Some years in film end with a whimper; a serviceable cycle of blockbusters and smaller independent films and art house fare. But not 2016, which has shaped up to be a remarkable year for movies.
If many have lamented 2016 as an endless litany of loss (Prince, David Bowie, Harper Lee, Gene Wilder, etc.), the year in film offered some consolation that for every death of an irreplaceable artistic great, there is a new generation of artists to replenish their ranks. Where there is art, there is always hope seemed the theme of 2016 as both big-budget Hollywood behemoths and shaggy indies offered a jewel box of delights.
From the rueful science fiction thriller “Arrival,” a valorization of reason in the face of fear and discord, to the imperfect but important celebration of the American space program’s forgotten heroines, “Hidden Figures,” to the determined little girl adventurer of Disney’s “Moana,” films in 2016 often told the stories of unconventional heroes: black, female and gay.
So if you’re looking for some worthwhile, thoughtful entertainment for your holiday break and beyond, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these films, some of the best of the year.
‘La La Land’
Director Damien Chazelle’s gorgeous, heartfelt homage to two dying art forms, classic film and jazz, is also the most romantic love story of the year. This musical inflected with a modern, indie sensibility features Emma Stone as a struggling actress in love with old movies and Ryan Gosling as a jazz-obsessed piano player who dreams of resurrecting a shuttered jazz club. Chazelle wrests an incredible amount of feeling from a yearning for lost art forms, even as he brings a similar wistfulness to the story of two young dreamers whose love of art is inextricably tied up with their love for each other.
Told over the course of 16 years, this deeply moving, utterly unconventional coming-of-age story follows a black child growing up in poverty in Miami, saddled with a mother addicted to crack and the casual violence of his neighborhood and his peers. A deeply compassionate portrait of a young man growing up gay in an environment inhospitable to difference or vulnerability of any kind, “Moonlight” overturns every cinematic cliche about black life, black masculinity and inner-city poverty to show the brutally honest truth that every life is unique and worthy of consideration.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain, in his English-language debut, peels back Jacqueline Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) cool, detached, aristocratic veneer to show her steely strength and resolve in the days following the 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. This unconventional, artful biopic is a tour de force performance from Portman as this most famous of first ladies. A brilliant, memorable soundtrack from Mica Levi only adds to “Jackie”’s resonance.
August Wilson’s play about family, racism, disappointment and poverty feels as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1983. Director and star Denzel Washington is a 1950s-era Pittsburgh garbage collector, Troy, pickled in regret and shame who replays past traumas on his son. Viola Davis nearly walks away with the film as Troy’s long-suffering wife, the heart and soul of her family who is both ruined and bound by the couple’s shared wounds.
‘Manchester by the Sea’
A man, Lee (Casey Affleck), who might be called a failure, working as a janitor in a grim Boston apartment building, learns he is the appointed guardian of his teenage nephew following his brother’s sudden death. Director Kenneth Lonergan specializes in richly detailed portraits of ordinary people and the experiences that shape them. The heartbreaking “Manchester by the Sea” shows the layers of tragedy underpinning Lee’s life and how he has been deformed by an unimaginable loss.
‘Love & Friendship’
Whit Stillman’s irrepressibly clever, hugely entertaining adaptation of a Jane Austen novella, “Lady Susan,” stars a saucy Kate Beckinsale as a deliciously sharp-witted, scheming widow determined to remarry well. But nothing is as it seems in this labyrinthine drama whose heroine is always two steps ahead in this witty, briskly paced comedy of manners with some of the tartest dialogue around.
Possibly the most surreal, disturbing film you’ll see this year, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian drama follows Colin Farrell in a risk-taking role as a guest at a remote resort with a bizarre hook: fail to find a mate among your fellow guests after 45 days and you will be turned into the animal of your choice. Lanthimos’ black comedies are unsettling parables that fuse reality and science fiction to pull the proverbial rug out from under viewers’ feet, as “The Lobster” does in its strange take on relationships, love and loyalty.
Not for the faint of heart, this provocative Korean drama from shock-master Park Chan-wook tells the salacious, topsy-turvy historical tale of a Korean country girl with a nefarious plan up her sleeve, hired to act as handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese heiress. A decidedly adult drama with ample servings of kink, “The Handmaiden” also boasts some of the most gorgeous cinematography in a film this year.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
If you think the present is the province of outspoken boundary-testers and button-pushers, then Raoul Peck’s documentary on the black novelist and social critic James Baldwin is a necessary corrective, an affirmation that some of our most radical thinkers may be behind us. Centered on the sort of public intellectual we seem to have lost in our present age, “I Am Not Your Negro” is both incendiary and unbearably sad for reminding us of how rarely our deepest assumptions of what it is to be American are challenged.
An off-the-rails, irrepressibly wacky comedy with a heart of gold, German director Maren Ade‘s feature is a strong contender for the best foreign language film Oscar. Practical joker Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is certain his driven, humorless daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), trying to make strides in her corporate job, has sold her soul to the Man. So he flies to the impoverished Bucharest where Ines’ German company is making a killing to essentially goose his daughter out of her lethargy, showing up at cocktail parties and business meetings in ludicrous disguises. Much more than an absurdist comedy, “Toni Erdmann” is also a canny deconstruction of a modern, soulless age when the business of making money comes at the price of ignoring the human misery all around you.
A heart-pounding drama about America’s first experience with mass shootings, “Tower” tells the story of the 1966 sniper attack carried out by an ex-Marine from a University of Texas clock tower. Told in a combination of traditional documentary talking-head interviews, newsreel footage and rotoscope animated re-enactments, “Tower” shows the chilling events that played out on that terrible day.
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