by Adam Riske
Honorable Mentions (in Blockbuster Video alphabetical order): 10 Cloverfield Lane, American Honey, Don’t Breathe, Don’t Think Twice, Fences, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Life Animated, Manchester By the Sea, The Witch, Zootopia
10. Star Trek Beyond –A joyous and often funny entry in the Star Trek franchise that does the 50th anniversary of the series proud. It feels like the antithesis of its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness, by allowing us to spend time with old (and new) characters we love without putting them through gritty plot mechanics. I love that the movie splinters the crew into pairings we don’t usually see, allowing for some fun and interesting dynamics. Justin “Family” Lin is such an inspired choice to direct, getting us back to the relationships that made JJ Abramss 2009 Star Trek such a special blockbuster. I also love that the movie takes a progressive (admittedly liberal) stance and doesn’t apologize for it. It has a point of view, a statement of what the Federation stands for, but it doesn’t feel like a lecture. The ending is beautiful. It earns its sentimentality and looks forward to an uncertain but hopeful future for the series (at least in this specific incarnation). If Lin’s Fast and Furious films were the blockbuster series of the Obama era (as I’ve heard it described), Star Trek Beyond might be the last gasp of that for a while. To me it’s a tonic.
8. Kubo and the Two Strings – One of the most moving films of the year made all the more impressive because it doesn’t rest on the laurels of being a stunning technical achievement. On top of that accomplishment, the filmmakers (led by director Travis Knight and the rest of the supremely talented team at Laika) still took the time and care to inhabit their film with a resonant story and rich characters. I found Kubo so affecting because it’s a rare movie that posits that not everyone in your family may be out for your best interests, but the ones who are will live on in your heart (either in reality or through stories and memory) and never truly leave you. I loved Laika’s 2012 effort ParaNorman, but I think Kubo stands on top of their accomplishments now. For me it’s just about a perfect movie filled with maturity, beauty and sadness. I made the joke after I saw Kubo that I found more catharsis in it than 15 years of therapy. There is actually some truth to that. Kubo and the Two Strings reminded me of maybe my favorite Roger Ebert quote: “Self-help books are bullshit. Read a good book. That’ll help you.”
The Nice Guys – I’m more hit and miss on writer-director Shane Black than others, but with The Nice Guys he’s made my favorite of his films. It’s nice to see a movie that lives and breathes on its filmmaker’s voice. The Nice Guys is also pleasantly like a refute of another ‘70s set screwball caper, Inherent Vice, because unlike that film this one invites viewers along for the ride instead of keeping them at a self-amused impenetrable distance. The Nice Guys is great for many reasons, but what I most admire about it is that it’s intelligently dumb, with characters whose flaws are right out in the open allowing the comedy to be lively and with a measure of spontaneity. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (in my favorite performance of the year) share a terrific chemistry, one where they are so good together that they wring big laughs out of behavior as much as laugh lines. It’s both their acting and reacting that is funny. I love movies like this because it proves that any movie formula can still work depending on the skill in which it is done.
6. Sing Street – A touching music-filled drama with an amazing New Wave soundtrack, where the hits of Joe Jackson, Duran Duran and the fictional band Sing Street burst through the grayness of its bleak Ireland setting. Sing Street can be easily categorized as a “feel-good” movie, but I think there’s something deeper to it. Of course it champions always taking the chance at what makes you happy in life, but also it provides living examples (in the lead character’s brother and parents) of how not following through on your dreams can sooner or later erode your soul. The movie works primarily as a fable. It says we only live our lives once and that we sometimes might have to survive/leave our environment to take our first step toward our dreams. Not a groundbreaking message, but one worth repeating when it’s done as well as in Sing Street. I also appreciate how the movie’s central relationship is shown to be enriching creatively more so than romantically. I don’t think Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Raphina (Lucy Boynton) will last forever in love, but the music inspired by his crush on her is well worth the ups and downs.
