Studios And Audiences Had Lots To Celebrate In 2016

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 11:25 am

Hollywood is in the process of closing out a record-breaking, $11.2 billion year. The big draws were talking animals — including a fish called Dory and a bear named Baloo — a slew of superheroes and a new batch of Star Warriors. The numbers have movie studios — especially Disney, which led the pack — celebrating.

But this year, moviegoers also have a lot to celebrate. Most years, there are several films that could fill the No. 1 slot on my list. This year, there's no contest. My favorite picture of 2016 is the most rewarding coming-of-age film in many a moon, and I've got 17 runners-up. Here they are in no particular order:

Moonlight: Luminous, but also tough and startling, a poetic drama in three chapters (with ideally matched actors playing the main character at different ages) about a timid African-American youngster growing up in Miami. It's both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story — the most lyrical of the fiercely resonant pictures that are helping the film industry combat its stubbornly persistent lack-of-diversity problem.

I Am Not Your Negro: An extraordinary documentary that uses the words of James Baldwin to analyze American attitudes about race. Director Raoul Peck mixes archival footage of Baldwin speaking softly but bluntly, with excerpts from an unpublished book he was working on at the time of his death, about his friends Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

13th: Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, dissects the wording of the Constitution's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime." The film forcefully argues that that loophole has been used for politics and for profit.

Loving: The landmark civil rights decision is known in the courts as Loving v. Virginia; at the multiplex, it's just Loving, named after a couple who met and married in the late 1950s, only to have the then-segregated state of Virginia step in because Richard Loving was white and Ruth Loving was black. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The movie goes there, too, but what makes it effective on-screen is its intimate romance. We should all be so lucky in love.

Manchester By The Sea: Casey Affleck plays a man who is tapped after his brother's death to be the reluctant guardian of a teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) who cannot understand why his uncle won't move back to stay with him in the titular city. The answer to that question opens up a whole world of hurt in Kenneth Lonergan's wrenching drama.

The Lobster: A satirical comedy about a society that so values coupledom that living alone is outlawed. When Colin Farrell's wife leaves him, he is packed off to a hotel where the manager explains that guests have 45 days to couple up. And failure to do so has a price: Farrell will turn into an animal. Claws down, the weirdest romantic comedy of the year.

Toni Erdmann: An almost three-hour German comedy — I know, I know, not on a bet, right? But it's really funny (also wise) — about a dad who's a practical joker, and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter who has lost her sense of humor. Hollywood will surely remake it (and wreck it) so you'd be wise to catch the original.

I, Daniel Blake: An Englishman who has had a heart attack finds that nearly dying is only the beginning of his problems once the National Health Service gets involved. Social activist filmmaker Ken Loach establishes — in what amounts to an absurdist, social-realist dramedy — that at 80, he remains not just a champion for, but a poet of, the underclass.

The Red Turtle: From Japan's Studio Ghibli, this beautifully crafted blend of charcoal drawings and digital animation tells an almost wordless, Robinson Crusoe-style fable of a shipwrecked sailor and the enormous tortoise that doesn't want him to leave its otherwise deserted isle. Deliberate and painterly, it's unlikely to wow small children but is a Zen-like treat for the rest of us.

Kubo and the Two Strings: Though this animated film was made at Studio Laika, by many of the same American artists who crafted Coraline and BoxTrolls, it adapts a Japanese folk tale. Credit the filmmakers with living up to their film's first line: "If you must blink, do it now." That's excellent advice for a film that deals with family and personal fortitude while mixing stop-motion animation with what you might call digital origami.

That's 10, which is an arbitrary number, so let's keep going. Also on my list of bests:

Hell or High Water: A cops 'n' robbers shoot-em-up that is arguably the best Western in years

Deadpool: A violent, potty-mouthed, hilariously R-rated superhero epic that seems to have been made for the cynical 14-year-old in all of us.

Little Men: Ira Sachs' indie dramedy about two kids in Brooklyn who become friends while their parents are drawing battle lines.

Lion: The true story of a 5-year-old in India who travels half a world away before finding his way home via Google Earth.

Fences: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning drama in 2010. Now Washington has brought most of that cast, and all of the play's fire, to the screen.

