Could we say 2016 was a great year in film? It was a mixed bag, with a handful of good but not great blockbusters, and audiences finally voting with their wallets against a slew of generic and unnecessary sequels.
Yet, like the last handful of annual passings, when there was a film that dared stand out and do something against the grain, it tended to be excellent. Some strong ones are missing from the list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture, but luckily, the majority of the films that ended up on this list are incredibly strong efforts, which makes ranking them a tough yet privileged task.
Now, just to spell it out, this ranking list is based solely on the quality of the films; it’s not speculating their possibility at winning the top award category.
“Lion” has a intriguing hook to its premise – a globetrotting, decade-spanning chronicle of an Indian orphan finding his home in Australia, but yearning for the motherland when he becomes an adult. It certainly has several other things going for it as well, with a strong roster of impressive actors (Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman) and a stunning and naturalistic visual style from director Garth Davis (co-director with Jane Campion on the haunting first season of “Top of the Lake”).
As one can imagine, there’s plenty of ripe dramatic conflict from which to mine, but sadly, when the film wants to make an emotional point, it lays it on in a thick and melodramatic way, yanking you out of the story instead of making you implicate to the material. Also, its exciting and unpredictable momentum built up in its first half slows down leadenly as it heads to the finish line.
It’s a shame, because you can’t fault the film’s noble heart and its genuine passion for the subject matter with plenty of talent backing it up, but overall, it just couldn’t add up to the heart-wrenching journey the filmmakers intended.
8. Hidden Figures
This sweet-natured feel-good movie gives an overlooked piece of history its due – a group of overlooked mathematicians who were vital to the structure and engineering of some of NASA’s finest moments in their Cold War space race. Oh, and they happened to be black women in the segregated world of early 1960’s America (hence the title).
Taraji P. Henson, in a rare lead role, plays the dowdy lead mathematician who rose to prominence and respect through her literal genius and admirable spirit, and as usual, she manages steals absolutely every single moment she’s on screen. She’s given given solid support by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, singer-turned-actress Janelle Monae, and catchy original tunes by Pharrell Williams in this enjoyable antidote to bland blockbuster fare.
Still, the proceedings are slight and the plot beats could easily be telegraphed across a body of ocean. Still, it makes for an endearing and even slightly enlightening diversion, although it is easily outshadowed by the big boys on this list.
7. Manchester by the Sea
It must be said from this point on the list, we’re dealing with stellar films on a pretty even keel, so the order is more about preference than varying quality.
Back on the subject – a massive deal about this film is the fact that it marks the first nomination for a streaming company – Amazon Studios – in the Oscar race (remember how Idris Elba got slighted for Netflix’s “Beast of No Nation” last year?).
Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) returned to the director’s seat with this bleaker than bleak tale of loss and the crippling guilt that comes with it. Casey Affleck adds yet another fascinating loner to his repertoire as a Boston janitor thrown into taking care of his nephew after his brother’s (Kyle Chandler) untimely death.
The plot sets up all the mechanics for Affleck’s character to step back on the road to redemption, yet Lonergan quite impressively (and sometimes even frustratingly) refuses to give in to the easy resolutions and stick to his guns about playing things as truthful as possible. It’s a taxing, non-compromising watch that one would hesitate to revisit, yet through its performances and honest writing, it makes a for a rewarding experience and fascinating character exploration.
Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort is based on a respected theatre piece – you’ll need about five minutes to come to that conclusion on your own. Yet, even if it can’t completely shake off its roots, it wears them with pride, biting into the meaty material and thematics with a handful of fantastic scenes and colorfully layered dialogue exchanges, as it examines a conflicted family’s deterioration and the conflict-prone relationships between fathers and sons.
Washington does his best behind the camera to make the world feel alive and breathing, but this is less of a cinematic journey and more an excuse for Washington and Viola Davis to have a series of rip-roaring powerhouse showcase scenes, as they struggle through life as an increasingly alcoholic husband and his equally weary wife. So grand are they that the lesser players (particularly Jovan Adepo) have a hard time stepping up their game when necessary – they just can’t compete.
Regardless, it makes for an intriguing road to travel as we see time take its inevitable toll on a family with its best intentions, becoming misplaced and creating cracks out of craters. It results in a fine film that wishes to deliver plenty of food for thought, although you’ll be walking away buzzing about its leads more than anything else.
5. Hell or High Water
“Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan scored another critical hit with this down and dirty thriller. It’s set in modern days, yet it’s a familiar old-fashioned tale of western outlaws taking on the man, and the lawmen that hunger to take them down. The plot is tried and true, but its grounded and mature approach is what makes this film stand tall.
A trio of fantastic performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges pulled all the plaudits, but it’s Sheridan’s penchant for deep characterization with sparse dialogue and sharp observations that shines as the story’s true star – his written word is excellently accompanied by director David Mackenzie’s (“Starred Up”, “Young Adam”) all-grit and zero panache take on the plot.
Sure, the material is predictable, and if you sat it next to the 70’s genre hits it so wishes to emulate, it could easily get lost in the crowd. Yet, in today’s day and age, it’s infinitely refreshing to find this rare sort of beast – a thrilling, emotionally moving genre film made for adults.