thAs I note each year, I do not consider this a “best” movies list because I see film as an art form like music and art. Can anyone objectively claim that Rembrandt was a better painter than Van Gogh or Mozart a better composer than Beethoven? I believe that all any of us can honestly say is which film, music, or art we personally prefer.

As a proud member of The Academy who has been voting for the Oscars for more than thirty years, I keep hoping we can change “Best” to “Favorite”…but I’m not holding my breath ;-).

My favorite films of 2016:

Blessed be the children…and those who love them:

1. ARRIVAL is haunting, elegant, poignant, hypnotic, thrilling, mysterious, spiritual, loving, majestic, inspiring, original film making at its very best. On the surface, the film (brilliantly directed by Denis Villenueve) stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is drawn into humanity’s first contact with a totally non-human extraterrestrial species…and who is also haunted by a vision (or is it a memory?) of her daughter. At its heart, ARRIVAL is about love, life, and the very notion of time itself…and is a film that will touch your heart, stimulate your mind, and stay with you long after you leave the theater.

2. LION is based on the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley who wandered onto a train in India at the age of 5 and became hopelessly lost and displaced a thousand miles away. Eventually adopted and moved to Australia by nurturing, loving foster parents, he grew to be an accomplished, charismatic young man (Dev Patel). Haunted by knowing that his mother and siblings had no idea of his fate, and not having any idea where he originally came from, he begins a search for his birth family that ultimately takes him home. Gripping, moving, and triumphant, LION is a stirring tribute to the eternal power of love.

3. In the exquisitely moving, and deeply affecting MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, Casey Affleck gives a truly extraordinary, nuanced, vulnerable performance as a man who has experienced one of, if not the most heartbreaking tragedies that any human being could ever have to face. Somehow, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan performs a celluloid magic trick of herculean proportions by transforming such challenging subject matter into a tour-de-force inspirational film about love, compassion, and forgiveness.

4. For me, the most welcome film surprise of 2016 was A MONSTER CALLS. Director J.A. Bayona’s magical and enthralling film follows a young boy who is trying to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, a stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), school bullies, and his own inner fears. One night, a friend appears to help him face those fears and heal his pain. Oh, and that friend happens to be a two hundred foot tall yew tree “monster” (Liam Neeson). Together, they lead us all on a magical, healing journey through dreams, nightmares, and love itself that is achingly beautiful, wise, and life-affirming.

5. COLLATERAL BEAUTY seems a curious title until you see this extraordinary, brave, spiritual, emotional roller coaster of a film and realize that the title refers to the collateral beauty that exists within even the most tragic circumstances. Will Smith plays a father who is so grief-stricken from the death of his daughter that he lets his marriage, business partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Pena), and entire life fall into disarray. One day, he mails letters addressed to Death, Love, and Time but is shocked when they actually come to him in human form (via Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) to answer his questions. Are they who they seem to be…or messengers…or perhaps even….?

All of these first five films are inspiring and ultimately uplifting because they illuminate the collateral beauty experienced by children and the parents who love them, no matter the circumstances…and they also remind us of the incredible resilience of the human spirit.

Old Hollywood lives on…

 6. Visionary director Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND is a dazzling homage to both Old Hollywood musicals and also the behind-the-scenes challenges of achieving your dreams in La La Land, aka Hollywood. Ryan Gosling is beyond charming as a young man out of step with his times because he loves old-time jazz and dreams of owning a club that showcases that truly original American art form. Emma Stone gives a virtuoso, career-defining performance as a young actress who endures the heartless, demeaning, and rude nature of endless auditions and rejections to follow her dream. I was utterly charmed and engrossed from the very first jaw-dropping musical number on an L.A. Freeway to its emotional, bittersweet conclusion.

Enter the real life heroes, to whom we owe so much, and whom we need now more than ever….

