Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Top Ten Best Films of 2016...

Welcome back everyone, as we can finally start to look at the positives of what looked to be an otherwise very bleak year, and despite the very moody and cynical ways of thinking that soured it, let it not be mistaken that this year did see some truly wonderful stuff.

Pop culture alone experienced a great revitalization with numerous properties hitting TV screens, silver screens, sports, music, and technology. Whether it be shows like Stranger Things becoming instant cult favorites, Pokemon Go revitalizing the mobile phone experience, people uniting as the Olympic Games took place and the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in decades, or even Broadway's Hamilton rejuvenating music and musical theater and taking the world by storm, the year offered something for every type of fan. Heck, even our films made long overdue moves in the right direction, as following the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the lack of representation in the industry, 2016 answered back with numerous films addressing those concerns, featuring non-white lead characters or mostly non-white casts (films that included Lion, Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures, and many more). Even Disney got their voice heard, with Zootopia tackling issues of racism in an accessible and hopeful manner, all on its way to becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. Even putting aside politics, while 2016 was a largely disposable affair with some notable bumps along the way, its output from October onward yielded such great effort, from independent fare striking big chords with viewers, even down to restoring interest in the movie musical.

All the while, even when the world was shown to be falling apart, people were becoming divided, and bitterness cast an intimidating shadow, 2016 was also full of countless seemingly insignificant, but no less hopeful personal stories of love and unity, reminding us that even the smallest actions can make significant ripples affecting the people and places around us. Even as fear and uncertainty set in, alliances become tested, universal rights are shamefully and wrongfully taken away, and our most powerful government officials abuse their power for their own selfish agendas, what we must never forget about mankind is that we are not defined by our symbols, but by our people, those not concerned with trivial things like race, gender, sexual preference, or religion, who help to better us every day, sharing unconditional love, and celebrating those differences that, strangely enough, make us more similar than we think.

And like always, even our selection of films, and the common love of good cinema, showed a great deal of unity between audiences. And to be fair, while my pickings were a bit slim this year, the good from this year was still plenty to go around. However, I would like to make it known that there are still a few highly acclaimed titles I have yet to get around to, including what was my most anticipated film of the year, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, so this list as always is purely how it currently stands as I form it.

First up are some honorable mentions. In eleventh was 13th, Ava DuVernay's scathing examination of the cruelty and discriminating nature of the prison system, and how racism is secretly embedded within the US constitution on a repeating loop. While it didn't have the novelty of the original, Pixar's Finding Dory was a hugely satisfying and hilarious adventure, expanding on its title character in terrific ways without dumbing the drama of the piece down. Loving was a subdued, but greatly executed love story, treating its interracial lead couple played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in very modest and compassionate ways, using its central focus to say greater things about the nature and universal rights of marriage today. Elle played like a dark subversion of terrible Lifetime movies, crafting a disquieting and eerie web of secrets born from sexual liberation and dominion, with Isabelle Huppert crafting a cold, but dubious title character moving the other figures in her life like pawns. Finally, The Jungle Book may have been slight, but improved upon its animated counterpart in storytelling, making use of a perfect voice cast, and featured some of the greatest and most seamless CGI I've ever seen in a movie.
Lastly, while it isn't a movie, I want to give a huge shout-out to game developer Naughty Dog for their epic finale to the Uncharted series, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Not only a great send-off to its beloved characters while exploring them in more direct ways, delivering on sweeping and gorgeous visuals and epic set-pieces, a total riot to explore and traverse the gorgeous environments, but also for delivering on adrenaline-pumping exhilaration and story depth so powerful, it puts modern blockbusters to shame.

Having said that, it's time to get started. So if you must blink, do it now...

