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"Good Old JR" Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 2016

2016 in film, you will hear no complaints from me

(010617) The movie year is over, and a look back at the past twelve months makes clear that cinephiles have been spoiled with sterling movies, from blockbuster superhero sagas and low-budget horror thrillers to bizarre dystopian comedies and politically oriented foreign imports. With my late-year binge-watching now complete, this final assessment—which still only scratches the surface of everything worth watching—proves that, whether at the multiplex or the art house, filmgoers were blessed with a bounty of great offerings in 2016. Making this list usually involves trying to find ten movies that aren't a compromise. This year, the difficulty was in what to leave off. On that note, here are some honorable mentions, in no particular order.

The Green Room
Edge of Seventeen
Love and Friendship
Pete's Dragon
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Kubo and the Two Strings
Captain America: Civil War
The Jungle Book
Zootopia ( the best animated film of the year )
O.J. Made in America ( the best documentary of the year )

Director Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to last year's Sicario boasts the same brand of gorgeous widescreen imagery as well as a female protagonist thrust into head-spinning territory. In this case, however, the subject isn't Mexican drug cartels but aliens, who mysteriously arrive across the globe in giant ships, and who don't communicate in anything like a decipherable human language. Enter Amy Adams' linguist, who—paired with Jeremy Renner's mathematician—is tasked by the U.S. government with finding a way to communicate with these extraterrestrials, known as "heptapods" because of their seven-limbed physical form. What ensues is a thrilling "first contact" drama that also splits its focus to concentrate on Adams' protagonist's grief over the loss of her daughter—twin narrative threads that eventually dovetail into a poignant portrait of the circular nature of life, and the way in which written and spoken language help connect us all to our pasts, present, and future.

No 2016 debut has been as striking as Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, an immaculately conceived and executed small-scale indie about a young African-American girl named Toni (superb newcomer Royalty Hightower) who, while living in Cincinnati's West End, spends her time working out at a local boxing gym with her brother, even as she increasingly finds herself drawn to the championship-winning dance team that practices in the same facility. Holmer's precise aesthetics echo her protagonist's detachment from both the fight and dance cliques from which she seeks acceptance, and her slow-motion sequences of the troupe's rhythmic routines have an overpowering, hypnotic grace and splendor. Fixated on Hightower's subtly expressive countenance and her spatial (and emotional) relationship to her peers, the film is more than just a coming-of-age saga; it's an expressionistic snapshot of a young girl trying to transcend her estrangement, define her identity, and find a place for herself in the world.

David Mackenzie's outlaws-on-the-run saga concerns two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a bank-robbing spree in order to raise enough money to save their family farm from foreclosure—a conceit that lends the film a piercing timeliness. Nonetheless, the true power of this rugged genre effort comes from its stars and its attention to both atmosphere and character detail. As yin-yang siblings compelled to embark upon their mission by need, fury, and inherent recklessness, Pine and Foster share a compelling chemistry. And they're complemented (and, in fact, surpassed) in the charisma department by the always great Jeff Bridges. As the just-about-to-retire sheriff hot on their trail, Bridges delivers one of his finest performances, radiating both wit and regret as an old-school relic who—like the criminals he's pursuing, and the beaten-down land that he roams with his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham)—is on the precipice of transforming into a ghost from a bygone era.

Directorial debuts don’t get much better than what Robert Eggers pulled off with The Witch, an immersive, atmospheric exercise in the existential dread of the fanatically devout. Eggers never caters to the lowest common denominator. Instead, he demands that you sit up and pay attention — and he makes sure you damn well do by mashing up some baby remains with a mortar and pestle, on screen, right out of the gate. Eggers sucks you in with a holistic vision of historical terrors, even having the guts to go with period and regionally appropriate dialect. The costuming and set design are also picture perfect, crafting an image of a bleak, desolate place in time where moralism could cost you everything and cast you out into that dim, grey cold. The Witch is very about the terrors of the devil but it is also about the lurid attraction of sin and a sinister life, well lived. After all, what is the point of being pure if you get nothing but pain for it? The Witch is alternately languid and bursting at the seams with kinetic frenzy, and that keeps you ever on your toes and the devil’s pernicious presence spreads through a rigidly puritan family, unhindered by their devotion. Eggers vision is matched by the talent of his cast, especially the career-making turns from the young leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, making for the rare, challenging horror film that doesn’t just shock and scare, but burrows into your mind and sits there to rot.

