by George Wolf
Yeah, I know I’ve got two number 25’s….I was told there’d be no math.
25. 20th Century Women
What a joyous conundrum this film is. Set in 1979, the film looks on as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) maneuvers the troubles of adolescence, societal sea change and his loving if enigmatic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening).
Perhaps the biggest surprise in 20th Century Women is the humor – the film, like life, is peppered with laugh out loud moments that help make even the barely endurable pain of adolescence enjoyable.
Writer/director Mike Mills falls back at times on a punk rock undercurrent that creates a wonderful energy as well as a thoughtful theme for the time in history and in Jamie’s life, because it’s about, “When your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it.”
It’s a line that’s almost too perfect, as this cast is almost too perfect. This seems to be the quiet wonder of Mills: he puts his own complicated, insightful and emotionally generous writing into the hands of genuine talent.
Carrying a true American icon both in front of the camera and behind it, Sully lands with a smooth craftsmanship as fitting as it is inevitable.
Director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks build the tension quietly, maintaining a consistent tone of understatement that makes the spectacle of Capt. Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” all the more breathtaking.
Not every scene embraces subtlety and not every line finds its mark, but Sully does, because it approaches the story precisely the way Sully himself seemed to approach his job. It’s a film that is modest, prepared and professional, with important moments that rise to the occasion.
Elle is a flummoxing, aggravating, possibly masterful piece of filmmaking that will leave you reeling.
A misanthropic tale with a complex – even befuddling – moral core, Elle explores the aftermath of a brutal rape. No matter what you expect to happen next, the only thing you can predict is that clichés will be upended.
Raising more eyebrows, the creative braintrust behind the film is entirely male: director Paul Verhoeven, novelist Philippe Djian, and screenwriter David Burke – who, interestingly, specializes in true-life horror films, often succeeding in humanizing the serial killer (Dahmer, Gacy).
To articulate the film’s frustrating turns would be to give away far more than is appropriate. Suffice it to say, the deeply flawed heroine (an incredibly good Isabelle Huppert) makes baffling choices in a story that chastises a culture that promotes rape while simultaneously encouraging rape fantasy.
Or does it?
It is quite possible that Huppert is the entire reason Elle works – but somehow, it does.
23. 10 Cloverfield Lane
More of a second cousin than a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, J.J. Abram’s-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic thriller. No found footage. No shaky camera. No perturbed kaiju.
First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension as the film progresses, finding the creepiness in even the most mundane domestic activities, as an award-worthy performance from John Goodman reminds us monsters come in many forms.
22. Midnight Special
Know as little as possible going into this film because writer/director Jeff Nichols is a master of the slow reveal, pulling you into a situation and exploiting your preconceived notions until you are wonderfully bewildered by the path the story takes.
Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.
21. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Like JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story peppers the action with welcome humor and continually reminds viewers of the film’s place – chronological and geographical – in the saga.
One or two of the tricks up director Gareth Edwards’s (Monsters, Godzilla) sleeve come up short, but the majority land with style. With his team of writers and a game cast, he takes us back to the height of the Empire’s smug attitude – their belief in their right to silence those who oppose them and dictate to a voiceless population with impunity.
It’s a clever, thoughtful slice of entertainment that adds depth to the Star Wars franchise as it deftly salutes those who sacrifice for hope.
20. Southside With You
Even if you knew nothing about the characters involved, Southside With You would be a sweet, smart, refreshingly grown up romance. It does nothing more than follow two people over the course of their first date.
But these people are Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama (Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers – both terrific) during a very hot Chicago day in 1989, and writer/director Richard Tanne, in a confident feature debut, finds plenty of resonance in an otherwise uneventful afternoon that changed the course of history.
19. The Eyes of My Mother
First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie, three act spell of lonesome bucolic horror.
Shot in ideal-for-the-project black and white, The Eyes of My Mother often reminds you of any number of horror films. Where Eyes differs most dramatically is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.
Director Ava DuVernay follows her triumphant Selma with an urgent dissection of mass incarceration in the United States. Informative, stirring, and heartbreaking, 13th is an essential history lesson.
Amy Adams is as reliable an actor as they come. Thoughtful and expressive, she shares a tremendous range of emotions without uttering a sound.
With his latest, Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve puts her skills to use to quietly display everything from wonder to terror to hope to gratitude as her character struggles to communicate with visitors.
People looking for explosions and jingoism on a global scale need not attend. In its place is a quiet contemplation on speaking, listening and working together. While that may not sound like much excitement, it’s about as relevant a message today as anything we can think of.
Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.
And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.
It’s a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.
15. The Handmaiden
Mesmerizing director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) mesmerizes again, with this seductive story of a plot to defraud a Japanese heiress in the 1930s. Gorgeous, stylish and full of wonderful twists, The Handmaiden is a masterwork of delicious indulgence.
14. The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.
Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.
13. Green Room
As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff. It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint.
