Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The 20 Best Movies of 2016

For the longest time, 2016 felt like a bottomless nadir for movies. By November, seeing that the studios had abandoned all good taste, and that foreign product was nearly impossible to see, I was ready to name the collected titles in the current TV revolution as my number one pick of the year. I mean, when you have miniseries like American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, Horace and Pete, The Night Of, The Crown, and The Night Manager, and series TV like Baskets, Ray Donovan, The Americans, Black Mirror, Better Things, Atlanta, black-ish, Stranger Things, and This Is Us, plus occasional TV movies like Madoff, Confirmation, and All The Way...well, that's an avalanche of great stuff that can't be ignored. I still probably got more enjoyment out of TV than the movies this year, but the big screen finally came through for us with a tsunami of distinguished titles at the end of the year (to be fair, the indie world gave us some terrific material during the year's midsection). I still think the movies are in deep trouble, but maybe the current direness in the real world is gonna give the creative community a big goose. That's the brightest angle I can take on a dismal year. Anyway, here's my top 20 and supplemental lists:

1. La La Land (US, Damien Chazelle) 
Don't sit there and tell me this is a big nothing when it totally moved me to honest tears with its tuneful emotion, its superb lead performances from the generous Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and Damien Chazelle's emphatic direction. I'm as cynical as they come, and I can confidently tell you that this is the movie of the year--a movie lover's movie, eaten up with an adoration of what makes the art form lavish and exciting. Screw the bitter naysayers of the Oscar season: with its often dark and always enraptured examination of things that might have been, La La Land captured my heart from its first frame and never let go. It continues to do so with many others moviegoers, and I'm priveleged to be in this happy cabal. 

2. Manchester by the Sea (US, Kenneth Lonergan) 
Lonergan's third film is a continuation of his ongoing exploration of grief, and is possibly his best effort yet, after the superb You Can Count on Me and Margaret. Casey Affleck delivers a commanding lead--the single finest performance of the year--as a member of the walking dead thrust into a role of responsibility after tragedy has scarred his life again and again. I loved that the film had the guts to hold the character back from some final epiphany that delivers him to phony movie glory. There are just some obstacles we cannot conquer. The entire cast, right down to the smallest player, exercises perfection in service of a remarkably insightful script, set in an unforgettably wintery locale.

3. O.J.: Made in America (US, Ezra Edelman) 
This dazzling documentary treats a massive subject with the completeness it deserves; its seven-hour length speeds by like O.J., whether on the gridiron or in the white Bronco. In the process, it puts into perspective this controversial personality's embattled tour through both white and black America, and let's us all know where we stand now. The editing in Edelman's film is astounding; even attempting to whittle this story down into a manageable shape is a bear, but this filmmaker did it with adroitness. 

4. Love and Friendship (Ireland/France/Netherlands, Whit Stillman)
With his adaptation of Jane Austen's novella, Stillman emerged with a beautiful marvel, especially when one considered the threadbare materials with which he was surely working (it's a movie that took him more than a decade to produce). The project justly matched his urbane writing abilities with a past classicism, as its costumes, photography, art direction and wisely-picked classical score achieve perfection in their regalness. Most importantly, the entire cast--led by the laudable Kate Beckinsale as the slyly nefarious Lady Susan--deserves applause as the finest ensemble of 2016, just as its witty script deserves similar accolades. With its clever wordplay and subtle spoofery, Love and Friendship is a cult film in the making.

5. 20th Century Women (US, Mike Mills)
This one really hit me where I live, as it seems like a movie totally about my own late-70s childhood. Annette Bening ended up delivering my second favorite performance of the year as a chain-smoking single mother trying to understand her pubescent son as he garners interest in the opposite sex and in the adult world. Mills' well-scripted movie, an unofficial prequel to his previous film Beginners, is acutely aware of its surroundings, with popping art direction, a well-chosen score of punk and new wave classics, and another of the year's most remarkable ensembles, with Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup all needling their way into our souls. 

6. Indignation (US, James Schamus) 
The most unfortunately ignored movie of the year is a whip-smart adaptation of Philip Roth's novel--and anyone who so effectively does the unfilmable Roth on screen deserves some attention. Writer/director Schamus is no stranger to movies, but he really impresses with this directorial debut that follows a Jewish college student (Logan Lerman) on a punishing jaunt though a '50s-era Christian college, with a sickeningly shaky love affair determining his fate. This movie is packed with fantastic performances--Lerman's Hoffman-esque lead, Sarah Gadon's dangerously alluring femme fatale, Linda Emond's broken-down Jewish mother and, especially, Tracy Letts as the school's stern dean. The tense 20-minute debate between Lerman and Letts might be most stunningly brave movie scene of 2016.

