A SECOND OPINION
The Top Ten Films of 2016 – Take Two
Article by Ray Schillaci
Some of the brightest and best films of 2016 may not have been showered with awards or even nominations, but they definitely received high praise from critics and audiences alike. This year demonstrated a wonderful independent voice that echoed the great films of the ’70s. That shows much promise for years to come from these highly talented filmmakers.
The idea that in this day and age films like The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, Midnight Special, and The Eyes of My Mother actually got made and received a theatrical distribution is quite an achievement and are true gifts to their target audiences. All four were fascinating and unique visions. Although they were not for mainstream audiences, these films guided us on a journey rarely traveled.
The Lobster being an obscure tale of a society where single people only have 45 days to find true love, otherwise they are turned into the animal of their choice and set loose in the forest. Swiss Army Man dealt with a man stranded on an island with a farting corpse, the outcome ended up being darkly funny, sad, and in many ways poignant. Jeff Nichols continued his brand of captivating storytelling with Midnight Special, an incredibly personal science fiction/road movie that in many ways equals the much touted Arrival. A father, with the aid of a state trooper, kidnaps his son and is pursued by a cult and the government who believe the child has special powers. And The Eyes of My Mother was the darkest journey taken since David Lynch’s Eraserhead – A tragic encounter turns a young, lonely woman into a sociopath. All four are must-sees for the true film enthusiast.
Aside from these brave well made independents, here is my own personal best of 2016. How they made the grade was easy. Did they move or jar me? Stir my soul? Make me think about them for days on end? There were ten that did.
10) Green Room – this movie took a battle-axe to my nerves. From the very opening we can tell this is no ordinary thriller. I’ve heard comparisons from John Boorman’s Deliverance to Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, and they all make sense. But what puts this terror tale of a punk band caught up in the shenanigans of a backwoods skin head bar is the presence of one of our finest Shakespearean actors playing the leader of the Nazi youth, Patrick Stewart. The man sent chills down my spine with his portrayal with nasty and smooth sociopathic charm. Here’s a film where we really did not know what was going to happen next, and it did not play it safe.
9) Loving – the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who were arrested for their marriage in Virginia in the 1960s. They battled the state for their love and took it all the way to The Supreme Court. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) once again delivers a first class production with an account that is sensitive, beautiful, and frustrating without being preachy. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton give wonderfully down-to-earth, subtle performances. Here is a piece of history that should be viewed by everyone.
8) Kubo and the Two Strings – not only the best animated film of the year, but one of the best films period. There were three films this year that tugged at my heart and stirred my soul, Kubo is one of the three. There is so much more to this fantasy than just a poor boy who scrapes by telling stories only to be swept up into his own where he journeys in pursuit of a magical suit of armor with the help of a monkey and a very funny beetle. It sounds like kid stuff, but director Travis Knight (The Boxtrolls, Coraline) and his writers present something far more grounded and almost adult-like. Something that so many of us will relate to, and that is what makes this wonderful film so special.
7) The VVitch – truly one of the most frightening and well-made films since The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Replicating the 1600s, including using actual instruments for the soundtrack, director/writer Robert Eggers weaves a terrifying tale of fear and hysteria in colonial times over the rumor of witchcraft. A family of five is ousted from the colony, and move on their own to a grove near a foreboding forest where they will make it their home. The first fifteen minutes of this film sets the stage for what many are unprepared for. What takes place is horrid, and not for the faint of heart. From that point on we witness a family methodically being torn apart over whispers of the devil and witches. Some did not have the patience for the slow burn, authenticity and language, but for those of use who appreciate a good bump in the night, this was a thrill ride rarely seen.
6) Moonlight – hard hitting, sensitively told story like few others, this is poetic ode to self-discovery and connection. Director/writer Barry Jenkins, with a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, takes us into the life of a young black man and his journey into adulthood in a rough neighborhood in Miami. His story is told in three stages of his life. The honesty is gripping, exhausting, and eventually rewarding. We witness Chiron (played by three different actors at various ages), nicknamed “Little,” a shy withdrawn child, attempting to survive in his environment with his abusive crack-addicted mother.
Surprisingly, Little ends up being taken in by a crack dealer with a soft heart. I know it sounds unreal and hackneyed, but it is far from it thanks to the nuances provided by the director, writers, and a very grounded performance by Mahershala Ali (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) as the dealer. The only other person making a difference in Little’s life is his friend Kevin, who Little becomes very attached to.
As a teenager, Little continues his battles with bullies and his drug addicted mother. But, it’s his friendship with Kevin that helps him along which eventually leads to a very sensitive and innocent moment between the two over some marijuana on the beach. This is not a Brokeback Mountain moment. The scene is done so tastefully and with such care, and it is not to be taken as the main purpose of the story. It’s a small yet significant moment in the young man’s life. We then go onto Chiron shedding his nickname as an adult and becoming a hardened drug dealer. He’s become everything he disliked as a child. But, eventually he has a turn in his hard life that changes him and gives us hope. The film is tragic, uplifting, and perhaps one of the most compassionate films of the year.
