Jeff Mitchell's Top 20 Films of 2016

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2016


The year 2017 is very nearly upon us, but before we start planning new resolutions and goals, let’s take a quick look back at 2016, and specifically, the year’s best movies. 


I experienced just over 200 movies in 2016, and with so many great films, 30 of them could have found their way on my “Top 20 of the Year”.   Alas, that specific math does not work, so I made some difficult decisions and proudly believe that these 20 films are the very best of 2016.  


20. “Miss Sloane” – Jessica Chastain is a tour de force in the title role, and she plays a corporate lobbyist who is the smartest person in every room that she enters.  Elizabeth Sloane’s (almost entire) sole focus is on winning, but she meets her match during a showdown with the U.S. gun lobby.  Director John Madden’s intense drama seamlessly navigates through miles of modern-day, bureaucratic red tape, while Chastain dazzles at a breakneck speed.  With much respect to Annette Bening and Natalie Portman, Chastain gave the best lead actress performance of the year.  


19. “The Dark Horse” – This inspiring New Zealand biopic - about chess coach Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) – delves into surprisingly gritty territory.  We see his severe battles with mental illness and thorny external forces that constantly hinder his daily routines and future goals.  Curtis is nothing short of remarkable as Genesis, while writer/director James Napier Robertson captures the man’s longshot attempt at teaching chess to a group of underprivileged kids. 


18. “Les Cowboys” – A distraught father (Francois Damiens) searches everywhere for his missing daughter and recruits his son (Finnegan Oldfield) as well, on a winding, seemingly impossible journey.  Director Thomas Bidegain explores sensitive topics about Middle East refugees living in Western Europe, as Alain (Damiens) and Georges (Oldfield) feel like outsiders in familiar and unfamiliar lands.  John C. Reilly costars in this emotional French drama. 


17. “The Eyes of My Mother” – Writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s shoots his ghastly horror film with a distinct arthouse flair and constructs an isolated environment – in the form of a remote farmhouse – in which no one can hear you scream or see the merciless transgressions.  Led by Kika Magalhaes’ mesmerizing performance, this film promises to slink into an accessible crawlspace of the brain and plant its seedy roots.   


16. “Arrival” – Director Denis Villeneuve’s alien encounter picture taps into familiar themes from the genre and turns them on their head, when a communications expert (Amy Adams) attempts to learn our new visitors’ language.  These human/alien exchanges build high degrees of tension, relief and intrigue, and the narrative delivers surprises not normally explored in routine science fiction.


15. “The Nice Guys” – In the funniest movie of the year, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play a pair of somewhat dimwitted, but resourceful, private investigators who try to solve a puzzling Los Angeles murder case.  Gosling, Crowe and director Shane Black have lots of fun with the 1970s setting, as political correctness and general welfare can be extremely difficult to find.  The film leaves an opening for a sequel, and here’s hoping that Gosling, Crowe and Black return for “The Even Nicer Guys” in a year or two.


14. “Anthropoid” – The film’s title refers to a secret WWII operation in Czechoslovakia, and director Sean Ellis’ creation is split into a tale of two distinct halves: before and after the mission.  During the planning stage, Czech army soldiers (Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan) develop close relationships with resistance fighters, but must deal with the operation’s violent consequences.  This deliberately schizophrenic narrative yanks the audience through an emotional journey, while offering an important history lesson probably not included in most U.S. school textbooks.


13. “Indignation” – Writer/director James Schamus’ expertly crafted film – based upon Philip Roth’s novel – is a story about boy-meets-girl, but the college-aged couple’s (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon) courtship sails into trying waters due to sexual repression and mental illness.  Despite their relationship hurdles, the movie nurtures us into a rocky lullaby and discovery of first love, but resonates into broader themes when we least expect it.   


12. “Jackie” – Director Pablo Larrain’s film about Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) deliberately strays from routine biopic patterns in a fascinating, almost experimental, look at the former first lady during the days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.  In a recent interview, Larrain said that he wanted to create a film that allows the audience to feel the results – and share the emotion – of those days with Jackie. Based upon his organic approach and Portman’s landmark performance, his vision is realized.


