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This was a strange year for movies. I could barely find a thing to watch all summer, and then was inundated with a flood of excellent features in the Fall. No one mainstream film commanded our attention, but smaller, isolated gems shown brightly on a far-flung horizon. ONE of these for me stood far above the rest. Herewith my top five films, in no particular order AFTER my favorite film of the year, a true masterpiece: MOONLIGHT.

MOONLIGHT: Traces the evolution of a young gay black man from childhood to adulthood as he grows up in poverty in Miami.  Three sublime actors portray Chiron at three different stages of his life: a childhood (Alex R. Hibbert) fraught with crime,  bullies, and a crack addicted mom (Naomie Harris), his explosive, teen years (Ashton Sanders) as he discovers his sexuality, and his adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) circumscribed by a shell of protection that may yet give way. What’s extraordinary about the film is how intimate but universal, how moving but unsentimental, and how three actors so physically different could together convey the same whole human being. We are inside Chiron’s emotional and psychological experience, and always on the brink of his evolution.  The film is as incandescent as moonlight and glows with the raw poetry of a human being’s unruly truth. A masterpiece.

WEINER: What can you say about a man named Weiner who’s famous for exposing his penis to the world? All the jokes have been made, but this film is no joke. With its ridiculously perfect title, Weiner trains an unwavering lens on former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and his failed 2013 run for mayor of New York.  It’s a stunner. Not only does the film offer intimate access to Weiner at home and on the campaign trail, but also offers a front row seat to the explosion of a scandal, the dissipation of a marriage, and the sensationalism of political coverage in a social media-saturated, entertainment-obsessed culture. It’s a real close up, unadorned look at the man behind the appendage, with the caveat that you and I as watchers are part of his need for exposure.

ARRIVAL: Many movies reveal their secrets within the first five minutes, and it’s not until the end that we understand what we have already seen– and know.  When that moment comes in ARRIVAL, it’s like a tsunami in slow motion.  Based on an award-winning novella called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film begins quietly, with a soothing voice over, that of Louise Banks (Amy Adams in a powerfully emotive performance) one of the world’s great linguists called upon to decode the language of extra-terrestrials who have just landed all over the earth. As she translates this  language, she herself is transformed in an extraordinary way that will help her come to grips with a personal tragedy, and arrive at a new understanding of the nature of time, free will, and the universe. ARRIVAL spills its secrets softly in a grand, goosebump-inducing sci-fi adventure that made me feel like I was tumbling through space and time.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA confirms what I saw in Casey Affleck the first time I saw him in a lead role onscreen: the man is a mesmerizing actor. In “Manchester by the Sea” he once again lures us into deep water as a man struggling to stay afloat amid the wreckage of a horrible personal tragedy. Oscar-nominated (“You Can Count On Me”) writer/director Kenneth Lonergan begins his movie with a whisper that becomes an earthquake which reverberates long after the film is over.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS: Who better to skewer the excesses of style over substance in 21st century America than fashion designer /filmmaker Tom Ford (“A Single Man”). Here he writes and directs two movies in one–a haunting film noir-thriller-within-a-morality-tale! The opening credits alone are an eye-popping indictment of the fetishistic bloat of modern life, junk culture masquerading as art, and those who can’t tell the difference.  Amy Adams stars as a gallery owner lost in a hollow marriage and is sent a “violent and sad” manuscript by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). If you pay attention and follow the dots to the last scene, the pieces will fall together like a bomb in reverse. Michael Shannon must be nominated for best supporting actor as a rotting west Texas lawman out for justice.

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