After more than a year of insane political discourse — pre and post election — it’s good to divert our attention to something a bit less agonizing. But uh-oh, my favorite movies of 2016 also carry political and social baggage. Maybe that’s just a marquee of the times we live in now. We are lucky to live in a society where art can be a protest and a protester can create art. Enough with the previews; here are the five films that captured my attention this year.
Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next and Hidden Figures were my two favorites. Both movies were fun, informative, fresh and simply enjoyable to watch. Three other films; Don’t Think Twice, Arrival and Captain Fantastic each elevated themselves into the top five for their creativity, strong story lines and great acting.
Michael Moore had a great year, well, until November 8th. He released two solid movies and was one of the few voices warning us about Donald Trump. It was his funny and powerful documentary, Where to Invade Next, that spoke the most to me this year.
Moore playfully carries around an American flag and “invades” several European countries that are doing things the right way in regards to prisons, college tuition, school lunches, equality and other important issues. It feels a little like a travel documentary, but there’s always a “why can’t we do this in America” bend to each separate snippet. I won’t spoil the ending, but the movie wraps it all up with a powerful message.
Everyone I’ve spoken with who’s seen it, loves it. The same thing is true with Hidden Figures.
The amazing, little-known story of the pioneering NASA women who helped put John Glenn into orbit (and bring him safely home), Hidden Figures was an all-around perfect movie. Based on the meticulously researched book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie features Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe as the brilliant mathematicians who had to daily fight racial and gender stereotypes in the all-male, all-white space program.
The movie is important, entertaining and a real crowd-pleaser. And unlike Michael Moore’s films, it actually has a chance of winning Best Picture if it can beat out that self-indulgent musical movie about Hollywood that others seem to be pushing for.
About that other movie, film critic Bobby Rivers said it best, talking to Scott Simon on NPR:
“You know, around the Christmas holidays, you pass a department store window and you see a big, beautiful Christmas gift box in the window. And then if you open it up, it’s full of beautiful, brightly colored tissue paper and that’s all? That’s how I felt about La La Land.”
Okay, now that THAT’S off my chest, it’s time for Don’t Think Twice.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia pulled together a great group of ensemble players — including Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs — and created a movie about an improv troupe. Even though most of us don’t know what it’s like to take part in improvisational comedy, obviously Birbiglia does and this lands squarely under the “write what you know” heading. The movie itself was part scripted, part improv.
As I wrote earlier, “the funny and frantic world of improv comedy is viewed through a loving, emotional and seemingly very real-life lens. A New York City band of comedians is thrown into turmoil as some of their members are invited to audition for “Weekend Live,” a fictional Saturday Night Live substitute.”
I wrote much more about Don’t Think Twice and Michael Moore’s movie last summer. If you want “Moore,” it can be found at rodneycurtis.com/two-best-films-2016-far
Moving forward, or backward, or in parallel — you’ll understand if you’ve seen the movie — Amy Adams is a linguist who gets to make first contact with Aliens who arrive here on earth. Charged with deciphering their language, communicating with them and finding out why they’re here, Arrival co-stars Jeremy Renner who plays a physicist, also trying to figure out their purpose.
I can’t say enough about this movie, and yet I don’t want to say too much. It hits so many great themes about relationships; inter and exo-planetary; person-to-person; parent and child; nation with nation. There are no massive explosions, mind-blowing special effects, edge-of-your-seat suspenseful moments. This is a quiet, great movie. Do your best to see it somehow.
Rounding out my top five films of 2016 is Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic. A dad raises his kids off the grid in back-country Washington state, only to see what challenges occur when they are forced back into mainstream America.
The father, along with his wife, have raised their outstanding children with an intellectual and physical vigor not normally seen American society. I guess you have to be careful when you use “Fantastic” in a movie’s title, but I think it lives up to that word. A few years back, the movie Pride was one of my favorites of the year. And that also co-starred young up-and-coming actor George MacKay.
The film is full of surprises; one of the most surprising things for me was the writer/director is Matt Ross, that guy who plays the crazy Google-like CEO on Silicon Valley.
Other good rentals
So those are the best films of 2016, by my reckoning. Sure, some of the other Oscar nominations were noteworthy, but you know about those. In the past, I’ve liked recommending other movies that you might not have heard about or seen.
A Man Called Ove is a sweet, sad and happy little movie from Sweden about a curmudgeonly man who was recent widowed. The movie flashes back to life with Ove’s wife and forward to his present-day dealings with new neighbors who don’t necessarily follow the spirit of his strict neighborhood rules.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople stars Sam Neill and was written and directed by a Flight of the Conchords alum. This quirky movie centers around a rebellious foster kid and his new “uncle” who try to evade authorities in the New Zealand bush. Part comedy, part buddy movie, part chase scene, I think you’ll like the hunt.
Hello, My Name is Doris features features Sally Field and Max Greenfield (Schmidt, from New Girl). Eccentric Doris lives a life of quiet desperation until a self-help seminar sends her on a new pursuit. What’s not to love with that premise?
Joshy stars another Silicon Valley star, Thomas Middleditch who decides to go through with his bachelor party even though his wedding will definitely no longer happen. It’s a thoughtful, funny, emotional spin on buddy movies — think of it as what The Hangover would’ve been with Dungeons and Dragons thrown in.
Other People rounds out my list of movies you might not have seen and deserve a space in your queue, rental list or streaming plans. Written by head SNL writer Chris Kelly, the movie stars Molly Shannon as a dying mother whom Jesse Plemons, her son, comes home to care for. It’s not a comedy, though there are many laughs. And it’s not a downer, though there’s plenty of soulful sadness.
One more thing
A quick word about the should movies: Moonlight, Fences, Manchester By The Sea and Lion. These are movies everyone seems to say you should see. “It’s so well done,” or “It has such a powerful message,” or “The acting is great.” All of that is true, but they are tough films to watch. I’m not saying movies should be easy or have to be enjoyable all the time. But this year, these particular movies seem to be grouped together in a much heavier category. Yes, they’re well done, have powerful messages and the acting is great. But after dealing with so much in the news politically this year, I was looking for something that raised my awareness to another level.
Yell rude things at me if you disagree. Unless you’re that one person who — a few years back — told me he disagreed with my tastes because I hated Tree of Life. He told me I was too shallow, before eventually admitting he hadn’t yet seen Tree of Life.
Thanks for reading and here’s to even better movies in 2017!