In our current era of franchises and reboots, I find myself valuing creativity and originality more than ever. And in a year that was largely marked by conflict and argument, I wanted stories that added something valuable and beautiful to the conversation. 2016 brought our country face to face with ourselves. It forced us to ask who we are and who we want to be, and several films attempt to help us engage these questions. So with those general themes in mind, here are the films that stayed with me the most in 2016
10. Manchester By the Sea
I thought the performances and story in this film are remarkable, but this is probably the movie in my top ten that is most likely to be replaced (we haven’t yet seen Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, or Silence.) The strength of the film is by far Casey Affleck’s gut-wrenching lead and the character development and plot progression are very strong. It’s just a crushingly sad story, which is the primary reason why I wouldn’t want to come back to it repeatedly. But Affleck is certainly deserving of the accolades he’s been receiving, and it’s a very well-made film.
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Heb. 13:3
This may or may not win best documentary of the year (although my fingers are crossed), but I think the topic is one of the most important issues of our time. Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and the outstanding TV show Queen Sugar) lays out the historical roots behind mass incarceration, starting with the 13th Amendment to end slavery. The amendment opened a loophole to continue controlling and limiting black Americans who are convicted of a crime; from forced labor, to losing the right to vote, to losing access to social services. As the Civil Rights movement opened up new legislation and opportunities, mass incarceration soared in the second half of the 20th century. Some harsh realities are exposed about our country’s legal system and systemic patterns in our society. This documentary will probably feel liberal to a conservative audience, but please don’t tune it out. Scripture frequently calls us to care for prisoners, and this is an issue that needs to be free from political partisanship and viewed through a lens that remembers all people are image-bearers and worthy of equal dignity and care. Regardless of who you voted for, please watch this doc (available on Netflix) and consider how the Bible calls the Church to respond.
I also have a full review of this film which you can read for more depth. In brief I’ll say that in its subtly and normalcy we find enduring hope that average people can change the world.
7. Sing Street
I needed some charm and optimism in 2016, and I found that in Sing Street. A great combination of upbeat music and creativity with real struggles in family life, bullying and poverty, I found this story to be more enchanting than La La Land. The original music is infectious, the characters are relatable and inspiring, and it made me believe that better things are possible.
Ivan wrote a complete review of this film that you should read. All I want to add is to agree that this is a unique story that I’ve never seen before and that brings something new to the conversation of identity and how we shape one another. Before watching it I listened to an NPR interview with the director and playwright who wrote the source material, and that helped me appreciate the film much more fully. If you’re planning to see it, I would recommend doing the same!
As 2016 marks the end of a presidential administration and also the year of Hamilton, this picture asks the question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In the midst of grief and shock, Jackie Kennedy was working tirelessly to establish the Kennedy legacy and the narrative that the world would use to recall JFK. Set against the backdrop of her work as First Lady to compile US historical artifacts in the White House that would reflect the legacy of our country, over the course of a week she insures that the Kennedys would be added to that shared history. We watch her plan a memorial service while navigating on-going threats of violence, and while packing up her family’s life as the Johnsons begin moving in and taking over what she and John didn’t have a chance to complete. I’m sure every outgoing administration wishes they had more time to finish their goals and projects, and the Kennedy’s offer a particularly gripping version of that transition. Jackie gives us a chance to learn from her grief for what is passing and to hope for how history might remember us.
4. Hacksaw Ridge
I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. The issue of religious liberties has been on the forefront during this election cycle, and Hacksaw presents a challenging and helpful approach to this debate. Using great character development and a sincere performance from Andrew Garfield, we watch Desmond Doss endure extreme persecution for his religious convictions of non-violence. He refuses to respond with anger and contention, but instead remains unwavering in his desire to serve and protect the very people who are threatening him (including the Japanese). He doesn’t combat religious persecution through whining and power struggles, but through loving other people in profoundly self-sacrificial ways and making the lives of others better because he is with them. I think evangelicals have much to learn from Doss on what it looks like to become indispensable parts of our communities through love and service, not defensiveness and impersonal legislation. Let’s be involved with our neighbors in ways that challenge their stereotypes of us and fosters meaningful and nurturing friendships.
Be aware that the film is very violent, more so than Saving Private Ryan. I personally just looked away from the screen several times and I was okay. The violence is depicted in a purposeful way to show the stark contrast between how easy it is to destroy life and how hard it can be to preserve it. There are scenes of domestic violence that may be upsetting, but which are also used purposefully in the story. For some it may be best to refrain from watching it, but if you can handle the violence, the beauty of the compelling love of Christ is well worth it.
I read Fences in grad school but remembered very little and absorbed even less. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring it to life with poignancy and heart. I rarely see a narrative that follows a black working class family in the mid-20th century, so this is a story that is doing something different. It asks big questions about generational patterns, how we are shaped and how that influences the way we shape others. The film feels a lot like a stage production, which I enjoyed. Live theater isn’t available in every community and in the year that the African-American History Museum opened in DC, I’m grateful for many outlets that are elevating and sharing African-American culture. Plus August Wilson is from Pittsburgh, the movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, and it’s showcasing our city!
2. Hell or High Water
Typically summer movies get buried, but this movie has staying power! The writing is fantastic, the performances are riveting, and a bank-heist cowboy story gets a modern twist. This movie draws on still-relevant themes of poverty related to the housing crisis as two brothers struggle to pay off their family’s land before it’s foreclosed upon. The desperation of generational poverty and domestic violence are explored with dignity and compassion as this family does whatever it takes to rewrite their story. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly deserves nominations for writing and acting.
This movie captured my imagination and emotions and transported me in a unique way. It’s a female-centric story where a compelling female lead demonstrates compassion and courage and innovation and brilliance in a way that’s inspiring. The story is far more than an alien invasion trope, but asks profound questions about communication and what it means to connect with others. We learn that vulnerability precedes trust, relationship is formed through hospitality and grace. The gift we offer to each other is the way we see the world. In a year of division and ugliness, Arrival offers some much-needed beauty and hope for why we bother to love and pursue others. (Check out Ivan’s full review here.)
Ivan also compiled his top ten of 2016, some are the same and he also choose different ones than me!