Last year wasn’t a good year for movies. It seemed that every other weekend saw the release of a second-rate animated film, or of yet another superhero sequel. I still haven’t seen Moana (which, as it happens, garnered strong reviews) or X-Men: Apocalypse (which did not).
There were several bright spots, however. Most of them came late in the year, and by the usual troupe of go-to writers, actors, and directors. Robert Zemeckis teamed up with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard for Allied, a throwback to classics like Casablanca. (If only it was shot in black-and-white.) Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks worked together for the first time on Sully, one of the shorter – and better – movies of the year. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Amy Adams, Jeff Bridges, Emma Stone, and Michael Keaton all showed up…some of them (the five-times-nominated Ms. Adams, for one) more than once!
Two trends revealed themselves as the nominations were announced: films starring minorities, and films based on actual events. Hidden Figures introduced us to the black women who worked, unheralded for many years, on NASA’s computing team, while Loving showed us what went down when a white man married to a black woman was told that he and his wife could not live in Virginia. Both movies took place in the same state, and around the same decade, and the events depicted in them really happened. Stylistically, however, they couldn’t be more different.
Hidden Figures and Loving each earned slots on my top ten list for the year. They are joined by eight other worthy films…three of which, like the two mentioned above, are based on actual events!
GringoPotpourri’s Top Ten Films of 2016:
- Manchester by the Sea: In 2000, the low-budget indie You Can Count on Me was released, to much acclaim. In the movie, siblings of opposite genders and lifestyles reunited following the deaths of their parents, and gradually learned to lean on each other and to complement each other in areas where one person was weak and the other was strong. That film’s director, Kenneth Lonergan, showed promise, although we hadn’t seen much from him during the intervening years. His latest film, Manchester by the Sea, is another study on grief in small town America, and on the difficulties in putting the pieces back together again. The New England town of the title is where taciturn Boston custodian Lee Chandler finds himself returning to after learning that his brother (Kyle Chandler) died of heart failure, and that Lee was named sole guardian of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, a sort of cross between Jesse Eisenberg and Matt Damon). As if that weren’t enough, locals look at Lee with a suspicious eye, and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, devastating in a small role) regards Lee as the devil incarnate. What happened here so many years ago…and will Lee be able to relate to the nephew he barely knows? It is all pretty heady stuff, but Lonergan’s screenplay peppers enough humor to keep the proceedings from becoming too grim. His direction is more assured this time around, particularly his control of the camera (more wide shots, fewer boom mics peeking into the frame). As for the acting, Affleck gives a Master Class. His sullen, inward performance is the key to understanding Lee’s motivations and regrets.
- 13th: Documentaries about social issues should be informative and infuriating. 13th, written and directed by Ava Duvernay, is one such film, and is a call to action in the era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The “13” of the title refers to the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery but included (in bold) a devastating, long-abused clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words: plantation slavery wasn’t so much abolished as it was replaced by for-profit prison labor, with 25% of the world’s prison population coming from the United States, where African-Americans comprise 6% of the population but 40% of its inmates. Devastating stuff, with testimonies from both side of the aisle ranging from Charlie Rangel to Newt Gingrich. Duvernay, who directed 2014’s Selma to good reviews but no Best Director Oscar nomination, gets everything right in this damning documentary, which opened six weeks before the 2016 presidential election and left neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton unscathed. If you take just one thing from it, remember this: one out of 17 white males in the U.S. will spend time in prison, while one out of every three black males will suffer the same fate.