There are no two ways about it: "Sing Street" is pure bliss. Writer-director John Carney's (2007's "Once" and 2013's "Begin Again") 1980s-set musical ode to growing up and finding one's passion takes place in a cynical world, yet has no time or patience for cynicism. Uplifted on the winds of great storytelling and an impeccable understanding of the popular music of its era, the film is a tad grittier—at least visually—than John Hughes' classic teen pictures, but very much at one with their bittersweet, ultimately hopeful tone and empathetic depictions of adolescence.

South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook has made a name for himself with deliriously violent, sexually deranged revenge tales like Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and 2013's English-language Stoker (starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska). Thus, The Handmaiden finds him back in familiar terrain, given that it charts a con man's scheme to use a young female pickpocket to help him marry, and then commit to an insane asylum, a mentally unstable heiress—a ruse that gets hopelessly complicated the further it progresses thanks to a series of didn't-see-that-coming twists. Rearranging characters around his narrative playing board like a devilish chess champion, Park stages his material with serpentine sensuality and playfully grim wit, all while presenting a vision of femininity that, true to his prior form, is seductive, sinister and empowered. Come for the luxurious period décor, uninhibited carnality and ominous atmosphere, and stay for the octopus.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster is one of the strangest movies in recent memory—and one of the most hilariously (and surprisingly profound) ones as well. In this pitch-black future-society saga, a single man (Colin Farrell) checks into a hotel where, by law, he must find a mate within 45 days or be transformed into the animal of his choice. (His preference? A lobster.) In that wacko locale, Farrell's lonely loser pals around with other equally strange sorts, and tries to forge a romance with a female counterpart, before eventually fleeing for the woods where anti-monogamy rebels are stationed. A deadpan dystopian comedy that also functions as a bizarro-world examination of love, relationships, marriage, and the basic human desire for connection, Lanthimos' film is that rare thing in today's cinema: an unqualified original.

Casey Affleck gives one of the year's most affecting lead turns as a Boston bachelor who, after the untimely death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), is saddled with custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) in Kenneth Lonergan's stomach-punch of a drama. That situation is created by tragedy, but it's not the only instance of traumatic loss addressed by this expertly calibrated portrait of grief and recovery, given that Affleck's loner—divorced from the mother (Michelle Williams) of his children—is already a deeply scarred individual with his own agonizing sorrow to shoulder. Affleck's muted embodiment of this fractured young man conveys volumes about misery, guilt and regret, and he's matched by a sterling supporting cast that delivers similarly unaffected, bone-deep performances. They're further aided by Lonergan's natural evocation of his cold, grim New England milieu, and aided by a script that manages the not-inconsiderable feat of finding consistent humor amidst so much despair.

Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale about a homosexual African-American boy living in Florida. That basic plot description, however, does little to convey the incisive poetry of Barry Jenkins' film, whose narrative is divided between three stages in the life of its protagonist, Chiron (aka "Little" as an adolescent, and "Black" as an adult). From its astounding opening shot on a street corner circling around a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who'll come to be young Chiron's surrogate father figure—since his mother (Naomie Harris) is a junkie—this evocative drama captures an overwhelming sense of both place and character. As Chiron grows up, enjoying fleeting moments of euphoria amidst routine abuse and neglect, Jenkins charts thorny individual and interpersonal dynamics in which both salvation and damnation seem to stem from the same (or, at least, similar) source. Sensitive, subtle, intense and complex, it's a triumph of both expressive direction and—courtesy of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, as well as André Holland and Janelle Monáe—nuanced, heart-rending performance.

Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash was one of my favorite movies of 2014 so my hopes were dangerously high for his followup, but the writer-director somehow exceeded my expectations with his stunning love letter to love, Los Angeles, movies, music, and movie musicals. It seems so impossibly good and pure of vision, from Justin Hurwitz‘s infectious score to Mary Zophres uncanny costuming. It has the power to transport you, to fully captivate you not only in song and dance, but in the life and love of its duo of dreamers, Emma Stone‘s aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling‘s jazz devotee Sebastian. Chazelle paints them in bright blocs of color with a magician’s hand, transforming their oh so common LA-narrative of big dreams and low means into something singular, and as authentic as it is universal. La La Land also has an unexpected vein of maturity and pragmatism underneath all the swooning, a bittersweet insistence on truth even in grandiosity. The film culminates in a sequence of profound beauty and sadness, it sweeps you off your feet and breaks your heart at the same time and therein captures the terrible, wonderful power of love and ambition and the places where the two may or may not meet. There may have been other movies that were more substantive, but none that were this perfect.

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