You could make the argument that 2016 was not a great time to go the multiplex.
Any year that gives us the trifecta of terribleness that was Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Gods of Egypt is one that should go down as one of the worst since movies first flickered to life in the late 19th century.
But, fortunately, there’s more to moviegoing than big, bloated blockbusters. And, more than ever, independent films, documentaries and passion projects proved to be the salvation. Here are the year’s top 10 films — the cream of the crop that made going to the theater in 2016 worthwhile.
1. Hell or High Water: David Mackenzie’s contemporary Western about two bank-robbing brothers on the run across the West Texas flatlands with a laconic Texas Ranger and his partner in pursuit could have been just another thriller. But the innate Texas feel and sense of humor provided by Texan screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, the tapping into sentiments of economic injustice, strong performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, the colorful portrait of a way of life that may be evaporating, and an evocative score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis all work together to tell a strong story that doesn’t always go to expected places. Some Texans might rightly gripe about some geographical inaccuracies but these are small quibbles. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQoqsKoJVDw Original review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article94880577.html
2. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ touching coming-of-age story and character study of a gay, black man in Miami is revolutionary even though the director avoids being incendiary by going for a more low-key approach. Based on a semi-autobiographical play by screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, it paints a textured, complex picture of black masculinity rarely seen in American films. Stylistically, Jenkins — who has said he has been influenced by Hong Kong director and master stylist Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) — has made a tough, yet beautiful classic. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NJj12tJzqc Original review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article112083262.html
3. Weiner: There was no way directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg could have known their absorbing, unflinching documentary about disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner would be as timely as it turned out to be. But, even without the election-year connection between Weiner’s sexting and Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal, Weiner is a painful and revealing expose of a man, a marriage and a campaign in the process of coming totally undone. Originally started as a way to chart Weiner’s comeback with his bid to be New York City’s mayor, it quickly turns from a story of a phoenix rising to a politician crashing and burning amid the detritus of ego, arrogance and ambition. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ4FIGnJknk&t=24s Original review: http://www.dfw.com/2016/06/09/1109026/weiner-an-unflinching-look-at.html
4. Train to Busan: South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho reinvigorates the zombie movie genre with this electrifying, propulsive cinematic thrill ride. Set on a speeding bullet train from Seoul to Busan, where hordes of the ravenous undead are on the hunt for the living, Train to Busan is a tensely claustrophobic, action-movie masterwork. The easy description is that it’s 28 Days Later meets Snowpiercer with a bit of Mad Max thrown in for good measure. That may be cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true. An English-language remake has just been announced, but don’t wait for it. As a Variety reader disgustedly commented on the online story about the remake, “Just watch the damn original.” Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyWuHv2-Abk Original review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article90804702.html
5. Jackie: Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s exploration of Jackie Kennedy’s life in the days following JFK’s assassination veers far away from biopic expectations. At once slow, grim and austere yet oddly operatic, Jackie plumbs the depth of a wife’s grief while she still struggles to maintain a public face. It’s given vigor by a stirring performance from Natalie Portman as Jackie and a shimmeringly melancholic score from Mica Levi. This is Larraín’s first English-language film, but it likely won’t be his last. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9pW3B8Ycc4 Original review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article120319103.html
6. Tower: Keith Maitland’s documentary about the 1966 mass shooting from the UT Austin tower at first seems like a glib concept that shouldn’t work. He hired actors to re-enact the events of that day and then used rotoscope technology to turn it into animation. But it brings alive a part of history that many aren’t aware of or only dimly remember. It turns what could have been just a documentary with a parade of talking heads telling what happened a half-century ago into something relevant and surprisingly moving. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTzNkfgM1vE&t=7s Original review: http://www.dfw.com/2016/10/27/1147678/tower-turns-texas-tragedy-into.html
