Even when you live in Los Angeles, as I do, if you’re not in the network of critics groups and press screening and screener DVDs it can be a challenge to keep up with everything you tell yourself you have to see before attempting an informed roundup of the year currently in the rearview mirror. And I also try to not let more than a couple of weeks of the new year go by before checking in, regardless of how many of the year’s big presents I have left to unwrap, though in past years I have not lived well by this dictum—let’s just say that if I’m still posting stuff on the year’s best after even Oscar has thoroughly chewed over the goods, as has happened in the past, well, I’ve overstayed my welcome.
2016 was, in most ways, a disaster of a year, but in terms of setting your glazzies in front of some high-quality cinema it was anything but, and it might have been better than most of late. The pickings were so good that rather than subject myself to the masochism of a strict roster of 10 choices, when I published my list two weeks ago right here in these pages, I allowed my list to expand into a Top 13, followed by a “Next 10” which during the average year would have easily been good enough to make the top echelon, and then an even longer list of other movies that I thought were varying degrees of keen.
Well, since the initial posting of my choices I’ve managed to see seven other films—Florence Foster Jenkins, Gleason, Hidden Figures, Love and Friendship, Paterson, Silence and Train to Busan (on tap for a Saturday night just past my deadline, Jackie)—three of which, had I seen them two or three weeks ago, would have caused me to thoroughly rearrange the scenery in the penthouse of my list. And since I’m not quite through bloviating about the year past just yet, let me give you a taste of my ch-ch-ch-changes.
Ted Melfi’s Hidden Figures is the sort of popular movie that will likely be just as well thought of 30 or 40 years down the line as it is today, a picture which honors its subject and its true-life African-American female protagonists with confidence and a sharp eye for historical context instead of pandering to the mainstream through synthetic trickery, audio-visual overstimulation and over-the-top histrionics. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the very best sense of the term.
In Silence, Martin Scorsese and co-scenarist Jay Cocks have crafted a sublime, demanding meditation on faith, colonial imperative and the complexities of East-West relations that reveals its genuinely spiritual nature through its engagement with the internal ambiguities and struggle of perspectives that can inform even the most genteel pursuit of religious fulfillment—it’s of a piece with the complex vision of faith that informs Scorsese’s other great religious films, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ. And Andrew Garfield’s tortured repose as Fr. Rodrigues can well be imagined as the end point in a journey that links this 16th-century seeker with the self-doubting Catholic impulses of another of Scorsese’s wandering flock, Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in Mean Streets.
But best of all is undoubtedly Jim Jarmusch’s sublime Paterson, a movie in which every unobtrusive moment seems to matter. I’ve always run hot and cold on this director’s brand of analog-only, deadpan observation—Stranger Than Paradise, Night On Earth and Dead Man are better than fine, but I find movies like Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes close to insufferable, the nadir being The Limits of Control, in which the director precisely locates the dead zone of his title and practically disappears in a black hole of Eurotrash cool. But Jarmusch’s next movie was the dazzling, achingly muted Only Lovers Left Alive, and the analog-only sensibility of the vampires in that film feels strangely of a piece with this new work, and it looks an awful lot like a masterpiece to these eyes. Paterson isn’t so much a hipster’s evocation of the working-class as it is one imbued with a poetry which illuminates, with a precision that’s never precious, the modest and poetic pursuits of its title character, played by Adam Driver, a Paterson, N.J. bus driver also named Paterson. (The movie has an offhanded fixation on twins that remains as ephemeral as its overall effect is overwhelming.) The Italian poster for the movie features the catchphrase “La bellezza spesso si trova nelle piccolle cose,” which translates to “Beauty is often found in the little things,” which is a lovely distillation of Paterson’s, and Paterson’s beating heart, the story of a man who searches for, and eventually finds, a measure of fulfillment in work, and in love, and simply by keeping his eyes and ears and soul open to the wonders of the everyday.
