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Cameron Wolff’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

January 8, 2017

With the tumultuous events in the United States, from a divisive presidential election to issues of gun violence and discrimination, this year presented a challenge to American filmmakers. I cannot recall any other year that I have seen so many films devoted to social justice, ranging from racism to crooked politics to the issues we cause within ourselves. Despite this influx in political filmmaking, I found the films that resonated with me most were hardly political; instead, I responded to emotional films that stun in their beauty and emotion. My intense and unnecessary self-analysis convinces me that my opinions are swayed by a desire for escapism. I’ve never thought of my tastes being driven by a need to escape from life, but in a year where politics rumbles in everyone’s mind, perhaps a nostalgic Hollywood musical, like La La Land, is what we need most.

I would like to apply a disclaimer to this list before I dive in: these choices are my favorite films of 2016, based on what I saw this year. I do not claim to have seen every single film to hit the multiplex this year, and simply wish to point out some films that I believe are required viewing for cinephiles everywhere. After much thought and deliberation, my list follows.

Scene from La La Land, featuring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Courtesy of Beliefnet.

La La Land

For a film featuring lush details and extravagant musical numbers, La La Land astonishes in quieter moments. Intimate conversations in jazz clubs, dates at late-night movies, ruminations on art and life in a coffee shop that just happens to be on a legendary movie lot; even the simplest of scenes feel like a glamorous version of the everyday lives of struggling artists across the world. Director Damien Chazelle’s film succeeds in performing an effortless tight-rope act between exceptional romanticism and tortuous, painful, and bitter reality. When we are left with Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) agonizing face, uplifted by his own astonishing piano solo but crushed by personal failure, the Hollywood musical facade that permeates the film lifts. Like Sebastian, we are left with emotion and cruel realization.

La La Land, 2016’s most entertaining film, charts the tumultuous relationship between jazz pianist Sebastian and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). Chazelle allows his film’s dreamy atmosphere and keen eye for beauty to wash over viewers, vanishing into the backdrop for the central relationship and the ideas and events they encounter. Despite a steady profusion of glamour, a biting satire of Los Angeles emerges. Asking difficult questions about art and relationships, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rise to the occasion and allow Sebastian and Mia to explore the artist’s life through music and feeling. Despite any harshness, Chazelle maintains beauty and joy in the face of darkness. The final, cynical image of Sebastian at his piano reverberates and echoes in the mind for days; The songs, the lively dancing, and the emotional highs of love will be recalled for years to come. Mia sings in the film’s standout song, “City of Stars,” that “all we’re looking for is love from someone else.” I can think of no film that depicts this search truthfully, with simple beauty, like La La Land.

Manchester by the Sea

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Courtesy of The Film Stage.

Manchester by the Sea, 2016’s most powerful drama, presents a masterclass in direction and performance. Telling the simple, emotional story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he cares for his fatherless nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a heartbreaking and heartfelt meditation on fatherhood and responsibility. With Lonergan’s nuanced direction, Affleck, Hedges, and Michelle Williams shine in outstanding performances. Manchester by the Sea features powerful storytelling, told with precise attention to detail and acute awareness of the audience’s emotion. I have never seen a film bring tears to a audience’s eyes like this one.

To read my full review of Manchester by the Sea, click here.


Alex Hibbert in Moonlight. Image Courtesy of The New York Times.

Following widespread outcry over limited diversity in last year’s Oscar nominations, Moonlight stormed theaters at the perfect time. Telling the story of Chiron, a young black man struggling with his sexuality, director Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough film crosses borders between filmmakers and awards voters. It features a number of great performances from black actors and actresses, from Mahershala Ali’s tortured drug dealer to Naomie Harris’ regretful mother. The film’s screenplay tackles social issues with quiet tenderness and universal emotional depth, while applying an innovative structure reminiscent of a stage play. Most effective of all, Jenkins’ directs with feeling and melancholy romanticism. Moonlight, 2016’s most socially-aware film, tells a story that revolves around our times, yet will continue to be relevant and powerful for years to come.

To read my full review for Moonlight, click here.


Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner. Image courtesy of Decider.

In a year dominated by fear and loathing on the campaign trail, no film to emerge this year bears the political relevance found in Weiner. Delving deep into his failed mayoral campaign, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg are given seemingly unlimited access to both the personal and professional life of Anthony Weiner. As many know, Anthony Weiner left his position in Congress amid a disastrous sexting scandal. This access leads to a real-life Shakespearean tragedy as Weiner, through hubris and an incredible ego, sabotages himself and falls from grace repeatedly. When election day finally arrives at the climax of the film, Weiner is alone, a former figure of political dominance and energetic youth, now the laughing stock of a nation. Weiner is a bizarre tragedy of politics and the media and serves as a fascinating character study of the unfortunately named man torn apart by them.