Number 10
The Nice Guys
Dir. Shane Black
This was by far one of the year's most pleasant surprises for me. I may not be a fan of previous Shane Black films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but his third directorial feature still remains the funniest film that I saw in 2016. Revitalizing the long dormant (or at least long overabused) buddy cop formula, taking the complete polar opposites of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling and putting them on a murder investigation, digging deep into a conspiracy within the adult film industry. Just in style alone, Black aces the representation of the 70's backdrop, filling the screen with gorgeous neon infused imagery and the soundscape with a fantastic soundtrack, putting other 70's based comedies the likes of American Hustle to shame in the meantime. Furthermore, it makes for a rock solid mystery thriller, with genuine surprises and deadly new twists at every turn, with its bloody violence retaining a grim seriousness, while also providing an absurd level of hilarity.

And yes, that's exactly what makes this film so great, the fact that it is side-splittingly hilarious. Most kudos are owed to the inspired central match-up of the two leads, with Russell Crowe being the rough and gray anchor of the duo, eliciting great chuckles from his deadpan deliveries, while Ryan Gosling gets the more broadly funny performance as a constant screw-up, often expressing manic and quirky reactions that had me in stitches for minutes at a time. But really, the pieces of the duo aren't quite as strong when separated, and seeing the two bounce banter and ideas off of each other feels like watching the world's funniest tennis match. However, that's not to undersell the supporting players, including the fantastic Angourie Rice as Gosling's daughter, who often has to play reluctant caretaker during his fits of stumbling. It's a wacky, thoroughly entertaining time that proved a welcome deviation from the Summer's usual blockbuster heavy slate.

Number 9
Dir. Byron Howard and Rich Moore

In a year that was as politically motivated and dividing as 2016, it seems even Disney didn't intend to stand at the sidelines, and their smartly built allegory of prejudice that still retains its hopefulness was exactly the type of film we needed to see. Zootopia has quickly become one of the most rewarding animated Disney flicks on rewatch, continuing to show new shades of detailed brilliance with every viewing, and even without it's ambitious themes it would still be a great watch. The film is yet another fantastic send-up of buddy cop comedies, with its script and the animation building its massive interconnected world from the ground up, crafting countless endearing and memorable characters - Ginnifer Goodwin's naively persistent Judy Hopps and Jason Bateman's slick and snarky Nick Wilde being instant favorites, and the film is just such a good family adventure. It's clear that the filmmakers are first and foremost concerned with crafting a great story first, a story catering equally to kids and adults with countless laughs to be had, and then lace in those weightier talking point issues.

And boy, what issues they are. While the messages and parables of casual racism, prejudice, sexism, and blatant misconceptions have to conform to an accessible family nature, none of these issues are dumbed down or lose their poignancy. Even if the city of Zootopia features a widely varying melting pot of different species mingling together, it's still not free of those deep-rooted hostilities, and wrongful profiling. But perhaps even more brave for the film to tackle are those prejudices not out of hostility, but of blissful ignorance from the power of words, oblivious to the true pain that these statements inflict upon those they're unintentionally directed to. Sure, it may not always be intended to be mean-spirited, but oftentimes those nonchalant and poorly chosen words can leave just as much of a sting, but it still retains a much needed level of hope and call for change. It's a heavily ambitious film, and yet never to the degree that it bites off more than it can chew, and deserves every comparison it gets to the output of Pixar. Oh, and there's a hilarious scene where sloths are in charge of the DMV. What's not to love?

Number 8
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Almost feeling like an answer to the overwhelming number of duds from companies like PureFlix, legendary director Martin Scorsese finally brings his passion project of persecution, commitment, and guilt to the big screen. Silence is a haunting film, and through the harrowing point of view of Father Rodrigues - played by an outstanding Andrew Garfield (in his better 2016 performance), Scorsese relays a bloody, but tasteful level of brutality intentionally built to wear the viewer down, in a time and place when all rational discussion was tossed aside, instead reverting back to a primitive nature. In fact, Scorsese often uses this sense of animalism to highlight the debate concerning personal interpretation, with Rodrigues' Japanese captors equating God to nature rather than the supernatural.

