Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best of 2016

The consensus seems to be that the dozen months of 2016 are not ones most people would want to repeat.  So, is it merely a coincidence that so many of the most rewarding and compelling movies of this grim, glum year turn out to be explorations of loss, grief and resignation?

Even the frequently ebullient La La Land has sharp edges of desperation and disappointment.  The first time I saw it, I waltzed out of the theater giddy from its love affair with the great movie musicals, while a second viewing underscored that from its jaunty opening number to its final flourish, La La Land is a movie about the pain of sacrifice.

Likewise, the surprise science-fiction hit Arrival has, at its core, a deep sense of regret and a bit of foreboding for the future.

Of course, movies take months or years to make, so they don't directly reflect the moment ... or do they?  Was this melancholy end to the year one that filmmakers could have foreseen?  It will take time to unravel the deeper meanings of the movies of 2016, but even though they are frequently weighty and sometimes even hard to watch, every one of these movies is a genuinely remarkable achievement.  And don't get me wrong, some of them are downright joyous.  Then again, any great movie is joyous, and all of these, in one way or another, are great movies.

  The Jungle Book  

It's tempting to say that Neel Sethi delivers the single best performance of the year purely because it's he who makes The Jungle Book utterly, completely believable -- despite almost always being the only real thing on screen.  The Jungle Book is a digital wonder, a movie that proves ever naysayer of digital effects (myself included) wrong by creating a world that's entirely believable and utterly absorbing.  It recalls Disney's original animated version without (sorry) aping it and creates a captivating movie that is charming and dazzling in equal measure.  As Mowgli, Sethi has the unenviable task of making audiences think he's really doing all the things he's doing, but the thing he does best is make us believe -- not just in his story, but in the magic of the movies.

  Kubo and the Two Strings  

Fresher than Harry Potter, as emotionally fulfilling as E.T. and as lyrical as The Wizard of Oz, Kubo and the Two Strings is as carefully and intricately structured as one of its title characters origami creatures.  It may look simple, but it takes enormous skill and imagination to create something this exquisite.  It's a visually striking, narratively complex animated movie, and its greatest success is also its greatest commercial pitfall: It demands, and rewards, patience and thought.  All throughout, its title seems to make sense until the movie's final minutes, when it reveals the true meaning of those two strings in a scene of unexpected emotional weight.  It's a tale not of adventure and action (though it contains those) but of quiet introspection, leading to a potent reminder that we stand on the backs of those who came before us.  It's a beautiful, soaring film.


You'll come to Jackie to see its flawless central performance by Natalie Portman, but you'll leave Jackie feeling you've gained insight into how anyone -- well-known or not -- copes with grief.  On that sunny fall day in 1963, Jackie Kennedy didn't just watch the President die in her arms, she witnessed something unthinkable, she lost her husband and saw her entire world fall out of her control.  Jobless, homeless, futureless, she musters her strength, summons her courage and discovers genuine rage as she calls a reporter to her Massachusetts mansion and begins what she knows will be her most important work: shaping John F. Kennedy's legacy.  As Jackie Kennedy, Portman hits every note elegantly, powerfully and strikingly.  She transforms Jackie Kennedy from the thin, whisper-voiced and intensely private celebrity we knew from a distance into an achingly real, strong and vital woman, who deals with tragedy by confronting it head on.  Jackie offers more than Portman's performance, but she is the reason it transcends mere biography and becomes such a rich, rewarding movie.

  Midnight Special  

There aren't many directors with as peculiarly compelling a style as Jeff Nichols.  He seems uniquely capable of finding the infinitesimally thin line between reality and fantasy, and he specializes in a mood that hangs right at the intersection of languid and dreamlike -- his movies are realizations of that moment that happens just as you're about to fall asleep, when anything seems possible but only from a distance.  Midnight Special is a blend of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman, filtered through Nichols' unusual lens.  Michael Shannon adds to the almost-surreal proceedings as an intense father of a child with truly unusual powers that either threaten the world or might save it.  Making Midnight even more special is Nichols' fearlessness in its final 20 minutes: The movie shows us everything, yet still manages to leave us with a sense of wonder, even that rarest of all movie emotions: awe.

  Manchester by the Sea  

Regardless of what you've heard, Manchester by the Sea will not throw you in to despondency, you will not want to slit your wrists after seeing it, you will not feel hopeless.  In fact, it's more likely you'll experience an unexpected sense of calm and contentedness when Manchester by the Sea ends, because it's a movie imbued with optimism despite a story filled with tragedy.  It's a spiritual counterpart to Jackie in its quest to uncover how anyone can experience death and still go on living.  Casey Affleck is tortured and bleak in the lead role of a father who loses just about everything, but he's also charismatic and soulful.  Equally stellar is Lucas Hedges as the confused, impatient, loving teenager who needs a father figure -- even an entirely unsuitable one.  Yes, there is great tragedy throughout Manchester by the Sea, but whose life is untouched by tragedy?  Taken together, Manchester by the Sea and Jackie get as close as movies can come to understanding how and why we pick ourselves up and carry on despite it all.