5) Hacksaw Ridge – okay, I’ll say it right now with no apologies, Mel Gibson is a cinema God. No matter what you may think, the man is an amazing craftsman. Once again, he hones his talent with the true story of the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Combat medic Desmond T. Doss saved 75 men in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII – without firing a shot! Gibson makes everything fresh again from boot camp to the battle sequences. We even get a great performance out of Vince Vaughn, plus Andrew Garfield sheds his Spidey persona and encapsulates the humility, innocence, and bravery of Doss.
Aside from all of the brutal battles both physical and mental, Gibson also demonstrates his sensitivity and inserts the poignant love story of Doss and his wife. So, Gibson not only realistically captures the bloody brutality of combat, but gives us the innocence of true love and the power of religious conviction. The whole movie is monumental achievement in cinema history and one of the best war movies ever made.
4) Manchester by the Sea – told with a calm and steady assured hand, this is a near-perfect script that focuses on a very unlikable character, Lee Chandler, played in a perfect, nuanced, performance by Casey Affleck. Lee’s brother has passed away suddenly, and the will has him as his nephew’s caretaker. The man is the last person anyone would give any responsibility to. Lee returns to the town that he was practically shamed out of. He’s notorious, but other than getting into barroom fights, were not sure why.
Through a series of flashbacks we discover more about Lee’s brother, the life Lee once had, and the tragedy that led to his down fall, and it is truly heart wrenching. All the while we are treated to Lee trying to cope with his new-found responsibility over a troublesome nephew that is much like him in his younger years.
Surprisingly, the film has some very light-hearted moments along with the hard hitting drama. Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife and Kyle Chandler as Lee’s nephew turn in Oscar-worthy performances. The power of family in this film hit me like the first time I had seen Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. But director/writer Kenneth Lonergan actually gives us a portrait that is nowhere near as stoic. He has us sympathize with all of the main characters without making it an intentional weepy. There is power in his storytelling and the whole production is a class act.
3) Sing Street – #2 movie that made me cry. And, I’m not ashamed. Here is the feel-good movie of the year that should have been showered with awards, and it had joyful music as well. Unfortunately, the two things it had going against it was that it was not about Hollywood and some may consider it a foreign film since it takes place in Ireland (which is ridiculous).
It’s the ’80s and a young boy’s family has hit the skids. They have no other option than to place him in a different school where he struggles and meets up with a beautiful young, aloof girl who tells him she’s a model. He offers her a part in his music video with his band and she accepts. One problem – he has no band. Not only is his pursuit of a band and the girl funny, sweet, and touching, there is a wonderful examination of music in the ’80s, MTV, and brotherly conviction that all comes together to make this film one of the top five movies of the year. Rock on!
2) Hell or High Water – so many of us have complained about what happened to making films like the meaningful ones in the ’70s – Movies with substance and the anti-hero we could all relate to. Director David MacKenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan give us this in spades in a timely piece of Americana.
Two brothers go off on a very smart bank robbery spree in the hopes of paying off the family farms reverse mortgage…with the banks own money. Two law men doggedly go after the brothers, following a trail of discontented Texans that are more in favor of the robbers than they are of the banks. Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges all turn in fantastic performances. In fact, Foster’s character portrayal brings to mind the rebelliousness of a young Jack Nicholson. This film is so timely with its wonderful writing and off-beat characters that seem to come out of the wood work. Texas charm has rarely been captured in such an entertaining manner.
1) A Monster Calls – the #1 film that had me blubber like a baby, and yet it left me with hope and a new perspective on life and death. I raved about this film in a recent review, and I am anxiously awaiting its home entertainment debut on MARCH 28TH. J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) merges the beauty and sensitivity of the bond of mother and son during the struggle of a life-threatening condition, all the while bringing the fantastical to life to cushion the blow, thanks to an award-winning book by Patrick Ness.
There’s visual splendor, the outstanding performances by both Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones, and the marvelous voice of the monster delivered by none other than Liam Neeson. A monster visits a young boy and to tell him three stories, none of which have happy endings, and in return the boy must relay to him his own story, the one he fears at night. All the while he watches his mother fight her illness. Grief and acceptance has never been portrayed in such a beautifully poetic manner.
There you have it, the ten films that I felt deserved the most recognition. I’m sure there are those of you out there fuming at an omission or two, but they just were not worthy enough in my opinion. And, I’m sure there are a few you are just shaking your head at and questioning me as a critic. But, this is what makes moviegoing so much fun, after the show is over, the diversity of our opinions. Whether or not it was worth the parking, the gas, the concessions, and our time. If not, we wait until it hits the home entertainment market and either pick it up at Redbox or catch it on cable/streaming for free, and have the opportunity to turn it off if it does not entertain.