Top 10 Movies of 2016

As in the case of the past few years, living abroad has limited my access to arthouse films in general (even if I’m not a particularly arthouse-y person). For the record, the final cuts were Midnight Special and Pete’s Dragon.

1. Arrival

Arrival is a character study at its core. It is a slow burn of a character study that manages to be cerebral and emotional and gripping from minute one. There’s a twist that reveals itself in the climactic last scenes, but it doesn’t play out as such. Instead, this turn comes naturally – a completed puzzle that you weren’t aware was even being put together. It represents a triumphant culmination of the narrative, one with Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as its steady heart and soul. And because of her, Arrival is more deeply affecting than could have been anticipated.

Denis Villeneuve utilizes all his tools to keep Adams’ performance as the anchor. We don’t see the spacecraft until Louise does, for instance. We stay with her, with a literal over-the-shoulder perspective, as she deals with sensory overload in act one. As the story develops, the movie remains effectively patient – with a labor-intensive second act in which the foundation for communication with the aliens is built, brick by brick. Meanwhile, gentle voiceovers and distinct visuals accentuate the burden of her memories. As Louise learns more, we do too – about the aliens, her purpose, and eventually, her purpose. Adams is extraordinary. Arrival is beautiful. It is my favorite movie of the year.

2. Hell or High Water

There’s purpose behind Hell or High Water. Messages about economic injustice, corporate greed, treatment of veterans. But the movie doesn’t shout about the swaths of people left behind. Instead, its themes come as part of the scenery: oil wells on the side of the road, highway billboards about debt relief, towns that have seen better days. It begins in the midst of the action: a bank robbery by brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and the volatile Tanner (Ben Foster). And as their backstory is filled in, as the bigger messages become apparent, it is their relationship and their motivations that continues to center the movie.

Running parallel to the story of the brothers is that of their pursuers, two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). What could have been a cliche – with Bridges as a character nearing retirement – instead adds poignancy and, surprisingly, much levity to the proceedings. The characters on both sides of the manhunt are rich, memorable, grounded, and the confidence of the script allows the story to breathe on its way to an inevitable showdown. Even the denouement is somehow as tense and absorbing. Hell or High Water is the quintessential modern western. It feels both timely and timeless.

3. La La Land

After La La Land’s rousing opening number (“Another Day of Sun”), I braced myself for something unabashedly wide-eyed and joyous, akin to The Muppet Movie (“Life’s a Happy Song”). Instead, it moves to deconstruct the idealistic vision of Hollywood set forth in that sequence. The movie lays bare the idea of the pursuit of stardom, kicks it around some – but does this without mockery or hostility. In fact, the ultimate fate of the characters is in many ways a deference to that convention. But by daring to walk the tightrope, La La Land ends up in a very different place from where it starts. In the process, it adds depth both to its world and to the central romance that is a microcosm of that world.

Certainly, La La Land stands as another of Hollywood’s love letters to itself. Sharing the wonder of Hugo and the playfulness of The Artist, to name some recent entries, it comes off at times as both sweet and sweetly naive. But despite its reverence for the industry, and its romanticism for the city, it nurtures a far more melancholy tone than those examples. The truly happy ending for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (a sensational Emma Stone) is not necessarily the one that they get, the one in which their professional dreams have come true. Instead, they – and we – are left to wonder whether the achievement of the very ambitions that connected them was worth what it cost. I kind of loved that.

4. Eye in the Sky

An innocent child wanders inside the blast zone of an imminent drone strike on terrorists. The scenario seems cheap. It is cheap. But what elevates Eye in the Sky is not the Sophie’s choice itself, but the surrounding discussion along its various strands. A Cabinet Office Briefing Room debates how much collateral damage could be sold to the British public. A British Army Colonel (Helen Mirren) plays with simulations to alter the blast radius, seeking a degree of plausible deniability. An American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) finds loopholes in the chain of command in order to delay taking the unimaginable action. The situation is the backdrop. The substance is the politics.

Eye in the Sky is an incredibly tense, smart, thought-provoking thriller that confronts head on the moral grayness of modern warfare. It is one of the best-written war movies to come along in a while, with its boardroom discussions effectively interspersed with scenes on the ground – centered on an undercover agent (Barkhad Abdi) – that help to ramp up the tension of the central scenario in key moments. The performances, including one of the last from Alan Rickman, are all-around fantastic. And the script pulls no punches with an ending that reinforces the impossible choices that those involved in war are forced to confront.

5. Don’t Think Twice

At a certain age, we begin to assess our lives relative to those of others, particularly to those of friends. They experience a milestone, personal or professional, and we can’t help but take a step back and consider our own achievements, our own progress and shortcomings. This natural tendency is vividly captured in Don’t Think Twice, which centers on an improv troupe in which one of its members (Keegan-Michael Key) ascends to a Saturday Night Live-esque spotlight. And for all the unique specifics of the situation – with the depicted social circle chasing the same dreams of stardom as the couple in La La Land – the movie resonates by being about friendship at its core.

