Many films are well-made, but the ones that land on my own personal Top 10 each year have something more: some memorable element, some unique quality or emotional connection that reverberates down deep — a special something that was in fairly short supply this year, with the following notable exceptions:
1. “DON’T THINK TWICE”
Personal favorites hit me right where I live, and in a year of films unmoored from recognizable reality and/or intellectual exercises that I respected without embracing, I was grateful for at least one production which spoke directly to my specific interests and experiences, set in a cinematic world that felt both truthful and fully inhabited. Written and directed by comedian/filmmaker Mike Birbiglia, “Don’t Think Twice” is partly about improv actors trying out for a buzzy sketch-based variety show (and the film’s lacerating parody of “Saturday Night Live” is pretty much worth the price of admission all by itself). Because of the setting, there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humor, but what really makes the film stick is its timeless snapshot of the creative life (of any era or discipline) and the painful, inevitable question: what happens when the bulk of your passion, identity, and purpose are tied up in something completely unsustainable, regardless of talent or integrity? Birbiglia’s film tackles the issue from multiple angles while dramatizing the stress of success and lack thereof on relationships and individual psyches. Should you do anything it takes to succeed if succeeding drains all the pleasure from what you’re successful at? If a person advances, are they obligated to help those left behind? Does wealth determine opportunity, and can friendships survive the class divide when push comes to shove? And, most of all, is there a right time to abandon a dream, and what happens if you do? Poignant ironies multiply as a rock-solid ensemble (including Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, and a luminous Gillian Jacobs) embrace and betray the fundamental improv codes of “just saying yes” and “no I in team” in this instant classic show biz fable. The perfect 2016 yin to La-La Land’s overpraised yang.
By and large, animation has been Hollywood’s best written, most sophisticated genre for more than a decade, and “Zooptopia” showcases all the strengths of the modern era of family entertainment: smart dialogue, vivid characters, imaginative plotting, etc. But what really sets Disney’s “fur noir” apart is a clever dramatization of the racial and cultural divides in 2016 America more nuanced than much of the year’s “grown-up” filmmaking, punditry and political rhetoric. In the story’s anthropomorphic setting, animals coexist in seeming harmony, but tensions under the surface are forever on the verge of erupting — particularly when it comes to knee-jerk fears of certain creatures going “savage” expressed by characters who earnestly claim some of their best friends are foxes. Yet for all its thematic real-world resonance (and clever sociological in-jokes, like the sheep who gets annoyed when her wool is touched without permission), the script works because it embeds its lessons in a funny, fast-paced caper full of memorable set pieces like the inadvertent havoc of a chase by larger creatures through mouse-sized neighborhoods and a few bits that are funny even when you see them coming a mile away (and/or in the trailers) like…a certain…scene-stealing…slow-talking…sloth.
3. “THE TOWER”
Winner of both the SXSW 2016 Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary, director Keith Maitland’s animated/non-fiction hybrid depicting the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas is roughly an hour of the most gripping drama I’ve seen in years, followed by about 30 minutes of pretty good gun control advocacy. Combining rotoscoped reenactments of the tragedy with actual news footage and survivor recollections, Maitland creates an astonishing sense of immediacy as we experience the chaos and terror of the attack from the perspectives of students, policemen, reporters, and other innocent bystanders pinned down by a sniper in a clock tower overlooking the U.T. campus and a neighboring Austin business district known as the Drag. Unlikely heroes emerge during the standoff (while one woman comes to the compellingly human realization that she’s a coward) – yet even the bravest of the survivors are scarred by feelings of guilt for not doing more or responding quickly enough. That sense of unfinished business informs the final third of the film, which tackles the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. and the efforts of some of the interviewees to mitigate America’s culture of violence and lax gun laws — including a statute allowing concealed weapons on Texas college campuses that went into effect, with chilling irony, on the 50th anniversary of the day Charles Whitman climbed the Tower and randomly shot 43 people for no reason.
The ads and trailers for this adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning family drama feature a clip of Viola Davis’s long-suffering wife, Rose, finally releasing decades of pent-up rage at her bitter, selfish husband, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). And though I’d seen the moment a half dozen times prior to watching the film, the full scene in context still hit like an emotional baseball bat thanks to the force of Davis’s awe-inspiring performance. The rest of the cast, particularly Washington, are all worthy contenders for the World Series of acting, as well — but Davis not receiving an Oscar for this role would be an injustice as great as Troy ending up a garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh instead of an all-star ballplayer thanks to the institutional racism he faced in his playing days (before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier). And yet, despite the film’s setting and mostly black cast, Wilson’s story is less about prejudice than individual reactions to injustice, hardship, and disappointment, imbuing the story with timeless, universal resonance. Or, to paraphrase another strong, black woman: if you don’t go high when the world goes low, the depths can be downright terrifying.
5. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”
Are there too many cinematic sequels and superheroes? Absolutely. But if we can’t escape caped crusaders, then we might as well enjoy as many as possible all crammed onscreen at once — and while I’m more than a little sick of Hollywood’s endless stream of CGI’d adolescent escapism at this point, I can’t deny the primal Creature Double Feature thrill Marvel generated this summer with “Civil War”‘s jaw-dropping showdown between nearly every one of the brand’s iconic characters punching and kicking and webbing and blasting the bejesus out of each other in a giddy action sequence well worth the price of an IMAX admission. And, to be fair, the house that Stan Lee built has established a fairly consistent level of quality control, humanity, and sheer dumb fun notably lacking from much of the rest of today’s blockbuster landscape (including the turgid DC “universe” and…sorry Force fans…a certain illogical, underwritten galaxy far, far away). Also, bonus points for the cameo by Tom Holland’s charming new Spider-Man (back in the Marvel fold after finally swinging free of legal entanglements with Sony Pictures).
6. “THE BANDIT”
For anyone who lived through the ‘70s, “The Bandit” is first and foremost a bingo card of polyester memories. C.B. slang? Bell-bottoms? Paul Williams? Check, check, and check. And nobody embodied that era with greater swagger (or a hairier pelt) than Burt Reynolds, whose good ol’ boy charisma transformed him from an F.S.U. halfback sidelined by injuries into one of the biggest movie stars in the U.S. of A. But director Jesse Moss doesn’t just give Reynolds the standard biopic treatment (though he touches on everything from the actor’s early days as “the next Brando” and his infamous “Cosmopolitan” centerfold to his golden years teaching acting classes at an eponymous “Institute for Film and Theatre” in West Palm Beach). Instead, Moss focuses his documentary on the mucho macho bromance between the celebrity who fancied himself a stuntman and his heterosexual soul mate Hal Needham, a stuntman who actively craved the celebrity status generally denied to members of his profession. Born a dirt poor sharecropper, Needham pulled himself up by his bootstraps (and threw himself off of a lot of tall buildings) to become Reynolds’s stunt double and eventual roommate, best friend, and director on a series of lowbrow action comedies including “Hooper”, “The Cannonball Run”, and “Smokey and the Bandit”. Moss primarily chronicles the unlikely production and success of the latter, resulting in a film as fast-paced and fun as a high-speed car chase in a Firebird Trans Am.
7. “HELL OR HIGH WATER”
Jeff Bridges in the post-Dude era has become such a lovably cantankerous presence onscreen that I’d happily watch him just riding around in a car for two hours, spitting one-liners like chewing tobacco. But “Hell or High Water” goes that premise one better by casting the actor as a grizzled Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement and partnering him with a long-suffering but clearly beloved partner (Gil Birmingham), allowing the pair to squabble like an old married couple as they search for a counterpart duo: brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine & the reliably magnetic Ben Foster), a Robin and a Hood, respectively, hitting the corrupt banks of America to steal back the money those financial institutions stole from them, all in hopes of saving the ol’ family farm. It’s an age-old Western premise retrofitted with post-mortgage crisis realities and the 2nd Amendment zealotry of modern day America into a witty, fast-paced caper flick haunted by ever-tightening suspense and the looming fates of forgotten communities and those who live and die within them.
8. “EIGHT DAYS A WEEK”
After countless biopics, documentaries, televised tributes, books, and re-releases of the group’s own work, I wouldn’t have thought a fresh take on the Beatles was even possible — but damned if Ron Howard didn’t find a way. Focusing on the behind-the-scenes grind of the Fab Four’s concert performances from their formative gigs in Hamburg, Germany to their final Let It Be rooftop jam, Howard infuses famous old footage of the Fab Four with new meaning while somehow digging up entirely new (or at least exceedingly rare) clips illustrating the band’s charisma, talent, and unprecedented impact. The pressures of that kind of fame — which bonded and eventually separated John, Paul, George, and Ringo — are vividly and effectively depicted, and the backstage moments with the lads throughout their evolution makes it easy to remember why everyone fell in love with them in the first place. But the real strength of the film is its unexpected surprises, like an interlude illustrating how the Mop Tops helped to blur color lines in segregationist America, some surprising celebrity cameos, and the incredibly moving sight of a stadium full of hardened Liverpudlian men united in song to celebrate their hometown working class heroes who managed to escape and make good.
9. “LOVING” & “MOONLIGHT”
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat so I can squeeze in my #10 movie…but “Loving” and “Moonlight” are such a perfect pairing, in style and content, that it feels natural for them to share a spot. Both are quiet chamber pieces about the transformative power of love featuring heartfelt performances from small, potent ensembles. Loving has a clever take on a story with a foregone conclusion (i.e., the Supreme Court overturning Neanderthal laws outlawing interracial marriage): namely, by keeping the focus on the sweet, heartfelt bond between Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), Jeff Nichols’ film drives home both the insanity of laws purporting to regulate relationships as well as how easily bad legislation can take root if people aren’t willing to oppose it. Meanwhile, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight uses three linked tales of a single character at three points in his life to show the dangers of a life without love…but also how even a little affection can sometimes be enough to sustain a lonely soul for years.
