Read on to see my personal picks for my favorite cinematic experiences for the calendar year that's now closing. There were some very strong offerings this year, and there are plenty of flicks that just missed the cut, but here's what I ended up putting in my top ten:
10 - Weiner
This fascinating documentary uses the fall-rise-fall arc of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner to make some very pointed observations about our media culture and its intermingling of our politics. Given Weiner's tangential role in the closing days of this past election, with his sex scandal arguably becoming one more of the asterisks next to Donald Trump's election, this film has taken on an entirely different context in the closing months of the year than it did at the start. All of that makes it even more required viewing for students of both politics and media.
9 - Star Trek Beyond
"Better to die saving lives than to live with taking them."
So says Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) during the climax of Star Trek Beyond in a piece of dialogue that perfectly makes the case for the storied franchise's continued relevance during its fiftieth anniversary year. The best Trek feature entry in twenty years, not only does Beyond take a lighter (but no less dramatic) approach than its immediate predecessor, it also encapsulates the spirit of exploration, tenacity, and teamwork that have been so essential to its success for so long, and which matter now more than they ever have before.
8 - Hunt For the Wilderpeople
This charming yarn directed by Taika Waititi and set in his native New Zealand stars Sam Neill as a recent widower forced by circumstance into a wilderness trek with the foster child he didn't want (Julian Dennison). The winning performances and chemistry of both leads are bolstered by the wonderfully off-kilter Kiwi sensibility and a throwback tone that calls to mind adolescent adventure yarns of the '80s like Stand By Me and The Goonies. Despite being the highest grossing New Zealand film ever made, this one kind of sailed under the radar during its stateside run, which I hope will be corrected in the months and years ahead.
7 - La La Land
Director Damien Chazelle's tribute to Hollywood's classic musicals took two viewings to grow on me. I though it was enjoyable enough the first time I saw it, but it was after the second watch that the central conceit of pursuing your dreams despite overwhelming odds (in this case via two artists trying to make their way in the titular town) really took root inside of me. The many musical numbers are staged well (especially the show-starter set atop a Los Angeles highway overpass), but what really keeps you engaged is the winning chemistry between co-leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
6 - The Nice Guys
And hey, speaking of Ryan Gosling's chemistry with co-stars, this action-comedy written and directed by Shane Black boasts as one of its biggest selling points the terrific bickering and bantering between Gosling and Russell Crowe. Just like with Black's 2005 Robert Downey starrer Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys went mostly ignored by audiences during its theatrical release last May. Truly, I have no idea why. Regardless, as with Wilderpeople, I'm hoping that this '70s-set detective caper will find a receptive audience now that it's on home vid.
5 - Captain America: Civil War
Here's a movie that most certainly didn't get ignored by audiences this year. But while 2016 produced a bumper crop of superhero pics, some were very solid, some very much weren't, and some were in the middle. And sitting comfortably above the rest was this latest summer opus from Marvel Studios, which pits not only competing factions of costume-clad characters against each other, but also competing political ideologies as well. Civil War works as an action picture, it works as a political tract, and it works as the result of the meticulous long game Marvel has been playing since 2008 in building its shared universe.
4 - Hell or High Water
Chris Pine makes his second entry onto this year's list thanks to this masterful modern western. A terrific heist picture co-starring Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water manages to be both intensely gripping and surprisingly poignant. As directed by David Mackenzie and written by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, the movie is not only ceaselessly watchable thanks to its supremely talented cast, it keeps you engaged with the action while also making some pointed comments in the margins about our country's current economic woes.
3 - Manchester by the Sea
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's slow-burn portrait of loss and grieving isn't an easy watch, but it's nonetheless an immensely emotional experience that's helped along by Casey Affleck's leading turn at its center anchoring the whole thing. Manchester doesn't swing for the fences or try to go big, but instead it succeeds by zeroing in on how the loss of loved ones can have very different reactions from those who are experiencing it, and the difficulties they face in overcoming them.
2 - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
It's strange/sad how the closing moments for this one have taken on an entirely new resonance than they had just two weeks ago due to unfortunate real world events. I didn't expect to place this latest Star Wars entry, its first "spin-off" in forty years, this high on my list, but there's no denying how effective it ended up being for me. Depicting the events leading up the iconic opening scene in the original 1977 Star Wars, Rogue One manages to take a story that we know going in wasn't important enough to ever bother depicting before -- that of the Rebel spies stealing the Empire's plans for the Death Star -- and makes it feel like the most consequential skirmish in the entire franchise.
1 - Arrival
Director Denis Villeneuve's Sicario made my list last year, and he lands at the very top this year thanks to this fascinating, introspective sci-fi parable. The best way to watch Arrival is completely cold, with no knowledge of what it's about, so I'll let you discover it on your own if you haven't seen it, but it's all held together by a rock solid performance from Amy Adams, playing a linguist presented with an otherworldly challenge. I didn't expect to be as affected by the film as I was by the time it ended, feeling almost drained emotionally, but my first thought when the credits came up was that I wanted to sit back down and watch it again.
And that's it for 2016!
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