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article imageOp-Ed: Top 10 films of 2016

By Sarah Gopaul     Jan 8, 2017 in Entertainment
Our top 10 feature-length films of the year were carefully selected from the hundreds of movies watched and reviewed in 2016, and includes a cross-section of genres and awards frontrunners.
Film critics watch a lot of movies. Previous attempts to keep track have failed, but between festivals, and theatrical and home releases the number easily climbs over 500 each year — and yet there are countless films still to be seen. Obviously the quality of these films vary greatly and most of them are not worth ever mentioning again, but there are a fraction of others whose praises should be shouted from the rooftops. Limiting the list to just 10 can be a struggle; particularly as one debates which picture is most deserving of that final place… thus we also have the honourable mentions section. The only basic restriction imposed here is the film must have played theatrically in North America in 2016; although the proliferation of streaming has generated at least one exception.
A scene from  The Red Turtle
A scene from 'The Red Turtle'
10. The Red Turtle
Based on the quality of his short film, Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit was invited to create the first non-Japanese Studio Ghibli picture. Even more impressive is the animated feature-length movie doesn’t include any dialogue. A shipwrecked man is washed ashore an uninhabited island where the only other life are crabs, birds and a giant red turtle. Eventually he is joined by a woman with whom he builds a life and abandons any attempt of returning to his pre-castaway life. The style is dissimilar from former lead creator Hayao Miyazaki’s films as it’s inherently less fanciful and includes far fewer characters, but it more importantly demonstrates comparable heart and striking beauty. The colours consist of a warm, rich palette of browns, reds and oranges, which contrast with the cool blues and greens of the surrounding ocean and trees. Moreover, the amazing score enthralls audiences as it serves the dual purpose of complementing the characters’ actions while also expressing their emotions since no words are spoken. Although the film has not received the attention of its larger studio counterparts, it is definitely one of the most accomplished and nuanced animated films of the year.
Taraji P. Henson stars in  Hidden Figures
Taraji P. Henson stars in 'Hidden Figures'
Twentieth Century Fox
9. Hidden Figures
In the early ‘60s in the United States, most things were still segregated; but the civil rights movement for equal treatment was gaining momentum. Behind the classified gates of NASA, three women — Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) — were breaking down barriers with their competence and ambition. However, these successes were hard fought and remained mostly unknown until now. One of the worst instances of discrimination prevents Katherine from even using the bathroom in the same building as her new job because there isn’t one designated for black women. This humiliation results in a memorable scene in a movie that’s built around powerful and inspiring moments that are supported by terrific acting from everyone involved. The women have unique and strong personalities demonstrating the perseverance of their real-life counterparts who were determined to contribute to the best of their abilities, regardless of the many obstacles that stood in their way. One of the most refreshing scenes in the film is when John Glenn (Glen Powell) arrives at NASA and insists on greeting the black employees the same as everyone else; later, he refers to Katherine as “the girl… the smart one” rather than “the black one.” It’s a small but important moment and a sign of changing times.
Andrew Garfield stars in  Hacksaw Ridge
Andrew Garfield stars in 'Hacksaw Ridge'
Elevation Pictures
8. Hacksaw Ridge
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a Seventh Day Adventist who enlists in the army in spite of being a conscientious objector. However, he refuses to carry a weapon and will contribute solely as a medic — saving lives, not taking them. The second half of the film is an incredibly intense and exceptionally realistic depiction of the war he signed up for in all its mud-caked, bloody glory. Director Mel Gibson does an excellent job familiarizing viewers with the person before turning him into the invincible hero. The filmmaker also has an eye for staging dramatic action, taking audiences into the war via deliberate camera placement and gritty aesthetics. The battle for Hacksaw Ridge is portrayed with such authenticity as every victory is met with an even stronger retaliation and the bodies (and in many cases body parts) continue to pile up. The film rests on Garfield’s shoulders and he draws viewers into the story without ever missing a beat. He’s very convincing, though it’s difficult to understand how someone of his (and the real Desmond’s) stature could accomplish all he did on that ridge. Gibson undoubtedly picked the right film with which to stage his comeback behind the camera.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star in  Loving
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star in 'Loving'
Universal Pictures
7. Loving
This is a very important story in the history of the United States as it determined marriage is an inherent right and couldn’t be denied interracial couples. The movie portrays what was essentially a very personal struggle for Richie (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), and what’s most impressive is it does so with restraint. In spite of the usual pressures to exaggerate a tale for dramatic effect or ensure the characters pull on the audience’s heartstrings at even intervals, writer/director Jeff Nichols brings his aptitude for understated drama to this movie and sticks to the very simple story of a couple wanting to go home. Being at the centre of the narrative, the film rests on the shoulders of Edgerton and Negga, and they handle the weight of the task gracefully. As Richie doesn’t say a lot or express many emotions, the character requires a lot of subtlety on Edgerton’s part as well as unbounded joy on the few occasions he shows it. Contrastingly, Mildred does her best to keep a smile on her face, which widens as she attempts to make up for Richie’s lack of one. Negga is a constant shining light that finds a balance between a positive attitude and her wit’s end on several occasions.
