Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Top 10 Movies of 2016 + 7 Bonus Quick Reviews


It's that time of year!  The Oscar nominations are out and I've completed my homework by seeing all nine Best Picture nominees.  I know you are all anxiously waiting THE LIST, but first let me give some really quick reviews on movies I saw over the holidays:

Passengers

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence didn't really seem to have great chemistry in this sci-fi snoozer.  Michael Sheen as the robot bartender may have been the best part of this film.

2.5 JRs

Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are at the very top of their game in a tour-de-force of acting in an on-screen telling of August Wilson's famous play.  This film is tense throughout and does a great job of portraying inner-city African American family life in the 1950's.  As good as Casey Affleck was in Manchester by the Sea, I think Denzel deserves the Oscar more for this performance.

4.5 JRs

Jackie

This is the Jackie Kennedy biopic that none of us were really clamoring for, but director Pablo Larrain does a good job of chronicling the events of the early 1960's through the eyes of the First Lady.  Natalie Portman totally owns the titular role and her mannerisms and voice are spot-on in channeling Jackie O.  Despite Portman's brave and effective performance there's not much substance here to make this film reach that next level of excellence.

3.5 JRs

Split

M. Night Shyamalan continues his resurrection with this interesting slice of crazy that focuses on the many split personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) who ends up kidnapping a trio of young women.  There are some mild scares throughout and whole lot of emoting from the expressive eyes of Anya Taylor-Joy (the girl from The Witch).  This is McAvoy's vehicle all the way though and he is super talented at playing a variety of characters.  If any of you are fans of Night's work, please contact me after you see this.  I REALLY want to discuss some big spoilers, but I can't address them here.  This is a good but not great movie and a slight step down from The Visit, although I can tell you with 100% certainty, NIGHT IS BACK!

3.5 JRs

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins joins the short list of young, talented Hollywood directors that have burst onto the scene in the past few years.  In his second feature film, he delivers a unique and powerful look at human self-discovery in a story of a young black man growing from childhood to adulthood in a tough neighborhood in Miami.  The acting in this movie is outstanding throughout especially Naomi Harris and Mahershera Ali, both of whom are nominated for Oscar.  Ali in particular completely nails his performance as Juan, a smooth drug dealer with an actual heart and passion for helping others.  The film is shot beautifully by Jenkins with a classical score that accentuates the drama perfectly.  The end of the film is not as strong as the first two thirds but that's a slight nitpick in an overall outstanding movie. This is a near perfect film in tone, visual theme, acting and music.  I was thoroughly impressed with Jenkins are a director and I can't wait to see what he does next.

4.5 JRs

Lion

The true story of an Indian child who gets separated from his family and subsequently adopted by a wealthy Australian family.  Twenty years later and with the advent and assistance of Google Maps, the boy locates his old village and attempts to reconnect with his lost family.  This story is worth telling on the big screen and there is real emotion throughout.  Oscar nominee Dev Patel stars as the older version of Saroo and gives an effective performance.  Nicole Kidman is nominated as well and gives a quiet, subdued turn as Saroo's adopted Mother.  This is a well made, well acted film that nearly missed my overall top ten for the year.

4 JRs

Hidden Figures

Another true story, retelling the lives of a trio of African American women who helped shape America's role in the space race.  Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mechanical expert who ends up programming one of the first IBM supercomputers.  Janelle Monae (a real find as a singer-turned-actress) is Mary Jackson, a high-level engineer.  Tajari P. Henson rounds out the three women as Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematical genius and human computer.  Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst give supporting turns in a movie that brings the decade of the 1960's to life and showcases some unsung American heroes who had to live through the obstacles of segregation in the South.  I really feel like Henson gave the best acting performance of the film but thanks to some crowded categories this year, she was left out of the Oscar hunt.  Spencer did get nominated but I feel she gave a slightly weaker performance.  Overall, this film was solid but I feel it came across as a mix of Ron Howard films in Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.  Good but not great and I don't feel it's Best Picture worthy.

3.5 JRs




Now.... on to the list.  Note that I did not see everything this year despite seeing 53 films in theaters.  That's about 1 a week.  Moviepass helped with that but I'm thinking of giving that up in 2017.  Work is getting busier and I don't know if I can keep up this pace.  In reverse order these are my Top Ten favorite films of 2016.

#10 - Eye in the Sky

This film came out very early in the year but still resonates with me, especially since the brilliant Alan Rickman passed away just over year ago.  Rickman, Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul star in this cyber espionage thriller that focuses on a critical decision about whether to engage or not in the war on terror.  Drone technology plays such a major role in the film and ethical questions lead to an extremely tense final act.  This is one of the most intense films I saw all year.

#9 - Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson. Whether you reject him off-camera or not, you have to respect his innate ability to stage an epic war film.  In a unique spin on the conventional war movie, Gibson centers on Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a pacifist who ends up enlisting and fighting in World War II, saving 75 soldiers in the process.  Garfield is humble and determined in the lead role and deserving of his first Oscar nomination.  I'm glad the Academy honored Gibson in his comeback directorial effort.  This was easily the SECOND best war movie of the year (more to come on this topic).

#8 - Fences 

As I mentioned earlier, Denzel and Viola are two titans of acting in this movie.  With simply a good story and no action or visual effects, this film/play has to be carried on the shoulders of strong acting.  Davis will deserve her Oscar (although she SHOULD be nominated for Best Actress and not in a supporting role) and I'm hoping that Denzel upsets Affleck.  Kudos to the supporting cast of (Bubba Gump) Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen Henderson for adding character to the story.  Denzel's direction works and he cements himself as simply one of the very best actors in cinematic history.

