So 2016 has come and gone, much to most people’s sincere delight. Its send-off included phrases like “good riddance” “can’t wait for you to be over” “literally the world’s worst year ever”. I mean I can understand to an extent, but I’d have to believe there were a WORSE gathering of 12 months sometime in history. Those people probably just couldn’t tweet about it. And they didn’t know that they’d have a David Bowie or a Prince to miss. But surely when Shakespeare died SOMEONE started a parchment petition to nominate 1616 as the WORST YEAR EVER. I digress, naturally. (Sorry, it’s been a while, and my writing just ain’t what it used to be) But while everyone was busy complaining about the unfairness of politics, there was some great art being made, and shown, at a cinema near you (or subscription service in your very own home). To get down to the business of what I personally liked the best, let’s start with #10. Hopefully, this list can help set up your future movie nights, during which you might utter “God, what was Marissa thinking? This is total garbage!”
10. 20th Century Women (Dir. Mike Mills) I guess I’m just a sucker for Annette Bening as a suburban mom. She never disappoints. Taking place in 1979, on the cusp of the 80s, three women Dorothea (Bening), Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Julie (Elle Fanning) attempt to navigate the world through their emotions and through the eyes of Dorothea's son, Jamie. Dorothea, a single mom in 1979, is raising her son in the suburban definition of a commune. The people that come in and out of her dilapidated California home are both the lessons and the teachers. 20th Century Women is about trying to come to grips with the semblance of equality that those years offered, but the knowledge that, ultimately, women can’t outrun our biology. I can’t say anything other than, I really responded to it. I think the performances are beautiful and pure, even if it’s a little full of crunchy granola. There’s a moment, when Abbie, receives a cervical cancer diagnosis. Her mother is with her. The doctor looks at the mother and asks if she’d taken any fertility drugs to conceive Abbie. Abbie’s mother knows, in that moment, that her choice to become a mother has put her daughter’s life in danger. Something about that moment has stuck with me, months after seeing this film. It’s played well, of course, but it also speaks to the pressure that women put on themselves to, seemingly always be everything to everyone. Whether it's as a mother, lover, student, teacher, daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife, the complex emotional life cyle of the female, or at least of the suburban white female, is captured here. It was, for me at least, a potent and poignant film.
9. The Shallows (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) “That movie about Blake Lively and a shark?!” you ask incredulously. Yes, yes that movie. It was a simple summer release, with little fanfare, and was quickly forgotten by many. It was also better than it had any right to be. To begin with, the cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning, a summer palette that’s brighter and crisper than usual and just plain gorgeous. Then there’s the clever script. It’s your standard girl v. shark movie. But Lively’s Nancy is intelligent, resourceful and lucky, in equal parts. Her back-story gives her just enough to make her believable, but the end is unafraid to literally jump the shark. That surprise isn’t so much annoying as it is hilarious and celebratory. A film that never overplays its hand, it knows just when to scare and when to say “listen, we had no budget, just take the ride with us”. It’s mostly ranked so high because I know that I’ll be able to watch this over and over for years to come.
8. Moana (Dir. Ron Clements/John Musker/Chris Williams/Don Hall) 2016 was another fantastic year for animated movies. Finding Dory, Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana were all movies with great, big, unsubtle emotions. Zootopia may have the lock on being the “message” movie (it’s great, I’m not taking away from it) but something about Moana really hit me hard in the heart. The songs are beautiful (not as catchy as the Golden Disney era, but perhaps even more moving) and the frames are gorgeous from start to finish. Carrying on the great Disney tradition of finding yourself on the journey to something else, it’s a beautiful tale of heritage, family, love, friendship and a super weird chicken. Oh and a kickass princess. And that’s nothing to be overlooked this year.
7. Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins) 2016 was about a lot of things: race, love, hate, fear, equality; all ideals on full display in Moonlight. If there was a movie that best encapsulated 2016, it MIGHT be Moonlight. The story of a young boy growing up in Miami, the love he finds unexpectedly, the problems it causes within himself, the lengths he goes to escape it, only to find it might be the only thing to save him, Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and showcases some of the best performances of the year. It’s no easy feat to capture life and all of its confusions at formative ages, but the trio of Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert all contribute to create a distinct vision of Chiron, the main character and driving force of this film. The film is rounded out by a surrounding cast of actors who know when to make the most of their Odyssey-esque characters; each one a necessary stop to Chiron finding his way home. If that isn’t enough for you, there’s the absolutely breathtaking cinematography. It’s no easy feat to infuse the neons of Miami with a deep shadowy, moodiness, but James Laxton and Jenkins create images that will stay with you long after viewing.
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards) Every single time someone bitches about a Star Wars movie making money (and in this culture, that happens A LOT) I think of all of the ways that one could go wrong. There are a million ways someone could ruin a Star Wars film, and there are plenty of people that would argue that Gareth Edwards’ stand-alone entry does (BOO HOO, NO CRAWL!) but I’ll fight for every movie fan to see this film. Set in the days just before Episode IV (Star Wars:A New Hope), Rogue One is the story of just how the plans for the Death Star got in the hands of those persistent Rebels. A story of pain, failure, fear and, ultimately, hope, there’s a lot on the line, in this film, and FOR this film, and I think Rogue One delivers at every turn. The third act is what people will still be talking about for years to come, a space battle for the ages and a final ten minutes that will have you rushing back home to watch the original trilogy all over again, with a whole new meaning. Fan service? Sure. Also, who cares?! This is Star Wars, if you’re not here for the Rebellion, as the kids say, GTFO.
5. Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larrain) Speaking of Star Wars, I’ve secretly wondered since the Prequels, “Is Natalie Portman really as good as we all wanted her to be?” Sure, she won an Academy Award for Black Swan, but I didn’t think she was the best part of that movie (in case you’re wondering, the best part of Black Swan was Darren Aronofsky). With Jackie, Natalie Portman shuts down any of her critics (including the peon that is myself). Reaching some amazing hybrid of over-the-top and incredibly fragile, Portman inhabits the former First Lady in a role that she seems truly born to play. Delicate in appearance, but with a strength that moves a nation, Portman’s Jackie is a woman on the cusp of rising from the ashes. The score of this film is otherworldly, giving a deeper meaning to its moments of grief and survival. The sequence of Mrs. Kennedy’s last night in the White House is filled with despair and beauty and is the moment that best encapsulates this entire film, a dichotomy of real-world horror and fairy-tale enchantment. There truly may never be a Camelot, but what this film does more than anything is show that Jackie wasn’t so much the queen of Camelot as she was the architect of it.
4. The Nice Guys (Dir. Shane Black) I just really, really, really love this movie. I love the costumes. I love the characters. I even really like the plot. In fact, maybe from now on, Russell Crowe should just do period pieces set in LA. Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a chemistry that snaps onscreen, in a way that’s almost reminiscent of the old Hollywood Romantic Comedies. Thinking back on it, there’s almost more Hepburn and Tracy to the crackle than Gibson and Glover, but you can take your pick really. It’s a buddy comedy in the sense that they’re two heterosexual men solving a crime. But they’re also two men who unexpectedly save each other and need each other more than they’d ever admit. A fantastic turn by Angourie Rice as Gosling’s daughter with a Nancy Drew intrepidness and a reunion of Crowe with LA Confidential co-star Kim Basinger, all combine to make this 70s-set caper flick a film that I feel confident saying will only grow in its reputation and reception.
3. La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle) Unlike a lot of people, I’ve never believed the musical was dead in Hollywood. It’s a genre they always come back to. The difference with La La Land is that, bringing back the musical usually just means an adaptation. It’s a little audacious to make an original one, but it also turns out that this is just the movie people want to see in a rough real-world climate. Unlike the way most of us feel, La La Land is bright and buoyant, hopeful, and by and large, affirming…until the last five minutes. I can’t in good conscience say that this is my favorite movie of the year. Will I watch it again and again? Sure. Will I also cry until I get a headache each time? Absolutely. I don’t think a musical is quite as much fun when it promises its audience a fairy tale and then yanks the rug out from under them, but Chazelle seems to think it lends a seriousness to the film that will make people remember it as a drama. I cannot argue against its cinematography. It is beautiful and bold and resurrects Cinemascope in a way that’s worthy. I’ll be honest, I didn’t love the music the first time, but it has grown on me and each viewing seems to lend itself to a deeper joy…again, until the end. But still, like all good dreamers out there, I love what this film stands for: a chance for musical-theater alums to find paying jobs in Hollywood.
2. Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve) Somehow the brilliancy that is this film has gotten lost in the awards season shuffle. The breadth of human experience that this film presents is, frankly, staggering. Arrival, which sold much of its audience on the genre story about the arrival of aliens on Earth, is actually the most beautiful love story of the year. Treating time and space as the shifting, incomprehensible entities they are and layering life and love, in all of their ephemeral beauty, Arrival seamlessly shifts between telling a story and doing something more. Apparently, it takes aliens to make us realize what humanity really means. The moment that Louise Banks (Amy Adams) says, essentially, that she’d make every decision in the exact same way, even knowing the outcome, is a punch in the gut even months later. Fragile, gorgeous, and so, so smart, Arrival is not a movie we deserve. It is an experience we’re lucky to have.
1. Sing Street (Dir. John Carney) It was a tough decision this year. I REALLY loved Arrival. But it’s a tough movie to watch over and over again. Sing Street offers the same emotional fulfillment about life and love but with an acceptable amount of pain, without ever falling into melodrama. It is a pop song disguised as a film and a joy to behold at every turn. Only turning sappy and cheesy at exactly the right moments, Sing Street treats the 80s the way they were but also with hints of the way people like to remember them. Using the sounds of The Cure, Hall and Oats and Duran Duran to tell the story of a boy who meets a girl, it’s a deceptively simple plot that surprises with humor and layers. Again, I can’t offer a lot more in the ways of “why” I love this movie. I just know, if you’re sitting next to someone you love and you make it to the end without feeling happy-sad, I’d like to test your midichlorians, because you're clearly channeling a force stronger than anything I could muster to keep your heart so untouched. I hope you see it, and I hope you love it. And I hope you wake up singing one of its original songs the next morning.