2016's Top Ten Films

Let’s face it: Unless you were a Cleveland Cavaliers or a Chicago Cubs fan, 2016 was a horrible year. You had the inordinate number of celebrity deaths: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, just to name a few. Then of course the institutional breakdown, uncertainty and division in Europe, the Middle East and here at home. Even on screen superheroes couldn’t get along. Why were Superman and Batman fighting again? On second thought, never mind.

Thankfully, the silver screen provided some respite from what was going on outside. As always, the year was far too backloaded, but there was quality throughout if you knew where to look for it. Overall, 2016 was not a bad film year, as is reflected by my Honorable Mention List:

The Arrival
Captain America: Civil War
Edge of Seventeen
Florence Foster Jenkins
For the Love of Spock
Hello, My Name is Doris
Hidden Figures
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
20th Century Women

My top ten films focused much more on personal struggles than epic ones. At their centers were compelling characters, some real and some fictional. It was these characters, even more than the stories, which drew me into the films. Even in these times of computer imagery, franchises, and movies that feel like little more than long video games, it is simply getting to know a person’s qualities, flaws, and struggles can bring such joy in a theater. How invigorating that there are films like these out there when we need them the most:

10. The Founder (dir. John Lee Hancock) – It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago Michael Keaton had faded from prominence. In the last three years he’s starred in two Best Picture winners, Birdman and Spotlight. His performance as Ray Kroc in The Founder is right up there with those films. Keaton plays Kroc as the ultimate hard charging can-do businessman. When Kroc meets the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who invented the fast food concept, he sees how their idea can go national. Robert Siegel’s brilliant screenplay sets up Kroc and the McDonalds as two dueling visions of American capitalism. Hancock pilots the film on a fine line, so that both Kroc’s ambitions and the McDonalds’ dreams register while the film also asks larger questions of what it takes to be successful. The normally sure handed Weinstein Company botched the film’s release, moving it from August to January. The shift was meant to make it an Oscar contender but instead it became an afterthought. The Founder deserves to be rediscovered on video.

9. Gleason (dir. Clay Tweel) – I knew the basics of the Steve Gleason story. He was a football player with the New Orleans Saints who became a fan favorite when he blocked a punt in the team’s first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. After he retired he was diagnosed with ALS. It’s a credit to the filmmakers’ skills and the courage of Gleason, his wife Michel and his friends that Gleason goes so much deeper. Tweel draws on a video diary Gleason made for his unborn child. The diary shows Gleason fighting against the disease that would gradually deprive him of the ability to walk, talk and take care of himself. You feel like you get to know Gleason and Michel. It’s not just them raising money to fight ALS. It’s them arguing, Gleason reconnecting with an estranged father, and people helping Gleason use the toilet. This unvarnished portrait makes the Gleasons even more inspirational than a hagiography would.

8. Sing Street (dir. John Carney) – With Once and Begin Again, Carney clearly has an uncanny feel for musicians and how they create. This continues with Sing Street, about a boy in 1985 Dublin who starts a band, initially just to impress a girl. Carney has some fun with 80s music archetypes, but he grounds the film with the boy trying to grow up in a decaying community and a crumbling family. Sing Street explores how music can lift people up, both those who play and those who listen. It also helps that Sing Street has a killer soundtrack, both in the vintage material and the new songs for the film. It’s funny, heartwarming, and original.

7. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan) – Lonergan takes time to tell his story, and good thing he does. The plot seems simple at first: Lee, a blue-collar guy (Casey Affleck) trying to come to grips with his brother’s death, but Lonergan peels back the onion as he gradually reveals more both about the story and the character. Through weaving in flashbacks with the present day we can see Lee’s current challenge, caring for his nephew, against the tragedy that shaped him. Lonergan has a gift for authenticity, both in his writing and his shooting the film on location in Massachusetts. He is able to find the humor even in the bleakest situations. Affleck goes to dark places with his internalized, brooding performance. Even in scenes with little dialogue, he conveys a bitter struggle underneath. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife has little screen time but delivers powerfully in a scene where she and Lee try to come to terms with how they hurt each other. This was Lonergan’s first film since 2005, and I hope we do not have to wait another 11 years for his next one.

