2016 was an exceptional year for movies, as well as refreshingly diverse. The upcoming Oscar Awards show will thankfully be showcasing an array of stories and the talents of more than just whites- behind and in front of the camera. The movies that were good couldn’t be more different from one another. Some were big and loud, some were quiet and small; some were happy, some sad (and one was very depressing), but most were good and even great. I often gravitate to the smaller, independent and foreign films, but for this list I’m mixing it up and unabashedly embracing samples from the big commercial world because good is good. I applaud it all and welcome more, more, more.
1. La La Land
Yep, I’m following the crowd and critical elites on this one. There’s a reason why its a darling of audiences and critics alike, won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy, and is poised to take home the Oscar for Best Picture. It is at once a charming homage to musicals of old, and a fresh take on the genre overall. This is director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his first equally impressive, but completely different film, Whiplash. Although the singing and dancing isn’t constant, it’s appropriately placed and well crafted, with different types, such as traditional old school musical diddies, slower, melodic songs, classical jazz and jazz fusion. Mostly very different in style and placement than that of director Damien Chazelle’s first feature, Whiplash. The quality with La La Land is just as high as Whiplash, but here Chazelle is showing he’s got range and he’s got lots of talent.
Moonlight is both intense and sometimes hard to watch, as well as brilliant, haunting and not to be missed. This film by Barry Jenkins is a coming of age story of sorts about a young, black, gay boy, Chiron, growing up in the South surrounded by abject poverty and raised by a drug-addicted single mother. But beyond what this film is about, is how the story is told. It is poetic and lyrical, subtle and minimal. It unfolds like a 3-part opera, showing the stages of the main character’s life – boyhood, teen, young adult. Each chapter, complete with brief musical interludes, has a title, based on the name he is commonly referred to at the time. Also, at each stage he gets a slightly stronger awareness of his homosexuality, whether he accepts it and lives that truth or not.
3. 20th Century Women
20th Century Women is a small movie, with a lot of soul, guaranteed to enthrall and entertain. At the center of the story is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old being raised in Southern California by his fifty-something year old single mother, Dorthea, played magnificently by Annette Bening. Jamie is literally surrounded by women in his household - his mom, a somewhat troubled, yet eccentric border in their house, Abbie (Gretta Gerwig), and Julie (Elle Fanning), his neighbor friend who’s as beautiful and alluring as she is devoted. Dorthea is convinced Jamie is at a particularly crucial time in his life and she’s unable to carry on the task of influencing him alone. As such, she enlists the help of younger two women in his world. Based loosely on director Mike Mills’s mother, Dorothea is a complex and amusing character, and 20th Century Women is a welcome follow up to his earlier film, Beginners, which was based on his father coming out of the closet at the age of 75. As in Beginners, the performances are exceptional. Both of Mills’s films have a unique style, now characteristic of of Mills. The films deftly combine drama, comedy and mixed media visuals; small stories over short period of time, with emphasis on characters and relationships. Mills knows how to keep things simple, without over-simplifying; how to entertain, without going for big laughs; how to be subtle, without being boring.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say Ms. Benning was grossly overlooked for an Oscar nomination! Not only did I think she was going to get a nomination, I thought she would win.
This is a powerful and in-depth look at the U.S. prison system, which is polarizing force for racism. Throughout the documentary, director Ava DuVernay who is known for her 2014 film Selma, interviews Black intellectuals, politicians and giants of Civil Rights. The film paints a historical portrait of the disproportionate amount of Black men that are unfairly incarcerated in our society as a sort of continuation of Jim Crow. 13th is insightful and life-changing and was the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival in its 54 year history.
Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia who in the 1950s defied society and the law by getting married. Their legal battle made its way to the supreme court and ultimately reversed the laws for which they had one point been imprisoned for. Although they were strong and made a huge impact on their lives and those of others to come, they were both quiet and unassuming. So too is this movie. There were times when director Jeff Nichols could have taken poetic license and gone for the melodramatic jugular, but instead he aimed for subtlety and truth, and hit his mark. This movie is sweet and strong, with pitch perfect performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
5. Hell of High Water
What do you get when you put a broke divorced father, with an ex-con brother desperate for x amount of money within a few days to save the family property? Well, when you’re in impoverished, small town Texas and unique script by Taylor Sheridan of Sicario fame, you get an absorbing story that plays out like a modern sort of western. The film starts with a bank robbery that soon becomes one of a series of robberies of the Texas Midland Banks. Carried out by Toby (Chris Pine) and his brother (Ben Foster) with a motive to raise enough cash to pay off the reverse mortgage on their recently deceased mother’s ranch. This is especially important given that the two know there is oil on the broken down property. Hot on their trail is a soon-to-retire ranger played by Jeff Bridges and his partner. Watching the two sets of relationships unfold is interesting enough, but against the plot and timeline, along with a stark, depressed setting of small town Texas, it is not to be missed.
6. Hidden Figures
This is a gem of a movie revealing a little known, significant part of American history about a team of African-American women who provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program's first successful space missions. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three women, known as "human computers", we follow their lives as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds. Their mission was to calculate the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guarantee his safe return. Although working in a racist, “separate-but-equal” professional setting, friends, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) harnessed their smarts and ambitions and changed the course of history.
