The Best – and Worst – of 2016

2016 was a strange year for films. What began with a generally lackluster start (especially in its largely disappointing summer season) somehow regrouped as the year progressed, finishing off the year with a flurry of fine offerings, both at film festivals and in general release. While some highly touted awards season pictures, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land,” have proven to be vastly overrated, many others have been incredibly moving and thought-provoking. So, with that said, here are the best and worst of 2016 in my view.

Included herein are my top 10 and bottom 10 feature films from last year. In separate lists, I’ve included my top 5 documentaries of 2016, as well as my top 5 lead and supporting actor and actress performances, with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure.

The Top 10

“Moonlight”: A powerful, sensitive look at the “conflicted” views of the gay lifestyle within the African-American community, as told through the coming of age story of a young man in Miami. The picture’s phenomenal ensemble cast (featuring many first-time performers), incisive writing and creative camera work make a potent, impactful combination that breathes life into a well-told, deftly handled story. This is an important film, one well deserving of all the accolades it has received – and of the awards it has won and is worthy of winning.

“Arrival”: Without a doubt, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a very long time. Its suspenseful, atmospheric mood, along with its profound metaphysical message, heartfelt narrative and understated performances, combine to deliver one of the most impressive, thought-provoking pictures to come out in years. This edge-of-your-seat, edge-of-your-consciousness sci-fi thriller succeeds where predecessors like “Interstellar,” “Gravity” and “2010” failed. It left me awed and speechless, and, if you approach it with an open mind, it just may do the same to you.

“Neruda”: An inventive, semi-surrealistic chronicle of the manhunt for Chilean poet and Communist politician Pablo Neruda after the government issued an order for his arrest as a subversive. The sometimes-campy, somewhat noir-esque tale, told from the perspective of the self-absorbed police inspector who fancied his search for his prey as his own work of art, presents its material with ample laughs, great style and beautiful cinematography. The film certainly pushes the limits of the biopic genre, but it does so in such a refreshing and well-written way that it’s hard not to like this innovative offering. Far from normal, but immensely entertaining to watch.

“Hidden Figures”: A flat-out winner and incredible crowd-pleaser that fires on virtually every cylinder. With the possible exception of the need for a better-developed back story, this inspiring, thoughtful and humorous historical drama hits all the right notes and does so without going over the top, becoming preachy or lapsing into heavy-duty schmaltz. The picture’s incisive script and superb ensemble cast performances make this one to see.

“Loving”: A heartfelt, personal take on a bigger story with wide-sweeping implications, showing the human impact on ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The film’s understated writing, nuanced performances and successful handling of legal issues that could have easily become unwieldy lend much to this well-crafted biopic, one worthy of all the accolades it has and will likely receive. Truly one of the year’s standout offerings.

“The Family Fang”: A funny, somewhat macabre comedy-drama-mystery that’s fresh in virtually every regard. With an excellent cast, an engaging narrative that continually keeps viewers guessing and a deliciously twisted sense of humor, this underrated indie production pushes a lot of buttons about what we should expect out of art in general (and movies in particular). This offering certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who enjoy cinema that pushes the envelope, this one is definitely for you.

“Midnight Special”: Now this is what sci-fi should be – a gripping, smartly written adventure that hooks you early and keeps you riveted all the way through. The film’s climax is, admittedly, slightly stretched out, but that’s a small price to pay for everything else this well-crafted release has to offer. If you like a hefty dose of intelligence and sophistication with your science fiction, don’t miss this one.

“The Lobster”: One of the most unusual – and thought-provoking – films to come along in quite a while. Its decidedly offbeat humor and wry symbolism work wonders in skewering everything from the current superficial state of courting rituals and relationship matters to the pressures of social conformity, regardless of which end of the polarized ideological spectrum one resides. The film admittedly becomes a little bogged down in the second hour, going off on tangents that could have easily been deleted, but, on balance, “The Lobster” represents a thoughtful, satirical look at where we stand as a society – and, one hopes, where we’ll resist the temptation to go.

“Kills on Wheels”: This highly entertaining Hungarian dark comedy focuses on the exploits of two disabled young men who fancy themselves graphic novel artists but who, for economic reasons, are forced to become accomplices to a disabled fireman-turned-hitman. With its offbeat humor, imaginative cinematography, intriguing mix of photography and animation, terrific soundtrack, and excellent performances by disabled actors in their screen debuts, this offbeat release explores the intersection of two disparate worlds, somewhat reminiscent of the unique fusion presented in “The Crying Game.” This one may be a little graphic for more sensitive viewers, but the violence is always in context and never becomes gratuitous. Look for the film’s upcoming US DVD release this spring.

“Fences”: A faithful theater-to-screen adaptation that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel stagey (as often happens with such translations). Superb performances by the excellent ensemble cast (especially Viola Davis and Denzel Washington) bring the characters to life and captivate viewers from start to finish. Despite a slight tendency to drag a bit in a few spots, the film tells its story well, with deft humor, heartfelt emotion and riveting drama.

