It is that time of year again where I exercise my desire to list my favorite movies of the prior year. As it happens with me, since I am not a professional critic, it takes me a much longer time to see what I would consider a decent enough amount of films to justify compiling such a list as a top ten. And so, I use Oscar weekend as my deadline. I saw about 50 films this year including all best picture nominated films. Below is what I thought to be the best ten of 2016.
- Hacksaw Ridge
This World War II film starring Andrew Garfield tells the story of Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nevertheless enlists in the military to become a medic. Because of his religion, he refuses to carry a gun and kill. The film recounts his experiences in the battle of Okinawa when his unit is to take the Maeda Escarpment, known to the soldiers as Hacksaw Ridge. During this battle, Doss single handedly saves an impressive number of wounded soldiers.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on an extraordinary true story. At the time of watching the film, much of the events seemed unbelievable to me, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how much of it was actually true after fact checking. Andrew Garfield is worthy of his Oscar nomination. He provides a powerful emotional presence. I was equally impressed with Hugo Weaving who plays the troubled father. It is good to see Hugo shed some of his Agent Smith type cast and do something with a bit more depth. The film suffers at times when it gets a little bit too much Rambo in some of its war scenes, but those are few and far between.
- Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures tells of a trio of brilliant African America women working in NASA who play a vital part in sending John Glenn into orbit around the earth. Tariji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a “computer”, who is assigned to work under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in the Space Task Group. She and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are confronted with many obstacles of discrimination in their attempt to integrate with fellow NASA workers and succeed in their job to help America win the space race.
Although you won’t find anything surprising in the plot of this film, it is a very entertaining, funny, and engaging story. The acting ensemble is superb. Although the film can be a bit formulaic, it is executed so effectively that it is easy to forgive its predictable features. It is an example of what good Hollywood entertainment can be.
A small Indian boy, named Saroo (Sunny Pawar), is lost in Calcutta. He ends up in an orphanage where a loving Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) decide to adopt him. 25 years later, as an adult (Dev Patel) and living in Australia, Saroo becomes obsessed with finding his childhood home and family that he left behind.
Based on a true story, this one will leave you wiping tears from your cheeks. The first half of the film is carried brilliantly by first time child actor Sunny Pawar. For such a young actor, he has no problem showing the range needed for such an emotional part. The second half is taken over by Dev Patel, but it is Nicole Kidman that really steals the second half of the film. The film is tragic, but it does not leave you hopeless. It is a well written, tightly constructed film for anyone looking for a good cry.
- La La Land
The most acclaimed film of the year sits in my #7 spot. The film is certainly deserving of its merit and there won’t be much complaint from me when it takes the best picture award along with a slew of others. It is a musical that follows the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, trying to get by in the hustle of Hollywood, CA. They meet and form a relationship. We follow as they attempt to achieve their respective dreams.
The movie’s charm is found in its heartbreaking relationship between the two main protagonists. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have great chemistry together and carry the film throughout. Director/writer, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), has created an original musical that entertains and engages the viewer. It avoids the excessive singing that can annoy some people unfamiliar with musicals and incorporates jazz and rock n roll elements into its repertoire. The final musical sequence is nothing short of spectacular.
- Sing Street
I couldn’t stop smiling while watching Sing Street. Maybe because it reminded me of my teenage years (despite taking place in Ireland in the 80s), or maybe because it had so many great songs I wish I would have written myself. Sing Street is a coming of age film about an Irish teenage kid, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Conor is going through a tough time in his life. His family is having personal and financial troubles and, as a result, he has to move to a new school. One day after school, he meets a girl and decides that the best way to impress her is to start a band. He recruits a ragtag gang of schoolmates and with the help of his older brother puts together a music group part Duran Duran, and part The Cure.
Writer/director, John Carney, is already known for these type of films. His previous work, Begin Again and Once, have similar tributes and nostalgic elements of 80s and 90s British pop and rock music. This time around, he has written something close to my heart. Every song in this film is a toe tapper and it is a shame that not a single song was nominated by the Academy. There are some cheesy elements to the story ala John Hughes, but the film is written so well that none of it is even a hint distracting. I recommend this to anyone who ever wanted be a musician as a kid and believed music would save their lives.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor hired to help make contact with extra-terrestrial beings that have landed on Earth. She is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician. Together they attempt to decipher the alien’s strange language in hopes to stop a full scale war of the worlds.
This is not your average alien invasion movie. You’re not going to get large scale destruction scenes or Will Smith running around screaming one-liners at tentacled alien creatures. Arrival is a smart, entertaining, sci-fi mystery that unravels slowly and engages the audience right from the first view of the alien ships. The film is not as mind blowing as Interstellar or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is a welcomed addition to the sci-fi pantheon of great films. Director, Denis Villeneuve, is kind of on roll here having had critical success with his previous films in Sicario and Prisoners. Here, he once again delivers a nicely executed film. The cinematography is superb specifically in the early scenes with the aliens. The writing team of Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang have taken a much used premise and managed to create a unique version of the alien invasion genre.
- Café Society
Woody Allen is still making great cinema. While, for many, this addition to his massive repertoire of countless critically acclaimed films did not register even a tiny impact, I found this movie to be one of the best Woody has to offer. The story revolves around Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) essentially playing the part of a young Woody Allen. Bobby is a New Yorker sent to California to stay with his uncle, film producer, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Bobby has little to do with himself in California until he meets Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). He quickly falls in love and, with a bit of luck, they form a relationship. Trouble begins when Vonnie’s secret regarding her ex-lover is revealed.
