Ruud’s Rankings: The Top Ten Films of 2016
With the Oscars just around the corner, it’s time for the annual and obligatory “top ten” list. First, of course, let me state my caveat: I did not see all of the movies that came out in 2016. I deliberately skipped some that were pretty clearly sub-par. I missed a number of foreign films and a good number of smaller independent films that never came to Central Arkansas, or that stayed very briefly. But I’m pretty sure I saw more movies that at least 99 per cent of you, so I figure I’ve at least got that going for me.
If you read my reviews with any regularity, you know that my criteria tend to be more literary and less technical than a lot of film critics, simply because of my background. But I value a well- structured plot, interesting and well-developed characters, well-written dialogue, great acting, and interesting ideas more highly than cinematography, editing, and visual or sound effects, though I’m certainly not indifferent to such things. With that in mind, here is my offering of the ten movies that, in my opinion, were the cream of the crop for the past year:
- Fences (Denzel Washington)
This film adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning drama about a former Negro-league baseball player and his family in Pittsburg starred Denzel Washington, who is magnificent in his role as Troy Maxson, and Viola Davis as his wife Rose, who is worthy of a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but for some reason she was nominated in the “supporting” category, when she had more screen time than people considered “lead” actresses. The nomination is a disservice to her and to everyone else in her category. Some found this film slow moving. But to quote my review, “This is a film made from a play, and Washington as director has done very little to translate that medium into the more visual and kinetic medium of film. The physical symbol of the fence, for instance, that on stage serves as a constant reminder of the many barriers (some self-erected) in Troy’s life, has little of that effect here. Troy’s brother Gabriel (played by Mykelti Williamson) is essentially a symbolic character on stage, but here seems simply not to fit in very well. And, of course, the film is very, very talky, with little action that is not verbal and emotional. While Wilson’s language is poetic and often sonorous, there is a lot of it for contemporary movies tastes, and Troy’s constant harangues dotted with baseball metaphors seem a bit heavy-handed in the more intimate medium of the wide screen. But this is a movie you ought to see, for its brilliant acting, its complex and timely themes, and its moving language.”
- Denial (Mick Jackson)
The film recounts the true story of acclaimed writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who is sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) and as a consequence must prove in court that the Holocaust actually did occur. A timely film dealing with “alternative facts,” the film is complex and distressing, but, to quote my review, it “works because of outstanding performances. Weisz is sympathetic as the tough defendant straining at the leash her attorneys have her on. [Andrew] Scott is witty, brilliant, and a bit self-satisfied and smug as the lawyer who got Princess Diana her divorce. [Tom] Wilkinson is logical and dispassionate, frustrating Lipstadt by his unemotional visit with her to Auschwitz, during which she is there to pray and mourn, and he is there to make a forensic examination; but he has his “gotcha” moments in the courtroom, and has a chance there to bristle in anger at the monstrous egoism of some of Irving’s responses. But the outstanding performance of the film is Spall’s. He manages to bring to life a loathsome character who sincerely believes himself to be completely normal and expects to be admired for his contributions to the study of history. So assured is he of the rightness of his work that he refuses to accept the outcome of his trial. The judge was prejudiced against him from the start. It was rigged.” Sound familiar?
- Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s modern-day saint’s life deserves to have garnered more attention than it did this year. A beautifully filmed story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), in 17th-century Japan, who go to find a lost brother and in the process wind up challenged to become martyrs to the faith, this is a thoughtful film with no easy answers. In my review I wrote that “Garfield is suitably tormented as Rodrigues. [Issei] Ogata as the Inquisitor is creepily cruel but rational at the same time, and [Tadanobu] Asano is surprisingly likeable as the interpreter. As Kichijiro, [Yosuke] Kubozuka may be the most memorable actor in the film. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is the one Academy Award nomination Scorsese’s film received, and it is well deserved, showing us the torments of faith amidst beautiful mist-covered mountains. As for the score—well, there isn’t one. By the time you get about halfway through the film, you realize there has been no music, and as the ending credits roll, they roll, very appropriately, in silence.”
