Thursday, February 16, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Hello readers. I am here again after a long absence. I just have very little to say, so it amazes me if anyone is even reading this. But it's that time of year again when I look at the best movies I saw in 2016. Now, I was not able to see several films I wanted to, so some of the more acclaimed films of the year I did not see and thus could not make this list. That Scorsese's Silence was only out here for like a week and a half was so unfair.

10. The Witch: A New-England Folktale
I wrestled with whether or not to include this movie in my top ten, because I am very split on it. It is a horror film set in 17th Century New England. I was intrigued enough by the trailer to see the film early this year. It's about a family banished from their town (we know not why), who settle on the edge of the woods. But there's a witch in the woods, and when bad things start happening to the family, it may be that one of them has invoked the devil and brought it upon them. This is absolutely not a movie for everyone. Even horror fans have sometimes found it too slow or hard to understand because all the dialogue is spoken in period-accurate dialect. And I loved that aspect of it. The sense of the world was really strongly realized, and the lead actress is lovely. Unfortunately, I despise the ending. I won't spoil it, but for me it completely ruined the movie. I grow very tired of horror movies that are just bad stuff happens to everyone until they all die, essentially. But mainly, I disliked what it did to the lead character. For its sense of setting and atmosphere I have to applaud it, though, and that's why ultimately it made the list. It was one of the most unique things I saw all year.

9. Rules Don't Apply
Warren Beatty's latest project is kind of a mess and it shouldn't work. And some of it doesn't. But I found walking out of it that I more enjoyed it than not. This is a story about old Hollywood, Howard Hughes, and a young naive actress who comes to LA to chase a dream. It's a bloated sort of movie, with meandering plots, trying to be a character study and a weird love triangle of sorts.  But the charm for me rests primarily on Lily Collins who I find absolutely adorable and would watch in anything. Once again, there's a turn at a certain point in the film that I dislike for the character. But that's a whole subject in itself that would digress into a discussion of the treatment of sexuality in film. This movie has a wry sense of humor that helps it avoid too much melodrama and makes it more enjoyable, including one of my favorite lines of dialogue this year. Matthew Broderick's character says: "You know why Baptists are against sex, don't you? Because it might lead to dancing!"

8. Fences
Denzel Washington directs himself and a great cast in this film adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. It's an intimate movie mostly set in small locations and is very dialogue-driven so it could easily be stagey. It's a problem with many stage-to-film adaptations. And yet I found the camerawork very smartly handled, and Denzel was able to make the film intimate without ever being claustrophobic. That is a remarkable feat these days, where filmmakers raised on television rely too heavily on tight close-ups that don't feel right on the big screen. All the performances are good (the cast came right from  the stage), but I want to single out Stephen Henderson. Denzel's doing his Denzel thing and Viola Davis has her excellent emotional moments as always, but Henderson was so very real to me in a solid supporting role. I was really hoping it would earn him a nomination.

7. Queen of Katwe
This is a Disney release that you probably never heard of. Of all the Disney movies this year (Jungle Book, Zootopia, Moana, etc.), this was the one I wanted to praise here. It's a solid sort-of sports movie. Based on a true story, it follows a poor girl in Africa as she becomes a chess champion. It would probably pair nicely with Searching For Bobby Fischer. If you like those old inspirational Disney sports movies or you like chess, this is a well-made movie that you should seek out.

6. Swiss Army Man
I mentioned earlier that The Witch was among the most unique films I saw all year. I think I spoke too soon, because nothing can prepare you for Swiss Army Man. A quirky film reminiscent of Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson, it follows the unlikely friendship of a suicidal man stranded on an island and a magical corpse. If bodily functions offend you, avoid it. But among the weirdness is an examination of the human condition with some great music and design work. Unfortunately the ending doesn't work enough for me, as if the film doesn't know how to bring this thing to a satisfactory close. But it tries, and almost gets there. The clash of the whismy and the real world don't quite sort themselves out enough for me.

