My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2016
Hell or High Water
This is a wonderful movie, well-written, solidly directed with nearly perfect performances from top stars like Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster all the way down to Buck Taylor as the old man in line at the bank ("You're damn right I got a gun on me."). But more than that, Hell or High Water is a movie for our time. From the protagonists' efforts to get their land back from the bank that swindled their mother legally but unethically for years to the Texas Rangers who have to do their jobs fully aware they might not be the good guys in this struggle to the common folk caught in between.
"We ain't stealing from you. We're stealing from the bank."
Gil Birmingham is an unexpected force as Bridges' Ranger sidekick. Their relationship mirrors that of the bank-robbing brothers, and informs the motivations for the unresolved finale.
Elvis and Nixon
I've seen this movie innumerable times, in its entirety and certain scenes. The subtlety and finesse of the direction by Liza Johnson, the writing by Joey Sagal, Hanna Sagal & Cary Elwes and especially the performances by Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, and Alex Pettyfer is astounding. There is no real effort by Shannon or Spacey to mimic the voices of these larger than life men of history. Rather the concentration is on the unlikely nature of the true story of the meeting, the encounter, and finally the understanding.
I am always careful to explain in my recommendation of this movie that the viewer will enjoy the experience much more if he or she already has a sense of the magnitude of these iconic figures in history, culture, and lore. Without that sense, many of the scenes may not have the impact they should. Nixon's people outlining the dos and don't for visitors to Nixon's Oval Office while Presley's confidants relay what the President can expect from the King of Rock and Roll. At the same time, Presley, revering the man and the office, practices how he will introduce himself.
More than the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution of the United States, the most requested from the National Archives is the photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon shaking hands during Presley's visit to the White House.
After hearing so many mixed reviews for this movie, I wasn't expecting a lot. It's often just this sort of situation when my expectations get totally turned around. There's so much to like about this film. I love the way in which it was told, the ordering of elements, the plot twists and reveals. I shouldn't have been surprised because it is directed by Gavin O'Connor who is fast becoming one of my favorite directors adding this to Warrior and Jane Got a Gun, and written by Bill Dubuque who wrote The Judge which was my favorite movie of 2014. There is a lot of room for some excellent character work from some of the best, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Cynthia Addai-Robinson and a little known actor named Robert C. Treveiler who is very good as Affleck's demanding father. Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick are their usual competent selves.
The movie clearly had no intention of being a docudrama about autistic adults coping with the modern world, so to whatever extent it got it right with Affleck's portrayal, I was impressed enough to become invested in the humanity and motivations of the character.
When I recommend this movie, I always stress how poor the title is and how much this movie does NOT deal with formal religion. It should have been titled something like The Stolen Toolbox or A Weekend Saving My Dad. And that's the next thing I stress, just how good an actor the boy is in this film, Jaeden Leiberher and has been stealing just about every film he's been in since debuting in St. Vincent. He is so good in underwritten roles in Midnight Special and Aloha. And despite it's ludicrous plot and presentation may even be good enough to almost save the recent Book of Henry.
This is Bob Nelson's first feature at the helm of his won script after gaining acclaim for his script for Nebraska. As much as I enjoyed that film, this one is even better. Just when it seems this story will get caught in the ruts of timeworn expectations, Nelson shifts it in a different direction, not with sharp wrenching turns to stretch believability but enough to make you see things in an unexpected way. Oh, that's where we're going? It made me nod and smile.
This is also an unexpected place to find Clive Owen as a down-on-his-luck construction worker and sometimes absentee father, but he nails it and gives the movie it's shaky foundation. Robert Forster, who can do more with three minutes of screen time than most actors can do with ninety, does it again here. Patton Oswalt, Maria Bello, Tim Blake Nelson, and Matthew Modine all provide their own moments of solid support.
Jane Got A Gun
It's extremely rare to have two films in my top ten from the same director, but Gavin O'Connor's Jane Got a Gun was such a troubled production, replacing Michael Fassbender and Jude Law in the cast and then starting filming in 2013 only to have numerous other financial and production problems until it was finally finished in 2015. Then had trouble getting released with marketing and distribution issues pushing it back into 2016.
Given all that, it's a wonder it turned out as good as it is. A distinctive western, not exactly in the pantheon of the tradition classics, but also not weighed down by the ponderous constraints of the post-modern western. By all indications, the production became a mission for Joel Edgerton who traded his original role as the villain for the former jilted lover and recruited aid for the title character. Leaving the meaty role of the bad guy to Ewan McGregor who cast against type does a masterful job. Natalie Portman is the grim but stalwart soul of the story.
I'm an easy sell on any western that comes down the pike, but this is just a compelling story well-told.
