Now that the Oscar nominations are announced, it is time to share some of my favorite picks of the year. On a weekly basis, I will detail my picks in a variety of categories leading up to the Oscars.
For now, see below for my top 10 films of 2016!
10. “Toni Erdmann”
Most people’s idea of a crowd pleaser is hardly a nearly three hour German comedy. However, those people probably have not seen “Toni Erdmann” and should get on it. Stat! It’s a simple enough premise. A goofball Dad (Peter Simonischek) surprises his workaholic daughter (Sandra Hueller) with a visit in an effort to get her to lighten up. In the process come some of the funniest comedy set pieces of the decade. Whether it be a nude party, Whitney Houston karaoke or toenail kerfuffle, the film makes one howl with laughter. Yet, in every frame, the divide between Father and daughter is evident. It even makes a broader statement how work and rigidity rules the world and takes away a person’s ability to connect with people. By the end, once one stops laughing, one may feel their heart soar, overcome with emotion they didn’t know the movie was provoking. All that and there are plenty of fake teeth gags to boot.
9. “Hello, My Name is Doris”
Talk about a unique character. Doris (Sally Field) is an old spinster who spent most of her life taking care of her mother and working at a dead end job. After her mother’s death, Doris begins to take her life by force, spurred into action by a new office crush on a much younger man (Max Greenfield). As she goes after this seemingly unobtainable fling, Doris soon becomes a mascot of the hipster community. Sally Field has simply never been better. Her natural star charisma makes Doris lovable, but its the dark shadings of her character that give Doris depth. Do not let the light veneer of the movie fool you, there is heavy lifting going on, both in the acting and writing departments. This is a gem you will not want to miss.
8. “Hidden Figures”
It’s hard not to be boggled both by the accomplishments of the women at the center of “Hidden Figures,” but also by the fact you may never have heard their story before. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monae) and Katherine (Octavia Spencer) are three black women in the 60s working at NASA who all have a hand in helping John Glenn orbit around the moon. What’s wonderfully refreshing about the film is how it focuses on the accomplishments, rather than the hardships. It’s a celebratory film about the extraordinary accomplishments of this group of women. Better yet, it shows they can be wives, mothers, brilliant mathematicians and pillars of the community. They are not one thing or one issue, and they know how to have a good time.
7. “O.J.: Made in America”
Even decades since his infamous trial, O.J. Simpson has captured the American zeitgeist. While “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” illustrated how the trial echoed the tensions of both then and now, this documentary goes even further. Simpson’s celebrity was larger than just the trial. It was the ultimate rags to riches story about a man who flew too high to the sun. As the black community was continuously taken advantage of by the American justice system, O.J. rose higher and higher the more he denied his racial heritage. The murky racial undertones of society laid a fascinating background for the tumultuous journey that would shape our perception of Simpson. It’s a sprawling epic that is engrossing for all 467 minutes of its run time.
6. “Hell or High Water”
There’s something so cathartically anarchistic about David MacKenzie’s modern day western. Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are bank robbers who take from the banks only to repay them with their own money in the form of paying off a home loan they can’t seem to get out from other. Hot on their tracks is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a rough and tumble good ole boy sheriff, and his half Mexican half Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The cat and mouse game is entertaining and expertly plotted enough to compete to be named one of the best of the year. What puts it over the edge is the way it uses civilians to comment on the world its depicting. In many cases, the people in these banks are either complicit or sympathetic to the robbers. As the world and banks cease to work for them, they see no reason to work for the banks. Toby says, “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation.”
It’s hard to believe that the most nuanced and apt depiction of our current fragmented society would come from Disney. The fact that the world is populated entirely with animals does not dilute the point. Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town bunny who earned a spot on the police force in the metropolis of Zootopia. However, while there, she learns no one wants to honor her diversity spot. Placed as a meter maid, she ends up involved in a missing person’s case. She makes an ally in street smart predator Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). As their mystery unfolds, Judy and Nick realize how everything is hinged on the stigmas associated with predators. The central plot is gangbusters, but the dark undercurrent of the world of Zootopia is what makes the film extraordinary.
4. “20th Century Women”
Who thought it would be a good idea to make a movie about how the people closest in our lives are still fundamentally unknowable? Mike Mills did, and he created a God damn masterpiece. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) wants to ensure her son grows up to be a good man. She enlists the fellow tenants and hangers on in her home to help usher him into manhood – tortured artist Abby (Greta Gerwig), emotionally promiscuous Julie (Elle Fanning) and, to a lesser extent, hippie mechanic William (Billy Crudup). The film constantly subverts what one knows about each of these characters. In doing so, it weaves a rich crochet of complex characters who are among the most real creations of the year. Mills’ direction of the film has not gotten the praise he deserves. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson in “Boogie Nights,” Mills is able to peel back the fantasy veneer of 70s Southern California to arrive at a more measured depiction.
Few movies have affected me emotionally as “Lion.” The central story is enough to make one’s eyes well. Director Garth Davis manages to let the story be the star, but adds enough flourishes to keep things interesting. As a child, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), is lost in India at a train station and ends up on the other side of the country in an area where they do not speak his language. His journey to survive without his family makes for a harrowing first hour. It helps that Pawar is an absolute natural in front of the camera. From there, Saroo is put in an adoption agency and adopted by an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley. Saroo is raised by the Brierleys into a successful adult. However, he feels guilty that his birth family doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. He uses Google Earth to go in search of his hometown and find his birth mother. Patel and Kidman bring home the emotions in the second half, building to a climax that will have you reaching for the Kleenex.
2. “La La Land”
Even though the film has only been out slightly over a month, it has already been discussed ad nauseam over whether or not it is a quality movie. Such is the fate of any Best Picture frontrunner. The reason this film has gotten hit as hard as it has is due to its stunning ability to capture a specific feeling. One can simplify this to Hollywood tinted nostalgia beloved by those stuck in the Tinseltown bubble. That is a cheap read of something much stronger. It’s a film that taps into the emotional heights creativity and dreaming can lead a person. The tale of a struggling actor (Emma Stone) and uncompromising jazz artist (Ryan Gosling) isn’t complex. However, the original movie musical centered around sprawling dance sequences is ambitious. Yet, in one line, Mia (Stone) hits the point of the film on its head. “People love what other people are passionate about.” Director Damien Chazelle ups the ante with each shot because filmmaking and artistry is what he’s passionate about. I’m incredibly happy he was able to sweep me away with a film that reminded me why I love film.
Few films are more important or of the time as “Moonlight.” In a world where there are two years of #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter is a headline, honest representation of the black experience, especially the black queer experience, is paramount. “Moonlight” arrives as an oasis. The film is told in three parts. As a young child, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), referred to as “Little,” hides away from his bullying classmates only to be taken in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind drug dealer in the area. Chiron’s feeling of isolation and worthlessness only increases as a teenager (Ashton Sanders). His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), has only increased her drug intake and the kids at school haven’t become more kind. The only person who sees him is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), an extroverted kid in his class he connects with. The two of them develop an instant connection that is more than friendship. This informs the final section. Now called “Black,” Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is contacted by an adult Kevin (Andre Holland) and the two get together for dinner.
No matter the time in his life, Chiron is a man struggling to feel love. He can’t find it at home. He gets glimpses of it from Juan and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monae). At the core, Chiron can’t love himself. Being a gay black man in an underprivileged neighborhood, he was beat down by life around him, but still finds the will to get up another day. Every frame edited together perfectly builds this loving portrait of a man struggling with identity. It, quite simply, is a masterpiece.
What are your favorite films of 2016? Put them in the comments.