7. HIDDEN FIGURES is the inspiring true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three extraordinary African-American women who went to work at NASA in the fledgling days of the space program in the mid-1950s. Despite their brilliance, the women ( beautifully played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Jonelle Monae)  were subjected to blatant sexism and racism, including the humiliating need to use “Colored” bathrooms at the NASA headquarters. Undeterred, they all persevered and contributed so significantly to America’s role in the space race that their fierce determination and patriotism began the process of transforming NASA’s culture. In fact, Ms. Johnson’s genius at celestial navigation compelled the NASA director (played in the film by Kevin Costner) to break both racial and gender barriers by including her in the heart of NASA’s core team. In 2015, Ms. Johnson (now 98!) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2016 had a building named after her at NASA’s headquarters. HIDDEN FIGURES is a testament to the dignity and bravery of three women who will always stand as inspirational role models for future generations.

8. PATRIOTS DAY chronicles the incredible courage, determination, and heroic actions of the first responders, police, doctors, nurses, and FBI agents who saved so many lives after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Less than 4 days later, due to some amazing police work and the help of the extraordinary people of Boston, the terrorists whose vile and cowardly actions caused so much pain and grief were both identified and then found, with one dying in a police shootout and the other apprehended. This powerful, moving film is also a tribute to the people who died tragically that day, to those who survived, and to the families that were so grievously affected but who recovered to inspire us all. Boston Strong forever!!!

9. SULLY is a riveting film about a real American hero (Chesley Sullenberger), starring the incomparable screen legend Tom Hanks, and directed by the extraordinary 86 year-old (!!) Clint Eastwood. As a U.S. Airways pilot in 2009, Mr. Sullenbereger lost both engines due to a bird strike after takeoff from La Guardia in New York but somehow managed to land the plane on the Hudson River.  While Mr. Sullenberger was immediately hailed by his passengers, the media, and the public as the hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart) were subjected to an intense bureaucratic inquisition as to the wisdom and necessity of his decisions because NTSB computers showed he could have returned to La Guardia.. Mr. Sullenberger was eventually exonerated and hailed for his actions by proving that the computer simulation was inaccurate. Human judgment triumphing over a computer. Imagine that.

Lastly, to quote Monty Python….”and now for something completely different…”

10. BAD MOMS. No, that’s not a misprint! In a year that was so challenging for so many people in so many ways, we needed laughter more than ever. BAD MOMS absolutely provided that…and then some. In addition, the film illustrates how challenging it is today for women to have a full-time career and a committed marriage while also finding the time and energy to be a mom who is fully engaged in the myriad of activities of her children. Raunchy, irreverent, howlingly funny, socially relevant, brilliantly acted, and politically incorrect to the max, BAD MOMS made me laugh harder and more often than any film in recent memory. And what’s not Oscar-worthy about all that????

What were your favorite films of 2016?

….and a Happy, Healthy, Prosperous, Wondrous 2017 to all!!!

 

 

 

{ 16 comments }

As I note each year, I do not call this a “best” movies list because I see film imagesas an art form much like music and art itself. Can anyone objectively claim that Rembrandt was a better painter than Van Gogh or Mozart a better composer than Beethoven? I believe that all any of us can honestly do is say which film, music, or art we personally prefer. As a proud member of The Academy who has been voting for the Oscars for more than thirty years, I keep hoping we can change “Best” to “Favorite”…but I’m not holding my breath ;-).

For the first time this year, my favorite films arranged themselves into four specific categories:

The Spellbinders

Three completely different films–literally light years apart- that riveted me to the screen throughout.

 Spotlight

MV5BMjIyOTM5OTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDkzODE2NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_In 2001, Spotlight, the Boston Globe’s special investigative unit, launched an inquiry into allegations of child abuse by priests in their city. During the year that it took them to unravel the tangled web of deceit and cronyism that lay at the core of the heartbreaking story they uncovered, they faced a myriad of obstacles from skeptical, uncooperative city officials and potential sources. The team also faced the daunting task of confronting one of the most powerful of all U.S. Cardinals (Bernard Law) and the machinery of the Catholic Church itself.

Undeterred, the Spotlight team became the first journalists to expose and document both the shockingly rampant abuse that had been occurring for decades and also the coverup of moving offending priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them and exposing their crimes.

