Top 20 Films of 2016: Part II

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I’ve often referred to my all-time favorite films as the gifts that keep on giving. These aren’t pictures that can be fully experienced upon an initial viewing or even the first few. Every time I watch one of them, I find something that I hadn’t seen before. They continuously surprise me, provoke me and bring me to a deeper understanding of not just the art itself, but of the ways in which we interpret our own existence. I can never limit this annual list to ten films because the more access I have to the latest releases, the more aware I become of just how many great ones there are. This has been an exemplary year not just for narrative features but nonfiction ones as well, as evidenced by the four I’ve selected for this list (click here for Part I).

And now (drum roll, please…), here are the top ten films I’ve seen in 2016, followed by four special honorable mentions that deserve to stand alongside the rest.

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10. Newtown

Kim A. Snyder’s vital documentary centers on events that are so horrific, I can’t even bring myself to envision them. When an officer recounts his experience of investigating the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th, 2012, he refrains from sharing any specific details, though the silence between his words speaks volumes. Twenty-six people died that day, twenty of them very young kids, making it the largest mass shooting of schoolchildren in the history of this bullet-ridden nation. No attempt is made by Snyder to politicize this story because the tragedy of these lost lives speaks for itself, as does the inability of the government to take any preventative measures to ensure less firearms fall into the hands of seriously disturbed people. What interests Snyder more is the grief that has weighed heavily on Newtown, Connecticut, and how each member of the community is attempting to move forward, one step at a time. The interviews with parents and families who lost children in the senseless slaughter will haunt me long after many of the films from this year have faded from my memory. Now that shootings have become as commonplace in this country as sporting events, none of us can afford to shield our eyes from what happened in places like Newtown. Or Orlando. Or Englewood. This is our reality, and it is terrifying.

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9. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan has built a career on exploring the inner lives of characters as they grapple with grief, whether it be the loss of a parent (“You Can Count On Me”) or a complete stranger (“Margaret”). In the case of his third (and best) feature to date, the main character (Casey Affleck) is triggered by a recent tragedy—the death of his brother—into facing a past that has been too painful for him to overcome. Before I saw the film in Toronto, I was warned by various festivalgoers that I should prepare myself for a harrowing experience, and indeed the film is at times, particularly during a charged encounter Affleck has with Michelle Williams (so heartbreaking as his ex-wife). The funny thing is what resonated with me afterward, above all, was the humor that blossoms when Affleck is forced to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). Though Affleck is likely to receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination, Hedges is the revelation of the film in my eyes. I kept feeling like I was watching an Affleck/Damon joint, since Hedges so uncannily resembles Damon in terms of his wit and magnetism. There’s a moment where Hedges studies Affleck’s freshly bandaged hand and asks, “What happened?” “I cut it,” Affleck replies unhelpfully. Hedges waits a beat and says, “Oh, for a moment there, I didn’t know what happened.” I could watch these two act together for hours on end.

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8. A War

Tobias Lindholm’s gripping drama was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, though it wasn’t released in the U.S. until this past February. That makes it eligible for this list, and I believe it could’ve easily been a contender at next year’s Oscar ceremony as well. The civilian casualties so often left off the 24-hour news cycle are brought to the forefront by the well-intentioned acts of a Danish commander, Claus (Pilou Asbæk), whose attempt to save his squad in Afghanistan ends up having disastrous repercussions. Innocent lives are lost, and Claus is now in danger of being prosecuted. Lindholm’s screenplay does a fine job of balancing the commander’s story with that of his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), as she cares for their children while waiting for him to return. She’s every bit as strong and proactive a character as Claus is, and when it appears that he may never be coming back home, she pushes him toward a potential solution as morally troublesome as the father’s schemes in “Graduation.” In many ways, the question at the heart of both films is the same: how far will you go to act in your family’s best interest? The tension here is every bit as excruciating as it was in Lindholm’s 2012 thriller, “A Hijacking,” also starring Asbæk. Regardless of whether Claus is found innocent or guilty, the suffering caused by his actions remains inarguable.

