Here we are. Amid the political chaos, we still all be able to sit around the fireplace, cozy up with a cat on our lap, enjoy some fine wine and watch the Oscars.
I have a very warped view of how people watch TV.
Last year, controversy surrounding the Oscars centered on the lack of diversity within the acting nominees. This year is one of the most diverse ever, and instead, the biggest fear is whether the Trump administration will even allow the Best Foreign Film category to exist anymore.
All jokes aside, let’s stick to movies here. I’ve studiously watched every noteworthy film that came this past year, and have carefully crafted my rankings — with one small exception. For the second consecutive year, I have not seen the Star Wars movie.
When I compiled my list last year, I said that when I did see it, I would insert it into the Top 12 if it belonged there. I finally saw it weeks later, enjoyed it, but decided it was not one of the best 12 movies of 2015. When I see Rogue One, I will apply the same rule. If it deserves to be included on this list retroactively, I will return and add it.
One last note — the streak of my top-ranked film failing to win the Academy Award ended last year when Spotlight took home the top prize. Will it start a new trend? Probably not.
12. Nocturnal Animals
This year was probably the hardest yet to settle the Top 12 – too many films deserved to be here. But Nocturnal Animals evoked such a visceral reaction in me while I was watching it that I couldn’t leave it off. A tour de force of drama and suspense, led by stellar acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson, while vividly imagined by director and fashion icon Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals puts you in the middle of a situation that we all have nightmares about – being terrorized by young hooligans on a deserted road with no cell service. You can’t help but become personally invested into what happens to these characters, even though, deep down, you know it won’t end well. It probably won’t happen, but Michael Shannon is a dark horse to win Best Supporting Actor.
11. Eye in the Sky
Another movie that takes you on a whirlwind, suspenseful ride. Eye in the Sky is an extremely relevant drama that takes you behind the scenes of 21st century warfare, where wars are no longer fought in the trenches, but in situation rooms and through computer screens and cell phones. It takes place in real time, with military officials making the life-or-death decision to order a drone strike on suspected terrorists in Africa. As the officials weigh the moral components and collateral damage of such an attack, we witness the bureaucratic protocols in which leaders from multiple countries must go continuously up the ladder to receive approval for the strike. All the while, we witness the varying mindset of the players as we get further away from the thick of the action, from the drone pilots with their fingers over the trigger, to defense secretaries who are in foreign countries engaging in a ping pong tournament. A powerful performance by Helen Mirren adds credibility to the action, while Alan Rickman, in what was tragically his final performance, is another scene-stealer, and delivers by far the most poignant line in the movie at the film’s close.
10. Hidden Figures
This is just a heartwarming story wrapped in important American history. It depicts three black women in NASA who were instrumental in getting our country’s first astronaut, John Glenn, to orbit Earth. The film does not sugarcoat the hardships these women endured in the years immediately preceding the height of the Civil Rights movement. But the film does not serve to critique the obvious injustices of the time, but focuses on the incredible resolve displayed by its three heroines, portrayed wonderfully by Taraji P. Henson, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer and the beautiful Janelle Monae.
9. Hell or High Water
The story behind Hell or High Water is nothing too original: a local sheriff in a game of cat and mouse with two low-life, sibling bank robbers down south. But the film is as much a character study as it is a crime story. An engrossing script mixed with beautiful visuals and highly believable acting by Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster makes this a highly entertaining and deeply fulfilling watch on many levels. Think of it as No Country for Old Men-lite.