But it's Scorsese's focus on the faith elements, perhaps giving him a chance to confront his own demons, where the movie is at its most darkly tragic. Rodrigues is wisely defined not as a martyr, a simple Catholic, or a mere torture victim, but a man clinging to the only hope and cherished thing he has left, his faith. A situation like him renouncing the mere symbolism of God to save innocent lives seems like an easy decision, but such a choice is never made out of pride. Noble as his sacrifice would be, the decision to do so still feels like an agonizing betrayal not only to his creator, or to the countless people he inspired, but to his own identity. It's a cruel and heartbreaking situation of action versus inaction, purity versus disgrace, and an aching meditation of whether any plea for forgiveness or noble intention will ever be enough to earn back salvation. If you want a challenging, but rewarding film that will haunt and linger with you for days, look no further.

Number 7
Dir. Steven Spielberg

I'll admit it, nostalgia played a very big part in this movie's placement, and while my overall opinion on it has cooled, the fact remains that it's a terrific callback to Spielberg's days with E.T. It's a return to his whimsical fantasy roots, melding with the other creative voices of Roald Dahl and Disney, and crafting an at once delightfully enchanting, but also mature adventure that expands on the lightness of Dahl's source material, all the while crafting another outstanding story of friendship between child and oddball creature. The precocious and charming Ruby Barnhill largely carries the film on her shoulders, filling the film with a genuine sense of wonderment and seamless integration with the effects heavy Giant Country, while new Spielberg muse Mark Rylance gives a gracious and thoughtfully reflective turn as the title character.

In a way, this friendship seems deliberately geared to feel like a grandfatherly connection, in which Sophie encourages her colossal counterpart into facing his fears of the outside world and taking a stand against his bullying neighbors (led by Jemaine Clement's Fleshlumpeater), while the BFG is there to prepare his "human bean" for the awaiting pressures of adulthood. Amidst all the touching odes to the power of dreams and the wonder of imagination, as well as the jaw-dropping technicality and impressive CGI that Spielberg still proves a master in, the film effectively establishes those lines between dream and reality, evoking powerful personal examination during the final conversation between the two friends, creating a sense of joyous discovery and enchantment, while also staying true to the grounded maturity of growing up. Detractors of Spielberg's usual brand of sentimentality may not take kindly to it, but when the film has reached its bittersweet and heartfelt conclusion, Spielberg once again earns his right to those rose-tinted glasses.

Number 6

Manchester by the Sea
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

About as accurate a portrait of the fractured and inherently messy cluster that depression is, Kenneth Lonergan's third directorial feature used its intentionally jumbled narrative to strong effect. Feeling like a collection of snapshot memories, Manchester by the Sea follows the mundane episodic events of Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler, as he settles the affairs left to him by his recently deceased brother, all the while struggling to fit back in to his old hometown. Affleck's superb performance captures a very nuanced, but painful portrait of a deeply broken man, hopelessly lost in reconnecting with old friends or new acquaintances, and unable to hold even the most basic small talk, often preferring to close himself off and stay in isolation than allow himself to relive a long forgotten heartbreak that pains him to think of.

The fact that the film is very tangential and full of non-sequiturs is certainly no accident, as the film often taps very keenly into how those constant pacifications are used to distract and reduce our pain, whether they be of sports and TV, leaping into our work, engaging in casual sex, or any level of empty small talk. But not only is the film concerned with the depression of one man, but how that same heartbreak comes to affect the people around him, such as Michelle Williams as his ex-wife whose warmth is still not enough to overpower the unpleasant memories to come from their past, and Lucas Hedges as his seemingly detached nephew, whose sarcasm often acts as a facade to hide his pent up dramatic outbursts, and who ironically starts to be a more mature moderating presence than Lee. But at the same time, the film is also quite funny, capturing well the messy sense of humor that comes with grief, including awkward silences and poorly chosen words. Lonergan's own directorial choices may be a bit too messy in comparison to his script, but those quibbles are a minor detraction from an otherwise gloomy, yet sweetly realized and naturalistic movie.