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7. The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos is a genius at satirizing the absurdity of conformity. His characters are continuously instructed to move and behave in ways that have no relation to their own instincts. Consider the miserable single folk in his latest dystopian nightmare, who are banished to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a new mate. Physical similarities are more important than personality traits or chemistry when it comes to choosing a partner, and if the people fail to discover their soul mate within the designated time frame, they will be transformed into an animal of their choice. The shunned critters will then have to fend for themselves in a forest, where they’ll be hunted by a rogue band of rebels who are equally cruel in their methods of control. It’s hardly surprising when love is found in the most forbidden of places, considering how this society has been designed to snuff out all traces of organic human interaction. As the star-crossed would-be lovers, Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz headline Lanthimos’ deliciously eccentric ensemble (Olivia Colman, Léa Seydoux and Jessica Barden are all aces). I’m grateful that this is the Greek auteur’s first film in English, since it is bound to connect with Americans so divided by their ideologies that they are unable to see the person in front of them. This is a deeply unpleasant experience that I wished would never end.

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6. Moonlight

What immediately struck me the second time I watched Barry Jenkins’ mesmerizing character study was the color blue. It reemerges again and again, from the flickering light sandwiched between the first and second acts to the shirt a character puts on toward the end of the film. This is only Jenkins’ second feature (after 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy”), and it displays the poetic nuance of an assured master. Utilizing playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” as its source material, Jenkins’ film illustrates just how much is lost when filmmakers attempt to encompass a life with the encyclopedic detail of a sprawling novel. Each section of the picture is named after the latest identity taken on by the main character, who grows from a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert) to a brooding man (Trevante Rhodes, resembling Mahershaka Ali, who plays the boy’s temporary guardian in the film’s first section). Ashton Sanders takes on the lead role in the film’s central section, and his performance is one of the year’s finest—exuding tremendous sensitivity as a teenager ashamed of his closeted orientation, while drifting into his first sexual encounter with a friend (Jharrel Jerome). By the film’s end, we’ve only been provided three lingering glimpses at this protagonist, yet they are each so vividly realized that they leave us feeling as if we know the man in full. Jenkins has a real shot at making history this year by becoming the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Director, and I sincerely hope he gets it.

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5. I, Daniel Blake

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is the film of the year, but it is most certainly the film of my year. Here is a picture that is so close to my everyday reality that I ended up watching it in stunned silence. Only afterwards was I able to let the tears flow. Loach has crafted a no-holds-barred attack on the injustice of a dehumanizing welfare system designed to treat people with serious or chronic illnesses like financial burdens who must be worn down into an early grave. Daniel Blake (beautifully played by Dave Johns) is a lot like my parents: a good-hearted person who has worked his whole life, and is now threatened with being robbed of everything. This film would be intolerably bleak if its titular hero didn’t have such a wry sense of humor. Even before we see his face, his voice earns a big laugh as the opening credits unfold over a black screen. We hear Blake’s mounting exasperation as he’s required to answer a series of clueless and robotic questions, all of which fail to get at the heart of the issue—that being his heart, of course. Equally powerful is Hayley Squires as a young mother so desperate to provide for her children that she becomes prone to having her impulses drown out her good sense. Loach doesn’t hold her up solely as an object of pity, and the tender bond she and her kids forge with Blake is so touching and selfless that it left me feeling a little more hope in the human race. Anyone who has found themselves lodged within a health care network that couldn’t care less about the health of their clients will embrace this picture as a rallying cry on par with George Bailey’s fiery speeches to Potter.

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4. La La Land

When I interviewed Damien Chazelle two years ago, just before the theatrical run of his crowd-pleasing Oscar-winner, “Whiplash,” he spoke of his desire to forge a relationship with a composer much like the one Jacques Demy had with Michel Legrand when they made 1964’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Considering what Chazelle and his composer, Justin Hurwitz have achieved here—capturing the euphoric splendor of Hollywood classics while fusing it with the director’s visceral style and tireless audacity—my response to them is a resounding ‘mission accomplished.’ This film had me floating from its first jaw-dropping number set amidst stalled L.A. traffic, and it took several days for my feet to fall back onto solid ground. With his spirited hoofing and Cary Grant-esque double takes, Ryan Gosling exudes more charisma than ever in his role as a jazz pianist who falls for a struggling actress (played by Emma Stone in her best performance to date). Chazelle’s 2009 feature debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” clearly served as the low-budget model for this film, with its spontaneous energy and exuberant approach to staging, such as when the camera pans back and forth between two parallel performances. According to Hurwitz, his office was located right next to the editing room, a decision that allowed the score and cut to inform each other equally, not unlike the jazz musicians we see creating new music together on the spot. The balance between soaring artifice and grounded reality is impeccably navigated by Chazelle, who at age 31 has crafted an old-fashioned triumph no less intoxicating than the ones routinely broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