The Lobster

Colin Farrell in The Lobster. Image Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Satire comes in many different forms; it can be biting, cynical, humorous, or dramatic. No film shows the range of satire like The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut. No film this year waves a freak flag higher than Lanthimos’ masterpiece of the bizarre, a hilarious and cynical portrait of modern day romance. Telling the story of David (Colin Farrell in a daring performance), the film follows his endeavors to find a mate in a dystopian vacation hotel reserved for the heartbroken and lonely in society. One catch to this search: if a mate remains unseen in forty five days, the lonely are transformed into an animal of their choice and released to the wild. This is only the first absurd twist in this strange love story; characters reveal their hidden layers of neuroses and romantic longing, detailing the bizarre nature of love and the search for a common mate. The result of Lanthimos’ incongruous twists and unusual characters: an enigmatic, dark, and foreboding satire centering on the world of dating and romance.


Natalie Portman in Jackie. Image courtesy of The AV Club.

More than any image I witnessed this year in film, I will remember Natalie Portman as the immovable Jackie Kennedy, wiping her husband’s blood off of her pale face, her iconic pillbox hat slightly askew atop her head. She weeps with power and restraint, her gentle facade slowly crumbling before her face in the mirror. This is one of many emotionally devastating moments in Jackie, and Portman plays it beautifully, full of powerful emotion and open-hearted soul. This innovative and unusual biopic from director Pablo Larrain charts the hours and days following the infamous assassination of John F. Kennedy, seen through the eyes of his wife, Jackie. No screenplay this year possesses unseen layers like Jackie, which expertly dovetails diverse conversational strands into a fully-formed piece of cinema. How apt that this film is released in a year we will see the departure of a president; no film explores the idea of presidential legacy and the preservation of image with complex thought like Larrain’s. While the screenplay impresses, Portman’s performance undeniably steals the entire film. There is no greater performance this year, and Jackie serves as a reminder of how moving screen acting can be.

Everybody Wants Some!!

A scene from Everybody Wants Some!! Image courtesy of Fandango.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t pinpoint accurately why I love Everybody Wants Some!! so much. Richard Linklater’s latest film isn’t particularly original, like his Waking Life, nor emotionally moving, like Boyhood; this film utilises creative humor and well-drawn characters to astonishing effect, creating one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. A “spiritual sequel” to Linklater’s classic Dazed and Confused, this film trades 70s high schoolers for 80s college baseball players, depicting the pervasive boozing, doping, flirting, and partying they engage in over a few days’ time. Everybody Wants Some!!  echoes with fond memories of the ridiculous and the heartfelt; Linklater portrays his cast of merry campus pranksters with heart and humor. The characters may only be pursuing sex and drugs, but Linklater makes each character appealing in their own particular ways.

Don’t Think Twice

The cast of Don’t Think Twice. Image courtesy of Thinking Cinema.

Surprising in it’s despairing themes, Don’t Think Twice reflects reality more accurately than any film this year. The film follows a New York City improv comedy troupe as they struggle with the success of one of their cast members (Keegan-Michael Key, in an impressive performance). Director Mike Birbiglia, an accomplished comedian in his own right, demonstrates his ability to craft meaningful cinematic drama out of his own life experiences.  Do not allow this film’s marketing and cast to fool you; while humor passes from time to time, Birbiglia’s film mostly features reflections on failure, both personal and professional. Nothing particularly significant happens in this film; we simply drift through the day-to-day lives of these memorable characters, gleaming details about their relationships and their lives. They crack jokes, flirt, go to work, and eat take-out with their friends. Friends move on and loved ones pass, all in the shift of a scene. Birbiglia’s down-to-earth humanism allows him to explore themes like failure with sympathy; he understands these characters better than anyone, and allows them to not be defined by their failures but by their humanity.


Scene from Moana. Image Courtesy of Birth. Movies. Death.

Just when the Disney formula seemed to be worn-out and tired, along comes Moana, featuring cultural authenticity, irresistible songs, and wonderful new characters. Boasting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspired songs, the Hamilton mastermind brings originality and life to Disney’s latest feature. Ranging from the David Bowie inspired “Shiny,” to the catchy “You’re Welcome,” there isn’t a single forgettable tune in the entire film. The songs aren’t the only new feature, though; the cultural authenticity presented in every shot of this film consistently impresses, from background details to inspired new animation styles. A great Disney film would be incomplete without fantastic characters, and Moana doesn’t fail to deliver; Dwayne Johnson struts and boasts as Maui, an arrogant and disgraced former hero. Johnson steals every scene he stars in, demonstrating his vocal talents and his appealing personality. Moana follows the conventional Disney structure, but adds entertaining and innovative twists to the studio’s dependable formula.

Hell or High Water

In a political year dominated by everyman outrage at the government, Hell or High Water reveals the feelings dominating many Americans this year. Telling the story of two bank-robbing brothers in need of money to keep their valued farmland, Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay criticizes government control while maintaining a cynical, sympathetic attitude towards his conflicted protagonists. While these political themes could make a slow, thoughtful film, director David Mackenzie instead creates a fast-paced, minimalistic crime thriller. Recalling 1970s films like Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, Mackenzie’s thriller entertains while also inspiring thought. Hell or High Water includes fantastic performances, from Chris Pine’s brooding bank robber to Ben Foster’s energized veteran. Jeff Bridges steals the entire film as Marcus Hamilton, an aging and hilarious Texas Ranger. Hell or High Water succeeds on the strength of Sheridan’s screenplay, which successfully melds the political and the entertaining into one complex film.

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