I dedicate this essay to my mother, Ethel Mae Lenzke, who shared her love of movies with me while I was growing up, and to my filmgoing friends and family who join me for movies and post-film discussions. And — as a thank you and a tribute to Roger Ebert — I give you Two Thumbs Up!
There were some interesting trends and controversies again in 2016, even before all the award shows have named their winners and bestowed their accolades. This year, more than in the past, independent films rose to the surface competing with the studios and their marketing machines. Word of mouth by filmgoers, especially on social media, had a measurable impact. Many franchises and/or remakes didn’t capture the audiences and box office receipts they projected. More options affected where and how we viewed content, from additional film distributors, downloads and subscription services, expanding the choices and the venues, from theaters, to home, to the backseat of a car, or at work during lunch breaks on Smartphones.
Television narrative movies, episodic series, and documentaries have budgets, production values, talent, and material that now compete with the traditional movie industry, some of my choices for Best Documentaries were broadcast on television and available for streaming online (see notes). For controversies, actors in widely-anticipated films like Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, and the writer, director, producer and lead actor in Birth of a Nation, Nat Parker, were embroiled in alleged sexual harassment and assault charges from their pasts. For some audience members, it kept them out of the theater, and for critics there were footnotes and sidebars along with the reviews.
As a filmgoer and not a professional critic, perhaps this “Best of” review should be entitled, A Filmgoer’s Guide to Her Favorite Films of 2016. It’s true that they are my favorite films and that I recommend them, often passionately, to friends and anyone reading my mini-reviews on this blog or social media.
After years of watching, talking, and writing about film and film-makers, attending film societies, hosting my own movie nights in the past at venues like Apple Island, and attending the annual Wisconsin Film Festival (WFF) and a diverse and robust series of free films brought to us by the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) at the Marquee Theater and films by and at the Cinematheque, I think I can call myself a critic and have earned the credentials to launch A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films. (Note: Films that I attended at the WFF, WUD and Cinematheque are indicated by an asterisk*.)
It was difficult to limit myself to the ten best films, like last year, I feature a baker’s dozen plus an extensive honorable mention list. I’m also a fan of documentaries so I include seven documentary films to round out a final list of 20 Best Films of 2016. As in previous years there were also a number of films that have not premiered yet in Madison, or I missed them in their limited runs. Some of those may have risen to the top of the list. I reprise these special categories: Films I Haven’t Seen Yet, Films I Wanted to Like More Than I Did, Films I Missed When They Were Here, Guilty Pleasures, and Dream Double Features. Lastly, there are two films which have made many critic’s “Best of” lists that I’m not sure I’m ready to see, both due to the intensity of the emotional stories, Lion and Silence.
A note about the criteria for my list: I choose films drawn from my favorite genres. I like biographies, LGBT-themed movies, crime and suspense dramas, coming-of-age stories, well-done romantic comedies, relationship and dysfunctional family dramedies, and documentaries. I especially enjoy films from a woman’s point of view, even more so when produced or directed by women, or featuring a strong female lead. Finally, I seek out movies made by a short list of favorite directors and writers who often feature a stellar repertoire of actors. Now for the movies…
A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2016
(Not ranked, except as noted. All official movie posters courtesy of the film production studios) Note: Some of the following reviews contain minor plot spoilers.
- Moonlight – My favorite film of the year for many reasons. First and foremost, it was a heartfelt, poignant, original, authentic, masterfully-told story of a boy, Chiron, who due to his vulnerability strives to remain invisible, yet yearns for connection, who is virtually abandoned by his addict mother, bullied as an adolescent, and defended as a man, as he protects his tender and innocent heart. In the end, open-heartedly, he risks intimacy again with the people who hurt him the most. During his journey from boy — to adolescent— to man, he is mentored by a drug dealer and his girlfriend who make a safe refuge for him, challenges his mother while loving her, and in the end becomes a man transformed. When he encounters his teenage friend from the past, he’s asked, “Who is you, Black?” The story unfolds in three chapters and the casting and direction is perfect as Chiron fully accepts and embraces his essence. Moonlight was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. Just a note about the Golden Globes: I’m glad the film won the Golden Globe for Best Film (Drama), though in my view, Mahershala Ali who played the drug dealer and Chiron’s mentor, was denied and deserving of the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Golden Globe. The cinematography and the Miami settings were beautiful, yet realistic locations congruent with the story.
