Going out to the movies is still a popular pastime if last year’s record $11.3 billion U.S. theatrical box office is any indication. Much was forgettable or worse, but it’s the gems that merit recognition. My choices come with some caveats. At least one from a year ago — The Revenant — arrived too late to be included in last year’s list. There are awards contenders I’ve yet to see, notably Martin Scorsese’s Silence, about which much more in a forthcoming column, and the Cannes palme d’or winner, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Others include selections for the Oscars’ foreign-language category such as Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (Germany), Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Iran), and Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta (Spain). That said, from hundreds viewed here are 10 that most impressed. Some should already be available on video.
La La Land (U.S.)
From its soaring opening on a traffic-choked Los Angeles freeway to its last wistful note, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dreamland story grabs your heart. At its centre is the relationship between Mia, aspiring actress and playwright, and Seb, a purist jazz pianist. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have terrific screen chemistry in the lead roles and their enchanted if uncertain romance that develops from inauspicious Christmastime beginnings through the seasons evokes the best of Hollywood musical magic. Every scene is exquisitely choreographed and gorgeously lensed in Cinemascope. A love letter to the movies, give it the best picture Oscar already.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary depiction of an African-American boyhood to manhood on the mean streets of Miami was deservedly the year’s best-reviewed movie. The story, adapted from the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” is that of Chiron, the diminutive bullied son of a drug-addicted single mother, who wrestles with his identity and sexuality in a rough and tough world. The experience of what Jenkins has called “toxic masculinity” is explored through impeccable performances and with a rare sensitivity that makes this a classic of African-American cinema.
Manchester by the Sea (U.S.)
From writer-director Kenneth Lonergan comes this deeply affecting story of familial love and loss that centres on the character of Lee Chandler who has withdrawn into self-imposed isolation following tragic circumstances. That world of private hurt is thrust open when Lee’s older brother dies suddenly and he is entrusted with the guardianship of his high-spirited teenage nephew. Life’s circumstances force Lee to come to terms with what he has left behind. Casey Affleck deserves a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lee, and Michelle Williams is also great as his estranged wife.
Quebec director Denis Villeneuve brings a remarkable humanistic quality to this science-fiction epic in which the world is confronted with the arrival of giant alien spaceships in a dozen scattered locations around the planet, including one in Montana and several in Russia and China. As the American military and national security apparatus goes into overdrive, the services of a linguist/translator (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) are recruited to establish communications with the aliens and determine their intentions. Rather than suspicion leading to hostile action, can something beautiful and hopeful emerge from such a strange encounter?
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
A 2016 foreign-language Oscar nominee, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has fashioned a wondrous haunting account of explorations by Europeans in the Amazon wilderness, drawing on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg. This tale of strange encounters, both harrowing and mystical, involves shamans and Aboriginal survivors of imperial exploitation, weird jungle cults, and the search for a rare plant promising sacred healing. (Another excellent Colombian feature is Carlos del Castillo’s Between Sea and Land, which won both the audience award and a special jury prize for world cinema at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.)
Another winner of multiple international awards from its 2015 Cannes debut, writer-director Grimur Hákonarson tells of two strong-willed Icelandic brothers and sheep farmers, Gummi and Kiddi, who hold a grudge and haven’t spoken for 40 years despite living next to each other. Their prized rams compete fiercely for top honours until the outbreak of a deadly disease in their valley upsets everything and forces a fraternal response to stave off disaster.
The Birth of a Nation (U.S.)
An audacious attempt to reclaim the classic 1915 film title for the freedom struggles of African Americans, this stirring recounting of the violent 1830s slave revolt led by charismatic preacher Nat Turner has been rather unfairly pushed aside after allegations surfaced over the controversial past of its writer-director and lead actor Nate Parker. Having been the talk of Sundance 2016 taking major awards, it still deserves to be seen as a milestone in African-American cinema.
Sing Street (Ireland/U.K./U.S.)
Writer-director John Carney’s semi-autobiographical story of teenagers who form a band in 1980s Dublin is the most sheerly enjoyable movie I saw in all of 2016. It’s anchored by a terrific performance from Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor, the adolescent schoolboy whose musical ambitions are spurred by his infatuation with a beautiful girl. A Sundance hit which had people dancing in the aisles, it deserved better distribution.
The Innocents (France/Poland)
Originally titled Agnus Dei when it premiered at Sundance, director Anne Fontaine brings to life a disturbing episode from the end of the Second World War when some of the nuns in a Polish convent were raped by advancing Red Army soldiers. Mathilde is a young intern with the French Red Cross who risks danger to come to their assistance, helped by an agnostic Jewish doctor. Though the situation is complicated by the moral and physical torment of the mother superior, hope is born amid the casualties of war.
Closet Monster (Canada)
As usual, Canadian movies are barely on the radar of theatre screens dominated by Hollywood product. It’s a better bet to catch them on Air Canada flights than at the multiplex. Still, each year there are at least a few worth celebrating. Writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature, awarded the best Canadian prize at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, is the story of a troubled artistically inclined Newfoundland teenager named Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup). Growing up questioning his sexuality, Oscar creates an imaginary safe space that acts as a shield from the misunderstandings of others including his single father. No ordinary teen drama, this poignant, brilliant portrait rings true.
The Obama era is coming to an end as Trump takes over, but last year saw the release of two nostalgic features — Vikram Gandhi’s Barry about his time at New York’s Columbia University, and Richard Tanne’s Southside with You about a day in the life of the future president’s budding 1989 summer romance with Michelle when he was still a Harvard law student.
Proof that the western genre can still deliver came in the form of Scottish director David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water from a script by Taylor Sheridan. Two brothers have a darn good motive for robbing branches of the Texas Midland Bank to save the family ranch and Jeff Bridges aces the role of the laconic lawman on their trail.
In animation, Disney scored big with Zootopia, Finding Dory, and the remake of The Jungle Book all crossing the billion-dollar mark in global box office. Its holiday release Moana is also a hit with audiences and critics. Another late-year release, Sing, is an awards contender along with Kubo and Two Strings and the France/Belgium/Japan coproduction The Red Turtle. Long Way North (France/Denmark), about a young girl’s epic adventure into the Russian Arctic, was a delight. Special mention as well to two seen at the 40th Ottawa International Animation Festival in September: Cafard (Belgium/France/The Netherlands) set during the First World War and Canadian Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses about a young girl invited to a poetry festival in Iran.
So don’t despair over the number of noisy violent blockbusters. There are still great movie stories being told for mature audiences and plenty of imagination to be found for fine family viewing.