Director Tom McCarthy does a masterful job of telling a complex story in a straight-forward, compelling style, aided greatly by a brilliant ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.

Haunting, mesmerizing, and emotional, Spotlight is at its heart a profile in courage about a small group of men and women who risked everything to report a story that the world needed to know.

The Martian

MV5BMTc2MTQ3MDA1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA3OTI4NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars when his crew mates leave for home without him, mistakenly believing that he has been killed in a vicious storm. By the time Watney can communicate that he has survived, it becomes clear that he will have to somehow survive for three or four years until a rescue mission can reach him…and he must do so in an enclosure with food and water that was only designed to sustain human life for thirty days.

Pretty simple set-up, yes? Kind of like Cast Away on Mars…but with no volleyball. You had to really want to spend time with Tom Hanks (who doesn’t?) in that earlier film, and the same holds true for Matt Damon here. Watching him meet and solve the myriad of challenges he faces while NASA and his crew mates race to save him is beyond fascinating…and often delightfully humorous.

Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to space (Alien) and here he takes full advantage of both his prodigious visual talents and also the irresistible charisma of Mr. Damon to make an old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat-don’t-go-to-the-bathroom thriller.

Even more importantly, the film reminds us of how beautiful we humans can be when we operate at our very best. As another space traveler once noted about our species in Starman: “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Joy

MV5BMzc2MTI5Mzk0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDIxMDg1NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The third straight Holiday season film gift from brilliant writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Book, American Hustle), Joy is based on a fascinating, inspiring true story…and is very aptly titled.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another terrific performance as Joy Mangano, the woman who invented The Miracle Mop and then built a business empire with over one hundred patented products, including Huggable Hangers, the best-selling product in the history of HSN (Home Shopping Network). As with most success stories, however, Joy’s pathway was strewn with obstacles, delays, opposition, doubt, personal challenges, and financial missteps. Through them all, Ms. Mangano’s indomitable spirit persevered, survived, and then prospered ..as we the audience are rapt witnesses to her amazing journey.

Such is the brilliance of Mr. Russell’s vision that Ms. Lawrence (arguably the most sought after actress in film today) stars in her third film with Mr. Russell and is joined  by Bradley Cooper and Robert deNiro, who also appear in all three films…and here both leading men play supporting roles.

The uplifting heart and soul of Joy is beautifully encapsulated by the  dedication at the very beginning of the film: “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.”

Amen..and Awomen…to that.

Old Hollywood

Three movies that–time travel aside– could have been made in the Golden Age of Hollywood:

Bridge of Spies

MV5BMjIxOTI0MjU5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzM4OTk4NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Every frame of this engrossing thriller is a resonant and emphatically positive answer to the question “Why don’t they make more movies like they used to make them in Old Hollywood?”

Set in 1957 during the intensity of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, Spies revolves around the fascinating true story of Gary Powers, an American pilot who was captured when his top secret spy plane was shot down over Russia, and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was arrested for espionage in the United States. With both countries wanting to repatriate the two men, the United Staes hired an attorney named James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to go to Berlin (just as the infamous wall is being finished) to negotiate the trade.

Tom Hanks is his usual brilliant self as is Mr. Rylance and everyone else in the cast. Director Steven Spielberg has always been a master storyteller and his genius is on full display in Spies, in which he eschews any cinematic techniques that could get in the way of simply telling the story.

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful example of what we fondly remember as an Old Hollywood “movie-movie”.  Those indeed were the days.

Creed and Southpaw

Old Hollywood had a rich tradition of making classic films about boxers, with stars from Kirk Douglas to John Garfield to Paul Newman. In 1976, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky joined that pantheon… which now comes full circle in the poignant Creed. 

MV5BODg5NDM1MDI4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzg0MzQxNzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_This time around, old rival and friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis comes to Philadelphia to seek Rocky’s help in becoming a world class boxer. With his wife and best friend deceased, and his son having moved across the country to start a new life and family of his own, Rocky has settled  into a quiet, often melancholy retirement in which his body and spirit are showing the effects of the wear and tear of a life in the ring..and the absence of loved ones.