7. Fences: Director Denzel Washington turns August Wilson’s award-winning stage play into a cinematic experience, and while it still feels very theatrical, this slice of ’50s working-class black life is very powerful as it features two of the year’s best performances as well as Wilson’s stirring dialogue. Washington and Viola Davis, who’ve played these roles on Broadway, obviously are comfortable in their characters’ skins, and that shows in every finely acted, finely tuned moment. It opens in North Texas on Christmas Day. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj-ZYPVRQbc
8. La La Land: Damien Chazelle’s deliriously enjoyable throwback to the heyday of the Hollywood musical is cinema cotton candy; it’s one of the most fun times to be had at a theater this year. Nevermind that neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone are going to give Astaire or Rogers a run for their dancing shoes. The use of traditional jazz, and references to Charlie Parker and the like adds to its sense of rescuing forgotten history. By hewing so closely to the musical playbook, La La Land proves that everything old is indeed new again. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pdqf4P9MB8 Review: http://www.dfw.com/2016/12/08/1159093/la-la-land-is-something-to-sing.html
9. Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama about death and emotional survival is a strikingly well-written and performed work that is leavened by a warm sense of humor. The characters feel like people you might actually run into in a small, New England town and the performances — from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and notably young Lucas Hedges — are all first-rate. Lonergan has only directed three films in 16 years: the wonderful You Can Count on Me in 2000, Margaret in 2011, and now Manchester by the Sea. It was worth the wait. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsVoD0pTge0 Review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article115950993.html
10. Krisha: A Houston Thanksgiving family dinner turns into a battleground in director Trey Shults’ explosive feature debut. Krisha Fairchild as the title character is a powerhouse. That Shults was able to plumb his family’s troubled history for this story, and get many of them to take parts in the movie, makes it even more impressive. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnX_lLuENfI&t=12s Original review: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/article67883637.html
OJ: Made in America: Most Americans experienced Ezra Edelman’s unforgettable, nearly eight-hour documentary about the O.J. Simpson case on television though it did open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles and has made the Academy Awards short list to be a nominee for a best documentary Oscar. More than just a rehash of the murder, Edelman’s film is a gripping chronicle of race, class, celebrity, sports, policing and power in Los Angeles, in particular, and America more broadly, as seen through the circus surrounding the trial that mesmerized a nation. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrB3rOcrJxg&t=2s
There are many other films that certainly warrant consideration, even if they didn’t make my final 10. They include:
Green Room: Director Jeremy Saulnier is a force to be reckoned with and he proves it in this electric horror-thriller about a group of punk rockers trapped by a gang of murderous skinheads.
The Salesman: Iran’s premier director, Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, About Elly) returns with another masterful look at contemporary Iranian life in this compelling story about a couple who find their lives upended after moving into a new apartment. It’s set to open in DFWin early 2017.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Taika Waititi’s often uproariously funny tale about a 13-year-old boy and his foster dad is also sweet and heartwarming.
Loving: Jeff Nichols’ quiet but forceful telling of the story of the Lovings, the couple that brought down the anti-miscegenation laws of the ’60s, features striking performances from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
Hello, My Name Is Doris: Sally Field gives an impressive performance in this engaging, sharply written rom-com about an older woman who doesn’t let her age stop her from pursuing a much younger man.
Transpecos: Greg Kwedar’s low-budget Texas drama about three border patrol agents is a smartly done, taut thriller.
They Will Have to Kill Us First: Johanna Schwartz’s documentary about Malian musicians escaping from or living under harsh Sharia law, in which music is banned, is a remarkable piece of socio-cultural reporting — and the music is great, too.
The Edge of Seventeen, Sing Street and Girl Asleep: Three films about teen life that manage to avoid or subvert teen-movie cliches.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: This mockumentary from the Lonely Island comedy crew was a big box-office bomb, but that didn’t make this send-up of Justin Bieber and his ilk any less funny.
Deadpool: This snarky take on the superhero genre deserves credit for making 73-year-old actress/singer Leslie Uggams, who broke racial barriers as the first black woman to host a network variety show, relevant for a much, much younger generation by playing Ryan Reynolds’ sidekick Blind Al.