Looking back at the best films of 2016
By late summer, it seemed as if it was going to be very difficult to compile a list of the year’s best films, with so few standouts in the first eight months of the year. But then the annual awards-season contenders rolled out, and all was right with the cinema world again. Turns out it’s been another exceptional year. Here are my ten favorites.
La La Land: This bracing original musical manages to be old-fashioned and new-fangled at the same time, with its retro homages to the golden era of MGM productions and the whimsy of Jacques Demy confections, but centered on young strivers in modern-day Los Angeles. Director Damien Chazelle brings high energy and inventiveness to his elaborate set-pieces, and co-stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have chemistry to spare, making this one of the most romantic films of the year despite their characters’ turbulent relationship on the road to stardom.
Hell or High Water: Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan’s western/crime story has the feel of one of those classic American films from the much-vaunted 1970s. The great Jeff Bridges, in a part that fits him like weathered Stetson, plays a Texas Ranger on the trail of two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), one new to crime, the other a combustible ex-con. The genius of the film is how it raises larger issues of economic desperation and elicits sympathy for both the outlaw siblings and the crusty veteran hunting them down. You’re riveted and conflicted as the movie hurtles toward its inevitable violent showdown.
Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck didn’t do this film any favors commercially when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” and called his star vehicle “crushingly sad”—but sad it is. And funny and moving and at times devastating. New York playwright and sometime screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan is certainly having his moment with this poignant tale of a Massachusetts janitor haunted by tragedy who is named guardian of his late brother’s teenage son. Affleck digs deep into the pain and anguish of his character, complemented by superb performances from Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and newcomer Lucas Hedges as his restless nephew.
20th Century Women: Filmmaker Mike Mills wrote an Oscar-winning role for Christopher Plummer in Beginners, a fictionalized version of his dad who came out as a gay man late in life. Now, with 20th Century Women, he pays tribute to his unconventional mom in this witty tale of a teen boy in 1979 Santa Barbara surrounded by forthright females. These include their housemate, a capricious photographer (Greta Gerwig), and his best friend (Elle Fanning), a sexually adventurous teen who likes to sleep with him—but only in the platonic sense. Dominating all is the marvelous Annette Bening as matriarch Dorothea, an independent-minded woman somewhat baffled by the rapidly changing times.
Paterson: Veteran iconoclastic indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch delivers one of his best films with this truly poetic character study of a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver named Paterson who is also an aspiring poet. The film is also a portrait of the real-life city where it was filmed, and all the serendipitous moments and encounters that nourish its working-class hero’s avocation. Adam Driver gives an understated but compelling performance in the title role.
Jackie: Natalie Portman surpasses herself as Jackie Kennedy, the iconic First Lady coping with the unthinkable: the horrific fatal shooting of her husband as they rode together in an official motorcade. Chilean director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim speculate on the mindset of the tragic widow and her drive to honor the President’s legacy with a bold extended ritual of national mourning. And, in Larraín’s trademark style of mixing real footage with historical recreation, the film revisits Jackie’s famed television tour of the White House that solidified her glamorous aura. A popular TV series of the previous decade was called “You Are There,” and Larraín and his fully committed star create that feeling with uncanny authenticity.
I, Daniel Blake: Ken Loach has been making socially conscious films since 1967, and of the ones I’ve seen, this is my favorite. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter in Newcastle who recently had a heart attack and is being denied his welfare check by a broken-down bureaucracy that insists he look for work even though his doctors have ordered him not to. Early in the film, he befriends a young mother of two children who is in even more desperate straits. Loach’s portrayal of the government red tape they both face and how it especially confounds the elderly could be seen as searing satire, but it’s close enough to reality to be infuriating. Johns, a standup comedian, brings an ordinary Everyman quality to the title role that is entirely winning and ultimately breaks your heart.
I Am Not Your Negro and 13th: Although I’m a privileged white male, I like to think that I’m somewhat knowledgeable about this country’s history of racial inequality and intolerance. But these two impassioned documentaries are eye-openers. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro uses the words of famed author and activist James Baldwin (read by Samuel L. Jackson) to reassert uncomfortable truths about our racist legacy and white complacency through the decades. And, in its blending of black-and-white clips from the ’60s Civil Rights era and recent events like the Ferguson protests, it questions how much progress we have really made. Ava DuVernay’s 13th takes its title from the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery but made an exception for “punishment for crime,” which she posits has extended “involuntary servitiude” of black men from the 1860s to the present day, often the victims of the cynical “War on Drugs.” Today’s statistics are stunning: The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, and one out of three black American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. DuVernay tracks the alarming expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex over the past four decades, and her footage of Donald Trump (pre-election) championing the return of that Nixon dog whistle “law and order” generates chills.
Zootopia: My favorite animated feature of the year is one children and adults can both enjoy, offering pointed social commentary, a clever detective story, and plenty of sheer fun. In this anthropomorphical fantasia, the predators and prey of the animal kingdom have evolved to a status in which they’ve overcome their fear and antagonism and live in relative harmony, behaving similar to humans (who don’t seem to exist here). But then various mammals start disappearing. Who’s behind this dastardly plot? This Disney production deftly handles themes of stereotyping and political correctness, and benefits from the ideal voice casting of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman as the two leads, a bunny cop and a literally foxy con artist.
Little Men: Like I, Daniel Blake, Ira Sachs’ drama concerns itself with economic pressures seldom represented onscreen. Those worries are couched within the coming-of-age tale of teen boys in Brooklyn who become fast friends. But circumstances beyond their control threaten the relationship: Tony’s mother is renting her dress-shop space from Jake’s parents, who recently inherited the property and are very motivated to raise the rent to conform with the storefront’s true value. With the possible exception of Jake’s strident aunt, there are no real villains in this modest saga of escalating tensions, a credit to Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias’ humanism. But the cast standouts are Chilean star Paulina García as Tony’s flinty mom and charismatic young discovery Michael Barbieri as Tony.
There were many other rewarding films in 2016. Leading the runner-up list: Loving, Love & Friendship, Moonlight, Everybody Wants Some!!, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Founder, Christine, The Jungle Book, Sing Street, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Handmaiden, Fences, Captain America: Civil War, I Knew Her Well, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Hidden Figures, Things to Come, Eight Days a Week, Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Life, Animated.