By Spencer. While there’s been an unsurprising amount of consensus about 2016’s best music, this year’s slate of movies asks you to make some hard and very personal decisions about what exactly takes a film to the point of greatness. Do you care about first and foremost about the story? The acting? The direction? Is it bold innovation or flawless execution that moves you? Does it have to make a statement, or can it simply revel in quiet humanity? While smaller, more intimate films like Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, and Toni Erdmann have their fierce advocates among the critics, there’s another kind of picture that achieves greatness by going for broke on the magic of cinema itself—a place where impossible fantasies can be given sight and where we can delight in the color and framing of an exquisite series of images that transcend the mundane details of what we call ordinary life. This year, it was a film of this type, a film where dreams constantly intruded upon the real world, that ultimately captured both my heart and my mind—and that film was La La Land.
1. La La Land
2. Sing Street
3. Everybody Wants Some!!
4. Hell Or High Water
5. The Witch
9. Blue Jay
10. Captain Fantastic
Maybe it’s not so revolutionary to make a movie musical now as it was when Baz Luhrmann reintroduced the genre to a generation of skeptical eyes and ears with Moulin Rouge. But in La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) captures all of the magic of vintage Hollywood musicals while telling a story about difficult choices in a world where it can’t all be song-and-dance. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling aren’t natural singers or dancers, but their chemistry after three films together is effortless, making a film that could have been hokey become something transcendent. Their characters are hopelessly trapped between old and new; Gosling is a stubborn jazz traditionalist in denial about the inevitable death throes of his artform, while Stone dreams of being the kind of star they no longer make and plasters her apartment with posters of Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, and Burt Lancaster. They’re living in a past they never actually lived, intoxicated with nostalgia, and you could say that of the movie, too—with its obvious affection for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause, Gene Kelly classics like Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris, or better yet, the vivid Technicolor heartbreak of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. More than a cliched love story, though, La La Land is a movie about the competing demands of chasing your dreams and building a meaningful life with someone you love. Chazelle stages it all with the flair and excess of Busby Berkeley and the shameless optimism of Frank Capra, and more than once in the movie—on a traffic-jammed freeway, at a pool party, on a late night jaunt beneath the starlit dome of Griffith Observatory—his song numbers hit you with visual surprises that quite literally make you gasp. By the time it hits its thought-provoking finale, La La Land becomes something timeless—a bridge between the past we ache for, the present we live in, and the future we’re tempted to dream.
Meanwhile, John Carney gave us a musical of a very different kind with Sing Street. Carney (Once, Begin Again) makes movies about music’s capacity to heal, to bring meaning and maybe even change things for the better, and Sing Street, based loosely on his own coming-of-age in 1980s Ireland, is his most sentimental love letter yet. Like John Hughes filtered through Freaks And Geeks, it tells the story of a very unhip Dublin kid who starts a new wave band to—why else?—impress a girl. The band’s songs are masterpieces of 80s imitation, distilling the quirky effervescence of Duran Duran and Hall & Oates and The Cure into something that feels authentic without ever flirting with mere parody. And yes, Carney’s movies have sometimes been criticized for being too saccharine, but Sing Street never flinches away from acknowledging the disappointments of life, winking heavily at the risks not taken. In a time when many reflexively dismiss optimism as a lack of artistic sophistication, Carney is unique among filmmakers in being brave enough to wallow in hope. Affecting without being affected, he pokes at the fuzzy line between naïve fantasies and hard realities, and like a great song, Sing Street is a movie you’ll have stuck in your head for days.
Nobody does a better job making movies where nothing happens than Richard Linklater. And while his follow-up to the stunning Boyhood may not have the same ambition, Everybody Wants Some!! was a complete joy to watch. The spiritual successor to the treasured Dazed And Confused, it’s a nostalgic look at the first days of college for a baseball team at a small Texas college circa 1980. The setting is just window dressing for a sophisticated (and hilarious) look at the varieties of male experience, as this team full of self-obsessed and competitive jocks takes each other’s measure and forms the first bonds of friendship. What makes the film so brilliant is how it renders its characters in familiar stereotypes only to shatter them. These “dumb jocks” are constantly talking, thinking, philosophizing—even if half of it is about how to get girls—and as they go barhopping at night, it’s laugh-out-loud funny to watch them bounce between assumed identities—disco, country, punk—in a transparent effort to be whatever people expect them to be. Few movies so cleverly capture a feeling of beginning, of possibility, of a time when everything in life seemed like it might mean something if you just told yourself so.
We’ve seen modern takes on the Western before, but what sets Hell Or High Water apart is that it doesn’t just update the scenery; it reorients the moral boundaries of outlaws and lawmen along the fault lines of the economic plights that now plague the new American West. Its “villains” are sympathetic figures—two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) facing foreclosure on their land who, rather than continue to play by the rules when the banks don’t have to, devise a plan to pay off their debts using money they’ve stolen from those very same banks. And the “good guy,” played by a superb Jeff Bridges, is a weary Texas Ranger who prods his partner with unwelcome racial slurs not out of hatred but as a winking, self-deprecating acknowledgment that the world has moved on from men like him. How many movies can make you root for both the bad guys and the good guys? The fact that this one does is testament to the characters it creates—real human characters with humor, flaws, and on both sides, good cause to do what they’re doing. Westerns are built upon nostalgia, of course, but this one—filled with smart dialogue, stellar acting, and an authenticity that is anything but Hollywood—will make you yearn for a time when movies with this kind of simple richness were so much easier to find.
