2016 [in Film]

As with last year, I don’t really see the point in building any suspense when it comes to sharing my favorite films. It’s not like you’ve been holding your breath, wondering what I’m going to say. (And if you have, thanks for being such a big fan. And sorry for the lack of ceremony here…)

The best film of 2016, far as I’m concerned, is Moonlight. Exceptional in every aspect, it is the nuanced yet powerful story of a boy becoming a man and the forces – internal and external – that shape him. Where Boyhood relied on a gimmick (albeit an impressive one) to chronicle one character’s life, filmmaker Barry Jenkins managed to find a perfect trio to carry the story of Chiron through the three phases of the film.

At times sparse, at times brutal, always honest, I found myself holding my breath as the camera did nothing more than pan across a scene. Such is the care the film takes with details, such is the emotions it illicits. At a glance, I have nothing in common with Chiron or any of the struggles and challenges he faces. And yet, the film soars both in the empathy it triggers for these strangers on screen, and in the universal truths of the journey we’re all on in this life.

After Moonlight, there are a handful of films I’d recommend as best of the year. I’ll preface this by saying there’s a lot I haven’t seen (Silence, Toni Erdmann, Paterson, I Am Not Your Negro, Hidden Figures, on and on…). I may catch many of these in January and still consider them tops for 2016. I also didn’t see enough docs or foreign films (or at least, enough good ones) to create my own separate lists for each of those. I’ve included a couple favorites in each of those genres below.

After Moonlight, here’s what I loved most this year:

Kubo and the Two Strings – I didn’t expect an animated feature to rank so high on this list, either. But the truth is, this poignant, beautiful film wrecked me and I loved every minute of it. A bit predictable as the story unfolds, it’s nevertheless a life-affirming love-fest, the kind of film that reminds you what’s most important in this crazy, mixed-up world we live in. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so at the first chance you get.

Manchester by the Sea – In an interview on Fresh Air, filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) talks about an early draft of the screenplay for Manchester that wasn’t working, that in it’s linear structure, something was lost in translation. That’s stuck with me, because it’s the flashback nature of the film that is so compelling, Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) story unfolding in such a way to help one understand as the film goes on just what this man’s been through. Elevated by exceptional performances (god, is it wonderful to see Michelle Williams on screen again), it’s a moving examination of grief, at times unexpectedly funny and almost impossibly devastating. Affleck takes my Best Actor honors; Williams my Best Supporting Actress

La La Land – Earlier this year, I would’ve expected this gem of a film to be higher on my list. I really do love everything about it. But as I looked at what else I loved and why, Damien Chazelle’s modern musical slips just out of my top three, if only because there can only be three in a top three. As someone who grew up on old Hollywood musicals, I reveled in every tap dance and twirl, the big showstoppers and the pensive solos. As someone living and working in the reality of the new millennium, I treasure the modern perspective imbued throughout (particularly – no spoilers! – the ending). While there may not be any single number that lives on (like Good Morning, a magical, memorable scene all on its own), if La La Land serves as inspiration for a revival of the movie musical, it’s a success indeed.

Jackie – In the last year or so, I’ve become a bit of a Pablo Larrain fan. Representing The Club‘s U.S. release and awards run, I dug into his early works as a bit of professional research, and then saw Neruda as an early Festival screening. What’s wonderful about Jackie (aside from a resplendent Natalie Portman, of course) is watching Larrain work his filmmaking magic in the powerful story about the First Lady’s life in the week after JFK’s assassination. He effortlessly marries the aesthetic of big Hollywood (English language, big budgets, etc.) with his own signature style, that of an auteur with a singular vision of the final product. Portman takes my Best Actress honors for the year

Sing Street – The second music-centric title on this list, it’s also the only one here I’ve already seen a second time, I enjoyed it so much. I caught it first at a late night screening at SXSW, a personal treat after a day filled with work screenings. And what a treat it is. John Carney (Once) transports us back to those innocent days of the early ’80s, complete with big hair, bad eye makeup and mix tapes on cassette. First and foremost a story of young love and the lengths we’ll go to pursue it, it finds its meaning in a deeper story of family dysfunction, fighting the man and figuring out how to build the lives we want.

Moana – I didn’t see this until several weeks after it was released, so the initial buzz had died down quite a bit. Honestly, I think I forgot all the great reviews it was getting, because I was so genuinely impressed with the whole thing it quickly found a spot on this year-end list. Unapologetically Disney in every way, it still manages to break new ground in that canon with the absence of a love story or any problematic princess rescuing. The story of a determined young woman who sets out on the journey of a lifetime guided by her grandmother (all to the musical stylings of one Lin-Manuel Miranda), it’s one of the best Disney offerings in years (and yes, I remember Frozen).

