My Top Twenty (One) Films of 2016
1). La La Land (2016) PG-13 A musical about a determined jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who falls in love with an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) in Los Angeles. This is a magical film that tips its hat to the old Hollywood classic musicals of the past. Gosling and Stone have chemistry that makes their romance so believable. The singing and dancing by Stone and Gosling is so effortless and beautiful that it makes it a joy to watch. The opening number is one of the most amazing dance sequences that I have ever seen on the screen, and the final dance sequence of the film is just unbelievably gorgeous. I have watched this movie three times, and each time I had a smile on my face throughout. In fact, I felt as if I should have danced across the lobby after I saw the film.
2). Hell or High Water (2016) R A divorced father (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother (Ben Foster) plan a series of bank robberies to save the family farm from foreclosure. A tough Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) are hot on the heels of the bank robbers. One of the best films of the year, mostly due to the outstanding, spot-on performances by the full cast. Writer Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the excellent “Sicario’) and director David Mackenzie have conceived a moving and exciting modern western set in the small towns of West Texas. The characters, even down to the smaller parts, like a grumpy old waitress, are rich and complex. The backbone of this film is the performances by the main cast. Foster and Evans play off each other so well; it makes the idea that they are brothers easy to believe and even easier to understand their relationship and motives. Jeff Bridges is scintillating to watch as he melds into the Texas Ranger who just might be hoping to go out in a flurry of bullets rather than fade away in retirement. This is one film you will not want to miss.
3). Moonlight (2016) R Told in three acts, this timeless story of human connection and self-discovery follows the life of a young black man, Chiron, from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world. A tender and breathtaking film about a young man who grows up before our eyes in a rough and tumble world. Right from the start, we sense that Chiron knows he is different from the rest of the children in his school. He becomes isolated, and a drug dealer is the only one who reaches out to take care of him, something even his own mother isn’t willing to do. This is a film about how the choices you make when you are growing up have far-reaching consequences. It’s a brilliant film filled with small moments that continue to build until the exquisite ending is reached. All three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhode) who portray Chiron are dazzling in the film, but Rhode as the adult Chiron, especially stands out. Writer/director Barry Jenkins is a talent to watch if this movie foretells his future.
4). The Nice Guys (2016) R In 1970’s Los Angeles, private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) must work with enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to find a missing girl. Along the way, they just might run into a few problems like stumbling onto a conspiracy that could get them killed. Co-written and directed by Shane Black, The Nice Guys is a laughed-filled, action-packed, good old-fashioned film noir mystery where Crowe, and especially Gosling, shine. Crowe plays the straight man to Gosling’s goofy Holland. Jackson is a part that isn’t easy to do, but Crowe plays off Gosling brilliantly, giving his character a world-weary menace. Gosling shows a talent for slapstick, bringing to mind Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau. Some of the best scenes in the film involve Gosling just falling, and he does it a lot…off roofs, down hills, and even across rooms. Black’s script, co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi, takes us on a very complex and funny adventure into the seedy world of bars, pornography, and, wait for it, car manufacturing. The dialogue is quick and witty with some great cultural references of the 70’s mixed in. Like Black’s under-appreciated 2005 film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys perfectly captures the quirky pulp fiction style of filmmaking, combined with impressive action sequences, sidesplitting comedy and superb performances from Gosling and Crowe.
5). Manchester by the Sea (2016) R When his brother, Joe, dies, Lee (Casey Affleck) is forced to take care of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) in his hometown. The big problem with going back to your hometown is you have to see people you left to avoid. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan brings us a tale of heartbreak, grief and the attempt to heal wounds from the past. It's an achingly beautiful film that follows Lee and Patrick as they try to deal with all the big and small stuff that has to be handled after a death in the family. Full of pain and guilt, Affleck's performance is a wonder to watch. It's a complex performance worthy of what should be an Academy Award nomination. Manchester by the Sea is a film that perfectly explores the sense of loss when a death occurs, but it even better explores the human reaction to bad things when they happen to good people. Why did it happen and will the people left behind forgive themselves for surviving is what this film answers.
