Whether it was because of the commotion over last year’s all-white Oscar nominations or simply a coincidence of the pipeline, this year’s top film crop has several entries with racial themes and likely African-American nominees in the performance categories. Here, in descending order of quality – as judged by my highly subjective opinion – are the best of 2016:
Manchester by the Sea – Playwright Kenneth Lonergan displayed irrefutable skill as a screenwriter and director with his character-driven tale of a New England apartment building custodian, Lee Chandler (a masterful Casey Affleck), who prides himself on his lack of responsibility. Then when his older brother dies suddenly, Lee becomes the guardian to his teenage son (Lucas Hedges, in a remarkable debut). Lee has a dark past, about which we gradually learn, which broke up his marriage to Michelle Williams, who knows how to make the most of a scene-stealing cameo.
La La Land – No, Hollywood does not make musicals like they used to, but this contemporary on again-off again romance between an actress wannabe (Emma Stone) and a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who yearns to own his own club comes close. Director-writer Damien Chazelle – hot off similar duties on Whiplash – again spins a tale of artistic obsession, but with a lot less violence. Stone and Gosling have palpable chemistry, but thin singing voices. Still, when they dance together, the ghosts of Astaire and Rogers come to mind. And Los Angeles, traffic-jammed freeways and all, plays a definite character in the film.
Miss Sloane – In the title role, Jessica Chastain plays a tough-as-nails, do-anything-to-win Washington lobbyist who takes on the third rail of politics – the gun lobby. Almost as impressive is the work of first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, whose hyper-articulate dialogue is reminiscent of Aaron (West Wing) Sorkin on speed. Plus he throws in a couple of dandy plot twists that you are unlikely to see coming.
Loving – All too recently it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry in the state of Virginia, but Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving – yes, their real name – simply wanted to be wed and left alone. In this understated, documentary-like account of their pursuit of happiness that led to a 1967 landmark Supreme Court case, we follow the journey of this couple of few words. Jeff Nichols directs, basing many of his visuals on the still photographs of the Lovings captured for Life magazine. In their efforts to be allowed to marry whomever they love are unstated parallels to the more recent same-sex battles.
Moonlight – In three distinct acts, a young black kid from Miami’s impoverished, drug-infested Liberty City neighborhood grows up, bullied at school and looking for answers to his personal and sexual identity. Based on an autobiographical play by MacArthur genius grantee Tarrell Alvin McCraney, it has been transferred to film by writer-director Barry Jenkins whose background has many parallels. Three exceptional actors play lead character Chiron, but they are upstaged by Mahershala Ali as his drug dealer mentor and Naomie Harris as his crack addict mother.
Fences – The late August Wilson resisted authorizing the filming of his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of a Negro League baseball slugger turned garbage man until an African-American director could do it justice. Stepping into the director’s chair with authority is Denzel Washington, who also reprises his stage performance as embittered Troy Maxson, a man of human frailties who pushes away his son trying to keep from similar disappointment. Washington wisely cast his Broadway co-star Viola Davis as Troy’s wife Rose, who is sorely tested by her husband and eventually explodes in anger, memorably so.
Jackie – Those who lived through the national trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination will be particularly impressed by the dry-eyed recreation of those dark days in Dallas and beyond by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain and the steely performance by Natalie Portman as his widow, whose grace under fire all but defined the young president’s legacy. The film gets the details of the unexpected transition of power very right, but it is the personal story of Jackie’s struggle in a media bubble that gives the film its tragic impact.
Captain Fantastic – If the ironic superhero title kept you from this film, do seek it out and you will discover a thought-provoking tale of parenting and social values. Ben Cash (a commanding Viggo Mortensen) singlehandedly raises six children in a remote forest of the Pacific Northwest, home-schooling them in survival techniques and intellectual inquiry. But events require him to pack them up and travel to New Mexico for a custody battle with his father-in-law (Frank Langella). The film, directed by Matt Ross, revolves around whether Ben’s unorthodox child-raising techniques are harmful to his offspring’s development.
Genius – Such literary giants as Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are assumed to be geniuses, but this literate look at their development as authors asks if perhaps it was their editor, Maxwell Perkins, who deserves that accolade. First-time film director Michael Grandage draws superb performances from Colin Firth as understated Perkins and a manic Jude Law as Wolfe. John Logan’s scrupulous screenplay gets the details right as he takes on the challenge of trying to capture the struggles of artistic creation.
The Birth of a Nation – Assumed to be a front-runner for awards ever since this brutal account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion was hailed at Sundance early this year, the film has since fallen from serious consideration because of long-past, since exonerated accusations of rape against the film’s star, writer, director and producer, Nate Parker, surfaced. But the film itself remains a brawny, powerful slice of history, as difficult to watch as it is impossible to deny. The tone is deservedly angry, just as the title suggests a response to the racist hypocrisy of D.W. Griffith’s silent depiction of slavery.