Looking back at the films of 2016, there were precious few surprises and notably more disappointments. Walking out of The Jungle Book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, among many others, didn’t leave me with the sense of cinematic satisfaction we all crave, but rather the feeling that movies now more than ever are overpromising and under-delivering.
Worse, it’s storytelling that’s being sacrificed. It’s not a coincidence that the best movies of 2016 listed below are examples of great stories that were strengthened by splendid visual palettes.
10) Hacksaw Ridge
Summit Entertainment tried to keep Mel Gibson’s name out of its promotional material for this film, and given his personal history, that’s understandable. There’s no denying, however, that Gibson is one of the finest directors working today. The main character in Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), is driven by his religious beliefs, but it never feels like a religious movie. Instead, it’s about a man who sticks to his virtuous principles and ends up being 100-percent correct in doing so. In limited theaters now; video availability TBD.
9) The Edge of Seventeen
Smart, clever and painfully funny (in a good way), it’s a movie that reminds us how agonizing teenage years can be (and for some of us, how agonizing they were). Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature enjoys wonderful performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, and never compromises with teen movie clichés. In limited theaters now; available on video Feb. 14.
8) Nocturnal Animals
My first reaction to director Tom Ford’s latest was one of confusion and intrigue. The more I thought about it, however, the more brilliant I found it to be. Art imitates life in a variety of ways, and in doing so it allows for multiple interpretations of its meaning. This is ironically an extraordinarily difficult message for art (such as movies) to convey, and Nocturnal Animals did it perfectly. In theaters now.
7) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This New Zealand import was unfortunately under-seen upon its release over the summer. The story – about an orphan (a delightful Julian Dennison) living with his cranky “uncle” (Sam Neill) in the New Zealand wilderness – could’ve been trite, but writer/director Taika Waititi’s film is sharp, witty and moving. Now available on video.
The best animated film of the year was creative, funny and touching, and you don’t have to love animals to appreciate its treasures. Now available on video.
It’s a look at the African-American experience in 1950s Pittsburgh, highlighted by a strong ensemble and steady direction from Denzel Washington. Viola Davis and Washington won Tony Awards for playing these characters on Broadway in 2010; it’s certainly not out of the question for Oscars to be in their near future as well. In theaters now.
4) Hell or High Water
The “What don’t you want?” restaurant scene is the best single movie scene of the year, and a reminder that great movies are about compelling characters and the world they inhabit. This film will not make you want to go to West Texas, but it also couldn’t have been set anywhere else, and creating such a tremendous sense of location is a rare accomplishment by director David MacKenzie. Throw in a sure supporting actor Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges and you have a must-see. Now available on video.
3) O.J.: Made in America
It screened at Sundance last January and opened theatrically in New York, so it is Oscar-eligible, though you (hopefully) watched it on ABC/ESPN. Director Ezra Edelman’s five-part, nearly eight-hour documentary exposed not just O.J. Simpson’s story, but also its place in modern American history. The results are infuriating and revelatory. A documentary masterpiece. Now available on video.
2) Manchester by the Sea
The most depressing movie of the year, but also the best-acted and perhaps best-written. Casey Affleck seems a shoo-in for the best actor Oscar. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan moves the film along at a gradual and steady pace, effectively allowing us to be immersed in the characters’ lives. It’s profoundly poignant and expertly made. Now in theaters.
1) La La Land
Sometimes movies are pure magic that make you smile, and this is one of those. No film this year made me feel better, more energized or alive. It’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, a beautiful love story, and an altogether unforgettable experience that’s an absolute pleasure to look at and listen to. Expect multiple Oscar nominations and wins for this new classic. Opens in local theaters Friday.