As is usually the case, attempting to shave my list down to only ten titles can prove challenging, and perhaps it was made a bit easier this year as there are several Oscar nominees that I have still yet to see, most notably La La Land and I Am Not Your Negro, the latter of which I imagine would hold a spot on this list.
In 2015-16, we had the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and the Academy did indeed respond by adding many people of color to their ranks, and also apparently by nominating several “black” films worthy of their attention as well. My guess however is that La La Land will win the top honor and while I’ve not seen it (and have no desire to see it, even though I tend to really like Emma Stone and loved Whiplash), it sure looks and appears like an #OscarsSoWhite film with a supporting roll from John Legend just to attempt to keep things “real.”
My favorite films from what I managed to see this year:
#1 – 20th Century Women
This film struck the perfect chord with me and resonated 100% perhaps because it takes place in 1979 California – the year and place where and when I graduated high school. The story is an exploration of the changing relationship between a boy in high school, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and his single mom, Dorothea (Annette Benning) in roles that felt completely honest and real. The pace and flow of the film is fluid and is ultimately more a set of intertwined character studies than it is a rigid narrative.
At its core, 20th Century Women is a coming of age film with Jaime surrounded by his mom and a couple of younger women who Dorothea tries to enlist to help her to bring her son up right. Greta Gerwig plays one of the women, and her performance is wonderful. While not on par with Benning’s remarkable performance, Gerwig’s character feels genuine and visceral as well.
The film is filled with terrific music from the time, which ultimately is no surprise. Mike Mills, a filmmaker who I know primarily for his work as a music video director made the perfect choices to constructing the time and feel. Talking Heads, The Raincoats, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and The Banshees and loads more is woven throughout and brought me back to the best things that I liked about a time in my own life that similarly felt equally conflicted and uncertain.
#2 – Moonlight
Moonlight is a visually breathtaking spectacle that follows the main character “Chiron,” from boyhood through to young adulthood. The remarkable success of the film is the almost seamless shift between the three distinct chapters of the film where Chiron is played by three different actors during each period in his life. The film is a complex and understated character study that delves into an often painful life filled with doubt, as the young character endures the abuse, ridicule and rejection of bullies and sometimes from those closest to him. Chiron’s mother is a crack addict, but Chiron finds nurturing from a drug dealer names Juan (played by Mahershala Ali who I was most familiar with from his work in House of Cards) and his girlfriend played by Janelle Monáe (who is also one of the actors in Hidden Figures). At only 37 years of age, Barry Jenkins has delivered a remarkably powerful and mature film, this being only his second of his career (his first one being eight years prior).
#3 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Simply put, Rogue One blew me away. It is a stand-alone film that takes place immediately before the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) from 1977. The story is epic; the characters fantastic; the production design everything you would expect from a film in the Star Wars franchise, and is—as it should be—a film written for adults first and kids second. I have no idea how they convinced Peter Cushing to wake from the dead to reprise his role, but there he is. I don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t seen it, you should, unless of course Star Wars just isn’t your thing. Maybe this would be just the film to change your mind.
#4 – Captain Fantastic
First the disclaimer: I HATE this trailer – it is completely misleading and depicts a cloying, smarmy film that has nothing to do with the actual film itself. In fact, Captain Fantastic is a wonderfully spirited film that takes place in the woods of Oregon and follows an off-grid, out-of-school family of six kids whose ages range from 7 to 18, and their intense idealistic father played by a Viggo Mortensen who teaches them everything they need to know about fending for themselves in the wild while teaching them about Marxism and Noam Chomsky.
Eventually circumstance forces the family out of the woods and into civilization where lifestyles and ideals collide. The kids grandparents eventually interject, insisting that the kids need to integrate into society, attend school and leave the arguably selfish isolation that their father has forced upon them.
Having spent several years of my own life living without electricity, the contradiction of these two worlds and the pull of societal norms presented as a conflict made perfect sense. Captain Fantastic delivers a fantastic portrayal of a fairly lofty set of ideas and great performances from a genuinely delightful cast of actors.
#5 – Doctor Strange
I grew up on Marvel, and from a very young age held Dr. Strange as my favorite character, specifically the original created and drawn by the inimitable Steve Ditko. I’ve always known that this would prove to be one of the more difficult characters to do justice to, and as a result have always presumed that it would be one of the later Marvel comics to finally get a treatment on the screen. So when it was finally announced that there was going to be a Doctor Strange movie, I was both excited and nervous. It would be such a disappointment that see this particular property done wrong (as I felt was done with the original Spiderman movie), but when I saw that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be playing the part, I felt hopeful. Now, there’s no way that my childhood view on the original Dr. Strange comic could ever be reasonably reproduced, but that said, this character was well realized, and it seemed obvious to me that both the writers and director cared deeply about doing Dr. Strange justice. I know I’ve really said nothing about the film. Just see it – it’s awesome, and if you’re a fan of A) Comic movies, B) Spectacular CGI and/or C) mysticism/psychedelia, then I would be surprised if you didn’t love this as much as I did.
