The Arts

The Films of 2016: Top to Bottom

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by Mark Burger

With major studios releasing fewer films each year, preferring to concentrate their efforts and money on potential franchise tent-poles, independent films have stepped into the breach, releasing seemingly more films than ever before – so many, in fact, that some of them never even play in theaters hereabouts. Even when they do, they tend not to stick around for terribly long. Up against the marketing bonanza of the big blockbusters, you’ve got to seek out the smaller gems, which tend to yield more riches than their big-budget brethren.
Nevertheless, the last 12 months saw a generally good selection of feature films. When it came to assembling a 10 Best list, I was happily reminded of some very good films (listed at the end of the 10 Best films) that didn’t make the cut but were worthy entertainments in their own right.
Without further ado, this critic’s selection of 2016 best films, followed by the worst.

10 Best

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1. WAR DOGS: Not unlike what Adam McKay’s The Big Short last year, filmmaker Todd Phillips applied his comedic sensibilities to this blistering, near-brilliant, fact-based satire focusing on Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), a pair of party-hearty pals who wound up landing multi-million-dollar military contracts with the US Government. Promoted as something of a “frat boy” comedy, War Dogs was not a box-office blockbuster, but earned enough critical praise to land Hill (in a flawless performance) a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination.

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2. FENCES: August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning stage triumph has been superbly realized on screen by director Denzel Washington, who also reprises his Tony-winning role for the 2010 Broadway revival, alongside stage holdovers Viola Davis (also a Tony winner for the revival), Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson, and screen newcomers Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney. The result is a peerless ensemble cast and, likewise, a peerless film. The work of Wilson (who died in 2005) is widely regarded as being about the black experience, but it’s just as much about the American experience and, more importantly, the human experience. Fences loses absolutely none of its power in its big-screen transition.

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3. MOANA: Finding Dory is among the year’s biggest box-office behemoths, but this dazzling, delightful animated feature ranks as an instant classic in the Disney canon, a sweeping adventure undertaken by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho (in the title role) and Dwayne Johnson (as the fast-talking demigod Maui). There were early concerns that the studio would somehow diminish or mock the culture and legends of the Polynesian people, but nothing could be further from the truth. Moana is sweet and funny without ever being in the least offensive. It’s a celebration of that culture, as well as a celebration of the magic of movies. A sheer joy.

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4. SULLY: Everyone knows the saga of US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, when the plane crashed into the Hudson River – all aboard miraculously spared – and pilot Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”) was hailed a hero. Director Clint Eastwood brings his customary no-nonsense approach to the fact-based storyline, going behind the headlines to explore the impact (no pun intended) of the incident upon Sullenberger, played with perfect everyman gravitas by Tom Hanks, who over a 35-year screen career has emerged as one of America’s greatest actors. Competent and credible in the extreme, this is a worthy portrait of real-life courage.

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5. LOVING: UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols continues his ascendance with this eloquent portrayal of the real-life interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, played to perfection by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Like Eastwood and Sully, Nichols refrains from overstating or overstuffing the story, allowing its simplicity to hold sway. There’s a palpable passion and compassion within its subtle telling. Loving feels real.

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6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: Kenneth Lonergan’s heartfelt character drama, set in the wintry environs of its New England locale, showcases Casey Affleck in a spectacular lead turn as a blue-collar Boston handyman whose reticence masks a lifetime of guilt and pain. When called home to attend to the funeral of his brother (Kyle Chandler), he must come to terms with his loss – and his life. Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges (who took a break from his studies at UNCSA to appear in the film), Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick are fine in support, but this is Affleck’s show all the way, and Lonergan evinces a real affection and respect for the people and mindset of Manchester by the Sea.

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7. LA-LA LAND: Following his acclaimed Whiplash (2014), filmmaker Damien Chazelle takes a big chance – and comes up a winner – with this modern-day musical set amid the hopes and dreams of Tinseltown, with the romance between jazz pianist Ryan Gosling and aspiring actress Emma Stone at the forefront. Bursting with style, creativity, charm and innovation, it’s a toe-tapping triumph for all concerned. Miles Teller and Emma Watson were originally considered for the leads, but it’s hard to see anyone better than Gosling and Stone in the roles.

