By Will Mann
Manchester by the Sea
If my glowing review of this incredible film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergran didn’t persuade you, then allow me to say again how much this powerful, almost-novelistic film uses a winning script and cast to weave an engaging tale of family, sacrifice, grief and overcoming adversity. I expect I will be coming back to this film many, many times in the future, and it stands as my favorite movie of 2016.
La La Land
I came in not being the biggest fan of movie musicals, and La La Land charmed the pants off of me. Damien Chazelle’s homage to musicals of golden-age-era Hollywood focuses on an aspiring actress named Mia (Emma Stone, in her best role ever) and an aspiring musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, likewise), who fall in love and form a relationship based on nurturing and supporting each other to achieve their dreams. But as their dreams take them to different places, their relationship is strained, and Mia and Sebastian are forced to confront uncomfortable truths. From the get-go, with a rousing number called “Another Day of Sun” involving people in packed L.A. traffic dancing on the roofs of their cars, I knew this film was a winner. The imagery of this movie is instantly-iconic, from Emma Stone floating at the planetarium to their silhouette dance in the stars, and it is nothing short of magical. The film’s imagery is truly breathtaking in all the right ways. It holds your attention and never lets go. And with a bold ending that is both a
devastating and bittersweet reflection on the nature of love, La La Land surprises and impresses at nearly every turn. In a less competitive year, it would be my favorite movie of the year. But this year, it has to settle for a hard-earned, much-deserved second place.
The more I’ve thought about Sing Street since I reviewed it in May, the more it has only grown on me. The music, the nostalgia, and above all, its contagious enthusiasm are enthralling. It might not be the most artful movie of the year, but Sing Street was as fun of a time at the theater as I’ve had in years. Now that it’s on Netflix, if you haven’t gotten the chance yet, be sure to check out this delightful movie!
I don’t have much to add to my initial review, only to say that it is rare for me to call a film beautiful. Usually, when I think or write about a film, I tend to focus on the acting, the writing or the directorial choices. But in a film like Moonlight, where all of those things are so artfully done, and the finished product gives you an intimate, vulnerable, sensitive look at an individual life (not unlike what Richard Linklater attempted with Boyhood two years ago) that is not usually covered in mainstream film or television, I have no better adjective to describe this film other than “beautiful.”
One of my literary heroes in the late African-American playwright, August Wilson. Wilson is famous for his 10 plays, collectively known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” each of which focuses on a decade in the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. I have read several of these plays, but my favorite was always Fences, his play about an aging patriarch dealing with social shifts through his personal relationships to members of his family in the 1960s. The film adaptation (the first theatrical adaptation of one of Wilson’s works) is directed by Denzel Washington, who brings a sensitivity to his direction of this timeless story. Washington’s performance as lead character Troy Maxson is great, but the performance that really impresses is Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, Rose. Seeing the movie is much like seeing the play, in that everything about it, from the performances to the way it was shot and edited, seems to harken back to that level of intimacy only the stage could provide. But Washington brings a level of artistry and interpretation to Wilson’s original text to make this adaptation stand out as faithful, but nevertheless a unique and original vision that does justice to the themes of the original play.
We are in a really great age for horror movies right now. While 2014 had The Babadook and 2015 had It Follows, the best horror movie of 2016 is The Witch, a creepy, nightmarish tale that will linger long after you’ve finished it. The film takes place in early colonial America (circa the 1650s), and one of the things I appreciated most about it was how the language the actors speak seems authentic to that era. A young girl named Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives with her mother (Kate Dickie), her father (Ralph Ineson), and four young siblings on a farm on the edge of a large forest after they are banished from the colony. But after Thomasin’s baby brother vanishes, and her other brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) goes missing, paranoia that there is a witch nearby causing these events starts to disrupt the family’s way of life. They all begin to turn against one another even as supernatural forces become ever-more present. Without giving too much away, by
the end, The Witch could be seen as an empowering, feminist parable, after Thomasin makes a decision that serves as the climax of the film. Using creepy imagery, a familiar story told in a surprising new environment and era in history, and great performances, particularly from Taylor-Joy, The Witch is a film that truly stands out. If the movie succeeds in making a goat named Black Phillip the scariest thing imaginable, it’s a testament to the power of this film.
Captain America: Civil War
Every year, there’s one mainstream blockbuster that’s a complete surprise, that completely wins me over and lands on my best of the year list. And while last year, that honor fell to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, more times than not in recent years, it has been a Marvel movie. Marvel has perfected the art of making really entertaining, engaging superhero movies, and for a prime example of what they’re capable of, look no further than Captain America: Civil War. Featuring an interesting plot about our merry band of Avengers beginning to turn on one another, the typical charming performances of actors like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., and lemme say what just might be the best. Spider-Man. On film. Ever. (I’m looking forward to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Don’t screw this up, Tom Holland!), Captain America: Civil War is an example of Marvel at its absolute best. The airport fight scene made my inner 5-year-old jump for joy. It’s what every comic book fan dreamed of when these movies were announced, and it stands as a testament to why they’re worth continuing to invest time and money in.
