Even though “best of” lists always come with apologies and contention, they are lists I always look forward to at the end of any year. It’s fun to see which films make critics’ top 10s’; and I always get to either re-evaluate a film or, better, often discover films I’ve not heard of. This year I composed my list having yet to see some films that could be contenders: in particular, Scorsese’s Silence; 20th Century Women; Fences; Elle; and (the one-t) Paterson. But I have seen more than my share of films this year, including both Jackie and La La Land, two highly praised movies that, as much as I wanted them to, just didn’t work for me. Not a fan of superhero films, I can’t weigh in on Deadpool or Dr Strange (etc) either.
Moonlight. If I were pressed to pick the #1 best film of the year, this would be it. Barry Jenkins’ character study of Chiron as he struggles with a drug-addicted mother and bullies who mark him as weak, is harrowing and moving. The structure of the film is innovative, with three different actors playing Chiron at three different ages as he also struggles with his gay identity. Despite its many rough and painful moments, the film is most memorable for the sweet and tender experiences that come Chiron’s way. A romance against many odds. Without spoiling things too much, look for the scene where “Little’s” only masculine role model teaches the boy to swim; the scene where “Black” gets a hot meal cooked especially for him. And though it is hardly tender, watch, too, for the pay-back scene when Chiron deals with his bullies. The technical aspects of the film — the composition, the score, and the gorgeous lighting (which might teach other directors how to light for black skin tones) — all add to the film’s themes and beauty.
Hell or High Water. Reminiscent of the classic Bonnie and Clyde or even the Coen Brothers’’ No Country for Old Men, the film follows two brothers who concoct an elaborate plan to rob several branches of a bank coldly determined to close on their mother’s farm. Set in the bleak and impoverished no-man’s land of current West Texas, where economic recovery seems like a bill of goods, the movie portrays the 2 brothers as Robin Hood figures and their enemy as a banking system that threatens what the 2 men hold dearest, home and family. Even the grizzly sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, finds his determination to bring the boys to justice assuaged by his growing awareness of their decency. The fact that one brother becomes totally unhinged and dangerous further complicates the moral wilderness the film so perfectly captures.
The Handmaiden. Hands down, this movie by South Korean director Park Chan-wook (of Oldboy fame) is the most gorgeously filmed movie of the year. Every shot is beautifully, perfectly composed, with a sensuality that matches the subject matter. An erotic tale of double-dealing, the plot centers on a South Korean pickpocket and a con-artist who conspire to steal a fortune from a sheltered Japanese heiress (held prisoner by an aging, consummately perverse book collector). Love and sex — in this case, most especially lesbian sex — make even the most coldly calculated plans go awry, and soon a betrayal becomes a double-cross and then a triple. Despite all the duplicity and the masquerading, there is something real and true that emerges at last.
Manchester by the Sea. A dark, yet often awkwardly comic study in suppressed grief and inadequate self-expression. Casey Affleck turns in a great performance as Lee, a working class man so withdrawn from life that he can’t find solace or an outlet. His character finds himself named the guardian of a complicated teen-ager after the death of the boy’s father, Lee’s brother. In a series of flashbacks we learn how the demise of Lee’s brother was not only a great loss but that there was another, more crippling tragedy in Lee’s past. The humor that comes from the various characters trying to communicate is mainly from the ineptness of the men who think teasing or an incidental comment counts as communication or care. The movie treats its characters with tenderness, even as it shows how inadequate their ways of relating can be when dealing with deep pain. All the critical attention given to Michelle Williams’ brief but powerful screen time is well deserved. The ending is absolutely true to the terms of the film, however much we might wish it were otherwise.
