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The Top Ten Films of 2016

January 16, 2017

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Are there 2016 movies that I have yet to catch up with? Of course. At some point though, when compiling a list of what you consider to the be the very best films of the year, you just have to stop and realize that there will be some films you’ll have to catch up with later. It’s as hard a reality to grasp as leaving certain films off your Top Ten list, which is inevitable. These arbitrary lists are never easy, but it helps to go with your heart, not your head. Below is a list of noteworthy films from that were released in some form during a challenging year. 

2016 was a year that was filled with disappointments, loss and division, away from the big-screen. I’m reminded that the power of cinema continues to be a safe haven and an art form that can provide therapy and catharsis.  Many of the films on this list excel at providing pure entertainment, while others are the best in their respective genre, but overall these are movies that have connected and resonated in an impacting manner. They are movies that are unique and necessary as well as ones that are different and enlightening.

My list is compiled of films that have moved me emotionally, surprised me entirely, subverted expectations with a welcome authenticity and whelmed me with reassurance that movies can still delight and offer needed escapism. Ultimately, my picks are films that left me feeling glad that I had watched them and eager to persuade others to see them. I maintain that the films I listed this past July in my Top Five Films of 2016 (so far) are still great and any that didn’t make this list are certainly considered Honorable Mentions of 2016.

As in past years, I’m joined by Keeping It Reel contributing writers, all of whom I respect and value. Mark Pracht and Steven Attanasie return, offering their selections and we welcome the latest addition, Joshua Bertram, who covered the Toronto International Film Festival, among other films. Posting these lists wouldn’t be the same without the irreplaceable participation of these gentlemen and I continue to be fascinated by how our lists compare, contrast and cross over.

Of course, there are films we wish we could’ve included and for each of us this  Top Ten list could’ve easily been extended. Among the films we really liked that didn’t make the cut and were not represented here are:

Ava DuVernay’s “13th“, Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane“, Andrew Cividino’s “Sleeping Giant“, Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange“, Park Chan Wook’s “The Handmaiden“, Tim Miller’s “Deadpool“, Taika Wapiti’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople“, Kevin Funk’s “Hello Destroyer“, Anthony & Joe Russo’s “Captain America: Civil War“, Roger Ross Williams’ “Life, Animated“, Denzel Washington’s “Fences“, Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle“, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence“, “Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” Julio Quintana’s “The Vessel“,Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!”, Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman’s “Blood on the Mountain”, Marty Langford’s “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s the Fantastic Four“, Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey’s “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” and Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice

Now without further ado, here is Keeping It Reel’s Top Ten Films of 2016 (links to reviews are highlighted)….

 

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THE LOBSTER

10. 

 

Joshua – THE LOBSTER 

In “The Lobster,” Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos continues his trend of wickedly irreverent social experimentation, dressing down the things society holds most sacred. A little Luis Buñuel, a little Wes Anderson, “The Lobster” satirizes society’s obsession with coupledom and marriage and government intrusion into private lives. A dry Colin Farrell (in, perhaps, his best role) shines with perfect deadpan expressions and comedic timing. It’s certainly the funniest movie of the year and, in its own way, maybe the most romantic. “The Lobster” further cements Lanthimos as one of contemporary film’s most important social commentators. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

Mark – DE PALMA 

I honestly run hot and cold on Brian De Palma’s films, but Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary, which amounts to a long-form interview, is endlessly compelling. What becomes readily apparent is how focused “De Palma” is, and how specific his vision is. Frankly, it’s a great artistic inspiration to get such insight from a filmmaker with a clear point of view, even if I sometimes find it odious. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

Steven – HELL OR HIGH WATER 

The spirit of the western is alive and well in UK born directors. Following last year’s surprise “Slow West” (from first-time Scottish director John Maclean), now we have this contemporary western (from Scottish-born director David Mackezie) that thrives on a similar slow-burning intensity. In the high water mark for both of their careers, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play working class brothers who decide to take justice against the American banking system into their own hands. Add in an intriguing twist on Jeff Bridges’ “I’ve seen it all in my day” lawman hot their heels, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a potboiler. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