#7 - The Conjuring 2

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star in James Wan's follow up to the 2013 original (which I did not enjoy).  An offspring of The Exorcist, this movie explores paranormal possession in London, England.  This film was terrifying and spooky throughout thanks to a trio of evil adversaries.  The creepiest one being the Crooked Man, played by the tall skinny, strangely proportional actor Javier Botet.  Madison Wolfe is a revelation as young Janet Hodgson, a character you find yourself caring about as she experiences a world of horror.

#6 - Manchester By the Sea

The winner of the most depressing movie of 2016 goes to Kenneth Lonnergan's small town New England tale of tragedy and family.  Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor who takes on new responsibilities as the guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother. Michelle Williams earned another Oscar nomination for a couple-minute sequence in which she tries to reconcile with her ex-husband.  Affleck is very good and Hedges may be even better in his turn as a regular teenager adapting to difficult situations.

#5 - 10 Cloverfield Lane

Released very early in the year, this movie is all about the acting and charisma of one John Goodman.  If there's one actor that didn't get nominated for Oscar this year that deserved to, it's Goodman who gives his best performance of his career as a paranoid gun-toting psycho who goes toe to toe with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (and her expressive eyes) and John Gallagher Jr. in a bunker as the "end of the world" occurs outside.  The movie is totally tense throughout and this film might actually be number one on my list if it wasn't for the ridiculous final 10 minutes.  Bonus kudos to screenwriter Damien Chazelle (who I'll mention shortly) who helped pen this film.

I'd like to pause to state that numbers 1-4 on this list are soooo close together that I almost want to rank them 1 A,B,C,D.  These four films were all very good and while I think the movie crop this year was not as solid overall as what we had in 2015, this top four sits at a next level compared to the rest of the list.  

#4 - Moonlight

While some reviewers (*cough* Omar *cough-cough*) have claimed that "nothing happens" in this movie, I completely disagree.  We see a young African American boy grow through life and watch as he tries to come to grips with his sexuality and place in the world.  Wooden and stoic Remy Danton on House of Cards is so far from where Mahershera Ali's performance as Juan lies that it's a testament to the impressive range of the actor.  Ali shows compassion and heart beneath a tough bravado of an exterior. While the narrative slightly trails off at the end, the entire film is a work of art.  Any other year, Barry Jenkins would deserve the Best Director Oscar, but unfortunately for him this is the year of Chazelle.

#3 - Hell or High Water

A modern-day Western with some Breaking Bad DNA, this bank heist yarn is spun beautifully by director David Mackenzie.  Jeff Bridges (in a well deserved Oscar-nominated role) plays the gruff and tired Sheriff Marcus Hamilton, an aging authority of the law that won't retire until he finishes the current case he's on.  Ben Foster and Chris Pine excel as brothers / bank robbers as they move all over Texas and Oklahoma in an amateur spree of crime. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan follows up Sicario with this jewel of a story that showcases family bond and Texas justice.  Mackenzie paints all of this on a brilliant rustic canvas of wide-open plains, small run-down towns and farmland.

#2 - La La Land

Play this while reading this next paragraph:



Originally I had given this movie 4.5 JRs but I found myself thinking about it for weeks after seeing it and I've listed to the catchy soundtrack many times.  Therefore I've bumped it up to a 5 JR rating and it falls in this penultimate spot on the list.  Damien Chazelle is talented beyond his years and this film is his career masterpiece to-date.  Pulling off this large scale Hollywood musical is the best directing achievement of the year and he was fortunate enough to have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling along for the ride.  The chemistry between the two leads is effective and Stone in particular comes across as genuine and charming.  Yes, this is another movie about Hollywood that the Academy is going to eat up later this month, but it simply is an extremely entertaining well made movie that plays against a lot of the cookie-cutter films we see churned out of Hollywood each year.  Chazelle uses choreography and color as tools to help assist with his storytelling and he isn't afraid to give us an unconventional ending.  Big props to Justin Hurwitz for crafting the movie score of the year, which is currently running through my head as I write this assessment.  Bum-ba-bum-ba-buh-ba-da-DA-dah....

#1 - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


I never thought that the spin-off Star Wars film scheduled for release in 2016 would (A) be better than The Force Awakens and (B) come across as such an epic war film.  Rogue One has some decent performances led by Ben Mendelsohn, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, but this film is certainly not an acting showpiece.  What powers Rogue One to the top of the list is sheer spectacle of Gareth Edwards' vision of battle in the Star Wars universe.  The epic clash at Scarif that spans the final third of the film is simply the truest example of why we go to the movies.  Seeing it for the first time on the big screen my mouth was wide open in amazement.  This was the battle I had envisioned as a kid when I was playing with my Star Wars action figures.  Edwards took the DNA of George Lucas and executed it perfectly on a grand scale.  Yes, the movie is slow at times and some plot points needed more depth, but I was able to get past all of that and revel in the spectacle of a supremely entertaining Star Wars movie.  What sets this apart from every other film I saw is the care taken with tying this film directly to the events at the beginning of Episode IV.  The CGI insertion of the late Carrie Fisher was a nice finishing touch on a thrill ride of a movie.  The force is very strong with Disney and I can't wait to see what Rian Johnson pulls off with Episode VIII at the end of this year.

There it is, that's the definitive list for 2016.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise:)  Stay tuned for the FOURTH annual ARCademy Awards with Omar Latiri over at Arts Review and Commentary.  Thanks for reading my blog over the past year and one of my New Year's Resolutions is to get back to more full reviews and less mini-reviews.

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