Most film critics who post annual 10 Best lists follow simple rules, and I am no exception — include a few likely Oscar contenders, a few popular hits, and at least one arcane title from the wild blue yonder, either foreign or up-and-coming indie, presented in short readable blurbs. (No photo gallery here.)
And yes, while I keep to a pure Top 10, I do cheat a bit with some extra categories below. So shoot me.
1. “The Jungle Book”
Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks took Rudyard Kipling’s classic tales of Mowgli and his brothers and, with help from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese’s go-to VFX master Rob Legato, created a seamlessly natural digital world with many vibrant animal characters — and one live boy (Neel Sethi). Maybe Favreau makes it look too easy. This isn’t fantasy-world “Avatar.” This is digital India. He calls up fond memories of Disney’s 1967 animated musical, weaving in a couple of songs and creating a grand set piece led by Christopher Walken as a giant ancient orangutan (gigantopithecus, to be exact). Actor Favreau playfully kept Sethi responsive and interested, throwing surprises at him. So what if this is a family film? Audiences around the world recognized its universal appeal to the tune of $964 million. Favreau is one of the most capable directors working in Hollywood. Who else would credit his research on the scruffy sleeper comedy “Chef” with helping him to learn how to work with VFX houses? This movie is up there with “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” “Gravity,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” as a cinematic groundbreaker for the ages.
Everything went right on this New England heart-tugger. With his third feature, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, master of the telling detail, weaves a careful tapestry of grief and family and disconnectedness, leaning on a real town and a superb cast led by Casey Affleck as Lee, a depressed, shut-down Boston janitor given the care of his beloved nephew (Lucas Hedges), who’s having a pretty good high school year back in Manchester when his father (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies. Slowly, Lonergan lets us know, via organic flashbacks, what happened to Lee and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), who are forced to see each other again. That’s the scene that sets grown men crying.
3. “Toni Erdmann”
It’s a treat to come across something utterly unexpected, even if it’s almost three hours long. On her third feature (which was robbed of a prize at Cannes but is Germany’s Oscar entry), writer-director Maren Ade, working with gifted theater actors, crafts an unpredictable and hilarious father/daughter comedy. When I interviewed Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek — she’s a workaholic corporate businesswoman who is mortified when her shaggy-dog retired father keeps trailing after her in toothy disguise as his alter-ego Toni Erdmann — they were still affectionately arguing about their characters. Ade is not surprised; she likes to keep the audience guessing, too.
Thanks to persuasive producers, writer-director Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) finally threw off the sophomore jinx. He found a project (an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who’s just been named the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama) that allowed him to conjure a mix of personal and professional in this moving coming-of-age story set in Miami. In “Moonlight,” Supporting Actor Oscar frontunner Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer from a Cuban family. He takes under his wing a fatherless young boy, Little (Alex Hibbert), who lives with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and is bullied at school for being “different.” Juan and his wife (Janelle Monáe) offer Little refuge and Juan becomes a much-needed role model, teaching Little how to swim, giving him advice about the world, and offering acceptance and validation. As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has his first homosexual experience, and in the third act, we see him as a muscled, beautiful but solitary man (Trevante Rhodes) who is following Juan’s path as a drug dealer. We have all known moments — hopefully fleeting — of feeling like a lonely, unloved outsider. Jenkins reaches deep and makes us feel Chiron’s universal need for love and gratitude to the people who have touched him.
5. “La La Land”
Like Tarantino, writer-director Damien Chazelle is that rare, obsessively gifted writer-director who intuits how to merge past and present in a believable way. With his critically hailed follow-up to Oscar-winning jazz drama “Whiplash,” Chazelle magically modernizes the colorful swirl of Jacques Demy French song-and-dance musicals “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort” along with such backstage romantic musicals as “New York, New York” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” In “La La Land,” Chazelle plants lamp posts everywhere. And in this annus horribilis, his escapist reverie is a very pleasant way to spend your time. It’s already racking up awards. In a weak year for Best Picture Oscar contenders (if not for actors), “La La Land” stands out as a beacon of vibrant color and romance against a field of grimmer, smaller-scale rivals.
In a Hollywood movie-star turn, Amy Adams ably carries Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to “Sicario,” brainy sci-fi thriller “Arrival,” which wowed audiences and critics on the fall festival circuit and beyond. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from the short story by Ted Chiang, “Arrival” was developed by Fox director-producer Sean Levy (“Night at the Museum”), who raised funds via FilmNation and eventually sold the movie in a bidding war to Paramount. Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant and brave linguist whose empathetic and intuitive ability to parse the complex language of sophisticated alien visitors could save the human race from extinction; along the way, she bonds with her fellow scientist, played by her “American Hustle” pal Jeremy Renner, and misses her daughter, who we see frolicking in nature. Rare for a sci-fi film, the production design of the alien spaceship, the heptapods, and their inky language is unlike anything we’ve seen on film before, as elegantly lighted and shot by cinematographer Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). Add up the ways “Arrival” does not bow to convention and you can see how the studios were incapable of developing it themselves. And how going rogue is sometimes the only way to show them what’s missing from the studio system.