Woody does an excellent job in capturing the California setting of 1930s golden age Hollywood. His script is simple yet with enough twist and turns to keep you enticed and wanting more. The acting is phenomenal as is with most of Woody’s work. Even Kristen Stewart puts something of an actual decent performance. The film is funny and heartbreaking. And it doesn’t hurt that it throws in a bit of the gangster film genre to add to the mix.
- Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man living on his own in Boston working as a handyman. He keeps to himself and has very little interest to interact much with others in a meaningful way. When a phone call comes in to tell him that his brother has died back in his hometown of Manchester, he is forced to pay a visit to his past. To make matters even more difficult, Lee’s brother leaves him custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Unwilling to make real human connections again, Lee attempts to figure out a way to leave Manchester as soon as he can before his past returns to haunt him.
There is no denying the somber elements of this film. It is a tragic wonderfully written story and, although it won’t leave you smiling walking out of the theater, it will certainly work to evoke that ever so sought after cathartic feeling. This is the kind of film that is carried uniquely by its amazing emotional performances. Casey Affleck will deservingly win the Oscar for his turn as Lee. His performance is subtle, but where he excels is in how he is able to communicate so much pain without much in outward emotional outbursts. The rest of the entire main cast is perfect. Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges deserve recognition of their own. I recommend this movie highly, but, I must admit, this is not a film for most people. It is a slow build and with very little in closure to satisfy a mainstream audience. Since my top 2 were not nominated for best picture this year, this would be my pick to win the award.
- Star Wars: Rogue One
I was first exposed to Star Wars as a young 12 year old boy in 1997. At that time, The Star Wars Trilogy was being re-released in theaters and I took that chance to finally see the movies. Like so many of you out there, I fell in love with the original trilogy right from my first watch. And like so many of you out there, I was excited for those prequels (Episodes I-III). However, by the time the prequels hit theaters, I was a little older and I wanted the franchise to grow up with me. Suffice to say, I was disappointed by the childish nature of the prequels which became more apparent with each installment. The failure of the prequels, I believe, stemmed from Lucas’ inability to recognize that the fan base had grown up and the same tricks from the originals were just not going to cut it anymore. I had no optimism when Disney bought the franchise and my lack of optimism was confirmed when Episode VII was released. Although it was much better than the prequels, apart from being nothing more than a rehash of Episode IV, it still suffered from the same childish feel that I wish the franchise would finally let go. So, when Rouge One was announced, I had no expectations and more pessimism than ever.
But I say this now with the utmost sincerity, Star Wars: Rouge One is the Star Wars I have been waiting for all my life since first watching the original trilogy. And I know this may be blasphemous to many of you reading this, but Rouge One is in my opinion the best Star Wars ever made. Star Wars finally has grown up (and I can’t believe it was Disney that did it). This is what a rebellion looks like: questionable ethics, tragedy, loss, and struggle. The script is wonderful in keeping the spirit of Star Wars, but still moving the franchise forward. Not only is this a better stand-alone Star Wars movie, but it fixes plot holes from the originals making the originals even better than before.
In Rouge One, Darth Vader is a badass again, putting aside the horrendous Frankenstein appearance he made in Episode III. There is no unnecessary cheesy love story. The heroes are not all perfect moral characters. This a war film like Star Wars has never been. Yes, its space battles are as fantastic as ever, but the film exhibits a kind of war-like realism not yet seen in the franchise that meshes so nicely with the Star Wars universe. There is no cutesy droid to provide comic relief. The droid that does appear (Kaytoo) is a snarky dry British humor type that stole my affection faster and more deeply than R2D2 and C3PO have been able to do over 7 films. That last time I cried over a robot was Wall-E.
My faith in the franchise has been renewed and I feel like a 12 year old boy again excited to see what comes next. For the reasons above and so many more that would fill up a 10 page paper, Star Wars: Rogue One is my #2 movie of the year. Only one other movie hit me harder this year and that was…
- Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford wrote and directed this masterpiece based on the novel, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Amy Adams is Susan, a wealthy and privileged art gallery owner. She is unhappily married to her second husband and living a most unfulfilling life. The tragedy is that she had a happy relationship with her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), but her lack of patience and confidence in him brought that relationship to an end. To her surprise, Edward reemerges when he sends Susan his book titled “Nocturnal Animals” specifically dedicated to her. As she reads the book, she begins to reminisce and introspect on her relationship with Edward and her life decisions that led to where she is now. What ensues is a three part tale that intertwines Susan’s present with her past and the fictional content of the book itself.
The acting is top notch. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent and the supporting cast of Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Laura Linney and others are equally satisfying. The film is beautiful to look at. It is a stylistic work of art that uses it visuals to enhance the meaningful breath of its stories as they work in relation to each other. Its score enhances the tension when needed and does good work to frame the sadness of Susan’s meaningless present life.
The film plays like a normal thriller when it jumps into the fiction within a fiction of Edward’s book. And what we see just from the contents of the book could work as a satisfying thriller on its own. Yet, the film ads more layers to the plot as it flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s past and reveals how their relationship relates to the story of Edward’s fiction. It is difficult to say more because it is just better that you know the least possible to fully enjoy how this film unwinds itself to its ending. In essence, this is a revenge flick that plays with the genre in the most unexpected ways. Right from its opening credits, you are perplexed by what this film has in store for you and when it finally begins to reveal its twists and turns it leaves you hanging grasping your drink confused, frustrated, happy, and sad all the same time. There is so much more to say about this film, but I think it best you watch it for yourself and then join me for a beer to discuss.
Honorable mentions: Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Nice Guys, Captain Fantastic, Sausage Party, The Lobster, Hell or High Water
Dishonorable Mentions: Suicide Squad, Miss Peregrine’s Home of Peculiar Children, Jackie
Critics loved it, but I thought it was “meh”: Moonlight, Fences