(With a little TV included!)
Most exciting to me about the films on this ‘best of’ list are the directors, none of whom are old guard. I should state that while I very much believe diversity of all kinds is of the utmost importance in the arts, I myself don’t think about the age, race, sexual identity or gender of an artist when I view a work. Is this a dichotomy? Some would say yes. I think not. A work of art is great or it isn’t no matter who creates or guides it, at least by my own judgement.
A debate for another post.
Something wonderful is happening in movies, though. Only after I compiled this list did I realize all the directors were younger or less established than the directors we usually find on year-end lists. A very diverse collection of artists were involved in the movies I found worthy of note in 2016. I didn’t compile the list with this in mind, it just happened. Which fired me up.
Agree with my list or not, the directing (and writing!) talent found here bodes well for the future of my favorite art form.
Denis Villeneuve is my favorite director working today. As evidenced previously in two incredible thrillers, Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve builds tension and dread better than anyone. In Arrival he does the same, brilliantly, but for very different effect. A thought-provoking work of science fiction with a dazzling emotional payoff, I’ve seen the movie three times. It gets better and richer with each viewing.
Along with stunning cinematography by Bradford Young and an innovative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve creates an atmospheric movie that somehow is simultaneously majestic and intimate. All of the actors shine, even in the smallest parts. Jeremy Renner does some of his warmest, most charming work ever. And Amy Adams is my pick for best actor of the year, male or female. Her understated performance is filled with great emotion and depth. She grounds the movie with a quiet power that makes the last twenty minutes even more thrilling and eye opening. A second viewing only elevates her work, given the final revelations. I’m not ashamed to say I wept the first time I saw Arrival. It’s a masterpiece.
Villeneuve isn’t the only director working today who is a master at dread. Karyn Kusama‘s The Invitation had my chest tight from the opening scene and the dread never let up. This movie is the definition of a tightening vice. Taking place entirely in one evening at a dinner party in Los Angeles, much of the tension derives from our not being able to figure out exactly what the movie is for a long stretch of time. Is it a slow-burn thriller? A horror movie? Or is it a drama about a man unable to get over a tragedy? The movie is as much a clever mind-fuck as it is anything else. I loved the performances as well as all the twists and turns and red-herrings (or are they??). The final flip is phenomenal. If you enjoy a movie that quietly, subversively gets under your skin, one that will raise goosebumps on your flesh, look no further than The Invitation.
Jeff Nichols is another young master. His second feature, Take Shelter, is one of my favorite films of the last few years. Midnight Special, his first of two excellent movies this year, is another slow burn thriller that is ostensibly science fiction but at its heart is a simple story of a father fighting to protect his son. Nichols is a master at disclosing information. He trusts the audience completely, allowing the movie to breathe and build in a remarkably intelligent manner. No one ends up who you think they are initially, which was another lovely surprise. Along with many other terrific actors, Michael Shannon once again proves himself one of the best actors alive. Wow, is Shannon terrific. As is this wonderful film.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Until I saw Arrival, Hell or High Water was my favorite movie of the year. In some ways, it still is. I didn’t want to see it, this kind of narrative is not my thing. When the first scene in the movie involved two brothers robbing a bank, I shook my head and wondered why I bothered going to the theatre: ‘I have to watch these two losers for a couple of hours?’ Imagine my surprise when I came to care deeply about these two men, as well as so many other characters in the movie.
Clearly I love quiet, understated movies with slow burns that build to enormous emotional payoffs. Hell or High Water wrecked me in the best of ways in the last quarter, with a final scene that is one of the best written, directed and acted scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Even before this final scene, the movie begins to yield results in numerous ways. It seems by now we’d get tired of Jeff Bridges doing this recent thing of his. But Bridges hits depths here beyond even Crazy Heart and True Grit. Bridges kills it. Ben Foster is winning well deserved accolades for his riotous turn as one of the brothers. Katy Mixon and Gil Birmingham are standouts among a very talented cast. Finally, Chris Pine was for me the stunner. Like all great actors, Pine speaks volumes doing nothing. I’ve always been a fan but his work here was a revelation. As a native Texan, I’ll also say the work of writer Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie was perfect. They caught a Texas I know, love and hold dear.
What a movie.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary about our criminal justice system is, like many of the best documentaries, challenging, angering, frustrating and ultimately devastating. Even with my “Why Black Lives Matters Matters” post earlier this year, it was easy for me, an “old white guy”, to continually think ‘Yeah, but…’ during the first 45 minutes or so of this superbly made film. The weight of the statistical information, however, combined with the archival imagery, begin to make it very difficult to refute the ideas put forth about the causes and effects of mass incarceration. 13th is an important film I challenge anyone to see and watch all the way through.
LA LA LAND
Damien Chazelle’s last movie, Whiplash, was my favorite film of 2014. He ups himself this year with La La Land, a dazzling movie musical that is part paean to the glorious musicals of old and part modern twist on the beloved genre. Gorgeously crafted with a youthful excitement and daring that radiates from the screen, La La Land also benefits from the electrifying chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. They’ve now starred together in three films and all I can say is I want to see them together in a movie every year. They are truly our Hepburn and Tracy and a joy to watch. As is the movie.