From the start, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” didn’t call attention to itself. Focus Features paid $9 million for world rights to the drama based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, at the center of the 1967 ruling of Loving v. Virginia. Centered on two stellar performances by Australian Joel Edgerton and half-Irish actress Ruth Negga, this naturalistic romantic drama isn’t the kind of movie that pulls the most noise among Oscar pundits. That’s because writer-director Nichols dares to be quiet, authentic, and true. He doesn’t follow a conventional three-act structure, nor was he tempted to explore the courtroom drama attached to the core story of two people in love who fought miscegenation laws to take care of their family. The director opted not to sprinkle any Hollywood magic dust. (No dramatic Oscar-clip speeches here.) And the actors, along with everyone else on his team, took the ride with him in their efforts to capture the essence of this courageous couple. That’s why this movie is so rare and brave.
Sony Pictures Classics
I first discovered writer-director Rebecca Miller at Sundance 1995 with her remarkable debut, the family drama “Angela,” and have been tracking her very different films ever since, from “Personal Velocity,” an early digital experiment based on her short stories, to “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” starring her husband Daniel Day-Lewis, to her most accessible movie to date, “Maggie’s Plan.” Adapting a story by Karen Rinaldi, Miller brought together the trio of Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore as a romantic triangle of brainy New Yorkers. In Miller’s witty comedy of manners, Gerwig is a 30-something academic who seeks to have a child on her own. She arranges for a sperm donation from a handsome friend, but winds up in love with a professor (Hawke) who is writing a book and raising two children but not feeling supported by his careerist Danish wife (Moore). Needless to say, complications ensue and the ultimate resolution is most satisfying. Partly because it’s an entertaining romantic comedy directed by a woman —”Maggie’s Plan” is far better-written, acted and directed than, say, Whit Stillman’s arthouse hit “Love & Friendship,” which was sold on its Jane Austen source material — this must-see movie has been under-appreciated.
9. “20th Century Women”
Set in 1979 and inspired by writer-director Mike Mills’ own Depression-born mother, “20th Century Women” features three generations of Santa Barbara women who help raise teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). In Mills’ follow-up to “Beginners” (which yielded a 2010 Supporting Actor Oscar for Christopher Plummer), Annette Bening gets a good shot at landing her fifth Oscar nomination for playing Jamie’s single mother Dorothea, a mysterious, charismatic, mercurial, idiosyncratic, needy, hard-working, gregarious, cigarette-puffing, funny, wine-loving, generous, nurturing, private, strong, vulnerable, and withholding woman who has never seen the inside of a psychiatrist’s office. In other words, unlike most female movie roles and like most real women, she can’t be pegged as a stereotype. (Think Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar-winning turn as Larry McMurtry’s Aurora Greenaway in “Terms of Endearment.”) Playing a woman in her 50s, Bening is unique, sexy, and fascinating. It’s believable that several men in the movie nurture crushes on her, even though still-beautiful Bening refused to glam up in the role. In yet another juicy performance this year, Gerwig is a complicated younger woman who gives Jamie confusing feminist literature and fights her own illness with style. Elle Fanning is hilarious as Jamie’s teen pal, who crawls into his bed every night but won’t have sex with him. I can’t wait to see this rich, dense movie again.
It’s a default position to state that director Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” is “stagey.” As an intimate drama with towering performances, “Fences” is the best possible film version, opening up the play without fakery or silliness. Tony-winners Washington and Viola Davis lead a stunning ensemble including their stage costars Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson. Washington didn’t make “Fences” small for the screen. He allowed it to be as big as it needed to be, knowing they were all purely serving the late playwright’s creation.
Screenplay of the Year
Taylor Sheridan’s script for David Mackenzie’s resonant contemporary western “Hell or High Water,” starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster, yielded the highest-grossing independent film of the year ($27 million). The former actor, in the tradition of “The Last Picture Show” and “Hud” author Larry McMurtry (another Texan whose stories fueled some great Hollywood movies), set his story in the Lone Star State. Sheridan (“Sicario”) scored Indie Spirit and Critics Choice nominations for his layered screenplay, which isn’t just a genre exercise; this story digs into how and why men fail to communicate honestly with each other.
Documentarian of the Year
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson not only shot for Dawn Porter (“Trapped”) and other documentary filmmakers this year, but assembled her own unique memoir, “Cameraperson”, questioning her role as an observer who is nonetheless a participant.
Actor of the Year
Mahershala Ali had a swath of projects hit screens in 2016, three of which he shot at the same time. (A fourth, “Hidden Figures,” in which he woos a NASA math whiz played by Taraji P. Henson, comes out December 25.) In New York, he was violent New York gangster Cottonmouth on Marvel’s Netflix series “Luke Cage.” In Baltimore, he continued the fourth (and his last) season of his Emmy-nominated role as Remy Danton, the slick former communications director for Frank Underwood, in “House of Cards.” And in Miami, on three successive weekends, he shot his pivotal supporting part in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” That’s the one winning awards.
Actress of the Year
French star Isabelle Huppert relied on decades of experience for two very different must-see fall films, “Things to Come” and “Elle,” that could finally land her an Oscar nomination.
Director of the Year
Best Animated Feature
“The Red Turtle” (Michael Dudok de Witt)
Most Torturous Shoot of the Year (aka “The Revenant Award”)
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”
Films That Didn’t Need to Be Made
“Bridget Jones’ Baby,” “Jason Bourne,” “The Light Between Oceans”
Ahead Of Its Time
Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
20th Century Fox
Behind Its Time
Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply”
“The Legend of Tarzan”