David – QUEEN OF KATWE 

I thought about making this a tie with “Pete’s Dragon”, since Disney really dropped the ball in marketing and promoting both. I guess they figured they could coast on their various brands (Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and their own animated features) to bank them billions (and they indeed did), leaving these two great films to their own fate. That’s grossly unfortunate and of the two films I’ve encouraged others to seek out Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe”, the sports biopic about Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) a 10-year-old Ugandan girl who started competing in chess tournaments in 2010. She was taught and encouraged by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who worked at a missionary program in her village, despite her cautious mother’s (Lupita Nyong’o) resistance. “Queen of Katwe” includes the typical setbacks and stressors of competitive sports movies, but from the perspective of a group of people we probably never would’ve known about. It’s unfortunate this film didn’t find an audience, only lasting a couple weeks in theaters, because Nair (“Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake”) has crafted an endearing story that champions intelligence and perseverance, while depicting poverty-stricken Katwe as a colorful and beautiful environment. It’s an uplifting viewing experience that captures a young girl facing adversity with resilience and warmth. “Queen of Katwe” is a smart, crowd-pleaser that topples over expectations and a must-watch for the entire family. (avail. now for purchase on iTunes, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on January 31st)

 

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THE WITCH

9. 

 

Joshua – THE WITCH

A stunning feature debut from Robert Eggers, “The Witch” is an eerily- and beautifully-shot and scored period drama which is also one of the best horror films of the past decade. It’s hauntingly atmospheric, well-acted (especially from its lead, Anya Taylor-Joy), and builds at just the right measured pace to a totally bonkers finale. On its face an exploration of a family being torn apart by their own era-specific and faith-based paranoia, “The Witch” is a film that has only grown in my estimation since I first saw it, as different readings of the film have made what I initially took as flaws to be alternate interpretations of the film that enriched and complicated my thoughts. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

Mark – SING STREET

I had written off John Carney after the insipid and cloying “Begin Again”, a film that left me enraged after the triumph of “Once”. “Sing Street” is just as silly and ridiculous as “Begin Again”, but by focusing on the dreams of Irish Teenagers in the 80’s he gives the audience license to suspend disbelief and luxuriate in the hopeful dreams of childhood, while fully acknowledging the futility such through Jack Reynor’s blisteringly truthful portrayal of the older brother who’s watched his dreams wither on the vine. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

Steven – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY 

In the twenty one years that I’ve been doing a ten best list, I’ve never put a Star Wars movie on my list. It’s appropriate that “Rogue One” bucks this trend as it’s probably my favorite Star Wars movie since “Return of the Jedi”. This so-called Anthology film nailed the tonal darkness of the original trilogy while also giving us a new set of characters to embrace and care about. There is a spirit at work in this film that makes me feel that Star Wars is alive and well in the hands of a new generation of filmmakers. Not all Star Wars movies need to be for children, and I think this is the best example of that since “The Empire Strikes Back”. (still in theaters)

David – EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Six years ago, “Easy A”, the teen comedy starring Emma Stone, landed on my Top Ten list. It was a last minute watch at the end of the year and turned out to be an inventive, funny and fun movie, but most of all it felt respectful to the teen years we all experience. That’s how the coming-of-age comedy,”The Edge of Seventeen” landed on this list. The impressive directorial debut from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (produced by the legendary James L. Brooks), who nails teen life and parenting a teen with a confident authenticity. The movie benefits greatly from a pitch-perfect performance from Hailee Steinfeld (she had me at “True Grit”) who embodies the anxieties and insecurities with the sarcasm, awkwardness and hyper dramatics we’ve come to expect from a teenage girl trying to figure out her place in the halls of high school. Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick are just great as the influential adults in her life, while Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner and Hayden Szeto (a standout) portray Seinfeld’s fellow peers. All of them feel like real people, not hyper-exagerrations or stereotypes. It’s the rare teen movie that doesn’t rehash crude sex jokes and biting cynicism. (still in theaters, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on February 14th)

 

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EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

 

8.

 

Joshua – MOANA 

“Moana” is a film that fits squarely in the classic Disney mold, especially with respect to films like “Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid.” But its grown-up sensibilities make its characters more complex and interesting, resulting in a film about ancestry and culture that is better than both of those. “Moana” is a fun buddy road trip (er, boat trip) movie that pairs a future clan leader with a flawed yet arrogant trickster demigod. But it’s also a fascinating exploration of choice, responsibility, and righting wrongs. With arguably the best animation of any Disney film, a soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a great vocal performance by Dwayne Johnson, “Moana” is a downright inspiring example of Disney’s continued evolution and relevance. (still in theaters) 

