At times, 2016 was an emotionally exhausting year at the movies. We saw plenty of tearjerkers and great, empathetic filmmaking over the past 12 months. 2016 was a rare time where I could often sense crowds were mostly on the same page. Sitting in a huge audience, and feeling that nearly everyone else is captivated by the same story, is a great experience, one that doesn’t happen frequently — but I think it was something I was lucky enough to see occur more than a few times in 2016, thanks to some emotional movies.
Honorable Mentions: The Nice Guys, Moonlight, The Edge of Seventeen, The Brand New Testament, A Bigger Splash, Midnight Special, Patriots Day, Paterson, Zootopia, Swiss Army Man, Green Room, Pete’s Dragon, Oasis: Supersonic, American Honey, A Monster Calls, and Hail, Caesar!
10. Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie‘s taut drama is an exciting and suspenseful tale of bank robbers in Texas, but it’s also a fantastic movie about two brothers. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are stoic types not prone to opening up about their feelings, but the love they have for each other always rings loud and clear. Taylor Sheridan‘s script has these telling, little touches that make their relationship entirely believable. Even when the two are in the car together, and they start to say “yeah” in a particular voice, it’s the kind of funny, silly, inside joke that cleverly tightens their bond. Without sugarcoating the criminals, Mackenzie, Sheridan, Pine, and Foster make the two struggling brothers surprisingly empathetic in this fast-paced, exposition-light movie.
Director Pablo Larraín‘s unconventional biopic is about as far away as a movie can get from a wax museum. This isn’t a biopic with impersonations, or one that reeks of CliffsNotes; it’s more of an immersively grueling 100-minute nightmare. Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) says the world has gone mad in Jackie, and that’s the space Larraín’s picture lives in, with Mica Levi‘s horrifying score and the intensely cold compositions that typically isolate Jackie Kennedy. The expressions Peter Sarsgaard makes in the film alone make for great drama. Jackie wonders how people look at her now after the death of her husband. When Robert F. Kennedy sits at his desk and glances up at Jackie, his face is drained of color and full of misery, and it’s one of the film’s many crushing moments.
8. The Invitation
The Invitation takes place almost entirely in one location, but it’s a dense and rewarding film, with every scene and shot serving a purpose. Not a second goes to waste in this tightly structured thriller, which is hardly a slow burn. Each scene builds towards the brutal third act. Even when Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Will 2.0, David (Michiel Huisman), stand in front of a window, director Karyn Kusama turns it into a beautiful and creepy piece of visual foreshadowing, with David’s face oddly distorted into something sinister. There are other touches, like David’s reflection, which become more apparent and satisfying on repeat viewings of the film.
Marshall-Green is fantastic as Will. His close-ups are so intensely vulnerable and unnerving, but he’s also incredibly funny. Marshall-Green’s blunt and honest reactions to the shenanigans going on in The Invitation are hilarious and bring some subtle levity to The Invitation, a movie that’s equally emotional and unsettling.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
Another film from Richard Linklater about simply enjoying the moment, whether by listening to good music with your friends, playing baseball, or enjoying long-winded conversations. Everybody Wants Some!! follows Linklater’s typical philosophy of living a day to the fullest and trying to stay present. Everybody Wants Some!! only covers a few days, but these characters and Linklater try to make the most of that time; Jake (Blake Jenner) gains new friends, meets a variety of memorable characters, and parties. Everybody Wants Some!! is often more like a party than a movie, even when Beverly (Zoey Deutch) smiles so brightly and enthusiastically when discussing how much she loved being a theater kid in high school. It’s a hangout movie, with characters typically having a great time and speaking the kind of fluent dialogue you want to hear from a Linklater film. Everybody Wants Some!! isn’t always as accessible as Dazed and Confused, especially at the start, but it mostly captures the energy and spirit of it to entertaining results.
6. Little Sister
Hell or High Water and Little Sister are the two movies on this list I’d feel comfortable recommending to pretty much anybody. With a lot of dramas, you typically know when a filmmaker is pulling at your heartstrings. That’s the not the case with Zach Clark‘s Little Sister, a naturally acted and written film about a troubled family trying to come together. They reunite through tender, sometimes funny, and often harsh exchanges. There’s a messiness to their relationships and their conflicts don’t always get tied up in a perfect bow. There’s never a false moment in Little Sister, which also features some touching performances. Addison Timlin and the director of Pieces of April and The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Peter Hedges, play such a believable and charming father-daughter pairing. There are some wonderful, feel-good moments between the two of them.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea had me completely engaged from beginning to end, laughing and crying, but it wasn’t until a few days later when Kenneth Lonergan‘s heartbreaking (and often very funny) film about grief started to really get to me. That scene with Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck, shown above, is one of the quietest yet most powerful scenes of the year. It’s upsetting, but the empathy Joe (Chandler) has for Lee (Affleck) is also moving, albeit painful to watch. Chandler is a pro at playing humane characters. The degree of sensitivity and heartache he so quietly expresses in Manchester by the Sea is impossible to shake.
4. La La Land
Damien Chazelle‘s musical is a movie that grows much richer upon second viewing. Once you know the beautiful, bittersweet ending, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone‘s performances and the music take on new meanings. When Sebastian sings “City of Lights” on the pier, the foreshadowing makes for such a powerful and sorrowful scene contrasted by a stunning sunset. Stunning is the right word to describe La La Land. Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is often a visual marvel, partly because of Gosling and Stone’s undeniable charisma, their excellently choreographed moves, and those costumes. When Sebastian immediately stands and smiles as he sees Mia show up at the movie theater, it’s a shot that’s as transfixing as the Griffith Observatory sequence or the ending.
Dennis Villeneuve‘s alien invasion story is an awe-inspiring movie with a genuine sense of wonder. When we see Louise Banks (Amy Adams) first see the aliens, it’s the kind of gripping filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Villeneuve, who makes such visceral, immersive, and surprising films. It’s easy to see how this adaptation might not have been able to pull off its finale since the movie is so story-driven and fast-paced, but Villeneuve, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, and Amy Adams deliver with a devasting ending that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Arrival is one of those experiences where I left the theater happy knowing I paid for more than two hours.
2. The Lobster
The Lobster is one unsettling, wacky, romantic, beautiful, and original story. Very few movies last year resembled Yorgos Lanthimos‘s dark romantic comedy. A part of The Lobster‘s appeal is that it isn’t a film we see every month at the theaters. It’s a distinct vision that hilariously explores the ups and downs of the single life and relationships with its fantastic high concept. Sometimes the more ridiculous The Lobster gets, the more truthful it becomes. [Spoiler alert] Even when David’s brother, the dog, is killed, there’s a moral: it’s probably best not to see someone who hates your family. [Spoiler over] The Lobster is also a movie that sparks conversation. There are few films I enjoyed discussing as much as this one last year. Most people who see this movie have something to say about it.
1. 20th Century Women
Set in 1979, Mike Mills‘ (Beginners) film portrays those big, life-defining teenage moments without always making them feel like big, life-defining teenage moments. When Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has a revealing conversation with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning), a remarkable woman, or sees Abbie (Greta Gerwig) experience a pain he hadn’t seen before, they’re such beautifully written and acted and believable scenes. Each moment in this movie is full of life, with every emotion radiating off the screen. There’s a tremendous sense of joy to Mills’ film. The director has made a movie that celebrates moms, people as kindhearted as William (Billy Crudup), and the cool, honest adults from your teenage years like Abbie who weren’t bad tastemakers to be around.
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