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The 10 Best Movies of 2016

January 1, 2017

Say what you will about 2016, but it was a great year for movies. In an average year, excellent films like Loving, Lion and Captain Fantastic would easily make my top 10 list, but this time, they fell just short. (Still, you can click on their highlighted titles to read my reviews, as is the case through this entire story.) Here are my pics.

10. Fences. I didn’t think Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Russell Hornsby could ever deliver better performances than the ones I saw them give in August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway in 2010. But under Washington’s direction in the film version, they’re subtler, deeper and richer. They’re matched in quality by Mykelti Williamson and newcomer Jovan Adepo in the play’s two trickiest roles, as the brain-damaged brother and rebellious son of Washington’s proud but deeply flawed 1950s Pittsburgh garbageman. It’s a profound story about men and women, fathers and sons —perfectly evocative of its time yet utterly timeless.

9. Weiner. It’s one of the most unbelievably riveting political dramas I’ve ever seen, all the more so because it’s real. The Shakespearean tragedy of disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, a gifted politician laid low by his screaming narcissism, takes you so far inside the scandal, you’ll find yourself squirming, even while you can’t look away. Yet he’s the not the film’s most fascinating character — it’s Huma Abedin, his inexplicably loyal wife. As a bonus, the insight we get into her psyche sheds light on the mind of her similarly loyal-to-a-fault boss, Hillary Clinton and why she lost the election. Invaluable.

8. Paterson. Less a movie than a tone poem, and an achingly beautiful one at that. In a bit of witty symmetry, Adam Driver plays a bus driver/poet named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, N.J. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has found an ideal muse in Driver, who looks like he could be the love child of John Lurie and Richard Edson, the co-stars of the auteur’s 1984 breakout feature, Stranger Than Paradise. Haunting patterns resonate throughout the visually dazzling film, which eludes simple explanation yet lingers in your soul.

7. Moonlight. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m neither gay nor African-American, yet this culturally specific story of a gay African-American during three stages of his life resonated with me deeply. It’s a story about love and acceptance, most importantly of one’s own self, and that’s something with which anyone can identify. Cowriter-director Barry Jenkins creates a gorgeously seductive visual scheme for the picture, and among the flawless ensemble, standouts include Mahershala Ali as an admirably parental drug dealer, Janelle Monae as his kind-hearted companion, Naomie Harris as a hollow-souled addict, and Andre Holland as a cook effortlessly comfortable in his skin and sexuality. That’s a goal to which we can all aspire.

6. Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan belatedly builds on the promise of his stunning debut feature, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, with this equally adept character study. Casey Affleck smolders and simmers with a bone-deep intensity as a Massachusetts handyman who relcutantly becomes the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges, who doesn’t make a false move). And if there’s an actor more skilled at projecting open-wound vulnerability than Michelle Williams, I’ve yet to see her. Brokeback Mountain, My Week with Marilyn, Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine, this year’s Certain Women and Manchester by the Sea… Williams is quietly assembling a Meryl Streep-ish body of work.

5. Silence. Martin Scorsese’s devastating story of 17th century Jesuit missionaries who endure unspeakable torture at the hands of Japanese captors isn’t the easiest film to watch, but it continues to resonate in my mind, heart and soul. The question of faith and its limits isn’t an easy one to answer, and Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks don’t try to offer one. Your reaction to the film and its characters may vary based on your own level of religious belief. As an agnostic who leans Buddhist, it raised deeply troubling issues for me. And that’s a good thing. One thing is certain: Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are young actors of remarkable range, and their physical and spiritual commitments to their roles are nothing short of miraculous.

4. Arrival. I’m generally not a sci-fi guy, but director Denis Villenueve’s alien-contact allegory hit me on a visceral level just as powerfully as his gritty drug-war drama Sicario did last year. Both films also feature refreshingly tough and smart female protagonists—in this case, Amy Adams as a grieving linguist who finds a connection to the universe that goes beyond the stars and planets in the sky. If Arrival‘s mobius-strip denoument doesn’t leave you in tears, check your DNA: You might not be human.

3. La La Land. Pure cinematic joy. The creativity and love that went into every frame and every note of this transcendent ode/update to the classic movie musical bursts off the screen into your eyes and ears and heart. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly imperfect as the L.A. dreamers who endure romantic ups and downs but are never in anything less than perfect harmony. La La Land is a sustained smile, and desperately needed. Between this and Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle might be American cinema’s greatest source of hope to come along in decades.

2. Nocturnal Animals. One of the greatest mind-fucks I’ve ever had — right up there with David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. — designer-director Tom Ford’s exquisite thriller messes with your conception of what’s real and what’s fiction in this brilliant two-tier story. The less you know about the plot going in, the better, but suffice it to say the performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are every bit as daring and intoxicating as Ford’s fever-dream visuals.

1. Hell or High Water. I’m a sucker for a good Western, and this is a damn-near perfect one, but it’s also about something bigger: the banking crisis and how it hit the white working class. Without pandering in any way, Scotsman David Mackenzie (Starred Up) — working from an exhilaratingly streamlined script by Sicario‘s Taylor Sheridan — creates a Robin Hood story for the 21st century, one rife with moral complexity. On one side of the law-and-order ledger, Chris Pine and Ben Foster expertly balance each other out as bank-robbing brothers: Pine a bundle of ethical contradictions, Foster an incendiary loose cannon. On their trail is a wily Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges) who tosses off politically incorrect remarks that might make Donald Trump turn bright orange but feels his own brotherly bond with Native American coworker, played by Gil Birmingham (who deserves to be in this year’s best supporting actor Oscar race right alongside Foster and Bridges, not to mention Michael Shannon as a terminally ill Texas ranger in Nocturnal Animals). Satisfying on every level, Hell is 2016’s cinematic high-water mark — it’s sheer movie heaven.


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