Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Best of 2016 So Far

It is now time to rank my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.  I always say 'so far' because when I write out my list, there is almost always some highly acclaimed film I didn't get around to seeing when I post this. 

I make no claim that these are the absolute Best Films of 2016.  They are only the Ten Best Films that I have seen.  Every year, I give a film a rating from A+ to F (sometimes even an F-, showing just how awful it is), and then list them to other films with similar ratings.  I then use the 'which would I rather watch' method to select which goes higher. 

Without further ado, my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.

10.) Race

Pretty much forgotten now, Race is a bit by-the-book when it comes to biopics that are also inspirational stories.  However, this biopic of Jesse Owens with focus on his triumph in the 1936 Berlin Games was a crowd-pleasing film.  It also had strong performances by Stephan James in the role of Owens (and I hope to see more of him in the future) and Carice van Houten, who managed to somewhat rehabilitate Leni Riefenstahl as a heroine versus the Nazi propagandist she is seen in some circles.

09.) Fences

While brought down a bit by the fact that it doesn't expand on the stage origins, Fences is help up again by really great performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.  If the film turned out to be the filmed version of the play, I'm not going to quibble when we have these performances on film forever to enjoy.

A better title for Manchester By the Sea might have been A Grief Observed, as this portrait of a man's emotional agony over a terrible and tragic loss manages to be truthful and honest.  It is a haunting film, one anchored by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges in standout performances.

It's been a long time since a Star Wars film managed to be good.  The prequels were a collection of horrors, and The Force Awakens was nothing more than a remake of the original trilogy in all but name (Star Wars: The Remix, as I called it).  Rogue One is different: it manages to create its own story but keep it within the larger Star Wars universe. It has diversity in casting (a female lead, Hispanic and Asian actors all about), which is a plus, and moreover, it doesn't have many if any shout-outs to the Star Wars mythos.  No fan service here, which interestingly enough makes it a true love letter to those fans.

06.) Moonlight

A review of Moonlight is upcoming, but in brief, it is a hypnotic, dreamlike tale of a young black man's evolution to self-awareness and self-acceptance.  It is sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes tender, and sometimes all three at the same time.  A haunting tale of love, loss, regret and a form of redemption, Moonlight stays with you after you finish it.

Inevitably, there is a documentary in my Top Ten List, and this year, so far only one has cracked the list.  I Am Not Your Negro is relevant to today's very complex race issues: the dichotomy of Barack Obama's elevation to the Presidency versus Black Lives Matter.  With intellectual 'Negro' writer James Baldwin serving as our guide (with narration by an uncharacteristically soft-voiced Samuel L. Jackson), I Am Not Your Negro tells us that things still are askew, and they need to be rectified before things slip further out of control.

04.) Jackie

Another case of A Grief Observed, Jackie covers the days immediately following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, where his widow, Jacqueline aka Jackie, struggles between her immense private grief and the duties of a widowed First Lady.  Natalie Portman gives a simply astonishing performance, getting not just the voice and mannerism of Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis), but also that of a woman eaten up by guilt, anger, rage, agony, and in the end, a semblance of peace.

As a general rule, I'm not big on remakes, but The Jungle Book is a case of a remake done right. Neither slavishly connected to the Disney film or rebelling against it, The Jungle Book uses CGI to enhance the story versus distract from it.  It's such an astonishing work that one takes on faith that they are real animals and a jungle and not computer creations.  It can be enjoyed with or without having seen the Disney version, and a welcome presence in any family viewing.

It is doubtful that the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 had an effect of ending Hillary Clinton's sixteen-year campaign to return to power in her own right as the first female President of the United States (and the first former First Lady to be elected President herself).  However, I don't think 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi would have been playing at the Javits Center the night she lost the election.  Derided by some as right-wing propaganda, beloved by others as a tribute to courage under fire, for me 13 Hours is open to all types of interpretation.  It's a surprise that Michael Bay toned down his overblown manner (though not eliminate it completely).  Tense, moving, and more nuanced than either detractor or supporter may think, it is a movie that left me impressed long after its release.

And my Number One Movie of 2016...

Yes, I can see where criticism of Hidden Figures is sensible.  A bit too on the nose with some dialogue, an unapologetic call to be 'inspirational'.  However, I simply loved the film.  I cheered these extraordinary women, got mad when they were put down, and saw a wonderful story acted so well.  Major props to Taraji P. Henson for showing her great range (who would believe this meek mathematical genius could be the same fierce, Lady Macbeth-type Cookie Lyons on Empire?).  Any film that chronicles an unknown story, that gives credit to people who long deserved it, and which celebrates both intellect and what makes America great is almost always going to win my heart.

It hit me emotionally, and with great performances and a fascinating story told well, Hidden Figures is my Best Film of 2016 So Far.

Next Time, my Ten Worst Films of 2016 So Far.

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