What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.
12. O.J.: Made in America
ESPN’s 5-part “30 For 30” documentary examined much more than just a football star’s fall from grace. It is an exacting, expertly blended spotlight on race, class, oppression and privilege. Made in America, indeed.
With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.
It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.
Like Barry Jenkins’s miraculous Moonlight, the latest film from Jeff Nichols offers a needed, optimistic reminder that progress is not dead and the ugliness of hatred need not win – even when it looks like it has already won. Here the writer/director quietly shares the triumphant story of the couple whose Supreme Court case made interracial marriage legal in the US.
In 1958, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married. Richard was savvy enough to have the ceremony conducted in D.C., but upon returning to their rural Virginia home, the two were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Nichols conducts the effort with an understatement that gives certain small moments and images true power. Never splashy and far from preachy, Loving sits with an otherwise ordinary family and lets their very normalcy speak volumes about the misguided hate that would separate them.
The approach does give the film a lovely intimacy, and it reminds us that progress, though often ugly in its pursuit, can be won.
Director Pablo Larrain disregards traditional biopic structure and reshapes it to hypnotic effect in Jackie, a complex portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as she struggles with the shock and grief of her husband’s assassination.
Anchored by a committed, transfixing lead performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie emerges as a surreal character study layered with the intimacy of a soul struggling to balance public demands with private resentment.
With one of history’s most famous women as his subject, Larrain wisely narrows his focus to these watershed moments, adding unspoken gravitas to the film through what we already know about the rest of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. In the whirlwind of November 1963, she had a husband to honor, children to reassure, and a future to guard.
With Jackie, Larrain and Portman deliver a meticulous, visionary statement full of both vital history and raw humanity.
Denzel Washington is an Oscar contender in about one of every three films he makes – Fences is clearly one of those special performances.
As a director, he’s chosen to focus on the African American experience – August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning stage play being the strongest effort yet.
Troy Maxson – a 1950s garbage man with a lot to say – is a character that feels custom-made for Washington. Larger than life, full of conflict and bullshit, bravado and stubbornness, Troy is a big presence. He fills up the screen, he fills up a room, but it is Viola Davis as his wife Rose who offers an emotional and gravitational center to the story.
Together she and Washington boast such chemistry, their glances, smiles and gestures articulating a well-worn, bone-deep love. Their time together on screen – which is a great chunk of the film – is an opportunity to watch two masters riff of each other for the benefit of character and audience alike. The result is in turns heart-warming and devastating.
True to the source material, Washington’s direction feels very stage-bound and theatrical. But in most respects, Washington’s delivery – faithful as it is to the idea of the stage from which it leapt – retains what is needed about the sense of confinement allowed by the few sets and locations. There is no doubting this play’s bonafides, and Washington honors its intimacy and universal themes.
7. The Jungle Book
Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.
The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.
Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.
All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.
6. The Witch
The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.
Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.
As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.
Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.
Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.
Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.
As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.
5. Hell or High Water
Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.
Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.
Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.
Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.
A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.
4. The Lobster
Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.
The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.
The entire ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.
It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea will put your emotions in a vice and slowly squeeze, buffering waves of monumental sadness with moments of biting humor and brittle affection. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a film so deeply felt it can leave you physically tired. A very good kind of tired.
Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are sure Oscar contenders as Lonergan sketches a narrative without regard for any strict linear structure, and the dense fog of grief surrounding the characters becomes palpable, anchored in Affleck’s tremendous performance.
Lonergan’s entire supporting cast is stellar, highlighted by an unforgettable Williams. Despite limited screen time, Williams conveys the pain beneath her character’s facade, finally airing it in a shattering scene with Affleck so full of ache and humanity you’ll be devastated, yet thankful for the experience.
Williams’s small but mighty performance pierces the film’s admittedly male-centric worldview. The other female characters are more broadly drawn in negative lights, yet this reinforces the sad cycle of emotional immaturity in danger of being passed on to another male in the family. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a hopeful ode to breaking these barriers, and enduring in the face of the worst that life can bring.
2. La La Land
Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.
Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is also steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.
It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.
But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.
Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has been tough. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.
Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.
Saving the world is great, so is finding love, or cracking the case, funnying the bone or haunting the house. But a movie that slowly awakens you to the human experience seems a little harder to find at the local multiplex.
You can find one in Moonlight, a minor miracle of filmmaking from writer/director Barry Jenkins. With just his second feature (after 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), Jenkins presents a journey of self-discovery in three acts, each one leading us with graceful insight toward a finale as subtle as it is powerful.
Jenkins adapts Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” with astonishing sensitivity and artful nuance. Simple shots such as closing doors or hands on a sandy beach scream with meaning, as Jenkins is confident enough to let the important moments breathe, finding universal truth and beauty in the most intimate of questions.
The performances are impeccable, the craftsmanship precise, the insight blinding. You will be a better human for seeing Moonlight. It is a poignant reminder that movies still have that power.