As 2016 draws to a close, we must say farewell to the Fort Worth Weekly Film page. This article is its last official hurrah after 20 years. Starting next week, this page will be replaced by a new feature called Stuff, which will discuss sports, TV, and other non-fine arts subjects. Never fear, though, fellow cinephiles. Neither I nor my movie reviews are going anywhere. You’ll still be able to read my thoughts on the current cinema as part of the Stuff feature, as well as on our website.
I’ll have plenty to write about if the future of movies holds as much as the last 12 months did. Despite a weak crop of Hollywood blockbusters, the films I saw from some 30 countries still engaged, amused, puzzled, frightened, enraged, saddened, and uplifted me plenty. Here are my favorites.
- La La Land. Look closer at Damien Chazelle’s whirling musical and you’ll see the Swiss-watch craftsmanship that goes into every aspect of it: camera movement, choreography, music, costumes, production design, cinematography. Without any of these or Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s cool-and-hot performances, this rapturous ode to the life-altering power of dreams wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. Infused with sheer infectious joy, all these elements act in concert to give us a primal glimpse of the reason why movies were invented.
- Moonlight. “Who is you, Chiron?” That question reverberates through Barry Jenkins’ film, mainly because it has so many answers. Played by three different actors and going by three different names, the main character is a filter for the movie’s breathtaking lyricism, unforgettably vulnerable as he wears the armor of toughness and coolness that so many African-Americans feel they need to survive. This call for black boys to be protected in a society that treats them as disposable is couched in nonpolitical terms and a romantic sensibility so delicate that breathing too hard might disturb it.
- Sing Street. The other great musical of 2016 was this Irish autobiographical film that didn’t find anything like the audience it deserved in America. Too bad; John Carney’s ode to using rock and roll to break free of repressive Catholic Ireland in the 1980s is exhilarating like few other things — just try not clapping along to “Drive It Like You Stole It.” Against the backdrop of an Ireland struggling with recession and hopelessness, this movie’s shiny, propulsive songs (co-written by Carney) are a soundtrack rousing enough to make you break out your eyeliner and shoulder pads.
- Zootopia. “Fear always wins,” says the villain of this Disney animated movie. Oh boy, does it look like we live in Zootopia right now. This comedy seemed no less relevant back in March as a parable about the joys and complexities of living in a society where not everyone is the same, and it seems likely to hold its power as America and the world become browner. Alas, our next president is determined to keep us in an Angry Birds world. Hold tight to this movie over the next four years. You’ll need it.
- The Handmaiden. Too many people who make erotic thrillers forget the “thriller” part of that equation. Park Chan-wook didn’t, and the result was a story pulled to maximum tautness with tensions visual, dramatic, and erotic as three con artists and a rich old perv battle (with their wits and other bits) for their lives and freedom amid the cushy drawing rooms of Japanese-occupied Korea. Almost as sexy as the sapphic love scenes are Park’s precisely angled camera movements through this story’s perverse and gorgeous psychosexual landscape.
- Toni Erdmann. It’s a three-hour German comedy about an old man who tries to rescue his daughter from becoming a corporate drone and get her to embrace life. If that sounds dire, that’s because you haven’t seen the weird and funny directions that this ultra-deadpan movie goes into. The movie features one of the funnier extended nude scenes in cinema history and a living-room rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” that will warm even the coldest heart. Writer-director Maren Ade’s great talent comes to full fruition with this loving comedy of embarrassment.
- Love & Friendship. The only Jane Austen movie ever to improve on its source, Whit Stillman’s comedy of manners dropped in the summer like a refreshing glass of fizzy lemonade. This sophisticated marriage romp through Regency England left all its cruder contemporary cousins eating its highly refined dust and also showed us what Kate Beckinsale should have been doing the last 15 years. Decades after he made his last relevant film, Stillman’s wit remains just as diamond-like and his sense of fun just as buoyant as ever. Comedy needs him so much.
- Manchester by the Sea. It wasn’t blockbusters that killed off movies like these about ordinary people dealing with unimaginable tragedies. It was bad writing, synthetic plot contrivances, and Hollywood schmaltz. Still, Kenneth Lonergan reminded us all how to do it with unflinching honesty, a leavening of humor, and great performances from the likes of Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Williams as he tells the story of a bereaved man pulling himself back from the brink, perhaps just in time. This is a movie to rip you wide open.
- Hell or High Water. Want to see the roots of white rage? You could do worse (so much worse) than see David Mackenzie’s Texas-set thriller. It isn’t just that the action set pieces are executed with such skill. It’s the script by Texas writer Taylor Sheridan that draws an empathetic portrait of a poor white rural family that’s driven to break the law by larger economic forces, without glossing over the damage that they do. It’s anchored by one of Jeff Bridges’ career-best performances and a final scene you won’t forget.
- The Witch. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Oh, wouldst I ever, Satan. The low-budget horror movie that convinced untold numbers of farmers not to buy a black billy goat is also a case study of a family coming apart under strain, a primer on Puritan religious thought, and a look at how a teenage girl turns to the dark side when everyone around her treats her like crap. More than a monster tramping through the woods, these things and the creepiest musical score of the year helped Robert Eggers’ work burrow its way into your nightmares.
Honorable mention: Ava DuVernay’s angry, sobering prison documentary 13th … three uproarious comedies with serious sides: Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen … two horrifying locked-room thrillers: Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room … Justin Tipping’s darkening, brilliant ’hood film Kicks … Andrea Arnold’s meandering, thrilling road-trip saga American Honey … Jia Zhangke’s sprawling futuristic family chronicle Mountains May Depart … David Lowery’s wondrous, wise remake of Pete’s Dragon … Sophia Takal’s examination of showbiz jealousy gone awry Always Shine … Tim Miller’s outrageous, profanely funny superhero flick Deadpool … Marcin Wrona’s surprisingly funny demonic possession film Demon … Luca Guadagnino’s erotic satire of white privilege A Bigger Splash … Babak Anvari’s Muslim police state horror movie Under the Shadow.