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Mainstream Chick’s Top Picks of 2016

It’s that time of year – when friends, family, and strangers in the elevator ask, “Hey, Did you see [fill in the blank]? Is it any good? What’s your favorite movie of 2016?” Well, here I attempt to answer those questions as succinctly as possible — with a countdown of my top ten movies of the year (12 if you count the ties), as well as a bunch of honorable mentions. They are films that resonated for one (positive) reason or another and represent a broad range of genres. Check ’em out!

  1. La La Land – This movie is the total package. I wasn’t completely blown away the first time I saw it, but it stuck with me – and by the time I saw it a second, third and fourth time, I was hooked. It’s a difficult film to market because it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It’s part musical, part drama, part romance, part comedy. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two artists (he’s a jazz musician; she’s an actress) struggling to build a relationship and achieve their dreams in the soul-sucking abyss that can be Los Angeles. It’s bittersweet, thought-provoking, and refreshingly unique.
  2. Hell or High Water – A “modern western” on my top 10 list? Shocking, I know! But that’s why it ranks so high – because it was such an unexpected treat. It’s not my typical genre at all. It’s about two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) who start robbing banks to save their family’s land from foreclosure, and the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) who are hot on their trail. The combination of great ensemble acting, interesting characters,  poignant drama, and dry wit makes this movie work on multiple levels.
  3. Hidden Figures – Hands down, the feel-good movie of the year with a great ensemble cast. It’s based on the fascinating, true story of three African-American women who were part of a segregated ‘human computer’ division at NASA that ‘did the math’ that helped send astronaut John Glenn into orbit at the height of the space race in the early 1960s. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer as three smart, strong women who had to battle race and gender discrimination to fulfill their potential at the space agency. Hidden Figures (based on the book of the same name) soars into my top three because it’s an entertaining and family-friendly film that sheds light on a story that (shockingly) hasn’t been told on the big screen before. It’s long overdue.
  4. Lion – 2016 was a big year for movies based on true stories. This one seems almost too hard to believe, which is why it’s such a compelling film to watch. It’s a perfect movie for saps like me. It’s about a five-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who gets lost after falling asleep on an out-of-service train that takes him more than a thousand-miles away from his poor, hometown village in India. He eventually ends up in an orphanage in Calcutta and is adopted by a couple from Tasmania. Twenty-five years later, with the help of Google Earth technology, young adult Saroo (Dev Patel) goes in search of his roots. The first half of the movie is gripping. The second half is not as strong, but it is a means to an end to resolve the heartwrenching and heartwarming narrative.
  5. Eye in the Sky – This compelling film about drone warfare was near the top of my list at the mid-year mark and continued to stick with me for its tension, timeliness, and thought-provoking drama. It also features a great ensemble cast that includes Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and the late Alan Rickman. The film seeks to show how a singular situation is viewed by various stakeholders who must weigh the tactical, political, ethical, personal, and moral implications of sacrificing one innocent child to potentially save the lives of hundreds or thousands of others from a terrorist attack. No easy answers here.
  6. Zootopia – My favorite animated movie of the year (surpassing a few solid runners-up like Finding Dory, Moana, and Kubo and The Two Strings). Bunny rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is determined to become the first bunny cop in the modern mammal metropolis of Zootopia. She ends up joining forces with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to crack a missing-mammals case. It’s a feel-good movie that manages to tackle issues of corruption, profiling, friendship, respect and redemption while still being kid-friendly, entertaining, and motivational.
  7. Manchester by the Sea – If you want to know why Casey Affleck’s name is being bandied about as a potential Best Actor nominee/winner come Oscars time, you need to see this film. While it’s disappointing to hear about past allegations of sexual harassment involving Affleck, he does deliver the performance of his career in Manchester. He plays a Boston janitor haunted by a tragedy (slowly revealed in flashback) who becomes the reluctant guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). It’s a poignant, heartbreaking film that has some funny, bittersweet moments that most any family can relate to.
  8. I, Daniel Blake / A Man Called Ove – It’s a tie! These heartrending arthouse films — one British, the other Swedish–  both center around aging widowers on personal crusades. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a skilled carpenter who has a heart attack and must go on disability when his doctor tells him he’s too sick to work. The state welfare system puts him through the bureaucratic ringer and he’s forced to embark on a one-man crusade for dignity and justice. Along the way, Daniel meets a struggling single mother (Hayley Squires) also caught up in the system, and together they help each other persevere. A Man Called Ove is based on the excellent best-selling book of the same name. It’s about a cynical and bitter man named Ove (Rolf Lassgård) who is ready to throw in the towel on life until a pregnant Persian woman and her boisterous family move in next door and force him to re-evaluate his stubborn and curmudgeonly ways. Both I, Daniel Blake and A Man Called Ove are small, quiet dramas filled with humor and heart. Have tissues handy.
  9. Captain America: Civil War / Deadpool – It’s another tie! I’m cheating, I know. But I feel justified in lumping these two together as my favorite superhero and anti-superhero movies of the year. Captain America is, for all intents and purposes, an Avengers franchise movie with a slew of the Marvel superheros aligning themselves with either Captain Rogers (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr). The pair find themselves on opposing sides of an international treaty aimed at putting the Avengers on a moral leash. The movie tackles some interesting questions about friendship, the globalization of politics and security, and the collateral-damage dilemma. It also crams in the introduction of new characters and sub-plots for future ensemble and stand-alone superhero flicks. Bottom line: Capt. America is just plain fun for fans of the Marvel universe. On the flip side: Deadpool makes my list because it turned the superhero genre on its head in completely unexpected and darkly-funny ways. And, it has the best opening credits ever (to the tune of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.”) The movie stars Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson, a former Special Forces soldier turned mercenary who adopts the alter-ego “Deadpool” after he allows himself to be subjected to a brutal, rogue experiment that rids him of cancer and infuses him with accelerated healing powers, but leaves him with horrendous scars. Deadpool is like Iron Man to the R-rated extreme. It’s sarcastic, witty, raunchy and inexplicably fun. But it’s not for everyone. And definitely not for kids!
  10. Moonlight – I felt the need to squeeze Moonlight into my top 10 because it’s a beautiful film that will have a tough time attracting a broad audience. The subject matter is not an easy sell. Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a young black man named Chiron who grapples with issues of sexual identity, dysfunctional family, and drugs in his tough Miami neighborhood. Three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) portray Chiron at three critical stages of life – as a little boy, a teenager, and a young man. The whole cast is good. But if you want to know why Mahershala Ali could (and should) win best Supporting Actor in what is likely to be a very competitive field, you’ll have to check out his phenomenal performance in Moonlight as a drug dealer and father figure. His presence is felt throughout the movie, even when he’s out of the picture.

