Casting my nomination ballot this week for the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle not only helped me hone in on my choices for each of awards categories, it helped me decide on my own “Top 10 Films of 2016” list as well. (Thanks, CIFCC!) This past year turned out to be a rather good one at movie theaters in Chicago and I had no difficulty arriving at ten films deemed excellent. In fact, I probably could have offered up another 5-10 closely on the heels of those selections.
Some of those that came close but didn’t make my list include FENCES, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ELLE, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, DOCTOR STRANGE, ZOOTOPIA, KUBO & THE TWO STRINGS, 13TH, SING STREET, HELL OR HIGH WATER, MA MA, and THE WITCH. So, what did make my Top 10? Without any further ado, here are the ones that rocked my 2016 movie-going world.
LA LA LAND
There are films that move you, films that make you think, and films that utterly “Wow” you. This is one of those rare movies that does all three. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s musical is very modern, yet it has an affinity for Hollywood history like few others, referencing everything from FUNNY FACE to THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. It pulses with energy, from the lush and witty songs to the exuberant dancing to the colorful and nostalgic production design. Still, all the details in the world don’t matter if you don’t care about the characters at the center of it all and Chazelle’s sharply observed romance between struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and headstrong musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is thoroughly involving. Their efforts to balance career and relationship grounds all the buoyant music and fancy footwork. Has a musical ever had its head in the clouds and its feet firmly on the ground in such a way? The bold ending is not what you’d expect, in look or denouement, but then this entire film dares at every turn. It’s an instant classic and one that I will watch again and again and again.
My second favorite film of the year, and a very close second at that, is this stunningly raw and intimate biography about Jacqueline Kennedy. Biopics often attempt to tell too much story about a famous person in a ‘cradle to grave’ sort of way, but Noah Oppenheim’s script wisely concentrates on a tight cluster of days and weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In doing so, the audience remains focused on the grief of the First Lady and her struggle to cope with such a devastating time. Directed with intense flair by Pablo Larrain and acted with ferocious truth by Natalie Portman, we feel every breath of Jackie’s waking nightmare. It was a mourning process she had to endure, and she knew that the country did too, despite the best efforts of the new administration to move on. (Any relation to the current transition malarkey at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t intentional, but wholly relevant nonetheless.) There have been many Jackie’s put on the big and small screen before, but none have ever been as impactful and as searing as this one.
This film is one of the best adaptations of a novel to be put onscreen in years and no one bothered to see it. Why? Is Philip Roth’s coming-of-age story set in 1951 too yesteryear for today’s audiences to deem it relatable? Was the film’s lack of stars a deterrent? The answer may be in its July 29 release. The summer movie season is a time of frivolity more than gravity, so INDIGNATION likely got lost amidst the ghostbusters and those needing wedding dates. What a shame, because director/screenwriter James Schamus’ brilliant adaptation of Roth’s tale about an earnest Jewish boy struggling with authority, religious faith, and female sexuality during his first year of college is a stunning work. Adroitly acted by Logan Lerman, with sterling support from the luminous Sarah Gadon and the tightly wound Tracy Letts, this was one of the year’s best films. And its failure to gain any awards show traction this winter is as tragic as the story itself.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Kenneth Lonergan’s script may be the very best original screenplay this year, with its subtle and clever twists in the telling of the tragedy of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). He’s a lonely and sullen handyman who’s forced to upend his simple life and look after his nephew when the boy’s father unexpectedly dies. Flashbacks weave slyly in and out of the first half of the movie showing Lee to formerly be a loving and gregarious sort. So, what happened to turn him into such a haunted soul? The reveal is an emotional punch to the solar plexus. Lonergan directs his shrewd story with the utmost care, never rushing a plot point, and guiding his ensemble cast with sensitivity throughout. That cast, including Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, C.J. Wilson, and Matthew Broderick all shine in a family drama that can easily stand with the likes of Best Picture winners like ORDINARY PEOPLE and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.
This film might be the “little engine” that could in 2016. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, his small indie was shot for just $5 million and it’s critical and box office success has established it as one of the Oscar frontrunners this year. It’s a delicate and deft character study of Chiron, an impoverished African-American struggling with his identity. The story is told in three acts with three different actors playing the part (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). Each of them gives an indelible performance as Chiron grows and discovers just who he is and where he might fit in the world. This courageous story, about homosexuality in the inner city, is one of the most heartfelt and inspiring in many a year. Marhershala Ali, as a sensitive drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron, and Naomie Harris, scary good as his mercurial crackhead mom, are both figuring strongly in this year’s awards season, as well they should be. The same is true of this stellar film.
