A Big Year for Small Stories

zf_best_films_of_2016_web_squareI saw 63 movies released in the U.S. in 2016, and it wasn’t the blockbusters that won me over.  Granted, there were some I missed (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad) and some I saw and enjoyed (Captain America:  Civil War, Doctor Strange, Rogue One) – but the movies that I most appreciated this past year tended to be smaller, more personal stories.  Not stories about great battles or supeheroes, but the schemes and dreams of life sized people, people I feel I might know, or have known.  Even my favorite movie of the year, for all it’s scale and style, is really a classic boy meets girl story.  As the events in the world around us seem to escalate into something stranger than fiction (and sometimes more alarming than the latest  horror release), I celebrate films that remember that our little stories – of growing up up and growing old, of trying to get by or raise our children or find meaning in our jobs.  Those universal but unique stories are as worthy of our attention as any clash of titans, trading barbs and super powers.  Perhaps, in fact, those stories about ordinary people matter more, if they  help to connect us viewers to other ordinary people.

So here they are, my Top 10 for 2016, plus runners up, plus a few stinkers that bottomed out my list.

1. La La Landla-la-land3

The obvious response to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is, “They don’t make movies like this anymore.”  La La Land is so good, though, it leaves you wondering why.  Why did we feel the need to deconstruct film musicals?  Why have we so thoroughly embraced cynicism?  Why can’t we have movies like this more often?  Yes, La La Land is unapologetically old fashioned in it’s loving recreation of classical musical themes and elements, but it’s also undeniably warm, funny, lovable, and visually stunning.  Emma Stone is as fresh and lovely as ever, and when she gets her real moment to shine vocally (“The Fools Who Dream”) it’s gorgeous and moving.  As for Ryan Gosling, well, singing may not be his super power, but he makes up for it with self deprecating charm.  La La Land was the last movie I saw in 2016, and it was a joyful surprise.


2.  20th Century Women20th-century-women

Writer/director Mike Mills based his 2010 film Beginners on his father’s life.  Now, in 20th Century Women, he’s paid tribute to his colorful, strong willed mother.  Annette Bening is marvelous as a 50-something women trying to raise a teenage son on her own in late 70’s California.  Well, Dorothea isn’t exactly on her own, since she and her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) share their rambling, always-being-renovated house with a blue color free spirit (Billy Crudup), a punk rock loving photographer (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend (Elle Fanning) who might as well live there.   All of the performances as solid, but 20th Century Women rises to greatness on Bening’s work.  Dorothea has a openness that embraces everyone in her orbit, and that overshadows her sometimes clumsy or misbegotten parenting strategies.  It’s an insightful depiction of motherhood in middle age, and it’s also very funny.  Bening’s exasperated, confused expression as her son shares his concerns about “pleasing a woman” elicited one of my biggest laughs of the year.


3.  13th

13th 1Most years my list includes a socially conscious movie that I think should be required viewing.  In 2016 that movie was 13th, Ava DuVernay’s grim examination of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and its role in carrying on the legacy of slavery.  The film features interview subjects from Newt Gingrich to Henry Louis Gates to Angela Davis.  It covers the darkness of the last 150 years of American racial history in a gut-wrenching flood of words and images.  The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that glamorized and energized the Klan, is here.  So are lynchings, Jim Crow laws, battles over desegregation, and the names and faces of the dead.  Ava DuVernay knows just how to weave together music and image, interviews and montages to create vivid picture of how we got where we are now.  Until we can really see the problem, nothing will change, and DuVernay is determined to help us see. Watch this movie.


4.  Certain Women

certain-women-2Another “small” story, Certain Women is the latest from Kelly Reichardt, a master of minimalist naturalism.  Certain Women is a triptych of interlocking stories, set in the same small Montana  town.  Laura Dern and Michelle Williams deliver fine performances in the first two stories, but the third story – about a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) trying to connect with a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) is one of the most moving pictures of longing I’ve ever seen on screen.   Gladstone stole my heart, and in a perfect world this newcomer would receive a best supporting actress nomination for Certain Women.  Reichardt deserves praise, too, not only for the performances that fill her movie but for the strong sense of place and the way a specific place – rugged, wintery Montana – shapes the people who live there.  Certain women is quiet, slow, and stunning.


5.  Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-waterMy first reaction to Hell or High Water was colored by its similarities to No Country for Old Men.  The spare West Texas landscape, the beaten down protagonist, and the aging Marshall who pursues him all seemed a bit derivative.  But Hell or High Water lingered in my mind and now stands out for its own distinct strengths.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster are both excellent as brothers who turn to crime to save the family farm – one of them more reluctantly than the other.  Jeff Bridges, as the Marshall, is a leathery cantankerous old character, and he knows it.  The story has a considerable amount of lightness and humor in its first two-thirds and is populated with memorable small performances.  The world’s toughest diner waitress, played by Margaret Bowman, stands out in particular.  An interesting side note:  Bowman also had a small part in No Country for Old Men, and in another superb crime film set in Texas:  Richard Linklater’s Bernie.


6.  Love & Friendship

love & friendship 1It’s a dream team: director Whit Stillman, master of the modern, arch social comedy, adapting a work by Jane Austen, master of the 18th century arch social comedy. And this match made in heaven does not disappoint. Love & Friendship, based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan, is (like the character of Lady Susan herself, on the hunt for a suitable husband) pretty, witty and barbed.  Stillman veterans Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny are here as Lady Susan and her best friend/co-conspirator.  After the passage of nearly 20 years, the reunion of Stillman and these actresses produces just the right blend of sweet and sour. Sevigny is as droll and deadpan as ever. Beckinsale remains strikingly beautiful, and her Lady Susan is confidently, righteously self-absorbed. It’s easy to believe that, even in midlife, she is still wrapping men around her finger.  Love & Friendship also boasts the most hilariously stupid character Jane Austen ever created – and that’s saying something.  Just listen to James Martin (Tom Bennett) wax on about the Ten Commandments, or peas.  It’s a wonder to behold.


7.  Zootopia

zootopia-best-opening2016 was a strong year for family movies.  There are four of them in my Top 20:  last year there were none!  Zootopia ranks highest of the four, for being not only funny and beautifully animated – qualities without which children would tune out – but providing a powerful and timely social commentary.  It took me a while to see Zootopia, and I didn’t quite believe it when people kept telling me how strong the message was.  The day I finally did see it was right after one of the U.S. presidential candidates had suggested special police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods.  That grim threat to equality and civil rights converged with the anti-bigotry message in Zootopia and left me weeping profusely over the film’s credits.  Still, while the message was a bit heavy, the move itself isn’t.  Zootopia utilized great vocal talents – not just the leads, Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin, but folks like Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and J.K. Simmons.  The dynamics between the characters are truly funny, and bonus:  the Shakira song “Try Everything” is one of the best movie songs of the year.


8.  The Edge of Seventeen

edge-of-seventeenI never grow too old for a good teen movie; perhaps because adolescence is such an intense time, such a concentrated dose of real life, that none of us ever truly leave it behind.  My Top 10 list includes two coming of age movies, back to back.  In The Edge of Seventeen Hailee Seinfeld plays Nadine, a high school junior who is bright and funny, but also neurotic, thin skinned, self absorbed.  Writer and first time director Kelly Fremon Craig has created a central character who will remind audiences across the age spectrum of what it feels like to be to a teenager, how hard it can be, how catastrophic the traumas of adolescence can be – and Steinfeld embodies Nadine perfectly.  The Edge of Seventeen also has a great supporting cast, especially Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s long suffering history teacher, and Kyra Sedgewick as Nadine’s mother; a lonely, volatile woman for whom adulthood is a genuine challenge.


9.  Sing Street

FERDIA WALSH-PEELO and MARK MCKENNA star in "SING STREET." (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

And here’s my other pick for a great movie about a teen, which definitely appealed to more than just teens.  Sing Street is writer/director John Carney’s third film with music at its center (after Once and Begin Again).  Sing Street is about the very unglamorous birth of a band in Dublin, in the mid-80s.  Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a baby faced high schooler who starts a band to impress a girl, and then finds that music has other gifts to offer.  Given the era, Conor’s band is influenced by the likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and The Cure, but their original songs include the infectious earworm “Drive It Like You Stole It”.  Sing Street deals in some dark themes (Conor’s parents marriage is falling apart, his brother is a depressed slacker, and at school Conor faces abuse from both staff and other students), but the movie remains raucous and hopeful.   Because that’s one of the great gifts of music:  to fuel resistance and hope.


10.  The BFG

the-bfg-movie2Mark Rylance is amazing.   His Big Friendly Giant is a motion capture performance, and yet it is one of the most engaging and fully realized characters of 2016.  Steven Spielberg directed this adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s novel about a young girl who befriends a 24 foot tall giant.  The story is meandering and very silly in certain spots (the visit with the Queen of England is better seen than explained), but it all works.  Credit goes to the intricate set design and beautiful cinematography, and also to Ruby Barnhill, who is charming as the quirky, bespectacles Sophie.  But Rylance is a marvel.  His BFG has a sweetness about him that radiates right through the motion capture and out of the screen.  He also does a fabulous job of delivering Dahl’s wonderful, mangled dialogue (“Don’t gobblefunk around with words,” the BFG says, but he gobblefunks quite a lot.).   And the BFG is an almost angelic creature in his own way, carefully attending to the longings of others.  When Sophie asks why the BFG took her from her room in the orphanage his response is not gobblefunk, but pure poetry:  “Because I hears your lonely heart, in all the secret whisperings of the world.”  The BFG is lovely.

The Rest of My Top 20the_witch_a24_2-011.  The Witch

12.  Queen of Katwe

13.  The Nice Guys

14.  Denial

15.  Jackie

16.  The Jungle Book

17.  The Wave

18.  Green Room

19.  Hail, Caesar!

20.  The Lobster


The Very Worst of the Worst:

Sausage Party, Allegiant, Nuts!, Criminal, How to Be Single