- Manchester by the Sea – This was my second favorite film of the year. Kenneth Lonergan wrote, directed, and like some other filmmakers, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, makes a small cameo appearance. Lonergan also wrote and directed one of my favorite films about family, You Can Count on Me, starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in his breakout performance. Manchester by the Sea tells the story of the Chandler family, a working- class family once close, now estranged. Lee lives and works now as a janitor in Boston while his brother, nephew, and ex-wife reside in his hometown of Manchester. His brother’s unexpected death draws Lee back to the place he left following an unspoken tragedy from the past. Lee has been named his nephew’s guardian and he and his 16-year-old nephew struggle with grief, the past, and their futures. While back home in Manchester, Lee is confronted by his past at every turn. Lonergan knows how to tell a story rooted in the daily life of people who must face their shadow and make choices on how to move forward or remain stuck in a past that both punishes and defines them. Like real life, this story is sometimes difficult to experience yet we witness the transformation of its characters and wonder whether there will be redemption. There’s controversy surrounding Casey Affleck who plays the lead. His performance is award-worthy. Don’t let his alleged sexual harassment claims keep you from seeing this film. Consider it a coproduction of Kenneth Lonergan and Matt Damon (one of the producers and force behind it being made).
- Loving – This is my third favorite film of the year. From the official film website: “From acclaimed writer/director Jeff Nichols, Loving celebrates the real-life courage and commitment of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who married and then spent the next nine years fighting for the right to live as a family in their hometown. Their civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1967 reaffirmed the very foundation of the right to marry – and their love story has become an inspiration to couples ever since.” The director, Jeff Nichols, who wrote the adaptation of the book The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski and his ensemble cast, which included Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving, and Michael Shannon as Life magazine photographer Grey Villet have become one of my favorite creative teams. Both Edgerton and Shannon appeared in another Jeff Nichols film this year which appears in my Guilty Pleasures category. Midnight Special is a hidden gem, an original story by a director and acting team that didn’t find a large enough audience. Shannon also appeared in another Nichols film, Take Shelter. Nichol’s decisions to keep the story on a personal scale, focusing on the daily lives, challenges, and transformation of the Lovings, rather than making them larger-than-life public figure gives Loving an authenticity making the story relatable and universal. Ruth Negga’s performance was pitch perfect as Mildred Loving. A special note, the cinematography and score gave the film a brilliant sheen.
- Jackie – Jackie was an intense behind-the-scenes look at both an event that many of us, who are old enough to remember, witnessed its public unfolding live on TV as it happened. Jackie as the First Lady brought grace, sophistication and youth to the White House, which was a time in our history remembered as Camelot, the popular Broadway musical at the time. The director’s POV and narrative, partly based on actual accounts, and I imagine details of the story were fictionalized, was compelling and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, though I had to battle auditory distraction as the most annoying person sitting next to me ate popcorn, one kernel at a time in rapid succession, crunching each bite with her mouth wide open, as loud as humanly possible. Oh My! I digress. Natalie Portman commanded the screen giving us an inside look at grief, anger, sorrow, hopelessness, and a steely resolve to create a legacy for her husband. We all know the players in this story, and Jackie shows us both her light and shadow and the same was true of others. It’s an incredible film and performance. The costumes, set design, and locales gave credence to the story. My main criticism of the film was the casting of some of the supporting characters, chiefly LBJ and the Kennedys.
- Fences – Play adaptations don’t always work on the big screen. Fences did, a play written by August Wilson who also wrote the screenplay. It was a passion project for Denzel Washington who played the lead and directed the film. He reprised his stage performance with his co-lead, Viola Davis, who was absolutely riveting as his wife. Playing opposite Washington must be a challenge for any actor, yet Davis matched the power of his performance. The story of a working-class family and the legacy of the generations before us and how they affect the generations that follow was easily relatable. Add race, discrimination, and gender politics and you have a film perfectly relevant for our times today. The settings echoed it’s theatrical DNA and helped drive home the theme of Fences which asked the question: “Do we keep the world out of our homes, or do we keep our loved ones trapped in them?” In my view this is one of Washington’s best performances in a career filled with award-worthy work.