While what happens from there is no surprise (Rocky relents and becomes to Adonis what Burgess Meredith’s iconic character Mickey was to Rocky himself), how the film unfolds is inspiring, deeply emotional, and life-affirming. Michael B. Jordan is absolutely wonderful as Adonis, as is Tessa Thompson as the young singer with whom he falls in love. But the real revelation here is Mr. Stallone himself who, in a break from all previous Rocky films, hands over the writing/directing reins to others in Creed and gives the best performance of his career. Warm, humble, wise, and witty, Mr. Stallone gives us a lovable, vulnerable, older-sadder-but-wiser Rocky to remember him by. Even though it might require a Rocky-like upset in the late rounds, don’t be surprised to see Mr. Stallone receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here. To which I say–“Yo, Rocky”!

MV5BMjI1MTcwODk0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTgwMDM5NTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_-3Southpaw features another career-defining and Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as World Light Heavyweight champion boxer Billy Hope, who has clawed his way up from poverty to wealth and fame, alongside his wife/best friend/muse Maureen (Rachel McAdams). When we meet Billy, he is a happy, humble man who dotes on his adoring wife and young daughter. When Maureen is tragically and accidentally killed, however, Billy’s life completely unravels, leaving him bankrupt and alone, without even his daughter who has been taken away from him because of his erratic and self-destructive behavior. Motivated by his drive to regain custody and the respect of his daughter, Billy begins to work his way out of the abyss.

While there is nothing terribly surprising in the plot lines of either Creed or Southpaw, the journey we take as an audience is engrossing, emotionally resonant, and ultimately very life-affirming…with stirring and vulnerable performances by all concerned. After both films, I walked out of the theater feeling better about being human..and that is in and of itself a wonderful gift in these perilous times.

The Originals

After over a century of movie-making, coming up with a truly original film is a prodigious, daunting undertaking, not to mention the financing, casting, marketing challenges, etc. There were two in 2015 that I particularly admired (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl also gets very honorable mention):

The Danish Girl

MV5BMjA0NjA4NjE2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIxNTY2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Talk about “boldly going where no man–or woman–has dared to go” (on screen), The Danish Girl is one of the bravest films of recent memory, featuring perhaps the single most courageous and vulnerable performance I have ever seen.

Based on the true story of 1920’s married Dutch artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener, the film introduces us to a couple who are deeply in love. Immediately, however, we see that Einar is utterly fascinated and beguiled by women, not as potential lovers but as role models of grace and femininity. Soon, Einar becomes inexorably drawn to dressing and behaving like a woman. With the loving support of his wife, he inhabits a female persona whom they call Lili. Einar’s male persona soon disappears into Lili, culminating in him volunteering to be the first man to ever undergo transgender surgery.

Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) direction is flawless, sensitive, and pitch perfect and Ms. Vikander’s performance of a woman who unconditionally loves her husband is very touching. The film, however, belongs to Mr. Redmayne who gives an astonishing, nuanced, vulnerable, heartbreaking performance that even surpasses his Oscar-winning role in last year’s Theory of Everything. Mere words cannot capture how courageous Mr. Redmayne’s portrayal is ….except to say that is one for the ages.

 Ex Machina

MV5BMTUxNzc0OTIxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3NzU2NDE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_-1A young computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) at the world’s largest internet company wins the opportunity to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his company’s visionary founder, at a remote, almost inaccessible research facility/home. When Caleb arrives, he discovers that he has been chosen to “test” Ava (Alicia Vikander), a “robot” that Nathan claims is the world’s first true artificial intelligence.

Writer/director Alex Garland creates and maintains an intense, fascinating, foreboding, erotically charged atmosphere and, in a complete departure from her role in The Danish Girl, Ms. Vikander is creepy, convincing and coldly shrewd as Ava, who has much more on her mind than her creator might imagine.What makes the film even more compelling is our understanding that we are indeed at the doorstep of a tipping point beyond which A.I. may no longer need –or even more chillingly–want–human assistance.

