When I survey the ten films I chose as my top picks for 2016, what surprises me is how much fun I had this year. This list is not without serious dramas, but I tossed aside some pretentious titles. Great acting was king this year. From almost every film on my list, there was a tour de force performance, or a great ensemble cast. Again this year, all the films on my list were premiered at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema. Have a happy new year!
1. Moonlight by Barry Jenkin
Three different times in the life of Chiron, an African-American gay man. At 9, he is bullied at school and he lives with his drug addicted mom And he meets a crack dealer who becomes a positive force in his life. At 16, things are worse than ever for Chiron. He discovers that love and betrayal can come from within the same person. Years later, Chiron is an adult now, but a fragile man who still carries the wounds of his broken childhood. Jenkin mixes poetry of the street and of the heart. The cast is astounding. This is what a masterpiece looks like.
2. Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan
Upon the news of his brother’s death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) returns to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Memories from the past are overwhelming him as he learns he’s been named guardian of his 16 years old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lonergan’s beautiful film is a delicate study of pain and survival in the face of tragedy. His brilliant screenplay weaves comedy and drama effortlessly. Affleck and Hedges play off each other as if the were really family. The film to beat at the Oscar.
3. Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones
This was the first film I saw in 2016. And what a great way to start the year! François Truffaut’s 1965 book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock is still considered by some a cinema bible. The film explores its influence on people like Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. What is undeniable after watching Hitchcock/Truffaut is the intensity of Hitchcock’s images. But 80 minutes was too short. In my opinion, 10 hours would not have been enough.
4. Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Frears
In many ways Florence Foster Jenkins, a biopic about a woman who did not know she could not sing opera, did it anyway and became a great success, is the most accomplished film of 2016. Costumes? Got it! Set decoration? Got it! Make up? They certainly got that! It has three knock out bravura performances. This is Meryl Streep in her most technically challenging role. Hugh Grant, as her husband, is like a grand master of ceremony. Galloping from one genre to another: Classic comedy routines, dance numbers, tear-jerker, no sweat! It’s a wonder that Simon Helberg, as her accompanist, can keep up with them, but he does. And a good time was had by all.
5. Into the forest by Patricia Rozema
It goes off. Just like that. No explanations. No reasons given. No more electricity. No more phones or internet. No Twitter or Facebook. And it does not look as if things will come back anytime soon. Living in the middle of the forest, two young sisters Nell and Eva, have to fend for themselves after their father dies. Canadian director Patricia Rozema asks a very important and necessary questions. Do we really need all this? Could we survive if it all suddenly disappeared? Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood have both found the perfect partner. Rozema and cinematographer Daniel Grant are not afraid to go deep into the forest, to show us that both in light and in darkness there is beauty to be found.
6. Elle by Paul Verhoven
The most shocking and surprising film of 2016. When Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle is brutally raped in her home by a masked intruder, she does not seem to be affected at all. Instead, Michèle is cold and calculating. And so are Huppert and director Paul Verhoven, who are both at the top of their craft. Huppert is totally convincing in a part that would scare off many actresses. Verhoven directs without a fuss but with the precisions of a scalpel. He’s more interested in telling a good story than in pyrotechnics. But what is Elle? It’s a casual thriller about rape. Shocking!
7. Sing street by John Carney
Fun at the movies? Who ever heard of such a thing? It may happen if we go back in time to 1985. In Dublin, Ireland, young 14-year-old Conor “Cosmo” is sent to school at the Christian brothers with the very repressive Brother Baxter watching over him. But Cosmo recruits some of his school mates to form a band named Sing street! All around them there is music from groups like Duran Duran, The cure and The clash. The boys write their own songs and produce their own music videos. And Cosmo falls in love with Raphinia, the model they hired to be in their videos. The young cast is pitch perfect. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Cosmo, has a wonderful voice and literally carries the film. So, music, nostalgia and romance. And boy, those costumes, the hairs!
8. The dressmaker by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Supposedly based on a ‘gothic novel’, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film feels more like a parody of a gothic novel. The dressmaker is the campiest film I’ve seen in a long time. Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage comes back to the desert like town of Dungatar in the Australian outback (‘I’m back, you bastards’), where 25 years earlier she was falsely accused of murder. She wants the truth and probably revenge. Tilly reconnects with her mother, Mad Molly, the town’s alcoholic dirt bag. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis are expertly chewing up the scenery. Other cast of characters include a hash brownies eating elderly woman and a cross-dressing police officer. Camp, I told ya!
9. Wiener-Dog by Todd Solondz
Wiener-Dog is a multi-storied film about a dachshund that go from one owner to another. This is Todd Solondz’s best effort since his 1998 controversial film Happiness. It has the same type of sick and twisted humour. It also has a stone-faced acting masterpiece by the great Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn steals the film from everyone, including the dog. If you like cynicism, like I do, this is the film for you. But dog lovers beware. The one thing I learned: Don’t feed granola bars to your dog.
10. Captain Fantastic by Matt Ross
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, a widowed father of six who has decided to raise his children as recluse anti-capitalist communists. They don’t celebrate Christmas, but instead celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Captain Fantastic is the part of a lifetime. And it has a near perfect ensemble cast of young and veteran actors. One of them is Frank Langela, as Ben’s controlling father-in-law. There are clichés, but the snappy dialogue and the acting is fun, and soon it does not really matter.