O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson are featured in  O.J.: Made in America
O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson are featured in 'O.J.: Made in America'
6. O.J.: Made in America
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 20 years since a nation was glued to the screen, watching a white Bronco weave through traffic as a former football star sat in the backseat with a gun. Although the biopic, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, garnered a lot of attention, it doesn’t compare to this thorough exploration of a man who became the symbol of a culture he’d deliberately distanced himself from to live a life of luxury. The nearly eight-hour documentary is brimming with insightful interviews with everyone from Simpson’s childhood friends to former teammates to journalists to attorneys and detectives who worked the infamous case, including Marcia Clark and Mark Fuhrman, as well as the jurors who delivered the still controversial verdict. Filmmakers leave their opinions at the door and let those who actually lived the story tell it like it was and for the most part they are very candid about their experiences. Unlike the movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., this documentary is about much more than the murder and subsequent trial as it attempts to reveal who Simpson was and who he became, from the famous athlete who wouldn’t refuse an autograph to the nearly unrecognizable man recently convicted of robbery and kidnapping. It’s an undeniably fascinating story that is skillfully structured so the entire five-part series flows seamlessly and logically, while answering some questions and raising others.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in  Hell or High Water
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in 'Hell or High Water'
VVS Films
5. Hell or High Water
This is a highly original western in which Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are not hardened criminals or career thieves, but rather two brothers-turned-bank robbers because they’re left with no other reasonable choice after the moneylenders took advantage of their mother’s desperation. Their personalities couldn’t be more different; yet, the brotherly love they share, which survived years of hardship and separation, is obvious throughout the entire picture. This is unquestionably attributed to the excellent on-screen camaraderie between Foster and Pine. On the other side of the chase is nearly retired, old school bigoted Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who spends much of his time amiably insulting his Mexican-Native American partner. As only Bridges could deliver such overt racism and still seem charming, he’s received multiple nominations for his supporting performance. Starred Up director David Mackenzie and Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan have a real knack for male drama, finding the nuances of this story that go beyond the traditional good vs. bad guys. Moreover, the dialogue is exceptional, achieving a balance between the picture’s grit and a dark, unexpected humour — it’s amazing what they accomplish in a single diner scene with an exchange between the Rangers and a crotchety waitress.
Amy Adams stars in Denis Villeneuve s  Arrival
Amy Adams stars in Denis Villeneuve's 'Arrival'
Paramount Pictures
4. Arrival
As NASA regularly announces the discovery of distant planets with life sustaining environments, it’s easy to wonder what an encounter with alien life may look like as the possibilities are infinite. In this updated and more sophisticated version of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, director Denis Villeneuve transfers his dramatic narrative skills to this gripping science fiction story, which is grounded in realism. Rather than trying to communicate via Morse code and light shows, the authorities opt to learn the aliens’ language. Using computers and top field specialists, they study the symbols used by the creatures to answer their questions. Notwithstanding the fictitious scenario depicted, the film does an excellent job enacting what actually could happen if aliens came to Earth without too many fanciful flourishes. Most notably, it rejects the doom-and-gloom and blockbuster battles at the centre of its brawn-over-brains predecessors’ narratives. Though it often appears like Amy Adams’ and Jeremy Renner’s characters are the only things standing between humanity and interstellar war, there is a more intimate story unfolding via a secondary narrative that doesn’t come to the foreground until just the right moment.
