Sunday, January 1, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

It's pretty rare that I see a movie and immediately think, "That's the best film of the year." Usually such evaluations take time to coalesce. Often, as in the spectacular year of 2015, my favorites will become eclipsed by even greater cinema that comes along later. But not this year.

The minute I saw "Hell or High Water" late in the summer, I said, "Here's the standard against which every other film will be judged."

Nothing ever came along to beat it, although the unfairly maligned "The Birth of a Nation" came closest.

2016 was an above average year for film. I saw a lot of ambitious work, a lot of entertaining movies. Some may question the appearance of a super-hero gross-out comedy, "Deadpool," on this list. It's there because it belongs.

On the flip side, neither "Moonlight" or "La La Land," which seem to be running neck-and-neck during the early going of the awards season, appear here. I find them both worthy films, but ones I had trouble engaging with on an emotional level. Most Overpraised is the only contest they'd win in my mind.

So here is my Top 10 list for the year, along with some other films worthy of mention.

1. Hell or High Water

Is it a neo-Western? A crime potboiler? Morality tale? Commentary on our Great Recession times? All at once, I think. An impeccable cast -- Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham -- lead us through a gritty and seemingly inexorable convergence of grim men shambling toward a violent reckoning. Bleak, unsparing, magnificent.

2. The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's career seemed ready to blow up, then it exploded in the face of old allegations of rape during college (of which he was acquitted). I'll judge a movie based on the movie, and using that scale "The Birth of a Nation" is a major triumph. Parker stars, wrote and directed a somewhat fictionalized version of the Nat Turner slave revolt with grace and startling power.

 3. A Monster Calls

Practically nobody's seen this movie as I write this, so I'm hoping it finds an audience in the new year. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, it's the tale of a young boy coming to grips with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones) through the intrusion of a mystical tree-like creature (Liam Neeson) that comes to visit him in nightmares. Will be dismissed by some as a "children's movie," but it's surprisingly bold in its depiction of grief and loss.

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

1980s nostalgia seems to be peaking, and there's no better place to start than Richard Linklater's spiritual successor to "Dazed and Confused." It's the tale of a group of college baseball players drinking and carousing in the days leading up to the start of school. Sound like a piffle? It's a spot-on observation of life at a particular place and time. Best ensemble acting of the year.

5. Manchester By the Sea

Somebody asked me if there's a theme to emerge from this year's movies, and I said that a surprising number of the best films had the subject of grieving or loss at their center. Looking over this list, I can see that in a number of my favorites. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as a tight-lipped janitor whose life is turned around when he's unexpectedly named the guardian of his nephew after his father dies. Essentially a 2+ hour tone poem by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan.

6. Sing Street

Easily the most romantic film of the year, John Carney's tale of a smart, alienated kid in 1980s Ireland who finds his path forward in life through forming a band. It starts off strictly as an attempt to impress an older girl, but turns into a form of rebellion and learning. Great songs, great cast, great time.

7. Fences

As I said in my review, I'm generally turned off by stage-to-screen adaptations, because they're so stiff and forced. Not "Fences." Denzel Washington directs and stars in a version of the play penned by August Wilson himself, looking at the lives of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays the patriarch, a loving and freewheeling man who wants to keep the Devil at bay, but has plenty of demons plaguing him on the inside. With Viola Davis, equally terrific.

8. Kubo and the Two Strings

Easily the best animated film of 2016, "Kubo" is a brand-new story that somehow feels like an ancient Japanese parable. It's the tale of a one-eyed boy who lives on the edge of a small village who tells stories using his magical banjo and pieces of origami paper that spring to life. When he's separated from his mother by members of his own sorcerous family, he goes on an epic journey of discovery along with a protective monkey and a strange bug-like creature.

9. Deadpool

"Deadpool" is one of the most original and certainly brashest takes on the superhero genre, which is starting to enter middle age with this year's crop of flicks that largely groaned under their own weight. Ryan Reynolds plays a criminal brought back from the (mostly) dead, who launches his own one-man revenge saga interspersed with lots of lame jokes and filthy jokes. To cap it all off, Deadpool comments about the movie as he's starring in it. So smart, so entertaining.

10. Patriots Day 

Another film that won't see wide release until later in January, "Patriots Day" is part drama, part crime procedural that takes us through the day of the Boston Marathon bombings and up to the capture of the domestic terrorists responsible for it. Mark Wahlberg plays a cop -- an amalgam of several real men -- who's with us every step of the way. A film that shows us how ordinary people achieve heroism.

Best of the Rest

It's hard to exclude any of these films from the Top 10, as I cherished every one of them for making my cinematic year richer. Here are 14 honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:


Born to Be Blue

Captain Fantastic


Elvis & Nixon

Hacksaw Ridge

The Handmaiden


The Light Between the Oceans

Maggie's Plan


Our Little Sister

Swiss Army Man


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