Number 5
Dir. Barry Jenkins 

At least once in our lives, I think we've all thought to ourselves that we were born into the absolute wrong environment, so along comes Barry Jenkins to expand on those unpleasant feelings and identity crisis, while also crafting a deeply felt journey of personal acceptance. In the screenplay that he co-wrote with Tarrel Alvin McCraney, Jenkins crafts an unassuming and modest odyssey for growing lead Chiron. He captures in natural fashion the many hardships and intense scrutiny of his childhood leading into adulthood, facing frequent and vicious attacks by schoolyard bullies, growing up under an abusive household, and lost in the shuffle of his blooming sexuality. It's a challenging lifestyle to come to grips with, but what ultimately ends up hindering Chiron is his own self-depreciation, preventing him from embracing that sense of happiness he deserves, in many ways becoming his own worst enemy.

Jenkins also has a lot to say in regards to mean-spirited and dishonest stereotyping, sometimes intentionally drawing attention to those tropes, eventually subverting them by digging far deeper into the core of who these characters really are. Those people that Chiron comes in contact with play especially vital parts in defining the man that he will grow up to be, both in a positive and negative light. These figures include Naomie Harris as his scornful and broken crack-addicted mother, Janelle Monae as his secondary mother figure, the also aging best friend Kevin who guides him through that journey to love and acceptance, and Mahershala Ali's fatherly crack dealer slowly coming to grips with the damage his business moves inflict. It's a film that says a tremendous deal about our self-worth, and the damaging impact left by trying to forcefully adapt to societal standards, regardless of the fact that we simply can't help what culture we grow up in, and spreads its message of self-love in a universal manner that goes beyond black and white or gay and straight. It's a film that not only should be seen, but demands to be.

Number 4
Kubo and the Two Strings
Dir. Travis Knight

 Laika have quickly established themselves as the definitive stop-motion studio of modern cinema, and this fourth film following Japanese mythology and legend is by far and away their best yet. Kubo is a story heavily centered around, what else, storytelling, but more specifically the often autobiographical nature of those stories and personalization that bring out the strengths in those storytellers. It's a film where the events surrounding young Kubo make a great impact on him, often equating very heavily around the topics of memory and identity, and the idea of how these events of the past reflect on the individual in the present. From maternal love, to fearless nobility, to broken betrayal, to mindless and vengeful hatred, each emotion is understandably conveyed to our protagonist, and all of them make a great impact on his character.

But in truth, it's no one of those feelings on a journey that come to define the character of a person, but by embracing all of those experiences that true personality is revealed. The idea of memory defining someone is also smartly deconstructed, as this doesn't mean the past should be ignored or forgotten, but rather than allow ourselves to be consumed, it's often best to take the wisdom gained from those experiences, and use them for our future rather than to dwell on our past, as the choice for how the story ends is all what we make of it. It's the first time that Laika have crafted a story every bit as dazzling as their animation, which continues to show them at the peak of their abilities, creating numerous sequences leaving the viewer asking "How did they do that?!" Also fantastic are the melodies by Dario Marianelli, often weaving their way directly into the story, placing their own spin on a personal narrative. Don't bother blinking, because you won't want to miss a single second.

Number 3
Dir. Denis Villeneuve

 Denis Villeneuve may have made his name with gritty and bleak films of moral grayness like Prisoners and Sicario, but this vastly more hopeful film, owing a clear debt to Spielberg and The Day the Earth Stood Still, is easily his best English-language film, and maybe his best film period. Arrival seems about as accurate a portrait as any of what earth would feel like were aliens to visit us, especially in how it captures the wayward amazement and paranoia on a global scale. A tad ironic considering the nature of the film, the portrayal of humanity feels like a very prophetic representation on Villeneuve's part, as through the many media headlines that play across the film, as well as mass rioting and aggression taking place, you get the feeling that the planet is utterly falling apart because of the aliens. But that's not all that's making the earth crumble, as we as a species are still divided by literal and figurative barriers, including that of language and communication, as the many nations also encountering the alien vessels are obviously reluctant to share information with the others.

