From documentaries to animated flicks to art films to crime thrillers, the Arts & Entertainment writers’ picks for the year’s top films reflect the diversity of excellent movies this year.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg easily could have made a documentary that simply condemned former Representative Anthony Weiner. Yet, Weiner begins on a high note: the Anthony Weiner who appears at the beginning of the documentary is rejuvenated, remorseful about his sexting scandals and ready to fight in New York City’s mayoral race. The positive image doesn’t last long as Weiner, once again, descends into lying and defensiveness as more sexting allegations surface. Kriegman and Steinberg expertly elevate Weiner from an entertaining to a thoroughly thought-provoking movie by catching the moments when Weiner and the people around him reflect on his self-destruction. In the movie’s most striking moment, Weiner and his (now ex-) wife Huma Abedin watch his explosive interview with Lawrence O’Donnell. Weiner can’t stop giggling and Abedin turns to him and asks the question on everyone’s minds: “Why are you laughing?”
— Shay Collins
Deadpool is like high-budget, extended YouTube parody of the superhero genre, full of crude humor and lacking any actual heroics. Deadpool will walk to the end of the world for a cheap joke, constantly bombarding you with quips that you’ll laugh at just long enough to hold you over for another one.
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool/Wade Wilson was quick and witty throughout the whole movie, unrelenting in his profanity and snark. The wrecking ball they kept on set to constantly break the fourth wall made Deadpool’s criticism of superheroics more clear and personal, adding to the irony of an anti-hero participating in all of the practices he criticizes. It becomes a parody of itself very fast, and puts humor into every second of it. It’s funny and fun, and while it doesn’t do much more than crack jokes, that’s all it really needs.
— Katie Sims
8. The Handmaiden
The Handmaiden is a film about fetish, but it is also a film about storytelling. A delightful gothic tale of revenge and entrapment, what starts as a story of forged identities and tragic seduction stops and shifts perspective Rashomon-style to reveal greater depths of deception. Everyone in the film is pretending to be something they are not — Koreans play at being Japanese while Japanese pretend to be Korean, the poor disguise themselves as the rich while the rich pass themselves off as poor, victims take on the role of abuser while those who feign victimhood have the upper hand. Women are dominated by patriarchs not through real sexuality but through the bombardment of erotic art and bawdy tales, gentlemanly amusement with real consequences. Although entrapped by these narratives, it is through them that our heroines are liberated — some will likely criticize the film for its overtly eroticized, fantastical lesbian relationship, but unlike other films (Blue is the Warmest Color!) the male gaze at play here is central to the themes explored. Many Korean films this year have played with concepts of identity and narrative — The Wailing and Right Now, Wrong Then come to mind — but The Handmaiden is unique in bringing problems of sexuality, class and nationality together with immensely entertaining gusto. See it.
— Nathan Chazan
7. American Honey
What are the kids up to now-a-days? With print in peril, no one would expect them to be selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, and yet that’s exactly what the gang of traveling teenagers — led by Shia LeBeouf — in American Honey does (among other illicit activities). The film stars Sasha Lane as Star, a directionless and destitute teenager who’s recruited for a national magazine scam after she’s seen rummaging through a garbage can for food. Lane’s lack of professional acting experience (American Honey is her first credit) is juxtaposed with LeBeouf’s established range, rooting the film in authenticity, while the hazy Midwestern shots are an unrefined reminder that those in pursuit of the American Dream have many faces.
— Gwen Aviles
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Animation has done it again with Kubo and the Two Strings. They’ve blended together classical stop-motion animation, computer-generated imagery and robotic puppetry into an enrapturing journey across Eastern mythology. Everything in this film is bursting at the seams with creativity. The characters are heartfelt with some great performances from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey. I haven’t seen a film for a long time that has had such an adventurous spirit behind it.
Huge action set-pieces include batting giant monsters, besting sea creatures and dueling with masked figures. Creature designs are intricate and detailed. Everything in this world seems fully realized as if it has existed long before you sat down in the theater and long after the credits roll.
Additionally, music is integral to the film. Kubo’s three-stringed Shamisen gives him his powers, allowing origami to come to life in beautiful choreography. This informs the film’s score which is exciting and upbeat with heavy influences in Japanese style. The film additionally comes along with a really interesting cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
— Brendan Coyle
5. The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is a throwback to the buddy cop movies of the ’80s and ’90s, with classic shootouts and chases to go along with laugh-out-loud dialogue. Whether or not you go into this movie having a crush on Ryan Gosling, you will leave this movie having a crush on Ryan Gosling. His chemistry with Russell Crowe is as good as you’ll see between two actors in a comedy, as they feed off each other with one deadpan joke and spot-on facial expression after another. Thanks to them, every scene of this movie just oozes with fun.
— Lev Akabas
As a crime film, a cute-as-heck kids’ flick and a full-throttle exercise in world-building, Zootopia is one of the rare movies that takes a massive bite and still chews it all. Furthermore, the movie delivers a moral (you are not born into your destiny) that is treated with equal importance and nuance. Does it contain plot holes galore (how does Flash the sloth manages to cut tight turns in a sports car when it’s already been established he has incredibly slow reflexes?!)? Sure, but at the end of the day it’s a joyous, smart, fulfilling movie.
— Shay Collins.
3. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is a crime movie so assured in the skill of its actors, its pacing and its realistic characters that it creates tension in many ways other than a bank robbery shootout. The relationships between characters are so well portrayed and multidimensional that simple conversations between them are as effective at drawing in the audience as the action scenes. Chris Pine gives the most emotionally rich performance of his career, Jeff Bridges steals every scene he’s in with impeccable comedic timing and Ben Foster’s acting is so natural, you don’t even realize how good he is. The screenplay is nuanced and thoughtful in such a way that even when minor characters such as a waitress get a few lines, we care about what they have to say. While this movie is not the most epic in terms of story, action or budget, it’s nearly perfect, down to the most minor details.
— Lev Akabas
Inspired by Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” Arrival’s beginning scene breaks from formulaic plot of its better budgeted sci-fi predecessors. 12 unidentified alien spacecrafts land at various parts across the globe, and humanity has no way to contact them. As a linguist and theoretical physicists attempt to crack the aliens’ code, the governments of the world prepare for all-out war. Yet despite familiar elements, Denis Villeneuve’s latest cinematic offering takes this archetypal alien invasion/first contact trope and imbues it with a surprising amount of heart, realism and relevance. The end product is a masterpiece that dialectically celebrates the beauty of diversity and laments the world’s polarization across ethnic, cultural and political lines. Likewise, it advocates for the intersectionality between the precision of science and the creative imagination of the humanities. Indeed, while Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker all give stellar performances, Arrival’s strength lies in its own self-cognizance and versatility. It does not histrionically draw attention to the themes it addresses. Instead it progresses slowly, allowing the pointed themes of linguistic relevance, the dangers of preconceived notions, and the importance of unity to permeate into the minds of its viewers. In a divided world, Arrival calls for a revival of solidarity. Differences ought to be appreciated instead of feared.
— Zachary Lee
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a three-part meditation on race, class, queerness and growing up. Set in Miami in the 1980s, the movie follows Chiron from childhood through adolescence throughout adulthood (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively) as he attempts to grapple with his mother’s drug addiction and incessant desecration of his black, queer body. The film’s focus is not simply on marginalized identities and the tortured psyches that accompany them, however, but on probing intimacy. It propels viewers to be there during Chiron’s gravest difficulties — an easy task given his lived experiences — while simultaneously eschewing stereotypes, culminating in a depiction, rather than exploitation, of pain. Moonlight is expected to be a 2017 Academy Award contender.
— Gwen Aviles