In anticipation to the 89th Academy Awards, I have decided, unlike years prior, to post a list of my favorite films released in 2016. As it were, this is an ever-changing list which will shift and evolve as years pass, as both my tastes and my impressions on filmmaking continue to change. This is also, I presume, an incomplete list missing some highly praised bits of cinema like: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Toni Erdmann, The Salesman, 20th Century Women, Paterson, Elle, Fences, Lion, and some others. With that in mind, I’m satisfied with the collection of more than 60 films I did manage to watch that were released in the US in 2016. The list of “favorites” adds up to 15 films, which represents the amount of movies that I gave at least a 4 out of 5 rating.
At the end of the post I will also offer some thoughts on the top categories for the Oscars, regarding who should win and who will likely be taking an statuette back home.
A focused and well-crafted drama in the hands of a very capable Clint Eastwood and led by Tom Hanks at his most layman. In it he plays a reluctant and modest real-life hero whose respectability, mild mannered character and sense of responsibility shine through the big screen. A master class in efficient and simple filmmaking.
The film has something in common with most other animated classics: it goes beyond simply entertaining children. To do so, it weaves very timely social commentary into the fabric of the story. Meanwhile, it is also a piece that remains engaging and funny throughout its running time.
13. THE HANDMAIDEN
A sexy, provocative and extremely well-crafted piece of cinema by the brilliant mind of Chan-wook Park. Though the film doesn’t have the frenzied simplicity of the director’s previous effort, it offers plenty of visual richness and characterization, allowing us to buy into an unlikely story despite its complexity.
12. HIDDEN FIGURES
Perhaps the most important film on this list, Hidden Figures celebrates both the incredible contributions of African American women in the space race of the 1960s, and a small sample of what humanity can accomplish when racial pettiness is left behind.
Though the film does not offer much in terms of narrative or visual innovation; it does manage to tell its story with humor, grace and courage. The cast is particularly fabulous with the likes of Octavia Spencer, Kristen Dunst, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Kevin Costner.
11. THE NICE GUYS
One of the surprises of my list. I never expected this film to be as genuinely funny AND entertaining to watch as it was. The duo of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is one of the best male comedic pairings in years in a film that borrows a great deal from 1990s film noir LA Confidential and the 1970s classic: Chinatown.
10. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Perhaps the most stylized film on this list, Tom Ford’s second feature-length film is as ambitious as it is bold and beautifully composed. Out of the two parallel tales it tells, the one led by Jake Gyllenhaal may be one of the most engaging and nail-biting bits of filmmaking I have seen in years. Michael Shannon and Amy Adams also dazzle in their roles.
9. THE JUNGLE BOOK
The colorful and joyful reimagining of the Jungle Book is now the new standard-bearer for transforming animated features into live-action film. Though I was very familiar with the story and its rich assortment of characters, Jon Favreau’s treatment is successful in making us care about these characters and their faiths. A cinematic popcorn-friendly spectacle.
No other film on this list puts as much weight on its lead as Jackie does on Natalie Portman, and no other star on this list pulls it off with such skill and believability. Her performance is all the more remarkable because it focuses on a historic figure in American history whose embodiment takes cues from the real Jacqueline Kennedy, without it ever feeling like a simple imitation. Around Natalie, Chilean director Pablo Larrain also crafted a visually striking film that is both impactful and beautiful to look at.
The best sci-fi film of the year and yet another success for the already impressive portfolio of Denis Villeneuve. Unlike many other movies dealing with alien encounters, the approach the script takes is both new and filled with interesting narrative possibilities. Amy Adams is at the center of this powerful tale of humanity and she does phenomenally well, considering half of her interactions on camera were performed facing a green screen. The twist at the end is wholly unexpected and it gives the film a new dimension. Certainly one of the best film endings of the year.
6. LOUDER THAN BOMBS
A touching drama about parents, sons and the psychological implications of loss. Issabelle Rupert and Gabriel Byrne both offer compelling performances, but it was the young Devin Druid who stole the show as a teenager who defies expectations at every turn, managing to feel both relatable and frustrating. This is Joachim Trier’s first English film after the magnificent Oslo, August 31st. If this is a sign of things to come, Trier is an auteur we should all be looking to.
5. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
There is no other film that is as emotionally draining and difficult to watch as Manchester by the Sea. The tragedy at the center of the story is two-fold, and while one brought loved ones together again, the other, which is revealed only halfway through the story, is so overwhelming and devastating, one wishes it weren’t true. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is one of intense realism, where characters behave like regular people, and where their pain is almost as palpable as our own.
Despite the controversy surrounding Casey Affleck’s past behavior, I still think there is not, and cannot be, a more complex, demanding and accomplished male performance this year.
4. HELL OR HIGH WATER
A modern Texan Western featuring an impressive ensemble cast and an epic cat-and-mouse chase that is made all the better by an awesome script that is both funny and deeply emotional. There are plenty of highlights to this awesome thriller, but what I will remember most about it will be Chris Pine’s affecting commitment to the role, and Jeff Bridges’ sheriff whose inappropriate yet hilarious banter with his colleague gives the film its dark humor. Probably one of the best “bank robbers on the run” type films ever made.
3. THE WITCH
This is what all horror films should aspire to be. The Witch is visually striking and completely terrifying. It doesn’t resort to cheap scares or sudden jolts. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of dread, paranoia and evil that lingers on long after the end credits roll in. I also appreciate its deeply religious tone and commitment to the time period, which made it all the more effective.
It takes a truly magnificent film like the one at the top of this list to have moved Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece to the second spot. Moonlight is as unique and beautiful a character study as there has ever been put on film. At the same time, it is a film that is relevant and timely, because it fights against stereotypes, it gives a human dimension to people who we would be quick to demonize (a junkie, a drug dealer), and it explores the life of an introverted and gay black man growing up in a sometimes hostile Miami neighborhood. This is one film I will cherish forever.
1. LA LA LAND
A masterpiece that without being groundbreaking or truly original, it does everything it sets out to do impeccably. The film is beautiful, entertaining, touching, funny and romantic. The musical numbers are not a hindrance as sometimes they can become in films of the type. Instead, the music acts as a natural extension of the story, which does away with reality if only for a moment or two. Most importantly, La La Land is a full cinematic vision that was passionately helmed by the brilliant Damien Chazzelle. The chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is endlessly charming, and the moments they shared on the screen already a part of Hollywood history. La La Land is an ode to cinema and to the industry that reminds us of the power and the spectacle of the movies.
A few more thoughts on the Oscars…
Though I would be happy to see either La La Land or Moonlight nab the Academy Award for Best Picture, the other major categories may wind up disappointing me.
In the Best Actor category, it all seems poised for Denzel Washington to get his 3rd acting Academy award and join a very select group of actors. Even though I would never cast doubt on the skills of Denzel, I very much doubt his performance in Fences surpasses the complexity, range and deeply emotional tour-de-force given by Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea. I don’t think there would be even a discussion about the category had Affleck not been accused of sexual assault in the past.
In the best actress category my clear favorite is Natalie Portman but, surprisingly, Emma Stone has been getting most, if not all, of the awards so far. Though Stone’s accomplishment is not undeserved in the least, I can’t think any of the very adept women in this category (especially the great Issabelle Rupert) could have done what Natalie Portman did in Jackie. It instantly became one of my favorite performances of all time.
In the supporting actor category, I would favor multi-winner and nominee Jeff Bridges who was, yet again, at his best playing the inappropriate, stubborn and kind hearted sheriff of a small Texan town in Hell or High Water. All things considered, every single nominee is very deserving of the award (even though Dev Patel should have been nominated in the best actor category). The likely winner is probably the crowd’s favorite: Mahershala Ali.
In the supporting actress category, I would put my money behind Viola Davis even though there’s a strong argument that she should have also been nominated in the Best Actress category. Viola is always impressive in everything she does, but more suitable winners would be either Naomi Harris for Moonlight, or Michelle Williams for Manchester by the Sea.
DIRECTOR: Damien Chazzelle will win and should win.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: La La Land will and should take it, even though I wouldn’t mind seeing The Lobster pull an upset in originality alone.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Though it is dubious whether Moonlight should be in this category, I think it’s without question that the film is the front-runner and my favorite.