Best and Worst of 2016
1. La La Land – Ryan Gosling plays piano and Emma Stone plays an actress, two lost souls who imagine a Hollywood future that, at any moment, can seamlessly morph into a dream and break into song. Stone is riveting, the chemistry is perfect, and the set pieces are breathtaking. Movie love at its best.
2. Loving – This story of the mixed race couple that helped change American miscegenation laws focuses on Mildred and Richard Loving’s honesty, integrity, and commitment to one another without melodrama. It is buoyed by two of the year’s best performances.
3. Moonlight – Told in three chapters that bravely explore a black man’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality and moves into adulthood. It is riveting at every level: story, cinematography, ensemble acting. It is particularly notable for its patience, quietness, and courage.
4. Fences – Denzel Washington directs and stars with a cast that does justice to the rich language of August Wilson’s play. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s at the home of Troy, Rose, and Cory Maxson, the story grapples with history, fate, hubris, family, race, fathers, and sons. A giant work of the theater brought with honesty and integrity to the screen.
5. The Witch – Based on stories of Salem witches, the film imagines what it would be like if witchcraft was more than mere hysteria. It slowly becomes outrageous and chilling, and there’s a heart-stopping finish.
6. Paterson -- Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani are adorable as a married couple who love and support each other. He drives a bus and writes poetry while she designs clothes and bakes great cupcakes. This film awakens us to the magic and wonder of the ordinary.
7. Hail Caesar – The Cohen brothers’ tribute to classical Hollywood is silly but filled with enough clever Hollywood tropes, references, and set pieces to make it a genuine (if modest) treat for movie lovers.
8. Jackie – Director Pablo Larraín treats Jackie Kennedy’s life in the days following her husband’s assassination as if it was a fever dream. She chain smokes, puts on a brave public face, and builds a mythology around a life she never really wanted. Mica Levi’s dizzying score adds to the surreal quality.
9. A Bigger Splash – In Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous film, a rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her filmmaker husband (Matthias Schoenaerts) enjoy the good life relaxing on Pantelleria Island. Until an old friend (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson) show up—then the movie drops us on our heads and we watch as the rich unravel.
10. Manchester by the Sea – Casey Affleck’s understated performance and Michelle William’s wicked tough Massachusetts housewife and mother —along with Kenneth Lonergan’s ear for everyday speech—turn the circumstances of a tragic life into a celebration of the common man.
11. Wiener Dog – I have to add director Todd Solondz’s odd and puzzling, funny and awful story of a dachshund who is passed from owner to owner. The film is, as he puts it, “cruelty and tenderness, or comedy and pathos, rubbing against each other.” I love the confusion, but there is also considerable heart at the center of this story.
Allied – This is the big WW II spy epic starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Maybe this was supposed to be a throwback to old-style filmmaking, but it comes off as just plain old. You cannot have a plane crash in your backyard and, while the machine is still smoking, take your new baby out for a picnic, where it takes its first steps. Cotillard is so talented and beautiful I’d watch her read a phone book which, come to think of it, would be more compelling than this stagey hokum.
American Pastoral – Ewan McGregor directs Philip Roth’s novel with an earnest soullessness. Too many scenes feel forced; a good story degenerates into a collection of scenes that go nowhere. McGregor brings far too cozy an air to the part of a desperate father venturing into America’s dark heart in order to find his daughter, who has become a revolutionary. Dakota Fanning is too elegant to play the dreary role of the daughter; she adds no dimension to the character and ends up looking ridiculous.
Jack Reacher – Expectations weren’t high to begin with, but this could have been a guilty pleasure. Instead, it is one more silly franchise movie. Tom Cruise’s use of Kabuki facial language—clenching his jaw in close-ups, raising quizzical eyebrows—adds to the laundry list of visual (in)action clichés.
Favorite 10 Foreign Films
This year the selection happens to divide evenly between male and female directors.
1. My King (Maïwenn, French)
2. Tony Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany, Austria)
3. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, French)
4. Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, Korean)
6. Breathe (“Respire”) Mélanie Lauren, French)
7. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
8. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, French, German, and Belgian)
9. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, British)
10. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine, French, and Polish)
1. Do Not Resist
2. O.J.: Made in America
5. I Am Not Your Negro
7. Princess Shaw
8. Author: The JT Leroy Story
9. The Music of Strangers
10. Eight Days a Week: Beatles on Tour