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Best Movies of 2016: Frank J. Avella's Picks

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Dec 28, 2016
"Manchester By the Sea"
"Manchester By the Sea"  

2016 was filled with many good films, but very few truly great films. Here is my take on the year in motion pictures.

My Top 13 Favorite Films of 2016
(I select 13 because it's my lucky number and just as arbitrary as 10.)

1. "Manchester By the Sea"

Kenneth Lonergan's bold and powerful film "Manchester By the Sea" deals with the type of loss that is unfathomable, yet it never cloys at your heartstrings or endeavors to manipulate its audience. Casey Affleck delivers a raw and revelatory turn as a broken man who must remain broken. In a career-making debut, Lucas Hedges plays his conflicted teen nephew. And Michelle Williams slayed my soul (and I have never been a fan) in one remarkable scene. Lonergan's director's cut of "Margaret" is one of most overlooked cinematic achievements of this millennium. "Manchester" matches "Margaret's" urgency and intensity.


2. "Silence"

After 28 years, Martin Scorsese was able to achieve his vision of bringing this bold, ambitious and profound work to the screen. "Silence" will certainly be a challenge for most filmgoers, but those willing to submit will be rewarded with a thought-provoking, haunting and transcendent experience, one that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

3. "La La Land"

Damien Chazelle's enrapturing homage to the Hollywood musical and French New Wave cinema funneled through millennial wonder had me the second time I saw it. Depending on to whom you speak, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are either on par with the Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Garland group of icons or sorely lacking in the song 'n dance area. I see it as a deliberate combination of both. They're 2016 versions of those icons, much messier and less polished. But with an angst and longing, their filmic predecessors were rarely allowed to truly explore. "La La Land" is a defining film for our redefined times.

"Toni Erdmann"  

4. "Moonlight"

The life of a gay African-American is honestly explored in Barry Jenkin's lyrical narrative feature, "Moonlight." Jenkins takes such great care with each frame of his work, allowing his scenes to breathe so everything feels painfully real. The cast is uniformly excellent with Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris particularly transformative. "Moonlight" sheds light on the frightening but truthful reality that homophobia is deeply ingrained in many subcultures, so much so that it can deplete a person.

5. "Toni Erdmann"

German writer-director Maren Ade's wonder of a film, "Toni Erdmann," left me feeling gleeful and giddy and so much of that was thanks to Sandra Hüller's fearless performance and her fascinating character arc. Matching her giddy immersion is Peter Simonischek as the enigmatic title character. This long (but never overlong) and bracing film has some inspired things to say about the fleetingness of life and how we waste too much time being what we are expected to be instead of figuring out who we want to be and why we are here.


6. "Hidden Figures"

There are too many true stories that are not taught in our history classes that should be. "Hidden Figures" rescues an incredible and empowering one about three ambitious, brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s and were instrumental in the space race, helping to launch John Glenn into the history books. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe deliver three of the best performances of 2016 and, Kevin Costner has his best role in years, supporting these unsung women. And isn't it a nice reversal when a Hollywood leading man supports women in films! Besides the race significance, Theodore Melfi's film resonates with the gender biases that are still in play today.

7. "Arrival"

Director extraordinaire Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies," "Enemy," "Sicario") crafts a complex, contemplative and intellectually challenging thriller that pushes the always-compelling Amy Adams towards the sublime. "Arrival" rarely does what you expect it to and in the sci-fi genre that is a high compliment, indeed.


8. "Jackie"

In 2011, Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her stunning work in "Black Swan." Since then, her choices (project selection and actual acting) have been mediocre at best. Until "Jackie." With this Pablo Lorrain bio-reinvention, Portman delivers her career-best performance as the strong-willed First Lady. Her accent, affect, phrasings and movements are perfection but she manages to also penetrate deep inside this elusive figure. Portman's Jackie is a paradoxical ball of insecurities and assuredness. She controls and compartmentalizes. And we are enthralled for 100 minutes.

9. "Snowden"

Oliver Stone can't do anything right in the feeble minds of many bloggers. Either he's too flashy or just not bold enough. Fuck them. "Snowden" is a smart and suspenseful look inside the mind of the enigmatic Edward J. Snowden. Stone attempts to tap into the tricky times we live in where the media fail at astonishing levels and a whistleblower who steps in to divulge truths about how our private information is no longer private is seen as a traitor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds the nuances to perfectly explore this perplexing, misunderstood man and Stone proves he's still very much in the filmmaking game.

"Hacksaw Ridge"  

10. "Hacksaw Ridge"

There are more than a few cheesy moments in Mel Gibson's epic tale of sacrifice, and redemption. Some of the scenes could have been shot in the 1950s. But the sheer power of his images, buoyed by Andrew Garfield's tour de force performance, makes even the most clichéd bits forgivable. And despite the horrifically gory and violent scenes of combat and bloodshed, I never felt Gibson was glorifying war, just the opposite, actually, which gobsmacked me.

11. "O.J.: Made in America"

This sprawling, 7 ½ hour documentary is well worth the binge commitment. After watching and appreciating "American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson," and having lived through and carefully monitored the actual trial, my initial reaction to this ESPN endeavor was, why should I bother? Boy am I glad I did.
"O.J.: Made in America" provides a brilliant comment on race, class, celebrity and the media in our country and our culture. To absorb all this after the Trump victory was overwhelming. O.J. as a fallen hero parallels with the U.S. as a fallen nation.

"The Salesman"  

12. "The Salesman"

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi weaves the most compelling morality tales. His previous films, "A Separation" and "The Past" play like exciting thrillers, despite the fact that the action onscreen is mostly talking heads. His latest, "The Salesman" fits nicely into that impressive company. A stage acting couple is forced to move into a temporary apartment when their building collapses. One night the wife is assaulted. From there the mysteries begin and the ethical conundrums abound. The final third is a nail-biter.

13. "Elle"

Director Paul Verhoeven hasn't impressed me since 1984's "The Fourth Man." But in teaming with the fearless Isabelle Huppert, he's fashioned his best film to date. Huppert leaps into the twisty world of "Elle" and delivers a daring and risky performance as a rape survivor whose motivations are a constant guessing game for audiences. She's complex and paradoxical with a questionable moral code in this perverse psychological thriller that is as refreshing as it's bewitching and bewildering. And Oscar or not, Huppert is the female actor of the year.

"Closet Monster"  

13 Runners-up:

"20th Century Women"
"Captain Fantastic"
"The Family Fang"
"Florence Foster Jenkins"
"The Handmaiden"
"I, Daniel Blake"
"The Lobster"
"Midnight Special"
"Miss Sloane"

13 Honorable Mentions:

"The Innocents"
"Maggie's Plan"
"A Man Called Ove"
"My Golden Days"
"Swiss Army Man"
"Things to Come"

13 Favorite Gay-Themed Films of 2016 (released or yet-to-be released)

1. "Moonlight"
2. "Theo & Hugo" (Paris 05:59) (2017 release)
3. "Closet Monster"
4. "Those People"
5. "Akron" (2017 release)
6. "The Nest" (no release date)
7. "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party"
8. "Handsome Devil" (no release date yet)
9. "Departure'
10. "Don't Call Me Son"
11. "Retake" (2017 release)
12. "Holding the Man"
13. "Being 17"

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

Film Festivals 2018

This story is part of our special report titled "Film Festivals 2018." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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