5. Arrival
I'm gonna be saying this a lot, but the ending just about ruined this movie for me. I was really enjoying this movie until a certain point came and I had to just roll my eyes and deduct points. But Amy Adams is still very good and there are enough smart thoughts and moments to this movie to recommend it. When alien ships arrive all over the world, a linguist is recruited to try to communicate with them. All these early parts of the film about language are the best for me. I loved them, and wanted more of that. Instead, the film takes a hard turn into science fantasy from the more grounded science fiction it had been, and this resolution is so absurd to me and introduces new themes to me that I wanted to shake the movie and scream, "No! Give me the movie you started as!" There are some great concepts at play here, and moments like the gravity shift inside the ship that play with our perception. Unfortunately, the big twist soured me on the movie overall, and it just couldn't live up to the hype. I don't regret seeing it, and there are scenes in that first half I love, but as a whole, it's not one I would tell people to rush out and see.

4. The Meddler
A sleeper movie that nobody saw, this was one of my favorites from the first half of the year. Susan Sarandon plays an overbearing mother who follows her daughter to Los Angeles after the death of her husband. It's a funny and emotional character study, based on the writer's actual mother, and Sarandon is great in it. The supporting is solid too. If you like a kind of gentle comedy with very little to offend, I recommend it.

3. Manchester By the Sea
I want to be so careful here because the worst thing for this movie is hype. You should see it just as I did, not knowing much about it and with lowish expectations. Just know that it's good. Normally, I dislike stories that just meander about characters but nothing happens. It's why I hate Virginia Woolf. So on that level, I should dislike this movie, in which very little actually happens. But it got to me. It's a very real character study about grief. There are moments that are very moving, and a truly heartbreaking reveal midway through. For me, it meanders a little too much toward the end and starts to feel its length. It could have been tightened a little more. But I want to applaud it for its sense of place and depth of feeling. The thing I loved best about it is the locations feel like real locations (I suspect they probably were). I can admire a great set, but ultimately it feels like a set, lived in in a sort of movie way. But Manchester By the Sea is real. I have never seen guys hanging out in a basement that looks like real guys really hanging out in a real basement. The houses feel like real houses. The conversations feel like real conversations. There's a phone call where characters talk over each other and don't know when to hang up. These little elements give it a unique reality that you don't often see outside indie cinema. Be warned, this isn't a fun movie. It's an emotional roller coaster ride. But I admired it so much.

2. Loving
Jeff Nichols released two films this year. The first, Midnight Special, I highly anticipated and while I liked it, I was a tad let down. But the other was a film that didn't get the release or the buzz that it should have, and that's Loving, the true story of the interracial marriage that ultimately broke down miscegenation laws in the U.S. Going into it, I was afraid it was going to be a soapbox movie. I worried that it was no coincidence the film came out so soon after the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage. But had I known Jeff Nichols was behind it, I wouldn't have worried. His film Take Shelter made my list several years ago. In his capable hands, Loving stays a simple and intimate story about simple people who just want to live a normal life. Nichols keeps it personal, and Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring life to their roles with a sincerity and simplicity.

1. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson has finally returned, and it's with another religious-themed violent movie. And yet, it's more restrained than some of his prior works. The movie follows the true story of a Seventh-Day Adventist who enlists during World War II as a medic but will not carry a weapon, and ends up saving many lives in the pacific theater. Some might consider the movie jingoistic or cheesy, but I think it dodges most of the cliches that could so easily derail it. Andrew Garfield, who I don't generally like as an actor, is very good here. The climb up Hacksaw Ridge and the ensuing battle is like a horror movie; a descent into a haunted castle or something. It's expertly done (it even "rains blood"at one point), bringing home the horrors of war, but only because Garfield's character has been warned the whole time of its horror and that he will be defenseless without a gun. It's a very human story, an inspirational story; a film with religious themes that is never hokey, and themes of personal liberty that are never too flag-wavey. I saw so many movies this year that disappointed me or left me underwhelmed, and films that were done in by their endings. But I had nothing but good feelings about Hacksaw Ridge.

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