There are many things for which the year 2016 will be remembered, including one of the most divisive Presidential elections in the history of the United States. On the positive side, movies, long a reliable source of escapist entertainment didn’t disappoint. Considering that we will need plenty of this kind of pursuit in 2017 and beyond, here are my choices of the five best movies of 2016.
“Moonlight” (A24): Based on gay playwright Tarell McCraney’s short play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” writer/director (and South Florida native) Barry Jenkins’ adaptation is nothing short of breathtaking. Set in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, “Moonlight” follows Chiron through three stages of life – from his childhood as the son of a single mother through his teen years of gay self-discovery to his solitary adulthood and his reunion with the love of his life. Every performance, from the three actors portraying the lead character, to Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother, Mahershala Ali as the drug kingpin who takes Chiron into his care and musician-turned-actress Janelle Monáe as the kingpin’s girlfriend, is so pure and authentic you might think you are watching a documentary and not a drama.
“La La Land” (Lionsgate): Presented in Cinemascope, and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s singing and dancing love letter to Hollywood movie musicals and Los Angeles is a joy to behold. Taking viewers through a love story’s five seasons (from winter to winter), “La La Land” opens with an impressive freeway traffic jam song and dance number. Featuring the traditional movie musical formula in which characters break into song at a moment’s notice, the original tunes (by Justin Hurwitz and rising Broadway legends Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), including “City of Stars,” “A Lovely Night” and “Another Day of Sun,” are refreshing and memorable. “La La Land” has more in common with the big screen musicals of Baz Luhrmann than it does with the work of Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor, although Chazelle certainly owes a debt to all of these directors.
“Love & Friendship” (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions): Delightfully funny and engaging, Whit Stillman’s period piece is based on the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan.” Stillman’s adaptation honors its origins, and yet manages to come across as incredibly modern and hip. It’s almost as if the characters are texting each other instead of corresponding by letter. Reuniting the director with the lead actresses (Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny) from his 1998 movie “The Last Days of Disco”, the film also features out actor and writer Stephen Fry. “Love & Friendship” does for the period piece what “La La Land” does for the original Hollywood musical; it invigorates it for the 21st century.
“Manchester By The Sea” (Amazon Studios): Having already proven that he has an ear for dialogue and a knack for transferring the way in which people speak and interact with each other from the page to the screen in movies such as the Oscar nominated “You Can Count On Me”, writer/director (and occasional actor) Kenneth Lonergan outdoes himself with the heavy duty and unflinching family tragedy “Manchester By The Sea.” Devastating, raw and real, with humorous touches throughout that allow his characters, as well as the audience, to breathe just a little easier, the film features searing performances by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges.
“Captain Fantastic” (Bleecker Street): Written and directed by Matt Ross, an actor known for HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and other films, “Captain Fantastic” lives up to its name. Takings viewers on an emotional voyage, “Captain Fantastic” is timely, necessary, enlightening and entertaining. The story is about Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father raising his six kids way off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. Home-schooled and put through daily rigorous physical training, the kids hunt for their own food, each armed with various knives and assorted tools for such work. They are as self-sufficient as they are sheltered from the outside world. When the safety and seclusion of the sphere in which they exist is shattered by their mother’s suicide, the children and their father face what may be their greatest challenge yet.