- Moonlight: Movies like Moonlight play to crowded art houses in Chicago and large coastal cities, but rarely even make it to theaters in places like Eastern Tennessee. So color me surprised when Moonlight opened locally on the last Friday in January. I knew the movie wouldn’t play long, so I went out of my way to see it on opening night. Alas, I was the only person in the theater. That is too bad, because Moonlight, one of the most intimate motion pictures I have ever seen, is one of the finest films of the decade. Nothing much happens in the film in terms of Earth-shattering events. No one dies onscreen. There aren’t any car chases. Nobody discovers long-dormant superpowers. On the other hand, a world opens up onscreen – a world for Chiron, the young man at the heart of all three chapters of the film’s story. Chiron is poor, black, gay, and, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. Sure, his mom (a de-glamorized, Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris, Miss Moneypenny in the 007 films) claims to love him, but she loves her crack habit more. He finds some refuge (short-lived) and gains some confidence courtesy of Juan (an also-nominated Mahershala Ali), the hoopty-driving drug lord who is the closest thing to a father Chiron has. Ultimately, though, Chiron’s journey to contentment is one he must take on his own. Rarely has a movie left such an impact while having so few major stars, such little dialogue, and such a simple story. Newcomers Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, playing Chiron at various stages in life, are nothing short of revelatory. Writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose previous work I am unfamiliar with, helmed a movie with the apparent confidence of a filmmaker with dozens of features under his belt. In particular, his choice of music – classical and hip-hop and Spanish – is spot on.
- La La Land: I despise the term “sleeper hit” because it suggests that a movie was never intended to be a financial success in the first place. But that is exactly what La La Land, the latest film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, is. The film takes place almost entirely in the Los Angeles of today, but LA is re-imagined as an LA of an indistinguishable era, where women drive Priuses and wear poodle skirts and men wear period fedoras while recording music on state-of-the-art equipment. The woman and man in question are Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and in this cautionary love story they must choose between love and career. Mia is a barista who goes to one audition after another. She keeps crossing paths with Sebastian (whom she calls “Seb”), a cranky standards pianist who yearns to open the jazz club of his dreams. It is never a question of if they will find love, but when. And will that love endure as their careers take off? More importantly, why do they keep breaking into song and dance? Is La La Land a movie that you will like? Did you like Whiplash, about the drive for perfection in jazz music? Or Rebel without a Cause, with its young, troubled dreamers? Have you seen An American in Paris? If you like those films, you’ll like La La Land. The film has a singular energy that you seldom see in movies anymore, and if its singing isn’t perfect or its running time is just a bit long, it wins you over with its ambition and its dazzling cinematography. The opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie: Did you ever imagine that this stand-alone Star Wars movie, which actually takes place immediately before the events in Episode IV: A New Hope, would be better than 2015’s The Force Awakens? Yeah, me neither. Except it is, by a country mile. I will go one step further and say that it rivals Return of the Jedi as the best Star Wars movie since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. The story finds fiesty Jyn (Felicity Jones, who previously played Mrs. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) living a rag-tag existence and keeping secret the fact that she is the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist forced against his will by Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire to build a planet-destroying weapon that may or may not be the dreaded Death Star. Jyn joins a motley crew that includes a blind monk (Donnie Yen, who steals his every scene) and a sarcastic, reprogrammed imperial droid (Alan Tudyk) on a mission to rescue her father, who supposedly programmed a weakness into the weapon’s design. Not-quite-spoiler alert: it’s a suicide mission. If you are as rabid a Star Wars fan as everyone else I know, you’ll love the AT-AT walkers, the digitally recreated Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, who died in 1994), that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Artoo and Threepio cameo, and Darth Vader, all menace and fury as voiced by James Earl Jones. Rogue One isn’t a perfect movie; its first 35 minutes are rather dull, and there aren’t any major lightsaber battles. But once it gets going, it never lets up, and even though you know that the good guys ultimately win, the ending, which, in terms of continuity, is about as perfect as it could be, will surprise, move, and thrill you. A triumph.
- Hidden Figures: 2016 was a phenomenal year for movies about the African-American experience. At least four movies about that general subject made my top ten list. Hidden Figures is the third. The “hidden figures” of the title can refer to two things: a) the trio of real life black women from rural Virginia who worked, with little fanfare, behind the scenes at NASA, crunching the numbers that helped launch John Glenn into space, and b) the numbers themselves, math so complicated I lost the flow once the first exponent appeared on one of the chalkboards in the film. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play the women in question, and all merit Oscar consideration (Spencer received a nomination). Henson has the most screen time, playing mathematician Dorothy Jackson, who faces a one-half mile walk to the opposite side of campus each time she has to use the restroom. Spencer plays the authoritative Dorothy Vaughan, who supervises a team of all-black computers but has neither the title nor pay of a supervisor. Pop singer Monáe, who was also in Moonlight, plays Mary Jackson, who takes legal action to become NASA’s first black engineer. These lovely ladies, aided by Kevin Costner in his liveliest performance in years (he plays Henson’s hard-driving, level-headed boss), make you want to stand up and cheer. A winner.