6). Tower (2016) Fifty years ago a man rode the elevator to the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire, killing 16 people and wounding 32 others. This film doesn’t tell his story but the story of the people on the ground, some of which risked their lives to help others. The film uses rotoscoping animation and actors to retell in a documentary format this harrowing day in American history. This engrossing film is as suspenseful as any big, edge of your seat Hollywood suspense film. The animation is distinctive and really helps the storytelling. This is one of the best films of the year and should not be missed.
7). Hacksaw Ridge (2016) R True story of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who enlists in the Army but refuses to handle a rifle due to being a Seventh-day Adventist. He becomes the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and spiritual film. I will warn you that the battle sequences are real and very horrific, with body parts flying everywhere. Garfield is perfect as the man who refuses to bear arms but is willing to sacrifice his life to save others. There is great chemistry between Garfield and Teresa Palmer, who plays a nurse who falls in love with Desmond. I also enjoyed Vince Vaughn as the tough as nails Sargent who doesn’t want Desmond in his Army. The battle sequences, though tough to watch due to the blood and guts violence, are well choreographed and exciting. This is one inspirational story that you won’t want to miss. The film is capped off during the credits with an interview with the real Desmond Doss that just might make you shed a tear.
8). The Edge of Seventeen (2016) R High school life for Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is already pretty bad, but it gets worse when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her popular older brother (Blake Jenner). Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig brings us the adolescent adventures of Nadine in the hilarious and smart “The Edge of Seventeen.” Many filmmakers have tried to document the hardship of the awkward teenage years of young women who just don’t quite fit in. Juno, Kings of Summer, Ghost World, Spectacular Now and of course, Sixteen Candles come to mind. This film is their equal with smart writing, quick dialogue, and excellent performances, especially from Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson. Steinfeld is dazzling in this movie, commanding the screen, even with scene-stealers such as Sedgwick and Harrelson. She embodies this role, and we fully believe that Nadine is as socially awkward and just a little “weird.” The Edge of Seventeen is a teen coming-of-age comedy that feels real. I had so much fun watching this film that I wouldn’t mind spending a day or two hanging out with these characters, even if meant going through the pain of attending high school again.
9). Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) PG A young boy named Kubo, aided by a talking monkey and samurai beetle, must locate a magical suit of armor that was worn by his late father to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past. Unbelievably beautiful stop-motion animation combined with a brilliant storyline make this film one of the best movies of the summer. The plot is simple but nuanced with a great message about believing in yourself and your abilities. The animation is beautiful and some of the best I have ever seen. Kids will enjoy the fast moving storyline, and grownups will thoroughly drink in the gorgeous animation. Outstanding voice work by a cast that includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara add flavor and texture. Go on an adventure with Kubo and his friends; you won’t be disappointed.
10). Life, Animated (2016) PG Owen Suskind was an average, fun-loving little boy until at age three he developed autism and fell in a shell. No matter what or how his loving parents interacted with him, he remained in a cocoon of silence. Owen’s father, Ron, started watching Walt Disney animated movies with him and suddenly, Owen was talking and interacting with his parents through his knowledge of the Disney movies. The film follows Owen as he moves out on his own, where he gets a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. This is a beautiful film that is heartfelt and will pull on your heartstrings. It’s an amazing story, made even more remarkable that Disney allowed the filmmaker to use clips and images from the Disney catalog. This film gives proof that movies do more than just entertain, they sometimes give hope and meaning to our lives.
11). The Jungle Book (2016) PG Retelling of the classic tale of an orphan boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther. This is not a film for younger children. The animals are too realistic and scary. I loved this film as it captured the magic of the first Disney film and made this classic story even better. There are still two memorable songs from the first film in this one: One sung by Bill Murray as Baloo and one sung by Christopher Walken as King Louie. Murray, as you would expect, steals the film as the lovable but slightly grumpy bear. Neel Sethi is captivating as the strong-willed Mowgli. The film follows the standard storyline but adds a few new things that make the film feel complete. The CGI is amazing, and the animals move fluidly, making the action sequences exciting and colorful. This is a breathtaking film that has humor and warmth and does not disappoint.