I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach is 80 years old and, after seeing I, Daniel Blake, is apparently as on his game as ever. Blake is a widower recovering from a heart attack, and while his actual doctors tell him he’s not well enough to return to work, the bureaucracy between him and his state benefits says he is. Heartbreaking and frustrating at nearly every turn, it’s nonetheless a meaningful consideration of human connection and all the ways we make life difficult for each other, intentionally or not. Though it takes place abroad, it’s as likely to reflect reality here, too – and could do well to be screened for representatives across the public service sector.

Weiner – I’ve only seen nine of the 15 documentaries shortlisted for an Oscar this year, and this remains my favorite, so much so that it lands a spot on my overall best of the year. Perhaps because I was living in NYC as much of the drama of the film unfolded and I remember it all well. Perhaps because I saw it in a sold-out screening where the awkwardness of it all was tangibly heightened. Regardless, the film and it’s subject are the car crash we can’t stop looking at, the brushfire that can’t be contained. With alarming transparency, Weiner’s life and career crumble on screen, and remarkably, he just marches right on. There’s a slimy resilience to him – you hate to acknowledge it, but it’s there. Then there’s the collateral damage, the staff and family scrambling to keep it together and trying to figure out where the line is and if they’ve crossed it…it’s all undeniably compelling.

Love & Friendship – I went back and forth about what to include in this last slot of ten great films this year, as there are several (see honorable mentions below) that could’ve found their way in. Love & Friendship won in the end for its wit and bite, for its fast pace and sharp edges, all presented with a wink and a sly smile. Kate Beckinsale steals the show as Lady Susan Vernon, determined to find a suitable living situation for her and her daughter in Whit Stillman’s Austen adaptation. Practically Shakespearean in its multiple storylines, it keeps you on your toes at every moment, and every moment is joy.

As happens with these things, as I dug into my list of 140+ films, I was reminded of just how many quality films I did see over the year. So I’m inclined to include a few honorable mentions here, films I thoroughly enjoyed and, while they didn’t elevate to the level of my top ten, are still worth a look. Discomfort reaches new levels in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, an intelligent and bracing (and funny) commentary on modern love. Mike Mills returns after telling his father’s story in The Beginners to examine his mother and the women who influenced his formative years in 20th Century Women, featuring a stunning turn by Annette Bening. Hell or High Water is the modern shoot-’em-up western 2016 didn’t know it needed. And Elle lands on my list not because I loved it (though it is masterfully made), but because I can’t stop thinking about all its many implications on filmmaking, feminism and rape culture. Also, because Isabelle Huppert is an international treasure.

Though the films wouldn’t be considered anything worth top honors, a few featured noteworthy performances for me this year that warrant a mention. Paul Dano channels his best Tom Hanks in Cast Away for his role in Swiss Army Man, carrying the film alongside Daniel Radcliff’s flatulent corpse. Though it unravels by the end, Dano achieves something quite incredible, bringing the audiences along despite an otherwise absurd premise. And Susan Sarandon’s intrusive New Jersey mother in The Meddler is as charming as she is annoying. With humor and sincerity, no matter how much she aggravates, the fact that she means well ultimately wins out. Combined with the mother-daughter chemistry between Sarandon and Rose Byrne, this one’s worth a rental.

Also of note: a few of my favorites from this year’s festival scene – particularly the Chicago International Film Festival, to which I’m a bit partial. As narratives go, Are We Not Cats wins the day for me. Absurd and gross (I actually gagged at one scene), it’s also a happily-ever-after in its own very weird way (with great music). For someone who doesn’t always seek out the scary stuff, I loved The Autopsy of Jane Doe and its classic horror film reveals, each more and more disturbing as they unfold. Anchored by the strong duo of Brian Cox and Emil Hirsch, you can find it out on various platforms now – though perhaps watch with the lights on. And the documentary that made the most impact on me was Forever Pure, about what happens when an Israeli soccer team adds its first Muslim players. With breathtaking speed, fans go from cheering on the sidelines to rioting in the streets. Though focused on the microcosm that is international soccer, its a highly relevant story on a broader scale.

So this post proved to be way longer than I planned. Turns out, I like to talk about movies. I suppose I could’ve split it up into a few different ones, but where’s the fun in that?

What films did you love this year?