- Hidden Figures – If you haven’t seen this film yet, don’t let the trailers, which made the movie look a little jokey, keep you from seeing this outstanding, historical, and educational film. The humor had an edge to it, helping to illustrate the prevalence of racism and sexism in every aspect of life, even in what one would assume as a forward- thinking culture like NASA. Each of the three main women characters were referred to as “colored computers” a mathematician, an engineer, and a computer programmer and considered to be doing clerical grunt work for little pay and recognition. Like the rockets and capsules they were instrumental in launching, the trajectory of their story and how vital their roles were to the space program was breathtaking and the arc of their stories compelling. Though the focus was on their dedication to their work lives, the film showed their struggle to advance and be recognized with equal access in a society that wanted to hold them back. Like most women’s lives, they also had husbands, parents and children who depended on them and I liked the depiction of those stories as well. This is a must-see inspiring story with outstanding performances. The film’s themes of racism and sexism were never preachy and didn’t overshadow the larger story of these brilliant women and their contributions to the space program. I rank this film right up with Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. A nod to the director, Theodore Melfi, who researched this story, working closely with the families and NASA.
- Arrival – Arrival has been described as a thinking-person’s science fiction film. It’s also one of my favorite genres, movies about dystopian societies. In this story, Earth is unexpectedly visited by 12 pod-shaped alien spacecraft which hover over separate locations around the world, above nations who speak different languages. An integral theme is communication and the importance of precise communication for understanding. Scientists, world leaders, and their military troops converge to learn how to first communicate with the extraterrestrials, and ultimately how to communicate with each other person-to-person, country-to-country, making this story very timely. Nuances of language, like differences in cultures, and values, can make the difference between life and death. Dr. Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist, played by Amy Adams, is recruited to lead an elite military team at a base in Montana to learn the language and communicate with the alien heptapods. She is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a military scientist, and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who assembles the military and scientific experts and oversees the effort to save the world from an unknown, catastrophic outcome. It is Louise however who makes contact with the two alien creatures and strives to learn their language. Louise struggles too with memories of a personal tragedy that is interwoven throughout the story, shifting in time in flashbacks and in fever dreams. The film is directed by Denis Villenneuve who directed last year’s action-packed thriller, Sicario. Villenneuve is currently directing Blade Runner 2049 which is in post-production and scheduled to premiere later this year.
- Other People – This is a film I could have easily relegated to my Guilty Pleasure category, a dysfunctional family dramedy, except this film with its comedy and character-actor leads in the capable, comedic hands of first-time feature film director Chris Kelly rises above what could have been clichéd or maudlin material. Kelly is the co-head writer on Saturday Night Live (SNL), writer for Comedy Central and a writer/director Funny or Die. Other People premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and is semi-autobiographical. The film is loosely based on Kelly’s own mother’s death in 2009. From Wikipedia: “David, a 29-year-old gay man, moves home to Sacramento to take care of his mother, Joanne, who’s in the advanced stages of leiomyosarcoma. Being home is further complicated by his conservatively religious family and his father’s refusal to accept his sexuality (ten years after he came out). As Joanne struggles through chemo, decides to quit treatment, and begins to decline, each of the family members deal with the inevitable loss in their own way.” Molly Shannon plays his mother, Joanne, and Jesse Plemon, David, a comedian and struggling writer trying to catch a break on SNL. Both Shannon and Plemons, supported by Bradley Whitford as Joanne’s husband and David’s religious and conservative father, deliver fully-dimensional characters. This is a film that doesn’t skirt the tears and tragedy of death and dying, but just as in real life, humor finds its way into our stories when we least expect it. The director and the cast make it believable and infuse love, laughter, and tears into the darkest and most redeeming moments. This is a story about life, death, and the mundane moments of everyday living. Spoiler alert: It has one of the funniest scenes of medical marijuana usage. Find this film and watch it with people you love.
