2016 presented yet another fascinating year of cinema, most especially because, among the multitude of films I saw this year, I did not lay eyes on one that earned a four-star rating, an occurrence that hasn’t happened since 2011. This does not mean that there weren’t a number of great films to be seen, there certainly were, just none that quite hit the heights of past greats like “Inside Out,” “Birdman,” or “Gravity.” That being said, it was still a difficult task to whittle the list down to ten and then try to give them some kind of order, but as far as lists go, this is an excellent representation of the wonderful cinema that 2016 had to offer, so let’s get started.
10. Gleason – We kick things off with a heartbreaking documentary that tells the story of Steve Gleason, a former pro football player who gets diagnosed with ALS. With a baby on the way, he begins to make a video diary for them, showing his deteriorating condition in the process, until he is confined to an electric wheelchair and pretty much unable to anything on his own. It’s a remarkably emotional story that shows the effect the disease has not only on his life, but on the lives of those around him. Most importantly, he never gives up and does everything he can to keep going, especially when his son arrives, leaving us with a powerful, touching, and very much hopeful document of a very trying time in this individual’s life.
9. O.J.: Made in America – “Gleason” is indeed an outstanding documentary, but my vote for best doc of the year ultimately goes to Ezra Edelman’s epic eight-hour portrait of the career and times of Orenthal James Simpson. The film, split into five parts, covers everything from his breakout career as a football player and actor to his relationship with Nicole Brown to his infamous trial and the armed robbery that eventually put him behind bars. It’s incredibly thorough and includes interviews with tons of friends, family, acquaintances, lawyers, and more. It’s truly gripping throughout, never really feeling like the enormous eight-hour project it is. Even if you think you know the entire story of the man and his trial, chances are Edelman’s film will have a number of things to teach you about the life of O.J.
8. The Jungle Book – Turning to decidedly more lighter fair, we have Jon Favreau’s outstanding live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” The narrative here has a few different beats than the original story, but that doesn’t appear to be the true reason as to why Favreau and co. put so much time and effort into this incredible adventure. Anyone could have gone back and made an adaptation of Kipling’s book and had young Mogli running around a jungle built in a studio, but for this version, the crew went the extra mile by placing him in a fully-rendered environment that is so realistic that you could swear it was completely real. On top of this, our young hero interacts with a number of jungle creatures (wolves, bears, monkeys, etc.) that are just as beautifully made. This is not to mention the outstanding voice cast that brings them to life, including Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, Sir Ben Kingsley, and more. Favreau’s film is nothing short of a feast for the eyes, and along with its excellent ensemble, it becomes a grand version of the tale that the entire family can enjoy together.
7. The Founder – Here we have one of a couple of last-minute additions to the list. “The Founder” tells the story of how milkshake-maker salesman Ray Kroc gets involved with the McDonald brothers, who have started up their own incredibly successful fast food restaurant known as “McDonald’s.” It’s a fascinating tale of power and deception, made all the more compelling thanks to a marvelous lead performance by Michael Keaton, who plows full steam ahead with the ambitious Kroc and never looks back. The film also features a wonderful supporting cast that includes Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the friendly, but naïve, McDonald bros. and Laura Dern as Kroc’s wife, who has to deal with being along much of the time while her husband conducts business. If you’ve ever wondered where one of the most successful fast food restaurants of all time got started, you should definitely give “The Founder” a chance. It just might surprise you how underhanded the entire endeavor truly was.
6. Hail, Caesar! – For a while there, it appeared as though the great Coen Bros. were starting to run out of steam. After the outstanding and hilarious “Burn After Reading,” they delivered three films (“A Serious Man,” “True Grit,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) that were decent, but ultimately not very memorable experiences. This is why it was such a delight to see them give us “Hail, Caesar!” this past year, a film that’s an unabashed love letter not only to the films of the 50s, but also to filmmaking in general. The film follows a “Studio Fixer” as he goes about his regular day, which includes stopovers in several different genre films being made at the studio, including westerns, dramas, dancing, and even swimming. It mixes together a number of plotlines, all of which are juggled in expert fashion by the Coens, giving us a rich tapestry of characters and situations. Of course, a Coen Bros. film wouldn’t be complete without the usual incredible ensemble, which includes George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and more. If you’re a fan of cinema, this is one that you absolutely cannot miss, and if you’re a fan of the Coens, well, that just means you need to see it all the more.
