Our demanding critics choose the best (and worst) films of the year.
By Arts Fuse Staff
Arts Fuse film critics serve up their best-of-the-year picks in film. But, given the independence of mind of our thoughtful reviewers, don’t expect any predictable agreement on the selections. Manchester by the Sea is a hit for one critic and a downer for another.
The Arts Fuse
Best Narrative Film of 2016: La La Land
Best Documentary: OJ: Made in America
Best Foreign-Language Film: Mon Roi (France)
The Rest of the Ten Best: Certain Women, Gleason, The Salesman, Hell or High Water, Moonlight, Sonita, Tower
The Most Overrated Film of 2016: Manchester by the Sea
The Most Odious Film of the Year: Nocturnal Animals
The Worst Film of the Year: Miss Sloane
The Most Overrated Performance of 2016: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
The Most Underrated Performance: Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.
Top Ten (plus one)
1. La La Land – Ryan Gosling plays piano and Emma Stone plays an actress, two lost souls who imagine a Hollywood future that, at any moment, can seamlessly morph into a dream and break into song. Stone is riveting, the chemistry is perfect, and the set pieces are breathtaking. Movie love at its best.
2. Loving – This story of the mixed race couple that helped change American miscegenation laws focuses on Mildred and Richard Loving’s honesty, integrity, and commitment to one another without melodrama. It is buoyed by two of the year’s best performances.
3. Moonlight – Told in three chapters that bravely explore a black man’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality and moves into adulthood. It is riveting at every level: story, cinematography, ensemble acting. It is particularly notable for its patience, quietness, and courage.
4. Fences – Denzel Washington directs and stars with a cast that does justice to the rich language of August Wilson’s play. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s at the home of Troy, Rose, and Cory Maxson, the story grapples with history, fate, hubris, family, race, fathers, and sons. A giant work of the theater brought with honesty and integrity to the screen.
5. The Witch – Based on stories of Salem witches, the film imagines what it would be like if witchcraft was more than mere hysteria. It slowly becomes outrageous and chilling, and there’s a heart-stopping finish.
6. Paterson — Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani are adorable as a married couple who love and support each other. He drives a bus and writes poetry while she designs clothes and bakes great cupcakes. This film awakens us to the magic and wonder of the ordinary.
7. Hail Caesar – The Cohen brothers’ tribute to classical Hollywood is silly but filled with enough clever Hollywood tropes, references, and set pieces to make it a genuine (if modest) treat for movie lovers.
8. Jackie – Director Pablo Larraín treats Jackie Kennedy’s life in the days following her husband’s assassination as if it was a fever dream. She chain smokes, puts on a brave public face, and builds a mythology around a life she never really wanted. Mica Levi’s dizzying score adds to the surreal quality.
9. A Bigger Splash – In Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous film, a rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her filmmaker husband (Matthias Schoenaerts) enjoy the good life relaxing on Pantelleria Island. Until an old friend (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson) show up—then the movie drops us on our heads and we watch as the rich unravel.
10. Manchester by the Sea – Casey Affleck’s understated performance and Michelle William’s wicked tough Massachusetts housewife and mother —along with Kenneth Lonergan’s ear for everyday speech—turn the circumstances of a tragic life into a celebration of the common man.
11. Wiener Dog – I have to add director Todd Solondz’s odd and puzzling, funny and awful story of a dachshund who is passed from owner to owner. The film is, as he puts it, “cruelty and tenderness, or comedy and pathos, rubbing against each other.” I love the confusion, but there is also considerable heart at the center of this story.
Allied – This is the big WW II spy epic starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Maybe this was supposed to be a throwback to old-style filmmaking, but it comes off as just plain old. You cannot have a plane crash in your backyard and, while the machine is still smoking, take your new baby out for a picnic, where it takes its first steps. Cotillard is so talented and beautiful I’d watch her read a phone book which, come to think of it, would be more compelling than this stagey hokum.
American Pastoral – Ewan McGregor directs Philip Roth’s novel with an earnest soullessness. Too many scenes feel forced; a good story degenerates into a collection of scenes that go nowhere. McGregor brings far too cozy an air to the part of a desperate father venturing into America’s dark heart in order to find his daughter, who has become a revolutionary. Dakota Fanning is too elegant to play the dreary role of the daughter; she adds no dimension to the character and ends up looking ridiculous.
Jack Reacher – Expectations weren’t high to begin with, but this could have been a guilty pleasure. Instead, it is one more silly franchise movie. Tom Cruise’s use of Kabuki facial language—clenching his jaw in close-ups, raising quizzical eyebrows—adds to the laundry list of visual (in)action clichés.
Favorite 10 Foreign Films
This year the selection happens to divide evenly between male and female directors.