10. “DONALD CRIED”
Sure, “Manchester by the Sea” featured top-notch work by all involved…but you already knew that, right? And to be honest, for all the film’s strengths, it simply didn’t move or surprise me as much as some of the other films on this list. So, instead, I’ve reserved my #10 slot for “Donald Cried”, a very different and distinctive vision of hard luck low life in New England by writer/director Kris Avedisian, who also stars as the eponymous crier. And what, you may ask, made Donald cry? Well, the less you know going in the better, since the story is so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to guess where it’s all leading until very near the end. Thus, I’ll only say the set-up involves an uptight young New York banker (Jesse Wakeman) losing his wallet during a rare visit to the working-class Rhode Island town where he grew up across the street from a live-wire, developmentally challenged metalhead named Donald. As the title character, Avedisian powers the narrative with alternately hilarious and harrowing gonzo emotional intensity, nicely grounded by Wakeman’s quieter, more relatable performance (and bonus points for arguably the best ever use of “Dance Hall Days” on a feature film soundtrack).
Honorable Mention: “The Witch”, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, “Miss Stevens”, “Starving the Beast”, “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America”, “Orange Sunshine”, “Slash”, “Everybody Wants Some!!”, “Hello, My Name Is Doris”, “Elvis Meets Nixon”, “Food Fight: Inside the Battle for Market Basket”, “The Purge: Election Day”, “Star Trek Beyond”, “Sausage Party”, “Southside With You”, “Arrival”, “Rogue One”
Memorable Moments/Performances of 2016: The singin’ cowboy and singin’, dancin’ sailors of “Hail Caesar”, Black Phillip and the general spookiness of “The Witch, the grim warnings of “Starving the Beast”, Daryl Davis converting Klansmen but clashing with Black Lives Matter activists in “Accidental Courtesy”, Michael Ian Black’s surprisingly sincere turn in “Slash”, the cheery ensemble of “Everybody Wants Some!!”, “Hello, My Name Is Doris”‘s Sally Field in full-on adorbz mode, the hilariously ’80s music video in “Sing Street”, the inspirational tale of “Food Fight”, roughly the first half (and all the random wandering animals) of “The Lobster”, the self-inflicted train wrecks of Carlos Danger, a.k.a. “Weiner”, Parker Sawyers’ uncanny young Barack in “Southside With You”, the first encounter with the aliens in “Arrival”, the New England flavor of “Manchester by the Sea”, Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, the art design of “Rogue One”‘ as well as its most fleshed-out character: the fleshless ex-Imperial robot, K-2SO.
Worst Movie I Saw: “GHOSTBUSTERS”
No, it’s not because women took over roles that men once played. It’s because the film was a mess with barely scripted scenes, characters, or plot points, leaving talented performers to riff on a handful of vague premises (hey, the recpetionist is a hot himbo…get it?) in the lazy, annoying “hey, let’s just improv!” post-Apatow frat pack style of too much current cinematic comedy. Director Paul Feig and stars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones have all done much better work, and I get the impulse to defend them after they were savaged by sexist, cretinous internet trolls. But to say this wan reboot stacks up to the original (which at least maintained basic standards of screenwriting and character development) is wishful thinking at best and a sad reflection of how little people expect from modern mainstream multiplex fodder. (On the other hand, I did like the running gag of McCarthy’s character’s dissatisfaction with a local wonton delivery place, practically the only element of the entire production that seemed grounded in observations of specific rather than computer-generated reality.)
Most Overrated: “LA-LA LAND”
It’s not that I hated this old-timey musical about fantastically beautiful “struggling” artists in a candy-colored fairy tale version of Los Angeles. Heck, I like musicals, I like beautiful people, and some of my best friends are struggling artists — but it’s precisely that last point that makes writer/director Damien Chazelle’s rich kid fantasy of show biz (and the Hollywood elite currently showering it with praise) so annoying. Sure, it’s meant to be a feel-good fantasy about plucky underdogs, but Chazelle also wants us to feel a melancholy tug of sorrow for characters who must settle for just 95% of everything they ever wanted in a business notorious for crushing 100% of the dreams of most true underdogs. At one point, for instance, Emma Stone’s wannabe actress fights with her musician boyfriend (Ryan Gosling) because he’s not playing exactly the type of jazz he wants to while making big money with a popular combo…an argument exactly zero non-trust-fund couples have ever had in real life while pursuing careers in the arts. (Speaking of which, isn’t it about time to retire the trope where we know the white guy’s cool because he’s friends with black people who themselves don’t get more than, like, five lines of dialogue in the movie?) And maybe all would be forgiven if the characters, dialogue, songs, and/or dances were half as much fun as those in more realistic rags-to-riches romps like “The Muppet Movie”…but, as my wife noted, even “La-La Land”‘s big vaunted opening number on the L.A. freeway kinda felt like a big budget Sprite commercial (only without quite enough fizz).
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy 2016 movies as yet unseen by moi): “20th Century Women”, “The Handmaiden”, “Deadpool”, “Moana”