7. Paterson (US, Jim Jarmusch) 
Jarmusch's attention to the little joys in life is probably the year's most resplendent celebration of fleeting happiness and insistent humanity. Adam Driver exquisite embodiment of this New Jersey bus driver with an unsung talent for poetry remains among 2016's finest performances, but it's Jarmusch himself who imbues this everyman tale with a haunting embrace of the tiny moments that enrich our lives, even if we're unable to recognize these shining seconds as they pass. Chance encounters, sweet kisses (with his girlfriend, an excellent Golshifteh Farahani), and elegant words written on water all adorn this low-key yet immutable film. It's a movie that will demand you examine your own life for its essential worth. 

8. I, Daniel Blake (UK/France/Belgium, Ken Loach) 
Loach encapsulates the struggles of the poor against the choking indifference of a system that can't deal with the overwhelming need of the many. A radiant Dave Johns portrays the charitable carpenter who's worked hard all of his life only to find himself abandoned at its end. He gives his heart to a struggling family he meets at the welfare office (Hayley Squires, as a defeated mother, matches Johns' remarkable performance), but his clashes with nasty bureaucracy build a wall too towering to climb. This movie puts us squarely in a frustrating place that could prove deadly for us all, and it does so with utterly poignant empathy. 

9. Little Men (US, Ira Sachs) 
This tale deeply struck me with its blending of the resplendent joy of teenage friendship between two NYC boys (Theo Taplitz and the charismatic Michael Barbieri) with the realities of a world that is suffocating the middle class. Greg Kinnear is superb as Taplitz's father, a struggling actor who inherits his late father's Brooklyn real estate, only to find that he needs to up the rent for a longtime tenant (an equally effective Paulina Garcia), thus putting the boys' newfound freindship in peril. This is a small movie, yet it feels massive at its big heart. I have to say, Little Men has one of my favorite scores of the year, by Dickon Hinchliffe. 

10. Southside With You (US, Richard Tanne) 
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are ridiculously beguiling as the young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, whose first date is fondly detailed from its rocky beginnings to its assured conclusion. I feel like writer/director Richard Tanne took much inspiration from the movies of, say, John Sayles or Richard Linklater, thus making exceedingly easy to separate ourselves from the obvious politics of the piece (which are definitely not given short shrift), enabling us to see this as the beginnings of a immense love affair that would shake the world. This movie quakes with sweetness. 

11. Kate Plays Christine / Christine (US, Robert Greene / US, Antonio Campos) 
This double bill bowled me over in numerous ways. Christine, led by Rebecca Hall's tremendously committed performance, is at once a compelling film about depression, mercenary media, and one woman's fatal brawl with misplaced integrity. In telling the story of '70s Florida news anchorwoman Christine Chubbock, who infamously shot herself on live TV, it searches for unsure answers and assuredly finds them (with supporting-actor-of-the-year Tracy Letts contributing yet another forceful performance as the station's lead asshole). Meanwhile, Greene's genre-bending documentary Kate Plays Christine follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she endeavors to embody the anchorwoman, without any clues, in a much less effective-looking film, and ends up almost losing her own mind in the process. Both movies bounced off each other in such an eventful way that I felt altogether justified in praising them as fraternal twins.
12. The Jungle Book (US, Jon Favreau) 
This was the one gigantic studio movie that completely swept me away with true wizardry that worked in unexpected fashions. Its fusing of those things we loved in the 1967 Disney classic--the songs, the score, the set pieces--with the modern CGI world were the signs of a director that totally embraced his thorny mission. The Jungle Book is absolutely successful in its vibrant reading of Rudyard Kipling's familiar tale, adorned with the most wondrous visual effects of 2016. 

13. Weiner (US, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) 
Throughout Weiner, we're struck with awe that the cameras were there to capture not only the damnation of a political career that once seemed promising, but--even more--of the dissolution of a marriage that appeared ideal, but which crumbles before our eyes. This is an account of madness brought about by an internet addiction that we probably all share, but which few of us let get to such desperate straits. It's a difficult movie to get through, knowing where we are now (few of us wanna see this disgusting jerk anymore) but it's an essential watch anyway. 

