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Home > Columnists > Doug Strassler
December 31, 2016

Best Movies of 2016


Manchester By the Sea ()

By Doug Strassler

I find it hard to get as excited about the movies as I used to; fewer movies take chances or make the personal choices that made the ones of the past iconic. Am I a crank? Not yet. The films listed below, all great, all varied, remind me that even when you least expect it something great can sneak up on you and stay with you forever. 

Manchester by the Sea – director-writer Kenneth Lonergan deals with interior issues on a grand scale. Manchester is a long, epic look at grief and depression, and while it could perhaps have been trimmed a little bit, it isn’t bloated. And with a cast including Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, other guy and Lucas Hedges, Lonergan continues to work with the best actors today. It’s haunting. It’s expert. It’s essential. 

Don’t Think Twice – a slim film that doesn’t waste one moment, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice captures the balance between creativity and career as well as any film to ever hit on the subject. In other words, it’s about growing up. It’s about defining success, and realizing that different people definite in different ways. And its cast – Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Late Micucci, and Tami Sagher – are also my best film ensemble of the year. 

Sing Street ­– John Carney’s latest look at music-infused life is an often whimsical journey to 1980s Dublin. It’s a sweet coming-of-age tale that charts the growing confidence of a child of divorce who starts his own band. And in “Drive It Like You Stole It,” we get the song of the year. 

Everybody Wants Some – film’s second great trip to the 1980s, this one at the beginning of freshman year at a Texas university. You’ll want to hate director Richard Linklater for making perfect filmmaking look so easy (yet again), but you’ll be too busy having fun to remember. 

Toni Erdmann – There’s no reason for Maren Ade’s ludicrous comedy to work. A long, unorthodox parable about bridging the gap between generational views on family, relationships and capitalism. It warns against viewing interaction as mere negotiation. It also has the best version of a Whitney Houston song I’ve seen this year. Bravo to new discoveries Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. 

Little Men – Location, location, location. That’s the crux of Ira Sachs’ Brooklyn-set tale of property rights and ethical choices featuring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, and an especially terrific performance from Paulina Garcia. It’s also an acute tale about childhood friendship and shifting priorities. 

Moonlight – I thought this film would be grittier than the gorgeous triptych it turned out to be: Barry Jenkins’ revelatory adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play is about Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a gay black youth growing up in a Miami housing project acquiring the tools he needs to protect himself. It’s an inside-out critique about how institutions shape the lives of the disenfranchised, told with an unsparing eye for imagery. 

Don’t Breathe – there was never a chance the events of this home robbery movie, set in Detroit and directed by Fede Alvarez, weren’t going to go off the rails. But the way they unfold, along with outstanding performances from Stephen Lang and Jane Levy, never loses a second of tension or wastes a second of visual derring-do. 

Elle – The French just get pulp films right. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) contends with a series of men with whom her life has become intertwined, both past and present, and insists on doing it on her own terms. Paul Verhoeven, director of Total Recall and Basic Insist, continues to blend sex and absurdity, building to an almost intoxication crescendo. All the wine-drinking helps, too. 

Arrival – “Only connect” could just as easily come from this movie as it does from Howards End. Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction film is less about aliens than it is about faith and communication, and its dual narratives, about the earthbound “heptapods” and a linguist’s quest to reach them as she heals from the death of her young daughter, ultimately come into perfect focus. This film stays with you long after first contact. 

Honorable Mentions: American Honey, A Bigger Splash, Certain Women, Chevalier, Fences, Gleason, Green Room, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, The Lobster, My Golden Days, Paterson, Weiner, Zootopia 

Other greatish performances:

John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane ­­– For three decades, Goodman has proven to be so great at doing so much that it’s easy to take his portrayal of a scary preparer who may be right and may be crazy for granted. Let’s not. 

Viola Davis in Fences – We all know that Davis is a volcano; when she blows, run for cover. But it’s when she simmers that we bleed. 

Vincent Lindon in The Measure of a Man ­­-- unemployed French factory worker Thierry doesn’t have many options in this underseen film. But Lindon makes all the right choices here. 

Amy Adams in Arrival and Nocturnal Animals – and probably in life too. There’s nothing she doesn’t elevate with seeming effortlessness. 

Julia Roberts in Money Monster ­­– my love-indifference relationship with Roberts has gone on for 27 years. I used to love but I had to…get over her. Yet in this performance, mostly seated, mostly solo, she proved that there’s a great film actress in there after all. 

Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash – we never quite know exactly what he’s after in this film, but we always know he’s after something more. Give it all to him. 

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Things to Come – can perfection be topped? No, but it sure can be repeated.

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