The best movies of 2016: Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and more
Clockwise from left: Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool; Trevante Rhodes in "Moonlight"; Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in "La La Land"; Amy Adams in "Arrival" and Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams in "Manchester by the Sea". (HANDOUT)
Yeah, yeah, best of times, worst of times. But like most years onscreen, 2016 was mainly the “meh” of times.
Disappointing superhero movies and wannabe blockbusters came and went, taking most of their bloated box office in the first weekend before word-of-mouth could do its dirty work.
But the cream shall rise and the sediment shall fall. Here’s our roundup of best of the best.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA — Kenneth Lonergan, director of You Can Count On Me, gets stupendous performances from all concerned in this affecting drama about a man coping with tragedy. Casey Affleck has to go back to his home town to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) but the past lies in wait. Expect Oscar nominations all around.
MOONLIGHT — Three actors play the central role — child, teenager, adult — in this quiet, intense drama about growing up and self-discovery. Home for Chiron is the seedy side of Miami in the 1980s, where race, poverty and orientation ensure marginalization, and life guidance comes from a benevolent drug dealer. Outstanding performances from Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland.
DEADPOOL — Comic book superheroes generally run to macho and humourless. Trust a Canadian (Ryan Reynolds) to show the world the flip side — the antihero who is blackly funny, violent, trash talking and vengeful. Kapow!
HELL OR HIGH WATER — Tense little Western concerns brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who commence bank robbing to save the family ranch. Only impediment to the plan is the wise old sheriff (Jeff Bridges) who’s on their trail. Underneath all that is incisive social commentary about the haves and the have-nots, and in a West Texas setting as bleak as the surface of the moon.
TONI ERDMANN — Peter Simonischek is the goofy dad prone to practical jokes and Sandra Huller is his serious, workaholic daughter in Maren Ade’s wonderful film about the parent-child relationship.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP— Jane Austen as interpreted by filmmaker Whit Stillman makes for a clever and delightful comedy of manners. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is going to find good marriages for herself and her daughter. Just watch her. Also with Chloe Savigny, Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS — Susan (Amy Adams) cruelly ditched her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and now he’s written a violent novel about murder and revenge — and dedicated it to her. As the novel comes alive in her imagination, art grants banal characters edge and intensity. Riveting eye candy from director Tom Ford.
FENCES — August Wilson’s award-winning play about a struggling black family in 1950s America becomes a movie with Denzel Washington (who also directs) and Viola Davis — whose performances are worth the price of admission.
20th CENTURY WOMEN — Mike Mills directs Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig in a story about growing up in America in the 1970s. Nostalgia, in a good way.
A BIGGER SPLASH — A comedy about a rock star (Tilda Swinton) her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) a manic former lover (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson) — which is all fun and games until it suddenly turns dark and ugly.
ARRIVAL — Quebec master Denis Villeneuve, who now works in Hollywood, has created a miracle in the science fiction genre. This is an inexpensive, unadorned, strangely realistic and yet utterly transcendent film about an alien “invasion” and the earthling who learns to fully embrace her own complicated life by communicating with the aliens. The wonderful Amy Adams is our human spirit-guide into this epiphany.
BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT — Under-appreciated because it is a comedy sequel, director Malcolm D. Lee’s hip and whip-smart collaboration with Ice Cube delves deeply into the social and racial upheavals in contemporary Chicago.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR — The Russo Brothers show us how to make an entertaining and thrilling Marvel superhero movie — without pretension.
THE JUNGLE BOOK — Jon Favreau’s labour of love turned the story of Mowgli into greatness through a bedazzling visual journey. Motion capture at its finest.
LION — Dev Patel’s finest performance informs this compelling true-life story of an “orphan” boy who, as a young adult raised by adoptive parents in Australia, searches for his birth mother in India through Google Earth. We are rewarded with tears of joy.
MOONLIGHT — Racial and cultural diversity issues at the Oscars will soon disappear (at least for one year) when Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed drama hits the nominations list. Based on a stage play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film charts a boy-to-man journey in three acts.
THE NICE GUYS — Shane Black’s cool, crazy and white-hot crime caper bombed at the box office with a measly $36 million in Canada and the U.S. This neo-noir thriller is an excellent reminder that box office has nothing to do with quality. Nor with star power, because Black teamed Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as fumbling private eye partners who rip open a Los Angeles conspiracy in the 1970s. See it now, any way you can.