7. OJ: Made in America
In this documentary, ESPN perfectly captures the ultimate stories of rags to riches and falling from grace. OJ: Made in America goes well beyond or before the infamous murder trial of OJ Simpson, delving deep into his childhood, college and pro bowl career, his rise to fame and wealth, his demons and crimes, and most importantly, his mindset. Viewers get a close up look at the infamous trial, his life after the acquittal and his ultimate imprisonment 13 year after getting away with murder. If you thought you couldn’t disrespect and loath the Juice any more, this film will take your disgust to another level. It is saga of race, society and celebrity culture that proved to be too much to be packaged in a regular 2-hour movie, but rather presented as a riveting 5-part docu-series.
George Lucas, JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg had nothing to do with the making of this movie ... and that’s a good thing because this is a different type of Sci-Fi movie, with a welcome quietness and beauty. In this there is more emphasis on the scientist and linguist tasked to communicate with and learn the motives of the aliens, than the aliens themselves. There is little to no special effects and loud noises. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the team race against time for answers - and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity. The investigation is over a very short period of time. In it, Louise learns about the aliens and even more about the past she needs to let go of. At times this seemed almost too quiet and too subtle, yet its beauty and cinematic value cannot be denied.
Innovative director Pablo Larrain took a risk in making this movie. Another movie about the beloved president John Kennedy’s widow could easily been seen as subject over kill, only worthy of a mini series for the History Channel at best or the Lifetime channel at worse. She was a woman of privilege who’s tragic story has been done to death, forgotten and filed away for many. Larrain’s risk paid off, artistically if not commercially. Jackie is a portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. Jackie places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband's assassination. The normally quiet and withdrawn First Lady makes herself seen and heard to the establishment as she fights to maintain her husband’s legacy and create a new persona of their era as Camelot.
This film is focused on Jackie and the camera stays close on Natalie Portman throughout as she gives a haunting and moving portrayal of the iconic character. Her accent is a perfect blend of New York prep school and New England high society, she smokes constantly and stares unflinchingly. It is a slow moving, stylized film with a masterful music score. It is interesting and captivating to be sure, but sure not to be everybody’s cup of tea.
Honorable Mention: Deadpool
Putting all film snobbiness aside, this was an unexpected pleasure and hit, rightfully so... And this is coming from someone who hasn’t had an interest in any comics-come-to-screen since the Tim Burton Batman movies. That having been said, Deadpool is undeniably unique, fun, and irreverent. He’s a comic book anti-hero that works. On paper, the storyline of a former Special Forces operative turned mercenary to hunt down the man who destroyed his life, seems somewhat status quo, but what’s different is the deadpan sense of humor delivered by Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. To be sure, there’s plenty of blood and guts, but there’s also an equal portion of dark humor and fun. Also, kudos to the marketing of this movie. It proved to be just as unique and fun as the movie itself.
20th Century Women is a small movie, with a lot of soul, guaranteed to enthrall and entertain. At the center of the story is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old being raised in Southern California by his fifty-something year old single mother, Dorthea, played magnificently by Annette Bening. Jamie is literally surrounded by women in his household - In addition to Dorthea, there's Abbie (Gretta Gerwig), a somewhat troubled, yet eccentric border in their house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), his neighbor friend who’s as beautiful and alluring as she is devoted. Dorthea is convinced Jamie is at a particularly crucial time in his life and she’s unable to carry on the task of influencing him alone. As such, she enlists the help of the younger two women in his world. They initially resist and suggest she seek out help from the male border in the house (Billy Crudup), but at Dorothea’s insistence, the two agree to actively participate in Jamie’s teen years up bringing.
This includes Julie giving unwanted intimate details of her sexual escapades with Jamie’s classmates, inciting jealousy on his part. For Julie, she wants to ensure Jamie is fully aware of what it means to be a woman and how to please a woman. Within a few short weeks, Jamie and all three women go through much individually and collectively. The young son is a bit overwhelmed with love, opinion, support and advice, and Dorothea seriously questions the validity of her recruits, especially as the two over-share their feminist views at a dinner party. While Dorothea is in many ways a modern, liberal woman, she is also conservative and not fully embracing feminism or admitting to her closed off ways. Maybe her influence is enough, or maybe she needs to learn how to listen to her son and work on their relationship. Throughout all the teaching and learning, humor and drama collide, with a nice balance of both, along with a smattering of 70s punk music and California street style. About the only detraction in this movie is the smoking, which is probably realistic for the times. Dorothea smokes constantly to the frustration of her son and her ultimate demise. Although the whole cast of 20th Century Women are good and tight, Bening and Gerwig are the stand outs. Gerwig probably delivers her best performance of her young career, while Bening is seamless and convincing.
Based loosely on director Mike Mills’s mother, Dorothea is a complex and amusing character, and 20th Century Women is a welcome follow up to his earlier film, Beginners, which was based on his father coming out of the closet at the age of 75. As in Beginners, the performances are exceptional. Both of Mills’s films have a unique style, now characteristic of of Mills. The films deftly combine drama, comedy and mixed media visuals; small stories over short period of time, with emphasis on characters and relationships. Mills knows how to keep things simple, without over-simplifying; how to entertain, without going for big laughs; how to be subtle, without being boring.