2016 Strikes… a Chord
“2016 strikes again!” Whether it was the rash of jarring celebrity deaths, the disquieting state of global affairs, or the most gawd-awful presidents election in modern memory, 2016 proved to be the difficult “dumpster fire” it was quickly being branded as. But silver linings being what they are, (chincy, cheap, cellophane – yeah sure, I’ll take it anyway) we’ve seen the early cultural fruits of dark times, as well as some worthy holdover remnants of any previous collective moods. Yes, as they say, art reflects life, but it also reflects our dreams – which stem from and break from reality. This year’s batch of cinematic offerings proved to be a worthwhile assortment for the most part, scoring wins with many a film about loss, the past, and battles both physical and social. This is my rundown of my ten favorite 2016 U.S. theatrical releases, with runners-up, and a few to avoid. Arriving at number one was a particularly difficult call, as I had a four-way gridlock for weeks. But once my top pick became clear, it was apparent that it was the right choice. Something to sing about, indeed:
1. La La Land
“They worship everything and value nothing.” So says Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian in regard to the title town of the film he’s in. A musical need not be subtle, as long as it has plenty of heart and some good songs. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s ambitious follow-up to his surprise 2014 entry Whiplash has enough of both to spare. La La Land functions both as a cozy CinemaScope throwback and a contemporary lament on the increasing impermanence of once-savored mass art forms, namely jazz and cinema. Whatever one’s fondness level for those going in, it will have increased on the way out. Gosling and Stone sing and dance their way through a bedazzling primary colored dream of Los Angeles, yet their relationship, with its vast ups and downs, is never anything less than relatable. Like it’s characters, La La Land is not at all perfect. But it’s an infectious ear worm of a film, something lovingly more than escapism, that improves upon subsequent viewings, perhaps proving the sentiment that it’s the movie we need in our own less musical place and time. It dances expertly on that line of being just enough of both escapism and recognizable reality about the essential value and cost of our dreams.
On the surface, director David Mackenzie’s latest film is a taut crime story about a pair of brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) hopscotching from one dead, tumbleweed Texas town to the next robbing local banks out of desperation, and the seasoned rangers who pursue them (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). But beneath that entirely satisfying cat and mouse layer, there’s a vibe and theme that’s more of the moment than we even realized when the film opened in August. Guns, money, history, justice, and the fragility and even randomness of the American Dream flit in and around this completely absorbing Texas tale. Although enjoyable, Hell or High Water refuses to give any easy answers. It is the type of story where any survivors must carry the burden of it all to the grave.
In stark defiance of ever being the kind of by-the-numbers bio-drama one would expect, Chilean political auteur Pablo Larrain (2012’s No) turns a corner in his accomplished career, landing not just in America for his first English speaking film, but in the White House itself. Natalie Portman delivers a searing career best performance as widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as she struggles through the ensuing days of her husband’s assassination in Dallas. Through its bold, nonlinear structure, Jackie reels in the title character’s shock and her subsequent staunch championing of her husband’s legacy as well as the object value of the White House itself. In an election year as unprecedented as 2016’s was, Jackie almost speaks a different language. But it is a beautiful message as engaging cinematic story, well worth absorbing.
More than just a well-oiled adventure yarn, Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man, Elf) ace adaptation/conglomeration of Disney’s previous animated version and Rudyard Kipling’s book itself is a stunning work to behold. Having only seen it at home in 2D, as opposed to the immersive 3D hugeness this spectacle was intended for, I can nonetheless confidently state that this may be the film that fulfills the long-brewing promise of CGI technology in movies. Not since the animatronics of Babe have talking animals been so compelling. But beyond that, The Jungle Book is an immersive nostalgia trip that deals with questions of belonging, responsibility, identity, and intolerance. And it’s never not fun.
Indicative of China’s current unstable cultural milieu, filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s (2013’s A Touch of Sin) intimate generations-spanning drama is also deceptively epic metaphor. What starts as a rigid love triangle between an effervescent young woman (Zhao Tao), a well-meaning miner (Liang Jin Dong) and a wealthy capitalist (Zhang Yi) refuses to be contained by conventional cinematic parameters. Time periods, spoken languages, aspect ratios and continental settings all shift fluidly yet organically as the story unfolds. Like life, what appears direct, logical and perhaps predictable turns out to be anything but. Which is precisely, ironically, why Mountains May Depart is all the more believable. In a film as deeply rooted in unexplained Chinese nationalism as this one is, it’s a brilliant wonder that its core humanity is never inaccessible. These are often troubled, sometimes confused lives of ordinary, extraordinary people.
With the late-1970s period piece 20th Century Women, writer-director Mike Mills has delivered one of the great late surprises of the 2016 movie year. The film may not always be comfortable, but that, along with memorable performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and others, are what makes this coming of age semi-autobiographical piece so worthy. Its careful quotations of other books, songs, and movies, inform the lifestyles of all the characters, some transient yet not going anywhere. A beautiful tale of an aging staunch mother struggling, sometimes quite creatively, to raise her teenage son, someone she “knows less every day”.
Embracing the tenets of suicide-mission combat films of years ago, the latest Star Wars film introduces a diverse band of Rebels who set out to steal the plans for the original Death Star so that Luke Skywalker may blow it up later. In true war movie tradition, the characters maybe a bit one-note, but Rogue One nonetheless has got it where it counts: The battle scenes, when they finally do roll around, are spectacular. Several cameos by past characters are impressive, most impressive. And the tactile quality of the film never feels like anything less than returning home again. Don’t expect it to mesh perfectly with the stylistic template of all previous entires, but that’s the point: This is the stand-alone debut; the rogue one. And a welcome first of many.
Writer/director Whit Stillman’s (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) trademark wit and verve melds as perfectly as one would hope with that of Jane Austen for this nearly flawless and funny adaptation of the author’s early novella “Lady Susan”. Reuniting with the filmmaker is Kate Beckinsale, a dressed-to-the-nines woman with a matrimonial scheme if there ever was one. Don’t let the Downton Abbey-esque attire, setting, and language fool you, this is a charmer full of big laughs and unforgettable characters. For instance, Tom Bennett is a hilarious wonder in the role of the dim James Martin. In her ZekeFilm review, Sharon Autenrieth stated of him, “never has there been a stupider character in the Austenverse.” I’d go one further, and say that to my knowledge, there’s never been a stupider character in such a “properly mannered” film such as this.
Mel Gibson directs the harrowing true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) pacifist U.S. Army medic with reverent bravura. The battle scenes are a dense soundscape of blasts and death, one of the year’s most nail-biting achievements. Yet, the gore-filled horror and heroics of the war are merely the last third of the story. The first two thirds effectively set the stage as a rightly old fashioned story of family, love, and an increasingly distant patriotism of yore. It’s informed by Doss’ faith-fueled convictions to both serve his country on the battlefields of WWII, but not to carry a weapon.
10. I Am Not Your Negro
Samuel L. Jackson completely sets aside the bombast he’s known for in exchange for a quiet yet haunting narration to Raoul Peck’s historical essay documentary on writer James Baldwin. The late Baldwin, whose unpublished manuscripts are read by Jackson as the film’s connective tissue, was an African-American intellectual who didn’t fit into many socially ascribed boxes of his time (fifty-plus years ago) or ours. Yet, when his voice, his words, and even his vintage interview footage speaks of race in America, it couldn’t be more contemporary. I Am Not Your Negro is an expertly assembled work of personal passion, essential history, and compelling personality.
Rounding Out the Top Twenty:
11. Neon Bull
13. Sing Street
14. The Witch
15. The Nice Guys
18. Finding Dory