Sarah’s Top Ten of 2016
This was an interesting year of movies for me, I made an effort this year to see more documentaries and foreign films and was pleasantly rewarded with some of my favorite movies of the year. This list is of my favorite movies, I never feel qualified to say what is actually “the best” but I know what I like. My criteria is that films had to receive their wide release within the US in 2016.
10. For the Love of Spock
No surprise here, I have been a lifelong Trekkie (growing up I practiced my Vulcan neck pinch on my older brother). For the Love of Spock is an intimate look at Leonard Nimoy’s life and career and his most famous character, Spock. The film was made by Nimoy’s son, Adam, and it doesn’t shy away some of the darker and less flattering aspects of Nimoy’s life. It also lovingly looks at the impact that not only Spock but Star Trek and Leonard Nimoy had on the world. While not the most hard-hitting documentary of the year it was a pleasant and informative film to watch and it brought me to tears more than once.
9. The Handmaiden
I couldn’t make up my mind right away about director Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, but it was a film that stuck with me. It is a beautiful and seedy thriller that kept me entertained through all three parts. The costumes, sets, and cinematography only added to the glorious pulpiness of the film. Nearly any frame of could be a still photograph. It also has a strong message of female empowerment and sisterhood. Park Chan-wook manages to make a film that straddles a thin line between bodice-ripping schmaltz and erotic thriller effectively while carefully keeping each character’s true motivation a secret until the end.
6. Blue Jay
Blue Jay is a quiet exploration of what a relationship looks like when its long cool embers get an unexpected poke back into a flame. Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) dated in high school and haven’t seen each other in a long time when they run into each other at their hometown’s super market. They reconnect over coffee and end up spending a night talking. Blue Jay takes its time to explore Jim and Amanda’s past and it lets the question “what if” sit between them for the length of the film. The film explores that relationships fail for a reason and you can’t take back what you said or did, but you can grow and evolve and sometimes forgive. In that way Blue Jay is very sad, but it also cathartic.
7. Sing Street
Sing Street took me by surprise, I knew nothing about it and was delighted that it’s a musical. Director John Carney seems to have mastered this type of subtle but effective musical in the same vein as his 2007 hit, Once. Sing Street is the classic story of a boy starting a band to win a girl. The film is set in Ireland in the 1980’s when Duran Duran, The Cure, and Hall & Oates were popular. The Sing Street band emulates these ‘80’s pop icons and actually make some really great music. The film seamlessly integrates their music with the plot. Beyond great musical numbers the film deals with issues of class, religion, divorce, sexuality, and bullying.
6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople made me both laugh and cry. Ricky Baker is a troubled youth who wins the foster family lottery and ends up with Bella and Heck on their farm. The film had a surprising amount of humor that comes mostly from the contrast of hard and soft between Heck and Ricky. Julian Dennison’s performance as Ricky is one of the stand out performances of the year and Sam Neil is his reliable self, delivering a gruff but also funny and heartwarming performance. Watching this mismatched pair grieve for Bella while becoming reliant on each other and surviving in an unforgiving environment like Australia’s bush was both entertaining and sweet.
I don’t know what there is left to say about Moonlight, except my personal opinion. I was so moved by the beautiful and sad story of Little/Chiron/Black. The three actors who play Chiron throughout the film each bring a vulnerability and sadness to the character as he grows and changes. Moonlight is full of fantastic performances at all three stages of Chiron’s life. The story of this closeted black man growing up in a tough Florida neighborhood where his sensitivity and sexuality are seen as weakness and he is beaten and broken because of it, is deeply moving. The film is beautifully shot with carefully, crafted camera work set at a deliberate pace.
4. The Fits
The Fits might be the best film that tackles that difficult time between being a kid on the edge of being a preteen that I have ever seen. Toni, the lead character, is still young enough to play and make-believe but she is fascinated by the older kids and wants to fit in so badly. The Fits tells Toni’s story, she’s a tomboy who transitions from training in a boxing gym to being on the local dance team “The Lionesses”. Shortly after she joins the dance team the girls begin to have mysterious fits; staring into the sky, falling to the ground convulsing, or speaking in tongues. Group hysteria is fascinating to me so The Fits was right up my alley. Royalty Hightower plays Toni. Hightower is silent for long sections of this short film but she gives an incredible performance. She conveys so much through actions like chipping her nail polish, practicing her dancing on an over pass, and piercing her own ears. I think she is an actress to keep an eye on in the future. The Fits opens and closes with Hightower staring straight down the lens of the camera, pulling you into the story from the first shot to the last one.
3. Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Les Innocentes is at its heart a story about women’s survival and how strong we can be when we stand together. Les Innocentes is about a convent of nuns in Poland at the end of World War II who find many of their nuns pregnant after being raped by Russian soldiers as they fled at the end of the war. A French female doctor is summoned to help and she finds herself bound to the nuns in a way she didn’t expect. Many of the nuns are terrified of their situation and what pregnancy means for their faith. Mathilde, the doctor, finds herself compassionate towards the nuns but frustrated by their unwillingness to cooperate, and torn by her other responsibilities at the field hospital. Les Innocentes is beautifully shot by cinematographer, Caroline Champetier. There are images from this film that have stuck with me since I have seen it and I don’t think they are going away soon. Despite its setting in the past the theme of united female strength in the face of adversity is very relevant right now.
Arrival is another film with incredibly relevant themes. It asks so many questions and brings up so many topics that it feels like essential viewing right now. I liked so much about the film it is hard to know where to start. One of my favorite things about Arrival is that it is about a linguist and the film focuses on language and how language works. It was endlessly entertaining to watch Louise (Amy Adams) and Ian (Jeremy Renner) teach the aliens language and diagram sentences. I also loved what the film does with time, I won’t spoil anything but time is important to the film and it was very effective for me. The other themes of “fear of the other” and “fear of the unknown” were very powerful and used to great effect. I also want to mention how much I loved Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. It is eerie and haunting in a way that fits the film perfectly. Overall, Arrival pushed all the right buttons for me and I think it is a film I will revisit many times.
1. Dark Horse
Dark Horse is a small story that touched so many lives and shows how grit and determination can be more powerful than money and blood lines. If I had to sum up Dark Horse in one word it would have to be: charming. The people interviewed are charming, the story is charming, and even the horse is charming. Dark Horse tells the story of a Welsh community that came together to buy and raise a racehorse. This former mining town hadn’t had much luck since the mine had shut down but Janet, the local bar maid, got it in her mind that she wanted to raise a racehorse and have it compete. They created a syndicate that raised a horse named Dream Alliance and he went so far as to race in the 2009 Welsh National. Dream Alliance is a fascinating horse and his story is amazing but the real star of the film is the syndicate that supported him. This small group of “lower-class” Welsh citizens took on the elite racehorse community at their own game and had a fair amount of success. The interviews with the members of the syndicate show what an emotional journey this was for them. You even see how those that mocked them change and get invested in Dream Alliance. I felt so uplifted and entertained by this film that is had no place on my list but at the top.