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8. JACKIE: Taking a break from Marvel’s Thor films, Natalie Portman comes back to Earth as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, in the days following the assassination of her husband on Nov. 22, 1963. Director Pablo Larrain, with major assists from Stephane Fontaine and composer Mica Levi, creates historical speculation in highly theatrical and highly cinematic terms, with a heightened surrealism that reflects Jackie’s emotions at the time, and, indeed the emotions of those who lived through that period. It’s a different side to the JFK story, one that hasn’t been told before – and Jackie tells it very well.

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9. LION: Director Garth Davis’ debut feature is a first-rate, fact-based tearjerker detailing the odyssey of Saroo Brierley, who as a young boy found himself inadvertently locked aboard a train that proceeded to spirit him thousands of miles across India. Years later, after being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, effortless exuding familial love), Saroo found the ways and means to delve into his past and come face to face with a life he’d long thought lost. Youngster Sunny Pawar, in a powerhouse screen debut, is so convincing and compelling as the young Saroo that it’s almost jarring when Dev Patel portrays him as a young man, but Patel is in excellent form, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography captures the size and scope of both India and Australia, further emphasizing the distance of Saroo’s journey through life.

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10. THE BFG: In a summer, to say nothing of an entire year, saturated with animated features, Steven Spielberg’s exquisite adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel never really found its audience, which is a shame because the film, which marked the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s final work, is yet another fine example of Spielberg’s mastery. In her screen debut, Ruby Barnhill is another spectacular Spielberg discovery, playing the young orphan who befriends the “Big Friendly Giant” (Mark Rylance, who scored an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies last year). Beautifully designed and wittily told, this is one that got away … but is ripe for rediscovery as another masterwork for its maker.

Other feature films released in 2016 that were worthy of note and praise included Paul Verhoeven’s twisty Elle, top-lining a stellar turn by Isabelle Huppert (a sure-fire Oscar contender): Christine, the harrowing, fact-based story of ill-fated newscaster Christine Chubbuck, played brilliantly by Rebecca Hall; Disney’s couldn’t-miss (and didn’t) follow-up Finding Dory, which didn’t quite hit the heights of its 2003 predecessor; the futuristic satire High-Rise and the fact-based academia saga The Man Who Knew Infinity, both featuring excellent turns by Jeremy Irons (who’s made something of a big-screen comeback this year); writer/director Shane Black’s off-kilter and frequently outrageous Hollywood neo-noir The Nice Guys, pairing Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling; and David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary Tickled, which exposed the underground viral community devoted to “competitive endurance tickling.” It’s a strange, bizarre and compelling cautionary tale – one that’s difficult to shake.

10 Worst

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1. SUICIDE SQUAD: One of the year’s biggest box-office hits, which proves that enough hype and hoopla can overcome among the most withering reviews of any major movie in recent memory. This patchwork superhero blockbuster was so haphazardly assembled (reportedly from two different cuts) that many noted its glaring inconsistencies and blatant lapses in continuity. A high-decibel, low-impact mess that will surely spawn sequels … and it won’t be difficult for them to improve on this tepid template. Of the many people I know who saw this film, only one or two confessed to actually enjoying it – and they weren’t exactly proud about it.

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2. FREE STATE OF JONES: Gary Ross’ historical melodrama, starring Matthew McConaughey as the real-life Civil War veteran Newton Knight, who established his own “free state” in a corner of Mississippi in defiance of the Confederacy, is fact-based filmmaking at its worst. This is one depressing example where even the best intentions go awry, yielding exasperated boredom as the story sinks under the (heavy) weight of its own pretentions – and keeps sinking until the bitter end.