As with Mike Birbiglia’s previous directorial and writing effort (Sleepwalk with Me, which made my 2012 list), Don’t Think Twice is quietly exceptional in its treatment of characters and relationships. Everyone in the troupe feels real, human and imperfect, and it is in one small moment after another – some cringe-worthy – that each confronts his or her unique mixture of aspiration and desperation, selflessness and selfishness. The dynamics of the group as a whole are particularly interesting, leading to a confrontation that exposes the inherent contradictions of a team in which every member seeks something more for himself or herself as priority.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

The first scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings, with Kubo’s mother helpless against a thunderous ocean, then Kubo telling origami stories to the village children, set the tone for the film: the sequences are captivating, full of drama and tension, while its stop-motion animation is jaw-dropping. They help to build a mythos immediately, providing a gravitas that elevates Kubo to a place of seriousness. As the movie continues, it constructs an immersive world that expertly balances multiple elements, developing its family drama and coming-of-age tale, seamlessly interweaving supernatural elements, and offering respite with big laughs (largely in the character of Beetle, with Matthew McConaughey channeling Patrick Warburton). It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s touching. As a full product, Kubo is remarkable.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

You fall in love with the characters in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s a movie that easily could have collapsed in cliches, with the rebellious child (Julian Dennison), the kind foster mother (Rima Te Wiata), her reluctant partner (Sam Neill), and the no-nonsense social worker (Rachel House). But from the very first scene, from the very first interaction, Hunt feels unique. There’s an authenticity that is not betrayed by the colorfulness of its characters or its setting. The relationships at the center of the movie never feel too precocious, too maudlin, too easy or too much. No, it’s quite perfectly well-rounded, with a ton of heart. And far more laughs than I could have imagined.

8. Weiner

There is a scene in Weiner – one that is prominently and smartly featured in the trailers – when the titular subject, disgraced former congressman and now mayoral candidate, on his way out of a Jewish bakery, hears a man call him a “scumbag.” Anthony Weiner, with just a moment’s hesitation, responds. He walks back to the doorway and gets into a verbal confrontation with that man. It’s tense. Later, after the scene has dispersed, a rabbi asks the cameraman, almost chuckling, “Why didn’t he just walk away?” And that’s what this documentary is about. A man who cannot get out of his own fucking way. It’s a fascinating movie, tragic and comedic and captivating, one that has come to take on even more layers after the recent presidential campaign because of the way it depicts his marriage with top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

9. Blood Father

Examining familiar themes – estrangement, isolation, salvation – with sharpness and nuance, Blood Father rises well above the conventions of the standard action-thriller. The performances are strong, especially with Mel Gibson playing Link as a wearied man who comes to recognize he has little to offer his daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) beyond violence upon her pursuers, with skills from a life he has long renounced. The supporting cast (William Macy, among others) enrich the film with hints of Link’s lives, new and old, liven it as Lydia’s circumstances close in around the two of them. Replete with tense confrontations and taut action sequences, Blood Father essentially out-Takens Taken.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar throws a ton out there, and so much of it sticks. It sharply satirizes the music industry and celebrity culture. It squeezes unique gags out of the well-treaded mockumentary format. It – in the tradition of The Lonely Island – contains a soundtrack filled with songs both immensely listenable and absolutely hilarious (“Equal Rights” being the standout). It utilizes a ton of non-sequiturs and one-liners and cameos to great effect. And it has several memorable comedic set pieces, including the best prolonged full frontal gag since Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Like that film, one of the overlooked comedies of the past decade, Popstar works because it treats all of its absurdity seriously. Everyone commits. As a result, Popstar is hilarious start to finish.

And my most disliked movies of the year.

Florence Foster Jenkins

It is rather difficult to muster any sympathy for a woman – even one played by Meryl Streep – whose singing career appears to be little more than a vanity project, and whose husband and closest confidants act as enablers to her narcissism, for reasons the screenplay fails to convey. Florence Foster Jenkins tries to depict its titular character as a study in courage and poignancy, but the ridiculous central conceit of the movie (even if based on real events) is one that I found impossible to get over. It seems apt that Hollywood – too often self-important, self-congratulatory, and obliviously elitist – would herald this woman who just seems completely ridiculous to the rest of us.

X-Men: Apocalypse

For all the flaws of the vastly overrated X-Men: First Class, both it and the excellent Days of Future Past successfully centered their narratives on ideological conflict. Apocalypse has none of that cerebral debate: it’s schlock about global domination, bad shlock at that. There’s no effort to explain the villain: why he needs horsemen, the boundaries of his powers. The movie is sloppily directed and edited, looks like garbage, wastes its acting talent, and partakes in stupid fan service. Even the few parts that work – Michael Fassbender’s Magneto – quickly lose gravity. Meanwhile, the laughable last scene attempts to reimpose the status quo, but in the process renders all the developments of this movie completely meaningless.

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