How can we be so lucky?  This year brought us not just the mystical, weird splendors of Midnight Special but another cerebral, patient science-fiction spectacle with Arrival.  Though it's based on a short story, Arrival feels fully thought-out, combining a deeply personal story with one that takes place on a grand, even cosmic, scale.  There are touches of 2001The Day the Earth Stood Still and especially Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, but Arrival only draws inspiration from those movies and doesn't try to mimic them.  It's unlike any mainstream science-fiction film I can remember, winding in and out of time and back and forth on itself as it blends enormous vision with a story that has genuine intimacy and real sadness at its warm and tender heart.  Amy Adams delivers a fantastic, thoughtful performance whose believability is vital to this wondrous, mystifying movie.

  Swiss Army Man  

Yes, I swear that the movie about the farting corpse is one of the best movies of the year.  It's also one of three movies I loved this year that invokes the spirit of the great E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial ... in fact, at one point in Swiss Army Man the suicidal castaway (Paul Dano) and rotting, farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends engage in a shadow-puppet performance that includes the indelible "over the moon" scene.  To really enjoy Swiss Army Man, you'll need to turn off your self-censorship mode that has taught you to be embarrassed and disgusted by bodily functions and scared by the sight of a dead man.  If you do that, though, you'll be rewarded with one of the truly joyous movies of 2016, a film that isn't ashamed to say that the only thing anyone really wants is to find someone who understands them, and it's no one's business but yours who that person ends up being.  Swiss Army Man is beautiful despite being grotesque, moving despite being absurd, and a true treasure of a movie.


Moonlight does things movies aren't supposed to do -- it experiments, always successfully, with story, structure, character and even the very nature of film itself, it is as bold and revolutionary a movie as any you're likely to see, and just as affecting.  Three different actors play the same role in three different short films that add up to one entirely fulfilling whole.  Each of the stories follows Chiron -- first known as "Little," then by his given name, then as "Black" -- a boy who is growing up in the worst possible circumstances and who has to rely only on himself.  Others float in and out of his life, and whether through love or hate they all contribute to who he becomes.  Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at different stages of his life, and they are all remarkable in the same role.  Mahershala Ali is revelatory as Juan, the drug dealer who tries to be a father to the boy, and André Holland is sensitive and memorable as Kevin, a man who has always loved Chiron but never really knew it.  Visually gorgeous, achingly emotional and never, ever predictable, Moonlight is an extraordinary accomplishment that in any other year might have been the single best film of the year ... but 2016 hasn't been an ordinary year.

  A Monster Calls  

Jackie explores grief from the viewpoint of history, Manchester by the Sea takes a strikingly realistic approach, but as a dark and mystical fantasy, A Monster Calls is an even more exquisitely heartbreaking exploration of this difficult subject because it knows that despair and pain are so boundless that they exist on a plane that is different than reality.  Director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness (who wrote the children's novel on which it's based, which came from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who conceived of it but died before she could write it) are fearless when it comes to showing the cavernous, bottomless void that opens up when someone we love dies.  A movie this tender can't succeed, though, without equally fearless performances, and that's exactly what A Monster Calls has in Lewis McDougall, who plays Conor, a boy on the cusp of maturity who is facing the death of his mother, and in Liam Neeson, who brings both a voice and a soul to the title "monster."  But there's another monster in the movie: death, which suffuses every frame, even the splendidly beautiful ones of long animated sequences that punctuate the film.  Some may term A Monster Calls a tearjerker, but that's pulling it mildly: It's a weep-yanker, a film that earns those deep emotions by being courageous, honest and visually magnificent.

  La La Land  

The first thing you're likely to feel from La La Land is joy.  It's a movie in love with the movies and in love with being in love.  But consider it again.  Yes, it has a beautiful sheen to it, an exquisite look that you need to see in the biggest theater with the biggest screen you can to really appreciate it.  And it's anchored by two luminous, committed performances -- Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a musician hopelessly infatuated with the past, and Emma Stone as Mia, a woman who is just about to give up on her dream of being an actress.  They meet and they fall in love in a gloriously old-fashioned way: singing and dancing about it, sometimes even right there on a movie studio's backlot, the way it used to be done in the old big-screen musicals.  Then, just as it's keeping the smile plastered on your face, La La Land starts to go into directions musicals aren't supposed to go in, and it winds up with a finale that plays it both ways: It presents a big, brassy, swoony ballet sequence -- maybe the finest eight minutes ever to finish a movie -- and then belts you in the face with an ending you didn't foresee.  That's what makes it worth seeing again, and when you do (or when you listen to its soundtrack, which may seem dismissible to begin with but works its way into your head like an earworm) you'll start noticing that from its first frame to its last, La La Land isn't about being in love, it's about the impossibility of love in the most romantic of settings.  "That's L.A.," says Sebastian, dejectedly, "they worship everything and value nothing."  It's that sentiment, and lyrics right there in its misleadingly bouncy opening number ("I'm reaching for the heights / and chasing all the lights that shine / and when they let you down / you get up off the ground") that showcase its depth and make this a movie that matters for reasons that far exceed its surface-level pleasures.  La La Land is a movie about passion, not necessarily about love, and about the things people sacrifice to follow their ambitions.  In that way, even though its gorgeous, swirling and dizzying, writer-director Damien Chazelle brings some connections to his sadistic, maddeningly good Whiplash.  It's too easy to dismiss La La Land as merely terrific.  It's way better than that.

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