8. Captain Fantastic
Captain Fantastic definitely takes the crown for being the most original film of the year. It’s about a father who raises his six children in a small home in the Washington wilderness, far away from civilization. They live cell phone free, and the father (Viggo Mortensen) makes sure that his kids are well-read, physically fit, resourceful and intellectually independent. But when a death in the family forces them to travel into the “real world,” the consequences of their isolated lifestyle begin to show, as the kids start to experience all of the things that they’ve missed out on. Viggo Mortensen is the driving force of the film, and I’d have been incensed has he not been nominated for Best Leading Actor. It’s a family drama mixed with many laughs, though it does get a bit corny at the end.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
Directed by the always controversial Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is definitely a bit heavy on the religious allegories. But if you let those slide, then you’ll enjoy a no-holds-barred, violent war drama (at least in the second half – the first half is basically just a love story, which has its endearing moments). If you’ve seen Apocalypto, then you’d know that Gibson holds little back in terms of physical brutality. And war offers plenty of room for brutality. We watch a single battle in Okinawa, where conscientious objector Desmond Doss (fantastically played by Andrew Garfield) becomes a combat medic. At first shamed and mocked by his peers for his pacifism, he proves heroic as he risks everything to save dozens of lives that had been left for dead in the battle’s aftermath. What makes it more stirring is that it’s based on Doss’s real-life achievements. It’s a definitely a story worth knowing.
Silence got almost no love from the Academy Awards, possibly because it came out too late in the season, or because its subject matter is too esoteric for most moviegoers. But quite simply, it’s a work of art. It involves two priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to promote Catholicism and discover the whereabouts of their former teacher (Liam Neeson). But as you will learn, Catholicism was not welcome in Japan at the time. It’s slow-paced, but is full of elegant scenery and poses a relevant reminder of religious tolerance. Again, there’s no other words to describe it but as a work of art, and what else would you expect from Martin Scorsese? It may not have gotten a lot of love in the short term, but I think Silence will be fondly remembered in the future.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Yes, we know. It’s sad, depressing and will probably leave a lot of viewers feeling unfulfilled. But the bottom line is that Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully crafted, intricate film about dealing with tragedy. Life isn’t always about happy endings or redemption. Sometimes it just goes on. And in a strange way, it tells us that dealing with everyday trivialities can be a healing remedy through this beautiful and horrible thing we call life. A lot of people will be pulling for Casey Affleck to take home Best Leading Actor, and he’s got a fighting chance, but I personally believe that the award will go to Denzel. Stay tuned.
This movie could not be more relevant, given the political and international landscape we’re living in now. Yes it involves aliens, but the entire movie is basically a commentary on how civilizations treat outsiders. It also shows us the deep problems that can arise from even the subtlest differences in language and mindsets. Most importantly, Arrival encourages us to try and look at things from a different perspective, and to be empathetic towards those who think differently than us. It’s a very thought-provoking movie, and driven by a deeply tense and suspenseful tone generated by director Denis Villenueve, and by a compelling, natural performance by Oscar snub Amy Adams.
3. La La Land
The movie that was loved by all. La La Land is impossible not to like. First of all, you can’t take your eyes of the screen, as your dazzled by the allure of its attractive leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the beautiful Los Angeles scenery and enjoyable music and choreography. It’s an ode to all those who dream of making it big in Hollywood. And it’s pretty evident that it sets the landmark for the 21st century musical. It tied the record for most Oscar nominations, and while director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone may take home some trophies (though Natalie Portman or Isabelle Huppert might have a say in the latter), look for La La Land to take home a bunch of awards in the set design, costume and musical categories.
I’ve heard this movie referred to as “Boyhood for black people,” but I think that comparison is a huge disservice to both films, as each are their own unique works of art. Moonlight depicts a young black boy during three stages of his life as he progresses into adulthood. There are three acts and the boy is played by a different actor in each. What makes Moonlight so extraordinary is that it depicts the everyday struggles of being black and poor in America, while not shoving race in your face. It’s a personal, intimate story that can apply to everyone. And that’s not to ignore the racial component. After all, it’s what gives the film its identity. But at the end of the day, it’s a story of life, well told by director Barry Jenkins. Look for Mahershala Ali to take Best Supporting Actor, and pay attention to his speech. In my eyes, it’s between Moonlight and La La Land for Best picture. I’m calling Moonlight.
