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.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins treads into rare territory with Moonlight. It is a poetic, allegorical story about homosexual awakening. Moonlight is told in three acts with a different actor playing the part of the protagonist. We first meet Chiron as a lonely, fatherless, poor African-American boy in Miami. He is mentored by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali), who tells Chiron to believe in himself, but addicted his mother (Naomie Harris) to crack. Chiron, branded "Little" by the other children, begins a friendship with another boy that becomes carnal. The results are devastating, changing the course of his life until a truthful reckoning.
Moonlight is patient filmmaking at its best. Music and time express what the primary character cannot say in multiple scenes. The film has a very similar feel to Richard Linklater's Boyhood. It's a completely different setting and story, but has the same message about growing up. Let no one define who you are. Moonlight is absolutely brilliant.
4. The Handmaiden
From South Korean Director Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden is based on the Victorian novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. The setting is updated to 1930's Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) lives an isolated life in the country. She is the virtual prisoner of her brutish uncle, Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woon). A slick con man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), has engineered an elaborate scam to steal Hideko's fortune. He enlists Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a nubile girl and master pickpocket, to be her devoted handmaiden. His plan, for Sook-Hee to subtly push the introverted Hideko into his clutches.
The Handmaiden is the most sexually explicit major release since Blue is the Warmest Color. Be forewarned, this one is a barn burner. Park stages titillating interactions that will melt your eyeballs and leave your heart a flutter. He is a master of tension in these scenes. From casual flirtation to full on flesh grinding, this is the definition of adult material. But it is not salacious or cheap. Seduction is an art and a science. As these characters explore each other, the narrative blurs and the mystery deepens. The sex is integral to the story.
The plot is clever and shrouded in layers. We see events from several points of view as the reveals play out. Park's script is spectacularly well-written. I'll liken it to The Usual Suspects or Fight Club. There's a lot going on the surface, but even more than you think once the veil is lifted.
5. The Birth of a Nation
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was a slave born in 1800 Virginia. As a boy, he secretly taught himself the basics of reading. This was forbidden and punishable by death, but his master's wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), shunned convention and taught him to read the bible. Nat's intelligence didn't get him far as he was put out in the fields to pick cotton after his master's death. Nat preached the word of God to his fellow slaves as he grew up. As Nat went from farm to farm, he witnessed horrors that shook him to the core. He also understood that he was being used. But Nat's interpretation of the bible was also changing. It gave him a new religious mandate to strike back against his master.
Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is a brutal, unflinching look at slavery. In a time when race relations have become the hot button subject in an election year, this film is a timely reminder of a deplorable shared history. It shows what evils man can perpetrate on another when viewed as beasts for pure exploitation. The institution of slavery was barbarism incarnate. It built the economic and literal foundation of the United States on the whipped backs of the oppressed. This historical event is an instance where the subjugated fought back with vicious indignation. The Birth of a Nation pulls no punches in telling this story in ghastly detail.
6. Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are terrific in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. It is essentially two films in one, two stories that intertwine to slowly reveal the truth behind both. Adams stars as Susan Morrow, a wealthy and successful art gallery owner. She receives a manuscript, dedicated to her, from Edward (Gyllenhaal), the ex-husband she left in shambles twenty years ago. The book is a violent and disturbing tale, depicting her and a fictional daughter. As Susan reads the novel, we learn about the downfall of her previous marriage. The salacious nature of the story leads Susan to change her opinion about Edward. And cast her current life in a not so flattering light.
Tom Ford has taken the style that made him into a world famous designer deftly into film. His debut feature, A Single Man, was beautifully shot and acted. He takes a giant leap forward with Nocturnal Animals. The film is utterly captivating. It uses disturbing imagery, slick pacing, and dare I say, the best final shot of the year.
Zootopia takes place in a world where animals live side by side in peace. Prey and predators have long abandoned their instincts. Harmony exists as creatures great and small go about their business without fuss. But underlying this utopian paradise are long-held stereotypes that prevent upward mobility. We meet the precocious rabbit, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), as a child in Bunny Burrow. Her dream is to become the first rabbit police officer in the great city of Zootopia. Everyone, including her two hundred and seventy-five siblings, think she's nuts. Only the big and strong animals, like lions, tigers, buffalos, elephants, and hippos, have positions as law enforcement.
At the heart of Zootopia are lessons about prejudice and equality. Don't judge an animal because of what you think they should be. Every animal has a right to pursue their dreams. It seems hokey, like an after school special, but it's not. These messages are taught via stealth not sledgehammer. The writing here is so damn good. I truly believe that every child leaving Zootopia will be a better person having seen it.
