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 near the top of the Box Office 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.
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 the tragic event still doesn’t make sense.
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.
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”.
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 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.
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. 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 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.
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. What it 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.
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.
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