4. O.J.: Made In America – This brilliant documentary made me more angry and sad than any other film this year. That’s not a slight, but a testament to its power. O.J.: Made in America tells the eerily prescient account of how we are all guilty of using abhorrent surrogates to exact revenge and then wash our hands of those representations to later absolve our personal guilt. Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amazingly edited together to show the parallel paths of the narcissistic O.J. Simpson and racially fueled events and mistreatment which made the former NFL star a valuable patsy and turned his murder trial into being about something other than what it was. Every story and sub-story of the event is given weight, from the mishandling of DNA evidence (by the police, the legal teams and the jury) to the marginalization and insensitivity shown to the murder victims (Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman) to the culpability of the media for sensationalizing the event. Even worse, it was a precursor to the ugliness and exclusive/being-first reporting that continued with the Internet and has rotted the public discourse. This documentary shows a scary reminder that the post-truth/shout louder/about my feelings society was around long before 2016. It is history we’ve decided to all doom ourselves to repeat.
Green Room – This movie is a fucking shark. It’s an ominous terror machine and I love it. Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin (which should have made my top 10 list in 2014 but, you know, Begin Again could not be denied #mistake) is one of the most nerve-wrecking moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. The movie feels as punk rock as the fictional band of the film with its messy violence, cruelly efficient characters and seething anger. Green Room is also one of those movies that effortlessly blurs the line between its characters and the audience in that we’re wondering “what would I do” as the events transpire. The performances are uniformly excellent – Patrick Stewart is quietly measured and terrifyingly practical, Imogen Poots is a charismatic loose cannon and Anton Yelchin as the band’s (and the film’s) heart and soul. Yelchin had sensitivity to him as a performer, which makes for such an effective counterpoint to the madness surrounding all of Green Room. His screen persona unto itself makes this film more impactful. His passing is a tremendous loss to the movies and a reason why Green Room has been intimidating for me to revisit since my initial viewing back in April. However, with time, it will serve as a happier memory; one where I can see (and enjoy) an artist in his element a la Paul Walker in the Fast and Furious movies or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
2. Moonlight – I would like this movie if for no other reason than it’s an anthology. The fact that Moonlight is so moving, sympathetic and romantic is why it’s a movie that I now can’t live without. One of the ways I appreciate Moonlight is to stand back and admire what it is not. It’s not a message movie or maudlin or insistent that you recognize its greatness with verbose monologues. Instead, it’s quiet and slowly draws you in with each third of the movie, gaining momentum and paying off what has come before it. Writer-director Barry Jenkins has put together a movie that is technically dazzling but never showy and a character study as carefully observed as some of my favorite movies, such as Dogfight or Saturday Night Fever. In a different but similar way, all three films share a narrative thread – it’s about a man finding the emotional fortitude to be himself in an environment that stunts or prevents that. The performances are amazing to a person and the sequence in that Miami diner between Kevin (Andre Holland) and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is my favorite movie moment of the year; it’s so spot-on about how healing pain from our past is essential to allow us to grow. It’s a movie that tells us that even if we’re embarrassed or fearful, that phone call/that gesture/reaching out can make a world of difference. The messages in Moonlight are universal regardless of race or sexual orientation; it’s about why we need to just be decent people to each other and help out when you see someone in need of relief.
La La Land – Damien Chazelle directed my favorite movie of 2014 (Whiplash) and he’s now made my favorite movie not only of this year, but since 2012 (Silver Linings Playbook). I could talk about how technically amazing La La Land is or how catchy the songs and score are, but what makes the movie so special for me is its joy. It’s a movie that falls firmly in the camp that movie stars (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who are fucking sublime) being movie stars are better than any special effect and that there are few things more delightful than a musical that works. La La Land exemplifies a big reason I go to the movies which is to be transported and to see things completely unlike my own life. I share little identification with Gosling or Stone’s characters in the movie and I don’t find any type of deep catharsis from their journey’s, but that “it’s just like my life” necessity (that seems to be on the rise recently) is so insignificant to the quality of something like La La Land in my opinion. It’s like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Pulp Fiction; it just sweeps you up for the ride and is a celebration of sheer movieness. In a year where I wanted to escape reality much of the time through the movies, La La Land is a gift.