There were a lot of very good films released in 2016, but very few truly great ones. I only saw one that compared to last year’s Room. And I saw nothing that rose to the level of Boyhood the year before. Still, I had trouble cutting my list down to ten titles.
- Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight traced the life of a young African-American male from boyhood through adulthood. It was occasionally difficult to follow, but upon viewing this one a second time, I realized there are a lot of unspoken thoughts and feelings here. It’s hard enough to grow up black and poor, let alone gay. Moonlight hit most of the right notes.
- Actor/director Nate Parker turned in a tour-de-force with the retelling of the story of Nat Turner and his slave rebellion of 1831. The Birth of a Nation is not as good as 2012’s Twelve Years a Slave, but it does an excellent job of exposing the horrors of slavery. It’s a little-known story, and one that should be learned. It almost works as a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
- Forget the fact that Reparation was filmed on location in Putnam County, Indiana. If you didn’t know that fact, it’s still a great film. First time director Kyle Ham and his co-screenwriter Steve Timm have churned out a gripping tale of an Air Force officer who can’t remember certain aspects of his time in combat. There’s a lot of material here, and Reparation doesn’t miss a note. With no big-name actors, this one never received the widespread release it deserved. And that’s a damn shame.
- Jeff Nichols told the story of Loving vs. Virginia in Loving. This was the Supreme Court ruling which legalized interracial marriage in 1967. But never do we see the inside of the Court. Loving is more a love story, which just so happens to include a white man and a black woman. It’s low-key and tender, and the acting is superb. What’s more, the Loving’s relationship parallels the LGBT relationships of today – just like most any other, but societally scorned by some.
- A group of female African-American mathematicians was instrumental in the early years of NASA’s space program – particularly in launching John Glenn’s historic flight orbiting earth for the first time. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures traces the struggles of three of these brilliant women. This film is more about the everyday inconveniences faced by black people in 1961 rather than the Civil Rights Movement itself. Great acting highlights this crowd-pleaser.
- Kenneth Lonergan concocted his best picture in 15 years with the emotional Manchester by the Sea – the story of a ne’er-do-well thirtysomething compelled to care for his teenage nephew upon the sudden death of his brother. As the bond between uncle and nephew grows, the story takes us places we do not expect. Some very harrowing life events are softened with humor, heart, and a great score by Lesley Barber. Compelling acting by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges accentuates Lonergan’s sterling screenplay.
- Adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” for the big screen is a difficult enough task. That Tom Ford made such a compelling thriller from this source material is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. Using the story-within-a-story structure, Nocturnal Animals is highlighted by another virtuoso performance from Amy Adams, and a breathtaking neo-noir style. The reliable Michael Shannon gives perhaps the best supporting actor performance of the year as a no-nonsense sheriff deputy.
- Damien Chezelle released the best motion picture musical in at least a generation with the compelling La La Land. Featuring a few nicely-staged songs with stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, a couple big production numbers, and a lot of breezy jazz instrumental music, La La Land tells the story of two Hollywood wannabes, tired of the audition scene, who meet cute and fall in love. Fortunately, Chezelle’s film embraces Hollywood rather than trashes it. Plus, he gives us a weightier third act than we expect.
- British director Andrea Arnold made the most American picture of the year with American Honey, the story of a group of societal outcasts (all millennials) who sell magazine subscriptions and use the bulk of their profits to get drunk and high. Although she had never acted before, Sasha Lane turns in perhaps the best performance of anyone in any film this year, as the sharp newcomer to the group. Watching her method of selling is one of the great joys of American Honey. At almost three hours, it’s the longest film on my list, but it doesn’t seem that way because it is just so darn interesting. For my money, it could have gone on another hour.
- I fell in love with David Mackenzie’s modern-day western Hell or High Water last summer. As I viewed each of this year’s Oscar contenders, I asked myself if what I had just seen was as good as Hell or High Water. The answer was always “no.” Combining the quirky characters of the Coen Brothers, the harshness of Sam Peckinpah, and the glossy set-pieces of Quentin Tarantino, this film transports us to a post-oil-boom West Texas landscape in which the bad guys are as smart as the rangers assigned to bring them to justice. It’s an absolute joy watching each carefully-crafted scene play out. The Taylor Sheridan screenplay is a brilliant melding of old-school western with present-day sensibility. And for some serious subject matter, it’s perhaps the funniest film of the year. I loved everything about Hell or High Water. It is indeed the best of 2016.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear at http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/