Mark – EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

Admittedly a very slight movie, but, just as with the classic “Dazed and Confused”, writer/director Richard Linklater proves himself a master at honestly remembering, and documenting, what specific points in a young life feels like. Some will be offended, as the film is disinterested in 21st Century Political Correctness. However, I laughed a lot and sometimes wistfully. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

Steven – ZOOTOPIA 

Since Pixar’s John Lasseter took over Disney’s main animation house, the quality of work being churned out has grown exponentially in both quality and cross-generational appeal. “Zootopia” is the best recent example of what Disney has always done well: making a morality tale with timely social issues accessible to anyone via cute, anthropomorphic talking animals. It’s not surprising to learn that the film was co-directed by Rich Moore, who cut his teeth as one of the original three directors of “The Simpsons”, as this film benefits from that series’ slightly askew view of the world. A generation raised on this film and its message will be a better generation. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms, streaming on Netflix)

David – UNDER THE SHADOW

For a movie that will be described as “that Iranian horror film that’s kind of like “The Babadook”, there’s a lot more going on in writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut than just that. But whatever gets people to see this fascinating psychological thriller that also happens to have some potent social commentary. This story takes place in the late 80s, during the Iran-Iraq war, where Shideh (Narges Rashid) a struggling mother is trying to make sense of a mysterious evil that is haunting her and her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), in their apartment complex, where the threat of bombing looms. As the child becomes ill and nightmares fueled by anxiety and insecurity increase for her mother, Anvari builds a palpable sense of frenzy, while acutely portraying how cruelly women are treated in Iran. But if it wasn’t for the tremendous performance from Rashidi, the legitimate scares and supernatural element that Anvari injects wouldn’t have been convincing. I look forward to more work from her and the director. This is a movie that is ripe for discussion long after viewing. (now streaming on Netflix)

 

7. 

 

Joshua – LA LA LAND

No film this year was more purely exhilarating than Damen Chazelle’s send-up of old Hollywood musicals. “La La Land” is a whirlwind fantasy of unbridled energy, a film about Hollywood and jazz and artistic dreamers that is a technical marvel. For all the musical love the film heaps on jazz, it’s Chazelle’s camera that embodies the spirit of the genre, totally unrestricted by expectations or consistency of style, his cinematography and editing come alive. The first and last sequences of this film are about as pure an example of cinematic joy and ecstasy as you’ll find. With indelibly catchy songs and a pair of stars in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who ooze chemistry and charm, “La La Land” is an ebullient thrill. There’s something to be said for escapism. Especially escapism of this calibre. (still in theaters) 

Mark – MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI 

The best entertainment documentary of the year. A step-by-step walk though the life of Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s answer to John Wayne. I was engrossed for the entire run time, and as the film was moving into the home stretch, truly moved at the story of a masterful, iconic screen presence in his declining years. The final letter from his longtime collaborator, director and friend, Akira Kurosawa, read at Mifune’s funeral, is heart-wrenching.

Steven – THE BFG 

Steven Spielberg’s note perfect adaptation of this Roald Dahl classic was a beautiful little salve in the middle of one of the more bombastic and noisy summers in recent memory. Anchored by a wonderful pair of performances from Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance, as the titular big, friendly giant, this a wonderful all ages fantasy about finding your place in the world. With a note-perfect script by the late/great Melissa Matheson, “The BFG” is one of the finest fantasy films of the last decade with a heart as big and generous as the title character’s. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

David – ARRIVAL 

His work is off-putting to some, but I’ve yet to be unimpressed with the work of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. “Prisoners” and “Sicario” both made it on my Top Ten list and “Enemy” remains quite a bizarrely original film. His latest is “Arrival” a smart sci-fi film that is his most accessible work yet, regardless of your feelings on the genre. It’s a visually inventive daptation of a short story by Ted Chiang that will be a fascinating albeit frustrating watch for some, which is one of the many reasons I liked it. I was enthralled and fascinated by its multi-faceted message of empathy and understanding of the power of communication. It’s a film that warrants repeat viewings, where new elements rise to the surface offering an appreciation for intelligent sci-fi and finely-tuned storytelling. Amy Adams leads the film with a focused and vulnerable performance that left me wanting to spend more time with linguist character. With outstanding cinematography and an immersive soundtrack, “Arrival” has me looking forward to Villeneuve’s next project with great anticipation. (still in theaters, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on February 14th)

 

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ARRIVAL

6. 