Villeneuve is also taking a direct scathing jab at the hyperbole further instilled by eye-catching headlines, often misrepresenting the stories of transpiring events - sometimes intentionally, which certainly doesn't alleviate tensions when these nations are on the brink of war, always meaning one bad decision can potentially spell disaster. It's actually quite impressive that a film without a single action scene can have such high stakes and intensity to it. But above all, as critical as Villeneuve may be of these things, he still ensures a level of warmth and compassion to the film, best embodied by Amy Adams' fantastic central performance. As divided as we may be, and as difficult as it would be (something that even Villeneuve acknowledges), he still knows that we're not past the point of no return yet. We're still a young species continually learning, and we still have much that we can learn about ourselves, as well as each other, ending on a bittersweet, but beautifully executed hope of universality. It almost feels designed as the antithesis to "shoot first" Sci-Fi epics like Independence Day, and I dare say this was a film we needed to see. Villeneuve's next foray into Sci-Fi will be the sequel to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and with Arrival as a calling card, one can only imagine what he'll have in store for us next.

Number 2
20th Century Women
Dir. Mike Mills

 Mike Mills left quite an impression with his semi-autobiographical Beginners in 2011, now he returns five years later with another personal story of his, that frankly blows his previous film out of the water. A key theme of the film is dealing with the basic concept of understanding, as Annete Bening's mother enlists the aid of two friends to watch over her son, and impart upon him important knowledge as he grows older. But as the film moves on, the point becomes less about understanding the thoughts of these characters, and more about examining the crippling, but simultaneously lovable flaws that give these people their unique edge. After a while, the time spent with Lucas Jade Zumann's Jamie becomes more than just giving the young teen guidance, and becomes a surrogate allowing the women in his life to confront their own issues. Mainly these pair-ups exist as a way to experiment with different character dynamics (the interactions between Zumann and Gerwig being my favorites), and the cast share such an easy and irresistible chemistry, playing off of each other with effortless sincerity.

This also highlights the general strength of the players, with the cast not having a single weak link to be found. Annete Bening is particularly luminous and deeply heartbreaking as Jamie's mother, struggling to get to the root of his issues, while also so stuck in the past that she can't seem to break free of hers, looking particularly lost in this evolving world of sex, drugs, and Rock'n Roll. She also has terrific support from her other two female co-stars, with Elle Fanning playing Jamie's profoundly idealistic and free-spirited best friend, enjoying a platonic and tightly-knit friendship while also bragging of her sexual endeavors, while a revelatory Greta Gerwig excels as an ahead of her time feminism idealist with an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness, essentially becoming the closest thing that Jamie has to a big sister. The film is also very wise in how it highlights significant cultural events to define its settings, feeling similar to the montages that Abbie assembles from pictures of her personal items. It highlights the strangeness of the world's constantly evolving image, and the embracement or hesitance to experience a future that still has to be made sense of, including those times when friends will eventually move on or lose touch, yet their impact on our lives will always be gratefully felt regardless of where they are. It favors to avoid any easy concessions in relaying a more nuanced and thought-provoking outcome, and struck a chord stronger than almost any other film from 2016.

All except for (should it come as a surprise?)...

Number 1
La La Land
Dir. Damien Chazelle

 What would you say if I told I've already seen the movie three times in theaters (with an upcoming fourth on the 18th)? I genuinely can't remember the last time a movie has left me this obsessed, and yet even after I watch it another time, I still yearn to see it one more time. As far as I'm concerned, Damien Chazelle's ode to Golden Age musicals not only stands as the year's finest film, but the finest film of this current decade.

Dying artforms seem like comfortable areas for Chazelle, with La La Land sharing strands of Whiplash DNA, in this one swapping out jazz and individual artistry for musicals and fantasy. Chazelle often evokes a deliberately simplistic, but warm and dreamlike aura throughout La La Land, showing obvious debt to Singin' in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as the sweeping romance of classics like Casablanca, in a way intentionally meant to fly in the face of the modernized L.A. scene. The film has its feet firmly planted both in the realms of harsh reality and blissful fantasy, starting off with joyful bursts of enthusiasm in the first half, but progressively adopts a more grounded stance that serves as a wake-up call to its characters.

