Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2016 - Part 2

This second of a two-part series looks at the Best of 2016.
The curse that seemed to be hanging over 2016 (more on that HERE), hit the Summer Movie Season the hardest, where nearly every major studio forgot how to make an effective blockbuster. That is, every studio except for Disney. The house that Walt built had one of their best overall years with crowd-pleasing efforts such as FINDING DORY, THE JUNGLE BOOK, PETE’S DRAGON, ZOOTOPIA, another one-two knockout punch from their Marvel superhero catalog with DOCTOR STRANGE and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and the emotional wallop of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.
After Disney, other films in 2016 worthy of a recommendation includes Peter Berg’s two powerhouses PATRIOTS DAY and DEEPWATER HORIZON, Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, the bizarre-yet-earnest SWISS ARMY MAN, the magnificent return to the HARRY POTTER world with FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, the two most powerful acting performances of the year with Denzel Washington in FENCES and Natalie Portman in JACKIE, and Meryl Streep’s hilarious and genuine performance in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Now onward and upward…
10. A MONSTER CALLS – On the surface, this fantasy drama about a young boy who is visited by a giant monster seems ripe with cliché, but J.A. Bayona’s adaptation of the book of the same name couldn’t be further away from that. Packed with adult themes such as coping with the loss of the loved one and dealing with life-altering changes, this was an adult drama which just happened to have that young boy as a main character. A MONSTER CALLS was also a love letter to the power of storytelling and imagination, and was the one film guaranteed to put an entire theatre into weep-mode.

9. THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS – Derek Cianfrance’s drama about a couple who find a baby lost at sea and raise her as their own, only to later discover the real mother, was the heartbreaker of the year. Beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted by Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz, OCEANS plays out like a Greek Tragedy, but it is also a fascinating look at how we deal with moral dilemmas. There’s a lot for us all to learn in this film.

8. LOVING – Writer and director Jeff Nichols had two knockouts in 2016, with LOVING arriving in the Fall months. Based on the true story of the couple who challenged interracial marriage laws and bans, LOVING was a powerful, yet understated look at, yes, love…but also rural America of the 1950’s, and the themes explored here somehow feel very relevant today. With a patient and steady hand, Nichols doesn’t allow the film, which is driven by a legal battle, become a dry courtroom drama. Instead, he invests the film’s time with his main characters (fantastic performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), and crafts a film which speaks to everyone.

7. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Realism was the name of the game in Kenneth Lonergan’s drama about loss. Far from the typical overscored and overacted drama films, MANCHESTER spends all its time around its characters as they deal with real-life situations around the death of a family member, and the impact hits home hard. It is an actor’s workshop, with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams putting together one of the most heartbreaking scenes seen in cinema in a long time.

6. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – Jeff Nichols’ other knockout of the year arrived in the Spring, and was a magnificent balance of sci-fi and family drama. Centering on a young boy with extraordinary abilities who is wanted by the government and a religious cult, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a road-trip movie injected with a father’s love for his son. The film is shot beautifully with razor-sharp editing, and the acting by Michael Shannon, Kristen Dunst, Joel Edgerton, and Adam Driver is superb. It’s a chase-film, but also a mystery-thriller which is revealed in hints and peeks, and it speaks greatly to the power of family.

5. LA LA LAND – Fresh off his success with WHIPLASH a couple of years ago, director Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical, about a young couple chasing their dreams in Hollywood was by far the most joyful event of the year. A tribute to the arts of music and acting, LA LA LAND establishes two characters we can all relate to (brilliantly played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), and makes us care about what they dream about. As a musical, it’s wonderful…and as a film, is uplifting while keeping the real world around at the same time.

4. SILENCE – Martin Scorsese has been trying to get this exploration of faith put to the screen for several decades, and perhaps its best that he didn’t get to make it until he was in his seventies, for SILENCE displays all the markings of a seasoned and masterful filmmaker. A far cry from the bombast of his last few films, SILENCE is a quiet journey into faith as seen by two 16th century priests in the dangerous lands of feudal Japan. But not just about faith but about that inner-belief that drives us all, SILENCE is deeply layered, powerful, and rich enough that it may take 20 years to fully digest it all. Beautifully shot and exquisitely edited, it also had career-best performances from Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson. Whenever Scorsese does decide to retire, SILENCE will be mentioned amongst his best works.

3. ARRIVAL – Aliens landing on Earth have become as common to Hollywood movies as popcorn on a theatre floor. Seemingly aware of this, Denis Villeneuve’s take on it is a thinking-man’s sci-fi film, where humans aren’t quite at war with the strange visitors, but instead engaged in communication. The stakes are high as a paranoid world moves towards war, but despite the grand stage, Villeneuve makes the brilliant choice of making one character (Amy Adams) the real focus of the film. Her personal story is compounded by the presence of the aliens, and the film’s late, mind-bending twist changes everything we were assuming we knew about the story; it even changes the meaning of the film’s title. In a current Hollywood where everything is copied, ARRIVAL is one film that can never have its ambition and execution imitated.

2. HACKSAW RIDGE – In his return to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Mel Gibson delivers a war film which is the most uplifting and inspirational movie of the year. Based on the real-life heroics of WWII soldier Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic who refused to fire or even carry a weapon into battle, Gibson builds his character in well-executed stages, and the battle-scenes in which Doss carries wounded man after wounded man to safety are an endless emotional train. This is a war film like none other, and re-establishes Gibson as the powerhouse director of our time.

1. HELL OR HIGH WATER – One of the best trends in today’s Hollywood is the time-bending contemporary Western; that is, a story set in the modern day with the sensibilities of an Old West tale. David Mackenzie’s tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on a crime spree while evading the law (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), presents itself like a standard cops and robbers romp, but the trick is finding a way to justify the brothers and their bank-robbing ways. Using our real-world economy and the way it chews up and spits out families as the real villain of the film, Mackenzie builds his characters in small, revealing steps…and gives the film a richness thicker than Texas heat. The robbing, chasing, and cat-and-mousing are brilliantly executed with terrific tension, and the climactic shootout is devastating for the characters and the audience. It really feels like a classic Western, only instead of horses they ride pickup-trucks, and it’s infused with fierce family loyalty going up against an unfair world…which makes it a very powerful and relevant film. No other movie in 2016 stopped time and delivered on every front like HELL OR HIGH WATER.

The Best Films of 2016

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