11. “20th Century Women” – Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Dorothea (Annette Bening) embraces the saying “it takes a village” when raising her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).  She recruits two young women (Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig) to help guide him on the ways of the world, because she perceives that she cannot be there all the time.  Bening gives a touching, accessible performance, and she and writer/director Mike Mills lead a memorable look at a cast of characters who try to steer their own ways too, mistakes and all.


10. “Moonlight” – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray a boy/teen/man nicknamed “Little” through three time periods, in a film which writer/director Barry Jenkins organically captures how a child’s environment can impact his or her outlook as an adult.  Skillfully acted at every turn, Mahershala Ali arguably gives the film’s most memorable performance as Juan, a small-time drug dealer who offers a kindhearted hand to Little.


9. “The Handmaiden” – Director Chan-wook Park’s highly entertaining picture creates a feast for the senses in a diabolical spinning web of deceit, when a count (Jung-woo Ha) recruits a female laborer (Tae-ri Kim) to help hijack a fortune from a Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim).  A movie-lover’s movie, but be warned, it is rated “NR” for a reason. 


8. “Captain America: Civil War” – The latest effort in the Marvel franchise successfully juggles 12 superheroes in a harmonious balance of emotional conflict and action.  Somehow, directors Anthony and Joe Russo highlight the best of each character without making the picture feel like a greatest hits parade. 


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7. “Captain Fantastic” – Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, and although the film bathes in out of the box thinking, at its core, it is simply about love and family.  Striking emotional chords with family dynamics in a wholly unique way, writer/director Matt Ross offers the most satisfying drama of the year.  


6. “O.J.: Made in America” – In a year chock-full of excellent documentaries – like “Weiner”, “13th”, “De Palma”, and “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” - director Ezra Edelman’s film towers over them all.  A sprawling work of genius, which runs almost eight hours, it explores the dysfunctional foundations in O.J. Simpson’s life and racial tensions in Los Angeles that led to a 1995 not guilty verdict and much, much more.  This highly insightful doc cannot be missed.


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5. “The Witch” – Ill misfortune plagues a pioneer family in the form of black magic from a witch living in a nearby forest, and writer/director Robert Eggers turns on his camera and makes us sweat every ounce of terror and confusion that they suffer.  The movie does not rely on jump scares or gore, but instead delves into morbid terrors through eerie tones and 17th Century thinking, and in the process, “The Witch” brews a highly sinister concoction.


4. “Manchester by the Sea” - A Boston janitor, Lee (Casey Affleck), emotionally cuts ties with the world, but that dramatically needs to change when he is asked to become his nephew’s legal guardian.  Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan – an expert at creating intriguing characters within ordinary slices of life - weaves an intricate, subtle picture that sneaks up on the audience and punches us in the gut.  Hands down, Affleck delivers the performance of the year in Lonergan’s masterpiece.



3. “Hell or High Water” – Chris Pine and Ben Foster play desperate brothers who rob banks all over West Texas, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are a pair of Texas Rangers trying to chase them down.  Although the movie takes place in 2016, everything feels like a classic western, as the movie garners our complete attention with its cat and mouse narrative and riveting performances.  Foster deserves to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.   


2. “The Lobster” – The most unique movie experience of the year can best be described as a Wes Anderson picture with a more forlorn and darker feel.  In this dystopian society, a single person has 45 days to fall in love or “the authorities” will turn him or her into an animal, and that is the proposition posed to an introvert named David (Colin Farrell).   David attempts to work his dating magic, while the highly charged script makes snide observations at societal views about relationships and the reasons why we choose our partners.  Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ wicked cinematic eye-opener has the most memorable ending of 2016.


1. “La La Land” – Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s utterly wonderful film is a throwback to Old Hollywood, as he spins a tale about two young hopefuls, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), dreaming to make it as a jazz musician and an actress, respectively.  Spectacular sequences - including a mind-boggling song and dance number on a log jammed Los Angeles freeway - hypnotize us, and the movie feels like a two-hour eight-minute stroll through a candy factory, bursting with sugary splashes of primary colors.  The film, however, is not just rainbows and lollipops.  Sebastian and Mia’s dreamy relationship faces the reality of their career aspirations, and in turn, this provides a soulful look at love and finding the right person.  “La La Land” found itself as the right film for my #1 spot of the year.