I grappled with #1 and #2 on this list, but at the end of the day, I gave it to the film that impacted me the most personally. Lion is a remarkable story about a Indian toddler named Saroo who gets separated from his brother one night, and accidentally ends up traveling thousands of miles away by train. And he has no idea where home is. Bear in mind this is in the 1980s, where you can’t simply look it up on Facebook or Google Maps. He is later adopted by an Australian family. But once he hits his 20s, Saroo, now a college student played by Dev Patel, returns home to find his family. And it’s all true. What the movie does so well is convey the inner conflict that is raging within Saroo, knowing his birth mother never knew his fate and the grief that his displacement must have caused her. The movie hits its sentimental peak at the end, and unless you’re a robot, it’s almost impossible not to be emotionally affected. It won’t win Best Picture, but it tugs on the heartstrings and, in my opinion, is the most moving film of the year.
On the outside looking in:
I, Daniel Blake: I really wanted to include this brilliant English film in the Top 12. It’s about an elderly man named Daniel Blake (an excellent Dave Johns), who just suffered a heart attack and is told by doctors he cannot work, though he needs to file for welfare to make ends meet. But the complex bureaucracy of the system fails him, and he struggles to get the help he needs. Along the way, he meets and befriends a poor single mother who endures the same struggles. The film is obviously sending a political message, but also provides you some insight into the lives of people who rely on welfare to survive.
Sing Street: Another movie that everyone should see. Right now. La La Land may have been the best musical of the year, but Sing Street is not far behind. It’s an ’80s Irish high school drama wrapped in a musical, starring a teenage outcast (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who starts a band to win over a girl. It’s just a feel-good film with superb music and lots of laughs. It will be especially endearing to those who love ’80s music. Again, see it now.
Moana: It’s the first time in a while that I left an animated film off the Top 12, and that’s a little saddening, but it’s mostly a testament to the caliber of quality films that came out this year. Anyway, Moana has all the ingredients of a top-notch animated film: a fun and sunny setting, humor, a courageous heroine, animals and The Rock. OK, that last one perhaps isn’t compulsory, but you know what I mean. It also has a catchy Frozen-esque song in “How Far I’ll Go,” which might stun some people if it it beats La La Land for Best original song (it would also make Lin-Manuel Miranda an EGOT winner). More importantly, Moana sends a pivotal message to kids about preserving and protecting our island nations.
Loving: This is another film that portrays a piece of American history that everyone should know about. It’s about an interracial Virginia couple (stunningly portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) who break state law by getting married, and are subsequently kicked out from the state. Advocacy groups learn their story and sue on their behalf, and the case eventually becomes a landmark one before Supreme Court, which legalizes interracial marriage nationwide. But the story is mostly about the couple’s desire to simply live a normal, peaceful life with one another, which is what we all want, but sadly, history had not always allowed.
Fences: Two words: Denzel. Washington. And Viola Davis. And August Wilson. This fim is all about the acting and script. Some people may become frustrated by its play-like atmosphere (the whole film only takes place in like three different places), but you just have to go with it. It’s 1950s Pittsburgh, and Troy Maxson (Denzel) is raising his kids with the same tough love his father raised him. It doesn’t always work out well for them. In fact, more times than not, it doesn’t. It’s an important film about the African-American experience prior to the Civil Rights movement. Viola Davis is an Oscar shoe-in, and Denzel may very well follow. I’d bet on it.
Other solid features from 2016 you should see:
Jackie: Highlighting the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination through the eyes of his widow, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the film presents a grim and funereal mood as it takes us through a pivotal time in American history. Natalie Portman is the heart and soul of the film, as she becomes Jackie Kennedy, capturing her wispy, dreamlike voice with eerie authenticity. She probably deserves to win Best Lead Actress, but ultimately I think it’ll go to Emma Stone.
Paterson: This is a charming, simple movie about finding art and beauty in everyday life. It takes us through a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver (an endearing Adam Driver) who is also an amateur poet. We see his routine of going to work, coming home to his girlfriend (the beautiful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) and sneaking off for a nightcap during his nightly dog walk. It’s a pleasant, voyeuristic glimpse into a life of an everyday man that encourages us to see the beauty in places where we’d never think to look.
