Best of Truthdig’s Film Reviews 2016: List Includes ‘Arrival’ and ‘La La Land’
Editor’s note: From Dec. 23 through New Year’s Eve, Truthdig is running a roundup of the top 10 stories of 2016 in the following categories: Live Blog, A/V Booth, Report, Book Review, Ear to the Ground, Cartoon, Film Review, Live at Truthdig and Truthdigger of the Week.
Given the presidential election and the premature deaths of a surprising number of baby-boomer entertainers, from Prince to Carrie Fisher, 2016 was the worst of years. Nonetheless, this annus horribilis produced a surprising number of great films.
In making my list and checking it twice, I experienced a dilemma: Can I include Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” a Netflix documentary, and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an FX series, as films? While both aired on television, they are what corporations call “filmed entertainment.” And the two were among the best of 2016. Both are on my top 10 list.
Happily, 2016 was a great year for comic relief. Though none of the following comedies made it to my top 10, I really enjoyed Jon Lucas’ and Scott Moore’s “Bad Moms,” Sharon Maguire’s “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” Kelly Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen” and Rebecca Miller’s comic romance “Maggie’s Plan.” It was good to laugh at these relationship comedies. Likewise, it was good to be reminded that in the 21st century, as in the 19th century, courtship is a slapstick enterprise.
The film that best distilled the national mood—the lack of economic opportunity in rural America and the absence of common cause—was David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water,” a tale of two sheriffs trying to capture two bank-robber brothers.
Though this may change when I finally see Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” these are my favorite films of 2016, listed alphabetically:
Arrival—Denis Villeneuve’s atmospheric science fiction about extraplanetary invasion stars Amy Adams as a linguist trying to find a common language with the aliens.
Everybody Wants Some!!—A college-initiation comedy from Richard Linklater, set in the 1980s, when polyester was cool, jeans were high-waisted and guys who were not porn stars boasted bushy, brushy mustaches.
The Fits—An evocative portrait of an 11-year-old female boxer who wants to join the teen cheerleaders practicing in the next room at the Y. Anna Rose Holmer’s film suggests they experience a mysterious adolescent contagion which may be femininity, conformity—or both.
Hidden Figures—Say their names: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. They are real-life mathematicians, all African-American, in 1960s Virginia. Like the astronauts whose trajectories they plot, these brave women enter uncharted territory in contributing to NASA efforts in the space race. They are funny, inspiring and exemplary team players portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
La La Land—Damien Chazelle’s ode to Los Angeles, City of Stars, where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone glitter as two ambitious artists whose career goals and romantic goals collide.
Moonlight—In this coming-of-age story set in Liberty City, Fla., filmmaker Barry Jenkins quietly achieves something that more didactic filmmakers cannot. He brings his camera up close to his characters and gives them the room to share their inner thoughts. The result is like a baptism by hope.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—A legal docudrama is working when you know the verdict and nonetheless are on tenterhooks for 10 hours. Amazing performances by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran, plus a surprising turn by David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, the moral center of this story about celebrity justice in a racially polarized America.
Sully—Reduced to plot, “Sully” is about how a pilot accustomed to being in control reacts in the 208 seconds during which he loses control of his plane. Like so many films from Clint Eastwood, it is about personal responsibility, masculinity, the threat of untimely death and the kind of courage mistakenly thought of as heroic.
13th—The title of Ava DuVernay’s furiously eloquent documentary refers to the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery for everyone but criminals. What this means today is that prisons have become the plantations of the 21st century.
20th Century Women—A tender coming-of-age comedy from Mike Mills starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning as respectively, the mother, fellow boarder and best friend of the central character, a teenage boy who learns from the women in his life how to be a man.
Goodbye to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Patty Duke, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Jones, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Prince, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Rickman, Robert Vaughn, Anton Yelchin and Gene Wilder. And best wishes to Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, who each celebrated a centenary this year.