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The Best Movies of 2016

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By David C. Simmons


1. Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins). Moonlight is immersive cinema. You’re not merely watching; you’re living it. Director Jenkins achieves this, in part, by placing the camera (and the spectator) right in front of characters as they speak directly ahead, with no place to hide from the crushing void of reality. Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about Chiron Black, who lives in the projects of Miami with a drug-addicted single mother (Naomi Harris), who cares more about her next fix than her little son. Meanwhile, Chiron is realizing that he is attracted to other males, but has no system or ideology that can help him process this in a healthy, self-actualizing way.


We see Chiron played by three different, but engaging, actors in three different time periods—when Chiron is 10 (played by Alex R. Hibbert, when he’s nicknamed “Little”), 16 (played by Ashton Sanders, as he’s called “Chiron”), and 30-something (played by Trevante Rhodes, when he’s designated “Black”). Jenkins deserves the Oscar for Best Director because of his ability to get at the life of things from his cast, particularly his three young Chirons. Also powerful is Mahershala Ali, as Juan, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer who becomes Little’s de facto father figure as Little is trying to understand himself in a world seemingly without love, understanding, or meaning.


2. La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle). La La Land is for lovers of movies with stunning cinematography, or musicals with soaring energy, or stories with poignant insight. Sebastian (the talented Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who has hopes for starting his own club in a world that seems to have moved on from jazz. He literally runs into Mia, an actress trying to show her craft in a system where there are manifold actresses that look just like her. Yet, hope and dreams pour over this film like sunshine over Los Angeles.


Wunkerkind Chazelle (Whiplash) constructs a postmodern masterpiece using Cinemascope lenses to create a ‘50s widescreen lyric quality. La La Land is both an homage to, and a scrutiny of, the twin dream machines of L.A. in general and Hollywood in particular. For example, there are memorable, jaunty set pieces on the 105 during a traffic jam and at the Griffith Observatory at night (reminiscent of key moments in the Hollywood classic Rebel without a Cause). Pasek/Paul, the hot new musical theater songwriting team who recently composed the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, construct astute lyics to Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score. The film also has what I call subjective cinematography, where lighting, colors, and camera movements echo what a character is feeling inside.


3. Lion (Directed by Garth Davis). The most moving film of the year. Lion is an emotional journey of self-discovery for Saroo (Dev Patel), who, as a five-year-old boy, was lost in India when he got on the wrong train. He eventually ends up on another continent, in Tasmania, where he is adopted by another family. Twenty-five years later, he uses Google Earth and his boyhood memories to figure out where he came from.


4. Loving (Directed by Jeff Nichols). Nichols, the master of bringing out quiet domestic family moments, does so again with Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, the couple whose case (Loving v. Virginia) went before the Supreme Court in 1967 and changed anti-miscegenation laws.


5. Fences (Directed by Denzel Washington). Denzel. Viola. Two hurricanes on the screen blowing August Wilson’s stormy words from his lightning-singed Broadway play. How, in 1950s Pittsburgh, do Troy and Rose Maxon cope, while struggling to live within a system that’s weighted against them? Do they build fences in their yard to keep each other safe? Or in their heart to keep each other out?


6. Arrival (Directed by Denis Villenueve). The perfect post-election film. It helps us remember that trust, communication and working together are better than the fear, violence and bigotry that we’ve been taught are our go-to responses. Amy Adams, in her most compelling role yet, plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called on by the military when 12 mysterious spaceships make contact in various places on earth.


She collaborates with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try to understand why the aliens are making contact, before the militaries of various countries decide that violence against the aliens is the best first response. This is the kind of thoughtful science fiction film, which, as an allegory for our current, dystopic state of toxic traditional masculinity, we need right now.


7. Where to Invade Next (Directed by Michael Moore). Moore travels to Europe to see which good ideas he can “steal” and bring back to the United States. In Italy, he talks to workers who get paid maternity leave, eight weeks of paid vacation, and a “13th” monthly paycheck so they have money to spend on their vacations. In France, he visits a public school where students get a four-course meal and an hour for lunch, so they can learn about eating a balanced diet and sharing with others. In Finland, which has the best-educated students in the world, he learns that they did away with homework so students have time to be children, rather than bow down to standardized tests to win the schools more money.


In Slovenia, he discovers that universities are tuition-free, even for foreign students, including several American students who were there seeking relief their outrageous American student loans. In Germany, he finds a system where workers have a 36-hour workweek, people have universal health care, and students are taught their full history in schools so later generations won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. In Portugal, he stumbles upon a police system that has decriminalized drug use and treats their people with “human dignity,” causing crime rates to rapidly diminish.


In Norway, he finds a not-for-profit prison system whose goal is to rehabilitate prisoners and treat them with kindness, so they are ready to become good neighbors again once they are released. Norway’s recidivism rate is only 20 percent, where the U.S.’s system of prison cruelty has a recidivism rate of 80 percent. In Tunisia, a Muslim country, he discovers a strong system of women’s rights, achieved through non-violent protests. In Iceland, he finds a system that prosecuted bankers for illegal activities and recovered quickly from the economic meltdown of 2008, along with some female CEOs who explain that they enjoy living in a society with a mindset of “we” rather than “me.”


In nearly all of these cases, the people interviewed explained that their countries got these ideas from the United States. We came up with these ideas, but then forgot about them. We could have them again, and have a healthier society, if we made them a priority.


8. Manchester by the Sea (Directed by Kenneth Lonergan). A master class in internal acting. As Lee (Casey Affleck) assumes guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he remains unable to process the un-processable. My favorite scene in a film this year is the interaction after Lee bumps into his ex-wife, Randi (acting pipe-bomb Michelle Williams)—she wants to talk about the past, while he is emotionally unable to confront it.


9. Jackie (Directed by Pablo Larrain). A study in coping with shock and grief by smoldering firebrand Natalie Portman, who brings us into the stormy aftermath of JFK’s assassination, completely through the eyes of his widow. Although she’s a political machine (shaping her husband’s legacy) on the outside, Portman reveals that, on the inside, she’s also…Jackie.


10. Snowden (Directed by Oliver Stone). The film that reminds us that 1984 was really 2013. That was the year NSA official Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) discovered that U.S. government workers have the ability to listen or to watch any American or foreigner from their cell phone or computer. Stone’s film starts with Snowden’s heroic but dangerous meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald and then uses flashbacks to show Snowden’s moral journey to that point.

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