The Salesman: Iranian director Asghar (A Separation) Farhadi's stunner about a couple who suffer a trauma in their home while they're appearing together in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Marguerite: You probably know that Meryl Streep recently played a terrible opera singer on-screen. Did you know Catherine Frot beat her to it in a wonderfully nuanced French film?

La La Land: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are only passable singers and dancers, but they and this musical's director, Damien Chazelle, are sweetly, swoonably in love with movies. As are we all, right?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hollywood is about to close out a record-breaking $11.2 billion year. The big draws were talking animals, superheroes and yet another new batch of Star Warriors. Movie studios are celebrating, and people who go to the movies have a lot to celebrate, too, according to our critic Bob Mondello. Here's his wrap-up of the year's best movies.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Most years, there are several films that could fill the No. 1 slot on my list. This year, there's no contest. My favorite picture is the most rewarding coming-of-age film in many a moon, "Moonlight," about a withdrawn African-American youngster growing up in Miami where, as a friend notes, the beach breezes offer a respite from the pressures of home and adolescence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

JHARREL JEROME: (As Kevin) Sometimes around the way where we live, you can catch that same breeze. It just comes through the hood, and it's like everything stop for a second. Everything just gets quiet, you know?

ASHTON SANDERS: (As Chiron) And it's like all you can hear is your own heartbeat.

JEROME: (As Kevin) It make you want to cry it feels so good.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) You cry?

JEROME: (As Kevin) Nah, it makes me want to.

MONDELLO: Luminous but also tough and startling, "Moonlight" is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, the most lyrical of the fiercely resonant pictures that are helping the film industry combat its stubbornly persistent lack-of-diversity problem. Among the others, two extraordinary documentaries - "I Am Not Your Negro," which uses the words of James Baldwin to analyze American attitudes on race.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JAMES BALDWIN: The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

MONDELLO: Director Raoul Peck blends archival footage of Baldwin speaking softly but bluntly with excerpts from an unpublished book he was working on at the time of his death. A companion piece to "I Am Not Your Negro" is the documentary "13th" in which Ava DuVernay, the director of "Selma," dissects the wording of the Constitution's 13th Amendment. It outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The film forcefully argues that that loophole has been used for politics and for profit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "13TH")

CORY BOOKER: We now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.

MONDELLO: Then there's the love story that led to a landmark civil rights decision. The Loving decision is how it's known in the courts. At the multiplex, it's just "Loving," named after a couple who met and married in the late 1950s only to have the state of Virginia step in...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING")

MICHAEL ABBOTT JR: (As Deputy Cole) What you doing in bed with that woman?

RUTH NEGGA: (As Mildred) I'm his wife.

ABBOTT JR: (As Deputy Cole) That's no good here.

MONDELLO: ...The segregated state of Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING")

BRIDGET GETHINS: (As Court Secretary) Richard Perry Loving, being a white person, and Mildred Jeter, being a colored person, did unlawfully cohabitate as man and wife.

NEGGA: (As Mildred) Richard...

MONDELLO: Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The movie goes there, too. But what makes it effective on screen is the intimate romance. We should all be so lucky in love. The wrenching drama "Manchester By The Sea" is about a man who is not lucky in love or in life. Casey Affleck plays the reluctant guardian of a teenager who is not making his guardianship easier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm not moving to Boston, Uncle Lee.

CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I don't want to talk about that right now.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) You said he left you money so you could move.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Yeah. That doesn't mean...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Anyway, what's in Boston? You're a janitor.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) So what?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) You can do that anywhere. There's plenty of toilets and clogged up drains all over town.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't want to talk about...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) All my friends are here. I'm on the hockey team. I'm on the basketball team. I got two girlfriends, and I'm in a band. You're a janitor in Quincy. What the hell do you care where you live?

MONDELLO: The answer to that question opens up a whole world of hurt in "Manchester By The Sea." That's 5 of my top 10. The next two are lighter and substantially more weird. "The Lobster" is a comedy about a society that so values coupledom that living alone is outlawed. When Colin Farrell wife leaves him, he's packed off to a hotel where the manager explains that guests have 45 days to couple up, and failure to do so has a price.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Hotel Manager) Now, the fact that you'll turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you. Just think; as an animal, you'll have a second chance to find a companion. But even then, you must be careful. You need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together. Nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.