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3. DIRTY GRANDPA: Even so talented and legendary an actor as Robert De Niro (playing the title character) can’t bring class to this crass, raunch-filled road comedy pairing the two-time Oscar winner (no nomination this time, that’s for sure!) with Zac Efron as his straight man. Watching this film ramble through its raucousness makes one almost embarrassed for De Niro. If this is the best material offered him these days, we’re all in trouble.

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4. THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM: The best thing about this muddled supernatural shocker is that it was filmed throughout the Piedmont Triad. The worst thing is that it was actually made. The filmmakers display no interest or enthusiasm for the genre, and even die-hard horror fans – who usually can be counted upon for a decent opening weekend – stayed away in droves.

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5. RIDE ALONG 2: More of the same from the mismatched cop/buddy duo of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. If nothing else, Ride Along 2 is pretty much on par with Ride Along 1 – which was on my 10 Worst list for 2014. The thought of a Ride Along 3 is enough to make anyway depressed, but Ride Along 2 made money, so …

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6. OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY: Take a talented, comedy-friendly cast (including Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, Rob Cordrry and T.J. Miller), give them nothing to work with, and what do you get? A holiday buzz-kill, a feeble and flaccid farce that recalls, unfortunately, the heyday of the worst of the National Lampoon movies. Office Christmas Party is the cinematic equivalent of a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

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7. HILARY’S AMERICA: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE DEMOCRACTIC PARTY: The latest self-serving bit of big-screen political propaganda from Dinesh D’Souza was released before Donald Trump captured the Republican Party nomination, but it scarcely matters. D’Souza molds and shapes historical events to fit his own agenda, not realizing – or not caring – that the Republican and Democratic parties of the Civil War era aren’t the same as they are now, nor are they the same as 100 or even 50 years ago. Like a lot of things, excepting D’Souza’s talents, political parties tend to evolve and grow over time. Some have described D’Souza as a poor man’s Michael Moore, but then again Moore’s films aren’t as effective as they once were, and have grown more self-absorbed over the years.

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8. MOTHER’S DAY: Sadly, this holiday-themed comedy/drama marked the final feature for director Garry Marshall, who was unquestionably one of the most-liked men in the business. But that doesn’t mean we have to like his films (which included such previous holiday fluff as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day). Marshall began his career in TV sitcoms, and the majority of his feature films reflected that. The all-star cast included Jennifer Aniston (her second appearance on this list, through no fault of her own), Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Jason Sudeikis, Timothy Olyphant and Marshall regular Hector Elizondo. It’s nice spending time with the, but it would be even nicer if they had something to do.

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9. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE: Kevin Hart (his second go-’round here) applies his usual motor-mouthed schtick to yet another buddy comedy, this one teaming him with rogue CIA agent Dwayne Johnson. They’re quite affable, but the story is a hoary collection of lame gags, silly jokes, and predictable shoot-’em-up action, wasting a cast that included Amy Ryan (in a terrible role), Aaron Paul (in a nothing role) Jason Bateman (his second time on this list too), and Melissa McCarthy in a cameo. “Intelligence” was sorely lacking here, as were inspiration and innovation. Hart may be the hardest-working man in show business these days, but a few more duds like this and he might not be so busy for very much longer.

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10. GODS OF EGYPT: This unconscionable, unintentionally hilarious fantasy epic would have been higher on this list were it not so entertaining – for all the wrong reasons. Bombastic special effects, stone-faced performances and sheer blather are fully on display here. Were the film about the Greek gods it truly would qualify as a “Greek tragedy,” but one supposes it qualifies as an “Egyptian embarrassment,” with performances ranging from sheepishly embarrassed to no-holds-barred ham, by a cast including “Game of Thrones” heartthrob Nikolaj Coster-Walden, Chadwick Boseman, Brenton Thwaites, Rufus Sewell, Bryan Brown, Geoffrey Rush, and Gerard Butler, whose scenery-chewing turn as the villainous god Set made his performance in London Has Fallen seem award-worthy.

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