5. Manchester By the Sea
Casey Affleck is magnificent, of course, and his stoicism masks a deep pain that has never more effectively shown how deep still waters can run. Manchester allows us to read character's expressions and silences with an empathy and also a separation, because we can never truly inhabit another person's sorrow the way he feels it. It's even there in Kyle Chandler's face when he looks down at his wife on the couch. Michelle Williams is in the movie for maybe 15 minutes...but is phenomenal beyond belief, making her interactions with Affleck some of the most wrenchingly beautiful and painful moments captured. There's nothing forced or "acted" about it; the performances, the story, and the unfolding are all naturally honest...which is what makes this so distressing to watch, while we at the same time find laughs being choked out almost against will. Similarly, sometimes the things that bring us closer together are the ones that keep us apart. As much as we try to overcome for the people we love, sometimes we just can't.
The visual handling of the three stages of Chiron's life is nothing short of exquisite with the emphasis on saturation, contrast, and color bringing startling relief to his story. The camera looks full on the faces of the people he talks to, the people that populate his life, forcing a visceral intimacy. Moonlight is a relevant, important narrative in this day and age, but perhaps just as important is its role and imperative as a visual art.
Beyond his skill and the scientific asceticism that threads the film is the beating, warm heart of it. Villeneuve works with cinematographer Bradford Young to contrast the light-filled human moments with the stark, bleak moments of Adams' present. It's a brooding, simmering, hopeful, vulnerable piece of art. And more than its compelling story, it's undeniable that Villeneuve has a talent, more than anyone else, to draw people into the physical act of watching a movie. Technically, the film's narrative is a thing of grace, folding in on itself as it unfolds out, a thread that is as cyclical as the alien's language.
On the note of Moonlight's relevancy, Arrival's themes are just as potent as it explores the importance of communication, how language can affect what we give, as well as the consequence of our failure to connect. Sci-fi movies have always been used to capture what makes us human as well as to touch on problems that were not so easily addressed obviously. For all its lingo and sleek science, Arrival works because of its humanity. There's an acceptance of loss as a beautiful thing linked to what makes us more complete as humans.
Sexy in its absolutely tactile design, Handmaiden is brilliantly executed and shot, dark and bitingly clever in written wit, and radiating a twisted humor that elevates the film. It's appropriate that my favorite movies this year speak on the importance of words, or how one phrase can be taken more than one way, with meanings cloaking intent or revealing more than we could have anticipated. Handmaiden is freeing in its explicitness, alluring in its captivity, and lush in every sense of the word. The way Park addresses male gaze, perspective, and his complete virtuosity with story control is sublime. His transcription of the original written work to the era of Japan's occupation of Korea is inspired, and reflects both the draw of Japan's beauty even with its tainted oppressive hold. Handmaiden a gorgeous piece of work, but just as important is how fun it is. Watch it and watch it again. And each time you'll be swept away.
1. La La Land
Chazelle's movie is a marriage of so many contrasts. It's an homage to old movie magic like Singing in the Rain and West Side Story and American in Paris, but it breaks dazzling new ground. It is joyful and a dream, but melancholy and realistic at the same time. It is able to define current day LA, which worships the old even as it constantly runs around for the superficial next thing, the anticipation of socializing in the latest schmooze-fest even as you're repelled by the necessity and slick gold-spray charade. It's the hope and the dream of the purple colors and blue haze even with the failed pipe dream of it all. Never has a city so fully inhabited the thoughts of what-could-have-been's, for better or worse. The movie, for all its merits, wouldn't work otherwise. It needs that sadness to tinge whatever fulfillment is found.
La La Land is a love letter to old movies, its charisma bound with the classic film chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It's a joy to behold, and you never feel betrayed because of how unflinchingly honest its magic is.
Honorable Mentions list to follow next week. For a look at what made the bottom five of my top ten list, click here.
As always, my list is completely subjective and I'd love to hear what your thoughts are. Movies are one of my favorite things to talk about. 2016 was such a full year, I could have seen this list go any number of ways.