 

Joshua – ARRIVAL 

“Arrival” is, both narratively and formally, an exercise in restraint. This film about a linguist attempting to communicate with an alien species is rife with moody grey, lengthy stretches without dialogue, and thematic concerns about our anxieties about the “other.” It’s kind of funny that “Arrival” was released the same year as “Independence Day Resurgence,” as it couldn’t present a more different picture about our relationship with extra-terrestrial beings. In asking questions about our limited understanding of the big picture, our need for thoughtful communication, and our tendency to react with hostility to things we don’t understand, “Arrival” is the most thematically apt film for 2016, a year filled with so much division and fear. This is sci-fi doing what sci-fi was meant to do.

Mark – ARRIVAL 

Lo and behold, in a year full of reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels that seriously underwhelmed me. Here stands Denis Villeneuve’s power sci-fi creation. True sci-fi, obsessed with ideas and knowledge, and almost totally eschewing any kind of “action beats” or explosions, yet “Arrival ” is vastly more watchable that any other film of the genre released this year.

Steven – NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Tom Ford’s immaculately crafted sophomore feature is an intense meditation on masculinity and the perils of taking your loved ones for granted. One of the most impressive things about the film is that it knows precisely how tight it can crank the suspense before throwing the audience a lifeline and cutting away. “Nocturnal Animals” is a difficult film to watch, but a supremely rewarding one with one of the best endings of the year by a country mile, and top notch performances from its cast, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and especially Michael Shannon. (still in theaters, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on February 21st)

David- AQUARIUS 

Acclaimed Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Neighboring Sounds”) and his observant and compelling drama “Aquarius” about retired music critic, Dona Clara (the magnificent Sônia Braga) who battles a corrupt real-estate firm as she struggles to hold on to her Art Deco apartment along the coast in Recife, Brazil. Throughout the over two-hour film, writer/director Filho invites us to get to know this intriguing and stubborn woman, taking the time with this cancer survivor and fiercely independent force of nature as he she reflects on her past and tries to ascertain what to do with her present. Braga is incredible in a soulful and complex role, one of the best in her career and Filho’s camerawork captures Braga and her surroundings with affectionate care and appreciation. While the film has an undercurrent of sociopolitical statements, what’s most prevalent is the multi-dimensional character study that is patiently and tenderly brought to the screen. (streaming on Netflix)

 

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THE FITS

5. 

 

Joshua – THE FITS 

“The Fits” is a rich and complex coming-of-age story that envisions adolescence through the lens of a psychological thriller. With confident direction from first-timer Ana Rose Holmer and a subdued performance from young Royalty Hightower, “The Fits” is a small-scale, observational film exploring the ways physicality and psychology merge, with regards to growing up and in pursuit of athletic perfection. It suggests the physical changes associated with adolescence are profoundly social ones, steeped in experiences of alienation and belonging. It evokes body horror and religious imagery even as it works as a straightforward film about a young girl learning to reconcile her boxing background with a new pursuit of dance. But with a bold magic realist final sequence, the haunting of the body is transformed into a jubilant expression of possibility. “The Fits” is the best surprise of the year. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms, streaming on Amazon Prime)

Mark – MOONLIGHT

It’s a joy to find a film that truly brings a new story to the public eye. The story of Little/Chiron/Black has elements we’ve seen before, but they come together in a unique whole. The performances are natural and lived in. Mahershala Ali is sublime in a supporting role, and the film is truly beautifully shot by director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton. (still in theaters)

Steven – JACKIE 

One of the riskiest and most unconventional biopics I’ve seen in quite some time, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” is a meticulously and gorgeously crafted look at the tumultuous period surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Natalie Portman gives perhaps the best performance of her career, showing us just how much turmoil and angst went into Jackie Kennedy’s graceful demeanor during that impossibly difficult time in her life. Featuring a haunting score by Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”), “Jackie” is every bit as remarkable as its subject and one of the year’s most hypnotic films. (still in theaters, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on March 7th)

David – TONI ERDMANN

The poster looks like a blonde being hugged by a Wookie. That got me curious. Following through on that curiosity led to one of the most rewarding and unpredictable films of the year. Marin Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” is also quite sweet and hilarious, to say the least. The German-Austrian film follows sixty-something divorced music teacher, Winifred Conradi (am uncanny Peter Simonischek) and his alter ego, Toni Erdmann, a cartoonish life coach donned with a jet black wig and false teeth, whose prone to practical jokes and intent on visiting his workaholic daughter, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest albeit unannounced. Essentially, it’s a film about a lonely father wanting to reconnect with his equally lonely daughter, but it also winds up mocking elitism and corporate dealings and upending gender expectations, while offering a yin/yang showcase of comedy and tragedy. The lesson learned is to always maintain a sense of humor and a certain mischievousness, especially in these dark and uncertain times.  From start to finish, this almost three-hour dramedy will hold your attention and provide something original and unexpected. (opens in limited theatrical release on January 27th) 

 

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TONI ERDMANN

 

4. 