This film, one of several to deal with topics in African-American history to call out this fall, deals with the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down the ban on inter-racial marriage. At the heart of this case were Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a married couple from rural Virginia. He was white, she was black. As they fall in love, they are forced to make decisions that threaten to tear them apart, only to be a part of a legal precedent that would change the lives of millions of Americans. Directed by Jeff Nichols (who also directed this year’s Midnight Special, which was… underwhelming to say the least), the film is a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of these people and their story. Both Negga and Edgerton (who, as a former resident of central Virginia, I want to say really nails that accent) shine in their roles. A flashier biopic would really focus on in on the big emotional moments in the Lovings’ life, but this film settles for quiet moments of true, emotional intimacy between a husband and wife. Loving is a very moving film, and worth your attention.
Arrival is a movie that reminds you that, when done right, sci-fi and cinema are a match made in heaven. The film follows a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as flying saucers land all over the world. As she makes contact with the aliens inside one of the ships and tries to find a means to communicate, a bigger mystery begins to unfold. Director Denis Villeneuve (who directed last year’s Sicario, which was okay, as well as Prisoners, which was fantastic) really allows tension to escalate. This is easily the best directorial effort I’ve seen from him, and is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker. And the story, while not without its flaws, is engaging, with a twist that feels well-earned by the end. So, despite all of my praises, is this ranked so low? Well, as much as she might one of my favorite actresses (not just currently-working, but ever), I seem to be the one person on the planet who was not won over by Amy Adams performance in the lead role. She seemed too mopey by half, and her performance didn’t resonate with me as much as her past performances did. Moreover, this movie, while certainly unique, isn’t exactly original. It very much wears its influences, from Contact to Interstellar to Memento, on its sleeve. It’s a testament to how strong the movie is that it can overcome these flaws to still be one of 2016’s most memorable, and overall best, films.
The real-life story of three female, African-American scientists gets the big screen treatment it deserved with Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are three black women working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia during the 1960s. Despite their talents for mathematics and calculation, they are delegated to second-class status in a world still dominated by racism and Jim Crow. But as Johnson begins to be noticed for her talents and subsequently gains a role helping to put astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) in space, Vaughn and Jackson similarly win the admiration of their peers at NASA thanks to new promotions and educational opportunities, respectively. The film culminates in Glenn’s historic orbit around the earth (becoming the first American to do so), with Johnson providing supporting calculations back on the ground. Hidden Figures is simply inspiring, using a real-life history to show a tale of people overcoming adversity and discrimination in order to achieve greatness. If I could find any fault with the movie, it would be that it’s a tad predictable, and falls into some of the melodramatic tropes typical of this kind of biopic. Nevertheless, Hidden Figures provides not just a spotlight on the often-forgotten history during a crucial time in our nation’s history, but does it in an entertaining and meaningful way.
Following the days immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jackie is an intimate portrait of one of America’s most famous and iconic first ladies. Natalie Portman excels as Jackie Kennedy, dealing with her grief in the most public of ways during the most unprecedented of times. What interested me the most was the idea presented in the film of Jackie Kennedy taking a proactive stance in how her husband would be remembered, which relates to bigger ideas of how we remember the past and why certain people are remembered and others aren’t. Jackie is an artful, contemplative movie that is powered by an incredible lead performance, and stands out as one of the best biopics of the year.
If there was a single best documentary I saw this year, it’d be O.J.: Made in America. No question. But, I saw it on TV, so unlike the Oscars, I’m counting it as a TV thing. Therefore, the best documentary film-that-actually-qualifies-as-a-film I saw in 2016 was Weiner, an in-depth look at disgraced former-Congressman-turned-wannabe-New York-mayor Anthony Weiner. As his campaign for New York City mayor starts off with the hope and promise of redemption as he begins to lead the polls, everything comes crashing down when the revelation of more sexual allegations against him. While the behind-the-scenes aspect of a modern political campaign is fascinating, when the crap hits the fan, that’s when it gets really interesting. In particular, watching Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin transform from supportive spouse to scorned, vindictive lover is riveting. Whether you want a behind-the-scenes look at the crazy world of politics, a downward spiral of a former rising star, or a marriage dissolving in front of your very eyes, Weiner has it all, and is one of 2016’s most memorable films.
