Awards season is upon us. As such, I've assembled my annual list of top films of the past year. These are films that represent a perfect storm of exquisite writing, nuanced acting, strong directing, thoughtful cinematography, and purposeful editing. Have you seen them? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know!
In no particular order:
Viggo Mortensen's turn as Ben, a bereaved father of six with the unorthodox plot goal of interfering with a funeral, shines as an imaginative take on how to be a better parent. Every child is a unique personality (of special note is the conflicted eldest - George MacKay as Bo) and the viewer spends enough time with each to fall in love with the entire family. Just the right amount of silly, heartfelt, and believable, Fantastic is the year's strongest meditation on parenthood, its responsibilities, its joys, and its ability to bring out the best - and worst - in parents, grandparents, and children. Every scene not only reveals more about character but simultaneously lays bare the glue that holds the family together as well as the inevitable cracks that grow into schisms. While being a better father might be the biggest challenge of Ben's life, the viewer roots for him the entire ride.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Terrifying in its portrayal of utter desperation yet chock full of enough courage to sink a rusty pickup under the rapids of the Colorado River, High Water is about brotherhood - both between Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) as well as their relentless pursuers, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). When hard financial truths force the Howards to rob the very banks that mean to foreclose on the family farm, we're all too glad to cheer for the outlaws. But the beauty of the film lies in its shades of grey: we're rooting for both sides because they're both on the losing end of a larger war. But while one side is ultimately content to accept their place in the machinery of the state, the other is an upstart that can claim, at best, a pyrrhic victory. No spoils come for free, and every player in this film has to pay up.
Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins
Heartbreaking, horrifying, and ultimately redemptive, Moonlight is a tense, introspective, and thoughtful meditation on growing up impoverished, Black, and gay. Every performance shines bright to the point of blinding the viewer to the fact that they're watching a film at all. A film in three parts, we seamlessly follow Chiron from boyhood (Alex Hibbert), adolescence (Ashton Sanders), and adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) as he navigates an external world including a warm but self-contradictory mentor (a charismatic Mahershala Ali), a tormented and tormenting mother (an astonishing Naomie Harris) a bevy of school bullies, and an internal struggle between "being the man," "looking tough," and love itself. What does it mean to be a man? Are we defined by how the world sees us or who we secretly are within? The film captures well the loneliness of being a child - and indeed the fundamental aloneness of existing in the first place.
Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush
Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
The filmmakers behind Zootopia didn't just create an engaging, lovable protagonist in Officer Judy Hopps - they created an entire world. The first 10 minutes alone are a master class in establishing character, story, and stakes. Engrossing from start to finish, Zootopia is about tolerance, the dangers of ignorance, and the nuances of law and order, but at its heart it remains true to the hopes and desires of its clever main character. Judy wants to make the world a better place but must learn that she herself - as well as those around her - can only be at their best when they rise above their animal instincts and listen to each other. For in doing so, the world truly becomes better.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the story of how the film was adapted and made is almost worthy of a film in and of itself. At first glance it'a a story about visiting aliens but at its core it remains a tale about an impossible choice and the cyclical nature of existence. A stunning Amy Adams (in the best role of her career) as linguist Dr. Louise Banks is the key to deciphering the intents of our enigmatic otherworldly visitors... but is there something more at stake? Do we need their help or do they need ours? And what will it take to make the international community cooperate on anything? Does every opportunity come again? And if you know what's coming, would you do anything differently? Questions for the philosophers, yes, but somehow cobbled into a film with a strong story and stronger characters. Just the right amounts of mystery are dripped to the audience and we're left with a strong sense of accomplishment by the journey's end.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
Directed by Travis Knight
Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler
Exhaustively and meticulously conceptualized, written, and stop-motion animated over a period of five years, Kubo is that rarest of animals: an original fantasy story with global appeal. While Matthew McConaughey as a samurai might be cringeworthy, the clear writing, integrated storytelling, and astonishing visuals (in service to the story) more than make up for it. Kubo is a yarn (pun intended) about a young man's journey to be the good man his parents wanted him to be while avoiding the temptations of an inhuman immortality. Effectively funny and honest in its emotional portrayals, Kubo is a dark tale that enraptures the viewer among its simple, cleverly-written plot threads and unique, memorable characters. If we are who we've been, Kubo is a story that proves that we can be who we want to be.
Directed by Denzel Washington off of a screenplay by playwright August Wilson (based on his play by the same name), this film contains, on a whole, the best acting performances of the year. Viola Davis especially, as Rose Maxson, exceeds every high bar in her turn as a mother to a frustrated son and wife to a frustrating husband. This was clearly a labor of love for Denzel Washington, who turns in yet another career-defining performance as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged garbageman who missed integration in the major leagues (and a likely turn as a baseball great) by only that much. Every personality shines through and the subtext is thick. Every character is clearly defined and has an opportunity to be a viewer's favorite. However, like Doubt before it, this film reminds the viewer that it began as a stage play, and its scenes are dialogue heavy and can drag. Regardless, every actor turns in their A-game and the film unspools as an organic, character driven story.
Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is possibly the year's biggest gut punch. Devastating in its portrayal of a young father with nothing left to lose, Casey Affleck turns in a wrenching performance as Lee Chandler, who is tasked with raising his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the unexpected death of Lee's brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler). A formidable and relatable meditation on loss, Manchester is perhaps the year's most stirring reminder that when there's life, there's hope. The film's ending, while abrupt, gives just the right amount of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
As topical today as it was when it actually happened, Hidden Figures reminds us of progress made and work still to be done. Directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi off of a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Figures is both comic and thoughtful in its treatment of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (respectively and expertly played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe), three African-American mathematicians who were integral members of the team that launched John Glen into space. Their frustrations and mistreatment is tangible at every turn - not just without - but within as well.
Awards season is arguably the most wonderful time of the year for film buffs. How many of these have you seen? Thoughts?
Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.