- Hell or High Water – This Bonnie and Clyde, Robin Hood-inspired contemporary road and heist film was a surprise hit for me. Like many of the films that made this list, its story was timely. The neo-Western heist-crime film tells the story of two down-on-their-luck brothers in Texas. “Toby (played by Chris Pine) is a divorced father who’s trying to make a better life for his son. His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-convict with a short temper and a loose trigger finger. Together, they plan a series of heists against the bank that’s about to foreclose on their family ranch. Standing in their way is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger who’s only weeks away from retirement. As the siblings plot their final robbery, they must also prepare for a showdown with a crafty lawman who’s not ready to ride off into the sunset.” Bridges has received several award nominations for his performance, yet it’s the entire cast, including supporting actors, that make this film compelling. The locales and cinematography, the desolation of towns ravaged by a changing economy reminded me of another film set in Texas, The Last Picture Show.
- Elle – From Wikipedia, “Elle (French for “she” or “her”) is a 2016 internationally co-produced psychological thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by David Birke, based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian. The film stars Isabelle Huppert as a businesswoman, Michèle Leblanc, who is raped in her home by an unknown assailant and plots revenge.” I’m still wrapping my brain around the film and my thoughts and feelings about the themes and narrative. It has the DNA of the director, Paul Verhoeven, whose Hollywood films dealt with salacious subject matter, like the open legs and controversial “pussy shot” of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. What I liked about the film is it was definitely a psychological thriller, in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, with lots of potential perpetrators, back stories, and fully-fleshed out characters. The acting was superb by the entire cast, and Isabelle Huppert was absolutely mesmerizing and convincing as her character. I’d recommend the movie, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s kind of “scary sexy.” This is certainly a film that requires a trigger warning for its opening rape scene and the characters reliving the assault. I regret seeing this film alone, it invites a post-film discussion and debriefing.
- The Lobster – Another film that falls into my dystopian Guilty Pleasures. From the Rotten Tomatoes review, “Colin Farrell stars as David, a man who has just been dumped by his wife. To make matters worse, David lives in a society where single people have 45 days to find true love, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the woods. David is kept at the mysterious hotel while he searches for a new partner, and after several romantic misadventures decides to make a daring escape to abandon this world. He ultimately joins up with a rebel faction known as The Loners, a group founded on a complete rejection of romance. But once there David meets an enigmatic stranger (Rachel Weisz) who stirs up unexpected and strong feelings within him… At once a full immersion into a strange and surreal world, and a witty and clever reflection of our own society, THE LOBSTER is a thrillingly audacious vision fully brought to life by Lanthimos and his terrific cast. The filmmaker displays a completely singular style and mastery of tone, finding the perfect balance between sharp-edged satire and romantic fable that entertains its audience while also leaving them with lots to reflect on long after the credits have rolled.” I know, as you are reading this description you are probably saying WTF, what is this movie about. I recommend you visit the film’s official website and discover what animal you are (now you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s up with Linda?”). It’s fun, irreverent, and thought-provoking. I admit, like another film in my Guilty Pleasures list, Wiener Dog, it’s an acquired taste.