SILENCE — Martin Scorsese offers a master class in mature filmmaking as he again tackles the nature of spirituality in a slow-paced drama about Jesuits in feudal Japan in the 1600s. As Scorsese reminded me in a recent interview, many of his other films also explore spirituality, even when he and us did not realize it at the time. Scorsese cites Raging Bull as an example, because Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta sought redemption after his boxing days. Silence, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, just does this more directly, with both elegance and brutality.
SUICIDE SQUAD — Much maligned, but not by me, David Ayer’s subversive superhero/super-villain movie remains fascinating. Jared Leto alone is worth the time and effort to see this rip-snortin’ action fantasy. His Joker even trumps Jack Nicholson’s version. Nuff said (but I still expect more abuse for my views on this one).
ZOOTOPIA — This is arguably one of the most important animations ever made. It is not just fun for kids. It is not just an artistic victory for Disney. Zootopia is prescient because it showed exactly what would happen in real-life America in 2016, with the rise of new waves of bigotry, racism, fear-mongering, polarization of views and the manipulation of media.
ARRIVAL — Maybe everybody in space isn’t waging interplanetary war. One of the smartest sci-fi movies in years is about first contact, how we talk to beings almost unimaginably different from us, what can go wrong and right. Denis Villeneuve continues to grow as a storyteller and Amy Adams gives gravitas as the linguist heroine.
LA LA LAND — If Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has an entire career making movies about music, that’s all right by me. I didn’t initially buy the idea of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing either. But damned if Chazelle doesn’t pull it off, seamlessly, realistically, touchingly and beautifully shot throughout.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA — A simple story about people, their buried tragedies, their quirks, with flashback-assisted mood shifts that ensures the story never gets bogged down in sadness. Kenneth Lonergan does a terrific job directing his own story about a prodigal uncle returning to his hometown after the death of his brother. Casey Affleck is a likely Oscar nom.
DEADPOOL — If superhero movies were horror movies, Deadpool would be Scream. Putatively part of the genre (and the Marvel Comics Universe), it’s also the most hilariously self-aware comic book-based movie ever, with a plethora of pop culture references and no-holds-barred rudeness. Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern is officially forgotten.
GREEN ROOM — Sentenced to life as an onscreen heroic icon, Patrick Stewart had plenty of malevolence bottled up for this terrifically energized little indie film about a band of punks who end up battling for their lives against rural white supremacist skinheads after a gig-gone-sour. Worth watching as much for the amiable lead, the late Anton Yelchin, as for Stewart’s tightly-controlled villainy.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! — Kind of a stoned, slacker version of Animal House. Richard Linklater’s semi-autobiographical story about a Texas high schooler’s first few days in college on a baseball scholarship meanders its way through parties, sex, philosophy and the frightening prospect of adult reality. Like much of Linklater’s work, it’s a movie that just happens, enjoyably.
HAIL, CAESAR! — Every Coen brothers movie is an acquired taste, but Joel and Ethan’s adoration of Golden Age Hollywood is on playful display in this heightened comedy about a ‘50s Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin) on the trail of a secret cabal of movie-industry Communists and a leading man (George Clooney) who’s being held for ransom.
JACKIE — The traumatized-widow-as-art. Producer Darren Aronofsky’s influence is all over this excruciatingly close-up film about Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), organizing an epic funeral and tending to her late husband’s legacy in the days after JFK’s assassination in Dallas. It’s historically fair, and a terrific performance of one woman’s almost unimaginable experience.
THE JUNGLE BOOK — A live-action version of the Disney classic — with nods to the music – that, effects-wise, couldn’t have been made in the days before Leo got mauled by that bear in The Revenant. You will believe animals can talk. And the natural beauty captured by director Jon Favreau is spectacular.
SULLY — An all-American story simply told. Following Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger’s unforgettable water-landing on the Hudson River of a jet with 155 passengers, he faced an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board that director Clint Eastwood presents as a common-man-versus-the-bureaucrats story a la Jimmy Stewart. Tom Hanks is his usual picture of earnest integrity. And somehow – through nightmares, alternative scenarios, etc. — Clint manages to show us several plane crashes for the price of one. Awesome!