Zootopia is superior to Inside Out and Frozen. It's hard to imagine that Zootopia could surpass those colossal hits, but it deserves to. There's no silly music, manufactured melodrama, or superfluous dialogue. Zootopia is a high concept, ingeniously written work of art from Hollywood's storied animation studio.
Natalie Portman is stunning as Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband's assassination. Set in 1963 directly after the funeral, Jackie is a hypnotic portrayal of a woman in a maelstrom. As the country reeled, Jackie was a monument of dignity under duress. Chilean Director Pablo Larrain crafts a sublimely artistic and intimate portrayal of her struggle. She was a devastated wife and mother, but keenly understood the historical weight of the moment.
Pablo Larrain brings an artist's touch to Jackie. His style is mesmerizing, like a lucid dream. He keeps Portman front and center. Following her with long tracking shots as she navigates the uncharted waters. There's an absolutely brilliant scene where Jackie gets drunk as she tries on different dresses for the funeral. As she goes from room to room, the sadness of her situation sinks in. Another part of Larrain's excellent direction is the use of historical footage and Portman's placement. This isn't done like Forrest Gump, but with an inventive sensibility that preaches to the director's vision of the story.
The score by Micah Levi greatly contributes to the effectiveness of Natalie Portman's performance. It is purely orchestral with haunting string and woodwinds that shadow Jackie through her darkest hours. She famously refused to remove the bloodstained pink dress she wore in Dallas. She wanted the world to see what had been done. Levi's accompaniments to these scenes are masterful. His work is a fine testament to how music can help convey meaning and emotion in cinema.
9. Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck has his career best performance in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. He should be a lock to win the Oscar. Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, an alcoholic Boston handyman forced to return to home after his brother's death. Lee is stunned to learn that his brother has left him custody of his sixteen year old nephew, Patrick. As Lee comes to terms with Patrick's situation, the film flashbacks to the horrible tragedy that destroyed his life.
Kenneth Lonergan is an award winning playwright, a master at writing dialogue. He is in top form here. Manchester by the Sea has an intricate, detailed plot. Lonergan puts a lot of meat on the bone for his actors to chew on. Lee is a tormented character, emotionally unable to cope with the demons that haunt him. Michelle Williams, who co-stars as Lee's ex-wife, has brief but powerful moments on screen with him. This is dynamite stuff, hardcore drama.
10. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson returns to directing greatness with the powerfully moving Hacksaw Ridge. It is the fascinating true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first Conscientious Objector to win the Medal of Honor; the highest commendation in the U.S. military. This film is horrifying in its depiction of war. The Battle of Okinawa is unfiltered carnage, an ultra-realistic slaughter that will shock the most jaded of audiences. Against this bloodbath we see the triumph of values and faith; where a man's heroism is judged by the lives he saved, not the enemy killed.
The battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge make Saving Private Ryan look tame in comparison. It's exceptionally gruesome and chaotic. The Japanese fought to the death, by any means necessary, in a stark setting. Gibson excels at staging action that shows humanity at its worst. From Braveheart to Apocalypto, he takes the kid gloves off depicting savagery. This approach would be effective regardless, but it is even more so here. To think that Doss ran headfirst into the grinder without a weapon, or thought of his own life, to save as many people as possible. Mel Gibson, in the midst of reeking death and depravity, shines a light on the best attributes of man.
The dichotomy of a pacifist volunteering for war seems irreconcilable. Hacksaw Ridge is a parable of how values can keep you strong in the worst of places. Desmond Doss stuck to his faith under extreme duress. Because of those beliefs, dozens of men survived the unthinkable. Hacksaw Ridge honors Doss and those who fought without glorification.
11. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is a rousing cinematic adventure loaded with stunning visual effects. It never gets bogged down by melodrama or over reliant on CGI bells and whistles to make up for plot shortcomings. Director Scott Derrickson has crafted a beauty. The action, humor, and pacing had me transfixed from the opening scene.
Benedict Cumberbatch is cast to perfection here. The audience follows his path from egotism to mysticism. As the Ancient One opens his mind, he grows as a character, the literary hero's journey. Much like his portrayal of Sherlock Homes, Cumberbatch infuses Strange with a wry likeability. He develops this unique persona that just elicits empathy. You root for him to succeed and when he notches victories, we're totally onboard for the ride.
The special effects in Doctor Strange are mind-blowing. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much from the trailers. It all seemed like a rehash of Inception. The sorcerers can travel anywhere and manipulate dimensions. The film portrays this as a kaleidoscope effect. The characters have elaborate fights where the setting continually changes. It's pretty freaking cool. It feels great to be proven so wrong. Strap yourself in because this ride is worth the admission.