It's a style that Chazelle uses - with incredible confidence - to highlight the jadedness of modern society, as the days of lining up to the box office progressively appear to be an outdated experience of constant distractions, in favor of more private home theater viewing (even though it's been my experience that viewing at home bears far more distractions). As Emma Stone's Mia runs through her auditions while her uncaring casting directors prattle on over their phones and lunches, and Ryan Gosling's Seb grows increasingly disillusioned by the dying art of jazz and his dead-end jobs, it paints something of a harsh, but genuine portrait of the numbness that such consistent heartbreaks create, as if those passions and callings are nothing but a pipe dream never to be.

And what dreamers those two stars are, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling giving what are two of the year's greatest, most thoroughly charismatic and affecting performances. Stone in particular gives what may be the year's finest performance, relying brilliantly on her effervescent charm and irresistible screen presence that makes her feel like she could have come from that golden age, while also adding onto it with more powerfully imbued depth and understanding, in ways that are both subtle and obvious, including her final audition piece where she lets emotions seep through every pore on her face. Giving the more harder-edged turn is Gosling, himself a beacon of infectious knowledge, all too happy to encourage Mia in pursuing her goals, but when it comes to his own, he's a very stubborn traditionalist to a fault. He knows that he wants to save Jazz from dying, but he feels too stuck in the days of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, and even when trying new experimentation with his new band, is still done with obvious disdain. Funnily enough, in addition to the worlds of musicals and jazz dying,
Chazelle also seems to be commenting on the nature of modern film scoring itself. With Seb's traditionalist nature starkly opposing John Legend's Keith's desire to innovate, bringing Jazz into a more modernized and electronic light, it almost seems like Chazelle is taking a shot at the favor of heavily experimental and detached anonymity over grand and old-fashioned orchestral soundscapes (I found that detail rather amusing for some reason).

But at the same time, La La Land still has that other foot firmly planted into the ground of fantasy, and one must wonder, what's wrong with embracing it? Film may have started as a simple money-maker, and soon after became a great sandbox for innovative artists, but what has always defined the illusion of the cinema is its ability to transport, and offer us a much needed sense of escapism. We didn't care if it was an illusion or not, because for those two hours that we felt like we knew these worlds and their characters like family, the theater was like a safe haven to us, a home away from home, and - even if only momentarily - existed to put a smile on our faces. It's not that La La Land neglects or downplays the troubles of reality, but by embracing that unabashed heart and sense of wonder, it creates a powerful and unforgettable sense of enchantment. This is to say nothing of the many flawless songs by composer Justin Hurwitz, and lyricists Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, whose songs are all so deeply felt, riotously fun, but also highly effective pieces of storytelling in their own right, and to pick a favorite among them seems futile.

It's a powerful experience, a testament to how moving and how important the world of cinema is, and that perfect blend between high concept artistry, and crowdpleasing entertainment value. It struck such a huge chord with me that a film hasn't managed to hit in a long time, and with every time I watch it, it only gets better and better. It's a film that speaks to the dreamer in everyone, ending on a perfect note of melancholy and fulfillment, and in a year that was as chaotic and depressing as 2016, for this film to swoop in just when we needed it most was nothing short of a miracle. Sure, I won't get points for originality, as every awards industry in Hollywood has given or will give it their highest accolades, but I don't care. I still adore this movie with all my heart, and it has thoroughly earned its right to stand alongside my favorite films of all time.

Here's to the fools who dream, crazy as they may seem...

And with that, I can now finally bring this year to a close, and look ahead to what 2017 has to offer. I'm going to be taking a much needed break to recover from all this madness (my nearly year-long Disney Retrospective certainly didn't help), and I'll be back soon with thoughts on any movies yet to come.

Until then, Hasta La Vista, Baby...

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