12). Embers (2016) A man (Jason Ritter) wakes up in a dilapidated room, not knowing how he got there, who he is or whom the woman (Iva Gocheva) sleeping next to is. That’s the start of the best film I saw at any Film Festival this year. This small budget film (though it doesn’t look it) works because the script is creative with a concept of what the world would be like if every time you woke up, you forgot everything. The film is beautifully shot with a gray overcast that seems to be hanging from every nook and cranny. The plot moves at a quick pace, and the casting is brilliant with Jason Ritter playing the lead “everyman” who is willing to risk his life for people he doesn’t know. The direction is crisp, and each performer gives outstanding performances. Take a chance and explore a brave new world where everyone starts out the day not knowing what is ahead of them.
13). The Handmaiden (2016) A woman (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to be the handmaiden of a lonely rich noblewoman (Min-hee Kim). The handmaiden is a thief that has been hired by a crooked man (Jung-woo Ha) to help him seduce the noblewoman and steal her money. This is a beautiful film that where each character has deeply hidden secrets. Secrets that if they come out could be the end of each of them. The film is in three parts and reveals a plot that takes a handful of twists, most of which you will not see coming. It’s a lurid look at betrayal, unrequited love and sometimes just pure evil. The sets and the cinematography contribute significantly to the film, giving it a dark but rich look that oozes with maliciousness. It’s a shadowy world that these characters live in, but it’s worth venturing into it just to see what happens.
14). DeadPool (2016) R Wade (Ryan Reynolds) is a former Special Forces operative who is now a mercenary for hire. He finds out he is dying of cancer and decides to accept an offer to try a rogue experiment. While it does cure his cancer, the experiment leaves him badly scarred. Now he is using his accelerated healing powers and his finely tuned reflexes to find the man who is responsible for the experiment going wrong. If you are easily offended, then, please don’t see this film. Don’t see the trailer or even go near a theatre showing this film. On the other hand, if you love hilarious, irreverent humor that makes fun of everything, including its own genre, then this is a movie for you. The film is funny and witty from the opening credits. The Deadpool character is someone who can find humor (sometimes in a dirty way) in almost any situation, even life or death. Fans of the comic book are going to be euphoric with this movie, as am I. I love this film and want to see more of his adventures. Make sure and stay through the credits for a bonus scene you will not want to miss. And a bit of a warning, this is a hard R rated film and unless you want Child Protective Services after you, watch the film after the kiddos are asleep.
15). Don’t Think Twice (2016) R A long time New York improv group loses their lease, and one of the members lands a TV show. I loved writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s first picture “Sleep Walk With Me,” which was about the trials and tribulations of being a stand-up comic on the road. I am happy to say that Birbiglia has done it again with “Don’t Think Twice,” as this movie is as humorous and inventive as his first film. The joy of this movie is the improv scenes (some were scripted, and others were improvised) that will have you on the floor laughing. Even some of the scenes away from the club are fun to watch as the group makes fun of each other constantly, though, sometimes the kidding can go too far and touch a nerve or two. This is a heartfelt, funny film that deals with all the pain, sacrifice and lows that comedians face in their everyday life just so that they can get those few minutes in the spotlight. Don’t Think Twice is a film that shows us that as painful as those struggles are, if you can make someone laugh, it’s all worth it.
16). Zootopia (2016) PG In a city populated by anthropomorphic animals, a con artist Fox (Jason Bateman) and a rookie bunny cop (Ginnifer Goodwin) must team up to uncover a conspiracy. “Zootopia” is a magical movie that combines the beautiful animation Disney is famous for with a hilarious script that has some serious undertones and messages. While never spelling it out, the film approaches the subjects of racism and profiling. The message never hits you over the head, and the reasons learned are never fully spelled out to the audience, but the message comes over loud and clear. Part buddy film, part mystery, “Zootopia” uses humor at every turn to keep the movie moving at a rather quick pace. There are funny lines and rapid asides that make fun of past Disney films (including one about a “frozen” girl), so many so that you may have to see the movie several times before getting all the jokes. “Zootopia” is a little long, and very young children may get a bit scared of a few scenes of animals acting ferocious, but this is one film everyone is going to enjoy. And, the DMV scene with the sloths that is teased in the trailer will have you rolling in the aisles with laughter.
