By 2016 the entire top ten of the box office was dominated by franchise and animated films, from Finding Dory at the top through to the 10th place held by a Star Wars film that debuted the year before. Only one of our selections broke the top 30, and that was an ambitious musical film filled with Polynesian tales of wonderment.
There were far more quiet films outside of the box office spotlight, including one that looked behind the curtain of Camelot, while another was about a poetic driver played by a man named Driver. An Oscar winner is on our list, even if it took a second crack to get its trophy, with the film remaining entirely resonant years on. An then there’s perhaps the quiets of all, a film about couple that just wanted to be left alone, reluctant in every way to claim attention for their cause but fiercely committed to one another. Finally, there’s a tale of friendship unlike any other, one that involves near symphonic uses of flatulence to toot its own horn. (JG)
Jackie is a hypnotic and daringly unconventional portrait of an American icon. The film rewrites biopic formula by pitting its central subject as the antagonist of her own history. Jackie Kennedy (a note-perfect Natalie Portman) squares off with a journalist (Billy Crudup) who seeks to chronicle her legacy for a Life magazine profile. (A device all but plagiarized by the Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.) Evasive, difficult, and daring, Jackie teases the reporter, and the audience, by withholding the salacious details of her husband’s assassination until the very end.
This hypnotic psychological drama goes against biopic formula and gets inside the head of its subject by experimenting with elements of time, representation, memory, and performance. Portman’s exquisitely calculated turn conveys how a fictitious rendering of Mrs. Kennedy might be the only way to understand her given that her life itself was a performance. Jackie plays with the methods with which we remember our heroes as it knocks the Kennedys off their pedestals and examines them for what they were: real people who became stories of American lore. Like King Arthur and Guinevere, JFK and Jackie Kennedy are romantic figures of an idealised world. As Portman’s breathy performance as the late Mrs. Kennedy reminisced that there will never be another Camelot, Jackie speaks to the moment of its release in which the USA closed the door on the Obama years and an age that nearly recaptured the promise of the Kennedys’ reign. Jackie eerily kisses goodbye to the fleeting moments in which America almost knew greatness. (PM)
One of the worst parts of being a film critic is falling in love with movies that don’t get their due. While Jeff Nichols’ 2016 drama, Loving, did receive some Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, it only earned $12 million at the box office and slipped under most moviegoers’ radars. Which is a shame for such a touching and socially relevant film.
You couldn’t ask for a movie with stronger performances and cinematography, or more immersive costume and production design. And that Loving’s story is based on a real-life event makes the characters’ journey even more harrowing. Loving is everything Oscar voters wanted Green Book to be, and then some. (VS)
As a father of a soon-to-be four-year-old girl, I have watched Moana more times than any human should. The funny thing is, I have yet to grow tired of it. The film is an endlessly watchable adventure film that has the perfect blend of thrilling action, smart humour and genuine heart. Aside from its beautiful animation, what really makes Moana standout is its protagonist. Moana is a girl who will stop at nothing to save her people, even if it means setting off on her own to find a shapeshifting demigod. Presenting its environmentally-conscious message as effortlessly as it does its strong independent female lead, Moana is a pure delight. (CS)
Capturing three distinct periods in a young boy’s turbulent life, Barry Jenkins crafts a film that is equally romantic and heartbreaking. Dripping with a rich neon colour palette, Moonlight gives its Florida setting a vibrant and haunting feel. It is a place where drug addiction reshapes the notion of the traditional family unit and poverty cruelly stifles individuality. However, it is also a place of friendship and love. In Jenkins’ skilled hands, a story of hardship becomes one of the most gorgeously romantic and heartbreaking explorations of black masculinity to ever hit the screen. The third section alone, featuring Trevante Rhodes embodying the grownup Chiron, with Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders playing the younger versions in the prior acts, is worthy of a watch as it overflows with repressed male sexual tension. Couple this with the magnificent way that cinematographer James Laxton amplifies the beauty of black skin on screen, and Naomie Harris’ blistering performance (that was shot in three days), and you have a recipe for a true masterpiece. (CS)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Paterson tells the story of one week in the life of a humble, down-to-earth bus driver and poet in Paterson, New Jersey. The titular Paterson (Adam Driver) is happy following the same routine, day in and day out, using the conversations he overhears on his bus route as fodder for his poetry. He’s not a frustrated author though; while his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) encourages him to think about submitting his poems for publication, he demurs. For him, the act of creating is enough. At a time when so many movies are big and loud, it’s a pleasure to sink into a film like this, a slow mediation on ordinary life with Paterson the man as a central grounding force as events happen around him. (JB)
Swiss Army Man
I often use this film as a kind of litmus test, completely accepting that some people will simply check out minutes into the running time. Yet if you go along for a journey (a fart powered ride, and you straddle it like a jet ski), you’re in for one of the most remarkable feats of fiction I’ve ever witnessed. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are simply stunning in this surreal, captivating tale of friendship and loneliness, and thanks to directors the Daniels the magic trick works, where even the most odd and preposterous of moments is made to feel entirely in keeping with the setting created. If cinema at its best can take us to other worlds, and show us ideas not our own and feelings we do not share but completely empathize with, Swiss Army Man proves to be a kind of miracle, a tiny idea that unfolds in myriad and surprising ways. (JG)