Harlan Jacobson's Best Movies of 2016

Dec 30, 2016

Moonlight is one of Harlan's best 2016 films

2016 has been quite a year. However it treated you, now pick the 10 best parts of it. That’s what we’ve asked our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, to do in film:

It’s hard enough to figure out if the year itself was good until years later. That said, 2016 was diverse in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. The lost white guys didn’t didn’t cut quite the same figure as last year.

The films I liked best—not necessarily in order-- are:

Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins, which debuted in Toronto, in three chapters sketches the life of a black Miami boy to manhood. Adapted by Jenkins from a never performed play by Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, shot beautifully by James Laxton, with standout performances by Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae, who each stood stereotypes on their heads. In addition to rendering a memoir of black Miami in the 80s, making the characters as complex as the ghetto was the point.

Then there’s the Cannes trio…

I Daniel Blake, by 80-year-old Ken Loach, the last of the British kitchen sink socialist directors who has never stopped his cannonfire at Maggie Thatcher, dead tho she art. Labour made the social safety net, and the Tories made sure it doesn’t work in this bureaucratic hall of mirrors about a 59-year-old man, memorably played by standup comedian Dave Johns, on disability after a heart attack and forced to look for a job he can’t take.

Toni Erdmann, the third film by German director Maren Ade, focuses on an aging baby boomer German father hovering around the edges of the corporate life that his 30 something daughter is currently killing, because it’s killing her.

Elle. Welcome back Paul Verhoeven—mostly absent for 10 years since Black Book--who in this French language thriller turned Isabelle Huppert at 63 into a sexy action figure as a partner in a French computer games firm. Huppert is boss. Not just of the techno-geek employees, but of herself, her rapist—in a feminist will to power trick--and probably of you and me.

13th. Avu Duvernay’s harrowing, game-changing doc for Netflix, which premiered at the NYFF, traces the time line of slavery through the 13th Amendment, enacted in 1865 and intended by Lincoln as an emancipation, through to the modern Prison Industrial Complex.

In Gavin Hood’s EYE in the SKY, a Toronto 2015 holdover, Helen Mirren plays a British colonel located in a command post in England alerted in the middle of the night that several Islamic terrorists on the most wanted list are bomb-suiting up in Nairobi, Kenya. We watch the entire world-wide chain of command, which includes Alan Rickman in his last role, choke over what to do next in Guy Hibbert’s taut script. It’s morally agonizing and cinematically riveting.

I can’t say enough about how smart I think Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is. Back to the 70s and early 80s, Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, simply nail where our modern world comes from, one that almost elected a woman president in the 21st century. Droll, brilliant, and smart.

Capt. Fantastic I loved Viggo Mortenson as the new age male in Matt Ross’ 70s memoir about a man home-schooling his kids. Until it sputters to a close in a ditch, the film pitch perfectly re-creates the revolutionary zeitgeist of the late 60s & early 70s—and draws a wavygravy yellow line for the school bus ride back to where all the good stuff now in 2016 got its start.

Fences, Denzel Washington. It ain’t a perfect film by any means. But I loved August Wilson’s words, I loved the house and the Hill District characters of Pittsburgh circa the early 50s, I loved Denzel and Viola Davis in their marriage, cutting to the core of black resilience and empathy that reign today.

I didn’t forget La la Land, by Damian Chazelle, who channels the classic musical absent from the big screen for decades in contrast to the sneaky MTV derived musicals like Once or the musical biopics. There are reasons for the classic musical’s demise, mostly having to do with nothing being repressed anymore. Things to love about La La Land, which won’t stand up to over-examination, include the opening number, the deliberately triste Umbrellas of Cherbourg glance between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the muscularity of Gosling’s Gene Kelly body language married to how light he is on his feet when it comes to patter. Here he shows up to work as a supper club pianist and runs into club owner JK Simmons:

And, no, I didn’t overlook Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan, with a down on his luck Casey Affleck getting saddled with his dead brother’s kid and fishing boat. I cry at car insurance commercials because sometimes they ring true. They should have called this one Manchester by the Soap. Because after a couple viewings, the only ring it leaves is around the tub.

That’s 2016. It ends with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds leaving together. In 2017, may the rapture only come at the movies.

You can see Harlan’s complete list at www.talkcinema.com.