So, considering all that, and acknowledging that there are still many left to see, including the big Oscar contender Fences, here is are my final amended lists, now restricted to the “Top 10” and (you’ll see why) the “Next 11,” my 21 favorite movies of 2016:
THE TOP 10
O.J.: Made in America
One More Time with Feeling
Hell or High Water
THE NEXT 11
La La Land
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World and Zero Days
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Everybody Wants Some!!
Dog Eat Dog
And now, here are just a few random, kneejerk reactions I had on Tuesday morning in response to the announcement of the 2016 Academy Award nominations. (Feel free to click here for a full list of the nominations.)
Well, I wonder if #OscarNotQuiteAsWhite will have as much traction as #OscarsSoWhite did last year. For the first time ever, African-Americans are represented in every acting category, as well as in the screenwriting and directing categories. And for the first time ever, an African-American woman, Joi McMillon, has been nominated in the Best Achievement in Film Editing category, for Moonlight. It remains to be seen just what effect the Academy’s newly adopted rules meant to encourage inclusion and expand the diversity of the voting body will have on future scores of nominations—it seems unlikely that they would have significantly moved the needle on this year’s crop. But one thing seems undeniable—if movies with diverse casts are made, and they get sufficient distribution, and people actually seem to like them, then the possibility of honor on Oscar night will be evident every year. A year when Fences, Moonlight, 13th, Hidden Figures and Loving are out there is necessarily going to be a year tailor-made for celebrating the contributions of African-Americans. If those movies were not on studio rosters, or came out to public and critical indifference, then we’d likely be facing another year of dissatisfaction, resentment and criticism of the Academy. It seems that the onus of making sure we have a diverse pool of work from which to choose Oscar honorees falls not to the Academy, but to the industry itself to have more faith in filmmakers and green-light more projects which tell the stories of people who have been traditionally underrepresented on screens and during award shows. That said, when each year we can finally talk not only about African-Americans nominated in every category, but when Asians or Latinos or Native-Americans also so amply present, then we’ll know that real progress is being made.
Congratulations to Ruth Negga and Isabelle Huppert on Best Actress nominations for Loving and Elle, respectively! It’s great to see two actresses in terrific movies which were not otherwise nominated manage to fight their way through the noise and wrangle some recognition, especially actresses who have been so off the Oscar radar— Negga is a relative, though striking newcomer (I wrote this about her upon spotting her in World War Z almost four years ago), so I salute what I hope will be the first of many nominations to come. But somehow, this is Isabelle Huppert’s first Oscar nomination…
So, 20 nominations for Meryl Streep now. The Academy’s love apparently knows no bounds. And make no mistake: she’s very good in the entertaining, if slight, Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s just unfortunate that including Streep means taking up a spot that would more righteously be occupied by Taraji P. Henson as pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. This has to rank, if one must rank them, as one of the year’s most egregious Oscar omissions.
Though it’s been brewing for a month or so, the official La La Land backlash can now begin. By the time the movie cuts a swatch through the PGA, DGA and Screen Actors Guild awards on its way to Oscar night, just about everybody will be sick of hearing about it and likely unembarrassed to say so. Even those who love the movie (like me) seem a little taken aback by the Academy’s historic endorsement—certainly for Best Picture I would pick Moonlight or Hell or High Water or Hidden Figures before I’d cast a first-place vote for this lovely movie. Oscar pools are going to play a bit tighter now—there’s the whiff of a juggernaut in the air, which makes La La Land the go-to choice in most categories, and the prospect of upsets at the actual awards show seem to be largely limited to the arena of who will do/say what during their acceptance speech, especially in regard to the regime currently occupying the White House. But even though it will reign supreme, I don’t expect anything close to a La La Land sweep on Oscar night. Off-the-cuff prediction: seven wins for Damien Chazelle’s musical.
