The most unexpected thing to come out of 2016 was director Barry Jenkins’ powerful “Moonlight,” based on an unpublished play, which follows a young boy into adulthood as he comes to terms with his drug-addicted mother, his social life, and his complicated sexuality.
Casey Affleck and breakout star Lucas Hedges lead this gripping New England-set drama, about a man (Affleck) returning to his hometown after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) and being asked to look after his nephew (Hedges). But Manchester is also the home of his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), who provides the film’s climactic crux. The award-worthy original screenplay gracefully flows back and forth between present-day action and flashbacks of his dramatic life.
3. Hacksaw Ridge
It’s not often that war movies, especially as violent as the one here directed by Mel Gibson, make it so high on a “Best Of” list, but Andrew Garfield and Hugo Weaving deserve award attention for their performances as a former soldier who doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps and the son who fractured his relationship with his father by going to war anyway. It’s a story of courage and honor that makes me damn proud to be an American. I foresee me pulling this one out next July 4 to remind myself of that.
4. The Handmaiden
The only foreign film on my list wasn’t even submitted for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film consideration by its country of origin, South Korea. But the long, thorough, erotic thriller–about a plot to throw a princess in a lunatic asylum that backfires–tells a concise mystery in its first act before shocking audience by lifting the veil on what you thought you know.
5. Finding Dory
It’s hard to make a sequel that stacks up the original, especially when the original is Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” inarguably one of best animated films of all time (and arguably the best). But the fun journey taken in “Finding Dory” feels every bit as entertaining and poignant as the first. And that’s saying a lot.
6. O.J.: Made in America
Yes, “O.J.: Made in America” is a TV mini-series. But after qualifying for the Oscar’s documentary category, we have to give the nearly-8-hour series the credit it’s due. I mean, I watched it straight through, and was left feeling wholly informed on the life of one of America’s tragic figures–from his college football days to the Las Vegas incident that led to his jail sentence, which he’s still serving. “Made in America” is perhaps the best documentary about the cross-section of race, fame, and crime that’s ever been made.
7. La La Land
Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash” was adored by many critics, and for good reason, but I didn’t find “La La Land” to be the faraway favorite for the year’s top awards that many see it as. Beneath the colorful facade lives a pretty conventional story, about two thirtysomethings in Los Angeles falling in love. Still, “La La Land” is well-acted, technically proficient, and infectiously fun.
Director Denzel Washington leads the Best Actor race (in my opinion) for anchoring this actor-led adaptation of August Wilson’s drama about the pursuit of the American Dream for one African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh.
We didn’t get much time to prepare for this surprise follow-up to director J.J. Abrams’ monster hit “Cloverfield.” Maybe that was for the better, because it let the John Goodman-led cast of “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow us away with their tense, tight performances as bunker-dwellers trying to wait out a possible nuclear attack…or at least, that’s what they’ve been led to believe.
Director Tom Ford’s sense of style is matched by few others in Hollywood. Adapting the thrilling crime novel “Tony and Susan,” Ford brought his artistic eye to an already beautiful story of lost love and cold vengeance.
Honorable Mention: Kubo and the Two Strings
Pulling from a rich Japanese tradition, this intricately-detailed stop-motion feat was one of the year’s most gorgeous films. Unlike anything your child has seen on screen, the story doesn’t hold back or water down. It is bold, original, and unforgettable storytelling.