The Bottom 10

“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”: The only thing fantastic about this one is the special effects. The story, writing and acting are all flat, meandering along with little direction, personality or qualities that make the picture even remotely interesting. I frankly couldn’t wait for this one to end. Zzzzzzzz….

“American Pastoral”: Having not read the source material, I can’t speak to how faithful this film is to the original story. However, with that said, it’s easy to spot an adaptation where something has obviously been lost in translation, and that’s clearly the case in this muddled, poorly written, overacted mess of a movie. And, as for Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, let’s just say that he’d be better off doing his work in front of the camera instead of behind it if this is any indication of his capabilities.

“Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie”: A sluggishly paced, generally unfunny theatrical adaptation of the British TV sitcom in search of a story to give the film structure and direction. While a few bits are moderately humorous, they come too few and far between to make the picture watchable. When doing a screwball comedy of comeuppance, the jokes need to come rapid fire, but here it’s like waiting for the bus during off-hours. Even fans of the show are likely to find this unbearably tedious.

“Swiss Army Man”: This stunningly awful release literally brings new meaning to the term artsy-fartsy. At times utterly pretentious, at times positively juvenile, at times painfully tedious, this alleged attempt at making “meaningful statements” about the human condition falls far short of the mark long before it even reaches the halfway point.

“Independence Day: Resurgence”: This cliché-ridden, unbearably silly mishmash of virtually every alien adventure movie or TV series ever made is a big, fat waste of time. Hammy acting, terrible writing, mediocre special effects and a predictable, underwhelming payoff permeate this cinematic mess, trying the patience of even the most hardened of movie viewers.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”: An ill-conceived attempt at creating a story that preserves the magic of its predecessor while cramming in a host of platitudes and insights, with a result that feels like a strung-together amalgamation of oh so many mismatched beads on a chain. The special effects are indeed dazzling, and there are fine performances once again from Mia Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter. But these scant attributes can’t overcome the film’s many inherent weaknesses.

“A Bigger Splash”: Despite fine performances by Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, this high-end, melodramatic alleged art piece meanders from start to finish, with numerous sequences that feel like they’re about to go somewhere but ultimately don’t. Its pointless narrative feels unfocused and incomplete, punctuated by equally incongruent cinematography, tedious pacing, often-amateurish editing and a soundtrack that pushes the limits of eclecticism. The net effect is a film that tries to pass itself off as something it isn’t – worth watching.

“Green Room”: An utterly pointless exercise in unrestrained gratuitous violence with an uninteresting story, boring characters (including the villains) and a waste of great talent. For the life of me, I fail to understand why critics and audiences fawned all over this inane 90-minute debacle. If pornography is defined as something completely unredeeming in social value, then this ill-considered offering should qualify for sure.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”: Though visually dazzling, this needlessly convoluted (and eventually quite tedious) alleged action adventure ultimately fails to deliver on most fronts. Like a shotgun wedding between two storied franchises, the premise of this film seems forced from the get-go, relying on an improbable narrative that’s full of plot holes and shameless tangents aimed at setting up sequels and spinoffs. What’s more, much of the viewer goodwill built up in the film’s “Man of Steel” predecessor is largely undone by this ill-conceived fiasco. The picture’s impressive visuals and solid supporting performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons are noteworthy, to be sure, but they’re far from enough to save this thoroughly disappointing effort.

“Maquinaria Panamericana”: What starts out as a lighthearted, whimsical contemporary Mexican comedy quickly turns into a heavy-handed, though often-unfocused religious/spiritual satirical commentary whose message becomes increasingly lost in its utter preposterousness. The film goes off the rails as it becomes progressively more ridiculous with each passing frame. Taking a creative approach to subjects like this is certainly laudable. But, when that creativity morphs into unmitigated absurdity focused more on symbol and metaphor than a cogent narrative, the point becomes lost rather quickly.

Top 5 Documentaries

2016 was a banner year for documentary films, continuing a trend that has been steadily growing in prominence and quality in recent years. In the interest of full disclosure, there are several important documentary releases that I have not yet seen, such as “I Am Not Your Negro,” given that they haven’t been released to the moviegoing public as yet. This list is thus based on what has already been distributed, and I look forward to what is yet to come.

“The Music of Strangers – Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”: Quite easily one of the best documentaries that I’ve seen in quite some time. This intimate, transcendent portrait of one of music’s most original and inventive ensembles showcases both the distinctive collaborative art it brings to the world, as well as the greater purpose it serves in fostering global, cross-cultural understanding. It’s easy to make a joyful noise about this jubilant cinematic offering, one whose music and inspiring enthusiasm are downright infectious. See this one by all means.

“Gleason”: An excellent, compellingly candid documentary about a remarkable man on a remarkable journey. The raw honesty and uplifting inspiration showcased here are astounding, portrayed with an uncensored frankness rarely depicted on screen. Even though the film is at times heartbreaking, its celebration of personal heroism and the spirit to carry on despite the odds is touching, enlightening and mesmerizing.