So Silence was, Rodrigo Prieto’s completely deserved nomination for Best Cinematography aside, virtually silenced, and the closest Rules Don’t Apply will make it to the Dolby theater on Oscar night is the Best Screenplay nomination for 20th Century Women, a movie which stars Annette Bening (also overlooked), who happens to be married to the director of Rules Don’t Apply. My friend Larry Aydlette had one of the best comments on this year’s Oscar’s I’ve seen so far, so of course I’ll steal it from him, paraphrased from memory: Warren Beatty and Martin Scorsese now know for certain that the ‘70s are over.
The Best Original Score nominees are among the most interesting, Oscar-unfamiliar names I can recall ever seeing gathered in any one category. Thomas Newman, who is fast becoming legendary for his inability to score a statue in this category, is nominated for the 14th time for Passengers, a movie apparently designed to be forgotten. The rest are a grab bag of talent who have never seen much in the way of the spotlight before, the highest profile of which, Justin Hurwitz for La La Land, will be the inevitable winner. But it’s encouraging that Oscar found room for Dustin O’Halloran (Marie Antoinette) and Volker Bertelmann for Lion, Nicholas Brittell (The Big Short) for Moonlight, and most especially for Mica Levi for Jackie—Levin also wrote the dissonant, unnervingly beautiful score for 2013’s Under the Skin.
From Most Hated Man in Hollywood to a Best Director nominee who snagged the honor without an accompanying DGA nomination, a feat even Martin Scorsese couldn’t manage—he won’t win, but Mel Gibson has to come away thinking it’s his year anyway.
Casey Affleck will probably win (although given his recent bad press and some high-profile and outraged reaction to his nomination, I’m not prepared to say he’s a lock), but all of the sudden Manchester by the Sea doesn’t look like the unstoppable force many thought it was going to be back in December. Its only other solid chance is in the screenplay category, where I’m hoping Kenneth Lonergan will be the victim of an upset at the hands of Taylor Sheridan and Hell or High Water.
Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t the first animated movie to score a nomination for Best Visual Effects—that honor goes to The Nightmare Before Christmas. But it’s an unusual honor nonetheless, undoubtedly a nod, as Nightmare’s was, to the painstaking craft of stop-motion animation, for which Laika Studios, the producers of Kubo as well as Coraline, Paranorman and The BoxTrolls, have repeatedly distinguished themselves.
Finally, no group seems as absent of head-scratchers as the Best Documentary category. Life, Animated seems the slightest of the five, and it’s still remarkable. But from Fire at Sea’s singular examination of the refugee crisis, to the complex and illuminating examinations of race and American history at the heart of I Am Not Your Negro, 13th and O.J.: Made in America, the rest of the category is populated by movies that seem seized by this moment in American and global history. I know which one I would pick, and I think I know which one the Academy will pick, but that does not mean that anyone faced with it would find this one an easy choice. My hat is off to directors Gianfranco Rosi, Roger Ross Williams, Raoul Peck (and James Baldwin), Ava DuVernay and Ezra Edelman, and hell, to the Academy in this case, for keeping it real.
And while we’re here, congratulations also to the Academy for issuing this statement in regard to Ashgar Farhadi, Oscar-winning Iranian director of A Separation who is again nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category for his latest film, The Salesman:
“The Academy celebrates achievement in the art of filmmaking, which seeks to transcend borders and speak to audiences around the world, regardless of national, ethnic, or religious differences. As supporters of filmmakers—and the human rights of all people—around the globe, we find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning film from Iran A Separation, along with the cast and crew of this year’s Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country of origin.”
FOR FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING:
Freelance critic and journalist Kevin Courrier on the end of the Obama era and how the changing times are reflected in films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Southside With You.
Critic Charles Taylor brilliantly extrapolates the rich tapestry of Paterson.
Odie Henderson, film critic for RogerEbert.com, on the power of 13th.
And finally, two from one of my favorite critics currently writing, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang: first, a typically thoughtful piece on how the Academy chose to honor the lesser of the two high-profile religious epics of 2016, and then Chang’s original review of Silence, which he picked as the best movie of 2016.