Here’s my list of the Best Movies Of 2016, with a few caveats. One is that I don’t see every movie that comes to theaters — I can’t stand horror movies or those based on video games and comic books, anything where I have to read subtitles throughout, or any film based on a book by Jane Austen.
With those points noted, there were the best movies I saw this year. The links go to the full reviews I posted on this site when they were released.
1) “La La Land.” When “The Artist” won Best Picture in 2012, it was laughable, a not-that-great musical that was merely a semi-remake of “Singin’ In The Rain” with a leading man who will never be heard from again (echoes of Roberto Benigni in 1997). No one will say that about Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, nor about Damien Chazelle’s movie, which will be much more deserving if it takes the Oscar for Best Picture. A modern-day romance with throwback singing and dancing sequences, “La La Land” lights up the screen with color, vibrancy, and Stone’s best-ever performance, which will launch her even higher.
2) “The Jungle Book.” Wow! I said it to myself over and over while watching Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” The story is familiar to anyone who knows the 1967 animated version, but the technology deployed to make this one is simply startling. Favreau has used a combination of live-action, computer graphics, and motion capture cinematography to create the most lifelike animation I’ve ever seen. Imagine the genius of Pixar plus the image density of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and then ramp the combination up to a new level. The result is remarkable.
3) “Denial.” A movie that was overlooked and underrated, “Denial” stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant woman faced with what seems an impossible task, horrified at the idea of having to litigate the truths of the Holocaust in court against a denier, David Irving (played with smug slimy delight by Timothy Spall). Fortunately, her publisher, Penguin UK, puts together an impressive team of solicitors and barristers, led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson in a sure-to-be-nominated performance), who takes Irving apart in court by using his own words against him.
4) “Arrival.” This is the best sci-fi movie of the year, not just for the terrific performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, but because it’s rooted in science. When aliens visit Earth in movies, we too often end up with an “Independence Day” scenario in which a special effects battle breaks out. But “Arrival” is closer to “Contact” and “Close Encounters,” and director Denis Villeneuve rightly focuses on the characters, particularly Adams’ linguist who is called upon to figure out what the aliens want with the help of Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist. Imagine that — scientists as heroes in a science-fiction movie.
5) “Captain Fantastic.” Very good movie, horrible title. People stayed away because they thought it was a superhero movie, but it’s actually about an unusual family. Viggo Mortensen is terrific as Ben, the father of six kids he’s raising in the woods, off the grid, in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a thin line between what Ben’s doing with his kids and any cult or militia leader you care to name, but it’s clear he loves these children, and there’s no doubt he’s raised them to think for themselves. Then something happens that forces Ben and his brood to enter the real world, where they are exposed to people and things they’ve never encountered before. It’s that clash that’s at the heart of the “Captain Fantastic” story.
6) “Loving.” Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage led to a landmark Supreme Court decision. You see, they lived in 1958 Virginia, where a black woman could not marry a white man. Their story is told not through courtrooms and legal strategies of the ACLU lawyers who fought for them, but through the relationship between the Lovings, two quiet people without much education who loved each other very much, and that comes through in the dignified performances of the two leads.
7) “Hacksaw Ridge.” This is one hell of a war movie. It’s the story of Desmond Doss, who wanted to be part of the military effort during World War II, but because he was raised an extremely religious Seventh Day Adventist, he couldn’t touch a gun, let alone carry one into battle. Still, he volunteered for the Army. When he couldn’t complete basic training because he refused to fire a weapon, he was court-martialed, but the authorities relented, accepted his position as a Conscientious Objector, and allowed him to become a battlefield medic. “Hacksaw Ridge” shows all of this backstory, but it’s not until the platoon gets to Okinawa that the movie gets really intense. That’s where the real fight begins, with Americans trying to scale and take the title piece of land that’s occupied by Japanese soldiers. The battle scenes that take place there are the most intense war footage I’ve seen since the opening 25 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”
8) “The Birth Of A Nation.” The story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831 has never been told onscreen. Nate Parker has never directed a feature film before — let alone one that he produced, wrote, and stars in. For a rookie, Parker proves himself a remarkably talented director. The scenery looks beautiful and the performances strike just the right tone. Parker is less interested in the fight and the bloodshed of the uprising than in the instigation for it (i.e. the treatment the slaves had to endure, the indignities visited upon them). That’s what makes “Birth Of A Nation” so valuable. We see the process, the inhumanity of the lives these humans in bondage were forced to endure. It’s a compelling story, and Parker tells it very well.
9) “Keanu.” Like Chris Rock’s “Top Five” in 2014 and Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” in 2015, Key and Peele’s “Keanu” is the Comedy Of The Year. They play two regular guys who get involved with gangbangers over a missing cat. They have to pretend they’re the bloodthirsty and ultra-tough Allentown Brothers, and improvise their way through every situation where they find themselves in way over their heads. Though the kitten-based plot sounds ridiculous, it works because their chemistry is great, the dialogue is very funny, and they fully inhabit these characters.
10) “Miss Sloane.” Jessica Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, a top lobbyist in Washington, DC, for a big firm run by Sam Waterston. She’s focused, intense, and fearless. You’d be much better off having her on your side than working for your opponents. When she’s asked to work for a pro-gun lobby, she refuses and instead switches sides, trying to close loopholes in current gun laws. To do that, as usual, she’ll do anything to win, regardless of what it means for ethical concerns, her opponents, her colleagues, her friends, or her personal life. With Sam Waterston as her ex-boss, John Lithgow as an unscrupulous senator, and the best performance of Chastain’s career.
Tomorrow: the Worst Movies Of 2016.