14. 13th (US, Ava Duvernay) 
Another of the year's most devastating documentaries, Duvernay's masterfully organized argument against the national targeting of black people as criminal miscreants, and as renewed recipients of prison-driven slavery, is turbulent and demoralizing. It's the kind of truth-telling we all need to hear--it's the only way we're going to get to a place of greater justice. Much work needs to be done, but Duvernay's dazzling film gets the ball rolling in justifiably incendiary fashion.

15. Things to Come (France, Mia Hansen Love) 
Led by Isabelle Huppert (in the performance that should have gotten her first Oscar nomination--scratch that...she should have been nominated years ago, at least for La Ceremonie or The Piano Teacher), this eloquent character study of a French literature professor whose life takes one colossal hit after another looms as the year's most moving account of the gallantry it takes to keep on living after those things that make one want to live have finally escaped. Mia Hansen Love's scripting and direction are completely on point, preternaturally so, in this tale of dignified resolve. 

16. Toni Erdmann (Germany, Maren Ade) 
This mini-epic of father-daughter reconnection is maybe a bit longish for some, but I found myself unexpectedly moved by its humor, particularly in its last third, where an estranged father's odd sense of playfulness has finally gotten through to a daughter whose been rendered soulless by her corporate alligeance. Believe me, by the end, your mouth will have dropped, and you'll find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. Any movie that can do that is worth loving. Incredible performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek cement this movie's gentle power.

17. Sully (US, Clint Eastwood) 
Eastwood's best film in some time, Sully also stands as only the second big studio movie on this list--an assured account of the "Miracle on the Hudson" and a profile of a man who was simply doing his job as well as he could, and is uncomfortable being lauded for it. Tom Hanks--who's continual brilliance is strangely now taken for granted--is mutedly noble in this economically powerful drama that also stands as among the most meticulously crafted movies of the year. 

18. Loving (US, Jeff Nichols) 
Two brilliantly restrained performances--from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton--highlight this tender telling of the interracial love affair that transformed the American landscape. I highly admire writer/director Jeff Nichols' ability to recount this yarn without the cliches that we're used to seeing in movies set in this often abused world. 

19. Sunset Song (UK, Terrence Davies) 
Davies' adaptation of the landmark Scottish novel about the troubled life of a early-20th-Century farmer's daughter landed as one ot the year's most moving mini-epics, with sublimely burnished photography and a story that jolts us with its frank drama. Agyness Deyn is a real find as the film's resilient lead, heading a marvelous cast. 

20. Rules Don't Apply (US, Warren Beatty) 
I was simply and unexpectedly captivated by this critically (and unfairly) beat-up movie that had Beatty commanding an immense cast as millionaire Howard Hughes. I found the lead performances by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich to be particularly charming, and Beatty's own quasi-supporting performance to be a somehow fitting final note to his legendary career (assuming that this is his final film, which I hope it is not). Special note should be paid to the memorable title song, and to Caleb Deschanel's handsome photography. 

OF NOTE: Blood Father, De Palma, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Eye in the Sky, Certain Women, The Neon Demon, The Edge of Seventeen, Maggie's Plan, Silence, Tower, A Monster with A Thousand Heads, A Hologram for the King, Sing Street, Welcome to Leith, Fences, Aquarius, War Dogs, The Founder, Nocturnal Animals, Remember, The Infiltrator, Jackie, The Invitation, The Witch, The Phenom, Don't Think Twice, Zootopia, Hell or High Water, Amanda Knox, The Birth of a Nation, Train to Busan, Bad Moms, Moonlight, Mr. Church, Audrie and Daisy, The Trust, Into the Inferno, The Fits, The Lobster, Embrace of the Serpent, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, The Accountant

FAIR: Pee-Wee's Big Holiday, Consumed, Hello My Name is Doris, Keanu, Manson Family Vacation, The Bandit, The Nice Guys, The Meddler, The Shallows, Class Divide, The Witness, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Imperium, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hands of Stone, By Sidney Lumet, The Hollars, Denial, Anthropoid, A Bigger Splash, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Team Foxcatcher, A Man Called Ove, Patriot's Day, Hidden Figures, Deepwater Horizon

