A lot of us are talking about what a terrible year 2016 has been, but we can’t be referring to cinema.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight’ is the best film of the year. In the broadest sense, it’s about being black, gay, poor, and largely friendless. In its specificity, it deals with universal subjects of masculinity, identity, race, culture, sexuality, and family. It is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen – both in terms of Jenkins’ visual poetry and in the power of its story. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, ‘Moonlight’ tells the story of a young Miami man named Chiron, who is portrayed, over about 20 years, by three different actors. The three actors who play Chiron all somehow seem to be the same person; we’re engulfed in an ocean of empathy as we drop into moments of his formation. Jenkins vividly depicts a section of Miami we don’t often see in the cinema. You feel the humidity of the afternoon sunshine. The water and the beach around it feel like an escape from the harsh realities of the real world. The restless camerawork, the vibrant and vivid colors, and the distinctive soundtrack all combine to give the movie atmosphere. ‘Moonlight’ has an astoundingly good ensemble: the three actors who play Chiron at various stages in his life (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes), Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monae. It’s a quiet, understated, and intimate film. And then all of a sudden, bam! It sneaks up on you and you find yourself releasing tears. ‘Moonlight’ is a movie that believes in people and the possibility it offers for compassion, community, and human understanding is something we really need right now. Currently playing in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD February 28th.
2. Manchester by the Sea
Now, this may not sound like a joyous cinematic experience but I swear this is the funniest film about tragedy, loss, and coping ever made: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston custodian who after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), is forced to return to his seaside hometown, the site of some very painful memories, to take on the responsibility as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Kenneth Lonergan’s achingly exquisite movie of life after loss immerses us in a world of pain, segueing between past and present effortlessly, while slowly revealing the source of that pain. Lonergan explores how grief is not something we learn to get over but that we learn to live with. There are no easy answers, or pat resolutions and there’s a rare authenticity to every element. The superb screenplay is a miraculous combination of tragedy and wit. Michele Williams and Affleck give career-best performances and young Hedges is a revelation. I think I literally heard my heart break during this one. The tears will flow, and they will be earned. Currently in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD February 21st.
3. Midnight Special
‘Midnight Special’ is a taut fugitive-on-the-run picture, a gripping science-fiction thriller, a concise case for narrative minimalism, and a beautiful film about faith and fatherhood. Jeff Nichols’ breathtaking entry into genre filmmaking manages to be both grounded and awe-inspiring. The story follows two parents (terrifically understated performances from Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst) on the run to protect their child from government agents and doomsday cultists. What’s so important about this one little boy? You will have to discover that for yourself. What I can say is that the sense of mystery, mood, and tone is incredible. In terms of filmmaking, ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a John Carpenter movie, from the ominous electro score to the empty visual spaces. Thematically, the film’s biggest influence is Steven Spielberg. ‘Midnight Special’ is ultimately about what it means to be a parent and how far we’re willing to go to protect our children. Nine months after seeing the movie, it still lingers in my mind. Nichols made two quietly powerful, terrific films this year – the other is the interracial drama ‘Loving’ which is on my runners-up list. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
4. Toni Erdmann
What if I told you one of the best films of 2016 features a Bulgarian hair monster? The latest from German director Maren Ade is a masterpiece – a fearlessly entertaining look into parent/child bonding. After his dog dies, Winfred (Peter Simonischek) leaves Germany to pay a surprise visit to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate consultant in Bucharest. Sporting joke-shop false teeth and an elaborate wig, Winfred’s portrayal of the titular alter ago is a source of unremitting embarrassment for Ines who is every bit as humorless as her prankster father is impish. This movie will change the way you think about a lot of things: workplace sexism, the effect of a managerial culture on social relationships, generational estrangement, and how performance and role-playing can be used as devices to explore unchartered emotional terrain. It is wildly funny, deeply moving, and genuinely unpredictable (especially in its climactic set piece). I’ve already said too much. The less you know going in, the better. Just see it. Trust me. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is Germany’s official foreign-language Oscar submission. It deserves the win. Opens in Toronto theaters January 27th.
5. La La Land
‘La La Land’ was the clear audience favorite at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have amazing chemistry as two aspiring artists (one jazz pianist, one actress) who fall giddily in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom in Los Angeles. While paying homage to Old Hollywood, French New Wave, and classic Hollywood romances, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance musical leaps off the screen with resplendent, infectious energy. ‘La La Land’ looks like the world we dream about but without masking the harsh realities that can come out of those dreams. Stone kills it. The opening freeway traffic-jam number will leave you gobsmacked and the show-stopping final segment is a heartbreaking denouement. Both are among the finest moments the cinema has ever known. The stuff in between is pretty terrific too. It’s shot in CinemaScope, and yet it’s an intimate masterwork. Though different in tone, ‘La La Land’ makes for a great double bill with Chazelle’s previous film, ‘Whiplash’ which was also zeroed in on the costs and the glories of artistic ambition. Currently playing in theaters. Available on Blu-Ray/DVD April 11th.