The Edge of Seventeen
Hey, remember John Hughes movies? Remember when teen movies weren’t all sex romps a la American Pie or Superbad? Boy, I sure do long for those days. But, not all hope is lost, as 2016 provided one of the best teen comedies in years, that has much more in common with something Hughes himself would’ve written/directed than the dumbed-down teen comedy of the past 2 decades. Hailee Steinfeld, in what is easily her best role since True Grit, plays Nadine, a self-loathing 17-year-old social outcast whose life spirals out of control when she catches her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) sleeping with her brother (Blake Jenner, the breakout star of another one of 2016’s great movies, Everybody Wants Some!!). Filled with comedy (most notably by Woody Harrelson’s sarcastic teacher character) and sincerity, The Edge of Seventeen is a healthy reminder of the type of teen movies Hollywood used to make, and may just be the best movie of its genre since Juno.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Given what a rough year 2016 ended up being, “fun” ended up being an unexpectedly important reason to go to the movies, and Richard Linklater’s latest film Everybody Wants Some!! ended up being one of the most surprisingly fun movies of the year. Following a team of baseball players at the University of Texas the week before classes begin, Everybody Wants Some!! will make you long for college again. It feels like the best kind of party, one where all your buddies are there, thanks to the committed performances of the cast and winning script. Whether you’re in a bad mood or a good one, Everybody Wants Some!! will win you over either way.
Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie
When people look back at 2016, it will most likely be remembered as the year of Donald Trump, the year he was elected President of the United States. Well, one film that I hope gets remembered along with that is one of the best political satires in years. Released earlier this year by Funny or Die and currently available on Netflix, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie stars Johnny Depp as Trump, and follows his life story in a hilarious, mocking fashion. With cameos from everyone from Alfred Molina to Patton Oswalt, Jason Mantzoukas to Paul Scheer, Christopher Lloyd (as Doc Brown!) to Room’s Jacob Tremblay (and featuring a theme song by Kenny Loggins!), we might one day look back at Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie as not just a film that predicted a Trump presidency (seriously!), but as a hilarious act of political satire, unique in its place in comedic and American history.
The worst movies of 2016:
Where could I possibly start?
This might not just be the worst film of 2016, it might be one of the worst movies of all time?
That it wastes a great cast on one of the most incomprehensible storylines I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture?
That I would rather hungry, rabid piranhas slowly consume me than ever even think about seeing this movie again?
See, all of that is true. But, at the same time, Suicide Squad is so bad, it barely qualifies as a movie. Unlike the often maligned Batman v. Superman (which, don’t worry, I’ll be getting to in a sec), Suicide Squad doesn’t feature things that are at least done somewhat competently. Things like a good score… or editing… or a screenplay that, ya know, actually makes some semblance of sense? Suicide Squad is this generation’s Batman & Robin, a comic-book movie that not only squanders the potential of its source material, but is so baffling to watch that to call it “competent” or “mediocre” seems an insult to both competency and mediocrity. It is an orgy of action, licensed music and Margot Robbie prancing around in her underwear, trying masquerade as something smarter than the unholy, dumb mess of a film it ultimately ends up being. It brings down talented performers like Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Jared Leto into its steaming, stinking mire. People decades from now will still be making fun of it, still critiquing it, still talking about how it embodied the worst trends of trying to combine a Hot Topic-aesthetic, a rock-and-roll sensibility and comic book origins to produce… garbage. Absolute, utter garbage.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
As a die-hard fan of both of these characters, when the announcement was made that after years, we would finally see the clash between the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader on film, I couldn’t wait. After Marvel dominating the game for so long, it felt like DC was finally going to have its Avengers moment. Well, its moment is going to have to wait a little bit longer, because Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a dud, and a big one at that. The movie seems sliced together from at least 5 different screenplays, and is so jam-packed that characters aren’t given much room to grow and develop. There are numerous plot holes, dream sequences or just poor writing that completely take you out of the movie when you’re watching it. But more than that, it seems like the screenwriters didn’t even seem to understand the characters all that well. The conflict that Batman and Superman ultimately fight over is contrived and stupid. The resolution to that fight is even stupider. And while Ben Affleck as Batman does fine work (while Henry Cavill continues his emo, mopey performance as Superman), Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor is so bad, so needlessly eccentric, it helps to bring the entire movie down around him. Not even Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) first ever big-screen debut in her 75-year history is enough to redeem this movie. It seems more concerned with setting up inevitable sequels, spin-offs, and a Justice League movie that it can’t be concerned with trying to tell a compelling starring two of pop culture’s most endearing superhero characters. It’s not the worst superhero movie I’ve ever seen (hell, it’s not even the worst superhero movie of the year), but Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is as disappointing an experience I’ve had at the movies in quite some time.