1. My King (Maïwenn, French)
2. Tony Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany, Austria)
3. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, French)
4. Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, Korean)
6. Breathe (“Respire”) Mélanie Lauren, French)
7. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
8. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, French, German, and Belgian)
9. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, British)
10. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine, French, and Polish)
1. Do Not Resist
2. O.J.: Made in America
5. I Am Not Your Negro
7. Princess Shaw
8. Author: The JT Leroy Story
9. The Music of Strangers
10. Eight Days a Week: Beatles on Tour
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.
Best and worst of 2016
Top 10 + 1
1. Moonlight: Raw, blistering, and wholly human right through its final moments of catharsis. The ensemble cast shines. All three actors playing Little, Chiron, and Black deserve awards, but the eldest, Trevon Rhodes, dazzles with his ability to channel all three characters simultaneously.
2. The Lobster: A polarizing movie no doubt, but if you buy into the premise, the dark satire runs deep. A sardonic exploration of of just how hard we struggle to connect to other people. Impressive in its shifts from snarf-your-drink funny to melancholy longing.
3. Green Room: An underwatched thriller, taut and intense. Patrick Stewart hasn’t been this menacing since his performance as Claudius in Hamlet a few years ago.
4. & 5. NUTS! and Weiner: Two documentaries for an election year like no other. NUTS! may be the most relevant to the coming Trump era of fact-irrelevant discourse, a meta-film about why we believe what we believe, and how easy it is to fool others with versions of the “truth.” Weiner documents the ever-tightening voyeuristic chokehold of media and politics. We are accused of being guilty of wanting to be entertained rather than choosing to be engaged in substantial debate about the direction of America.
6. Arrival: Nothing like a philosophy and semiotics lesson disguised as a sci-fi invasion flick. Beautifully filmed and edited, reminiscent of a Terrence Malick meditation.
7. The Neon Demon: A film I hated at first for its indulgences but on second viewing came to appreciate. Its long-duration shots, along with the way it wallows in atmospheric menace, places it somewhere between the worlds of Kubrick and De Palma. You will be kept squirming. Nicolas Winding Refn draws fully on his 1980s retro sensibility. The social commentary about beauty and youth is over-the-top, but still compelling.
8. The Witch: Puritans and goats and Satan, oh my! Impressive debut by director Robert Eggers with a noteworthy performance by Anya Taylor Joy as a teen beset by demons on all sides. Leaves you wondering what would be worse: living in Puritan times or eternal damnation.
9. Certain Women: Writer-director Kelly Reichardt moves one step closer to creating a masterpiece with this study of intertwining female lives in Montana. Why are there not more good movies about the struggles of ordinary women?
10. Zootopia: Good children’s movies are more plentiful than ever, but this one rises above the norm with its impish humor and wry if simple social commentary. The sloths in charge of the DMV might be one of the funniest scenes of the year.
11. Cameraperson: Director Kirsten Johnson gives us a peek at her career behind the camera, ingeniously stitching together raw footage to illustrate the complexities, moral ambiguities, and consequences of bearing witness to sometimes unwatchable events.
Manchester by the Sea: Too many moving parts fuzz things up here, with Michelle Williams wasted in too small a role (never mind her Boston accent). Screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan’s writing is top-notch and Casey Affleck is fine, but I walked away thinking that a more compelling film would have focused on the multi-faceted nephew (Lucas Hedges), the film’s real protagonist. Also, note to Hollywood: Manchester (median income $117,000) hasn’t been a working-class haven made up of rough-hewed fisherman since about 1850.
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk: All the attention lavished on the film’s high-frame rate and ultra-HD presentation didn’t make up for the fact that the movie turned out to be an overwrought, overly earnest adaptation of a very funny, biting satirical novel. A mismatch for director Ang Lee’s sensibility.
Trends that are becoming more annoying every year:
1. Foreign films whose release is so limited that I have no choice but to wait to see them on the small screen.
2. Movies such as La-La Land, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and other prestige films that are shoved into limited release during the final weeks of the year.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Peg’s Top Ten Plus: Best, Most Overrated, Most Underrated & Most Disappointing Films of 2016
I don’t know how to describe the “worst” films of any given year because I tend to hope those are the films I have not bothered to see. So, for me, the “worst” films are those that miss the mark, fall short of their potential, or go very wrong-headedly in some crazy direction. Lists are problematic: a weird contest of hype-avoidance, hype-seduction, and trying to remember what you saw back in March that has stayed with you. But hey, they are fun.