Hail, Caesar! Lovers of La La Land usually celebrate it as unique for its revival of the musical and as a film that raises up both old-time Hollywood and artistic passion. But if you go back about, say, 10 months, you’d see that the less celebrated Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar!, did all that just as well, if not better. Its production numbers are joyously sung and choreographed, and it has much to say about the illusion, scandal-hiding, and sacrifice that come with delivering feel-good cinema to the public. Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” song-and-tap number is a delightful outing of the gay subtext of every all-male musical-comedy number; plus Alden Ehrenreich’s dim-witted Tobey delivers the star-turn of the year as a an actor trying to make his own star turn. The film has its serious or dark side, just like La La Land, though perhaps not so easily sentimentalized since Caesar takes up the Coens’ pet themes of spiritual yearning and existential angst.
“No Dames” link
Sing Street. I avoided this film because I thought it looked corny and generic. But this tale of a bullied kid who forms an 80s-style band to woo an older and more worldly girl was great fun. It’s irony-free and unapologetically upbeat. Look for the great ensemble number “Drive It Like You Stole It.” (Wham!-worthy stuff.) It is also yet another 2016 musical — along with Moana? If you want to feel good about something from 2016, start with Sing Street.
10 Cloverfield Lane. Except for the unsurprising genre shift in its last 20 or so moments, this film is superb in the way it creates suspense and tension. John Goodman’s performance as a rescuer who steadily grows more and more disturbing is reminiscent of the way Anthony Perkins unravels from odd to creepy to psychotic in the 1960 Psycho. Cloverfield Lane also recalls Hitchcock in the way it so masterfully uses a confined space to heighten claustrophobia and panic. Mary Elizabeth Winstead eschews the girl-victim cliche and delivers a smart and strong woman who won’t be so easily owned. The film’s title alone tips you off to the genre flip toward the end — something the movie perhaps didn’t need but sort of works on its own terms anyway.
The Witch. Like Cloverfield, this film makes terrific use of the way a contained, isolated space can affect family relations and individual psyches. A Puritan family separates itself from their community and opts to live in a remote farm house next to a very haunted forest. Yes, there are in fact witches and a demon (and a really weird goat), but a lot of the horror of the film comes from the isolation of the family, the extreme piety that entangles them, and the strict patriarchal roles everyone is expected to maintain. The main character, a young girl named Thomasin, is finally willing to go to extremes in order to save herself, but the ambiguous ending will spark discussions about just what, if anything, she has accomplished.
Arrival. Here is a close encounters sci-fi film that has no national monuments crumbling and no hostile aliens threatening all we hold dear. Instead, the crux of the film is the e.t.’s system of writing that must be decoded in order to understand and connect with the visitors. Threat is replaced by a humbling sense of awe as linguist Dr. Banks (Amy Adams) learns a language that bears no easy connections to human speech and writing –or even consciousness. Here, too, the aliens are not humanoid, but look rather more like squids, another nice upending of the tropes of space invaders. The twist at the end makes clever plays on flashbacks, even if some of the ideas about the connection between language and perception don’t altogether make sense and even if, as many critics opine, the twist seems overly sentimental. It ranks with other “Aliens with a Message” pics like the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and the now-classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Love and Friendship. If you are a fan of Jane Austen (the film is based on one of her very early short stories) or the Downton Abbey series, you will enjoy this tale of Lady Susan plotting her way to a fortunate marriage. The Lady is witty, sexy, and audacious; a woman who knows she is a player in a lopsided game of social manners, where marriage and money are all that matter. And she maneuvers through it with such comic wit and clever skill that it’s fun to root for her, even as you are sure Lady Susan must surely get her comeuppance. Both the script and the supporting cast are spot on.
Little Men. and The Fits. Both of these indie coming-of-age films moved me enough to want to bring them into our curriculum. Little Men follows two artsy boys whose deep (and perhaps queer) friendship is disrupted by an adult world where incomes and gentrification trump neighborly ties. And in the eerie Fits, a young girl’s move from boxing-tough-with-boys to dancing-tough-with-girls is accompanied by episodes of nearly hysterical spasms that affects girls only. The film leaves the meaning of the fits up for debate, but ends with an unambiguously sweet smile.