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The envelope please: top films from the past year


By John Mulderig

Catholic News Service


NEW YORK (CNS) — The quality of the best Hollywood films was higher in 2016 than in some recent years. But the outstanding movies of the 12 months just past tended to deal with challenging subject matter. Assassination, the exactions of combat, even religious repression enforced through torture were all dealt with in a skilful way — but also in a manner not likely to appeal to the casual moviegoer.

Following are the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service’s top 10 movies overall and top 10 family films of 2016. The selections in each category are listed in alphabetical order.

The top 10 overall:

— Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance as an American linguist trying to communicate with aliens in the gripping and unusually intimate science-fiction drama Arrival. Director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang finds profundity on a human scale as well as in the cosmos.

— Suffering mingles with brutal honesty and joy in unexpected moments in the first screen version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play Fences. Director Denzel Washington stars as an embittered Pittsburgh garbage collector while Viola Davis plays his compassionate and understanding wife, the moral centre of this family drama.

— The extraordinary heroism of Second World War Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a committed Christian and conscientious objector who refused to bear arms but was nonetheless eager to serve his country, is vividly realized in the inspiring, though bloody, fact-based drama Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson.

Hell or High Water is the morally intricate tale of two brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) who go on a bank-robbing spree to save their family farm. Their cat-and-mouse game with a duo of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) has tragic consequences in director David Mackenzie’s hardscrabble story of exploitation and desperation.

— Director Theodore Melfi successfully re-creates the tension of the Cold War space race and the struggles of the civil rights era in the appealing fact-based drama Hidden Figures. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae star as extraordinarily gifted mathematicians working for NASA, while Kevin Costner plays Henson’s hard-driving boss.

— Luminescent and respectful of religion, director Anne Fontaine’s drama The Innocents, about a fictional Benedictine convent in post-Second World War Poland, gently explores the conflicts between duty to the living and the shattered faith that can result from acts of depravity. Lou de Laage stars as a French Red Cross doctor.

— Director Pablo Larrain’s fact-based historical drama Jackie features a mesmerizing performance by Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, reflecting on loss while building the Camelot myth in the weeks following her husband’s (Caspar Phillipson) 1963 assassination.

— The incredible true story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) and his 20-year odyssey to locate his birth mother (Priyanka Bose), is retold in the uplifting and emotional drama Lion, directed by Garth Davis. A celebration of family, the movie also sends a strong pro-life message by underscoring the joys and merits of adoption.

Silence is director and co-writer Martin Scorsese’s dramatically powerful but theologically complex adaptation of Catholic author Shusaku Endo’s 1966 fact-based historical novel about two 17th-century Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) facing persecution in Japan. Often visually striking, the film is also deeply thought provoking.

— In Sully, director Clint Eastwood crafts a satisfying profile of US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), whose 2009 feat in landing his crippled plane on the Hudson River gained him instant fame. What emerges is the portrait of a morally deep-rooted and honourable man with a heartfelt concern for those in his charge.

Top family films:

Finding Dory, writer-director Andrew Stanton’s dandy animated sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo sets that film’s trio of main characters (voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence) on another epic journey. Their adventure conveys life lessons about family loyalty, teamwork and the proper balance between courage and caution.

— Director Jon Favreau’s adaptation of British author Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book follows the exploits of a “man-cub” (Neel Sethi) raised by animals and offers delightful, good-natured, heartfelt entertainment for the entire family, the most easily frightened tots possibly excepted.

— A captivating animated fable about a Japanese street urchin (voice of Art Parkinson) whose troubled family history launches him on a quest for a magical set of armour, director Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings features rich visuals and deep emotional appeal.

— The eponymous heroine of Disney’s 56th animated film, Moana, is a spunky Polynesian princess (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) who joins forces with a demigod (voice of Dwayne Johnson) to vanquish evil. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker’s entertaining romp offers good lessons about family, friendship and the need to be responsible.

— The classic boy-and-his-dog story assumes outsized proportions in the generally warmhearted fantasy adventure Pete’s Dragon, a “reimagining” of the 1977 Disney musical. This very tall tale about an orphaned toddler (Levi Alexander) raised by a friendly green dragon is directed at a gentle pace by David Lowery with pleasantly fanciful results.

— A glorious drama that applies the traditional formula of an uplifting sports film to the real-life story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), Queen of Katwe — director Mira Nair’s adaptation of Tim Crothers’ book — then goes in unexpected directions. The result is a remarkably inspirational movie.

— Track and field legend Jesse Owens (Stephan James), whose performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics dealt a devastating blow to Nazism, is the focus of Race. Director Stephen Hopkins’ entertaining film provides a valuable history lesson for adolescents as well as their parents.

— Interstellar derring-do is the order of the day in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Director Gareth Edwards’ rousing prequel to the 1977 kickoff of the saga stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk as gallant rebels fighting the evil Empire (PG-13).

— The Young Messiah, director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh’s engaging screen version of Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, remains faithful to Scripture even as it speculates about the childhood of Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal). This sensitive exploration of the mystery of the Incarnation will intrigue and entertain viewers of most ages.

— Anthropomorphism runs amok in the animated comedy-adventure Zootopia. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, together with co-director Jared Bush, promote tolerance, hard work and optimism as they tell the story of a rabbit police rookie (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) and her battle to win the respect of her co-workers.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops