Best Pictures: A Guide to Good Films from 2016

Though the Academy sometimes neglects great films, it usually selects good ones. Below are ten that are worth your time.  

Moonlight

Oscars won: Best Picture, Writing (Adapted Screenplay),  Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Review By Kayla Stetzel

Moonlight is a quiet film, but its subtlety and silences are thoughtful. Like a whisper from a friend in a roaring room, Moonlight – with its striking and elegant cinematography- quietly commands attention. Moonlight follows the life of Chiron–a gay, African-American man coming of age in the projects of Miami–in three sweeping segments. While some may reduce the film’s scope to issues of race and sexuality, doing so undermines its complexity. “Moonlight” is a commentary on family, poverty, and identity itself. While Chiron’s identity is specific, “Moonlight” expertly captures the universal themes within his story: growing up and coming to terms with tested relationships. It’s powerful. It’s precise. It’s incredibly human.  

Manchester By the Sea

Oscars won: Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Review by Chandler Ryd

Manchester By the Sea is a slow meditation on the debilitating effects of grief. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor who receives custody of his nephew after his brother’s death. The situation forces Chandler, burdened with his own buried grief from years past, to confront his troubles rather than run from them. The overwhelming tone of the film is despair, and though the characters seek hope, director Kenneth Lonergan is sparing to give it, even when the angelic score ushers in a vague sense of resolution. When the hope does arrive, it appears so subtly that it’s hardly recognizable. That said, Casey Affleck’s depiction of a defeated man is heartbreaking, and Lonergan’s screenplay unfolds like a twentieth-century play; with a sparing plot, he reveals depths.

La La Land

Oscars won: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Cinematography, Best Directing, Music (Original Score), Best Music (Original Song), Best Production Design

Review by Chandler Ryd

La La Land begins with an exhilarating musical number that takes place in an LA traffic jam, with drivers singing and dancing on the tops of their cars as if Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds still ruled the screen. Soon, we’re swept off our feet by the burgeoning love between a jazz pianist and an actress, played by Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone. Though the film itself is a love song to Golden-era moviemaking, beneath the cheerful show tunes lies a melancholy undertone rooted in a criticism of Hollywood–which it also, at other points, glorifies. Like its characters and opening number, La La Land is ambitious and ultimately successful.

Silence

Oscars won: None

Review by Lara Forsythe

An altogether stunning adaptation of Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence follows a Jesuit priest’s struggle with faith as he witnesses the persecution of the Japanese Church in 17th century Nagasaki. This film is brutal to watch and even more brutal to process. While Father Sebastian Rodriguez is led through the “swamp” of Japan, Scorsese leads his audience through the vicissitudes of the human heart to the question the priest cannot help but ask: “Why does God remain silent in the midst of Christian suffering?” The simplicity of the plot and slow, deliberate pacing of the film draw attention to the interiority of the characters themselves, creating space for masterful performances delivered by Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, and Yôsuke Kubozuka. I have yet to see a movie capture the devastation of a crisis of faith with as much cinematic grace as Silence does.

Arrival

Oscars won: Best Sound Editing

Review by Chandler Ryd

In both its title and marketing, Arrival claims to be a film about aliens. Though this is true—a dozen alien spacecraft shaped like obelisks appear across the globe—it’s truer to call it a film about language. Amy Adams plays a linguist recruited by the Army whose job it is to communicate with the aliens and learn why they’ve come. While she deciphers their grammar and untangles their syntax, the film meditates on the way language affects thinking and how communication can impede or enliven our perspective on reality. Just as Adams gains a firm grasp of the alien language, so too does director Dennis Villeneuve command the language of the screen with affecting cinematography and heartfelt storytelling.

Hacksaw Ridge

Oscars won: Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing

Review by Chandler Ryd

After ten years away from the director’s chair, Mel Gibson returns with another potent film capturing a man’s sacrifice for something greater than himself. Gibson this time tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day-Adventist and a WWII medic who received the Medal of Honor while refusing to lay a finger on a firearm. Doss’s faith and unwavering devotion to his convictions make the film worthwhile, so long as you can stomach the gore, and beyond that, Gibson’s own devotion to craft and style–which imbue the ferocious battles with visual gracefulness–makes Hacksaw Ridge a robust achievement.  

Lion

Oscars won: None

Review by Kayla Stetzel

“Lion” chronicles the true, modern-day odyssey of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Australian man who begins to search for his birth family after recalling his birthplace with the help of Google Earth. With impactful cinematography, “Lion” examines concepts of family, abandonment, and loneliness, though it never overindulges in sentimentality. A homecoming story which could have easily become melodramatic or cliched, the film remains fresh and heartrending. While Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo Brierley, gave a stirring performance, it is Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo, who steals the each scene. “Lion” was director Garth Davis’ feature directorial debut; its Best-Picture nomination was well-deserved.

Fences

Oscars won: Best Actress in a Leading Role

Review by Kolbe Conger

An acclaimed play transformed for the screen, Fences tells the poignant story of Troy Maxson, a proud, troubled former Negro League star who believes that the white man will always hold back the man of color. This firm belief causes him to become estranged from his sons, friends, and wife. Despite a small cast of characters, this heart-wrenching film speaks volumes about the roles of husbands, wives and children; the sacrifices we make to lift each other up, and how we must often give up our own dreams to do so. In Fences, we see–as does Troy–that fences can be used to keep things out or keep them in.

Hidden Figures

Oscars won: None

Review by Patrick Lucas

Taking place during the Space Race, a time of racial discrimination, Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African American women rising from their roles as “computers” at NASA by proving their right and ability to be an engineer, a supervisor, and a top mathematician. The conflicts of segregation balance with the pursuit of national security and themes of American patriotism. Driven by excellent writing and phenomenal acting, the film is optimistic in that it focuses on the trio’s individual determination and successes rather than dwelling on America’s racism. Hidden Figures is a funny, warm, and enjoyable movie.

Hell or High Water

Oscars won: None

Review by Matt Wylie

Hell or High Water is the latest entry in the bleak, philosophical Texas crime-film genre. The movie tells a story about the way good things quickly and inexplicably turn into evil and then into nothing. The film abounds with images and remarks about the once-heroes of the Texas plains descending into villainy. This is the fate of the main characters, brothers on a bank-robbing spree to pay off the exaggerated mortgage on their deceased mother’s farm. In a very poignant scene, one of the brothers meets a Commanche and calls him “Lord of the plains.” “Lord of nothing, now,” the Commanche responds.

 

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