6. The Handmaiden
‘The Handmaiden’ is a fetishistic delight from Park Chan-wook that’s part romantic melodrama, part crime thriller, part puzzle box. Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ has been transported from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied South Korea. The story involves a petty thief who pretends to be a servant girl to help a con man marry an heiress kept captive by her depraved uncle. Their increasingly complicated love triangle takes them and the movie to places you wouldn’t imagine, while advancing an argument about gender, repression, sexuality, culture, and class. The film is just luscious – every frame is constructed for maximal impact. I loved the imagery, the score, the performances, and the pot-boiler of a plot – it’s a strikingly assured piece of filmmaking on every level. It’s also got some unexpectedly big laughs that come at the expense of dim-witted and outsmarted men. But what surprised me the most about ‘The Handmaiden’ is the story’s faith in the power of true love. No really, I swear! The director of ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Stoker’ has made a wildly romantic film. It is also by far his best one. Currently playing in theaters.
Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a keenly observant meditation on contentment. It’s a story of a week in the quiet life of a bus driver who writes poetry. Adam Driver is the bus driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, home to one of America’s most famous poets, William Carlos Williams. Paterson lives a life of calculated routine: awake at 6 am, goes to work, home by 6 pm, chats with his personable artist wife (Golshifteh Farahani), walks the dog, downs a beer at the local tavern, and finds time in between to scribble the odd verse. Everything he encounters fuels his art. ‘Paterson’ makes us believe that poetry is everywhere and that if we look at something or someone long enough, we may get clues to why we are here and what it is all about. What a joy it was to watch a film where kindness functions as the main currency between people. Like great poetry, ‘Paterson’ gave me a feeling of serenity. If you’re ever feeling emotionally rundown by life, this is the movie to see. Opens in Toronto theaters February 3rd.
My favorite animated film of 2016 and one of my favorite animated movies ever is ‘Zootopia’. In a really politically divisive year, this was the movie we needed: a depiction of a mammalian metropolis where predator and prey live together harmoniously but are at risk of giving in to their baser instincts. Its tail – sorry, tale, of a female rabbit who becomes Zootopia’s first rabbit cop and investigates a missing mammals case with the aid of her sly fox pal keeps one foot planted firmly in the real world. It’s sweet, funny, has moxie, is layered with wit and incident, and is laden with positive messages that worked in story terms and emotional terms. The animation and the world created are amazingly detailed. The voice cast is pitch-perfect. ‘Zootopia’ finds the perfect balance between enlightenment and entertainment. I am amazed that an animated film had the courage to have us accept our inherent shortcomings and have us admit that we could do better. Oh, and the DMV being operated by a painfully sloowwww all-sloths staff – brilliant in its comic timing. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.
9. Sing Street
Like ‘La La Land’, ‘Sing Street’ is a joyous musical about identity and dreams vs. reality. There’s an infectious energy to this movie that I found really endearing. It’s an inspiring, heartfelt coming-of-age comedy set in Catholic 1980s Dublin about a misfit teen who starts a rock band to impress the beautiful badass girl who lives across the street from his school. Their creative venture serves as a welcome distraction from their miserable lives at school and conflict at home. They cast about for influences, riffing on pop personas such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and The Cure. As we see the group shoot their music videos early on, it’s clear no one knows what they’re doing. But the songs they perform – all originals – are terrific. Director John Carney’s film feels extremely personal in a way that is universal. It is about how great joy rises audaciously from distress. In other words, it’s about why bands are formed in the first place. Try not to smile. I dare you. ‘Sing Street’ is the essence of charm. And yeah, I cried. Twice. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.
Every now and then, a movie comes along that we respond to on personal terms. Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ is an example of such a movie for me. It’s the story of a former Tamil Tiger starting fresh in Paris with a makeshift family. I’m Sri Lankan. Both my parents are Tamil. Watching ‘Dheepan’, I found it next to impossible to find the boundary between art and life. Though the movie arrived in theaters a year after its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, it hadn’t lost its sense of urgency. This is a movie committed to understanding displacement and is for anyone who empathizes with the immigrant experience. The characters may have fled danger in Sri Lanka. But, the threat of violence only transfigures itself. When they arrive in France, they continue to long for home. Though Audiard’s films have a gritty quality, he has a great deal of warmth and is sympathetic to the plight of his protagonists. All three of the central performers are newcomers, and the acting here is outstanding. ‘Dheepan’ is a masterfully plotted motion picture. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Arrival’, ‘Certain Women’, ‘Green Room’, ‘Hell or High Water’, ‘Loving’, ‘Nocturnal Animals’,‘The Revenant’, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, ‘Sully’, ‘Under the Shadow’