And now, for some quick Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Fences – Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and the rest of the cast provide a masters class in acting. The film is essentially the August Wilson play staged for the big screen. Set in the 1950s, it’s poignant and powerful with razor-sharp dialogue (including one scene that could easily net Davis a Best Supporting Actress nod). But if you don’t like plays, you may not love this movie.

Loving – A solid drama with a timely message about tolerance and civil rights, based on a true story. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton deliver strong, quiet, understated performances as Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple at the center of the 1967 landmark Supreme Court case (Loving v. Virginia) that invalidated state laws banning interracial marriage.

Hacksaw Ridge – Also based on a true story. Andrew Garfield is excellent as Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector and medal of honor recipient who served as a medic during WWII and saved dozens of men without ever firing a gun. If you shield your eyes during the horrific and bloody battle scenes (and can forgive director Mel Gibson on multiple levels) then you can almost convince yourself that this is as much a chick flick as it is a war movie.

Miss Sloane – A well-paced and extremely well-written political thriller starring Jessica Chastain as a formidable lobbyist who takes on the powerful gun lobby. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, and that puts her on a slippery moral slope. It’s a ‘soft R’, so older kids can/should watch too.

Jackie – As a whole, I thought the movie dragged a bit, but Natalie Portman delivers an awards-worthy performance channeling Jackie Kennedy’s strength and vulnerability in the immediate aftermath of JKF’s assassination.

Captain Fantastic – A very good, quirky indie about a father who has raised his six kids in the forests of the Pacific Northwest but is forced to re-examine his unconventional parenting techniques after a family tragedy.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – A dark comedy-adventure-drama about a troubled city kid named Ricky Baker who, after years of being shuffled around the foster care system in New Zealand, is sent to live on a farm. When Child Protective Services attempts to bring Ricky back for what they think is his own good, the boy and his foster father take flight through the wilderness. They are two lost souls who come to rely on each other. The film is quirky and charming.

The Conjuring 2 – I don’t particularly like the horror genre in general, but The Conjuring movies are the exception. They are smart, gripping, well-acted dramas based on the real-life cases of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson).

10 Cloverfield Lane – An intense psychological thriller with twists and turns that can’t be revealed here. And a crazy good performance from John Goodman.

The Edge of Seventeen – The closest thing to a really good John Hughes teen angst movie that we’ve had in a while. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) is great in this bittersweet drama about a High Schooler who is chronically depressed, awkward, and bitter – especially after her best friend hooks up with her hot brother.

Sausage Party – I was late to the party, but once I finally watched this raunchy animated movie about food in a supermarket coming to terms with their fate, I laughed my butt off. The food orgy images are quite gross, but the script is brilliant and delivers a surprisingly strong social and political punch. Just make sure the kids aren’t around.

Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping – This mockumentary is my guilty pleasure pick that nobody saw; but it deserves to be seen by everyone who grew up on those VH-1 Behind-the-Music documentaries. Or watches TMZ.

And… among my favorite documentaries: Gleason; Life, Animated; Wiener; Tower; I Am Not Your Negro; Cameraperson; and The Uncondemned.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

p.s. To listen to Mainstream Chick defend her picks (and weigh in on others), check out this edition of Cinema Clash with Charlie and Hannah:

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