MONDELLO: Yes, it would. "The Lobster" is claws-down the weirdest romantic comedy of the year. Also offbeat is "Toni Erdmann," an almost three-hour German comedy. I know; I know - not on a bet, right? But it's really funny and wise. Toni Erdmann is the name that a dad who's a practical joker adopts when pranking his daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TONI ERDMANN")

PETER SIMONISCHEK: (As Winfried) Happy birthday.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMONISCHEK: (As Winfried, screaming).

SANDRA HULLER: (As Ines, screaming).

MONDELLO: She's so intent on climbing the corporate ladder, she's lost her sense of humor. Hollywood will surely remake "Toni Erdmann," but you'd be wise to catch the original. Another foreign film that uses a name as its title, "I, Daniel Blake," is about an Englishman who's had a heart attack and finds that that's only the beginning of his problems once the National Health Service gets involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

STEPHEN CLEGG: (As Job Center Floor Manager) You have to apply online, Sir.

DAVE JOHNS: (As Daniel) I cannot do that. You give me a plot of land, I can build you a house. But I've never been anywhere near a computer.

CLEGG: (As Job Center Floor Manager) There's a special number if you've been diagnosed as dyslexic.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Right, well, can you give us that 'cause with computers, I'm dyslexic.

CLEGG: (As Job Center Floor Manager) You'll find it online, Sir.

MONDELLO: From red tape to "The Red Turtle," 1 of 2 gorgeous animated films among the year's best. It's from Japan's Studio Ghibli and blends elements of several styles of animation to tell an almost wordless "Robinson Crusoe"-style tale of a shipwrecked sailor and the enormous tortoise that doesn't want him to leave its otherwise deserted isle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RED TURTLE")

MONDELLO: Deliberate and painterly, "Red Turtle" is a Zen-like treat. Another animated film, "Kubo And The Two Strings," comes from American filmmakers but adopts the form of a Japanese folk tale. Credit the filmmakers for living up to its first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS")

ART PARKINSON: (As Kubo) If you must blink, do it now.

MONDELLO: Excellent advice for a film that plays with digital origami.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS")

PARKINSON: (As Kubo) Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear.

MONDELLO: The story's about family and personal fortitude. The images are exquisite. That is 10, which is an arbitrary number. And I've got both more time and more films worth getting excited about, so let's keep going. The best Western of the year is a cops-and-robbers shoot-'em-up starring Jeff Bridges called "Hell or High Water." The best superhero epic and the only one that made me laugh in quite a while is "Deadpool."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEADPOOL")

RYAN REYNOLDS: (As Deadpool) She's going to do a superhero landing. Wait for it.

MONDELLO: Ryan Reynolds is the fourth-wall-breaking title character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEADPOOL")

REYNOLDS: (As Deadpool) You know, that's really hard on your knees, totally impractical. They all do it.

MONDELLO: "Deadpool" is a superhero flick for the cynical 14-year-old in everyone. The un-cynical 13-year-old in everyone would likely get a kick out of "Little Men," about two kids in Brooklyn, or "Lion," which follows a displaced child from India to Australia and back again. And for more adult tastes, there's a whole brace of stories with theatrical roots. Start with "Fences," Denzel Washington's terrific adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

JOVAN ADEPO: (As Cory) Hey, Pop, can I ask you a question? How come you ain't never liked me?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy) Like you? What law is there say I got to like you?

ADEPO: (As Cory) None.

MONDELLO: Also springing from theater, there's "The Salesman," an Iranian stunner about a couple who are appearing in "Death Of A Salesman." And you probably know that Meryl Streep recently played a terrible opera singer. Did you know there's a French film that does the story even better?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

CATHERINE FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: It's called "Marguerite."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: And the best way to get that sound out of your ears and to end this list of bests is with the musical "La La Land," which is sweetly, swoonably (ph) in love with movies, as are we all, right? I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

ANGELA PARRISH: (Singing) Summer Sunday nights, we'd sink into our seats right as they dimmed out all the lights. The Technicolor world made out of music and machine - it called me to be on that screen and live inside... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.