- Krisha* – This is a gem of a movie that I’m grateful I had the opportunity to discover. It’s by a first-time director, Trey Shults, who cast some of his own family members, including his aunt in the lead role in this semi-autobiographical film. This is another film that falls into my Guilty Pleasures category, in this case, dysfunctional family dramas. From the film production site: “Krisha is the story of a woman’s return to the family she abandoned years before, set entirely over the course of one turbulent Thanksgiving. When Krisha shows up at her sister’s Texas home on Thanksgiving morning, her close and extended family greet her with a mixture of warmth and wariness. Almost immediately, a palpable unease permeates the air, one which only grows in force as Krisha gets to work cooking the turkey and trying to make up for lost time by catching up with her various relatives, chief among them her nephew, Trey. As Krisha’s attempts at reconciliation become increasingly rebuffed, tension and suspicion reach their peak, with long-buried secrets and deep-seated resentments coming to the fore as everyone becomes immersed in an emotionally charged familial reckoning. A potent combination of innovative cinematic storytelling and timeless themes of love, family, and forgiveness, Krisha took the independent film community by storm…Marked by complex tonal shifts (the film moves from dark humor to deep pathos to almost horror movie-like intensity), virtuosic camerawork reminiscent of Terrence Malick (with whom Shults worked on multiple projects), and a propulsive score by Brian McOmber, Krisha proves definitively that Shults is the real deal. He is one of the most exciting and unique storytellers to emerge in a long time, and is remarkable in the way he embraces successful traditional techniques while managing to innovate new ones. Additionally, with a cast of largely nonprofessionals, many of whom were friends and family (his aunt Krisha plays the lead, and has received universal accolades for her performance) a 9-day shoot in his parent’s home, and a budget less than a studio film’s catering bill, Shults is a shining example of how personal, homegrown filmmaking can lead to an accomplished breakout feature.” Find this film or stream it online.
- Louder Than Bombs* – Louder Than Bombs is the English language debut of director, Joachim Trier and screenwriter Eskil Vogtand, the team behind Oslo, August 31 and Reprise who’ve produced a mesmerizing family drama. The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, with supporting roles by Amy Ryan and David Straithairn, and a breakout performance by Devin Druid. It’s a story about a family and the aftermath of an unexpected death of a wife, mother and war photographer, and the ripple effect it has on each family member and their relationships. This well-crafted story with effective shifts between past and present, reveals how denial may temporarily protect us, yet true healing begins when we’re able to challenge the myths we’ve created and accept the flawed humanity of the people we love. Isabelle Huppert, who also starred in Elle, has quickly risen for American audiences to an actress worthy of award recognition for her work. This film was not seen by many people which is unfortunate since it masterfully navigates issues that affect us all, the death of a loved one, and the struggle to understand why.
- Miss Sharon Jones
- The Witness*
- Rwanda and Juliet*
- O. J.: Made in America (an ESPN documentary series)
- The Choice (a PBS Frontline production)
- Southwest of Salem (an Investigation Discovery [ID] production)
Honorable Mention (includes narrative and documentary films)
- La La Land
- American Honey
- The Innocents
- The Secret Life of Pets
- Little Men
- Dr. Strange
- Cameraperson* (documentary)
- Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World* (documentary)
- Unlocking the Cage* (documentary)
Films I Haven’t Seen Yet
(And likely would have been considered for the Best Films list)
- 20th Century Women
- Certain Women
- Toni Erdmann
- I, Daniel Blake
- 13th (documentary)
- I Am Not Your Negro (documentary)
On this eve of the 89th Academy Awards, I’m able to recognize some of the films I saw since this review was originally published. First my likes:
- 2oth Century Woman – Stellar performance by Annette Bening.
- Paterson – The mundane beauty and poetry of everyday life.
- 13th – Shattered any remaining denial of my white privilege.
- I Am Not Your Negro – Even Baldwin’s prose was poetry.
I Am Not Your Negro was my favorite documentary of the year with 13th and Miss Sharon Jones following close behind.
- Nocturnal Animals – Stylishly violent with a misogynist and fat-shaming opening scene. I liked and was moved by writer-director Tom Ford’s first film, A Single Man. I hated this one.
(Films by favorite directors, actors and/or genres)
- Wiener Dog* (Directed by Todd Solondz, featuring Greta Gerwig & Ellen Burstyn).
- Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols directed this film plus writing & directing Loving & Take Shelter)
- The Family Fang (A dysfunctional family dramedy, featuring an ensemble cast of actors I enjoy).
- Captain Fantastic (Another eccentric family drama featuring Viggo Mortenson in the lead).
Films I Missed When They Were Here
(Still on my “Must-See” List)
- Certain Women
- Miss Sloane
- Nocturnal Animals
Films I Wanted to Like More Than I Did
Dream Double Features
(Films to watch together)
- Bright Lights & Postcards from the Edge (Note: not released in 2016)
- Gleason and Miss Sharon Jones (Inspiring people fighting fatal illnesses)
Additional Reading from Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!