BLAH: The Program, High Rise, Hail Caesar!, Everybody Wants Some!!, Midnight Special, Eddie the Eagle, Victoria, An Open Secret, Elvis and Nixon, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years, Ghostbusters, Florence Foster Jenkins, Cafe Society, Snowden, Morris from America, Pete's Dragon, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoppin', Arrival, Stealing Cars, Golden Years, Fire at Sea, Life Animated, Miss Sloane, Passengers, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion

THE WORST: Sausage Party, Deadpool, Bad Santa 2, Captain Fantastic, Get A Job, Triple 9, Victor Frankenstein, The Wave, The Girl on the Train, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Money Monster, Approaching the Unknown, Don't Breathe, Green Room

LEAD ACTOR OF THE YEAR: Casey Affleck, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2nd: Dave Johns, I, Daniel Blake, followed by: Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann; Adam Driver, Paterson; Tom Hanks, Sully; Logan Lerman, Indignation; Denzel Washingston, Fences; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Joel Edgerton, Loving; Michael Keaton, The Founder; Parker Sawyer, Southside with You; Jonah Hill, War Dogs; Mel Gibson, Blood Father; Christopher Plummer, Remember)

LEAD ACTRESS OF THE YEAR: Annette Bening, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2nd: Emma Stone, La La Land, followed by: Kate Beckinsale, Love and Friendship; Rebecca Hall, Christine; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Ruth Negga, Loving; Tika Sumpter, Southside with You; Sonia Braga, Aquarius; Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen; Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann; Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures; Greta Gerwig, Maggie's Plan; Jana Raluy, A Monster with A Thousand Heads; Lily Collins, Rules Don't Apply)

SUPPORTING ACTOR OF THE YEAR: Tracy Letts, INDIGNATION (2nd: Tom Bennett, Love and Friendship, followed by: Issei Ogata, Silence; Michael Barbieri, Little Men; Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Tracy Letts, Christine; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals; John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane; Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Greg Kinnear, Little Men; Stephen McKinley Henderson, Fences; Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water; Warren Beatty, Rules Don't Apply; Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky; Ethan Hawke, The Phenom)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS OF THE YEAR: Viola Davis, FENCES (2nd: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea, followed by: Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake; Linda Emond, Indignation; Paulina Garcia, Little Men; Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women; Gillian Jacobs, Don't Think Twice; Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys; Golshifteh Farahani, Paterson; Lily Gladstone, Certain Women; Sarah Gadon, Indignation; Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) 

DISCOVERED (my favorite movies from the past that I watched for the first time this year):  

Terror in a Texas Town (Joseph H. Lewis, 58)

State Legislature (Frederick Wiseman, 2007) 

Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke, 38)

Ride the Pink Horse (Robert Montgomery, 47)

Man in the Shadow (Jack Arnold, 57)

Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 54)

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, 2007)

Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel, 54) 

Ten Second Film (Bruce Conner, 65) 

Boomerang! (Elia Kazan, 47)  

The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 44)  

Enter The Dragon (Robert Clouse, 73) 

On The Yard (Raphael D. Silver, 78)

Impact (Arthur Lubin, 49)  

Fade-In (Jud Taylor, 68) 

Harry Tracy (William A. Graham, 82)

That's the Way of the World (Sig Shore, 75)

Secret of the Incas (Jerry Hopper, 54) 

Dear Frankie (Shona Auerbach, 2004)

Universe (Colin Low, 60) 

MORE FINE DISCOVERIES: The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Last Run, The President's Plane is Missing, Maniac Cop, Fear is the Hunter, Led Zeppelin Played Here, Shoot Out at Medicine Bend, Rasputin (96), Shadow of the Thin Man, Reality, Diary of a Chambermaid (46), The Last Mogul, Hondo, The American Friend, Deadly Hero, Rewind This!, Manhunt: The Search for Osama Bin Laden, Crime Wave (54), Thieves' Highway,  The Proud and the Profane, Town Without Pity, The Son's Room, Busting, Nightfall (57), Jeopardy (53), James White, Labyrinth of Lies, Deadline at Dawn, Grey Gardens (2009), CrissCross (92), Indictment: The McMartin Trial, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, Pumpkinhead, Son of Saul, Break Point, I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore, Rome (TV series), The Bubble, Message From Space, Fighting Back, Into the Storm, The Raging Moon (aka Long Ago Tomorrow), The Shanghai Gesture, Raw Deal, 99 River Street, Railroaded, Dear Brat, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Redwood Highway, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Lady of Burlesque, Pervert Park, Run for Cover, Altman, Robin and Marian, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Barber Shop: The Next Cut, Con Man (web series), The Dust Bowl (Ken Burns), Bleak House (BBC), Mrs. Parfrey at the Claremont, Code of Silence, Tortilla Soup, Fiend Without a Face, Anna Karenina (48), Topper Returns, Daisy Kenyon, Trouble Man, Dark Web, Rockaway: Before and After, Peter and the Wolf (2006), Today's Special, Witness to Murder, In Jackson Heights, The Store, Illegal, The Big Steal, Nestor