 

Joshua – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

It is a mark of quality that despite the grueling subject matter of “Manchester by the Sea,” I would have spent more than the 137 minutes Kenneth Lonergan gives us inside the world of this film. This is a rich tapestry of characters who absorb and reflect the grief permeating the story, characters who are instantly relatable to anyone who has spent much time in a small,rural town. Casey Affleck’s performance as a man returning home after the death of his older brother is achingly real and simple. “Manchester by the Sea” does a magnificent job capturing the confusion and the minutia of how grief takes over our lives. It is by far the most human film I’ve seen all year, a heartbreaking look at the way brokenness takes some of us completely, irreparably, and the ways we are, even then, valuable. (still in theaters, avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on February 21st)

Mark – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

There is no scene this year that matches the one that occurs about ¾ of the way through this film between Casey Affleck and Michelle Willaims. It represents a master class in acting and inarticulate grief. What’s lovely is that the rest of the film, save a truly unfortunate cameo from Matthew Broderick, is a worthy support to that centerpiece. For my money, Casey Affleck gives the performance of the year.

Steven – THE NICE GUYS 

The latest film from writer/director Shane Black is everything die hard fans of his could have hoped for. It’s hilariously funny, has an engaging mystery at its center, and features two spectacular performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a mismatched pair of detectives in way over their heads. Gosling has earned and deserves plenty of plaudits for his work in “La La Land”, but I was much more impressed with his work here. He and Crowe elevate the already great material and make this the film of the year with the most replay value. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

David – THE WAILING

This was my #1 pick last July on my mid-year list, so it had to be in the Top Five on this list. This is the film I’ve been championing the most since I’ve saw it last summer. This epic horror thriller from Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na (“The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea”) crafted a mesmerizing and absorbing film that includes several horror conventions – a living/breathing ghost, a mysterious demon, a possessed child, a flesh-eating zombie and spiritual rituals – that it’s unbelievable that it winds up a masterpiece. Its dense screenplay offers a fully-realized environment in a South Korean mountain village that is ravaged by a strange and violent illness once an old Japanese fisherman arrives. Kwak Do-won, who plays the main character, a somewhat inept police detective (often crippled by cowardice) determined to save his daughter, is so fascinating to watch. As the potential antagonist, Jun Kunimura is nerve-wracking and unpredictable. In fact, there’s never really a moment where you feel like you know where this film is going and that’s both extremely satisfying and surprising. The climax and conclusion of “The Wailing” is a whopper and while it may not be a tidy one, those are still the best kind of endings. Afterwards, you may still wonder what you just witnessed, who was who and what was what, which is exactly how the characters in the film felt. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms, streaming on Netflix)

 

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THE WAILING

 

3. 

 

Joshua – LEMONADE 

If year-end list-makers can get away with calling the five-part “O.J.: Made in America” miniseries one of the year’s best films, I can get away with calling Beyoncé’s 60-minute HBO music video one of the year’s best films. This is the stuff of great drama, a kitchen sink story by way of an epic as it spins out a relationship story without a neat conclusion. It is a master-work of rage and heartbreak and, ultimately, hope, blind as it may be. “Lemonade” is more than a story about (allegedly) Beyoncé and Jay Z. It makes the personal political by elevating black women to the forefront of the visuals, by celebrating their presence, their continued existence, and the relationships between them that sustain. Vocal interstitials between the songs featuring the poetry of Warsan Shire blend with a visual pastiche of Southern Gothic, urban horror, and Yoruba cultural imagery that highlight the visual politics of the work. In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé roots the personal experience of her protagonist in the political history of women like her, and draws healing from their shared pain. (streaming on HBO NOW)

Mark – THE NICE GUYS 

Writer/director Shane Black has crafted an entertainment machine. Russell Crowe hasn’t been this winning since “Master and Commander” and, for my money, Ryan Gosling has never been better. It’s a film that has no goal but to send you out of the theatre with a blissful grin, and it succeeds in spades.