The Birth of a Nation: This movie was essentially ostracized from Hollywood and the mainstream because of revelations of past rape allegations of the film’s actor and director, Nate Parker. Which is a shame, because Birth of a Nation depicts a little-known but integral piece of the history of the abolitionist movement, a slave revolt led by slave preacher Nat Turner in 1831, which was a key event leading up to the Civil War. Judging the film alone, it’s a powerful watch and I’d encourage everyone to see it.
The Edge of Seventeen: In case you didn’t know already, Hailee Steinfeld is a star. This coming-of-age, dark comedy focuses on the struggles and expectations of high school life through the eyes of a mostly unpopular female student. Steinfeld makes the film what it is, though a great supporting role by Woody Harrelson also gives it a boost.
20th Century Women: This is a brilliant film, and the sole reason it’s not higher on this list is because I’m simply not its target audience, and it really did not resonate with me. But it shows us the life and struggles of three women of varying ages in the late 1970s, and succeeds in delivering us well-rounded, independent female characters. Brilliant performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and the emerging Elle Fanning.
Kubo and the Two Strings: The second best animated film of the year. It’s fantasy-action-adventure film in ancient Japan starring Kubo, our guitar-strumming, papier-mache-wielding hero who is joined by two friends as they try to elude his evil grandfather. You’ll learn the backstory along the way. In the meantime, enjoy the magic.
Sully: Most people probably forgot that they saw this movie and enjoyed it. Tom Hanks is Chesley “Sully” Sullenburger, the hero pilot who carefully landed a doomed airplane in the Hudson River without a single casualty. But the film shows us the incredible aftermath of the incident that few knew about, where Sully was basically victimized by airline officials for what they believe was unnecessary actions on his part that resulted in the loss of an expensive plane, forcing him to appear at a hearing to justify his life-saving decision.
Passengers: This film got mostly lampooned by critics, and though it has serious flaws in regards to the scientific aspects of the film, the whole movie worked in my eyes as a futuristic love story. If you’re a fan of either Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, you will like this film. if you’re a fan of both, you’ll really like it. And I also must credit an enjoyable performance by Michael Sheen as a bartending cyborg.
Christine: One wonders why this film was even made, or why anyone would watch it, when you consider it’s about a troubled local television reporter who commits suicide on air. A great film to watch with the family! But seriously though, it’s a fascinating character study of Christine Chubbuck, and features an incredible performance by Rebecca Hall. If the film was more popular, she would have been nominated for an Oscar.
Patriots Day: This film takes us into the immediate manhunt to catch the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, which we all still remember like it was yesterday. It showcases the amazing job done by local, state and federal law enforcement in collaboration, and gives us a major emotional release at the film’s end by highlighting the real life victims and their inspiring stories.
Southside With You: The best movie of the year according to liberals, and the worst according to conservatives. But seriously, politics aside, this is just a charming movie that highlights the first date between an ambitious black couple in the south side of Chicago. Those two people just happen to be Barack and Michelle Obama. With great performances by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpters, the film does give some interesting insight into the life developments that lead a man to want to pursue the highest office in our nation.
Indignation: Based on the Phillip Roth novel, Indignation shows us the anxieties and fears that abounded in America during the Vietnam War era. Young Marcus Messner (Logan Lermer) is able to avoid enlistment by attending college, but his own sense of righteousness and indignation — as well as his love affair with a troubled girl (the beautiful Sarah Gadon) — puts him at odds with the university’s dean (Tracy Letts) and jeopardizes his academic career. A fascinating, multi-layered film.
The Lobster: I said earlier that Captain Fantastic was the most original film of the year, but the Lobster might have something to say about that. In a dystopian society, residents in a quasi-detention center are given a certain length of time to find a life partner, or they are transformed into an animal. Colin Farrell’s best performance since In Bruges.
There you go folks. We’ll do this all again in 2018. Just remember one word: Dunkirk (you’ll know why in about five months).