6. Newtown (dir. Kim A. Snyder) – Even more so than with Gleason, this appeared to be a story we all knew. Who was not familiar with the tragic killing of 20 first-graders and six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School? Then again the media coverage, as it often does, focused on the perpetrator rather than the victims. Snyder spends time with the Sandy Hook families, both those who lost children and those who did not. She lets these families tell their own stories, so you get a glimpse of their lives before, during and after the shootings. Yes, gun control is addressed, but that’s not the main point. Rather, you understand how people can live with, and try to make sense out of, a horrific act long after the news crews have gone away. It’s Snyder’s restraint, and faith in her subjects that give the film its staying power.

5. A Man Called Ove (dir. Hannes Holm) – We have seen the “grumpy old man” many times in movies, but rarely with the care and precision of this Swedish film. Holm, who wrote the screenplay based on Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel, deftly weaves back-and forth between flashbacks showing how Ove became the man he did and present day, showing him struggling with changing times and his wife’s death. Filip Berg and Rolf Lassgård fit seamlessly together as the younger and older versions of Ove. Both are convincing as stoic hardworking men slowly coming out of their shells, the younger man with the love of his life and the older one with a Persian immigrant who becomes a surrogate daughter. The film has a similar “No man is an island” message as many Hollywood films, but uses it with such grace that it feels genuine. The emotions, especially at the end, are earned, not forced.

4. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie) – Many have called Hell or High Water a modern day Western, but the film also hearkens back to 30s crime films or Bonnie & Clyde, in that the tale of bank robberies has a vibrant social commentary. However, the film never mythologizes Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), the outlaws, or the sheriff chasing them (Jeff Bridges). All of them see themselves as just doing a job, in their own way. Mackenzie fills the screen with shots of bankrupt businesses and rotting infrastructure. He illustrates how the Howard brothers may be the ones committing crimes, but they are only two of many that feel left behind. Pine shows new depth, while Foster always excels as the live wire. Writer Taylor Sheridan spent most of his career as an actor, but with Hell or High Water following his underrated Sicario, I hope there are many more screenplays in his future.

3. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins) – Moonlight is also a social commentary, albeit in a much different way than Hell or High Water. More than that, the film is a beautiful, lyrical story of a boy growing up, in the vein of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. But instead of following one actor, Moonlight uses three (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) to play our hero as a boy, teenager, and young man. They all somehow give distinct performances while still feeling connected to each other. Jenkins surrounds them with a stellar supporting cast, including Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris, who is heartbreaking as the boy’s drug addicted mother. The story, adapted by Jenkins from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, subtly makes points about how influences and choices from long ago echo years later. Jenkins evokes so much from silences and by keeping the camera on the faces of his actors. Moonlight is only Jenkins’s second full-length feature, but with his talent he should be one of America’s top directors for years to come.

2. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle) – It’s so easy to fall in love with the exuberance, the color, and the music of La La Land. But underneath the joyousness there’s a layer of melancholy. The film asks a basic human question: Follow your love or follow your dreams. Either way there’s going to be that “What if?” that the film vividly depicts at the end. Chazelle had his team brilliantly choreograph and stage the musical numbers. He uses the songs as a way to tell the story and explore who Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are. Stone and Gosling, in their third film together, have undeniable chemistry. As has been well documented, La La Land is a tribute to the great musicals of the 40s and 50s, but it feels fresh and new.

1. Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols) –With both Midnight Special and Loving in 2016, Nichols has firmly established himself as one of America’s most talented and original filmmakers. Midnight Special is one of the smartest science fiction films in years. The finest sci-fi films and writing use the genre to explore human truths, and for Nichols here it is fatherhood, love and sacrifice. He grounds Midnight Special in the real world, using special effects very sparingly. This intensifies the impact when the film does incorporate the supernatural. Once again, Nichols collaborates with Michael Shannon, and they seem to bring out the best in each other. Shannon dials back his trademark intensity ever so slightly, playing more of a strong, silent type. He also shows a vulnerability that makes his character work. Nichols trusts the audience to figure out what is going on and who these characters are without having to spoon-feed it. He works up to an ending that’s somehow both heartbreaking and uplifting. We need more films with the intelligence, artistry, and craft that fill every frame of Midnight Special.

Adam Spector
March 1, 2017

Contact us: Membership
For members only: E-Mailing List Ushers Website All Else

1 1