- La-La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Chazelle wrote and directed this romantic musical romp that references and parodies old Hollywood through the charming charisma of stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress. The film was a breath of fresh air and radically different from any other movie of the year, for which reason audiences loved it and it seems to have the inside track for a Best Picture Oscar. But I respectfully suggest that, while it’s a good movie, it falls short of being a great one. In my review I said “And what about that plot? Two romantic idealists work through the whips and scorns of reality that tries to knock them down or force them to compromise, but somehow they win through in the end and achieve their goals? That kind of fairy-tale outcome is not unlike the endings of countless Hollywood fantasies of the past—Singing in the Rain included. But in this film, there is a nagging voice that stays in the back of our minds, that comes from John Legend’s character, who asserts to Sebastian ‘You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk—these guys were revolutionaries. How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.’ One wonders if that is in fact the voice of Chazelle himself, warning us that the nostalgia of this film is pretty, but that film needs to be about the future? That theme may be what echoes in the film’s conclusion, in which it becomes clear to the audience that there are limits to the fulfillment of wishes, and that any dream that comes true leaves casualties in its wake.”
- Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
In three snapshots from three different periods in the life of a young gay African American boy, youth, and man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, Jenkins creates a thoughtful, penetrating and truthful psychological drama that is about character and relationships, not plot. I had this to say about the film in my review: “That slow pace is, I suppose, the necessary tradeoff for a sensitive film dealing with the inner man. So if you’re all about action, you probably want to skip this movie. If not, you will find the film rewarding. Whether it will win the Best Picture Oscar is questionable. La La Land, which seems to be the early favorite, is attractive because of its uplifting mood, in sharp contrast with most of the other nominated films, particularly this one. On the other hand, there may be enough sentiment in Hollywood aimed at correcting the ‘whitewashed’ Oscars of last year, that many voters may vote for Moonlight because of its African-American filmmakers and cast. But that would be a political rather than an aesthetic statement. If Moonlight wins it should be because of its high quality filmmaking, which is undeniable. I think it is ultimately a better and more important film than La La Land. I have my own opinions about the year’s best film … [see below!] but Moonlight is certainly a contender.”
- Jackie (Pablo Larrain)
I was impressed by this film about Jackie Kennedy in the days following JFK’s assassination because of its insightful portrayal of the creation of myth, and Natalie Portman’s Oscar-worthy performance, filmed largely in close-up. As I wrote in my review, “Portman is nothing short of spectacular in the role, which keeps her in front of the camera for virtually every shot of the film, and she will be hard to beat come Oscar time. Peter Sarsgaard manages to give us a nuanced and believable Robert Kennedy without trying to do an impression of JFK’s fellow martyr by mimicking his voice or mannerisms. Greta Gerwig is sympathetic as Nancy Tuckerman, the first lady’s friend and aide, and Max Casella is appropriately slimy as the new president’s assistant, bent on putting forward LBJ’s interests whatever the Kennedys want to do. Mica Levi’s dark score accentuates the film’s sorrowful tone. Chilean director Larrain (whose film about his country’s greatest poet Neruda will be released very soon) is masterful in his first English-language film, and [Noah] Oppenheim’s script blends history and imagination brilliantly. I admit that I did not originally intend to rate this film so highly, but since I find I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it nearly a week ago, I feel compelled to give it four Shakespeares. Go and see what you think yourself.”
- Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
This visually stunning film depicts a young boy on a quest to recover the armor of his late warrior father, which will allow him in to defeat a vengeful spirit, is the best animated film in years. And while the power of Disney may convince Academy voters to give Moana the Oscar for best animated film of 2016, it isn’t. This film, which presents itself as a kind of Japanese folk tale, was criticized for not using Japanese actors in the major roles, which is a legitimate concern, but as I said in my review, “I do recommend not letting it spoil the film for you as a viewer, however. [Charlize] Theron, [Matthew] McConaughey, and [Ralph] Fiennes bring the wonderful animation of this film to life in remarkably vivid ways. In the end, this movie has a lot to say about the value of stories, about the value of our own stories and our own histories, about the Japanese virtue of respect for ancestors and their stories—a Shinto torii gate appears in the film as Kubo tries to contact his dead father. Memories and family are the source of strength and hope in the movie, and part of the Japanese culture for which the film shows a great deal of respect, even if that is not reflected in the casting. Yes, I’m giving this film four Shakespeares, and I’m giving it the inside track to win the Oscar for best animated film of 2016.”
- Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)
The best movie of the summer, virtually ignored among all the comic book hero and action thrillers, was this independent film version of Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel Lady Susan, starring a remarkable Kate Beckinsale and a wonderful Chloe Sevigny. Stillman’s adapted screenplay won several awards from regional film critics, and Beckinsale won a best actress award, and Tom Bennett an award for supporting actor, from the London Film Critics Circle, but the film was complexly forgotten by Oscar time here. And that’s an injustice. To quote from my own review, “The actors are all flawless in their roles here, but Beckinsale is the one who must, and who does, make the movie. She is simultaneously despicable and alluring, and you are simultaneously appalled and delighted by what she says and does. Lady Susan is conniving, cunning, scheming, sharp and resourceful, and Beckinsale hits every note perfectly. She’s the kind of character that you would hate to know in real life, but who is totally fascinating to watch in a film. This is the most memorable performance of 2016 so far. But the actor who very nearly steals the movie is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin. Stillman makes much of Austen’s suggestions in her book that Sir James is ‘as silly as ever,’ and describes him in the title cards as ‘a bit of a rattle,’ which apparently is 1790s slang for a complete dolt. Sir James, master of a wealthy estate, is such a twit that he can’t remember how many commandments there are, and has a hilarious scene in which he discovers the joy of eating peas, giggling at the ‘little green balls’ on his plate. Bennett, hitherto known essentially as a British television actor, may have a rewarding future as a comic film actor.” If you missed this film in theaters, try to see it on a small screen somehow. You’ll be glad you did.
- Hell or High Water (David MacKenzie)
In a script that focuses on bank robbers reminiscent of the 1930s but that addresses significant contemporary issues at the same time, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as two brothers following a desperate plan to save their family ranch from the bank that threatens to take it from them, while Gil Birmingham and Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges play the Texas Rangers bent on stopping the brothers’ crime spree. To quote my review, “Hell or High Water has a powerful script [written by Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan], impressive cinematography of the great barren landscapes of the southwest, and a hard-hitting exploration of contemporary social problems. But the performances are what really set this movie apart. Foster is believably undisciplined and unpredictable. Birmingham is sympathetically stoic and sometimes exasperated. Pine shows he is more than James T. Kirk but can dazzle in a role full of depth and complexity. And Bridges? He is what we’ve come to expect, hitting every facet of his character with the apparent ease of a true virtuoso that shows why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.”
- Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
That leaves us with this devastating drama featuring three Oscar-nominated actors: Casey Affleck as Lee, a man trying to hang on after his life has been seared by tragedy, Michelle Williams as Randi, his ex-wife struggling to move on with her own life, and Lucas Hedges as Affleck’s nephew Patrick, whose own life has been set off course by his father’s tragic death. In a perfect world, this film would win the “Best Picture” Oscar, while Affleck and Williams would walk away with acting Oscars. I think it is unlikely to work out that way, but it should. In my review, I wrote “In support of Affleck’s brilliant performance, Hedges gives a convincing and complex portrayal of a sixteen-year old, struggling by turns with the death of his father, the possibility of being torn away from his life as he knows it, the possibility of a reconciliation with his alcoholic mother Elise (an impressive Gretchen Mol), and his own adolescent sexual explorations with two different girlfriends. But it is Williams’ performance as Lee’s permanently damaged ex-wife Randi that raises the film to stratospheric heights. Though she has very little screen time, every second she is on is brilliant. The final meeting between her and Affleck near the end of the film is perhaps the most memorable and unforgettable scene in any film this year. And it is heart-rending because of its understated honesty. Much of that, of course is also due to director Lonergan, who also wrote the screenplay. Lonergan, who began life as a playwright (his play The Waverly Gallery was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), has written in Manchester by the Sea a very play-like script. Some moviegoers will be disappointed by the lack of explosions, comic book characters, and happy endings, and may not know how to react to the fact that people actually talk to each other for more than ten seconds at a time. But if you want quality drama, this is it. And it will devastate you.”
Honorable Mention: Moana, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Dr Strange