CLTure Film Critics pick their favorite movies of 2016
December 30, 2016
2016 saw CLTure Film grow from a couple of dads seeing movies whenever they could to a wonderfully talented group of critics, each with a distinct voice and point of view. In a year that continues to need all diversity and nuance it can get, we thought we’d bypass the single top-ten list by asking each of our Charlotte-area film writers for their five favorites. A handful of films show a few times, but just like the city we all share, there are a lot of different things to see and hear in the lists below. – Dan Cava, CLTure Film Editor
5.) Queen of Katwe – Like the extraordinary young woman it depicts, Queen of Katwe is a humble triumph. Although at first glance its Disney backing, its harmless PG rating, and its family-friendly packaging may make it easy to mistake for a lesser movie, Queen of Katwe’s moving story, mesmerizing performances, and transporting African details make it a treasure trove of fully-realized filmmaking.
4.) Hell or High Water – The cops-and-robbers movie is an American staple and this note perfect Texas crime tale would’ve been one of the best movies of any year in recent memory. But something about 2016 elevated the film’s economically bombed out setting and white working-class characters to near mythic status.
3.) Everybody Wants Some!! – Easily the most fun I had in a movie theater this year, Richard Linklater’s breezy stroll through pre-undergrad life makes his signature brand of slice-of-life cinema look way easier than it is. “A boy moves into his dorm before classes start” would be a non-story in any other hands, but Linklater packs in a lifetime worth of lived-in 80s detail, effortless humor, and warm-hearted nostalgia.
2.) La La Land – La La Land resurrects and refreshes the deep delights of the classic Hollywood musical. The colors, the stargazing, the fluidity, the magical realism, the heart — it’s all there. Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s second film is a love letter to movies, to lovers of movies, and to lovers in the movies.
1.) Manchester by the Sea – I didn’t realize how hard Manchester By The Sea had been working on me until tears starting leaping out of my eyes. It’s now weeks later and this compassionate, quietly complex film is still with me. Casey Affleck’s best-of-the-year performance is much like the film itself: deep swells of emotion under a calm, authentic surface.
Honorable mentions: Hacksaw Ridge; OJ: Made in America
5.) I Am Not Your Negro – I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful reminder of the continued struggle within the United States that so many have assumed to be concluded. What makes for the greatest impact in the documentary is seeing how Hollywood’s representation of Black America has greatly contributed to the normalization of racism, even when trying to encourage the deconstruction of segregation. With Neo-Nazi/Alt-Right/White Supremacists ideology becoming more comfortable in daylight, it seems more important than ever to remember our past so we can better prevent it.
4.) Kubo and the Two Strings – Laika Studios, the creators of ParaNorman and Coraline, prove once again that stop-motion in cinema can convey powerful themes all while being sold as a children’s story. And yet, Kubo and the Two Strings is not a tale for young children. It draws its inspiration from Japanese folklore, in particular the connection between man and the mystical realm, which makes it perfect for tackling themes of loss, grief, and the courage to forgive. Just because this lesson is wrapped in a supernatural adventure of a young boy restoring his family to the peace it deserves doesn’t make it any less valuable or poignant.
3.) Swiss Army Man – Take a moment to picture this: A man, shipwrecked on an island and clinging to life, is about to kill himself when the corpse of Harry Potter washes ashore. Finding the body capable of propulsive gas bursts, the man latches himself to the body and rides him straight off the island. While this sounds like a horror show, it’s actually the first five minutes of the most life-affirming film I’ve seen all year. From its bizarre premise and beautiful use of practical effects, Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, cry, and feeling surprisingly joyful.
2.) Sing Street – Writer/Director John Carney (Once/Begin Again) possesses a gift for telling stories centered around music and Sing Street may be his finest work. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is an Irish lad of the 80s who forms a ragtag band to impress a girl, all while dealing with a new school and his parents imploding marriage. The songs are catchy, the actors are charming, and the story has more sincerity than you’d expect from what could be a simple coming-of-age tale. Luckily for you, Sing Street is currently streaming on Netflix.
1.) The Handmaiden – South Korean writer/director Chan-wook Park developed a reputation for delving into the seedier side of humanity through stories that twist and turn from beginning to end. Though the materials frequently feature dark violent acts, even sexual deviation, it’s never gratuitous; rather, it’s an aspect that serves the story. His latest, The Handmaiden, falls perfectly in line with his catalogue and is possibly his finest work. The main thrust of the story involves intrigue and betrayal, but there’s a deeper story about love and freedom that runs throughout. To know more would ruin the experience, and The Handmaiden is the rare film that should be expected as virginal as possible.
5.) Creative Control – Creative Control was perhaps the most overlooked film of 2016. Set in New York City, five minutes in the future, the film is a satire on techie-hipsters. Technology is supposed to make us more connected, but when the film’s main character David becomes addicted to the augmented reality glasses he’s marketing, he isolates himself and loses his grasp on actual reality. Creative Control could easily become Generation Y’s cult classic.
4.) Raising Bertie – Set in Bertie County, North Carolina, the documentary Raising Bertie follows three African American young men coming of age in the rural South. The power of this film is not in the interviews but in the observational footage of the the three subjects as they face the challenges of educational inequality, unemployment, and becoming men under such circumstances. By presenting the stories of rural African Americans, Raising Bertie offers needed perspective on the diversity of African American experiences.
3.) Two Trains Runnin’ – The music alone makes the documentary Two Trains Runnin’ worth watching. In the summer of 1964, hundreds of college students headed to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement. At the same time, two groups of young men from opposite coasts headed to the southern state in search of some long lost blues singers. Using rotoscope animation, the film reenacts those journeys, punctuating the drama with performances by the likes of Gary Clark Jr. and Valerie June. Two Trains Runnin’ is a film for music lovers and Southerners.