Steven – ARRIVAL

Science fiction tends to be one of the most pessimistic of all genres, but Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s film about aliens landing unexpectedly all over the globe is one of the most unabashedly optimistic films I’ve ever seen. “Arrival” is an absolute marvel of genre filmmaking, seamlessly blending live action footage and CGI creatures, while never sacrificing narrative coherence or smart decisions in a bid to make a more commercially acceptable film. At a time when our nation is headed into some dark and uncharted territories, this is the kind of film that allows a little light to shine through, and that just might be the best gift of all at the moment.

David – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

In a film that is heavy with grief and guilt, it’s a relief that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan manages to get some comic levity throughout. I couldn’t bare the film without it. Despite its heavy subject matter, I’ve been able to watch “Manchester by the Sea” multiple times due to its engaging characters, whom I wound up appreciating more and more with each viewing. Granted, Casey Affleck’s irritable Lee Chandler is not an easy protagonist to follow, neither is his teenage nephew (great work from Lucas Hedges), who he spends most of the film with, but the two wind up needing each other more than their aware, during a time of immense pain, uncertainty and tragedy. Of the scenes Affleck has with the always good Michelle Williams, there is one specific heartbreaking scene that left me a mess and will remain a case study in raw and vulnerable acting. Lonergan has a deft handle on the way past memories interweave themselves into the present and ultimately sees no need in shying away from the fact that loss is something we never overcome or get over – some barely move forward, while others will never be okay.

 

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

2. 

 

Joshua – A MONSTER CALLS 

My hope is that Juan Antonio Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” becomes the introduction to movie magic and the transformative power of stories to a bunch of kinds that “The Neverending Story” was to me when I was young. This is a film about how stories keep us going; even when they don’t suffice, they’re all we have. It’s a film about the complicated nature of grief and death, by way of a children’s fable. Connor, the protagonist facing down the impending death of his mother, struggles with learning that there are not always heroes and villains, and real life doesn’t always make sense. It’s a beautiful film with a stunning blend of animation and live action. I watched this with a theatre full of adults who all openly wept at its climax. Like the monster in the film, the truths “A Monster Calls” forces out are frightening and dangerous. Loss is an inevitable and invaluable part of growing up. It is the part of humanity that forces us to reconcile the ability to feel wholly unable to continue existing yet still to be able to do so. This might actually make a good double-feature with “Manchester by the Sea.” Just make sure you book the next day off work. (still in theaters)

Mark – LA LA LAND 

I was sort of dreading this film, I had loved, without reservation, Damien Chazelle’s  “Whiplash”, and this seemed like such a left-turn. I have to admit, I am not a musical fan, and the song and dance numbers didn’t do much for me. However, what really compelled me was that, like his previous film, the central concept is the price of artistic expression, and success as an artist. Now, “La La Land” in a very different, and far more fanciful, framework than “Whiplash”, but the ending rang true. It also features the single most gleeful cameo I’ve ever experienced, as a fan of Tom Hank’s “That Thing You Do!” (still in theaters)

Steven –  KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Stop motion animation house LAIKA has an incredible track record, having created four masterpieces over the course of their short existence. As much as I love “Coraline”, “Paranormal”, and “The Boxtrolls”, however, this lovingly crafted fable might be their best work to date. Utilizing some amazing action set pieces, the film never fails to be anything less than supremely entertaining, while also recognizing that all the spectacle in the world can’t make up for good storytelling. That spectacle, however, can enhance a great story in ways you’d never suspect, and that’s at least part of what makes “Kubo” such an engaging film. It’s a film that not only looks beautiful, but has a beautiful story to tell, and one to which we can all relate. (out now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms)

David – MOONLIGHT

Here is the cinematic equivalent of walking in someone else’s shoes. Writer/director Barry Jenkins delivers an unflinching and delicate film that follows a young black Miami boy into manhood as he navigates his internal struggle with his sexual identity. In this dramatic and engaging triptych, Chiron, the protagonist is portrayed by three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes), each of whom offer intense performances with resonating subtleties. Each section features equally powerful supporting work from Naomi Harris, Mahershala Ali and André Holland as well as two life-changing trips to the beach and a diner scene that is one of the best scenes of the year. There’s nothing showy to Jenkins’ steady hand, he simply shows the main character’s pain and burden in a natural and raw manner, using a confident style that accentuates the atmosphere and emotions this individual experiences. “Moonlight” cannot be overlooked or disregarded. It is a resonant and relatable gift to many.