Tired of all the superhero movies clogging the Cineplex these days? DEADPOOL was the antidote to the overly flip Avengers and the inanely stoic Superman movies from Zack Snyder. Who knew that a dirty, cynical and satirical masked marvel would head up the best action film of the year, along with the best comedy? Ryan Reynolds apparently did. The movie star lobbied for years to make this vision of Wade Wilson and his alter ego take flight and it paid off spectacularly. From the opening credits showcasing a suspended animation car wreck to the genuinely sexy banter between Reynolds and his saucy leading lady Morena Baccarin, this film was a howl. And Reynolds gives a vivid and hysterical comedic performance, even though his face is covered for at least half the movie. Who knows what will happen with the inevitable sequels, but this origins story is one of the best in the entire comic book pages to screen oeuvre, and it will only grow in stature throughout the coming years.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Kelly Fremon Craig’s first feature, which she also wrote, is a knowing teen comedy about Nadine, an immature girl who can’t control her panic, lust or mouth. As the girl closes in on adulthood, she’s still swirling in the vortex of teen angst and immaturity. And when her BFF falls for her hunky brother, her fragile world spins out of control. A character like this, constantly complaining and hurling insults at everyone, could have kept the audience at arms’ length, but Hailee Steinfeld makes Nadine vulnerable and lovable. The breakout star of the Coen Brothers’ remake of TRUE GRIT back in 2010 shines even more. She is a truly inspired comic talent, spitting out cutting quips and bantering back and forth with a droll Woody Harrelson as her world-weary teacher. Every line she utters sounds like it just popped into her head! Nadine is a lonely girl who is desperate to matter, and her need to be loved makes this teen comedy one relatable to everyone. For my money, it’s the best coming-of-age comedy since MEAN GIRLS a decade ago.
The arrival of this serious-minded science fiction stunner from director Denis Villeneuve could not have been more timely. Released the weekend after our national election, its message about proper communication employed to save our planet from alien interlopers seemed to be a direct commentary on an election that was marred by a preponderance of awful messaging, secret emails, WikiLeaks, and snarky 140-character Tweets. Amy Adams played a sensitive linguist tasked with helping the US government decipher the communications coming from the visitors hovering over our planet in their ominous mile-high Pringle-shaped spaceships. Are they here to be our friends? Or are they certain foes, intent on conquering us one and all? Words are the weapons in this story and Adams’ professor is the true warrior in the field, even amongst an army of men surrounding her. She cracks the case when she discovers that all 12 ships have something to say, and need to be strung together as one message. Plus, that message is a wholly profound truth about time that will leave you thinking about it for days. There were few better or more thrilling ways to spend two hours in a theater all year.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Did you think Ang Lee’s take on SENSE & SENSIBILITY and Joe Wright’s version of PRICE & PREJUDICE were sterling interpretations of Jane Austen? Well, get a load of Whit Stillman’s superb telling of her lesser known comedy of manners called LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Stillman has always loved making films about the class system, and the silliness of status seeking, but here he topped himself. Kate Beckinsale gave one of the year’s best comedic performance for her droll portrayal of Lady Susan, a widow in the late eighteenth century trying to secure her future in patriarchal England. Clad in black, she is a darkly comic villainess, getting everyone to bend to her will while subtly challenging the time's archaic caste system. Susan’s approach is truly feminist here, ridiculing the men who would keep women down. At the end, her shrewdness wins the day and a secure future. And she does so with none of the conned even realizing they’ve been had. Bravo to her and the year’s wittiest film.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
The TV miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON was a terrific show, but this 7.5-hour documentary proved that there was still a whole lot more to cover regarding “The Trial of the Century.” After all, that case was about so much more than just the fall from grace of the African-American football legend O.J. Simpson, tried for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, both Caucasian. It's a clear-eyed look at racism in America, particularly that which was evident within Los Angeles for 75 years leading up to that powder keg of a court case. Every second of this unusually lengthy doc is utterly fascinating, not one moment wasted. It studiously examines all the details of the case, the prejudices of the players, and the craziness that went on inside the trial that helped hold America captivate for well over two years on television. At the end of it all, Simpson managed to walk away, declared “not guilty” by an overly sympathetic, mostly black jury. Yet there were no real victories to be found. Soon after, Simpson was found liable in the civil suit. He was ostracized as a pariah by most of the nation. And his continuing hubris ran afoul of the law again landed him in jail for life. And most of the other players involved lived with nagging regrets, embarrassment, and even shame. All of this is told here in one big, sprawling horror show. It's an awful portrait of the entitlement of celebrity, as well as an ugly selfie of a nation that isn’t nearly as progressive as we thought we were.
Those are my choices. What are yours? We’ll have to wait and see if Oscar agrees with my choices or yours come February. But make no mistake, 2016 was a year with a lot of great films and if any of those on my list make it into the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist, I will be one happy camper, critic and fan.