2016 was a tumultuous, but fascinating year in cinema. Art does represent life, from Indies to blockbusters, heavy themes and conflicted characters were the norm. Casey Affleck, the sure winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, captures the zeitgeist perfectly in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester-by-the-Sea. The average man, haunted by tragedy, struggles to deal with life's unexpected events. The same can be said with the sudden death of Carrie Fisher, an icon that inspired generations. The Star Wars franchise continues to enthrall audiences with the superb Rogue One, but the loss of such a beloved actress leaves us feeling melancholy. The mood at year's end is indeed somber.
In the sea of dark contenders, Damien Chazelle's La La Land is my pick for the best film of the year. La La Land is the light that peeked through the clouds. It is a vibrant, enchanting musical that sparks with creativity. The love story between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress (Emma Stone) will make your spirit soar. Stone deserves to win Best Actress. Her star shined the brightest amongst stiff competition. Amy Adams had a tremendous year with the cerebral Arrival and twisted Nocturnal Animals. Natalie Portman was riveting in Jackie; playing the distraught first lady in the days after JFK's assassination. But Stone, singing and dancing her heart out, stands above with an unabashedly hopeful and earnest performance.
The supporting actor roles belong to the cast of Barry Jenkins Moonlight. This will be the film to beat come award time. Jenkin's poetic tale of a black youth's struggle with homosexuality and poverty is spellbinding. Naomi Harris, who plays his drug addicted mother, and Mahershala Ali, a crack dealing mentor, are two of the year's most nuanced characters. They help bring to a life a story that is rarely told in Hollywood. Jenkins and Chazelle will duke it out for Best Director. I loved Moonlight, but my choice for director is Chazelle. As with his debut film Whiplash, La La Land is simply a cut above. It is a markedly different and dazzling theater experience.
Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden is the best foreign film of 2016. An ultra-erotic, Sapphic romance, the period thriller pushes boundaries over a cliff; but does it with artful purpose. Documentaries had an exceptional year. Ava Duvernay's 13th, about the racial disparity of American prisons, is infuriating and thought provoking. It is a must see and drills down to the core of multiple societal issues.
Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation won the Sundance Film Festival and was an early award favorite. The gripping adaptation of Nat Turner's slave rebellion was derailed by rape allegations against Parker. The case was widely known in the industry and had no effect on Parker's career until now. The campaign to publicize the case torpedoed the film. I make no judgments on Parker's legal problems, but do respect his work as a filmmaker. The Birth of a Nation is a visceral film to watch.
Disney dominated the box office with hit after hit. The parent company of Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Marvel annihilated earnings records. They did it with quality. Zootopia, a CGI cartoon about a bunny cop (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her con fox partner (Jason Bateman), is an animated masterpiece. I was stunned by the ingenuity and execution of the script. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a fairly unknown character in the Marvel lexicon, is the best special effects film of 2016. The mind-bending visuals and humor were completely unexpected.
Continuing on visual effects, film has come to the point where deceased actors can be brought back via CGI flawlessly. We're treading into spoiler territory for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen it. Peter Cushing, an actor that died in 1994, is digitally recreated as Grand Moff Tarkin. Reprising his role as the original villain of A New Hope. The same is done to a lesser extent with Carrie Fisher. The young Princess Leia is seen in the final moments of the film. Disney previewed this technology with a younger Robert Downey Jr. for one scene in Civil War. That pales in comparison to the amount of screen time Tarkin has in Rogue One. Fisher finished shooting Episode VIII before her passing. It is entirely possible that she may still star in Episode IX. We have entered a bold new frontier with frightening and exciting possibilities.
Here are my picks in some select categories. Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land, Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea, Best Actress: Emma Stone, La La Land, Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight, Best Supporting Actress: Naomie Harris, Moonlight, Best Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight, Best Cinematography: Chun-hoon Chung, The Handmaiden, Best Editing: Tom Cross, La La Land, Best Score: Mica Levi, Jackie, Best Soundtrack: La La Land, Best FX: Doctor Strange, Best Foreign Film: The Handmaiden, Best Documentary: 13th, Best Animated Film: Zootopia. Okay, now to my top 11 picks for best movies of 2016, all of which have been previously documented at Rotten Tomatoes.
1. La La Land
Damien Chazelle has crafted a love story for the ages. La La Land takes place throughout the seasons in Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling stars as Sebastian, a brilliant jazz pianist who reveres the classics. Emma Stone co-stars as Mia, a struggling actress bouncing from audition to audition. He can't keep a job because of his refusal to play cheesy music. She works as a barista on the Warner Brothers studio lot; surrounded by the movies, but still so far away. Multiple chance encounters lead to a full blown romance. But does love help you find your dream or get in the way?
You know you're in for something special from the opening frame of La La Land. It grabs you like a hook and never let's go. Chazelle's script is superb. It's pure, honest, and heartfelt. It turns into stardust when mixed with Justin Hurwitz's incredible score. The film has a central song, City of Stars; that is sung in different ways during several scenes. This constant refrain is a measure of Sebastian and Mia's blossoming love. These moments are full of wonder and infectious. Romance is so hard to capture in an artistic way. Chazelle and Hurwitz have achieved greatness here.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will have you swooning. They have an intense, fiery chemistry that sizzles on screen. We've seen a bit of this from them as a couple previously in Crazy, Stupid, Love. They take that connection into the stratosphere with La La Land. One, they can sing and dance. Their duets are magical. Two, they pull off sincerity. In the aw shucks moments, where a film like this can get silly, it doesn't.
2. Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie's dust and bullet-ridden take on poverty is arguably the most overlooked film of 2016. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers turned bank robbers in rural Texas. They are chased by a gruff, decidedly not politically correct lawman (Jeff Bridges) and his American Indian partner (Gil Birmingham). The cat and mouse game between the four mirrors the deep bond they share. The crooks and lawmen have long histories that influence their decisions.
Hell or High Water goes beyond the violence to the roots of action. Chris Pine, in a stark and truthful monologue, explains how poverty has been a disease that ruined his family. The crime spree undertaken is a direct result of hopelessness. The film points a damning finger to the predatory banking system that destroyed the lives of millions.
Hell or High Water plays out like a western. Each character must come to terms with the choices they've made. It is both thrilling and heartbreaking. Jeff Bridges continues to astound. He takes his True Grit persona to a more nuanced level, showing that even the toughest characters are not invulnerable and can feel emotional pain.