My predictable lateness with my best movies of 2016 comes with the same usual excuses. Not getting to movie theaters hardly at all anymore, I’m reliant on Netflix and Red Box for checking out films that have a chance of being my favorites of the year. Thus, the latest best movies of the year list ever.
By the way, a great resource for tracking various film critics “best movies of the year” listings is at metacritic where they compile movie critic’s lists from across the country and assign a point value based upon the rankings. If you are a film buff, this will give you solid ideas on things you can seek to stream at home or add to your Netflix queue.
My best movies of 2016:
10) Knight of Cups- Director Terrence Malick is an enigma and the reactions to his movies are very harshly divided. Many people will not like this movie and I don’t mean that to be snobbish. Malick employes a stream-of-consciousness type filmmaking that often features whispery voiceovers. I appreciate his style because there is literally no one else who makes films like he does and there is always a mystifying spirituality in his work. “Knight of Cups” is no exception on both points (Fully reviewed by me here.) Diving into “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and tarot cards, Malick has main character Christian Bale (Rick) lost and spiritually alienated in the shallow Hollywood culture/system. His family fractured and his relationships with women broken, he yearns for a deeper grasp of his own existence. One of the closer things to gospel that Malick has ever done. Bale’s Rick learns from a priest that God loves him even when he is suffering. Suffering binds us to something higher than ourselves is the message. Through this truth comes the last segment of the film that is titled “freedom”.
9) Sing Street- Not being a fan of music from the 1980s generally, I was quite surprised by how much I loved “Sing Street” which is about a kid, Conor, in the mid-1980s who forms a band to impress a girl that he likes. The plot may sound typical but the way that director John Carney (of “Once” fame) constructs the film elevates the work beyond the usual.
8) The Birth of a Nation- A raw, brutal and uncompromising biographical portrayal of slave turned leader of a bloody revolt was brought to the screen by writer/ director Nate Parker. Parker also stars in the film as Nat Turner a literate preacher who reaches a breaking point with the antebellum south of Virginia over the treatment and condition of slaves. The rage is a slow boil but once things come to fruition, the blood starts flowing. There are many fascinating moments in Parker’s film including a Bible verse battle over slavery between Turner and a slave owner each offering their own verses to justify their positions. The legacy of Turner and his men still lives on today and the movie links his ideas and actions during the 1830s to the coming Civil War. One can point out some narrative flaws in the film but I’m willing to forgive those for the sheer passion that brought this unlikely-to-be financed movie to the big screen.
7) Loving- Part one of the year of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) who has become one of the most exciting filmmakers out there. In “Loving”, he examines the relationship of Mildred and Richard Loving who were at the center of the Supreme Court decision (Loving v Virginia in 1967) which affirmed their interracial marriage. Wisely, Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) does not center this film on a big dramatic courtroom showdown. The narrative never flinches from being about the Loving’s and how a state reprehensibly intruded into their lives, attempted to de-legitimize their humanity and destroy their marriage. Anger from many audience members will be palpable as they witness police officers break into the Loving house, seize them from their bed and place them under arrest for being married to each other. Rather then leaving people in rage, Nichols threads the fine line as his film leaves us with hope and awe of the love and commitment this couple, who just wanted to be left alone, have for each other.
6) Hell Or High Water- To call this a modern day western will draw the ire of some who believe that westerns are more defined by a setting that is before the industrial revolution. I would describe “Hell or High Water” as a western because it meets the genre criteria thematically. This is an excellent film that succeeds in creating no protagonists or antagonists but seeks for the audience to understand the motives of all sides of the conflict. Tanner and Toby Howard (played respectively by Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are brothers who pull off a string of armed robberies at banks with the goal of paying off a reverse mortgage that, if not paid, will forfeit their recently deceased mother’s ranch. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (the always great Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The climax is surprising and really there are original threads all along the way throughout Taylor Sheridan’s expertly crafted screenplay. The audience is really not sure how they want this one to turn out as we come to understand all the characters involved that are headed toward a fateful confrontation.