 

1.

 

Joshua – MOONLIGHT

Early in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a scene in which a young boy is taught to swim by a neighbourhood drug dealer. This scene exemplifies the power of this film: it’s a baptism. This man accepts the boy as a son, as a friend, as a stranger in need, and the boy bathes in the ocean in a symbolic act of acceptance. That same ocean comes back in every section of the story. As the moon pulls the tides, so does this boy keep finding himself at the ocean’s edge, pulled by his own struggle with self-acceptance. There is such grace and tragedy in “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age (and coming-of-identity) drama that follows one character played by three actors over several years. “Moonlight” is a powerful portrait of masculine identity and relationships. It is a quiet film, beautifully-shot and exquisitely scored and soundtracked. It is a film that asks how we learn to be that which we are, how the systems and relationships we find ourselves in demand of us and take from us desires, opportunities, and connections. And it does all of this without ever catering to the expectations of Hollywood (white) audiences. So richly specific and evocative of the people and places inhabiting the movie, Moonlight proves why (and how) we need more onscreen representation of uderserved stories of marginalized people. It never fetishizes or displays it characters in a way that denies their humanity. It never revels in the hopelessness of their lives. At the centre of Moonlight, what holds all of these stories together, is the capacity to express love and the tragedy of refusing to do that. Moonlight is a masterpiece, not just of queer black cinema, but of cinema.

Mark – HELL OR HIGH WATER 

When I saw this film last summer, I loved it, and it struck me right in the heart. My family hales from the sandhills of Nebraska, and not the Texas plains that make up the tapestry of David Mackenzie’s film, but, from frame one, the film thrust me into a world that felt intimate and real. I also immediately realized that, in light of the political upheaval in the last year, it was a deeply important film. Taylor Sheridan, a Texas native, has captured the desperate lives of those who were forgotten in the quest for economic recovery, desperate for any means to try to improve their lot, and wrapped it in a truly entertaining crime/chase thriller. Also of note, Chris Pine proves that he is an all-caps movie star in the waiting.

Steven – A MONSTER CALLS 

The best cinema holds a mirror up to humanity and forces us to confront ugly truths we’d rather ignore. “A Monster Calls” does exactly that and in a brilliantly simple and beautiful way. In just his third feature, director JA Bayona has become an absolute master at using visual effects to enhance his story rather than hanging a bunch of special effects on a flimsy narrative. “A Monster Calls” deals with loss and letting go in a way that is simply breathtaking and which builds naturally toward a third act with almost non-stop waterworks for the audience. With brilliant performances from Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, and especially young Lewis MacDougall, “A Monster Calls” stands alongside the great works of fantasy filmmaking because it appeals to our humanity in ways only a great work of art can. There are moments of soul crushing sadness in this film, but also some of the most uplifting and beautifully written dialogue you’re likely to hear in any film. “A Monster Calls” is one of those rare movies that has it all, and it is undoubtedly my best film of 2016.

David – LA LA LAND

Here’s a musical for those who aren’t huge fans of musicals. When I’ve mention this movie to others, I get a response like “Oh, I don’t really like musicals” or “My husband isn’t a huge fan of musicals, so I’ll probably watch it on my own”. These responses frustrates me, yet I understand them. My response is to let them know that I used to feel the same way about musicals, but “La La Land” reminded me that they can be for anyone and, indeed, the second time I watched writer/director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) immensely entertaining musical, I saw it with my wife and 10 year-old daughter and they loved it. See this movie with its delightful choreography, catchy songs, dazzling visuals and charming performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and see it with someone. Experience this ode to Old Hollywood musicals and surprise yourself and wind up scooping up the soundtrack and humming along with it long after viewing. It’s unabashed joy and humor is a contagion in a year that was rife with loss, disappointment and uncertainty, providing audiences with a vastly entertaining reminder that movies can offer a respite from reality. Yet Chazelle’s ending is bold enough to say that maybe that friend and lover who spurs you on to support your pursuit of your dreams isn’t the love of your life and that’s okay. “La La Land” does a marvelous job at balancing the fantastical with reality while never losing its heart and masterful touch.

 

2016topten

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