2.) Barry – One of two Barack Obama biopics this year, Barry portrays a young Obama struggling with his biracial identity during his first year at Columbia University. Regardless of one’s politics, watching the fictionalized account of our outgoing president’s maturation into an adult becomes an exercise in empathy. When seeing him as president, we can easily forget Obama’s humble beginnings, but Barry reveals that even a man as poised and eloquent as he is now was once a confused twenty-something.
1.) Weiner – Although not the most important documentary this year, Weiner was the most entertaining. Following Anthony Weiner’s attempt to rebound from the fallout of his first sexting scandal, the filmmakers had full access to the drama and comedy of his NYC mayoral campaign. Weiner is revealed to be narcissist, no doubt, but of the most endearing kind. The result is a film as riveting as it is hilarious.
5.) Deadpool – Ryan Reynolds may have crashed & burned in Green Lantern but he was born to play the “Merc with a Mouth.” In order to pull it off, 20th Century Fox needed to find a director who truly understood the nihilistic, 4th wall-breaking, cult fave antihero and they hit a home run with Tim Miller. From its laugh-out-loud opening credit sequence to its “Careless Whisper” finale (R.I.P. George Michael), the “Regenerating Degenerate” gives us not only 2016’s best comic book adaptation, it’s also the funniest movie of the year.
4.) Hacksaw Ridge – Say what you will about Mel Gibson but with a resume that includes Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and now Hacksaw Ridge, the man’s skills behind the camera are epically undeniable. Based on the incredible true story of WWII Army medic Desmond Doss, this tearjerker has a brilliant balance of heroic heart and blood-and-guts action. With his portrayal of Doss, Andrew Garfield continues to prove his scene-stealing turn in The Social Network was no fluke and Vince Vaughn is not only tolerable but excellent in the role of Doss’s drill instructor.
3.) Arrival – With this alien invasion thriller, Denis Villeneuve has to enter the discussion when considering the top-tier present-day directors, and while all of his films have had a heart-pounding level of suspense, none have been as intensely thought-provoking. Breaking down humanity and communication at their most basic level, Arrival is much more Contact than War of the Worlds except that you actually DO get to see the aliens thanks to some jaw-dropping FX. The final twist is not your typical zooming pull-back-the-curtain surprise but a subtle wave of revelation that washes over you.
2.) Hell or High Water – Locked & loaded with ricocheting dialogue, this Elmore Leonard-esque neo-western is an instant classic. Taylor Sheridan’s spectacular script is simultaneously gritty and graceful, topical and timeless, hilarious and heartbreaking. Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges are awesomely on-target but it’s the firecracker performance of Ben Foster that hits the bullseye.
1.) Midnight Special – Another director joining the ranks of the most outstanding present-day auteurs this year is Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter). This underrated and underseen gem (with a domestic gross of only $3.7 million) about two men on the run (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) with a young boy who possesses mysterious powers mixes sci-fi, style, & tension perfectly to concoct an unpredictably thrilling magical realism masterpiece. With a stellar supporting cast including Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard along with a harrowingly powerful score, it’s an adventure that’s original, moving, and utterly unforgettable.
5.) Morris of America – Directed by Chad Hartigan, Morris of America gives us not only an appreciation for hip hop culture, but a tender indie feature that shows how that culture creates a bond between an African American father and his newly teenaged son. It’s that unwavering bond that allows them to navigate uncharted German culture and survive the kind of awkward youth love story found in other classic coming of age stories.
4.) 13th – In this documentary, Selma director Ava Duvernay makes a compelling case for how the modern prison complex is just another line in the institutional slavery of black men.
3.) Zootopia – I’m surprised at how much social commentary the Mouse Factory packs into their 55th animated feature. It’s like “a study in all the -isms 101.” You can’t judge a book by it’s cover and the saying goes for this Disney flick, too.
2.) Fences – The pairing of Denzel Washington with Voila Davis is what I’d call a match made in cinematic heavy; something I haven’t seen the likes of since Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in Malcom X.
1.) La La Land – La La Land beautifully captures the spirit of the musicals of yesteryear while adding the quiet and sincere touch of modern indie romantic comedies.
5.) Fences – Powerhouse performances from two actors (Denzel Washington, Viola Davis) working at the very top of their game, and a story that steamrolls over you with deep emotional resonance make Fences a stand-out.
4.) Swiss Army Man – The movie that surprised me most this year! I thought I’d hate-watch it, but it ended up being the most creative, daring, unique movie about human connection I’ve ever seen. It won’t be for everyone, but everyone should give it a chance. Paul Dano is a marvel.
3.) Moana – What’s not to love?! Catchy tunes, breath-taking animation, and a princess who doesn’t need a romance to rescue her. Uplifting and inspiring, Moana forged a straight path to my heart and the soundtrack has become a staple in my car.
2.) Hell Or High Water – 2016’s most fun movie to quote (“only a**holes drink Mr. Pibb”) with strong performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges that make the words leap off the screen. A cast of local characters colors the desolate Texas landscape, and the bond between brothers and partners adds emotional depth, making Hell Or High Water more than your run of the mill heist movie.
1.) Sing Street – A survey of 80s fashion, wide-eyed idealism, and that particular brand of dealing with life’s challenges through the healing power of pop music that John Carney (Once, Begin Again) does so well. Don’t let anyone tell you La La Land is the feel-good music movie of the year when it is, in fact, Sing Street.
Honorable Mentions: Arrival, The Lobster, and Kubo and the Two Strings