5. Hacksaw Ridge – It had been an entire decade since Mel Gibson last stepped behind the camera to direct a film (“Apocalypto”), but this year he came back strong with the World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge.” The film tells the story of a conscientious objector by the name of Desmond Doss who joins the Army to serve his country as a medic. He has to face a number of trials during bootcamp due to his unwillingness to lay hands on a gun, but as it turns out, he never has to fire a single shot to become a hero thanks to his immensely brave act of saving dozens of lives during the intense titular battle. Featuring an outstanding performance from Andrew Garfield, one that will likely earn him his first Oscar nomination, the film is nothing short of compelling as it follows Desmond on his mission to get through basic training with his beliefs intact, and subsequently through the horrific battle in which they are tested even further. With outstanding direction, writing, editing, and many other technical merits, “Hacksaw Ridge” stands out not only as a great war film, but also as a fantastic drama that has you on board every step of the way.
4. The Red Turtle – Of all the films on this list, I would guess that this is the one that most people have never heard of, which is a shame because it’s easily the best animated film of the year (far better than “Zootopia” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”). Coming from the great Studio Ghibli, it tells the deceptively simple tale of a man who washes up on a deserted island after his boat is caught in a storm. Without going into too much detail, this is a bizarre, yet beautifully-told story that goes far beyond a simple survival tale, made all the more miraculous by the fact that there’s practically no dialogue in the entire film. However, this is a film that doesn’t need words to get its story across, resulting in a film that is moving based on its gorgeous animation and sweet, profound narrative alone. It may run a very brief 70-ish minutes, but the impact it leaves will stay with you for quite some time.
3. Manchester by the Sea – A critical smash ever since it premiered at Sundance back in January, this low-key drama from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan tells the story of Lee Chandler, whose brother suddenly dies, leaving behind a son and a will that names Lee as his new guardian. This is another film that’s somewhat deceptively simple, and yet, its themes are emotionally strong and hard-hitting as it follows Lee, who has his life turned upside-down, and his nephew, Patrick, who’s caught in the middle of the situation. Featuring the single best ensemble of the year, including Casey Affleck (who will more than likely take the Best Actor Oscar for his performance), Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Kyle Chandler, and a sharply-written script from Lonergan (who will more than likely take the Best Original Screenplay Oscar this season), “Manchester by the Sea” delivers exactly where it needs to, leaving you with a compelling drama that ranks as one of the very best films of the year.
2. Silence – Here we have the other last-minute addition to the list. For about 25 years, the unparalleled Martin Scorsese had been trying to get “Silence” made, but he was finally able to bring us his astounding vision of the Shusaku Endo novel just this month. The film tells the story of two Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) that travel to Japan in the 17th century in search of their mentor (portrayed by Liam Neeson). At this time, Christians were being hunted down and persecuted in Japan, making their trip extremely dangerous, but with the second-hand news that their mentor has apostatized, they feel they must try most urgently. It’s a rather perplexing film at first, for in its first half, it feels as though the story is not delving into the material as deeply as it should. We watch as these priests assist the Japanese who practice their religion in secret, all the while waiting for news of their teacher, which is mildly intriguing, but you can’t help the feeling like there should be something more.
However, when the second half of the film arrives, all is made clear. It is here where the true themes of keeping one’s faith and where one draws the line in staying true to one’s beliefs are explored in a riveting manner. There are scenes in this second half, particularly those between Garfield and Neeson, that strike right at the heart of the matter, bringing up even more questions that are difficult to answer. As such, it’s not an easy film to digest in one viewing, and it will more than likely have you thinking about its themes for quite some time afterward, but patient viewers will be rewarded with one of the most moving and deeply-felt films of the year. A plethora of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and many more, are sure to come next month.
1. La La Land – Throughout 2016, there was no film quite so stunning, so magical, and so extraordinary as Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” a contemporary musical with a classical twist. The story is somewhat basic, exploring the relationship between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) as they both chase their dreams in Los Angeles, but this film goes far beyond its simple narrative, delivering an unforgettable experience filled with undeniably catchy music from Justin Horwitz, gorgeous production design and costumes, stunning editing and cinematography, fantastic direction from Chazelle, and two wonderful performances from Stone and Gosling. An experience is what this film truly is, one that only continues to impress more and more on repeated viewings. Great musicals are something that only seem to get more rare nowadays, but a great musical that’s also original (i.e. not based on a Broadway show)? That’s almost unheard of anymore. The film is currently predicted to do extremely well at this season’s Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, etc.), and given the practically universal love that the film has received, it doesn’t seem like anyone would have much of a problem with that (yours truly included).