REDISCOVERED: Shakedown, Oh God, Last Night at the Alamo, Inside Man, Seconds, Scarlet Street, Thief, The Godfather Saga, Key Largo, The Graduate, Life Stinks, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (89), Idiocracy, Day of the Outlaw, Ghost World, Robot Monster, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, The Gauntlet, Moneyball, Noises Off!, A Dangerous Woman, T-Men, Donnie Brasco, Reds, Thelma and Louise, Stripes, The Arrival, The Defiant Ones, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Uninvited, California Dreaming, Superman, The Fall, Zodiac, The Killing Fields, He Walked by Night, No Highway in the Sky, Seize the Day, Ticket to Heaven, Logan's Run, Rhubarb, Gregory's Girl, Casino, Ed Wood, Quatermass and the Pit, It Happens Every Spring, Shaft (71), Soylent Green, Warner Brothers cartoons, Cleopatra (63), Year of the Dragon, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Celebration, No Country for Old Men, Office Space, Julia (2009), Force of Evil, Melancholia, Primary Colors, Halloween, They Live, Escape from Alcatraz, The Fog, Heaven's Gate, Pulp Fiction, The Monster of Piedras Blancas, Stuart Saves His Family, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Howards End, Taps, Rocky II, Paths of Glory, The Andy Griffith Show (all 9 seasons), Curb Your Enthusiasm (all 8 seasons), The Siege, Everybody's Fine, Beautiful Girls, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Conspiracy, The Bad Seed, Time Out of Mind, Interiors, Blow Up, The Age of Innocence, A Raisin in the Sun, Love and Death 

BAD MOVIES FROM THE PAST: The Devil's 8, Leave 'Em Laughing, The Young Savages, The Trouble with Angels, Record City, The Book of Eli, The Bridge at Remagen, Million Dollar Mystery, Tunnelvision, Author Author, The Naked Gun 2: The Smell of Fear, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Longshot, Mississippi Grind, Crimson Peak, Keeper of the Flame, Children of Giant. Monsignor, A Single Shot, Away From Here, Hawaii, Losing Ground, National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Superman II, Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water, Best Seller, Six Pack, UFO: Target Earth, The Fury, Stick, Out of Time, Hoppy Serves a Writ, Slithis, Creature, The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes, The Happening, The Laughing Policeman, The House That Dripped Blood, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Eegah, You've Got Mail, Crocodile Dundee II, Hostile Witness, Father's Little Dividend, Murder by Television, Anna Karenina (35), Fuzz, In the Mouth of Madness, The Black Sleep, Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter), Heist (2015), Under the Tuscan Sun, Pressure Point, The Cotton Club, Cop Hater, Young Man with a Horn, Saints and Soldiers, Extreme Justice, Stormy Monday, Queen and Country

GREAT TELEVISION: American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, Horace and Pete, Baskets, Madoff, Confirmation, All The Way, Billions, Ray Donovan, Better Call Saul, Broad City, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Real Time with Bill Maher, Chopped, American Pickers, The Carmichael Show, Veep, Trailer Park Boys, The Americans, Masterchef Australia, Hard Earned, Last Week with John Oliver, Black-ish, The Night Of, The Crown, Stranger Things, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Better Things, Atlanta, Frontline ("The Choice"), Black Mirror, Saturday Night Live, This Is Us, The Night Manager, The Young Pope 
BLAH TV: Animals, Vinyl, 11/22/63, Wayward Pines, Ride with Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead, The Exorcist, Crisis in Six Scenes. Graves, Designated Survivor, Westworld

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