- The Founder: It was the 1950’s and milkshake mixer salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was in his fifties when he met Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), brothers who owned and operated a wholesome hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The fast-talking Kroc, desperate for a sure thing, convinced them to put him in charge of franchising the restaurant, leading to “McDonald’s #1” in Des Plaines, Illinois. “What does that make us?” Dick asked, feeling as if he was left in the lurch. The relationship between the visionary Kroc and the conservative McDonald brothers is the engine that powers director John Lee Hancock’s snappy, compelling The Founder. We learn that while the “Speedee” system of burger assembly kept the lines moving across all Mickey D’s locations, the brothers often disapproved of Kroc’s suggestions, such as powdered shake mix to save on refrigeration costs, or Coca-Cola logos on menu boards to earn sponsorship dollars. It was Kroc’s feeling of being hamstrung that led him to ultimately betray the brothers. We cannot help but root for Kroc as he turns the McDonald’s Corporation into a real estate empire, buying property and leasing it to franchisees. One review described The Founder as the first movie of the Trump presidency, and while the movie isn’t always sure of whether to revere Kroc or revile him, the film is a different kind of biopic than The Rookie, The Blind Side, and Saving Mr. Banks (other biopics directed by Hancock). Where those were populist, feel-good entertainments, The Founder is brightly-colored, yet acid-tongued. And Keaton is a national treasure.
- Hacksaw Ridge: Desmond T. Doss might be the greatest World War II hero that you’ve never heard of. Mel Gibson has, however, and his triumphant return to directorial respectability landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and five additional noms including Best Picture and Best Actor (Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss). The stalwart (“square” might be a better word to describe him, and taken right from that era) Doss plays a Seventh Day Adventist living a poor, troubled life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A pacifist ever since he almost shot his father while wrestling a hand gun from the grip of the alcoholic old man, Doss nevertheless believes it is his duty to enlist and help his fellow countrymen fight the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. He and his fellow platoon mates, led by a gruff Vince Vaughn, get more than they bargained for at Hacksaw Ridge, a rocky hellhole on Okinawa that finds the entire battalion pinned down and used as mincemeat. It was at Hacksaw Ridge where Doss saved 75 lives…without ever raising a gun. While the entire film echoes 1941’s Sergeant York in theme and message, and seems, at time, like a movie from an earlier, more wholesome generation, it makes its own mark in the pantheon of war films. Saving Private Ryan has been the longtime gold standard for gruesome WWII combat sequences, but Steven Spielberg may have to pass the torch. I have never seen a movie as gruesome as Hacksaw Ridge. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Gibson’s filmography; the man makes visual, slow motion poetry out of exploding grenades, severed limbs, and machine gun fire.
- Loving: It is the mid-1950’s, and Richard and Mildred Loving are in love. A single look into their eyes tells you that, as does Richard’s reaction when Mildred tells him she is pregnant. But in rural Virginia where they live, the fact that Richard is white and Mildred is black poses a problem. They sneak off to Washington, DC to get married (“There is less red tape there,” Richard explains), only to be arrested upon their return. The judge’s verdict: spend 12 months in prison or leave the state for 25 years. Their solution (one that takes 10 years to fully come to fruition): bring their case to the Supreme Court! Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, is one of the quietest films I have ever seen. Richard (Australia’s Joel Edgerton) barely says 15 words throughout the entire film, and Mildred (Ethiopia’s Ruth Negga, a real find) hardly raises her voice above a whisper. But their love for one another is never less apparent than when it comes under fire. The movie, while said to be a fictionalized telling of their story, is old fashioned, detail-oriented, and wholly, unabashedly romantic.