Best (My Faves)
1) The Witch: An astonishingly skilled and visionary debut. From director Robert Eggers, who turns a horror archetype on its ear, drawing on deeply-etched imagery from Jungian psychology, the Bible, and medieval woodcuts. The pacing and suspense keeps increasing and the surreal ending is perfect. This film also contains my favorite supporting actor role of the year. Harvey Scrimshaw, as Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb, delivers a white-hot performance that ranges from meek to beatific.
2) The Neon Demon: Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s fever dream about fashion models stars the opalescent Elle Fanning as an ingénue who learns to claw her way to the top. Jena Malone is an icy mentor. This film is coldly erotic, visually mind-blowing, and seriously fucked up. I loved it.
3) The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook’s sensual and epic story, adapted from the British novel Fingersmith, is commendable on every level. Worth seeing for the costumes and art direction alone, this well-acted story about con artists and sexual awakening (to put it mildly) comes off as the kind of finely-wrought cinematic handicraft they don’t make anymore. Scene after scene is heart-stoppingly beautiful, intense, sexy, and sublime.
4) The Love Witch: A candy-colored homage to 1970s horror and sexploitation genre, glossed over with lots of hilarious post-feminist snark. Writer-director-editor Anna Biller also created many of the props and costumes. A visual tour de force, complete with psychedelic lighting, sex magic, Wicca, and a whole lot of cake.
5) In Order of Disappearance: This darkly-funny Swedish-Serbian thriller stars Stellan Skaarsgard as a hard-working civil servant near retirement who is unwittingly drawn into an underground world of criminal murder and mayhem. Features Bruno Ganz as a mob patriarch, and an all-around great cast.
6) Jackie: Moving, stylish, sad, and surprisingly unmanipulative. It’s hard to believe a film about such an iconic event could be so surprising and revealing. Natalie Portman is achingly good. Support from Greta Gerwig and Peter Sarsgaard is also impressive. Best original score this year, by composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin).
7) 20th Century Women: Fabulous ensemble cast in an affectionate — but clear-eyed — look at the year 1979. The events are viewed through the eyes of a teenage boy (Lucas Jade Zumann), his best friend (Elle Fanning), his widowed mom (Annette Bening), their housemate (Greta Gerwig) and her handyman (Billy Crudup). Some found it precious and/or too tightly structured; I loved its multiple perspectives, honest performances, and incisive dialogue.
8) The Lobster: Coldly intense, surreal, darkly funny, disturbing, and scarily prescient. You either buy into the whacky premise right away, or you scratch your head for two hours. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are terrific. The narrative is maudlin and a bit horrifying, but also refreshing in its originality.
9) Moonlight: Young Ashton Summers is impressive as Chiron, a shy African-American teenager struggling to find his identity and way in a harsh world. Strong performances by mostly unknown actors (except for Naomie Harris in a blistering cameo). Much more subtle than expected, yet still plenty raw and powerful.
10) Elle: Isabelle Huppert is just on fire this year. This controversial film is an unexpectedly humorous but also harrowing story of a woman who reacts to being sexually assaulted with calculating detective work and unexpected courage. After The Love Witch, this is the feminist filmic jewel of 2016.
Most Overrated: Manchester by the Sea (drab to look at and dull to sit through; Casey Affleck is worth watching in anything, though); Patriots Day (superb cinematography and direction, but Wahlberg is ubiquitously annoying); Hell or High Water (Ben Foster is terrific as always, but this is too implausible to take seriously.)
Most Disappointing: Nocturnal Animals (Intriguing art direction, some fine performances, but otherwise interminable. Director Tom Ford knows how to put his stamp on a story, but style over substance is not the way forward for him.)
Most Underrated: Green Room (After Blue Ruin’s flash of blue in every scene, I was wondering if director Jeremy Saulnier would employ subtle color trickery once again; he does! It is also a deliciously unsettling story of a bunch of scrappy millennials fighting to survive a crazy night on tour with their band: great cast in a chilling thriller). Café Society (yes Jesse Eisenberg is miscast and the screenplay is a bit silly; but OMG, cinematography by Vittorio Storaro!)
Honorable Mentions (See them!):
Documentaries: Do Not Resist; Author: The JT Leroy Story; Tickled; Tower.
Narrative: High Rise (genuinely disturbing dystopian vibe, superb cast, smart adaptation from a 1975 J. G. Ballard novel; director Ben Wheatley continues to impress with his visions of England’s underbelly); Mon Roi (first-rate performances, an unusual love story); Krisha (innovative direction; scarily real; knockout sound design); Certain Women (quietly fierce); Paterson (gorgeous direction by Jim Jarmusch); La La Land (Ah, romance! Color design to die for); Things to Come (Isabelle Huppert in another searing role); Kubo & the Two Strings (Amazing hybrid animation effort that draws on stop-motion, CGI, and 3-D printing; magical and wonderful).
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.