Horror movies rarely pop up on year-end lists, so when one does, you know it’s something special. The Witch takes you by surprise because it doesn’t feel like just a horror movie. Part period piece, part political and religious parable, its view of a Puritan family coming apart under suspicions of witchcraft relies upon a slow-building atmosphere of paranoia that feeds upon the destructive potential of absolute moral certainty. The cinematography, lit only by natural light, is breathtaking, and the script (featuring dialogue pulled directly from the historical records of the era) is ingenious. And then there’s Anya Taylor-Joy, making her breakthrough as the family’s teenage daughter, who is a talent to be watched in the years to come. It’s one of those movies whose payoff only comes at the end—but when the credits roll, you’ll be shaken with what you just saw.
I honestly don’t know how they even pulled off a movie like Victoria. We’ve seen a few attempts at a single-take movie before, but they either lacked any real plot (Russian Ark) or relied on digital trickery to connect their shots (Birdman). Not so with Victoria, a tense and eventful bank heist movie that unrolls in a single, two-and-a-half-hour uninterrupted shot. The action starts in an underground club then wanders the Berlin streets as a young girl gets invited to join a birthday party only for things to go very, very wrong over the course of the night. The direction from Sebastian Schipper is obviously masterful to even pull off this feat; every detail had to be planned in advance and timed perfectly, and you can actually see the passage of real time as the sun starts to rise and morning lights the action-filled finale. But even more credit goes to the cast, led by Laia Costa, who have to perform the entire movie without breaks. They do it with stunning flair, improvising most of their dialogue and inhabiting their characters like real people caught in unreal circumstances. No film has ever come closer to erasing the line between fiction and life.
Biopics usually stick to a predictable formula, but from the very first shot of Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, you know it plans to break all the rules. Some of the credit for that goes to Mica Levi, whose brilliantly unsettling score full of dying dissonant strings practically becomes a character of its own. But this is Natalie Portman’s film, who likely earns her second Oscar with a performance that doesn’t just settle for mimicking Jacqueline Kennedy’s distinctive mid-Atlantic accent but unpeels the First Lady layer-by-layer. The key is in recognizing that Jackie herself was living her entire life as a performance, and through a series of confessional conversations in the wake of her husband’s death, we see her only grudgingly and fleetingly showing the “real” Jackie—or is it? Portman brilliantly illustrates the complicated task of living an invented persona—and tearing it back down in the wake of a tragedy that makes such vanities seem simultaneously silly and yet more essential than ever. It’s a film that eschews truth by exposing its invention in progress, which makes it essential watching in a time when the relationship between fact and history seems more in doubt than ever.
Moonlight is such a deceptively simple film that it can take a few days for you to realize just how impressive it is. Much has been made of the acting, with three different actors teaming up to build a portrait of a young black man as he grows from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But it’s the intelligence and heartfelt emotion of the script that make this small movie feel so big. Much like Jackie, it’s a movie about the self-invention of identity. But Moonlight deals with the question on a more universal level, asking difficult questions about how we all conform to the identities forced upon us by others—whether they’re rooted in race, economics, geography, sexuality, masculinity, or the simple pressures of teenage friendship. This makes it a film that’s not just a “black” movie, but a movie that each and every viewer can relate to on some level.
You probably never heard about Blue Jay, but trust me, find it. Fans of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy will find much to love in this conversation-heavy movie about two former high school sweethearts (Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass) who bump into each other at a grocery store while visiting their hometown and spend a night reconnecting with their past lives. They revel in a night of impromptu childhood like it’s a vacation from the hard realities of life, and as they reexamine their lost love through adult eyes, they inevitably confront questions of what might have been. It’s a movie that does a lot with a little, like in one perfectly-executed scene in which the couple listens wordlessly to old tapes of themselves screwing around; juxtaposing the words of their youth with the mix of emotions that register on their adult faces, it accomplishes the nifty trick of simultaneously examining life’s expectations through the competing perspectives that come with age. Paulson’s performance deserves Oscar attention, and the spontaneity of the improvised dialogue and the startling comedic and dramatic chemistry between its two leads makes this feel less like a movie and more like a peek into two very real people’s lives.
With a name that sounds like yet another superhero movie, the heroics of Captain Fantastic come more from its willingness to look raw humanity straight in the eye. Viggo Mortensen gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the idealistic patriarch of a family of eccentrics who live a Swiss Family Robinson lifestyle of seclusion in the wilderness. We are slowly introduced to his parenting philosophy of defiant, unrelenting truth—teaching personal combat and hunting as life skills, rationally debating topics from theoretical physics to Chomsky to Lolita in multiple languages, swearing openly and talking unflinchingly about the details of things like sex and mental illness and death, and most importantly, rejecting the values of the outside world. It’s a thought-proving look at the rewards and potential harms of non-conventional parenting and home schooling, raising ethical questions that aren’t answered easily. And as they venture into the real world for a funeral, the movie intelligently explores the limits of individualism in a world where conformity is almost inescapable—and whether it’s possible or desirable to find a healthy middle ground. Done with humor and boldness, it’s a heartwarming and challenging film that makes the crazy seem sane and the sane seem crazy.
Manchester By The Sea / Love & Friendship / Sunset Song / The Nice Guys / Green Room / The Invitation / Midnight Special / Arrival / Rogue One / Captain America: Civil War / Deadpool / The Neon Demon / A Bigger Splash / Don’t Think Twice / Louder Than Bombs /
The Eyes Of My Mother / H. /Creative Control / Hunt For The Wilderpeople / Little Men /
Indignation / Hail, Caesar! / Born To Be Blue / Miles Ahead