While 2016 may not have been as good a year as the previous two, it nevertheless had more than its share of magical films. Magic and mystery are two key elements of this year’s films, which include a surprising number of Hollywood productions, though a solid majority are indie films. Here are some other observations to note:
- Missing from the list are two of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year: Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, both of which I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival. These are excellent films, deserving most of their acclaim, but their flaws were of the kind that prevented me from being as engaged with the story as I should have been. While Moonlight is missing, two other African-American films are in my top seven.
- Two of my favourite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve and Jeff Nichols, have their third straight films in my top ten.
- Three of my top fifteen films took place in the 1950’s and two were set in 1951.
- As noted below, two of my top six films reminded me (a lot!) of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
- Films that just missed my list include A Monster Calls, Miss Sloane and Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King.
- I have not had the opportunity to watch Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson, which may very well have made my list.
- Three of my four favourite films of the year feature a female protagonist. While I saw a number of films in 2016 directed by women, none of them made my list. Men still direct over 93% of all films made and the overwhelming majority of films still have male protagonists (Star Wars is doing its best to change this, but not, in my opinion, in the most helpful way).
As I continue to watch more than 90 new films a year, I will continue to include fifteen films in my list (besides, each of these films received four stars from me). Here’s the list, counting down from fifteen:
15. A Man Called Ove - Hannes Holm’s sad tragic film about a cantankerous 59-year-old widower who tries repeatedly to take his own life so he can join his recently-deceased wife, is the funniest film I watched this year. Rolf Lassgård is perfect as Ove and this moving Swedish gem has a lot to say about love, friendship and community.
14. Creative Control - Benjamin Dickinson’s low-budget indie sci-fi flick (and quirky cautionary tale), filmed gorgeously in B&W, is full of flaws, but its insightful commentary on our drug-filled, work-obsessed, smartphone/Facebook culture and the dangers presented by our technological advances is so timely and so compellingly-told that I forgive its many flaws.
13. Snowden - Oliver Stone’s biopic about Edward Snowden and Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the NSA (and the CIA) is the most underrated film of the year (in my opinion). This is no doubt connected to the fact that Stone had to find financing in Germany (and had to film in Germany). Joseph-Gordon Levitt is outstanding as Snowden, one of the great heroes of our time, and I have little respect for critics who complain about Snowden’s one-sided presentation of the facts (there is NO other side to present).
12. Anomalisa - Charlie Kaufman makes some of the most quirky, unique and melancholy films ever made and this brilliant animated film is no exception. David Thewlis provides the voice for Michael Stone, the film’s protagonist, a personal-communication expert who has flown from L.A. to Cincinnati to give a talk and experiences a major existential crisis instead. There’s enough thought-provoking material in Anomalisa to fill five hours of discussion! Great stuff.
11. Indignation - This old-fashioned slow-moving period film from James Schamus, about a college student in Ohio in 1951, is simply my kind of film, full of intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue, terrific understated performances (Logan Lerman stars) and quiet humour. Indignation had my second-favourite scene of the year and it deserved more attention.
10. Captain Fantastic - Captain Fantastic struggles with some major credibility issues, but Matt Ross’s irresistible tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) trying to raise his children in the woods is so deliciously counter-cultural, has such wonderfully-drawn characters, and has such a funny, thoughtful and humane screenplay, that I enjoyed every minute of it.
9. Hail, Caesar! - Joel and Ethan Coen have created another winner. This time, it’s a whacky wonderful satire about the golden days of the Hollywood studio system (1951), featuring an incredible array of delightful performances in a somewhat chaotic collection of scenes. I had a grin on my face from beginning to end. Great fun!
8. Pete’s Dragon - Who would have thought a live-action remake of a mediocre Disney animated film from the 70’s could become one of the most moving and inspiring films of the year? Not me, but Pete’s Dragon (written and directed by David Lowery) is pure movie magic, a slow, poetic family film with my favourite scene of the year (featuring Robert Redford).
7. Fences - Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play from 1983, Denzel Washington’s Fences tells the poignant story of an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who’s trying to make sense of his life. Fences had the best ensemble acting of the year, with standout performances from Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
6. Midnight Special - An underrated sci-fi flick inspired by one of my all-time favourite films (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is a tense, slow-moving mystery (as in ‘mysterious’, not a ‘whodunit’). Michael Shannon is brilliant as a father full of doubts and anxieties who is trying to protect his extraordinary son.
5. Embrace of the Serpent - Easily the ‘best’ film I saw in 2016, only its obscure ending prevents me from placing it even higher on my list. Cio Guerra’s film about an Amazonian shaman’s encounter with two white men in 1909 and 1940 is an old-fashioned masterpiece full of wonder, mystery and magic, with stunning B&W cinematography and phenomenal performances by its indigenous non-actors.
4. Arrival - With one of the strongest, wisest and most compassionate female protagonists in the history of film (played brilliantly by Amy Adams), Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an elegant, insightful and poetic alien-encounter film, the second film on this list to remind me of Close Encounters. Complex yet simple, Arrival is about how we communicate with each other, how we make decisions and the profound love of a mother for her child.
3. La La Land - Strangely enough, given its position on my list, I believe Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an overrated film. But I’m a sucker for old-fashioned musicals (an almost forgotten genre) and I loved every minute of this magical film, so I’m overrating it as well. Emma Stone is terrific as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling). Together, they must face a fundamental question about the meaning of life: is their relationship more, or less, important than their vocational dreams?
2. Chi-Raq - Spike Lee’s quirky, outrageous, in-your-face satire about gang violence in south Chicago just blew me away. Chi-Raq is based on an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata (by Aristophanes) about what happens when women deny their partners sex until the violence stops. It also refers to the true story of a women’s peace movement in Liberia in 2003 (as seen in 2008’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell). This magical mess of a film features rhyming dialogue, a narrator (Greek chorus) played by Samuel L. Jackson, a magnificent sermon by John Cusack and stars Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata.
1. I, Daniel Blake - Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s latest film (written by Paul Laverty) is about the potential in each of us to challenge the powers-that-be and be a good neighbour to the poor and oppressed people in our communities. In this unsubtle yet unsentimental masterpiece, Dave Johns plays a 59-year-old widower who discovers that potential in the midst of his own struggles. I, Daniel Blake is one of the most humanizing films I have ever seen, which is high praise indeed.