For those of us who are concerned that the evolution of our humanity has not kept pace with the evolution of our technology, Ex Machina is an innovative, chilling, hypnotic, surprising experience…and cautionary tale.

Second Chances

Danny Collins and Ricki and the Flash

MV5BNDk5NTYxOTk2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzIxMjE0MzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Unfortunately, Danny and Ricki came and went in theaters with barely a ripple..which is a shame because they’re both wonderful, adult movies with some very important things to say about the choices we make…the regrets that haunt us…and those often elusive second chances we sometimes get the opportunity to embrace.

The title characters are portrayed by movie industry royalty (Al Pacino and Merly Streep) who both play musicians that made the same fateful decision to place their careers above their families.

When we meet Mr. Pacino’s Danny Collins, he is rich, famous, and still performing his greatest hits for sold out audiences. Even so, he is also feeling burned out and hollow when his manager and best friend (Christopher Plummer) changes everything in an instant by giving Danny a forty year old letter from John Lennon that Danny had never received. Mr. Lennon’s observations galvanize Danny to seek out his adult son whom he had never met because of Danny’s obsession with his career. Danny’s son, however, wants nothing whatsoever to do with the father who had so completely abandoned him.

Forced to finally face the consequences of his actions and choices, Danny finds new direction and meaning in his life.

Mr. Pacino is wonderful and completely believable in his role, as are Mr. Plummer, Bobby Cannavale as Danny’s son, Jennifer Garner and adorable Giselle Eisenberg as the daughter-in-law and granddaughter he never knew existed, and Annette Bening as a hotel manager who somehow becomes Danny’s muse as he transforms his life.

MV5BMTY1NzIxNzkzM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzAzNjIzNjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Meryl Streep’s Ricki also abandoned her family in favor of her career but, unlike Danny Collins, she never rose to fame or fortune. When the film opens, Ricki is barely surviving by playing gigs in bars with her sometimes lover Greg (played by Rick Springfield–yeah–him!) when she she receives news that her daughter, who was about to be married, has been jilted. Going home after many, many years of absence, she must face her son, her daughter, her ex-husband…and the consequences of the fateful choice she had made long ago.

Ms. Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer plays her daughter, making the scenes, confrontations, pain, love, and ultimate reconciliation between them even more poignant.

Oh…and along the way, Ms. Streep and Ms. Springfield play some incredible, get on your feet and rock along music that we baby boomers all remember!

That’s my list. What were your favorite films of the year?   

Please leave a comment here www.TheOldHollywood.com and/or join us on Facebook (Bringing Back The Old Hollywood) and Twitter (@Old_Hollywood)

Thanks so much and have a wonderful 2016!!

Stephen Simon

                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 15 comments }

Stephen Simon’s Favorite Films of 2014

December 29, 2014

Although I am very proud to have been a voting member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences since 1984,  I do not know how to determine a “best” film or performance. To me, “best” is too subjective to be used in relation to any artistic endeavor. To do so would be akin to […]

Read the full article →

Winter’s Tale: Please Rent, Buy, See, and Recommend it!

June 9, 2014

 Winter’s Tale, which is by far my favorite movie so far in 2014, is now on pay-per-view and will soon be available on DVD and for download. The film is truly miraculous..first because it’s about miracles….and second, because it got made in the modern-day cynical world of The New Hollywood. (More on that in a […]

Read the full article →

The Agony and Ecstacy of Hollywood Today…and Tonight.

March 2, 2014

Tonight, we celebrate the best of Hollywood. And the magical art of filmmaking. Yesterday, however, I encountered one of the saddest aspects of our industry. My wife and I saw a few trailers for upcoming movies. Mostly teen action films, silly comedies, etc. Fine. Not my cup of tea, but, hey, to each his and her […]

Read the full article →

A Winter’s Tale Dreams May Come…Somewhere in Time.

February 23, 2014

I was so sad to read this capsule of last weekend’s box office results: ” “Winter’s Tale” is the first big studio flop of 2014. $7.7 million three day opening weekend makes the movie a financial throwaway. Its total cost exceeded $150 million.” While I am a bit taken aback about the film’s total cost, […]

Read the full article →