#6 – Fences
A fantastic adaptation of the August Wilson play, this film has Oscar written all over it. Whether or not Denzel Washington wins for either best actor or best director, he again shines as one of the strongest actors we have today, and shows his equal prowess as a director. Washington plays Troy, a complicated, conflicted individual whose relationship with his son, Cory is demeaning and harsh. Troy cannot allow Cory the pursuit of his dreams, seemingly due to the fact that his own dreams as a professional ballplayer fell short when he was a younger man himself.
Viola Davis, who will most certainly with the Oscar for Best (Supporting?) actress for her performance, provides Cory with some sense of humanity, but when she tries to give him what she can see is best for her son, Troy steamrolls both of them, claiming his dominance as the breadwinner and the man of the house.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony Awards for their performances of Fences on Broadway, and their comfort and ease of chemistry is reflected on the screen. While the film maintains the feeling of it being a stage adaptation, the relationships feel organic and authentic. The mood gets bleak at times, but that’s intended as it’s a big part of what drives Cory to break away from his father and move forward his own life.
#7 – 13th
Ava DuVernay is perhaps best known as the director of Selma and the snub the film was given by the Academy two years ago when she was overlooked for consideration as Best Director that year. That was the snub that arguably spawned the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag mentioned above in the first place. Her new documentary film 13th (available to steam on Netflix) is a scathing indictment of the prolonging of a new form of slavery in America in which the extensive Prison for Profit industrial complex which has targeted people of color in America since the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 immediately after the close of the civil war. The Amendment had a loophole in the language which allowed the exploitation and targeting of black people in America who could now be imprisoned and effectively branded for life. The film is full of powerful interviews and examples which clearly show a bias and continued pattern of targeted incarceration as well as the staggering growth of the industrial prison complex and the degree to which the cards are systemically stacked against black people in America.
The documentary category is one area where #OscarsSoWhite will be partially vindicated. 13th should definitely be among the contenders, but I expect that both O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro have an equal shot at taking the Oscar in this category.
#8 – Zero Days
In a relatively short window of time, Alex Gibney has proven himself to be one of the most important investigative documentarians of our time. His 2015 film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was what first grabbed my attention. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God from 2012 exposed the Catholic Church’s systematic abuse of power in covering up known sexual abuses, and his 2015 HBO film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, is without a doubt one of the most damning exposés of how the Church of Scientology abuses and attacks their detractors. Zero Days, is a documentary that unravels like a thriller. It explores cyber-warfare and specifically, the Stuxnet virus, one of the most sophisticated and insidious pieces of Malware ever created. The twist comes when it’s revealed that the code was co-created by the U.S. and Israeli governments in order to launch an attack against Iranian Nuclear Facilities. Like Pandora’s Box, however, it appears that Stuxnet managed to get out of its controlled environment, and could be used by others around the globe. The film is a sobering and chilling look at the clandestine operations of governments and ultimately asks the question: how much can any of us really trust our governments?
#9 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
A totally unexpected, surprising and delightful film from New Zealand director Taika Waititi whose 2014 What We Do In the Shadows took me equally by surprise. The story follows a 12 year old foster kid from the city, Ricky who’s been leading a very troubled existence and gets shipped off to the country where he meets his new foster parents in the very rural countryside of New Zealand. The Wife is adoring and the husband (played by Sam Neill) want as little to do with young Ricky. It becomes clear that their relationship is to become the core of the film, and when the two of them become fugitives from the law together, the real meat of the film begins to unfold. Wilderpeople strikes the perfect balance between humor and pathos.
#10 – Hell or High Water
With their family property to be foreclosed, two very different brothers decide to go on a rampage robbing banks to raise money before the looming date hits home. A Texas Ranger (played by Jeff Bridges) always seems tow steps shy of catching up with them. Hell or High Water is a classic anti-hero Western hero set in modern times, civilians-turned-criminals forced to make tough decisions due to the innate unfairness of the system, always looking to keep the hardworking man down while filling the pockets of the wealthy that much more. It’s a classic David and Goliath story with socio-political underpinnings that reflect the financial frustration of the last ten years in America. In many ways the pace and feel of the film feels reminiscent the last great heyday of American film-making of the 1970s. I expected very little and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I loved this film.
Honorable mentions go to Arrival, Hidden Figures and Author: The JT LeRoy Story. All films also worth seeing.