can top this. I don’t doubt their ability to congregate fifty plus Marvel characters in the third Avengers, but will they ever produce another perfectly blended action film?
Civil War shows the humanity and repercussions lacking in Ultron. It’s about the responsibility and consequences of being a hero, themes we’ve seen before but not to this scale. So many great scenes make up the film (Vision and Scalett Witch, Black Panther and Spiderman, The Winter Soldier and Antman), but it never feels jumbled or disorganized, only dramatic and intense. Even the writing is developed.
It also features one of the best villains of any recent superhero film, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), a broken man with a hatred for heroes and the chaos they cause. And it’s got Spiderman, whose appearance reminds me of Darth Vader’s in Rogue One. Is it necessary? No, but you know you want it.
6. Hell Or High Water
Forget The Magnificent Seven, this is how you contemporize the American western.
Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) living in Texas rob banks to release their family farm from the hands of the state. The farm contains oil, and the younger brother intends to betroth it to his sons so they won’t starve. Hot behind them is aging Sherriff Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, and his Mexican/Indian partner. It’s a game of cat and mouse, and if it sounds familiar, it should be. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay adapts all the tropes of westerns (and to some degree, heist films) and puts them in fascinating new contexts.
One example is the relationship between Pine and Foster. Their dynamics are intimate and brotherly, even if their objectives are cold and violent. The best moment reveals them horsing around the night before a big score. It’s here that Sheridan discards “good” and “evil” archetypes, instead showing two brothers laughing and dreaming their lives away, trapped in a cruel, harsh world.
This dyamic exists on both sides of the law, as Bridges and his partner share some of more comedic banter like a couple of crotchety old farts. The comedy veils the onscreen violence but never ignores it. There are intense sequences that pay homage to shoot-em up movies of classical Hollywood.
If it was Hollywood, Bridges and Pine would have a Mexican standoff, but it’s 2016, and what actually happens is more interesting.
Biopics are difficult. If there is no perspective, you can read a Wikipedia page instead, but if Hollywood pees on it, the work is condemned. This is not the case with Jackie.
The film unfolds like a stream-of-consciousness novel, with bits and pieces of plot, character and emotion interweaving throughout. Natalie Portman centers the film with rage, disenchantment, hopelessness and strength, things we associate with the assassination of JFK. It treads dangerous ground at times, but does so to inform or emulate the turmoil Jackie Kennedy faced during one of the nation’s hardest times.
The production design and music are my favorite of 2016, creating a place far, far away that some lived but most only read about. Nonlinearity gives Jackie its edge, much like Steve Jobs and its split structure. We had puzzle to piece the person together, although these pieces are much more fragile.
It’s almost impossible to justify why anyone should see this film unless they love art or Martin Scorsese. Those are your categories, it doesn’t get any more accessible.
Silence is a cornerstone for Scorsese, who struggled to make it since 1988. His hunger to tell this story is eminent in every frame, it practically bleeds passion. Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and Adam Driver give the film life, but Scorsese infuses it with the subjugation the harshest persecutions since 12 Years a Slave. It isn’t torture-porn, think more Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman. Why does he do it? Because Silence is a double-edged sword, with faith on one end and fear on the other. We decide. It isn’t a pleasant experience.
The questions in Silence echo Scorsese’s first film, Mean Streets, where he opens narating, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” Garfield and the other Jesuits do it on the soil of feudal Japan, a land Neeson refers to as a swamp. As for the latter statement, God only knows.
3. American Honey
American Honey has the heart of Oliver Twist and the spirit of Peter Pan. That makes sense, since the creator is British, although the film is unmistakably American. It’s about the abandonment of youth and the promise of the American dream, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean today.
The film is neo-realist through its navigation of corners and byways of lower-class America. Most of it is heartbreaking. In the beginning, Star (Sasha Lane), steals expired raw chicken from a dumpster to feed her younger siblings. She is more like their foster mother. “Look sad,” she says trying to thumb a ride.
Later she runs away with a gang of misfits to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. Jake (Shia LaBeouf), encourages her to lie to win customers over. Kids like Star shouldn’t have to go door to door for “college donations.” It isn’t college money, it’s bread money and a full time job. Star fears the more strangers she meets will fail to see who she really is.
She only sees the best in people though, refusing to lie for her money. She’s determined to make her way through honestly, and that word here has multiple meanings.
For all its grit, American Honey shines with beauty and inight. A perfect metaphor for the film comes from the campfire scene, when all the youthful “lost boys” celebrate their success and friendship. They’re all orphaned, and each has a different story, but somehow they’ve found each other. Maybe that is the American dream for them, to find love, purpose and stability. It’s not all just a passing phase.
At some point you have to be who you are. That’s easy for a lot of people.
Not for Chiron. Growing up with a drug-addict mother in Miami, Chiron is pressured by both his peers and his mother to buck up or shut up. Money comes fast if you sell drugs on a street corner and look fierce. He could do that, but he shouldn’t have to. Chiron is also a closeted homosexual, but his effeminacy exposes him, a target for school bullies. Eventually they’ll accept him, right?
Moonlight represents all the fears of coming of age but bursts them onto a contemporary stage boiling with social cruelty and truth. This isn’t a preachy political film, believe me, but there’s a lot going on here that I don’t doubt people hear, see or suppress. Along with American Honey, it’s one of the most important films of 2016, something everyone should see at least once.
The narrative is structured into three acts, separating Chiron into three stages: child, teenager and adult. Each act carries its own emotional weight, and somehow a bridge isn’t needed between them, they fit together seamlessly like snapshots of real life. The performances also drive the film, considering it was a stage play first. Moonlight is a story not about those who need to assimilate to be happy, but of those who must get up, stand up and stand out.
(Ok, couldn’t help the Marley reference in that last sentence).
1. La La Land
I can’t say anything about this film that hasn’t already been said, and that’s fine because it should be experienced rather than interpreted. Kurt Vonnegut summarizes it best: “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” That’s all I need from La La Land. An escape.
Not to say the film didn’t inspire me to pursue my dreams, that’s what it’s about, after all. Yet, La La Land is unique because it both embraces romanticism and rejects it, but never discards the importance of creativity. Life is too short to know everything and be complacent, no matter how big or small your ambitions are or whatever they may be. The significance of life is living it. Aim high, fall hard and get back up, it’s going to be okay. This is why we make films.
Here’s to the fools who dream. Absolutely God damned right.
What are your favorites of 2016?