17). Captain America: Civil War (2016) PG-13 The government is concerned about the Avengers and their activities, asking the Avengers to agree to give up control of their team. Could this cause a rift between Captain America and Iron Man? Will the Avengers split up? This is one of the best comic book films that I have seen. There are stunning and magnificent action sequences, one that had the audience standing and clapping. There are some new characters introduced to the Marvel world, including a certain web-slinger, whose appearance gave me hope for the franchise. Robert Downey Jr as Ironman and Chris Evans as Captain America are outstanding, but it’s Paul Rudd’s appearance as Ant-Man that steals the film. Do stay through all the credits as there are two bonus scenes, one after the first set of credits and the other after all the credits.
18). Sing Street (2015) PG-13 A boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), growing up in Dublin in the 1980’s, starts a band to escape his broken family life, a school he doesn’t fit in with and to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton) he has a crush on. I loved this film, especially the performances of the two leads, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, and Lucy Boynton. Walsh-Peele is a duel threat in this film, displaying a fine singing voice with the charisma of a rock star. His character is boyish one minute and mature beyond his years in the next scene, a testament to his acting prowess. Boynton is perfect in the role of the world-weary girl who wants to escape Dublin with the slim hopes of being a model. For a fan of early eighties music (and videos), this film is so much fun to watch. The original songs that the band plays in the film are outstanding and catchy. In a week where I saw a lot of films that were light on character development and plot, it was a delight to watch a film so well written and produced. It reminded me of two excellent films about bands, The Commitments (1991) and more recently, the director of this film, John Carney's Begin Again (2013). If you love music, this is one film not to be missed.
19). Jackie (2016) R Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to deal with the grief and trauma of the event while trying to regain her faith, console her children and fight for her husband’s historic legacy. This is Natalie Portman’s film, and she handles it with ease. It takes a few minutes to get used to her talking like Jackie, but once you get used to it, Portman disappears into the role. It’s a tough role to tackle because, after the assignation, Jackie was all emotionally over the place; at times defiant, other times subservient, always demanding that her husband is treated with respect and determined to show the world what horror had happened to him. It’s a scintillating performance as Portman turns Jackie’s emotions on and off at a moment’s notice, as one in shock/grieving does. Portman dominates the film and is on the screen in almost every scene. Overall, this film works as a study of a person who was larger than life by one of the few actresses who could handle that type of role. You may feel, after seeing this film, that Natalie Portman gave us everything she could give, just like the woman whom she portrayed did for this country.
20A). Moana (2016) PG On a mystic island called Motunui Island in Polynesia, a 16-year-old girl named Moana (Auli’l Cravalho) teams up with the legendary demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) on a journey to save her people. I loved this film! First, Carvalho has a robust and beautiful singing voice. While Johnson doesn’t have a Broadway singing voice, he does have fun with his songs and plays well off of Carvalho in their duets. Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the songs in the film, and you can hear his style, especially in “You’re Welcome” that Johnson sings. The animation is crisp and gorgeous taking advantage of the tropical look of the islands. I loved the message of this film for girls that you can do anything you put your heart and soul into. And, by the way, stay through all the credits, as there is an amusing bonus scene at the end of the film.
20B). 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) PG-13 After surviving a car accident, a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground cellar. She was rescued by a man, Howard (John Goodman) who claims that a worldwide chemical attack has left the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. I enjoyed this suspenseful film that slowly builds the tension as we learn, along with Michelle bits and pieces of information that may mean things aren’t what Howard told us had happened. There are plenty of twists and turns in the film that will keep you guessing until the very end. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is superb as the headstrong woman who keeps questioning what is going on in the outside world. John Goodman gives a smart and multilayered performance as the good Samaritan that may or may not be holding on to a secret. The film is brilliantly written, and I loved the ending to the movie. Think of this film as more of a Hitchcock type genre film then your more typical Sci-Fi movie.
Just missed the top 20: Tickled, The Eagle Huntress, Florence Foster Jenkins, We Are X, Certain Women, Command and Control, Fences, Operator, Dheepan, Weiner, Green Room, Midnight Special, Krisha, Everybody Wants Some!!, Loving, The Witch, Touched with Fire, Gleeson, I Am Not Your Negro, Arrival, Patterson.