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3. Life, Animated

With Barry Jenkins poised to make Oscar history this year, it’s worth remembering that Roger Ross Williams recently became the first black director in history to win an Academy Award. His 2010 film, “Music by Prudence,” won for Best Documentary Short Subject, and there’s a good chance his latest feature will earn a nomination in January. It is, quite simply, one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. In the opening moments, we are introduced to Owen Suskind, a film enthusiast so intelligent and passionate that he reminded me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Growing up autistic, he spent years unable to communicate with his family. Disney movies became his obsession, and after a series of small breakthroughs, he learned that he could connect with others through his understanding of the animated classics. Now a young man on the cusp of independence, Owen must learn how to engage with the world existing outside of his thriving fantasy life. Based on the book by Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind, this film is one of the most profound explorations of how visual storytelling can alter our perception of existence and ourselves. “To me, it’s not a film about autism,” Williams said during our interview in July. “It’s a coming-of-age story about the power of story.” I grew up with the same films that Owen did. They were housed in the same big plastic VHS cases, and they formed so much of my own idealized worldview, which was destined to be shattered by the heartache and disillusionment that serve as rights of passage toward adulthood. Kudos to Disney for licensing the various clips of their films, which are brilliantly integrated throughout the picture by editor David Teague.

Click here to read my interview with Roger Ross Williams and producer Julie Goldman.

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2. Toni Erdmann

It’s rather difficult to sustain laughter over a period of three hours, and if Maren Ade’s film were merely aiming to be a laugh riot, it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting. Had the premise been dreamed up in Hollywood during the ’90s, it would have served as an ideal vehicle for Robin Williams, ever game for playing goofy nonconformists. As Winifred Conradi, the prankster father with the titular alter ego, Peter Simonischek has none of Williams’ manic energy, but his deadpan understatement makes each of the absurdist gags all the more uproarious. After his beloved dog dies, Conradi leaves Germany to pay a surprise visit to his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), an uptight management consultant in Bucharest. Clad in ghoulish fake teeth and a wig that appears to have been swiped off Tommy Wiseau’s head, her father’s Mrs. Doubtfire-esque portrayal of the fictional Toni Erdmann is a source of unending embarrassment for Ines, though she has nevertheless inherited her father’s compulsion for performance. At work, she’s required to promote the implementation of outsourcing as if it will benefit her clients, knowing fully well that it will result in massive layoffs. Ines believes this is a necessary step in modernizing the corporate world, and Hüller brings a great deal of conviction to the character. She’s not an independent shrew in need of being tamed, but a strong-willed go-getter with a startling boldness of her own.

Winifred senses his daughter’s unhappiness, which only inflames his desire to indulge in mischief. Yet after his incessant goading leads Ines to belt out a show-stopping rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” the tables have shifted considerably. The 162-minute running time enables Ade to mine countless moments of all their conflicted feelings. After sitting through so many interminable mainstream blockbusters comprised of tangled, half-realized plot threads, it’s exhilarating to watch a filmmaker with the confidence to luxuriate in her narrative, savoring every poignant exchange and flight of madness. There are stretches in which the film plays as straight drama, and when the comedy materializes, it is organic and often hysterical. The climactic set piece is one of the most explosively funny sequences I’ve ever seen, and when I viewed it in Toronto, it earned the biggest sustained laugh I’ve heard in a theater since 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.”

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1. Sonita

“When people judge women’s choices, they forget their sacrifices,” replies Ye Haiyan toward the end of “Hooligan Sparrow,” as she reflects on the women who have been forced into marriage in order to secure their family’s financial stability. Afghan refugee Sonita Alizadeh, the titular subject of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary, could’ve easily become one of those women. Though the teenager has escaped into Iran and found temporary caregivers at the Tehran Society for the Protection of Work and Street Children, her family back home has other plans for her future. In order for her brother to afford a bride of his own, he must sell his sister into marriage. Alizadeh’s own mother proves to be no help, arguing that she was married off in the same way, and regardless of whether or not she was happy with her fate, it was tradition. In an astonishing act of defiance, Alizadeh attempts to realize her dream of becoming a rap singer, despite the fact that women performing such music is expressly forbidden by her culture. The resulting music video that she creates for her self-penned song, “Brides for Sale,” is a scorching masterpiece that solidifies Alizadeh as a young female warrior as fearless as Malala Yousafzai, proclaiming a message of equality that is universal in its relevance.

