Critical rankings of the best of 2016 in screen, stage, tube/online and books … plus our local Actor of the Year
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES Executive Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
2016 is the year of Hollywood finally went black, and should never go back. Following the “Oscars so white” controversies of the past two seasons, minority issues — especially those about African-Americans — blew up in 2016, and it wasn’t mere tokenism. From films like Moonlight to Fences, Birth of a Nation, Loving, Hidden Figures, Race, Morris from America and I Am Not Your Negro — as well as television shows like O.J.: Made In America, The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Atlanta — artists (and let’s face it, largely indie artists more than mainstream studios) explored thoughtfully, and with originality, matters of race and gender identity in sprawling yet intimate movies. From the 20-year history of a black man in the inner-city also coping with his sexual orientation to the struggle of intelligent black women to get the recognition they deserve as thinkers to the prosaic dignity of an interracial couple re-writing the United States Constitution by sheer force of their love, films explored the human side of race in this country. (It’s ironic, though, that this all happened both as the “Black Lives Matter” movement gained currency in politics, while simultaneously a racist Cheetoh was elevated to the most powerful position in the history of planet Earth.)
It seems inevitable that next month, the Academy will be forced to recognize and reward the quality of these stories with a few more tanned faces on the nominations podium. The discussion needs to be had, and prove that, oddly enough, all movies matter.
Here, then, is my rundown of the Top 10 (and up to 25) films released during the year.
10. (tie) A Monster Calls and Lion. Two stories about young boys losing their families and the ways they cope — one retreating into a fantasy world, the other (as an older man) who sets out to find the family he lost — touch you in unfathomable sad yet uplifting ways.
9. Arrival. One of the smartest sci-fi films of recent vintage, this intellectuals’ version of alien invaders is closer in tone to Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey than Independence Day or Cowboys and Aliens. One of the only two recent time-travel-inspired movies (the other being Doctor Strange) that actually felt honest and grounded.
8. The Jungle Book. Jon Favreau’s track record is hit (Iron Man) and miss (Zathura) when it comes to FX-laden adventures, but this adaptation of the Disney classic — replacing cel animation with an entirely digital world, with only one live actor (wonderful newcomer Neel Sethi) holding it all together — took you deep into the subcontinent, filled with dangers and wonders, and entirely submersed its audience in a fantasy that felt oh-so-real.
7. Florence Foster Jenkins. What could have been a bitter and mocking comedy — or perhaps worse, a mawkish melodrama — was transformed into a wondrous but touching metaphor for the ways we allow ourselves to be deluded (by ourselves and others) as a perverse act of love. Meryl is marvelous as always, but Simon Helberg’s bright-eyed performance as her gay accompanist and Stephen Frears’ masterful direction add depth.
6. The Lobster. One of the few films from the first half of the year to linger, this dystopian comedy, about a world where couplehood is so valued that single people are surgically turned into animals if they can’t find a mate, feels eerily prophetic in a Drumpfian world. Colin Farrell’s flat, egoless performance cinches it.
5. Hidden Figures. The stories of three women — all smart mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s, integral to the space program but treated with the disrespect that Jim Crow imposed — are painstakingly recreated in this soaring mix of Apollo 13 and The Help.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings. Set aside that much of this film is stop-motion animation with paper figures, and think instead of the story, about a small boy essentially orphaned by a forgetful mother and missing father, who learns the secret of his heritage a la Harry Potter. Beautifully rendered and evocative of the great film of Japanese folk legends Kwaidan, Kubo was the singular standout of all animated films this year.
3. Hell or High Water. Essentially a perfectly-constructed film from start to finish, Hell or High Water looks like an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up, a modern-day Western with the cops chasing the bad guys. Only who are the bad guys, really? And how is this West Texan ranger (Jeff Bridges, who deserves another Oscar) such a warmly racist Columbo? Compelling, thrilling and smart.
2. Nocturnal Animals. A bored L.A. gallery owner (Amy Adams, proving less can be more) lives a vaguely unsatisfying existence in a sterile and heavily-mortgaged home with her philandering husband. Then, her long-forgotten first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a manuscript for a new novel — dedicated to her, for some reason. Its story (about a Texas family terrorized on a dark highway) triggers memories (shown in flashback) and the woman’s courtship with the writer. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s second feature, following the unforgettable A Single Man, is a gorgeous, lurid, hypnotic reverie about the choices we make. A meta-experience that warps the syntax of filmic storytelling.
1. Moonlight. An African-American kid named Chiron, born to a crack-addict mom and surviving (barely) on the streets of Miami, meets a mentor (himself a drug dealer) who nurtures the sensitive boy, but even he can’t prevent the horrors of urban life from intruding… unless Chiron can overcome his circumstances (and come to grips with his homosexuality) and transform his life. Think of it as Brokeblack Mountain — a contemporary riff in the ghetto of the fragility of love and the need to accept oneself before others can love you back. Brilliantly acted (especially by Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali) and profoundly moving with a script by director Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is gripping, beautiful drama at its best.
Nos. 11–25: Doctor Strange; La La Land; American Pastoral; Paterson; 20th Century Women; Absolutely Fabulous The Movie; Passengers; Tickled; Captain Fantastic; Edge of Seventeen; Danny Says; Silence; Weiner; Wiener-Dog; Allied.
Memorable performances: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg, Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins; Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water; Viola Davis, Fences; Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic; Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women; Hailee Steinfeld, Edge of Seventeen; Ewan McGregor, Dakota Fanning, American Pastoral; Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Kristen Stewart, Café Society; Alden Ehrenreich, Rules Don’t Apply and Hail, Caesar!; Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Rules Don’t Apply; Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Neel Sethi, The Jungle Book; Adam Driver, Paterson; Colin Farrell, The Lobster; Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship; Amy Adams, Arrival and Nocturnal Animals; Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals; Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Loving; Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Lion.
The 5 most disappointing films of the year (those with promise that failed miserably): Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, who has allowed his moody feelings of mortality to overwhelm him and audiences); Assassin’s Creed (A-listers in a B-movie with D-execution); Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (the great Ang Lee goes wrong with this directionless and emotionally empty story of PTSD); Suicide Squad (Gotham shitty). Finding Dory (a pale and unsatisfying sequel to a beloved modern classic).
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2016.