“Tower”: This gripping account of one of the first mass shootings in modern American history inventively chronicles the numerous untold stories of compassion and heroism that occurred on that fateful day in 1966. Those touching and courageous moments are brought to life through a stylish and clever fusion of archival footage, compelling animation and riveting interviews featuring the survivors’ and heroes’ stories. The result is a moving, highly personal account of the incident and its legacy in the annals of American gun violence.

“Life, Animated”: A candid, intimate and engaging chronicle of an inspiring young man challenged to find a way to reconnect with the world at a time when all seemed lost. This enlightening and informative documentary will change your mind about what’s feasible, shedding light on inventive ways to tackle problems that are seemingly unsolvable. With an acute eye toward avoiding sentimentality, “Life, Animated” keeps things real and does so with integrity and a great sense of style. A highly recommended offering for those looking to see possibilities where none are thought to exist.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years”: A fun, lively, nostalgic but never starstruck look back at the early days of the iconic rock ʼn roll band that changed the music business, as well as the art form and the culture at large, forever. The combination of restored archive footage, along with new interviews with the band’s two surviving members and with diehard fans of the group, works tremendously, providing a balanced perspective that’s both entertaining and informative. In a world beset by myriad challenges, it’s refreshing to have a fun respite from its everyday worries, and this documentary fills the bill perfectly.

Top 5 Lead Actors

2016 was a year of many capable, though not especially outstanding, male lead performances. Some of those that have been highly decorated, such as Casey Affleck’s overwrought lead portrayal in “Manchester by the Sea,” in my view, don’t even qualify to make the cut. So, with that said, here are my favorites from last year’s releases:

Denzel Washington, “Fences”: Hands-down the best on-screen male lead performance of 2016 and his best work since “Malcolm X” (1992).
Gael García Bernal, “Neruda”: An unexpectedly delightful performance by a talented actor who really shows his range with this role.
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Demolition”: A vastly underappreciated performance in a vastly underrated release, both of which are deserving of wider attention.
Joel Edgerton, “Loving”: A breakthrough portrayal for a gifted performer with a bright future.
Joseph Gordon Levitt, “Snowden”: A remarkably faithful portrayal of a courageous individual in a riveting, undervalued biopic.

Honorable Mentions: Tom Hanks, “Sully”; Jesse Plemons, “Other People”; Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation”; Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool”.

Top 5 Lead Actresses

The crop of female lead performances in 2016 featured many excellent portrayals, some widely recognized and others vastly overlooked. Here are my favorites from last year:

Rebecca Hall, “Christine”: A stunning portrayal of a troubled protagonist that, regrettably, never attained the notoriety and recognition it truly deserves.
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”: A superb interpretation of the iconic first lady, capably showing the many sides of a legendary, enigmatic figure.
Ruth Negga, “Loving”: A quietly powerful portrayal of an ordinary woman trying to hold up under extraordinary circumstances.
Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”: A character that’s hard to like brilliantly brought to life through a wickedly stellar performance.
Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”: Yet another trinket for the trophy case of today’s greatest living actress.

Honorable Mention: Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”; Sally Field, “Hello, My Name is Doris”; Amy Adams, “Arrival”; Helen Mirren, “Eye in the Sky”; Emma Stone, “La La Land”; Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, “Like Crazy”; Zuzana Mauréry, “The Teacher”; Catherine Frot, “Marguerite”.

Top 5 Supporting Actors

Without a doubt, this was the strongest of the four acting categories in 2016. There were many fine supporting male performances, and here’s what I liked:

Ben Foster, “Hell or High Water”: A role that finally lets viewers see what this underappreciated actor is capable of.
Timothy Spall, “Denial”: A perfectly cast actor in a role that was clearly made for him.
Mykelti Williamson, “Fences”: A performance that no one is talking about that everyone should be.
Alex Hibbert, “Moonlight”: A heartbreaking portrayal by a gifted child actor in his big screen debut.
Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight”: Like his junior co-star, a heartbreaking yet empowering portrayal by an adolescent actor in a riveting role.

Honorable Mentions: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”; Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”; Sunny Pawar, “Lion”; Tom Wilkinson, “Denial”; Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”; Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Nocturnal Animals”; Simon Helberg, “Florence Foster Jenkins”; Luis Gnecco, “Neruda”; Jaeden Lieberherr, “Midnight Special”; Liam Neeson, “Silence”; Alex Wolff, “Patriots Day”; Lucas Jade Zumann, “20th Century Women”.

Top 5 Supporting Actresses

Usually a strong category, the supporting actress ranks in 2016 were surprisingly weak or overrated, even though the strongest of the bunch were incredibly strong (especially the top three portrayals). Here’s who made my cut for last year:

Viola Davis, “Fences”: An award-winning portrayal that’s easily the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”: Were it not for Viola Davis, the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”: Were it not for Viola Davis and Naomie Harris, the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures” (tie): It’s impossible to pick one over the others in this fine trio ensemble, all equally brilliant in their respective performances.

Honorable Mentions: Greta Gerwig, “20th Century Women”; Julianne Moore, “Maggie’s Plan”; Molly Shannon, “Other People”; Leslie Uggams, “Deadpool”.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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