Good Films Were Hard to Find in 2016

Dec. 29, 2016
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Watching a season’s worth of “The Wire” over the holidays and comparing its well-written characters and plot lines—and even its visual composition—with most of the feature films I witnessed in 2016, I can only conclude: creativity has migrated from big screen to small. But then I remember: the distinction between big and small has gotten meaningless in an era when people are watching movies on their phones.

And that brings me to contemplate the year just ending. Composing a Top Films of the Year list has long been an annual obligation for critics, but I have always been troubled when it comes time to compile the roster. For one thing, some of the Oscar-bait movies from the year in question won’t trickle into Milwaukee cinemas until February or March. Some will never brighten the screens at a local movie house.

Then there is the problem of ranking—like somehow number 7 is demonstrably better than number 8. Explain why!

And finally, whenever I look back on my Top-10s from previous years, I find I can barely recall some of the films on the bottom half of the list. It’s not memory that’s failing, it’s the filmmakers!

But here I go again, another look back at a year that seemed especially depressing. I’m going to make it a Top-6 list this time, plus some honorable mentions.

 

La La Land

Once, many of the best movies were magical in their power to lift us into worlds of imagination. Writer-director Damien Chazelle conjures up that magic in La La Land. It’s the best musical in recent years, both for the original music and for capturing the towering elation of romantic love and a bittersweet nostalgia for an age when romance flourished.

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Hell or High Water

Set in Texas, the anti-heroes rob a chain of banks in revenge for foreclosing on their mother’s home. An archetypal outlaw story featuring brothers opposite in temperament but tied by fraternal devotion, Hell or High Water is a motorized present-day western with faster steeds and deadlier weaponry than anything imagined by Wyatt Earp.

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Moonlight

Writer-director Barry Jenkins tells the emotionally complicated story of a gay African American boy. Picked on for being “soft,” he runs the bullying gauntlet until striking back lands him in prison. He emerges tough—a drug dealer like the man who mentored him in this elliptical thoughtful film.

 

The Witch

The Witch is the most remarkable horror film in years. First-time writer-director Robert Eggers composed a visually poetic, haunting portrayal of the crushing burden of an unbearable faith—and its satanic flipside. Seldom has the intimacy of prayer been presented so well in film, or the disconcerting intrusion of pure evil into the human sphere.

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Francis Foster Jenkins

With Meryl Streep in the title role, Florence Foster Jenkins is a comedy that conceals a tragedy; Madame Florence’s heavily guarded secrets are gradually revealed, showing a woman of remarkable spirit. Director Stephen Frears recreates 1940s Manhattan and slowly builds the film’s pace, adding pathos and touching sentiment.

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The Man Who Knew Infinity

Although writer-director Matthew Brown trims reality to fit a two-hour format and allows the orchestral score to swell in key with the emotions, he has done fine work getting at the essence of Indian math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his outstanding insights. He is aided in every scene by a great cast led by Dev Patel.

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Among the honorable mentions: a pair of family comedies that were (and this was unusual in 2016) actually funny, The Meddler and The Hollars; a couple of low-key contemporary comical anxiety dramas, Chronic and If There’s a Hell Below; and a bunch of decent music biographies including Elvis & Nixon, Miles Ahead and I Saw the Light; and a science-fiction film interesting for what it says about language and miscommunication, Arrival.


Read more I Hate Hollywood posts from Dave Luhrssen.

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