I don’t know why I avoided this movie in December. Maybe because I knew it was going to be wrenching. But I’d also read a few comments that called it cheesy or sentimental. Stupid. Stupid comments and me stupid for listening. What a movie. Gorgeously shot and directed with superb acting, writing and a score I loved, I could imagine Lion being the stealth movie that steals La La Land’s Oscar gold. Whatever happens awards wise (there are so many awards now, all are becoming increasingly irrelevant) run go see this movie while you have the chance to see it in a theatre. (May I also add that it is often easy these days to forget what an incredible actress is Nicole Kidman? She kills it. But so does everyone else involved.)
I also loved Moonlight, a movie that affected me deeply. I kept having trouble articulating why. One night I was hanging with one of my best friends, Noy, a wonderful writer who is one of the smartest people I know and also one of the most relaxed and fun. I love her to death. She spoke so beautifully about why she loved Moonlight, I asked her to put it on paper for the blog. I very much concur with what she writes below:
“Lukewarm praise can damn a film, but so can loud acclaim — especially when it’s directed at something as tender as Moonlight. Set largely in Liberty City, Miami, the film unfolds in three acts, with three astoundingly good actors (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) portraying watchful, nearly silent Chiron through his boyhood, teen years, and early thirties. Chiron is poor, black, and grappling with questions about his sexual orientation; his mother is battling a crack addiction. The demographics feel limiting as a description — as much as Moonlight is informed by race, poverty, mass incarceration, and notions of masculinity, it isn’t a political polemic. Nor does it indulge in reductive psychologizing. Rather, it’s a story of becoming. Through depicting the life of one irreplaceable, particular individual, Moonlight asks the universal questions: What softness do we (try to) kill in ourselves to survive? And can we truly survive without it?
Director Barry Jenkins drew on an unproduced play by MacArthur-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney to form the spine of the film. But as for its heart — although they never crossed paths in their youth, both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Liberty City, and both had mothers who struggled with crack addiction. One has the sense that in a different world, perhaps Jenkins and McCraney might have become Chiron…or in a more benevolent, just world, Chiron would have grown up to be the men who imagined him.
Almost every bit of love Chiron receives is laced with bitterness. That we seek love from others, as fallible as we all are, is fraught; that Chiron does seems like folly. But his persistence starts to feel like courage, his desire an unconscious declaration that he, too, is worthy of wanting. As an adult, Chiron adopts the guise forced upon black men in our society — of swagger, criminality, and threat. He dons his chains and puts in gold grilles over his teeth like a boxer, ready to do battle with a world that would punish his sensitivity, his desire and love for other black men who are as reviled as he is.
Chiron’s life matters. This is the film’s bedrock, mere fact, no fuss or fire behind it. You could call the film subversive or radical or any of those things, but that would imply that the film is making a point, trying to convince viewers that Chiron is worthy of our attention. But through its interiority, rhapsodic use of music and color, and unwavering empathy, Moonlight refuses to waste time justifying its focus and goes about introducing us to someone who is impossible to forget. What is Chiron doing now? He seems as real as any of us. One can only hope that he is daring to take whatever small, tentative steps he can towards becoming who he already is.”
OJ: MADE IN AMERICA
In 1994, I watched over 90% of the OJ Trial live… “why” is is a therapy session we need not concern ourselves with at present. Suffice to say, though, I know about as much about OJ and his trial as anyone. What else is there to know about the trial? OJ: Made In America proves one helluva lot. Wow.
This 5 part documentary, part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (released theatrically for Oscar consideration) starts in the 50’s to provide enormous and important historical context to the events of 1994. It is as much a look at the city I love, Los Angeles, as it is “The Juice”. As riveting as the last two brilliant true crime docs, The Jinx and Making A Murderer, O.J.: Made in America revealed many facts and events even I myself didn’t know.
Start this doc and you will watch until you finish.
NOTE: Before we get to TV, a few other favorites: American Honey, Fences, A Monster Calls, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Nice Guys, The Hollars, The Edge of Seventeen and Rogue One. I still need to see Sing Street, The Handmaiden, 20th Century Women and Moana.
My TV favorites? Mostly favorites you have read about here before but there is one new show I loved. I wish I had time to watch the shows I keep hearing so much about, such as Atlanta or This Is Us. I barely can keep up with the shows I already love.
My two favorite shows could not be more different, yet both are as good as anything on TV and both somehow keep getting better and better: Game of Thrones and Veep. (My other favorite, Homeland, did not have new episodes this year.)
Catastrophe, the amazing comedy on Amazon, is so good I’ve watched all 12 episodes twice and will definitely watch them a third time before season three appears next year. Funny, funny show.
Finally, I thought Westworld was terrific. Beautifully crafted with some of the best acting on TV (it will be a crime if Thandie Newton doesn’t win every acting award next year), Westworld is mind-bending storytelling at its best.
Let me know your thoughts and favorites in the comments section! And Happy New Year everyone!