The Year's Best Films
1. Moonlight In skillfully adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, writer-director Barry Jenkins shows a deep curiosity about one person’s development and inner life. We see this person grow from boy to teenager to man over the film’s three acts, and although the trappings could easily play as clichés, Moonlight clearly comes from a (literal and figurative) real place for both creators. Filled with extraordinary performances, Moonlight explores the tension between private and public selves for a closeted black individual who feels pressure to conform to traditional but arbitrary standards of masculinity.
2. Arrival Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival dropped during election week, and not a moment too soon to offer America a lesson in bridging communication gaps. Amy Adams plays a linguist enlisted to speak to newly arrived alien beings. While functioning as her emotionally difficult personal story, Arrival also uses its science fiction to endorse seeking understanding before resorting to destruction, and to help us, like its characters, consider a whole new way of looking at our very existence. It’s heady stuff for a Hollywood movie with aliens: don’t mistake this one for the usual action extravaganza. It is instead one of the year’s most thoughtful dramas.
3. Fences Denzel Washington directs and stars in this sterling adaptation of an American dramatic classic, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. A study in pride and bluster, delusion and deception, Troy Maxon is an iconic American character to stand beside Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman, casting shadows every bit as long in desperate striving, prideful masking, and crushing defeat. In an equally towering performance, Viola Davis powerfully captures the smarts and sacrifice of Troy’s wife Rose; both actors may well collect Oscars for their work. Wilson wrote his version of the story of black America in the 20th Century, and this 1950s chapter remains his best-known play for good reason. On screen, writ large by Washington, Fences remains every bit an American classic.
4. I Am Not Your Negro With its text sourced mostly from novelist, social critic, and poet James Baldwin’s unfinished book “Remember This House,” Raoul Peck’s provocative, brilliantly edited documentary film features a fantastic vocal performance by Samuel L. Jackson (reading Baldwin’s caringly accusatory letter to America), select clips of Baldwin on chat shows, archival footage of Baldwin’s life and times and famous friends, and canny montage to show the frightening relevance of past tragedy to our present moment, a year in which America continued to struggle mightily over issues around racism.
5. O.J.: Made in America A less pithy but almost equally potent work on similar themes, Ezra Edelman’s extraordinary documentary about O.J. Simpson and his legal troubles clocks in at nearly eight hours, and ran on ESPN this year. But since it also received a limited theatrical distribution, it qualifies as one of the year’s best films. The text is everything you ever wanted to know about Simpson; the subtext is the complex causes and effects of confusion over racial identity and anger sown by race-based conflict in America. At the heart of it all: the true-crime story that riveted 1995 America for over eight months.
6. 20th Century Women Writer-director Mike Mills offers a highly personal story in salute to his mother (akin to his salute to his father, Beginners). While nominally his coming-of-age story, 20th Century Women primarily celebrates three generations of women in Annette Bening’s mother and the family friends, played by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, that she enlists to help raise her son. National treasure Bening does some of her most heartfelt work, and Mills’ limber direction provokes not only “feels” but historical reflection on 1979 as a turning point (coincidentally, not unlike the second season of FX’s Fargo).
7. Christine No film this year ended with more of a gut punch than Antonio Campos’ Christine. Not the climax, which those familiar with the true story of troubled 1970s Floridian news reporter Christine Chubbuck will dread from frame one, but the film’s haunting resolution, a coda with one lonely character peeling the foil off of a TV dinner and watching a very specific television program with a deeply ironic connection to what has come before. With this scene, Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich elevate what has already been a brilliant psychological study (with an amazing performance by Rebecca Hall) and workplace drama to a commentary on how media shapes what we see and believe about what’s right in front of us.
8. The Handmaiden The most elegantly stylized picture of the year hailed from South Korea, and the modern master Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). A crafty erotic thriller and a romantic drama, The Handmaiden also serves as a stealthy historical commentary on the place and time it depicts: Japanese-occupied Korea of the early-20th Century. Fantastic leading perfomances by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri anchor a complex story of lush surfaces and roiling underbellies, of power and pleasure and pain, of spontaneous sex and unexpected love. Park executes every sight and sound with astonishing just-so precision.
9. The Founder Call it “Big Mac-beth.” Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel expertly frames the story of McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc (played with his usual aplomb by Michael Keaton) as an American tragedy, can-do spirit curdled by ambition and greed, pride in excellence abandoned to the profit motive. It’s the story of capitalism in the 20th Century told in microcosm, and by essentially being all of Breaking Bad in one, efficiently scripted 115-minute film (an underdog hero gradually revealing himself as a villain), in a way it puts the lie to the idea that film cannot do what television can do. It’s also quite entertaining: director John Lee Hancock, I forgive you for The Blind Side.
10. Snowden At 70, Oliver Stone is still fighting the good fight in Hollywood and in the media arena. He’s not the bullfighter; he’s the bull, taking the spears of critics but still saying what he feels needs to be said about history. He’s never been more current than with Snowden, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt masterfully embodies the NSA whistleblower some see as traitor and some as patriotic tech-nerd hero. This 21st Century Born on the Fourth of July goes past the headlines to humanize Snowden and tell as much of his truth as is legally prudent. The film is a political act that may not only report history (in dramatic form), but help to shape it.
More top docs: Audrie & Daisy, Weiner, Tickled, Cameraperson, Fire at Sea.
The Year's Worst Films
1. Collateral Beauty The movie I called “Chicken Poop for the Soul” had me squirming in my seat as Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris (of best film Moonlight), and others reduced themselves to playing out one of the battiest scripts ever. Ostensibly a Frank Capra-style fantasy with delightful characters, this was in fact a painfully stupid two-hour Hallmark card.
2. Keeping Up with the Joneses Only in a well-populated movie theater can one truly appreciate the sound of silence when a character boasts she could crack a walnut with her vagina. And that, my friends, is the funniest joke in Keeping Up with the Joneses, a spy-meets-squares “comedy” vehicle for Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, and Gal Gadot that was truly all mindless mayhem, no laughs.
3. Mother's Day In honor of director Garry Marshall (R.I.P. 2016), a very likeable man, I will refrain from again knocking his final film Mother’s Day in print. Except to say, yeah, it was the third worst movie I saw this year
4. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 Nia Vardalos’ fourteen-years-later sequel doesn’t offer many “good” laughs. They’re mostly retrograde “aren’t ethnics funny?” laughs that would’ve felt more fitting in a movie fifty years ago than one from today: outlandish stereotypes, shameless mugging, cheap Greek references, and broad staging amount to a gaudy big-screen sitcom.
5. Demolition The clodhopping symbolism of a laughably by-the-textbook but utterly clueless script spells the kind of mawkish movie that casually moviegoing Spencer’s Gift shoppers may love but that will make literary-minded cineastes want to claw their eyes out. Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper: you read the damn thing, and sorry ‘bout it: you asked for it.
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