Maghami is herself a feminist powerhouse, and her insistence on remaining an invisible presence in her own film doesn’t last long. An early scene of a child blowing bubbles at the lens sets up the notion that the camera—and the person operating it—will be a character in the film as well. At one point, Alizadeh looks at Maghami and asks if she’ll purchase her instead, to which the filmmaker asserts that it’s not her job to interfere, and that her ultimate goal is to capture the truth of her subject’s circumstances. Yet as the threats to Alizadeh’s freedom become increasingly urgent, even Maghami’s boom mic operator can no longer withhold his own opinions on camera, and the director realizes that she must take an active role in the story unfolding before her eyes. The final act of this film is as nail-biting as any suspense picture I’ve seen, and when it arrives at its conclusion, none of the loose ends are wrapped in a superficially pleasing bow. All we’re left with is the irrefutable fact of this young woman’s plight, and how it is representative of the oppression faced by women around the world. Of all the film scenes I’ve witnessed this year, my favorite is the one where Sonita is asked to share a traumatic experience from her youth. She instructs her peers to stand in frozen poses, creating a still life inspired by her memories. Though Sonita eventually bursts into tears, the exercise proves to be healing for her, since it allows her to give these events a sense of closure. Like “Life, Animated” and “Toni Erdmann,” “Sonita” offers indelible proof that art and performance can do far more than just entertain—it can literally save your life.

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SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS

Corinne Anderson was traveling on a cruise ship when she decided to make a short film on a whim. Guided by the idea of making something dreamlike, she captured images of her sister, Greta Stolte, wandering about the ship, gazing at the water below. While editing the footage into a short, “Ship Dreams,” Anderson accompanied it with her own score and narration, thus giving voice to a slumbering adult dreaming that she is the girl flickering on the screen. Her voice reminded me of Daisy Ridley in this year’s English dubbed version of Isao Takahata’s 1991 animated marvel, “Only Yesterday,” as she reflects on apparitions that may be fragments of memories from her past, or perhaps an alternate reality. What Anderson captures so deftly is the perplexity one feels after having a dream that seems more vividly real than waking life. Takahata’s film crafts a similar sort of entrancing magic. Perhaps only Studio Ghibli could get a theater full of kids to sit through a two-hour movie about numerators, denominators, organic farming and periods (and no, I’m not talking about punctuation). Just as “Mountains May Depart” built to a bittersweet grandeur in its final moments, “Only Yesterday” makes the audience wait until the end credits start to roll before it delivers one of the most emotionally satisfying finales in film history. How fortunate we were that the film finally acquired a theatrical release in the U.S. this year. Two of my other great moviegoing experiences in 2016 occurred on the small screen. The first season of FX’s “American Crime Story,” entitled “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” played like a film in 11 chapters as it dramatized the notorious trial while examining the motives of the prosecution and defense. Three of the year’s best performances were delivered by Sarah Paulson (as Marcia Clark), Courtney B. Vance (as Johnnie Cochran) and Sterling K. Brown (as Christopher Darden), all of whom deservedly won Emmys. ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America,” was a five-part documentary directed by Ezra Edleman that was more concerned with Simpson himself, and how his life is reflective of our country’s current struggles regarding race, the media and the criminal justice system. Though Edleman’s series has emerged as a front-runner in the Best Documentary race, I think it’s unfair to have it go up against films made for theaters. However, I won’t complain much if it wins. It is an American tragedy for the ages.

Click here to watch Corinne Anderson’s “Ship Dreams.”

20 MORE HONORABLE MENTIONS

“Amanda Knox,” “Audrie & Daisy,” “Being 17,” “Bright Lights,” “Christine,” “De Palma,” “Hail, Caesar!”, “Kate Plays Christine,” “Land of Mine,” “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” “The Other Half,” “Paterson,” “The Salesman,” “Sing Street,” “The Student,” “Swiss Army Man,” “T-Rex,” “13th,” “Under the Shadow,” “Zootopia”

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