A scene from  13th
A scene from '13th'
3. 13th
Netflix is strengthening its reputation with original content, but its investment in documentary filmmaking has consistently paid off with some of the best productions about real-life. Based on recent media portrayals, it’s easy to assume the deterioration of race relations in the United States is a recent phenomenon that hasn’t reached such crisis levels since the civil rights movement. But that notion would be incorrect. In a concise, coherent and comprehensive documentary, director Ava DuVernay (Selma) traces the history of racial oppression in America and the many forms in which it’s manifested over the centuries. From slavery to chain gangs to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the film clearly illustrates the systematic subjugation of a population that has continued under the guise of the 13th amendment. Interviews, archival footage and statistics provide incendiary evidence this was and is the case, while identifying the specific groups and laws that continue to perpetuate this environment. In a year in which Donald Trump was elected president, his rallies are juxtaposed with images of aggressive racism in the ‘60s. This film has a greater purpose than to explain the #blacklivesmatter movement, yet it does so with dignity and precision that makes it essential viewing for everyone.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in  La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in 'La La Land'
2. La La Land
When the studio system was in full swing, one of its main branches was assigned to create movies of escape. Thus the big production musicals were born. The characters are usually fulfilling a dream of some sort (often artistic and highly impractical in the “real world”) while falling in love against beautiful backdrops and dancing to the soundtrack of their lives. While contemporary audiences generally scoff at these films’ idyllic portrayal of life, there’s something to be said for a film that simply makes you feel light. While not an all-out musical, this is the first film in a long time to capture the whimsical, romantic mood of the golden age of Hollywood. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are delightful as the couple at the film’s centre — she an aspiring actress slash barista, and he an out-of-work jazz musician and aficionado. However it’s not all magical as their relationship eventually takes on a The Way We Were quality and the honeymoon period drifts into the struggles of day-to-day existence. The set design and locations for this picture are breathtaking, particularly the murals often occupying the background, while the cinematography frames each shot beautifully. And the film’s ballad, “City of Stars,” is an unforgettably moving song that should be a key contender for best original song.
A scene from  Moonlight
A scene from 'Moonlight'
Elevation Pictures
1. Moonlight
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ tale of a young man’s journey from poverty and neglect to a confident criminal that remains vulnerable in spite of his literal armour is exceptional. Rather than manipulate the audience into pitying the main character with images of child abuse or other horrors, it draws them into his world so they can experience the good and bad alongside him. Viewers feel his shame for his mother’s (Naomie Harris) behaviour, which is countered by the warmth and love showered upon him by strangers-turned-friends, Paula and Juan (played by Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali respectively). Harris and Ali are unquestionably deserving of supporting actor recognition for their conflicting roles in the story. No attention is drawn to the leaps in time, but each part of the film represents an excerpt from an important moment in Little/Chiron/Black’s life as he navigates and struggles with being gay in a black community. Striking cinematography creates a poignant realism that grips the audience from beginning to end. Don’t be surprised to see this movie mentioned a lot during awards season with additional nods for best director and adap0ted screenplay pouring in.
Honourable Mentions
The tenth spot on this list could have just as easily gone to the skillfully creepy and atmospheric psychological thriller, The Witch, but the silent animated feature just eked it out. If this list was longer, it would include one of my favourite movies of the year featuring the merc-with-the-mouth, Deadpool; the stunning and original stop-motion animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings; the compelling drama, Manchester by the Sea, which includes stellar performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams; the forceful and uncompromising Miss Sloane, starring Jessica Chastain; the twisted mystery thriller, Nocturnal Animals; the fabulous coming-of-age story with an even better soundtrack, Sing Street; the gripping, animated documentary, Tower; and one of the year’s best and most haunting ghost stories, The Wailing… to name a few.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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