5) Eye in the Sky- The final film to star the legendary Alan Rickman (Harry Potter series, Die Hard) is a hard-hitting political thriller surrounding the use of drones. Months after watching the movie, it still feels haunting to me. Colonel Catherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a UK based military officer in charge of a drone program which seeks to capture terrorists in Kenya. Upon discovering a suicide bombing plot, the mission is escalated to killing the terrorists pre-emptively that are planning the bombing. When they are getting ready to attack, a 9 year old girl enters the kill zone and sets off a raging international dispute reaching the highest levels of the American and British governments. “Eye in the Sky”, directed by Gavin Hood, aims for an unsettling discussion on the morality and localized implications of modern warfare and takes us right into the middle of it.
4) Midnight Special- The year of Jeff Nichols part two. “Midnight Special” stars Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon as Roy. Roy is trying to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from multiple groups who are after him for special powers he possesses. In a sense, this is a more realistic comic book type movie with a heavy nod to spirituality. Roy and Alton escape a cult who worships the child for his powers but they also find themselves being chased by the government (including the National Security Agency) who are naturally “curious” about the child’s abilities. Although a cat-and-mouse thriller for sure, Nichols digs deeper to portray a powerful father/ son relationship while also pointing to a transcendent reality beyond this world.
3) OJ: Made in America/ 13th- Cheating a bit, I decided to combine two superior and important documentaries into one entry as they both have the theme of examining race in America. The first, “OJ: Made in America”, impeccably directed by Ezra Edelman, not only re-examines the infamous court case but tracks one of the most intriguing and loathed celebrities in American history throughout his life and football career. Not only that, OJ Simpson’s life is looked at through the larger perspective of race in America. This is one of the best documentaries one could ever watch. In our age when documentaries seem more akin to polemics, Edelman genuinely examines the perspectives on OJ and race from multiple angles and is largely fair to all sides.
Ava Duvernay’s “13th” is more of a polemic documentary but welcomed for the powerful and passionate argument that she creates while looking at the American prison system and the longer history of racism in America. She interviews college professors, activists, liberals and conservatives. Newt Gingrich even makes an appearance and has, what some will think, are surprising remarks. From chattel slavery, the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, to D.W. Griffith, the tragedy of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr, Civil Rights, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, an arc of history is traced on this explosive topic and the audience will come out challenged, informed and prayerfully motivated.
2) Arrival- The opening frames of “Arrival” (the new Denis Villeneuve masterpiece reviewed by me here) evoke an overwhelming sadness. Images show us Louise Banks (the masterful Amy Adams) playing with her young daughter in flashbacks. Now, Banks a linguist professor lives alone in her house by the lake and we are tipped off to a horrible tragedy. While Banks is teaching her class, alien aircrafts invade the earth with mysterious motivations. The military arrives and wants to recruit Banks and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt to communicate with the aliens. The result, as I have noted before, is nothing short of a mind-bending masterpiece. An intelligent and brilliantly crafted film that has massive surprises waiting. Villeneuve is directing the sequel to Blade Runner next and I think fans of that old Harrison Ford film can anticipate greatness.
1) Silence- The best movie of the year is yet another Martin Scorsese epic effort in world class filmmaking. We are transported to the 17th century where Japan has outlawed Christianity and faithful followers of Jesus are being horribly persecuted. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield in the best performance he has ever given) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) arrive from Portugal in search of their missing mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They have heard that Father Cristovao has renounced his faith after intense torture. The situation that they arrive too is beyond what they could have thought and beyond what we as an audience could even understand without the experience. Scorsese’s film is not a simplistic Sunday school lesson. This is a deep meditation and intellectual engagement on the nature of faith that thematically flows from what someone might confess with their mouth versus what is in their heart. “Silence” is not a feel good faith movie either. It is deeply unsettling, troubling and Scorsese never dodges the tough questions of this unfathomable situation. Not only the best of the year but one of the most compelling, honest and raw films ever made about the Christian faith.