- Hell or High Water: It isn’t until over halfway into Hell or High Water that you gain an understanding of why the Howard Brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) have it out for Texas Midland Bank, the branches of which they keep successfully robbing. As it goes in crime films, though, their luck is about to change. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (a fine, Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges) is on their case, and if that isn’t enough, he has taken it upon himself to teach his half-Indian, half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) everything he knows – when he isn’t lobbing insults at him. Brothers Toby (Pine, the level-headed one) and Tanner (Foster, the unhinged one) butt heads over how they’re going to pull everything off, and the tension builds to a conclusion that is infinitely more satisfying than the one reached in 2007’s similarly-themed No Country for Old Men. I initially dismissed Hell or High Water as a B-movie when it was first released in late August. Strong reviews had me reconsider…and I’m glad I did. The movie opens with a Camaro speeding past a shuttered building with the words “Three tours of Iraq and no bailout for us” tagged on the side. This image suggests that audiences are in for more than just a chase movie, and if the contemporary western doesn’t always sustain that level of high art, it at least keeps your butt firmly planted in the seat for 102 minutes.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order):
- Allied: Casablanca meets Mrs. Miniver meets The English Patient in this (mostly) old-fashioned WWII romantic thriller. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard play Allied spies who fall in love during a mission in Morocco and then start a life together in London. When Pitt learns that his wife may not be all that she seems, he must choose between love and country.
- Arrival: Aliens park their egg-shaped UFOs over a dozen countries in the world and teams of linguists (including Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) try to translate their language, which sounds like a symphony of tubas. What Adams in particular learns will change the way we think about time itself. Arrival, directed by Denis “Sicario” Villeneuve, has a few too many unanswered questions to crack my top ten list, but it is intelligent and original. Adams, as usual, is phenomenal.
- Captain Fantastic: The “superhero” of the title is Ben, a newly-widowed father of seven children, all of whom are home schooled in the family’s Pacific Northwest tepee. Together, the family lives off the land, resolves arguments through reasoned debate, and is in top physical and intellectual shape. Circumstance forces them on the road and into regular society, where they are fish out of water and where Ben must question everything he holds dear. Strong performances by Viggo Mortensen as Ben and Frank Langella as Ben’s disapproving father-in-law, Jack.
- Deadpool: I have long thought that Ryan Reynolds is too wink-wink self-aware to be taken seriously as an actor, but that cockiness actually makes him the perfect person to play Wade Wilson, a former Special Ops soldier who reinvents himself as the violent Marvel superhero Deadpool, a sort of anti-Avenger with a penchant for butt plugs and breaking the third wall. Fun stuff, but not for the kiddies.
- Fences: August Wilson’s 1983 allegorical play about the familial destruction waged by Troy, a hard-drinking Pittsburgh sanitation worker and one-time Negro League baseball phenom won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. James Earl Jones played the role in its initial run, and a Broadway revival 17 years later cast Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Troy’s long-suffering wife, Rose. Both won Tony Awards for their performances, and both are Oscar nominees for their screen portrayals here. Davis, always a force of nature, walks away with the movie, and that’s not an easy thing to do when acting opposite the always-charismatic Washington.
- Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep earned her 20th(!) Oscar nomination for playing the title character, a high society New Yorker circa World War II who has a profound lack of musical talent and a yearning to be an opera singer. Funny and optimistic, the movie is based on a true story and features strong supporting work by Hugh Grant as Florence’s common-law husband and The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as her ever-patient accompanist.
- Lion: A sort of companion piece to 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, Lion tells a similar tale about an Indian boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Young Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar, a revelation) boards the wrong train one evening and ends up over 1,000 miles from home. He is eventually adopted by a loving Australian couple (David Wenham and Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman), and grows up to become Dev Patel (also nominated). But whatever happened to the family he became separated from so many years earlier? Bring tissues.
- Nocturnal Animals: A before-and-after love story, and a movie-within-a-movie, are just two ways to describe this stylish (but icy) mystery from A Single Man’s Tom Ford. Amy Adams (having a banner year) plays an art dealer who cheated on her first husband and is now being cheated on by her second, Jake Gyllenhaal plays tricky dual roles, and Michael Shannon compels as a detective from the vast expanse known as West Texas.
- Sully: It seems that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has forgotten that Tom Hanks continues to be one of Hollywood’s best actors. He follows up 2015’s Bridge of Spies by playing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, fast-acting pilot of doomed U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which crash landed in New York’s Hudson River. Terrific visual effects and a “real time” feel add to the suspense.
Have I omitted any worthy 2016 films from this list? Leave a comment below and let everyone know!