2016’s BEST, WORST, SCARIEST
by Glenn Lovell
Yes, it was that kind of year —
We began 2016 convinced that “The Manchurian Candidate” was a farfetched Cold War thriller, that Hollywood studios would always be defined by soundstages and façade streets … that movies directed by people of color, like “Selma” and “Straight Outta Compton,” didn’t stand a prayer at the hands of a white-centric Motion Picture Academy.
We finished out the year as rattled extras in a real-life conspiracy thriller (“The Moscow Candidate”?) … as we watched movies produced and distributed by Amazon Studio and Netflix (last year’s “Beasts of No Nation” was, thankfully, no fluke) … and we savored a bumper crop of deserving films about the African American experience, directed by and starring African Americans.
Last year’s embarrassing Academy whiteout (#Oscarsowhite) — rightly blamed on systemic guild imbalances favoring middle-age white filmmakers — has all but been forgiven, if not forgotten, in the wake of several black-themed Oscar frontrunners, including “Loving,” “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures” and Denzel Washington’s powerhouse adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
As in years past our favorites came mostly from the indie sector, where imagination and heart made up for meager budgets and fewer f/x. The best of these miraculous holdouts in no particular order:
√ “Fences.” We’ll leave it to others to debate whether this is a filmed stage play in need of “opening up” or great cinema as is. All I know is that this adaptation of the 1983 Wilson play, scene for scene, packs more of an emotional wallop than the rest of this list combined. Washington, who also directed, plays Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage man and former Negro League slugger whose bitterness at being passed over by the majors and life in general has left him seething inside, a veritable Vesuvius about to blow and bury everyone in his working-class orbit. Washington has never been better onscreen; his fuming, furious Maxson is at once a force of nature and a tragic self-deceiver who’s erecting a metaphorical fence to protect his family from an unjust world. Viola Davis can prepare her Oscar speech; she’s that good as the long-suffering but still girlishly smitten wife, Rose.
√ “The Witch.” A spooky period drama that has more in common with “The Crucible” than any found-footage chiller. Robert Eggers’ festival favorite is about a 17th Century wilderness family undone by isolation, sexual frustration and paranoia. Once again we’re reminded that the movies that continue to haunt long after the lights come up deal more in character and atmosphere than machetes through the cranium.
√ “Deadpool.” Marvel’s sick-and-twisted cousin. A wickedly crass, lightning-fast sendup of the played-out superhero oeuvre. Tim Miller, working from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, spares neither the battle royals nor the over-the-top CG mayhem. Ryan Reynolds, spewing bad wordplays, is the demented anti-Spider-Man bent on meting out revenge to his creator.
√ “Midnight Special.” A sci-fi allegory about a kid who may possess apocalyptic powers. Is he heaven-sent or an extraterrestrial Superboy? Jaeden Lieberher plays the boy, Michael Shannon is his protector-father. Similar in some ways to “Arrival,” but better. Directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” this year’s also impressive “Loving”).
√ “Christine.” Rebecca Hall turned in the year’s most unsettling performance in this tough-to-watch docudrama about madness and media. Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a small-market TV reporter prone to mood swings. In 1974, Chubbuck made news when she shot herself during a live broadcast. Fringe auteur Antonio Campos (“Simon Killer”) reminds us that in a world consumed by celebrity 15 minutes of fame is not nearly enough.
√ “The Birth of a Nation.” Audaciously lifting his title from the now mostly vilified D.W. Griffith Civil War epic, writer-director-star Nat Parker chronicles the life and short-lived insurrection of slave preacher Nate Turner. Parker’s Turner, far from being a Sunday school martyr, is depicted as a slowly radicalized leader, who, in the end, thirsts as much for bloody retribution as freedom. That this ambitious, multilayered drama — influenced by Fred Schepisi’s “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and as important in its way as “12 Years a Slave” — didn’t receive its due because of negative press stemming from a 17-year-old criminal charge (for which Parker was exonerated) says a lot about how far establishment media still has to go.
√ “Manchester by the Sea.” The year’s most gratifying character study was directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan (channeling Eugene O’Neill?) and stars a quietly fuming Casey Affleck as a handyman who returns to the Massachusetts town of the title to care for a teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). The experience, of course, opens up old wounds. Somehow, both uncompromising and hopeful. With Michelle Williams in a brief but memorable turn.
√ “Moonlight.” Barry Jenkins’ blunt, unshakable vignette-drama about growing up black and gay in Liberty City, Miami, is structured as three distinct acts. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron from 10-year-old to high-schooler to young man. Inevitably, the years of homophobic abuse, from a crack addict mother and bullying classmates, take their toll.
√ “La La Land.” The feel-good movie of the moment is a song-and-dance odyssey co-starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and a Day-Glo synthetic Hollywoodland, ever a place of nervous dreamers. Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), channeling both classic MGM musicals and the French New Wave at its most self-reflexive, somehow makes us believers in a backlot world of gravity-defying romance.
√ “Paterson.” Jim Jarmusch’s wry meditation on the nature of creativity. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey bus driver who fancies himself a poet in the tradition of William Carlos Williams. Only he’s too much of a literalist to take inspiration from the colorful assortment of dreamers parked, quite literally, under his nose. By far minimalist Jarmusch’s sweetest, most accessible film.
Honorable mention: “The Nice Guys,” “Sully,” “Loving,” “Elvis and Nixon,” “Arrival,” “Hell or High Water.”
√ Best Exploitation: Fede Alvarez’s devilishly clever “Don’t Breathe.” Other gooseflesh specials: “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Green Room,” and, marking Mel Gibson’s comeback in front of the camera, “Blood Father.”
√ Best Foreign Films: France’s “Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart,” a disturbing fact-based tale of a gendarme serial killer, and Chile”s “Neruda,” an ingenious game of cat-and-mouse between the poet activist of the title (played by Luis Gnecco) and a Javert-like police inspector (Gael Garcia Bernal).
√ Best Documentary: Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America.” This towering, almost eight-hour examination of race relations in the second half of the century deserves a spot beside the great docs, including Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity. Edelman places the 1995 verdict and Simpson’s subsequent arrest in Vegas in sweeping sociopolitical context, arguing through childhood friends, teammates, Hollywood cronies, and African American activists that the legendary football star made good on his quest for fame by, instead of standing on a podium with black-gloved fist raised in defiance, assimilating into the rich white establishment. In short, O.J. was the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
√ Worst, or at least, given the talents involved, most disappointing: Nicholas Winding Refn’s DOA erotic thriller “Neon Demon,” Terrence Malice’s free-form “Knight of Cups” (more stream-of-consciousness drivel), the Coens’ yuk-yuk sophomoric “Hail, Caesar!,” Jodie Foster’s well-meant but off target “Money Monster,” Zach Snyder’s typically soulless “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Stephen Hopkins’ squandered Jessie Owens biopic “Race,” Justin Lin’s franchise place-holder “Star Trek Beyond,” and Pablo Larrain’s hardly inspiring “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman’s breathy Jackie Kennedy several shades of cuckoo.