At first glance, this appears to be a straightforward, no-frills relating of an unknown contribution of three black women to the success of the space program, but that is, perhaps, it's greatest strength. Director Ted Melfi likes to sprinkle his cinematic touches on a thinly layer landscape so they shine almost in afterthought. This is Melfi's second feature after St. Vincent which was near the top of my best movies of 2014 so I am impressed with his work. Much of his skill, like all good directors, is in providing his cast with the tableau for them to do what they do best. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Kevin Costner do not let him down.
I am not familiar with Janelle Monae's music, but she stands out in both this film and in the Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight. Speaking of Moonlight, Mahershala Ali bolsters a much more difficult role in this film than his abbreviated, stilted, head-scratching Oscar nod in that film. Kirsten Dunst also rescues a potentially melodramatic role and makes it human.
Anyone looking for a documentary or a history lesson from this movie will be able to find plenty of dramatic license and inaccuracies to quibble about, but the tenor and intent are right on. This is just pure and simple very fine filmmaking.
The Girl on the Train
I came to this movie as one of the few literate people in the world who had not read the book. I came to it also having heard and read a majority of reviews which were lukewarm at best and scathing at worst. It is not a movie without its flaws, but I was impressed early on while watching. I kept being impressed the more I watched. I was on alert for the missteps, the plotholes, the wrong turns. Certain I must have missed something, I re-watched it. I was even more impressed.
Again, I haven't read the book, but unless I missed something, this is a really good psychological thriller. The first time through I was expecting some version of unreliable narrator who fools us as the audience as well as themselves, but this story stays true. The resolution is as strong as the set up.
Emily Blunt is more than credible as the protagonist. Alison Janney is not surprisingly amazing in the thankless role as the confused but anything stupid detective. Lisa Kudrow perfectly underplays a small role. Haley Bennett who was also good in Denzel's The Equalizer is one to watch.
This one makes the list based predominately upon the performance of Viola Davis. Those who know me know my adage Daniel Day-Lewis is always the best actor and Viola Davis is always the best actress. I am so happy she finally won the Oscar she had coming for so long, certainly for The Help and probably for Proof.
Even though I never quite get all of Lanford Wilson, I do find the parts to be more persuasive than the whole. It can sell is always good but even he can't evoke enough sympathy t redeem this character. However, Michael T. Williamson is inspirational as his brother, Gabriel and Jovan Adepo more than holds his own as his son, Cory. Stephen McKinley Henderson deserves special mention for his exemplary work in the role of longtime friend, workmate, and moral conscience.
Free State of Jones
Here's another Mahershala Ali performance that is better than his short work in Moonlight. Beyond that, I was drawn to this movie because it dealt with an important issue in American history which has been largely ignored if ever included in the teaching of our past. I really liked the way the movie bookended its story by showing how relevant the issue still is. Finally, in a similar way that Hell or High Water is a movie for our time, I found this movie to have a message which should transcend all times. " It ain't my fight, you know? Don't own no slaves. Ain't gonna die so they can get rich selling cotton."
"I mean, they just pick cotton for 'em. You-You was willin' to get killed for 'em."
In addition to Ali's and another fine performance from McConaughey, I am so impressed with the work of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I really believe she has the makings of a star.
I am not going to delve into the incongruities, inconsistencies, or logic puzzles which have already been hashed and rehashed regarding this movie. Like The Matrix, Inception and Interstellar, I began to enjoy this film as soon as I gave up trying to figure out it's plausibility.
I liked the fact that Jeremy Renner's character wasn't just an antagonistic prick, but rather a character as intelligent and curious as his credentials would suggest. I liked the non-linear storytelling fit together with the non-linear resolution. I liked that the aliens were named Abbott and Costello. I like any movie with Forest Whitaker and/or Michael Stuhlbarg.
For Visual Effects and Superb Casting!
The Jungle Book
I don't see the new version of the Jungle Book with its lush mixture of live and CGI action as being one of the top ten films of the year, but I am giving it a special mention because of the perfection achieved in casting. Not that it wasn't a very well-made and entertaining movie because it is, but the sheer joy from a geeky, film-nerdy perspective of having Bill Murray in all his Bill Murray-ness infusing Baloo the Bear with just enough heart to make it so much fun to laugh at the sloth. Ben Kingsley as the wise and benevolent black panther, Bagheera and Idris Elba, so perfectly menacing as the man-eating tiger, Sheere Khan.
The kicker, the absolute knock-it-out-of-the-park homer, is Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus, King Louie. The 1967 Disney animated feature introduced King Louie with jazz great Louis Prima as the voice, and although his "I Wanna Be Like You" is a classic, Walken's version is so quintessential it is a permanent smile.
The movie also features Garry Shandling's final film role of sorts as the voice of Ikki, the porcupine who monitors the peace of the watering hole. Kudos also to Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the enticing snake, and Lupita N'yongo and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's wolf parents.